Oceans Apart – Chapter 2. Caye Caulker, Belize

Through Guatemala to Honduras, a river journey

in Nicaragua, hiking in Costa Rican jungles and

wandering the streets of Havana, the author delves

into the significance of travel and the difficulties of

language learning, and interacts with an array of

quirky characters.

This book offers an insight into the life of travelling.

It’s a template for anyone who ever doubted

they could just pack up and go, regardless of where

their lives were at.

And for the author it was Oceans Apart from where

he otherwise would have been.

Oceans Apart cover

This travel narrative is now available to be purchased in print or

downloaded from

http://stores.lulu.com/timaxelsen

Chapter 2. CAYE CAULKER, BELIZE

With the pot holes of the ride to Chetumal behind us I went to sleep, waking suddenly to catch, out of the corner of my eye as the bus rolled gently to a stop, a sign stating “Boats to Cayes.” It had to be Belize City. The driver was off the bus, without a word, as I gently touched P’s leg.

“Come on”, I said. “We’re in Belize.”

“Where?”

“Belize City, I think.”

It was just before ten in the morning. A couple of other passengers stirred as I went down the aisle.

“Where are we?” someone asked.

“Belize, I think.”

We got down off the bus to where the driver stood by the luggage, his Mexican Spanish now less authoritative, English spoken by half the population of the former British Honduras. There were no signs of other Mexicans, the dock full instead of African descendants. Many Belizeans were the ancestors of Jamaican slaves brought to the area by the English in the early 1600’s.

There were twenty minutes until the next departure to Caye Caulker, twenty five kilometres offshore. We had no money and the banks were shut for a public holiday. At the credit card withdrawal desk I somehow, stupidly, agreed to a twelve percent commission in a kind of panic at not having any money. This was a whopping 60 Belizean dollars. And why had I done that when we both had US dollars in our pockets, worth two to one and readily usable throughout the country? Because, after fourteen years of salaried employment, I was conditioned to disposable income, to paying my way out of hassle. I knew I had some relaxing to do, to kick start a new mindset.

The rush to the head, the feeling of being out of my depth, drained away as we got on the boat, heading for Caye Caulker on clear as crystal water, morphing, in its own depths, into shades of aqua blue.

Caye Caulker was a small island where bicycles and electric golf carts were as fast as anything got on the beach sand streets. The waterfront of bars and cafés used the same white-as-flour sand as their floors. Gentle whitecaps broke on the offshore reef in the distance. We walked into a hotel, intending to inquire about their rates. An American woman was behind a counter, talking to a large bare-white-bellied male who sounded like he was from New York.

“We came across a floater,” she said.

“Oh yeah,” smiled the New Yorker.

“A drum barrel floating in the water and full of coke, worth, at least, a hundred and fifty thousand.”

“Oh yeah.”

“The locals tried to get it on this boat packed with tourists who started to help. I mean it was ‘eavy. They were ‘aving trouble with it.”

The man kept chuckling. “Yeah.”

“This Japanese woman asked Scott, who was just sitting there doing nothing, why he wouldn’t help. ‘If they give me ten percent I will,’ he said.”

The two of them giggled harder.

“But gasoline’s so expensive, the Japanese girl said.”

Their giggles shifted to laughter.

“She thought it was gasoline,” the woman explained.

“Oh yeah,” said the New Yorker, cackling. “You bet.”

They laughed a bit harder, a bit longer, then the woman looked to us, as if seeing us for the first time. “Can I help you?”

Bungalows in that beachside resort were way above our budget so we went looking for food instead. We ate a lunch of marinated octopus and a cold Beliken beer in a brightly painted wooden café with a palm thatched roof. Later, we wandered around the hotels until we found something affordable and settled on the Tropical Paradise, a series of yellow wooden cabins at the southern end of town where the road forked one way to the beach, the other to the local airstrip. From there back to the main jetty were restaurants and bars, a couple of shops where locals sat out the front with their feet on the wall, a concrete basketball court crammed with sweaty teenagers, a police station. There was nothing to do but eat, drink and soak up the sun.

