Belize 2012 Trip, Part 3

The day after we arrived and settled in, the four of us decided to take a stroll along the beach. Bonnie and Julie were going to look for scuba diving tours, and we were going to line up our fishing expedition. Before we even stepped out of our resort’s ground, however, we were offered free lunches drinks shopping discounts entertainment free boat ride, from two very enthusiastic island boys — just for spending an hour watching a short video and touring Captain Morgan’s Resort. It is part of the burgeoning time-share business on the island. When our hostess reviewed the short list of qualifying criteria, she determined that we were not eligible since we were not accompanied by our husbands, the true decision-making members of our families.

At a stall along the beach, we saw a coatimundi. This one was a family pet, although moments later, we were offered one by a young boy for $100 bucks! The ones we saw here are of the white-nosed coati, but apparently there are several species of them in this region.

I think it was the next day that Bonnie and Julie went scuba-diving at the Blue Hole. This was on Bonnie’s bucket list, so I am happy she got to experience it. Left to her own device, Bonnie  would probably be in the water all day long, perfectly happy looking at marine life. They left at 5:30 a.m., because it takes a couple of hours to get there by boat. I can’t remember what Bonnie said, but I think this might have been the deepest dive they have ever done. They told me about all the things they saw down there, including something spotted (eagle ray? shark?) Aside from my fear of all that water above me, scuba-diving just seems like an awful lot of work to spend a few minutes underwater. Then there is all that equipment you got to lug around. I suppose if I were to come face-to-face with a spotted shark, I might change my mind. Unlikely, though. Snorkeling is just fine for me.

Michelle and I really look forward to fishing every time we come down here. This year was the best yet. We had new tour guides — well, one new tour guide, Eric Henkis who owns and operates Uprising Tours. Clifford Lewis we had met on a previous trip. He was working with another tour operator at the time. We started out with Clifford casting the net for sardines to use as live bait. Instead of staying on the calmer side of the reef (the flats), Eric took us through the channel (one of 7 at this island) for some deepwater fishing. (It was much choppier on the other side, and I thought I was going to toss my cookie.) I was at the front of the boat, while Michelle and Bonnie were at the back. The person at the front (me) would typically cast the line for, while the people in the back would sink the fishing lines — down to 100 feet or more — to catch fish like snapper. Within maybe 5 minutes, I got a bite! It was a huge kingfish (well, huge to me). Here is a picture of Clifford holding up the kingfish. I’m not sure who caught what next, I think Bonnie got a couple of snappers, I got a triggerfish (with lips!!), and Michelle got a big barracuda with snapping teeth.

The year we went with Michelle’s mom and dad, (we think) a barracuda took off with Mom’s catch. She was left with just the head, but you can see from the picture that it would have been a big lunch!

When we came back through the channel to more quiet water, we all went snorkeling and free-diving. Michelle and Bonnie brought back several conches, and Clifford dove for 5 or 6 lobsters. It was near the end of the crustacean season — if the conch measure less the outstretched span between your thumb and pinky finger, you got to throw it back. Eric and Clifford then took us to a nice beach and prepared and cooked the food Belizean style, over a pit with coconut husks. It was delicious! But it wouldn’t be complete without some Marie Sharp’s Belizean Heat sauce. We cooled that down with rum punch and Belikin beer. And then Bonnie tripped and stubbed her toe getting back on to the boat.

If you travel to Ambergris Caye and are interested in the best fishing ever, contact Eric/Clifford by email at uprisingtour@yahoo.com, or call them at 622-7413 or 620-9410 (local numbers). An all day excursion (fishing, snorkeling, beach BBQ) typically runs around $350 USD. (BTW, it’s a $1USD:$2BZD exchange rate.)

It’s really too bad I don’t have any pictures of this dog to show, but this little guy really stole our hearts. Actually, he was not so little. He was some sort of Doberman mix, so we called him “Dobie.” Dobie had wandered into our resort, into the pool area, looking for water. Being animal suckers, all of us, we led him back to our room and gave him water and all of Coco’s cat food. Naturally, he spent the night. At some point (probably a rum punch or two later), I decided that whatever means necessary, I would adopt him and bring him back to the States. (He LOOKED at me. I don’t mean the casual glance. The guy locked eyes with me and looked as if he understood every word I spoke.) Sometime in the middle of night, I woke up with a mild panic attack. What about our girls? They would never forgive me. So in the morning, Julie and I and Dobie trotted off to the SAGA Humane Society, where the lady at the front desk immediately said, “Oh Snoopy! There you are.” Apparently Snoopy is quite a ladies’ man, and not the first time he’s gone “missing”.

