Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Couple of Lazy Crocs

We woke early despite our best efforts, and examined our sunburns and injuries from the boat trip the day before. We had both slathered on high-SPF sunblock throughout the day, but even that didn't stop it from thoroughly toasting us. My bruised arm was sore, along with my jaw from clamping my teeth down on the snorkel. I had fresh itchy red bumps from the resident insects who seemed to pay me a visit every night. I had even doused myself in bug spray and worn pants and a shirt to bed, only to wake with new bites on the tops of my feet, forearms, and even the palm of my hand. I sincerely hoped it wasn't bed bugs.

Charlie and I resolved to do nothing but stay out of the sun that day. We had coffee and breakfast and then commenced lying around in the cabana and on the porch. The wind had been blowing fiercely for three days now. It churned up all sorts of detritus in the water, turning it from crystalline blue to muddy brown, and ushering in large piles of grassy plant waste mixed with tiny bits of multicolored plastic. Humankind's detrimental effect on the oceans here was undeniably deposited before us on the beach. The resort staff busily yet fruitlessly spent the day raking and carting away piles of the stuff.

Charlie read Lord of the Rings and tried to smoke a cigar in the hammock, but the wind kept blowing it out. I tried to do some writing but the wind ripped a couple of pages out of my battered travel notebook and sent them flying into oblivion, somewhere inland behind the resort. Charlie and I trotted off after them and searched in vain, instead finding two unsightly landfills full of past batches of the same mixture of organic and manmade trash that had just washed up. All it would have taken was a hurricane or a nice big wave to wash it all back out to sea again.

Lazy day

Muddy water surrounds Capricorn's dock.

A few of his favorite things

A less idyllic scene

Our cabana

Looking north from the resort

We lounged around forever, wasting away the hours reading or playing FreeCell on the Kindle until it was time to go out and achieve our only goal for the day: to lunch at the Lazy Croc, the nearby barbecue joint that we had unsuccessfully tried to visit a couple days before. (Update: sadly, it appears this restaurant closed in mid-2014.)

Since we were going to be walking in the pummeling heat of the mid-afternoon sun, we heaped on sunblock, opted for clothing that provided better coverage, and doused ourselves in bug spray. No sense in completely destroying our already lobster-colored, bite-ridden skin. After walking a short distance down the messy beach, we found a path that cut through to the main road. The path itself was muddy and slippery and we had to carefully navigate around a large puddle, only to meet the main road at a point where an impassable lake of a mud puddle had formed between us and the restaurant. We returned back to the beach and discussed whether we ought to try cutting through the ritzy condo complex again. Instead, we found a sign for the Lazy Croc that pointed us to a small trail leading through a fenced grassy area. We crossed a footbridge over the lagoon, where the lazy croc herself slept, and arrived at the restaurant.

Yep, that's a lazy croc.

We were welcomed by the owner, Christiano, and a couple of other guys who seemed to work there but didn't appear to be doing anything. We sat at the slim 12 inch-deep bar facing the lazy croc's lagoon. Aggressive tarpon surfaced to gobble up the bread and sardines that the restaurant's proprietors were throwing into the water, but the croc never moved.

"Respect the Belizean Croc. He was here first!"
"NO fishin', feedin', swimmin', cussin', or fightin'"
"Mind your toes, kids!"

We opted to move to a table that was appropriately wide enough to accommodate all of the food we were planning to eat. We ordered a combo plate with pulled pork, ribs, and chicken, plus sides of macaroni and cheese, fried okra, coleslaw, and rice and beans. This was all served with fat slices of garlic-seasoned Texas toast. Charlie chatted with the friendly owner, who was from Toronto, while we waited for our food.

The music alone was a great reason to visit. They were playing blues and rock from the 60s, which were welcome auditory respite from the subpar local reggae that seemed to pervade the air in every other public space here. The place had a nice relaxed atmosphere and there were funny signs posted everywhere.


