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Saturday, 05 July 2008

Belize: Paradise in Placencia

Written by Aaron Ober
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Part Two in a Series

 

Belize, Paradise in Placencia, Pickled Parrot, swimming with whale sharks, Belize Barrier Reef, Silk Cayes,  snorkeling Belize, travel Belize, travel Central America, Middle Silk CayeI wandered back along Placencia’s crumbled main street, and found the Pickled Parrot, a palm-thatched bar and grill where Christina’s boyfriend Greg worked as a bartender. I pulled up a stool at the bar and glanced around at the liquor selection; needless to say, their rum options were numerous. Greg must have been in his early fifties, with long, flowing gray hair, a neatly trimmed beard and crystal-blue eyes. He reminded me of a deadhead scientist, equipped with wire-rimmed spectacles that clung to the abrupt angle of his long nose. With a grunt and a nod he acknowledged me as he finished mixing a pink cocktail for another patron.

“What be’t fer you mon?” Greg asked, as he tossed down a Belikin coaster in front of me. I was thrown back by his unusual dialect, and the more he spoke the more it seemed to be a mixture of Creole, Italian and Spanish, with a peppering of brash New Yorker slang. I opted for the pink drink, a house specialty rum punch, and we quickly got caught up in conversation. It wasn’t long before I sussed out that he was a fellow East Coaster, originally from New York. He had been living in Belize for eleven years and had no plans to move back to the States. Greg was a cool, calm and friendly bartender, and like most New Yorkers, he loved to talk. I figured if I stayed long enough there was a chance I would find out too much about his life: previous mafia ties, run-ins with the law, etc. It was not uncommon in Belize, my kind bartender disclosed, to find out that an easygoing expat was a wanted man back in the States; the most common crimes involved blue-collar federal fraud.

As the night wore on and the heat of the day started to mix with the heavy pours of booze, I gripped Greg’s hand and told him we would be neighbors for a while, then paid for my drinks and said good night. There was a mild ocean breeze in the night air. I trudged through the sand, feeling good and ready for my first night’s sleep on the beach.

I awoke with the sun, as it rose and broke the vast liquid horizon of the Caribbean. A cool morning sea breeze drifted over me while I shifted in the sand. I sat up in my tent, stretched and looked out at the Technicolor dawn--another day in paradise. Smiling at my lack of sarcasm, I crawled out of my beach cocoon, dug my toes in the sand and reached for the palms. The sea shimmered and sparkled with silver-rippled, eye-blinding beauty. I slowly breathed in the moist morning air, stretching my wings from side to side. Warm foam spilled over my toes, calling to me like a steaming kettle on a brisk winter morning. As I answered its call, the air gave way to a soothing, salty, aqua massage. If this was a typical morning in Placencia, I was in heaven.

As I lay on the beach drying off, I stared up at the rustling palms, pondering the life of a coconut, sinking deeper into my meditative, tropical womb, pacified by the heart-like rhythms of the surf. A coconut grows, matures and sweetens with age, then falls to the earth, where it is eaten or returns to the sand. A few coconuts are chosen for adventure, called to bob and drift with the tides, ride along massive waves, and flow with the currents, living as one with the journey, uncaring and peaceful. Burly, barnacle encrusted, full of warm milk and a thousand sea stories, they are carried off far and abroad to foreign shores. There they wait for the next rogue wave to send them off on a new adventure. I think of myself as an adventure traveler. I believe in an unhurried journey, open space and a positive vibe, and allowing for the adventure to blossom. To be there to be there. When you free your time and free your mind, the adventures will flow freely, too. I don’t think I will ever look at a coconut the same way again.

A little later, I sat looking out the screened window of Omar’s diner, waiting patiently for my favorite morning dish of huevos rancheros. I noticed scores of travelers on main street’s jigsaw-puzzle path, rallying into the village from the heathen Southern Highway. The parade of heavy packs and sunburned skin passed by with curious looks and smiles. Indeed, I thought, how could anyone be unhappy here?


