Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Cave

It’s a long drive from Antigua to Semuc Champey. But I’d met a few people on my travels who’d advised me I absolutely needed to get my arse there if I ended up in Guatemala.

A minivan picked me up from my school at 2pm on Friday… I made small talk with the compact Korean girl sitting next to me, and slept on and off for the 9 hour trip.

The last 11km took over an hour. An absolutely nutty fuck-off cobblestone road – and I use that term loosely. Road, that is. Not fuck-off. Shockies are evidently optional on vehicles here.

At 11pm, the driver dropped most of the folk on the bus off at one ‘hotel’ (basically, a few wooden sheds with some camp beds); and then there was just me and a Spanish couple left. He then dropped just me off at a separate hotel. I made jokes to the Spanish couple about how they would be last people to see me alive if i ended up being chopped up into little pieces. I don’t think they saw the humor. And I suddenly realized there was absolutely no one in the world, (who cared) who knew where I was. At least the school would think something was strange if I didn’t come back. Surely.

Clearly. I was. Tired.

The next morning, I woke up, kidneys in tact. I had some brekky and was picked up by the minivan for our tour to Semuc Champey. I was very unprepared as to what to expect. I knew there was going to be some hiking and some swimming involved – but that was it. They don’t believe in brochures or briefings or the like in Guatemala.

It was about a 1/2 hr drive to the entrance of the site where we were greeted by the ferrety Toto, who told us in pidgin English what we were about to do. I got about 1/4 of it.

Semuc Champey sits above the Cahabón River. It’s a decent hike of around an hour through a rough walking trail in pretty dense jungle to the pools, which is why we were here.

The whole time, the tiny Toto was yelling at us, “VAMOS!” which translates to “Let’s go!” I wasn’t the only one sweating bullets by the time we got to a lookout, which gave us an amazing view of what we were about to experience: A series of eight tranquil limestone rock-pools featuring the most luminescent aquamarine waters, have formed over many hundreds of years, between these two massive rampaging waterfalls.

Once we got down to the ‘top’ pool, we stripped down to our togs (that’s bathers or swimmers for you non-Australian readers) and followed the very energetic (read, hectic) Toto.

We’re in one of the most peaceful places on earth and again with the “VAMOS!”
Tranquilo dude. Tranquilo.

Each of the subsequent pools were stepped down a little lower than the last. Toto had us rock-hopping, scrambling, slipping and sliding from one to the other. It was way cool. At one point he and one of his amigos sat us down between their legs, made us cross our arms, and pushed us like a human bobsled down a natural slippery dip into a pool below. It was at once both terrifying and exhilarating.

We hiked back to where our bags and boots were, got dressed and walked back to where we started.

After ordering our lunch from a little cafe, we were then led across a crickety old wooden bridge, which reminded me of that brilliant scene from ‘Stand By Me’ when River Phoenix and Corey Feldmans’ characters dare the fat kid to run across the tracks before a train.

We were given the inner tubes from tires and off we went down a muddy river, following the fast currents, avoiding obstacles and getting yelled at by Toto. It was all over in 15 minutes and in retrospect it was a rather weird little diversion which I suspect was to give the folks in the kitchen time to cook our lunches more than anything.

We had some much needed tucker which was truth be told, pretty average, but better than the MacDonald’s we’d been led to the night before for dinner (WTF!?)

After lunch, we were led up a track to the mouth of the K’an-Ba Caves. We then spent the next couple of hours caving by candlelight! I’m a very inexperienced caver but I coped with the multitude of obstacles nature presented us here.

The water levels varied from ankle deep to neck deep but what made it tricky was holding a lit candle out of the water and trying not to slip over. Anyone that knows me, knows I’m capable of tripping over on a skirting board.

There were all manner of ridiculously unsafe climbing aids made of a variety of materials that would satisfy absolutely zero ISO standards. At one point, we had the opportunity to climb a rope ladder up through a waterfall. I had a crack at it, but missed my footing on the second rock ‘step’. I couldn’t regain my footing. I couldn’t hear Toto (even though I knew he would be yelling at me from somewhere). And I couldn’t see anything but the waterfall in my eyes. I lost my nerve and backtracked down, opting for the far ‘safer’ bamboo ladder instead.

A short while later, “we’re-not-in-freaking-Kansas-anymore” Toto demonstrated how we could jump from some high rocks inside a cavern into a tiny pool. Now that, I knew I could do, having done my fair share of jumping from high rocky ledges into the Georges River on summer days when a bunch of us would decide it was just too hot to go to high school.

We regressed more or less the way we came into the caves. It was a completely different day to that we had left behind: it was CHUCKING it down. Soaking wet, we were ferried back to our respective hotels.