The food was scrumptious; especially the pulled pork and okra. After we had finished, we pushed ourselves over the edge of fullness by sharing a piece of frozen key lime pie (essentially a key lime flavored ice cream on graham cracker crust). When we groaned our regret at overeating, one of the "employees" whose only job appeared to be telling the same jokes to every new customer who arrived, suggested that we lie in the hammocks on the restaurant's shaded deck provided specifically for the purpose of overeating barbecue. We declined and instead waddled back to our cabana.

The heat was stifling and I was sweating profusely by the time we arrived at our cabana. On the way back, Charlie spotted a syringe cap that had washed up onto the beach trail, so we agreed that it was no longer a good idea to walk on the beach without shoes. As soon as the we closed the cabana door, I cranked up the A/C and the ceiling fan, stripped naked, and sprawled out on the bed like a starfish. Charlie lay down next to me and was asleep within minutes, sawing logs like nobody's business.

After his nap, we went back out onto the porch and he had a terrible, short-lived cigar while I swung in the hammock. We ate Tostitos and cheese dip for dinner and spent the rest of the evening reading, writing, playing FreeCell, and discussing the imminent next leg of our trip.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Taking the plunge

We woke early, grumpy, got ready, and tried to rid our bodies of poop before the long day on the boat. We had learned that the restaurant tended to take forever so we pre-ordered our breakfast the night before. It still took forever.

The wind blew hard and our guide Adam drove the boat a long way out to sea over the choppy water. I was a little scared on the ride out, but became more comfortable once we dropped anchor and the fishing began. The boat rocked so violently at times that it was difficult to stand steadily enough to cast our lines.

Charlie caught a fish within seconds of his first cast, and then caught three more in rapid succession. 

Charlie's first fish

I caught one keeper.

I also caught a baby throw-back and, unfortunately, a piece of coral. Adam showed us that this particular variety of coral stings you if you touch it.

The rocking of the boat had begun to wear down my sense of equilibrium and I started to feel a bit queasy. Luckily, this was around the same time that the fish stopped biting so Adam suggested that we get into the water. I gladly accepted because I did not want to get seasick, but I am not a strong swimmer and jumping into that rough sea was daunting. I donned flippers and a snorkeling mask, climbed down the ladder, and took the plunge. The water was the perfect temperature, not cold at all, but the experience took my breath away anyway. Before I could blink, the waves had carried me a good 20 feet from the boat. I kicked and paddled hard, trying to swim back towards the boat. Adam saw me struggling and threw out the life preserver that was tethered to the boat. I stuck my arm through the middle and opted to just stay there and hang on. Large waves came regularly, knocking the boat around and causing the life preserver rope to suddenly go taut and jerk me around violently by my arm. I ended up with a gnarly bruise on my bicep that lasted several days. Charlie is a strong swimmer and later admitted to me that the rough sea was even a hard swim for him.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Adam suited up and dove in to search for lobster and conch. They swam far and wide from the boat, often disappearing from my view for minutes at a time behind large swells or because they were diving. It was disconcerting to feel abandoned out there.

It was difficult to get the hang of breathing through the snorkel when the waves were so rough because they continually dumped water down the breathing spout. Eventually I just opted to hold my breath as long as I could while sticking my face in the water so that I could appreciate the blue world below me. I spotted some interesting coral and a few shiny fish. One two inch-long black fish with yellow fins stayed just a few feet below me, sharing my holding pattern the whole time. At one point, I was lucky enough to see Adam swim by, spear gun in hand, in pursuit of a small grey nurse shark. When I saw this, my eyes widened, and I pointed and yelled something akin to "Whoa!", despite being under water. Adam was not actually hunting the shark - he was just chasing it toward me so that I could see it.

After the boys had successfully collected several conch, we got back in the boat, drove it to a slightly shallower area, and repeated the procedure. This time I saw a whole school of eight inch-long shiny silver fish with rainbow colored fins. The water here was still too rough to breath through the snorkel mask, so I just gazed at the coral when I could and rested in the water while Charlie and Adam collected more conch, a small lobster, and Adam speared a couple more fish. We only spent a short while at this second location before climbing back in the boat. By then I already felt tired enough to call it a day. But Adam said, "One more stop."

