Thursday, September 19, 2013

Travel Journal: Belize, 2013

Belize: Natural beauty, friendly people

People have been asking me why I’m going to Belize, and I’ve been giving the truthful answer “I’m not entirely sure.” When I was initially asked to accompany my father (a veteran repo man), mother (a veteran mother), and youngest brother (16 years older than me) on a weekend trip out of the states with no clear explanation I naturally assumed that we’d be mixing business with pleasure, repossessing a boat or airplane, and making a bit of a family vacation out of it beforehand. I was surprised when about two weeks after I booked the time off, the trip extended from 2 days to 5 days. Now my mind was racing and I was feeling more confident that I’d be doing something work related! My mind brought up a business transaction gone sour from awhile back involving a 54’ sailboat that was somewhere in the general area of Belize. I wasted no time to familiarize myself with the local laws, customs (eye contact, handshakes, etc.), languages (English, some Spanish, a localized Creole, some Mayan [they never got completely conquered], and occasionally German), history, and culture with a Laura Croft scale adventure in mind. A mere 16 hours before departing, on my lunch break, I was asked if I was ready for the 7 day journey and was once again surprised to have my schedule altered. I’d been given a thorough schedule covering 5 days of events/travel with roughly a 7am to 10pm each day schedule, so I felt more sure about my boat-repossession premonitions. I was given little time to ponder, however, as I hastily cancelled my appointments for the remainder of the week and made some last minute adjustments to my computer so I could make best use of any spare time I might have (arranging music for Nerdapalooza). I also had some time to pack additional clothes but got side-tracked working on various creative things involving music and last minute deadlines. I fell asleep at my parent’s place at around midnight, still arranging new songs.

Day 1 – Friday September 6th

I woke up at exactly 4:36am with the horrible realization that we were already running behind. I observed my Russian-inspired travel rituals, waiting for a few moments of silence and stepping on feet, so I was able to wake up and leave the house by 4:45am. I slept on the car ride as my parents drove us to the Tampa airport. We arrived at the airport at roughly 6am and had no difficulties getting through the security checkpoints. We reached the terminal with time to spare and departed for Miami on time at around 7am.
8:30am, a much happier time than 4:40am
The flight to Miami was filled with songwriting and in under an hour we were sitting in a terminal in Miami with my brother (who flew into Ft. Lauderdale the day prior). The Miami airport is fairly classy as far as airports are concerned. It boasts a giant 4 foot shoe, a wheelchair flying contraption, and overall has a very modern feel. Sadly, none of this helped get our flight off the ground on time and we were delayed by what seemed like roughly a half hour. Once we were under way I continued writing music for the duration of the flight. I stopped briefly to look out the window at Cuba, and again to notice that my 3DS had picked up a new friend! This was entirely unexpected and I was utterly delighted to be friends with someone from New York who shares my Battle.Net handle: Cupcake.

Belize City as seen from the runway
A short while later (a 2 hour flight) we arrived in Belize City, which didn’t look all that much like a city. It was more like the town of Bradenton or perhaps the small towns in Alabama where almost nothing is taller than two stories. From the air I noticed how natural the palm trees seemed in this setting, how much vegetation and diversity the landscape below had, and how beautiful it was. I also noticed how few cars were on the roads, how green everything looked from up here, and again, how small Belize City looked. After we landed, I took a moment to glance at the airport, a single large building that looked roughly the size of the baggage claim area of the Tampa International airport. It had one runway, and at the time we arrived we were the only commercial-sized airline in sight (I was later told 2 arrive and depart each day in the “slow” season). We got off the plane via staircase, walked to customs, which was inside the airport, were the last group through customs thanks to a very thorough security guy in our lane, and walked back to the same area we arrived at (on the other side of a small patrician) only to find that our air-taxi had departed without us… Which was totally fine because the next one would arrive in an hour. We were encouraged to get a snack, grab a beer, and relax because we were already on vacation. It’s hard to argue with logic like that, so I got something nice to drink, a chocolate croissant, paid tribute to a 5 foot tall “stress god” one of the shops was selling, listened to the chatter of some people whose native tongue was Spanish, and started chatting with one of the men who worked at the airport. He gave me some advice as to where we should visit, some archaeological sites, points of interest, and was just generally friendly (and helpful!), like the other people I’d spoken with thus far.

Our Air Taxi
Belize is 2 hours behind Eastern Standard time, so I set my watch to “1pm” and just on time a small airplane known as the “air taxi” arrived. The person leading us to the plane only asked for our names and verified that we wanted to go to… well, the name of the place escapes me [edit: Kanantik], but they wanted to make sure we were on the right flight, which we were. 

