Posted by: Tori Wong | 27th Apr, 2010

Do you know Jose Mario Esquivel?

On Friday when we were swimming at branch mouth, I jumped off the bridge and was swimming to the shore when I sliced my foot open on something in the mud, I cursed then looked to see what the culprit was, searching for a rock or a broken bottle. What i found was a Belize Social Security ID card for a guy named JOSE MARIO ESQUIVEL! He was born July 20th 1985, and the card (that has been safely tucked away in my backpack since Friday) doesn’t expire until 2019! I have made it my goal, much like capturing a dinosaur, to find this Jose Esquivel and return his card to him before I leave in 5 days. I’ve been asking everyone I know if they know him/his family. I know this country is small enough that SOMEONE will recognize him, I just know it!

Everyone I’ve asked has had a different opinion on the lost ID; I’ve heard everything from “He’s probably an escaped convict who was being chased by the cops and threw his card over the bridge so they wouldn’t be able to identify him!” to “It must be fate for you to find this guy, fall in love, and get married!” Overactive imaginations…but I AM excited for this last adventure in Belize! So much for finals…I’m going to go find Jose Mario Esquivel!

Posted by: Tori Wong | 26th Apr, 2010

Oh Hey There, Dry Season

So…Belize has officially entered the “dry season,” and everyone warned me that the transition from April to May is the hottest time of the year, but I didn’t believe them. Until this week. Yesterday had a heat index of 113˚, today I sweat in places I didn’t even know had pores (the backs of my ears and tops of my feet?) and I just got a text from Rhondine warning that tomorrow’s heat index is going to reach 126˚! 126 DEGREES?! You could cook food in 126 DEGREES!

All this heat makes studying for my finals…or moving in general…seem like an impossible task. I can’t even bring myself to eat anything more than mangos (the dry season brought mango season with it!!!!) and several nalgenes of water each day because I would rather dance around in a small dark room filled with sharp objects than even think of cooking in this heat.

Who would have ever thought that Virginia’s humid summers could be refreshing?

Posted by: Tori Wong | 25th Apr, 2010

One last week in Belize…

Say what?!

I’ve been putting off writing this post for quite a while because I just don’t even know what to say to express the mix of feelings I’m experiencing right now. I leave the Belize City Airport 2:00pm on Sunday, May 2nd and get into DC early (like 1am…) Monday morning (I have a MAD layover in Miami.) I’m definitely ready to be back and to see everyone I miss so much, but I’m not by any means ready to leave this place that four months ago seemed like the exact opposite of home. I have been touched, amazed, and incredibly grateful for the kindness of everyone I have met here, and can’t imagine getting on a plane in exactly one week to leave this new home and new life I have built in Belize.

That being said, I am going to live this last week to the fullest (or as full as it can get with a jam-packed final exam schedule) and “go out with a bang,” so to speak.

Friday I had 2 major presentations: The first for my Applications of Sustainable Development course to present on my semester teaching environmental education at St. Barnabas. The second was for Horizon 2030, a consultation program that has kind of bombarded the country in the past few weeks (as in everyone is talking about it) and aims to create a framework for where the country should be in 20 years by sending representatives around the country to “listen” to what the people think. I was required to present my “vision” on solid waste management for my environmental economics course, but I honestly felt a bit uncomfortable because I felt that since I’m only going to be here a total of 4 months, it’s not my place to tell the government what they should be doing for this country. I haven’t lived through the history, and while I have every intention of returning to Belize, I don’t know how much of the future I will be involved in. After sitting through some of the other 2030 presentations, I think the other international students and many of the Belizeans in the audience agree. Anyway, both the presentations went smoothly, and it’s nice to know that the only school work I have left are 3 cumulative finals on Monday and Wednesday of next week.

The greatest project partners I ever could have asked for; Tommy, Tony, Hannah. I’m going to miss them more than they will ever know.

After my presentations, I went to Branch Mouth, the swing bridge over the Macal River with Lauren, Kate, Ashton and Eddie. Hopefully that won’t be my last trip to the bridge, but it very well might be…I’m going to miss being able to just walk to such a cool place whenever I want.

Branch Mouth!

On Saturday, we went to our very last Saturday market (!!!) I remember our first trip to the market like it was yesterday, and here I am, 4 months later, eating my last pupusa and saying goodbye to Christopher (aka. the Peanut butter man) and his 10-year-old brainiac of a daughter, Jasmine, who I have become so close with in what I previously would have considered a short period of time.