Too hot to be out walking, we waited until late afternoon to go looking for a cold beer. We strolled to the northern end of the island to what the locals call The Cut, a narrow but deep body of water that splits the island in two. We sat on the wooden stools and ordered a drink. A local, distinguishable by his sing-song Caribbean accent, was sitting at the bar clenching a Cuba Libre in a hard fisherman’s hand.

“How’re you, man?” he said.

“Good,” I said back.

“Been here long?”

“Half a day.”

“Welcome to you.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Kids dived off the wall into the water. The sun was growing wide and orange, lowering into the waters between us and the mainland.

“You know about dis place?” he asked.

“Not much,” I replied.

“Dis is de cut.”

“I heard about that.”

“It used to be part of de other side, man,” he said, waving his hand to the north where what looked like another island, heavy scrub, no sign of other life, lay.

“Yeah,” I said. “What happened?”

“A cyclone ripped de island in half.”

“A cyclone?”

“Sure did.”

“When?”

“Before my time,” he said.

“Have you lived here long?”

“All my life.”

I reckoned him to be early thirties.

“Kind of handy, that cyclone,” I reckoned.

“Makes a good place to get de boats through to da other side, outta da wind,” he nodded. “Dat’s where we keep dem over night.”

The Palencar Reef, stretching south from the Yucatan Peninsula to Honduras, is the second longest reef in the world. But it was a kilometre offshore, offering little in the way of shelter for boats.

“The name’s Ramsey,” he said, stretching out a thick arm. “Dis is where everyone watches da sunset, man.”

It wasn’t the only time we would watch the sunset from that bar. Happy Hour Cuba Libres saw to that.

We booked ourselves into a snorkelling tour. It left early the next morning, taking us first to a manatee sanctuary where the dugong related mammals, living amongst a series of sand and mangrove cayes, were declared protected. Though the shy creature only ever lifts its nostrils to the breeze, one came to the boat revealing its cow-like size in the form of a shadowy blob underwater. We snorkelled on the reef but found the coral disappointing, the colours not wide-ranging, the fish kind of scarce. Hurricane Mitch, which lashed the Central American region in the late 1990’s, had caused the destruction of much of the coral, according to some. Lobsters used to be plentiful, though the reason for their demise lay elsewhere.

Our guide turned out to be Ramsey from the bar at The Cut. He told me it wasn’t only the quantity of the lobster catch that had decreased, but the size of the lobsters were well down too. Since the dramatic decline of fish stocks, tourism had become the number one dollar earner in Caye Caulker. And there was a sense that the locals resented it. Lunch on the snorkelling trip was two slices of white bread with a thin scrape of tuna and a lettuce leaf. Ramsey demolished a large barbecue wrap of pasta and potatoes, which he said was given to him by “someone cooking over there,” referring to another tour group, one I supposed we could have been with. Though I knew it was not Ramsey’s fault that the company he worked for was tight, it did highlight something already apparent on Caye Caulker – the lack of value for money for anyone other than the two week package tour vacationers direct from New York. They probably wouldn’t resent a twenty dollar meal that left you hungry. And they might not begrudge bars who sometimes forgot to add the rum when making a Cuba Libre. While Belize was still much cheaper than other Caribbean destinations, for the budget traveller, value was in doubt. And it made me wonder if, when the tourists ran dry like the lobsters had, the locals will have managed to instil in their next generation an attitude that doesn’t take it all for granted. Yet that was a problem far from being restricted to Belize.

The wind had been blowing onshore almost constantly since we’d arrived on Caye Caulker, keeping the ferocious heat bearable. But when it dropped, heat was not the only problem. Sand flies, too small to see, swarmed over the island, driving us away from the beach. Our solution was to buy a small bottle of white rum in an unsealed old beer bottle and go, with Coke and a couple of lemons, out to the jetty in front of our hotel where the rising full moon laid a golden path from our feet to the horizon. It was on this path that we not only contemplated where we were going but could see back to what we’d left behind. Or maybe it was just the rum.