No eating messy food in the copilot seat
So, we got on the plane (I sat one seat behind the pilot) without any formalities and puddle jumped to another part of the country in under 20 minutes [Edit: Belize City to Stan Creek]. The entire country is roughly the size of Massachusetts so by scale we traveled across roughly half the country. The view from the plane was fantastic and the airport we landed at was a single-strip of tarmac just big enough for a puddle jumper, complete with a building on one end roughly the size of a 7-11. The place was entirely surrounded by dense jungle, pretty much how I’d envisioned South/Central America to look and how it’s portrayed in films. As we took off again (this was not our final destination on the air taxi) I noticed that the plane’s propeller was on the front and moved so quickly that it became invisible after we took off, except through my camera phone’s lens.

Do not lean on the door
Another 20 minutes and we were landing at our destination, a gravelly “airstrip” with an unenclosed hut, and a van that was to take us to our final destination. The pilot took the plane right up to the van (no other plane has ever done this for me before, 5 star service!) to make unloading easier on everyone and before I knew it we were driving down an empty road to the “Sanctuary” resort known as Kanantik. When I say that the road was empty, there was literally not another vehicle in sight, no traffic lights, no road signs, no speed limit, and no people.

Kanantik Airport
Welcome to the Jungle!
On the way to the resort our driver (one of two men who picked us up) stopped to point out a 3’ crocodile sunning itself near the side of the road. After passing a Mayan themed version of the Jurassic Park entrance (the giant doors anyway) we arrived at our destination, walked through more huts, checked in, and got acquainted with our rooms.

Checking in
The Kanantik resort is literally right on the Atlantic Ocean (technically the Caribbean). As you’re filling out paperwork, checking in, they give you a fantastic red juice (papaya and club soda perhaps?) and the breeze from the Atlantic (visible behind the people greeting you) cools you. A few steps beyond the check in area (which didn’t have any doors and was also a sort of hut made from palm fronds and wood) was a salt-water swimming pool with a wooden deck, a beach, the ocean itself, a dock with a boat, a few additional boats on the beach, and a path that winds through the sand, leading to hut style rooms. Everything about this place has clearly been intentionally and painstakingly cultivated to perfection. The sand is raked daily, there were just enough towels on enough chairs at the pool for my party of four that happened to come across them, the open-bar area had enough place mats for us already prepared, a handwritten thank you was on my pillow when I arrived at the room, and countless other small things that were well thought out, perfectly executed, and extremely endearing. This from a guy who generally stays at (and enjoys) the Motel 6 and intentionally tries to not notice his surroundings…

Kanantik: Nothing like the hotels i'm used to
The room I stayed in was a giant circular hut with a main room containing two beds, a bathroom, separate from the toilet, and a sort of closet/dressing space. It was the first building that I was inside an enclosed structure because (surprise) it was completely enclosed, complete with air conditioning. I later discovered that many buildings in Belize are fairly open to the outside, never truly feeling like the indoors. There were no TV’s but they had outlets so I’d be able to plug in laptop to keep notes for my journal. It’s also worth noting that Belize uses the same sort of power as the US, unlike most foreign countries, and that each bed came fully encased in a bug-screen. Oh, and the currency $BZ (Belize Dollars), translates easily and consistently from $2BZ to $1US.

Red Juice Stuff
I spent the afternoon by the pool, made a few friends, and caught an early dinner (5:30pm) in a room next to the check-in area. The check-in area also had Wi-Fi, though it seemed like a crime to delve into cyberspace at such a pleasant place. At dinner, in a room that was enclosed but open enough for me to still consider being outdoors, a nice ocean breeze kept things cool while bats occasionally (and entirely unexpectedly) flew through the room, seemingly to no ones’ notice! These were the sorts of bats that eat mosquitoes and they flew with such grace and precision I was glad to have them around. They never stopped moving and didn’t interact with guests or the staff so it’s impossible to assert that it was planned but it made for a really fantastic display to accompany dinner. Again, only my mom and I seemed to notice and even as we mentioned them people said things like “I thought I saw something but I wasn’t sure because it was moving so fast.”
After dinner we walked back to our rooms (my parents to a different one than the one I shared with my brother) and saw a shooting star midst one of the brightest and best view of the stars I’ve seen in my life. I felt like I was home.

Day 2 – Saturday September 7th

Some Resemblance
I hit the snooze button two times between 7AM and 7:15AM. The world had transformed the night before because it had apparently rained. My brother and I got up, had breakfast, and learned a little bit about the Sanctuary project. In short, Sanctuary is a residential resort where they’ve successfully integrated about ~1800 families into a ~20 mile area (basically the island of Manhattan), complete with giant savanna reserve, jungle, coral reef, rivers, and beaches. The only catch is that they’re still building it and are in the late stages of planning right now, looking for interested buyers. Without dedicating a dozen paragraphs to the specifics let’s just settle at: It’s more Green/Eco Friendly than any project of this scale I’ve seen before and it’s won some pretty big awards as being the best developing place to live in the world. With the promise that there would be no sales pitches (because “the place sells itself”) I started the journey as a skeptic but soon saw that everything here was genuine, and even started to see the appeal. On a side note I’ve effectively been without internet for two days now. I’ve not taken a single phone call, and not so much as glanced at tumblr/gmail/yahoo news/yahoo mail/facebook, and I feel pretty good about things.

