“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.