Belmopan, Hummingbird Highway and St. Herman’s Cave and the Blue Hole

Yesterday we caught the bus from the terminal which was heading towards Benque at the Guatemalan border, due west. While waiting a young man, Creole, nice face, bare-foot and dusty, approached a man in a row in front, and opened a wooden cigar box to show him a portrait he had painted. When he saw me looking he pointed at me, came over and sat on the bench in front, and proceeded to draw me. I was his target all along! He had a well-rehearsed patter, and a similar philosophical bent as the chap on the first day, who told us the origin of the word Belize. Conor asked him if we had to pay him as he was drawing me, and he replied only if you want to. He had about 10 minutes and we decided that the eyes weren’t too bad, but overall he made me chuckle – I was never a dolly bird and when I said he should add 30 years to it, he said that he had the eyes of an artist! And the gift of the gab! We gave him a few Belizean cents – and bumped into him, still dusty and barefoot, sitting on a curb side today. Different clothes, but still the same nice face and cheery smile. He waved as we went by, and we smiled and waved back. “The artist”, he called to our backs…

One of the problems here is that you want to bail everyone out, and it doesn’t work. I am already approaching various agencies in the U.K. to get selling outlets for some of the poverty stricken women learning how to do craft work…we shall see if anything comes of it. But this is an articulate and moderately gifted young man, capable of so much more in his life. He is not obviously high on anything. Why is he on the streets?

Anyway, we boarded our bus, passed the now familiar Belize Zoo, and on to Belmopan. Belmopan is the official capital of Belize, and claims to be the smallest capital in the world. It moved there after the infamous Hurricane Hattie – after which Hattieville is named. The land from the zoo onwards was climbing gently but steadily all the way to Belmopan, the jungle around us becoming denser all the time. An hour and a half later, BZ $12 poorer (i.e. it cost each of us £1.50 to travel 50 miles) we entered the outskirts of Belmopan. Immediately we felt a sense of relief. Small, well tiny really – a square, bus station, taxi stand, market place, a couple of shops and restaurants and then a smattering of different embassies and other government buildings. And relatively clean, ordered, a sense of a town dealing with itself, with a purpose. It seems to me the Hurricane Hattie and the subsequent flooding of Belize City was a fabulous excuse for the foreign ambassadors to live in houses in a beautiful part of the country!

As we got off the bus, the usual clamour of folk was at the doorway, most waiting to get in, and the few looking at us and hustling… “Taxi? Taxi?” A large man – Alberto we were to discover – with the uniform small towel on his shoulder to wipe off the sweat, was persistent.
“Where are you guys going? Bus to Dangriga? Just missed it. Won’t get another for two hours. You going all the way to Dangriga? The roads are bad ‘cos of the rains a few days ago. That’s why the buses are late. Just to St. Herman’s Cave? Eighteen miles down the road. I’ll take you there for $25. No, US. BZ$50. That’s what it costs. Return? No, one way. But I’ll wait and not charge you for waiting. OK, you think about it.”

We wondered round the market for a bit, trying to decide whether to pay the astronomical taxi fare or wait two hours. He pounced again, and we stalled.
“OK, get something to eat here first. That restaurant is good. Try the chicken tamales. How long you be? OK, I’ll come for you in twenty minutes.”

As we ate, we realised that in his insistence we had never double-checked his story. We decided to see if a bus came in at 1pm, just an hour after we arrived, after all. Then who should come bursting into the restaurant but the taxi man!
“Just taken someone and come back for you. You ready yet?”

We told him of our decision, so he left. We paid up, and joined many other folk in the queue to Dangriga. We were becoming increasingly optimistic when the taxi man came up again. This time his tack was it probably won’t be on time and we won’t have much time there before having to return back to Belmopan in order to catch the last bus back to Belize City. Now, we had read our guidebook, and new the times of the last bus, so were once again a bit more decisive.
“OK, here’s my name and number (Alberto) and when the bus doesn’t turn up ring my cell phone. And if you are stuck at the cave, ring me.”

