Winter Vacation 2010, Day Two: Black Rock Lodge

Belize is humid. Humid humid humid. Like Minnesota in August humid. By 9am, you’re hot and sticky, and you’d better get used to it because it’s going to be that way for the rest of the day. You (and everyone around you) are going to be stinky and sweaty until after nightfall.

How humid is it? The cover of my Belize guidebook curled overnight. The pages of my journal are soft and moist to the touch. All of my clothes feel like they came out of the dryer ten minutes early. And the floor of our cabin is always slick with moisture, like somebody mopped but didn’t dry.

Survival of the Fittest
We woke to find a katydid in the cabana, clinging to the curtains.


Kris immediately named it Katy. “I wonder how Katy got in here,” I said. “Because if she can make it inside, then surely the mosquitos can, too.”

“Let’s put Katy outside,” Kris said. “She doesn’t want to be in our cabin.” She spent a couple of minutes trying to herd the frightened bug out the door. “I think she’s hurt,” Kris said. “See how she can’t walk very well?” We left Katy to fend for herself and walked up to the lodge to have breakfast.

We ate with Tim and Shana (Shayna?), two doctors from Philadelphia. Tim is a radiation oncologist and Shana is in the sixth year of an eight-year residency for colo-rectal surgery. Kris and I thought both were smart and funny, and enjoyed our chats with them over the next couple of days.

After breakfast, we sat on our porch, putting on sunscreen and bug spray. “Oops. Katy’s leaving,” I said. “She’s scared of that bird.” I pointed to a white-collared manakin.

“That bird? That bird couldn’t eat Katy,” Kris said. Then she said, “Where’d Katy go?”

“There she is,” I said. “As long as she doesn’t move, she looks like a leaf on the floor of the forest.”

“She sure does,” said Kris. And at that moment, Katy took flight, a broad green butterfly wobbling through the air. “Ooh…look at that,” Kris said.

“I hope she —” I started to say, but at that moment, a smallish bird swooped from a nearby tree and snatched Katy away in his mouth. And that was the end of Katy the katydid, killed by my wife, who was trying to save her.

Note: Later in the week, we learned that if a katydid is in your cabin, it’s near death, anyhow. So if Kris and her bird friend hadn’t killed her, she would have died soon, anyhow.

Vaca Falls
Following Katy’s unfortunate demise, we decided to hike around the lodge to get a feel for the place. We looked at the birds and the trees. Kris made friends with the dozen horses that roam the property:

Kris Makes a Friend

Eventually, we made the 1.5-mile hike from the lodge to Vaca Falls. As we walked, I was again reminded of rural Oregon during the mid 1970s. I was just a boy then, but I remember walking in my grandfather’s woods, and scrambling across the countryside with my friends. I had the same feeling now.

As we followed a dirt road above the Macal River, we looked at the strange vegetation and watched for critters that were new to us. We saw lots of termite nests like this one:

Termite Nest
This termite nest also contained large black ants we later learned were army ants.

Eventually, we reached Vaca Falls, where a couple of men were fishing:

Vaca Falls

Macal River

After enjoying the scenery, we strolled back to the lodge.

About Belize
Belize has a colorful history. Originally home to the Mayan culture, it has at various times drawn its population from Spanish Conquistadors, British pirates, African slaves, Confederate refugees following the U.S. Civil War (no joke!), and immigrants from neighboring Guatemala and Honduras. The United States may be a melting pot, but Belize is a chunky stew.

Formerly known as British Honduras, the country changed its name to Belize in 1973 and became independent from the U.K. in 1981 (though there’s still a strong cultural connection, and British troops are stationed in the country). Political and cultural conflicts with Guatemala bubble beneath the surface. Guatemala stakes a claim to Belize, though it did recognize it as a sovereign nation in 1991.

Belize has a population of 321,000, including several thousand Mennonites. (The Mennonites provide most of the country’s chicken, eggs, and dairy products.) Though there are many Spanish speakers, the official language of Belize is English, and most people speak it. (Nearly everyone we met was bilingual.)

In the afternoon, we did what we’d traveled to Belize for: We relaxed. I climbed in the hammock, smoked my pipe, and did a little reading and writing. Kris joined me on the porch. Ostensibly, she was reading, but really she was watching the wildlife, describing every bird she saw. Life was good.