My newly allocated room lacked a towel, a toilet seat (why this is a challenge for Latin America, I will never understand. I mean, they come as a set, si?), oh and hot water. I’ve been a week in Guatemala now and am yet to have a hot shower. Guatemala is not the Caribbean. Call me a princess but if it’s okay with you, I would like a hot shower at least once a week. Thanks. Especially when it’s raining. And I’m wet. And cold. Grrrr!!!

Anyways, a bit later on, we all reconvened at my hotel which conveniently had one of the few bars in town, for some dinner and drinks. Absolutely knackered – we all called it an early night. I slept like a log.

We set off early for the long drive back, and I have to say I’m chuffed we did it during the day. We made our way through windy roads and passed dozens of locals making their way to gorgeous colonial churches in these pokey old villages that were surrounded by these lush green forests and were shrouded in clouds.

The word ”Guatemala translates to ‘land of the trees’. And I now know why. The flora here is among the richest and most varied in the world. There are some 8000 species of plants in this country. That blows my mind.

I also saw skanky chickens and scrawny goats and skinny horses. And more dogs lying in the middle of the road than anyone could possibly count. I saw a big fat boar on a leash getting cajoled up the road, more than likely to the dinner table. I saw many many randoms dressed in colorful clothing just standing in the middle of fields, looking like they were waiting for a sign. Families of four on the back of mopeds. Ancient women catching rides next to 18 year olds in the trays of the Guatemalan equivalent to an Aussie ute.

And all of this was underpinned by the omnipresent marketing, on rocks (now there’s an untapped media!) and makeshift billboards, for the local and presidential candidates. These became more and more frequent the closer we got to the City. I decided the candidates all looked like real estate agents or soap opera stars. Except for one little old lady who looked like your typical Guatemalan granny in traditional clothes. I also decided if I was allowed to vote – I’d vote for the dude that looked like a Guatemalan version of Buddy Holly.

I was beaming by the time we got back to Antigua. I’d had an absolutely amazing adventure. The lactic acid was rapidly building up. My muscles were getting sore. Big time. I had felt like I was a 20 year old contender in Survivor the day before. I felt like I was about 50 now. But I was so so happy. Even happier when I discovered my shower in my apartment had been fixed and I was finally able to have a hot shower. Call me a goddamned princess.

Sunday 28 August

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One more cup of coffee

I crossed the border to Guatemala with relatively little hassle all things considered, and caught the collectivo to St Elena. From there I caught a cab to Flores. But only after having the usual argy bargy with the driver over the agreed fare. I remember my friend Claire saying she never tipped cabbies on the assumption they were taking their tip anyways. I suspect she might be right. Got no change, my arse. Fucker.

It was pissing down when I got to the gorgeous rainforesty Los Amigos Hostel (this was the impact of Tropical Storm Harvey who was making headlines and making his way to the Belizean coastline). I was welcomed by London Mike and the two Carolines. Mike showed me where the ATM was, so i could withdraw Quetzales. We agreed it was just easier to call them Pretzels. We got stuck into the drinks, played a few rounds of Pigs and then I snuck off for a nanna nap. Toowoomba Caroline woke me up for a skinny dip. Some people love getting their kit off in public. I am not one of those people. However, I was totally up for a night swim in the warm freshwater that surrounded the tiny island. We later went out for a few drinks at a couple of bars, where we watched an excellent 7 piece band squished into a space that we’d see 3 musos in, back home. I got my first chance to observe the locals. First impressions? The females ‘carry the race’, as my Dad would say. Meaning the girls are much better looking than the boys.

They all left the next morning. Because I am traveling slower than everyone else, I feel like everyone’s always leaving me. I’m getting used to it now. The upside is, I’m constantly making new friends.

I had brekky in a cafe with a vista of the lake, revising my Spanish notes and then spent the afternoon taking photos.

On Monday I got up at 4 to take a tour of Tikal. Of all the Mayan ruins I’ve seen so far, this has by far been the most impressive. I won’t bore you with all the historical details, here. What I will say is this: The area the National Park covers is approximately the size of the Byron Bay shire. It is also one of the locations for the original Star Wars films. Nerdcool!

I retired early after being bored to bits by a very earnest Dutch boy who wanted to talk stats pertaining to world economics. Should have crapped chatted him, but I was so dang tired I couldn’t be bothered.

Next morning I jumped in a tuc-tuc to the tiny airport to get on a tinier plane for the flight to Guatematla City, where I was picked up by a driver from my school to take me to Antigua.

We drove past what seemed like a million billboards for a multitude of candidates running for President. The election is on 11 Sept. One woman has divorced her husband so she can be eligible to run for office. There have been reports of politically related violence including the murder of three candidates since campaigns started in May. Checking the smarttraveller website, it warns I should reconsider my need to travel. Mmmmm.

