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Tobacco Caye Magic
This is a delayed travelogue if there ever was one but I've been thinking about it lately so I decided to type it up.
In July 2000 I spent some time on Caye Caulker first and then went to Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, inland just a couple miles from the zoo. I had been introduced to Matt Miller in the spring in SF and he encouraged me to check out his place. It's a learning center, ecologically based with all kinds of ingenious, if weird, things going on. For example the outhouses have worms to compost the waste and the gas the worms produce is piped into the kitchen for the cooking stove. (No smoking in the john.) The surrounding area is flat grassy savannah with many wet patches and the river a short walk away was too high and muddy for swimming, it being "rainy season." Marga, Matt's wife, is well known in the area for being a botfly removal specialist and I asked her a million questions to satisfy my curiosity/flog my neurotic obsession about those revolting parasites. I was eaten alive after a week on Caye Caulker plus two days and nights (even under mosquito net) at Monkey Bay. My legs especially were massed with mosquito/sandfly/noseeum bites beyond anything I had experienced before, all welty and oozy and poisonous looking. Each side of my lower legs had 40-60 bites and I felt puffy, as if my ankles were swollen & didn't want to bend. I was completely to blame for my own condition and feeling pretty miserable. I waited along the highway and caught the next bus to Dangriga with high hopes for the town, based on what I had read in my guide books.
While I know some people like Dangriga and enjoy staying there, I found it really disappointing. To arrive mid-day in the glaring bright heat onto dusty St. Vincent Street, walking with my backpack looking for a room was not happy start. I checked out one place that had a truly seedy bar full of mushroomy men downstairs and when the guy took me up he showed me a scabby room with the flimsiest of door locks and a HUGE hole in the floor just outside the door in the hallway (bathroom down that way.) The thought of getting up in the night to use the toilet with the fellas downstairs was a bit daunting. I told him I'd check back after I looked around town a bit more and made my escape. It was near the sea and cheap but I value my peace of mind more than economy, I guess.
I ended up at Bluefield lodge, a clean inexpensive guesthouse run by Miss Louise, a very nice church lady whose 3-ring binder rule book comes with every room. I had a hot shower & watched some TV & napped a bit then went out looking for something to eat. The sun was still poundingly hot, the street crowded with pedestrians and exhaust belching, dust flinging cars and trucks. It seemed like every window was barred and most of the cafes or restaurants I sought were closed or nonexistent. I ended up at the Riverside Cafe and had a conversation with a guy I met there who was with a group of tour guides taking a class for eligibility to renew their licenses. I told him Dangriga wasn't too impressive as far as I was concerned, from what I read I had an idea it was more arty and there'd be music & other interesting things going on but I hadn't seen anything like that. During the course of the day a LOT of people had asked me about my bug bites (Belizeans are not shy) and he did too, mentioning his group was going the following day to Tobacco Caye which he (and others) told me was a bug-free island. We met back at the cafe in the morning for breakfast and checked with his group leader who said it was OK catch a ride with them to the caye, I just had to be back at the dock quick quick. I dashed back to Miss Louise's place and told her I was going to go to TC for a few days (this was Friday morning.) She said if I didn't want to take my huge backpack, she'd keep it locked up for me if I liked. I took her up on the offer and left with her wishing I'd "cure up" on the caye. I told her I'd return on Monday for my things.
I made it back to the boat in time with my daypack and snorkel gear and rode with the tour guide group. When we stopped at Man o' War Caye the teacher had me ask tourist questions for the boat load of guides to answer and then we were on our way. From a distance TC looked like Gilligan's Island. I'd done some reading the night before and when I disembarked I went to Lana's first, wishing to remain on budget, but her place was full. Denise from Tobacco Caye Lodge was visiting her and sent me over to her place where I secured a room. The island was quiet and I loved my wee porch and hammock and took off snorkeling almost immediately.
It was easy and comfortable to learn my way around the reef, starting down from Reef's End dock and swimming thru the weird shallows then swimming out. (I don't go this way anymore.) Just walking across the island to go to the west side I chatted with a few different people, the vibes were friendly, the food was good, the moon was close to full and indeed, I was accumulating no new bug bites and the old scary ones were responding to the sun and salt water.
