Fresh off my jaunty crossing of the border from Guatemala, I looked around and noticed that Belize differs from Guatemala and Mexico in a few important ways. For one, it’s kinda expensive. A taxi driver was trying to convince me to lay down $25 for a ride to San Ignacio, after I’d just paid a tiny fraction of that to cross an entire country.
“Don’t listen to him!” a short, extremely pregnant Belizean woman interrupted my bemused negotiation. “That’s too much! Come with us.”
And so suddenly I was walking with three women across the parking lot and climbing into the world’s most utterly beat to shit RAV4.
“That guy was trying to rip you off!”
I laughed loudly, on the inside. I always manage to pack an insane amount of experiences into my trips, and after fitting together the jigsaw puzzle planning of this trip, I realized it was my masterpiece. Three countries in nine days, including flights, and I wasn’t leaving out anything I wanted to do. The only weak spots where my wax wings might melt and send me plummeting to my death were these weird little transitions where it wasn’t 100% clear how I was going to get from point A to point B. Now I knew how. Pregnant Belizeans will get me there. Someone was looking out for me.
We pulled away from the border and onto the highway. The landscape was gorgeous, showcasing Belize’s bizarre mix of Central America and the Caribbean.
The pregnant woman, who spoke in an odd, cute squeaky voice that I soon learned was common in Belize, introduced me to her two friends. The woman in the passenger seat said hello, and then the driver, a heavyset Caribbean woman, said something I didn’t understand at all. Uh-oh.
My brain shifted through gears noisily like someone driving a stickshift for the first time.
Was- Did- Nope, still didn’t understand her. That wasn’t English or Spanish. What the hell?
Thankfully the passenger translated for her and I didn’t get thrown out of the car for rudeness. And this was my introduction to Belizean creole, a language known helpfully as Belize Kriol.
You can sort of understand Kriol if you really listen, as it’s a mix of heavily-accented English thrown together with the native Central American language Miskito and various West African languages. But you have to listen pretty hard and any attempt to speak it myself was unquestionably going to get me shot.
The ladies conveniently lived in San Ignacio, which was where I was headed, and they were gracious enough to drive me all the way to my hostel. Man, talk about a great introduction to Belize!
On the way we stopped and picked up two of the women’s children from elementary school. They sat on their mothers’ laps and gave updates about their day like there wasn’t a strange tall white guy in the car for no discernable reason at all. I still love how these kids unflinchingly accepted that I was apparently a part of the family now.
Checking into my hostel was hilarious. How many people tried to sell me weed in Belize? All of them. How many of those people worked in the hostel where I was staying? Many.
“You can only smoke on these two floors.
I mean… cigarettes? You can smoke cigarettes anywhere. But you can only smoke weed on these two floors. If you need weed, let me know.”
I loved everyone I met in Belize. I held the door for a guy using the ATM in front of me and after an extremely polite “Thank you, sir!” he pointed at the ATM, smiled and said “Don’t take it all!”
I had a brief fantasy about walking to some Mayan ruins outside of town before I remembered that I had been hiking around in the annihilating heat since my 2am Tikal wake-up call and really should get some dinner in me before I inevitably passed out on a street corner somewhere.
After an uneventful taco dinner, I walked all the way to an extremely unlikely vegan ice cream shop on the far, far side of town. Both the walk there and the walk back involved passing through some sketchy neighborhoods that I did not care about at all because on the way there I was about to get some miraculous vegan ice cream in the zillion degree heat and on the way back I had just eaten a peppermint cone, a sundae and an Oreo Blizzard in quick succession, to the great amusement of the friendly guy running the shop.
Some combination of dehydration and the blinding heat inspired me to buy water, Gatorade AND 7-Up all during my walk back to the hostel, my brain refusing to turn down any liquids that crossed my field of vision, or anything at all that I had seen on a billboard during my parched ride from the border.
“Jesus, Sean, how many of these terrible Belize puns are you gonna make us read?”
How high do numbers go?
I was standing in front of my hostel in the early morning light when a dude rolled up, said “ATM Cave?” and suddenly I was in his van with six loud American women and a girl from Germany. The Americans were traveling to celebrate their friend’s 40th birthday, and most of them had never been outside of the US before. The German girl was there because I’m required by law to befriend a German girl on every trip I take.
Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM, translation: “The Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre”) is a cave system in Belize that was sacred to the ancient Mayans, who viewed it as an entrance to the spiritual underworld. Belize has opened the caves to tourism, which gives you the adventurous opportunity to swim, climb and stumble through the massive, dark caverns, being careful not to step on any of the crystalized skeletons of ancient human sacrifice victims that still litter the cave floor.
Unfortunately for you, the reader of this blog, one clod in 2012 tripped and dropped his camera on one of the skulls, knocking a hole in it and leading to a total ban on phones and cameras within the cave. You can’t even bring a phone/camera on the miles-long hike to get to the cave itself, which means I have no pictures at all from this entire day. Consider this an opportunity to use the wondrous theater of your imagination and probably some photos I’m going to steal from Wikipedia.
After driving for over an hour out of San Ignacio, we left the van behind and hiked off into the jungle. The highlights of the hike were the two rivers we had to wade through on the way to the cave. The first river was chin-deep on me, so the shorter girls had to swim. We were halfway across when our guide casually mentioned that there were crocodiles in the river. The river water was bracingly cold but this is balanced out nicely if you suddenly piss yourself.
