Good looking!

There are so many different things I could say about our weekends at Crooked Tree, it is hard to know where to start. We did eventually find the starting place for the 5.05pm direct bus, and we are now recognising the faces, anticipating who will be on till Birds Isle, who will get off beforehand. There are the grandparents who go all the way up the northern highway almost to our turnoff, who have a sprinkling of grandchildren with them. The grandfather has a special connection with a wee boy, about 4 years old, who sits on his knee and they chatter together all the time; except, that is, when the man sees someone he knows along the way, when he invariably stands and calls something out the open window. “Good car there” or “How d’ya doin?” “Hey, man!”

Our bus conductor suddenly appears on the bus on the outskirts of the city. On Mondays we get the bus at 5.45 a.m., and it meanders around picking everyone up, and then sets off across the causeway about 6.15am. Having done it a few times, I now notice that he gets off the bus at the same place too. He carries the leather pouch which all the conductors use, taking the fares with him off the bus in the morning, and back on in the evening returning to CT. Our man is quite dapper. First of all I thought that unlike any other conductor I’ve seen here, he has his own version of a uniform: smart beige polo shirt and matching beige slacks with a leather belt. Most conductors wear jeans, or the baggy long shorts hanging off the hips with a tee shirt. Then the penny dropped – it is a uniform for the place he works in.

Travelling with him feels a bit like being a guest in his domain. He is very courteous to all his passengers, helping women and children on and off, passing out parcels, bags, even delivering things en route. He always checks with you first, standing quietly beside you with a small smile tucked into a cheek: “Would you like a hand with your bags?” “Shall I do that for you?” A bus conductor version of a “maitre d’”.

When we arrive on a Friday night, it is just getting dark, and by the time we have settled in and started cooking, night has fallen. But on Saturday and Sunday evenings, it is lovely to walk in the evening cool, and sit on the verandah catching the breeze. As the light fades tiny fairy lights begin to twinkle momentarily here and there across the grass, and amongst the undergrowth over the lane. Fire flies! They don’t last for long, and my understanding is that it is the same as the phosphorescence that the plankton glow with when you sail in the sea at night. As far as I can find out (Wikipedia) it works by organisms absorbing light and then releasing it at a slower rate.

We have got cockroaches here in CT, grandfather bull versions of them: not a lot but enough to make me wary. Conor brought up some special little contraptions – two layers of 2” by 4” about ¼” apart, with four wide entrances and some poison in the middle. We thought this was preferable to some ghastly spray that most folk seem to use. Trouble is, the two very large ones – one the standard Americanus version, the other more like an elongated pebble – have such sumo shoulders that we suspect that they won’t be able to reach the poison. Judging by the corpses, some can though. Conor managed to sweep one of the mega-roaches out the backdoor, but there is at least the other giant pebble, and one Americanus which is about 4”, an inch less than the other two. Maybe we will resort to the spray after all.

Corletta ambled over the road towards our gate the other day, and we welcomed her in. She came onto the verandah as we were tackling some of the mangoes (end of the season so not so good – bruised or damaged by insects) so we found her a chair and offered some of our fruit. She tucked in with relish, proving that there is no easy way to eat mangoes – just enjoy and mop up afterwards. She had an electricity bill for us, but we used the occasion to talk about all sorts of things. Conor found that she reflected his memories of an Irish childhood – she sat easily with us, talked touchingly about her recently dead husband while gazing out across the ‘yard’ (garden to you) and then when we had exhausted our conversation, quietly got up and took her leave, taking some mangoes for her extensive family with her.

It was very hot yesterday afternoon (it has been very hot everyday for the last two weeks) so we thought we would try again to see the croc that occasionally basks on the bank behind Bird Isle Lodge. We saw a very pretty blue heron, and a bird that we can’t decide whether it’s a rail or one of the small dumpy herons you get in these parts, but not a sign of the croc. The water level has gone down by about 8 feet from when we first ever came across the lagoon, and we guessed that we would probably be able to reach the board walk which is there for the birders in the winter and spring bird migrating season. It was glorious to be in there in the shade, dappled water underneath in parts, the mimosa and mangroves and flowering vines all around, the open lagoon a few feet to the right, the swampy – potential croc – pond to the left. But nothing larger than the heron and a few whistling ducks in sight. Plenty of small fish, frogs croaking, the occasional butterfly or damsel fly but not even an iguana. The cool was lovely though, and we went back to the start and just sat on the boards enjoying the soft breeze in the shade. We saw our fisherman and one of his sons start an outboard motor and set off across the lagoon. He was bailing out all the way, so we hoped the boat was safe! Before reaching the other side the boat stopped, and we trained our bins onto them. The son was setting the fishing nets – they must have repaired them since the HaligaTAHs got them.

