I Got Wood

Late October, 2010. Hurricane Richard had residents and tourists scrambling for shelters, it blew down a lot of trees, wrecked homes and directly impacted over half the population of Belize. The official damage estimate is almost 25 million US dollars. A man was killed by an escaped jaguar and two fishermen appear to have drowned. Despite all that, it was not the overall catastrophe predicted by many.  

At Barton Creek Outpost, in the hills of western Belize, it was more of a nuisance than anything. We did the appropriate amount of scrambling around, moved things to higher ground, worried about falling trees and flooding and then left the jungle. The Outpost was left in the capable hands of an Irishman and an Englishman who assured me afterwards they did not get really drunk and sing ancient songs about their homelands. 

Winds and rain came rolling into downtown San Ignacio about midnight. From the safety of Rosa’s Hotel we watched the vacant streets take a lashing from the wind and rain but saw no real damage. I enjoyed being up late with my wife watching the storm.

Back at Barton Creek Outpost there was no significant damage except we lost our two rope-swings.  Quite a few trees did fall and we were fortunate that they didn’t crush anything man-made this time. A combination of Mennonites, volunteers and campers helped us clear a couple bigger trees, cut them up and send them floating way. The wood from those trees was not useable but our Mennonite neighbor, Amos, searched the 165 acres to see if any fallen trees were good for lumber. The initial report is yes and we should collect a few hundred dollars from the harvesting of the downed trees.

The fallen trees are cut up with a very large, two person, cross cut saw. Two strapping young Mennonite lads can do some serious cutting with one of those babies. These guys can cut trees nearly as fast as a chainsaw and it’s an impressive display of technique and power watching them work. If I’m the one doing the cutting, I prefer the chainsaw.    

Regardless of chainsaws, crosscut saws, hurricanes or regular tree harvesting, taking a tree requires a permit from the local Forestry office.  We have harvested a few trees from the property and obtaining a permit to drop the occasional tree is usually easy. There is a cabana and an outhouse here that were made from lumber we harvested.

The cut trees are dragged out of the jungle by a horse or team of oxen, depending on the weight.   Oxen are stronger. At some point the logs are loaded onto the appropriate horse or oxen drawn cart and taken to one of two sawmills nearby. One sawmill is hydro powered while another is horse powered. Both are amazing.

Once the Mennonites cut the wood into boards it is either stored and used by them or sold to lumber yards or woodshops in San Ignacio. I have hauled a few loads of lumber from Barton Creek to San Ignacio and their product is always well received and gets top dollar. Top dollar at the moment is $1.37US per board foot for grade “A” Mahogany.

It is against the law to ship raw Mahogany out of Belize yet it is still done every day by many lumber yards and furniture companies.  People here know it and it’s a damn shame.  Don’t tell anyone though, it’s a giant industry with big league players.

 What is legal is the shipping of furniture made from legally harvested trees. Our friends at Artisan Woodworks produce some beautiful work and ship it all over the world.  Check them out at www.artisanwoodworksbelize.com. They have the talent and experience to make anything you need and they have a great line of Mahogany & hardwood patio furniture that is reasonably priced and ships out nearly immediately.

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This Tuesday in my Life. An American Ex-Pat in Belize.

The Family at Barton Creek Outpost Belize

The Family at Barton Creek Outpost Belize

Jacquelyn Schooling With Cyan

Jacquelyn Schooling With Cyan

Inside Barton Creek Outpost

Inside Barton Creek Outpost

Tuesday. 6:30 am. Every day we awake to the sound of toucans and their peculiar croaking but today my wife and I both comment that it seems there are even more out there today. Our 3 year old daughter, Cyan, comes pitter pattering up to our bedroom loft to snuggle and tells us that frogs, snakes, horses and her brother were all in her dreams.  By 7:30 our two other 2 children are wake and we all make the 5 minute walk through the jungle to work, Barton Creek Outpost.

On the way I stop and fire up my hand cranked, single cylinder diesel generator, our power source for the Outpost. I call the trail to the generator the “Trail of Tears” because of frequent mechanical problems but today she fires right up. Nice.

