A deep, guttural scream echoes through the canopy. The branch of a mahogany tree cracks 30 feet above me. Peering through the humid air, I spy a fuzzy black face peering back at me from behind the trunk, its curious eyes taking in our group. I wonder for a moment if this adorable face could really be the source of the Jurassic-like yell I had just heard. But when its small dark lips circle into a cavernous chamber, emitting the same threatening howl, my hunch is confirmed. The black howler monkey, endemic to Belize but now reduced to 40% of its original habitat here, is the roaring “t-rex”, as someone in my group had described its call.
Before I continue to elaborate on the local wildlife that I have seen and learned about thus far, let me give you a brief overview of my three weeks here in Belize. My little group of fellow biology students, along with two professors, will be staying at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, then Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve from which we’ll travel to the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. Finally, we have 11 nights in Tobacco Caye, which is the location where we will be doing our research. There I hope to research ocean acidification by looking at coral structures, but I will know more about what I will be able to study given the instruments and data bases once I’m on location. Most of the students on the trip are biology or environmental science majors who are interested in ecology, evolution, and the changing dynamics of today’s ecosystems.
I continue to be impressed by the vast knowledge of the scientists and local guides that we have had the pleasure of meeting on our trip. The co-founder of Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Matt, gave us a tour on our first full day in Belize. We trekked through the Belizean savanna all the way to the riparian forest, or the area surrounding a river. Our hike ended with a refreshing swim in the Sibun (pronounced Sih-boon) River. Along the way, he noted myriads of medicinal and poisonous plants. I saw St. John’s wort, a yellow flower on a tall stem of starburst leaves, which can help ease the symptoms of depression. I also noted the black poisonwood tree, which is a highly poisonous specimen whose antidote happens to live in the same area – the gumbo limbo tree. We became acquainted with these exotic tropical plants as we hiked on a muddy path (there had been a flood which had previously inundated much of the area just ten days ago), with Matt leading the way as he dispensed information every few footsteps about each kind of plant and bird and crawling creature we encountered. I never would have guessed that so many medicinal plants could live in such close proximity to one another. Nature is the Belizean’s medicine cabinet!
I must pause in my musings to mention the food here at Monkey Bay! I have never before tasted plantains, but now I am addicted. I could never have too many plantains – especially the fried variety. Rice and beans is also a common food here in Belize. Beans and rice, which is a different dish, is also popular. Same thing, you say? Actually, as one of our guides named Robert informed us, beans and rice is simply rice with beans poured on top. Rice and beans, on the other hand, is a dish where beans and rice are mixed together along with coconut oil and different spices. Either way, I’m getting used to eating rice with beans (and beans and rice!) for two to three meals a day, along with periodic treats such as okra, many types of juices, coconut, oranges (which are green on the outside since no ethylene was added to make it orange), and more. Most of the food I’ve had here, including the spicy yet delicious Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, is produced locally. Overall, the food here is outstanding, and very easy to navigate as a vegan.
After our service project on the morning of our second full day, we departed for the immense Tiger Cave. This cave was formed from the carving of limestone by ancient seas over the course of millions of years. After a short service project at Monkey Bay, we piled onto the bus for a bumpy ride past savannas full of spiny palmettos, then past perfectly manicured orange orchards brimming with ready-to-harvest green fruits. This trail through broadleaf and riparian forests would later render me covered from head to toe in mosquito and black fly bites. The jungle is definitely not for those with a strong dislike of insects. Our guide, Chester, showed us the jackass bitter plant along the trail, which, once ground up between the thumb and forefinger and rubbed on the skin, can act as an efficient bug spray. After hiking through dense forest and sidling on a ledge past the river below with Chester bush-wacking the overgrown trail with his machete, we made it to the entrance of the cave. The Tiger Cave, named for the jaguars in the area of whom some locals call tigers, gleams an eerie white and lime green until it fades into a deep black within its core. Onward we pressed, our headlamps lighting our precarious path. The limestone walls twisted fluidly on either side of us. The cave represents an entire ecosystem of life, from crickets who appeared to have taken a wrong leap, to tiny fruit bats clinging to dripping ceilings. We also spied a veritably large vampire bat, 50 feet above us. At the end of the cave, we were invited to climb into the upper reaches of the cave. I climbed through tight spaces that were four to five feet wide, inching past whip scorpions 3 inches from my face, and at the end was surprised to find 3,000 year old Mayan pottery. Our guide proudly held up a fully intact bowl, telling us about how the Mayans had had no wheels despite the perfect symmetry of their art. Some students touched the pottery. I was surprised at this – back in the U.S. this pottery would be in a museum in a sealed glass case. It seemed right, though, that the pots remain in the place the Mayans had left them – the place where they used to take their incense and bowls and gifts and offer their prayers to their gods. What right have we to take that away, to transport their art miles away from its source to a glass box for people to gawk at? I do however wish that people wouldn’t touch this fragile pottery. Imagine being the individual to break a rare piece of 3,000 year old Mayan art! But perhaps if the art wasn’t taken to museums, others would either steal or break the pots. Anyways, I was glad when we finally breathed fresh air after our daring caving experience!
In my next post, I’ll expand on the culture and people who live here in Belize, followed by some of my other exciting adventures not yet mentioned. It’ll be a few days for this post to arrive since I’ll be in a remote part of the Chiquibul jungle without my devices for a couple of days.