Our favorite pupusa stand at the Saturday Cayo Market.

PUPUSAS-thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and beans!

I’m going to stay busy this week with finals, goodbyes and last minute adventures around Cayo, but I’ll try to keep you posted and I will be back to the states in ONE WEEK.

Posted by: Tori Wong | 18th Apr, 2010

Unbelizeable family vacation!

My family came to visit over Spring break (1st week of April)! We spent 3 days in Cayo together and I had SO much fun showing them all around San Ignacio, and what I’ve called “home” for the past 4 months. It was great! They met everybody, ate at all my favorite restaurants (Hannah’s, Martha’s, Erva’s and the nameless fast food stand next to Hannah’s), walked across the rope bridge at Branch Mouth (where we go swimming all the time), went swimming at Bullet Tree (just another part of the same river), toured Galen and met Rhondine!

Alex, Tyer and me on the rope bridge at Branch Mouth. It was (amazingly) kind of cold to go swimming, but we normally jump off the bridge into the water less than 10 feet below.

Dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in town, Ko-ok Han-nah (we all just call it Hannah’s).

I would almost like to leave this picture caption-less to let everyone use their imagination to decide what exactly is going on here, but the explanation is just as funny. There was a big open field surrounded by palm trees behind my family’s cabin (where they were staying at Wind Hill). One day, I walked out to find Tyler and Alex collecting coconuts in the field, then the three of us spent a good 45 minutes smashing dead coconuts on this rock…

I guess the theme of the week was “fun with coconuts.” Dad and a coconut boat at Bullet Tree.

Sunset drive on the Western Highway!

Then on Thursday, we all went to San Pedro (a town on Ambergris Caye, an island off the northern coast of Belize) together for Easter! San Pedro was much more touristy than I had expected, but it was really nice to have an actual family vacation in a beautiful place away from everything that I had gotten so used to. When we arrived on Thursday, we checked into “the Phoenix”, and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring and working on our tans by the “infinity pool” (so COOL!).

There were hardly any “real” cars on the island, only golf carts.

Sailboats right outside our hotel.

The roof of the Phoenix!

On Friday, Tyler, Alex, and I (along with Ninfa and Alison, 2 of my friends from Cayo) went snorkeling at “Hol Chan Marine Reserve” and “Shark Ray Alley.” I’m a bit bummed that I didn’t think to get an underwater camera, because this trip was AMAZING; it was equally as cool as my oceanography trip to Southwater. Our guide, Alfonse was GREAT; he was totally passionate about the ocean and about sharing all the marine life with us! Some of the highlights of the snorkeling trip: swimming 2 feet over sea turtles, and next to parrotfish, moray eels, colorful coral, a 30 foot drop off (that made me feel like I was in finding nemo…), holding a stingray “like a pizza,” and “carrying” a nurse shark (carrying in quotes, because it actually carried me! Alfonse helped me wrap my arm around the pectoral fins, then he said, “just let her swim where she wants to go!”). It was an amazing afternoon, to say the least.

Saturday, Dad and Tyler went deep-sea fishing, and TYLER caught a BARRACUDA! end. Then we had a wong-family cooking party and invited a bunch of my friends over to feast and watch the NCAA championships!

eeeeek barracuda.

Posted by: Tori Wong | 17th Apr, 2010

Mole Enchiladas with Ms. Rhondine!

Ms. Rhondine taught us how to make mole enchiladas! This is the first semester that I’ve had to really cook for myself for every meal; it’s been a lot of stir fry (and cheesy toast…), so this meal was a nice change! I’ve found that there is almost always a pot of cooked beans in local households ready to be used in an infinite variety of quick Belizean dishes. This one uses mashed and refried beans with a ready-made mole sauce, a combination of red chilis and chocolate.


1 small bottle Donna Maria Mole Sauce

1 lg. 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes

1 lb. 15 oz. can tomato sauce

1 quart low sodium chicken or vegetable stock

1 medium sized onion finely chopped

4 cloves garlic crushed

1 small green bell pepper finely chopped

1 tsp. ground black pepper

2 tsp. ground oregano

2 tsp. salt

2 tblsp. Olive oil

1 lb. Manchego cheese or other good melting cheese such as mild cheddar grated

1.5 lbs corn tortillas

1.5 lbs. shredded chicken for stuffing the enchiladas (enchiladas can be stuffed with beans and cheese or other meats)

8 oz.  sour cream

1 bunch cilantro chopped (optional garnish)

On medium high heat in heavy saucepan; sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent. Add bell peppers and continue to sauté until soft. Add mole sauce, black pepper, salt and oregano and continue to fry. Stir mixture and add ¼ of the stock; let simmer until the mixture is almost dry before adding another ¼ of the stock. Continue frying sauce one more time before adding the crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce. Also, add the left over stock to the sauce. Stir the sauce to ensure it is not sticking to the pot, turn down heat to low and let simmer for about 15 mins.