Belize, Paradise in Placencia, Pickled Parrot, swimming with whale sharks, Belize Barrier Reef, Silk Cayes,  snorkeling Belize, travel Belize, travel Central America, Middle Silk CayeAs I nursed my coffee and prepped my plans for the day, which would require a fishing rod and shorts, I overheard a couple at the next table talking about their whale shark trip. It seemed that I had come at the perfect time. Every year in April and May, just after the full moon, whale sharks arrive about thirty-five miles off Belize’s southern coast and congregate in a deep-water trench known as Gladden Spit. The whale sharks make the long voyage from distant seas to feed on clouds of spawned mutton snapper eggs, which make an easy meal for the docile giants. I decided that I had to witness these mammoth fish for myself. I paid my check, then left the diner, stepping onto the main street behind another team of travelers. The morning sun was fiery hot, with not one cloud visible in the sky. I looked out at the shimmering sea; frigate birds cruised sullenly overhead, trailing after the schools of sardines the commanding jack mackerels liked to corral. I strolled back to my campsite, intent on catching lunch and a much-needed tan.

I walked along the beach toward the Turtle Inn, a resort being built by famed film director Francis Ford Coppola. Two large pelicans joined me along the way, scanning the water for a morning snack. I waded into the warm sea and cast my lure as shiny needlefish bumped me and brushed past my legs. Quickly, I became lost in the tranquil scene, as I gazed across the turquoise plane. A nearby splashing noise snapped me out of my trance, and I turned just in time to see a six-foot-long tarpon coming my way. I stood there frozen as the massive fish swam by inches from my belly button. I was glad that I had relieved myself at Omar’s, for scared shitless would be an understatement of my reaction. I jumped out of the water, shaking off the close encounter. I soon realized that a tarpon was virtually harmless, but anything as large as me in the ocean deserved my deepest respect.

I continued my way around a cove, tempting passing fish with my shiny lure. Tiny tugs and strikes reeled in nothing more than clumps of sea grass. But my excitement never wavered, as I knew the next cast could be the one. The variety of fish that patrolled the shore in search of food was a fisherman’s dreamscape; I had no clue what I might catch. After a few hours of baking in the sun, I decided to call it quits and head back to my camp, thinking a siesta would fit in nicely right about now. I threw my line out for one final cast and was hit hard by a strike. My line shot off my reel as the fish ran with the lure. I played with the drag and after a short fight; I had landed my first Caribbean catch. It was a flaming red mutton snapper, and must have been at least two pounds. A local man who was passing by with his family called it “a good fish, good eatin’ mon.” I glowed with a primal, fisherman triumph; I had caught my dinner.

Back at my camp, a local village woman offered to clean and prepare my catch. Though I had cleaned more than my share of fish, I did not object. I marveled at how she skillfully scaled and gutted the fish with amazing speed and precision. In Placencia it’s the local women who fish off the docks at night; while the men spend long hours out to sea catching fish by hand lines for commercial sale. This round, jovial woman even took the fish to her house to season it with lime and garlic for me. I was shocked by her generosity to a complete stranger. It was a breath of fresh air for my congested American lungs. I started to glimpse a different and new outlook on life.

I put the snapper on ice and headed to the Pickled Parrot for the rum punch happy hour. I was looking forward to meeting other travelers who congregated at this favorite local watering hole. The night proved entertaining and I indeed met some interesting travelers. I invited three of them back to my campsite to share some of my catch. On the way, I picked up a six-pack and a loaf of bread, and before too long we were standing around the campfire wolfing down makeshift snapper sandwiches and sharing traveling stories. I mentioned the tours offering swims with whale sharks, which the others agreed would be an incredible opportunity.

As the night wore on, the beer ran dry, the cool night air crept in from the sea, and my new friends said their good-byes. I crawled into my cozy tent and dreamed about coatis running through my camp…coatis running through my camp! Shit! I tore from my tent and chased the ring-tailed relative of a raccoon into the brush. Apparently, I had not secured my fish-scented garbage properly, and so I scrambled to pick up the tattered and torn array of napkins and paper plates. I locked the garbage into a shed, and since I was now wide awake, I decided to stroll about for a bit, to see what kinds of creepy crawlies came out in the after-hours of Belize. Under a streetlight, I observed hairy tarantulas stalking and capturing crickets that lay hidden in the sand. I was also intrigued by a passing scorpion that was poised to sting. When I finally tired of my bug quest, I settled back into the sand and just before I drifted off to sleep, I came to the conclusion that tomorrow I would swim with whale sharks.