Full marks for trying, I say; and it’s quite amazing how plausible some folk can be. Alberto was never nasty; just ebullient, insistent, and needing to make a living in the off-peak season. And ten minutes later we began to travel the Hummingbird Highway to St. Herman’s Cave – for BZ$2 each!

The Hummingbird Highway lived up to its guidebook reputation of being the most scenic road in Belize. Ridges of small steep sided hills gave way to higher and higher ones behind, leading eventually to the Maya mountains. These limestone hills are well eroded over the centuries, causing fascinating rock formations. But from the bus all we could see was trees – beautiful broad leaved trees, palms, vines, all shapes and sizes, ridge after ridge.

Occasionally there would be a flat plain, tilled, or covered in citrus trees. A Mennonite man had boarded a bus in Belmopan, recognisable by his braces, his beard and his wide rimmed straw hat. He alighted by a sign saying Springfield, and further proclaiming a farm four miles down the track with over 40 different types of produce. (A client last week described her childhood farm on the Mexican border as producing everything you would need but salt. It seemed a novel and charming way to describe abundance.) On our way back to Belmopan later that day, we saw a small two horse-drawn cart with a shaded top returning to the farm. A typical Mennonite pair was in it, the man as before, and the woman, somewhat to my horror in the Belizean heat, had a blue cloth bonnet over her entire head and fastened under her chin; it looked close fitting, and hot, but maybe acted well as a sun hat. She also had a heavy blue cloth cape around her. Whew!

The bus driver went at a fair lick, mainly downhill as it made its way back to the coast at Dangriga. (Dangriga is about 70 miles down the coast south of Belize City.) Some of the corners were taken a bit too wide for my piece of mind, but it was easy to get distracted by the view! We passed through one sizeable village, Armenia, which again had the effect of reassuring us about people’s capacity to live well, to make the best of things even when you have little or nothing. There were quite a lot of houses in the village, mostly wooden, some not much bigger than our garden shed, some with a few rooms, or on stilts. One or two concrete houses, mainly bungalows, though some two storey houses too. The houses were scattered in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, yet none was too close to the other. Henny-pennies were scratching, crops were growing, fruit trees fruiting, even a cow or two. The whole place had an ambience about it which was tranquil, yet productive.

A couple of miles later, we were told we were at our destination – St. Herman’s Cave and the Blue Hole. We entered a small area with 3 wooden huts – tickets, tourist trap (shop), and toilets. The ticket hut had a cheerful pair who explained the routes we could take to the cave (high ground or low ground and we knew which one we were going to do in that heat) and then through the jungle for 45 minutes to the Blue Hole. We set off with enthusiasm for the 10 minutes to the cave, our first venture into thicker jungle. It was very soggy underfoot, which meant you had a tendency to watch your feet rather than look around, but nevertheless the sheer variety and splendour of the growth was stunning. The jungle we have seen here so far has been very varied in the shapes and heights of the foliage, which creates such a fantastic effect not a million miles from the illustrations in Where the Wild Things are, but with all the layers superimposed on one another. Huge red dragonflies were playing over the soggy ground as we turned a corner, and saw a sheer rock face in front of us, festooned in nooks and crannies sprouting ferns and big drips positioned perfectly to drop down your neck!

We climbed a few steps, only to see the cave entrance open up in front of us, with a series of steps descending down and round. There was a sturdy wire handrail on the left, preventing anyone from slipping on the wet mud down into the underground river coursing through the cave. It took a bit of time for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, even though we each had a small torch with us. Gradually, we saw how clear the water was, and marvelled at the stalactites and stalagmites, mighty pillars ascending and descending in nature’s cathedral. At times it opened out from about ten feet wide and twenty feet high to a vast cavern, with many ledges in the sides from the natural contours. If we weren’t so miserly, we could have paid for a guide to take us even further into the cave system, following the river passed Mayan artefacts which have never seen the light of day for at least two centuries. You eventually emerge from another entrance into the cave. The guidebook says that the steps down into the cave were initially cut by the Maya too.