The Marina (WIP)
So, we all got on a boat and putz’d our way to the marina, which they only recently flooded to make the harbor, still a work in progress. We passed a number of buildings in progress, the space where a lighthouse will one day go (pictured above), and learned more about water conservation, waste management, and reclamation that I thought was possible to understand in under 20 minutes. Then we got on a sort of off-roading golf cart called a Polaris and drove around the island to look at some of the houses they were building. They were some pretty cool houses. My father had explained that this was where he and mom were moving to, and the drive felt (again) very much how I’d envisioned Central/South America would look, and how most films portray it.

The Main Road (WIP)
I’ll admit that I saw the appeal and the only thing preventing me from dropping everything, moving down here, and living in this magical place what the fact that I’m dead broke. After essentially touring the entire Sanctuary Project, complete with guard-posts, a private beach house/club area, equestrian lodging, horse trails, and an awesome boat ride on a river, we got back on the main boat and headed back to the hotel for dinner. 

Pictures really fail to do this place justice (WIP)
Cue the horses!

I noticed that I consumed at least 4 full bottles of liquid though out the day, not including cups of water, and that my skin was now two shades darker than when I’d started.  I should mention that we saw some exotic birds I can’t identify, crocodile, lots of iguanas, a pack of poodle (domesticated), horses, and even two bull mastiffs (thankfully domesticated)! It was almost as if someone said “here come the tourists, cue the animals!”

Boat Ride

Polaris on the countryside

The bats from the night before also came back for dinner. The people we spoke with at dinner were extremely exciting folks and just to give you an idea, topics of conversation included things like “the time I spent two years in Uganda to build an orphanage while Kony was killing people less than 10 miles away”, “my time in India trying to keep people from literally going to war with each other over drinkable water”, and “how I met my wife for the first time, in line at a grocery store on Christmas eve.” I got back the room, started my workout routine, saw a hamster-like creature flee from the room (across the ceiling) as I brushed my teeth, and fell asleep before I could log any more details about the day on my laptop. It seems silly to write that I’m going to fall asleep, but I can’t stay up much longer…

Day 3 – Sunday September 8th

Lightning Strike Operation-style Vacation!
A surprisingly long day with little that can be described well in words. It had rained and thundered much of the night before. The world beyond my front door showed all the signs of the stormy night while being bright and cheery. After a 7:30 breakfast we took a 15 mile boat ride (approximately 1 hour) to a self-sustaining 5 acre Island called Sanctuary Kaye (Key) whose residents include 2 full time guard dogs.
This boat ride wasn’t entirely uneventful as our guide explained that the Island was created from a mangrove seed getting stuck on a piece of flotilla, which probably got stuck to a piece of coral. It was a little bit more complicated than this, but that’s about as technical detail as I was able to understand over the wind and admittedly distracting view. The Sanctuary group is big on conservation, and many features of the island (leaving the sea grass around it intact, planting more trees of a specific nature, etc) reflected this commitment.

Art Journal 
We beat an oncoming squall to the island only by a few seconds, and while many ran to the shelter of the huts I saw no need to stay dry as I intended to go swimming anyway. While others huddled for dry spots I played with the dogs, approached an odd looking hut which could only be accessed by water (pictured above), and watched as a few people pulled plastic chairs into the tide. It turned out that the hut on the water was the “office on the water” and in the short but pleasant conversation that ensued I shook hands with the men there, informally sealing my decision for future residency. I took the next few hours to think, rethink, and rethink my decision. I took advantage of a free massage offered in another hut on the water, went swimming (the clouds were still keeping the sun from burning me, though the rain and wind were long gone), and went on a kayak trip around the island for good measure. With at least 20’ water visibility in the deep-blue waters I saw some pretty awesome coral, giant starfish, lots of fish, and while I was at the furthest point from where I’d started I even saw a few black-tipped sharks! I manage to avoid falling off the board and as I moved to get a closer look at the shy little guys (3 or 4 sharks, each 2-3ft in length) before they fled at speeds I could have only matched if I fell into the water next to them. I caught myself humming a few nautical tunes I grew up with as well as one that I wrote when I was 11 It was good thinking time, and from atop my kayak (which was actually a surf board because someone else was using the actual kayaks) I really felt like the king of the ocean.