The second day clinched my forever love for Tobacco Caye. It was about two in the afternoon and a gorgeous hot sunny day. I decided to go for a snorkel and walked with my stuff to Reef's End dock again. This time I decided to swim parallel to the beach, not far out, and see what I could between my starting dock and the dock of TC lodge a ways down, since the day before I'd checked out the coral fairly thoroughly. I hadn't been swimming long and was passing over a sandy patch thinking how wonderfully clear the water was and how I could see so far when suddenly just to my left, I saw the largest barracuda I'd ever seen, lurking slack jawed in the water the way they do. I stopped for a second to look at it and was thinking, "Dang, I thought I could see so well but that huge fish just appeared without swimming, he was just suddenly visible to me in the misty turquoise of the water!" So just as I thought this through and turned, still marveling at the big fish, to start swimming again, I saw huge, HUGE and just as close as the barracuda, within 15 feet of me, a male (pretty sure) manatee, just floating too!
We looked at each other for a bit and he went up for a breath so I went up too. I saw his mouth make a little round hole like he was drawing on an invisible straw and then he submerged again. I went under as well and we looked at each other some more. He swam a circle around me seeming to hardly move his body, still keeping the same distance and I stayed in place just flicking my fins so I could rotate and keep him in front of me. I had read that somewhere that manatees can be um, amorous, when they meet snorkelers, so I didn't want him to get fresh. As he checked out my sea cow qualities I could see the mossy looking slime on his hide, his whiskers and everything. After one circle he swam off parallel to the shore, and I counted how many tail kicks it took him to be completely out of my sight. It was only about five.
I decided to try following him, swimming quietly behind, continuing parallel to the shore. I had not gone far when I saw a big beautiful eagle ray sweeping over the turtle grass and thought that it was another good luck sighting. Using my flippers as quietly and as calmly as I could, I cruised along and suddenly ahead of me, looming in the distant murkiness of the water, was my manatee buddy. I approached him slowly and stopped about the same distance away from him as when we had previously faced each other. He did his circular scouting mission around me and again I twirled slowly in the water keeping him in front of me. After his inspection he turned abruptly west and kicked with his massive, powerful tail away from me toward the Tobacco Range. I had not even swam as far as to the dock of the Tobacco Caye Lodge and barely twenty minutes had passed since I had taken off. I turned around and headed back to the Reef's End dock where I'd left some items.
I was so excited and kept thinking how every time something really amazing happens to me, I am by myself and this time, I had even used up the last of the underwater camera film the day before. Everything that had happened was going to have to live in my memory alone. This was the day I was going to meet all the locals and everyone staying on the island because as I came walking back along the beach I told everyone I met or passed how I had just seen a manatee two times right out in front of the docks. People who have lived in the area all their lives told me how lucky I was and said how long it had been since they had seen one, if they'd ever seen one at all. It totally hooked me on Tobacco Caye and I wanted to stay and see if I could find him again sometime. That night, the moonrise over the water was a sparkling diamond path to the horizon and I was completely in love with the place. When Monday came I sent a note with one of the guys from the lodge to Miss Louise at the Bluefield Lodge asking her to send my bag with him when he came back. She sent my things and I ended up staying for nearly 3 weeks instead of 3 days. My bites were cured! A few days later some guys out diving for lobster saw a pair of manatees in the water between Tobacco Caye and Tobacco Range.
There are certainly aspects of the caye that could use some improvement and as far as locals go, this wee island is the smallest of small towns with all sorts of undercurrents and sticky relationships, not so happy go lucky as it may initially seem from the outside. All that said, for me it has certain magical aspects to it that I feel only there, things I love and think about regularly. Nice people, good food, lots of shady coco palms, fresh breezes, moon shows and star gazing, friendly snorkeling and comfy bars are just some of the regular things I enjoy there.
And that's my little belated travelogue story.
Dreaming of summer---
i know not everyone feels the same way I do about tobacco caye, and frankly i'm glad. I am ambivilant everytime I do a posting recommending some aspect of it, afraid it's going to become too popular and overcrowded, yet I want to suppport the people trying to make a living there. it's built up about as much as the island can withstand, I think, with a few raggedy buildings that could use some help facing out toward the new arrivals. when someone expresses crankiness about the snorkeling offshore, I have to wonder how far these people actually ventured and what exactly they expected. i've seen people who just muddle around the docks all day & don't seem to take in all the areas. and so much of a snorkeling experience has to do with the cooperation of weather & the random luck of sighting creatures or not.
Marga & Matt are really cool and they have made an amazing complex out in the wilderness. Monkey Bay hosts school groups and all kinds of students and people like me who just stumble in. they have cheap camping facilities, bunk roooms and other accommodations. living there they have had to learn a lot of bush medicine. Marga was suffering from poisonwood when I met her & I would have been a much bigger crybaby if it was me. just talking about botflies makes me want to hurl but she extracts them! I think you could easily arrange to meet the Millers on a day trip or by staying there for a while. Monkey Bay is right in between those two restaurants cheers and jb's (i think it's called) near the zoo.
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