The breeze was blowing hard from the East, and the waves on the seaward side of the island were higher than a paddler’s head, so a small group of us went out to challenge and play in the waves.
The route around the island takes us along the shallow, sheltered side of the island first. Exposure to the open sea is a gradual process, as we emerge from the shelter of the island, and then from the protection of the reef crest. Once we pass the rock-pile known as Mitch island, we gradually enter the unprotected waters of the wild Caribbean Sea. The waves grow ever higher and farther apart as we edge out and away from the reef. Riding abreast of each other, we can see each other’s kayak disappear behind the crests of waves and emerge on top again. It was not too wild, as the waves were not breaking over us, much. But it is often a first experience for our travelling companions, and leaves a lasting impression.
We had another lasting impression that day. As we approached the end of our circumnavigation, I passed over a sleeping nurse shark. Nurse sharks are quite common at Lighthouse Reef; we see them nearly every snorkel. And the sharks often patrol around the lagoon, hoping someone will be cleaning fish and will leave the offal in the water. When we are cleaning fish, we can have as many as seven sharks pushing right into the shallows, until their dorsal fins and backs are out of the water.
Nurse sharks are not generally aggressive. They have fine teeth, not the large, triangular daggers one associates with the requiem sharks, like blacktip, reef and bull sharks. Or Jaws, for that matter. By the way, great white sharks are not generally found in tropical waters. That’s why Jaws took place on the New England coast. But I digress.
As I passed over the shark, I called out to my paddling companions who were right behind me in a double kayak. The shark started swimming, and turned to cross my bow. The water was about 2m deep, so there was no need for the shark to move, nor any need to expect what happened next.
As soon as the shark crossed my bow I forget about it until, a few seconds later, my kayak was suddenly pulled to a halt, and I heard a noise of something very large, rolling on the surface. I looked back to see my nurse shark rolling over, its tail and pectoral fin coming right out of the water before it released my boat and dove beneath the surface.
I was so glad to have witnesses to this event as I doubted anyone would believe me. A nurse shark attack a kayak rudder? Unheard of as far as I knew.
When we go to the beach I inspected the rudder. I expected to find that it was missing paint. The silvery glint of the aluminum rudder might be enough to fool a fish into thinking a wounded fish was closely following my boat. But in this case, the rudder was fairly new, and except for a long scratch in the black paint, it appeared unlike any wounded fish I have ever seen. I still don’t know why that shark decided to bite my rudder, but it hasn’t made me afraid to swim with these mysterious and beautiful creatures. I’ll be ready next time I pass over one though, with a camera in one hand. This time I want evidence I can share.
“Tropical paradise” is a cliche because it so aptly fits the coral reefs and sandy islands of Belize. Most people never get to see such a wonderful place, rich with colourful marine life. For those of us lucky enough, we want to cherish the memories, and share our experiences with our friends. And maybe brag a bit at the office. So we bring our waterproof digital camera and take as many pictures as we can.
We sometimes forget that photography is an activity in itself. While we are busy chasing photos of every brightly-coloured fish or sublimely beautiful coral or sponge, we surrender something vital to the experience: being there. We see the underwater world through the viewfinder: a narrow and myopic view at best. Afterwards, when we review our shots, it is hard to remember at which location we took them. Our attention was so focused on the camera that we failed to see the big picture. We lose the sense of here and now, when we are bent on capturing a glimpse for viewing later.
The same thing often happens when we are paddling to a distant island. People tend to be goal-oriented. We have to be, to get anything done in our daily lives. But we carry that perspective with us on vacation, when the only goal should be to relax and have a good time. If your idea of a good time is an active holiday, rather than sitting on a beach working on your tan, you are probably very goal-oriented, and that is why you are here, with Island Expeditions, in Belize.
The four-mile paddle-sail to Long Caye is a popular activity. You can see Long Caye hanging on the horizon from the moment you leave Half Moon Caye. It is good to have a destination, but the problem is that, for many and purely out of habit, the destination becomes the purpose of the excursion. As we sail away, the island never seems to get any closer. Then suddenly it seems we are almost there. And again it seems we are not getting any closer.
We forget that the purpose is the journey, not the destination. Instead of staring at the horizon, willing it closer, our time – our vacation – would be better spent closer in. Feel the water lift and drop the boat as we ride with the waves. See the subtle changes in colour as we glide over white sand, green sea grass, or the darker patch reefs. Play with trimming the sail, to try to squeeze a little more speed out of your kayak.
To put it as a witty traveller recently said, we should commune, not commute.
This is why my stories rarely have pictures. I don’t take many, because it takes away from the experience of Being There.
But here is a picture anyway, taken by one of our friends from the Sun City Kayak Club.
My visa in Belize gets renewed every month, minus a day, at the cost of $50bz ($25us). The timing of renewal is tricky. If I am scheduled to be out on the cayes when my visa comes due, I have to go into the immigration office and renew it ahead of time. Which means that however many days I am early, those are days that I lose.
I was scheduled to have a mid-season break, and my departure day was the day my visa was to expire, so lucky me. Then I was asked to stay out another week, as a big group was coming in and they wanted me to stay with them and make sure everything went smoothly. So the day the trip ended I was a week overdue. I figured it might be a problem, but not a big one. I was leaving anyway; what could they do?
