Happy homesteading in Belize

 

Nothing worthwhile comes easily. After dedicating the past five years of my life to steady, focused work; I now have my own thatched roof hut on a fenced acre of fertile land, two puppies, a garden, and what’s beginning to look a lot more like a farm here in Belize. It hasn’t been easy, but it certainly has been worthwhile. I’ve discovered the happiness of homesteading.

Recently, I’ve delighted in the happiness of homesteading alongside my happy homesteading partner who happens to have been born and raised here in Punta Gorda, Belize, a tiny town where fishing and farming are still how most people make their living.

The indigenous Garifuna, known for their rhythmic drumming and lively dancing, are skilled fishermen and farmers, as these traditions have been passed down through the generations. “My father used to go out and fish all day,” he told me one night as we shared a pot of fresh caught fish that he’d brought me from the Caribbean Sea, just a ten-minute walk down the dirt road from my house. “My father used to catch so much fish, he would hand out fish to everybody.”

When I first arrived over five years ago in Belize, I spent the first two years volunteering on friends’ farms before I decided to start my own. I learned about Belizean culture and made friends with many local people, including the Garifuna. While visiting a friend, I saw a framed picture hanging on his wall of a black Jesus surrounded by black disciples with dreadlocks flowing down to their waists. I stared at the photo and re-evaluated my white Anglo-Saxon upbringing and the photos of Jesus I had seen in church: you know, the ones that make Jesus look like a blue-eyed surfer boy. As I stared at the picture of the black Jesus, I knew in my heart that Jesus must have been a black man, and his disciples probably were, too.

When I first met the Garifuna people of Belize, I was overcome by their beauty, grace, strength, simplicity, and depth of spirit. I decided that Jesus must have been Garifuna. I didn’t know that years later, I would meet my beautiful Garifuna partner at the local ice cream shop, of all places, fulfilling my wildest dreams of making a happy homestead here in Belize. One year after the completion of my thatched roof hut, I’ve planted my roots and essentially kissed my former life in the US goodbye, as returning to the States presents more obstacles than benefits to my happy homesteading life, as it is now.

I am home. Here in Belize, I have my hands—and my heart—full. I live simply and enjoy the bounty of a good harvest every day, in the midst of the most skilled fishermen and farmers on the planet. It has been a lot more enjoyable to share the joy with a homesteading partner, especially considering that he is the son of a fisherman and grandson of an herbal medicine wisdom keeper of the indigenous Garifuna culture. This morning he served me a steaming cup of freshly brewed jackass bitters, the leaf from a tree that grows on his ancestral farm. “My grandfather used to drink jackass bitters every day,” he said, “It will fight off any infection in your body.” I’ve found this to be true: At the first sign of the sniffles or a sore throat, a cup of jackass bitters usually nips it in the bud.

Last week, with the help of my favorite building contractor (the esteemed Mr. Jose Bo, a Mayan man from the neighboring village), we surrounded my acre property with a barbed wire fence and over one-hundred sapodilla posts. Sapodilla is a hardwood tree harvested locally that will allegedly last over fifteen years without succumbing to the elements, which here include termites, heavy rainfall and tropical humidity.

During the entire first year of living in my thatched roof hut, I lavished myself with plenty of leisure time to get used to being a homeowner. I spent an inordinate amount of time relaxing in my hammock, dreaming of all the awesome projects that I would one day accomplish. I made detailed, ambitious lists and stared longingly at them while lying in my hammock. One year later, I am now sufficiently motivated and courageous enough to put on my work boots, don my straw hat, and grab a shovel. I drop an inordinate amount of sweat under the hot Belizean sun in so doing, but like I said, nothing worthwhile is easy. I can always look forward to the coolness of evening, when my partner and I cook dinner with herbs and vegetables from our farm, light the kerosene lantern and gaze at the millions of stars visible in our unprecedented starlit sky.

 

Chaya, a highly nutritious, leafy green that is similar to spinach when steamed

There’s nothing like the feeling of eating a home cooked meal with vegetables from your own garden. Nothing. It’s the kind of satisfaction that can only be understood by someone who has had the same kind of experience, which is why I’ve learned to share homesteading success stories with other happy homesteaders who can relate to my hard-earned payoff.