We turned round, and made our way back, suddenly turning a bend into a glorious sight. The large fern fringed mouth of the cave let light in onto the water which then reflected gently off the roof, highlighting all the shapes and contours as it did so. It was quite magical. The gentle light illuminates way back into the cave when facing this direction, and it was easy to see how our ancestors would have lived in such places. What was surprising was how humid it was. We both emerged quite sticky.

As we made our way back to the huts, we jumped as a loud crack-crack came from our right. We heard it again a few times before we reached the hut, and asked the ticket man what is was – a white-collared manakin. This bird apparently cracks its wings as it hops in a circle, clearing a space on the jungle floor from leaves, as part of its display to the females. It is a small bird, but the crack made us jump when we first heard it! There are apparently 3 of the 5 indigenous wild cats in the area (jaguar, ocelots, and jaguarundi) and I was quite ready to half-believe it was one stalking us! What a weed!

We then walked 1.5 kilometres through the jungle to the Blue Hole. The Blue Hole is a collapsed karst cavern much as the St. Herman’s cave we had just been in. But we had some jungle to traverse first. Again it was pretty uneven along the trail so you have to keep looking down, but nevertheless we got our first proper taste! Many of the plants were ones which we might find growing a house plants in the U.K., indeed one which we have just wound around some banisters in the stables at Ellemford! But the ones we saw on Saturday were winding themselves around the trunks of trees, and heading skywards! Suddenly the scent of jasmine will waft over you, and then you would see the delicate tendrils hanging from a branch. Skinny stalks of trunks, great fat bruisers, with dried up leaves like huge spent gloves tossed across the path. Lots of little frogs, medium sized frogs, brown frogs, red frogs, speckled frogs; many birds at different levels (we are learning more about that) and good pictures along the way indicating who was what. Oh, and the mosquitoes! The hotter and sweatier we got, the denser the cloud. To our amazement the Deet worked – despite alighting on us they left hardly a mark. Just one or two tender places where there was no repellent, such as eyebrows.

The mossies got so bad we were glad to emerge into a clearing. We could hear the sound of people laughing – the promise of a swim in the Blue Hole was so relieving. We descended steps not unlike the ones into the cave, only this time the roof has collapsed, exposing the underground river for about 50meters before it disappears underground again. It is apparently a beautiful clear blue – except in the rainy season! It was opaque, but very clean and inviting. The river bubbles up in a central pool, before flowing in a narrower river for a short distance. It struck me as a bit daft as I removed my wringing wet clothes to don my costume! It was delicious, and good fun too as you let the river drift you downstream for a bit. Rocks were around the edge but the middle was a smooth, fine, gravely bottom. We frolicked and cooled, and enjoyed watching a church group frolicking and cooling too!

We had to make sure we caught the 4.30pm bus back to Belmopan, to catch the bus to Belize City, and had been warned that it is ‘Belize time’ and that the bus may be there just gone 4pm. We were ready and waiting and got talking to a very chatty group of Mestizos who were guides at the Ian Anderson centre by the bus stop. The centre provides some of the most highly regarded tours, climbs, kayaking, birding and trekking. They even take the British Army out to train them in rappelling – descending 90 meters or so in a sink hole from the jungle canopy. They even started to give us a bird guide as we waited. We had seen some pretty little black and white birds clinging to grasses and leaning forward to peck at others – Seedeaters! There were two types of woodpecker in the trees beside us, and tree creepers too. It turned out that they lived in Armenia, the village which had caught our attention on the way in. Nice people.

Rainy Season

The rainy season. I thought that I knew what that meant, but one of the joys of travelling is that it opens one’s eyes to how little you know in practice! The rains here are not the sort that build up over a hot morning, gathering at midday and then depositing themselves over you in a torrential downpour in the afternoon – only to evaporate almost as fast as they fell, thus starting the cycle again for the next day. No, the rainy season here is very different to that.

