The guides were the ones insisting now that each of us demonstrate a “wet exit”—the technical term for escaping an over-turned craft.”
Belize was Aly’s idea. He liked to travel to places before tourists discovered them, as if he weren’t a tourist; he spoke proudly in that way about traveling in Peru and China and Cambodia—he’d gone before shuttle buses and English translations, before all the mines had been swept. But for Belize, (for my sake?), he’d signed us up with a reputable trekking company. Guides would lead our small group into the ocean for six days sea kayaking and snorkeling along a chain of tiny islands—part of the planet’s second largest barrier reef.
The guides were the ones insisting now that each of us demonstrate a “wet exit”—the technical term for escaping an over-turned craft. Sea kayaks are larger and heavier than their fresh water cousins; they need to be sturdier in the swells. Plus, we were in two-person boats. To tip one of these suckers both people had to rock in synchrony, build up enough momentum to jerk a gunwale high out of the water, and roll the kayak over itself sideways. Moses and Karm, our Belizean guides, demonstrated exits in their singles. Two dark heads popped up neatly beside the capsized boats.
I peered into the turquoise water. Black shapes shifted below…
“Yo upper body gonna hit ear-first,” yelled Karm. “Roll ‘till yo head point bottom. Den pull de cord.”
I tugged a few snaps open on the kayak skirt, just in case the release valve wasn’t so handy.
We took turns capsizing, gliding our boats close enough for either Karm or Moses to supervise. Two by two we dunked ourselves into the blue and came up sputtering and laughing.
I have forgotten most of their names. There was a father and his university student son, placid Ontarians; one of them was in mathematics. Long-limbed twenty-somethings from Chicago who made a lot of eye contact with each other. I assumed they were dating. A sunburnt scuba fanatic who owned an oil company, or maybe it was oil field, somewhere in northern Alberta. Red-haired Kirstie from Napa Valley who had introduced herself as newly divorced. I liked Kirstie, and the Santa Barbara twins were good souls too, but our favorites were Bill and Nancy from Alaska. They were weather-beaten and genuine. They paddled, and argued, in great zigzags. Bill had worked for Chevron for decades in various parts of the world, and he was coming up for reassignment soon. Nancy was rooting for Australia.
I suppose Aly and I played the part of couple-with-young-kids, finally alone together. It was the together part we were having trouble with.
On that first day, our group paddled four and a half hours, avoiding stretches of open sea as much as possible in favour of the lee of small sandy cayes. Sometimes we rested, holding on to the tips and tails of each others’ kayaks. At last we arrived at Tobacco Caye: a hump of sand crowded with cabins in the colours of ice cream and shaded by palms and almond trees. Hammocks had been strung between many of them. The owners of our guesthouse were already at work preparing our dinner, hacking with machetes at fish and coconuts.
I suppose Aly and I played the part of couple-with-young-kids, finally alone together. It was the together part we were having trouble with.”
Three weeks earlier a hurricane had hit the capital, Belize City, and demolished a third of its flimsy infrastructure.”
Each couple was designated a one-room cabin on stilts at the water’s edge. In ours, Aly lay down to read a book. I wandered the island barefoot with my camera, inhaling the scent of cooking spices, then stretched out in a hammock to flip through one of the aquatic guides in Karm’s portable library.
Later, Karm gave us his “fish talk,” in which he tried to educate us land-locked fools about the reef species.
“I doan wanna hear no one say dey saw a red fish. Say dey saw a blue fish! Naw. You say, ‘look Karm, here a squirrelfish,’ ‘here a parrotfish’.” Karm had a gold tooth that glinted in the sun, and a smile always tugging at the corners of his mouth. Like a lot of Belizeans, he took his job seriously, but he didn’t take life seriously. How could they? Three weeks earlier a hurricane had hit the capital, Belize City, and demolished a third of its flimsy infrastructure. Luckily, the storm had missed these outlying ocean cayes. None of the little clapboard buildings could have withstood it.
Karm led our first guided snorkel from one of the docks of Tobacco Caye. I’m not a nautical person—you couldn’t pay me to go on a cruise—but the shallow seas are worth braving. To be immersed in such astounding wildlife, to be close to otherworldly creatures as they go about their ordinary lives—for me, it is one of the purest pleasures I have found. The 155 mile-long Belize Barrier Reef is pristine, reputedly perfect for snorkelling and scuba. I was eager to explore, but not so eager to do it in a flipper-flapping herd. And how much, I thought to myself, could you really see from a dock entry?
