Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Welcome to Belize

Time to break from politics to put on my other hat - travel writer. I'll be writing some columns for the Washington Times Communities, but here I'll be recording my day-by-day impressions of Belize.

Belize City is just under three hours from DFW. It really is in our back yard, closer to Dallas than Seattle and Boston are. It's also definitely another country.

On stepping out of the airplane I was hit with a hot, humid blast that made me wilt. The terminal building was cooler, but the cooling system definitely felt over-worked. A young woman from the Belize Travel Bureau escorted me through immigration and customs, then took me to the Tropic Air desk to get me squared away for the next leg of my trip, to Punta Gorda in the Toledo district.

The flight from Belize City was on a "puddle jumper," a small aircraft with room for about 15, if they're all slender. I practically had to crawl to my seat, so meager was the head-room and so narrow the aisle. The staff, however, were all pleasant and professional. The flight to Punta Gorda, which included two stops, took an hour.

I was met in Punta Gorda by a driver from the Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge - let's just call it the Machaca Lodge. He took me to the lodge in an open canopied vehicle that looked like it was meant for taking tourists on safari, and that's probably not far off from its usual use. We left Punta Gorda and zoomed through the countryside, the wind making my hair look like it had been through a weed whacker. My kids would have had a blast. I enjoyed it myself.

At the lodge I was met by a charming young woman (so far everyone I've dealt with here has been charming and young - I'm really liking the Belizians) holding a tray with a cool damp towel on it. After I wiped my face, she handed me a ginger infusion drink - refreshing and delicious. The standard hotel form filled out, we left the main building to go to my cabin.

The Machaca Lodge is comprised of a main building which houses a lounge and check-in area on the first floor, a restaurant and bar on the second. The building is wide open, and the restaurant serves dinner on the balcony that wraps around the building. There's a swimming pool, a sauna and spa, and then 12 individual cabins set on the side of a hill and overlooking the rainforest canopy.

The cabins are casual, comfortable and welcoming. The bedroom opens to a screened in balcony with a table and chairs. The tile floor gleams like it's been highly polished. The bathroom has a stone pebble shower built so that you can enjoy it with four or five very good friends. It has a large window overlooking the rainforest. The young woman who showed it to me assured me that it's completely private, only the monkeys will look in to see you shower. And they've signed non-disclosure agreements. It's a bit open-to-the-world for my taste, but there's no denying that it's a lovely shower, and it sure felt good after a day of travel.

After my shower I made my way to the restaurant and was reminded by the large, many-legged creature on the path in front of me that I am indeed in the tropics. It was dark enough that I couldn't see it clearly, and I'm really glad I couldn't. I thought of turning back to my cabin to go to bed hungry, then reminded myself that I was a thousand times bigger than my fellow traveler (which would put it at a bit over three ounces). It scuttled to one side and I trotted past it.

I'm glad I did. Dinner was excellent. I had shrimp ceviche, served with a couple of wedges of watermelon and perfectly seasoned. The dish had a fiery sparkle that had me wanting more. Next came grouper with hollandaise, served over rice and fresh vegetables. It didn't sparkle quite the way the ceviche did, but the fish was nicely grilled and the vegetables were perfectly cooked. I think the hollandaise was more unctuous than the dish called for - a beurre blanc might have been better.

Dessert was called "chocolate pate." It was a scoop of something very much like ganache, with some nuts and roasted coconut sprinkled on top. It was chocolate heaven. If other diners hadn't joined me on the balcony by that time, I'd have licked my plate. I'll be attending a chocolate festival this weekend, and if that pate was any indication, I'm going to enjoy it far more than is decent.

I chatted with one of the senior staff during dinner. She told me that almost all the produce used in my dinner was organically grown on the grounds of the lodge. Being from Louisiana, I'm not really that keen on "organic" (I'm just happy when my water doesn't contain benzine), but there was no denying that the lodge's produce is superior. She admitted that there are times when their gardens don't produce enough for every meal (the organic gardening project is still relatively new and will be expanded), but on those occasions they buy from other farmers near the lodge who also grow their produce organically.

At $65 (exclusive of taxes and service), dinner at the Machaca Lodge isn't cheap. But neither is it a bad deal. The dining experience was altogether satisfying, an entirely reasonable splurge.

The couple at the table next to mine told me that they're here for birding. The balcony where we had dinner is apparently an excellent place to watch birds. They told me they watched toucans this morning, and a lodge guide has took them out yesterday on an expedition that she thought was wonderful. I don't know what kinds of birds they saw, but the Machaca Lodge has won highest praise from two Texas birders.

Tomorrow I'll head out for two days with the "Maya home-stay" program, which lodges tourists with Mayan families. Then I'll be back at the Machaca Lodge for three nights to experience the Toledo chocolate festival.

Friday, May 6, 2011

How he did it

The White House is understandably pleased that Osama bin Laden was brought to justice. After taking a victory lap around the Mall, President Obama donned his SEAL uniform to describe his planning and execution of the mission. "Basically," he said, "I had to fly my chopper in low over the Himalaya mountains to avoid Pakistani air defenses. It was some touchy flying, but the maps I'd made were flawless and I'd forecast all the weather problems, so when I gave myself the go-ahead, I had high confidence that I'd succeed."

Asked how intelligence had found bin Laden's hiding place, Obama said, "I had a feeling that one of our Gitmo detainees was an al Qaeda operative, so I put him between Michelle and a tamale and in no time he was begging to tell me all he could. I talked to him in Pashto, and he spilled everything about bin Laden's favorite sushi place in Islamabad. I wrote a quick program to analyze data on fish deliveries in Central Asia, and in no time I had him located."

Obama's description of his fire fight with al Qaeda operatives was gripping. He admitted that the operation wasn't perfect. "I'd talked him into surrendering, but I mistook 'I'll come peacefully' in Saudi Arabic for "screw you" in classical Arabic. So I shot him. But I should point out that I did read him his Miranda rights and I followed all the procedures of peaceful confrontation listed on the back of my Nobel Peace Prize certificate. It was just an unfortunate mistake."

After running a careful field DNA test and confirming that it was indeed bin Laden he'd killed, Obama recalled his education in world religions to provide him with a proper Muslim burial at sea. He then piloted Air Force One back to Washington for a press conference, then on to New York, where he humbly thanked all the little people who made his mission possible.

"I'd also like to thank the families of the 9/11 victims for supporting me through this very difficult and challenging time in my life," he added. "They'll all receive autographed copies of my new book, 'Magical Me,' as well as my complete speeches on commemorative iPods."