Caye Caulker, Belize
Caye Caulker is a much smaller island about half an hour in a fast boat north of Ambergris Caye. While Ambergris screams this very temporary ‘We’re on vacation!..’ Caulker is much more amble paced. After spending Christmas complaining about resort food, we’d planned to have a bit of a big night for New Years on Caye Caulker.
‘Why don’t you stay here, the party’s going to be huge!’ says a barman serving us coffee an hour before we’re due to leave Ambergris.
‘There’s gonna be a block party and fireworks’ he says.
Sounded good.. and he screws his face up when we mention we’re going to Caye Caulker. In fact he’s so confident he could change our collective mind that he hands us his name and number on a piece of paper in case we wanted to order pizza from him on NYE. Either that or he anticipated that the girls (or me) found him deliciously gorgeous.
We got on the boat and were given a hearty send off by a big boxer-type dog who paced up and down the dock much to passengers delight. Half an hour later we were met at the pier by a guy wearing shin length cargos with tassels on the cuffs. He shows us to our apartment, hauling us some 100 meters up the road along the water-front in a golf cart. The apartment is clearly designed for two people and they’d forgotten to provide a fold-out bed for poor old Belinda. When prompted he suggests we push the couch together and he’ll run back with some linens. Not such a bad solution and Belinda’s happy; but the real problem is the ensuite bathroom that you can peak into from the master bedroom. Shut the door you say.. well there is no door. Toilet proceedings would need to be announced and privacy arranged. For mid-night emergencies we managed to haul the shower curtain across the doorway to provide some kind of modesty veil. It was rudimentary but it worked.
So then we ventured out on Caye Caulkers sandy streets where bicycles and golf carts do neat little dances with wandering holiday-makers, locals and foreigners who look like they’ve been here too long. Not unintelligently the streets are named ‘Front Street’, ‘Middle Street’ and ‘Back Street’; so as you move toward ‘Back Street’ you get out of the restaurant/tourist zone and into the neighborhood. Again, wooden houses on stilts and plenty of Afro-Caribe culture; so some serious Rastafarianism, dreadlocks like you’ve never seen, like tentacles to the mystic world, or wound up tight in buns and secured by red, green and black tea-cozies. Furniture and houses are painted those Caribbean pastel colours; the salmon pinks the aqua blues and emerald greens and there’s plenty of trendy establishments catering to the tourist love of such things as coffee and baked goods, rum and cigars. There’s a handful of street food setups as well. Guys making seafood kebabs over portable grills. Or the famous ‘Fran’ who grills chicken or seafood and serves it with beans and rice, a desert and drink for $20 Belize dollars.. or about $10 US.
The Chinese are here too, setting up supermarkets called ‘Chans’ or ‘Quans’ where you can get cheap, imported Chinese goods from hardware to socks. They’ve been horribly absent in our travels in Latin America so good on you Chinese for making a return, we’ve missed you.
I had planned to dive the Blue Hole here except it’s well up in the vicinity of $250 odd dollars, a two and a half hour trip out there and from what I’ve heard from other divers it’s a bit ‘meh’. Add to that the reputation of some of the dive shops here is less than favorable. One of them, I read, had recently lost PADI certification on account of bending one of their clients. They were still operating though, like nothing had happened, and I had actually inquired with them about some local reef dives. So that kind of put me off too.
‘Save it for Mexico’ I said.
Lobster. New Years Eve. Melbourne or Sydney. How much would you pay? We sauntered out to Rosies grill in our best flip-flops and singlets, picked a chirpy looking lobster from a bucket and seconds later watched him burn on char-grill out the front of the restaurant. I felt a little bad actually. I had always firmly believed that had I been tasked with it, I could kill a cow or chicken for the purposes of food. But standing there now, watching those little guys burn, I felt sad. Sad because I’m familiar with them in their territory; I’ve sailed over them hiding under rocks with their twitchy little antennae and I’ve smiled..