Apparently crocodiles aren’t that interested in eating people, or at least that’s what we were told and chose to believe, as any other reality would be terrible news for us in that scenario. We didn’t see any crocodiles, but you wouldn’t, would you?. . .
My relationship with water has been a little strange these last several years. Over a decade ago, I very nearly drowned while swimming in a lake in Northern Minnesota. I’m a competent but not masterful swimmer, not having learned to swim until well into my teenage years. There was no real dramatic reason for that delay, I just didn’t grow up in a big swimming family and it didn’t come up very often. But by adulthood I could successfully not drown on command, so I figured I was set for life.
Then one night, I found myself floating on my back in the middle of a lake in Northern Minnesota, enjoying the stars with my girlfriend Hallie and my friend Scott. The truly awful small-town restaurant dinner we’d had a couple of hours earlier turned uncomfortably in my stomach. Ugh. Next time I should get the- Suddenly my stomach cramped violently, folding my body in half and yanking me underwater.
I gasped involuntarily in shock, inhaling a large quantity of lake water. All of a sudden I was under the surface, my lungs were full of water, and that awful dinner was on its way out, all at the same time. I fought my way to the surface, gasping and purging as my stomach twisted wrenchingly. I was pulled underwater again in another convulsion.
Oh shit. This is getting really serious really quickly.
As I fought a losing battle to stay afloat, I looked around frantically and spotted a wooden raft in the center of the lake. I need to get to that thing as fast as I can, while I still can.
And then both of my legs cramped up at the same time.
This is both blindingly painful and completely unfair. My legs were suddenly dead weight that were beyond useless for swimming. I began to fight my way toward the raft, doing something that could perhaps charitably be called “swimming” with just my arms, my spasming body in a completely inadvisable doubled-over-in-pain swimming position.
This is, shockingly, not the way to cut through the water with speed and grace. I was making slow progress toward the raft, but I was sinking faster than I was moving forward. The raft seemed to get further and further away as I frantically limped along in some kind of half-assed side stroke. A giant hand seemed to be trying to pull me straight down into the black water, I was losing this fight and I was quickly growing completely exhausted.
About half-way to the raft, I realized I was going to drown. I remember being more angry than frightened, as my general philosophy in life since childhood has always been “I don’t care how I die, as long as I don’t drown.” And yet here I was. I had one job in life, to not drown, and I had somehow completely fucked it up. It was too late to go back and make a different choice.
Pulling from some deep inner reserve of “goddammit this would be a stupid end to my life story,” I managed to drag my body the rest of the way through the water to the raft, clinging on the very edge of losing consciousness. Oh my God, I can’t believe I made it. I reached up with the last ounce of willpower I had left— and couldn’t quite reach the lip of the raft. My hand slapped against the vertical side and slid down as I plummeted straight down into the dark lake. I let out a small “help!” right before my head dunked under the water and everything went black.
This would be an incredible moment of suspense if I hadn’t obviously survived to live the rest of my life and write this blog. Unless we’re all dead. Wouldn’t that be crazy? Hmmm. Anyway, unless everything since then has been a Jacob’s Ladder dream (which would explain a few things), Hallie luckily heard me and pulled me out of the lake. I think this means I’m supposed to be her butler forever to pay her back for saving my life, so nobody tell her that.
Understandably, I kind of avoided the water after this. For a very long time. Not even consciously, it’s not like I live on a houseboat or anything where this would come up a lot, so for me avoiding the water just meant not going out of my way to go get into the water. It never came up.
It’s kind of funny to realize it now, but I think climbing into the Kow Ata underground lake deep inside the bat cave in Turkmenistan last year was my first time getting into the water in 15 years, since the near-drowning. Maybe I’m forgetting something, but aside from wading knee-deep into the ocean, floating in a sensory deprivation pod or standing in a pool, I think that really was it. Crazy.
That means my second time was plunging into the shark cage in Australia last fall. Ha ha, way to ease back into it.. . .
And so here’s why I’m telling this story. Exploring the ATM Cave in Belize requires you to swim across a small lake at the entrance to the cave. With all your clothes on. It’s not a big lake, but you can’t fake your way across it, you have to be able to swim. I can still swim, right?
I’ve been in the water several times in the past year, but there’s always been a caveat. I never ventured any deeper than I could stand up in the bat cave lake. I had scuba gear on in the shark cage, so I didn’t really need to swim. Spelunking through the caves in New Zealand, I was wearing a wetsuit that made me more buoyant than normal. But now I had none of that.
When I booked the cave tour, I had figured the lake would be about four feet deep, and I didn’t give it much thought since the very next day I was going to be snorkeling in the ocean, a much more daunting prospect. But now I was at the cave and the lake was too deep to walk through. Shit. Here goes nothing.
I pushed off from the shore and instantly, that huge hand was pulling me straight down again. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea! I didn’t think I could do a full crawl stroke wearing shoes and the ill-advised waterproof backpack I had brought so that I could have water and a snack during our full day in the cave. And so I was attempting a breast stroke, which in that moment I realized I had never actually done before.
