9 Aug 2015

I haul several bags of rocks for Chris’ construction project. A few trips up the steep hill are enough to drench me in sweat. After lunch I take a machete and head across the river to clear the hillslope trail to the main trail. The work begins without a problem, but I hear a buzzing upon clearing some palm fronds from the main trail and feel a prick on my left elbow. Putting two and two together, I run back down the trail away from the sound. The bees here are Africanized, so they pursue me for several hundred feet before I dive into the river to escape them. Fortunately, I only felt the one sting before I made my escape. I decide that I best let the bees settle down, so I return to the cabins. It is pizza night, so Chris fires up the wood burning stove and bakes up 5 pizzas. I have been waiting for this for the entire week and am quite ready given the work that I did today.

I have deeply enjoyed my stay here and wouldn’t mind staying for much longer. Chris’ work has reinvigorated my appreciation for agroforestry systems in conservation planning, as I was somewhat uncertain given the synonymy of different agroforestry systems. Obviously palm oil plantations, which can be considered agroforests, are not the same as Chris’ forest garden, but they are often considered to be tantamount by academics. Seeing the ostensible differences was a great reminder of this fact. Furthermore, I had just begun being comfortable here. I learned the layout of the site, knew my role in the work day, and felt safe. Traveling is a wonderful way to have new experiences and better understand the reality of individuals who live around the world. It helps you to recognize the privilege and benefits in your life, as well as the failures and problems. However, it is also psychologically distressing, at least for individuals who like to be in control, because they are placed into an unknown situation where the brain cannot distinguish from real threats and irrational fears. Some travelers deal with this by ignoring all threats, whereas others, like myself, assume all situations to be risky. Feel something on your shoulder while walking on a rainforest trail? Probably a vine, but it could be a snake. A pinch on your shin? Probably a mosquito, fly or ant, but it could be a kissing bug giving you Chagas disease. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism is mentally exhausting. Chris’ farm was a wonderful because I was able to ignore many travel-related fears and over time, I was able more clearly categorize and separate the reasonable from the unreasonable and focus on the experience itself. Home can be considered an emotional state of security and calm rather than the physical surroundings themselves, but the physical surrounding is inherently tied to that security we feel.


8 Aug 2015

Mournful timanou calls wake me in the morning.

Chris came back last night. It rained throughout the day, so he was delayed until the evening. He also came bearing more rocks for the sink for us to carry up the hillslope to the house. I take it upon myself to do so in the morning. It is the stairmaster from hell and I am soon completely drained of energy and sweat.

In the afternoon, Luke, Connor, and I hike over to San Pedro Columbia to acquire some beers, which Chris does not have at the farm. It takes about 40 minutes to ford the river, battle the ants that seem to have occupied the opposite bank, clamber up the slick over-vegetated hillslope to the main trail and then follow the well-maintained trail into town. We find a bar and drink one before the road. Belekin is probably the best of the Central American beers that I have had in my travels. It is surprisingly dark and creamy for a region that usually prefers watery light beers. I suppose it is the influence of the English in Belize. We meet several interesting characters in the short time that it takes to drink our beers.

Meet Robert: English immigrant to Belize who brought his Spanish wife and children from Guerrerro in Mexico. He was a silversmith who brags about doing business with small-time cartel drug dealers by constructing belt buckles with secret compartments. Apparently his business partner threatened his family, so he left the country and made a bee-line for Belize and settled in an Earthship in San Pedro. Now he is in charge of a Maya school, which is somewhat ironic. It appears that he thinks gringos need to lead the Maya to produce Maya leaders.

Meet Alonso: A short, stocky, but hardened Maya day laborer who is completely drunk by the time we arrive. He proceeds to butt into our conversation and tell us a.) that we need to love each other b.) that Jesus is the king and that our time is coming, so we better get right with Jesus and c.) that he is tired and that they need to pay him more if he is going to work this hard. Coda, repeat.

Meet Adriana: Middle aged Maya woman whose son, “Wants to smoke the weed.” Upon telling her that we can’t help him there, she asks whether we happened to know how much a leg costs. Apparently her mother is a diabetic that lost her leg. A replacement is not easy to come by in San Pedro.

