A Soft-Camping trip with Belize Reef Charters
by: Ann Hollier
REEF CRAWLING CHARTER
[An Expedition service]
Here is a narrative of a very recent trip aboard the Tzabcan, camping while touring the atolls....
Written by Ann Hollier.
I am having the most marvelous dream and I hope I never wake up. I arrived in Belize yesterday and was deposited by a dilapidated taxi at the mouth of the river behind the courthouse in Belize City. Peter, the retired Canadian who set up the charter, was there to greet me and send me over to the boat, Tzabcan, by canoe. The canoe was beautifully made but rough-hewn and, as far as I could tell, had no seams. It looked like it had been hollowed from a single log. It was deep, narrow and very, very tippy.
The Tzabcan is a 25í fishing boat, and from what I have seen so far is a typical example of the local working boat in these parts. It has a single mast and two sails, a mainsail and a jib, and like the canoe it looks homemade. The mast is the trunk of a tree with a noticeable bow in it near the bottom. The boom is a stout length of bamboo about 3" in diameter. It looks sturdily built though and well maintained, although it is shedding its most recent coat of paint like a peeling sunburn.
My situation is just north of camping. My bed is sheets and a thin blanket on a foam pad perhaps 2 feet wide. I sleep on top of a sheet of plywood over great storage carboys filled with rainwater. The toilet is a 5 gallon plastic bucket with a little disinfectant sloshing around in the bottom, with a toilet seat and lid fitted on top.
My quarters are in the middle of the boat where it is widest and there is the most headroom but itís still a very, very cozy space. Iíve already cracked my head several times on the lip of the big square hatch cover, that can be closed to shut out the weather from my part of the boat below deck but is usually left open for convenience and air circulation. The captain, Rosario, sleeps at the back of the boat in a space marked off by an enormous ice chest and a curtain that gives me privacy, kind of. The other crew member, Venancio, sleeps on a roll of foam rubber padding in the space forward of the mast. My open suitcase, propped on my side of the mast, is my only source of privacy in that direction. Since he is almost always up on deck except when he is sleeping it isnít an issue, so far, but I wish there were a curtain on that side as well.
As I headed out of the harbor yesterday evening, I realized if this turned out to be a bad idea for a woman alone it could get ugly in a hurry and I would be on my own to get myself out of trouble. I was completely dependent on the trustworthiness of an aging Canadian sailor I knew up to that moment only through e-mail, but even so I was dismayed when I realized he wasnít going. So most of all I was at the mercy of the hospitality and courtesy of the crew Ė a good-looking young black crewman who lives with Peterís stepdaughter and a handsome middle-aged Mayan captain with the body of a teenager (nickname: "Pecker." Man oh man. I donít think I needed to know that.) I had just met Venancio and Rosa for the first time 15 minutes before setting out with them for parts unknown. My friends all laugh at what an adventurer I am, but I suddenly realized I was way, way out of even my comfort zone. Iíve traveled abroad alone before but as part of a larger group. Even when thereís not an English speaker among them thereís a certain sense of safety in numbers. For a few moments, I was utterly terrified. Then, since there wasnít a thing I could do about it short of leaping off the boat, I set aside my fears and went up on the deck to watch the boat nosing through slate colored waves under a heavily overcast, leaden sky.
We anchored for the evening in the lee of the nearest barrier islands Ė long and low, filled with mangroves and strange sounds.
I was exhausted from the short night before and the long plane ride and went to bed early while Rosa and Venancio talked quietly up on deck. As I lay there in the dark, the utter strangeness of my situation rolled over me again. Not having ever spent more than a day on a small boat and never having slept on one, it had never ever occurred to me what an intimate experience I was entering into. Here I was afloat in a space smaller than my living room with two strange men whose culture and way of life I knew nothing about. They speak both English and Spanish with one another, gliding effortlessly from one to the other and back again. They have a Caribbean lilt that is very pleasing to the ear but makes them hard to understand in either language. Their English is really a CreoleóBritish English with a heavy African/Spanish accent and Africanized grammar, with a lot of words twisted sideways into unrecognizabilityó"place" is pronounced "pleyiss," "boy" is "bwhy," "got" is "goat," "they" is "day," "man" is "moan," and so on. It is only now after a day in their company that I begin to be able to follow them more easily. They still have to repeat themselves a lot, and not being able to understand them very well adds to my sense of dislocation. On the other hand, the gentle swaying of the boat as I fell asleep was a completely unexpected and thoroughly delicious experience.
As I fell asleep, I did my breathing meditation, following my breath downward from my nostrils to the base of my spine, feeling my pelvis fill with light and then sending the light back out with my breath, slowly up my spine and out each chakra in turn Ė the top of my head, the third eye, the throat, the heart. My meditation was vivid and effortless and my body felt brightly lit from within. I could feel the current of energy running along my spine and buzzing pleasantly out through the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet. I could feel streamers extending gently from my heart and throat, the top of my head, like the tendrils of a sea anemone dancing in an ocean current. And once, a strong surge like twining snakes thrusting right up from the base of the spine and out both arms. I was filled with the most indescribable joy.
Thank you, I prayed, as I was swayed gently to sleep, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Today we threaded our way through more barrier islands and then crossed a stretch of open ocean. It is so isolated here. The islands are almost totally uninhabited and covered mostly with mangrove although the parts that sit a little higher sometimes have palm trees. The exoticness of it all is impossible to capture. The thought that keeps coming to mind is that I could easily be a journalist for National Geographic, so otherworldly and utterly wild is this place. I love hiking and camping and Iíve been at times up to three daysí walk into the wilds, but even so you are always on a trail, always passing other hikers from time to time, always camping in places where other people have camped. I have finally discovered the completely trackless wilderness that I didnít realize until this day I have hungered for all my life and never found.
This afternoon we dropped anchor at a tiny island about the size of my front yard. Apart from a low ground cover it has only 10 palm trees, 2 mangrove seedlings and 2 other small trees with long narrow leaves and gnarled branches. As we pulled in I was disappointed at first as it appeared to be covered with trash Ė shapeless white lumps strewn everywhere under the trees in this spot so idyllic as to be a caricature of the proverbial desert island.
Then I got out and waded to shore. The lumps werenít trash but conch shells, hundreds and hundreds of them in every shape and size. The ocean floor all around is literally carpeted with them, so much so that it is impossible to walk except where the ocean currents have covered them up with sand. As I walked the island I found one tiny, perfect helmet shell, chocolate and pink.
Our only company for the afternoon has been two pelicans and a fish hawk. There are two long, low islands in the distance, dark streaks along the western horizon. Once, I saw a sailboat pass far off in their direction. Otherwise itís just us, the birds, the water, the endless sky, and this tiny, perfect island. Rosario was going to take me snorkeling after lunch but I slept instead, my second nap of the day. I am so incredibly happy.
When I woke up I found myself thinking about the two men who crew this boat. I knew I wasnít their typical charter, but I was afraid that as an American woman they might either despise me or assume that I was expecting a two-week orgy. What on earth do they make of me? They are both completely polite, solicitous, and gently friendly. I am treated like a queen. Whatever did I do to deserve such beauty? Such kind and loving care? I feel watched over, and held in the hand of the universe. I am so happy. I am so happy. I am so happy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
It is late now. I am the only one still up. I write by the light of a tiny, high-intensity light bulb hanging from a nail over my berth. Long, deep breaths edging toward soft snores come from either end of the boat. Small fishes are attracted to the light and there is a type of jellyfish that flashes green, off an on like a firefly, all around us in the night. This is a most marvelous dream, and now the swaying of the boat, the low roar of breakers against the tiny beach, and the hissing of the wind through the ten palm trees beckon me to dream my way down to another level. In this place where the sea meets the sky in every direction, Gwynned, my dream guide and teacher, feels close, close to the surface. This is a time and a place for powerful dreams. I cam feel them just below consciousness. I feel blessed. All is bliss.
I am already losing track of time. A very good sign! The very first thing I did after waking up on Sunday was to take off my watch and put it away. I can tell everything I need to know by where the sun and moon are in the sky. But I already have to think hard to reconstruct what day of the week it is. Usually it takes me a good week of vacation to unplug from the office enough to get to that point. I love my work, but it is so voracious. It feels like there is no escaping it. Even on vacation it so often follows me Ė the faxes, the conference calls, the reports that need finishing, sometimes even having to fly back to the office in the middle of my vacation and then out again, or cutting my vacation short to take care of some dire emergency. I suppose thatís why each time I go away I go somewhere increasingly remote, looking for a place where AT&T and Federal Express canít find me. Maybe having dropped back from 24 by 7 overtime to a very limited work schedule two weeks before leaving helped me get into vacation mode a lot faster this time. I really look forward to being a recovered workaholic.
We woke at dawn and I waded in to the island to watch the sunrise. The sky was almost completely ringed with distant clouds, far out on the horizon, but clear overhead. Everything is so different here, even the sky. The clouds and the light are nothing like home. I had a sense of dream images just out of reach, but couldnít pull them back. The day felt pregnant, as if the luminous reality of my dreams and meditations was right on the other side of a rapidly thinning veil.