Don’t human bodies float? I should be able to just relax, I’m probably only being dragged down to my doom because I’m too tense. I relaxed and instantly dunked straight down into the lake. Nope! Shit shit shit. I began to breast stroke as hard as I could, which got me across the lake with an agonizing slowness, my mouth juuuuuust barely skimming above the surface. By the time I crawled out of the water on the opposite side, my heart was pounding so loud I was convinced other people could hear it.
Whew. Okay, well I never have to do that again if I don’t want to. Except… shit I’ll have to swim across that lake again to get back out. Best to not think about that now.
Inside, the cave was dark, beautiful, and treacherous. Half the time we were wading through chest-deep water, stumbling across the uneven rocks and boulders in the black beneath our feet. When we weren’t in the water we were scrambling up slimy rocks higher and higher and being careful not to touch any of the beautiful stalactites or the ornate cave bacon formed by millions of years of flowing water.
One of the American women was working her way through some intense claustrophobia and I was impressed with her for taking this leap. Some of the rock corridors we were squeezing through in the dark were so tight they made me wish I had left my little dry bag outside the cave.
A few out-of-place natural oddities really stood out. One was a huge crab peering at us from a crack in the walls, deep within the cave. Another were the green sprouts of brand new plants growing out of the cave floor, which practically glowed fluorescent in our headlamps, deposited by bats and growing in the utter pitch black, purely from the fuel contained within their seeds.
Deeper within the caves we began to encounter the stalagmites and rock formations that seemed to form cartoonish faces. These seemed to be just tricks of the imagination until we came across more and more that had obviously been carved by the Maya into human forms. In other spots, a normal-looking rock pillar would be revealed to be a work of art when you shined your headlamp on it and it cast the perfect shadow of a Mayan priest or a woman.
Our guide was a Mayan descendant himself and a highly-educated student of ancient cultures who gave tours when he wasn’t working at his day job mapping the unexplored portions of the cave as part of a university research project. He told us stories of the ancient Maya venturing into these caves with torches, and what kind of surreal, otherworldly scene this must have been for them, flickering in the torch light. As a journey into the fearful underworld of the gods, Xibalba, the fact that they were also high out of their minds on hallucinogenic drugs hardly even seemed necessary.
One huge, open cavern deep within the cave felt especially important, practically an amphitheater for sacred rituals. And it was here that the occasional shards of broken pottery, shattered as an offering to the gods, a pleading to end the drought that was tearing Mayan society apart, became more and more frequent and then the bodies began.
First an arm bone here and some finger bones there. Then a skull. Then, the recognizable contours of an entire body.
“You can tell from the elongated skull that this guy was royalty. He was likely the captured king of a neighboring city, dragged deep into the cave here and decapitated in a lofty sacrifice to the gods.”
There were more. A woman. A young boy. The eeriness of finding human remains was made even stranger by realizing that these bodies had been here, in exactly the position they fell, for over a thousand years. The awkward contortions of the skeletons made it seem like they should have crime scene tape around them. Somebody cut this boy’s head off, and then just bounced. And then a thousand years passed.
Off the main trails there were huge middens of bones, piles and piles of the bones of infants. It was darkly fascinating to wonder at the hierarchy of sacrifice that existed in the minds of the Mayans. Who was worth more to the gods? Mayan kings were considered gods in and of themselves, so sacrificing a neighboring town’s king was obviously a big deal. But how did the ranking go below them? Is a man worth more than a woman to the gods? A boy more than a man? He’s accomplished less, but has more life ahead of him, is that the greater sacrifice? And does a baby top them all?
A janky-looking and slightly terrifying ladder leads you up into a higher chamber and the main attraction of the tour: The Crystal Maiden. This is a perfectly-preserved skeleton sprawled on the cave floor, which has become encrusted with calcite and now sparkles in the lamplight. Somewhat inconveniently, the maiden was recently discovered to actually be the body of a teenaged boy.
Regardless, it’s an eerie sight. A line on the “Maiden”’s skull marks the upper limit of the waters that regularly flood these caves during the wet season. Wow, we’re way up here. It’s hard to believe that much water flows through these caves. Now, the perfectly round sockets way up in the ceiling, carved by rocks floating in the swirling floodwaters, make more sense. Our guide told me that they can’t do tours during the wet season, because the entire route we hiked in on is underwater.
Having visited a lot of different Mayan sites within the past year, I was able to keep up a pretty good conversation with our guide about Mayan times. He explained that the incredibly ornate carved stele I had seen in Copan were there because Copan was a center for the arts, whereas other cities were known more for accomplished warriors, etc. We talked about the desperate end of the Mayan civilization, theorized to have been caused by shifting weather patterns that led to large-scale drought, which pushed the leaders to perform more and more elaborate rituals, more and more costly sacrifices, in an effort both to appease the gods but also to keep the population believing in their leaders and shamans. Eventually, even this was not enough.
We talked for the whole climb back through the cave. He told me harrowing stories of spending weeks inside these caves mapping the interiors, sleeping inside, as it would take too long to go back and forth to the outside world every day. A friend he was exploring with once fell through a weak cave floor into a chamber far below, miraculously surviving.
