Belize Expedition–Conclusion

May 3rd, 2014

Next morning is for departures.  As we cook coffee and oatmeal at our campsite, Ismael the volleyball coach,  guide, drummer and singer is solemnly raking the sand of the whole island compound.  He’s transformed the ceremonial space of last night’s fire and chanting to a clean white carpet. I ask him about the chants and he tells me that Garifuna compose songs for everything, fishing, cooking, loss of love, sadness—all come from the soul.

We will be taken by motor boat back to Dangriga to retrieve our stashed belongings and stand together for the last time.

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From there Joe and I will go to the interior to spend two nights at Mommaloots, an ecoresort in the jungle where we encounter more fascinating people and memorable sights.  Peter, John, Lionel, Andy and Eban will remain in Belize for several more days, enjoying new adventures.

On the flight back to Houston I have a short conversation with a young man hardly 30 sitting next to me who’s just downed two little bottles of vodka purchased from the attendant. He’s returning from a five-day trip during which he bought a lot near the beach in a resort subdivision outside of Belize City for $230,000 USD. It’s an investment for his retirement, secure, he says, because of the way the place is growing. “Maybe,” I say, “though with the way sea level is rising, you never know.” As we fly over the Yucatan coast near Cancun, I ask where he’s from. “Saskatchewan,” he replies, “but right now I’m headed back to work in northern Alberta.”  “Tar sands?” I inquire. “Yep” is the answer.

Belize Expedition–Day 8

May 3rd, 2014

April 19

As I light the Whisperlite stove to brew a second round of morning coffee, Joe calls from where he stands offshore, “Hey Dad, would you bring my fishing gear kit from the tent?” I know from the quiet intensity in his voice that this is serious business.”

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I shut down the stove and hustle to do his bidding. His pole is bowed and then a big shining barracuda appears on the end of the line.  He lifts it onto the rocks, carefully grabs its sharp-toothed mouth with his special fish pliers and removes the hook.

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The creature thrashes wildly and Joe asks for a club. I cant find one, so he stabs it repeatedly in the head with his fish knife.

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By now the whole gang is watching and cheering.

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When the desperate gasping in the gills ceases, he carries it across the island to Fidel’s dock for cleaning.

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The whole family is out to share the excitement.

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Joe scales and guts the fish, but even the serrated portion of his knife wont finish the job.

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So Fidel calls for his machete to chop off the tail and head, which his wife will put in a soup.

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In return for them he offers to debone and filet the catch, a job completed in two minutes with swift graceful strokes of his short-fingered superpowerful hands.

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We take the prized several-pound filets back to the heavy picnic table we’d moved into our camp and start cooking.  I dig out the nori, powdered wasabi, and ginger I’d brought for this imagined occasion and slice up chunks of sashimi. John fires up one stove and poaches several batches in a thai coconut curry mixture he’s been saving, and Joe chops garlic and lime for braising in the frying pan on another.

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Fidel soon joins us to enthusiastically sample the variety of cuisine and join us in another group portrait.

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It’s Easter morning.

After the long breakfast we clean up the campsite and depart, heading south toward tomorrow’s rendezvous point on Billy Hawk Caye with the Island Expeditions boat that will take us back to Dangriga.  We paddle comfortably across more open water and through narrow passages in the mangroves.

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After an hour we gather near a beach and campsite where several children are playing.  John is chatting with them when I hear a bright voice with a British accent saying “Welcome. Happy Easter, wouldn’t you like to camp here?”  Out from the trees walks a young woman in bikini top and white skirt that she hitches up as she wades toward Joe and me.  “Hi, my name is Willow,” she declares, “I own this island. Why don’t you come ashore and join us.  We’re just firing up the Barbeque to roast some pork.  There are a bunch of kids coming from the mainland for an Easter Egg hunt.”  I say, “This must be the island of the Sirens,” and catching the reference to the Odyssey, she replies, “They told me not to go into the water on Good Friday or I’ll turn into a mermaid, but I did so anyway.”

At first the men are undecided, but consensus slowly emerges that we should continue on.  I remark that a more suitable incident to recall would be the island of Circe, where the beautiful witch entraps Odysseus and his crew, sleeps with him, and turns the rest into pigs.

Paddling a little further, we pass a blue billed pelican sunning his wings

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and a mangrove thick with perching white herons at the tip of  Billy Hawk Caye.

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It turns out to be a center for Island Expeditions populated by West Vancouver High School kids on a tour playing an intense game of volleyball with staff members, including Mike and Kimike.  We unpack, set up camp, and eat our picnic lunches.

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Then we get back in the kayaks for an afternoon trip to Bread and Butter Caye a few miles south, another reputedly excellent location for snorkeling.

Propelled by a tailwind through a long crossing we land at a newly constructed boat dock.  Again we’re welcomed by Europeans, this time an elegant young couple with German accents, he tall and blond, she in a black shoulderless sarong, both wearing designer sunglasses.

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They apologize for not having any beer available but say we’re free to tie up and explore the beautiful reefs on the western side of the island.  The place is immaculate and artfully appointed.

