Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Belmopan Freeze

We only slept about as well as one would expect when in a new place and a new bed. The room was comfy and the A/C was nice and quiet, a welcome contrast to the crashing sounds going on all night at the previous resort. It was also nice to wake up without a bunch of new bites all over my lower legs and feet. We rose and readied ourselves for the early communal breakfast that was served in the big house. As we approached the house, Smokey the cat kept pace with us and then, to our amazement, opened the house's sliding screen door with his paw and sauntered inside. We followed him into the house without knocking and when Anna greeted us we explained that Smokey had invited us in. An elderly couple stood at the drink table considering their options. The wife said to her husband, "Sírvame" (Serve me). This was a phrase we heard her say to him multiple times after that. As he complied, she began to complain to him in Spanish that the mosquitos had been "biting her ass" all night. I smirked, and she looked at me suspiciously, probably trying to figure out whether I had understood what she had just said. They soon joined us at the table, and we learned that they were Honduran and were in town to attend the Zamorano Pan-American Agricultural School's 50th Anniversary Conference. Our only other table mate that morning was a young woman who was a doctoral candidate in school psychology. We drank coffee and ate potatoes and breakfast sandwiches while getting to know one another in a bilingual fashion.

We returned to our quarters intending to take a mid-morning nap, but then decided to swim instead.

Applying sunscreen is serious business


Cha approaching the pool, guesthouse in the background


Brightly colored flowers where numerous hummingbirds flitted around to feed surrounded the pool. Gentle butterflies fluttered by while menacing insects buzzed my head every time I surfaced for air. New birdsongs I had never heard filled the air. Geckos skittered around on the rocks lining the flowerbeds and climbed the building walls, feasting on bugs.


Charlie doing his muscleman pose

Thoughtful Charlie

Skillful swimming

Skillfully standing on one foot

The owners' home next to the pool



Flowering ginger

Coconuts

Charlie's daily activities

Fan palm

After our swim we did manage a short nap, and then consulted Anna on the details of our planned excursion to town. She informed us that a baptism would be taking place in the pool that afternoon and apologized for it being temporarily unavailable. We told her it was no problem; we were certainly more fascinated than put out. We strolled into town at a leisurely pace, meeting the stares of the occupants of each passing car. At one point we passed two tiny, barefoot Mayans, standing well shy of five feet tall and bearing heavy loads on their backs. We quietly marveled at their slightness; next to them we were giants. Then we stopped into a Chinese-owned grocery store, the back aisle of which literally smelled like dog shit. There we gathered soda, chips, hotdogs, ramen, tortillas, and cheese, and then paid the woman behind the counter, who acted like she didn't want us there. In fact, she talked on the phone during the entire transaction, collected our money without thanks, placed a plastic bag on the counter for us to carry out victuals, and nonchalantly walked away. 

This, along with the previous day's interactions with locals, led us into a discussion about how people in Belmopan seemed to regard us with either apathy or suspicion. In contrast with the people we had encountered on Ambergris Caye, these folks had better things to do that worry about whether rich tourists were having a good time. Their every move did not depend on the tips they might earn for it. We couldn't even get a smile or a greeting from anyone the way we had during the previous days, when people bent over backward to make sure we had what we wanted. It didn't really bother us though, and we chocked it up to cultural differences, although it didn't actually differ much from our day-to-day experiences in frigid Seattle. Charlie and I are both fairly introverted, so I can't say we enjoyed constantly being hit up by all the enthusiastic vendors of one thing or another (rides, trinkets, weed). We generally liked to be left alone and the residents of Belmopan were all too happy to oblige.

When we reached the town center, almost everything was closed. An open-air market stood smack in the middle of the big central plaza, where a few stalls were still open. We found one food stall still serving a couple of patrons. I inquired as to whether they were still serving food and an angry-looking young woman informed me that all they had left was beans, rice, and chicken. We accepted this fact and sat at a table while she and a few other women busied themselves in what appeared to be a reasonably clean kitchen. The angry young woman brought us two large plates of food and water, and we ate very quickly and quietly, not wanting to enrage her further. The food was good, but I envisioned myself becoming violently ill later on, hearing the voice of the knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as he matter-of-factly states, "He chose... poorly."

We stood to leave and I addressed the angry woman to inquire about how much we owed. I handed her the equivalent of $10 USD and we awkwardly took our leave, wanting to get out of the eerily quiet town center as soon as possible. As we walked back to Twin Palms, no one except potential cab drivers paid us any mind. At one point we passed a skinny man, who was clearly a career substance user, scolding by way of gesture a younger man for being covered in tattoos. Either the older man was deaf and/or mute, or they didn't speak the same language because the only words uttered in the exchange were the younger man demanding, "Why, why, why?!" In turn, he gestured a reprimand toward the older man, criticizing him for sniffing glue. It was a fascinating exchange.

