Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Honeymoon in Belize

My wife Christine and I were married on August 30, but because we’re both teachers we had to put off our honeymoon until the end of the semester. This was fine by me, as a honeymoon somewhere warm in December beats a honeymoon somewhere warm – or not warm – in early September. We actually didn’t have the official reception until late October, when we somewhat randomly decided that, as warm places go, Belize would work (neither of us had been there – we both had to look at a map to make sure of exactly where it was).

So, for a week in December we were in Belize. We dropped the dog off in Jersey on Friday, December 12, and left for Newark the following morning at 4:00am. As if to shuttle us off with some idea of why we were leaving, it snowed the whole way to the airport.

We went through Miami, perhaps the most illogically constructed airport in the US, without a hitch, even switching to an earlier flight to Belize and cutting a 4-hour layover to one. Perhaps it wasn’t that bad. We spent the whole 2 hours from Miami to Belize talking to the guy Andy in the seat next to us, or more specifically listening to him – it turned out he was going to San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye, same as us, and he acted like he owned private shares in it, telling us about the island like he was living there, rather than visiting. Christine finally asked him how many times he’d been there. “Oh, once,” he said.

When we landed in Belize City, it was 80 and sunny. We hopped on our propellered puddle jumper to Ambergris Caye. Andy jumped on ahead of us and hopped into the cockpit next to the pilot and started talking to him, winking at us like he was in on some secret. The pilot just rolled his eyes.

That was the last I remember of the pilot, because once we took off my eyes were looking out the window at the endless shades of blue below, sprinkled with sparse dots of green land every now and then. Christine pointed out the line of whitecaps breaking against the reef way out there surrounding everything. After 15 minutes or so we saw a larger strip of green, then we landed on it.

After unloading onto the airstrip, we hit the streets of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. The “downtown” streets were filled, what with bikes, golf carts, tractors, foot traffic, a couple of “San Pedro Taxis” that were all converted American minivans from the late 80s, but, conspicuously, no cars. And no lanes. And for the most part, no sidewalks. So every street was a loose juxtaposition of different pods going in different directions, with only the loosest of norms preventing them from running into each other. We hailed the first minivan we saw and headed to the Royal Caribbean, checked in to our cabin, rented bikes, locked them up, and rushed away from concrete and toward sand.

The Royal Caribbean itself is a simple setup of 30-some cabins, with a swimming pool, garden, cabana bar, and lots of lizards (but not inside the cabins). The first thing the manager told us as we were sallying forth was that every inch of beach at Ambergris Caye is public, which lent an easy retort when the first beachfront condo we stepped on the beach in front of a gaggle of college-age kids came running out yelling, “This is a private beach, yo!”

About the beaches – the key word is “blue.” The azure sky reflecting simpatically on the deeper blue of the water, with distant whitecaps on the reef just at the end of the horizon – witnessing that was probably the moment we both forgot where we left earlier that same morning.

After we burned the remaining couple of hours of daylight, we went to our lodging’s watering hole, the Sandbar. The owners and bartender immediately introduced themselves to us, and we were talking for the rest of the night. The only interruption was when a group of about 10 Texans, all couples vacationing at a neighboring condo took over the place for a couple of hours, insisting on giving me a new nickname every 30 minutes, first “Kansas” when I told them where I was from, then “Dad” when we told them we were expecting, then “Dirty Banana” when they bought me said drink to congratulate me, and finally “30 Minutes” when I told them how often they were giving me new nicknames.

We also met two nurses from New York City, who we talked to about home, then they recommended we book our snorkeling and fishing trips through Tanisha Tours. But more on that later.


