Archive for March, 2006

San Pedro Sula to the El Salvador Border

Friday, March 31st, 2006

   Biking from San Pedro Sula (Honduras’ northwest corner) to El Salvador I was struck by two things. 1) The road was uphill the entire time and 2) most of Honduras is poor.

Mud blocks cut from the roadside to build a new house.
Building a house out of adobe (mud blocks)

   More so than in the other places I have biked, with perhaps the exception of parts of Chiapas, this region felt poor (see statistics). It is not just the people walking the sides of the road – convenience stores were poorly stocked, and it was tough to eat well. Many houses are made out of mud bricks (adobe), and the house on the left is on day 4 of 7 of construction. People were friendly, though, and I felt safe and comfortable.

I stayed with the family in this house.

   I spent one night with a family who lived in a house half made of these bricks. They had no electricity or candles, although they did watch an hour of television every night using a car battery. They were extremely generous, and fed me tortillas that they made from their field of corn (they had a good amount of land, and enough food). I gave them my headlamp, which I hope they are enjoying because it is now much more difficult for me to camp.

   I visited a primary school, El Progreso. I set this visit up by biking by the school and having all the children, who were at recess, run out and stop me, asking what I was doing.

Escuela El Progreso, Los Arroyos, La Union
Firemen of San Pedro Sula
Firemen of Santa Maria de Copan

   Thanks to the bomberos (firemen) of San Pedro Sula, who let me stay at their station. They were out fighting fires all night while I slept, and they also gave me a free ‘Bomberos de Honduras’ t-shirt and decal. Also, thanks to the the bomberos of Santa Rosa de Copan (on the right), where I stayed two nights later.

Placencia Belize to San Pedro Sula Honduras

Sunday, March 26th, 2006

   After three days of SCUBA in Placencia, Dennis and I biked south to the end of Belize, camping one night near some Mayan ruins before catching a boat to Guatemala (there are no roads). The following day, we biked into Honduras, stopping at a water park, and then spent a day at the beach in Omoa. We finally arrived, by bike, at the San Pedro Sula airport, where we disassembled Dennis’ bike and built a protective cardboard box for its ride on the plane. (Yes, we biked to the airport with all the cardboard shown below).

Nim Li Pun Mayan Ruins
Which of these people is not Honduran?
Waterpark near Omoa
Coast at Omoa
Biking to the San Pedro Sula Airport with Bike Box
Dennis is ready.  I later learned the bike didn't make it...

   I have met many people on this trip, but I have not been able to spend more than a few days with any of them. Two weeks with a good friend was a welcome addition to this adventure, and I’ve invited Dennis to add some words of his own here. Dennis? (The rest of this post is written by Dennis.)

   First I’d like say thanks to you Dave for inviting me on this trip. Bike touring is the way to go! I’m a complete convert.

Children waiting for the school bus in Belize
Children in Southern Belize

   My thoughts on the trip….I’d say I was most surprised by the diversity of Belize. The entire country is like New York! With large populations of Creole, Mestizo, Maya, Chinese and Arabs, Belize is making a strong bid for a true melting pot. The Chinese in particular struck me the most, it felt like every other shop sign was written in Mandarin/Taiwanese. There were also sizable populations of East Indians, plus a community of Mennonites. This diversity is in stark contrast with what I’ve encountered on other trips to Central America and made Belize quite interesting.

   I was also impressed by the diving, particularly the number of larger animals that we saw. I saw many dolphins, a manta with a wingspan larger than I am tall, several eels, a sea turtle, and a couple of small sharks.

SCUBA diving: Dave and Dennis
Banana Plantation

   This is the paragraph for my mother. Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras all impressed me with the quality of their roads for cycling. I felt more comfortable biking there than I do in New Haven. The roads often have broad shoulders, and drivers are much more aware of bicyclists (likely due to the much larger number of people on bicycles). I also think that in many ways (traffic notwithstanding) it is safer to travel by bike in Central America than by more traditional methods. Why? First, you are more mobile, you’re moving faster, people have to think ahead to accost you. Second, and more importantly, when travelling by bus you are frequently deposited in seedier areas of town, and at places where travellers are known to congregate. This perhaps puts you at a greater likelihood of encountering problems. Biking, by contrast, puts you more frequently in rural areas, farther from urban issues. Of course, there’s no real way to know. I do know that I felt very safe throughout our trip.