My wife makes breakfast as I set up the laptop and prepare for work. My elevated view is of Barton Creek and the surrounding jungle. I get online via satellite internet to check email and see how many hits our Outpost site received the day before. I also want to check the statistics of our recent press release for La Ruta Maya Outfitters. A friend of ours helped us get into PR package for free. We generated a press release and we can track some of the activity associated with that through their site.  The release itself gets picked up by a bunch of new outlets but it has yet to bring increased inquiries.  

I sip the coffee my wife delivered as the kids set the table preparing for eggs, refried beans, fresh avocado (from our neighbor), with fresh oranges and grapefruit from our grove.  I skip most of the breakfast and stick to coffee and fruit.  Over breakfast the kids ask if we are going to town today. No but we are going on a family outing.

The scheduled family outing is a recent development. We are usually around each other quite often and I am guilty of counting that as family time or commenting, “We spend every day together”. I’ve been informed this doesn’t count as quality time and we now plan family activities. We are just starting but the plan involves card games, canoeing, and other fun things. It’s a good idea.

The children walk to our newly modeled school house situated back at our house. We have a friend staying with us that is helping us school the kids. For nearly 6 years my wife and I, mostly her, have homeschooled the children here. It is challenging and very satisfying but sometimes difficult to find the time. Our school age children, Kaitlyn (12) and Logan (9), are bright, well spoken, and very active. Neither is addicted to video games, internet or has a cell phone. Kaitlyn consumes books of all kinds. She also has received quite a bit of formal training in what’s locally called, “bush medicine”, the study of indigenous plants and their medicinal uses. She is impressive. Our 9 year son revels in the great outdoors and all things related to anything but schooling. This morning however, when we asked him if he we ready for school he responded with a resounding, “Yes!” Who are you and what have you done with our son? Their teacher is doing a great job.

We have advertised for teachers to come down for a few to 6 months at a time on a volunteer basis and help us with the kids. Recently we had both a student teacher and a lovely lady with a Phd in education come down and work with us. The children were tested to determine where they stood, we had a plan put together and our student teacher carried it out. It was all very helpful and both teachers became part of our family. We found the kids to be about where we suspected, ahead in some things, behind in others. Both are intelligent.

Meanwhile back at the office I am seeking out partners to link our sites with, modifying some magazine advertisements and answering emails. In between all this I steal a few moments to read some sports, recheck my Yahoo football pool standings and exchange emails with my parents.

The kids all arrive back at the Outpost about lunchtime and we load up in the truck to go visit Calico Jacks Village, a nearby zipline outfitters. We have wanted to check the place out and see if there is anything we can do to work together. The owner, Chet, spends quite a bit of time with us, shows us around the place and, together with his head guide, and we discuss ways we might be able to do some business. The place is incredible, we all get to climb around, see the zip lines, explore the trails and walk on the hammock bridge. We’ll come back to zip line through the jungle canopy.

On the way back we drive through the small village of El Progressso, purchase a few items at the small shops and see friends. They have no electricity in this village of about 800 and many residents use small solar panels and generators. We get a few snacks and make our way home. A pot of beans is on the stove so we eat rice and beans with a fresh salsa and avocado.  

I spend a little time online before we leave the Outpost and place an order for posters that my agents around the US will hang at military bases and universities. It is all part of our low cost marketing campaign.

We head home about 8:00, clean up, brush up and get ready for bed. The kids watch a few episodes of Loony Toons on my laptop while the wife and I read our books. We fall asleep to the sounds of small animals scurrying in the bush and the uncharacteristically cool weather that mid-October has brought. It was good day, stay tuned for the other kind.

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Escape Your Life For A Week. Challenge Yourself!