Conch penis (yes you read that right). Charlie ate it, of course.

Our final stop was Shark-Ray Alley, part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. This is one of the best places to see, you guessed it, sharks and rays. A couple of larger vessels had anchored and there were severals snorkelers in the water. The water was calmer here and I tentatively swam around, staying close to the boat. I was finally able to get the hang of breathing through my snorkel and it made the experience much more enjoyable. Adam cleaned the fish we had caught, tossing the guts in the water to attract underwater scavengers, and then jumped in himself. A 4 foot-long nurse shark arrived for a snack and Adam dove down and grabbed it by its tail. The shark thrashed with all his might until Adam released it.

Adam was a fast and skilled swimmer, so he untied the life preserver from the boat, had me hang onto it and then towed me around so that I could get a better look at the area. I felt like a helpless idiot. I kicked and paddled with my free arm to try to ease his burden, but even then I could tell I would not have been able to keep up unassisted. Occasionally, he dove down deep to point things out to us and then would surface to tell us what it was. The coral here was gorgeous. I loved seeing the giant brain coral, angel fish, and another unidentified fish with cobalt blue skin. A little while later another shark and a large, tailless ray known locally as "Benjamin" arrived to eat the chum that Adam had through into the water. They stayed a long time, so Charlie and I stayed in the water together, watching them, while Adam prepped a picnic with our fresh catch.

Our final stop was a small, quiet beach south of San Pedro. The only occupants were some seabirds and lone dog sleeping in the shade of a picnic table. There, Adam offered us drinks and then assembled a medley of our fresh fish, lobster, and conch, mixed with onion, peppers, lime, barbecue sauce, sour cream, butter, chili powder, and cilantro. He cooked it in foil over and open fire and served it to us with fresh tortillas. It was one of the most simple yet delicious meals I have ever had.

A seagull pays obeisance to a pelican.

Quiet beach

Hungry swimmer

Bellies full, we returned to the resort to laze about for a while. We felt a little guilty lounging around on the porch of our cabana in full view of Adam cleaning the remainder of the conch that he and Charlie had found. We took the conch to the kitchen and they made it into a ceviche for us for dinner, served with a huge pile of tortilla chips. It was perfect.

And here is the preliminary result of hanging on to the life preserver in rough seas. The next day, all the normal colored parts between these bruises filled in, so I had one great big purple splotch on my arm. Worth it.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Meeting San Pedro

Our first morning on Ambergris Caye arrived. Due to the early hour, a silent beach greeted us when we emerged from our cabana. As soon as I stepped out of the shade of the porch, the sun blazed down upon me, immediately stinging my eyes and pale Seattle skin. Sweat beaded on my brow in the short 30-second walk from the cabana to the restaurant.

We had coffee and typical egg-based American breakfast fare, which included an introduction to fry jacks, delicious hot triangles of deep-fried dough. These became a go-to for us. During breakfast, we asked our server, Maggie, about the logistics of taking the Caye's ferry to downtown San Pedro that day. She repeatedly suggested we use the free bicycles that the resort provided, but riding on sand is no easy feat, especially in intense heat, and we knew we'd just arrive at our destination in a foul mood and drenched in sweat. We also asked her about excursions, as the outgoing couple we saw the day before had suggested. "Make I check," replied Maggie. This phrase sparked my linguistic curiosity and I soon adopted it into my own lexicon, replacing "I will..." with "Make I..." whenever I could.

A couple sitting at a nearby table overheard our inquiries and raved about taking a snorkeling excursion. Adam, the highly-recommended boatman who had escorted us to the resort the day before, came to our table and talked us into taking a private snorkeling/fishing/beach barbecue excursion with him the following day. We accepted, of course, and I spent the rest of the day being excited about it.

