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2000 Expedition Journals
Belize is a funny place. You cross the border into the first town Corozal and you see blacks, Chinese, Hispanics and whites all speaking at least two languages, one usually Creole.
I could pick up phrases and words here and there but it is far enough from standard English to be an entirely distinct language. Verb conjugations are non-existent, everything is abbreviated and accented very heavily and vernacular expressions are standard. They even use words that we would consider diminutive in every day speech, like addressing each other as "boy". And when they want to be polite and they want something from you, you are called "boss". "Baad" means good, and "haaht" means "hard". They abbreviate "And then I said. . ." to "An nen I seh". It's fascinating, especially when someone, say a clerk at a store, talks to you in lilting but perfect English and then turns to a friend and fires off something in Creole. And when black people start speaking Spanish with their Caribbean swing, look out Antonio Banderas, because that is the true suave and stylin' Latin sound. "Sabes hombre? Yaaah man."
It's a natural fact that humans are products of their environments of which language acquisition is a major part. So why is it that we have such a hard time getting over our preconceived notions that one language belongs to one people. When a black man speaks eloquently in unaccented, academic English, some blacks call him an "Oreo." When a white kid speaks fluent street slang, some say he is a "poser". But here, when you see a Chinese restaurant owner speak to his family in Cantonese and then turn to a black customer and start jawing away in Creole, nobody bats an eye but me.
When we were setting up and packing on the water-taxi dock in Belize City, an old man sidled up and asked, "Wheh y' gwinta baiy?" I had to ask him to repeat it three times. I still didn't get it and we had to talk in Spanish. After he left, a few minutes later in dawned on me that he'd said, "Where you going to boy?"
Everyone in Belize has a ready smile and a cheery word to offer. This is especially true of the guys working the street, washing cars, doing errands, anything to make a buck. It's a combination of hustler's shtick and genuine friendliness and it's a perfect opportunity to train your ears to pick up the accent. And even when the inevitable moment comes--after they've introduced themselves and chatted gregariously for a few minutes? when they ask you for money, "Cahn I geht a dallah boss?", it's hard not to empty your pockets into their outstretched hand. "Yah know whehn ya geev, ya geht, eet cum back in many way t'ya", they'll say. In response, I've learned to smile and say, "I jus' down yea leeveen man, en I gwin t'the islands," and I shake their hand and say "nice to meecha man."
First Lesson Learned: Enthusiasm and determination are no substitute for good planning.
Second Lesson Learned: It sucks to learn the hard way!
The past two weeks have been all about travel overland and packing. Day one of Stage Two was supposed to be a change of scenery, waves, water and wind. However, it started out as more of the same.
We left Corozal on a 4:50 AM "Express" bus to Belize City. We decided against paddling out of the murky bay of Corozal as brackish water and mangrove swamp as far as the eye can see, dont make for good kayaking or camping. We were two among six on the bus (an old converted school bus), which was great because we had all of our stuff, boats included. Little did we know that this particular bus was the commuter ride for all the day laborers in North Belize. By 5:30 it was packed, people in the aisles and bags to the ceiling. Nor did this bus end up being express, as we stopped for every guy standing on the side of the road the whole way.
The driver and the money collector were very helpful, and they dropped everyone off and went out of their way to get us to the water-taxi dock at the mouth of the Belize River. We unloaded everything on the dock and started to set up the boats. By 9:00 there was a large group standing around waiting for the boat out to Ambergris Caye. Everyone was very curious. We fielded many questions and endured much staring. One lady was so inspired by our journey that she went out and bought us Johnny Cakes (unleavened biscuit , ham and cheese) and hand-painted gourd cups which she inscribed with a message, "CASKE 2000 Good Luck. Use only in an emergency." Wink, Wink. We interpreted the "emergency" to be rum. Another man even went so far as to bring Jean-Philippe down to Belize Channel 5 and by late morning we were being interviewed on the dock by a news crew.
Between searching around for large containers of purified water to fill our water bags and packing, the day passed quickly. Our 2:00 departure plan went by the wayside. By the afternoon we had an entourage of street kids in their late teens gathered on the dock. They were very curious and helpful, and all jockeying for the best tip. We finally got off the dock at dusk. I began a chorus of Bob Marleys "Exodus" and they finished it, and JP and I stroked out of the mouth of the river, headed toward the closest island less than five miles away.
