Belize Adventures

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

La Ruta Maya 2007

**warning---this is maybe 6 pages long---you may want to break it up in sections---or get some refreshments before you start---i'm just saying**

Mek Wi Row

Four days. 170 miles. 3 girls. 1 canoe. Holy Cow---what were we thinking.

From my last blog: goal #1—to finish the race. CHECK. Goal #2—to not injure ourselves in any way. Well, minus a few blisters and some chafing, CHECK. Goal #3 (secret goal)—to not finish last. CHECK CHECK. Don’t know how, but we did not finish last on any of the 4 days, thus we did not finish last overall. Wow.

All right, so La Ruta Maya. Thursday, we packed up the parish truck and headed to Cayo. Chris and Monica up front and Kate and I in the bed of the truck. We had all our camping gear in the back so Kate and I made a nice comfy space for the 2 ½ hour ride. We stopped in Hattieville to pick up Adam who jumped in the back and we were off.

Friday morning, we had a 7am start time, so we wanted to be down to the river by 6am. We stayed at the same place as the weekend before, so John (our grandpa who owns the guest house) took the girls in his vehicle while the boys took the truck with the canoe loaded on top. We got to the river and were applying copious amounts of sunscreen as the boys and John duct taped foam to the seats of the canoe! We had our PB&J sandwiches and granola bars in ziplock bags duct taped to the boat; we had our borrowed life jackets and our borrowed paddles in our borrowed canoe; we had written our team name in duct tape on both sides of the boat. Before we knew it, it was time to get in the boat and paddle upstream to get to the starting line. The very beginning of the race was overwhelming—90 canoes, 270 paddles, waves, splashes, canoes tipping, people bobbing in the water, fans on the bank and the bridges screaming, and us….way in the back trying to navigate the unnaturally choppy water and get ourselves moving in the right direction. We start underneath one bridge and cross underneath a next bridge just a few minutes later. The bridge was PACKED with people cheering and screaming and spraying water on us, as though we needed to get any wetter. We very quickly lost sight of almost all of the canoes while we slowly but surely tried to figure out our rhythm. Kate was in the front of the canoe—she’s the smallest and she’s a machine. She counted our strokes and kept us on track. Monica was in the middle and dug her paddles in without fail. That girl’s got power! That leaves me. Well, there is only one position left---in the back. Yep, I was in charge of steering the boat. The shortest girl in the bunch was sitting in that last seat, completely responsible for guiding the boat down the river in some sort of order. Oh man. Each morning I had such anxiety because I literally could not see in front of me. Seriously. When we were all alone on the river, as we usually were after a mere 15-20 minutes of each day, steering was considerably easier (EASIER…NOT EASY….) but in the beginning when all the boats were bouncing around and jostling for position, I was blind in the back, steering the canoe as best I could, trying to not tip and trying not to crash and trying not to get in the way of the boats that were actually IN the race! As sad as I was when the last boat in front of us disappeared around the bend, I was also a tad relieved because then I could better scope the river and attempt to maneuver us where we needed to go.

The first day was mostly a blur of long stretches and bends and a few rapids. We saw the boys twice that day---once when we did a fly by water drop off and paddle switch (my paddle was too long and in the beginning of the race I told Adam that at the next stop I needed a shorter one) and once when Chris was on a bridge taking pictures and Adam swam out to us and tossed in oranges. The first day there were a lot of people from the villages on the river that came down and cheered us on. I am so happy that we put our team name on our boat because so many folks were yelling “Mek Wi Row” and instantly we girls would yell and cheer with them. We were commenting that we were glad we had a catchy name because if our team name was something like ‘JVI girls’ or something, we don’t think it would have been as fun to yell out.

I wish the first day was more memorable, but alas, it wasn’t. I remember lots of bends, straight-aways, a few rapids (and then a few banks…oops, who was in charge of steering? Oh yeah, the short one in the back who couldn’t see anything…), and a whole lot of paddling. Eight hours and 45 minutes later we reached Banana Bank, our first camp for the race. We didn’t have much company along the route; we were mostly in the back. We would pass a team here and there, but then we had to stop for pee breaks and the team would go cruising past us again. Thankfully we were a favorite of the safety boats (probably because we were an all female team) because it was great to see other people on the river every now and again! By the end, the safety boat guys had gone from asking us if we needed water or bananas to yelling our name and cheering us on!