Eventually we ventured out into the sun again, crossed in front of the Lodge and ambled up to the table and benches with a nice big wooden shelter on them. Christina was there chatting to the fisherman’s lads – Sons? Grandsons? We greeted them, and then I struck up a jokey bit with them, saying that I thought that it was just a story that there are crocs (HaligaTAHS) in the lagoon, to get people like us to come again and again looking for them. They enjoyed the banter, and we heard again how in the dry season, you can see them with out trying. (In fact this morning, Leonardo said you can see coatis and lots more really easily because the animals go to the narrow channel for water. Just have to come back in April!)  Christina said that she thought that the croc had moved out of the pond because a canoeist had gone in a couple of weeks ago when the water was higher. “I saw it yesterday” the elder boy said quickly, “on the hill”. At which point the younger raised his eyes heavenwards and said “You is just no good lookin”…..

Horse Power

“Remember Clare, horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow.”
 Said to me by Pat Jeffkins, my grandmother, about 1958.

Everywhere: on the end of your nose, between your toes, under your finger nails; a crusty sensation as the normally smooth movement of the blink of your eyelids is interrupted by salty granules.

The dampness of a humid atmosphere is quite remarkable (and people with arthritis suffer from the damp here just as much as in Scotland). When you move out of a room with ‘air con’, it envelopes you with the same alacrity and totality as a ha’ar off the North Sea. You are instantly – instantly! – clammy. It reminds me of post-it notes. Apparently their inventor spent ages trying to make a sticky substance that was sticky enough to stick but would release its hold when pulled. He obviously didn’t live in the tropics in the rainy season.  There’s an old-fashioned sort of formality here (it goes along with the bureaucracy, I suppose) which includes hand-shaking as well as the ‘Miss X’ or ‘Mr. Y’. And there the post-it note sensation happens – my hand lingers just fractionally too long against theirs as we release our grip.

If you are sitting absorbed in something, and fail to notice that one surface of an arm or leg is against another for any length of time, suddenly you feel a trickling sensation following a gravitational path. Or you shift your position, as you do, and find a virtual pooling between your thighs.
I have discovered the relative merits of weights of fabric. My two cotton voile blouses of which I am very fond don’t quite do the trick. Or rather, have a trick of their own which is most unpleasant. Just as a damp piece of toilet paper sticks to a surface like a second skin, my once-loved voile does the same – a wet layer of cloth adhering to your flesh, and needing to be peeled away like skin. Horrible. My 100% linen shirt, which before I came I had assumed would be really useful, is too heavy, too hot when it is both humid and high temperatures. (Inland, where the humidity is less and the evenings are cooler, the linen can be about right.)  The couple of tops which are mixes of linen and cotton, or of heavier cotton, are the best; cool enough to be comfortable, and robust enough to be able to absorb some of the sweat without leaving me looking like – or feeling like – a washing line.

Occasionally I do glow, it’s true. I catch my reflection off a window, in a glass picture frame or a mirror. There is a shine across my whole face. When I was little, there were rare occasions when someone dropped a thermometer and the beads of magical mercury spread across the floor. I remember Sister Annunciata, matron at my school, sent one flying once as she shook the thermometer to bring the mercury down to normal before taking my temperature. I had been in isolation in the San. with some contagious ailment or other, and it was the most interesting thing that had happened to me for days! I spent hours on my hands and knees, gathering up the precious fluid, marvelling at how close each bead was to the other before there was a sudden ‘whoosh’ and the two became one. Painstakingly, you could move around the floor and garner up more and more. One false move and you had to start all over again. Great occupation when nothing else to do.

(I remember while in there listening to Radio Luxemburg on my little transistor, ear pieces in so the nuns couldn’t hear, and one of chart toppers was a song called ‘Hold the ladder steady’ or some such. Its words were perfect for someone locked in a convent sanatorium, and I still remember how the chorus goes:

“James, James, hold the ladder steady,
 James, James, I’m packed and I am ready
 I’m a-coming down to your ah-ah-arms
 I’m a-coming down to your arms.”