We head back along the same trail just before dark and eat dinner, lounging in hammocks and chatting before bed. The sky is clear and for the first time during my stay I notice the stars, so bright that they seem as though they provide enough light to see from the porch. The milky way stains the tapestry of night.

I wake up in the night. The water drops condensing on leaves and falling on the metal roof are torturous. Drip…..drip drip…..drip….drip drip drip…… ……..drip drip… Coda, repeat. I open my eyes to check the time. The darkness stares back. It is complete. It wraps its clammy, warm embraces around me as I lay sweating under the sheets. Tighter, tighter. It is a constrictor; a noose. It is a mirror. The darkness reflects my dark mind, dark heart. It offers no consolation for all the mistakes, imperfections, failures, missed opportunities that it exposes as I ruminate, trying to return to sleep. So I lay there, in my mosquito net tomb, until the morning light shatters the mirror. Drip…..drip drip…..drip….drip drip drip…… ……..drip drip… Coda, repeat.

7 Aug 2015

I sit on the porch and do some bird watching. Hummingbirds dart around the ornamental ginger, peeping and squeaking as they perform incredible aerial maneuvers during their dogfights. Montzuma’s Ornapendolas shout noisy combinations of metallic mechanical sounds. Parrots screech as they fly overhead.

It’s easy to fall into a rhythm here on the farm. Morning bird watching, breakfast, email, some farm work, lunch, chop wood, forage, bath, reading, dinner, cards, bed. I must admit that I haven’t strayed much from this. It gives me plenty of time to philosophize. Lately I’ve been thinking about how we can integrate holistic food production systems, like the one at MMRF, to a greater extent. Some people argue that we need to “go back” to more primitive, less intense agricultural systems. I don’t know if it’s feasible on the time-scale that is necessary to avert many of the problems ecosystems and humans are going to face in the immediate future. We will never be Lacandon, or Haudenosaunee, etc. We lack that long-standing cultural and physical connection to the land that has been developed over generations. The chain has been broken somewhere along the way, be it as a result of the Green Revolution, or the industrialization of agriculture, or market-based agricultural production, or something even further back. Although I think that it is absolutely essential to regain our connection to the land, I worry that this is a gradual change for which we cannot afford to wait.

Of all people, the Amish may serve a useful blueprint. First, they are deeply community-oriented. If they can obtain or repair something they need locally, they will do so. Second, they are cautious about technology. It’s not that they are Luddites, as is often believed. They just have a very conservative approach to assessing how a new technology will affect their community, unlike the shoot first, ask questions/clean up the mess approach we have in the western world (US especially). They have no problems using plows or disc tillers, but don’t want to be dependent on “the English” for gas and so don’t use fossil fuel-powered devices to pull them. The reason they don’t use telephones is not because they think they are inherently evil, but rather that they will make it easier not to engage on a personal level with other community members (something we see being increasingly prevalent with social media). This results in their development of ingenious farming quality over quantity production systems.

There are folks like Chris who are working on developing holistic food systems that are good for people and the environment. It’s just that they are certainly not in the mainstream. Just as the use of fertilizers and pesticides was considered a revolution, I think it will take another to undo the damage it has done. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine tells the story of Milton Friedman. Friedman was a right-wing radical free-market economist whose ideas of deregulation weren’t gaining much traction early in his career during the 40s and early 50s when leftist policies like the New Deal were the norm. He decided to wait in the shadows until there was a moment of upheaval and swoop in to implement his neoliberal economic policies when people were distracted by violence or rapid socio-political change. Klein’s argument is that this method was pretty effective and cites the coups in Chile Guatemala, and Nicaragua; revolutions in Yugoslavia and Ukraine; fall of the USSR; etc as examples. I think that we are probably going to have to do a similar sort of thing for agriculture.