It’s hard to image why. Antigua is so ridiculously pretty with it’s quaint cobblestone streets and colonial buildings. It’s nestled between three impressive volcanic mountains, which wear cloudy cloaks. This time of the year, it’s mostly Spring-like sunny days with the ocassional afternoon shower which provides a perfect excuse to duck into a very European-feeling cafe. Guatemala has what is considered to be (among) the world’s finest coffee beans and what’s more: they know how to make it here!!! It has its own Central Park, where horse-drawn carriages wait for a fare. Young lovers steal a furtive but passionate kiss. And bored armed policemen watch the girls go by. It’s a big city and from what everyone tells me – it’s not without its problems of petty crime. But there’s a very cosmopolitan international feel to the place and it’s all wrapped up in this old world charm. Yes, there are many expats and tourists and students but still the locals look you in the eye, smile and say ¡hola!

I just know I’m going to be very happy here for the next month, while I undertake studies and training to become a teacher of English to students for whom English is a second language (TEFL / TESOL). Teaching is something that takes my interest as a potential alternative career (I’ve been in marketing for 12 years and prior to that I was a graphic designer). This seems like a good way to test the waters. I’m also hoping it will help my own pursuit of a second language. And additionally it may become a source of income to help sustain my travels for a bit longer. (I just may need to take on my stage name for professional purposes.)

Wed 24 Aug

Take me to the river

In San Ignacio, I found myself a cheap room in a buggy guesthouse which was run by a bossy Spanish speaking lady. A long cool shower for a hot & sweaty (and not in a sexy way) girl and then off to find dinner – which ended up being pizza in a bar while listening to David Bowie and Creedence Clearwater.

The next day I moved to the guesthouse next door (Mallorca), which was much cleaner and run by a lovely Spanish speaking lady.

I ambled about the little village, taking photos and chatting to people in the street. I found a proper coffee shop above the street run by an American ex-pat, Sean who made a very decent latte. I spent a bit of time catching up on emails, writing and reading.

I later went to Maya Walk office which had been recommended to me, and booked myself on the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) tour. The manager invited me to come back for happy hour at their newly opened bar, run by a lovely, softly spoken man by the name of Smokey. It was there I met London Mike and Canadian Steve, who’d met each other somewhere along the way and become traveling companions for the time being. Mike was also on a career break (few of us out there) and was headed to Guatemala as well. They had done the ATM caves that day and were raving about it.

I’ve regressed back into nana-dom again, rising at 6, going to bed at 10 – so I called it after just a few drinks and a feed at a gorgeous lil restaurant called Ko-Ox Han Nah where I had a terrific lamb curry. Been a while since I’ve had either lamb, or curry. It was good on the entry. Not so good on the exit.

On the morning of Thursday 18 August, the tour group convened at Smokey’s bar.

A cool cat with a big ‘fro called Jay sat next to me. He was from Harlem and we struck up an instant rapport. He ended up being gorgeous on all accounts.

On the bus I got talking to a vibrant young thing from Toowoomba – who looked like your archetypical surfer chick. She had gone to NYC to try her hand in the cut-throat fashion world there.

As the gringo trail / small world would have it – it turned out she had been traveling with Nathan, prior to him joining me on the sailing tour. He had spoken to both of us about the other, but I hadn’t known her forward travel plans and she was under the impression I was heading south along the Honduras coast line. Which had totally been the plan up until I’d gotten to Placenta.

* * *

Actun Tunichil Muknal means cave of the stone sepulcher. It’s a significant Mayan archaeological site, which is only accessible in the company if an official guide. We started off with two mini buses, but one of them broke down shortly into the journey, so all the people on the other bus piled onto ours. It was a bumpy, squishy ride over rough roads for nearly an hour.

It was then a gentle hike through some pretty bushland. We got to the site and were given helmets with flashlights, which Jay got pretty excited about. No briefing. Just off we go. What’s a waiver?

We crossed three small rivers to get to the mouth of the cave which was just pretty as you please, with cool crystal clear fresh water. The lighting through the trees gave the water a gorgeous translucent green color.

We strapped on our helmets and waded through neck-deep cold water for a few meters into the pitch black. If I’d had a hat and a stock whip, I would have felt like Indiana Fucking Jones.

We then followed in the footsteps of the great Mayans, scrambling over limestone rocks which were speckled with crystally flecks, shimmering under our headlights.

Every now and then our guide, Danny would stop and point out unusual rock formations, some of which had been altered to look like, or cast shadows of certain gods or animals…

He shared with us his comprehensive knowledge of the ceremonies that took place here. It was like a ‘living’ museum in that there were many remains of relics from the rituals. We saw skulls and bones which stone had ‘grown’ over (i think this is called calcification) and various pieces of ceramics and stoneware which had been utilized in the ceremonies.

The highlight of the tour was seeing the full skeleton of a teenage Mayan girl, who is known as the Crystal Maiden and who was sacrificed to the gods.

The whole experience was simply spectacular. I think one of the things that made it even more amazing for me was the thought that up until 1986, the cave had been undiscovered. Just call me Frontier Girl.