Where can you find swamp-witches, Peace Corps volunteers, Rastafarians and world class athletes in heated competition? Belize! The 2nd longest canoe race in the world attracts characters of all kinds every March to take part in the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge. Canoeing enthusiasts from novice to expert flock to this tiny Caribbean country to compete in a 170 mile, 4 day canoe race in which the British Army competes and keeps the official time. The event gives a respectful nod to the Mayans who used dugout canoes on these rivers as the primary means of transport between the sea and areas inland. This is by far the largest sporting event in Belize and about 60,000 people along the way cheer on these determined paddlers.  

When my friends and I first started discussing this race we joked, “Three person teams? Great, one of us can fish the whole way.” A knowing friend informed us that we wouldn’t make it through the 1st day. “This is a race!” he told us. Oh, well surely we didn’t need to train. Did we?

With no training to speak of we lined up very early on a Friday morning with 100 other canoes to set off on our 4 day, 170 mile punishment for ignorance. The fog lay low on Belize’s Macal River and the steel spanned Hawkesworth Bridge towered over our heads. The race starts in the bustling little town of San Ignacio where a crowd of about 5,000 milled about in anticipation of the wild rodeo that is the start of La Ruta Maya.  I suspected we might be in trouble as I watched the other teams warming up, stroking up and down the river in perfect unison like well oiled machines. “We’ll pace ourselves”, we wisely counseled one another, “this is a marathon not a sprint.”

The whistle sounded, the crowd cheered and we sprinted for all we were worth, unable to control our excitement amidst the thrashing paddles and clashing canoes. Amazingly we didn’t tip the canoe but it soon became apparent that we would never survive the 49 miles of the 1st day at this pace. It pained us to see other canoes flying by but we steadied our pace, found our rhythm and dug in. A mere 8 hours and 27 minutes later team “Happy Ending” stroked our way into Banana Bank, the 1st leg of the race complete.  My wife, paddling for her second year (her 1st year with the “Swamp Witches”), had arrived well over an hour before us. I could see the pity in her eyes as she watched us struggle to disembark from the 18 foot aluminum “tank” we paddled in for almost 50 miles. “They’ll never get back in the canoe for the second day”, was the consensus amongst our friends. 

Needless to say, we didn’t brag incessantly about finishing this race only to drop out after the 1st day! Three more days and 19 more hours on the river brought their share of physical pain and mental stress but mostly I remember the glory. A big finish on day three, for example, saw us edge out 4 other canoes at the finish line as thousands of screaming fans cheered on. Competing in front of a wild crowd makes one’s body tingle all over, I like it.  

The only thing that provided more motivation than the cheering spectators were the other teams. Regardless of where one stands in this race the teams around you are racing. We finished 70th of 96 boats that year but we raced all the way and after the 1st hour or so of every day, once the field was pretty much set, not a single team passed us. The battles amongst the teams on the river are memorable. Minor skirmishes where we overcame exhaustion to overtake a team that didn’t want to be passed or fend off an attempt to be passed are part of what made this race for me.  The high fives and hugs between competitors at the end of each day helped build a strong bond between all of us.

During the course of our days we were treated to the sight of innumerable large iguanas, howler monkeys screaming from the trees and crocodiles lazily sunning themselves on the river banks. Schools of Tarpon churned the water around our canoe and many people saw manatees. I often wished for a fishing pole.  The large camps at night have a great feel as international teams celebrate with hundreds of race followers and local villagers who are drawn to the festivities. Rum flows, barbeques are fired up, aromas fill the air, drums beat and, like it or not, there is sometimes karaoke. Some racers retire early, others finish 70th.

 The La Ruta Maya ends in Belize City to the biggest crowds yet and heartfelt, well earned praise is abundant. An awards ceremony, cultural dances and plenty of food and drink follow the completion of the race. Some teams arrive with less than the three paddlers they started with. One paddler outlasted his two teammates, finishing the final day without them but to the raucous reception of an appreciative crowd. We were all reluctant to part ways.        

This grand event, set against the backdrop of wild Central American rivers, provided serious refreshment for my soul. It reminded me that adventure, an extraordinary challenge and the camaraderie that they forge make us feel more alive. As all of us returned to our daily lives and we did so knowing that we had conquered the 2nd longest canoe race in the world. For me at least, each day was a little better because of it.