I think that chaos theory would agree. Imagine a topographic landscape of peaks and valleys. In chaos theory, this is known as a phase space: a multidimensional representation of all possible states of a given system. Now imagine tossing a ball into this landscape. This represents a particular system state. If it lands on top of a peak (unstable attractor state), it is in a very unstable system, as it only takes a little disturbance to knock it from its place. Valleys are far more stable, as you can disturb the phase space quite a bit before it is knocked out of a given system state (stable attractor state). Of course, different system states have different shaped peaks and valleys and so have different levels of resistance (ability to remain in a given state in the face of disturbance). I’d argue that conventional, post-GR agriculture is in an unstable attractor state (monoculture are not resistant systems). However, we can maintain the system state through inputs of lots of energy (fertilizer, pesticides, fossil fuel-based power, etc.). Even so, it is susceptible to disturbance, which can come in many forms: a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, a spike in fossil fuel costs, disease caused by increasing population densities or antibiotic resistant bacterial strains. I hope it isn’t as drastic as these, but with the energy we are pumping into the system, it may be. The point is then to have alternatives (ie diversity) to adapt to this change and demonstrate its utility in a novel phase state.

While Chris is away, Luke and Connor, the two remaining interns, have decided to undertake some projects around the farm. We gather chikai, a wild plant with a flower which tastes something like an artichoke, set ground mole traps to try to limit their infestation in a banana and cacao grove, and fix up some of the muddier sections of trail. The first and last are successful, but the ground mole traps have yet to catch anything.

Washing clothes at sunset on the Columbia River

Washing clothes at sunset on the Columbia River

In our time off, I read, wash my clothes, and play with a colony of ant-lions by throwing ants into their conical pit traps. Their larva hatch from eggs and build the traps and wait, buried at the bottom. When an ant or other unlucky little arthropod falls in, they grab it with their fearsome pincers. If they try to escape, they kick up sand to knock it back into the base of the pit. The nymphs, curiously, lack an anus, so all their waste is stored and emitted as at the end of the pupal stage. After the nymph stage, it wraps itself in a cocoon and metamorphoses into an adult lacewing, which will never eat again. It’s only purpose in life at this stage is to mate, after which it does.

I swat a “doctor fly,” easily identifiable by its black and white stripes, on my foot. It explodes in a burst of blood. “Why are they called doctor flies?” I asked a Belizean a few days earlier. “Because dey take a blood sample, man!” Enough of this. Time to retreat to the comfort of the mosquito net around my bed.

5 Aug 2015

Chris, Soleni, Mia, and Ryan leave in the morning. As soon as they leave, the day starts becoming interesting. I find a huddled group of 3 birds on the ground. It appears that one of the workers cut a banana tree where the birds’ nest was, causing it to fall to the ground. I fashion a crude nest and place it in a nearby tree. The notion that birds will abandon their young if handled is complete nonsense, and soon the parents, two vociferous clay colored robins, are feeding their babies once again. Shortly thereafter, Luke, one of the other interns comes running up and asks whether I had a first aid kit. I run and grab it and head to the field, where James, one of the workers, has sliced his toes with a machete. The machete cut clean through the boot and nearly to the bone. I don my vinyl gloves and try to stop the bleeding. After about five minutes it coagulates enough to clean the cut with some water and rubbing alcohol. I try to close the wound with some butterfly bandages, gauze, and duct tape. It’s not much, but it ought to get him to the clinic in San Pedro Columbia. Luke and I carry him to the dory and direct the other workers to accompany him to the clinic. James, ever the macho man, wants to walk, but we absolutely forbid him to do so. He’ll have to get it stitched and is probably out of commission for a while. Since we are down the river and completely exhausted from hauling James about 200 meters to the riverside, we jump in. The water is low, but the current is quite strong nonetheless. The turquoise waters are opaque but gorgeous, reflecting the sunlight filtering through the green of the canopy above. That was enough excitement before lunch and we rest.

Leaf-cutter ant trail

Leaf-cutter ant trail

After lunch, more wood chopping and I decide to do some trail maintenance, as it has become markedly wet after last night’s rains. Chopping bamboo seems like a good material for some corduroy, however the little hairs that rub off of the stems of this giant grass quickly cover every inch of us and are extremely irritating. Our skin rises in little red patches similar to an allergic reaction. We run down the river and try to wash them off to some, but not complete, success.

After dinner we discover the source of a smell that has been bothering us at the dining area: a dead and decaying Virginia Possum in the yard. We cover it in ash and dirt, but the chickens are intrigued and start scratching at it to get to the maggots.

My batty friends

My batty friends

I head to bed. A pair of greater-white-lined bats seem to be my new bunkmates. I don’t bother them, as they are insectivorous and may help cut down on the number of biting insects that make their way into my room.

