Becalmed in Belize: The slow-moving pleasures of a tiny tropical country
Pam Schmid, Star Tribune
March 28, 2004
Call it dumb luck. Unadulterated, ignorant fortune. One minute, our little motorboat was floating amid the cayes off southeastern Belize, and we were staring at turquoise water as smooth as Saran Wrap.
The next, our guide, Jason, was pointing excitedly at a dark gray fin poking out of the water and yelling: "Get in -- now's your chance to see it!"
"See what?" I asked, snapping to attention as I reached for my mask.
"A whale shark! This is your lucky day!"
I consider myself a pretty intrepid soul, usually game for adventure. But at that moment, I pulled up short. Swim after a shark?!
Then I noticed another batch of snorkelers had already peeled away from their boat, swimming furiously in the fin's direction. Perhaps there was something to this. After Jason assured me that whale sharks are among the sea's gentlest creatures, I nervously donned my mask and splashed into the bathtub-warm water.
Catching up with the rest of the gang, I suddenly saw what all the fuss was about: No more than 15 feet below me, an enormous gray fish hung suspended in the water. It was covered with iridescent yellow speckles from mouth to tail.
Although this fish was bigger than our boat, it was only a baby. When full-grown, they're the size of a large bus, 50 feet or more. I stared down at it in awe as it calmly inhaled its meal, its wide, half-open mouth vacuuming up little bits of plankton. Over the next two or three minutes (although it felt more like 10), we watched as it slowly sank into the ocean depths, until its streamlined body finally merged with the neon-blue water.
Only after the other snorkelers emerged whooping and high-fiving did I realize the magnitude of our sighting. We had just met up with the biggest fish in the sea, and one of the most elusive.
It seems a bit incongruous that the miniature country of Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, should have such a huge fish for a neighbor. But as our trip went on, my husband, Andy, and I learned to expect the odd, amazing or downright absurd there. During our 10-day stay in Belize, we happened upon plenty of things we hadn't counted on: a bakery on the beach, a $2 gourmet meal served in a shack, a cabana full of sand fleas.
We hadn't expected to see ghosts fly over our heads one night, ethereal creatures with glowing wings that we decided had to be pelicans. And we wondered if we dreamed it a couple days later when a cascade of flying fish interrupted our solitary, pre-sunset canoe trek through a mangrove lagoon. As if on cue, at least a hundred silvery bodies flung themselves from the water in perfect synchronization, then disappeared just as quickly.
Belize, scrunched between Mexico and Guatemala, has a different feel from its neighbors. It's spicy and comfortable, funky and eco-friendly. It also is friendly, period -- everybody you pass in the streets says "hello." With an earthy blend of Maya, Mennonite, Creole, Mestizo, even Chinese among its 250,000 inhabitants, it's not surprising that people there have learned to get along.
We chose to stay in Placencia, a hibiscus-scented, reggae-infused haven of white beaches, lime-green iguanas and mellow eccentrics. Nestled against the Caribbean, perched at the tip of a spaghetti strand of a peninsula on Belize's southern end, Placencia has been called the most laid-back village in Belize -- which is saying quite a bit for such a low-key country.
It's so sleepy that even the flies move slowly. It's the kind of place where the beauty salon doubles as a cigar shop, and where signs read: "No shirt, no shoes -- no problem!"
Our small, secluded cabana sat on stilts between the beach and a vast, tree-lined lagoon. It had the rustic feel of a treehouse, and held the basics -- small stove and fridge, bed, futon, dining table, toaster, coffee maker -- plus some cute extras, such as a ceramic fish lamp and a 1996 calendar.
Soon after unpacking, Andy and I decided to walk into town. We had read about the weathered clapboard houses on stilts and volleyball games played on both sides of the main drag. But as we walked down the quiet, empty street, we saw none of it. We saw nobody, in fact, except for a stray cat and a couple of teenagers on bikes. Where was everyone hiding?
Apparently, on the sidewalk. Placencia's main street was a sidewalk on the beach, a parallel universe 20 yards from the road. Constructed in the early 1970s and refurbished less than a decade ago, the sidewalk originally had been meant for fishermen pushing wheelbarrows. Today it serves as the village's hub of activity, lined with restaurants, mom and pop hotels, touring outfits and, yes, clapboard houses on stilts.
We discovered John the Bakerman that afternoon, thanks to a battered, arrow-shaped sign tacked to a telephone pole. Wending our way through the sand, we followed the arrow (and our noses) to a small, white house filled with the heady scent of cinnamon and yeast. A skinny old man sat statue-like inside and, without moving a muscle, told us the "cinnamon bons" would be done in 15 minutes. We waited for them, and were grateful we did. Every other day, we returned for a half-dozen more.