The humidity that day was so severe that, even though I didn't feel particularly hot, I sweated so profusely that it was if I were standing under a drizzling faucet. By the time we reached the B&B, my shirt front and hair were soaked. As we walked down the private drive to Twin Palms, two wild green parrots flew overhead. I had never seen parrots that weren't someone's house pet so this was pretty exciting. We paused uncertainly as we entered the property, having arrived right in the middle of a pre-baptismal prayer at the pool. We could see a small group of people gathered around, heads bowed, along with a recently baptized individual sitting at the pool's edge in wet clothes. We waited for the sound of a quiet "Amen," the splash of another baptismal candidate being dunked, and the subsequent applause before proceeding across the patio into our room.

I immediately stripped off my damp clothes and lay down on the bed under the cool breeze of the A/C. We waited a while for the religious folk to clear out and then I donned my swimming gear again. Cha marveled at the fact that I wanted to swim again so soon. "I just got dry," he said. He reluctantly waited at the poolside in his trunks, insisting that he didn't want to get in, and then surprised me by suddenly tipping into the water, head first, from a sitting position. To be fair, it was kind of cold. We swam a short while and then went in to shower. We compared tans, and then Cha drenched himself in bug spray and went out to smoke a cigar while I stayed in and placed FreeCell. After a while I went outside again and found Charlie chatting with Anna and her husband, Tim, who were sweetly cuddled up together in the patio swing with Smokey the cat lying at their feet. I sat down with Cha and saw a little frog jump out into the light of the garden lamp to hunt bugs. Suddenly, its gummy tongue launched outward and snagged a tiny winged created. I was super excited because it was the first time I had seen a frog tongue in action in real life.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Privilege Meets Poverty

Today we would depart from Amergris Caye for the mainland. We woke at eight, as we had every morning during our stay, and grabbed some coffee. The woman who served us that morning seemed more gruff that usual. We showered, began to pack, and then went to breakfast, which, in keeping with the observed trend, took forever. We spoke to Ms. Grumpypants about our imminent departure because she was in charge of checking us out, but she had no idea we were leaving that day. After breakfast we finished packing and then sat on the porch for a while. After a bit, Ms. Grumpypants approached us to say she was ready to help us settle up. She acted pissed off when we wanted to pay with American Express, even though it was accepted there, and then she seemed pissed that we didn't leave an additional tip on our final bill (because we had been tipping cash or adding individual tips to our tab throughout our stay). She was making things very awkward, so we left a little earlier than we had planned, an unfortunate end to an otherwise good experience at the resort. Another employee had confided in us a couple days earlier that he avoids interacting with that woman because she's a bitch, so we can't say we weren't forewarned.

Our fishing guide Adam boated us and our luggage back to San Pedro. At the docks, we hugged and said our goodbyes, and thanked him for being such a good guide during our stay. We wheeled our luggage over to the nearby ferry dock, bought tickets, and waited for about an hour for the ferry to arrive. We chose to take the ferry back to the mainland rather than the plane because it only cost $25 USD as opposed to the $150 USD plane ticket, plus it reportedly offered views of the neighboring cayes. 

The trip turned out to be pretty disappointing as far as scenery goes, since the boat was enclosed by mostly fogged up, water-splashed plexiglass. Most landmasses were too far away to see. Still, it was a leisurely 90-minute ride with a couple dozen locals, many of whom slept for the duration. We stopped at both Caye Caulker and Caye Chapel, the latter being an exclusive private golf resort where one might stay if one had lots of money and little interest in intercultural exchange. A sign at the dock warned that the island was protected by armed security.

A tiny private island in the misty distance

Our ferry docked at the terminal in Belize City and I was immediately impressed by the pervasive decrepitude. We collected our luggage and went outside to wait for the private car that would take us to our next destination. While we waited, one taxi driver asked us three different times within five minutes whether we wanted to ride with him. Then our driver, Adrian, arrived. He was the son of the owners of the bed and breakfast we were going to stay. He got out of the car wearing the orange shirt that I was told he would be wearing and awkwardly held up a blue sign with my name on it. He was young, maybe in his late teens or very early twenties. We greeted him and got into the Ford SUV he had arrived in, which was so impeccably clean that it looked completely new inside and out.

