I was 27 when I left my native London and started a trek that took me from New York to Buenos Aires. I spent three months in the summer of 1975 living on Caye Caulker.
I loved it, it was probably the highlight of my 16 month trip and I wrote these reflections. But that wasn’t until thirty years later so if I’ve got some details wrong - for example my memory of the name or background of the captain of the Mermaid could be faulty, and I’m not sure that Mavis was actually called Mavis but looking back she seems like a Mavis - I apologise. Between now and then, more than four decades, I’m amazed I can remember as much as I do, especially as a lot of it was a befuddled pleasurable haze anyway.
I hope you enjoy it and that some of you remember it. If you have any praise, send it to me.
Any complaints, Marty’s your man.
70 foot long with a sleek and powerful hull, “The Mermaid” had been a rumrunner during the days of prohibition, creaming through the Caribbean night, threading through the Keys up to the Florida coast. She could outpace any coastguard cutter even though loaded to the gunwales with illicit barrels of Cuba’s finest liquor. When I first saw her many years later she was being used as a ferry between Belize City and Caye Caulker out on the reef on the Caribbean side of Central America.
She was owned and operated by Vern Nealy, a Bogartish sort of character who’d been a captain for Pan Am Airways, not as a pilot but as a boat skipper. Their fleet consisted mainly of seaplanes in the early post war days so all over the world they ran an armada of launches and tugs to help marshal and supply and transport crew and passengers from the land terminals out to the aircraft. When they mothballed the last of their flying boats, Nealy used his pay-off to buy the Mermaid, then rotting in a back lot somewhere in Miami, had it towed down to Belize, moved his wife and family to a prefab house on the Caye, and rebuilt it.
He was anticipating a boom in tourism and he wasn’t wrong, this being the very beginning of the era of cheap air travel. People, especially young people, aroused and dislodged by the technicolour upheaval of the 60’s from the monochrome path that had always led from school to work to grave, were beginning to roam. I was one of that boomer vanguard and for me Belize City was an unexpected distraction on the way down from Mayan ruins in the Mexican Yucatan to more Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle.
Its rickety peeling clapboard buildings, none more than two stories high, stinking gutters below sea level and revolting giant eels and catfish oozing in the slime beneath the rusting swing bridge in the fetid river, set the scene. This was the backdrop for the teeming crowds of Belize’s multi-racial cast, jostling together on the broken pavements. Crossing the cracked tarmac of the bridge was to push into a press of slouching grass smoking Caribs and shouting jumpy Mestizos, their fiery Spanish blood stirred in with laid back Carib. Then there were the pallid Mennonites, Central America’s Amish, austere on their ponies and traps in their eighteenth century rural work clothes. It was the curtain going up on a far from idealised Catfish Row.
It was exquisite for me, 27 years old and in my self-righteous self imposed exile from business life in 70’s Britain. I was in anti-Western mood and Belize City was the Caribbean baring its shitty arse and telling the well heeled and well manicured tourist, still a few years away, to shove it. By my third day at Mom’s Café by the bridge I was already getting a cool thrill from the half stoned regulars returning my lazy nod as I grooved my way in and sat down for a Nescafe laced with rum. Any moment, I thought, I shall come face to face with the hollowed out eyes of Graham Greene’s “Burnt out Case”. Even better, perhaps I might become him.
I’d been travelling and living in a VW van belonging to a Canadian I’d met further up the coast in Mexico, in a fishing village south of Cozumel. It wasn’t a combi, it was just a van with some Afghan rugs on which we put our sleeping bags and in which he kept his camera and cassette player and his collection of Leonard Cohen (Canadian) and Joni Mitchell (Canadian) CDs. These were as inevitable an accessory for every Canadian traveller in those days as the Maple Leaf on their packs. Later, over a vast New Year’s Eve dinner in Cusco in Peru that had taken fourteen of us Europeans two days to source and prepare and which then went uneaten because easy access to the world’s purest cocaine blunted our appetites, a similar Canadian, under gentle chiding, revealed why their national pride was worn so literally. “It’s not so much we want people to know we’re Canadian – it’s that we don’t want them to think we’re American.”
The van was in a car park on the outskirts of Belize City – which would put it about half a mile from the city centre - and after about five days Brian the Canadian had a yearning for more pastoral scenes. It was June and he needed to move on anyway and be back up in Toronto by the autumn, but I had no particular plans. And I’d become intrigued by a large hand painted poster on the wall in Mom’s.