This is where the poor planning came into play. When people tell you that Belize is a kayakers paradise, they dont tell you that a large percentage of the islands are mangrove swamps and completely un-campable. Just after sunset we arrived to find a bad dream come true, no place to stop, no place to go back to in Belize City. Our only option was to grab the map and continue out into the darkness.
The next closest group of islands was another four miles off. We went for it. Halfway across we became increasingly doubtful as it began to thunder and then pour, and we decided to head for a large ship a mile off and ask for help and directions. It turned out to be a sugar freighter and when we pulled up next to the two barges tied up to the side, four men approached. They were very surprised to see us and helped us aboard the barge.
Everything was coated in half-dissolved raw sugar. While JP asked for suggestions for islands to camp on, I stood shivering and wet in the wind and watched clouds of sugar drift away from the large scoop lifting it from the barge into the hold of the mother ship. They directed us toward a small glow in the distance a few miles off, an island with a lodge, nice place to camp. We left and paddled towards it for over an hour. The light didnt seem to get any closer.
We reassessed and decided to veer left toward islands that our map and GPS said were close. Another hour later we arrived at another musty smelling mangrove. According to the map, a whole string of islands lay to the south but we were totally disheartened and steeling ourselves for the very real possibility of spending a wet, windy, and cold night on the water.
At the southern tip of the mangrove island, we spied a dark land mass a couple miles off with a few lights. Boats? A lodge? We headed straight for it. Ten minutes later all the lights winked out and we had no bearing. Get out the headlamp to check the compass, I thought. No Batteries!
I tried to scavenge the radio batteries to find only the rechargeable pack inside. We needed to keep batteries in the GPS, so the only option was the digital camera. In jostling waves, trying to keep the camera dry and the headlamp battery case from falling in the water I managed to get two batteries transferred and everything sealed and repacked in water-proof cases.
We continued on the same heading for nearly an hour. Upon reaching the island we moved slowly along the shore scanning the twisted and dank mangrove for openings. A gap with a low gray strip of. . .something, sand? No, a stone wall. We went in and saw grass and a clearing and sighed in relief. We exited the boats and saw a flashlight coming toward us. To break the ice and show goodwill we called out with greetings and asked where we were.
It turns out we landed on Spanish Caye in the one and only clearing, behind a set of cabanas and a lodge. Our flashlight-toting friends were members of a Presbyterian group from Texas down in Belize building churches. It was their last night and they were spending it on the islands.
They welcomed us and plied us with juice and warm welcomes. And with a bag of cookies from our food stores, and much exhausted relief, we finally went to sleep on the floor of the lodge.
The First Day of Stage Two: five and a half hours of paddling in the pitch dark, four navigation mistakes and equipment failure, all the result of one gross incident of poor planning.
The upside? It can only get better. Onward and upward towards southern Belize!
The past two days were inversely proportional to the first. "To those who suffer, paradise awaits", a major tenet of many religions. Never a subscriber to any, the past 48 hours have almost been enough to make me a believer.
We were very sore on the morning the 19th (my birthday) and over a leisurely breakfast with our hosts we looked at the map and decided on a seven mile day. An hour into the crossing we saw a tiny little spit of sand with a few coconut palms, and a cruise ship parked off shore. Like with good restaurants that are crowded for good reasons, we went straight for it. Sore shoulders were our excuse for ducking out early.
It was one of those islands that you see in cartoons, a hump of sand, four trees and a shipwrecked castaway in ragged clothes. Only this place had a thatch roofed palapa and was crawling with pale, white retired couples and tourists splashing about the reef snorkeling or lying in the sun slathering on sunscreen.
We actually met some great people and did some beautiful snorkeling among gardens of live coral. And we spent the afternoon chatting and sharing drinks with one of the groups.
By 5:00, the place was empty. Everyone back to the mother ship. JP speared a couple of fish and caught a true prize for my birthday, a large crab. I climbed a coconut tree and we feasted on coconut chile rice, fish tacos and boiled crab. And behind the low walls of the palapa, out of the wind we slept early.