On the flight from Miami to Belize we both noticed the guy across the aisle from us wearing a band on his shades saying “Belikin: The Beer of Belize.” It didn’t take long on arrival to find out how true that is. Even before we landed, we noticed the Belikin Brewery building next to the airstrip, enclosed in barbed wire and camouflage (and, we later found out, surrounded by uniformed armed guards). Andy made it a point to get a Belikin at the airport right when he got off the plane. But it wasn’t until we started drinking on Ambergris Caye that we found out that every bar literally only sells Belikin. More than one bartender used the term blacklisted, and the owner of the bar at our resort told us, pointing to their Belikin cooler, that as per their contract they could be sued by Belikin if they put any other brand of beer in the cooler. Belikin brews a stout, lager, and premium if you want to get fancy, but almost everyone simply orders a “beer,” the pale ale that pretty much tastes like Rolling Rock. While it’s not a distinctive beer by any stretch of the imagination, it is light, refreshing, and goes well with the fish and hot sauce (pass the Marie Sharp’s, please) characteristic of most Belizean food.

The next morning we hopped on our bikes and headed to George’s, a diner the nurses had recommended that was on the road back into “town,” which is what they called the area around the landing strip with the highest concentration of restaurants and tour guides. We had the Belizean eggs there – otherwise known as a western omelet in the states – and headed into town to find Tanisha Tours and get some beach time. We actually rode all the way to the northern tip of the island, where you have to pay a fee to ride across the bridge to the next island, and were promptly accosted by salespeople trying to get us to stay at a private resort on the other side.

After a half hour of passive-aggressive back-and-forth, we finally got rid of them and headed back down the beach to Tanisha Tours headquarters, which was actually the beachside residence of the family who ran it. The wife booked our snorkeling tour, to be guided by her husband the next morning, while their 4-year-old daughter was cooking lunch and their son chatted with us.

We finally set up on the beach and I took my first dip in the water. I immediately found a conch shell, which I was pretty proud of until a little boy who was wading in the water with his younger brother told me, “Yeah, they are everywhere.” The older one was catching little fishes with a dip net the size you’d use for a 10-gallon aquarium, and putting them in a tiny clear plastic tank that was hanging around his brother’s neck. His brother was holding his hand in the tank and giggling while the little fishes swam around his fingers. “It tickles,” he said. The older one then showed me around the beach, picking up a sea urchin and letting me touch its porcupine-like prickles (“They are softer on the bottom,” he told me), then a sea anemone (“They will sting you,” he said while fondling its tentacles), then a tiny barracuda swimming a couple feet from us. We found the island teeming with young marine biologists like these two, who knew every form of life in the ocean around them like they were related to them. I was a little jealous.

The next morning we got a glimpse of what those kids would probably become in our Tanisha Tour Guide, Daniel. He pulled up to our dock at 8:00 instead of the standard 9:00 because, he said, you see the best animals before everyone else gets in and scares them all away. We headed straight out to Hol Chan, the premier spot on the reef for snorkeling. This was my first time snorkeling – Christine has been since she was a kid – and it almost wasn’t even my first time when a shark swam leisurely under our boat as Daniel was explaining how to use the equipment. For some reason this excited him and Christine.

It all became clear, though, the first time I looked under the water – a huge school of horse-eyed jacks had parked themselves leisurely under our boat and were already playing chicken with our appendages, and a big terrapin was sidling along the bottom eating seaweed. As we went further, we saw that shark, some eels, a whole fleet of leopard rays, and many other things I can’t even name, although Daniel tried to find them all in his reef wildlife book once we got back on the boat. Unfortunately we had to get in the boat an hour or so earlier than expected, as I got sick from swallowing so much saltwater. Both Christine and Daniel tried to assuage my shame, but I was marked for that trip as the designated landlubber.

The following morning was my chance to redeem myself – fishing. As our guide Tony and his son helped us onto the boat, I told him about growing up catching catfish on the Wakarusa River in Kansas. He asked how big they got – I told him some got into the near-100-pound range, but the biggest I’d caught as 35. “Oh yeah?” he said, “I guess we’ll have to spend some time trolling for barracuda then.”

We spent the first hour catching bait, following pelicans that were diving for sardines and netting our share to cut up for use on the reef and keep live to troll for barracuda. Trolling on our way out to the reef, Christine caught the first, a 2-pound barracuda we’d later have for lunch. Once we got to a channel by the reef, we anchored and threw sardine chunks out. It was like fishing in a bucket, really – it seemed like every cast brought a different kind of fish out – porgies, snapper, grouper, parrotfish, and quite a few I couldn’t name, including one that snapped my line when I tried to get cute with the drag. But the best was Christine’s, toward the end of our day – a 12-pound barracuda she spent a good 15 minutes pulling in after we started trolling beyond the reef. Long and shiny, it looked like a sword fighting down below the surface of the clear blue water. When she finally got it in, the guide told us, “Thanks guys, I’ll be eating good tonight!”

