The bus across Belize to Belize City, not the capital, at one-point cuts through a quiet cemetery, not a deviation, the main route, like you might stop off on a sightseeing tour to observe the resting places of the dead. We have just missed the ferry out to Caye Caulker, this allows us to wander around the city centre, the people are friendly, there is a distinct Caribbean feel with New Zealand architecture. We sit on a restaurant veranda people watching. Talking to the manager, I’m still not up to speed with everyone speaking English. He tells us of the corruption at the top of the government and by several wealthy families, this is a familiar story.
I’ve always wanted to visit Belize, it has an amazing biodiversity. When I first started teaching I used to play an ecology board game with the pupils, based in Belize, but I will admit I had to look up where it was beforehand. The SAS do their jungle training here, but I never saw any – hey have been camouflaged? We’ve done enough jungles, so we are hurtling across the Caribbean Sea to Caye Caulker, the sun bouncing off everything, past the stilted wooden fishing huts.
We have a westerly sea-front apartment, it’s quite magnificent, we’ve gone up market, this opulence was on the bucket list before we set off. The coffee machine is a delight, air conditioned, and you can see why the Canadian couple that run the place have semi-retired here. There is something here for everyone, we bump into many people we have befriended previously, that night, you can’t miss people on Caulker – both an advantage and a disadvantage! It also reminds you that as much as you think you are a cutting-edge independent traveller, you are only beating the track many thousands have already beaten. We meet David that night, you can party hard here, and he looks as though he has just come out of a hostage situation, followed by a festival, he wearily tells us he doesn’t think he can manage another night ‘on it’, and his Canadian friend, Marco has partied so hard, he has run out of the onward funds to get to his sister’s wedding in Ireland in a few weeks. The Split bar at the end of the island, with the fast-flowing tidal current is the place for the young to go and exchange travel stories and bodily fluids.
The mini-supermarkets all appear to be run by Chinese, Caulker is a stepping stone for them, corruption revolves around getting a passport, and once you have one, you can move onto America more easily. The wife asks the young female assistant if they have any long-life milk and she returns with fly-catching paper! I pretend to be a self-milking cow and she returns with a police officer, only joking, two police officers!, only joking… long life milk – there are no cows on Caye Caulker, but there are plenty of mosquitoes and as we walk back in the semi-darkness, a lot of scuttling. The scuttling turns out be various species of quite large crabs, if you are afraid of crabs, especially ones you can’t see until you are upon them, avoid Caulker. Think of the yet unwritten Stephen King book, The Crabs. There is a very large stubborn one on our porch, which I have to shoo off, it looks at me as if to say, ‘I know where you live, and I have these nipping castanets!’
One of the many joys of the tiny island is the bakery where the bread and sweet delights are baked daily. I pop out on a borrowed push bike every morning and sing, ‘Rain Drops keep falling on my Head’ in a jovial ironic out of tune way.
Another reason we have come to Belize is for me to dive the Great Blue Hole, a beautiful dive site 70km off the coast, as the name aptly suggests it is a big blue hole, and divers hold it up there as a must dive. I’m chatting to a dive master about it, telling him about our previous travels and he advises, ‘It is just a deep blue hole on a reef, the dugongs have come in to breed, we have spotted them every day for almost a week, this side of the reef, that would be better for you, I think?’ I have seen most animals and fish in the sea, but the only animal I want to see are dugongs (manatees, sea-cows), I even considered going to the Gulf of California to observe them, but then the chances are slim. So instead of travelling to look at a 124m deep by 318m wide oubliette, we are now going looking for manatees. To say I’m excited is an understatement, when the dive master cautiously says there is never a 100% chance of a sighting, but I would say there’s minimum of 80%.
There are only seven passengers on the boat the next day, among them a newly-wed Scouse couple, Lianne and Simon – an ex-diving instructor. We spot the most beautiful of the turtles – a Hudson turtle, rays, dolphins and many species of shark, including nurse sharks, these ‘couch potatoes of the sea’ are usually solitary and nocturnal, but have changed their behaviour as they are constantly fed by tourists, this angers Lianne, a member of the Shark Conservation Trust.
On the last snorkelling stop of the day, where he says we have the most chance of spotting the manatees, the captain points to the water and I think he’s saying, here is the best spot, but he is pointing to say he has seen one. I don’t believe him, as we can see nothing. I’m about to burst with excitement, along with Lianne and James, the wife is observing us, trying to make sense of it all, telling me not to get my hopes too high. Visibility is about 30m and we swim off as a group in the direction the captain is adamant they will be found. We search for about 15 minutes, then I spot a solitary one in the distance, I can feel the adrenalin making me smile under the water and I approach it guardedly. It laconically swims up to me, two feet from my face for a closer look – they have very poor eye-sight. I’m face to face with a male dugong, it casually turns and flippers off – mariners used to think they we mermaids due to their body shape and rear flipper (tail fluke). He dives towards a sleeping female on the sandy seabed. We float and watch from the surface; another female appears, and her and the male kiss. Simon has an underwater camera and is taking photos. We watch them until it is time to go, get back on the boat, unable to contain our excitement, this is the most amazing sea-spectacle I have ever witness in my life, and a toss-up with pink-river dolphins in the Amazon.
‘Is this better than seeing pumas in the wild?’ The Wife asks me aloud and the sharp look that Simon, Lianne and I give her is her answer.
We cruise past a mangrove swamp on the way home, but everything else that day will be anticlimactic. The wife has too much rocket-fuel rum punch and in her inebriated state tries to get $20,000 out of the service till. We meet up with Simon and Lianne later and I start to catch up the wife’s intoxicated state. To celebrate life, travels, and most of all magnificent creatures of the ocean, already knowing that the memories of three sea mammals in distant warm tropical waters will wash over us and warm us forever.
Next time: From Manatee to Yucatan, Every Woman, Every Man.
Ian M Pindar writes books, and also about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a large team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late.