Bye Bye Belize

My wife, Sarah, planned our vacation to Belize to include a final, full, day unencumbered by any plans. We woke up before the sun and because the lodgings at The Turtle Inn face east, including our own Starfish Cottage, we held hands in bed and watched it rise above the Caribbean Sea lighting up the Belizean sky in various hues of orange. Every day of the vacation started with, at the very least, a delicious cup of Guatemalan coffee and this one was no different. The four of us (Sarah, me, Bob and Susan Green) washed down a variety of morning delicacies with two French press pots of the rich, black, caffeine filled ambrosia and discussed what was in store for the day.

Sarah and Susan decided they’d spend the first part of the morning on paddle boards. I volunteered to play lifeguard (even though I would have had to corral and actual lifeguard if either actually needed help) while reading the next book on my list, Before the Fall a page turner written by Noah Hawley. Bob was going to read too but he decided to do that, on a lounge chair, in the comfort of the deck that surrounded our private pool. Time floated by on a soft, spring breeze and the early morning activities gave way to a mid morning walk along the beach and eventually lunch.

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The food at The Turtle Inn, and Blancaneaux before that, was delicious but the salads, made with fresh, garden grown vegetables, were especially good. Leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, mint, basil, and more, coming out of the ground not 25 yards from where we ate, were flavorful and filling. After lunch we headed back to the Starfish Cottage for a spirited game of bocce. Susan and Bob against Sarah and Keith, first team to 21 wins, best two out of three. The in-laws jumped out to a big lead but we battled back, first tying and then going ahead and on to win game one. game two was less competitive despite Bob and Susan trying to make a spirited comeback of their own. Sarah then decided we should “mix it up” so she partnered with her dad to take on Susan and me. This game to eleven. With the “pig” changing hands and finding hiding places in the sand, they piled up a few early points but then my mother in-law caught fire and brought us back to even at 10-10. Since you had to “win by two” I was imagining this game lasting for a while when Sarah nestled a ball up next to the “pig” and Bob expertly blocked our approach. I had one last chance to continue the game but failed miserably on my attempt and Sarah and Bob exchanged high fives (after setting their champagne glasses down, of course).

Post bocce seemed like the perfect time to get back on the resort provided bicycles and ride back into town to try the gelato which everyone said might be the best we’d ever have. I don’t have a lot of gelato experience but after enjoying a scoop of Stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shards) combined with a scoop of cinnamon I couldn’t image gelato any where in the world tasting any better. Sarah and Bob both had Cappuccino  while Susan showed an amazing amount of control and abstained. Satisfied, we rode back to The Turtle Inn and took a dip in the Triangle Pool (filled with warm, salt water) then hung out some more before it was time for dinner.

The next day was departure day and we left for the air strip expecting one last bumpy Belizean ride, this one in a DeHavillan Twin Otter DHC-6. The prop plane, with room for 22 (including our pilot and co-pilot) was clearly a veteran of this flight from Placencia to Belize City. We boarded first which meant we Sarah and I got a birds eye view of the cockpit. The pilot taxied to the end of the runway, turned around, revved the engines and let her loose. Once up in the air we levelled off at a cruising altitude of somewhere between 1440 and 1520 feet above the ground and settled in for a surprisingly smooth flight.

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Starting our decent into Belize City drove home the notion that our vacation was, indeed, at an end. It was a terrific trip. We’ll all remember Caracol and the caves (Barton Creek as well as Rio Frio), the jungle, the beach, the food and the drink. Most of all I think we’ll remember the smiling faces of the incredibly hospitable Belizean people. Johnny, Pedro, Gilberto, Viktor, Susilly (just call me Susie), Baromeo, Virgil, Umberto, Graciella, and the rest. We’ll remember the bumpy roads, the diverse landscape and the barrier reef. I’ll remember not dying in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

 

 

If any of this encouraged you to check out Belize for yourself may I suggest doing a little research online. You’ll need bug spray and suntan lotion; a good attitude and a sense of adventure; a full iTunes playlist and a good book or two. Might I also suggest shooting Rachel Hornaday at Central American Journeys an email Rachel@centralamericajourneys.com she did right by us and I’m sure she’ll do the same by you.

Until next time.

 

 

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Belize Day Four… Snorkeling And More

“You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat”

Martin Brody to Captain Quint in JAWS

 

Thursday was snorkel day for our group and I am not ashamed to admit I opened my eyes that morning with a knot of dread in my gut. We made our way to breakfast and enjoyed more great coffee, some fruit and a little bit of protein. We had no idea how many people would be joining us for our day trip out to the barrier reef for a few hours of snorkeling and lunch. We also had no idea how big a boat we would use to accomplish this. I swallowed a couple of Dramamine and we headed over to the Dive Shop to pick up fins and a mask. We were greeted by Zane and Nick, the pros that would be in charge of this aquatic adventure. I made quick work of trying my gear on knowing it would be the last time any of it touched my skin, other than when I carried the stuff on and off the boat (did I mention I’m not a water guy?).