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P4190071.JPG They tell us it belongs  to a Minnesota wheat farmer who is developing it for his descendants and who has invited them to remain there as caretakers, which they decided to do for the next three months, interrupting their trip around the world. Their job is to is take a rowboat to some nearshore shallows, shovel it full of wet coral sand, row it back and  unload it behind rock dams and pilings to reclaim more land.

Knowing that this is the last time I will be snorkeling in Belize adds to the splendor of this final dive in clear water illuminated by the late afternoon sun.

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The upwind paddle back to Billy Hawk through choppy water splashing across the bow is strenuous but not tiring–two kayaks and four paddlers moving in unison as if to the beat of a drum.

At the campground we assemble in the outdoor dining room under the second floor dormitory  and exchange tales of glory with Mike and Kimike.  We’re served beer, salsa and chips by two young girls carrying babies on their hips who work with the cook, Jackie, in the small kitchen preparing meals for the tour group.

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She prevails upon us to order fish dinner instead of eating more freeze dried meals, but can only serve us after the kids have finished supper.  So we retire to the bar that’s just opened.  Mike introduces us to his own microbrewed “Bittaz,” a private recipe for a native Carribean medicinal elixir with a slight alcoholic kick and the taste of sweet anise that after a minute modulates to the expected bitterness. It’s Mike’s mission to preserve the traditional Garifuna recipe that’s being threatened by mass production in Belize City.

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Suddenly I feel my neck and shoulders in the grip of fingers that push knotted muscles against bone and release little explosions of pleasure.  I had no idea there was tension back there after today’s paddle, but Andy finds and makes good use of it.

Our dinner is served at the tables after the students leave.  It’s deep fried snapper, head and tail included.

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The darkness makes it easier to suck the sweet oily meat right off the bones, and I begin to understand why Fidel was so interested in the parts left out of the filets. Jackie has also prepared a savory spiced rice and a cucumber salad, along with a freshly baked chunk of marble cake that makes me crave a second piece.

After dinner I wander to the end of a long dock on the east side of the island, lean on the railing of a gazebo and gaze wistfully at the bright stars in the moonless sky. Behind me, I hear the sound of drumming. I’m drawn back to a campfire in the middle of the sand, surrounded by the high school kids and their teachers sitting on benches.  The wood seems to burn without being consumed.

The drumming stops and Alex, one of the principals of Island Expeditions tells a story of Garifuna history.  His people, the people of Belize, are descended from the offspring of Carib and Arawak Indians and escaped African slaves. The drum rhythms and dances tell their history and preserve their traditions.  The drumming starts again, led by Ismael, the tall guide with long dredlocks whose grace and intensity playing volleyball I admired earlier in the day.

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He begins to sing a haunting, varied melody in a language that sounds like no other I’ve ever heard. The high school students sit transfixed.  By 9:30 I fade out of the circle and flop down in the tent.

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Belize Expedition–Day 7

May 2nd, 2014

April 18

We strike camp and pack the kayaks, reluctant to leave the luxury of Cocoplum, but eager to experience what comes next. The manager shows up to see us off, friendly but vigilant, and discloses that the original owner of the island was a drug dealer.

The adjoining island to the south is another luxury resort, one less ecologically friendly, built with steel and concrete.  During the crossing of a wide expanse of water, Eman, who has adopted the solo kayak, confounds his elders by paddling only with his hands.

Joe discovers that the rudder on our boat isn’t working and we pull in at the first dock on the next Caye to see about repairing it. A young Asian woman approaches and anxiously says that we cant stop here because a guest party is about to arrive. They are paying $3000 per night and want the place for themselves.  Joe says we’ll be out well before her noon deadline, and she relaxes a little.  She’s from San Diego, and seems just like a Cal Poly student.

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He finishes the repair, knotting some rope to replace the broken section of cable.

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Back on course, we cross a new expanse of water and pass some less luxurious settlements.

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We pause in the lee of another mangrove-bordered island labeled on the chart as Hangman Caye. The small wharf here is flanked by an embankment of conch shells and rocks like that at Tobacco Caye. Three of our four kayaks hover offshore while John palavers with a tall slender young man, who leaves and is replaced by a short round one who must be the boss. I hear fragments of conversation, John asking if we can camp, the man saying something about previous campers leaving a mess and leaving without saying goodbye.

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John beckons us over while I grumble about the decision-making process.  He says we can camp at this island and for ten bucks the guy will motorboat us over to South Caye where the reef snorkeling is best.  I stop grumbling.

He directs us to the northern spit of the island where we pull up the boats as the young man and a man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth follow the boss’s barked orders to rake the coral sand under a grove of palms. This is as comfortable as Thatch Caye yet as genuinely Belizean as Tobacco Caye, except still private–inhabited only by the boss, named Fidel, his wife, daughter, son-in-law and their two little girls, the vaguely related cigarette man, along with chickens and dogs.

