Miss Vange in her garden in Crooked Tree Belize.

Journey to Crooked Tree Village: An authentic slice of Belize

It’s 11am when we leave Belize City. Hot air begins to fill the bus, save for the occasional breeze squeezing through a small window opening. It won’t slide farther; I’d tried. Sandwiched into a school bus-sized seat, duffel and tote bags on my lap and knees pressed into the back of the seat ahead, I’m feeling envious of my neighbor whose legs are dangling above the floor. He must be six or seven, I reckoned. The aisle is packed with his classmates. I can’t make out their conversations, but I can see them trying to peek out the windows, holding on to the seat backs and balancing their backpack-strapped bodies.

For the most colorful ride to the village, hop on the Jex & Sons bus to Crooked Tree, departing daily from Regent Street West in downtown Belize City.

Standing at the front of the bus, by the door, the attendant towers over the crew, herself no more than 20 years old. She’s attentive to the kids and to the road. Every other minute, she glances back and summons a child to the front of the bus. “Drew, yuh next!” In between, she’s chatting with the kids or snapping selfies with them on her phone.

Transfixed by her ability to juggle, I wonder if she’ll slip up on either a name or a stop. No chance. The driver pulls over repeatedly and each time, a school kid she summoned exits the bus, and an adult appears with arms stretched out. The child skips down a lane, fading into the distance with mom, granny or auntie.

This is the beginning of my journey back to Crooked Tree.

All twenty-something schoolchildren are gone and now our bus veers left into a narrow, dusty access road. We rattle along, flanked by thick bushes, before a lagoon appears on either side as the van crosses a mini-bridge or “causeway.”

I’d told the driver to let me off at Bird’s Eye View Lodge when I boarded in Belize City, and I’m hoping he remembers. My contact, Yoshi, had messaged me on WhatsApp to confirm bus departure times and a meet up point. I’d never met Yoshi, but I knew he was Japanese and that he’d be easy to locate in Crooked Tree.

Beyond birding: Community tourism

Some five months prior, Yoshi Wakabayashi had found me, my blog, and excerpts from my Moon Belize guidebook edition on the internet. I’m not sure in what order, but he’d done his research. A volunteer with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JAICA), Yoshi was assigned to Crooked Tree Village for a year to help develop community tours and activities, and bring more diverse tourism income to this Kriol village — a renowned birding haven that’s still relatively off the beaten track to the average visitor to Belize.

Most visitors who venture to Crooked Tree are avid birders. But the village now also offers cultural experiences.

I was intrigued and thrilled to read about the cultural activities Yoshi had helped create, in collaboration with Crooked Tree’s residents, as well as the new website he’d designed for the village.

A Kriol cooking class? A botanical garden tour? Sign me up.

The last time I was in Crooked Tree, it hadn’t gone so well. As a result of a misunderstanding, the tour guide I’d arranged to meet in the village went off on an errand at the last minute. He’d arrived a couple of hours late and I was disappointed. The energy followed when I stopped by one of the lodges to check on the rooms. The owner had snapped at me, unprovoked — the cabins were occupied and I couldn’t tour them, “so, there’s nothing else for you to see, really.”

I’d found it hard to focus on the birds afterwards. My guide seemed to take sympathy because he was suddenly going out of his way to make it a livelier tour — as if to say, this isn’t how we are in Crooked Tree.

“Bird’s Eye View!” The bus driver snaps me back into reality. We’d passed the village entrance and reached my stop.

I’m standing on the roadside less than a half second when Yoshi appears. We recognize each other instantly and Yoshi reaches for my duffel bag as we begin walking and talking. The village was just as I remembered when I first laid eyes on it. Horses and cows grazing, pigs lurking in fenced yards and turkeys peeking out as if wondering who’d just arrived.

I predicted that this return trip to Crooked Tree would be different. In truth, I’d sensed it since Yoshi’s email landed in my inbox, detailing my itinerary. We went back and forth a couple of times to fine tune it; I was relieved to be communicating with another detailed individual.

Before I knew it, we’ve reached our first stop.

Lunch at Mali and Jay’s

Facing a pond and surrounded with thick bush, Mali and Jay’s is currently the only stand-alone restaurant in the village. Owner Maurice Gillett welcomes us with a smile and emerges from the kitchen window. Born and raised in Crooked Tree, Maurice left his hometown at the age of 24. He returned home after 30 years in Oakland, California, not to mention other world travels.