It gets blisteringly hot for a few days. People get nervous, saying that this is what hurricanes feed off. The odd cloud might appear in the sky, and there may even be a short rain shower. The clouds may build up more, or it may clear completely for a day or two. Currently, only two weeks in so too soon to be sure this is typical, the build up of clouds is predominantly, but not only, in the evenings. First of all I notice that I suddenly come out in a sweat. I start raining before the sky does!

(It reminds me of my grandparents who lived by the sea. They used to hang a long piece of wide brown sea weed outside their back door. My grandfather, known to everyone as Jeff which was an abbreviation of his surname Jeffkins, my grandfather Jeff would go out and check his sea weed. He used it as a barometer. When it was damp he would assure me that rain was on the way, and he was invariably right. Or rather, the sea weed was!)

So, my body barometer gets damp like the sea weed, really damp and sticky, and then the sound of thunder or the flash of lightening will appear. The pattern seems most typically to be an initial shower, lasting 1-5 minutes and then whoosh! It is as if someone has turned a power shower onto full out of the blue. The noise level is quite phenomenal. In our bedroom at night, it falls onto the sloping roof above us, which like all roofs round here is corrugated. When I just listen, it reminds me of the symbols in a drum kit, just creating a vibration between them. Or a very fast drum roll, the sticks leaving barely any space between them. It is relatively high pitched, and behind that is a deeper drone made by the fallen water cascading through gutters and storm drains. The thunder has been most usually single peals, followed by lightening.

(When I was little my father taught me to count the seconds between the thunder and lightening. Every 5 seconds is a mile away. I still do it, though it tends to be pretty obvious if the storm is overhead! But dad was a sailor through and through, and was wanting to see how the thunder was circling – which he said it always did – so that he was facing the right way in his boat! Always put the bows into the wind in a storm.)

Last night I was enjoying again the sound of the downpour, when suddenly the thunder came again. Only this time, the thunder came from here, then there, then somewhere else, as if ricocheting off the clouds or the gods playing squash! As I listened, fascinated, I suddenly saw Keith Moon, the legendary drummer in The Who, doing his fantastic drumming, arms and sticks flying from one drum to the other, to the next and back again.

Today I was talking with someone about the rain. (This person has elected himself as my educator about things Belizean, for which I am most grateful. Today he told me that when I buy mangoes in the market, I have to ask for mango 11, as they are particularly sweet. When I said that they could give me mango 24 and I wouldn’t know, he replied that it is the only one mango with a number. He also said that blue mangos are especially good too, but not blue in colour! I am still uncertain how I would know the difference, but no doubt the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.) Anyway, this man explained that a tropical wind with rain was expected today, most probably this evening – it is threatening to rain now – and from there we got talking about the noise on my bedroom ceiling at night. He asked me if it was the same in the UK, and I tried to explain how we get 3 hot days then a thunderstorm, which is then all over till next summer but he seemed bemused. He asked me if I had ever heard the thunder drumming and I got very excited and told him what I had heard last night. He said that sometimes it goes round like that right overhead with lightening, and is unbelievably loud. I smiled as I thought of sitting under the drum kit as Keith Moon was really going for it. And I wonder what direction dad would point the boat in when it is going round as fast as that. He could get quite dizzy…

These rains could fall as one 15 minute episode, or last for a few hours or even days. Then there could be two weeks of really dry hot weather before the smaller rains followed by a few days of rains again. Or so I believe!

Belize Zoo

Our trip this past weekend was to take a local bus to the Zoo. Belize Zoo is world renowned apparently, for its policy for nurturing local endangered species. It came highly recommended by a number of folk. So we made our way past the infamous market to the bus terminal, and caught a bus destined to Dangrida. Belize City is a nipple of land about one third of the way down the coast line, which is predominantly swampy mangroves and salt marsh and a haven for wild life. There are 3 roads out – Northern Highway towards Orange Walk and Mexico; Western Highway towards Belmopan – the official capital city – and Guatemala; and a branch off Western Highway to the south, to Dangrida and Honduras. Each stop is called Mile 1, 7 etc. The zoo is Mile 28. The fare for both of us was BZ$4 one way, £1, cheaper than my bus fare into central Edinburgh from the flat!