I have a sense that if I let it, if I invite it in, this could be an enormously powerful spiritual journey. God knows I could use guidance. My life has only been stood on its head to this degree a handful of timesóleaving home to go to college, getting married, the birth of my daughter, the leukemia diagnosis, the bone marrow transplant, the separation. And now, after three years of total immersion in a dot-com startup, finally giving in to chronic exhaustion and dropping back to one day a week while I take stock of what I am doing with my life. I love my work but Iíve always known that I would only be doing this particular job for a while. That it was important and the company wasnít likely to succeed without me, but it was not my true path forever. So now itís time to sit still for a while. I feel convinced that if I can make myself do that it will become obvious what I am supposed to be doing next, but right now I donít have a clue. Hard for someone so goal directed.
I walked the beach in a meditation. As I waded over the broken shells in the breakers off the east side of the island where the sea is fiercest, I looked down and saw something blue winking up at me through the foamy water swirling around my ankles. I picked it up and examined it. It was a broken piece of pottery with blue designs painted on a creamy background. It looked old but Iím sure it wasnít because it wouldnít have withstood the grinding of waves and sand for very long. It was curved in all directions, as if it had come from a bowl or pitcher rather than a mug or plate, and it was perfectly triangular. Then as I studied it I realized that the image framed on the triangle was an eye. Immediately I got goose bumps. It reminded me of the eye within a triangle that is a Masonic symbol displayed above a pyramid on the back of the dollar bill, and a very, very old symbol before they adopted it. The all-seeing Eye of God.
I love synchronicity. I have learned that if I suspend judgment and respond to it as if it has come into my life for a reason, it deepens my experience in ways that feel anything but accidental. I know it isnít given to us to know unshakably that the universe communicates with us directly, but if there ever was an unambiguous message, this was it. The Universal Consciousness flows through me, and its wisdom and guidance are available to me whenever I wish to experience them. And here it was manifesting itself and finding a way to deliver a reminder into my hands on a deserted island in the back of beyond as I struggle to make sense of this transition point in my life. I was so overcome I stood in the waves crying for a long, long time. Then I took my treasure back to the shore and turned it over and over as I leaned against a palm tree, facing the rising sun.
It came in splendor, surrounded by an aureole of clouds that sent out pink and golden streamers. As the sun broke free of the low clouds, the wind picked up and rushed at me, straight out of the spreading blaze of crimson and tangerine. It was indescribable, the sense of being surrounded by holiness, bathed in the light of the newborn sun with a radiant wind flowing from it to me and right through my body, becoming one with the sun, the water, this moment, this day, this island with ten palm trees. And the Eye of the All That Is clutched to my heart as if it might be the last numinous thing I ever experience.
I am totally, utterly, completely blown away. This is the kind of happy that the word "delirious" was invented to describe. My joy runs through me like a river.
We stayed most of the day on the Island of Ten Palm Trees, which is so small it doesnít show up on Rosaís nautical maps. Somewhere south of English Cay. Then headed east for a rough crossing to the Turneffe Islands. We spent the night moored on the lee side of an island but the boat still rocked and bucked in a strong wind, waking me several times. It was OK. The new moon sets not long after the sun and the sky is filled with an impossible number of stars. Weíve made our way along the eastern side of the islands today, stopping to snorkel at the reef and spend the heat of the day in the shade of some coconut palms on yet another deserted island. We forage as we goóeating fish, conch, and spiny lobsters that Rosa catches on the reef each day and gathering coconuts.
One of the great surprises of this trip continues to be the learning about male energy. I thought I was thoroughly used to being around guys. My company was, until recently, almost entirely male and even with clients I am often the only woman in a board room full of fat, balding, middle-aged white men in suits. I am in the enviable position of being welcomed into the good-old-boy network as an honorary guy without ever for a moment feeling they forget that I wear spike heels and a skirt. I have gotten a lot of professional mileage out of being smart, competent, and reasonably easy on the eyes. In my personal life, I have more good male friends than most women and since separating from my husband Iíve had my share of more-than-friends.
This is totally different. Maybe itís the difference in culture but I donít think so. Although it has been completely chaste, we live in extremely close quarters and there is a constant erotic undercurrent, especially at night. But thatís hardly surprising, and being surrounded by men in my everyday life Iím used to it. This trip isnít about sex. Rather, itís about the other ways that male and female come together when sexuality is taken off the table. I am very independentósometimes infuriatingly soóand I am used to looking after myself. Much to my surprise, this trip is about being taken care of, watched over, and looked after by men. It is about kindness and the anticipation of my needs and wants andóI want to use the word reverence.
Every now and then the utter decadence of this makes me laugh. The Queen of Sheba couldnít have been treated any better.
Thursday, 2/1 (At least, I think itís Thursday, and if it is Iím pretty sure that would make it the 1st!)
From time to time something impresses upon me all over again how way, way, way out there this trip is, even for someone like me. This is one of the most beautiful, wild places Iíve seen in my entire life. The beauty pierces the soul, the long, low islands, mostly mangrove but dotted with coconut palms where the sand mounds up beyond the reach of the storms. Not many places, those. I realize most of these islands will never be developed because they canít be. The ground among the mangroves is actually under water most of the time and even the coconut groves arenít high enough to be safe in a hurricane. A couple of times a day we pass a small resort or a clearing. We went ashore a couple of days ago at Turneffe Island Lodge so Rosario and Venancio could get soft drinks and cigarettes. It was pretty in a well-kept, civilized kind of way, a dozen little cottages perched on low stilts under palm trees, everything painted a creamy yellow and white. They looked like they were built with the intention to stay but a ten-foot storm surge will send waves right through the front door. I imagine they may not survive their first head-on hurricane.
And around these toeholds of "civilization" stretches miles and miles of miles and miles. Mangroves, blue sky, blue water, reefs, pelicans, frigate birds and not much else for as far as the eye can see. The peacefulness of it makes me realize how utterly, senselessly, needlessly frantic my life has been for far too long.
There is a dark side to the wild beauty of Belize too. Rosa turns on the radio twice a day for the weather and the news. One is unrelievedly dull, the other astonishingly violentóeven to my jaded American ears. Every dayís weathercast is tediously predictableópartly cloudy with a chance of showers and a small craft advisory to the east. (Ummm . . . that would be us, wouldnít it?? But Rosa obviously knows what heís doing.) The weather forecasters around here must live for the hurricane season because I canít see that they have much to do the rest of the year. Every dayís news headlines are a litany of human vileness that is positively mind numbing for a country that couldnít be much larger than the state of Rhode Island. A string of armed robberies and shootings in Belize City. In one of them, the intended victim got away so the two gunmen shot his 11-year-old and 16-month-old children instead, shooting the younger child in the head. In Corozal Town, one man stabbed his girlfriend in the chest and another assaulted and raped a 16-year-old boy. Two separate arrests were made of drug dealers, confiscating more than a pound of crack cocaine from each. And hereís the one I really love: Someone broke into the armory at the police training academy and stole all their high-caliber weapons. Many of them are assault rifles that the police in the U.S. would not even be allowed to carry. There are also border disputes with Guatemala and guerilla activities in the interior. So the rule of law here is a bit chancy and not the least bit to be taken for granted.
I have run away to the Wild, Wild West on the Caribbean. Sometimes the realization of it thrills me, as I imagined very few places like this to be within my reach. Sometimes it scares me badly enough that I have to make myself think about something else. What am I doing, a woman alone on a small boat with two strange men in the wilderness? What was I thinking? What kind of person goes off into the frontier for a little rest and relaxation? This is the kind of place people go when they donít want to be found.
And then I wonder what that says about me. I am utterly infatuated with the beauty of this place. The endless sky, the way the sun slants from behind clouds pregnant with rain and jewels the landscape with rainbows. The sparkling traceries of sunlight on the water, the fierceness of the waxing moon at night.
It is just possible that I have found the place I would like to retire to. The desolateness is so indescribably compelling; my soul yearns to rest in it for a long while.
After walking the beach at the resort we spent quite a while at the Island of Lost Shoes. Just a bit beyond the lodge we anchored in the lee of an island with a platform on one end perhaps 25 or 30 feet high. It had been taken over by a pair of hawks who chirped and hovered anxiously every time we passed under their nest. They are beautiful birds, smaller with shorter beaks than the red tailed hawks we have at home and plumage barred brown and cream. Long legs. I think they have a black mask over the eyes.
I walked up the beach a distance to where there was more sand and a space to spread out a towel and read my book. Here, all my fears about the unpleasant evidence of civilization were realized. The environmentalist concept of "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints" hasnít made it here yet. The entire shoreline is littered with an absolutely astonishing quantity of non-biodegradable detritus. Plastic and glass bottles of every size and description, pieces of nylon rope, plastic shopping bags, bazillions of plastic ziplock baggies, bits of fishnet, broken plastic buckets, pieces of styrofoam trays, plastic packing crates for soft drinks, empty drums that once held gasoline and insecticide, more plastic bottlesólittle ones like childrenís juice bottles, a length of really thick hemp rope like the anchor rope for a ferry boat, plastic milk and water jugs, foam insulation, plastic milk crates, more plastic bottles. From a little spit of sand no bigger than my living room I cleared three five-gallon buckets of junk, the bucket itself being one of the items delivered upon the shore.