It was St Patrick’s Day, the day of the United States decision on whether they would invade Iraq. There were bars with cable TV, but we got our news from one of the two internet cafés on the island. We left one café late afternoon and walked two blocks from the beach, following a sign to Wish Willy’s restaurant. There were two guys sitting around a table, drinking beer. One welcomed us, offered us a seat and introduced himself as Willy, a Belizean who’d grown up in Chicago. We ordered a couple of drinks and sat on the wooden balcony for a while. More customers came in, mostly gringos. We ordered some food discovering it was one of the better value places we’d found. We ate whole fish, drank beer and rum while spliffs passed around the tables. A black door up a stairway had a slogan on it, daubed with white paint – “the man on the bike told the truth”. Conversation was inevitable. And the imminent war was not far from the surface. There was the usual; should they? Should we? Shouldn’t we? An English guy, rum soaked and a sunburnt face, raised his voice.

“How can we know more than the politicians?” he growled. “They have access to privileged information. They can make a proper decision. It’s up to them. We, the average man on the street, don’t know nothing about it.”

“Speak for yourself,” somebody said.

“Maybe you’re not an average man on the street,” the English guy sneered.

“You’re allowed to decide for yourself what to think.”

“Don’t belittle me! All I’m saying is – who say’s you’re right?”

“I’m not saying I’m right. I just doubt they’re telling us the truth.”

“Why wouldn’t they? They have the people’s best interests in mind.”

“Which people would that be?”

“Their own people. That’s what governments are for, protecting their people.”

Emotions run high on the subject of war. Of course, there were people who had views different to us. But it was difficult not to point out what seemed obvious. We went back to the jetty with our white rum, a dull sense that perhaps, since we’d last been on the road, there was now a different kind of traveller. Before the climate of globalisation and effortless travel, respect for cultural difference, for fellow man, seemed a prerequisite for, or in the least a symptom of, travel. Time on the road usually made one see that the majority of people everywhere were inherently good, and not so different to anyone anywhere else, and certainly should not be held accountable for what their governments did. For that reason alone, amongst many, warfare was never a reasonable option.

After that night, I decided to be more reticent, as if I was more aware of the vacuum through which I had been sucked, about being in another land, another place. There might be people I couldn’t read, couldn’t pick. You never know what some people might do. But trouble was unlikely. I felt like I could be dropped anywhere, apart from a war zone, and feel at home. As if I could go through the vacuum and wake up on an unknown street and be okay. Somebody would help me. I was certain of this, still am. And it’s what makes travel so ordinary. It was merely life. People living lives around the globe, existing, or trying to, are the same all over. But it was exactly that, the fact it wasn’t extraordinary, that made it so special.

On the jetty, we decided it was time to leave Caye Caulker the next day, but when we woke it was late and we wanted to get as far as Guatemala by night. It was better to stay one more day. We stopped for granola and yogurt at a café where the heat was kept at bay by a thatched roof shade on a veranda. A man caught my eye.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

I told him.

“I’m from Idaho. I’m travelling with my son.” He nodded at a twenty year old opposite him. “He’d only come along if I let him bring his dog,” he added, pointing to an animal lying under the table.

“Nice dog,” I said.

“I got this truck,” he told me. “We decked it out with a tray for sleeping and it’s got this place for cookin’ you know, a kind of kitchen and stuff.”

The dog pricked its ears up at a passing stray.

“Keep him under control,” Pa said.

“He’s alright, he ain’t going nowhere,” son sneered.

“Anyways, we gonna try and sell him…”

“The dog?” I said.

“No, the truck. In Honduras. Maybe it’ll pay for our trip.”

“It better pay for the trip,” son sneered again.