4 Aug 2015

I wake up and do some bird watching. It is the first time I am doing so recreationally, and I have difficulty not keeping detailed records of the time, distance, and other notes about the observations of each bird. It is a work day, and the lads and I begin hauling buckets of sand from down by the river up to the kitchen. Chris is using it to make mortar for a new sink he is building. I tire quickly after hiking up and down the hillside with my heavy load. We do this until lunch at which point we take an afternoon siesta. Work is infinitely better when it is shared. Not only is it easier, but it is also enjoyable to joke about mutual misery.

IMG_8344I have taken it upon myself to chop the wood for the farm every day during my stay. I do this, and then head down to the river to wash my clothes. Soleni and Chris are leaving with their goddaughter, who has been staying at the farm, for Belize City. One of the other interns may be leaving with them and I need to consider doing so as well given that it would be easier than trying to catch a bus in San Pedro Columbia and then another to Hopkins. However, upon realizing that it was either a week here or a week at the beach, the choice became easy. I would leave on Monday.


3 Aug 2015

I wake in the middle of the night. Rain thunders down. It is the rainy season and it hadn’t rained in a while, so it has some catching up to do. I worry that it might prevent me from departing from Hopkins this morning. I fell asleep in the late afternoon yesterday, so I cannot return to sleep.  I lay in bed, listening to the pounding rain. The rain stops shortly after sunrise, so I get up and take care of some business. I go to the mail, pick up some food, and pack my bag before boarding the bus for San Pedro Columbia, the jumping off point for the Maya Mountain Research Farm.

Master boatsman Jorge Coc

Master boatsman Jorge Coc

The bus drops me off at a small crossroads. I ask a woman where I can find Jorge Coc. She corrects my pronunciation (I assumed it was pronounced as the Spanish would, not as George) and points out a small house. There, I meet a young man who identifies himself as Jorge’s son, who runs off in search of his father. Jorge arrives about 10 minutes later and we set off for the river. We load my possessions into a small dugout canoe. Jorge clambers in after me and begins poling upriver. Fortunately, the river level is very low, especially for the rainy season, which makes the work easier for him. Despite this, I hear his panting as he struggles against the current. Aninghas dive down in our wake. Kingfishers swoop low across the aquamarine water surface. Thick trunked trees send down tree roots into the cool, tranquil waters and drink their fill. After two hours, we arrive at the farm, marked by a small sign on the riverbank. I step out of the dory, pay Jorge, and start up the trail.



Chris and his dog, Bambi, meet me halfway to the house. Chris is a middle-aged, grey haired man with a beard down to his waist. Bambi investigates me intensely, but instantly becomes my friend when I toss a stick for her to catch. Chris welcomes me and shows me up to the house, where his partner, Soleni, and several other guests have just eaten lunch.

Bambi and the stick of the day

Bambi and the stick of the day

Everyone is extremely friendly and I fit right into the little community of ecologically-minded farmers that Chris has created. The balcony of the main house also serves as a covering for the dining area. The kitchen lies nearby and features a wood fired stove surrounded by stonework that Chris himself constructed. My cabin is about 100 meters away. They feature foam covered beds draped in mosquito nets.