Me in a Hammock in Belize

Still Waters Run Deep
Did I mention that Belize is humid? By 4pm, I was a sticky, stinky mess. Kris, John H., and I were on the deck overlooking the river when three collared aracari alighted in the nearby plantain trees. John and I scrabbled around on the deck to get good photos. As I did, my own body odor practically knocked me out.

“Wanna swim in the river?” Kris asked after the excitement was over.

“You bet,” I said. We changed and walked down to the shore.

Though the water wasn’t cold (maybe 15 or 16 centigrade), I was a pansy and inched my way in; I wouldn’t dive. But once I was in, I splashed around and had fun. I swam for a black rock about 25 feet away.

Right away, I knew I was in trouble. The current was swift, and I had to swim as hard as I could against it (which admittedly isn’t very hard) in order to stay in one place. Eventually I reached the black rock.

“That’s a perfect demonstration of vector dynamics,” Kris called from the shore.

“Haha,” I said.

The prudent thing at this point would have been to return the way I’d come. But since when have I been prudent? I decided to be bold and adventurous and swim for a sandy clearing on the far shore. Immediately after letting go of the black rock, I knew that I had no chance. The current swept me downstream.

I changed tack. Spying a huge rock formation a little further on, I turned back the way I’d come and let the current carry me to safety. I paused, held to the rock by the rushing water. I was still 25 feet from Kris and there was a lot of river between us.

Based on the way the water bubbled and rolled, I knew there were plenty of rocks just below the surface. But I also saw another giant rock formation just downstream. I steeled my courage and made for it, careful to watch for sunken boulders.

At this second rock formation, things were both much scarier — and less so. I could see that just beyond this outcropping, the river broadened and calmed, so that was good. But the rock itself was dangerous. The swift current had eaten away its base, so that while there was lots of rock on top, there was nothing but an inward-sloping craggy curve below the water. It would be all too easy to get sucked under.

I s-l-o-w-l-y made my way around the rock formation, pushed off, and swam for the sandy shore. Within a minute, I was safe, and I’d formed a new resolve to respect the water.

Kris on the Banks of the Macal River

Winter Vacation 2010, Day One: Belize

Our trip to Belize began at 3:30 last Saturday morning. We crawled out of bed, grabbed our bags, and groggily made our way to the airport. Our travel — a 3.5-hour flight to Houston, a 2-hour layover, and a 2.5-hour flight to Belize City — was uneventful. Just the way we like it.

Note: I used to be an over-packer. When I flew, I’d check a large suitcase stuffed with clothes, as well as a carry-on and a daybag — even for weekend trips. No longer. I made this trip with just a carry-on and a daybag, and even that felt like too much. Next time, I’ll pack even less. (Though I will remember to bring a t-shirt or two.)

My first clue to Belize’s character came at Philip Goldson International Airport in Ladyville, 11 miles northwest of Belize City. Walking from the tarmac into the airport is like walking back in time; I immediately though of the grade school I attended in 1975: the wood desks and doors, the linoleum floors, the lack of most modern technology.

And immigration was perfunctory, at best. The officers who processed our passports were so busy chatting about their weekend plans that they hardly gave us a glance. It took Kris longer to use the washroom than it took for us to make it through immigration and customs!

By far our biggest adventure of the day was the drive from Belize City (or Ladyville) to San Ignacio (and the Black Rock Lodge). We were picked up at the airport by the amiable John, who drove us the two-plus hours to our accommodations.

Internet Cafe

It’s difficult to convey what the roadside is like in Belize, but I’ll try.

If you’ve ever seen how folks drive in India (on The Amazing Race, for instance), then you have an idea of what the roads in Belize are like — though admittedly on a much much smaller scale. We drove on the Great Western Highway, which, despite the name, is a standard two-lane road like you’d see in the Oregon or Washington countryside. (Much of the drive reminded me of going from Estacada to Salem by way of Molalla and Silverton.)

Traffic is chaotic. Vehicles travel at wildly different speeds: Some loaded lorries were crawling at 20 kph; our driver preferred 100 kph. Motorcycles weave in and out of traffic, passing on the left or right. And the roadside is filled with bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Many of the pedestrians are hitching a ride, just like the U.S. in 1975. So, the beds of many pickups were filled with two, five, or six passengers, just like the U.S. in 1975.