A lot, if you have a guide who knows what to look for. In seconds, Karm could dive down fifteen feet to point out a slender trumpetfish, hiding in a rock crevice, or disturb a flounder who’d camouflaged itself in the sand. From the shelter of the caye, we swam out to the reef, where the water swelled and darkened and teemed with life. Silver schools of grunts—so called because of the sound they make when hauled into fishing boats—spotted trunkfish, petite and colourful wrasses, the electric blue striped triggerfish, pale hogfish with their glowing orange eyes…The corals were just as exotic. From the boulder-sized brain coral, to the pink-orange tentacles of anemones to bathtub-sized enfoldings of lettuce coral, the reef itself was alive, reaching and blooming and shivering. The closer I looked, the more I saw—a cleaning station, where tiny wrasses pecked at a butterfly fish. Two clownfish, in a nesting dance. A tiny, dappled seahorse, clinging and swaying beside me, pretending to be a twig. A healthy reef is a busy reef; this one rivaled Bombay in rush hour. Except silent.
We snorkellers didn’t talk to each other much—after all, you wanted to have your face in the water to take in all that colourful commotion. Aly and I didn’t say much to each other, we didn’t have to say much to each other either. We tended to follow different specimens. I wondered if they could hear me, these odd creatures. Did they smell my sunscreen? Sense my hot, pulsing blood? Sometimes, one of the larger, solitary fish would roll an eye upward. And of course, there were some species, like the rock lobster, who darted away immediately. But most members of the great reef community simply continued about their business. Though my knees ached from churning stiff rubber fins against the seawater, and my fingertips had long gone pruny, I would have floated in the ocean’s vast silence all day. I loved these aliens in their alien homes. Around us, there was so much beauty.
I wondered if they could hear me, these odd creatures. Did they smell my sunscreen? Sense my hot, pulsing blood?”
The sunset bar had a balcony, the nightlife bar had a few tables in the sand and a boombox playing reggae. Until Karm showed up with his drum.”
Sunsets are another specialty of the tropics. Belizeans like to enjoy them with rum or beer. On Tobacco Caye, just above the dock where we’d begun our snorkel, there was the sunset bar—so named because that was where you went at sunset. A hundred yards away, on a different patch of frontage, another bar specialized in nightlife. (On the east side of the tiny island, I’d heard, you could drink facing the rising sun.) The sunset bar had a balcony, the nightlife bar had a few tables in the sand and a boombox playing reggae. Until Karm showed up with his drum.
Karm, it turned out, was a garifana. Part African, part Arawak Indian, the garinagu (that’s the plural of garifana), were kicked off the Island of St. Vincent and moved to Belize in the 19th century, most of them settling at Dandriga. They brought with them drumming songs and dances. Karm played us a few different rhythms on a tall drum made the old-fashioned way—hollowed out of a mayflower trunk. Traditionally, there’s a dynamic relationship between the drummer and his audience: the drummer challenges the dancer to follow his beat, and the dancer challenges the drummer to follow his steps. We were just white tourists, struggling to keep the beat. Karm gave me and Kirstie a chance to strike. My hands were way too slow, I knew, but I couldn’t speed them up! And I couldn’t help laughing. With the drums and the sea-scented air and the Belikin beer, what could possibly be wrong? So what if Aly wasn’t going to dance. He’d never liked dancing. At the bar, he looked deep in conversation with the oil baron.
“Ah, so there’s an estrangement,” our therapist had said. This was a realization for her.
I nodded in despair and looked past her out the tiny window. Du-uh.
Aly and I were in our sixth session of counseling, at the time—hours and hours of polite, mediated, arguments concerning such thorny subjects as how frequently kids toys ought be cleared from the floor and by whom. How much housework was it reasonable to expect a stay-at-home mom to accomplish while caring for an infant and a toddler? And if this mother used naptime, even babysitter time, to write short stories instead of doing dishes—maybe that was just selfish. Formerly interesting people, we had somehow wandered into heartrendingly clichéd territory. We fought viciously, daily. We held grudges. Mind you, one of things we came to agree on was that our therapist: she sucked. We quit.
And yet, there was an estrangement. An estrangement, an estrangement. If I thought about it too long or too often, the fact fleshed itself out. We had given birth to an invisible third child and in bed it lay, spiteful, between us. For years I’d been trying and failing to reach around it. Ever notice you’re the only one trying? the nasty thing used to whisper to me. Well I had a reply now, and maybe I was even a little smug about it. I’m not the only one, trying, I could say. We’re in Belize, aren’t we?
At night, though, in our cabin, all we did was sleep. And during “free” daytime hours, when the group wasn’t snorkeling or kayaking, Aly sunk himself into books. “I don’t see why this was one of Heather’s Picks,” he said. “Your stuff is better than this.” He napped. He chatted with Bill about the stock markets.
We had given birth to an invisible third child and in bed it lay, spiteful, between us.”