It showed in garish blues and greens and clumsy perspective, the Mermaid, surging through mangrove islands and past cavorting dolphins on its way to the Cayes, offering a trip to paradise for five Belizean dollars, next to nothing. I’d looked up the Cayes in my South American Handbook and I’d liked what I read. The second longest coral reef in the world runs from off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula southwards down past Belize and Guatemala, and just inside it, a few miles off Belize, are the Cayes, a chain of coral islands. Most are uninhabited but at the time two to the north, Ambergris and Caulker, supported lobster fishing villages. The Mermaid went to both but Caye Caulker seemed the least developed – according to the handbook there was only one small inn and little else apart from the fishermen’s houses – and therefore the more attractive.
She ran out to the Cayes on Saturdays and Thursdays so Brian and I decided to split on the Saturday morning, he to go inland on the jungle road to the Mayan ruins at Tikal and then on to Guatemala, me to the rickety jetty near the mouth of the river and the Mermaid.
She was double decked with extensive open areas for the passengers. She had the feeling of a torpedo boat or something quick and military, although her performance failed her looks. Maybe Vern throttled back, maybe he thought we’d all enjoy it at a more leisurely pace but she covered the twenty five miles east and then north out to Ambergris Caye in about three hours, slicing casually through the calm waters round mangrove islands and open patches of lagoon in an effortless, easy cruise. The passengers were varied; a few backpackers like me, some local people, two couples of middle aged American tourists and, in civvies, a few soldiers from the Scots Guards, the British regiment then doing jungle training in the dense forests over towards the Guatemalan border.
Ambergris Caye seemed clipped and neat after the chaos of the Belize River waterfront and I was pleased I wasn’t getting off there. That it was also the rest and recreation spot for the British army was another good reason for avoiding it. I was tanned, long haired and relaxed and the Squaddies didn’t take too kindly to people like me, a combination of resentment and incomprehension inflaming their distaste.
That was not an idle prejudice of mine. In eighteen months of travel in Latin America, including one paranoid night in the early hours in Asuncion in Paraguay, where fear of the dictatorship was palpable in the deserted streets and behind the hotel door spy holes slammed in my face, never did I feel as threatened as an evening in a bar overlooking the Belize river. I was having a quiet beer at sundown with Brian when several ratings from a Royal Navy frigate, patrolling off shore for several weeks, came clattering up the stairs at the beginning of their 48 hours R&R. Wound up and ready to explode, they could hardly fail to notice Brian and I, the only other drinkers in the bar at that relaxed hour. It was difficult to know which of us enraged them most, Brian with his apparently American accent or me, perhaps even more offensive, a Brit, ostensibly one of them but in cut offs, a denim waistcoat and very long sun bleached hair, a hated hippy even though it was now the mid 1970s. The glares, insulting remarks and challenges got louder so we paid quickly and prepared to leave. As we got up, two of them also rose and came towards us, swearing, but their colleagues restrained them - at this point, they were still sober. I still don’t know why they let us go, their hunger for violence so obvious and urgent.
It was best to avoid them.
We slipped our mooring at Ambergris and headed back south the few miles to Caye Caulker. Most of the people had got off, leaving a lanky languid woman from Texas, travelling for a few months during her college holiday, a quietly spoken Dutchman of about my age and three or four people who judging by the way Nealy had greeted them must have been locals. Our arrival was a delight; we came in on the west side of the Caye, sheltered from the reef and the open Caribbean to a narrow wooden jetty jutting out into glass clear water. It was dotted with islanders, some fishing, others who had come down to the jetty in curiosity to see, as I would do many times over the next three months, “what the Mermaid had brought in”.
I picked up my pack, walked down the plank onto the jetty – and that was it. No hustlers selling hotels – there were no hotels. No sight seeing tours – there were no sights. No-one offering a cab or a hire car or even a moped – there were none and anyway there were no roads. Simply a trail leading off from the end of the jetty into the palm trees, in amongst which the glimpses of little gingerbread houses on stilts set on the sandy floor were the only sign of inhabitancy.
I walked through a natural arcade of coconut palms and a clearing opened in front of me, occupied by several of the brightly painted houses. Next to each house a fat wooden water tank tottered on spindly legs, taller than the house itself, and each glassless wooden shuttered window peered out from the shade of its own leafy breadfruit tree.
