Welcome to the Mountains

Trip Start Dec 01, 2009
Trip End Apr 03, 2010

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Where I stayed
Maya Mountain Research Farm

Flag of Belize  , Toledo,
Saturday, December 5, 2009

The farm is about 75 acres of old orange grove and cattle ranch that has been turned into a food forest over the past 10 years. Set in the foothills of the Maya Mountains in the deep south of Belize, the farm was incredibly isolated.

When the dory parked us at the landing to the farm, we were faced with a steep, muddy bank to climb up in our flip flops. (A little warning would have been nice) After losing my flip flips to the sucking mud, we proceeded up hill (now barefoot) with our 50 pound packs on our back and another 20 pounds on the front. Up earthen steps, barely passable at times, we climbed what felt more and more like a mountain with every step. (As it turns out, it was a mountain.)

The dogs barking alerted the residents to our presence, and we were greeted about half way there by the "Farm Manager". Without offer to grab a bag, she cheerfully says we're almost there, and trots up the hill ahead of us. We were met at the top of the hill by 2 of the vilest, most flea-ridden dogs I've ever seen and two of the volunteers, one falsely perky and the other annoyingly apathetic. The owner, Christopher, wasn't around when we arrived, but we were given a quick introduction to the farm and shown to our cabin where we desperately needed to freshen up.

The cabin - called the Posh Pod - was a beautifully crafted two-story open air bungalow in the rain forest. We climbed up a few stairs and opened a trap door in the floor to get to the main living level of the bungalow. The you put the door back down, and it became a little patio with a hammock. Our bedroom was then up one more level, with a mossie net and an unfettered eastern view of the top of the forest down hill from us. It was really quite wonderful sleeping there. We woke up at 6 every morning to an incredible array of birds chirping, the morning sun
shining bright, and the smell of the wood stove in the kitchen being started for morning coffee. It took a few days for all the creepies and crawlies to move out, but the bees, ants and geckos never got the hint.

One of the first things we noticed when me moved in was the huge bee hive near the foot of our bed with an ant highway running right next to it. As they were non-stinging bees, we were told that now that we'd moved in wasn't really the time to remove it, and they were harmless anyway. Our first introduction to living "Permaculture". Chris tells us that he majored in joint rolling with a minor in panty removal in college. Great! At this point, we're not feeling all that terribly confident in our choice of "reputable NGO's" to work for. He mentions his strict smoking and drinking policies: no drinking, and there's a spot to smoke across the river.

The food - almost everything around us was consumable in some way. All meals were vegetarian, mostly gathered by us from the farm each day. As we walked to the kitchen for breakfast, we'd grab bunches of bananas that were ripe along the path. When we went on our farm tour, we'd take 5-gallon pails to collect whatever happened to be ripe; be it pineapples, anona fruit, papayas, etc. We ate pigweed and chaya for our greens, dug up cassava and cocoa yams for our potatoes, and always had plenty of fried bananas and a bottle of homemade hot sauce with every meal.

The bathrooms - composting toilets, also on a slope. You walked up a few stairs, and sat down, with the wall you were facing being completely open, albeit a mosquito screen, looking out over the forest. Next to the toilet was a large bag of rice hulls used to cover your business, but there never seemed to be quite enough to cover the odor. There were no lights in the loo, so at night you were either guided by the moon or you made sure to have your head lamp on you at all times. For two days, we had to share the loo with a gigantic wolf spider that seemed pretty content just hanging out in there.

The kitchen was open-air, exposed wood timbers supporting the corrugated metal roof. The shady side faced the chicken coop, obscured only by the banana bunches in varying degrees of ripeness. The south side hung thick with vines of all varieties, providing necessary shade from the intense sun. The counters were constructed of flagstones set into the top of stone walls. The cooking/eating area was surrounded by a chain-link fence with the intention of keeping the chickens out, albeit unsuccessfully. They found their way in, through, and over to lay eggs in a cubby amongst the cookbooks and shit all over the floor. (No one else seemed as concerned about this as we were.)

Sunday – morning tour with Chris. We took a long walk around the farm, identifying all the plants, trees, bushes and ground covers, complete with the Latin names that we never remembered. Shortly before we arrived, Chris had had an unfortunate run-in with a chainsaw, and his exposed pink wound seemed to be an all-you-can-eat buffet for the sandflies, but he seemed unscathed by them as he walked shoeless through the farm, machete in hand for chopping, digging, and being used as a pointer, and stopping to farmer blow multiple times throughout the show and tell.