Maurice Gillett returned to his home village after 30 years abroad. He built a restaurant and two cabins.

Two Belizean men walk in and take seat in front of the TV. They’re ready for their plates of rice and beans, with a side of news. It’s clear Maurice’s place has become more than a lunch spot. It’s a place to hangout, like many local restaurants in Belize, except here the crowds aren’t that loud and no one’s in a rush on a weekday.

After lunch, we step up to the counter to chat with Maurice. I sense there’s more story behind this expat returned home.

“I like to come here to read books.”

“And chill out… with a good fruit smoothie, right?” adds Maurice.

“I loved that mango smoothie.” I said.

“Next time you pass, come for a burger,” Maurice says, addressing me this time. I showed surprise. “Yes, organic hamburger, straight from the village cow.”

It turns out, Maurice also grows a lot of his own ingredients and vegetables. I’d noticed a colorful bowl of peppers, wondering where he’d gotten them that fresh.

Maurice shows me the organic peppers plucked from his yard.

“I grow oregano, cilantro, habanero, calalloo, jalapeños. We grow a lot of fruits here too, like canteloupe, mango.”

It’s clear that going from Oakland back to the remote Kriol village in Belize where he was raised, has been quite an adjustment. And yet, he’s adapting. Two cabins for visitors are almost complete on the other side of the pond, steps from his restaurant.

Bird’s Eye View Lodge.

We step outside to tour the cabins, in progress, and ten minutes later the rain interrupts our walk as we finish glimpsing the rooms. Birds are chirping louder, and I spot an iguana crawling into a cement block. It’s time to go.

Maurice agrees to give us a ride up to Bird’s Eye View Lodge, where I check in and leave my bags in my room before we continue on to a botanical garden tour.

A botanical tour at Good News Acres

“I gave the name of the place ‘Good News’ because when you come here, I expect that you hear good news and take away good news. To feel something uplifting. The meaning of my name is also good news: Evangeline.”

I’m already feeling good sitting in Ms. Evangeline’s screened porch, in a house that sits on seven acres, brimming with medicinal plants and fruits. Sitting in our respective chairs, I sip on fresh coconut water straight from the shell, then sample some of her homemade preserves: mango, and cashew pulled straight from the garden.

“Crooked Tree got its name from a very crooked tree up in the north. It was destroyed in the 1931 hurricane; the stump was left there and then the whole island was named Crooked Tree. The area where the old stump is, that’s now Old Crooked Tree,” she explains.

Her voice is as soft as her smile, and her walk resembles that of a retired ballerina. In her royal blue, long skirt and baby blue blue top, contrasting against her grey hair and the green that surrounds, Ms. Vange — as she’s affectionately known — betrays a rich background in travel, nature, and life.

“I studied in Costa Rica, then I went to Jamaica, to the US. It’s in the US I met Workeneh,” she adds, remembering her one Ethiopian friend. “We went to the same university. All of us Belizeans and Africans, we were friends.”

I recalled my own similar experience at the University of Maryland in College Park. Except Miss Vange returned to her home country to teach for many years, and is now retired.

“I grew up in a planting family. my mother my father planted. So we continue the hobby of planting and I’m still planting!”

“I don’t know the first thing about planting,” I laugh. I knew why, too. I lacked patience.

Ms. Vange smiles, nodding ever so gently.

“When the plants die, I feel like a pa’t of me die.”

Ms. Vange in her medicinal plant-filled yard. — Photos by Lebawit Lily Girma, All Rights Reserved.

I’m taken aback but we’re about to start the walk, and Ms. Vange hands us a small piece of paper with a checklist of 68 plants. She asks us to wait for her to get her hat.

The lesson begins outside her porch — aloe vera, periwinkle for pain (and cancer), thyme for cooking. We step farther into the garden and the variety is astounding. There are plants I’d never heard of, while others were familiar from my hikes around the Caribbean region.

There’s sorrel, and moringa, good for high blood pressure and diabetes.

“You can eat it raw just like that; sometimes I make moringa rice.”

Steps away, a young soursop is sprouting.