Future King of the Ocean
I took the remaining time to each lunch, take a few pictures, further ponder on my decision, help the island’s grey water supply (fueled by human waste), kayak around the island again, and go snorkeling. The snorkeling bit was particularly fun because it was just myself, a guide named Pete (short for a Mayan name I can’t pronounce very well), my new friend, and his wife… who can’t swim. I’m being completely honest here when I say she did not know how to swim at all, so they gave her a life vest and a floating buoy with a rope attached to pull her around. I don’t think I could have been nearly as good a sport in the same potentially life-threatening situation but she was unphased as we went past areas of open water that exceeded 14 feet in depth.  During the snorkeling we saw giant sea urchins, a few small harmless (I bumped into them so I’m extra sure of this fact) jelly fish, hundreds of fish of all shapes and sizes, dozens of variety of corrals, a 3’ sting ray who fled upon noticing us, starfish, giant starfish, living conch shells, and a sea cucumber, which shot its insides out at us in surprise (before retracting them back inside)! It was a very pleasant experience and I felt like the buoyancy here was significantly more than I’m used to (I was able to stay on the surface!). Perhaps it was just that the water was unnaturally calm and pleasantly warm. At one point, while under water, I could swear that I heard the low whirring sound that dolphins and whales make, but despite hearing it for over 2 minutes I was not able to trace the source of the sound.

The weather significantly improved
After the snorkeling we got back to the boat, showered the salt off, headed back to Kanantik, went swimming in the salt water pool, had pizza, had more exciting conversations with world travelers, and passed out… after arranging a few more minutes of music for Careless Juja Live. As I write this (still arranging music at 10:39pm) I feel really confident in my earlier decision. There are a lot of things that potentially could be priorities in my life, and I feel that living in a manner consistent to my beliefs should be among them, if not chief among them. I really like what the community that doesn’t exist yet, that Sanctuary, is supposed to be and I trust the team here to be true to their words while maintaining a delicate ecosystem in the process. While there will be many sacrifices associated with the change when it happens on my end, I feel I’ll be being more myself than I’m able to be where I currently am. It’s hard to explain at 10pm, but I feel I’ll also be able to do significantly more good in a community that’s open to sound reasoning, unlike my home town. This shift from my earlier skepticism before the trip was… entirely unexpected. I’ve never wanted to live anywhere but Florida, but the USA, and have been this way for my whole life. Sorry for getting a little personal here, I’d just like to clarify an unexpected but life changing decision that was marginalized in a single sentence above. For anyone panicking at the above, I won’t be moving for quite some time. Heck, even the road leading to where I’ll live won’t exist for at least a few years. This is just something I feel that needs to happen and I’ve started taking the necessary steps to make it a reality in my future.

Day 4 – Monday September 9th

Clouds and mountains
Today was an early start because we planned to drive across roughly the entire country of Belize, traveling right up to the boarder of Guatemala. Our destination? The ancient ruins of Xunantunich! (Pronounced:  Zu [More of “ts” sound like in Shitzu], + naan, & tunic) As for who “we” are in this specific instance, it would be my brother, myself, my friends from the snorkeling, a friendly couple who are farmers from Arizona, and our guide Pete, a legit Mayan descendant who speaks one dialect of Mayan (out of 3). We departed at 7:45am after eating breakfast and watched a few lazy iguanas walk around. I desperately tried to get a message to Moscow, approval to cover one of the sites for the magazine I write for, but lost service well before my boss could even say “I don’t understand your question.”

Take a closer look at the supports
We loaded everyone into a van and drove down the roads of Belize. This was my first time outside the resort since we arrived and was my first glimpse at the REAL Belize. It turns out that there are only 4 major roads to know in the entire country, which simplifies things. No stoplights, no enforced speed limits, and a set of road ethics driven (no pun intended) by common sense. We drove for a few hours passing catholic schools, buses, roadside trash, 1 way bridges, mountains, cows, goats, hitchhikers, and much more. The poverty level of the country and the sheer friendliness of the people we saw amazed me. Highlights included a rugged looking man with a machete walking past a group of school girls without getting so much as a glance of concern from them, a bunch of men with machetes trimming someone’s front lawn (sans mower or weed whacker), a police station (a small one story building with a friendly looking guy out front), Saint Xavier’s school (for gifted children), a single building labeled “the mall”, white Amish-looking folk, and a bunch of generally friendly looking people who waved to us as we passed by. 