This discomfort with all things H2O concerned is a mystery to me. I was born on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, lived near water (lakes, rivers, coastal areas) all my life. I also have vivid memories of childhood road trips, headed to all points North, West, East and South. My brothers and I piled into the car’s back seat for hours until dad decided it was okay to stop. Our only ask was that any overnight stop, be it a Ritz Carlton, Holiday Inn Holidome or rickety highway side motel, had to have a pool. Later in life my father spent at least part of every single day in the ocean during the more than three decades he and my mom lived on Maui. Maybe I’m right to blame it on Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg and that initial viewing of JAWS.

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We boarded the boat; a vessel stretching all of 25 feet in length, powered by twin Yamaha 150 engines. Our hosts, Zane and Nick welcomed us and then informed the group that it would be a 45 minute trip to the island around which the snorkel tour would commence. We were joined by our friends from Toronto (who had also made the trip from Blancaneaux to the beach), a trio of southerners from South Carolina, and a pair of European gentleman. Of course somebody made the obligatory “Gilligan’s Island 3 hour tour reference”. It wasn’t me and I did not laugh.

 It was yet another bumpy Belizean ride. But these jolts were different from the rough mountain excursions we experienced. Those were consistent to virtually every traveler, the ones that came before us and the ones that followed. We all hit the same holes, rode over the same humps. By contrast, these varying hues of blue bounces were uniquely ours. Caused not by dirt, rocks, and rubber but instead by nothing more than trillions of gallons of salt water and the Belizean breeze.

 So off we went, with Zane at the helm, first through the mangrove lagoon and then out to the open water. We passed several islands and atolls along the way, me hopeful each was our ultimate destination. Without fail, none were. What was normally my very reliable internal clock seemed to be on the fritz so I couldn’t, with any sense of satisfaction, know how long 45 minutes was. In fact, as we passed yet another body of land that I figured must be perfectly suitable for underwater wildlife viewing, I started to think we were just going straight out into the Caribbean Sea until we ran out of fuel. I surmised that Nick and Zane, like Virgil a few days before, were direct descendants of the ancient Mayans and maybe human sacrifice was still in play for them.  A third member of their crew, introduced only as “chef” (later I found out his name was Santiago) was there not to cook for us but instead to cook us for them. I must have appeared mortified because Sarah patted my hand and asked how I was doing, snapping me out of my hydrophobic reverie. I smiled and said, “fine.”

Moments (or was it hours or days) later Zane pointed the boat on a direct course for what appeared to be a speck with palm trees. It got only marginally bigger as we slowed, dropped anchor, and then he backed the boat onto a mound of sand no more than 200 feet long and 80 feet wide. We had arrived.

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Nick took half the group in one direction around the “island” while Zane shepherded the other (including the people I love) in the opposite direction. I remained a landlubber and wrote this. They emerged from the water about 45 minutes later with tales of spiny lobster, blue tang, eel, jelly fish, barracuda and squid sightings. I happily reported that I saw several species of the pervasive North American Snorkeler.

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It turned out that “Chef Santiago” was actually there to prepare lunch for us and he did a masterful job. Bar-b-que chicken, rice, beans and salad filled our bellies as we soaked up the sun. This tiny piece of land in the middle of a body of water that bordered the Caribbean served as the host site for several other groups of tourists. All enjoying the adventure. As we finished up our lunch Zane advised our group that we would next get back on the boat (named Something’s Fishy) and head deeper into the barrier reef toward the sea for 30 to 45 minutes more of snorkeling, this time with the hope of seeing turtles, remoras and nurse sharks. We were definitely going to need a bigger boat!

Most of the group did just that and did see remoras, turtles, grouper and conch. There were no sharks in sight, nurse or other version of elongated Elasmobranchii. Nick informed those of us remaining in Something’s Fishy that the annual visit by hundreds of whale sharks wouldn’t happen until March. So if you want to swim with the Rhincodon typus (ranging in size from 30 to 60 feet by the way) head to Belize any time between the first of March and the end of May.

The trip back seemed quicker and less intense. Mostly because trips back almost always do, but partly because I had left the lion’s share of my fear, anxiety and dread of the unknown back at Silt Caye with the chicken bones from our lunch. I am fairly certain that if I ever have the extreme misfortune of being shipwrecked or on an airliner that goes down at sea I will immediately volunteer as the first to be killed and eaten. I have zero interest in finding out what other fate might await me.

Back at The Turtle Inn we decided to hop on the bikes and head into Placencia to try out the acclaimed gelato about which we had heard so much. So in we rode. Sadly this day happened to be the only day of the week the gelato shop was closed (we did go back the next day and it was delicious!) so we explored a little, found a coffee shop that served excellent Guatemalan espresso, and picked up some bars of Belizean chocolate at one of the many Chinese owned and run supermarkets.