“We have several types of mango trees. Black mango isn’t actually black. The fruit is good to eat but the leaf is good for your health, though bitter.” There are African tulips too, royal palms and cohune palm.

I look down and my sneakers are covered in a purple-black color: blossom berries — they’re small and sweet, and the trees are abundant.

“On and, that’s the Billy Webb,” Ms. Evangeline says pointing north, after we pass a rose apple tree. “Good for coughs. It’s a bitter herb. You also use for diabetes, among other things. You can taste it, you can taste it, it won’t kill you. It’s very healthy.” Yoshi does the honors.

“Ooooh GOD. All right. It should be good for health, it tastes like medicine. Ooow!” Yoshi is biting his tongue, as if trying not to swear.

Ms. Vange continues walking, and pointing. “That’s a sea cocoplum. My mom used to pick them up from the road. Then with her dish full of them, in the evening when she’s resting she lay in the hammock, she would eat them one by one. She used to love coco plum.”

“This one the maya leaf — the leaves can grow even bigger than that. The same tree bears berries, and they’re sweet.”

Yoshi and I touch one and we’re intrigued by the soft, velvet-like but prickly texture.

“You know what, I give you a joke. When you’re lost in the forest, and you don’t have toilet paper… .”

I start laughing before she ends her sentence.

Miss Vange amused at our reactions about the Maya leaf. — All Photos by Lebawit Lily Girma – All Rights Reserved.

“You use this! You think you’ll remember that?” she asks, tongue in cheek.

We finish at the foot of a giant mango tree, at the center of the garden; it’s Ms. Vange’s favorite. While I snap some photos, shielded from the harsh sun, she shares some childhood memories.

“Going by boat to Belize City [before the causeway] was like a picnic. I was a little girl, and our parents would make nice dinners and everything to carry on the boat. Because you leave home at four in the morning, and you get back at 10 in the night. So they had powder buns, cakes, rice with chicken, plantain, salad, and they would have soft drinks and juice. You eat and talk and laugh all day.

And then everybody know everybody, so everybody shares. It was lovely. And the little steam boat with the engine going ‘bap! bap! bap! bap!’ all day.”

Ms. Vange and her assistant know Good News Acres’ plants like the back of their hands.
Ms. Vange standing below the giant mango tree at the center of her seven-acre property. – All images by Lebawit Lily Girma.

Our ride pulls up by the front gate and I’m reluctant to leave for my next activity. Shoving my newly purchased mango and cashew preserves in my tote, I knew I would definitely remember it all. The Maya leaf, the garden, and Ms. Vange.

Sunrise birding on Crooked Tree Lagoon

Birding wasn’t something I’d tried until Belize came into my life, even though I’m originally from Ethiopia, where we have over 800 species of birds. The first time I went birding at sunrise was in 2011, at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch. I was at the beginning of my Road Warrior assignment with the Belize Tourism Board and Matador Network.

The sun rising over the Crooked Tree Lagoon. — All Photos by Lebawit Lily Girma – All Rights Reserved.
The dock at Bird’s Eye View Lodge — and our boat, waiting for us to go birding on the lagoon.

My mind flashed back to that day as I stood by the lagoon, watching and capturing a spectacular blood-colored sky at 5:30am, in front of my hotel. Leonard Tillett, my birding guide, shows up a half-hour later as planned, and soon we’re in the boat, leaving shore and spotting colorful creatures almost immediately. When the water is shallow, he explains, more birds appear.

But there’s no understanding the importance of the Crooked Tree Lagoon and village without knowing the history and the importance of this area. A designated Ramsar site — one of two in Belize — Crooked Tree’s wetlands include a network of lagoons, swamps, and waterways over 16,000 acres. And they’re vital to Belize. Aside from being home to a wondrous 300-plus bird species and a refuge to other rare species, the lagoon helps absorb excess flooding water from the Belize river.

Rich in natural resources, this “island village” was also once a logging camp that the British established in the 1700s, as they settled here to exploit the logwood and later, mahogany.

Leonard shares a bit about that while we’re surrounded by this stunning body of water, and the fresh morning air.

We continue on, as I squint my eyes to see how good I am at birding. But Leonard always beats me to it. In just an hour, we’ve spotted over 20 bird species.

Along the way, a cow swims across the shallow lagoon, running away from the sound of our boat even though we’re not that close to her. Howler monkeys roar and iguanas peek at us from the trees.