Gaby's Motor Cycle Repair Shop

The Great Western Highway is filled with bus stops; the buses themselves are often old and rickety. (In fact, we saw a couple of shattered and abandoned bus hulks by the side of the road.) But through this chaos, order emerges. Drivers and cyclists and pedestrians are all keenly aware of each other. Maybe it’s just because traffic is relatively light, but I never felt unsafe.

After about ninety minutes of driving — first through swampy land, then through savannah, and then through jungle — we reached the twin cities of Santa Elena and San Ignacio, which are divided by the Macal River. As we drove through town, John honked and waved at people. They waved back. “That’s my little daughter,” he said, waving at a seven-year-old girl in a pink dress. She was standing alone outside a store.

Guatemalan Girls

Note: I loved how independent children seemed to be in Belize. Everywhere we went, kids from six to sixteen walked and talked and played without adult supervision, either alone or in groups. Yet another way the country reminded me of the U.S. circa 1975.

Black Rock Lodge signThe final approach to Black Rock Lodge is over a washboarded gravel road six miles long. In some places, the potholes are so large that John drove on the shoulder to avoid them.

“What’s this orchard?” I asked John as the headlights revealed a grove of flowering trees. John stopped the truck and rolled down the windows. After two hours of air conditioning, we were swamped by warm and sticky air, and by a heavy, sweet scent. “Those are orange blossoms,” John told us. “It’s one of my favorite smells.” And now one of mine, too.

We reached the resort just in time for dinner. Dinner at Black Rock Lodge is served family style — you sit at one long table with all of the other guests, and the staff serves you each in turn. (Your only options or “meat” or “veg”; other than that, everyone has the same meal.)

“Hi,” said the fellow sitting next to me. “My name is John and I’m from Oregon.”

“Ha!” I said. “My name is John, and I’m from Oregon, too. I’m a writer.”

“I’m a writer, too,” said John. “My wife Carol and I live in West Linn. Where do you live?”

I laughed again. “We live just across the river from you, in Oak Grove.”

John motioned to the couple across the table from him. “This is Beth and this is another John. They’re from Tigard.”

Black Rock Lodge

So, we’d traveled all day and covered thousands of miles to sit down for dinner with virtual neighbors. (Another strange coincidence: The music playing in the background as we ate was obscure 1980s “alternative” stuff, such as Opus and Marillion and Echo and the Bunnymen. In other words, the stuff I listen to every day.)

After a long day of travel, we went to sleep early. Kris put in her earplugs so my snoring wouldn’t keep her awake. I stayed up, lying in bed, listening to the sounds of the jungle.

One Lucky Penguin

I suspect that many of you have seen this before, but it’s new to me. I drove out to Custom Box Service the other day, where Nick and Jeff just had to show me this animal intelligence video.

What happens if you’re a penguin being chased by a pod of killer whales? How do you escape? Well, if there are a bunch of tourists in a nearby boat, the answer’s pretty obvious:

Very funny stuff. I particularly like how the penguin is cuddling up next to one of the passengers near the end of this.

It’s Not Easy Being a Man

For a long long time I’ve wanted to be be able to support my artistic friends by commissioning them to do art specifically for me. I’ve had this dream ever since I saw some of Nory’s work from the Art Institute of Seattle back in the mid 1990s. I’ve never had the guts — or the dollars — to do anything about this until now.

When I saw that Jolie was painting Tiffany’s Kermit the Frog toy just for kicks, I knew right away that I wanted her to paint a Kermit for me, too. We fixed a price and she got to work. Tomorrow I’ll take delivery of this wonderful piece:

It's Not Easy Being a Man

Jolie calls this “It’s Not Easy Being a Man” (after Kermit’s song “It’s Not Easy Being Green”), which I think is hilarious. And yes, this painting is going to be proudly displayed in the man room, where my gentleman friends gather to sip Scotch now and then (and dream of being able to smoke our tobacco products, if not for the Wrath of Women). Also note that Kermie is sitting on a copy of Your Money or Your Life, the book that helped me turn my financial world around.

Thanks, Jolie. I love it!

Dairy Goat Journal

I subscribe to several magazines about homesteading and self-sufficiency. While it’s true that Kris and I don’t live on a homestead, we both like the idea of doing stuff for ourselves. (One of us is better at it than the other, as you all know. I’ll admit: I’m more dreamer than doer.)

Because I subscribe to these magazines, we get on some interesting mailing lists. For example, we recently received a pitch for Dairy Goat Journal. I think it’s hilarious that there’s a magazine dedicated just to dairy goats!