What amounted to the main street led off from this clearing, more of these houses on either side. Some were on taller stilts than others, one or two had verandas, a couple were made of prefabricated sections; Vern Nealy’s was one such. People sat on the steps, chatting quietly, greeting villagers returning from the Mermaid, nodding amiably to strangers like me. I’d asked on the boat and been told that the Welcome Inn, the only hotel, was at the end of this “street”, and there it was, ahead of me, the only two storey building on the island, clapboard like the others and not really much bigger. It was in a sort of village square, a sandy clearing with the Inn on the far side from the street, an open air bar called Sans Club off to another side and a village hall, used mainly for noisy games of dominoes and pool, opposite.
I’d been warned that the Welcome Inn was prey to mosquitoes. In fact the whole Caye was prey to mosquitoes, a large amount of the land at each end being mangrove swamp and none of it more than a few feet above sea level. And I’d had enough of mosquitoes, all of the way down the Yucatan peninsula and particularly in the sweating noisome nights in Belize City. I learned subsequently that during the stifling humid summer months when the whining swarm overwhelmed the island and kept the whole village awake with the grunts and curses and slaps of troubled sleep from the open shuttered windows amongst the palm fronds, some of the fishermen would get in their skiffs and head out to the reef, upwind of the Caye and far enough offshore, to sleep.
It was the same South American Handbook that warned me. Most backpackers and many straight tourists travelled Central and South America with the Handbook as their bible. Written both by editors and by casual contributions sent in from travellers themselves it was as good as having someone along with you with whom you could confer. Big on detail and usually accurate on taste and opinion – as far as I was concerned – it helped those like myself travelling alone with no schedule and no particular goal in the paralysing task of decision making. Which road to take, which scene to see, which culture to poke around in – or, as often as not, which of those to avoid. It was often charming on wee glimpses of the world you were about to experience. It told me for example that The Amandala, the major Carib paper in Belize, was both anti-establishment and written in local patois. Thus when an expensive dredger hired by the government at much criticised expense unfortunately expired on the Belize River, Amandala celebrated with the main banner headline “Di new barge sink!”.
It was the South American Handbook that told me that apart from the Welcome Inn, travellers could often find lodging at B&Bs run by one or two of the islanders, renting out a room for the night. You had to ask around. There was also a man, Tony, who let people sleep either in hammocks slung between palms or in tents or sleeping bags in the grove he owned between his house and the sea. It was an area about the size of a small London square, a soft flat sandy floor, a canopy of palm fronds cooled by the breeze coming in from the reef.
It was late afternoon by the time I found him, a grey curly haired man, short and cheery in a dirty T shirt and baseball cap. He asked for a couple of Belizean dollars – about 20p – showed me where I could leave my stuff safely in his house and waived airily at the grove, saying I could sleep wherever I liked. Like the rest of the islanders, he was White, spoke English with a Spanish accent and a lilt of the Caribbean with a few Spanish words and phrases thrown in for luck.
There were four or five backpackers there already, including the languid Texan girl, but none others I recognised from my six month trek from San Francisco. But we nodded, probably flashed peace signs, compared notes, shared a joint and as it was now early evening, headed for the bar. Of the rest of that night I remember nothing, but if it was like many Saturday nights to follow it would have meant rum and cokes and Belikin beers at Sans, interspersed with trips across the sandy square to the hall for increasingly raucous and unfocussed games of pool, all to a loud reggae background from the bar’s jukebox. All I can remember is that the next day I was woken under the palm fronds by one of the other backpackers, a Dutchman calling himself Herb.
“Hey, man, wake up, wake up! The Mermaid leaves in an hour.”
I groaned awake, swinging gently in my hammock with the sunlight intermittently blazing right into my thrumming head as it flashed through the fronds above. Herb had wandered back to his hammock, slowly picking over his things preparatory to packing them up.
I watched him for a while and then stared around.
“Water!” I croaked.
He sauntered back over and offered me his canteen. I drank and looked around again as he leant against one of the trees supporting my hammock.
“Nice”, I said.
“Mmm” he said.
“What time does the Mermaid leave?”
“Two”, he said. “In about an hour. Hungry?”
I didn’t answer but looked around for a third time. Behind me, through the trees, Tony’s wooden water tank, two stories high, leant slightly on it’s rickety legs as if whispering something to the tall corrugated iron roof of the house itself, bright blue with yellow shutters thrown open to allow the sea breezes through. Balancing the tank in bulk if not in height, a vivid green breadfruit tree stood to the other side of the house while to my left the island end of a wooden slatted jetty started its hundred yard projection out into the sea. At the far end stood a tiny wooden cabin, the dimensions of a small bus shelter, a cabin with which I would become familiar on a daily basis.