We turned a corner and goddammit, there’s that lake again. I had secretly hoped we would somehow be taking a different route to get back out, or that the lake would have gotten tired of waiting for me and left. I enviously watched my new friends gracefully swimming across the lake like they could do this in their sleep. I walked to the furthest point I could along the rocks, took a deep breath, and pushed off into the water.
The hand. Dragging me straight down. Dammit dammit dammit. Okay, I already did this once, just do that same thing again and survive. The pace of my progress seemed to be in direct mockery of how hard I was swimming. Slowly, slowly, slowly, I motored across the water, my heart pounding. And then it was over. Whew.
After hiking back through the jungle and wading across the two rivers, we stopped for lunch. They had forgotten to pack a vegan lunch for me, but we made it work. The group had caught on to my travels by now and I was pelted with questions about where I was going next and what was the best way to do this or that. I was really happy to see the women who were on their first trip outside of America, watching as it dawned on them that the rest of the world isn’t like it is on the news. Welcome to the other side of the bubble!
I said goodbye to these new friends one by one as they were dropped off on the long drive back into San Ignacio. I wished my new German friend good luck on her year-long odyssey across the world, and then it was just me and the tour guide. He was asking me for payment, which was weird since I had booked and paid online already. He didn’t seem to believe me and accompanied me back to my hostel to talk to the guy there. Hmmm.
After much confusion and these two guys talking back and forth in Kriol I could only partially understand, the problem became clear: I wasn’t even supposed to be on this tour. Ha! Someone else at my hostel had booked a different ATM Cave tour for that same day, and we had each gone with the other’s group on accident. I found this kind of hilarious and wondered if I had just been meant to be with those specific people on some level. At least it explained why there was no vegan lunch. The hostel guy agreed to track down the dude who had gone on my already-paid-for tour and I was free to jog over to the bus stop to catch my chicken bus to the zoo.
Easily the most fascinating thing about travel is how it changes you, and I was seeing this happen in real-time. A year ago, I found Central America completely intimidating. Can you even go there if you don’t speak great Spanish? How do you get around? What about crime? Aren’t the cops corrupt? Don’t the buses crash all the time? It seemed like a place where I’d get eaten alive.
Years ago, my brother drove a car all the way through Central America for someone who hired him over Craigslist. This had seemed unfathomable and mystical to me. You’re living On the Road! He hadn’t read On the Road. Of course.
Nothing has forced me to grow faster than confronting the things that scare me, and so last November I took off for Honduras. But even on that trip, I had been afraid to ride the chicken buses, the ultra-cheap transportation the locals use, as much as they fascinated me. The potential for robbery or other disaster seemed too high.
Now I was mapping out my own path across Central America, and the “safer” transportation options just didn’t exist where I was traveling. Thankfully with experience I’d grown more comfortable, and now I was excited to give these buses a go.
Named after the likelihood that you’ll be sharing your seat with a chicken, these are former US school buses that have been repurposed as a popular (and cheap) form of public transportation all through Central America. The bus to Belize City pulled up and I climbed on.
Huh. Kinda hard to pay the driver when he’s not even on the bus. Where did he go? Oh well. I made my way to a seat near the back of the bus. The seats were still child-sized, but no one seemed to really mind.
Eventually the driver returned and we were off. Music started up immediately and I couldn’t tell if the bus had a sound system or if someone was just playing their own boom box. The atmosphere was festive and the passengers were a real slice of Belizean life, spanning all ages and demographics.
Sadly, there were no chickens on this bus, but there was a dog sitting in the seat behind me.
So, do we pay when we get off? Some people disembarked at the first stop, but they didn’t stop to pay anyone. Is this bus just free? This is crazy. I was concerned that the confused look on my face would inspire some random entrepreneur to ask me for my fare, knowing I had no idea if this was how it worked or not.
Approximately 20 minutes into the ride, a large Belizean woman I came to know as the Bus Mama came down the aisle, collecting fares like a train conductor. I told her I was going to the Belize Zoo and she did a quick mental calculation before asking me for $3.
The drunk guys behind me flirted loudly with Bus Mama, who was having none of this at all. Some guy got on the bus and was soliciting for a sketchy-sounding children’s charity, and I was relieved that he didn’t corner me at any point about this.
We rolled down the highway, stopping at improbable spots much like how the colectivo van in Guatemala had. I gradually figured out that the music was actually being played by the driver, over the bus’s own sound system. I don’t remember my bus in grade school having tunes. I laughed out loud when the festive Caribbean/Spanish dance music was suddenly interrupted by Lionel Richie’s Stuck on You.
“Stuck on you… I’ve got this feeling deep down in my soul that I just can’t lose… Guess I’m on my way…”
I will never, ever be able to hear this song again without it bringing me back to that Belizean chicken bus.
After a rambling trip through the capital city of Belmopan, we were back out on the open highway. I had asked the Bus Mama if she could have the driver stop at the Zoo for me, since it wasn’t a regular stop on the bus route.
“You want the Zoo, or the Education Center?” she asked.
Oh shit. I have no idea. It doesn’t sound like they’re right next to each other.