After a few days in Belize, I realized something. The days didn't fly by as they always seemed to do on my past vacations. Instead, they stretched outward, like warm taffy. Perhaps it had something to do with planting ourselves in one place the whole time, or the fact that we kept waking up with the sunrise, strangely refreshed, around 5 o'clock every morning.
But I suspect it had more to do with the place itself. Rather than having to see and do, we sat back and soaked up Placencia's languid pace like lizards in the afternoon sun. Here, we simply were content to be. We did spend a day snorkeling (and spotting our whale shark) and spent another scouting for howler monkeys in a jungle skirting the appropriately named Monkey River. But most of our days, we didn't do much. We napped, or read in hammocks by the sea, or walked along miles of pristine beach, or floated in the water, small bits of seaweed tickling our arms and legs.
A couple mornings, I planted myself on our wraparound deck, sipping coffee and staring out at the jungly terrain while an orchestra of birds chirped, clicked and whistled overhead. Once, we discovered an enormous iguana perched, unmoving, at the top of a tall tree above our cabana. It swayed with the breeze, projecting a zenlike serenity.
Meals usually consisted of pan-fried fish, bean stew, coconut rice and plantains. It was always tasty and always very cheap. In the afternoons, our biggest decision centered on which palm tree we would park ourselves under.
We waited until late afternoon, when the broiling sun's power began to dim, before making the 1.5-mile walk into town, where we would eat dinner at one of the dozen or so little restaurants lining the sidewalk. Catching a cab back was always a dicey proposition, until we learned that most taxi drivers were already home; we simply had to knock on the right doors.
Our best meal in Belize cost $5 for two of us. We found it on our one nonserene day, in the town of Dangriga, a two-hour bus ride north along a rutted dirt road. We had read about the town's "dreamy" atmosphere and harborfront vistas. What we found was dust and sweltering sun and hardly a speck of shade.
We walked along the unpaved streets and across the North Stann Creek River, then wandered through a small farmer's market near the water and bought juicy slabs of watermelon to slake our thirst. The sun was getting hotter. For the first time since arriving in Belize, I looked at my watch. We still had two hours to kill before the bus would return to Placencia. We walked by some smoky bars but couldn't find a single cafe or restaurant to escape the heat. Finally, after buying some fresh-squeezed orange juice from a street vendor, we asked if he knew of any place.
"Go to Culture Kitchen," he said, handing us straws. "You like it there."
The place he recommended was a corrugated tin shack that looked as if it would fall over if the breeze picked up. Inside was a single table covered with dingy red-checked oilcloth, two chairs and an adjoining, postage stamp-sized kitchen. There was no menu. A very large woman tending two black kettles ladled up beans, rice and a whole fish for each of us. Delectable fare, it disappeared quickly. I switched on a tiny fan bolted to the wall, and it felt so wonderfully cool I nearly cried.
As the sun grew higher in the sky, everything slowed down around us. Through the screen door, we watched streets empty out. The temperature had to be approaching the upper 90s, and we were in no hurry to head back outside.
The heat made me drowsy, so I propped my elbow on the table and dozed for a minute or two. Finally, reluctantly, we went back out and staggered under the sun to the noisy, crowded bus station.
By the end of our 10 days in Placencia, we felt we knew half the townspeople -- we kept running into them down along the sidewalk-cum-Main Street. There was JosÚ, the middle-age Mayan gentleman who had sold me a sandstone carving early in our stay. There was John, waving to us as he carted around steaming loaves of bread on his rusty bicycle. We spotted the cab driver who had ferried us back to our cabana one night, and said "hello" to Permativa, the tiny, shy woman who worked at our resort.
Maybe that's why everyone is so friendly here, I thought. You need to stay on good terms with people you run into over and over again.
Or maybe that wasn't it at all. Late in our stay, I posed the same question to a weathered Wisconsinite who worked at a burger joint in town. He scratched his beard and thought for a second. "They just are," he finally said. "There's no reason. They just are."
We had not come to Belize looking for whale sharks. But thanks to staggeringly good fortune, we had found one. Andy and I had no clue that our snorkeling trip happened to coincide with the best day of the year for spotting the immense creatures. It was April, the month of their peak spawning time. The water was calm that day and the moon full, pulling whale sharks closer to the surface.
Jason, our guide, knew the waters like his own back yard. He had boated us to Gladden Spit, just beyond the Belize Barrier Reef, knowing he had delivered us to prime whale shark-spotting territory. The people on the other boat, it turned out, had waited patiently for more than two hours to see one; if not for Jason, every one of them would have returned to shore disappointed.
At dinner that evening, we met a graying, fiftyish scuba aficionado from Missouri who told us he had spent 10 years roaming the world in search of a whale shark but still had not managed to see one. My husband and I felt sheepish. Two minutes before spotting our first whale shark, we hadn't even been aware the elusive fish existed.
In Belize, I learned, the greatest pleasures can be the most unexpected.
Pam Schmid is at [email protected]