About 10 minutes to the end of day one, a safety boat told us we were almost there. We were so tired and weary, but we seriously took off. We put those paddles in the water like our life depended on it and, for the first time the whole day, ‘raced’ to the end! It was great! We pulled in, immediately took off our lifejackets and gloves, got out of the boat, and just kind of looked around. I, for one, could not believe I was standing on land and not sitting in the river. I also could not believe that there were more boats that came in behind us (not many, two, in fact, but more none the less)!

I am very much of the opinion that girls can do anything guys can do. I now revise that position and say that girls absolutely cannot paddle a canoe like guys can paddle a canoe. When we finally found our rhythm, we would do 30 minute sprints and then 30 minutes steady. We would be paddling like crazy and we would come across boats that were literally parked (I am not kidding you, PARKED) in the river. They would sit up from their lounging position, look back at us, put their paddles lazily in the river, and TAKE OFF. I am not kidding you. We would be paddling twice the speed of these boats and it was the most frustrating thing that they would just glide through the water at breakneck speed. Teams would normally have two guys and one girl (the all guy teams we only saw once—in the morning, when we ALL had to be at the starting line….after that, they were gone) and the one girl in the middle always seemed to dip her paddle in the water when she could be bothered to do so. Oh my gosh! So frustrating. And here we were, with Kate yelling (so much that she lost her voice) 1…2…3…4…5…to keep us on track and to keep us at a good pace. When I think about that, I am not at all surprised that there were only four all female teams in the race. It was tough. Also, what didn’t help us was our canoe! The kitchen table canoe was kind to us in the sense that we did not once tip! Thank goodness. However, the kitchen table canoe was huge and it was heavy and it was terribly slow. But if I had to choose, I would pick the slow kitchen table canoe again in a heartbeat because I never feared that we would tip. We wobbled and we banked a few times, but we did not tip and that canoe got us through to the end.

Basically, each night, we got out of the canoe, ate dinner, and went to bed. We were exhausted. We were also in pain. I cannot remember feeling as much pain in my arms ever in my life. We each got a beer after dinner and I remember looking at Monica and seeing her basically cradling her beer into her stomach. When I asked about it she said that she couldn’t grip the bottle because her hands hurt so bad and she had to nestle it against her body! Isn’t that so funny! That night, Kate said “I cannot believe we are signed up to do this again tomorrow—take my name off the list!” I really did not know how we were going to get in that canoe again, especially when the second day was touted at the longest and hardest. We were such piles lying in the tent that night! I could not switch my arm position without excruciating pain (trying to change out of our rowing clothes was a feat in itself, and probably very humorous to overhear as we moaned the entire time!!!)—so we all kind of fell in our sleeping positions and stayed there!