Once again, we rediscovered in a multitude of ways the openheartedness we experienced on first arriving. It is so easy to get caught up in the issues surrounding us in a very small part of the city, and loose contact with the bigger picture. Inner cities are inner cities, wherever you live. This part of the Western Highway passes through land that is predominantly the same as around Belize City….scrub land, swamps, occasional fields, some agricultural merchandise and machinery, very few villages but more often clusters of houses. Some of these are on stilts, some free standing. Apparently you need the stilts in swampy land cos it stops your house from tilting if the stilts are sunk deep enough. Otherwise the ground level shifts too much with the dry periods or the rains.

Gradually we approached the lumpy limestone outcrops we had seen in the distance, covered in dense green foliage, and the conductor told us we were there. Once more the heat hit us as we got out of the bus and began to walk up the track into the zoo. We had all our gear – sun hats, sun cream, mozzie guard, water – and once more lamented the one thing we left behind. Some years ago Steve and Fi gave us an insulated holder for water (actually it’s a posh thing for wine on picnics, but we have used it for water in a number of places – Mexico, Greece, Malta) and found it a wonderful accompaniment to a walk. I left it in a bag on a hook in the back pantry, and that bag must be about the only thing in our house that did not get moved in our preparations to leave the house in spick and span order for holiday rentals. Bother.
So, we also had warm water with us!

The zoo is set within the jungle. It is large, spacious and created in such a way that apart from obvious fences etc., it blends into the canopy. This bit of jungle isn’t dense, but rather a sun-speckled medley of foliage – large trees, shorter ones, mixed deciduous and evergreen, all interspersed with the variegated orange, white, green and red leaves we associate with house plants in the UK. There are occasional lilies breaking through the ground, morning glory, and vines trailing from one tree to another. There is also a thick carpet of crunchy dried leaves…

….As I write the evening intense stickiness has broken and the rains have come. Such an atmospheric relief. The same happened yesterday evening and overnight – the sound of a bucket of water being dropped onto your roof, and then abruptly stopping…

The zoo. The paths are stony – and much better kept than Albert Street – and each animal has its name, photo and a few details clearly marked. Actually, each animal had 3 names: Latin, English and Creole. Thus the tapir is also known as the mountain cow. The zoo has a fun style of writing a short poem about each animal, geared predominantly for kids, explaining how each is an essential part of the Belizean heritage, and how they need to be carefully looked after and husbanded back into the wild.

There were fabulous creatures there – animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, those that inhabit the trees, 2 and 4 legged land creatures, and then the watery types – crocs, turtles, and beautiful storks. I forget its name and it’s not in my bird book, but something like Jashira.

Over and over again we became entranced. The spider monkeys, so called because of the way they use their very long tail so that they appear to have 5 limbs, and can just hang from any. One seemed to love to perform for us. He would bend in two, patting his chest as if taking a bow, before playing with some ropes and branches checking to watch us watching him. Another walked passed like a little old man on an evening stroll before climbing into the trees and immediately becoming infinitely more agile.

A beautiful mountain lion lay under the shade of a bush, yet like any cat would become alert the moment a gecko made its soft-shoe-scuttle somewhere in its vicinity. They had a fabulous collection of cats, including the mountain cat or ocelot, big leopards, black jaguars and spotted ones. The black jaguar looked just like a larger version of our big, black, sleek, handsome boy cat. (Now I understand why Jaguar cars were called Jaguar!)