Diversity of scenery
Over time we noticed that buildings that had a Coca Cola sign outside seemed to generally be restaurants, that many of the people lived sort of on their own or in extremely small communities uncomparable in size to all but the remote Alaskan US, that the nonexistent speed limits are strictly enforced by speed bumps every few miles, and that knowing a little bit of Spanish goes a long way, though it’s not required by any means. Having traveled to places I would have considered similar, I felt that 95% of Belize (sans Belize City) lacked much of the shadiness I’d experienced in Aruba, or Greece, though it’s certainly a 3rd world country. Perhaps that’s due to the influence of Catholicism or national pride. Perhaps I simply wasn’t looking hard enough for the bad, but I felt a great comfort in this because all my interactions and explorations were pleasant and genuine. On a feminist note, I think the self-image of women in Belize is extremely different from those in the US or South Korea. Healthy curviness and wideness of body made up over 90% of the women I saw and while it’s not like I was able to interview them to ask if they are happy with their self image; because they were the extreme majority I’m left with the strong impression that the culture either finds it attractive, that it’s related to a genetic thing (which I don’t think accounts for all of it), and that they’ve not been force fed Hollywood’s perception of what women should look like.

Hand Crank Visible on the Right
Resuming the story, a few hours later we found our way near San Ignacio, at a ferry that would lead us across a river to the ruins of Xunantunich. After the van got on the ferry we were told to get out because in the event that the ferry sunk they didn’t want anyone to drown in the van. Solid enough logic. It was only after we got out that I noticed that the ferry was operated by a single hand crank, manned by the lone bridge keeper. From the other side it was only maybe a mile more of driving until we reached the parking for Xunantunich. Pete would also be our tour guide and explained many of the local fauna, animals, and history. After we passed the initial security checkpoint, we reached the runes to a 600 year old security checkpoint that the Mayans used. I wondered for a moment if in another 600 years they’ll have the present checkpoint on display as well…

The Tourist Tree is said to resemble a sunburned tourist
Past the checkpoint was the museum, complete with a scale model and some photographs that showed the history of the restoration project (currently on hold due to financial issues I was told). Pete explained how Xunantunich got its name, the story of the Stone Lady as he was told it as a child, and how the some of the Mayan people still genuinely believed in the power of the old Mayan kings. It’s said that they (the kings) all lost physical form one day but can manifest anytime they desire, sometimes in the form of animals, but generally only on Easter or Christmas. It’s also said that the spirit of a Mayan queen, dressed in 1100’s royal garb, led a Mayan hunting tribe in the 1800’s (I might have the years wrong) to the site of the ruins and vanished. Spooked they ran home and got more people to look around the area. After a leader declared it to be a “stone/mountain based supernatural event” (as opposed to water/air/etc) they started digging (the following day) in the mountains they were standing on top of until they found the top of the first temple. That’s why they nicknamed the place Xunantunich, meaning “The Stone Lady.”

Some goofy tourist
Place of the Stone Lady
We walked around the site awhile, taking videos, pictures, and learning about the ball game they played with a 15-20lb rubber ball. The loser was apparently sacrificed to have their heart cut out on top of the temple with an obsidian knife while they’re still alive, and have their remains cremated to please the gods. Our guide said that many people who still live still believe that the sacrifices worked, though they don't practice human sacrifice anymore... It pays to be good at sports if you’re Mayan, which possibly explains why anyone of their descent in the central/south American regions would destroy the rest of the world at Foot Ball (Soccer). Good motivation to win.

Suddenly feeling very "Call of Cthulu"
We also saw some sort of edible nut that is as hard as a rock (it also sounds like a rock when struck), learned what types of palms the Mayans used to build their homes, which their descendants still use to make roofs to this day, how they do that, and caught a glimpse of a long tailed monkey of some kind. As we passed some armed guards with AR’s, Pete explained that 6 years ago some tourists got robbed by 5 men from Guatemala who snuck across the river nearby. He said that he himself was there with a tour group a mere 15 minutes after it happened and was thankful that it did not happen to him. No one got hurt but as a precaution they still have armed guards on site 24/7. It’s worth mentioning that the guards are pretty friendly to tourists.

Explorer Pose
We climbed the reconstructed staircase to the top of the various structures, carefully treading on top of (the rebuilt) century-old ruins that I feel were more impressive than the pyramids of Giza, though not as large if my memory is correct. The view was breathtaking both because it was amazing, and because it’s a bit of hike to reach the top. It literally takes your breath from you. At the very top of the main temple, the place where the Mayan king was said to speak with the gods, we could see present day Guatemala (less than two miles away), the vast mountain range, and a giant storm that was headed our way. We quickly made our way down the temple, took a few more photos, and stopped at the Mayan gift shop on the way out. It’s said that the descendants of the very same people who built the temple work at the gift shop.

