Sunday, March 30, 2008

Standoff in San Ignacio

The nearest town to Chaa Creek is San Ignacio.  There are two bridges over the Macal River into San Ignacio and both are one way, so cars on one side are supposed to wait until the bridge is clear to cross.  There is no formal system (like a traffic light) for regulating which side is supposed to cross at any given time.  

My new friend Richard and I were standing near the bridge when a white panel van drove onto the bridge coming into town and a red pickup pulling a flat bed drove onto the bridge leaving town.  They both accelerated pulling onto the bridge, clearly trying to intimidate the other driver.  When they met in the middle of the bridge, they pulled to within inches of each other and then stopped.  At this point in New York, both drivers would have gotten out of their vehicles and started screaming at each other, but in San Ignacio they just seemed to meet and wait.

Standoff in San Ignacio - Mediation

About five minutes into the standoff, one cop showed up.  A few minutes later two more appeared on the bridge. All this time, traffic coming into town is backing up.  There was a big fair in town, and many people were coming in for the festivities.  Still though the red truck is not budging.  

Standoff in San Ignacio - Resolution

If you look closely you can see several things going on in this photo.  First, the police have persuaded the red truck to start backing up.  Second, the traffic entering town has started jockeying for position and is now almost three abreast (see how the school bus has jumped the line of cars).  I think chaos was narrowly averted.  

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Chaa Creek Howler Monkeys

We heard Howler Monkeys almost every morning at around 3:00AM.  They are loud.  The males don't so much as howl as they produce a sound that is a combination of a gutteral grunt and a roar.  Listen here.  Turn your computer up loud, then imagine you are listening at 3:00am and the sound is being played through the speakers at a Grateful Dead concert and you are sitting in the front row.  The sound can be heard for two miles and the monkeys are considered to be the loudest of all land animals.  

We had the monkeys within a few hundred yards of our camp most nights.  The last night they were incredibly loud (think fire engine in front of your house).  Will went out about 4:30am and with the manager of our camp, Dosio, he saw a male and female with a baby Howler.  Will got everyone else up and we went out to see (and hear) the monkeys.  We actually had a pretty good view - before I went back and got my camera.  The photo above left I grabbed from National Geographic.  The photo below I took (see the black blob) but we did have better views of the monkeys that I did not capture.  

The Howler's at Chaa Creek are transplants having been reintroduced by Mick Fleming who owns the resort, but they are breeding and seem to be doing very well.  They are the largest new world monkeys.  Like most other new world monkeys they have a prehensile tail they use to hold onto trees when they climb.  

Will Naturalist

On this trip Will was really focused on learning as much as he could and recording in sketches and notes everything he saw and did.  I will eventually posted scans of his notebook, but it was neat to see him so intent on keeping his journal.  He was a little sponge listening to the different naturalists who led walks we attended, and then (of course) becoming the know-it-all on various topics.  In the photo below left he is actually listening to the gnashing mandibles of a soldier ant that the naturalist David is holding up to he ear.

Birds at Chaa Creek

There are hundreds of bird species that have been spotted in and around Chaa Creek.  Many are local species like the Social Flycatcher (actually there seem to be about 50 types of flycatchers). Others are migratory northern birds wintering over in Belize like the Baltimore Oriole and the Flicker.  Every morning at 6:30am there is a naturalist led bird walk which I went on twice and in addition to the birds pictured here I saw a number of others including a pygmy owl about seven inches long that eats birds as large as itself and a beautiful red headed tanager.  

Friday, March 28, 2008

Horses at Chaa Creek

There were 33 horses at Chaa Creek when we arrived and 34 when we left. Very early in the morning (late at night?) on our last day, a foal was born. Cathleen saw it and said it was very cute, but I missed it. Eva loves horses and rode twice. Will has never been a horse fan (big, smelly, scary) but he agreed to try a trail ride and really seemed to enjoy it as well. I rode and after three hours was sneezing from my fur allergy and had flea bites that are still healing. I continue to believe horses are best admired from a safe distance.

Cath: Lyra had an opinion about the horses too. She loved the baby horses and cried because she wasn't going to be allowed to go riding too. But when she actually got to the stable to drop Will and me off, she started screaming "YUCK! Out! YUCK! Out!" She did not calm down until we were outside in the fresh air. It took a lot of convincing to get her back to the stable again so I could hand her off to Bill.

Pretty Girls

It was great to have lots of time with a camera to take pictures of the kids. We did get a few good pictures of Will, but the real gems were the photos of Eva and Lyra. Both of them were willing to pose (at least some of the time) and with the whole day to work with I could usually find a time with great light.  The top photo is Eva at breakfast with a piece of watermelon.  Every day at breakfast we started with a platter of watermelon, banana, papaya and pineapple.  For some reason Eva liked to lick the watermelon before eating it.


