Journey to Belize: Melvis

This post continues the retelling of my recent trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation. The remainder of this series can be found in the Travel category of this blog.

One of the Cabañas at the La Milpa Field Station and Ecolodge, where I met with Melvis on June 7. Notre Cabane by Amaury Laporte. CC BY-NC 2.0

On June 7, 2017, I once again worked at Structure 130. Last time I was there, one of our Belizean workers found what may have been a Mayan burial. I was eager to return to the field and continue exploring that site.

When we arrived at Structure 130, the first thing we did was to close the lot of Unit D that we had been excavating. As a reminder, an archaeological unit is a carefully-measured, rectangular area in which one digs. A lot is a specific level within a unit. I have described the lot-closing process here.

My beautiful, exquisite sketch of Unit D at Structure 130. I figured you would all like to see it again.

Once we had closed the old lot and opened a new one, we removed the smaller stones from Unit D. This left only the large ones, which appeared to form a diagonal wall. However, the highlight of June 7 was not the field work – at least not for me.

Earlier, I mentioned that Dr. Brokaw and his partner Sheila were trying to connect me with Melvis: an experienced guide at the La Milpa Field Station and Ecolodge. The Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA), the protected forest in which our field school was located, was under threat from illegal logging. Melvis would be able to tell me more about this.

Sheila, Dr. Brokaw, their niece Lea, and I headed to the ecolodge in the evening. We hiked over in the darkness, using flashlights to illuminate our path. But this was not a threatening darkness.

The jungle air was cool and pleasant at night, and the sound of the gentle rain soothed my ears. Yes, wild animals like jaguars and pumas were on the property. But the chances of running into one were slim, and the odds of them being aggressive were even smaller.

After a few minutes, the forested path opened up onto a well-manicured lawn. We were at the ecolodge. After a short wait, we met up with Melvis in La Milpa’s dining room.

Melvis was friendly and talkative, as were most of the people I met in Belize. He told us how he had recently recovered from Cutaneous Leishmaniasis, which is a flesh-eating disease that is transmitted by sandflies. Melvis had become infected directly below his eye while helping to film an episode of Naked and Afraid that took place in the RBCMA.  

The treatments for leishmaniasis are not pleasant. Melvis said he had to inject a toxin into his body that was excruciatingly painful. But he had to go through with the treatments, or he might have lost his eye.

These tiny sandflies are the creatures that sometimes transmit leishmaniasis to people in Belize. Phlebotomus Pappatasi Bloodmeal Begin by James Gathany. CC0 1.0 Public Domain.

But our main reason for talking to Melvis was to learn about deforestation. He confirmed that local people, usually from the village of San Felipe, sometimes enter the RBCMA to illegally harvest timber.

Melvis and other Programme for Belize (the organization who manages the RBCMA) staff try to talk to villagers about the importance of protecting the forest, but not all of the residents are supportive of the conservation area. The key factor is whether villagers are employed by the Programme for Belize (PfB). Those who work for the PfB, or who know people who do, speak of the conservation area more fondly than most other villagers.

However, Melvis dealt a significant blow to an emerging thesis idea. Sheila had suggested that I could survey San Felipe residents’ attitudes about the RBCMA, to assist the Programme for Belize’s conservation efforts. Unfortunately, Melvis said that The Nature Conservancy had recently conducted a similar study. When I heard this, my enthusiasm for that potential thesis declined substantially.

Fortunately, Melvis let slip that a group of jaguar researchers stopped by the ecolodge the day before; they were the same researchers whom I had been trying to connect with since arriving in Belize. Melvis agreed to give them a message for me, which made me feel ecstatic. After two weeks of failed communications, I finally had a way to contact the researchers.

The next “episode” will be released next week! I am sorry it is taking so long to recount my experiences, but there is a lot to write about!

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