The last tale I want to share about our Belize trip is actually on the main land. We took a ferry (at 7:00 a.m.!) from San Pedro to Belize City. It took over an hour and a half (because we also picked up passengers at Caye Caulker) to get to the mainland. Allen Dawson from Experience Belize Tours picked us up from the dock, and was basically our tour guide for the rest of the day. We first toured the outskirts of Belize City — Allen was very knowledge of the local history, and I learned a lot sitting in the front of the van with him. From Belize City, we went to Altun Ha, one of the few remaining Mayan ruins in the vicinity. Even though we have been to a few of these, it never gets boring. It is just a fascinating civilization. If you climb up to the top, you can see for miles around. Fortunately, my vertigo was kept in check — unlike the time we climbed all the way up Chichen Itza and I had to scoot back down on my butt.

From here, it was a long drive to the Baboon Sanctuary. We stopped along the road to eat — unfortunately, I can’t remember her name, but her Belizean Chicken was just simply awesome. (I tried to make this at home later, and while good, it was nowhere near as impressive.) I don’t know why they called it the “Baboon” sanctuary, but we met with a Black Howler Monkey family!! Because it is an endangered species, sanctuaries such as this one were set up to conserve, educate the public, provide research, and encourage tourism. The older monkeys did not want anything to do with us, but the three youngest ones, including a four-month old, will take banana treats right off your hands!

Then we went cave tubing! It was a really hot day, and we were all getting pretty crabby inside the van. Plus, it was a really long hike to get to the “top” of the river where we would float downstream. This is now low season and the water does not run so deep. At several places, our guide would holler “Butts Up”, and we would have to hoist ourselves up on our inner tubes. The actually length of the river is probably ten times of what we went through. Inside the cave, it was pitch black; the headlamps we had on hardly illuminated much except for what was right in front of us. But the water was refreshing and it was a nice way to spend a hot day. Bonnie finally broke her already damaged toe from stubbing it on a cobble stone. Next time we travel anywhere together, I will recommend steel-toed boots.

It was a really nice tour, and our guide Allen really made the trip fun. My only recommendation would be to fly the puddle jumper from San Pedro to Belize City. Getting there on the ferry in the morning wasn’t too bad, but the trip home was just awful since we were all tired and the boatride was pounding. Tip: Sit near the back of the boat where your innards are less likely to be jostled around. But don’t breathe in the diesel fumes.

If you want to do the ruins/baboons/cave tubing tour, please contact Allen Dawson by email at allen@experiencebelizetours.com, or by phone at 011 501-225-2981. If I remember correctly, this all-day guided combination tour, including lunch, is around $100 a person.

Belize 2012 Trip, Part 2

In years past when we stayed at a different resort on the island, we would head straight over to Wet Willy’s for a beer before embarking on the island’s main water taxi to our resort. Wet Willy’s and Fido’s are two popular restaurant/bars that are also local drop-off/pickup points for the resorts on Ambergris Caye. We love Wet Willy’s because it sits on a dock (you can see the fish below through the floor boards) and the ambience is nice and mellow. But they do have some novelty drinks — rum with scorpions (for women) and rum with vipers (for men). On a past trip, we tried the scorpion concotion — we didn’t die, obviously, but I wouldn’t recommend it. We chatted with the new owners of the place — really nice folks from the East Coast somewhere (I think Maryland) — and they are sprucing up the place nicely. Check out their facebook page, or better yet, check out Wet Willy’s if you’re down this way. Fido’s is a big place and they have a very well stocked bar, including the two Belizean beers: Belikin and Light House. There’s a nice annex inside, featuring arts and crafts from local artists.

From the airport to Wet Willy’s (or Fido’s) is either a long (but very doable) walk, or a very quick ride in a land taxi ($5 bucks). The main operator on the island is the Ambergris WaterTaxi Service, which operates hourly from sunrise to sunset. In addition, most resorts on the island have their own boats, and can shuttle you (but generally only to/from airport). This can add up pretty quickly if you are traveling back/forth to San Pedro (see prices) a lot. Weekly passes are available for a discount, however a well-thought out plan should keep this down to a minimum.

Our old resort (Costa Maya Reef) was situated 6 miles north of San Pedro. While the location is ideal for many of our other leisurely pursuits, it did pose a challenge when it came to food/drink. But after our first trip, we got smarter, and would do as much grocery shopping as we could fit into our backpacks. Since then, the old resort had fallen into a state of general neglect, due to the mismanagement of several managers. So on this trip we decided to stay at one of the island’s best-rated resort — Xanadu — which would prompt Julie to break into spontaneous song at the mere mention of the name.