The harpy eagle was marvellous! Huge, and almost extinct, it has a grey head with tufty eyebrows standing upright like a kingly crown, darker grey back, and sturdy legs like a Sumo wrestler. It has thighs big enough to feed a family barbecue, and thick yellow talons as big as a bear’s paw. The underside of the wings and the thighs are white speckled with dark grey- black, which gives the sense of ermine; again reinforcing the nobility of this largest member of the eagle kingdom. Its wing span is over six feet, and we discovered that if we jiggled the green water hose passing through its cage it held it down with its massive talons and spread its wings – quite magnificent!

There were so many more – smelly old Belizean version of boar; grey mountain fox; some relation to the otter that I had never heard of, with eyes on the side of its flat face a bit like a frog. They also have a rehabilitation programme. Because the jaguars’ natural prey are hunted almost to extinction, they are beginning to prey upon domestic animals or even people, which makes folk want to kill them. So now the ‘nuisance jaguars’ are brought to the zoo and rehabilitated so they only attack the ‘right’ things. It is apparently working very well.

We made our way around and out to our bus back. We had been recommended to stop off at Old Belize – 7 miles outside of the city – to see the marina, false beach area with water shoots and other water play, plus a good restaurant. The marina was full of very posh ‘gin palaces’ as Dad would say, as well as the tourist ferry boats, all docked for this rainy/hurricane season. We asked one of the men looking after the boats what they did with them in hurricane warnings. He said that the marina was at Latitude 17.5, so if the warning was coming in at 17.4 or 17.6, he left them there. If 17.5, a bevy of lads took them 90 miles south as quick as they could! The sea was a little clearer there than at Belize City, though the sediment from the Belize River (or worse) still seemed apparent to me and put me off a swim. We had a surprisingly good pizza, and enjoyed seeing all the local families eating together, or children frolicking in the water. It was good to remember the rest of the world outside of the few inner city streets.

A Week and a Day

Golly – been here for a week – beginning to get a sense of this city.

I want to start with impressions of Belize City. Where we are – the main street in the commercial area – is currently a dust bath. The government is intending to tarmac the road, so has asked all the services to do whatever they need to do prior to the resurfacing. At nearly every corner there is a hole, piles of different grades of stones and gravel, and dusty men with clear rivulets as the sweat pours off them. What should be the refreshing sea breeze coming in off the sea is in effect a minor sand storm – dust, sand and grit abound. In our flat (we have been denied access to the air con without a steep rise in the rent) we were so fed up with the constant dirt on the floor and all surfaces – we walk around in bare feet indoors, and they were getting filthy – that we shut the windows onto the main road (we are on the third floor) and just kept the fans going and door into the flat at the back open. A huge improvement, when accompanied with adopting the habit of a daily mop of the floors. Nevertheless, occasionally one gets stung by a piece of sand or grit catapulted in the jet stream from the fan! Ouch!

This is a very poor city. Homeless folk abound, who seem predominantly Creole, and include the typical smattering of drunks, addicts and those with more severe mental health problems. Very few appear to be women, though this morning we made our way along King St. (told very firmly not to deviate as it is not an area you want to bring attention to yourself in) to the fruit and vegetable market which is in front of the main bus terminal. The stalls were populated by local farmers who nearly all spoke Spanish and were therefore Mestizos or maybe Mayans. One or two folk were obviously Creole….

It maybe helpful here to describe the main cultural mix here. There are two black races – the Creoles and the Garifuna. The Garifuna are a mix of African and the original native Carib Indians. The Garifuna are about 6% of the population, and are mainly in the South. Creole folk – who are certainly the majority in Belize City – are a mix of African and the early white settlers. They make up a quarter of the population. The Mestizos are a mix of the indigenous Amerindians and the Spanish, and make up nearly 50% of the population. They tend to be settled more to the north.

