Belize was exactly the palate-cleanser I needed after the fiesta that was Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Belize is actually just as touristy as the Mexican tourist hotspots I came from, but here's the difference: in Caribbean Mexico, they blatantly cater to the Western vacationers with luxurious beach clubs, upscale shopping, and fist-pumping nightclubs, whereas in Belize, the attitude is more, "Hey sister, come chill with us on our island for awhile." To be sure, there are upscale resorts on some Belizean islands that do cater to those who want their island vacation on a bed of roses, but if you escape to the island of Caye Caulker for a week, you can just go slow...
An obnoxious day of travel. I understand that when I attempt to traverse a significant part of a continent in three weeks, I'm going to lose a few days to travel, but it's wearisome all the same. It probably didn't help that I started my journey on approximately 35 minutes of sleep, but if I'm going to spend a day dozing off, it might as well be a day spent shuttling around. I think this is stellar logic.
Travel tip: If you have a long day/night of traveling ahead of you, try to spend the entire 24 hours leading up to your departure partying/clubbing/having a romantic rendezvous. You will sleep through the entire journey and awake refreshed in your new destination. This is a great way to maximize your fun and minimize your boredom/terror on long bus/plane/ferry/chicken bus/taxi rides. If you've ever sat wide awake on a late night bus ride full of refugees up the coast of South Africa with a man staring at your actual and proverbial muffins while you try to distract yourself with a cannibalistic cockroach funeral, you know what I mean - you're better off sleeping in ignorant bliss with your baggage strapped, woven, locked, and tangled around every limb you possess.
After a six hour nap, a Revive Vitamin Water (thank you, globalization), and two bags of Ruffles (hangover brunch of champions), I arrive in Chetumal. It's hard to believe I'm still in the same country as the Caribbean paradise I just left. Chetumal is pretty dingey and the brownish water is hardly inviting. I'm thankful that I didn't plan to stay here for a night - I probably would have had to sleep on the street. I arrived at 12:30 and the ferry was at 3:30, so I had some time to kill. I met a delightful group of young Irish teachers with whom I chatted and shared some snacks. An Irish accent is so lovely. I'm envious, and self-conscious of my comparably trashy sounding American accent. I try to class it up a little by rounding my vowels, over-enunciating and using words like "quite," "lovely," and "proper." This is the kind of thing you can get away with when you travel alone, because your best friend isn't sitting there next to you mouthing, "What is wrong with you, you fucking weirdo?" and wondering what happened to your excessive use of "really," "like," "very," and "awesome."
Getting onto the ferry was a pretty hysterical process. First, they line up all of our backpacks like little soldiers in front of the boat. All the passengers are told to stand back, so we all linger awkwardly about ten feet away, subconsciously falling into the same line of attention as our luggage. Next, a military officer with an AK47 approaches with a drug-sniffing dog, who is immediately dispatched to do his business with the luggage. I think everyone in that line was secretly hoping the dog would find something, just to see what would happen next. (Ok, I'll give my fellow travelers the benefit of the doubt of being better humans, but I was dying to see what would happen.) Would they just shoot you on the spot? Take your drugs for themselves? Cart you off to jail? How would they even figure out to whom the bag belonged? You know they don't tag that shit in Chetumal, Mexico. Personally, I was just glad I finished all my coke in Playa. (It's a joooooke!)
As soon as the motor on the boat started to whir, I was zonked. I had time for exactly one irritating exchange with the dufus next to me:
"Are you traveling alone?"
"Hah. How's that working out for you?"
When I woke up, the murky brown water had magically transformed into that magnificent, translucent blue-green sea. (See what I mean about the benefits of traveling sleep-deprived?) A few moments later, we docked on San Pedro island (Belize).
After going through immigration, I arranged for a cab to take me to the only bank on the island, then to my hostel. There was a kind of strange situation with this booking, which I later realized was because Pedro's is both a backpackers and a hotel. I had actually splurged for a private hotel room that night, and I was glad to have it that day. The room was sparse, but clean, which works for me. I immediately had to take a nap, since it had been a long day of napping. Traveling is le hard.
After my umpteenth nap of the day, I finally felt genuinely refreshed... and HUNGRY. I showered and changed and even swiped on some eyeliner for a change before heading over to the hostel bar. When I walked into the bar, I was sure I'd sold myself into some sort of prostitution ring. The bar is full of young women, old men, and a dog. Pedro, the owner of the establishment, is wearing a T-shirt that says "Blow Me For Luck" with a gaudy pair of dice in the middle. Classy. The men are English, Scottish, American - it's ex-pats central. One Scottish chap named Jimmy buys me a drink and then condemns every choice I've made or will make on this trip. "Caye Caulker?!" he explains, "For fuck's sake, what you goin' THERE for? Caaaaye Caaaaulker. Bah!" I feel like I am in some sort of skit because he is such a CHARACTER. (I'm also a little apprehensive about my imminent trip to Caye Caulker.)