I met up with Jay and the two Carolines for a few drinks later that eve. I asked Smokey to deal a game of Blackjack for us, and he was happy oblige.

My ATM crew left the next morning for Flores. I met up with Smokey to visit a small but pretty local ruin at the top of the hill with amazing vistas; and then I spent the afternoon just chilling out.

On Saturday morning, I went to the markets with a bloke called Pices (or something like that). I had been under the impression it was was going to be this massive Mecca for artisans, but it was more like a farmer’s market. We had brekky and Pices told me his dreams of escaping to a big city. He wished it was him who was leaving, and me who was staying. I had enjoyed the little village of San Ignacio but I was glad that wasn’t the case.

I had spent 3 weeks in Belize and loved my time there. I would recommend it to anyone who wants something a little different (it’s a really multicultural country) but easy (everyone speaks English). The Caribbean coastline is just gorgeous. It’s warm all year round. You can have lobster for breakfast. The diving and snorkeling is stunning. It’s steeped in a really rich Mayan history. The people have a great sense of humor. And most importantly, the beer is cheap.

Having said all that, I was looking forward to getting my Guatemala on.

Islands in the stream

I met my hotel neighbors the next day, Jessica and Andy – two friends from the States, both teachers. Adventurous spirits with amicable demeanors. Jess was on a 5 week vacation, while Andy was also taking a sabbatical. We shared some laughs and a meal that night. As it turned out, they were also going to take the Raggamuffin sailing trip on Friday.

In the meantime – Nathan, who I’d met when he was interning with the Opera House had been in touch and was talking about linking up.

The trip was a 3 day island hopping tour all the way down to Placencia  with a crew of local reggae-loving lads. The tour would include various snorkeling stops and camping on remote cayes in the Caribbean.

There were 18 of us boarding a 50 foot yacht. It seemed really small for how many we were.

There was a Dutch couple. I had dived the Blue Hole with Peter: he was a little eccentric but completely likable & Lariesa, who was just a doll.
Kelly – a smart, sassy, well-travelled Canadian, who I took a real liking to, and her gorgeous Mexican beau, Santiago. Then there was Jess and Andy; me and Nathan – who had made it at the eleventh hour!

Also on the boat were a pair of Italian doctors on their honeymoon, who mostly kept to themselves. 5 private school boys on their gap year / bromance holiday, who were carrying with them a satellite phone and GPS system (maybe they had plans to go to the Antarctic after the Caribbean. Dunno.) Another pair of English lads, who played a lot of chess. And a rather uptight Irish girl who told me she didn’t like reggae and insisted I didn’t get any sand in the tent we were sharing. (Umm. Hello. We’re on a freaking island, love. Jesus wept.)

I had two Firsts that day: as I was boarding – the Captain asked me if I fancied a foursome. I just laughed. I was starting to realize that Belizean men will have a crack at anything that is female and remotely single. They’ve got a Beavis & Butthead sense of humor, are very cheeky, can handle a heckle back, and are in essence – absolutely harmless.

My second First for the day was at the initial snorkeling stop. Everyone was faffing about, so I jumped in and was half-way around the little round reef, when I saw a big flash of grey-white sea-animal swimming, maybe 5 meters away from me. A manatee! I screamed out to the others who were on the boat still.

I had hoped to see one, but didn’t think it was actually going to happen.
I’m normally a lot more respectful, but i got a little crazy curious and finned fast & furiously to get a closer look. I think I was scaring her a little, as she started speeding up and away. She had a bulbous body shaped a bit like a seal but around 2-3 times the size. She had a small whale-like tail, that reminded me of a mermaid. I didn’t catch a look at her face. I suddenly realized what I was doing and stopped pursuing her, and watched her glide gracefully off into the distance. I was absolutely thrilled as sightings of these strange creatures are quite rare. I petulantly wanted more.

We stopped that night an island called Rendezvous Caye (northern) but not before picking up a random who was out in the middle of nowhere on this big fuck-off boat with a bunch of chairs on it. Quite strange. He was wearing a bright orange life jacket and boardies. He was very happy to see us. He came with us to the island, opened the toilets for us, and took on the role of our security guard for the evening. Pirates, maybe?

Rendezvous was tiny. As in you could walk around it in 15 minutes tiny.  There was a jetty, two palapas, maybe a dozen coconut trees and that was it. Population: zero. We were all so thrilled to get there. There was a lot of squealing from us girls, and backslapping from the boys. I think we all felt like proper pioneers!

We set up our tents while the crew did their thing. Another snorkel and we were called for dinner, a simple but delicious meal of ceviche and jerk chicken with the omnipresent rice & beans. The fruity rum punch flowed, we all got rather pissed quickly and ended up falling into our beds before 10.