In front of me through an arch of coconut palms the sandy grove sloped down to the Caribbean, that day agitated in little wavelets in shades from a chemical light blue to milky white. About a mile off shore the line of surf breaking on the reef ruled a stark brilliant white demarcation between the darker blue of the deeper sea and the flat matt blue of the sky. Two pelicans floated across my vision on invisible rails just inches above the water. And like a promotional film saving its most persuasive argument for the finale, as I was about to turn back to Herb, a hundred yards off shore the waters parted and two dolphins arched and plunged in perfect slow motion synchronicity.
“When’s the Mermaid next running to the mainland?”
Herb shrugged. “Dunno. Thursday I think?”
An American, rolling up his sleeping mat nearby nodded. “Yeah, next one’s not ‘til Thursday.”
I lay in the hammock and stared at the canopy above, feeling the breeze and hearing the sea and the swish of palm, thinking of the swilling streets in the oppressive heat and crush of Belize City.
I wasn’t due anywhere.
I stayed two or three nights in Tony’s palm grove, just getting the pace of the island. It didn’t take long; there wasn’t much island and there was even less pace. This was, after all, a minor outpost of a tiny country that was itself bypassed by the world. I can still remember the headline news story on the main bulletin on Belize radio one evening during the height of the then Middle East crisis and the Watergate trial. It was about neither Nixon’s misdemeanours nor Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy, they came third and fourth. It was about a man who’d just returned from two weeks in Miami. The big news was he’d successfully completed a typewriter repair course.
The Caye was no more than two miles long, tapering to points at its northerly and southerly ends, and in the middle at its widest no more than a few hundreds yards across.
It was in this middle section that all houses were clustered on the sand floor, no more than fifty in total. The only concrete building, facing the sea, was a long low school house, built more solidly to double as a hurricane shelter. Caye Caulker is little more than a vegetated sand spit raised just a few feet above the Caribbean, but the reef protects the windward shores through most normal meteorological events. Some high winds could occasionally sweep waves right across the island, which was why all the buildings were on stilts. But nothing wooden and flimsy could stand in the way of the seasonal 180 mph hurricanes which sometimes hurtle in from far out in the Atlantic to shatter everything in their path. The last big one to hit Belize had been Hattie, fourteen years before I’d got there - but they still spoke of it with resentment and fear.
Apart from a very small dive school at the southernmost tip of the island whose staff and pupils I never seemed to meet, the only business on Caye Caulker was lobster and conch fishing and supplying the modest needs of the occasional backpacker like myself. In most of the little gingerbread houses there would live at least one lobster fisherman, either the head of the family, the son or even the grandson. They laid their traps in their previously carved up territory off shore and tended them in skiffs, basic speedboat hulls with outboard motors. They’d formed a cooperative and their catch was taken in bulk a couple of times a week to the mainland, deep frozen and sold on. Later, when I got to know them, every now and then I’d come home to my house and find a couple of lobster tails laid on the bottom step, a gift from one or other of them. It gave me no small satisfaction to know that the rest of the catch would be selling for $20 a plate in New York within a couple of days.
So if you weren’t hauling, repairing and resetting the traps and diving for conch – tourists would have paid several dollars for any one of the beautifully shaped and delicately coloured conch shells which lay discarded in their thousands along the shoreline – or looking after your children and your tiny, modestly furnished house, there wasn’t a lot to do except sit around and smoke a little and drink a lot. There was electricity only in the evening and only for two or three hours when the island’s petrol generator slowly thumped into life. That’s when most people slowly gravitated to the little square, to the bar and the pool hall. The rest of the time was spent gathering round each other’s stairs or verandas, shooting the breeze.
There was always fish to eat – snapper, a lot of shark, very meaty if a little coarse – swordfish and endless conch, sweet potato, breadfruit and banana. The one tiny shop, at the entrance to the sandy square, sold little beyond tinned milk, instant coffee, sugar, matches and paraffin for the lamps. Where they weren’t self sufficient the islanders relied on regular trips into the mainland on The Mermaid or with fishermen in their skiffs, an hour each way, to shop in Belize City.