 Check out www.LaRutaMayaOutfitters.com and see how you can paddle the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge.

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“Dey teef me!” Getting ripped off in Belize

Belize is wonderful, it’s a great place to live, it’s a free country. If I didn’t love living here I would move. It would, however, be irresponsible of me not to mention this issue to people considering a move to Belize. Getting ripped here off is the # 1 challenge for new people in Belize. If you’ve been here for a while and taken your licks, learned a few lessons, maybe it moves to #2.

Like many others, we moved here with a pie in the sky, very naïve outlook. That will cost you. A snowbird neighbor of mine happened to arrive for his yearly visit just after we had shown up and immediately told me something to the effect of, “I will introduce to the people you should deal with, do not deal with anyone else.” By this he meant my amazing Mennonite neighbors and several excellent, honest, trades people in the area. Of course I listened to him, met the very nice people, worked with a few but went on to ignore his advice. Seduced by smiles, charm and promises of low cost labor I eventually took my business elsewhere. This, of course, cost me thousands of dollars over a period of time. By my calculations we have lost about $20,000US to employees, trades-people, contractors and outright theft, it could be more. I assure you the ex-pats reading this are thinking, “Is that all?” On the bright side that’s only $278 a month for an education on living in Belize! It’s like a tax to live here. I’m not opposed to taxes, I just didn’t know about it!

I promise you every single person living in Belize knows this is true. Being “teefed” (thieved) is such a common place occurrence I almost don’t resent it anymore. Recently I was teefed by 2 small engine mechanics in the same day to the tune of about $175US. The second one told me, “Once you become my regular customer it won’t be so expensive.” It’s like your second week in prison doesn’t hurt as bad as your 1st.  The other mechanic destroyed my water pump, charged me $38US and told me he didn’t want to work on it in the 1st place. So far it has cost me about $150US and as of yesterday the pump was smoking and making bad noises. There is no recourse except for me to mention his name is Leonel, don’t use him. Shortly after construction was completed on our house and another building we had to shell out $2500US to repair our contractor’s negligence. A few years later, in a moment of weakness, the contractor confided to me that he,”… specializes in cement buildings..” and, “…didn’t know that much about the construction of wooden buildings at the time.” He and I are friends today.  I once made the mistake of leaving my vehicle with an employee of mine to sell (I can hear the ex-pats laughing), that only cost me about $1000 and although I don’t speak to the guy today I readily admit he was one of our best workers. I’m not even going to get into how much we have lost to employees a few dollars at a time, forget about it! Once, a trusted mechanic/machinist screwed up my truck to the tune of about $600US. One thing he did was, amazingly, install my brakes backwards and when I went back to bring it to his attention he said I was just, “Hard to please.” Thanks CB Machine and who we now call, “the bad Cornie”. Another time an electrician was here to install an inverter, a job he assured me he was qualified for, he hooked it up incorrectly, blew it up and simply drove off the property. When I went looking for Roberto The Electrician someone informed me he had just driven away. I didn’t see him for probably 2 years.  By then the $400US I paid to fix the inverter seemed like old news. On our property we’ve had goats stolen (yes, they got our goat), a toilet, shower, and a very large water tank, among many other things. “They” also once disassembled our generator from the diesel motor and took that in the middle of the day, an inside job to be sure. A friend of mine left a car in his in-laws front yard only to have the entire engine removed, allegedly unbeknownst to the in-laws. The same man had his house stripped down like a car left overnight in the ghetto. Door frames, windows, toilets, counter tops, you name it.

You might read this and think it’s just me, I’m not careful enough, I let it happen, trouble follows me, I’m a sucker. I assure you every single person here has similar stories, every one.  I know thieves are a problem everywhere and please don’t let me imply that only gringos are the victims and Belizeans the criminals. I was ripped off by a lovely American lady, a friend of my wife’s, for about $12,000US in a business deal a few years ago. A mutual “friend” of ours, another American lady, had a small role in it and just the other day said to me, “Jim, it’s so good to see you!” I didn’t even strangle her! An American backpacker I recently took into my home stole about $2000US worth of gear from another guest of ours. He is currently locked up in a very bad place. Honest Belizeans are victims as well but not to the same magnitude because they have taken their licks and learned a few lessons. They are not newcomers and not naïve. There are good people in this country and I’m proud to call some of them my friends. Finding & dealing with those people is key. I recommend a healthy dose of cynicism upon arrival and listening to the recommendations of those who have gone before you, like I didn’t.