For years I thought it was because like most of my relationship-obsessed school friends, I wanted to fall in love. I now see it was eloping to freedom!!)

But to get to my point: beads of sweat, or ‘glowing’ to Grandma, are all well and good. But there is a critical point when many become one, and there ain’t much you can do about it, it seems to me, whether sweat or mercury.

When I worked in Dundee, the architect of the very modern building had made a few interesting touches. Rain water was channelled off the roof (into a water barrel or two here in Beisle Cottage) so that it streamed down a sheet of clear Perspex. It was quite effective, and folk could while away a few minutes watching the patterns the water made as it cascaded down. I have substituted the Perspex for Conor’s back. Actually, it is what in Process Work we would call a coupled channel experience. What I see on his back I can simultaneously feel on my own. Sweat pours off his head (particularly when wearing a sun hat, which in this heat in the high 90F over the last two weeks, is essential) round his ears, drips off his hair, down the back of his neck, to meet his broad back with glee. A large surface area to move around on as it flows ever-downwards. Sweat, like all liquids, follows the line of least resistance, so there is really only one place that this designer waterfall can end up in.

In BC, we have a fan strategically angled at night so that it ripples over the top of our bodies. (We have purchased a quiet fan because the one in the apartment was like trying to sleep on Heathrow runway. I think I have already told you that.) Fortunately the bed is large so we can both lie spread-eagled without any danger of inadvertently creating the sixth Great Lake in the middle of the night.

At least here in Crooked Tree I am sitting typing away in the shade of the verandah on a late Sunday afternoon, the glare of the mid-afternoon heat now receding, enjoying the cool breeze which has come in over the last couple of hours. Oh, and here the clamminess goes at night – whatever the temperature during the day. What a relief!

Laughing All The Way Home

I was out early (back in Maya Mountain Lodge but doing it cheap-skate this time, taking advantage of their kind discount to volunteers) exploring the rainforest and trying to find the motmot, or at least a trogon or toucan, when I heard a huge din coming from quite high up above and slightly behind me on the hillside. I had just had a conversation with a member of staff that I nearly walked into as I walked backwards with my monocular against my eye, who told me that the trogons and toucans usually go to the top of those trees about 2pm when it’s very hot, singing noisily. Could this be them eight hours early, I wondered. Excitedly, I followed the noise. It was truly loud, and was obviously two, not quite calling and responding, rather being a demi-semi-quaver out from each other. And raucous! Repeated sounds again and again and again. 

I clambered up the path, convinced that I should see them any moment it was so loud, but all the time the noise led me further on and up. The thick tangle of trees and vines revealed neither parrot nor parakeet, toucan nor trogon. At least, not yet….The mantra drew me on, till I reached a clearing near the brow of the slope, and still I could hear it further away from me. I looked across to where the trees started again, and suddenly saw two very large birds sitting facing outwards, one above the other, on the bare exposed stumpy limbs of two dead branches in a tree. They were still a good two hundred yards away, and still raucous! Using my monocular, I could see they were each about 2 feet long, yellow and black markings, and I wondered if they were parrots. My stupid glasses could not give me a good enough resolution on the head parts, but they seemed beaky.

(I am learning fast that you need the resolution because to identify birds accurately, you need to check out the relevant bits. Thus, to identify a parrot accurately would be to clock the beak, head shape and the tail. The black collared hawk of the other weekend was its tail length being the same as its wings, and so forth. There is also another fascinating thing called ‘the giss’ – the overall shape, flight pattern and feeling tone of a bird. For example, and these are easy because they also look very different, a duck’s flight is different to a heron’s, or a flock of starlings move very differently to the fractal pattern of lapwings.)

I watched entranced, and then the birds quietened as suddenly as they had started. I went into the Lodge’s dining area where I knew they had a bird book (ours was in Crooked Tree) and began the second round – the fun of identifying the ‘find’. I scoured the parrots, the parakeets and the trogons. None was quite so big, none was yellow and black. Hmmm. I went further afield, and suddenly saw the exact yellow and black markings – yellow head and breast, black back, yellow and black barred tail. I read the details – forested area, in pairs, 22 inches, diet of snakes and small lizards to supplement…guess what its name was? Unforgettable! The Laughing Falcon!!! The description of the call, and the slightly out of sync duet meant that they were unmistakable, and never to be forgotten! The falcons’ hooky beak which my silly monocular didn’t clarify enough would be suitably blurrily similar to have mistaken for a parrot.  By this time Conor had joined me, and I lead him back up and through the trees so he could see them too, sitting serenely on their perches like a pair of Grecian vases.