A Picture With the Artist... She's trying not to laugh
Before getting back in the van we noticed a sound similar to that of barking dogs. It got more weird and terrifying the closer we got so myself, Pete, and my new neighbor did the rational thing and walked deep into the woods after the sound until we could no longer see where we’d come from. It got a bit spooky when the noise immediately stopped, indicating that we were close to its source. I took some video footage of the journey I'll post here one day. After we failed to find the source of the noise Pete explained that it was a bearded (or perhaps howler, I can’t remember) monkey call. In the interest of keeping our lives (this is how most horror films start), we departed the woods and crossed the ferry back to the main roads of Belize. We picked up some souvenirs made by the people who run the gift shop, got some chocolate, a coke, and a picture with the artist.

We departed at 12:40 and caught lunch at an awesome diner I forgot the name of, but that offered a melted marshmallow smoothie! We also hit up the local market, walked around San Ignacio, one of the twin towns, for a while and headed back. About half way through the journey back Pete stopped the car half way down a hill and said “time for a break.” We all sort of laughed, shrugged, and were not sure what was happening. A few moments after he put the car in neutral it was pulled backwards, UP THE HILL at about 2 miles an hour, picking up speed until it reached maybe 10 or 15mph! We didn’t have a scientific explanation as to why this happened but Pete said the it was said to be the pull of a Mayan King. Apparently water will also flow UP that ridge as well, but none of us wanted to stand in the highway to try it out.
We drove back, reunited with the rest of our family, had dinner, said goodbye to our friends at Kanantik, and turned in early for another big day up ahead of us.

The Allspice must flow!

Day 5 – Tuesday September 10th – The Battle of St. George’s Caye Day

View from above
We woke up, had breakfast, said our final goodbyes and departed Kanantik. We took the same van, airport, and found ourselves in Belize City not too much later. We picked up a rental, drove through the country side, and eventually reached San Ignacio, again. My father drove at roughly 1/3rd the speed Pete drove because our tires had over 60,000 miles on them, so things progressed much slower than before. He was determined to not injure the car in the slightest because the guy renting it to us repeated that we were responsible for any and all damage to the vehicle with some emphasis. Notably we passed the Belize prison (which has a charming gift shop), a lot of real estate for sale, presumably houses built by gringos who didn’t think things through, and lots of flags/flyers/banners in celebration of the Battle of St. George’s Caye.

More countryside visible from the highway
We arrived on a long dirt road that led up to the Lodge at Chaa Creek, which National Geographic voted as being the best place to stay in the country that’s open to the public (Kanantik is private so I won’t attempt any comparison). They delivered. We arrived at around 1:15pm in the middle of a heavy storm, were each given umbrellas (at our car), and walked to the front desk, located in a hut on the top of a hill. Surrounded entirely by jungle, located on the hilly Maya mountain range, Chaa Creek has a very unique feel, apart from everything else we’d seen thus far. The staff is also top notch and very friendly.

Chaa Creek
After the rain died down a bit we caught lunch at their diner (an extremely fluffy dog also joined us) and I hiked with mom to check out the butterfly gardens and history/cultural museum they have on site. It was definitely worth the walk. We encountered some pretty interesting sounds from unknown animals as we trekked up the jungle path, and also saw a small flock of hummingbirds go by. I envisioned a horror-film where hummingbirds developed a taste for humans as we walked. We heard the sounds of bats, owls, and countless cricket-like insects as my brother and I went swimming in the (salt water) pool, made use of the solid internet connection to catch up on a few work related emails, enjoyed dinner with a Bellekin (the beer of Belize) with my family, and then headed back to the room to turn in for an early night. I’ll admit that this was more difficult than anticipated as I can literally hear everything that’s out in the jungle still, even as I type this from the room. The rooms are not what I’d consider as being “completely indoors” as the windows never really close and there are fans instead of AC but it’s enjoyable. Listening now I hear a bird with a distinct long call, lots of bats, a few crickets, some amphibious sounds, occasionally a dog (which I can now differentiate from monkey calls), and a few minutes ago I heard a very angry monkey that sounds a bit like a jaguar. Just like Disney, only they're actually out there... The room has a private outdoor shower I’d like to try, and I’ll probably stay up for a few hours after that arranging more songs for Careless Juja.

Day 6 – Wednesday September 11th

Nature is beautiful
I woke up late, enjoyed a delicious “lime-en-aid” with my complementary breakfast, and went on a hike in the forest with my brother. If I did any sort of repossession stuff on the trip to Belize this would have been the day it would have happened… But because we didn’t…  we’ll say that Wednesday was a quiet day where I stayed in my room, went swimming once or twice, and worked on music until midnight in my room. Chaa Creek lived up to its reputation as being the best public resort in the country.