We found out the ferry would be coming sooner rather than later, so we abruptly took our leave of breakfast and showered in a hurry in order to catch it. The ferry and its operators were nowhere near as gentle and friendly as our private water escort the day before, but it wasn't particularly scary either. I comforted myself with the notion that they wouldn't stay in business by drowning tourists. We disembarked safely at San Pedro's marina, paid our fare to a woman with an impressive spiral braid design in her hair, and walked into town.

The day before, we had scoped out cigar stores in San Pedro and found a listing for a place called Havana Cigars. There don't appear to be numbered addresses in San Pedro, but the town is small enough that we only had to walk a few blocks before we found it. Charlie talked shop with the well-informed and friendly proprietor, Carlos Utrera, and then went into the humidor to make his selection. He walked out with a literal handful of cigars.

In his element

After leaving the cigar shop, we wandered aimlessly through town. Luckily, we found a mall where Charlie could buy some sunglasses. He didn't actually own a pair before this trip. Eventually, we ended up back on the beach, walking north toward the marina where we would catch the ferry back to the resort.

"San Pedro Town Public Library"

At one point we were accosted by a friendly "reggae artist" who tried to sell us his CD and/or some "buds". Another vendor not far behind him caught our attention by shaking his head and mouthing the word "fake" while indicating our aspiring Bob Marley. We declined to purchase CDs or buds from him and continued up the beach. The midday heat bore down on us so we ducked onto the shaded patio of a random cafe simply because its sign said it had smoothies. It took approximately an eon to actually get our smoothies, but they were refreshing enough to merit the long wait.

My cute husband


We popped into a convenience store to load up on junk food and then bought ferry tickets back to the resort.

Back at Capricorn, Charlie had a smoke and we read and enjoyed the view while waiting for a nearby barbecue restaurant to open for dinner.

Doing what he does best

Hassle free

Capricorn's dock in daylight, as seen from the Cabana

Pelican taking off

A permanently anchored anchor

Night fell and it was time to find sustenance. We borrowed a flashlight from a staff member named Soto so that our trek along the beachfront path would be less precarious. It turned out to be an excellent hour for frog-spotting, and I do love a good frog sighting. We shone our flashlight on the path for a cycling Scotsman and his silent female companion. We asked the Scotsman if he knew of a place where we could cut through to the main road. He indicated a place but warned us that the path was quite sketchy in places. We opted to trespass through a paved private condo complex and found the muddy road. It was not so much a road as a network of large mud puddles of unknown depth. We braved it anyway, thoroughly sullying our shoes, only to find that the barbecue restaurant in question was closed.

We returned to Capricorn's restaurant, dined on lobster and crab as consolation, and called it a night. It was not a particularly restful night though. Strong winds had begun to blow in from across the sea, causing the palm trees to whip our cabana all night. Ice frequently broke off from the swamp cooler and once crashed so loudly that we thought the entire unit had fallen off the wall - not the best way to wake up in the middle of the night. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

... and I didn't even die!

After several recommendations from friends and family who had been there, this newly hitched couple settled on Belize for their honeymoon. We decided to treat ourselves to first class and were able to do so at a reasonable price due to cashing in on some airline miles and the fact that flights south of the border are just cheaper. We rather enjoyed getting to cut the lines almost every step of the way, from checking our luggage, to going through security, to boarding the plane.

Taking advantage of the quiet and the comfy seating in the Emirates (not our airline) boarding area of Seatac Airport.

Having the opportunity to fly the first leg from Seattle to Atlanta on a double-decker plane excited us. I booked our seats on the upper deck so that we could get the full experience. As soon as we stepped onto the plane we encountered the stairway up to the second level. Charlie felt like a kid in a candy store.

Our seats were private pods across the aisle from one another.

Control panel for seat position options

This was a red-eye flight, so we took advantage of the fact that the seats reclined fully.

That's the ticket!