The Maya are one of the original indigenous groups, making up 11% of the population. There are 3 branches of them, and they tend to be assimilated with the Mestizos, and are often farmers. Then there are the German-speaking Mennonites, who came over here between the 2 world wars, and despite being a very small group (4%) contribute hugely to the agricultural produce here. There is also a significant East Indian group who came over as indentured labourers in the middle of the nineteenth century. So, it is a complex mix of many races that have obviously lived together for a long time. It is not like in the UK, when waves of folk have arrived in different decades from the West Indies, or India, or China, or as currently from various parts of the EU. This is a relatively settled population which knows itself pretty well.

So, back to the market. We were walking around, examining the produce, when a woman came up to Conor, muttering. He smiled but didn’t give her much attention. He suspected she was high on something. She moved on. Then a cry from behind, the woman in a tussle with one of the female stall holders, probably lifting something. Others descended upon them, trying to separate them. The woman had her teeth sunken into the stall owner’s arm. Men began surrounding them from various stalls, trying to prise them apart. One Creole with Rasta locks called “Hey man” authoritatively as he approached them, but the tussle continued. We decided to move away, concerned that the fighting could spread and we were at a linguistic and cultural disadvantage. We went to other stalls, purchased our pineapple, papaya, pumpkins and returned to the way out. There was a police truck there but no sign of either woman.

We have discovered that the fishermen sell their wares every evening at one of the points where the sea and a canal meet. Again we were told go a particular way, avoiding certain streets – all of which creates a feeling of being a potential victim, and demands quite a lot of inner work in order not to feel too intimidated. But we found the stalls and beautiful large silver grey mackerel, red snappers and others I didn’t recognise.

Daliah, the main operational organiser in CWW, has been in Belize for 3 weeks of field work, and on Friday evening, just before returning to Edinburgh, she invited us to meet up with an ex-CWW volunteer called Mark who now works in Belize, and the family who host a huge number of overseas volunteers and students. It felt refreshing to move out of our dusty street with its beggars and vagabonds and into a more middle class area. The family were charming – Mestizos and Mayan origin, and Mrs. Neria usually feeds about 15 every evening! Neria is her fore name, but folk are quite formal and polite here. Mark has continued to work as the IT geek for the government department he originally volunteered for. Mark also told us about how to use the swimming pools in the big tourist hotels! We duly went along the next day – Saturday afternoon – only to find him there too! We liked it, and are seriously thinking of getting a proper membership. Living in this City is very challenging and we are aware of the need to look after ourselves too.

Between the market and the incident with the addict and the afternoon swim in the Radisson Fort George Hotel, we worked together on the feeling of intimidation in this area. When I supported the feeling of walking along watching, alert, hands ready, and took it further, I found my Tai Chi student, ready for anything. I realised I needed to walk through the streets like that more consciously, less of a mouse waiting for a cat to pounce! For Conor, it was about being not there, his ‘nothing’ state again.

The wild life is good in the city too! The non-human sort, I mean. The frigate birds are just outside our window, riding the sea breeze. (We are 2 blocks from the sea). They are stunning to watch. And there are both brown and white pelicans, dive bombing down into the sea to catch their tea. A dynasty of doves adorns the roof tops, and every now and again a large ‘common black hawk’ – according to our bird book – drops onto a neighbouring wall and intimidates them! Iguanas are also a common sight throughout. In the blocks beside the sea, the sandy soil is full of sand crabs, ranging in size from two- three inches to the size of a large fist. There are yellowy –orange in colour. Because of the heavy rains, there are open storm drains along the roads. These can become open sewers in places, and in others are an extension of the sea. So all sorts of things are in them from rubbish, algae, sea weed, the dreaded mosquito, crabs, rats and probably much more. There are surprisingly few cats, and whilst more dogs, not as many as we expected. May be eaten by the homeless or hungry? There are also some canals which link parts of the sea to the Belize River.

Some things are extraordinarily cheap – like 6 delicious bananas for BZ$1 which is 25p. One apple or pear is over BZ$1! Much of the fruit and vegetables in the market were between BZ$1 – 1.50 per pound. The cost of staples has trebled here in 3 years, and many things are not dissimilar to prices in the UK. I really don’t know how these folk manage.