I was most proud of my successful installation of door handles to my wooden door, which I’d grown tired of awkwardly grasping around the frame. I realized that I could only install the handle after purchasing a Phillips head screwdriver, the first one I’ve bought specifically for the purpose of making home improvements. As I happily wielded my new screwdriver and door handle, I smiled at the thought that only a strong, determined woman could move across two borders, build herself a house, and cultivate a happy homesteading partnership here in Belize. Only someone like me could handle what it takes. Our two puppies agree.

 

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Vintage winemaking in Belize: turning chocolate beans into wine

Did you know that the beans used to make chocolate can also be used to make a delicious wine? At Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize, Central America, we are turning cacao beans into wine every day!

Cotton Tree Lodge is an eco-lodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle of southern Belize beside the flowing Moho River, where guests can experience a unique adventure with sustainable tourism to local Mayan ruins, waterfalls, underwater caves, as well as a variety of cultural activities. Not only is Cotton Tree Lodge a destination for tourists seeking a peaceful getaway surrounded by pristine nature — it is also the site for some of the world’s most unique, locally sourced products; namely, Cotton Tree chocolate bars and a new product currently in development: cacao wine.

Cotton Tree Lodge’s sprawling hundred-acre property has dozens of mature cacao trees from which we get the beans for making our award-winning Cotton Tree chocolate.

Our experienced farmers harvest ripe pods and break them open to reveal a hidden jewel: white beans surrounded by a juicy white flesh. Historically, the ancient Maya once used these cacao beans as a currency, and today, farmers still strive to sell the best quality cacao beans for the most competitive price on the market.

The cacao beans are extracted and placed into burlap bags, delivered to our processing facility, where we collect the fruity-tasting juice. It is from this deliciously sweet, fruity juice that cacao wine is then made through a fermentation process that our resident food scientist intern, Hali, a recent graduate from Pennsylvania State University, is currently researching and developing at our processing facility at Cotton Tree Lodge.

After earning her Bachelor of Science in Food Science with a minor in International Agriculture, Hali knew she wanted to gain some valuable work experience that would set her apart from others. “I didn’t want to go get just any run-of-the-mill internship like everybody else was doing,” she related in a recent interview inside the thatched roof facility where she has been perfecting the fermentation process daily through trial and error–and a lot of patience, persistence and research.

Hali had traveled to Belize in 2014, where she bought a Cotton Tree chocolate bar in the airport. “I had to spend the rest of my Belizean dollars,” she said, “and I remember how good the chocolate was. So when I graduated, I emailed the owner and asked if he needed an intern in food science.”

It just so happened that Hali’s bold, back-door approach gained her entry into the world of bean-to-bar chocolate making in what some call the “chocolate center of the universe” — the southernmost district of Belize, Central America, where the rainfall and soil content are ideal for cultivating cacao saplings into mature, fruit-bearing trees within 3 to 6 years, depending on the variety.

Once Hali completes her three-month internship researching and developing cacao wine in Belize, she will return home to work as an assistant winemaker in Pennsylvania. “Since I interned at the winery back home,” Hali said, “I was invited to take on this project here in Belize.”

The cacao fruit juice is a by-product of chocolate making that–were it not for the creativity, resourcefulness and commitment to zero waste at Cotton Tree Lodge’s farm-to-table restaurant and resort–the cacao juice would simply drain off and go unused.

Hali works alongside a local Belizean farmer who is responsible for fermenting and drying the cacao beans, which will then be used to make Cotton Tree chocolate.

“Fermenting cacao juice into wine is like making any other fruit wine,” said Hali, who can be found avidly researching online whenever she is not busy testing out her process inside the facility. “You have to make sure the sugar is at a high enough level so you have enough alcohol for it to be classified as wine.”

Hali, with the help of her skilled assistant, a local Belizean farmer, is able to turn the cacao juice into wine through a fermentation process that takes about 4 to 6 days, depending on the ambient temperature, which is typically 85 degrees Fahrenheit or more on most days of the year. “It’s been cold here lately,” said Hali, “so some of our recent batches have been taking longer to ferment.”

The winemaking process represents Cotton Tree Chocolate company’s dedication to wise, sustainable use of local resources, because the cacao juice that is used to make the wine would otherwise go to waste.