I caught the bus in Belize City that would take me all the way to the Cancun Airport. I was scheduled to arrive a scant few hours before my plane was to take off, and this was the only bus that could get me there on time. As I left Belize City, I remembered that I was supposed to hand in a document at Mexican Immigration (INM) that I had filled out when I left Mexico two months earlier. I hoped that wouldn’t cause a problem. My immediate concern was getting out of Belize without a hassle.
The ride to the border seemed to take hours (it usually does but not the kind you put in italics), and my anxiety slowly crept up as we neared the crossing. We finally got there, I paid my departure ransom, and went to the immigration desk. The agent noticed the discrepancy immediately.
“You’re a week late!” he loudly proclaimed. “You are illegally in the country.” I shifted on my feet and gave him my most sheepish grin. “Sorry,” I replied. Just got off the cays today, and couldn’t get to an immigration office to renew.”
He went on. “Here’s the deal. You will spend the weekend in jail. Then, on Monday, you will stand before a magistrate, and the magistrate will convict you. You have no defense as it is written here in your passport. You will be made to pay a $1,000 (bz) dollar fine, then will be deported back to Canada.” I was thinking it would be cheaper for all concerned to let me continue, as I was leaving anyway. That way they wouldn’t have to feed me for the weekend and go to the trouble and expense of court time. I didn’t say what I was thinking.
What I did say was “Let me get my stuff off the bus before it leaves without me.” So I ran out and grabbed my pack, and walked considerably more slowly back into the immigration building. When I returned to the counter he asked me to follow him to his office.
We sat in his office staring at each other for a couple of minutes. He really didn’t want to send me to jail, but he did sweat it out of me for a while (not too much) and eventually he let me go, poorer but wiser. So now I had a new predicament: catching up with the bus.
I trotted over to a casino, conveniently perched between border crossings, and hailed a Mexican taxi. I told him I had to catch my bus, and we immediately fell in behind a car that was crossing the bridge as if he was delivering nitroglycerin in a car with square wheels. Finally we got past the explosives delivery vehicle, and pulled up to Mexican Immigration. The bus was not there. I went in and gave the agent my passport. He asked for my departure document , the one I didn’t have, and I told him, well, you already know.
He informed me that without this document, he couldn’t give me an entry stamp. My mind flashed to Tom Hanks in the movie “The Airport” where he plays a man who is unable to enter the US, and cannot be returned to his homeland, and so spends an eternity haunting the purgatory of an airport lounge in his pyjamas. Except, instead of a modern airport lounge, I had a lovely swamp and a brushy riverbank to haunt.
Then he looks up at me and says, “Go ahead.”, and shoos me out the door. “Ok,” I thought, “that wasn’t so bad. Now to catch the bus.” I knew that the ticket I bought only gets you to the town of Bacalar, where it stops for at least a half hour while the passengers all file into the tiny bus station and pay the rest of their journey. Bacalar was only about forty minutes drive north of the border. So I asked the taxi driver how much to take me to Bacalar. “Three hundred pesos”, he responds. Ok, not a bad deal, so I agree.
As soon as we pull around the corner we see the bus. It is parked in front of Aduana, the Federal Customs Agency. So I gave the driver a hundred pesos – a good fare for such a short trip – and jumped out of the cab. I got a green light, meaning they wouldn’t have to search through my luggage. The rest was a long, but uneventful trip to Cancun Airport and home.
So far my season in Belize has been anything but uneventful. Let’s start with my arrival. Without boring you with the details of all my flights, buses and taxi rides, I will take you to the last stage of my journey to Dangriga: a flight from Belize City.
The Municipal Airport is located at the water’s edge: in fact the airstrip was built on the water. The Airport Authority is upgrading the airstrip, roughly doubling its length. When I was there, the 18th of November, they hadn’t done any construction yet. But they did leave a pile of rocks at the west end, which turned out to be a lifesaver of sorts.
The strip runs east-west, presumably to take advantage of the easterly trade winds that predominate here. Taking off into the wind gives an advantage of lift, especially on a rather short runway. This day, however, the wind was from the NNW. The plane was full: I only got on because a passenger failed to show on time. Lucky me. So we taxied to the E end of the runway and spun around. This is a Cessna Caravan, a single-engine plane with seats for about twelve passengers, and a big belly for luggage and cargo. Turns out it holds a lot of cargo.
As we started down the runway, the pilot had to dodge a couple of potholes before letting the throttle fly. We bounced down the runway, gathering speed, but I remember there seemed to be precious little runway remaining and we still hadn’t lifted off the ground. Finally, just as we ran out of road, the plane lifted steeply, so steeply that it seemed more like we were intending to head into space, rather than merely fly away. At that moment there was a loud crash as the tail of the plane collided with a pile of rocks, left at the end of the runway. The impact levelled us out and we just cleared the mangroves and began to gain altitude at a less alarming angle.
Instead of flying on to Dangriga, we went straight to the International Airport, just outside of town and made an emergency landing. The tail was not sufficiently damaged to affect the plane’s ability to fly, but I presume they needed to land it somewhere they could have it checked and repaired before taking off again. I say presume, because no one said a word to us about the whole affair. We were taken off the plane, along with all of our luggage and a lot of cardboard boxes, and made to wait outside, in the shade while they got another plane and another pilot. Once that was arranged, they loaded our luggage aboard and left all the boxes behind. A wise move, I thought. Other than that, my trip to Belize was uneventful.