Click this highlight to open the full ad in a new window.

This is especially amusing since Kris does think goats are delightful. She loves them. But I think she likes the idea of goats more than the goats themselves; I don’t know how she’d deal with actually having a herd of goats roaming around Rosings Park.

On the Verge of Inbox Zero

Alright folks. I’ve nearly done it. After years of being buried in e-mail, I’m down to just 39 messages left to process before my inbox is empty. Not bad, eh? Over the past two weeks, I’ve managed to archive hundreds of old messages, delete hundreds of others, and actually reply to a couple of hundred very patient people. And now I’m nearly to that mythical state called Inbox Zero.

More and more, I’ve come to understand that e-mail really is a “variable reinforcement machine”. It’s like a little pleasure pill that sucks productivity from your life.

I’m not about to go email-free like I’ve heard some other crazy folks do. I’ll admit it’s tempting, but I feel like that’s just me being difficult, being unwilling to address my own problems and so creating problems for those who want to contact me. Instead, I’ve set up a series of filters in gmail (which I now cannot live without despite my initial hatred for it) that will help me process the incoming flood of messages. Plus, I plan to be merciless about archiving stuff. Nothing gets to sit in the inbox except the stuff that actually needs a researched reply.

While looking up my link for Inbox Zero, I found Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero website. Mann is the guy behing the productivity blog 43 Folders. He’s a producitivy expert in a similar way to how I’m a personal finance expert. And he’s writing a book. He made this video about the process, which I find hilarious:

Hahahah! Having just finished my own book-writing process, I find this very very funny. My office, too, looked like something from Silence of the Lambs. At one point — well, “line” is probably a better metaphor — I just gave up and started hucking things over my left shoulder. No joke. I had a mound of trash (much of it food-related) that built for months in my office. I’m not proud of the this, but facts are facts.

Anyhow: Inbox Zero and my book is done. Will wonders never cease?

Roths Hate Doctors

I’m not sure why, but my family has a history of avoiding doctors. When I was a boy, I remember that my mother hobbled around on a sprained (broken?) ankle for days (weeks?) before going to get it checked out. When I was a freshman in college, I broke a finger while playing touch football, but just dealt with the pain for days before I finally sought medical attention.

There are many other such examples in my family’s history. (Remember my knee injury?)

Well, after my recent head injury, I headed down this same path again. After getting conked on the head on Sunday, I didn’t go to the doctor. After experiencing dizziness and nausea on Monday, I didn’t go to the doctor. After being unable to sleep Tuesday night because of neck pain, I didn’t go to the doctor. I didn’t even go to the doctor yesterday, despite almost getting killed because I couldn’t turn my head far enough to see a car on a cross-street.

Yes, I was stupid.

Finally, today I went to the doctor. He scolded me for waiting so long. “This isn’t anything to mess around with,” he said. Then he looked me over. He checked me for dizziness (I had a little more of that today), and he checked my range of motion. In the end, he told me his diagnosis: “You have a muscle spasm,” he said. “One of your neck muscles is switched on and doesn’t want to let go. And it hurts.”

What does he want me to do about it? The same thing I’m doing already: Take naproxen (Alleve), do some neck exercises, and just take it easy. And next time, go to the doctor as soon as I get hurt — not wait four days.

A Conk on the Head

Seven years ago, I spent about two weeks living in utter agony from the pain of “frozen shoulder”, or adhesive capsulitis. The condition came on suddenly, and for more than ten days, it felt like somebody was digging a dagger into my left shoulder even when it moved a tiny bit. It was during this period that I felt the most intense pain that I’ve ever felt in my life. (Probably a consistent 6 or 7 on the pain scale.)

Well, tonight I’m experiencing pain that’s even worse.

Last week, Matt gave me his old elliptical trainer (which was very kind of him). On Sunday night at book group, I recruited some of the guys to help me haul it upstairs. Midway up the steps, a piece of the machine fell and conked me on the side of the head. Ouch!

I didn’t think much of it at the time. Yes, it hurt, and yes I got bump on my head almost immediately. But it didn’t seem like a big deal.

On Monday, though, I had some dizziness and some nausea and more than just some headaches. “Crap,” I thought. “Concussion.” I paid close attention throughout the day and evening, and fortunately the nausea didn’t become severe; I decided I didn’t need to see the doctor.