It is like this pretty much everywhere. It is painful and sad how much trash has piled up in an uninhabited and otherwise untrammeled place. It is offensive Ė like climbing Mount Everest and finding it littered with empty oxygen canisters. I try to witness it without judgment. It is entirely possible that Americans are just as talented at fouling our own nest but we have the resources to clean up after the people who canít help being pigs. I find myself having fantasies about coming back and spending my entire trip just clearing away all this ugliness. There are so few beaches out here and most are so small that one energetic person with some time to spend on it could actually make a difference. I do take time each place I stop to at least gather up the junk around me and stack it above the reach of storms. But every time Rosa or Venancio pitches plastic overboard I have to practically bite my tongue in half to stop myself from saying something. This isnít my culture and I donít know how to talk to them about it without giving offense, but it pains me that they donít see a connection between the trash they toss overboard and the eyesore on nearly every beach weíve stopped at. To them, the sea is still infinite and completely forgiving. They donít see that they are endangering their own livelihood. Eco-tourists like me are their lifeblood and we crave the illusion when we go to the wilderness that it is still pristine, that we are the first.
In this particular spot there were also an unbelievable number of shoes Ė so many that it was comical. I began lining them up along a piece of driftwood and came up with 19 in every size from a tiny toddlerís flip flop to a sneaker so enormous that my toes barely reached beyond the instepóand no two were alike. This must be where shoes go to die when theyíve lost their mates, I decided.
Then I tried to go into the water and discovered that, two steps out from shore, the sand changed to a sucking and seemingly bottomless expanse of mud. If I hadnít been wearing my sturdy Tiva sandals I might well have lost one of them too.
Rosario put up the sail yesterday and we threaded our way north down wide, twisting passages between islands. The water was calm. All was quiet except for the soft sluicing of the boat through the water. Venancio turned on the radio and for once turned it to a classical program. Swan Lake was playing as the boat glided silently from one lagoon to another. Perfect, utterly perfect.
Music is turning out to be an important part of this experience, actually. There are artists on the radio that I would never have heard back at home that I find I really like. Rap and hip-hop has gone in a totally different direction here that is much more melodic as well as more rhythmically complex, very African, very Latin (duh!). I particularly like two groups that Venancio tells me are called El Chombo (their Cuentas de la Cripta is fantastic) and Shaggy (their remake of the 60ís song Angel is really interesting and completely contemporary, and they also have a new song, It Wasnít Me, that is both wonderful music and hilarious). Since I canít understand a lot of it, I enjoy the abstract shapes of the sounds and melodic lines in the songs in the way I enjoy jazz scat singing. It is a very fresh sound, very creative. I have musician friends in the U.S. who would be interested in this. And Venancio sings constantly. Mostly, he sings along with the radio or sings ballads to himself in Spanish. But sometimes heís silly in a way that is completely endearing, singing familiar jingles from commercials or even Christmas carols. Today, out of the blue, he started belting out a rousing rendition of "All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth." I couldnít stop laughing and this, of course, only encourages him.
For the last three days we have gone out on the reefs for part of the day. Sometimes it is a fair distance outóa long swim across waving underwater meadows of turtle grass. Rosario likes to keep an eye on me, which is hard because we have two entirely different paces. He is all business, swimming from one likely looking nook in the coral to another. He carries a spear gun in one hand that he uses with great skill to skewer the fish he cooks up for our dinner. With the other he carries a long staff with an enormous fishhook lashed to one end. This he uses to harass spiny lobsters out of their hiding places.
I go slowly, looking at everything, sometimes dawdling for minutes at a time over some particularly interesting discovery. My favorites so far: A nurse shark three or four feet long, jet black, resting on the sand inside a big cavity in the reef. A "ribbon fish" Ė I donít know what itís really called but it looked like a tiny angelfish with long streamers trailing from both top and bottom fins like a scarf dancer. Alternating stripes of black and white made it mesmerizing to watch. And a puffer fish the size of a football, mustard colored with black spots and protruding eyes. It let me drift to within a couple of feet before it retreated under the coral.
The last two days Iíve come back exhilarated but then suddenly felled by exhaustion. Two days ago I was sound asleep after snorkeling and slept right through dinner and the night. Yesterday I made it through dinner but not sunset. All this rest can only be good for me. I had no idea I was so tired. Am so tired. It is as if the exhaustion of the last three years has seeped into my bones and has to be soaked and baked out of them gradually in the Caribbean sun.
Friday (Iím pretty sure), 2/2 (I think)
There are so many things I need to write about, I hardly know where to start. I guess by saying Iíve noticed how much Iíve changed. Suddenly I sing and hum all the time, reaching for songs into places I havenít looked for a long time. Hymns from my girlhood, old musicals, folk songs, chants, classical music, opera, and much to my amazement, improvisation. I love playing with the lines of melody just to see where they go.
Other things that have changed: Yesterday I made my first sketch inóI donít know how long. We were under sail again and I thought the lines of the sail and the front of the boat made such elegant, geometric sweeps. I lick all ten fingers after every meal, and have traded all but my morning coffee for tea, and more recently mostly water. In spite of all the water I drink I am endlessly thirsty. And my sleep cycle has changed utterly. I have always been a night owl. The first couple of days out I napped twice a day, but eventually I traded the naps for going to sleep really early. I love waking two or three times in the night to look at the stars and then rising before dawn to watch the sun come up.
And writing for myself again for the first time in at least a million years, enjoying playing with the words needed to try to describe this place. I told Rosa we have a name for this kind of beauty in my country. We call it "eye candy." I love that name. Itís so perfect. It has the same kind of unexpected deliciousness as the thing it describes.
The sunsets and sunrises are to die for. The sky wears a hazy garland of clouds, right on the rim of the world, but overhead is almost always clear. As the sun slides through the low clouds they separate into long thin lines of incandescent lace in a brilliant tangerine and salmon sky. And though the changes moment by moment are subtle, from one minute to the next the sky morphs from one vision of loveliness to another one entirely different. And just as you think itís done it starts all over again in another part of the heavens. Heaven. Another part of heaven.
Two days ago, the long fluffy ribbons of clouds had wavy ripples of clear air running across them that glowed a brilliant yellow in the dying light, so as the sun set it appeared that meandering rivers of molten gold were running out of it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the horizon was a beautiful abstract arrangement of water and sky. The broad reach of water inside the reef in dappled shades of milky green bottle glass. Then the thin broken line of brown and cream where the reef cleaves the surface, the narrow band of steel blue beyond it marking the open seaówhat Rosario calls "the blue." Above that, the garland of clouds on the horizon is a haze of mauve with the puffy turrets of cumulus clouds carved here and there into the top of it. Then a band of open sky above that, almost yellow just above the haze and then shading gradually into a milky aquamarine, just a bit bluer than the shallow water inside the reef. And above that, almost directly overhead, a transparent cobweb of steel gray clouds, scalloped like fish scales, so delicate and thin that a royal blue sky can be seen right through them. How can one place do all that at once?? I itch to paint the things I see.
And then there are times when I am run through by this thrill of grief, clean and sharp as a knife. I cry from it every single day. It hurts. It is so beautiful it hurts.
Yesterday I learned something new. I discovered that swimming with fish bigger than I am makes me a little bit nervous. These are wild animals, and this is no zoo. We were in a different kind of reef across from Turneffe Flats. The water is about 20 feet deep and the reef is a canyon land of branching coral spires and huge brain coral mesas. Rosario has finally given up on keeping me close at hand because we swim at different speeds driven by totally different agendas. I want entertainment. He wants dinner. So he swims off with his spear gun and ranges around in the vicinity while I study some individual fish or coral formation for minutes at a time. I was swimming along a wide valley between two coral ridges and I guess it was a highway because when I looked up a nurse shark, quite a bit bigger than I was, was swimming right toward me. (At least I think it was that big. Funny how big fish always look a whole lot bigger when theyíre swimming right at you.) Rosario had told me they were harmless, a good thing since I was just about shitting peppermints as it was. I was so intimidated by its size. But when I broke left, it broke right. Since I knew it couldnít hurt me, I decided that being afraid of it was no reason not to go after it. I turned to follow but I couldnít keep up.
The other one made me pay attention. It was a green moray eel as thick as my leg and about as long as I was. Maybe longer. The color, the way it undulated through the coral, and the way the sunlight shining through the surface of the water shimmered off of it, made it look exactly like a coil of green smoke pouring itself across the reef with a fluid grace. When I first saw it, I thought for a split second that I had slipped back into a meditation-induced altered state. It was swimming right toward meónot in a hurry, but not aimlessly. I tried to move aside but it moved with me, and kept coming until I backed right off of the reef and out over the sand flats in deeper water. It prowled the edge of the coral near me for quite some time, thrusting its head out every minute or so and looking around until it spotted me, studying me just as intently as I was studying it. I donít remember feeling as deeply, viscerally frightened by it as my first glimpse of the shark, but after the eel finally swam off I found I was suddenly very ready to get out of the water.
Rosa is an interesting character. I ask for very little because he anticipates most of what I could possibly wantóa cup of tea, some shade, the privacy of having my hatch closed (which is too heavy for me to move myself), a stopover on an island so I can walk the beach (and shit in privateóan impossibility on the boat), a cushion to sit on, a tarp spread under the cushion in the shade of a palm tree, a couple of coconuts opened with a machete and lined up on the sand in the shade next to the tarp so Iíll have a cool drink when I get thirsty, the choicest piece of fish or lobster at dinner. True, Iím paying him but he could do none of this and I would be just as satisfied, only a good deal less utterly contented. He has taken to calling me Miss Merry Ann. Iím not sure that his way of looking after people is something you can teach, but something you do because it is the way you are made.