Anyway, to the point of it all. When we had first come to the Lodge, on my birthday weekend, we had met a woman who told us about someone called Rosita Arvigo who had adopted, or been adopted by, a local traditional healer or shaman. We didn’t pay too much attention, but then Conor found a book by Rosita in a local store. He was fascinated, and decided that he would like to pay Don Elijio’s successors a visit.  We discovered that they lived in San Antonio, a village near the Lodge, and decided to do a quick sprint up on the Saturday and down on the Sunday. Conor wondered if some traditional herbs may help his overall health and well-being.

We arrived about 10.30am, good old buses, and enjoyed mooching around the fabulous market, burgeoning with produce. We are still finding fruits and veg that are completely new to us, and enjoying the tasting! Knowing our way, we wandered up the short cut over the hill to the Lodge, and settled back into the Parrot Perch. The charm of the place was still potent, and different flowers were blooming everywhere as the rainy season unfolds. We had intended to visit the Rainforest Medicine Trail, but it was an exceedingly hot day (it’s been a very un-rainy two weeks) and because of the high canopy of trees, darkness descends much earlier than sunset in the wooded areas. The most helpful Emily agreed with our decision to wait till Sunday, and told us about Xunantunich, about 1 mile from the Guatemalan border, and 15 minutes in the bus from San Ignacio. We walked back to the market, picked up some bananas (10 for 25p) and cashews for lunch, and set off. The bus stops right by the hand-winched cable ferry across the Mopan River – one of Belize River’s two tributaries – which moves broadly and shallowly and pretty fast down through the mountains and out to sea in Belize City. Once over to the other bank, we had a 2 mile walk up to the site on a well paved road through less dense rainforest, full of loads of dancing moths and butterflies. They seemed particularly fond of some chamomile-like flowers growing beside the road. Being very hot, we were grateful for any shade as we made our way uphill. Conor noticed a movement beside us, and then a greyish brown shape became clearer as it snuffled through the grassy verge. As it got closer, apparently oblivious to or unconcerned about us, we saw the pattern of rings on its tough back plating, long thin tail, long piggy snout and relatively big ears – an armadillo!

Xunantunich – pronounced ‘Shun…’ – is a most impressive site, with huge pyramids and friezes, mostly active between 600-1000AD. (There are some good photos.) It was also a fantastic way to get a panoramic view of the region – Guatemala, Cayo and the Pine Mountain Ridge. Because of the never-ending border disputes between Belize and Guatemala, the site is also guarded by both police and soldiers sporting M16 rifles. Not Kalashnikovs, one told us ruefully! They enjoyed being at the top of the highest pyramid too – great look out! As we sat under the shade of some trees, we realised they were dripping in avocados, so initiated ourselves in the art of avocado scrumping…

Once more we were entranced as this fascinating country revealed its treasures, whether flora or fauna, landscape or architecture.

Later that evening we were perplexed as to what to do. Emily had told us a. that the Medicine Trail was no longer kept properly and really wasn’t very interesting, and b. indicated that in order to get there up-river by canoe and pay for tickets etc., it would cost an astronomical US$ 75 each. We had come all this way to make contact with Ix Chel, and it seemed that the Trail was not where it was at. We went back to both Rosita’s book and the Guide book, and were wondering whether to visit San Antonio directly. A bit irritable because the pilgrimage wasn’t working, we were approached by a gentle member of staff asking about the next day’s tour. We explained that we were not going to do it after all, but will probably go to San Antonio. We asked if buses ran there on Sundays, and as we suspected, he said no. But, he explained, he lived there and everyone hitches rides with the local passing traffic, all of whom give lifts in their pick-ups if they have room. “Is it safe?” we asked anxiously. He reassured us that it was completely safe, and we recalled how the same thing is done at Crooked Tree across the causeway on a Sunday. He said you can offer BZ$3 but most do it for free. Conor mentioned why we were going, and this young man said that his father was one of the apprentices who took over the healing practices when Don Elijio Panti died aged 103. Then we knew we were on the right track!