We (mostly me) were thrilled to find that the gelato stand at the Turtle Inn was open for business when we returned so that craving was pacified for at least a day. The Starfish Cottage welcomed us back and we enjoyed what remained of the afternoon and then the evening dining at Auntie Luba’s, the restaurant at the resort that specializes in Belizean Creole cuisine. It was another wonderful day in an amazing place and the best news of all was that we still had another full day ahead of us.

 

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From The Jungle To The Beach… Belize, Day Three

We were scheduled to leave Blancaneaux on Tuesday, Valentines Day, and did just that after breakfast, a short walk and an hour or so by the pool. Honestly it was, like the delicious Belizean chocolate, a little bitter sweet because I think we had all grown fond of Johnny, Pedro, Gilbert, Cesar and the rest of the extremely friendly resort staff. At least I had. We bid adieu to our expert guide, Gilberto the previous afternoon and we were now greeted by another smiling gentleman who would take us the Copolla’s sister resort, The Turtle Inn, 3 hours away in the seaside city of Placencia. He mentioned his given name (which we couldn’t pronounce) then, with the quickness of someone having been through the exercise more than once, told us to call him Virgil, so we did.

 

Within the trip’s first 15 minutes we learned Virgil was a farmer by trade, making a few extra bucks, working freelance in the tourism industry between crop rotations. We also found out that our driver was a direct descendant of the Mayan natives that occupied much of what is now Belize for thousands of years. He was quite proud of his heritage and told us so on more than a few occasions. During one genealogy lesson Virgil explained that his grandparents still made offerings to the Mayan gods before certain meals or ahead of planting corn or tomatoes. “But,” he assured us “human sacrifices” were no longer part of the routine. “It’s against the law now,” he said with a straight face. Reassured by, and comforted in, that knowledge the four of us settled in for our three hour tour.

 

Belize has a diverse topography. At times it looked like Florida, other times Colorado and occasionally I was reminded of the Northern Nevada of my youth . The closer we got to Placencia the more I saw the southeastern United States out my window and my wife agreed saying, “this could be anywhere.” Soon enough we saw the water. Lagoon and mangroves on one side, the interior main channel  that led to the barrier reef ,that led to the Caribbean Sea out the other. After the ride, this one almost exclusively over paved roads, we arrived at The Turtle Inn and were greeted by, Martin, the General Manager and more smiling faces. The Turtle Inn’s casitas looked a lot like the structures at Blancaneaux but the location couldn’t have been more different. Sand, sun and palm trees replaced jungle, rocks, pine trees and a rushing river. We were reminded of our snorkeling excursion (set for the next day) and told which restaurants and bars were open and which amenities (kayaks, paddleboards, games, bikes) were at our disposal. The town of Placencia was less that 15 minutes, by bicycle, away; twice as long if we walked and, of course, a shuttle was always available. In town, they said, we would find bars, restaurants and the best gelato in Central America. Then we were shown to our accommodations.

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Starfish Cottage was both quaint and captivating, despite being more ready than not for a modest updating. The personal pool with four lounge chairs, as well as two separate, set for four, dining areas at which to enjoy an Oceanside meal or beverage more than made up for a well worn shower knob or a not quite cold enough fridge.


 There are many types of people in this world and I know intimately of two; those who love the beach and those that do not. I know this because I am of one kind and my wife’s parents, the wonderful Bob and Susan Green, are of the other. In case you’re wondering, my amazing wife is somewhere in the spectrum in between.

 

There are now two periods of time when I get caught up on my fiction reading. The first, and favorite, is on an airplane, while it is flying from one destination to the next. The other time I sink my teeth into a book is when my wife and in laws are sinking their toes into a lake, sea, ocean or pool. I know how to swim (kind of) I just don’t. I also don’t bathe, I shower. There are things in the water with sharper teeth, quicker reflexes and better instincts than me. I saw Jaws when I was on the verge of exiting teenhood and the memory of that film is as vivid as ever. It’s all I can do to get in the water in the first place and I prefer to be out before I get all the way wet. So while they take a dip, I dive into the next thing on my reading list.

 

On this trip that happened to be Michael Chabon’s newest, Moonglow. I had given it to myself as a Christmas gift and had only managed a few chapters thanks to two short flights. The flame of the story burned slowly for me at first but I was hopeful the fire that ignited inside so many of the tomes written by my favorite authors would combust along the way. It didn’t. A third of the way in I just wanted it to be over so I set my cruise control on “powering through” and that’s what I did. I detest not finishing a book once I start it ( I feel the author deserves that much at least ) and sometimes I end up pleasantly surprised when a book turns a corner. Even though Moonglow was well written and there were sections of chapters and complete chapters that I enjoyed the book, as a whole never made the turn. I loved Wonder Boys, Summerland, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Gentlemen of the Road. Not that Chabon cares but I hope his next book will captivate me like those did.