They are both very respectful about staying at the other end of the boat while I change or pee into the bucket provided for that purpose. Still, when another fishing boat tied up at dusk next to ours, Rosario had to fend off several laughing rounds of jibes from the five men on the other boat (I feel SOOOO outnumbered!) about "la puta." The whore. I guess that would be me.
Yesterday we made another island stopover for the afternoon at a private island where Rosa has a friend who is caretaker. I learned that the coconut groves in this area around Turneffe Flats are some of the highest in the island chainóa whopping 8 feet above sea level. The coconut grove was bigger than most and the underbrush had been cleared out of it. With so much land I was expecting that the house would be a big deal but it wasnít. Just a small unpainted wood cottage tucked well back from the shore among the trees with a bunch of small children and dogs hanging around the porch. Lines strung with laundry in various sizes waved like prayer flags all around it. A man came out to greet us and talk to Rosa but if his wife was around I never saw her. The beach was mostly free of the trash that Iíve encountered on nearly every wild beach and there was a great porch swing strung up under a tree right on the waterís edge. I had a wonderful time wandering through the palm trees and was on my way back to the boat when I heard a racket overhead. I looked up and discovered two wild Amazon parrots, emerald green, twittering to one another in the treetops. I whistled to them and their conversation came to a dead stop. But I kept whistling and eventually they started whistling back and forth with me. I was completely enchanted. I wonder how hard it would be to live in a place like this.
I continue to be completely blown away by the loveliness of this place. This is without a doubt the most erotic landscape I have ever experienced. Everything about it is so extravagantly sensual, the intense colors, the soft curves of the land, the exotic world of the reefs, the rippling, shimmering fish, the sensations of water and wind and sun that make my flesh sing with pleasure, the clean salt smell. I canít imagine the South Pacific being any more alluring. And itís so empty! The Australian Outback in a tropical paradise.
The radio is what really drives home the frontier aspect of this land. Some of the news stories are very sad. The eight-months-pregnant woman who committed suicide after feeding weed killer to her four- and six-year-old children. In my country it would be bullets all around, swift and high-tech. There are also many public service announcements and a tremendous emphasis on encouraging civic engagement. One ad announces that domestic abuse causes more death, disability, and loss of work productivity than cancer, traffic accidents, malaria, and war combined. What a frame of reference! Another promotes the importance of literacy, ending with the tag line "Only when you read, you can reason." (Pronounced: "Oonly ween yoh rrrid, yoh cain rrrisen." I applaud what they are trying to do, but my mind worries at the illogic and the fractured grammar like a rough tooth.
The talk radio is like the doings of a small town, announcing the winner of a raffle for a refrigerator in some small village, discussing the need for speed restrictions at a busy intersection with a school bus stop in Corozal Town. Fielding a complaint from a woman in Belize City who was sexually harassed by a lawyer when she visited his office. Considering complaints about potholes in some neighborhood, which from the conditions of the roads Iíve seen so far must be truly death-defying to attract special attention. They also announce obituaries and list the surviving family members. Each death announcement can take a number of minutes for an extended family that spans several countries including the U.S.
A dispute with Guatemala over using GPS to fix the boundary between the two countries is a prominent daily news item. A popular song that airs at least a couple of times a day declares that they will never give up their boundary, not one river, not one cay (island, pronounced "key"), not one blade of grass "that belongs to we." Not a theme Iíve heard in the top 40 back in the U.S. for years and years. This is Yankee Doodle Dandy country and there are countless reminders of that fact.
And juxtaposed over that is this languorous, heart-breakingly beautiful land. Rosaís signature comment is, "Take your time." . . . "The tea is very hot, take your time." "We close the hatch for you now, take your time." "We have dinner when you are ready, take your time."
Thank you. Yes, I believe I will.
He is hard to understand in English or Spanish. Perhaps because his mother tongue is neither English nor Spanish, but the local Mayan dialect. His words all have rounded edges and he drawls, running them together seamlessly and twisting them into unrecognizable shapes with his Jamaican-like, lilting accent. Often I canít even tell whether he and Venancio are speaking to one another in English or Spanish, much less what is being said. But I do pick up bits and pieces, more each day.
We moved away from the fishing boat for the night but are tied up next to them again this morning. The men on the other boat are processing spiny lobsters that Rosa says will be sold to Japan. There is a lively conversation going on in Spanish about the weather, who is sailing where next, the fishing. They have a tendency to forget that I know Spanish because I doní t use it with them. Rosa, God bless him, is defending my honor. The Spanish is so rapid-fire I canít understand a lot of the conversation so I didnít catch the jest that started it, but he responded testily with "Vaya a su casa, si quieres mujer." Go home if you want a woman.
This is a totally masculine world I have wandered into. The only female face Iíve laid eyes on since getting on the boat a week ago was the American manager at the Turneffe Island Lodge. Even the nearby resort at Turneffe Flats seems to be populated exclusively by men. A work crew of men working the gardens and repairing a building, a clientele of fishermen there for the catch-and-release bonefishing, tuna, and tarpin. The manager is a young Australian man with a charming accent and movie star good looks.
The weight of being under such intense, constant male scrutiny takes its toll. I feel like an exotic dancer without having removed a stitch of clothing. I am beginning to have moments of missing what is familiar. My daughter, the animals, a culture where the dance of male and female has rules I can be sure I understand. I am, every moment of every day, a stranger in a strange land. I did it on purpose and I donít for a moment regret it, but Iím beginning to want to rest, at anchor in a familiar world, for just a little while.
A funny factoid: I scraped my leg against the coral while we were snorkeling this morning. Where the coral has died it is as abrasive as pumice stone, and though my scratches werenít deep or especially painful they looked ugly and bled what seemed like an awful lot. Rosa was clucking over it as I climbed back on the boat when Venancio declared that what my leg needed wasóI kid you notósome snake oil. Itís a faintly aromatic oil and it actually has soothed the area quite a bit. It cracks me up that, here in this place on the other side of nowhere, a term that was once applied to fraudulent medicine has metamorphosed into a name for a very effective home remedy. I love the joke within a joke. Venancio and Rosa were mystified about why I was laughing so hard.
Last night we stayed over for the night at a lighthouse, our furthest point northward in the Turneffe Islands before heading south and then west to cross over the open ocean toward St. Georgeís Cay. The habitable part of the island is only about half an acre and couldnít be more than a foot above sea level. It is just a low, narrow hummock of bare sand and bedraggled coconut trees leaning tiredly, embraced between two long thickets of mangroves growing with their feet in the salt mud flats. The two exposed shores where the lighthouse stands have knee-high sea walls, both breached. There are two tiny cottages on stilts and a concrete box (septic tank??) for a third one that was swept out to sea in a bad hurricane a year ago. It looks like one bad storm could demote this island right back to the status of sand bar. Weíve passed some cays, marked and named on Rosaís maps, where that has happened. (Some of the names are quaint. I particularly like Dog Flea Cay.)
The lighthouse was not all that high and very badly corroded, with a surprisingly feeble light fed by a solar panel. Rosa knows the lighthouse keeper and they told me I could go up, which I did but the open spiral staircase made me a little uneasy, and I chose not to climb the ladder at the top with no railings that gave access to the lighthouse mechanism and the uppermost catwalk. The steps are wrought iron with what must have once been an elegant design now all crumbling away with rust. One of the steps near the top had rusted out entirely and a loose piece of plate iron had been placed over the opening but not bolted down. The view was great though. Rosa tells me the lighthouse is 150 years old. With the condition that both it and the island are in, I donít think itís going to get a whole lot older.
The lighthouse keeper is a black man with wild hair and a thick, snarled beard. He lives alone and I found myself wondering what the experience of living in almost total seclusion for months and years does to a person. He looks like he may not be too securely moored any more. His only company is a small black and white spotted dog and an even smaller white puppy. The puppy was very sweet and mad for attention, following me everywhere, pressing herself against my legs and licking my hands gratefully. She was cute and affectionate but covered with crusty sores, and scratched constantly. When I got back to the boat Rosa told me not to pet her too much because she has mange. Swell. Now he tells me.
I found it a pretty depressing place and would rather have gone on but Rosa seemed hungry for the company, sitting on the porch visiting with the other man for a couple of hours. Yesterday evening, another fishing boat pulled in and tied up alongside, with five more horny men on board. So last night between my crew, the other boatís crew, and the lighthouse keeper I was outnumbered 8 to 1. This should be a single womanís idea of heaven but I feel more and more intimidated. I canít understand them well enough to join in the conversation and they stare whenever they think Iím not looking. I spent a lot of time below deck, reading and napping, anything to stay out of sight.
And I have a tactical problem. This morning I did some laundry in a bucket and hung it up to dry. I was out of clean underwear and my two changes of shorts and shirts were getting pretty funky too. For some reason even though the area below deck doesnít feel damp or smell musty, things donít dry down there. To get something dry in any reasonable period of time you have to tuck it under the rope on the mast where the breeze and sun can get at it. Somehow, I donít think flying my black lace bikini underwear from the mast is a good idea.