The houses are a mix too – the majority downtown are wooden, on stilts, and most of those are in a pretty poor condition. Sometimes I think a home has been abandoned only to spot some people in them. When they are cared for, they are very handsome. Even when dilapidated there is mostly a charm to them. Other modern buildings are concrete, and often gaily painted. The two central commercial streets have the typical combination of shop fronts with flats above, interspersed with the old wooden buildings. Ours is a third floor flat, which means access to the sea breeze, no rats or flies, and facing east so not getting the sun all day. All big pluses!

Caye Caulker – Day 3

Had a gorgeous day! Awoke at 5.30am again, got up and read some of the short stories by the Belizean women. So fascinating, touching, sad, and informative. Excited by it. Also hugely aware that Britain is about 50-60 years behind this country in its understanding and practice of multi-ethnicity. It feels almost a non issue here.  No doubt it is, and the signals are subtle and there will be a hierarchy ..

Caught the 8am water taxi to Caye Caulker. Took about an hour, through a sea which gradually became less contaminated by the river and sewage, a deep blue with splashes of kingfisher blue and turquoise. We passed myriads of islands, atolls, small clumps of trees emerging out of the sea, isolated, extraordinary….and all surrounded by surf on the horizons, as the sea passed over the barrier reef.

Stepping off the boat, we entered the Belize of our imagination, of Hemingway, an idyll. The tiny narrow island, about the size of Papa Westray in Orkney, is just lovely. Palm trees fringe the shore line – much like the Scots pines around a loch, but oh so different, and the spirit of the sea breeze revealed itself through a constant tic tic tic in the palms. Conch shells adorn the sand as if they belong there, and occasional spines protrude through the sandy bed of the sea. Lanes criss-cross the island like a chequer board, each revealing more shops, bars, restaurants, B&Bs, houses for rent….some new with shiny multicoloured frontages, others on stilts, weathered and wooden, in varying stages of repair or decay. Wandering down one we spied a large, magnificent tree, large palmate clusters of leaves with huge fruits dangling like monster Christmas baubles. The skin was rough as if it had a monster dose of goose pimples. We asked a man nearby, who had lifeguard written on his tee shirt, what it was – bread fruit.

Like in the City, every possible ethnic combination seems to live together without noticing. As we sat drinking our coffee and eating delicious hot banana bread – my first bread like food since arriving – we watched others arriving off boats, carrying their rucksacks, and sporting the same expressions of wonder that we felt. Somehow this place has become a tourist island, a Belizean Blackpool, yet managed to retain most of its charm. We wondered if we would be able to find other places without all the tourist paraphernalia once we know Belize better – but no doubt others will be looking for that too.

 Looking pleased!

We moved on to a swim in the sea…the nearest to a beach is at the top of the island – most of the shore line is a sea grass bed, with boat moorings. Shallows were protected by an old sea wall, which had a bright orange star fish patiently creeping up its side only to be knocked down from the top by a passing wave. The sea over the wall was deeper in places, then shallow again – Conor stood up saying he had suddenly become taller! A narrow channel separated Caulker from its small neighbour, and the tide that morning was racing through the deep channel, sending strange patterns of water scouring along stretches of the sea bed where we were swimming. Oh, and it was warm! Gloriously warm. Later in the day, after the tide had turned, the strange eddies had calmed. We noticed that the local kids and dogs began diving and jumping into the deep channel and swimming to the other island and back, virtual water babies, and obviously very certain about when to avoid that channel, and when to play.

As well as father’s day, the first time that Belize had ever played against Mexico in football, it was also the first day of the lobster season. We shared a freshly barbecued one for lunch, for the sum of BZ 25 – about £6! Fresh watermelon and pineapple juice to accompany it…

We wandered down to the far end of the island, much better preserved, less touristy less inhabited, before returning in the water taxi to Belize City. It seemed such a far cry from the idyll! Unfortunately we discovered that the washing machine is not plumbed in. Lots of things to address tomorrow – my first day!