After our meeting with the laughing falcon and a great breakfast, despite our grey hair we stuck out our thumbs along the stony unpaved road. A couple of pickups passed, full, and then a big blue 4×4 came by. He passed, stopped, and asked us where we going. Ok, he said. As we got in I remarked that he sounded like a Brit, to which he replied “So do you!” About 35 years, he manages Fyffe’s banana export business down south in Independence. He has a house in Basingstoke, and was here for 3 years, and had just returned for 3 months to help out for a bit. He was on a jolly, just exploring, and once he was confident that he had enough gas in his tank (petrol to you!) he took us all the way to San Antonio. Although only about 15 miles from the Lodge, it is a relatively slow and pot-holey ride through a deeply rain-forested area, past the village of Christo Rey and on to San Antonio which is nestled in a wide and lovely natural basin. The main area of the reserve, full of trees and mountains, is ahead of you as you approach. Both San Antonio and Christo Rey were spick and span little places, full of the usual range and style of houses, but both with a feeling of being well-cared for even if a very simple wooden thatched house. We knew roughly where to go from Eric’s description the evening before, and made our way up towards the school and some thatched houses. Getting final directions, we approached a wooden house on a hillside. Jerome Coc came out to see us, a short man of typical Mayan features, and said that he did indeed do healing, and yes it was fine to do such things on a Sunday.

He led us into a small wooden room which had a door and one window. It had a simple dirt floor, a couple of wooden shelves and also the typical 3 legged stool of these parts. It was very clean and tidy. A curtain hung over a doorway into the larger part of the wooden building. A tattered photo of Don Elijio was hanging from a nail on the wall behind us, and on the opposite wall was a drawn replica of the Mayan God of the Rainforest. Conor and I sat on stools as Jerome stood up directly in front of Conor and asked him lots of questions. He didn’t take his eyes off him, which were smiley and still at the same time. Then Jerome disappeared into his main house and came back with the leaves of wild coffee, explaining to Conor how to make an infusion, and how to take it both internally and externally. He then burnt some copal incense in a small pan, wafting the smoke over Conor and also over the leaves, the whole time intoning a prayer to the spirits in Spanish. I could hear that bits of it incorporated the Catholic liturgy, as the Mayans have been able to modify their deities to fit the catholic ‘spirits’, thus managing to hold onto some of their older beliefs and customs without alienating the Spanish Catholics when they took over their lands.

And then it was all over. Conor had a donation for the spirits, we shook hands and said goodbye, and managed to get two lifts in the back of pick-ups to Christo Rey and San Ignacio. We leaped up and into the trucks with finesse, and chuckled to ourselves about being two grey-haired grandparents squatting on spare tyres in the back of pick-ups in a jungle, surrounded by the shy, curious smiles of Mayan children!

Ducking and Diving

(27 July)
A couple of weekends ago after meeting up with Mr. S. at Crooked Tree, and negotiating to take on the little house, we decided to try out some snorkeling on the barrier reef the next day before we were committed to spending each weekend at CT for the next month at least. (I am a bit behind with this – out of sequence!)

The most northerly part of the barrier reef lies very close to the island of San Pedro, which if you look at a map you can see is actually really close to the main land of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. As you move further down the Belizean coast, the reef and the atolls and cayes are further from the mainland. This means that the more developed touristy bits are to the north, close to human habitation, and the marine reserves and more remote cayes are further away from the coast to the south and east. Since both Conor and I have the self-deceptive trait of not identifying as tourists as we travel around (!) we have decided that we are not even going to try San Pedro. So it was back to the Caye Caulker Water Taxi Terminal on Sunday morning, aiming for Caye Caulker, which is a little further south than San Pedro, and yet still with the barrier reef not so very far off shore as to make snorkeling expensive.

We arrived at 10am, and wandered down the lane, looking at what was on offer. At 10.30, there was a boat to the reef, 3 stops, and one with sting rays. The man behind the counter rang to see if we were too late or if it were full, and we got the OK. He fitted us out with flippers and snorkels, and we wandered out to meet Harry. Harry was a delight. Very athletic, with a good male version of the interesting hair I was writing about earlier! Most if it is in tight twists about 3 inches long, with the bottom 2 centimeters of his hair line cut short. The last half centimeter of each twist is died blond, and the effect is very stylish!