Well I had been wondering and I can now report that, yes, Virginia, there are pirates out here. We put out our anchor yesterday and were immediately approached by a sleek speedboat from a nearby camp on the beach. The boat had two enormous outboards either one of which dwarfed the engine that drives the Tzabcan. It carried four men wearing uniforms and life vests. "Soldados," Rosa muttered under his breath. There were some rapid-fire instructions exchanged between Rosario and Venancio but the only part of it I caught was something about "fishing licenses." They were very tense, and that made me nervous. Knowing Rosa thought these men were soldiers didnít comfort me in the slightest. I climbed off the deck and stood on the bench below deck where I could see what was going on (and not look like I was hiding) without being so conspicuous. They talked to Rosa for quite a while after they came alongside. They took a particular interest in a barracuda he had caught the previous day, deftly gutted and boned, and then opened out flat to dry, skin side down, neat as the wrapping off a present. This, they took. They looked as if they were considering whether to come on board. Once again, I felt way, way out of my comfort zone. But they never did.
After they left Rosa explained that they were searching for a suspected ring of boat highjackers Ė "Banditos, piratos," he elaborated helpfully.
Glad we cleared that up.
I dreamed all night last night about an empty building, a mansion really, elegant brick on the outside, winding staircases and carved marble and leaded glass on the inside. It was all shut up and had clearly seen better days. In places the floors didnít seem very trustworthy. For some reason the previous owners had allowed, or been required to permit, other very ordinary buildings to be constructed almost right up against it so that there was only a narrow courtyard between. The beautiful façade was almost completely hidden. It was still grand, but a hidden jewel, and on its way to becoming a magnificent ruin through neglect. I was considering buying it, trying to decide if I could afford to both purchase and restore it. And then there was the matter of it being haunted. I might purchase it only to find it uninhabitable because of the ghosts.
I woke up feeling regretful, and thinking that I needed to ask the house what it wanted from me, that it and its restless spirits would welcome the right person in.
Different variations of this grand old house that I am either considering buying or have just moved into have been showing up a lot lately in my dreams. Obviously, the part of me that knows whatís going on is trying to tell me that the task at hand at this point in my life is all about living more expansively, and taking possession of something rather grand that has been laying dormant for far too long. I am trying very, very hard to pay attention. I just wish I knew what I was doing.
We have come almost full circle from our starting point. Yesterday we went across "the blue" and threaded our way through lagoons again, ending up in a sheltered anchorage at the mouth of a lagoon that was one of the first places we had stopped on our way out last week. We are surrounded by mangroves but there is a little palm grove nearby that I hadnít spotted the last time through. This morning I decided to go for a walk. There had been no privacy on the lighthouse island and after the encounter with the soldiers we had moored well off the beach on Sunday night. We didnít anchor here until right at dark last night so I was now going on three days without shitting.
So off I go through a lovely coconut grove looking for a place that has a great view but also screens me in case Venancio or Rosa decide to stretch their legs too. I found a likely looking bush and had just pulled down my pants when I got vaccinated on my rump by a wasp. Fortunately it was before I started to shit and not after. That would have made things REALLY complicated. Because I suddenly became aware that there was a large hornetís nest about two feet away from me in the strategically placed bush I had selected, and apparently I was right in the flight path. Sometimes I feel like I have fallen into a plot for Gilliganís Island.
Taking a shit is definitely the most logistically complicated event around here so itís a good thing the need for it doesnít come around too often. I suppose I could poop into the plastic bucket, but I remember mom and dad talking about how bad their portable toilet smelled when it had feces in it and the boat below deck is a pretty close environment. Besides, even just urinating into the bucket is like peeing into a megaphone, with the whole inside of the boat as a sounding board to magnify the sound. Iím not sure Iím up to the drama of taking a dump at 80 decibels. So I wait for the time, every day or two, when we put in at a beach long enough and private enough that I can wander off beyond the palm trees and dig a hole in the sand. Sometimes itís a long wait.
After finding a more suitable bush I wandered around for a while before going back to the boat and discovered a little shelter made of woven palm fronds. Inside, it was big enough for one person to lie down, with a pit for a fire and a raised metal ring that looked like a place to set things down. It didnít look like it would shed a heavy rain but it was shady and cool. This would be a fun way to camp.
Another dream this morning: A tiny bird, smaller than a humming bird, has somehow followed me home from Belize and it is loose in my house. It is a warbler, olive green with a cream colored breast and a sweet, sweet song. I am chasing it around the house trying to catch it. Iím not clear on whether I am trying to catch it so I can keep it or so I can take it outside and let it go, but the cats are also very interested in it and for sure I want to catch it before they do.
This was a really common theme in my dreams at one time and it showed up again for a stretch during my recovery from the bone marrow transplant, but I havenít seen it in a while. It has something to do with the pursuit of happiness, and also spirit. Often, in the process of trying to catch the bird I inadvertently hurt it. After the transplant it sometimes would literally explode in very gruesome and bloody ways. Less often I rescue it in some way and set it free. Whatever it represents is something that I see as a quality not meant for captivity, but it always has this tremendous allure. In these dreams I always want so badly to make it a part of my life. I suppose I see happiness as something that we cannot hang onto by grasping at it, but as something that graces our lives. The best we can do is invite it in and provide a welcoming space for it.
Other happenings: Yesterday we passed two bottlenosed dolphins on our way into one of the lagoons between islands. At least one of them must have followed us in. I woke up in the middle of the night and climbed up on top of the boat to watch the clouds drift across a nearly full moon. Off in the middle distance, every minute or so, I could hear a loud, moist sigh.
I also finally swam with a manta ray yesterday. Weíve seen them off and on, mostly in the evenings when Rosa and Venancio are cleaning fish for dinner. When they toss the entrails overboard the rays come to scavenge. Weíve seen two kinds: The manta rays, which from the surface look almost exactly like gray UFOís the size of my outstretched arms, and whip rays which are black and spotted, with triangular "wings" and a long, long thin tail like a buggy whip, several times the length of their body. The rays stay mostly over the sand flats while we snorkel over the reefs so I was lucky to cross paths with one. When I touched it, it felt plush but slick. It made me think of velvet covered with okra slime.
It has been mostly cloudy for the last three days with a lot of squalls. Rosa says this is unusual, more typical of their rainy season in June. He has had to pick his times for moving the boat so that we go from island to island between the weather. He says even in a boat this size it can be extremely dangerous to get caught out on the open water during one of the storms. (Note to self: If there are any life vests on this boat they are extremely well hidden.) As it is, even sailing between squalls they kick up some pretty big seas and we always get soaked. But with the storms have come lots of rainbows too. We had a gorgeous one this morning, just as the sun was coming up. We had gotten drenched at dawn and the storm was a huge pile of black cumulus just opposite the rising sun. The rainbow was intense, very high in the sky, perfectly framing the storm cloud. How can one place be so utterly gorgeous in so many different ways?
Yesterday we stopped at another teeny island in the middle of nowhere. This one was higher than the Island of Ten Palm Trees, but much smaller with no trees, only a few knee-high coconut seedlings. It looked like it once had a building on it. There were some slabs of broken concrete at one end, now half submerged in sand and melting away under the constant scouring of the waves, and a buoy on a tall pole planted right on top of the highest sand hillock. We pulled the boat into the semi-circular lagoon in the lee of the reef and I went in alone. Rosa doesnít like it when I wander too far from the boat but I found myself attracted to the deeper water. There was an area right at the transition between the protected inside of the lagoon and the seaward side of the reef where the sea floor dropped down perhaps 30 feet. It was fantastic with columns of coral 20 feet high and enormous sea fans. By the time I found it I had been in a while and I was getting tired and hungry, and I knew I was further from the boat than I was really supposed to be. I swam back for some lunch and asked Rosa if we could move the boat closer to the deep water after we ate so I could spend some more time exploring, but when the time came he said it was too rough and we should go on. I couldnít see that it was any different than it had been when I was snorkeling there an hour before but what do I know? I guess I just have to add it to my lengthening wish list of places I want to come back to and spend much more time.
Yesterday afternoon we made St. Georgeís Cay and our first hint of real civilization since leaving Belize City ten days ago. We tied up at a pier that had five little open huts on it thatched with palm leaves. It looked like some kind of area for open-air entertaining but no one was there, just us chickens. Rosa was on a quest for cigarettes and I wanted to stretch my legs so I went with him. Behind the pier was the grandest building I have seen so far, stone or block of some kind, several stories tall, big picture windows, and a gorgeous, very elegant garden. Iíve been surprised to see absolutely no attempt at landscaping at any of the small resorts or private islands weíve stopped at along the way, so it was a treat to see what magic can be done with mostly indigenous plants and flowers in this sandy soil. A sign announced it as the St. Georgeís Inn and Rosa tells me it used to be the governorís mansion back when Belize was a British territory. We walked on past one grand home after another, many of them with tall columns or sweeping spiral staircases leading to an upper entrance. And for the first time most of them looked like they were built high enough off the ground that a hurricane wouldnít level them. Actually we are beginning to get into territory that was affected by Hurricane Keith, a major storm that came through a year ago. There have been long stretches of salt-scorched dead trees on some of the barrier islands, but the houses donít look like they were damaged. This must be where the rich folks have their summer homes. These are Belizeís equivalent of the "Berkshire cottages" up in my neck of the woods.