We did give him that one, and in exchange he filleted 2 parrotfish, 2 grouper, and the smaller barracuda. While he was filleting them on our dock, a group of pelicans were circling above us. “We have a saying here in Belize,” Tony told me as I watched them warily, “Never look up with your mouth open.” We then took the bounty to our cabana bar, where they grilled them in garlic butter for us. It was maybe the best meal we had in Belize.


Perhaps the most pleasant generalization I could make about Belize is that things seem to happen so organically. Our experience was that we met a few people, they told us about a few cool things to do, and the people we did those things with told us about other cool things we should check out on the island. The nurses told us about George’s and Tanisha Tours, the guys at Tanisha, told us about a DandE's Frozen Custard, and the lady who owned DandE’s told us we needed to have dinner at Hidden Treasure, which was so well hidden we never would have thought to look for it much less found it without the advice. The coolest thing about this is that I’m convinced, even though we loved our experience in Belize, we could come another time, do entirely different things at different places, and have just as much fun.

By our last full day there we were both thoroughly burnt so we kept it simple, walking up and down the beach, stopping for a drink at various seaside bars, reading in the shade, snorkeling off the ends of docks – a lot less to see, but at least I didn’t get sick – and towards the end of the day we rode our bikes down the main rode south from our cabin – the “town” is north – to see what was there. We rode about 5 miles down the rode, and it got progressively dustier and smellier, until Christine mentioned that the smell was kind of a burnt, trashy smell. It wasn’t long before we saw the piles of burning trash. Hey, I guess island garbage has to go somewhere.

A couple blocks before we got back to the hotel, we stopped at the lone freshwater lake on the island. Christine swore she saw an alligator, and sure enough when we got to the water’s edge there was a huge scaly back and two eyes that reminded me of Pitfall. “Hey guys,” a group of kids called from behind us, “Wanna sponsor a chicken?” The deal they proposed was that the chicken we “sponsored” would be tied to a rope and thrown into the water, giving a show when the gators – or, if we were lucky, Diablo himself, king of the island gators – descended upon it. We rode off quickly, not asking if they chickens were live or dead.

That night we went to dinner at Hidden Treasure Restaurant . It was some of the best advice we got, rivaling our fresh-caught fish for the best meal we had there. The ambience was very cool as well – you really had to go out of your way to get there, and when we did it was like entering a little open-air paradise, with gas lamps and waiters who actually wore shoes. (Not that we did.)


One thing I haven’t mentioned – there are a lot of stray dogs on Ambergris Caye. But I don’t think stray is perhaps the right word. They all seem to be from the same brood, and they’re all friendly to strangers. When I asked the owner of our bar about them he said, “Yeah, the mean ones don’t last long around here.” I think every day we were there we had a different dog adopt us for the day, walk leisurely down the beach with us, park itself under our seats at the bar, lap up any scraps that would “accidentally” fall to the ground, and just as leisurely walk off at some point with someone else. I don’t know if they officially belonged to anyone – in fact I’m not entirely sure if we ever saw the same dog twice.

And the next morning we packed up, checked out, said goodbye to the friends we’d made at the hotel bar, and took a minivan cab into town. We had a couple hours to burn before our puddle jumper left, so we squeezed in a bit more beach time and had some fried jacks at Estel’s. And then we left.

On the puddle jumper back to the mainland I started thinking about Andy, the guy we met on the way into Belize. I remembered how he seemed to think of the island like a distant but close relative, one he always knew would let him in and take care of him. I remember how many of his facts didn’t add up, like the multiple texts he said his wife was sending him while he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, or the conflicting number of children he said he had while telling different stories about them. And then, when Christine mentioned how well he knew the island and asked him how many times he’d been there he replied, “Once.” And that part I now believed.

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