That was a digression, I know but the fact is the rest of the day was spent enjoying the sun. Then we had a drink (mine was a delicious concoction called a Rum Pegu) and a delicious dinner. I enjoyed it like it might be my last because part of my mind thought it might be. You see the next day we were jumping in a boat and heading straight out to sea, to the barrier reef.

And that, my friends, is tomorrow’s tale.

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Our Belizean Adventure… Day Two

After our terrific and educational trip to the ancient Mayan city of Caracol, a refreshing adult beverage and an amusing, delicious dinner overlooking the bountiful Blancaneaux garden, we got a good night’s sleep in anticipation of another fascinating day in Belize.

Our destination, on day two, was Barton Creek Cave and our guide, once again, was the incomparable Andres Gilberto Lucero. Sarah (my wife) along with Susan and Bob (my in-laws) were very much looking forward to this trip. Because it involved a number of things that give me the heebie-jeebies (water, darkness, tales of human sacrifice and bats!) I was not. But heck, it’s vacation and thousands of people have preceded me into the mouth of the single passage, resurging stream cave and came out to tell the tale so how bad could it be? That’s a rhetorical question by the way. We greeted “Hill” and were escorted into a another, different, slightly older, Toyota Land Cruiser.

We went a different direction than the day before but we travelled over an equally bumpy, narrow, dirt road. The previous day our tour guide pointed out bushes and trees that produced all spice, lemon grass and other assorted natural wonders. On this trip “Hill” was quick to point out different flowers, fruits and fauna. The most interesting section of the trip to the cave was when we navigated our way through a Mennonite village and marveled at the size and scope of the livestock and crops. Gilberto informed us that these people, farming this land, fed a huge percentage of the population of Belize. We bounced and bucked toward our ultimately destination and finally arrived.

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We would be dispatched in two separate kayaks, Bob, Susan and Gilberto in one; Sarah and me in the other. Sarah wanted to paddle and that was A-Okay with me. The only problem is that meant I was going to be sitting at the front of the kayak with no physical means with which to defend myself. We donned both helmets and life jackets, boarded our tiny vessels and headed into the belly of the beast.

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The first thing you (I) notice is how dark it is inside. You don’t go far before the natural light emanating from the entrance to the one-way cave disappears. “Hill” has equipped us with powerful flashlights and I switch mine on immediately. Now I am moderately reminded of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, except there is no gift shop or cotton candy waiting at the other end of this boat ride. The beams of flashlights held by Gilberto, Susan and Bob light up parts of the cavern revealing massive stalactites and ever-growing, constantly evolving stalagmites. The drip, drip, drip of the water seeping through the porous rocky walls is a constant, slightly creepy, reminder of the ever-changing landscape inside the cave. And then there is the naturally amplified sound of the fluttering of bat wings followed by the flash of a flying mammals.

“Don’t worry,” Gilberto says surely sensing my dread, “only a few of them are vampire bats.” Then, of course, he chuckles. I sit, in the front of the kayak, statue still except for my right hand that carefully, moves the beam from the flashlight over the walls and ceiling of the cave. “Hill” points out carefully placed pieces of pottery found inside the cave by archaeologists searching for clues, trying to learn about the lives of the Mayans who once treated this place as a sacred site. In addition to the pieces of clay Gilberto was also more than happy to show is skulls and bones because, as was tradition, human sacrifices were performed inside. As we travelled deeper and deeper into the cave my heart race rose and my desire to be heading the other way heightened. At one point we all had to duck under the stalactites in order to keep going and then, finally, we reached a wall of rock that was impassable unless we abandoned the kayaks and swam. Time to turn around, I thought. :”Time to turn around,” said “Hill”.

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On the way back toward the entrance we passed a number of groups, in kayaks of their own, heading deeper and deeper into the cave. They looked like they were having fun, I wondered what they thought I looked like. Then Bob decided it would be cool to turn off all of our flashlights to find out “just how dark it really is”. Off went the beams, mine last, and off they stayed for exactly one second. Mine came back on first. A successful exit was followed by a bumpy car ride back to Blancaneaux, our heads filled with memories and impressions of our time inside the earth.

We had lunch and then Sarah, Bob and I decided to hike to Big Rock Falls, about an hour walk from Blancaneaux. Susan decided the “hot pool” sounded better so she stayed behind. A basket, by the door of our casita, was filled with umbrellas and walking sticks and, as a lark, I grabbed a staff for each of us on the way out. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. The resort staff informed us that the trail to Big Rock Falls was “flat”. In hindsight they may have been right if there is some pack mule in your ancestry.com biography. Either that or “flat” is actually Belizean Creole for “sucker” and they all enjoyed a good laugh at our expense. In their defense the trail did start out flat and stayed that way for about a minute.

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Along the way the terrain turned rocky and muddy and the walking sticks came in more than handy. Small bridges, fashioned from wood, logs and stones did their best to keep out feet free of water and mud save for one puddle that caught me by surprise. The hike was beautiful, at points hugging the, very western United States looking, Privassion River and at other points winding its way up through pine trees and scrub brush, and demanding. We reached the halfway mark and started to descend back toward the water.