Harry has a great job! He takes folk like us out each morning and afternoon in a small motor craft equipped with an essential sun canopy, and guides them through the corals, pointing out the wild life. What a joy. He led about 12 of us onto the boat with an exclamatory “It is far too hot today to do anything but go in the sea” – and than motored towards the line of gentle surf we have been able to see breaking on the horizon everywhere we looked at the Caribbean from Belize. When in Belize City it is way out on the far horizon, white surf with the occasional palm tree or two sticking up. Here at Caye Caulker we joined about 4 other similar crafts moored on the lee side of the reef within about seven minutes. The white sand and clear sea were inviting, especially as the heat grew more intense. The 12 of us were a mixed bunch. Conor and I were the oldest there, with two other couples in their forties, all properly equipped for the task. They had diving boots, underwater cameras, harpoons, and the rest. The others were young back-packers and holiday makers. One Flemish couple had just arrived from Cancun in the Yucatan, and were on their way to Honduras.  When we were asked during one break whether we were on holiday too, and explained we lived here, we got some surprised glances from the younger ones. I mentioned the term ‘grey gap year’, and there was some laughter!

Harry secured the boat to a small buoy, checked whether everyone could swim, and whether anyone needed a life jacket. This was followed by a little homily about ecology: the rules for snorkeling and diving are no touching, no breaking, no standing. He then asked if everyone could snorkel. Conor has had difficulty trusting the snorkel in the past – his chronic rhinitis has led him to panic in the water, and he has had to re-educate himself to trust he can breathe each time we have had a snorkeling episode over the last few years. But he has always got there. So we kept quiet and hoped he would be OK this time too. Harry encouraged us to put our gear on and go overboard. We all lathered ourselves in sun protection, and some folk also wore tee shirts and baseball caps with a neck guard too.

As usual the warm sea was a joy to be in. We swam around the boat as folk gathered, and then he told us to follow him. I lingered, waiting to see how Conor would do, and after a minute or two of spluttering, he said that he would stay around the boat for this leg, just getting more confident again before swimming out a bit. Reluctantly I left him behind, but also sensed it was the right decision.

The shoal of large flippery fish followed our guide through the underwater garden of the coral reef. Harry would point something out – sea urchin, species of fish, type of coral, and then surface and call its name. One can hear quite well when snorkeling like that. The varieties were astonishing. Elks head corals, delicate fan coral, some corals with the most intricate, repeating patterns as if off a Byzantine temple or an Islamic mosque, with corals of every colour imaginable. Harry would suddenly dive down, then come up with something for us to hold and pass round to one another: a pink – and harmless – sea urchin; a spiny black star fish; or a sea grape, which is an algae. There were myriads of fish – big ones, small ones, solitary fish and fish in clusters. One tiny fish massed in clouds, and looked like a swarm of Scottish midges on a damp day. They were called something like thousands! The corals are full of nooks and crannies, and as you hover and watch more and more fish reveal themselves to you with a flutter of a fin here or flash of colour there.

Some were familiar after Gemma’s exploits with tropical fish tanks in her childhood, and some more mysterious, but a fish shyly coming round a corner on a coral reef is vastly different to peering through the murky sides of an algae-stained fish tank on a damp Scottish day! It is truly a world of its own, and just as the bejewelled damsel flies and dragonflies danced through the air in the creek, so too, the shimmering colourful scales of the fish did not fail to entrance.

At one point, Harry pointed to a large fish in the distance, and said “Barracuda”. I kept my distance from the pale silver form, about 3 feet long and with sharp teeth, eyeing us up from quite near the surface of the water.  Fortunately it seemed as wary of us as I was of it!

Eventually we made our way back to Conor and the boat. He was looking a lot happier, and ready to join in the next lap. Up the steps we trooped, and Harry very kindly made a supportive comment to Conor about being terrified in the air but confident in the sea. Conor decided he was too old to be embarrassed about lack of competence in snorkeling! We cast off from the mooring, and moved further down the reef for a few minutes. Here the sand was flat and the sea shallow, no obvious coral around. Suddenly Harry began throwing pieces of fish into the sea that he had been chopping with a machete (pronounced ‘mashet’ here, and everyone carries them like one would a pen knife at home). Within seconds, there were about 10 sting rays swimming very fast around the boat. Apparently some years ago, the fishermen used to clean their catch in this area, and the sting rays learned to go to the boats. As tourism grew, it was useful to keep the practice up! Harry got into the waist-high water, and was happily holding the rays, encouraging us to, too. Again I was a wimp and kept my distance! Nevertheless they were swimming fast around and between all of our legs. I could see that he was completely confident in handling the fish, and they did not seem to be disturbed. The rays’ bodies are fairly thin, and are like one enormous roast plate of rippling muscle. The back bone is very strong, extending through its whole body, the large and sharp three inch sting protruding out about 2/3 of the tail’s length. The round mouth is on the underside, and by feeding one a piece of fish still held in his hand, Harry held a ray up to show us that it really was not dangerous. He was hugely cynical about Steve Irwin who was killed by a ray, claiming that the man just did not know how to handle them. The only time they would be likely to attack under normal circumstances was if you were to tread on one when it was basking in the sand. (Conor said later that Steve Irwin was notoriously a bit gung-ho about wild creatures, so maybe the animal kingdom had a lesson to teach him.)