Although having the ability to recline fully was nice, the seats did not in fact make very good beds. The walls of the pods made it so that you didn't really have a lot of wiggle room to get comfortable, and the lack of padding in the seats themselves simulated sleeping on a wooden board. My only other complaint was that my travel buddy was so far away that we couldn't hold hands or really even talk to one another. Next time I will book our pods on the same side of the aisle so that I can at least tousle his hair during the flight.

Cha mostly read and watched Die Hard. I just had to suck it up and be brave all by myself during turbulence.

The second leg of our trip, from Atlanta to Belize City, only had business class. We were very hungry but the food was barely edible. Despite the early hour, everyone else in business class drank their breakfast in the form of free mimosas. We were able to sleep some despite the entire plane being full of excited, loud vacationers. At least 50% of them were elderly.

When the plane landed, we exited via stairs onto a steamy tarmac. The air was much warmer and more humid than what we're used to in Seattle, but not unbearably so. As a matter of international standard, the passport control process was a humorless one. The gruff woman in charge of selecting people for inspection challenged our joint entry form. She didn't like the fact that we claimed to be a family but had different last names. "I don't know you're married," she protested. I rifled through my suitcase pockets trying to find our marriage certificate, but didn't do so in a timely enough manner. She lost her patience and, as a result, just waved us through.

Once inside the airport, we found the Tropic Air desk where we needed to check in for the final leg of our trip to Ambergris Caye. We had arrived earlier than expected so the booking agent asked us whether we'd like an earlier flight. "Yes, but we have no way to contact our hotel," we told the her. "Our agents will call them for you," she responded. Then an astoundingly friendly baggage handler took our luggage and gave us a travel brochure. Needless to say, we were impressed by their willingness to help us out.

After a short wait in the tiny, trinket-filled airport, a petite, young, unflappable woman led us and a few flight-mates back out onto the tarmac. We walked in a single file line up to the smallest plane I have ever seen. A man standing next to it instructed us to board through the small side door and move as far to the front as possible. This meant that the first guy on the plane sat in the co-pilot's chair at the controls. The man ushering us in poked his head into the plane and jokingly asked him, "Are you going to fly the plane too?" The newly deputized co-pilot kept turning around in his seat to smile with boyish delight at the young woman seated next to me. I had seen a similar look on Charlie's face many times during new and exciting experiences like this one and I knew he would have traded places with the lucky "co-pilot" in a heartbeat. However, I was glad he was seated next to his terrified wife where he could hold her hand and help soothe the burning anxiety welling up in her chest.

"God help us!"

"My body is ready."

Pilot and "co-pilot"

The pilot arrived and, thankfully, we embarked on one of the most flawlessly smooth flights I have ever been on, from take-off to landing. We flew quite low, mostly over shallow crystalline jade waters in which Charlie spotted a couple medium-sized sharks.

Maximum altitude

A transparent sea

Our plane landed at the even tinier airport on Ambergris Caye, and once again we were led off the tarmac in single file to an open-air baggage claim. Within ten minutes we had our suitcases and the curbside attendant had called our personal driver from the resort. Another man nearby was not so lucky and began to audibly lose his shit with the attentive airport staff because he couldn't find his luggage. I recognized him as the culturally daft man whom I had overheard in the Atlanta airport asking ignorant questions of an extremely tolerant Belizean woman. The family members receiving him at the airport, obviously embarrassed by his behavior, did their best to calm and reassure him.

The streets of San Pedro from baggage claim. Golf carts, bicycles, and feet are the main modes of transportation.

The only thing better than a regular golf cart is a cholo golf cart!

Our car arrived after a few short minutes. It was a small van driven by a rather imposing man named Jesus. Despite his intimidating, bodyguard-esque air, Jesus was friendly and helpful. As he drove us through town, he gave directions, indicated points of interest, and provided tidbits of advice for getting around. He drove us to a waterfront dock and hauled our suitcases down to the end of it where we would meet the boat that would take us to our resort.