In patches, though, the coral fields were pale and coated with silt.”
From Tobacco Caye, our group paddled along a shallow section of the reef to our next destination at Southwater Caye. Midway we stopped, anchored and strapped on our gear. In the water, Moses pointed out groupers, barracuda, and a small species of squid, to add to a growing list of sea life. Moses was naturally quieter than Karm, but equally fearless in the water. He fetched a sea cucumber and we passed it around—a foot-long worm that looked and felt like a rotting banana. Then he spotted a sea turtle, and we followed her as she glided too far and too fast for any of us to keep up.
In patches, though, the coral fields were pale and coated with silt. “Dis is da bleached coral,” Karm explained when we regrouped. “Corals, they delicate. And where the ozone layer go tin,” he pointed at the clear-blue sky, “de sun beat in too strong.”
“Holy shit,” said the mathematics student.
And there was nothing anyone in Belize could do about it.
Southwater Caye was bigger and its beaches were swept. This time our guesthouse had cinderblock foundations and showers. This island was busier, too, as a base for scuba. One or two American yachts had anchored in a little bay where pelicans wheeled and dove head-first into the water. The singleton from Calgary was whisked offshore to dive one of the plunging ocean walls, where reef sharks and aggressive schooling fish like tuna were plentiful.I was content to stay closer to shore. Off Southwater is a tiny isle called Carrie Bow, named after its founder’s daughter. We kayaked over. The Smithsonian Institute sponsors a field station on Carrie Bow, which offered just enough square footage for a rambling, white-washed building and a cluster of palm trees. At the end of a dock, an outhouse had been constructed over the water. Missing its offshore wall, you could pee with a sea vista. Each of us tried this out.
Then Bernie, a white-haired, deeply-bronzed man in a Speedo, gave us a tour of the Institute, including its library and seawater laboratory. Like all Belizean reef residents, the field station collected rainwater for washing. It also generated solar power from panels fixed on its corrugated tin roof. A who’s who of ocean researchers came for stays of weeks or months to study sharks and other creatures on the ocean side of the reef. A professor from Germany who specialized in fish swarming was arriving the following week.
“But you folks don’t want to go on that side of the reef,” Bernie kept telling us, “That takes some serious preparation, just to withstand the waves.” Behind him, even as he spoke, whitecaps were slamming. Kirstie protested that we had Moses and Karm to help us. I couldn’t tell if she was serious.
A who’s who of ocean researchers came for stays of weeks or months to study sharks and other creatures on the ocean side of the reef.”
Few people spoke of their homes, or what they were going back to, perhaps because North American lives seemed shamefully and needlessly complicated compared to Belizean ones.”
Of course Karm and Moses kept us on the lee side of the reef, where a couple of resident nurse sharks were known to live.
“Remind me why they’re called nurse sharks,” I said to Aly as we snapped on our fins. “Are they the ones that aren’t really sharks?”
“I think they’re really sharks,” he replied. He didn’t look bothered.
The first one was so close to shore I could have stepped on it wading into the water. It was grey-brown and looked like an oversized catfish, lying in the shallows.
“Dey eat the shrim and crawfish,” Moses told me. “Suck em to dead.” He curled his fingers to his thumb to make a circle. “Little moufs, eh, wif tiny teet.”
We swam silently over the young nurse shark, in search of more interesting finds. But that time we found nothing more interesting than angels and a pufferfish who refused to puff.
Bernie saw us off, helping us carry our kayaks to the water and wishing us a happy Thanksgiving. He had a wife in Massachusetts, he mentioned, who he hadn’t seen in three months. Later I wondered about this arrangement. Did the distance bother her, even if it seemed not to trouble Bernie? Or maybe, despite what you heard about the perils of long-distance relationships, certain people were just better together when they were apart.
That night, in honour of the (American) Thanksgiving holiday, the hotel staff served an unBelizean buffet that included roast turkey (a rare commodity for the ocean community), cranberry sauce, gravy, rolls, mashed potatoes, greens, and even apple pie for dessert. Our group always ate together and enjoyed eating together, trading stories. Few people spoke of their homes, or what they were going back to, perhaps because North American lives seemed shamefully and needlessly complicated compared to Belizean ones. Instead, people talked about other journeys they’d taken to other exotic places. We all talked late; we ate second and third helpings. Aly and I had a lot to be thankful about.
Later, somewhere in the murky middle of another night in which we had not touched each other, not even to hold hands, I snuck outside. In pajamas, I made my way barefoot along the dark, conch-lined pathways to a clearing near the beach. The water lapped softly at the shore. Insects buzzed and chirped in the surrounding bushes and, very occasionally, a coconut thudded to the sand. Coming to Belize, we had escaped the stress of work and commuting, the demands of two amazing children, PTA meetings, countless errands and a leaky dishwasher. Neither of us had had to prepare a single meal all week.