Hot in the miday - swimming is mandatory

   Finally I’d like to comment on how impressed I was with Dave’s creating RideForClimate. He’s very professional in his RideForClimate interactions, and takes his work very seriously. Keep up the good work D.

Coral Reefs and Climate Change

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006
The beach in Placencia

   As I had promised my friend Dennis, we arrived in the small tourist town of Placencia and set up our tents on the beach, planning to stay for a few days. We had one goal while in town: to see the coral reefs off Belize’s shore.

   Coral reef ecosystems are some of the most diverse and interesting ecosystems in the world. Coral reefs consist of organisms that build hard calcium carbonate shells, known as ‘reefs’. These organisms house and protect algae, which form the basis of the coral reef ecosystem. The structures built by the corals also provide shelter for many different types of marine life, and coral reef ecosystems are extremely diverse. Over time, as the skeletons of reefs accumulate, the coral builds large underwater structures, making even islands (coral atolls) or ‘barrier reefs’ – long structures parallel to the shore. The largest of these barrier reefs is in Australia (the ‘Great Barrier Reef’), and the second largest is off the coast of Belize.

Laughing Bird Caye
Dennis takes the plunge

   To see the reef close up, I took a SCUBA class. It felt strange paying as much for three days of SCUBA instruction as I paid for the entire month of February, but it was more than worth it, especially considering that these reefs may not survive this century. Dennis, who was already certified to SCUBA, joined me for my training dives, and we took a boat to the barrier reef with other vacationing Americans.

Coral Reef in Belize

   I was amazed by the amount of life in Belize’s reef. Having purchased an underwater case for my camera, I used all my memory cards almost immediately. At times I thought I was in an aquarium – huge schools of fish swam around us, eels weaved through the reef, lobsters hid in the reef, and long sponges rose above the ocean floor. (I have a number of high resolution movies that are too big to post on this site – you’ll have to wait till I return!)

There is lots of life at the reef!
An eel
Two lobsters hiding in the coral

   These reefs are in trouble. Over 10% of reefs worldwide have already been destroyed, largely through changes in land use near the shore, which cause chemicals and excess nutrients to runoff into the ocean. This runoff can kill the delicate reefs. The reefs are also in danger from higher temperatures. When temperatures rise above a certain level, the algae in the reefs die, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. In 1998, one of the hottest years on record, 16% of the world’s reefs were damaged by hotter temperatures. Some of these reefs survived, while others have not recovered. Higher temperatures will make coral bleaching more common, killing many reefs.

Underwater life
A ray on the ocean floor

   Reefs are also threatened by changing ocean chemistry. Much of the carbon dioxide that we add to the atmosphere is actually absorbed by the oceans. Carbon dioxide reacts with water to make carbonic acid, and, since the start of industrial times, the oceans have become more acidic by 0.1 pH. According to a professor who studies ocean chemistry in my former department at the Carnegie Institute of Washington (he also helped put together this lengthy report), the oceans may become too acidic for coral reefs to make their calcium carbonate shells. ‘Higher temperatures may not be the real problem,’ he told me before I left, ‘the reefs may simply dissolve.’

Dennis and the reef

   Coral reefs, such as the ones I swam by off the shore of Belize, are in great danger. Some reefs may survive global warming, but, without action, the majority of reef ecosystems around the world will likely collapse. These reefs are the most biologically diverse parts of the ocean, and without them, we will lose untold numbers of underwater species. These extinctions would be a tragedy not only in their own right, but also for fishermen, the tourism industry, and those of us who enjoy visiting these underwater jungles.

Guatemala to Placencia Belize – 6 days, 274 miles

Friday, March 17th, 2006

   After a night in a small Guatemalan village (where I ran into a high school friend), I crossed into Belize. My friend Dennis Murphree was flying into the Belize City airport that afternoon, and I planned to bike and meet him. I asked the customs agent how many kilometers it was to Belize City. The customs agent, a man of African descent, replied in English ‘I don’t know how many kilometers it is, but I do know it is 75 miles.’

Crossing the border to Belize
Cycling is one of the Belizian national sports

   Belize is more of a Caribbean nation than a Central American nation. It was a British colony until 1981, when it won its independence, and English is the official language. A large portion of the country is of African descent and speaks ‘Creol English.’ It is a diverse country, with immigrants from the surrounding Hispanic countries as well as indigenous Mayan communities. It is also a tiny country. It is the size of Massachusetts but with fewer than 250,000 people (which means convenience stores are far and few between when biking). I learned these basic facts about Belize from a cyclist who I met on the road (movie on the right). I also learned that cycling is a popular sport here, and I was also impressed with the number of bike racks in Belize City.