The crew of the boat were a real highlight for me:
Raf was our relaxed Captain, who was clearly very knowledgeable about the entire area we covered in our trip and had done this dozens of times before. He ran a pretty tight operation, all things considered. He told me at the end of the trip, he didn’t usually socialize as much as he had done with us.

There was Shane, who sported a massive smile on his dial, had the ohccent yah mohn, and loved a smoke but I’m not altogether confident he abided by the other laws of the Rastafarian religion though.

Jacob was my favorite. 24 and covered in an array of tatts including a couple of distinct ones on his biceps: Fuck U Haters; and Trust No Bitch. But he was a real example of never judge a hook by its cover. He nicknamed me Vegemite and we developed a playful brother-sister relationship, tormenting the shit out of one another the whole time.

He gave me a compliment which made me swell with pride when he told me I could skin dive better than some men he knew and that I could potentially become a good spear fisherwoman. He gave me a gun at one point, and told me to go out on my own – but I didn’t find a single fish. They must have known i was coming. There’s a part of me that quite likes the idea of catching my own dinner. I blame my Dad for that. He raised me a bit of a tomboy. Albeit one who likes getting a pedicure.

Our second day was much the same: sailing, sunning ourselves & snorkeling. That night we set up camp at a place called Tobacco Caye. This place had a lot more infrastructure. Enough for the 20 residents and a few visitors anyway. A couple of simple cabanas, a store, 2 bars, and a dive shop.

5 of us took the opportunity to dive with Eric, a quietly spoken man who showed us one of the most unvisited parts of the Reef. Sadly it wasn’t as fishy as I had hoped… There are a lot of lion fish down these parts… They’re an introduced species, who eat a lot of the local fish, but they have no natural predators of their own, down here. They mature within a 6 week period and are causing a lot of exponential damage to the Reef. We also saw a lot of pollution caused mostly by fertilizers. Algae is spreading, so visibility wasn’t so great. Having said that, I’ve never seen such lush underwater vegetation.

Afterwards, tired of the sickly sweet rum punch, we consumed many many Belekins at one of the bars close to our campsite and enjoyed another great dinner (curry shrimp) prepared by our trusty crew.

We later went and watched a Garifunan drumming session at the other bar, and danced with the locals under the light of a full moon. I shook what my mama gave me, while Nathan shook the maracas. The English lads let loose as well, busting out a few moves on the deck.

I laughed my arse off with the unassuming Jess who I diagnosed with a form of sex turrets: She would just very suddenly yell out something completely inappropriate as a response to anything that could be misinterpreted. Case in point: Eric was trying to describe the size of something (it was “Big.” “And Black.”) And Jess’ loud response was “What?” “A donkey dick?” The thing that got to me was she just didn’t seem the type. I loved the juxtaposition. I was doubled over, clutching my belly and crying with laughter. Meanwhile, I think Eric was a bit confused. I still have no idea what he was trying to describe.

I woke up the next day with an absolutely shocking hangover. I drank some water and immediately felt like throwing up. I stood up and immediately felt like throwing up. I sat down and immediately felt like throwing up. The wind was quite literally making my head hurt. The gorgeous Dutch girl gave me some ibroprofun. I tried eating breakfast and immediately felt like throwing up. This. Was. Not. Good. I had to get on a boat, for goodness sake. I went and saw the Captain and got some seasickness tablets. I went for a swim. About an hour later I stopped feeling like I would throw up. I spent the whole day out on the deck in the partial shade, snoozing and being quite unsociable.

We eventually arrived at Placencia (which I kept wanting to call Placenta) mid afternoon. We were all a wee bit weary and keen for a shower and a comfy bed with AC.

Peter, Lareisa, Jess, Andy, Santi, Kelly and Nathan and I all scored rooms at a nice hotel on the beach with a bunch of hammocks under a palapa. We spent the next day chilling out, chatting and planning the next legs of our individual trips. Well, they planned. I got as far as deciding between Honduras, Gautemala and Costa Rica.

On Tuesday, we said our goodbyes and went out separate ways. I missed the first Hokey Pokey Water Taxi because I had got chatting to some dude who had spent 7 years in jail for a murder he said he didn’t commit. I bought a book of his poetry. I ended up getting the midday boat. I was the only gringo in this dinky tinny of a thing that I kept thinking was going to sink. We motored up Mango Creek at breakneck speed with me beaming all the way.

I made my way to Sherl’s Diner where an old John Wayne western was on the telly. I ordered the pork stew and waited for the chicken bus to the Belmopan, Belize’s capital.

The bus took us through lush green rolling hills, spotted with shacks and houses in varying shades of pastel and varying degrees of dilapidation. The cute little kids with their cornrow hair stared at me the whole time on the bus. I amused myself by trying to get a smile out of them by pulling funny faces.

I picked up a connecting bus into San Ignacio which arrived just before dusk.

