Thursday, November 17, 2005

Cruising for birds, etc.

Sunday: After a long and exhausting flight from Philadelphia to Houston, we got to be scrunched into a bus with our carry-on bags under our feet for forty minutes. Then we got to wait again at the embarkation station and one more time to check onboard the ship. By the time we got to our room (which seemed too small), I was tired, hungry and very grumpy. But it was warm and sunny and after a piña colada or two, things started to look up. We have a nice private balcony that lets in lots of sea breezes. I then did the only thing a birder would do in a situation like this… I got out my bins.

There were three American coots swimming in the harbor all afternoon. Other bird life included a Great Blue heron and White egrets across the harbor and lots of sea gulls that I can’t quite ID without my scope. What kind of a birder goes on vacation and doesn’t bring her scope? (Answer: one who has packed too many shoes!)

The food here has been pretty good. Lunch was a buffet and I found a five bean salad, cucumber and yogurt salad, whole grain bread and cheese. I didn’t want to eat too much because I knew we would be having a big dinner, plus the piña coladas (did I mention the piña coloadas?) filled me up. We ate dinner at the Seven Seas for which we were probably very underdressed, but they lived with it J. I found polenta with green beans and peppers on the menu, but couldn’t have the corn and red pepper soup because they made it with chicken stock (idiots!). Later, we had dessert of chocolate ice cream and flambéed strawberries and then one of the waitresses talked me into chocolate cake, too!

After dinner, I chilled on the balcony. The sound of the ocean and the rocking of the ship is very soothing. I lined up the furniture and promptly fell asleep - going to bed after 11.

Monday: I decided I really needed to work off the ice cream and cake, so I went to the gym, but couldn’t get on a treadmill right away, so I settled for the bike. After a half hour of that, I switched to an empty treadmill and had an awesome run. I could have run a lot longer, but there was a line and a time limit of 30 minutes. After all that sitting yesterday, it really felt great to get moving again.

Yesterday the water was green and muddy looking. This morning it looked much darker, almost black, but when we went for breakfast at the back of the boat I could see how much bluer it was. Now it’s getting lighter and bluer by the minute. Although there were a lot of ships yesterday, I’ve only seen two today – one of which, a barge, is passing us right now. No birds today either. No seagulls following the ship, only the flying fish that have been our companions all day. They are skimming the water and stay airborne for at least 20 seconds. They look so much like birds, I thought they were at first.

Most of the passengers are Americans, but there are some French and Germans aboard as well. There are some really, really fat people here. Some need scooters to get around and they can always be found at the AYCE buffet tables. It’s incredible! I’m starting to get used to the constant rocking and rolling of the ship, although it can still be felt if you are looking for it. Sometimes, I get knocked off balance and I think, “Geez, I’ve had too much to drink”, but then I realize I haven’t had anything to drink! Showering takes a special skill :-)

Martes: Hoy visitamos Cozamel, Mexico! Pardon mi español. Yo no escribo muy bien pero yo hablo un poco de la manaña en Cozamel. Digo, "Un cerveza con limon, por favor" y "Eso chili relleno es muy bien!" y "¿Donde este el baño?" (It stinks only being able to speak/write in the present tense, but I'm learning).

After a very “wavy” night, we started the day with waiting (what else) while the ship got final confirmation to enter the bay. We were among the first groups of tourists allowed into Cozamel since Hurricane Wilma destroyed the place three weeks ago. There are a total of four cruise ships here today that will bring all the tourists there are here. There is no one in hotels because all the hotels are still closed.

It’s difficult to describe the place in words, but I’ll try. First every tree that is still standing is completely bare. After 48 hours of 150+ mile an hour winds, there are no leaves. It’s amazing there are any trees left, but lots are still standing. Some palms show signs of green, but leaves are still a good two months away.

Every single building on the coast, which is all we saw, is affected. Like the trees, many buildings are remarkably still standing, but whole chunks of the buildings are torn off and almost every window is gone. Our trip guide, Aldofo, told me that the island is very hard rock and builders can’t dig very far into the ground so they build up around the buildings which makes them very strong. So I guess given the magnitude of the storm, this could have been a lot worse. The inhabitants of Cozamel have been working non-stop for three weeks to rebuild. The government has apparently sent about 10,000 workers to help. Electricity and water have been restored although the cruise line told us not to drink the water because they couldn’t assure it was clean.

The coral reef where we went to snorkel is pretty much wiped out. Bob did see some nice fish while I stayed topside and viewed “un pàjaro” (a female adult Magnificent Frigatebird). I understood enough Spanish to overhear one crewmate say to the other that he saw that bird yesterday. He then waved his hand away as if to shoo it. Other than a few Turkey Vultures, that is about all the bird life to report here. I suppose any birds that weren’t wiped out flew to greener pastures. There aren’t even any seagulls flying around the docks or the ships for that matter. As this is my first time here, so I don’t know if this is unusual or not.

After the snorkeling excursion, we were taken to a still intact beach (the only one we saw) which is really a lagoon. We had free cuvasas and floated in the turquoise water for about an hour before returning to the city. We were treated to several dances like “YMCA”, “Machareña” and “The Electric Slide” by some of the crew (Aldofo and friends) and the passengers.

Once back at the dock, we wandered around for a bit. I bought some souvenirs and Bob bought some (ahem) “Cuban”cigars (for smoking here, of course). He caught the guy switching labels behind the counter, so who knows what kind of cigars they are. Haha! We ate at a little place where the guy out front assured me a meal “no con carne” and sure enough, I got a combo dinner to revival Alebreje at home. Actually, it was pretty darned good for tourist food. Now it looks as though we’ve made it back just in time to beat the afternoon rain.

Tomorrow should be the big birding day – Belìze!

Wednesday: We tendered the ship around 8:30am today and took a small craft to Belize City. Ah! This is more like what I pictured the scenery - very lush and tropical. Our tour guide was named Vel and he was this awesome little Mayan descendant who knew everything we wanted to know about Belize and more. He briefed us while we were on the bus headed for Tower Hill and the boats to take us to Laminai. On the way, Bob asked about the birds we might see and Vel told us to make sure we got to the front of the boat. Vel and his assistant, Orlando, made sure I saw any birds we passed. Orlando was a very sharp-eyed niño of 18 who spotted lots of birds and crocodiles at more than 1000 feet away.

Birds today (finally, a bird list!):
Magnificent Frigatebird
Little Blue Heron (in the picture above)
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Jabiru stork*
Black-necked Stilt
Great Black Hawk*
Turkey Vulture
Northern Jacama*
Parrot sp.
Gray-backed Trogan*
Keel-billed Toucan*
Red-throated Ant Tanager*
Mangrove Swallow*
Boat-tailed Grackle
Oriole sp.

We also saw several wild Howler monkeys which sound amazingly like jungle cats. There were some in the trees near the High Temple and I think Bob got some good shots of them. Speaking of Laminai, the temples were amazing. I’ll need to do a little more research on the Mayans, as they were even more advanced than I thought.

We had a traditional Belizian lunch of coleslaw (traditional food???), red beans and rice which was vegetarian and quite yummy, tortilla chips and a yellowish salsa, habanero peppers with onions and lime juice and coconut tart for dessert. It tasted like more, but I refrained from being a greedy gringo. :-) On the bus back to Belize City we each had a Belitan Beer. This is the only beer brewed in Belize. It wasn’t the best beer I ever had, but it was cold, refreshing and most welcome after a long day in the rainforest.

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