The next day a different cruise boat showed up. Our peaceful little spot was full of people by 9:30. We packed up and shoved off by late morning. A perfect paddling day. ľ tail wind, two foot swell. I surfed and played and felt great. JP was having trouble with blisters, so we just went to another tiny island seven miles south.
This atoll was even better. The reef was pristine, with huge branches and large beds of brightly colored coral. In my trip around the island I saw a six foot Bat Ray and an equally long shark, barracuda, grouper, angel fish, etc. etc.
JP speared a couple snapper and I made spinach pasta with garlic, chile cream sauce and a dash of rum. Total peace and quiet on our own personal island. This was the Caribbean of my dreams.
It first got even better, and then we had some scary moments, read Jean-Philippe's account:
People say that its not as simple as it used to be. When electricity came in nine years ago, followed shortly by TV and tourism, things changed a little. People used to live a subsistence lifestyle, fishing, growing cassava for baking and beer, cooking Creole bread with coconuts and picking a little citrus for spare cash to get a few things from the outside. Now there are monthly bills to pay. Gotta pay the cable man, the electric company and buy a stereo to keep up with the neighbors. The young people head off to Belize city as soon as they come of age. They listen to rap, wear Nikes, do their hair like Alan Iverson and dream of working in the States. Some of the people rent out rooms or cook to make ends meet. As their needs and wants grow the money will have to come from somewhere. However, for the time being most things remain the same. They are a happy and proud people, pleased to show you how they live, and tell you about their heritage.
We would never have known to stop there had we not met a tour operator while out on the cayes. Riley Dunn runs Hobie Cat tours around the islands and bases his operations out of Hopkins. He moved into the area a few years ago after visiting and falling in love with the setting and the people and decided to bring his business brainstorm to fruition. When he mentioned that his neighbors were still alive with tradition and suggested we check it out, we wasted no time in accepting.
When we pulled up on the beach, we noticed that most houses were still of wooden slat- board construction, raised up on stilts and covered with corrugated tin. Coconut palms gave shade to sandy yards littered with a few dry husks, tools, and remains of cooking fires. There was an air of self-sufficiency to the town. A few fishermen in wooden boats unloaded a net full of snapper and jack. A large middle aged woman named Sarita, like her mother and grandmother before her, baked allspice cinnamon rolls in a backyard oven made from a steel drum and top heated with coals from a driftwood fire. And the children, ran around climbing coconut trees, catching insects and romping in the waves.
There is evidence of a little cultural imperialism that has crept into town, an odd contrast to its historical roots. Rileys neighbors lived in the Chicago area for a number of years, saved money and were back to their village with all the trappings of modern society. Their cement ranch house was filled with coffee tables, glass-door wooden hutches, stereo equipment and a huge TV. Some of the kids who crowd the town basketball court at dusk wear Air Jordans and NBA jerseys. And a few of the kids whos parents run establishments would rather sit and watch HBO than go outside and play. Yet right next door are women in dresses they sewed themselves, scraping coconut pulp to for cooking on rough tables of hand hewn boards, and children run around with wonderfully unkempt hair smiling at the joy of finding a new playmate (me).
Hopkins is still one of those places where anthropologists will go to study Garifuna culture. We met a French woman who had come back for many years to focus on ritual trance possession and the socio-religious history of the town. They still make the ceremonial hut and dance the Dugu when someone is taken in by the spirits. They maintain a strong sense of identity, often making reference to their ancestors who came from St. Vincent. They will happily talk about their heritage and tell you about their roots.
Change is inevitable in places like this and the next ten years will be a critical period. Wants and needs will increase and economic realities will change. Sarita might franchise the cinnamon buns, the kids might discover Nintendo, and the wooden houses might become firewood for the hearth of new cement structures. However, for the time being, you can walk down the street at dusk munching a warm pastry, watching people go about their evening chores in preparation for dinner. You may hear a contrapuntal drum rhythm and see a group of people dancing, see women in bandanas and dresses take in the washing and have a small group of kids nipping at your heels to get you to join them in a game of tag.