‘Hey little guy’, I’d say to myself.. so it was hard to go from that to watching him burn for my consumption. Weird. Anyway he was totally delicious and going back to how much.. 15 bucks. I know.
We didn’t really chime up any conversation with anyone at the restaurant. They had us sharing tables and everything but we couldn’t really be bothered. There was an attempt from some guy but we shut him down pretty quick. Mean, I know but he could have been a psycho.
So we left content and full and ventured out to the I-and-I reggae bar. I loved it. I jammed my groove walking up the stairs to the rooftop; full of people lazing around enjoying the night air and drinks. Awesome, New Years here would be perfect.
‘This sucks, lets go to the Sports Bar’ the girls suggest.
‘Are you serious? This is rad’ I say.. or something like that, I’m paraphrasing.
‘It’s a bit… quiet’.
Being such an amazing gent, I relent and we agree that if the Sports Bar is horrible, we’ll come back.
The Sports Bar was horrible. You know those places where they play those horrible 80’s hits because a little while back, the 80’s made a return? It’s cool for a bit but how many times can you listen to ‘April Sun in Cuba’ and muster the same enthusiasm. Quite a bit evidently because most of the crowd there screamed wildly and tooted on their stupid party whistles and played with each others party hats. And then danced like they were ‘I’m a little teapot’. My kind of scene.
We ordered a few drinks and I sat miserably, wondering what my rasta compadres were doing at I-and-I. But it got better, probably because their rum punch was composed of 3 or more rums, some vintage. So I was completely smashed, and found wonderment in a random strangers short chin. We actually ended up having a great time, they handed out party whistles and barely legal fireworks to set off at the count-down. They even gave us a cup of sparkling white to usher in the new year with. It was gross and cheap but symbolically a nice touch. First song they played was that U2 song ‘New Years Day’. Almost as soon as it ended Mr Short Chin left and a whole bunch of others did too. Given the rum punch had hit us all hard we ventured back soon after as well. I dunno really what happened after that but we got back to the room, a glass got smashed, and I have memories of meeting some local guy called ‘Albert’ who turned out to be a drug dealer. All those lessons of hearing about drunk foreigners out at stupid hours, speaking to the wrong people hadn’t washed evidently. My recall of that the next morning was met with sheer horror. Anyway, we’re okay.
Again, the time we spent on Caye Caulker went something like: get some sunshine, take a dip in the pool, walk into town for a burrito. The town was kind of void of a beach, so unless your accommodation had a pool, the most enjoyable dip you could take was down at ‘The Split’. Called so because the mainland had been split by a hurricane in the late 60’s and the resulting flooding is now a causeway for boat traffic and swimmers. Plus they’ve built a bar down there too so during the day it’s
a bustling, noisy place full of sunburned foreigners wearing next to no clothing.
By the end of it we all felt a bit of cabin fever and were keen to get out of there to the enticing Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. There’s a single ferry that can take you from the Cayes to Chetumal, a border town in Mexico. It’s a two hour journey and can be busy during high season. So we got into the companies ticket office some 2 days prior to us leaving to arrange tickets. The ambivalence and apparent sleepiness of the attendant should have given it away; she told us to come back in 10 minutes after she’d confirmed availability with the main office in Ambergris. We did and she confirmed that ode-to-joy we had seats on the service in 2 days time. Cool.
So we show up at the dock nice and early; like 6:45am on the day of departure. We were to be delivered by small craft at 7:30am to Ambergris where the service to Chetumal would depart at 8am. By 7:15am there were 50 people at the dock. A boat pulls up that couldn’t have taken more than 25 people with luggage. The crew start counting heads and taking worriedly amongst themselves. This was the only service to Chetumal for the day. A lot of people were depending on it to catch connecting flights and it was now obviously well over-booked. Mr smooth-as boat driver tells the waiting crowd that he’ll take 25 of us, and the boat to Chetumal would return shortly to collect the remaining passengers. Fine. We’ll take the big ferry, help yourselves, and we took a seat back on the dock. People piled into the little boat and they set off into the early morning sunshine, disturbing pelicans as they did.