It’s too bad we didn’t bring the rollerskates.

Xanadu Island Resort is located about a mile south of the airport. We had the oceanfront suite, which was beautiful and included all the amenities — TVs in all the rooms, a fairly well-stocked kitchenette, panoramic views, air conditioning. Not the most spectacular place I’ve ever been in on this island, but pretty darn nice. The staff at Xanadu were wonderful as well. A nice family from South Africa is now managing the resort. (Here’s a terrific story as well. The family travelled and lived on a boat for 5 years. It’s a nice size boat, but still…) Then there is Ingrid, who can make all your travel arrangements and book local tours/dives for you. Orlando also looked after us, making sure we don’t get into trouble. The resort grounds is nice and well maintained — coconut trees, a nice pool, a bird sanctuary (but don’t go unless you are covered in mosquito repellent.) There are a couple of resident cats; Coco guarded our door day and night and is very vocal about being fed on time. Kayaks and bicycles are free for resort guests. We took the bikes out a few times for our grocery runs. On my first attempt, the chain choked because it’s so rusty from the salty humid air.

We kayaked out to the reef once on this trip. Here’s where you really noticed the difference in the location between the two resorts. When we were up at Costa Maya Reef Resort, kayaking out to the reef was a nice, pleasant experience. The water was calm (hardly any wakes) and it didn’t involve a herculean effort to paddle the mile out to the reef. Once there, you can tie the kayak to a buoy and spend all day snorkeling. The water is crystal clear and abound with colorful fish and coral. I saw a stingray that was at least 8 feet long. Off the pier of the old resort was an old barracuda, apparently the stuff of local legend, because of how he had managed to outwit all the fishermen. That barracuda was humongous, and I swear he was stalking me.

Kayaking out to the reef from Xanadu was an entirely different matter. We were wary of all the water taxis because the resort is located so close to town. The water was choppy, so it made the paddling a lot harder. Once we got to the reef there was no buoy to tie to. Bonnie had to dive around to find some dead coral to tie our boats to. But because of the water movement from boats/wind/current, it wasn’t as crystal clear as we remembered it. A couple of boats came by as well, and at one point I thought Michelle was going to get run over. She had her head in the water the whole time and was completely oblivious to the surface traffic. It was still an enjoyable snorkeling experience, but it was nowhere near the wonder of the place up north.

One cannot get lost in San Pedro. There are only three main roads running the length of San Pedro: Front Street (fronting the ocean), Middle Street, and you guess it, Back Street. (These are not the official names, but how the locals refer to them.) You will find the majority of restaurants and bars on Front Street. Grocery stores, pharmacies, fabric stores, banks, etc., line Middle Street. I don’t think I have ever been on Back Street — except maybe for the SAGA Humane Society (another story for tomorrow). The airport and the fancy new Super Market are on the south end of Middle Street. I could go on about San Pedro, but probably the best information online can be found here.

Photos, lots of them, can be found here. Tomorrow I’ll write about our adventures, mishaps, and some terrific discoveries!

Belize 2012 Trip, Part 1

I am an island girl at heart. Nothing makes me happier than being on an island. It has little to do with sand sun and surf, although those are all bonus. There is just something magical about an island. It can be quiet and reflective, calm and peaceful — or it can be wild and crazy; that’s up to you. Life takes on a different pace here. You can be on island just a mile away from the mainland, and it’s a whole different world. I have visited some beautiful islands — Penang, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Bali, Phuket (arguably a peninsula and not a “true” island), Gran Canaria, the Phillipines and Guam. There are so many more to visit, including the one on my bucket list: Cuba. I could be wrong on this, but I have a feeling that our favorite standby will always remain Ambergris Caye, Belize.

Ambergris Caye (pronounced “Key”) is the largest Belizean island (there are approximately 450), and is located 17 minutes northeast of Belize City (by plane). It is named after the clumps of ambergris that wash ashore, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. (Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color produced in the digestive system of, and regurgitated or secreted by, sperm whales — you can look up the rest.) The main and only town is San Pedro, although there are villages inland and scores of resorts line up along the coastline.

The biggest draw to this island is the world’s second-longest barrier reef, second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. What makes it unique is that the reef is only about a mile offshore, easily kayak-able, and very likely swimmable if it weren’t for all the water taxis. All water-related activities are present here — snorkeling, scuba diving, parasailing, windsurfing, fishing.