Then we passed a pier that was bigger than the others we had seen up to that point and a big, utilitarian-looking compound. There were quite a few men standing around in clusters, busy with an addition they were putting up on one of the buildings, putzing around with a boat out on the pier, and hanging around some picnic tables in the shade of a stand of coconut palms. Rosa told me it was a military base, although I didnít quite get whether it was a training school or a headquarters for people like the soldados we had crossed paths with over the weekend. Once again, all heads turned as we walked past and I felt like a bug under a microscope. "Boy do I feel outnumbered!" I muttered to him under my breath. I donít know whether he didnít hear me or didnít understand me, or just chose not to answer, but when the whistling started a few seconds later he stiffened visibly like the hackles going up on a dog. Maybe he was strutting over being the one walking down the beach with the babe or maybe he was going into bodyguard mode, but it would have been funny if I hadnít been so awfully grateful he was there at that particular moment. Still, at the age of 44 you realize they wonít whistle forever. The part of me that wasnít terribly self-conscious and a bit intimidated was completely amused by the whole situation.
We walked on to a hotel at the far end of the village where it turned out they had no cigarettes for sale but they did have an open bar selling the local beer. Rosa offered to treat me so we sat up on the balcony sipping Birikin and talking. The local brew is actually pretty decent. It reminds me of Heiniken. And the bartender was a woman! The first native female face I had seen since getting on the boat. While we were there a water taxi pulled in and another woman got out, a tall, willowy black beauty with her long hair in braids. I have to confess I stared. Surely there are women around, but where are they all? Do they not go out during the day? Are they not allowed to be seen by strangers? A mystery.
Walking back I spotted a sign for a gift shop that made me laugh out loud. It was posting the hours and it read:
The Unicorn Gift Shop
Open most days
Never before 10 am
Sometimes after 5 pm
And by appointment only
What a perfect illustration of the mindset here!
Last night we anchored in a place a little less sheltered than usual in an inlet on the seaward side of an island. We must have been just off a major water taxi route because every hour or so a boat would go by, turning into the same channel between this island and the one just north of us. I woke up in the middle of the night, expecting to see the moon, which is within a day or two of being full, and instead saw tree branches sliding past in the square of sky visible through the open hatch. The boat had slipped its mooring and drifted into the mangroves. Poor Rosa and Venancio had to leap out of bed and back us out before the boat ran itself aground in the mud. It took them a little while to move the boat to a spot with less current, reset the anchor, and make sure it was secure this time. Sometimes I am really glad of the luxury of being a passenger.
Once again I heard the sighs of the dolphins during the night and got to watch one this morning making a leisurely circuit of the lagoon before heading back out toward the open sea. Rosa says I am lucky. There arenít always this many of them around.
We crossed a short stretch of open ocean to get from our anchorage to Cay Caulker, which is as funky as St. Georgeís is elegant. I imagine it must be something like Key West was in the 20ís and 30ís when Hemingway discovered it. Itís hardly more than a fishing village, really, with sand streets and little wooden homes that havenít seen the business end of a paintbrush in way too long. There are a scattering of American tourists wandering about who definitely look like adventurous sorts, washed up on the ends of the earth. There are a high proportion of long billowy skirts and blouses, tattered jeans, t-shirts with pithy slogans, body piercings, tattoos, bandanas, and ponytails on visitors of all ages and genders. The main street has a dozen or so shops selling little painted wooden replicas of reef fish, and advertising dive trips, real estate, or rooms for rent. Once again, the streets are bustling with men and even children in spite of the oppressive heat of early afternoon, but other than a few Americans like me there is not a single woman in sight anywhere. What does this mean? Maybe they are all inside doing the laundry. It is everywhere, flapping in the tropical breeze.
This looks like the place for me and I would like to spend a day or two exploring here but Rosa is bent on going on in the morning and I donít suppose I will be back. When I set up the charter with Peter he had said that I would end up at Cay Caulker but Rosa wants to end at San Pedro. He says there are "too much guys" in Cay Caulker, and since my charter ends a day before I leave and he has to go on to San Pedro to pick up the next one, he couldnít keep an eye on me and it wouldnít be as safe. I imagine he would give in if I put my foot down but I donít have the heart to argue with him. But this is a place I definitely want to come back to and explore in detail. I wanted to go out for a beer so Rosa and Venancio took me to a bar and restaurant called the Sand Box. They were just about the only natives in the place. It was full of Americans every one of which looked like they just rolled out of a commune. It had sand floors and a sign on the wall that read "No shirt, no shoes, no problem."
I have a feeling about this place. Maybe this is where I need to come to write my first bestseller.
Today we went to Shark-Ray Alley and Hol Chan, the National Marine Park. What an experience! Shark-Ray Alley is a gathering place for the nurse sharks and the manta rays while Hol Chan has an unusually large and mature population of reef fish. Both places are regular destinations for dive boats, and there were buoys to tie up to and a number of other boats around jammed with tourists. I felt like Queen of the Nile on my private "yacht" and thoroughly enjoyed the envious looks I got from some of my neighbors. This is absolutely the way to do this. I can stay in as long as I want (Rosa and Venancio say I am going to turn into a fish myself if I keep staying in the water so long). If I get tired of a spot we can move. If I want to stop for a drink of water or a bite to eat and then go back in, I know they wonít be doing something without me that I will be sorry to have missed. And I donít have to swim with a bunch of people, which tends to scare a lot of the fish away. Also, swimming with Rosa who works the reefs for a living, I get a lot of things pointed out to me that I wouldnít have noticed on my own. He has shown me how to look for spiny lobsters hiding upside down deep inside the openings in the coral. You have to do this carefully because moray eels like the same kinds of hiding places and they can be aggressive. A lot of the interesting fish are hidden away too, especially in the middle of the day when the sun is strong. You miss a lot if you just look at what happens to be out and about. He has also shown me where to look for conchs, how to recognize the tracks that they leave behind in the sand, how to tell the live ones from the empty shells that have already been harvested. I do pretty well snorkeling to 15 or 20 feet down now and sometimes we hunt for dinner together.
I think some of the fish at Shark-Ray Alley must be regulars because a lot of them didnít seem terribly afraid of people and could be approached almost close enough to touch. I guess Iíve gotten over my fear of big fish because I got to hang out with lots and lots of them today. Some of the other boats were throwing chum into the water to attract them and it was possible to swim right into the middle of a dozen big black nurse sharks the length of my dining room table. Very cool! And every now and then a manta ray would cruise slowly through like a UFO on a sightseeing tour.
Hol Chan is where all the other kinds of really big fish hang out. There is a long break in the reef there and Rosa says the big fish come in from "the blue" that way. There were enormous groupers and snappers, and even the regular reef fish like the angel fish, doctor fish (exquisite things that look like theyíre made out of royal blue velvet), grunts, puffers, and yellow butter fish were a lot bigger and more plentiful than what we had seen in other places. In some spots the clouds of fish are so thick that you canít see through them. I kept thinking how much my daughter Riannon would enjoy this. I was as happy as a child and stayed out until I was so tired my knees turned to rubber. In many of the places we have been snorkeling the current is very strong, but it was always safe before because it was flowing over the reef and toward shore. Here, Rosa warned me not to swim too close to "the blue" because the current can suck you right out to sea. By the time I came in I was almost too tired to swim against it.
Poor Rosa didnít even go in the water here. Fishing isnít allowed and he couldnít bear the sight of so much dinner that was forbidden to him.
We went down the "river" that separates San Pedro from Ambergris Cay to the northóreally just a shallow saltwater channel that meanders between the two islands. It is only about 30 feet wide and so shallow that with the tide dead low the keel was dragging through the mud in a lot of places. But we didnít quite get stuck and eventually pulled into our mooring on the back side of San Pedro. This is not the better part of town, to say the least. But Rosa and Venancio seem to be either friends or relatives with a lot of the people around here, so the boat and its contents are pretty secure, and even though itís a rough part of town itís relatively safe. It reminds me of the barrios of Tegucigalpa, Honduras where I spent a summer working with the Red Cross as a high school student. The homes are very small, often primitive, and mostly unpainted with no yard or only a very tiny one. People spill out onto the front stoops and beyond. Tiny children with skin the color of wildflower honey and beautiful halos of glossy black curls play in the streets, which are hard-packed sand, strewn with trash and potholes. One thing I like is that virtually every vehicle is electric except the heavy equipment and some of the working trucks. Most people walk or ride bicycles, but those who drive use electric golf carts for everyday transportation. (Favorite bumper sticker: Normal people make me nervous.)
Many of the homes here are on pilings a story high, but more of them arenít. Hurricane Keith was very hard on this town and everywhere there are shells of homes destroyed by the storm, now abandoned or under reconstruction. We are moored just behind a playing field with a high chain link fence. Even here, four or five blocks back from the outer beach, it has dried sea grass lodged in the links to a point above my eye level. Venancio tells me that the hurricane had been expected to come ashore further north so neither San Pedro nor Cay Caulker had been evacuated. I donít think they got it head-on but it was bad.
One of Venancioís cousins came over to shoot the breeze with him and Rosa for a while. He is a tall and willowy black-skinned man with dreadlocks that reach nearly to his waist. Jack is a musician and says he can get me access to a piano at a resort on the other side of the island where we will be going tomorrow. I would love this! Iím not used to going so long without practicing.
