Sunday, February 17, 2008

Belize, Part 3: Sea-ing is belize-ing

Day 6, Thursday. We take a cab to Placencia at 8 in the morning, which feels less ungodly when you go to bed at 10. We check in at Westwind and head to the snorkeling shop (Nite Wind) where the nice lady sets up with some gear and takes a fair amount of our money. We're headed to the Silk Cayes, which are supposed to be on an excellent barrier reef. The boat is fast and bumpy and our guide is improbably named Engelbert. But there's a storm coming and wetake shelter on a random caye, where we get to know our fellow snorkelers. They include some college kids from Belgium living in Guatemala and some folks from LA staying at the really expensive Coppola resort up the road. We also get to know some hermit crabs, a rooster, and bugs that leave behind these gnarly looking bites with white circles around them. Thank god for DEET. We learn that no alcohol will be served in Belize until 6 when the polls close! This is amazing since until now there appear to be no laws related to the time, location, or age of alcohol consumption. (I am sure that American moralists will be shocked to discover that despite all this we encountered nary a drunken brawl or orgy.) We are glad we picked today to snorkel, despite the storm, since being stuck in town without booze would have left us pretty directionless. The storm lasts longer than planned, but soon we're on our way. I can't swim so well, and I figure there's a good chance of dying untimelyly today. But it turns out I can snorkel with a life vest, and life is good. Snorkeling is fun, but a little tricky when you're not allowed to wear your glasses and the waves are pushing you in the wrong direction. Also, the salt water keeps attacking my gums. The nice people help us around the reef, and we see a shark, and some purple fish going to school (we wave, but they don't wave back), some rainbow-colored fish, and a fish with a mohawk. The coral itself is awesome, just like on TV, but trying not to touch it is tricky because of the goggles' disorienting magnification. We eat a barbecue lunch cooked on burning coconut husks, and then we head to another caye. The reef here is a bit less vibrant, and most of the cool stuff is blurry to nearsighted ol' me. Engelbert pulls out a sea cucumber and a conch for us to examine. We head back, and on the way we see dolphins! Yay dolphins. Dolphins look a lot like waves and are tricky to spot. We also feel the beginning of a narly sunburn. Back in town, the bars are still closed! A lot of the bars and restaurants do not bother to open even at 6, through some combination of political fervor and economic resignation. We eat tasty Italian food because it is the only remotely vegetarian thing open. I introduce Emma to the mudslide at the one open beach bar, and she is enamored. It is unclear how Emma has never met the mudslide before.

Day 7, Friday. The whole day is allocated to relaxing. We start with fry jacks at De Tatch. Fry jacks are fried tortillas that you dip in honey, a Belizean version of fried dough that has somehow made it past the breakfast food censors. We stroll around town visiting shops. In one shop, we hear the music of Andy Palacio, which I will download on eMusic next week and listen to incessantly. We drink at the Barefoot Beach Bar again, and go for a several mile walk on the beach, checking out the resorts in town and burning whatever skin we had left. There is also some hanging out in hammocks. The food options are a bit limited and we end up eating Italian again, but the homemade pasta is delicious.

Day 8, Saturday. Time to leave, but first we wander around town and read in hammocks. The cab takes 10 minutes to take us to the airport, and it takes us about 10 seconds to check in. Our cab driver explains that the only difference between the two local airlines is that one pays its pilots per flight instead of per day, leading them to more willingly take off in inclement weather, which the cab driver considers a virtue. Lonely Planet informs us that, unsurprisingly, the airline has had more crashes. Our Cessna, thankfully, does not crash, and it flies low, giving us a chance to see a lot of Belize by air. At the airport, we spend our leftover money on snacks in anticipation of the hamburgers on Continental, which neither of us will eat. We also see t-shirts featuring every possible Belize pun - I feel very unoriginal. We notice a bit too late that everybody in the airport is drinking beer and rum punch. The airport has a bar and you can take the drinks with you! Emma, bored with her book and still waiting for me to finish What is the What, lines up and buys us beer with the last of our money. Hooray beer. Belize has been beautiful and fun and wonderfully remote, but I'm excited to get back to the Internet, television, restaurant options, and not getting sunburnt.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Belize, Part 2: B is for Belize, and for buses, beer, beaches, and bikes

(Addendum to part 1: Emma keeps a list of Questions for the Internet in her journal during the trip. This is a tradition begun during a disconnected ski trip last year, and it served us well. One of the questions for the Internet: how do I fold a towel elephant? Emma found the answer.)