Our two months in Belize were fantastic. The karmic scales of justice must stay balanced however, and its only upon departure that we experienced discomfort and hardship. It was a bittersweet way to exit the country after so many incredibly positive experiences. With a sinus cavity infection throbbing in my ear, a marathon day on the water and much time spent battling with a crooked customs officer to stamp us and our kayaks out of Belize, it seemed as if some dark forces were conspiring against us. With a 3:00 AM crossing to Livingston Guatemala in the plans it would be good riddance to Punta Gorda, the only black spot in a sterling two months.
Our day paddling into Punta Gorda had been a living nightmare. We left Monkey River town at 6:30 that morning with plans to be off the water after 12 to 15 miles. Ideal morning temperatures, a light breeze and low angular light made for beautiful paddling. We made it 8 miles to Punta Negra, our first checkpoint and rest stop, before most people eat breakfast in the morning. With our planned stopping point only 4 miles off, we were in a great position to arrive early, find a shady spot and rest for the day. It was not to be.
As we passed the next point and entered another shallow bay with a group of islands to our left, we scoured the coast for a campable beach. Lush green, full of life and beautiful to the eye, dank, insect infested and bad for the constitution, mangrove swamp was everywhere. We kept moving and hoping.
At 17 miles we saw another group of islands and were hopeful. They too turned out to be mangrove.
We had eaten our only snackable food and there was no place to stop and cook. It became a mind game to fend off total fatigue and keep plunging the paddles into the water to make progress. Points off in the distance were noted and registered in our consciousness as references only, not places to stop. After hours of sustained exertion, muscles have finished protesting and your body passes through the exhaustion stage into semi-conscious automation. A distant point or island, once reached, means a drink of water and a 30 second interruption. Your body forgets that there is any other reality besides paddling and any other speed besides very slow and you almost go into stasis. Fortunately we had a slight tail wind and following seas that allowed us to make forward progress. We arrived in Punta Gorda at 3:00 PM after 28 nautical miles and nearly 9 hours on the water. We went directly to a restaurant overlooking the water and enjoyed our bland meal of rice, beans and stewed chicken like never before.
Our camp spot for the night was a lumpy patch of grass next to a sea wall with a gap that allowed us to pull up the boats. We had to be near the boats to keep an eye on them. We were not to be deterred. Despite the curious stares of passersby and intermittent rain squalls that night we managed to be fairly comfortable. The next day was a planned stop at immigrations and rest.
Stamping out at immigrations and customs in a port town in the Caribbean is supposed to be a simple matter and give you a pleasant sense of closure. You check out and you have 24 hours to be out of the country, simple. A friendly exchange with the officers and a hearty "happy trails" is the expectation. Immigration was exactly that way, customs was not. The black Garifuna woman in immigration, who we had met a few weeks before when renewing our visas, gave us a friendly hello and wished us good luck on our future paddles. The short latino man in the customs room right next door, who had witnessed our exchange at immigration, immediately gave us a hassle. He started grilling us about our intentions to leave in the middle of the night, showing us false concern for our safety and telling us apocryphal stories of other sailors who had come to unfortunate ends. He talked in circles and parried every logical counter point we made with ridiculous and impertinent new points and invented new regulations just to stymie us.
After the fact, Jean-Philippe told me that he had rarely seen an officer work so hard for bribe money. I was completely obtuse and hadnt thought that the guy was doing anything other than being a jerk. I thought back and couldnt believe I had missed all the hints. The officer at one point asked me to put myself in his position that it was a "two-sided coin" and that it would be very "difficult" to stamp out our kayaks and let us leave in the middle of the night, at which point he pulled out a coin, looked at me and placed in front of me on the table. In another instance he told JP that he would be risking his job and future welfare of his poor family.
It gave us great pleasure, when upon arriving at the police station at 3:00 AM that night, the officers were very sympathetic and dispatched an officer to knock on the guys door. He arrived and grudgingly stamped us out and we were on our way.
Persistence and smiles allow you to make your way in developing countries and the cardinal rule is never confront any officials from who you need anything. In that light it was incredibly difficult to hold our tongues when he sent us off with pleasantries dripping with sarcasm:
"Thank you for visiting Belize and travel safely. This country needs more travelers like you who follow the rules and regulations. We hope no harm comes to you on your way out." Translation: "Dont let the door hit you on the ass on the way out!"