Use a 15 X 9 pyrex dish or two smaller pyrex dishes for the enchilades. Heat oven to 350 degree F before you assemble the enchiladas.  To soften hard corn tortillas, dip the tortillas in sauce, stuff with chicken, beans, cheese or your favorite meat and roll. Spread some sauce on the bottom of the pyrex dish before you start assembling the enchilades. Continue to stuff and roll corn tortillas laying them tightly next to each other until the pyrex dish is filled. Once dish is filled with enchiladas, cover with extra sauce and add cheese. Put the dish filled with enchiladas in the oven and let bake until cheese is melted.

Remove from oven and serve with sour cream and chopped cilantro and or salsa sauce.

Tip: left over sauce can be used to cover serving plate before dishing out enchiladas onto plate. Left overs can be refrigerated and reheated in a microwave before serving.

The finished product 🙂

My roommate, Amanda enjoying our masterpiece.

Posted by: Tori Wong | 26th Mar, 2010

La Ruta Maya (as seen by non-paddlers)!

Okay, 2 weeks late, but as promised: photos from La Ruta Maya!

DAT Team! DAT (Creole for “that”) used to stand for our team’s initials (Danielle, Alyssa, Tori), but then Eric replaced Danielle at the last minute and we technically should have been EAT…but we were already registered, so we just stuck to DAT team, calling Eric “Dude” all weekend.

Downtown San Ignacio at the start of day one. I have NEVER seen so many people in San Ignacio! The bridge everyone is standing on was 1,000 feet from the start; the first team to reach the bridge received a cash prize! But because 100 boats all tried to squeeze under it at the same time, many boats flipped right away. There were kids swimming by the bank, waiting for people to flip so they could grab then unfortunate team’s gatorade and candy bars for a snack later in the race!

The start of day one! This photo was taken by Hannah Aitken (my Environmental Education teaching partner!) from the steel Hawksworth bridge that we cross every morning to get to school.

The start of day 2. I’m in the yellow boat on the right(ish) side with “Big Rock” taped to the stern. They called us “big rock” because we “paddle that boat like you paddle a big rock!” haha. Other interesting cheers included “Go Gringos! GO!” and “Only 156 miles to go girls! Lets go! Lets go!”

The start of day 2-if only it stayed this cool and misty all day…

The Safety boat! Throughout the race, we would go on these 3-4 hour stretches without seeing another human being or boat, then we would finally turn a bend to see this safety crew cheering us on and checking to make sure we were still alive and sane. The first day we found them, we literally screamed out with joy.

DAT Team at the end of day 3! Almost there! (Me, Alyssa, Eric)

Just crossed the finish line! 180 miles and the craziest experience of my 20 year old life-done.

I arrived back “home” to the Log Cabins last night after successfully paddling 180 miles across Belize in what has been named the 37th most difficult race in the world (from

Participating in the race was simultaneously the best and worst experience of my entire life; never before have I pushed myself so hard physically, emotionally and mentally and still questioned whether or not I would succeed.

Before the race, I had visions of drifting on the water, taking time to swim lazily in the Belize River, and joking with the other teams as we hung out on a 4 day moving boat party…but within the first few hours of day one, I came to the painful realization that I had grossly underestimated the difficulty of canoeing 4 whole days with 2 (almost complete) strangers. My goals for the race were quickly revised from not coming in last to simply finishing the race alive, and at some points included finding the nearest safety boat to tow us into the finish line. We (amazingly) never came in last, nor did we ever have to be towed in; we did however, stick to the back of the pack and did form some pretty hilarious relationships with the other last place teams (who were all not surprisingly composed of non-Belizean paddlers-for the last three days, we paddled among people from Japan, Canada, London, the US!)