Day 4, Tuesday. We say goodbye to our Caves Branch friends and walk to the road to catch a bus. We anxiously scan the horizon for buses so we have ample time to flag one we think will show up around 10:30. Somehow, we find the right bus, and we even transfer successfully to a second bus. Some hitchhiker tries to convince me to pay his bus fare, one of the few examples of someone being not nice, much less shady, during our entire trip. A little kid on the bus plays air guitar while drinking sprite and wearing giant yellow sunglasses. The trip is remarkably quick, although the last few miles to Placencia are unpaved and bumpy. We arrive with half the day left, check into our hotel, and head across the street to the beach. The beach has palapas at regular intervals, and we settle into cozy little hammocks. There are only a couple of people on the whole beach, but nearly as many dogs following us around. We get nachos and beer at the Green Parrot and then go back to doing nothing. I try running on the beach, but it turns out to suck for running through a combination of sloping, detritus, interruption by trees, and limited tidal differences. We hang out in the pool for a bit, looking out at the sea. Our room has a TV, and there is some bizarre movie on with Keira Knightley playing a bounty hunter, plus news about how Obama is doing. There appears to be no local content. We have dinner at the nicest restaurant in town. Emma has a watermelon margartia and sassy shrimp. I have a mojito and a bunch of tasty appetizers. Bedtime! We go to bed early here. It's pitch black on our walk back - no street lights and barely any lights at all - the stars are amazing.

Day 5, Wednesday. The hotel's kayaks look a bit ghetto, so we opt for their also-ghetto but less-likely-to-drown-us bikes. We bike the 7 miles to Placencia, which takes a couple of hours due to the terrible condition of the road and the blistering heat. Along the way, we stop by the dreary, untouristy Garifuna town of Seine Bight, where we follow an ad for Lola's Art. Emma buys a mask, we both buy beverages. We look both ways for airplanes and then bike across the airport. Placencia! Emma calls it surprisingly ramshackle, this sounds about right. It's a small town with one road and one "street" that is literally a sidewalk. We find a Barefoot Beach Bar and drink away the afternoon in the shade with our books. We make it back fairly quickly, checking out some restaurants on the way. We opt for dinner at the Green Parrot, which suspiciously and generically resembles their lunch. We try "premium" Belikin beer, which is less than a dollar more and tastes marginally better. Time for bed again - tomorrow will be a long day.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Belize, Part I: In which the jungle generously decides not to kill us

Day 1, Saturday. Belize City's airport is small and squat and it takes two minutes to get through customs. The tropical/post-colonial architecture and typography is reminiscent of India. Our cab driver is excited because the election is on Thursday and they're hoping to replace the PUP, believed to be corrupt and selling out the country's assets, with the UDP. (Sadly, there are no engineers around to make UDP jokes to.) We quickly learn that Belizean English is highly accented, and is even written with Caribbean slang. Also, the Belizean dollar is pegged at half a US dollar, but prices are sometimes listed in US dollars, requiring a double take when looking at any price.

The best way to get to Ian Anderson's Caves Branch is via bus. Bus schedules are under-codified, but the right bus eventually shows up. It's a former US school bus, but painted orange. The bus ride is a good time to learn new facts about Belize from our dear friend Mr. Lonely Planet: the entire country has 300,000 people, for example. Also, in the old days, some pirates got tired of stealing wood and become loggers in Belize instead, and some ants told the Mayans to stop their successful rebellion in Central America. We drive past farms and small towns and lush jungles on the main highway - two lanes.

Caves Branch greets us with a welcome drink of rum punch. Welcome drinks are fucking genius and every hotel should have them. Walking from the road to the resort, Emma notices a snake, which we photograph and walk past. On Day 3, we will discover that this is a fer-de-lance and getting bitten would have killed us immediately. Our room at Caves Branch has no windows, just mosquito netting, and no electric light, just beautiful-if-easily-damanged oil lamps. It's made of gorgeous dark wood, has a real thatch roof, and the towels are folded into elephant shapes and are bearing flowers. At dinner, we make friends with some fun guys from Amazon, who tip us off to the idea of making cookie dough without the eggs for safe-dough-eating, among other things. We first encounter Belikin, the national beer.

Day 2, Sunday. We're signed up for the Black Hole Drop, which is a long hike up in the jungle, rappelling down into a canyon left by the collapse of a ginormous limestone cave, hiking around the caves, looking at some petroglyphs, and then hiking back out. We see a range of palm trees, plus two hazardous trees that grow conveniently next to their antidotes. The weather is great and there are surprisingly few bugs. Lunch is thick tortillas with fresh vegetables and cheese. Delicious. Our guide's grandparents are founders of the neighboring town that is now trying without success to institute a tax on its residents. The other person on our trip is a nice young woman from Montreal named Manon. Emma tries to eat an orange from the orange fields while we wait to go home but can't get through the tough skin. We take our first outdoor showers. There is enough time for a nap before chips and drinks at 6. The schedule they've set up is great, and the all-inclusive package means stress-free drinking. This is my first Times-inspired vacation, and it's yuppily wonderful.

Day 3, Monday. Today's activity is cave tubing. We stand on a flatbed pulled by a tractor, which fords 3 rivers in the course of our journey. It's like living the Oregon Trail. Cave tubing turns out not to be the leisurely activity we imagined, and our arms are tired of paddling our innertubes around the same time the novelty wears off. The caves have the occasional bats and verdant windows into the outside world, but are mostly pretty homogeneous. I fall out of my tube in some wussy rapids. We drop by the local cenote, the Blue Hole, and then it's time for last of free drinking before we head for the beach in the morning. The mango and rum drink is tasty. Ian Anderson tells us about all the scary animals on the premises, including aforementioned deadly snake. The guys from Amazon tell us that a transit system in Seattle was briefly called SLUT.

Coming soon: part 2, and pictures.