When I was planning this trip, I badly wanted to visit the Belize Zoo, as it consists entirely of animals from Belize and does tons of work to educate the locals and improve the treatment of wild animals. But it’s also hell and gone from Belize City, and there was no way to flex my itinerary to get there during the hours when the zoo was open. Just for shits I had contacted the zoo, and it turned out that if I made a donation, the zookeepers would give me a night tour and I could sleep in a cabin there at the zoo itself. The night tour I did at Bonorong in Tasmania is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, so I couldn’t say yes to this fast enough.
I just had to find my way there. I vaguely remembered the zoo lady saying something about the TEC (was that the Tropical Education Center?) so I told the Bus Mama that’s where I was going.
It was dark by the time I got the nod that my stop was approaching. I thanked Bus Mama and the driver and hopped off, the bus not quite stopping before continuing on its way up the highway. Goodbye chicken bus. I regret not taking a photo of you.
I started up the road, which was tarnished neither by lights, pavement, signs nor any indication that this was the road to the zoo or that there was anything here except a dark expanse of Belizean night. Hmmm. I really hope I picked the right option. I was also desperately late. The bus had stopped a lot.
I walked up the dark road, admiring the dim outlines of the trees I could see in the moonlight. This went on for a worryingly long time as I walked at least a mile with no indication that I wasn’t just lost in the middle of nowhere in Belize now.
Eventually, I passed a cabin. Oh good. I think? Maybe that’s where I’m sleeping. Then a sign for an office. Cool. Except, this place is entirely deserted. Well, they know I’m coming. I mean, if I’m in the right place at all.
I passed several closed buildings. A young Belizean man passed me on the path and nodded politely. Uhm… okay. Eventually I found a large cafeteria building and wandered in. A man inside greeted me.
“Oh, you’re Sean! Cool. Yeah man, I’ll give you a ride over to the zoo.”
My greatest weakness as a travel writer is that I am terrible with names. It leaves the impression that the people I met were unimportant to me, which is far from true. I’m usually tuning into someone’s vibe and a hundred other subtle things about them when we first meet, which is completely the wrong mental space to be in to have any chance of remembering the name they just told you.
That’s just a preface for me saying I can’t believe I can’t remember the name of the zoo’s night watchman, because he was completely awesome and my favorite person I met in all of Belize. I should just make up a name for him so I don’t sound like an asshole. Eddie? Fine. On the way to the zoo, Eddie asked me about my trip and it turned out he had visited several of the places I had just been to and we had even stayed in the same hostels.
Eddie introduced me to the two zoo keepers, and you’re hilarious if you think I’m going to remember either of their names. In a flash we were off making the rounds, feeding all of the nocturnal animals in the zoo. This was completely fantastic.
Our first stop was the tapirs, which coincidentally were the animals I most wanted to see.
Tapirs are an often-misunderstood animal. I actually saw something relatively official online today that said they’re rodents, which, no. They’re related to horses and rhinos, and live their lives sort of like hippos, walking around in rivers and using their long, prehensile snouts like snorkels. Belizean folklore has it that tapirs are man-eaters, capable of stripping a man’s skin off with their snout. Which is hilarious and sort of equivalent to being afraid of a sloth or a deer. The Belize Zoo was privately founded to rehabilitate injured animals and to educate the public about things like not shooting big, docile herbivores because you think they’re going to eat your kids.
Tapirs are known locally as “mountain cows,” which is awesome. I love Belizean names for things. They call howler monkeys “baboons,” just because.
Tapirs are shy, and the first one we tried to feed couldn’t be assed. The second one did come over to say hello.
I didn’t get a good photo of the tapirs because I was too busy petting them with one hand and feeding them carrots with the other. The tapirs were amazingly sweet, their open, eager faces greeting you with complete warmth. I absolutely loved all the tapirs. After I’d fed several of them, the zookeepers suggested I save some carrots for the other animals.
Like this beautiful deer.
Quickly we were tossing hunks of pork to this incredible puma. Being inches away from such an intimidating animal was unnerving and wonderful.
Have you lived before you’ve tossed hunks of pork at a crocodile? It’s debatable.
We made the rounds, feeding small wild cats like ocelots and margays, and large jungle rodents called gibnuts.
The most impressive of all was the jaguar, both for being a jaguar and because he would do somersaults just for the hell of it.
Utterly adorable was this nocturnal Kinkajou, known locally as a “night walker,” which looks like a cross between a lemur and a loris but is actually related to the coatimundi and which loves cut up bananas.
All right, fuck all you other guys. The pigmy owl is here to tell you all to be cuter.
Seriously, this guy is the size of a baseball. All other animals give up already.
In the trees all around us, tree frogs made improbable bass drone noises that you would never identify as coming from a tiny frog.
Inside, I was introduced to the deadly fer-de-lance snake and a friendly boa constrictor.
I thanked the zookeepers and wished them a good night. Eddie was waiting for me outside. He drove me back to the TEC and made me a wonderful late-night vegan dinner, just because Belizeans are amazing.
I was telling him about my plan to catch the chicken bus to Belize City at 4am the next morning, so I could get on the morning water taxi out to Caye Caulker. This was going to involve waiting by the side of the road in the dark for a bus that may or may not come, and was the last of the “might get totally dicked up and leave me for dead” question marks on my overall itinerary. But all the other ones had either gone fine or been superseded by even better options that came up on the fly, so I wasn’t too worried about it.
