I’ve always been intrigued by mysterious places. I’m a sucker for anything that’s off the beaten track. Enclaves, anomalies, curious mixtures- be it geographic, linguistic, cultural, whatever. Quiet, inbetweeney places. Landlocked countries, countries with bizarre borders, countries that don’t make sense. Ancient countries with secret histories, new countries with no unified history at all. Any place that doesn’t get written or talked about much. The less I know, the more irresistible it becomes.
I knew little of anything about Belize before I went there on the fifth day of our cruise. I knew that it was a euphemism for death in the TV show Breaking Bad. When they sent someone to Belize, they were making them disappear. This suggested a mysterious place, somewhere you could hide something. It wouldn’t be sinister to send someone to Ohio or Milton Keynes. But someone going to Belize was the same as someone going to “Davy Jones’ locker”, a mythical underworld from which there was no return.
When you visit a port of call on a cruise, you’re not quite going off the beaten path so to speak. Think of it like wine tasting- you’re paying for the experience of sampling these countries for an afternoon. But it’s surprising how much you learn from just a sample.
We woke up on the morning of March 5th anchored in Belizean waters. There was no sight of land anywhere. I had assumed we would dock at the harbor the way we had at Key West, and then take a boat from there out to the island. But here we were, far from shore, surrounded by the bluest, calmest waters I had ever seen. It was quite breathtaking. There was something about the image of our ship marooned against this flat, tranquil expanse that struck me. There was something otherworldly about these Belizean waters, as though we had ascended to a heavenly realm.
A boat came out of that bluest of blue horizons and nestled right up against the Freedom like a duckling into the bosom of its mother. A set of stairs extended out of Deck 0 and we literally just hopped from one vessel to the other. The new boat had two decks, and we sat up top in the open air and got an impressive view of our cruise ship as it gradually disappeared behind us.
But as visually pleasing as it was to not be enclosed by walls and a roof, it quickly became apparent that we were completely exposed to the sun, which was in a particularly merciless mood that day. It was punishingly hot, hotter even than it had been in Key West. To make matters worse, the battery died on the boat and what was meant to be a 25-30 minute journey ended up being 45-50 minutes of straight cooking. All around us folks were wrapping beach towels around their heads or stashing red-faced children under their seats like carry-ons.
The island seemed to be quite far from land, and it was on this long voyage that we got to learn so much about the mystery of Belize. One of the Belizean guys operating the boat came up to the deck and gave us a kind of introductory seminar on his native country. He was quite an excitable fellow and kept saying “You better Belize it,” and “That’s very Belizeable”. At first we laughed, but he kept repeating the joke ad nauseum and it was like being tied to a chair while an unstable Santa Claus reads out excruciating Christmas cracker puns before shooting all the hostages. Despite this, we couldn’t help but like him though. And his talk was quite informative.
He told us how Belize was completely different from the countries that surrounded it in Central America. It started out as a British colony called British Honduras, and as such became the only English-speaking country in Latin America. After gaining independence, Belize remained a part of the Commonwealth, and to this day Queen Elizabeth II serves as its head of state.
I then sensed that the guy was very keen for us to distance Belize from the rest of Central America. He told us that there was little to no crime, that Belizeans didn’t travel because they already lived in paradise, and that as an English-speaking country Belize was a perfect choice for American expats. The PR department doth protest too much, methinks, I thought to myself. I didn’t doubt that Belize was a geographic paradise though- that much was plainly obvious. And I haven’t heard anything bad about the place on the web either. I just found it amusing how his talk became less educational in tone and more akin to a sales pitch.
He said there was almost no homelessness in Belize, and that the significant indigenous population was well-respected and looked after. Obviously I can’t confirm or deny those statements. I hoped it was true, even in part. They couldn’t possibly treat their indigenous peoples any worse than the U.S.A, I thought to myself. He continued that the Mayans native to Belize had the right to squat anywhere they liked, and said that if a Mayan wanted to sleep in a bus shelter, he or she could legally do so and no one could contest their presence there. It seemed a little at odds with the previous statement about there not being any homelessness, but perhaps it was just a theoretical exercise, I got no idea.
Eventually, when we were far enough from our ship that we could no longer see it, the guy pointed to our right and showed us the faint outline of the “Mayan Mountains” on the coast. The jungle of the country’s interior was apparently some of the toughest, most dense terrain on the planet. The British Army maintained a strong presence in Belize, and sent their troops into those mountains for jungle training.