Adrian was mostly silent during the drive, but occasionally pointed things out or answered Charlie's questions. On our way out of Belize City, we drove along the waterfront for a while, where everything looked as if it were falling down. Bits of litter peppered every surface along the route like confetti after a party. Every fourth building was a hotel-casino, between which stood large clapboard residences and a few whorehouses. We crossed a bridge into a neighboring district, and this was when Adrian informed us that we were leaving the "classy" part of town. I was relieved that we had decided not to spend any time touring the city.

We got stuck behind a cement truck for awhile, which meant a slow and winding route through a "working class" neighborhood. Nearly all of the homes in this area were little more than dilapidated shacks, full of holes that left their residents exposed to the elements. Many homes bore evidence of once brightly colored paint that was now faded and chipped, while the exteriors of others' were collages of mismatched building materials. I felt like a (former) Pope in his bulletproof Popemobile gawking and being gawked at by people who were noticeably skinnier than the locals we had encountered on Ambergris Caye. I'm not rich by any means, but these people were on the far opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum from me. I wanted to photograph their unusual and creative dwellings, but I felt guilty about effectively producing poverty porn in which the subjects could neither consent nor reciprocate my curiosity with any type of social exchange.

Once we were out on the main highway, I was able to photograph a couple of modest homes that seemed typical to the more rural area we had just entered. 

Locals at a bus stop

Unbeknownst to us, the brightly colored van in the background of the picture above belongs to the resort where would stay during the last leg of our trip.

A small square home

The Western Highway was mostly straight and in better shape than I expected it to be, defying the reputation that Belize had earned for its poorly-maintained roads. Indeed, the single road running the length of Ambergris Caye had been atrocious and was more of an obstacle course than a means of travel. Adrian drove quickly, but safely, speeding past several slow-moving vehicles along the way and stopping periodically at checkpoints manned by armed men in military gear.

The surrounding scenery was bright green, mostly flat, and covered with young palms and some kind of tall skinny tree clothed in white bark. The ground was blanketed in tall, soft grasses, and off in the distance stood striking, irregularly-shaped mini-mountains.

Mini-mountains in the distance

We passed through a couple of villages so tiny that they barely registered as blips on the radar, tending to contain only a few widely placed homes, a run-down supermarket, and several roadside produce huts. Within an hour we had reached the city of Belmopan, turning down a small private road on its western edge that led to The Inn at Twin Palms. Looming beyond the private drive was a bizarre, unfinished neighboring home several stories high that looked like an aspiring Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel

I had booked a room at Twin Palms based on the nearly perfect ratings the establishment had on various travel websites. I had high hopes for our experience here after corresponding with the owner, Anna, who asked me for extremely detailed information prior to our stay, such as our favorite drinks and what colors we liked. Our stint here turned out to be better than I ever could have imagined.

Anna greeted us warmly as we got out of the car, presenting us with a fresh fruit juice and a diet coke. She then led us to our ground-floor room in the guesthouse, which faced the pool, and gave us a quick orientation. The first thing we noticed upon entering the room was how clean it smelled. The decor was simple but homey, and the place was so spotless that it practically sparkled. I often judge the cleanliness of hotels by how clean the bathroom is. In this case, the grout between the tiles in the shower was so pristine that it looked like it had just been installed. 

Fresh flowers set out for us in one of my favorite colors

A welcome bouquet for the newlyweds

We unloaded our belongings in the room and then headed over the big house (the family's residence) to consult Anna on where to eat. She provided us with a spare pre-paid mobile phone in case we ever wanted to order takeout or had an emergency, and then generously gave us a lift into town and pointed out a few places. We settled on an establishment called Caladium that she said had Belizean food and was "very clean." We knew that if she considered it to be clean, it was probably devoid of any nastiness that might affect our sensitive foreign digestive tracts. The place was empty but indeed sanitary, and they were kind enough to serve us between the lunch and dinner rushes when most restaurants close. The food tasted great, although it seemed barely warmed over and a bit dry, and the service was friendly. At our table, we found a bottle of Marie Sharps Exotic Sauce and doused our food with this newly discovered flavor, and then ordered two more plates to go, knowing that we would be hungry later on. All four entrees only amounted to $24 USD + tip, which was a nice change from the inflated prices on the Caye.

After lunch, we took the 15-minute walk back to Twin Palms and I immediately changed into my bathing suit and declared, "Make I swim," employing my newly acquired Belizean creole syntax. I was in the water in no time and quickly became accustomed to the slightly chilly water. The owners' adorable chubby cat, Smokey, came and sat by the pool, both welcoming and recoiling from my stroking his face with chlorine scented fingers. He had a raspy meow as if he were indeed a smoker. Charlie sat nearby, smoked a cigar and read, while I floated and paddled in my own pathetic version of swimming until it was dark. It was so refreshing and relaxing. The sky was crystal clear and a bright crescent moon appeared. In the distance I could hear reggae renditions of Christmas songs, along with banda music, and the occasional snarling of the formidable guard dogs whenever any unknown party approached the property.