Wed 17 August

Don’t stop Belizing

Caye Caulker is small: about 8km long x 2km wide with a population of around 1300 people. You walk down the street once – you’ve just about covered the whole island and ‘lmost everyone knows who you are.

Here, they’re a mix of Mestizo, Garifuna and Creole people which makes for an interesting mix of looks, food, and talk. English is the official language but Kriol is spoken by roughly 70% of the people. It’s a fascinating language – a pidgin english with Caribbean influences, born in the times of slavery for the purposes of discreet communication. To my ear, I could hear Spanish and Afrikaans influences. It has a real poetic ghetto beat to it, and if you listen carefully, du con konprann wot di sahin moun (or something like that).

I loved it so much, I ended up staying nearly a week… there’s not a hell of a lot to do on Caye Caulker. But that’s the whole point.

It’s got one main strip with a few cafs, mini markets, shops and bars… It’s all dirt roads and most folk get around by bike or on foot. Hardly anyone wears shoes. There’s a couple of mopeds, golf carts and cars – but really, where’s to be in that much of a hurry?

When I wasn’t doing nothing, I was sharing stories with the locals. Belizeans, I have found to be very interested to know more about where you’re from, what your heritage is, a bit about your story and they’re open to sharing the same.

* * *

On the Wednesday, I dived the world-famous Great Blue Hole. A vertical cave near the middle of Lighthouse Reef, an atoll which lies about 70km from the mainland. It was brought to the world’s attention by my childhood crush, Jacques Costeau in 1971.

It’s nearly a perfect circle and is more than 300m across and 124m deep at its lowest point. It’s the depth that gives off the dark blue color you see in aerial photos of the site.

The trip out there took 2 hours on a much bigger boat than the one that took us out to the whale sharks, so it was a much more gentle ride. The boat had a mattress out on the front deck which I thought was quite amusing. The chillout zone perhaps? I was lying there for no more than a couple of minutes, enjoying the solitude when one of the DMs, Mr Nicaragua stopped by for a chat. Hmmm.

We got to the site, got our briefing and geared up. There are are a few different ledges in the hole at depths of 21, 49, and 91m. We descended against a wall towards the second one, getting to a depth of 40m in under 3 minutes, which is pretty quick-going and means you need to be able to equalize quickly.

The site was filled with these huge limestone stalactites dramatically descending from overhangs. We navigated around and through them while closely watching the most intimidating Caribbean Reef Sharks which were about 2-3m long, stalking through murky waters not far below. I’ve never seen sharks like these guys before. Most sharks I’ve come across are completely bored or very friendly. These sharks were circling, eyeing us off hungrily. I must admit, I was a bit scared.

To be honest, it wasn’t the fishiest or prettiest dive I’ve done… Deeper waters mean less light, less colours. The deeper you go, the less time you can spend underwater because you chew through your air.

But this overwhelming sense of how ancient and enormous the earth is, overcame me. I was awestruck. Suddenly i felt really small and childlike.

I found this on another site, which sums it up really well: “Hovering amongst the stalactites, you can’t help but feel humbled by the knowledge that the massive formation before you once stood high and dry above the surface of the sea eons ago. The feeling is enhanced by the dizzying effect of nitrogen breathed at depths. The water is motionless and the visibility often approaches 200 feet (60m) as you break a very noticeable thermocline.”

Before i knew it, our time was up, and we started ‘climbing’ the wall, ascending slowly. The dive had lasted no more than 30-something minutes.

Most times when you come up from an extraordinary (or even just great) dive, there’s a lot of excited chatter about who saw what and a bunch of questions to the DMs. It was strangely still on deck… I think most folk, myself included, were quietly recounting and storing in their minds what they had just witnessed… A polaroid development of a memory, if you will.

We did another 2 dives that day, one at Half Moon Caye and the other at The Aquarium at Long Caye – both were amazing but totally eclipsed by the magnitude of the first dive. I couldn’t even tell you what i saw. It was a long boat ride home with the two motors alternatively giving out, and the crew scrabbling around to fix them. A bunch of us laid out front on the mattress in the sun, sharing around the rum punch and a bit of banter.

That night I had drinks and dinner with Mr Nicaragua who had asked me out in between dives. I’m telling you, the blokes over here do not waste any time. He was my age, single enough, a good conversationalist and a lot of fun. We later went to the local reggae club which was playing dancehall and punta rock. A lot of fun. I ambled on home, kicking up the dirt and talking Spanish to stray dogs on the way. There was a part of me that was a little bit sad for some strange reason. I really can’t tell you why. It had been one of the best days of my life.

Wed 10 August

You can’t always get what you want

The following night, I linked up with Mr Belize. His brother and his sister-in-law, from Cayo, were visiting. They were up for a big night and I had a dive planned in a place called Shark-Ray Alley the next day, so I called it early.

