Belize Expedition–Day 5

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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Belize Expedition–Day 4

April 28th, 2014

April 15

I’m up early and meet the Di the cook bringing the coffee pot to the raised dining pavilion at 6:00 A.M. She and the staff drummed and danced till midnight and then went swimming, and she got up at 4:00 to start breakfast.  In answer to my questions she tells me some of her story, less carefree than her joyous presentation as cook.  She’s about to go home to her tiny village in the interior to see her grandson and three children.  Thirteen years ago she left her abusive husband after he hit her and she stabbed him with a kitchen knife, taking her kids and making her own way. Her sister, who was at the party last night and cooks at the adjoining resort, had a similar problem. After she saw her husband punch her, Di smashed his hand with a rock and won when the case went to court.

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I hear screams in Creole and loud laughter from the men’s dormitory above the cook shack.

Our last activity at Glovers is a paddle out to the reef and more snorkling.

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On the first dive, I find the right setting for underwater stills and movies and suddenly I’m surrounded by a school of beautiful blue-black fish zigzagging around the gorgeous coral outcrops.

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The ecstatic dancing was unexpected, but this is what I came for.

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After lunch we pack up and reboard the big boat which carries us fifteen miles back to the barrier reef at Tobacco Caye, where we find the kayaks and provisions for the remainder of the trip.  Somewhat disoriented by the contrast between the immaculate facilities of Glover’s and the dense funky development on this island, we are conducted to our first camping spot, a small open space between the brightly lighted gift shop and the ramshackle showers.  We are told to keep away from the bases of the palms whose falling fronds and coconuts can be lethal.  Rather than uninhabited wilderness, this seems like a bit of Dangriga transplanted from the mainland.

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We consider paddling elsewhere, but the wind is coming from the wrong direction.  However, after pitching tents, setting up a little kitchen, downing drinks at the palapa bar, entering conversations with Belizean vacationers and young European adventurers and interacting with kids playing everywhere, most of us relish the surprise.

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Some of us make our way to the dock on the south of the island providing access to the barrier reef, again surprised by the millions of large conch shells piled along the shore to stabilize the banks.   Once underwater, I am thankful we stayed.

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Back in camp, we cook for the first time, Joe and I appreciating the tastiness of the Mountain House freeze dried Chicken Teriyaki and Rice which requires only a couple of cups of boiling water to be poured into an envelop and let sit for five minutes.  After sunset some of us walk back to the south wharf and watch a spectacular display of lightning storms twenty miles to the west over the Maya Mountains on the mainland.

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Belize Expedition–Day 3

April 28th, 2014

April 14

Sunrise to the east no less grand than last night’s sunset to the west.

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After a breakfast featuring local bananas, pineapple, papaya, mango, and citrus, we’re offered a choice of activities. Joe and most of the men go out in a motor boat fishing with Mike and I choose paddle-board instruction with KIMike and several members of another tour group in a nearby wind-free lagoon.  It’s not hard for me to stand, paddle and learn some navigation tricks, but I refrain from trying a head stand and other balance poses choreographed by a yoga instructor in their party.

After fighting the wind on the way back, I meet Joe, whose first fishing experience has been getting a cut from snagging a big sting ray.

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The rest of his group have all caught fish.

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This includes  J.P., a shy solitary man from New York who comes up with a large barracuda that will supply a good part of tonight’s dinner, and who turns out to be an assistant professor of pediatric oncology.

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Joe has made friends with Sue, the guide for the other group, who has taken them white-water river kayaking before coming here.  Turns out she lives most of the year in Driggs Idaho, a ski town not far from his home in Ketchum, and they know several people in common.

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After lunch Sue offers a geography lesson followed by a session of kayak safety procedures in the water that include three kinds of rescues, including the “scoop” method whereby an injured or unconscious person can be loaded into a capsized kayak and righted by their companions.