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That descent involved a series of small, steep, unevenly placed wooden steps that made that part of the hike an extra adventure. The three of us finally reached the end of the trail, decided we’d opt for taking the road route back to the resort, and spent several peaceful moments enjoying the 150 foot waterfall.

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The road back, while quite a bit more boring, was much easier to navigate. We met up with Susan who informed us she very much enjoyed her pool time and we got ready for cocktails and then dinner during our final night at Blancaneaux. After dinner I enjoyed two fingers of a very good Belizean rum and we retrieved the game Clue from a bookshelf in the main lobby. Upon opening the box we discovered a few of the cards (Miss Scarlett, The Library, The Candlestick among them) were missing so we attempted to play the game without them. It was mostly a success. Susan ended up “winning” even though I forgot to mention that The Theatre was also one of the cards we did not have. If there was one suggestion I might make to the fine folks at Blancaneaux to make the experience there even more enjoyable it would be to invest in a few more games, just in case.

We would spend one last night in the comfort of our casita and packed, getting ready for the next day of our Belizean adventure… a trip to The Turtle Inn and the beach. And that’s a tale for another day.

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Have You Been To Belize? Come Along With Me

 

“Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce”

                                                                                                                               Ignition  R. Kelly

 

 

My wife, Sarah, and I have now lived in New Jersey for just more than five years and in that time we’ve learned that the best time for a “getaway” is the first or second week in February. It cold be the cold, the rain or snow, the grey skies, or just the fact that from April through September her schedule is rather jam-packed with commitments. Regardless of the reason we generally look at the spot on the calendar right after Punxatawny Phil has seen, or not seen his shadow, to seek a warm place. This time there were conditions; a direct flight (no more than a handful of hours in duration), to a place we’ve never been before. We chose the Central American nation of Belize.

Thanks to a little research and American Express we were introduced to an expert in travel to that country who set us up for a trip that would include visits to resorts located in both the jungle and at the beach. Our vacation would start in the mountainous region of western Belize at the Blancaneaux Resort then, after 3 days, we’d traverse the country on the way to the beachside city of Placencia and the Turtle Inn Resort which would become home base. Both places are owned by Hollywood icon Francis Ford Coppolla. We were joined on this adventure by my wife’s parents, Bob and Susan Green. Delightful people and our more than occasional travel companions. After a surprisingly busy Saturday morning check-in and security screening process at EWR we boarded the plane and were on our way.

We passed through customs, collected our bags and headed into the warm early afternoon air and  were greeted by a friendly Belizean named Noely. She would be behind the wheel of the van that would take us the three and a half hours to Blancaneaux. Riding along on one of the nation’s  few main highways we saw trees, livestock, buildings and people; all in various stages of vigor. What I didn’t see was a speed limit sign. We passed cars and trucks and in turn were passed by cars and trucks. When we approached or arrived at populated places our speed was regulated by bumps that spanned the entire width of the road. There were a lot of them. The literature we read before travelling mentioned that part of the trip from the airport to the resort would be over non-paved roads and about two hours into the ride we made that transition. The speed bumps that were placed by construction workers, on the main road, purposely gave way to speed bumps and holes that were randomly applied by mother nature. I’ll just say it was a good thing Noely had stopped a little earlier to let us all visit the restroom. As we crawled along, kicked up dust, and swerved to and fro I felt for Noely. It was impossible to avoid the rocks, potholes and bumps. We didn’t avoid very many. I couldn’t help but think of the Betty Davis quote from All About Eve, “Fasten your seat belts it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” (upon googling the line I found, like many, I had gotten it wrong. The actual quote is “…It’s going to be a bumpy night.” For us “ride” was much more apropos). Finally we arrived at the resort in plenty of time to freshen up, have a quick look around and then enjoy a cocktail before dinner.

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One of the first things we noticed was how friendly everyone at Blancaneaux was. Each person, at various times, greeted us with a smile, introduced themselves, and then asked us our names. While we couldn’t remember theirs, they never failed to recall ours. Gilbert was our initial bartender, Johnny took care of us at dinner and, all along,  we were Mr. Bob. Miss Susan, Miss Sarah and Mr. Keith to them. We enjoyed a delicious meal of salad (courtesy of the resort’s incredible garden), fish wrapped in banana leaf, plantains, vegetables and potatoes. Our vacation would begin in earnest the next day with a trip to the Ancient Mayan city of Caracol so we retired early and got a good night’s sleep. It was surprisingly chilly at night and Sarah found the old-fashioned, rubber, hot water bottle a welcomed addition to our bed covers.