We woke the next morning around 5am to a man yelling “wake up and shine…..wake up and shine….!!!” We began our sunscreen ritual while the boys made our sandwiches and put the canoe in the water. Begrudgingly we got back IN the canoe and started out for the longest day. For the large part of the morning, we were in dead last. In fact, the boys were waiting down the road to cheer us on and hadn’t seen a boat in a long time. They asked one of the safety boats if there were any more boats coming and the safety boat said no! But they hadn’t seen us, so they just stayed put and lo and behold, we came round a bend! When you’re in last place, you have a safety boat pretty much tailing you, and that got annoying. Also, some guy told us that at the pace we were going, we would reach Bermudia landing (the next stop) at 8pm! He was serious. We were devastated. We decided to kick in gear and got rowing. We were told that the next time we would see the guys was at Big Falls. Around the time we thought we would reach Big Falls, we asked some guy on the bank how much longer—he said we were in Big Falls. What a liar! We were so excited (seeing the boys was such a highlight because it broke up the monotony of 1….2….3…4…5…and endless bends in the river) and kept expecting the rapids and the guys at any minute. AN HOUR LATER we were told we were close! WHAT?!?! Man, I remember that sucked, big time. But we had heard about this ‘big falls’ and did not know what to expect. A few years ago, a group of JVs that crashed their boat there and couldn’t finish the race. We knew that there we either had to go left or right through the rapids and the boys told us “we’re pretty sure you go right…yeah, I think you stay right…..” needless to say, I was a tad nervous, as I felt solely responsible for steering the boat and DID NOT want a crash on my shoulders (ha, nor did I want to injure my roommates!!! Yeah, that too.). We are approaching what we think is big falls and there were our safety boat friends sitting on some rocks in the middle of the river. kate is frantically yelling---left or right---left or right---and the main safety boat guy (we named him Don Johnson) just stared at us! Oh dear---by the time Don got around to raising his hand to point to the right, we were heading STRAIGHT for the clump of rocks and I, with all my extensive paddling and steering experience (read, NONE) did not know at all what to do to avoid going straight through. So, go straight through we did! We all had visions of getting stuck on the rocks and having to wrestle our way out or causing major damage to the canoe but as we were literally two feet from Don Johnson, he looks at us and says, “paddle hard!” oh my goodness, we somehow bounced a few times and went STRAIGHT through the rocks and directly underneath a fishing line!!!! The other safety boat guy was FISHING off the rocks and we managed to avoid a crash, the rocks, any injuries, AND a fishing line! WHAT!? Paddle hard. Ha. Not a minute later we approach what was REALLY big falls (so funny that our big adventure THROUGH the rocks was not even big falls!) and were kindly directed to the right. They were big rapids, but at least we headed for the rapids, not the rocks, and shot down them and were pushed to way over to the left of the river. Due to our efforts (and our not wanting to reach at 8:30pm) we were in sight of another boat (Peace Corps Volunteers) and by some miracle were ahead of them. We were immensely proud that the boys saw that, after witnessing our dead last performance a few hours back. (don’t get excited though, they passed us shortly thereafter—they had two guys…!) Again, the rest of the day was us, the river, and our paddles…no animal life, no rapids, no nothing. We were wondering if the safety boats would let us paddle in the dark, because we were planning on reaching close to sundown. After 10 hours and 35 minutes, a safety boat told us the end was right around the bend. We seriously could not believe it. Not only was it faster than we thought it would be, we still had that peace corps boat in sight! Again, not last! Crazy! The safety boat guys were egging us on to catch up to the peace corps boat, which we didn’t, but we again turned it on and sped into bermudia landing! Holy cow, was I ever happy to take that life jacket off!

Again, the boys got our boat up the muddy bank and we went to the tents they set up for us. It was another night of eating and then sleeping. Well, trying to sleep anyway. Our camping neighbors were less than stellar. They were totally drunk and in the beginning, it was actually amusing. When the hiccupping and the moaning started, it became less and less funny! And good Lord, who made Bryan Adams the featured musician of La Ruta Maya. The first two nights, Bryan Adams greatest hits was BLASTING through the camp. Monica asked if he was there the first night handing out tapes or something! Who listens to Bryan Adams anymore!?!?