Later I have a swim in the uncomfortably warm water, remembering my recent exhilirating immersion in the 50 degree water at Pirate’s Cove near home. I’m still not getting the hang of using the surprisingly inexpensive ($150) Olympus underwater camera I bought for the trip.  But the new solar charger needed to resupply the battery seems to work.

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The conch calls a considerable crowd for happy hour, and the staff arrange for a BBQ dinner to be served downstairs on the sand.  Tonight is the last night of the season for Glover’s and a stiff rum punch is available along with beer.  The dinner is even more lavish than the previous night’s: chicken, pork and several kinds of fish, local fruit and veggies, home baked bread.  As soon as the sun drops, Mike and Felix, a Belizean guide of the other group, begin drumming, soon joined by KiMike on the Marracas.

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Mike tells us their instruments are rhythms are traditional Garifuna.

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The music starts slow and after more rum punch is consumed gets faster and louder.  The grounds and kitchen staff start dancing on the sand, draw in the guests, and soon everyone is whooping and hollering. Though the day’s exertions and the booze had me ready for another early bedtime, the dancing releases new energy and keeps things going for a couple more hours under the rising moon.

Lionel Webb photoPhoto by Lionel Webb

Lionel Webb photoPhoto by Lionel Webb

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Belize Expedition–Day 2

April 27th, 2014

April 13, 2014

Breakfast of local sausage and eggs is served at 7:00 AM on the beachside palapa amid excited laughter.  We take our mountains of gear to the next door outfitter, Island Expeditions, where the staff is thoroughly relaxed but extremely organized about helping us sort out stuff to store for the duration, stuff going with us for the next two days at Glover’s Reef, and stuff they will bring to us along with the kayaks for our subsequent unguided adventure.

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Then along with other trippers we’re ushered into the 600 HP Panga boat that takes us the 35 miles offshore to Glover’s, a large coral atoll outside the barrier reef.

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The color blue reputedly “conveys a sense of trust, loyalty, cleanliness, and understanding.” This may explain the heavenly pleasure afforded by the sight of water and sky as we travel.

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Arriving at the dock of Southwest Caye (pronounced “Key”), an island comprising one  tiny corner of the atoll, we are welcomed to some trim tent cabins under coconut laden palms.  The cooling breeze from the eastern windward side creates a luscious mixture with the damp heat of the tropical air.

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Our local guides welcome us cordially. Mike is soft-spoken and authoritative.

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KiMike is droll and hyperathletic.

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They invite us to begin snorkling in a patch reef not far offshore. I wear the merino wool hunters’ long underwear that Joe has brought me for protection from the somewhat threatening sun and for warmth underwater.  It works perfectly for both and I take it off only after sunset for the duration of the trip.

The snorkeling equipment I purchased in a dive shop at some expense also works without a hitch.  The living coral and the fish are bewilderingly varied and beautiful in shape and movement. I’d prefer to remain in one place for a long time just to take in a single vista, but the group is shepherded around the patch and then back to the shore for a lunch of freshly caught fish fingers, home baked bread and cookies, and a salad of local produce, introduced by the ebullient cook Diana, aka Princess Di.

After a nap we try out the kayaks, led by Kimike, paddle to a different patch reef, and jump in the water to discover roaming barracuda and fish that appear to be kissing, but which actually are jockeying for territory.

Another welcome rest in the late afternoon heat is ended by the haunting call of the blown conch, recalling The Lord of the Flies but signalling Happy Hour.

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Joe helps in the kitchen and the rest of us socialize with supplied beer, fresh chips, and pineapple salsa.

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The dinner is fresh caught fish in a coconut cream sauce, greek salad, mashed potato and cheeze casserole, cauliflower and broccoli, and flan.

All the staff and guests introduce themselves after dinner and we are told never to step on or touch the living coral since it is so fragile.  The sun sets early and quickly and in the moonlight the sound of lapping waves and hissing palm fronds is punctuated by shrieks of laughter from the kitchen.

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