Day 7 – Thursday September 12th

Last minute nature walk
We departed Cha Creek after an early breakfast and a last minute nature walk. I was a bit sad to be leaving those rolling hills and caught glimpse of a few more hummingbirds and even a Grey Fox on the way to the car. I also heard what I’m positive was a very angry monkey, though I’m told it was somehow an attractive mating call. He sounded pretty hostile though. We drove through most of Belize again, down the highway for about two hours until we reached Placencia, just south of Kanantik. Somewhere in the day’s travels we passed some very unfortunately named shops I can’t repeat here for fear of losing credibility as an adult. The most tame of the names I can repeat here is “Dickhead” which sells various foodstuffs.

Walk at your own risk
As we zoomed through the rolling hills, careful of roaming dogs, pigs, sheep, chickens, school children, and sudden turns we discussed how in general Belize requires you to really take your life into your own hands. You can go cave tubing or exploring but you’ll likely need to exercise caution if you don’t want to get hurt, comparably more than if you did the same activity in the US. For instance, there generally aren’t guard rails in some places where you might expect to see them in the US, which is fine if you have common sense, but just makes you realize how different things are. There is often real danger if you’re not aware of your surroundings. I prefer this. If someone says the floor is slippery it doesn’t mean “the floor might be slippery and we don’t want you to sue us,” it means you’re probably going to slip if you walk there. If “the stairs are steep,” then they’re really really steep and probably uneven. They just sort of assume that you have common sense and are an adult, which is refreshing, but also makes my return to the home to frivolous lawsuits and signs of “warning: coffee is hot” something I look forward to less and less.
I’ve also gained a thirst for “how to” knowledge in Belize. In under a week I’d learned all about how to avoid various insects, poisons, how to fix/avoid a few car problems, had used physical maps, and stopped to ask people for directions. Almost sounds quaint, doesn’t it? When I get home I’ll probably just use a GPS, call AAA, and google questions on my phone as they arise. Those conveniences are great, but I personally find an attraction towards places that don’t tolerate idiocy and force you to actually pay attention to what you’re doing.

A home made with love
Over the course of the week I’d also come to accept how talented the people of Belize are. From what I understand many of the people have the ability/skill set to still live off the land, something most of my friends think of as an almost romantic “lost art”, making their homes and signs (though admittedly not always the most aesthetically pleasing), out of random materials they could piece together. Old school Coke signs outside a building became a universal indication that they sell food/drinks there, Bellekin signs indicate that they serve beer. I also found out that any additional school after 8th grade is paid for by the student/family, which is a pretty big deal and explains why there aren’t nearly as many high schools in the country (that I could see, in comparison to the numerous primary schools). Sort of in line with the above paragraph, Belize people are forced to be ingenuitive with what they’ve been given and every interaction I have had with someone (save for one individual of shady character) here has been exceedingly pleasant. It almost feels like the type of positive community you can only read about in books where road rage is all but nonexistent.

What are you... "Sinking" about?
Entirely the inverse, Placencia is a strange part of the country that doesn’t really feel like Belize. Looking more like Casey Key or Siesta Key (FL, USA), full of gringos, the entrance to Placencia is a super-yuppie/new-age building filled area located next to (but not integrated with) an area of extreme poverty. Almost everything we passed for the first few miles was for sale, literally… More than 3/4ths of the properties in one section were for sale. It was weird. That was followed by a series of houses so insanely large that some of them are literally sinking right into the ground! I was later told that most of them are either sinking or in the process of sinking under their own weight. Somewhere after the extremes from yuppie to poverty and back to yuppie again we reached a spot that started to feel like the rest of the country, only slightly more touristy. It was pleasant enough, though we didn’t stay for long because we had a work related meeting. On our way into this part of town we hit a police checkpoint, where the local police were raising money by doing a raffle for a flat screen. We bought a few tickets, gave them to the officer’s family, and drove on to our destination, which I can’t disclose. After the business on the island was complete, we followed the road to the end of the island. The touristy community there was pleasant enough and we’re told that they’re looking forward to being the location that a cruise line will visit in the future, though we heard many negative comments on the topic of cruise ships outside of Placencia.

We passed the interestingly named "Purple Space Monkey" Cafe
We stopped for lunch at a place called Sweet Mama’s, enjoyed fantastic food, got lost finding the bathroom (it was so obvious we all individually missed it as we departed one at a time), and listened to the news on the radio there. No Syrian crisis, no GMO’s, no politics. Just Belizeans talking about the upcoming festivities, an interview with a 12 year old artist named Caitlyn who’s art gallery will be displayed for the next month in honor of hercontract with a US shirt making company (you should really click this link because she's awesome), an interview with a famous whisky maker, some diplomat-fishermen who are trading information with other fisherman from other countries learning about how to harvest lobster, and a brief yet graphic news blurb about a boy who was shot in the abdomen while fleeing from a Green car with tinted windows. “They found a bullet in him, 9mm casings on the ground near where he said he was shot, and the victim, who survived, said that he could identify the shooter.”