It got too cold to swim, so I went in to shower the chlorine out of my hair and skin. Charlie barged into the bathroom to tell me that there were frogs outside, which he knows I love. By the time I had dried myself and dressed, it had begun to rain. Charlie pointed out a small frog sitting under the garden lamp and I observed him for a while. We both went inside, ate our take-out meals, and watched a staticky transmission of South Park on TV. Full and content, we were asleep by eight o'clock.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Everyone Poops

We both woke with a bad case of traveler's intestines and marveled at the fact that it had taken so long for it to happen. We tried to eat breakfast at the resort's restaurant, but neither of us had much of an appetite. When one of the staff came to clear our plates she asked, "What happened?" and I explained that we just weren't very hungry. I'm sure the fact that we took turns excusing ourselves from the table to tear up the restaurant's bathroom (since our room was being cleaned) spoke for itself. Hey, I know it ain't pretty, but these are the realities of international travel.

While at breakfast, we arranged to have to have the water taxi called for us and then returned to our room to shower and sit on the toilet as much as possible. We both took anti-diarrheal medication, loaded up on sunscreen and bug spray, and then went to wait on the dock. We saw the water taxi approaching. It stopped to pick up several people from a nearby dock, after which the driver waved apologetically at us to indicate that the boat was full. We decided to wait to see if another would come by and one did within fifteen minutes.

On the way to town, we chatted with the boat driver and some recently-arrived tourists about good places to eat. He gave us a couple suggestions to try out. We got off the boat, paid, and headed for the ATM. San Pedro was unbelievably quiet.

Abandoned downtown San Pedro

Ah yes, the Mormons.

We stopped into a bazaar to buy a few supplies that we thought we would need for the next leg of our trip, including flashlights and ponchos. This was the first place I actually heard much Spanish spoken during the cashier's interaction with the women in line in front of us. I was glad to be able to use Spanish during my interaction with her.

We went back to Carlos' cigar shop for more cigars and a chat. Carlos was disappointed and apologetic that some cigars Charlie had inquired about earlier had not yet arrived. At that moment he came across as a guy who sighs a lot in his life, especially for someone whose business is selling relaxation. 

Charlie's cigar haul

By then we were hungry. We stopped one more place to buy some long-sleeved shirts and asked the shop owners their opinion on places to eat. We settled on a place called Lily's Treasure Chest, which was deceptively good. It appeared to cater to tourists so we weren't expecting much, but they served delicious Belizean chicken and fish.

The timing of our San Pedro outing that day was perfect and we were lucky enough to get an early outgoing water taxi. We made it back to the cabana in time to sit on the porch, swing in the hammock, smoke cigars, and watch the clouds turn pink as the sun set for us one final time on the Caye. We watched the employees of various resorts on the make their nightly bicycle commute down the beach path. 

"Traffic jam"

Colorful sunset

We saw Adam and asked him for recommendations for nearby restaurants, but he didn't have one. Several of the resort staff had recommended a place called Palapa, a neon-lit beach bar that looked like it appealed to frat boys. We asked Adam about it but he seemed indifferent, probably figuring it wasn't our style. We decided to try it anyway just for a change of scenery from the resort's restaurant. We left after the evening commute with our new flashlights in hand, although one of them barely worked. Along the way we saw small crabs, a gecko, and lots more syringe caps.


The garish bar was easy to spot in the dark thanks to its flashy lighting. At first we thought it was closed because there were only two other parties dining there. It turned out to be an aspiring Margaritaville with a Jimmy Buffet exclusive satellite radio station being played over the speakers, much to my dismay. The service was slow despite the fact that there was no one there with whom to compete for the server's attention, but the food was decent enough. Everything was deep-fried and that was fine with us. We chatted with the bartender named Chi, who turned out to be Adam's cousin. He was a nice guy.

The walk back to the resort was almost deserted except for the occasional bicycle and one drunk, middle-aged couple having a nasty argument. When we got to the resort, some Garifuna folks were entertaining diners with their drumming and we were not looking forward to trying to sleep through it. Luckily, the party wrapped up by eight o'clock. Perhaps Ambergris Caye is an early-to-bed place because of all the elderly folk that travel there.

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.

"BEWARE OF ATTACK CHEF"


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

Thirsty

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.