The next morning, I used the coconut wire to tell Mr Belize to meet me at Hurricanes for lunch at 1. And went on to have another great splash about in the big drink. I saw my mate on my way back, and he confirmed Mr Belize would indeed, be meeting me.

I showered and went to the jetty bar for a Michelada and some ceviche. While waiting (Belizeans are even less concerned about time than Mexicans), I got talking to a lovely Polish lady who had been raised in Italy and lived the last few years in Belize. She was an English teacher. I have a feeling I will be in contact with her again.

I was headed to Caye Caulker that afternoon, a tiny island about 30mins away from San Pedro. Mr Belize offered to take me there on one of his mate’s boats. Sahweet! Russell was black as the ace of spades, sported a big gap between his two front tooth and wore his dreadlocks short and neat. He was from the dive shop I’d been out with, that same day, an outfit called DownUnder, which I thought was quite amusing. All the boys wore Australia tee shirts. I’d met them on day 1 and asked them if they were Aboriginals. They knew I was taking the piss immediately.

The boat comes around to collect me from my hotel’s jetty (which sounds a lot fancier than it really is). We go and collect the brother and sister-in-law and a ‘niece’. The boat stops about 1/2 way across, and we all jump out for a snorkel. Mr Belize catches a snapper with a spear, which I must admit, I found a bit sexy in a Mills & Boon kinda way.

We cruised into the lagoon called The Split at Caye Caulker, with a bar built over the point, and reggae was pumping out of a massive sound system. There was a mix of locals and tourists hanging out in the water, drinks in hand. A sweet smell of ganga perfumed the dusk air. We watched the sun set; i got eaten by mosquitoes; and Mr Belize decided he’d stay the night. He ended up staying two. Again I was lucky to jag the top floor of my hotel with sweeping views of the Reef. We scored a little Jamaican goodness and had a lovely couple of days, just lazing about the hotel, chatting, drinking, sleeping…

I feel compelled to let you know, that while this all sounds very romantic – I do feel a bit compromised.

You see, Mr Belize had come across to Caye Caulker, without his wallet. I had invited him to stay the night, knowing that in all likelihood, he wouldn’t be taking me out to dinner. Everybody here is just getting by. I had a great time, and got me a bit of much needed lovin-  but in retrospect, there’s a part of me that feels like a rather silly gringo girl. Okay, so he cost me a total of $50, mas o menos… It’s nothing to write home about, in the grand scheme of things. However, there’s a part if me which feels like I just participated in a transaction of the oldest kind.

They call these guys, ‘sharks’ here. A lot of them don’t have regular work, if indeed they work at all. They cruise the tourist bars, making the lonely, old or ugly feel desirable. In return, they might get dinner, drinks or at the very worse, *just sex*. And they’re good at their jobs.

At the end of the day, I don’t have any fanciful ideas of having an enduring relationship with a boy I met in Belize in a bar. But do I want to pay for a fling? I suppose that even if it’s not cash – there’s always a cost of some sort, isn’t there?

Am starting to sound like Carrie Bradshaw, so will stop now. But I am interested to know what you think. Hit me up with a comment, a judgment, a story or a bit of advice.

Mon 8 August

Three little birds

Belize welcomed me with a big shiny white toothed grin and a proper Caribbean accent, mohn.

I’ve crossed borders where I didn’t have the right paperwork, I’ve crossed borders where no one can speak a word of English, I’ve crossed borders with machine guns pointed at me. Crossing into the Czech Republic from Poland, 13 years ago- it was all three.

I made a deal with myself once, that I would never cross a border at night.
And so of course, crossing the border from Mexico to Belize happened at night.

Anything to declare? A bottle of vodka and an apple. You’re fine to go through, Miss. Welcome to Belize.

Right then.

I spent the first two nights in a place called Corozal. I rocked up to the Sea Breeze Hotel, and was welcomed by Gwyn. The Lonely Planet describes his place “as reminiscent of the kind of cheap and pleasant Key West hotel where Ernest Hemingway might have spent his last years.” The Welsh innkeeper, who used to be a tour manager for The Who and had toured with Queen, instructed me to dump my bags, and come to the bar – we would sort out paperwork in the morning. There were 7 people seated on stools around the bar, where talk was pattering between places, philosophy and the deeply personal.
After a few drinks, a very sweet older American couple drove me around the corner so I could get some Belizean dollars and a feed. We chatted over various meals made from pork, and then they drove me home. I was beat.
I spent the next morning strolling around the sleepy little seaside village with it’s sporadically set out marketplace, a few dinky shops and a couple of quiet restaurants. Not much happening in this here lil place.
I spent the afternoon writing, drinking and sharing easy chat with a well travelled English couple, while avoiding a maybe mad, maybe alcoholic older dude who wanted to talk AT me about union strikes, his family tartan and all manner of things I wasn’t particularly interested in. I had to blank him after he told me to google a religious site.
That night I had dinner with Angelo & Kirsty, and a beautiful interesting older gentle man called Mike, who quietly shared snippets of his life with a self deprecating sense of humor: his divorce, his path from rich to poor, his successful career, his acid taking days, his journey in and out of depression… I could have talked with him forever.
The next morning, Gwyn put on a pot of coffee. He necked a clove of garlic, and then took me to the ferry.