We awoke early and headed up to the main lodge for a cup of coffee (delicious, strong, black, strong, French press, Guatemalan strong) coffee. It was good and did I mention it was strong? After breakfast we met our guide for the day in the resort’s main lobby and headed out for our first Belizean adventure. Our guide, Andres Gilberto Lucero (“they call me Hill“) greeted us and led us to the SUV. He turned out to be engaging, entertaining and informative making unscheduled stops along the way to point out a toucan or white hawk perched high up on a nearby tree branch, or a crocodile sunning itself on a rock in the middle of the Mecal river. Between the bumps and dips I couldn’t help but think of the dozens of Disney rides that had been a part of in both my, and my children’s, youth. It was a real-life “Jungle Cruise” and it was very cool. Other times the stops, mostly in the middle of the road, were so “Hill” could get out and pluck a flower from a bush or a leaf from a tree. Upon returning to the car he would crack or rub the flora and pass it around for us to feel or smell. Aromas of mint, or garlic, or lemon invaded our nostrils and gave us, me at least, a renewed appreciation for the jungle.

“This tree is known as a poison tree,” Gilberto would say pointing. “And that red one,” his gaze and gnarled figure shifting to another tree a few feet away, “is the antidote.” As we headed for our first stop, Rio Frio Cave, he stopped the SUV in the middle of the road one last time and uttered one, two-syllable word, “tapir”.  While we didn’t see the actual animal ( even though”Hill” knew it hadn’t been long since it wandered through) we did get a good look at what it had managed to pass through its digestive system and leave on the road. It was safe to say both the tapir and what it left behind were healthy specimens. We continued a short distance further and parked, along with a couple of other tour vehicles, at the entrance to the Rio Frio Cave. It was an impressive walk-in cavern. According to Gilberto it was a sacred place for the ancient Mayans and it was easy to see why. A slowly moving creek passed through rock formations, many of which, were two or three times taller than any of the humans inside taking pictures with a camera, mobile phone, or simply a mind’s eye. It was a fascinating place and a great start to the day.

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The next stop was Caracol and we were eager to see it. Traveling from Blancaneaux to Caracol or to Barton Creek Cave (the next day’s stop) you’ll ride in some form or fashion of a resort provided Toyota Land Cruiser going between 4 and 40 kilometers an hour; sometimes along the same 200 yard stretch of dirt, rocks, mud and very, very rarely pavement. It’s an unconscious ab workout, good for a bit of a laugh, certainly a memory AND if you’re susceptible to motion sickness, or have a headache or kidney stone, it’s a nightmare.

Belize is apparently home to a huge population of jaguars but sadly while we did see our share of wildlife we never got a glimpse of the jungle cat. We did however get to experience the unique sound of a howler monkey during our walking tour of Caracol. That, along with the ruins was well worth the price of admission. Caracol means “snail” and it is an archeological wonder. Consisting of 267 structures (at various stages of being unearthed) it was once home to more than 100,000 ancient Mayans. An information center on the grounds informed us that the approximately 200 square kilometer “city” was occupied as early as 1200 B.C. and lasted more than 2,000 years before, this time according to “Hill”, natural forces, mostly drought, drove the Mayans out. Now it is occupied by tourists, archeological students and soldiers (you can see Guatemala from several places).

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Caana is the largest structure on site (more than 100 stone steps to the very top) and is an impressive reminder of how advanced the Mayans of thousands of years ago were. We heard the howler monkey on the way to Caana, and could still hear it, hundreds of kilometers away, when we got there. To call it a “howler” monkey does not do this creature justice. It growls. When Bob, Susan, Sarah and I first heard it we all swore it was some kind of cat or other four-legged animal pissed off and loaded for bear. And by the way coming through the jungle for us. Instead of taking off running in a panic we all noticed “Gilberto” leaning in and actually walking toward the noise. He wasn’t worried so could we be? A little. Maybe, I calculated, this creature had long-lost it’s taste for Belizean “food” and could smell an international meal from a mile away. But “Hill” assured us the monkey was not a threat, even though it sure sounded like one. So on we went to continue exploring Caracol, monkey howling (growling) in the distance, with me occasionally looking over my shoulder.

After a picnic lunch, provided by Blancaneaux, we headed back, bouncing all the way, with our heads full of Mayans, monkeys and more. Our dinner that night was a special treat, offered only occasionally, by the resort. Blancaneaux is home to an incredible garden which provides almost all of the fruits and vegetables you enjoy in meals while on the property. We also found out they send some of the delights to the sister resort, The Turtle Inn, at the beach. Our dinner would be “family style” experienced by two other groups of guests (a couple from London and a family of four from Toronto). After a tour of the garden, two mojitos (one lemongrass and one all spice) we feasted, told stories, laughed and listened. Upon our return trip home we all agreed the garden dinner, enjoyed on our second night in Belize, was the highlight of the vacation.

It was nice to have a fond memory when my head hit the pillow because the next morning’s itinerary had my undies in a bunch. We were going to climb in a kayak and, on purpose, paddle along a stream, into the mouth of Barton Creek Cave. Filled with stalactites, stalagmites, Mayan sacrificial bones, artifacts, and BATS.

“Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my”. But that’s a tale for another day… how about tomorrow?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TV Sports Graphics “Unforced Errors”

“A good decision is based on knowledge and not numbers.”

Plato

 

As 2016 turned into 2017 I secretly hoped the folks that head up the graphics departments at various television networks would have finally come to their senses. Oh well. I have said, here and on street corners, production offices and telephones at every opportunity, that the “unforced error” graphic label during tennis coverage is the silliest and least accurate description during tennis coverage. “Unforced” according to whom? Is the guy making the count on his/her fingers and toes actually facing a serve from John Isner or a return off the racket of Serena Williams? Unforced my foot. As I will say until the day I can no longer say it, the only unforced error in tennis is a double fault.

But there it was, all over my TV for the past two weeks as the best players in the world of tennis played the Australian Open in Melbourne. I woke up early this morning and caught the end of the wonderful final between Federer and Nadal. Coverage that was pretty darn good until the graphics guy ruined my enjoyment, and my morning, by shoving an “unforced error” lower third down my gullet. The fix to this is so simple… Just take the word “unforced” off the graphic. Can’t it just be an error? Or get rid of the silly graphic altogether. I, for one, won’t miss it a bit.

 

But as annoying at the “unforced error” nomenclature is I may have found a new “worst sports TV graphic ever” on which to obsess. It came courtesy of CBS and their golf production team during Saturday’s coverage of the Farmers Insurance Open. There I was, on my couch, having flipped over from the Duke vs Wake Forest hoops game. There, as well, was Brandt Snedeker about to strike a birdie putt on the 10th green. And there it was, a graphic slapped into the upper right hand corner of the screen that showed me the putt was some 35′ from the hole. That, thanks to technology including lasers, was undisputable. What was pure fiction was the words and numbers that accompanied the unmistakable fact… “make pct. 8%”. WHAT?! Or as the millennials would say, WTF? In an effort to tell us more they actually end up telling us nothing. Or even worse, telling us something that can’t be true.

Disregard the fact that the graphic was an outright lie, it didn’t even offer the viewer the ability to know if that was Mr. Snedeker’s “make pct.” or if it was referring to the entire PGA TOUR (for what it’s worth both are provided to the network by the TOUR’s Shotlink system). The fact is that whether it was Brandt’s or a compilation of all his brethren it’s just NOT true. It makes the straight out of the gate assumption that every 35′ putt on the PGA TOUR is exactly the same. The real, true, fact is that every 35′ putt on the PGA TOUR is unique. The actual make percentage before Snedeker made is stroke is ZERO % because he had never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, (should I keep going? I can) ever, EVER struck that putt before and, by the way, he’ll never, ever strike that putt again. He hit his just after 3 PM, seconds later that same putt is different. The grass has grown, the air is different and chances are pretty darn good the moisture in the green is no longer the same. All of that affects the putt.

I’m nitpicking, you say. You’re damn right I am because statistics are supposed to help tell a story, illustrate and add to the narrative. Not make up an entirely different tale. You can use a “make pct.” graphic for a free throw shooter during a basketball game. Every free throw line is exactly the same distance from the hoop, every rim the exact same difference from the floor. Sure the crowd, the situation and the player make a difference but the baseline is standard, the same. So I would favor two free throw percentages for each player, one for how he does at home, the other on the road. The is the complete opposite in golf. There is NO more useless and misleading graphic in ALL of sports television than this one. The “make pct.” before the putt, on EVERY putt, for EVERY player is ZERO. If it goes in the “make pct.” is 1,000 % and if it doesn’t, it’s still zero.

 

I offer this plea to all golf graphics people everywhere. Stop the madness! Quit perpetrating this “fake news”. There are thousands of graphics shoved down out throats every telecast so just leave this one out.

 

 

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On Reading, Writing, and Watching

I am a writer. I am a reader. I am a movie watcher. Sometimes none of those things align. Occasionally two of those things are connected. If I’m lucky, one day all three will come together.

 

In 1928 the very first Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscar) award was given for Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It went to a film titled, Seventh Heaven which was based on the play of the same name written by Austin Strong. Each year since, the award has gone to a movie based on a novel, play, short story, TV show, or even another film (sequels are automatically considered adapted screenplays). Some of the most acclaimed books of all time became Academy Award winners in this category. Library classics including To Kill A Mockingbird, Doctor Zhivago, M*A*S*H, The Godfather, All The President’s Men, Schindler’s List, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and No Country for Old Men all were turned into memorable movies that in turn were recognized by the academy. The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Schindler’s List, and No Country for Old Men also took home Best Picture honors the year they won for Writing (Adapted Screenplay). In case you’re curious Mockingbird lost to Lawrence of Arabia; Zhviago was beaten by The Sound of Music; M*A*S*H saw a different kind of war movie, Patton, take the Oscar and Men was knocked out by Rocky.