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After Joe and John converse with him about local fishing prospects, Fidel grows jolly and laughs with a high shriek.  The 20 minute ride in his panga fishboat takes us to South Caye where yachts belonging to “the Guatemalans” are moored at a big dock.  Fidel guides us along the beach, past a research station associated with Boston University, and around fences guarding a private but modest resort.

The snorkeling here along the barrier reef, like at Tobacco, is amazing.

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Two hours later Fidel leads us back to the boat and says he’ll take us to a place we can buy beer that’s much cheaper than at this landing. We are joined by a colorful local inhabitant who asks our new guide for a ride back to his home.

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On the return trip to Hangman Caye, Fidel invites us for a fish dinner his wife will prepare.

We leave our snorkeling gear at the campsite and assemble at the picnic table in the front yard enjoying the beer and his local black rum while the kids and animals run around.

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The son-in-law is from Honduras and works in the citrus groves on the mainland.  Fidel’s brother, who lives in Dangriga and ferries the fish to market for export, owns the island.  Fidel is a fisherman and a diver for conch and lobster.  He free-dives down 110 feet, stays underwater for two minutes, and doesn’t worry about the bends. For years, he and his brother have been doing the same kind of reclamation with rocks and pilings as we marveled at on Thatch Key. People used to come ashore here and try to steal stuff, but his brother got a gun and isn’t afraid to use it, and now that problem has gone away.

Before long dinner is served by wife and daughter in law: beautifully arranged plates with home baked tortillas, beans, coleslaw, tomato slices and barracuda steaks.  The party goes on well into the night.

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Belize Expedition–Day 6

April 30th, 2014

April 17

I wake up before sunrise and find a meditation spot under a palapa during a downpour. Soon the sun returns.

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We decide to remain here one more day and enjoy a long leisurely morning.  Around noon, John, Eman and I head south on a winding white path straddling a long narrow isthmus.  We pass a young couple led by a Belizean toward one of the cabanas, and next, a fully developed boardwalk and harbor on the west side of the island invisible to us earlier.  Then, hidden by tall palms and casuarina trees, we come upon a huge conical thatch-roofed lodge.  We walk up the steps to a verandah surrounding a 50 foot conical dome held up by rafters lashed to a wooden circle near the peak.  A mastlike pole at the center supports a circular counter roofed by its own thatched palapa.

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The floor is a mosaic tiled with multicolored pieces of varnished hardwood. On one side of the dome is a large well-stocked bar, and opposite a small gift shop, and between them a couch, armchair, coffee-table arrangement, behind which is mounted a well-stocked bookshelf.  At the table sits a large bearded man typing on a Mac laptop.

Eman and I hang back while John engages him in conversation and elicits information: he’s the current manager of this place, Thatch Key Lodge.  It’s a resort for maximum 20 guests, usually in groups, often clients of the paying guests.  He supervises a staff of 20 people to maintain it.  The island used to be part of CoCoPlum, but was severed in a hurricane and is now Thatch Caye, though it’s is not known as such to mapmakers. It’s been almost completely reclaimed from the sea with rocks from the mainland imported by boat and wooden pilings constantly replaced with wood from a now rare palm species. Lodging is $500 per person per night, but camping where we’re staying is $15.  We’re welcome to come back for drinks, and if we make a reservation now, for dinner. Thanking him for the invitation and still somewhat awed, we continue down island through a large staff housing section to the southern tip and a swimming dock under a palapa ornamented with inlaid slices of bamboo.

Back at camp, Joe and I and Lionel and Peter agree to kayak out to Man O War Caye, an elegantly  shaped island always crowned with a ring of flying birds that we’ve been gazing at from our campsite.

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We paddle through a stiff crosswind without difficulty to the wildlife sanctuary, a nesting area for boobies and frigate birds and see what a pure, unreclaimed mangrove island looks like: no raked white sand or rock or conch shell dikes, but a dense growth of saltwater swamp-forest with tall trees held up by arching roots that extend down into the coral reef.

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The birds themselves don’t seem disturbed by our visit and some of them display throats inflated like red balloons, part of their mating behavior.

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Back at camp we trade stories with Andy and Eman who have been snorkeling in the shallow mangroves on our island.  While they head off to Man O War, we wade into the shallows and explore the fish nurseries among the submerged roots until the receding tide makes it impossible to stay afloat.

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Joe and I have our portrait taken in matching FirstLite underwear.

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As the sun sets over the western mountains, all seven of us traipse down the path to the big lodge for happy hour.

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An elegant athletic woman in a deep v-necked green gown joins Joe and me and Eman on the couch where we’ve been perusing brochures and is delivered a daiquiri by a silent native server.  She and her husband are owners of this place along with ten other people.  She runs a dive-shop in White Rock near Vancouver and leads diving tours here.  Their group bought the place recently from a previous owner who developed it as a labor of love and an experiment in environmentally sustainable construction and operation.

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I’m relieved that it’s too late to make dinner reservations.  We walk back to camp in the dark and haggle amiably about space on the table to boil water for our freeze dried meals.

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