Floating upriver

Floating upriver

I talk to Chris and we get along splendidly. This entire place is his brainchild. He arrived some 30 years ago after taking a permaculture design class. The land was cheap then. It was previously citrus farm whose soil was completely depleted. Over time, using agroforestry techniques, he built up the verdant forest garden that he has today, where he cultivates breadnut, cacao, ginger, mango, avocado, coffee, coco yam, banana, coconut, papaya, pineapple, and a multitude of other wild edibles. It is unlike any other “agroforestry” system I have seen before and is an edible landscape that resembles unmanaged forest in its diversity, productivity, and structural complexity. What appears to be a chaotic cacophony devoid of order is actually a finely-tuned symphony. Each plant has its role to play in the function of the agroforest. It is also not dissimilar to the Lacandon system with its cycling of field and fallow. Chris intercrops Inga with his corn, beans, and squash, which helps fix nitrogen to improve corn productivity. Eventually the nitrogen fixation cannot keep up with demand and the crop yield diminishes after 3-5 years, at which point the Inga trees are already large enough to start closing the canopy. He is able to plant shade-loving plants, like coffee and cacao, in this microclimate to allow for the regeneration of soil fertility. Furthermore, because of the milpa management, very few herbaceous weeds are present to compete with desirable species in this secondary stage. Very little management is necessary in later stages and it is a self-sustaining system. He harvests from all stages and in great abundance to the point that he is able to sell timber and food at market. I don’t know how the species composition compares to Lacandon agroforests, but the parallels are uncanny. I ask him whether he drew any inspiration from the nearby indigenous Mopan and Qeqchi Maya. He did not. While the Mopan are excellent farmers and have a similar model of rotating field, fallow, and forest, the Qeqchi are more recent immigrants to the region and have yet to develop anything more complex or sustainable than conventional corn milpas or cattle ranches. It seems as though the Mopan are to the Lacandon as the Qeqchi are to the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Chol who were given lands in Lacandonia after the Ley de Reforma Agraria in Chiapas.


Not all agroforestry systems are created equal

Chris certainly has his little idiosyncrasies. He owns a semi-automatic rifle (one of the few in Belize), handgun, small caliber rifle for hunting, and a shotgun. The latter two are for hunting, the former two are for defense against Guatemalan raiders. He is somewhat close to the border and Guatemala has long been arguing that part or all of Belize is part of their national territory. The argument goes back all the way to the Treaty of Tortillas (1494), which divided up the Americas between Spain and Portugal. England, who did not control British Honduras then, as Belize was called at the time, was not a part of the agreement. Even so, it did not recognize the treaty. Local Maya repelled Spanish conquistadors from what is now Belize, allowing it to be “settled” by English seamen. The Godolphin Treaty of 1670 allowed England to hold onto any existing colonies in the Americas, but the colonies were not explicitly defined. The Spaniards tried to retake the territory they claimed was rightfully theirs in the late 1700s, but were repelled. The English and Scottish settlers did not obtain a formal treaty with Spain and England never really had full control over the colony, which started electing its own local government. They joined the British Empire in 1862 as British Honduras. This provided some leverage for locals against Guatemala, which had obtained independence from Spain in 1821, allowing for the passage of the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859. The treaty stipulated that Guatemala would recognize Belize if Britain would build a road from Guatemala to Punta Gorda, Belize, which never happened. As a result, Guatemala claimed that the treaty was void in 1940, and once again claimed that Belize was theirs. Belize gained independence in 1981 and claimed that because they did not sign the 1859 treaty, they were not bound to it.   This territorial dispute continues to this day. At any rate, Chris, a self-proclaimed “Belizean nationalist” views Guatemala with outright contempt, considering it a corrupt, crime-ridden state. I know too little about the territorial dispute to assess how real the threat really is.

I chop wood to fuel the wood stove after lunch. I find the activity very meditative: stack the wood, measure up your swing, the sharp crack of the wood split followed by the dull thud of the pieces falling to the ground. By the time I finish my tour and my dinner, it is almost time for dinner, which is delicious. Soleni is an excellent cook and prepares a brilliant curried coco yam dish. Coco yam is something like yucca, but not quite as bland. Chris and I talk about the government and land management system of the Qeqchi, known as the the alcalde system. The alcalde system has its roots in some post-Classic Maya civilizations, but the Spanish conquistadors applied it to the whole of their territory. It made indigenous communities easier to oversee. The alcalde is a sort of village chief, a comisiariado, who settles minor disputes and enforces the community rules set by the village council. The role of alcade was historically determined by a pasado, or council of past alcaldes, who made their decision based on experience. Recently, however, the alcalde has been elected by all the men in a village. With a young population, young people are able to dominate the election process to select young alcaldes who are economically advantaged over the “old men” who typically served as alcalde. This has led to a rise in factionalism and materialism in the communities. After dinner, the guests and I play cards into the early evening where we retire for bed.