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Exp-Pats Surviving In Belize

What’s the best way to make a million dollars in Belize? Come with two and leave before you lose the other half! 

There is a lot of truth in that often quoted remark. Why?  In a country of about 315,000 there simply isn’t a lot of money. I ‘d venture that the average full time employed Belizean makes about $20US a day. Admittedly that figure only comes from my 6 years of extensive experience in this country and not a reliable, trustworthy, goverment agency. I’ll delve further into my observations to say that maybe 40% of adult males between the ages of 25 and 50 hold what would be considered full time employment. I’d say that figure is closer to 20% for women in that age range. Who then, is purchasing the products and services we are selling and how much money is out there to buy anything?

 Nealry 100% of my ex-pat friends are self employed and nearly all live with financial hardships AND, now this is important, we are not carrying debt here like in the US. Financial hardships there can nearly always be directly attributed to living beyond one’s means. In the US, where I’m from, making money isn’t the real issue, keeping it is. Credit card debt, a mortage, 2 car payments etc, etc. The things we “need” consume us. It is well documented that the vast majority of Americans live beyond their means.   Major and minor resort owners, hoteliers, contractors, tour operators and makers of granola & peanut butter here will all tell you the same thing, especially with alcohol induced honesty, you might be able to make a living in Belize but making money is very difficult.   Making a living here means buying groceries, keeping the vehicle that you paid cash for running, keeping your children clothed and supporting your habits. The things we “need”, we really need! Making a living here doesn’t mean supporting your two car payments, mortage and enormous credit card bills because most people, and I’m talking ex-pats, cannot make enough money here to do those things nor is that kind of credit available to most people. In Belize almost no one carries that kind of debt. When you hear that living in the tropics is a simpler kind of life it means that we focus on the simple things, food, shelter and alcohol.

If you come to Belize retired with a pension or still able to make US dollars or the equivelant you are in excellent shape and probably can live comfortably. What can an ex-patriated individual do to make a living in Belize? Find a need and meet it is a simple answer. Here’s a few things I know we need around here; A good sub shop, more than 1 competent, honest mechanic for small engines and vehicles, someone to set up off the grid power systems, an amazing ice cream shop, some serious competition in the pizza arena to help drive prices down ($5 in the states $15-$20 here), a small movie theatre, a store that sells clothes for men and carries outdoor gear, an honest politician, ok, I’m getting carried away.  What we don’t need is another mediocre restaurant or a new resort, we are full up with those. 

Yes, you can move to Belize. Maybe, you can make a living. Yes, you can make a million, just bring two!

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La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge

 In early March every year Belize hosts the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge. Paddlers ranging from expert to novice travel from all over the world to compete in this 170 mile, 4 day canoe race in which the British Army keeps the official time. This is by far the largest sporting event in Belize and the crowds cheering on these determined paddlers can reach as many as 60,ooo people. In a country of just over 300,000 people that’s a turnout!

A great deal of attention is garnered by the teams competing for the top few spots but the mostly ignored and heart and soul of this race are made up of the heroic efforts of the rest of the pack. The Masters division is always hotly contested by more “experienced” paddlers and the Family, Female, Mixed, Pleasure Craft and Dory divisions make up the rest of the field. Peace Corps volunteers, Trekforce, a large contingent of ex-Pats and others are simply trying to reach the finish line alive and every canoe is racing the other canoes. 