In addition to those listed above, more than a dozen other tomes, that will forever reside on my all-time favorite books list, were nominated for that most prestigious honor. Serpico, Heaven Can Wait, Field of Dreams (the Roy Kinsella Book was Shoeless Joe), About A Boy, Out of Sight, Moneyball, and Mystic River were all recognized but failed to earn the statuette. Hundreds more, that at one time or another took up space on my bookshelves, have been made into movies. Some of my favorite reads did double duty making the list of my favorite films. William Goldman’s, The Princess Bride was both a magnificent read AND a marvelous movie. I believe the same thing is true for H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s, Friday Night Lights. I liked The Bourne Identity (both the book and the movie) and felt the same about The Drop (a Dennis Lehane short story that was turned into a fantastic movie starring Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini).

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Like many people who read, I have walked out of a movie theatre having seen a film adapted from a book I liked saying, “the book was so much better”. So there is a longer list that reveals books I enjoyed immensely that were turned into movies that I felt fell short of the mark. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust; Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife; and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha stand out. I enjoyed The Lincoln Lawyer movie but would prefer to open up any of the highly entertaining works by the man who wrote the book, Michael Connelly.

Then there is my unenviable group of great books that were turned into movies that were mostly unwatchable. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is at the very top of this list. I’d throw The Golden Compass and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil into this group as well. One final collection for this piece’s purposes is the handful of books that I was excited about reading, then ended up struggling through and after being disappointed by the story, was adamant that I had no interest in seeing the movie. This list includes, and may even be headed by, Paula Hawkins and her, in my opinion, extremely overrated Girl on the Train.

Having gotten this far, you may be wondering… As sparingly entertaining and mildly informative as this post has been, what exactly does it have to do with anything?  Allow me to proffer. As one who reads, writes books and this blog, and watches movies, I appreciate the process. A writer pens what somebody, or a whole lot of somebody’s, feel is a great story. That story can exist on the page as well as the screen. In many cases the transformation works, occasionally it works to perfection but, for me, the whole “book becoming a movie” thing usually comes up in varying degrees of “short” because there’s too much subjectivity in the mix.

The writer has the initial idea, the burst of creativity. He or she owns the story and then hands it over to the reader. That person, through imagination, puts his/her subjective spin to the words on the page during the process of reading. The “movie” the writer sees between the front and back cover isn’t the same “movie” that the reader sees. It just can’t be. In some of the novels from the aforementioned Michael Connelly he envisions the main character, Harry Bosch, one way. His way isn’t my way and I can’t imagine Titus Welliver (the talented actor who plays Bosch in the TV series) is either of our ways. But sometimes it works. For instance, the casting in No Country for Old Men was exceptional and I had no problem becoming completely absorbed by the film even after I was completely involved in the book. My guess is Cormac McCarthy was okay with it too. I had a similar reaction to the movie version of Chuck Hogan’s book, Prince of Thieves. I read it after I saw Ben Affleck’s movie The Town which was based on Hogan’s work and even though I approached the two mediums in a different order than I usually do (in this case I saw the movie first), both worked equally well for me. It is for this reason that I will look forward to watching Live by Night at a movie theatre near me. I am a Dennis Lehane fan, look forward to reading everything he writes because so far, I have not been disappointed. I know the reviews for this particular adaptation have been mixed (okay mostly bad) but I have a vision of what I think the movie should be and I’m curious if it’s close to the same vision its director Ben Affleck had.

Which brings me around to…me. I have now written two books. The first, a memoir, Cover Me Boys, I’m Going In (Tales of the Tube from a Broadcast Brat) hasn’t been, and never should be made into a movie. But I feel my second effort, a mystery titled Big Flies, could be. It’s got all the elements; true crime, a son discovering things about his father and himself, and a love story too! When I was writing it, I was also watching it in my head. Seeing the words on the page as scenes in my mind. I don’t know if all, or any other, authors do this too, but I did and what I saw I thought was pretty entertaining. I didn’t visualize Ben Affleck or Matt Damon, Tom Hardy or Tommy Lee Jones, Marissa Tomei or Kate Beckinsale while I was writing my characters but now I could see movie audiences watching them, or other talented actors like them, on the big screen, in the roles I created.  I’m not saying Big Flies could be No Country for Old Men but, in the right hands, I submit it certainly would be worth watching.

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The Academy Awards is almost upon us again and a new crop of books, plays, short stories, TV shows or sequels could be plucked out of the hundreds of movies released in 2016 and achieve the honor of being nominated for Writing (Adapted Screenplay). Since writing Big Flies one of my aspirations is that it, the book I wrote, would make it to the big screen and thus be eligible for consideration someday too. Big dream, I know but if you don’t dream big why dream at all. Buy the book. See if it’s a movie in your mind. Maybe one day we’ll be watching it in a theater together.

 

Learn more about me and my books at http://www.keithhirshland.com

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