It’s a wild, lively scene on the Crooked Tree Lagoon. I’m in awe, once again, of Belize’s natural splendor.

By eight o’clock, the sun begins to feel warmer and it’s time for breakfast — fry jacks, eggs, okra, coffee, fresh orange juice — on the lagoon-facing terrace at Bird’s Eye View. I could do this every day.

Kriol cooking at Ms. Ava’s

A flock of turkeys greets us as we enter Ms. Ava’s spacious yard, right off the main village road.

It’s my last cultural activity in the village, and I’m already wishing I had a couple more days.

Ms. Ava giggles when I call her “Chef Ava.” But her Kriol cooking is known in the village, and she even caters for big events. This coming weekend, she says, she’s preparing the meals for an important two-day workshop and meeting between Crooked Tree’s residents and the Belize Audubon Society, who co-manage the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.

I knew about the decades of past tension between the latter two groups, and the disagreements on the management of natural resources within the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Finding a balance between conservation and community needs proved difficult, but in 2018 the two groups reached an understanding to sit down and re-establish new regulations together on the use of the sanctuary.

Hopefully, with new rules created jointly, residents will keep making an income from their land responsibly — farming, livestock raising, fishing, logging — while preventing the abuse of resources and ensuring a sustainable future.

Ms. Ava was clearly looking forward to preparing the meal for this historic meeting. She’s hired four other women to help her. Her new community tourism venture, between the cooking classes and catering for locals, allows her to bring on more staff — especially single mothers.

“Yes, that’s our vision,” says Yoshi, visibly thrilled to see his yearlong efforts coming to life.

A Kriol cooking class with Ms. Ava, in her home kitchen.

Raised in Crooked Tree Village, from a mestizo mother and a Kriol father, she begins whipping up our lunch menu — with the occasional help from me, when I’m not peppering her with questions about life in the village.

We make the signature Belizean dish — stew chicken with rice and beans, potato salad, and plantain. For dessert, it’s bread pudding, with Ms. Ava’s secret recipe.

By the time Yoshi and I leave Ms. Ava’s — we hitched another ride, from her son this time — our bellies are full and we’re struggling to pay attention to one more item on the itinerary. Crooked Tree’s newly opened museum awaits.

The attendant would return after lunch, the door notice indicated. We waited in the shade for two minutes, then Yoshi made a call. In no time, the young lady in charge was approaching in the distance, on her way to open the doors for us.

That too, is part of the Crooked Tree journey.

After the museum visit, I feel sad to leave this gem of a community. But I’m also filled with hope: the Belize I fell in love with nine years ago was still here — alive and well, in Crooked Tree.

Over the past few years, I’ve watched Belize slipping dangerously towards luxury resorts and condominiums at the expense of its mangroves, corals, even marine life. Cruise ships and coastal developers run amok, some claiming to be “sustainable” yet steering income from the locals with larger resorts boasting their own restaurants, among other things. But Crooked tree, no doubt thanks to its small and solid web of Kriol families — and with just under 200 households — continues to hold on to its farming and fishing lifestyle traditions, while trying to find ways to diversify its future around sustainable, cultural experiences. It’s also managed to remain one of the safest parts of the country.

A complete, unBelizeable package

Under an hour north of Belize City airport, adding Crooked Tree to your Belize itinerary is easy (of course, you can skip the chicken bus if you choose).

Stay overnight for lagoon sunrises and birding with Leonard, learn Kriol cooking with Ms. Ava, go hiking and fruit tasting in Ms. Vange’s garden, bike the village’s roads alongside picket-fenced yards with horses, pigs and cattle. Go horseback riding, and bird to your heart’s content. You’ll leave with lasting memories, while making a direct, positive impact on this authentic corner of Belize. A place where culture, roots and family values continue to run deep.  

Throw on a couple of island days, along the barrier reef, plus some rainforest time, and you’ve got one whole, unBelizeable package.

Thanks to Yoshi Wakabayashi and JAICA for sponsoring part of my visit to Crooked Tree, and for reaching out about the exciting new community tourism efforts in the village. As always, all opinions are my own.

For more details, as well as fresh new itineraries and top picks across Belize from hotels to sights and activities, look out for the 2019 edition of Moon Belize, scheduled for release this October.

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