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.”
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.
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.
By now the whole gang is watching and cheering.
When the desperate gasping in the gills ceases, he carries it across the island to Fidel’s dock for cleaning.
The whole family is out to share the excitement.
Joe scales and guts the fish, but even the serrated portion of his knife wont finish the job.
So Fidel calls for his machete to chop off the tail and head, which his wife will put in a soup.
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.
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.
Fidel soon joins us to enthusiastically sample the variety of cuisine and join us in another group portrait.
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.
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
and a mangrove thick with perching white herons at the tip of Billy Hawk Caye.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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