Pedro comes over and says, "Well! Don't you clean up nice!" I imagine I was not much of a looker after my bus/ferry/napping extravaganza. Soap and water are real magic, sometimes. Jimmy taunts, "She's leaving us for CAYE CAULKER," and Pedro seconds, "Caaaaaye Caulker. Blagh." I'm not really in the mood to argue, and I'm still starving, so I ask for a recommendation for dinner. They send me to Pinocchio's just down the street. Pinocchio's is a straight up Italian restaurant. ITALIAN. Flags for table cloths, wood-burning oven, the whole nine yards. And that's how I came to have lasagna on my first night in Belize. It wasn't bad.
Pedro tells me "the place to be" that night is Crazy Canucks, a beach bar down the street. After dinner, I wander over to have a look-see. There was exactly one man and a black cat at the bar and a reggae band warming up. Apparently, I'm too early. I sit down for a chat with the human, but in retrospect, I might have had a better time with the feline. I'm pretty sure the man had some drug-induced brain damage based on his rate of speech - it was more severe than "I'm on an island and I take time with my words, man." He tells me how he used to be addicted to drugs, but no more. I think there was something about "jail-time" involved, which motivated his reformation. He still discreetly asks if I want anything. Mmmnothanks.
A few minutes later, he tells me the island is like a prison - he's trapped there. And there you have it: one woman's paradise is another man's prison. For the occasional visitor, I suppose it's hard to believe that an island in the crystal blue Caribbean could be anything but desirable. The tourists gush, "Gosh, can you imagine LIVING here?" but the truth is that most of those tropical destinations subsist predominantly on tourism, which, as a service-based economy, is not the most profitable. The harsh reality is that most of those happy, smiling people serving up poolside daiquiris are going home to the more impoverished parts of town that are isolated from the resort areas. So there's the uncomfortable truth of Paradise Island: it's only a dream to be there when it's not your day-to-day reality. If you don't have the means to ever leave, it might as well be Alcatraz if you're a discontented inhabitant (see: Lost, Castaway, Gilligan's Island...) This is not to say that all island dwellers are miserable slaves to their dwellings, but I think it's important to remember that most of the people who help make a destination vacation so luxurious, more often than not, cannot afford those same luxuries in their own lives. I'm humbled by this notion. The man at the beach bar reminds me that I am exceedingly lucky.
After this brush with real-world problems, I'm not really feeling in the mood to party, so I head home and crash for the night.
In the morning, I sleep late and take my time getting dressed (this is apparently a theme for this trip). I pack up my gear and head to Pedro's office to figure out the ferry schedule to Caye Caulker. Today, Pedro's donning a shirt that reads, "I'm the guy you have to blow to get a drink around here" with a pair of thumbs pointing inward. That's not even innuendo - it's just dirty. I have to wonder exactly how many shirts Pedro owns that reference blow jobs if I've seen two in 12 hours. He takes one look at me and says, in the most stereotypical ex-pat British accent imaginable, "By God. You're wearing a DRESS. With a BACKPACK. And you've ACCESSORIZED. I've never seen anything like it!" I'm pleased with his appraisal. When I left my room it was about 10:45. He tells me there's a 9:30 and 11:30 ferry. I ask if I have time to make the 11:30. He says, "Darling, you can make the 9:30." Apparently, my iPad doesn't automatically change times the way my phone does - it's only 8:45. Looks like I didn't sleep the day away after all - huzzah! Before I leave, I run into another woman in the office who was born in the same hospital that I was in Bergen County, New Jersey. I shit you not.
A man named Mario drives me to the ferry - in a golf cart. They don't drive cars on the island, just golf carts. I think this is delightful and we should all follow suit immediately. After purchasing my ferry ticket, I have the most delicious fresh pineapple juice and french toast at Lily's Cafe, which Pedro recommended. Imagine gourmet, fresh, homemade Cinnabons - that's how this French toast tasted. I have a quick chat with the woman behind me who visited the island for her daughter's wedding 6 years ago and never left. Her daughter is a teacher in New Jersey. What the....? I know New Jersey is a densely populated state, but this is getting bizarre.
Caye Caulker is much better suited for me. It's like backpacker nation. I ask a woman's auntie from the boat where Yuma's hostel is and she points at an orange fence about 50 feet from the ferry dock. Perfection. Yuma's is lovely. Everything is brightly painted, there are four beds to a room, and a clean kitchen and bathroom on each floor. Suzanne, the proprietor, is calm, controlled, and attentive. There's a terrifically beachy common area where there picnic tables, swings, and hammocks rest under shady palm trees. The ocean is approximately six feet from the entrance of the hostel, where there's a dock with two more inviting hammocks. I'm so thankful I did not heed Jimmy and Pedro's advice.