Today, the nausea and dizziness mostly subsided, only to be replaced by some soreness in the neck. (The headache was still there.) No big deal. I had editing to do on The Book, so I plowed through the work. Tonight the pains in my neck and head were severe enough that I bowed out of the bowling trip I’d planned to make with the guys.

I went to bed a little early.

I woke whimpering and crying about an hour later. SO MUCH PAIN! No matter how I turned my head (and I couldn’t do it without literally using my hand to lift my head by pulling my hair), it felt like somebody was trying to saw my neck off with a dull knife. “Kris,” I gasped. “Do we have any painkillers?”

We don’t. I’ve managed to make it downstairs to my new recliner. I’m sitting upright, which helps, but the pain is so intense I have no idea how I’m going to fall asleep. No idea. And it’s so difficult to concentrate that it’s taken 30 minutes to write this simple stream of consciousness piece. Please please please let the pain go away.

I guess I’ll watch Mary Tyler Moore reruns until I somehow manage to fall asleep…

The Orangutan and the Hound

Now that I plan to write more at Foldedspace in the future, one topic I’ll expore over and over is animal intelligence. As many of you know, I’ve long been fascinated by animals and their cognitive powers. Though I don’t think they have human intelligence, I think they’re much much smarter than most people give them credit for.

I actually kept a blog called Animal Intelligence for a number of years, but it wasn’t something I could maintain; it was just too much work. Over the next few months, I’ll gradually incorporate some of my favorite pieces from that old site here at But I’ll also introduce new stuff, too, such as this video from National Geographic:

Surya the orangutan loves Roscoe the dog. These two spend a lot of time playing together. This is a great example of inter-species friendships, one of my favorite animal intelligence sub-topics.

(By the way, did I mention that one of my goals is to actually befriend a crow? I think it must be possible; I’ve just got to figure out how.)

Food Rules

Tonight I read Michael Pollan’s latest book, Food Rules which is a short list of 64 guidelines for eating right. These are based on the findings in his last book, In Defense of Food, the thesis of which was:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Pollan’s food rules build on these three main points to create a sort of blueprint for right eating. “Think of these food policies as little algorithms designed to simplify your eating life,” he writes. “Adopt whichever ones stick and work best for you.” (This sounds remarkably like my personal motto: “Do what works for you.”)

After spending an hour reading Food Rules (I told you it was a short book!), I’ve decided to try incorporating the following policies in my own life. Some will be more difficult than others:

  • 3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
  • 4. Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
  • 5. Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed in the top three ingredients.
  • 11. Avoid foods you see advertised on television.
  • 12. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
  • 13. Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
  • 17. Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans.
  • 22. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  • 23. Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.
  • 27. Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.
  • 30. Eat well-grown food from healthy soil.
  • 35. Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature.
  • 39. Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.
  • 43. Have a glass of wine with dinner.
  • 44. Pay more, eat less. (By which Pollan means pay for quality.)
  • 45. Eat less.
  • 46. Stop eating before you’re full.
  • 49. Eat slowly.
  • 53. Serve a proper portion and don’t go back for seconds.
  • 56. Limit snacks to unprocessed plant foods.
  • 59. Try not to eat alone.
  • 60. Treat treats as treats.
  • 64. Break the rules once in a while.

For me, 2010 is the year of fitness. While writing my book, I sat at my desk all day, ate junk food from the minimart next door, and as a result gained 20 pounds. (And I was none too healthy before that.) As a result, I started this year at 213 pounds, chronic insomnia, and a complete lack of physical aptitude.

I lost five pounds last month, and I have good momentum moving into February. My breakfasts are good right now (1/3 cup Bob’s Red Mill whole grain cereal with flaxseed, 1/2 ounce of raisins, pinch of salt, 2 packets of Sugar in the Raw, and 1/4 cup of skim milk), but I haven’t found a routine with everything else. I want to work on that. In particular, I want to move toward eating far more fruits and vegetables than I do now. (Which shouldn’t be too difficult since that number is near zero.)

This ought to be interesting. I’ve never actually had rules for my eating before. (Have you? Do people actually set food rules for themselves?) Maybe I should print out my policies and carry them with me!

Note: I remember reading the article(s) Pollan wrote while prepping for this book. One of the rules that didn’t get included here (because it’s not about eating) is “don’t yuck somebody else’s yum”. I’ve really tried to adopt this. I’m a notorious yucker of other people’s yums. But I’ve also had fun scolding others for making faces at the food I like…