Our strategy to keep paddling was surprisingly successful in its simplicity. I would count numbers 1-8 in my head, say “nine, ten, switch” and Alyssa and I would change sides of the canoe and then begin again, until I became delirious and started repeating numbers and counting in Chinese, Spanish, Pig Latin and made up languages composed of squeals and grunts. At the end of every hour, we would have a “power alphabet,” where I would count to 10 aloud, then instead of saying “switch,” scream a word beginning with every letter of the alphabet, one letter for every set of ten. At first, we had alphabet themes: foods, names, verbs, etc. but as the hours added up we ended up just shouting random words and sometimes just the letter (‘x’ proved to be the most challenging…after x-ray, xylophone and xenophobia we basically gave up…).

At the starting line each morning, we would float on the water surrounded by professionals, competitors and a huge cheering section comprised largely of our own Galen support team. But when the starting horn sounded, we paddled and paddled and we lifted our heads only to see one canoe after another disappear around the bend in front of us until, ultimately, it was just the four of us-me, Eric, Alyssa, and the river.

As I said, we never did finish last, and I left Belize City with a little more muscle, a lovely life-jacket tan and a sense of accomplishment that will hopefully stick with me for the rest of my life.

Posted by: Tori Wong | 2nd Mar, 2010

ESCI 305 to Southwater Caye!

If my blog entries were to have abstracts like peer-reviewed journal articles, this one would have two main points:

  1. I’m taking oceanography in Belize, and so, am learning about the ocean in the ocean instead of in a classroom in fredericksburg.
  2. This past weekend, my class took a field trip to South Water Caye, an island about a 25 minute speedboat ride from the eastern coast of Belize.

greatest. field trip. ever.

First of all, to say that South Water Caye is small is an understatement. When we pulled up to the dock, we could see straight through to the other shore of the island.  took a walk (camera in tow-see pictures below!) around the entire perimeter of the Caye in less than 10 minutes. Because of its close proximity to the Smithsonian Institute (so close I could easily swim the distance), South Water Cyae is used primarily for research purposes and student group programs.

Shortly after we arrived, we went out for our first snorkel! I wish I could describe its radiance with words or even pictures, but I just can’t. I have never seen so many (naturally occurring) colors or so much different life living together in such a small area. After about an hour and a half out on the reef, we reconvened in the research lab and talked about what we saw. By the time we left the lab, we had constructed a list of 78 fish and coral species we had seen in just that 1 and a half hours. Some of my favorites were the southern sting ray (at first, the only part of the ray I saw were its eyes! Then a cloud of sand and he was off gliding across the ocean floor!), the princess parrotfish (so named because of its bright teal color and beak-like lips), and the long spine squirrelfish (bright red with grayish/ivory scales).

After a little R&R (for me this included pulling knots of salt water out of my hair and taking a nice walk around the island), we met in the mess hall for dinner (rice and beans (no surprise there), potato salad, and one of the best brownies I’ve ever had), and suited up for a NIGHT SNORKEL! When I say “suited up,” I mean that I put my bikini and flippers back on, grabbed my water-proof flashlight and dove into the (much colder than expected) Caribbean Sea at 8:30pm!

I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting the reef to be an entirely different beast at night…we saw so many different organisms and experienced so much more life that simply does not come out during the day. One example was an OCTOPUS! It was such an amazing creature; our professor, Dr. Ed Boles dove down and picked it up so that we could play with it, but he dropped it coming back up to the surface, and the octopus just flattened itself out and oozed into the cracks of the rocks and disappeared. Octopuses are incredibly intelligent creatures; Dr. Boles was telling us that if you give an octopus a sealed jar with a crab in it, it will fuss with the jar and eventually figure out that removing the lid will release the crab. You could give that same octopus a jar 6 months later and it would pop the lid right off. So cool. During the night snorkel, we also saw a bunch of sea cucumbers (I even held a beaded sea cucumber-it was squishy…and for the record, it’s an animal…not a vegetable), a sea hare, some yellow stingrays, a bridled burrfish, a scrawled cowfish, and TONS more.

On Sunday, we took a quick boat ride out to the Carrie Bow Caye, where the Smithsonian Research Facility is located. This place was amazing, and made me think that this is legitimately something that I would like to do with my life. The tiny island houses up to 6 scientists at a time and has several research labs both inside and out. Sandy, the Caye manager for the month of February (there are 12 different people who cycle in and out and stay at the Caye for one month  of every year. They take care of the researchers and keep everything running at the facility) showed us around the facility and told us so many sweet stories about things she experienced working here. It was literally the coolest place I have ever been.

