Splendour in the Sea
Jun 2, 2005
Were this world an endless pain, and by sailing eastward we could forever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage.
Herman Melville (1819 - 1891), Moby Dick
It was time to farewell Mexico and my three new friends, and I headed south in the morning on the next bus. From Chetumal, three hours bus ride from Tulum, I stepped onto the clapped-out silver bus bound for the tiny country of Belize - found south of Mexico and squashed in between Guatemala and the Caribbean. Part commuter service and part fairground ride, almost no Mexicans were making the journey, and instead a stew of different denominations filled the seats. Garfield posters upholstered the interior walls of the bus, and Caribbean music emanated from the only working speaker. I discovered I had lost my current tourist card but slipping the border guard an old one I had seemed to work and I escaped a AUS$30 fee.
After watching an Incredible Hulk piñata spectacularly demolish a queue fence in customs, I re-boarded the old coach, and found myself sitting next to three interesting characters dressed in long-sleeve shirts, straw hats and braced black trousers. Unable to contain my curiosity, I asked and they said they were Belizean, but they spoke a strange dialect of German. I soon found out from two Canadian ex-pats in front of me they were Mennonites, a religious order originally from Europe. I was told they take care of all the agriculture in the country, and as we travelled through field after field on our way south, we passed a group of police digging near the shoulder of the road. I was informed that probably a Mexican or Guatemalan migrant farm worker had hacked up another with a machete; apparently a common occurrence in these parts.
Alighting the bus in steamy Belize City after dark, as often happens, I met some new friends by exchanging confused glances during the baggage claim free-for-all in front of the open luggage compartment doors. The three of us found a place in a guest house run by an old African woman whose mother opened it years ago. Belize is very different than the rest of Central America, settled by the English and harbour to many pirate ships in its time. Most of the population is of African origin and the chief language is English, followed by Creole, Spanish and others.
Thanks to the overwhelming humidity, me and my new friends Stephane and Sarah were up before seven in the morning. Whilst on a not-so-brisk morning constitutional, the huge cultural differences in this country became more prominent. The houses were predominantly weatherboard with metal roofs, compared to the concrete blocks you find elsewhere in the region, dreadlocked Rastafarians stood on street corners and people rode bikes along roads flanked by open drains. Our main reason for visiting Belize (aside from pure curiosity) was to visit Caye Caulker, an island in the Caribbean to the northeast of Belize City. Powered by two outboards, the water taxi cut easily through the calm water as the flawless fabrics of sky and sea were seamed at the middle by the distant horizon. With the sun beating down, we passed tiny islets inhabited only by palm trees and mangroves, arriving at our destination in less than an hour.
From the balcony of Tina's Guest House on Caye Caulker, small waves could be seen breaking on a barrier reef a couple of kilometres out, but the water reaching the island was as calm as a swimming pool. The tiny cay had no beach, just shallow water at the northern end with a seagrass floor, and from the intersection in the centre of the island, it was possible to view sea toward both the east and west. At night, after dodging a group of drunken dancing Germans, we found a bar playing Reggae (what else?) in which to spend our money.
Thursday we met Ras (a fitting name for a Rastafarian) to go snorkelling for the day. As we slowly made our way out toward the barrier reef in his boat, he dragged a line behind the vessel catching fish. We anchored at a large coral garden somewhere along the way, and after donning our gear and flipping backwards into the water, we were free to explore. The water was up to eight metres deep in places, and we dived down to swim through schools of fish and look for lobsters. Ras somehow grabbed one out of a hole with his bare hands and took that and a live conch back to the boat while we continued to swim.
Back in the boat, Ras was busy cooking them both with vegetables and chilli, and soon served the whole thing to us on taco shells. With my taste buds shimmying with delight, we got moving and made our next stop at the barrier reef. Here the pale blue water was only a metre deep and filled with nurse sharks, stingrays and even a Moray Eel. We were able to hold the half-metre wide stingrays in our arms, stroking and patting their slimy backs. Apparently they quite enjoy this, and the one I held nuzzled my chest a little like a dog. Whilst venturing around solo, I found a one-metre barracuda, several conch laying about the place, and a hermit crab bigger than a fist squatting inside one of their abandoned shells. Lunch was then served - whole fish grilled over coals and salad. After more snorkelling, we were taken to the mangroves on other side of Caye Caulker where Ras captured a few seahorses hiding in the shallows for us to see. This concluded our tour, and we spent the rest of our evening drinking white rum.