“Actually, let me check on something for you,” Eddie suggested. “We’ve got a class going to Caye Caulker on a field trip tomorrow morning, I’ll ask the teacher if she’d mind if you rode along.”
She didn’t mind at all, and that’s how I ended up traveling the rest of the way across Belize in a van full of kids on a field trip. Life is crazy.
The island of Caye Caulker’s official slogan is “Slow The Fuck Down, Sean.” This is a little confusing for everyone not named Sean, but they eventually figure it out.
This seems, at first, to be a sound bit of advice. You’re on a Caribbean island for crying out loud! Take a break from working on your heart attack and smell the roses. We don’t actually have roses, mind you, being that this is a tropical island, but smell one of the overflowing garbage cans or something. White people! I swear.
Any time your gait rises above “old man at the bottom of a pool” speed, you’ll get called out for it by strangers on the street. “Go slow!”
After a day or two on the island, though, you realize the slogan really means “Slow down so we can sell you more shit.” Every person you pass is trying to sign you up for a tour or rope you into their bar or restaurant or souvenir shop. Walking at a normal human clip makes it far too easy for you to escape these situations. It’s a tourism strategy, not so much a charming local way of life.
Which is fine. This is the reality in any heavily-touristed place you’re going to visit, and the locals gotta eat. I was still charmed by the tiny island and its many friendly dogs.
And just in case you were worried I was the first person to think of any of these Belize puns, heartbreakingly, I was not.
I have to know, what can you buy at the No No Store? Sounds naughty.
But how can you really complain when you’re in a place where your $15 hostel is right on the beach and your to-do list involves mostly hammock-based activities?
I felt bad that the only other person in the mixed-gender dorm room where I was sleeping was a very young American girl. Man, this has got to be weird for her, sleeping alone in a room in a foreign country with a strange guy, just having to trust that I’m not Ted Bundy. Or Al Bundy. I did what I could to demonstrate my non-threateningness and to put her mind at ease.
Her first words to me in the morning: “Could you put some aloe on my back? I’ve got a really bad sunburn.”
Okay yeah she’s not worried about me at all, I can stop feeling bad for her. You’re either a great judge of character or you need to work on your street-smarts, girl.
I was sitting on the beach when a local woman came up to me.
“Hey, lemmie braid ya hair baby.”
Oh man, if I had a dime for every time some stranger offered to give me cornrows. As much as that’s the look I want to go for at my new job I had to turn her down, as I was about to climb onto a boat for a day of snorkeling over the largest coral reef in the world.
The Trojan horse that roped me into possibly drowning in the ocean was the manatee. How could I not get in the water and miss the opportunity to get face to face with a goddamned manatee? I can’t. My cousins and I have been cracking jokes from Jim Gaffigan’s “I Don’t Think I’m Anything” manatee sketch from Dr Katz ever since I was in high school. And, I mean, it’s a manatee! So… I just can’t.
And they say everybody floats in the ocean, so, how hard can it be?
My boat consisted of an avid snorkeling/scuba-ing American couple on a year-long world trip, a funny couple from Florida who had never snorkeled before, and two girls from Mexico. I was glad I wasn’t the only one who had never been snorkeling, which made me feel slightly less self-conscious about asking for a floatation belt. I just hoped we’d get to see a manatee, as we were there in the right season, but there are still no guarantees.
The snorkeling instruction we received on the boat went something like this.
“Don’t worry, we will teach you how to use all the snorkeling equipment and how to swim most effectively with fins, so even if you’re notOH MY FUCK A MANATEE EVERYBODY INTO THE WATER!!!”
And suddenly everyone was leaping overboard, into the wildly choppy Caribbean waters.
I struggled to get my gigantic fins on without kicking myself in the eye and to strap my snorkel and mask onto my face in the right direction so the snorkel was not pointing underwater, and then flopped overboard like a marlin escaping its first terrifying encounter with the surface world.
The water was bracing and most of it shot straight through my mask and up my nose. I was upside-down, then managed to right myself and get my head above the water. My heart was pounding as I took the mask off and blew a gallon of water out of my nose. My chest constricted tightly. I can’t breathe! Okay. I’m having some kind of panic attack. But it’s okay. I’m floating. I’m alive. The sea swelled up and down violently as I looked around. Where the hell did everyone go?
I heard some voices calling and saw people floating way off in the distance. Jesus, how did they get over there so fast? We didn’t even know each other’s names yet. Someone was just calling “Hey, guy!” which I figured meant me. I awkwardly attempted to get my arms and legs coordinated as my fins caught the ocean current and turned me sideways in the opposite direction from where I wanted to swim. When I turned my head to look at my feet, salt water shot down my snorkel and into my mouth. GAH.
My heart raced as I wrenched my mask off and spit out the water. Okay. Calm down. Breathe. You’re going to be okay. I bobbed way up and down in the rising and falling water. One step at a time. Mask back on. Snorkel pointing up. Okay, swim toward the people way the hell over there.
After much struggle I reached the bobbing people, and didn’t recognize any of them. Shit.
“Hey! Guy!” a voice called off in the distance, in the opposite direction. Ah shitballs, my people are over there. I struggled to turn my body and swim in that direction. One of my fins came off and I somehow managed to catch it and get it back on my foot. Every minute or so I had to stop and take the snorkel out of my mouth, as the sensation of constricted breathing through the tube was setting off an intense feeling of panic inside of me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe! After a few deep breaths without the snorkel to calm back down, I put it back on and continued.