   I met Dennis, a good friend from college, at the Belize City airport. We assembled his bike and rode into Belize City for the night. Dennis, who has never biked more than 20 miles in a day, is new to bike touring. When he was deciding to join me, I promised we would bike short distances and spend lots of time on the beach. Plans change, though, and when he arrived, I told him we were biking 50 miles inland. He wasn’t very excited.

Biking to the Belize airport to pick up Dennis
Dennis Murphree makes an entrance: the Belize City Airport
Dennis on the street in Belize City

   Dennis and I biked one day to the capital of Belize, Belmopan, a town of 10,000 people, where we met with an organization helping Caribbean nations adapt to climate change. The following day I gave a presentation at Galen University, a university that attempts to incorporate sustainable development into all of its classes. Biking 10 miles down the road, we then spent the night at Jaguar Creek, an ‘environmental peace’ center.

Dennis with the Channel 7 News
Galen University
The Hummingbird Highway

   Turning back towards the coast, Dennis and I biked along the base of the Maya mountains. Fortunately, the road never crossed over the mountains, avoiding any serious hills. Dennis reported, much to my relief, that he actually enjoyed bicycling and was not angry for the false advertising. It is, after all, a bicycle tour.

   Stopping to camp for the night, we asked a retired American who moved to Belize if we could camp on his lawn. ‘Sure, just one problem. I own a jaguar. I will try to put him inside.’ Soon, a half-grown 11-month-old jaguar ‘kitten’ was diving into our stuff, and ran off with Dennis’ biking glove. The jaguar then leapt onto Dennis leg. His owner tried to put the jaguar inside, but the kitten scratched the man and ran off, this time with Dennis’ bike helmet. Recovering the helmet, Dennis and I decided it might be better to continue, and we camped on a lawn in Maya Center, a small town where the locals speak the language Maya Mopan.

A half-grown jaguar mauls Dennis' panniers
11 month-old jaguar and Dennis' biking glove
Children in Maya Center teach us a few Maya Mopan phrases

   The following day, we biked a short distance to Placencia, the beach town that I had promised Dennis. From here we would visit the coral reefs of Belize – reefs that are in great danger from climate change and the reason that I decided to visit Belize.

Northern Guatemala – Climate and Maya Civilization

Sunday, March 12th, 2006
Boat ride to Guatemala

   Gregg, Brooks, and I crossed into Guatemala from Mexico by riding in a small boat across the Usumacinta River. Although this region is sparsely populated, I noticed an immediate change in the people across the border. The children, instead of asking me how much my bike was worth (as nearly every person in Chiapas asked), smiled, played with my bike seat, and tried to say ‘how are you’ in English. The police told me no one had been attacked on the road in three years, and I rode the dirt road until I found a small town where locals allowed me to camp. Gregg and Brooks continued by van, and we split ways.

We have arrived in Guatemala!
First day of biking in Guatemala
Campsite in Jose Fino

   Thinly populated, northern Guatemala is mostly flat and is covered by thick rainforest except for places cleared for crops or cattle. Riding a day and a half, I arrived at the ruins of Tikal, a city that was once one of the largest and most important cities of the ancient Maya. The Mayan civilization thrived from a few centuries before Christ until around 900 AD, when the civilization collapsed, and nearly all cities across the peninsula were abandoned. Now the impressive stone pyramids and palaces are covered by jungle and tourists.

Ruins of Tikal
The ruins of Tikal sit in the Jungle
Ruins of Tikal
Lake Peten-Itza

   The Tikal ruins sit near the large lake of Peten-Itza, and I stayed in a hotel overlooking this lake for $5 a night while nursing a small cold. Here I met with a group of researchers who are drilling into the lake’s bottom, attempting to determine the past climate of the region. By looking at the composition of layers of sediment on the lake’s bottom, the scientists can determine past rainfall patterns and temperature, as well as the type of vegetation that surrounded the lake.

    According to their research, around 900AD, when the Mayan civilization collapsed, a series of intense droughts struck the region, likely making it difficult for the Mayans to feed their large cities. The lake sediments also suggest major deforestation of the region, and it is possible that a combination of drought and land degradation led the Mayans to abandon their settlements. We cannot be sure of how the Mayan civilization collapsed, but it now seems that climate change helped end one of the greatest ancient civilizations of the new world.