The motto on the island is "Go Slow." It's the kind of place where people tell you to slow down if you're walking too fast. "What's the hurry?" they say, "Go slow." And gosh darn it - what IS the hurry? There's no rushing here, no stress, no deadlines, no appointments. Everyone is on island time here, which is to say, times are merely suggestions, and not hard and fast parameters that dictate the structure of life. I suspect if one was trying to be fastidiously productive, this apathy to time would be a real bitch, but since I'm on vacation, I'm content to spend a week during which I have little to no concept of day or time.
Tuesday and Wednesday
I divide my time evenly between napping, reading, writing, wandering, swimming, drinking, and eating lobster. I was lucky enough to meet some beautiful people at the hostel whom I hung out with during the week. My new pal April is a labor organizer in Seattle. We share a passion for social justice, so we had some great conversations over rum punch. One of my favorite people I met at the hostel was Darren, who is a young, clean-cut Josh Holloway (Sawyer from Lost) with board shorts and RayBans. He lives in Los Angeles, but grew up in Tennessee and maintained the accent. One day, after sleeping late and then reading for four hours in a hammock I said to Darren, "I'm being so lazy today," and he replied in his lingering Southern drawl, "It's not being lazy, it's just enjoying life." Someone please right him a supporting role in a chick flick immediately.
On Wednesday night, about 6 of us went to Fran's for dinner, where we met an Argentinian man named Daniel whom April, Jenny and I swooned over all week. Must. Go. To. Argentina. Fran's is a little joint on the side of the road that consists of a little hut, a picnic table, a charcoal grill, and Fran, a sassy, plump, middle-aged woman who runs the place with an iron fist and a golden tongue. I'm thoroughly amused that the hut claims "Fran's Fast Food," when the whole ordeal actually takes about 3 hours. Island time, man. Miguel went across the street to buy Cocunut rum and pineapple juice so we could have cocktails while we waited for the food. A while later, I enjoyed one of the best meals of my life, consisting of garlic-butter grilled whole lobster, mashed potatoes, garlic bread, and cheesecake. This was my second whole lobster dinner in two days. When in Belize...
New friends April (Seattle), Jenny (Austin) and I went on a full-day snorkeling trip with Ragamuffin Tours.
I'll start by saying this was a first-rate day. The weather was perfect as we boarded the sailboat around 10:30. We sailed out for about an hour before the first stop. Once we got in the water, we explored the reef, which wasn't too populated with fish, but plenty of marine flora. I was ok with not having too many fish to contend with while I practiced breathing and swimming with the snorkeling equipment. I was also excited to try out my new Kodak Watersport digital camera.
On the next stop, the boat is ambushed by a school of sharks. Seriously. The guides throw out chunks of tuna and we are now surrounded with not only a crowd of nurse sharks, but also piranhas. I'm told we are snorkeling here. I'd like to tell you that something got lost in translation here, but Belize is an English speaking country. I'm normally pretty adventurous, but jumping into shark infested waters seems a little nuts, even to me. I'm also told there are sting rays on the bottom: "The kind that killed Steve Irwin." Oh, THAT kind. For a girl who jumps off bridges and out of planes without a thought, I was struggling to take the five foot plunge into that water. But. Anticipatory regret and peer pressure got the better of me, so after a quick mental pep talk, I hopped in. There's no crying in snorkeling. (It was amazing.)
After this round, we had a nice lunch of fried fish sandwiches, (which seems a little wrong to me, but tasty all the same).
Our last stop was about an hour north to a barrier reef that's been preserved for over 25 years and boasts being home of some of the richest, most diverse marine life in the world. Indeed, the reef is spectacular. I even saw a giant sea turtle, which seemed other-worldly. Sadly, my camera punked out at this point, so I don't have any pictures from the last spot, so you'll have to trust my description. The coral is incredible, ranging in every shape, size and texture. The fish are neon and magnificent, except the massive Groupers, who must've hit every branch of the UGLY reef.
Exhausted, we climbed back on board to set sail for Caye Caulker. We're soon offered rum punch, chips, and homemade salsa. This day included so many of my favorite things. When we arrived back on the island, we walked up to The Split, a popular swimming/lounging spot, and shared a bucket of ice cold beer while we watched the sunset. Good times.
I leave Caye Caulker with mixed emotions. It's been a glorious few days of sun, sand, food, and fun. I am more relaxed than I've been... maybe ever? I have also made some great friends on this trip. There is a kind of phenomenon in the backpacker world. When you travel alone, you have to snip a few threads from the fabric of your life back home. You have to temporarily let go of the friends, home, family, and comforts to which you've grown accustomed, and also cast out a few pieces of yourself to flap around in the winds of the world, waiting for something to catch. We gather in these communal domiciles, and because everyone is offering up these little pieces of themselves, you quickly find the common threads. You find the people who share your language, heritage, interests, geography, passions, and experiences and all those loose common threads snap together, weaving a beautiful new patch in the fabric of your life. The bonds are quickly formed, but strong all the same; brief, but meaningful. That is why, if you look around a great hostel on any given day, you will see dear friends parting ways with the tenderness of an enduring relationship, who have known each other for maybe 48 hours or so.