The third morning our mindset changed a little. It went from a more relaxed ‘get through the super long and tough day’ to a much more charged ‘get in the boat and go fast so we can get out of the boat as soon as possible.’ Again, we started in dead last (remember what I said about being freaked out each morning. We avoided collisions by just placing ourselves in the very back!) and fell in our routine of sprinting and then steady, sprint and steady. I was never more proud of us than the third day. It was the shortest day yet and we all thought it would be a breeze after two long rough days. The weather had other plans for us. We fought so much wind, I wanted to cry. I really did. The wind was making white caps IN THE RIVER. The wind was making the waves GO BACKWARDS, against us. It was terrible. Oh, and then it started to rain. Yep. So then the rain was hitting us in the face, propelled by the wind. So that was pretty sucky. But wait, then there was thunder. I’m not kidding. At that point, I really started to have a serious chat with God. I mean really. We were looking around for our safety boat friends who were almost always close by….we didn’t know if it was safe or what to do if it lightning started…..yeah, we finally passed the safety boat crew who were on the bank huddled under a tree trying not to get too wet. Thanks guys. I think they cheered us on. I wanted to hit them. But couldn’t because I was furiously paddling so we could move inch by inch against the wind. Again, I am the most proud of us on when I think of that third day. Because we had been coming in before our projected time the previous two days, we thought that the third day we could do that too. Even the top boats came in over their projected times, so you can only imagine that we definitely took longer than expected. Ugh. But we made it, and even though our time didn’t reflect how hard we paddled, the number of boats we passed did. We passed ten boats that day. (Recall, starting in the very back means that any boat that is behind us at day’s end, we had to have passed along the way….). TEN BOATS. We paddled our way through the wind and rain past ten boats. What an incredible feeling. Our safety boat friends told us there were 10 boats behind us with about an hour left in the day—that was the boost we needed to stick those paddles in the water for the bazillionth time! At some point during the third day, I put my head down and dug my paddle into the river. umm…as you’re all reading this, you’re probably thinking, maria—that’s a silly idea—you’re in charge of steering the boat! And yes friends, it was a silly idea. But I was exhausted from constantly planning where I wanted the boat to go and then trying to figure out how in the heck I was going to get the boat to go there! We had a straight-away and I figured, heck, put some extra power strokes in and get out of this boat as fast as possible (can you tell what propelled me through this race!?!). Yeah, well, all of a sudden I hear kate say, “maria…maria!!” well, since I can’t see through humans, I could not see that we were headed straight for a stump that was sticking up in the middle of the river. I mean, we were dead on. There was no way I could have done that if I tried. So, I don’t know what kate is freaking out about and before I can figure things out, we bang right into this stump. Monica said that she was afraid kate, in front, was going to get seriously injured. I, however, had none of those fears because I still could NOT SEE what we were headed for and didn’t know to be afraid! We bounced right off that stump and into some trees and tree branches on the left bank. These branches were intense and I was trying to get us going in the right direction as leaves and sticks are attacking us and we’re ducking and laughing (okay, I was laughing, I’m not sure about the others) and all of a sudden monica’s paddle gets stuck in a mix of branches and we fly on without it. WHAT!?! At that point I really started to laugh, but this time with desperation. I thought we were done. I could not believe that the tree had just stolen monica’s paddle and we were headed downstream and I had no idea what to do. I was convinced I was going to turn around and I would see the tip of the paddle as it disappeared into the depths of the river or that it was being carried away by a current, never to be seen again. Poor kate has no idea what is going on at this point and she is still trying to count 1…2…3….4….5 to get us back on track! Monica and I look at each other and laugh a VERY nervous laugh as we tell kate what happened. Thank you God--the paddle was literally caught in the branches and was suspended in place. We turn around (difficult with two of us now) and go BACK upstream to try to get the paddle. We cruise past it, too far to grab it, and have to turn around AGAIN to make a second attempt. We got it the second time, giggled a bit, calmed down, and resumed our trek to Burrell Boom, our camping destination for the night. All of that and we still kept 10 boats behind us! So funny.

Morning number 4. well, there was not a more eventful morning than morning number 4. I felt like I was already in Belize City, as Boom is pretty close and a bunch of folks came out to see us off. Abel, from Hand in Hand Ministries, brought the Saint Louis University group that was in town to build a house! I said, “really, it feels like we’re already there; do we REALLY have to get back in this blasted boat!?!?” We got in, got situated, and placed ourselves in the middle of the pack—our new strategy; it goes along with ‘get in the boat so we can get OUT of the boat as fast as possible.’ Close to 8:30am, some boat hears a whistle from a spectator and takes off. As soon as one boat went, all the boats start going. We were confused, as clearly it was minutes before start time, but everyone was off and racing. Our team, too, started paddling and when we passed a safety boat, we looked over at them and they were waving their arms and telling everyone to keep going. THEN a next safety boat came speeding along and told us all to turn around and go back; it was a false start. Well, this was fine for us who didn’t get very far, but the top teams are speedy and were well into the race by the time the safety boats told us to turn around. The slow pack of us turned around and paddled back to the starting line. At first, we just hung out in our boat, thinking we’d start in half and hour or so. As time went on, it was clear we were not starting any time soon, so we paddled to the bank and got OUT of the boat and were looking for the boys. They had taken off to get to the first bridge to see us. They heard what happened and came back. Everyone was talking about this false start and how unorganized things were and what should have happened and how much it sucked that all we wanted to do was get to Belize city and they were just prolonging the misery by making us wait to start. We heard it would be harder because we’d be more in the heat of the day and have more wind coming off the sea to battle….great. we were initially told a 10:30 re-start time, so we all got back IN the boat a little before that time. We were then told to GET BACK OUT OF THE BOAT because they were STILL (still!?!?) getting the top teams back to the starting line. Some of the top teams had made it to ladyville (about halfway) before 1)a safety boat could catch them and 2)a safety boat could convince them that they had to turn around only to do this all over again. It was madness. After we got back out of the boat, our spirits were totally in the dumps because we could NOT stop talking about how crappy this situation was---ALL we wanted to do was finish. Ugh.