One of our major field trips while in Belize was to the Mayan ruin at Xunantunich (pronounced "zhoo-NAHN-too-nitch"). In its heyday, Xunantunich was a city of almost 10,000 people that thrived until around 900AD. It is very close to Chaa Creek, and to the Guatemalan border. According to Wikipedia (see link above) it was allied with other smaller city states in wars against Tikal in current Guatemala. Tikal was a huge city of over 100,000 people - we will visit its ruins on our next trip to Belize. To get to Xunantunich we had to take a ferry across the Mopan river. Not clear from this photo is the fact that the ferry was 'man powered' by turning a crank that pulled the barge across the river, one vehicle at a time.

El Castillo

El Castillo (The Castle) is the primary structure at Xunantunich.  Left of center in the back of this photo it is about 140 feet tall.  In the early period of Xunantunich it was a ceremonial building.  In the later period it was a residence for the king.  

Will Scientist

Eduardo was our guide at Xunantunich and he was very good.  He had participated in the excavation of the west side of El Castillo and he knew the history of the site very well.  Will decided before the trip to keep a journal and he did a VERY good job.  You can see his notebook in almost every photo.  He has sketches and notes about almost everything we did in Belize.

El Castillo North

This is taken from the top of El Castillo facing north over the courtyards and other structures of Xunantunich.  The height of El Castillo should be obvious from the size of the people in the plaza in the foreground.  According to our excellent tour guide, this is the tallest man made structure in Belize.  According to Wikipedia one of the structures at Caracal is taller.  Either way the tallest Mayan structures dwarf the tallest modern era buildings.

El Castillo East

This is actually looking toward Chaa Creek to the east of Xunantunich. We could not quite see Chaa Creek because it is over the first line of hills, but it is only a few miles away.

Cath: Boy am I glad I wasn't up here for this photo! Something about having my children in a very high open place near an edge....cannot stand it!

Climbing the Ruins

The ruins at Xunantunich were blissfully free of restrictions on exploration. We were able to climb all the structures, and there were no fences or other protective barriers. This made the experience much more fun, but also more nerve wracking. Some of the structures, especially el Castillo were VERY tall, and the walls were extremely steep. Even on this structure where Will and Eva are climbing a fall would have been deadly.

Cath: Notice that Lyra and I aren't in any of these photos. It was not safe for Lyra to run around on any of these ruins by herself and it didn't feel safe to climb up carrying her either, even in the sling. She is almost 29 lbs now and sometimes very wiggly.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Iguanas in Belize seem to be only slightly less common that squirrels in Alexandria.  I almost tripped over the black iguana pictured here, and as you can see he was happy to pose with Will and Eva.  The iguanas really seem to like the heat of mid day.  They come out to sun themselves and soak up the warmth.  They are not aggressive and eventually wander (or run) off into the bushes when you get too close. Still, I am not sure why anyone would want a lizard as a pet.

RAIN Forest

We went to Belize in the DRY season. However, with all of the recent weather anomalies, we ended up with a day and half of light rain (or heavy drizzle). The weather was warm, and the rain was mild, but it made getting dry all but impossible.

Cath: Yes, it wouldn't be a rain forest without rain. Now everyone is smiling in these pictures but imagine entertaining a two year old for two days of rain and drizzle and no indoor place to hang out? Not that she wanted to be inside....those puddles were way too much fun. Bill took Will and Eva tubing in the river because, as he said, wet is wet!


This is a view of our accommodations. These are basically wood frames with a sealed canvas roof, and when there is a light rain it sounds like a downpour. Fortunately we did not have to find out what a downpour really sounded like.

Cath: Since Bill has been doing photo management and the initial blog updates, I am going back through to put in my 2 cents.

"Casita" means little house and they aren't kidding! There were 4 little beds and a cot (i.e., nearly wall-to-wall bed), 2 end tables and 2 oil lanterns for light in the evening. Thank goodness Bill thought to throw a little flashlight in his suitcase! With clothes for all of us and all the kids' books etc., keeping things organized was even more difficult than at home. But it was very cozy and comfy place to listen to the jungle and go to sleep.


We just returned from a fantastic week at Chaa Creek near San Ignacio in Belize.  This is the view from the porch of our 'casita' (basically a wood frame with a sealed canvas roof).  The building on the left is the dining pavilion and the building on the right is the kitchen.  We had no electricity or cell coverage (yeehaa).  All cooking was over gas with big coolers full of ice for refrigeration.  Communal showers and outhouses are out of this photo on the left.  We took many pictures and will be posting over the next couple of days.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Getting Ready for the Eco-Adventure

I learned I was too laissez-faire with the kids' packing on the New York trip so I supervised more carefully this time. I made each kid a specific list, had them pack, then I went through to see what they had and didn't have and made corrections. All this was put off until the last minute because the Phelps household has been an active petri dish. Eva had the flu and missed half a week of school, Lyra had a sinus infection and my sinus infection waited until the weekend to announce itself. Somehow we got it all together in time to get up at 4 am for a 6 am flight.