Some cool artwork
We drove across the country again, all the way to Belize City this time. We passed another police checkpoint, but they let us by when my mom rolled down the window and told them that we already purchased raffle tickets in Placencia… It seemed like they were looking for something but the genuine nature of my mother can be disarming, so they just let us pass with a smile and a wave. The most notable thing about this 3 hour drive was the fact that we passed King’s orphanage, because someone at the mall I frequent in Sarasota happens to be a good friend of the very same King who runs that orphanage. Just outside of Belize City we passed another police checkpoint and at this checkpoint my mom simply asked the two armed soldiers (with what I think were AR 15’s) there for directions. We were horribly lost and running out of fuel (over 50 miles between gas stations according to my dad), and they were so caught off guard that they just gave us directions and told us to have a great day. We passed a giant cemetery that edged a road of the same name, got fuel, and went through the narrow streets of Belize City, which reminded us faintly of St. Augustine in the regard that the roads were narrow. Belize City is incredibly populated and I didn’t really like it there because I’ve been told that it’s the least safe part of the entire country after dark, which was about when we were arriving. It also felt very populated, kind of like downtown NYC or Chicago. Without incident we found our hotel, got dinner, and got back to the rooms for an early night, trying to avoid some of the more sketchy folk. We’d have a big day of traveling home ahead of us and not even the staff at the hotel were going to tell us that walking around Belize City at night was a good idea, so instead we stayed up awhile, chatting with some of the hotel staff. It turned out one of them had schoolmates who work at Chaa Creek we had spoken to. Sleep was alright, and I’d have probably forgot to type this up but for the power going out at about 10pm, which caused the fire alarm to intermittently go off throughout the night. On an amusing note, the hotel staff leaves an amusing “no tarts policy” paper in all of the rooms.

Do not incur their wrath!

Day 8 – Friday September 13th

The giant Graveyard
A quick departure. We woke up, had breakfast, spoke with some different locals about day to day life, packed, and got to the car. Just before we reached the car, a history buff who looked sort of homeless stopped us to tell us of the history of the name “Belize”, which he claims came from the Mayan words “Belle & Kini” (like the beer: Bellekin). This was all done a lightning speed, with words that sort of droned, sort of rhymed, and the overall effect was akin to a street-style Rastafarian Regey history lesson gone in 60 seconds. A true modern day bard, he wished us peace and a safe journey as we departed and we promptly got lost on our way to the airport. Luckily we reached a police checkpoint and they were kind enough to give us solid directions. I should mention here that Belize has extremely strict policies on drugs, prostitution, public nudity, and pornography distribution that can get you thrown into that jail I mentioned earlier for YEARS. If you’re thinking about visiting Belize for any of the above reasons, or smoke “medical cigarettes” you’re risking a long time being locked away in a very unpleasant place.

From the airport...
Now at the airport, a mere 2 hours from home, I’m left to ponder the experience. Overall it was kind of like Neo’s revolution in the Matrix for me. My eyes were (figuratively) opened to the enormous privileges we have in the US compared to Belize. Those in the US (that I know) don’t have the same sort of life or death hardships I passed, and have a government that provides a rather expansive safety net, for better or for worse. (This is all said with a neutral political stance so please don’t message me about politics J) In addition to truly appreciating some things like top quality emergency services, fast roadside assistance, GPS, and convenient gas station locations, I also am left with the sense that our existence in the US is rather babied. What I mean is that people give instructions multiple times and reinforce them with generally strong visual guides. I feel like a lot of the more subtle freedoms in Belize, the lack of warning labels on everything, the lack of guide rails, and lack of fast-response police/emergency services in the country forced me to actually think and stay attentive in a way I’ve not felt in years. I felt inspired to learn things about basic car repair, first aid, farming, and to learn about various plants and wildlife because I can’t just access that information in a quick google search from my phone at any time. In my mind, and I probably don’t represent the bulk of Millennials in this thought, the convenience of the information makes the learning some of it feel excessive. Why learn general facts when everything is clearly labeled as dangerous, when you can call a talented professional for help at a nominal fee, and when you can access the facts in under a minute by asking Siri? I doubt I’ll pursue any of these things once the normal 8-5 life settles back because I’ll lose interest and get caught up but once I move (albeit not anytime soon) I will likely thirst for knowledge, which is an exciting prospect.

Belize is a very beautiful country, full of very friendly people. I recommend visiting if you’re alright with the outdoors (most buildings are open in some way, so few places feel truly “Indoors”), the heat (it’s actually no worse than Florida), aren’t allergic to nature (pollen, etc), and don’t mind a bug bite or two (the coconut based sunscreen is actually a really good bug repellent).  If you go you’ll likely find that the people are genuine, the food is fantastic (but don’t drink the water unless you’re sure it’s safe), and the country is more beautiful than pictures can show.


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