At that point in his speech I remembered something. A friend of mine from my school days, who lived just down the road from me, had reached out to me a few years ago on Facebook. He was in the Armed Forces and wanted to compliment me on my blog and encourage me to keep writing. Naturally I was very touched by this, and kind of amazed that someone with such a busy schedule would have both the time and desire to read my posts. I asked him about all the places he had been, and the name Belize came up. Looking back on it, that was probably the first time I’d heard of the country. I now realize that he must have been here for jungle training, which our guide said was very intense. It was interesting to think that we had both made our way to this ancient land, thousands of miles from the road on which we grew up, under such different circumstances. I thought about this as I looked at the mountains. Perhaps he had once climbed the very mountain I was looking at during his training, keeping a lookout for jaguars, pythons, and goodness knows what else.
Just when I thought I was going to pass out, our island came into view. It was so small it just popped up out of nowhere, like it had been hiding under a veil of sunshine. I think the technical term for it is a caye, which is defined as a low-elevation, sandy island on the surface of a coral reef. Another word for caye is key, as in…Key West. But this was nothing like that. This island seemed too small not to be artificial. I felt like a single wave could destroy it forever. Coral reefs expanded far outward from the caye, and we were told that swimming there would be very dangerous.
Wow, I thought. My first tropical island. Were the waters here always so calm and flat? We seemed so exposed, trapped on this bar of sand in an infinity of blue. Looking east was like looking into outer space- it was that vast and unconquerable. I was so excited that I damn near forgot about our snorkeling tour. I just wanted to run for the waves and dive into that clear water.
I was more interested in chilling on the island and frolicking with my mates than the actual tour itself, but the tour ended up being really good. Usually I am put off by any activity that’s guided, since I don’t like having to march to the beat of someone else’s drum. But I quickly learned that in this case, having a guide was not only a necessity, but an enhancement of our enjoyment. I didn’t know what to expect, you see. I figured we would all just chill in the shallow water like hippos. What followed was more of an aquatic hike. We followed our guide quite far out into the sea, way further than I thought we would. I wondered if it was safe. Bringing up the rear of our party was a bloke in a kayak, but I doubt his trusty paddle would have done me much good if bull sharks were tearing my legs off. I actually thought about this as I was out there.
“If it happens, Mike, you’re fucked. That’s it. It’s over for you.”
As it turned out our biggest threat was the coral, closely followed by our fellow swimmers. Since we all had to keep together and not stray from our guide, while at the same time looking down at the fishies, we were in constant danger of swimming right up someone’s asshole. I think I only got kicked in the face once or twice, but it was nonetheless a rude awakening from the tranquility of Finding Dory fun-times. I didn’t end up seeing many exotic fish, but I enjoyed the overall therapy of the sea. Every time our guide pointed something out, it seemed to swim away by the time I got there. I also had to readjust my mask every ten seconds because water kept getting inside. I’d made it deliberately not too tight because I was paranoid about getting a headache.
We were out swimming for a good hour, and I probably couldn’t have gone on any longer because my back was starting to ache. We had to be horizontal the whole time because of the terrors of the coral below. This also meant that everyone on the tour got sunburned to buggery. Once we were back on land, we were served a spicy lunch of chicken and rice. The people we shared our tiki hut with complained about the food but I thought it was delicious. The meal also came with a lovely rum punch.
I got the impression from the cuisine and some of the Belizeans working on the caye that although it was located on Central America, Belize had more of a Caribbean culture. Again, that’s only based on my very narrow experience. We talked with a couple workers whose accents sounded similar to people from Jamaica or Trinidad & Tobago. They had dreadlocks, Rastafarian accessories, and massive golden teeth. I wondered, as one of the men smiled at us, whether the gold tooth was clipped on somehow, or if he had to remove one of his natural teeth to make space for it. They were nice people, and enjoyed being asked questions about their lives. We asked them about their homes, their families, their commutes across the sea. That’s a helluva commute, I thought. Taking a little motorboat across the waters of heaven. Where I come from, “commute” is such an ugly word.
We spent the rest of our time on the caye chilling in the water, taking pictures and goofing around. It was so bright that you could hardly see without sunglasses. Most of our pictures came out alright, but there’s a good number where Aaron and I have our eyes shut. We quickly secured a sea-hammock for Anne-Marie and made a circle around her as we chatted and examined seashells. I didn’t want to leave. This was exactly the kind of experience I had wanted when we were planning the cruise. This was it. It was finally here. We were finally here, right where I wanted us to be. The caye seemed like an immutable place- the sun never moved, the day never darkened, and the waves held a constant, somnolent rhythm. Time didn’t exist here. But it did for us, and the new boat that collected us was due to return us to reality, to the transient world that moved ever-changing, ever-forward.