Monday:  We spent the morning in the flood plain near the river, the best soil on the farm and most exposed to the tropical sun - perfect for the vegetable garden! We sweated and toiled in the blazing sun - clearing the dried reed grass, tilling the soil, and planting out seeds. Occasionally the clouds would roll in and a downpour would ensue, so we would grab gigantic "elephant ears" to use as umbrellas until it passed. The sun would return, and the steam would rise off our backs as we bent over our rakes, clearing vines and mopping the sweat from our brows.

The seed beds were 4'x8', with rows drawn in with a large stick, seeds broadcast, and then a few handfuls of soil sprinkled gingerly on top. To protect the young seedlings from the harsh tropical sun, large dried palm fronds would be laid over the freshly seeded ground, to be propped up weeks later when the plants were a few inches tall.

The afternoon was spent transplanting sweet potato vines, previously growing on the kitchen roof, to an exposed hill further out in the farm.  With only machetes for tools, we sliced a small trench into the earth, coiled the vine in 1 foot lengths back on itself, laid it in the trench, and cover it again, leaving a few leaves poking through, but not being too particular.

Worked overtime and missed 2nd half of farm tour with Chris, but we got some hanging out in MMRF's library, checking out books, talking to Chris. Started the Popol Vu and Chapter 10 of Mollison's Permaculture Handbook about the Tropics. Jesse sneaks off to the far reaches of the farm for a cigarette, and then night falls again in the jungle.

Tuesday: morning tour with Chris, gathering the foulest of jobs on the farm: breadnuts.  Morning spent peeling the fermenting stink, 3 buckets full. Jesse discovers that if you rub the fermenting juice on your skin, the no-see-ums will quit bothering you.  We spent the afternoon transplanting Aracas – groundcover. One of the fleabags accompanied us, staring at Jesse the whole time with his red rocket sticking out. Jesse noticed some odd things in the dogs nostrils, which turned out to be wood ticks. Chris said that they get them all the time, he usually just leaves them alone. "They'll get big enough and fall out on their own." This wasn't a sufficient answer for Jesse, who carefully pulled them out with his pliers and then had the pleasure of feeding them to the chickens.
That afternoon Jesse went to town with James, Chris went to town separately, and I harvested cassava with Hannah and Rachel. Supper rolled around, and Jesse wasn't back yet; we worried that he wouldn’t find his way home in the dark. Luckily one of the flea-bags had followed him, and he had his head light with him, and he finally stumbled in, muddy and tired, long after night fell. One of MMRF's dories was for James to get back and forth across the river every day. He told Jesse that he could use it to cross back across the river, and he'd figure something else out the next day. Jesse is telling me this, and the snotty intern, overhearing and interrupting says "you stole somebodies dory? That probably wasn't a good idea!"

Jesse went straight to the shower, after a quick snide comment. A few minutes later, Christopher returned, demanding answers to "why is MMRF dory is on this side of the river? That has to be returned immediately!", and I'm left to explain it to Chris, with the smug interns looking on. Jesse comes back from his shower, and Chris reprimands Jesse that "that dory is strictly for the use of MMRF, interns are not allowed to use it, he can't be responsible for that liability, it must be returned." Again that night, Jesse sneaks off to the far reaches of the farm for a cigarette, and then night falls again in the jungle.

Wednesday – I got up at dawn to start breakfast with Hannah. Pancakes with a golden pear/banana syrup.

A long neglected garden was uncovered in the morning, as we hacked and slashed our way through with the machete. The scorching sun beat down on us as we chased endless vines to their root and gave increasingly more and more feeble yanks to hopelessly tangled vines. The afternoon was spent transplanting more sweet potato vines with James & Armenio. Hannah showed us how to harvest coco yams. You follow the plant down to the root, and then carefully dig around with a spade or your hand, to find the tubers buried in the ground. If you whacked off the top with a machete and pulled out the base to find the tubers, you can just plop it right back down in the whole and pack dirt around it. It'll know what to do after that.

After supper, the girls went upstairs for another movie night in Chris' house, and he again made the unprofessional comment: "Ok girls, I'm naked, you can come up now!" Which they proceeded to do, giggling and laughing and enjoying being Chris' groupies as they picked out movies. Jesse decided to start laundry, following the technique of the other interns. He grabbed a few 5-gallon pails, and filled them with clothes and water "to soak" the dirt out overnight.

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