Miscellaneous

Belize Expedition–Conclusion

Saturday, 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 7

Friday, 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

Wednesday, 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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Belize Expedition–Day 5

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

April 16 2014

After home-brewed coffee and breakfast of leftovers, Joe goes fishing in the single kayak, Peter rests—sensibly pacing himself after his major surgery and also recovering from a back injury—and the rest of us return to the south wharf to revisit yesterday’s snorkeling paradise.  We encounter a group of local conch fisherman just back from a dive with hundreds of the magic-looking creatures in the bottom of their boat.  One cracks a hole in the shell with a pointed hammer at specified spot just below the cap, another sticks in a knife and detaches the inhabitant from the shell, a third grabs hold of the slippery crustacean and yanks it out and then tosses the empty shell onto a huge pile serving as a breakwater, and a fourth slices the edible meat from the gristle and drops it on a mound in the bottom of the boat. As we swim out toward the breakers at the edge of the reef, they take off for another load.

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Small children play in the water and a stingray with wings six feet wide glides by them coolly and disappears under the wharf.

The water along the barrier reef is clear and graced with endless gardens of coral.  Some of the exotic fish are now looking familiar. The colors, shapes and behaviors of the coral are so varied—some waving gracefully in the current, some stable as granite domes, some branched like desert plants—that the sensation of wonder is continually renewed.

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Underwater, the surf sways the swimmers back and forth in tandem with the fish and the softer coral.

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Getting tired and a little chilly after an hour and a half in this extraterrestrial world, we swim against the current back to the wharf where kids are waiting to borrow our masks and snorkels.

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We share the cheeses and sausages brought from many quarters for lunch in the shade of a palapa and, after several inquiries with locals, decide to pack up and head for the euphoniously named Cocoplum Caye in the afternoon, without a clear idea of what awaits there.  The kayak launch is hindered by a broken rudder cable, adeptly repaired by Andy. The smooth paddle across to Tobacco Range Caye takes about an hour, followed by another two hour’s crossing through its encircled lagoon and the passage east to CoCoPlum, guided by the sparse chart purchased for 75 dollars from the British Admiralty by chief navigator John.

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We’d been told that the whole island is private except for a single campsite.  As we approach we see posh cabanas near the middle of the island and a perfectly groomed beach area with palapas, tables, hammocks, wooden deck chairs and a rack holding a kayak near the north end that we assume belongs to a private owner. Rounding the  tip of the island we find a littered mangrove patch with hardly room for two tents.

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Returning to the lee side, but wary of going ashore, we wait for Andy and Eman to make inquiries at the cabanas.   They return with assurances that this is the place.

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We celebrate with the last of the bottle of whiskey brought by Joe and freeze dried dinner cooked in the comfortable outdoor kitchen. Eman works tirelessly for hours to penetrate through the armor of a dried coconut found on the coral sand.

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