Mavis, a large and concerned woman given to worrying, ringing her hands and sighing “lordy lordy” even at good news, was the island’s baker. Most afternoons I’d mount the stairs by the side of her house and wander into her uneven bare floored kitchen for some fresh banana bread and a cup of coffee with condensed milk. Her main oven was under her house, fired by dead palm fronds and mangrove wood but up in her kitchen in her calor gas stove she’d cook her more elaborate breads and cakes and puddings. She was usually in a dazzling floral patterned dress and never without her huge straw hat, and there’d always be a couple of homilies from the New Testament before I was allowed to taste the afternoon’s effort. And it was she who told me about the house over the lane for rent.
It stood facing the sea at the northernmost end of the village, on stilts like the rest under a corrugated iron roof. To its right the main path led to the village and the square. To the left was a short piece of wild palm grove in which enormous lizards, up to three feet long, would skitter or laze on fallen trunks in the sun. Beyond that was the little-used village football pitch and beyond that, jungle and mangrove to the uninhabited northern end of the island. It was of blue painted clapboard with paneless windows, the protection from such wind and rain as could be expected was as always the heavy outward opening shutters on either side. To its right the ubiquitous water butt on stilts balanced the ubiquitous breadfruit tree on its left, in this case unkempt and wild enough to have poked a few exploratory branches through the open window. It belonged to a man who now lived almost all his life on the mainland “or even Mexico, Lordy Lordy, don’t no-one stand still for more than a week at a time today..?”
Mavis was authorised to rent it out and to collect the peppercorn rent. She waddled across the path with a switch broom and a dustpan, shooed away the three basking dogs that were sleeping in ascending order of age across the first three stairs, clattered around inside for a while and then reappeared at the top of the steps, calling me up. Much like all the others it had two large rooms and a small kitchen with a tub, a two ring calor gas stove, and a cupboard with a few mugs and plates and knives and forks. There was a table and a couple of wooden chairs in one room and a small wardrobe in the other. I plonked my hammock and my pack in the middle of the bare wood floor of the largest room, went out onto the sun dappled balcony looking along the main path to the square and that was it – I had a home on Caye Caulker.
Eventually I would borrow a mattress from Tony but for the time being I slung my hammock between two hooks in the main room, went back to Mavis and bought some coffee, condensed milk, sugar and a hunk of banana bread and returned to my house, a man of property.
And for the next three months I did - not much. The island was a cliché of the idealised 1950’s child’s upbringing, an environment without threat, an Eden for small children - of which delightfully there were many - and therefore their parents. No traffic, no malevolent animals or bugs, a benign sea with a shallow sloping beach and a community where literally everyone knew everyone and everything about everyone – there wasn’t even any concrete on which little sun browned knees could be grazed. About the only threat as you paddled in the shallows were the large flat winged rays that would suddenly burst from the sea bed in an explosion of cloudy sand and slither away to deeper water just as you were about to step on them.
By day, I’d go out with the fishermen and pretend to help them with their traps whereas in reality I was probably just getting in their way. Or I’d read a little or just wander the island. Some of my favourite times were spent in the latrine, surely the most picturesque public convenience on the planet, the little hut at the end of the jetty. Open to the vista of the reef but obscured to view from the land it was a small shed over a low wall at the edge of the jetty. You perched bare arsed over the wall and simply let go to the waiting fish below. They saw to it that your issue disappeared in seconds, crystal clear though the water was. It was the perfect spot and pastime for an idle smoke or desultory chat with whoever else felt moved.
When the school finished in early afternoon, three or four of the bolder kids would occasionally come and see me, scampering up the steps shouting their news before they burst in to hang around for a while, fingering my camera or examining my books, sitting in a line on the hammock chattering at me and each other.
At night it was Sans Club, steady drinking punctuated with unsteady games of pool. Around me the men played rowdy games of dominoes, the tiles slammed down on the table with maximum force to ram home an advantageous move. The enthusiasm for what I’d always seen as a childhood game surprised me; so strong was it’s hold throughout the Caribbean that that year a Jamaican singer, Ernie Smith, had a big hit, “Key Card”, a song all about a domino game, never long off the juke box in the corner.
But by August I thought it was time to move on; not that I had to be anywhere but several times on the route down from San Francisco I’d told others that I’d meet up with them at Cusco. “Christmas at Cusco” had become a mantra, almost a mission statement, and while I had no reason to go, I had no reason not to.
So one Thursday I got the Mermaid to Belize and caught the bus west.
At Tikal it was raining.