Eventually I reached my group, and realized I hadn’t looked down once yet in this entire adventure. You know, the thing you do when you’re snorkeling, to see stuff. Okay! I got the snorkel angled the right way and dunked my head in. Yep, ocean. Sand way down there. I looked up and everyone was heading back to the boat. Huh.
As I was swimming back to the boat, the feeling of panic began to set in again. No matter how hard I swam, the boat was getting further and further away. I later realized that we were in an alleyway of intense ocean currents, which is where the manatees like to hang out. The manatees! Damn, I guess we missed them.
I eventually caught up with the couple who hadn’t snorkeled before either. The guy was clearly struggling. I hung back with him to make sure he was okay, even though I was only 10% less panicked than he was.
Man, this sucks. I’m really proud of myself for confronting my fear and getting into the water, but I think I’m going to skip the rest of the dives today. It’s hard to imagine any enjoyment in repeating this life and death struggle eight more times today.
Once we finally got back to the boat, I realized the non-snorkeling guy had almost drowned. His girlfriend was deeply shaken as well. So it wasn’t just me. I was loopy and exhausted from the rush of adrenaline.
“That sea was really rough and those currents were intense. But you all did really well and you got to see a manatee!”
“You didn’t see him? He swam right past you!”
Dude, I didn’t see shit. Well, I hope the manatee’s bucket list included seeing a Sean, so that it worked out for one of us.
When we reached the second dive location, I surprised myself by wanting to get back in the water. I had calmed back down and the panic attack was a fading memory. I didn’t want to go the rest of my life with this entire realm closed off to me, and I didn’t come all the way out here to not beat this. I popped on my fins and awkwardly flopped overboard into the sea.
Again, my chest seized up and the feeling of immanent death shot through me. It’s okay. It’s okay. Calm down and breathe. I began swimming toward the group but again wasn’t making any progress through the water. I tried to swim faster, but only seemed to slow down. Oh God, what if I can’t get back to the boat? Calm down. Breathe. Breathe. I relaxed my body and began to swim as slowly and peacefully as I could, as if in slow motion. To my surprise, I began to move forward with some sense of purpose. Huh.
I looked down. Holy shit, a sea turtle!
The turtle grazed peacefully on the grass at the bottom of the sea. I swam toward him and this time my body actually moved in the right direction. Wow! I’m so close to him. The turtle decided he needed a nip of fresh air and swam straight up in front of me, only a few feet away. We crested the water together and I watched his head poke above the water line as he gulped in a breath of air before descending again.
This is amazing! I’m so glad I got back in the water!
Some switch had flipped where I had suddenly grasped how to be Zen in the water, how to move slowly and surrender to the pace of the water itself. I rotated my ankles and my fins propelled me forward with minimal effort. Oh hey, I can follow the turtle! I’m not just a cork bobbing at the mercy of the waves any more.
At the next dive site, my confidence was growing and our captain caught me checking a sting ray for speed limit violations.
My confidence was only briefly shaken at one point when I BONK swam straight into the boat. Okay, so don’t always just look straight down. My awareness of the area around me was expanding.
The other sucks-at-snorkeling couple surprised me by getting back in the water at this site and I did my best to help coach the guy, who was struggling to control his motion in the water as his girlfriend and I both told him to breathe slowly and to swim as slowly as possible. He was listening but the fear is very difficult to overcome. He never got in the water again after that stop and his girlfriend threw in the towel after our next stop.
I felt for them, but was also thrilled that my own confidence and comfort in the water was growing by leaps and boundsHoly shit is that a shark?
Oh, hey, the captain’s doing something over there with a conch shell. He plunged down and held a shell full of sardines in front of a crack in the rocks. As if on cue, a huge green moray eel emerged from the rocks and gobbled down the sardines. A determined nurse shark attempted to get in on the action, but the captain grabbed it with one hand and flung it off to the side like we were in a cartoon.
By the fourth stop I was buddies with the experienced diving couple, flipping backwards off the boat into the water with them like a pro and only occasionally getting a ton of salt water in my mouth in the process. Likewise, I was decreasing the frequency with which I swam right into either of them, as I gradually figured out how to stop and turn around, becoming somewhat less at the mercy of the sea.
Our fifth stop was at Shark Alley, which more than lived up to its name. We looked over the side of the boat and instead of water, our boat seemed to be floating on a sea of nurse sharks. Countless sharks swarmed through the waters, making it difficult to tell where one shark ended and another began.
The Mexican girls laughed and said “Nope, fuck that!”
The Florida couple obviously weren’t getting in the water here. I looked at the diving couple. Okay, let’s go!
The three of us dove in and swam right up to a massive, roiling ball of nurse sharks, which spun two feet from our noses. Holy shit, this is intense. I reached my hand out and touched a shark as it spun by, its skin like a cross between sandpaper and concrete.
I popped my head above the water and looked up at the boat. Everyone who had bailed on the dive was looking at us like we were either superhuman or crazy. Florida guy laughed incredulously at how close we were to the sharks.
“Are you going to hug them??”