It is seventeen miles across the Bay of Honduras to Livingston and takes a few dollars and a pleasant hour in a motor launch. It is not so when done at night in a kayak with thunderstorms roiling on the horizon, and negative thoughts roiling in your mind. The customs officials words and a few tragic tales of lost travelers, told to us earlier in the night while dining at a restaurant, lay heavily upon us.
We spent an uncomfortable few hours napping on the concrete deck of a restaurant after listening to horror stories about other travelers from the ex-pat Canadian owner John. He told us of a trio of Swedes who came through last year just after the hurricane. They purchased a sailboat and were to sail off south through Honduras and the Caribbean. When they stopped in at his restaurant the night before their departure, he warned them that going into Honduras in the aftermath of Mitch with a nice boat full of fresh water and supplies would make them a prime target for dispossessed and desperate storm survivors. They were very confident and dismissed his concerns. The Swedish embassy knocked on his door a few weeks later following the paper trail left by the trio. The last known place they had been seen was his restaurant (the embassy investigator saw that they had used their credit card). Apparently the boat had been found adrift off the coast of Honduras, minus passports, visas, money, supplies and bodies. Nothing has been seen of them since. It was not the kind of story we needed before heading off on a similar course.
As John and his Belizean wife closed down the restaurant at 11:00 a squall pounded down making us even more ill at ease. I tossed and turned for a few hours catching cat naps while JP awoke numerous times to check on the kayaks and deal with the sudden onset of diarrhea. We packed up wet and groggy at 2:45 and were at the police station to get our exit stamp at just after 3:00 (the customs guy just wanted to make things more difficult for us and had promised to leave the stamp with the police). Neither the customs officer nor the stamp were there and the two poliemen on duty knew nothing of our situation. They were both very sympathetic and one of them trudged off to roust the customs official. We didnt get on the water until 4:00.
The skies were overcast, thunder rumbled on the horizon and it was so dark I couldnt even see JPs kayak less than 20 feet in front of me. For an hour, until the sky began to lighten we paddled by GPS and compass heading and listened to each others paddle strokes to stay close.
By daylight we had covered less than 8 miles in nearly 3 hours, the current was working against us. As well, JPs rumbling guts had forced him to jump over the side of his boat and relieve himself twice. Just before dawn the storm that had been mocking us from afar came over our heads and dumped quarter-sized droplets of rain in thick sheets that pounded the ripples in the water flat. Our view of land was obscured with thick clouds. Warm rain pierced the surface all around us. All colors disappeared in a surreal wash of multi-hued grey.
The storm passed quickly and the Guatemalan shore materialized. Only 19 miles away, the topography looked completely different from that of Belize. It was psychologically uplifting to see a spur of low mountains covered in deep green foliage appear out of the fog. We began to paddle more energetically.
By 8:00 the sun was already hot and the shore seemed to hover out there the same distance away, no matter how much we paddled. For an hour we had no sense that we were making any progress and it was mentally defeating. We were running out of blood sugar, energy levels were sagging, my back muscles were on the verge of shut-down and JP could barely rotate his torso because of the stomach cramps. Our month away from the boats had made us soft.
We pulled up on shore by the wide mouth of the Rio Dulce at just before 10:00. After a five-minute break we paddled around the first bend to the main town of Livingston so we could check in at immigration. A mixed crowd of Garifuna and Latinos stood on the dock and marveled at our boats laden with gear and peppered us with questions in Spanish.
Everything was so much more vibrant than Punta Gorda. People volunteered information and gave us directions without asking for money. It felt good to be back in a Spanish-speaking country.
We pulled up at the riverside pizzeria/guest house Rigoletto run by a gregarious Mexican woman and her American husband. After an incredibly authentic and savory pizza we collapsed onto hammocks and napped.
Grueling tests of endurance are always tempered by good food and rest. Another guest asked me how the crossing was and I was surprised to hear myself say that it wasnt so bad.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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CASKE 2000 Itineraries:
Here is a funny quote our friend Peter Singhfield also known as Snakeman emailed to the Belize Culture Mailing list:
I am having a
ball with this site!! CASKE 2000 Belize Journals