Bill bought each kid a computer game to play if they were civilized on the trip down. I am appalled, especially since the place we are going is full of natural wonders. I also don't want to be ugly Americans and am not confident we will have electricity anyway.

At 11 pm the night before we are supposed to leave, Bill realizes that the binoculars he brought in for Eva to pack are AWOL (i.e. not in their case) and Will's computer game, which Bill specifically instructed him not to touch, is not with Eva's in the Mac bag. ARGH. We decide not to mention this in the morning since it will cause histrionics and delay us getting to the airport. As a final thought, I check Will's carryon bag and find both the binoculars and the game. Where did this fit of organization come from?

The kids woke up without complaint when they realized we were going to the airport and not to school. We are headed to Chaa Creek in Belize and are staying in the camp by the Macal River.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Shaken not Stirred

I need to put more of Will's art out here because he has been doing some great stuff lately. Now this is one of the few pieces of artwork that has made it home from school and its execution is much less sophisticated than the cartoons he likes to draw.

At first I thought, oh cute snowman picture! Upon closer inspection, I noticed the martini glass in Mr. Snowy's right hand and the briefcase in his left. That is a holster and weapon at his side. Will says that his James Bond snowman is standing at the entrance to something, I think a diamond mine.

I can't help but wonder if he explained anything about his drawing to his art teacher.
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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lyra's New Hair Cut

It seems that most little kids cut their own hair at one time or another. I know I did. And Eva cut her hair AND Will's when she was two. Lyra actually did a pretty good job on hers.

At first she told us that Will had cut it and I halfway believed it because this was on a night where Will had gotten her ready for bed. He combed her hair out and put a head band on her because he thought it was cute. But he swore he hadn't cut her hair. Later Lyra said she did it. Then she said Daddy did it which was impossible because Bill has been in Australia all week. I see why children are unreliable witnesses.
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Handsome Cat

KC is bigger than he looks in this picture. He defends his food bowl valiantly from Noelle and from Lyra (who, I am sorry to say, has sampled the cat food and found it pretty good). I like this photo because you can see his cute little ears in his shadow.
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The Fabulous Four

We celebrated Josie's and Dad's birthdays over President's Day weekend and it was a lot of fun.  I am not sure why Emily isn't in the picture.  I will put a picture of Lyra in later; I was holding her for this one.  Actually, Cristin took all the pictures in this series here and I am so glad because I was just not very camera active (probably because Lyra is into everything right now and I can't take my eyes off her for a second).

Girlie Girls

Eva and Josie had a great time playing during their visit.  There was much disappointment when we could not arrange for the girls to have a sleepover either at our house or at Mom and Dad's.  The girl's were very good about letting Emily and Lyra play too.  And thank goodness!

Cat and Red

Look at this sweet baby!  This is Roland, fourth in the DeRonja clan and born on Frank's birthday.  We finally got to meet him this February.  I think he is the only one of the DeRonja kids I ever really got to hold because I had my own babies who always needed to be held when Frank and Josie and Emily were little.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Will & Lyra

Will has two sisters.  Eva is closest in age, and she and Will have a lot of, shall we say, tension between them.  Will's younger sister Lyra is (at least for the time being) a different matter.  Will and Lyra adore each other.  Will has started picking up Lyra and carrying her around, and she loves it.  When he puts her down, she looks up at him with big eyes and says 'more, more' (actually it sounds more like 'moe, moe').  I am sure this cute phase won't last but right now it is really neat.   

Museum Night

Eva was very excited to play docent at Museum Night.  She showed us all the art she and her class had created (including the figure she is holding in this photo).  Eva has been working for weeks helping to decorate her corner of the school to look like Tanzania, and she was so excited to have us all come to visit.  (Yeah, this is out of focus but I was 2/3 through Museum Night before realizing my lens was set to manual focus, and this is one of the least bad photos.)

Eva's Art

Each year, Beauvoir orients its curriculum around a continent and each class studies a country within that continent (this is called Global Studies).  This year the continent is Africa and the country that Eva's class is studying is Tanzania.  Each class creates lots of arts and crafts based on the traditions of their assigned country.  The concept behind Museum Night is that the entire school is decorated with the art all the students have created as part of Global Studies. In addition to the art, the school is decorated to look like the region of the world they are studying, appropriate food is served from different countries, etc.  Eva created lots of different Tanzanian themed art.  This is one example.  Due to operator error on the camera I don't have as many other examples as I should.

Alumni Reunion

Will and Jake have been best friends since kindergarten.  When they graduated from Beauvoir at the end of third grade they went on to different schools.  Both of them still have little sisters at Beauvoir, and they returned to attend Museum Night, which is one of the biggest events for Beauvoir students.  Will and Jake look so grown up, it is hard to believe they are only in fourth grade.