We finally started at 11:30, three hours after we had planned to start and it was a tough go. The only thing that broke up the monotony of paddling that day was an encounter with the wildlife. We were paddling through BEAUTIFUL mangroves and I look in front of me to see a HUGE (I’m serious here folks) BROWN HAIRY spider on Monica’s back. I’m thinking as fast as I can and trying to figure out how to use my paddle to flick it off her back but not to hit her and I can’t get my arms to do anything other than the paddling I’ve been doing for the past four days. I seriously could not convince my arms to stop paddling to get this man-eating spider off monica’s back! While I’m going through my options and willing my arms to follow my brain, the spider crawled up monica’s back and down her arm. She saw it, freaked out (as anyone would), screamed, and flung her arm and the spider straight backwards. We were the closest we’d been to tipping the whole race at that point, and poor kate, who again didn’t know what was going on, was very annoyed with the disturbance in the back! I was so weary; I thought the whole thing was so funny; once again, don’t think my roommates shared my sentiments!

Something else that was so funny during this race was our method of eating. We had sandwiches, granola bars, bananas, and oranges in the boat with us. However, if one of us was eating, it meant that one of us wasn’t paddling. It was very clear to me when either monica or kate was not paddling and because of that, I felt the need to consume my food as fast as humanly possible so I could continue the misery and get my paddle back in the river. we would literally stuff the sandwiches in our mouths and shout “grmphhh” (which translates to ‘ready’) and start paddling and chewing at the same time. I had sandwich and banana in every free corner of my mouth and cheeks. It was hysterical. It was as if the two seconds it would have taken to be a civilized person and properly chew my food was two seconds too many and we would suffer a disaster if I didn’t down my food at the speed of light. I even figured out this great hands free way to eat granola bars!! WHAT!?! And all this so I could tear the muscles in my arms that much more by paddling and paddling and paddling. Oh man, what were we thinking!

My goodness, at close to 4pm on day four we spotted the Belcan bridge and the boys on it shouting “MEK WI ROW!!!” We crossed under that bridge and hopped out of that canoe and swore off paddling for the rest of our lives.

BUT…..I will say again, that I can’t believe myself and my two female roommates just paddled 170 miles from one side of Belize to the other…and we did this while not tipping nor injuring ourselves nor causing any major rifts in our relationship from being stuck in a canoe with each other for 4 days.

And……we weren’t last!

Monday, March 05, 2007


I want to do a quick update on recent events. Nothing groundbreaking, but a few fun things.

The first thing is our trip to Cayo this weekend. Monica, Kate, and I will be participating in a 4 day canoe race called La Ruta Maya this weekend. It is a JV tradition that the first years participate in the race and the second years run support crew. My next blog entry will consist entirely of tales from this adventure, I'm sure.

(from the ruta maya website: The four day event is a grueling paddle down the 175 miles of the Belize Old River from the historic Hawksworth Bridge (only suspension bridge in the country) in San Ignacio, to the Belcan bridge in downtown Belize City.)