This was our fourth trip to the island, and our first trip with friends. You never know how well you get along with people, no matter how much you may like them, until you actually travel with them.  The other “first” was that we stayed at a resort that was not our usual home resort — more on that later. Our friends Bonnie and Julie were about to celebrate their 20th Anniversary, so I know this was a big deal for them to travel with us as well, and to a foreign country, no less.

<This next part is for Airport Made Simple>

From San Francisco, California, we took the 6:00 a.m. flight to Houston. Julie’s thoughts were that we should spend the night in Millbrae (just south of the airport) since we could just leave the car at the hotel and they would provide us free shuttle service to the airport. It sounded brilliant at the time, and we all applauded Julie on her strategic advance planning skills. But when they knocked on our door at 3:00 a.m., we all started cursing. I am very crabby when I don’t get enough sleep. Michelle started harassing the waitress at the airport coffeeshop for some vegetables to go with her eggs. “Spinach?” “Something green?” “Any vegetables?” The waitress muttered something about potatoes and left.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) is fairly straightforward to navigate, but it is a big airport. (Keep this in mind for later.) We had plenty of time to grab some coffee and food, and Michelle and Julie managed to get in some Duty Free shopping.

Belize City Airport (BZE) is quite small in comparison. It took us no time for the plane to land and taxi up. The passengers unload on the runway and trekked in. Here we filed our entrance papers and waited for our luggage. We cleared Customs pretty quickly, despite a bit of scrutiny with Bonnie and Julie’s scuba diving apparatus.

There are two small plane operators in Belize, Tropic Air and Maya Island Air, and they cover most domestic flights (and some to Cancun, Mexico.) We have always flown Tropic Air and have never had any problems. Round trip tickets (advance purchase recommended by our resort concierge) from Belize City to San Pedro (SPR) was around $120 per person.

If you have never been on a small (I mean, tiny) plane before, the flight can be a little unnerving. These puddle jumpers can bounce all over the place if there’s any air turbulence at all. But what fun when you are flying low enough to see everything, including that beautiful great turquoise blue ocean!

If Belize City Airport was small, San Pedro is miniscule. As we arrived, we saw paving equipment on the runway. Yup, they are putting in a second runway so they can handle all the air traffic. Even the one-room airport ticket counter/waiting area got upgraded! And there’s air-conditioning now!

Tomorrow I will fill you in with details on Ambergris Caye. Unconfirmed, but word has it that Madonna sang about this island in her song…

 

Photos

Homemade Dog Food

What started this whole thing was my discovery of making chicken stock in a pressure cooker. I was really impressed with the quality of the stock — the deepness of color, the richest of taste — and the only ingredients used were chicken (some meat but mostly bones) and water. I still use this method for making stock for us (humans) or to start a big pot of chicken vegetable soup. It makes for a good hearty dinner when you’re pressed for time during the week. Especially during the winter time.

Could you do this with a regular cooking pot? Well, maybe for stock, yes. But here’s where it gets really interesting. It doesn’t matter whether you are cooking chicken or pork or beef — if it’s meat it will retain its shape and texture. In other words, even if you cook the meat for an hour, it still looks tastes feels smells like meat. It doesn’t disintegrate into an undistinguishable mush. However, the bones (while still retaining its shape), become so soft that they will crumble if crushed between your fingers. (Keep this in mind, when you read further down.)

Anyway, when I started reading up on nutrition for dogs, I realized just how many sources there are out there. Some were very useful, some were conflicting. Most of the disagreement seems to stem from whether or not you should feed your dog a raw or a cooked diet. All sources seem to agree that “homemade”, whether raw or cooked, would be much better than store-bought pre-processed food, no matter how good or popular the name brand. I opted for the cooked version because most raw sites keep referring to a “natural wild ” diet. My dogs are not wild. Well, in their minds, they may think they’re wild. But in my mind, they have been domesticated for thousands of years. If they were left in their “wild” state in an urban environment, most dogs would likely scavenge around garbage cans.

So, here are my somewhat-scientifically-backed-up opinions on canine cuisine:

Except for certain no-no items such as chocolate, grapes, raisins, onions, most dog food requirements are identical to human food.They need FRESH food, just like humans do. They need VARIETY, just like humans do. They need BALANCE, just like humans do.

That said, the main differences between dogs and humans are that dogs need more of the protein and less of the vegetables and much much less of the carbohydrates. And, they need much much more calcium than we do.

In terms of proportion, meat and other animal products should constitute at least HALF the diet. I used this ratio: 1/2 meat, 1/3 veggies, 1/6 whole grain and/or rice. Here meat = chicken, pork, fish, beef, lamb, turkey. Although I must confess that I only cook the first four since I don’t like lamb or turkey much. (Remember, when you go shopping for yourself, just pick up extra for your dogs.)