As we waited, Charlie excitedly pointed out a large grey and white speckled ray approaching the dock. It hovered silently just under the surface of the water, slowly winding back and forth beneath the dock and between the watercraft parked there. I exclaimed, "Oh my god!" because it was the first wild ray I had seen. Jesus had no comment.

Our boat arrived after about ten minutes, driven by a young man named Adam and occupied by a pleased-looking couple. As they exited the boat, the woman told us we were going to love it here, hugged Adam, and then told us to do an excursion with him. I'm not a good swimmer, so of course I am also afraid of boats, and especially by small, speedy boats like the one we were about to ride in. Luckily, Adam navigated the boat gently, if fast, across the aquamarine seawater to our destination. The air smelled great, the sun shone, and the warm wind knotted my hair as we sped across the water. I smiled all the way.
Tiny marina

 Très bleu

Feeling good

After heading north on the water for about fifteen minutes, we arrived at our destination: Capricorn Resort. Because of the deplorable condition of the main road on Ambergris Caye, most people get to their destinations either by boat, as evidenced by the numerous docks along the way bearing signs of the resorts they belonged to, or by biking or walking down the beach. When we pulled up to the Capricorn dock, the staff met us there, helped us out of the boat, and loaded our luggage into a wheelbarrow. One guy instructed us to head to the bar for our (free) welcome drink. The bartender, José, met us at the edge of the bar patio with two icy glasses of rum punch in hand. We apologetically explained that we did not drink alcohol, so he kindly invited us to sit at the bar and enjoy a plate of fresh fruit while he made us a couple of refreshing, fruity, non-alcoholic drinks. Our private cabana was not quite ready when we got there, so we waited about half an hour at the bar and then went in for a long nap.

We woke at dusk, took a powerful shower, and then went to dinner at Capricorn's restaurant. The food was decent enough, but rather expensive. After dinner, Charlie bought an over-humidified cigar from the bar and we sat in lounge chairs under the palapa in front of our cabana.

Neighborhood pelican

Capricorn's dock at dusk

View of the eastern beachfront from the dock

I attempted to read A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush while Charlie smoked and stared out into black horizon. A light rain began, so we decided to turn in early.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Sometimes I forget that travel into my own backyard can be just as visually interesting and culturally diverse as hopping a flight to another continent. My friend Vera, a fellow resident of the greater Seattle area, suggested that we take a day trip out to Leavenworth, WA, a tiny Bavarian-style village nestled among some mountainous terrain along the Wenatchee River. It lies pretty much due east of Seattle and only takes about two hours by car to get there.

Fall had just begun, along with its inevitable rains, but we lucked out by choosing to go on the last clear, crisp day before everything turned to gray.

View from the car

River reflections

The geographic features surrounding the town, coupled with the Central European facades on the buildings reminded me of the places I had visited in the Swiss and French Alps.

Picturesque Front St.

Leavenworth is so tiny that you can walk from one side to the other in a matter of minutes. And being so small, the activities available on an average day are pretty limited. Basically, you can stay at an adorable inn, eat German food, and buy trinkets. It certainly did have a wide variety of shops, including antiques, art, jewelry, candy, and even a music box store.

Small chapel-like structure that appears to be connected to the Obertal Inn on Commercial St.

More views

Vera and I were hungry so we popped into Cafe Christa, known for its authentic-ish German food and beer. The internet seems to disagree on whether this cafe is still open, whether it is under new ownership, or whether it is a different entity entirely now.

Cafe Christa

Vera with her schnitzel and me with my sausage, spätzle, and sauerkraut. 

Marie is murder

After lunch we decided to visit one of the town's main attractions: The Nutcracker Museum. It held an impressive collection of any kind of nutcracker you could imagine, from the traditional to the outlandish, and the prudish to the bawdy.

Spock and Kirk

Burmese animal-shaped nutrackers

Carved wood from England and France

Ah yes, the Mormons

Expressive carved faces

Metal alligators

We did a little jewelry shopping and then hopped in the car to head back to Seattle. The rain and the traffic met us halfway.