“Normally, when farmers sell cacao, they harvest it the day before it is sold, put it into a burlap bag, and all the juice drains out,” food scientist Hali explained. “Whoever buys cacao isn’t buying the juice. They’re just buying wet cacao beans and whatever pulp is still around them.

“What we’re doing is buying wet cacao, putting wet beans into a perforated bucket and collecting the juice.”

After a month of trial and error, the process has become more productive and successful. Each week, the facility receives 30 buckets of wet cacao beans. Out of that, Hali is now able to produce about 6 buckets of cacao wine.

“By the time we get the beans here, the juice is already draining off,” Hali said, “so we get what we’re calling the first day juice. We let them sit overnight. It’s better, when you’re fermenting beans for chocolate, to have them kind of dry. You don’t want all that moisture. So we’ve been collecting the second day juice too.”

While the process is still in the research and development phase, the most recent guests at Cotton Tree Lodge who have been fortunate to taste test the first few batches of cacao wine gave it a thumbs up with helpful suggestions for improvement. Hali commented, “In the future, we hope to try and add something to sweeten the wine so it’s not quite so dry.”

“The cacao juice itself tastes sweet and slightly floral,” Hali said while the small, stingless Mayan bees hovered nearby, pollinating the nearby cacao trees and making honey. “The wine kind of carries that flavor over. Normally you want to let a white wine age 6 months to balance everything out. Right now, a lot of our batches taste acidic because the flavors haven’t had enough time to mingle. We are still trying to iron out some details about how we are going about filtering and letting things settle out.”

Good-tasting cacao wine will be a new, unique product for Belize. Some other cacao wines on the market taste too much like vinegar, according to the latest market research. “I hope that with a set process and standards of cleanliness and sanitation, we will produce a good fruit wine. It will be the first of its kind in Belize,” said Hali.

When you come stay with us at Cotton Tree Lodge, be sure to order a glass of our cacao wine from our friendly bartenders, and be on the lookout for our delicious, bottled cacao wine on the local market!

Click here to book your stay at Cotton Tree Lodge and try our new cacao wine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Radical reform: Why I quit my teaching job in the U.S.

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Over the course of my adventurous and unconventional life of self-imposed nonconformity, I’ve been able to discipline myself rather well, at least in terms of my diet and exercise routines. I suppose it’s something I learned from my industrious, multi-talented father, who completed every project he ever started and got up before sunrise every day without an alarm, like clockwork, to read the newspaper and start his workday as a geeky computer engineer.

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I was born into the privilege of hearty New England stock and raised in an upper middle-class Boston suburb where I was given an excellent education, graduating as valedictorian of my high school class and again four years later as valedictorian of my college class. For my krista-and-shawn-copyvaledictory speech, I braided my hair in corn rows, dressed in a traditional African style gown and quoted the transcendentalists, urging my classmates to live a life of nonconformity. Both my parents and my grandmother taught me to not only refine my intellect, but to also be conscientious of my diet and to take good care of my physical body.

My grandmother collected innumerable glossy magazines with color images of slim women eating salads and promoting the latest diet trend. She kept scrupulous recipes of everything she cooked in a categorized file system with notes about nutrition content and caloric intake. Grandma frequently baked oatmeal cookies and bran muffins and brought them to our house when she visited. She’d point out the merits of her specialty baked goods: “I didn’t use much sugar. Too much sugar’s not healthy for you, you know.”

Years later, when she was too old to live by herself, she would move into my parents’ house in Florida and keep up her healthy diet routine. When I visited for what I suspected would be the last time, she said, holding her salad bowl and munching, “See, Jen, I still eat my salad every day.”

“That’s good, Grandma,” I humored her.

She said, “When I went to see the doctor, he told me I must be doing something right. To keep doing whatever I’m doing.” She chuckled.

krista-nmsu-student-copyAs an educator, I assumed that teaching my students about how to keep their bodies healthy with a thoughtful diet should be an integral part of their education. Luckily, as an educator in a private school, I was granted enough freedom by a relatively progressive administration to start a small organic garden in large plastic tubs I obtained from a farmer friend who donated the materials to help me get started.

In the classroom I would share a little something from my own snack bag, like raisins or trail mix or fresh fruit. Apparently I had this freedom before the time when kids were stricken with rampant nut allergies. I attempted to make a positive influence on my students’ lives in the same way my parents and grandmother had on mine. Sharing healthy food and commenting about healthy diets.