For vegetables, dogs can and should eat most everything. Dark leafy greens are on the top of the list. But here are some others that your pups will like:  broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, turnips, rutabaga, celery, cucumber, bell peppers, zucchini, summer squashes, carrots, peas, beans. Spinach and swiss chard can be fed in limited amounts. Sweet potatoes are excellent as well.

Some other foods that you might want to incorporate into their diets are organ meat (liver, kidney, heart, green tripe), as well as some dairy products such as eggs and yogurt and cottage cheese. I freeze-dry chicken livers for the girls and add a little bit everyday. Some sources say that liver should constitute 5% or so of their daily diet.

In terms of balance, think of food as a two-week range rather than every meal. As long as you feed a wide variety of different foods, there is no need to make every meal “complete and balanced”. Feed your dog how you would feed yourself. Every now and then, indulge them a little. It’s ok to give them a burger and fries once in a blue moon.

Probably the most common mistake in home-cooking is that people often underestimate just how much calcium dogs need. Let’s put it this way: they need a lot. It is actually more complicated than I can explain, because you have to balance the calcium with the appropriate amount of phosphorus. Phosphorus is typically provided by the meat. Which means, the more meat, the more phosphorous, the more calcium required. And then it’s not just the calcium, but the also the type of calcium (“elemental” calcium is what you are after.) And, if you buy regular and not organic, there’s a whole host of other stuff you have to account for. (Who knew that they add arsenic to chicken to help them grow. This is why I buy only organic stuff now.)

Anyway, all this research was giving me a headache. I remember growing up and feeding our dogs whatever food we had left over (and yes, sometime with garlic in it!) and they always did fine. But now that I am THE human adult responsible for these furry four-legged things, I wanted to make sure that I am the best Mama L. in the world! So, I decided to make the dogs their own food by using the pressure cooker. It takes care of all of the above requirements. Even with buying only organic food, I am still saving a lot of money than buying store-bought. And, my girls tell me all the time that I am better than any Iron Chef they have ever met.

Your pressure cooker and the required cooking time per type of food will probably vary from mine, depending on brand, size, etc. I think I have an older version of this one: Fagor Splendid 10-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner. Naturally, you would follow your manufacturer’s recommendations. Below is what I would do for a chicken meal. (You can do this for any meat, just keep the proportion in mind.) This is quite a bit of food, btw. When I make a batch this big, the dogs get about 2 weeks’ worth (one dinner per dog per  day). I usually put them in several containers and freeze what the girls can’t eat in a few days.

Steps:

1. Put whole or quartered (easier later) chicken in pressure cooker. Put enough water in cooker to just cover the chicken. Lock the lid, set it to the highest pressure (mine comes in three pressure setting), and cook over medium high heat for 15 minutes. For clarification, the 15-minute timer starts after the pop-up indicator pops up telling you that the internal pressure is where you want it to be.)

2. Meanwhile, chop up your veggies into small bite-size chunks. (My girls are about 1/2-inch chunks.) Set aside.

3. When the 15 minutes are up, quick cool your pressure cooker (again, follow your manufacturer’s instructions.) Take the chicken meat off the bones. Return only the bones to the pressure cooker (broth still in it), lock the lid, set to the highest pressure, and cook for an hour.

4. Quick cool, or let cool. Take all the bones out, but leave the liquid. Add your veggies, lock lid, set to medium pressure, and cook for 5 minutes.

5. When the bones are cool enough for you to handle, chop (or grind) until it turns into a fine meal. With chicken bones, this usually means both ends of the drumstick and a substantial amount of “middle”. I toss away bone pieces that don’t mush easily. If you cook the bones for an hour, though, almost all of it is mushable.

6. Combine everything together and stir well. At this point, I also add chopped blueberries or cranberries, a few dashes of Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids, a small scoop of flaxseed meal, and sometimes a small handful of kelp for essential minerals. If you had enough liquid for a broth, it will resemble a soup or a stew. I generally don’t cook the grains in the pressure cooker, as I haven’t quite figured out how NOT to turn it into mush. Instead, the ladies are served the meat/veggies stew over a bed of white rice.

Again, “meat” here means meat + bones. If you were cooking salmon, for example, you would include the entire chunk of fish, fins bones and all…

Here is a picture of Gingersnap! helping me clean the pressure cooker. On Ambergris Caye in Belize, the island dogs are called “pot lickers”.