This weekend, the girls went to Cayo to 'practice' for this race. And when I say practice, I mean, to physically sit in the boat we will be using and see if we can make it down river without killing ourselves. Check. We had practiced twice in a boat from my friend Sal. She was not too keen on letting us borrow it for the race---I wonder why! Three absolutely inexperienced girls such as ourselves and one expensive and very well taken care of canoe?? There is no question she made the right decision. That said, we had to find a next boat that we could borrow and hurtle down the river in (sorry mom, ending a sentence in a preposition....). A friend of a friend said that we could borrow a boat that was sponsored by Belize Bank. Belize Bank pays its team to train. Yes, that's right. The Belize Bank team consists not of employees of Belize Bank, but of professional rowers who receive a stipend for the months they spend training for this race! WHAT!?!? This boat that we were supposed to borrow WON THE RACE a few years ago. Sounds rather exciting right!?!? It actually sounded terrifying to us. This isn't just a pokey little canoe...this was a racing canoe built to (again, sorry mom) hurtle down the river in. Needless to say, we had to go see if we could even sit in the canoe without tipping over (the racing canoes are very narrow--not like the good old one from Sal.). Our schedules are pretty busy, so we had to wait until the weekend before the race to go to Cayo, where the boat is kept. GREAT.

We called this friend of a friend who then said he would be out of town and he, in turn, put us in touch with another friend! Great. We arrive, all geared up and ready to go, with a phone number of a friend of a friend of a friend and a hand drawn map to the house where the boat resides. Jerry, the friend, picks us up and brings us to the house. There we see two canoes--the winning canoe, and a 'touring' canoe which is as large and as heavy as a very sturdy kitchen table. We say a silent prayer of thanks! Well, Jerry asks us how we plan to get the canoe down to the water. Plan!?!? Does anyone plan in this country!? Yeah, well we sure didn't have a plan, so Jerry calls his aunt's husband (follow me here) who comes and picks us up and drops us in the river. He then instructs us where to leave the canoe so he can pick it up after we're done. Seriously. I'm writing all this because people do things like that here. All the time. People are so generous of themselves and their time. It really puts us to shame a lot.

The generosity doesn't stop there. The man who owns these canoes was supposed to be back in San Ignacio on Sunday, but of course, wasn't. We were staying at a guest house and the man who runs it could have been our grandfather. He offers to take us BACK up to the house to pick up the canoe where the previous guy had dropped it off for us! Again, WHAT!?!? We load up the canoe, drive back down to the river, and John (our grandpa) asks what time he should come back to get us AND the canoe. Oh, and he brought us padding for the seats and a bottle of cold water. Yep. Again, shamed. A lot.

Our practices were successful. We didn't tip (it would be pretty hard to tip the kitchen table canoe, but I'm SURE we could do it) and we talked about our strokes and about what we think will stress us out on the river. One goal: to finish. Next goal: to not injure ourselves in any way. Secret goal: to not finish last.

Please pray for us this weekend!

Oh, and I wanted my hair plaited for the race because I didn't want it in my face. Our friend had twisted it once before (looks the same as plaits but, literally, is twists into my scalp) and I liked it because I didn't have to do anything with it! I asked my friend Keisha if she could plait my hair. She asked me how I wanted it and I told her I wanted it however she thought it would look cute. Wow. She came over and was plaiting my hair for 6 hours. I AM NOT KIDDING. She decided to do the plaits that are the teeny tiny ones all over my head. They are not corn rows; they do not go down against my scalp. I can't think of another description except just that--that they are a bazillion teeny tiny braids all over! She told me it would take 3 hours. 3!!! It took over 6! I am NEVER taking these out. EVER! But, I think it looks really good. It's hard to have any sort of hairstyle here without looking like a tourist, because all the white people come in and get their hair done up. So, I am aware that I look somewhat like a tourist--I'll just have to deal, because I really like having my hair like this!

Last--you know, on the list of things that I did today: ate lunch at Dawn's, talked with the Boston College group that is building a house for HH this week, updated a few files, MET MALCOM X'S DAUGHTER. Sure did. HH built a transitional house for women (the same dimensions--16x16) in Hattieville a few months ago. Malcom X's daughter heard about it and wanted to come down and put in plants and trees in the yard. Thus, this morning at the house blessing, I met her along with a group of women called 'Sacred Essence' who came here for a women's summit. I swear, every day it's something like this!

I will be counting on your prayers to send us swiftly and safely down the river this weekend!