In the U.S., I had established over ten years of a successful career in special education as a consultant in public and private schools; in addition to earning certification and practicing professionally as a Licensed Massage Therapist and yoga teacher. I earned a Master of Arts in Education and gained a wide range of experience working with children and adults who were diagnosed with developmental and learning disabilities. I enjoyed working in the field of education, but I felt deep dissatisfaction with what I deemed to be a restrictive, top-down model that limited my creativity and freedom to design my own curriculum.

I became disillusioned with the public school system in the U.S. and envisioned an innovative approach that involved outdoor, experiential education on an organic farm. I published two books that instantly became bestsellers in “Experimental Methods in Education”—a good sign that I have the support of people I’ve never met but, nonetheless, they must share my radical ideas about education.

Absenteeism due to sickness—a cold, sore throat, flu, stomach issues—was all-too-common over the course of my years as a schoolteacher. It seemed to worsen as the years went by. I noticed the same ill fate of my colleagues, who seemed to suffer from carrying too much weight, lethargy, fatigue and general malaise. It appeared to me that physical sickness and the concomitant complaints about said sickness were part of the everyday fabric of the school day, an obvious problem that was rarely addressed in ways that would make a significant difference.

When I proposed to the director that we start every day with physical fitness that included exercises, breathing and maybe a few minutes of silent meditation, I was given a cordial smile, told thank you, yes, but we already have PE, and besides there are more important things to talk about at the beginning of the school day. Morning meeting consisted of boring talks where the kids sat in a huge group, fidgeting and listening reluctantly to two men, the director and assistant principal, set the tone for the day by reinforcing the rules and generally reminding everyone who was in charge. And, oh, by the way, your tiny physical body in need of movement can wait till after lunch to move around in any satisfactory way. Until then, stay still and listen to the boring lecture.

If I had been in charge of the school, things would have been a lot different. A lot of things. But the differences I wanted to see were forced into under-valued, under-paid, after-school offerings to a small percentage of the student body who were corralled into taking my yoga classes because they didn’t want to play other competitive sports. I would have preferred to make yoga a daily part of the school day for both my students and my colleagues.

Years later, teaching full-time as a special educator at a similar private school in California, I would propose similar ideas to an even more progressive administration. But still, there were more important, pressing matters, like stuffing mostly useless information into the kids’ heads.

Never mind the scientific literature indicating that kids’ brains and circadian rhythms are wired in a such a way where academic, rote learning doesn’t come naturally to them until well after mid-morning. The healthiest, most natural thing for young bodies to be doing is what agrarian families in a homesteading situation would do at the start of the day: take care of the animals, work in the fields, shovel dirt and poop, haul heavy things, get dirty…. Yet, in our schools—places where we are supposed to be teaching people basic skills—we seemed to be ignoring the things that mattered most and forcing our kids to be dutiful, unthinking automatons following arbitrary rules that they would prefer not to follow, if my observations were at all accurate. It seemed like the kids were always breaking the rules, anyway. So, why were the adults so determined to enforce rules instead of giving the kids an opportunity to discipline themselves?

In my opinion, self-discipline can only be taught by example. It can’t be forced on anyone. People need to discipline themselves of their own accord. It’s not my job to dumb anyone down with rules and useless information that they will soon forget as soon as the exam is over. But it is my job to take care of myself and be the best person I can be, which might have some kind of positive influence on the people around me.

Parama w students

Although my ideas for radical reform of the education system failed to take root in the country of my birth, I haven’t given up on my ideas, yet. I doubt I ever will.

Parama w guitarists at ComitanI quit my last teaching job at a public school in the U.S. over five years ago, gave up the comforts and conveniences of my privileged lifestyle, and took my innovative ideas with me south of the border to the tiny country of Belize, where I purchased an acre of fertile land and started building an off-grid homestead in the company of like-minded neighbors.

I published a series of books in 2014 that have been on Amazon’s bestseller list in “Experimental Methods in Education” since their publication date, indicating to me that people seem to support my ideas for radical reform of methods in education. You can check out my books here, and if you would like to visit me in Belize and participate in an interactive workshop where we explore these ideas, you can find out more and register for our next workshop here.

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Cotton Tree Lodge in southern Belize