2 Aug 2015

I wait for the bus under a streetlight. I am the first one at the stop, but soon about 10 more tourists arrive and wait with me. They are all couples. I am the only loner. The bus arrives a bit late, but we set out toward the eastern border. Last night, I became acutely aware of the fact that I was headed to Belize City, which is notoriously crime-ridden and dangerous for tourists, and had no money for a bus. Due to crime, many of the ATMs are closed on Sundays and wouldn’t you know it, today is a Sunday. I had no US or Belizean currency. How was I to get a bus to Punta Gorda and out of the city? I was recommended to avoid Belize City at all costs, but the convenience of the bus straight across the border was too great. I wouldn’t have made the trip if I had learned about the ATM issue before I purchased my ticket, but there was no turning back now. Belize City has 105 homicides per 100,000 people, the third highest national murder rate in the world. Most of the violence is gang related, but I didn’t wanted to be counted among the unfortunate 105. I tried to sleep on the bus, but the risk I inadvertently took weighed heavy on my mind. I chatted with the Guatemalan woman who sat next to me and seem unphased. The tourists around me did not seem particularly bothered either, so I tried to convince myself that I had nothing to be worried about either. I was told that I should try to be let off at either San Ignacio or Belmopan, but the bus driver refuses to let me off anywhere but Belize City.

We arrive in the Guatemalan border town of Melchor. A man boards the bus. “Oh boy,” I think to myself. “Here we go again. How much do I owe…” However, the man merely informs that we should not pay any emigration fee to the Guatemalan authorities, nor does Belize have an immigration tax. He also offers to buy my remaining Quetzals at a perfect exchange rate. I accept immediately and offload every quetzal I have left, giving me enough to get to Punta Gorda. I now feel much more secure. The border crossing was simple and fast. I still need to get used to speaking to people in English, especially latinos, as I am strongly accustomed to speaking Spanish. We board the bus on the Belizean side of the border and once again set off to Belize City.

The change on the Belizean side is noticeable almost instantly. I start seeing blacks amongst the still latino-dominated populations; the roads are free of speed bumps and are actually intact asphalt; large, well-constructed homes; and newer cars. We pass the Belmopan turnoff, which would have been not only safer, but also faster, as all buses to Punta Gorda pass through Belmopan. About an hour later we reach Belize City. The city is distinctly different from the rest of the countryside. Poorly-constructed shanty houses are crowded together. Folks sitting on stoops glare back at us. We reach the ferry to Caye Caulker, which is a major backpacker destination and the goal of all the other tourists on the bus. I immediately grab my bag and hail a taxi to the bus station. The dreads of my driver reach to his waistline. He listens to a nationalist radio station complaining about Guatemala, who claims a large part of Belize to actually be Guatemalan territory. We arrive at the bus station a short taxi ride-later. I am very glad that I did not walk. Two kids joke about my hat shouting, “Yee haw!” and other cowboy phrases. I duck into the bus station, which is a welcome refuge where travelers of all sort gather and wait for the repurposed school buses which serve as public transport about the country. I wait for the James line bus, which arrives shortly after 11. Once on the bus, I am finally able to relax after my stressful journey here.

Belize seems to be a wonderful multiethnic experiment. Onboard the bus with me are Creole and/or Garifuna blacks, whites, Mennonites mestizo latinos, one of potential two (Qeqchi or Mopan) Maya groups, west Indians, and Chinese. I won’t go so far as to say that the experiment is working. The Maya, who make up 17% of the total population, are the lowest rung on the social ladder and are often discriminated against by the Creole and whites in positions of power. However, I have experienced a great deal of kindness in the country and everybody is extremely welcoming. My smiles are met with eager smiles back, rather than the suspicious or courteous pursed lips I have grown accustomed to in Guatemala and Mexico. That is not to say that discrimination and inequality do not exist, but merely that they are nearly as pronounced or apparent as other places where I have traveled.

I nap a bit and watch the world pass by through the window. People come on and off as we drive along. We arrive in Punta Gorda just before sundown. The road bumps into the ocean and meanders along the shoreline. Families picnicked in little palapas near the sea and swam amidst the calm lapping waves. A small harbor protected the boats docked therein behind some mangroves. I had been on a bus for 11 hours and had not eaten anything but 2 bananas and 3 slices of bread for the 15 hours that I had been awake.

I stopped in the first hotel along the main road into town and booked a room for that evening. I ordered dinner immediately, downed some grilled chicken and a Belekin, the national beer of Belize and probably the most drinkable one I have had in Central America, and fell asleep.

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