Suddenly the captain was in the water with us, and he grabbed one of the passing stingrays and held it up in front of me. Wait, isn’t this what killed Steve Irwin? Uhm... fuck it! I reached out and ran my hand across the stingray’s back. Wow.
Our stop at Hol Chan Marine Reserve was one of the most magical moments of all, being cut loose to explore the massive coral reefs and the amazing array of colorful fish swirling all around us.
At one point we stopped at a sunken barge and I explored the wreck from every angle, realizing I could just float above it indefinitely with zero effort. At every stop I was the last person back to the boat. This is so cool. I started asking the dive couple how difficult it was to get scuba certified.
Our last stops brought us to a garden of sea horses and then a small inlet where crocodiles lounged in the shallows and seabirds swooped down from high up in the sky, snatching sardines out of our captain’s hand. Huge predatory fish repeated the trick in reverse, leaping out of the water to yank dangled sardines from his fingers.
I talked to the captain about night dives, when you can see octopi up close. Wow. Sadly, there wasn’t one scheduled for that night. I asked.
I may need to spend a little time in the pool to get my swimming chops 100% back up to speed, but it feels like I did it. I’m okay in the water now. Trauma is such a fascinating thing. I’m so glad I did this before I missed any more opportunities to have beautiful experiences like this in my island travels.
If Belize is famous for one thing, it’s the Great Blue Hole.
What I have learned since returning from Belize is that Belize is not famous for even one thing. Apparently only people who are planning on traveling to Belize know about the Great Blue Hole, and instead of saying “Oh wow, you got to visit the famous Great Blue Hole of Belize!” everyone I have shown pictures to has said instead “Uhm, you went to see a giant toilet in the ocean?”
The Great Blue Hole is a massive marine sinkhole surrounded by a coral atoll off the coast of Belize.
So it’s basically a perfectly round spot where the ocean suddenly gets very, very deep. Pretty cool.
Multiple people had told me that diving into the hole is actually very boring since there’s not much to see in there, and that the best way to experience it is from above.
Enter this airplane with its very tiny back seat.
The pilot warned me that the seatbelt was wet, and I asked him if he’d really scared the last passengers that badly. He was a cool guy.
Three American women filled out the rest of the plane’s tiny seats.
In a flash we were -oh my god we’re running out of runway aaaah- off and I was marveling at the amazing blue color of the waters below us. Huge stingrays were visible even from our altitude.
Hey look, a shipwreck. Somebody had a really bad day.
Eventually we reached the blue hole, just as a diving boat was bisecting the circle, providing a handy sense of scale.
Caye Caulker is only 8 feet tall at its highest point, making it especially vulnerable to hurricanes and ocean surges. In 1961, Hurricane Hattie split the island in two, which is still clearly visible from the air and commemorated by a bar/restaurant at that point called The Split.
After an hour or so in the air, we managed to land successfully, in spite of the short runway somehow running across the narrow part of the island for some insane reason.
I was onto the water taxi and back in Belize City before you could say “Everyone warned me to avoid Belize City because it’s a shithole I mean everyone, people online, people in Mexico, people in Belize, even dogs looked at me like You aren’t going to Belize City, are you?”
Before I lucked into my whole Belize Zoo adventure, I had made arrangements to spend that night instead at this Chinese restaurant in Belize City, because I thought that sounded hilarious.
Instead, I just got lunch there on my way to the airport after returning from the island, but I still think “Staying overnight at a Chinese restaurant in a foreign country” sounds like something that needs to happen at some point in my life.
Competition among taxi drivers wanting to drive you to the Belize City airport is intense, which is how I ended up with a great price riding in a minivan with a large, laid-back Belizean dude who turned out to be a former gang member. This is perhaps not the best thing to discover half-way to the airport. But “former” seems to be the important word in that sentence, right?
Regardless, my ride was full of nonchalantly mind-blowing stories. Apparently the Bloods and Crips are a big deal in Belize. Maybe that explains Belize having the #6 homicide rate in the world. Wow... my collection of the top 10 is disturbingly nearing completion.
Do you have a lot of crime in Belize City?
“Well I’m not gonna say no, ya know? A lotta dese kids wildin’ around, an I was the same way before I found Jesus. Sellin’ guns and drugs, you know. I’m a Christian now but that doesn’t mean I’m turning no other cheek, ya know? You slap me and you know I’m coming for you to end it, it’s too late for apologies now. Everybody knows my reputation. Back in the day, someone puts down $10K for a hit on me, and the guy they paid comes and tell me, cuz I’m friends with everybody. Then I pay him more to hit the guy who hired him. Every time.”
Every time? Jesus. Where’s the airport?
I tried to change the subject.
Have you been driving a taxi long? It seems like you can tell just by looking at people who needs a ride.
“Sure man. Like that guy carrying that shotgun down the street-”
Wait that guy has a shotgun?
“He needs to get a taxi, man. Or the bus.”
You can get on the bus with a shotgun in Belize?
“Yeah man, if you got your papers. Don’t get caught with no papers though, that’s a gun charge you don’t want. Believe me. I stopped all that when my first kid was born though. My first of ten.”
You have ten kids?
“Yeah by three different women. They don’t know about each other though. I’ve lived a full life.”
I thought I had too, until this very moment. Damn, Belize. Way to send me home thinking.