Encouraging us to stay in the water for a bit longer, playing with them, Harry climbed aboard and did some more chopping. He suddenly pointed just beyond the rays and said that there was a large barracuda – about 6 or 7 feet long – coming for a feed too. That was enough for me and as fast as decorum would have it I clambered aboard! In dribs and drabs, others came up for the relief of the canopy, and also to enjoy the fruits that we discovered that Harry had been chopping for us. As we were eating I asked Harry if he thought the barracuda were dangerous. He said that they would generally leave you alone, unless you were swimming towards a part of the coral where they were trapped, or where they had young. Then they would come for you. I told the boat how a friend of my parents had been bitten on the leg by a barracuda, and then died of a heart attack. A ripple of laughter went round!

It was at this stage that some of us began to realise that Harry’s words about it being a hot day were accurate, and despite our protective unguents, various lobsters were proving to be aboard too. Shaded, fruited, and watered, we moved on to our third and final stop. This was closer to the reef again but not such deep water as the first dive. This was a free swim, and after being reminded again not to touch, break or stand on the reef, we set off. Conor was perfectly happy now, ducking and diving with the best of us, and we spent a most enjoyable forty five minutes gazing down at the world beneath us.

It was a very contented crew that was dropped back at the jetty two and a half hours later. We made our way over to a little café for some lunch, and began to meander up to the swimming place at the top of the island. I was beginning to be more acutely aware that the whole of my back and neck, upper arms, and unbelievably, also my upper thighs despite being underwater most of the time, had actually had quite a roasting. As we passed one woman on a stall, she stretched her limbs and exclaimed about how oppressive the heat was that day. And as we approached the swimming area, Conor declared that he thought he had some sun stroke, and sat propped up under the shade of a palm tree. I had a short swim, but also felt that probably enough was enough. I reflected that because there had not been much rain recently, it was less humid, and I had been mistaking having more energy as being less hot – wrongly! It was blisteringly hot and very dry – what the locals call ‘hurricane fuel’. We enjoyed the laziness of the palm tree, and then made our way back to the water taxi, Conor still feeling a little wan but not too bad.

The following day we were acutely aware of our intense pink bits, parts of my thighs I am not usually aware of at all. Conor felt a lot better after a sleep and lots of water, but when I got into work, I discovered that another volunteer on his second weekend here had also been at Caye Caulker for the whole weekend. He had been a bit blasé about the need for sun protection, thinking that he never burned, and ended up with a very severe dose of sun stroke on Saturday night: fever, sickness, headaches, the works. He looked a terrible brown /red colour on Monday morning, and was so sore that he could not bend down or move quickly for three days. It was horrible to witness how badly he was burnt, the effects of which lasted a good week.

Crocodile Hunting

4 August

On Sunday we did hire a canoe from the Lodge, as we couldn’t wait any longer for a boat. Apart from the torrential shower that fell just after we got into the lagoon (we went ashore again and waited for 25 minutes till it passed) we spent the most magical of hours drifting quietly along the creek.

Try to imagine:
Picture yourself
On a boat
On a river
With tangerine trees
And marmalade skies
Suddenly something is standing before you
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes…

Well, it wasn’t Lucy, or LSD for that matter, but it was magical!

No doubt in the dry season, this is a sandy pathway running for a couple of miles along the edge of the mud/sand flats. But right now, it is a creek. We are seated in a canoe, still ever-hopeful to see a croc or at least a turtle, both of which need to sun themselves to keep their reptilian bodies happy. The sudden torrential downpour which has just ceased will probably scupper that, but we are ever hopeful!