The effort required to complete each stage of this race is Herculean and 1st time racers are always surprised at what it takes to finish this event, every year people drop out. The entire field starts together each morning and trickle in throughout the day at the daily stopping point where most teams have support crews waiting with their camp set up. At the starting line the wake generated by 100 canoes in a shotgun start is a challenge to all the paddlers with canoes colliding, paddles clashing and teams trying to sprint off the starting line to separate themselves from the rest of the field and the inevitable capsizing canoes around them. Supporters at the finish line each day are treated to inspiring displays of intestinal fortitude as teams somehow come up with yet another burst of speed to overtake a canoe they have been chasing for hours or to fend off a team with passing on their mind. The roaring of the large crowds go a long way towards helping exhausted paddlers dredge up those reserves of energy they thought they had depleted miles ago. The finish line each day sees spent teammates high fiving and hugging as well as heartwarming displays of sportsmanship as competitors offer congratulations to teams that have fended off their best efforts.

La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge ends in Belize City to the biggest crowds of the race and is followed by award ceremonies, cultural dances and plenty of food and drink. Support crews load up their respective teams and well earned praise is abundant as every finishing team, some finishing with less than the three paddlers they started with, are champions reluctantly parting ways, going back to where they came from and their ordinary lives. Champions are champions though, even if they are bank tellers, tour guides, salespeople, and grandparents. Check out www.LaRutaMayaOutfitters.com for more information about the La Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge.

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Moving to Belize

Barton Creek Outpost

Our daughter rope swiging at our swimming hole.

Barton Creek Oupost

Barton Creek Outpost

In 2004 my wife and I sold our stuff, packed up our 2 children, ages 6 & 3, and moved to Belize without ever having visited here. Six years and another child later we are still here. Most days we still love it.

Our good friend in Florida had purchased beautiful property in western Belize, commissioned a few structures to be built here and offered us a chance to come down, start a business and live in the Belizean jungle. We didn’t immediately jump at the chance but pondered it for some time before making the leap. Jacquelyn and I had both spent much of our lives on the water and were, in fact, navy deep-sea divers for 10 and 12 years, respectively. At the time we got the offer we lived on a small island in southwest Florida where we lived right on the water and I was a charter captain taking people fishing & island hopping. Belize sounded ok but the jungle? What about the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world? You sure you don’t have anything available closer to that? In the end we went all in and here we are 6 years later.

Today we operate the business we founded called Barton Creek Outpost (www.BartonCreekOutpost.com). The Outpost caters to backpackers traveling through Belize, we offer free camping, rent tents and work with local tour companies showing people the amazing sites in this area. I won’t say we’ve got it figured out but we’ve received quite an education since we’ve been here and know a helluva lot more than the day we arrived. In the months following our arrival I heard from a few sources that we wouldn’t make it here and God only knows what tomorrow brings but here we are, still slugging. Floods, thieves, dengue fever and serious financial hardships aside we enjoy the amazing setting, our lifestyle, the people we meet and a country that is at once refreshing and exasperating.

Like many people who live away from their extended families our friends have become our surrogate families and we are blessed with great friends, most of them ex-pats in the same boat. While we are here year round several of our friends go to the US for the slowest part of the year, usually August – November or so.  We miss them!  The ex-pat community here is large, active and growing. Belize, being an English speaking country with favorable laws regarding land ownership and rights, is an easy place to relocate.

We home school our children, spend many days together as a family (even if we are working) and even make it to nearby San Ignacio for some occasional R&R.  I think raising our children in this remote spot in the jungle might be easier than raising them in a more traditional circumstance. It doesn’t “take a village”, it takes our direct involvement and with our lifestyle we are more able to provide that. Homeschooling can be a challenge when we are busy with the Outpost and I admit to counting my time in their presence as quality time when I shouldn’t but I am very happy with where my kids are socially and, maybe only slightly less so, academically. I still have exposure to children raised by their teachers, babysitters & TV and I feel fortunate that we are able to raise them this way.  I hope time proves that we have made the correct decision in that regard.

I am new to blogging in general but look forward to posting more in the very near future. My postings will mostly center around our experience here in Belize and what we have done to carve out a life here. I look forward to sharing our experiences.

Jim

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