There were still some 25 of us left and by the time the boat arrived to collect us it was well past 8am. We had a lovely fast ride in airline seats with a nice sea breeze back to Ambergris and were asked to get off and clear immigration. Awesome. We walked past a big line of people, ‘too many people’ I remember thinking.
It was absolute chaos at the ticket desk inside. We managed to eventually get to the front and after handing over our tickets (issued by the very company and not an agent) we’re told..
‘You’re not on my list.. I’ll put you on the standby list’ some weedy little teenager behind the counter says.
‘Hang on, we booked these 2 days ago, and you had seats, how can this happen?’
‘They only rang up yesterday to book it.. and the boat was full’ he croaks.
By now a whole bunch of other people had been fed the same line and some animated Argentinos zipped between English and Spanish and waved their arms and slammed their fists and shook their bootys. To no avail. Nothing could be done, and by the time we could even clarify what had gone on, the boat had slipped away from the dock, on it’s way to Mexico, and freedom. While we, on the other hand, were left to sit and ponder the sour pill of hopelessness.
‘Does this happen everyday?’ some guy asks, and the staff all nod. It was like some ridiculous dream.
‘You can fly to Corozol, and then catch a taxi over the border to Chetumal. Or wait for the 3pm boat to Corozol’
‘How much to fly?’
‘About 50US dollars..’ and the boat was the same.
‘Can you get us on a flight immediately?’
They rang up and given the amount of other people in the same predicament, the airline scheduled a service for 11am. The boat woman apologised again.
‘Yeah well this will be a problem for us today..’ I say as a parting gesture. But, being a humble human turn and say ‘But thank-you for helping us out’. She smiles and I feel like Jesus. Then, we’re bustled onto a golf-cart, I’m askew on the back of it, holding on for dear life and giving an awkward salute to the smiling woman as we hurtle down the road. I’m sure she thought I was pretty cool.
Teeny tiny planes aren’t really popular with anyone. I know people that can stand up in front of a massive audience and deliver solid presentations but wouldn’t for the life of them get in a light plane. Sure, it’s loud and rattly and the back end does this weird strafing thing through the air, but man, the scenery was amazing. Water so bright blue it almost glowed, you could see sea life in the shallow sand-bars before it all disappears into shallow green mangrove.
‘****…****! I dived yesterday! I’m gonna get the bends!’ this girl behind us screams. She’s completely freaking out. We’re at about 1500m altitude which is low, but a scuba instructor behind her reassures her..
‘How long ago did you dive?’
‘Umm.. about 21 hours’ she replies.
But she’d done 2 dives including the Blue Hole, which is a 40m dive. Not enough I’m thinking.
‘You’ll be fine’ he says ‘Minimum is about 12 hours’.
She settles down a bit and as her head doesn’t explode we all forget about it for the next 15 minutes. The landing is sublime and we spill out onto the tarmac into the waiting hands of a cab driver who offers to take us not only to the border, but all the way to Chetumal bus station. He bases the deal on 4 people. The 3 of us and bends-girl. But then some Dutch girl and some weird hippy guy chime in and say they want to come too. This irritates the driver but he takes the fare for $30 Belizian dollars. Pretty cheap. But after we clear Belizian immigration and stand in the long hot line at Mexican immigration he loses patience.
‘Give me your passports and pay me $10 each, I’ll get them stamped’. Not wanting to mess with international border control procedures we decline and insist on waiting.
‘Well this’ll take an hour’ he says ‘..I’m not waiting’. Fair enough and we cut him loose. He was a grumpy old sack anyway, and racist.. ‘******* Mexicans’ he said a few times after not being allowed to cut into traffic.
We simply pick up another driver over the border and he cheerily drives us to the bus station. We hadn’t eaten all day and it was now 1pm. My clearly furious stomach was even more so when I poured a sandwich full of some of the hottest ******* chill I’ve ever eaten into it. Welcome to Mexico.