I also learned during the eveningís conversation that Venancio is a semi-pro soccer player. He is working on the boat because he is on suspension right now. He told me why but I couldnít understand his explanation. He has another month and then heíll be going back to the team. He has the perfect physique for itótall by Belizean standards, very solidly muscled without being bulky like an American football player. The ideal bodyguard for the Queen of Shebaís Boating Adventure. He had actually told me all this before in bits and pieces but my understanding of his speech was so sketchy that I hadnít been able to connect the dots. Other things I learned about him: He has three brothers and three sisters. One brother is in prison, one was murdered in a shooting. One sister is also dead. If he told me how it happened it was one of the sentences I couldnít understand. His father also drinks heavily. What a different world. I hear stories like these and it just impresses upon me what a sheltered and privileged life I have had in every way. What on earth would the world look like if I had grown up under these circumstances, and what can they possibly understand of my background, my lifestyle, my worries, my dreams? I might as well be from the moon.
Well I canít believe itís over. I left the boat today for a modest hotel room right on the beach. It isnít very big and the bathroom is the size of a postage stamp but itís clean and it has hot water, air conditioning, and an ocean view. Rosa offered to let me stay on the boat for my final day as they donít take on their new charter until tomorrow but I said no. I really have been looking forward to a hot shower and clean hair (Iíve been rinsing clean with water from a solar showeróno soapófor the last two weeks), and they have waited on me so meticulously I thought it would be better for them to have a day where nobody needed anything from them.
Friday we went way north on Ambergris Cay to a point just beyond the last hotel. The reefs were good and I actually saw a small pod of squid that Rosa pointed out to me. I got a chuckle out of him when I told him that this was the first time I had seen them that they werenít on a plate. He tried to get one with the spear gun but he missed. I guess thatís OK with me. They were interesting-looking creatures, like little translucent pink submarines with fluttery skirts.
The music rendezvous was a bust. We backtracked to a place called Captain Morganís Retreat to tie up the boat. It is one of the few piers along the seaward side of Ambergris Cay where the water is deep enough for the Tzabcan. The beaches are nice but the water leading out to the reef is very shallow for a long way out with a muddy bottom and lots of turtle grass. You see lots of people walking, jogging, playing volleyball, or riding bicycles along the shore but no one in the water. Mostly they all take boats straight out to the reef each day. Venancio walked with me up the beach about a mile to Journeyís End, the resort where Jack lives and works and where there supposedly is a piano bar. When we got there, Jack was nowhere to be found.
We also stopped by the place he lived, which horrified me. There is a thatched-roof boathouse out at the end of one of the piers that was damaged by Hurricane Keith. It looks like it just kind of sat down on the end of the pier out of exhaustion. But when we walked out there, it became apparent that the whole structure was extremely unsafe and thinking seriously about falling into the ocean. It was on once-sturdy concrete pilings, now collapsed or leaning tiredly at a 45-degree angle. I couldnít believe anyone would be allowed to live there, or would want to, but this isnít the U.S. and I am reminded of it every day. If I understand Venancio correctly, Jack has just recently been released from prison. (For what? Armed robbery? Drugs? Ax murder? Highjacking golf carts?) The resort is letting him live there for free until he can get back on his feet and figure out something else.
When Venancio brought me back Rosa was very quiet and I think fuming. I tried to make light of it. I told him I always carried my music with me but counted myself lucky if I actually got a chance to play (which is true). I donít know for sure what is going on but I think he was not pleased at having one of his clients have a disappointing experience.
I walked down the pier to Captain Morganís Retreat for a drink. If the Island of Ten Palm Trees was a sacred experience, this was the profane one to balance it. It turns out the place was recently used as a set for a reality TV show called Temptation Island, where several couples were taken to a Caribbean paradise and subjected to all kinds ofÖwellÖummmÖtemptation. I doubt they put any of them alone on a boat with two handsome men for two weeks, but Iím sure the outcome was racier and apparently it got decent ratings.
It was pretty, in a Hollywood sort of way, although it was totally unlike any of the other resorts Iíve seen along the way. More of a Polynesian fantasy imported to the Caribbean. This is definitely the place for the mints-on-your-pillow set. The grounds are immaculate. When I woke up the next morning there was someone out raking the sand to remove every last vestige of seaweed that had washed up during the night. The cottages are sheathed on the outside with sticks to look like a native hut and topped with a neatly trimmed palm thatch. The whole thing is very, very picturesque. I went to the bar next to the pool and the hot tub to treat myself to a Margarita and a smoke. I ended up talking to a tall handsome man from Texas and a couple from Kansas City. The atmosphere was great, with a wonderful view from the bar of the ocean and the soft colors of evening creeping into the eastern sky. The Margarita was dreadful. I climbed back onto the boat after dark and Rosa let out the mooring line so that we were out from under the harsh lights of the boathouse during the night.
During my walk down the beach Friday afternoon with Venancio, he had pointed out a resort right next door, which is run by the Ba ĎHai faith. It is beautiful too, in a much more classic, conservative way. It has several very large, lavish boats docked out at its pier, which has an archway with an inscription. Very artful. As we walked past, I noted with satisfaction a beautiful space built right off of the beach. It is a large raised patio approached on each side by climbing a dozen or so marble stairs, giving it the appearance of a low truncated pyramid. The area on top is bounded by tall columns, four on each side, with angels mounted on the pillars at each of the four corners. The atmosphere is of an outdoor temple, vaguely Greek. I liked it a lot and liked the idea that they would create an outdoor meditation space like this, on the beach facing the rising sun. Then, on the way back I noticed the ladder railings at the topÖit was their swimming pool. I laughed and laughed. Venancio thought I had lost my mind. He says the place is used for spiritual retreats and you have to be a member of the religious community to go there, but it looks to me like theyíve been contaminated by their sybaritic neighbors next door. I thought it was the funniest thing, seeing two resorts from such opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum plunked down on the beach right next to each other. Godís little joke.
Yesterday morning I woke up once again well before dawn and spent a good three hours watching a perfectly spectacular sunrise start to finish. We had several squalls pass by on either side of us just before sunrise, so as the sun came up I was treated not only to the usual light display in the clouds on the eastern horizon, but also to not one but two truly amazing rainbows, high in the heavens to the west, intensely incandescent against an inky black sky. Then just when I thought the show was over it started all over again nearly overhead in the eastern sky. The morningís clouds were small fluffy cumulus, several times taller than wide like smokestacks or fat, fluffy columns, lined up in several long ranks across the sky, slowly drifting toward me out of the east. So as the sun got a little higher the light was coming right through the edges of them, gilding them with gold and crimson and creating prisms of color against the brightening sky. Two of them lined up right in front of me to either side of the boat, and they were glowing from within with a molten light like pillars of fire, or the gateway to heaven. It was like standing among the columns of an immense temple that filled the sky. I absolutely couldnít tear my eyes away from it. Then as if that wasnít enough, as the colors began to fade I looked behind me again to discover that the storm clouds had parted to reveal an enormous orange moon, one day past full, setting in the west.
What is it about the beauty of this place that makes me cry just writing about it?
My last day out we tried several places along the reef across from Ambergris Cay but they were disappointing. Perhaps I have gotten spoiled by the experiences of the last two weeks and couldnít be satisfied any more unless I have clear, deep water, gorgeous coral formations, and immense clouds of fascinating fish. Or maybe I just knew it had to end and that distracted me.
One thing happened that was interesting. Venancio often fishes off the back of the boat while Rosa and I snorkel. He doesnít like the deep water and Iíve never once seen him go in. Between dives I noticed that he had caught a fairly large puffer fish. Heís caught them before and Rosa has cooked them. Rosa calls them "chicken fish" (I laughed and laughed the first time he introduced the dish to me this way. Why is it that everything "tastes just like chicken"? But these really do. They have a drier texture and taste that is very reminiscent of chicken breast.) He also sometimes refers to them as "shell fish," which confused the hell out of me until I made the connection in my own head. Anyway Venancio had caught one and unhooked it but hadnít put it yet into the bucket of saltwater with the rest of the dayís catch. I studied it. It had the most beautiful, limpid brown eyes and I found myself looking into its eyes thinking, "This one really, really wants to be let go." I wanted to ask Rosa to let it go free but didnít. That was silliness, I thought. He and Venancio work hard to supply our food and who was I to say that they should return anything to the sea that they had worked for? But not 30 seconds later Rosa abruptly took the fish up, saying, "We let her go," and cradled it gently in the water in his hands for a minute or two until it revived, then released it and watched it rocket off into the depths. That was absolutely the only time in two weeks I saw him release anything except the ones that were too small to eat. These kind of synchronistic two-minds-thinking-alike events happen more and more often lately between me and people I am close to. An hour or two later he speared an even larger puffer fish through the head and I dove down to the ocean floor to collect it for him. It was delicious.HeíHH
One other critter I got to see up close and personal on my last day of snorkeling was a small hawksbill turtle. She was sleeping tucked up under the coral in about 10 feet of water. Rosa spotted her and tried to point her out to me, but even though I was looking right at it, as so often happens on the reef I couldnít see it. So he got it out and brought it to the surface for me and gave it to me to hold. It was beautiful, about the size of a football, and as soon as we got it up above the surface it started waving its flippers around furiously like a windup toy gone mad, trying to get away.
"Do you want me to kill her? Make you good turtle soup?" Rosa inquired.