After leaving the Smithsonian, we stopped for a snorkel on the other side of the channel from South Water Caye. Because we were further from land, the water was pretty choppy and the waves were really intense. I swallowed a good portion of the Caribbean Sea, but it was totally worth it because the water was clearer, deeper and even more diverse than our first day snorkel. We found a ctenophore and made friends with a school of banded butterfly fish!

I will repeat: this was the greatest school field trip I have ever attended. period.

ilovebelize 🙂

Chalkboard in the lab with all the fish species we saw in just the FIRST day-time snorkel.

I like this tree. For some reason, the word hope comes to mind when I see it.

The product of a post-snorkeling photo shoot.

Just chilling with the fishes.

Awesome weekends are always better when they’re shared with good company. (Lauren, Kate, Alison and myself)

Baby mangrove ocean sunrise!

It’s funny to think about how often we take the sun rising and falling every day for granted.

If you’re reading this, then this message is for you. I miss you and think about you every day. Stay safe, be strong and I’ll see you soon!

Posted by: Tori Wong | 2nd Mar, 2010

La Ruta Maya (aka 180 miles of paddling death)

So every March, Belize hosts the second longest canoe race (in the world!) in honor of Baron Bliss Day. Depending on who you ask, La Ruta Maya is anywhere between 170 and 190 miles from San Ignacio to Belize City (fyi-that is across the entire country) over 4 days; the race is by far the largest sporting event in the country and it attracts people from all over to both paddle and follow. This year, La Ruta Maya is begins at 5:30am on Friday the 5th and ends on the evening of Monday the 8th.

For some strange reason, I decided that I wanted to be part of this madness. But not only part of it (some international students joined the support crew that will take care of the injured, dehydrated, and mentally unstable paddlers), nooooo, I wanted to paddle in the race.

So, early Friday morning, I will be loading up my dry bag full of sunscreen, gatorade and powerbars and joining over 100 other canoes (ranging from incredibly competitive professional paddlers to intramural high school students to 75 year old men to peace corps volunteers) under the steel Hawksworth bridge for the mass start of what I’m anticipating will be the hardest (and most epic) undertaking of my life.

Can you tell I’m nervous? Wish me luck-I’m sure by Tuesday of next week I will have a multitude of stories to tell. Until then, here’s to rocking the boat and always saying ‘yes’ to new adventures! peace out!

one of our many 6-hour Ruta Maya practices. love it!

Posted by: Tori Wong | 2nd Mar, 2010

Teaching at St. Barnabas!

This semester, I’m taking a service-learning based class called “Applications in Sustainable Development” that focuses on experiential learning and community involvement as a way to promote sustainability. Our class of about 45 students was divided into groups and given 9 choices of service-learning projects to work on all semester. For the first few weeks, we sat in the lecture hall and talked about how we define service learning and how we can make sure everyone (both the students in the class and those we are serving) get the most out of our project. After 4 weeks of lecture, they introduced us to our project partners and set us loose to develop our own plan for the semester.

All the projects seem really neat and they all have a different focus. One group is working with a battered women’s shelter, tutoring the women so they can go back to school. Another group is teaching school teachers how to use computers and word processing. The athletes in our class are using soccer drills to teach elementary kids about HIV and AIDS awareness.

My group (of four) is teaching environmental education at a primary school called St. Barnabas, located only 5 minutes walking from Galen’s campus. I’m teaching standard 3/4 (who are for the most part 8 and 9 year olds-my favorite age!) with Hannah Aitken, another international student from the University of Vermont. Hannah has more enthusiasm and passion for environmental education than anyone I’ve ever met, her energy is contagious and the only thing more fantastic than her dedication to environmental education is her laugh. I really lucked out on this one; my group is rad.

Hannah and I taught our first lesson (on biomes and ecosystems) last Wednesday, and I LOVED IT! We have 30 8-9 year olds who are all so bright, energetic, and pure! We got to the school a little early, and were just walking around the campus during their recess when a group of 4 girls (all with names after flowers: Daisy, Azalea, Jasmine, and Rose) ran up to us and hugged us! They call us Miss Tori and Miss Hannah, answer everything with “yes ma’am,” and every time we ask a question, 30 little hands shoot up in the air as they shout “miss! miss!” to get us to call on them!

I have so much real school work to do (I’m in the middle of midterms week right now), but all I really want to do is write more lesson plans and go play with these kids all day! I realized that I love working with kids and I LOVE talking about the environment, so this is perfect for me, and think this is probably going to be one of the best experiences I have while I’m down here.

Playing a game of “name-tag” with 31 standard 3/4 students

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