Above me, the night sky looked close enough to touch. It held a bewildering number of stars. I realized, after a time, that their combinations weren’t familiar. In Belize, even the sky shone differently. I cried in silence with my head back, facing those faraway suns. And in the end, nothing seemed any better. My neck got a crick in it, and my arms suddenly went cold. I snuck back to the lodge, to our room, into my side of the bed.
Mangroves are amazing trees that root themselves in little more than silty water. Like swamps for fresh-water lakes systems, mangrove “forests” are essential ocean purifiers. They also provide a sheltered environment for many reef fish who use them as nurseries. Oodles of fry hide among the dangling mangrove roots, free to play and grow, away from predator fish. So on our last full day, Karm and Moses led us to a mangrove swamp.
You could see their tiny pinkish stomachs and wire-grey backbones.”
In Belize, even the sky shone differently.”
I swung myself over the side of our kayak, and swam towards the mass of gnarled roots. Miniature translucent fish bobbed in front of my eyes. You could see their tiny pinkish stomachs and wire-grey backbones. Some species had eyes, or the tips of tails, in fluourescent hues. The fry, Karm told me, usually looked nothing like the adult versions. Actually, there were no adult fish to be found. Likely they didn’t need to do much parenting.
I was about to use the last shot on my disposable camera when Aly called me over. “Karen, look at this thing. Right below me. Take a look.”
I put my face in the water and scanned the off-white bottom. A fish lay, no, stood, on the sea floor. It was dark grey, with a snout like a vole and a prehistoric aura. I memorized its image, then shot up in the water.
“What the heck?” I said to Aly. We looked around us. Moses was the nearest guide. Everyone else was getting back into their kayaks.
“Moses,” I called. “What kind of fish has arms?”
He started swimming towards us.
It was called a short-nosed batfish. A rare find because batfish avoid sunlight. Usually they “walk” on the dark ocean floor, out of access to most snorkellers. In ten years, our guides had seen only one batfish between them.
In my photo, it shows up as a pointed smudge.
Two hours after the mangroves, we were fighting a strong headwind to get to Twin Cayes, for no other purpose, it seemed, than to meet a man named George. George, it turned out, owned the two islands. In his younger days he’d been a boxer, and later, one of the founders of our expedition company. He’d sold his share of the business but still liked to host travelers, and he was obviously proud of his saloon-style restaurant. His family served us a seafood stew, festival rice, and a tossed salad. Of course we complimented him on his property and his lifestyle; in return, he told us about his deep-sea fishing escapades. After lunch, we dispersed. The twins and Kirstie went swimming. Aly napped in a hammock. I sat on a stump facing inland, exhausted at last.
The thing I remember most about our last snorkel is not the fish. The great staghorn corals—those I can recall—but the rest has gone blank. Probably from too much effort to savour its rainbow beauty. From living in the knowledge that it would all be over in such a short time, and I would never be back there again.
Boarding the boat to go back to Twin Cayes, I hoisted myself over the side and took my place on the bench. Aly happened to be the last one in. Struggling, he flopped onto the deck, breathless. A fish out of water. My husband looked up and saw me watching. Did he mind me watching? We squinted at each other in the sun. I’d come the conclusion he didn’t want to be caught, not by me, not then, and maybe never again.
… it would all be over in such a short time, and I would never be back there again.”
The jungles hide over 600 Mayan ruins, and they are being looted by tourists and middle-men.”
Sometimes I worry about Belize. It is still a wild country, with 70% of its land in forest preserves, an unequalled barrier reef, and a usually peaceful post-colonial society of mestizo Mayans, hispanics, creoles and garinagu. But I have heard about skirmishes with drug cartels, pushing through the Guatemalan borders and shipping cargo up the coast. The jungles hide over 600 Mayan ruins, and they are being looted by tourists and middle-men. And I think of the dirt roads of Belize City and Dangriga, lying below sea level. Both of these sprawling third-world villages are now ports of call for cruise liners. For a crazy moment, I wanted to stay and fight. How could 360,000 citizens defend themselves against the demands of global commerce and the development to come?
To make our connection in Belize City, Aly and I had to catch an early flight out of Dangriga. The plane was so small I was asked to ride in the cockpit beside the pilot, where I imagined a trained co-pilot ought to have sat.
After a sickening lurch to altitude, I enjoyed the clearest view of any passenger. Our flightpath traced the vertical rupture of the ocean shoreline. To the left, tiered green forests crowded the horizon. To the right, a blank and endless blue.