"No! No, letís let her go," I said. And did just that. This casual attitude toward environmental issues still rattles me. And yet, he and Venancio have a sort of ritual where they feed the fish or the birds or both something at just about every meal. Sometimes itís things we canít use like the inedible parts of the conchs and fish we catch, but sometimes itís a tasty morsel that would have been theirs instead. I never go without but their meals are very often rice, beans, plantains, tortillas, and just a few mouthfuls each of fish. Sharing their choicest food with the animals is like pouring a libation of wine out on the ground to honor the earth. Sometimes I hear Rosa comment to Venancio as he throws some tidbit into the air for the frigate birds, "She got to hunt for her meal too, just like we." If only this reverence and sense of being a part of the living fabric of their environment could be focused and educated about things like stowing their plastic trash until they can take it to the dump, or not over-harvesting the conchs or spiny lobsters in one spot, or not turning desperately endangered hawksbill turtles into soup.
This weighs on my mind. I try not to judge, but I find myself thinking constantly about what I would do first to improve the lot of the people down here if I had the time and the money. I think a lot could be done with micro-loan programs like theyíve implemented in India and Africa to help people start modest cottage industries. And someone needs to organize and stimulate the local artisans. There is no decent shopping anywhere that I have been able to discover and nothing that I could point to as a typical example of Belizean art or handcrafts. Just poorly made junk that all looks the same, and precious little of that. The first person to figure out this puzzle and cater to the tastes of Americans with bundles of money burning holes in their pocket will make a killing and benefit the Belizean culture and economy in a measurable way. And how would one go about educating the fishermen and Turneffe Island locals to the enlightened self-interest of protecting the fantastic resource they have in their untouched wilderness? They need some of the same psychology and business practices that are being employed in Africa to involve the locals in protecting the elephants and mountain gorillas. Or sustainable energy. The power generation in both Cay Caulker and San Pedro comes from huge, smelly, obnoxiously noisy diesel generators. In a place that has a trade wind blowing steadily from the east (according to Rosa the wind is out of the east for all but a few days a year), I was flabbergasted to see no windmills. It is such an obvious solution.
This is a place where one smart, articulate, and energetic person could actually make an astonishing amount of difference. Do I want to become that person?? Right now it is just a thought experiment, but if I have learned nothing else from this last decade working among the intelligentsia that runs our own country, I have come to realize that they are no different from me. No smarter, no more talented, no more insightful, certainly no more principled. Just wealthier and better connected. It is miraculous, really, that the world runs as well as it does. So, yes, I could make a difference here. How badly do I want to do that? Is that my calling for the next phase of my life?
Of course, itís possible that Iím just being outrageously arrogant, presuming to have any insight whatsoever into what would help the people of this place while knowing virtually nothing about how their culture and economy are knitted together. This needs a lot more study.
Rosario and Venancio, God bless them, carried my luggage (one carryon bag with wheels completely useless in the sandy, potholed streets, and a canvas bag heavy with an enormous conch shell and snorkeling gear) from the boat to the hotel for me on Sunday morning. And checked on me periodically during the day to make sure I was OK. And came back again this morning even though they didnít have to, to carry my luggage down the beach for me and stow me safely on the water taxi from San Pedro to Belize City.
I was really grateful for the room. As much as I enjoyed Rosarioís and Venancioís company, it was heavenly to take a long, hot shower, wash my hair, shave my legs, paint my toenails, put on some makeup, parade around the room naked, and pee in private. Poop too. I had to give up my misgivings about shitting into the bucket as soon as we hit Cay Caulker because we were moored from then on in completely public locations. I was right. I might as well have sent out engraved invitations to everyone within earshot, and even with disinfectant in the bucket it got a bit fragrant at times below deck (though whenever it did the bucket also got emptied promptly, so it really wasnít a problem).
And I saw myself in a mirror for the first time in two weeks. In spite of faithfully using SPF 15 generously I am about the darkest I can ever remember being and my hair is bleached lighter than itís been since I was a teenager spending every summer afternoon at the pool.
Rosa came by yesterday afternoon to invite me to go out with him and Venancio for a beer and join them for dinner on the boat. He has often fretted over the amount of time that I spend alone, dreaming off into space, not realizing that I am happy as a clam. Happier. But the offer was so kind and I have so enjoyed their company that I was happy to say yes, even though I would not have felt the least bit deprived going out to dinner alone at a restaurant and falling into bed early with a book.
We had a great time nursing a couple of beers and chatting at the local bar, though I once again felt like a very fine and rare species on display at the zoo. In San Pedro, unlike every other place I have been since Belize City, there are women on the streets and out in the public places, but there is a completely informal segregation between the local people and the American tourists at the night spots. I was one of only a few women in the bar and certainly the only American, so I was inspected in excruciating detail.
Venancio announced that he was going to make me a ceviche for dinner. Ceviche is a delicious concoction made of conch, diced very fine and blanched in boiling water, then mixed with cold diced onion, cucumber, tomato, cilantro, and lime juice to make a kind of salad. Of all the simple but excellent meals Rosa had made for me during the charter, that had been my favorite so I was happy to get an encore. We headed back to the boat. When we got there, Venancio was already clearly feeling pretty pleasantly pleasant and took forever to dice and cook the conch but finally got it done while we talked, I canít even remember what about (I was pretty pleasant by then myself). Only to discover that, oops, we were out of cilantro. And, uh, it looks like thereís no tomatoes or cucumbers either. And, oh boy, we used up the last of the limes yesterday. But yes! We do have onions. His concoction of diced conch and onions turned out to be completely inedible so I suggested that they save it until they could get the other ingredients the next day and make ceviche for their new charter when they came aboard.
Oh well. Iíll just have to come back. I appreciated the thought though and the company was great.
This morning, after Rosa and Venancio put me on the water taxi I realized I wish I had said more to them when they told me goodbye. I really am going to miss these guys. I had the time of my life on this trip. Itís certainly the most restful one Iíve ever had, I was treated like a queen, and I have rarely been so happyónot in recent memory. I think we largely create our own happiness or unhappiness, but their kindness and tender loving care sure made it easy to be in a state of perfect bliss most of the time that I was in Belize.
On the way to the airport in Belize City there is a billboard by the highway that reads, "Do you know exactly where you think you are going?" and itís signed "God." What a great question to top off this trip with. And the answer is, no, Iím still completely clueless. But I think this trip was a great step in the right direction, sort of a way of clearing the path so that whatever needs to come in next doesnít have to cut through quite so much clutter and distraction from my past life. This feels like the real dividing line between my old life and a new one that will be in some profound way entirely different.
Now as I ride the plane toward Houston and then home, it all seems so unreal, so like an extraordinary dream. For sure, I will be back. I have to get to the Turneffe Islands again, to try to understand what this mysterious attraction is that climbs deep under my skin and calls to me in such a compelling way. What is it about the colors of the water and the sweep of the sky, and the low islands with their mangroves and their palm trees and their pelicans and frigate birds, that makes my soul feel like it has come home? And Cay Caulker, which looks like a community where I would feel entertained and right at ease? And there are things I didnít get to do. I didnít see the rainforest, or go tubing through the caves, or see the manatees. I didnít go scuba diving, and though we went to many wonderful places along the barrier reef the weather conditions were never favorable enough to make the longer journey out to the Blue Hole, a popular diving spot that is quite a bit further offshore.
So Iíll be back. I miss my daughter terribly and canít wait to see her again, but itís funny. After 2 Ĺ weeks I still donít miss home at all. If I had Riannon with me I would be sorely tempted to just extend my stay here for a while. I am NOT ready to go home.
So I guess the most important thing about this whole adventure is that it isÖ
TO BE CONTINUED
Tuesday 2/27 (Post Script)
As I wrote in one of my early entries on this trip, I love synchronicity. I have learned that if I suspend judgment and respond to it as if it has come into my life for a reason, it deepens my experience in ways that feel anything but accidental. It has taken me a while to get the journal typed into the computer, what with the stuff happening around the house and the office, the 91 e-mails that came for me while I was gone and another 87 in the time since I have gotten back, but I finally finished yesterday. I get an inordinate number of e-mails from my brother Paul, mostly chain-mail humor and weird factoids. But one from him that I read last night just after inputting the last of the journal knocked me right out of my chair, because it was a response to a question I hadnít even asked anyone but myself yet, about an experience I have shared with no one so far but my daughter Riannon and my ex-husband Dick. Namely, what more can I find out about the symbolism of the eye in the triangle, starting with the dollar bill since that was the very first association I had to the image on the pottery shard I found at the Island of Ten Palm Trees.
The e-mail my brother sent me was one of the weird factoid variety. It was a detailed exegesis of the symbols on the one-dollar bill and why each was chosen. It doesnít actually say anything about the eye that I didnít already know, only that the all-seeing eye inside the capstone above the pyramid is an ancient symbol for divinity. What I found particularly interesting was the information it provided about inscriptions in Latin inside the same seal, which I had never paid any attention to before and didnít even remember were there. Immediately above the eye in the triangle are the words "Annuit Coeptis," which means "God has favored our undertaking." And the Latin below the pyramid, Novus Ordo Seclorum, means "A new order has begun."
Like I said, I know it isnít given to us to know unshakably that the universe communicates with us directly, but if there ever was an unambiguous message, this was it. The Universal Consciousness flows through me, and its wisdom and guidance are available to me whenever I wish to experience them.
I canít wait to see what happens next.
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Peter Singfield firstname.lastname@example.org
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