“And I got an old computer in there,” Pa said. “In case somebody’s might want it.”

The dog was well behaved, dozing on the deck, a nice looking animal, brown and white, short haired and well kept. Later, at the beach, it was sniffing around five or six local dogs and the son couldn’t get it to follow him. He walked down the beach, back again, calling the dog to go with him. At least the dog was into the freedom travel brings.

We went for a swim at The Cut and I got talking to an Italian woman who had lived in Belize two years before and had returned to try again.

“It is better to be here than anywhere else in the world right now,” she said.

We bought fish, rice and beans from a woman on a bike who gave a healthy serve, swinging my opinion of Belize back in favour. Sitting in the sand under a palm tree, this was even better value than Wish Willy’s. The island grew on us as we grew more relaxed; we decided to stay yet another day. We had rum at The Cut, watched the sun go down and then took Beliken beers to a jetty to watch a red moon rise, transforming to gold over the Caribbean Sea.

The next day we went up to Ambergris Caye, a bigger island half an hour north of Caye Caulker and apparently famous for being the subject of Madonna’s “Isla Bonita” hit in the 1980’s. With traffic and paved streets, hotels and restaurants, Ambergris was full on and after lunch, we were ready to escape. We snorkelled at Hol Chan, a fish reserve with plentiful barracuda in a deep channel that led out to the other side of the reef. At Shark and Ray Alley both the reef sharks and rays were virtually tame, coming within touching distance of snorkellers.

That night we discovered that the Seaside Cabanas had a bucket of beer special. Eight beers were jammed into a small bucket of ice and sold for a slightly better deal than taking them out of the refrigerator. Of course, the idea was that you commit yourself to eight beers, though you could do that, in theory, with other people. But since the scheme was to keep your beer icy cold, it was better to have your own bucket. That night ended, noisily, in Wish Willy’s again, where an English guy explained where he got the Foster’s t-shirt he was wearing.

“It was given to me,” he began. “By the British consulate in Managua. My girlfriend and I were in a cab when two guys got in and pulled knives and took my wallet. They demanded my pin number and told the taxi driver to take us to an automatic teller machine while they made sure I had given them the correct number.” He took a slug of his beer. “My bank told me that I shouldn’t have disclosed my pin even though the guys threatened to stab me and rape my girlfriend. They’re refusing to refund the twenty four pounds the thieves withdrew.”

This diminutive loss said two things. Banks are ratbags and Central American muggers have absolutely no idea how much a standard transaction in a developed country could potentially be. The story sparked a heated conversation.

“Did you hand it over willingly?” an American asked.

“They had a knife and might have had a gun.”

“I would have fought them,” said another Englishman.

“I would have killed them,” the American said.

“Maybe they needed the money,” somebody said.

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“What’s right and what’s wrong?”

“The trooff is right,” said a south Londoner.

“But is your truth the same truth as someone else’s?”

“The trooff is the trooff.”

“Is the truth of the thieves in Managua the same as our truth?”

“There can only be one moral truth,” the American said.

“Is cutting off a hand for stealing a moral truth?”

“That’s barbaric,” said the Londoner.

“Doesn’t it depend on your morals?”

“The truth is that there are no truths.”

It all must have had something to do with the slogan daubed on the door.

We went to a disco where the locals danced punta, a Caribbean style of simulated sex on the dance floor. The women bumped their buttocks in a circular, rising and falling movement, against the groin of their male partners. But this was strictly dancing. It meant nothing else. Or so a local told me.

The next day we went to breakfast in one of the Cable TV bars, watching Oliver North reporting the invasion, from Iraq, for CNN. We watched in silence, eating eggs and potatoes, drinking coffee. It was good to be in the Caribbean. But we’d done one more day enough; it was time to move on.

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~ by Drifting, Rambling on September 14, 2008.

2 Responses to “Oceans Apart – Chapter 2. Caye Caulker, Belize”

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