The ride to Caye Ambergris was 2 hours and gentle enough for me to snooze.
I arrived at San Pedro and asked for a room at Ruby’s on the Beach, a very simple wooden guesthouse, not dissimilar to a Queenslander, with sweeping views of the Barrier Reef.
I was immediately transported. A completely different Caribbean from the one I’d just left. More Rastas, reggae and reefers than I’ve ever seen in one place for starters.

My hotel neighbor, Kevin from LA was a highly strung ex alcy who thought too much about everything, offered too much information, asked no questions, and was of the view, he knew all he needed to know about a place after a mere 3 days. He was a high school teacher, who’d completed his Masters in Behavioral Psychology. After doing 2 years of psych at uni, I can categorically tell you empiracle studies have proven that 98.72% of people who undertake studies in psychology are absolute fucking nutbags. I later had an early afternoon dinner with Kevin. He wasn’t altogether uninteresting.

The next morning, I did a couple of dives on the Belizean Barrier Reef, which is home to more than 100 different types of coral and more than 500 different kinds of fish. And the scientists reckon they only know about 10% of what’s out there. Scientists also say that around 40% of the reef is damaged by bleaching, which is caused by rising sea temps. And i saw it with my own eyes.
The exact same thing is happening in Australia. I don’t know about you, and at the risk of sounding like a bourgeois-fucking-hippy, my religion (if i have one at all) is pure immersion into an underwater world, watching the sun explode into a million versions of red, and dancing to a full moon in a faraway forest… I like Nature. She’s pretty. And she makes me feel good. And I want my kids and your kids to see stuff made by Nature. Climate change is real. I should be doing more. We all should.
So it was shallow diving in warm, crystal clear tropical waters – the DM was movin at Belizean pace. Firsts included no wetsuit of any kind, a Spotted Eagle Ray (majestic), a 1:1 dive, and a hooked angle grinder shaped fish, whose name I will remember at 3.33am tomorrow. And then there were the usual suspects of sharks, rays, and ridiculous numbers of brightly colored, “ooh look at me… I’m so pretttteeyyy!!!” tropical fish. Anyways, suffice to say, it was everything you’d want your first dive at one of the world’s most incredible dive sites to be.

We were done by mid morning, so I went and had a second breakfast, and spent the day just mooching about the tiny town. I got my haircut (AUD$10!) and my nails done and treated myself to a new dress and a new pair of pretty panties. Do I miss Westfields Bondi Junction. Fuck no. Do I miss a bit of pampering and a damn good buy. Shit, yes.

Later, as i was having a Belikin at one of the communal wooden tables on the balcony of my hotel… A tall handsome black Belizean man stopped by for a hello. We chatted for a few minutes before I invited him to sit with me. Mr Belize was articulate and spoke in a soft brown velvety voice. At age 32, the youngest boy in a family of 8, he had lived a while in in Los Angeles, and harbored dreams of building a sophisticated camp site on his granddaddy’s land, where he grew up – a place near Crooked Tree. Coincidentally (?) he was a Dive Master at the shop I had dived with, that morning.

He offered to take me around in a boat to a reggae bar by the lagoon, to watch the sunset on the other side of the Caye. The Eat Pray Love chick would say, “some opportunities only come once, right?”. And as much as I loathe saying so, she’d be right.

The bar was perched precariously over the water, thatched roof, simple log stools, music blaring out of a massive sound system. The Belizean flag, a picture of Bob Marley and one of Che Guevara adorned the back wall of the bar where tequila had been replaced by rum. We smoked a spliff with the bartender, and watched alligators bubble up and then bubble back below the water’s surface.

We stayed for the sunset and a second drink and then headed back. Mr Belize wanted to take me to the Chicken Drop. A weekly event on the social calendar, this Belizean form of bingo featuring a chicken who has been primed for pooping, is dropped (kindly) into a pen which has a bunch of numbers of the ground. Tickets are sold for the corresponding numbers, and well – you get the idea.

It was a fun night. I met some of his mates & we shared a few drinks and laughs. I bought a strip of tickets, and a few games later, my number came up! I shared the winnings of BZD$100 with another gringo and the winnings more or less paid for our entire nite. (If I ever run out of things to write about, you can remind me of this potential post, “Why men from tourist towns never seem to have any money, and why women are prepared to pay.”)

We grabbed a burrito in the market square where kids were still up playing. And then he walked me home.

Black men have got THE best lips. That’s all I’m saying.

Fri 5 August