The quality of stillness is hard to describe. The creek runs for about 3 miles parallel with the main body of the lagoon, and the banks – well, not banks because it all emerges out of the water – are lined with mangroves and mimosa, all interwoven with flowering plants and creepers. The lagoon frequently has a prevailing east wind straight off the Caribbean, which is about 20 miles away as the crow flies. From Birds Eye Lodge, you paddle south for about ¼ mile, passing a bay with some of the horses that roam everywhere standing knee high in the water. Then, carefully navigating some old rotting bits of mimosa bush poking out of the water, you enter the mouth of the creek. Almost immediately the waterway is sheltered from the wind. One of the loveliest things about canoes is their silence and manoeuvrability. Partly because we were hoping to surprise a basking croc upon the sprawls of dead wood dotted everywhere, and partly just because of the place itself, we settled into a rhythm of silent paddling together. I am in the front, paddling either to the right or left, and Conor’s in the back, more of a cull position, steering us round. Some of the overhanging branches had some webs, spiders more or less visible, more or less large, and on those occasions when we were nearer than I wished, the paddle came in useful as a stick to push the offending bits well and truly out of my way! (I am my daughter’s mother, yes I admit to being not too fond of spiders either!) The creek was varying from about 7 feet to 15 feet in width, though with occasional mimosa strands poking up in front of you. Damsel flies and dragon flies abound, every colour of the rainbow, dancing so delicately around you, around the bushes, occasionally alighting upon a foot or side of the canoe. Brilliant sapphire blue, deep ruby red, emerald green, azure, and ochre – the jewels shimmered and soared. Lucy was in the sky with her diamonds.

Every now and then one or other of us would point hopefully at a piece of gnarled wood protruding above the water, perfectly mimicking a croc’s eye, but alas none was to be seen! Even the bird life was pretty silent in there – it was about 3pm which is the hottest part of the day and not the best for birding. We saw nothing new – at least as far as we were aware – but we enjoyed every minute. Keeping an eye on the time – our hire was for an hour – we turned round and made our way through a thinner part of the mangrove, ducking and pushing branches out of the way as we went into the main lagoon. Conor spotted a blue jay (Uniform Jay) just as we emerged out, a brilliant blue scuttling into the undergrowth, and a little later we saw a large green iguana going for a swim on the end of a branch suspended just above the water.

The sheer absence of anything but the channel of water, vegetation and the occasional drip from the recent rain, accompanied by the near silent swish of the paddle, created an atmosphere that was irresistible. We did hope that Uriah will find us a boat.

11 August

A week later found us in the same creek… As I said, irresistible, and we still hadn’t found a croc or turtle. This time it was a little more windy, and we had the canoe for up to 2 hours, ever hopeful! We made our way through the waterway, navigating the rogue branches, dodging the webs, and continuing the pas des deux with the damselflies and dragon flies. We went further down the channel, aiming towards some of the large broad leaved trees we could see in the distance, guessing that they must be on terra firma. No wet roots holding up those big beauties. We resumed our teamwork with the paddles, and our silent gesturing at ghosts! Slowly we meandered into new territory, parts of the channel becoming quite broad with less dense foliage between us and the lagoon. Still the broadleaves beckoned, so we paddled on. The channel narrowed, with the taller trees and shrubs towering over us. A crackle caught our attention, and to my great excitement I saw about a 2 foot long, quite thick tail with a curl in its end moving down a tree trunk. I couldn’t see any more, but Conor could see its body too. He describes it as about the size of a dog, but with the bottom of a cat rather than a monkey. There are dark brown /black howler monkeys here, but in our guide books it refers to coatis being on the reserve. We looked up both – good old Google – and the coatis fits the bill! Related to the racoon, it’s about the size of a dog, right colouring, and thick tail. How very exciting!

We were close to the big trees now, branches spreading high above us, and the creek becoming just a few inches shallow at this point, before deepening again. Suddenly we saw a flash of chestnut, large, fly out from the left, low, swoop up a bit, and into the foliage further down the same side. Eyes glued, we paddled on, hoping to get a better view. Out it swooped again, and we managed to get a good look before it disappeared into the canopy. It had wide chestnut wings and a short tail. We reckoned an eagle or hawk. Our bird book confirmed the Black-collared hawk, and the guide book also said that this is one of the animals alongside the coatis, howler monkeys and crocodiles one might see in the reserve! Two down, two to go…