Belize, Paradise in Placencia, Pickled Parrot, swimming with whale sharks, Belize Barrier Reef, Silk Cayes,  snorkeling Belize, travel Belize, travel Central America, Middle Silk CayeAs my tour began, we started off through a channel and opened the throttle toward the sea. There were seven of us aboard the boat: five tourists and two local guides. The other tourists were from Maine, and we quickly got sucked into ‘no kidding, small world,,,’ as we skipped from wave to wave. The breeze felt good mixed with the intermittent sea spray flying off the bow of the skiff. Excitement pooled inside of me as the land grew smaller and smaller behind us. These behemoth fish, the largest of the shark family and some of the most elusive, were gathering for a feast and I was going crash their party. There were also top scientists here to study and tag them, along with National Geographic and Discovery Channel documentary film crews.

About an hour passed before we started seeing the first signs of the Belize Barrier Reef. We passed by patches of vibrant aquamarine signifying shallow sand deposits, while flying fish darted through the air beside us, as if on cue. White-capped waves soon appeared in the distance, a sign of the reef’s outer edge. We sliced through alleyways of sea between the coral, getting closer to our destination. After awhile the water turned deep blue and we slowed to a crawl and dipped up and down with the swells.

“Dis is Gladden Spit, keep yer eyes peeled,” our guide Shawn shouted.

“What are we looking for?” was our group’s communal response.

“Something big,” Shawn replied with a broad smile.

Around us, dozens of local fisherman were hard at work catching red snapper on their hand lines, the way they have done for centuries. Our guides shouted to them in Creole, asking if they’d seen any sharks. It turned out that one man spotted them an hour ago; this was enough to quicken my pulse. Many travelers I had spoken to in the village had told me tales of defeat, with not a whale shark in sight. I crossed my fingers as we circled the trench; I hoped that my luck would be different. Nearby boats with divers had a clear advantage of spotting the whale sharks, so we hung close by, our senses tuned for any sign of commotion. Our skiff was filled with snorkels and fins--no tanks and suits here. A lack of diving certification kept my blowhole in the breeze.

We continued our slow path, our gazes fixed on the rolling waves. Who would be the first to spot them? For forty-five minutes we passed by boat after boat, and I snapped some photos of the local fisherman hauling in their catch. We crept upon another tour of both divers and snorkelers when all of a sudden they waved at us frantically. “I think they’ve got one over there!” Kevin yelled. We accelerated to the area and Shawn told us to get ready to jump in. The five of us white-bred New Englanders scrambled to get our snorkel gear on, and after a few cussing strains; I was set to go in.

I plunged into the warm water, sealing my mask and testing my breathing tube. I was breathing so hard; I was convinced I was going to suck in a lungful of seawater. I swam over to a diver who was filming below me and peered into the depths. Something was rising…there it was! My first glimpse of a whale shark! The beast swam slowly about twenty feet below me. It was dark brown, speckled with white, and huge! The excitement shot through my body like electricity as I hovered above the creature. After a short while it moved out of sight, and I popped my head out of the water just in time to hear someone shout, “There’s another one right beside the boat.” I quickly swam over and nearly got smacked in the face by its tail fin. About five feet from the shark, I realized that I was quickly becoming fatigued treading water and hurried to the skiff. I flopped onboard and exchanged weak “holy shits” and “o-my-gods” with the others, thoroughly high off the encounter. We decided to head to the nearby Silk Cayes for a relaxing lunch. I reflected on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with whale sharks, then suddenly the skiff dropped off a fifteen-foot wave, smashing into the sea and I was briefly snapped back to reality.

 

 

Belize, Paradise in Placencia, Pickled Parrot, swimming with whale sharks, Belize Barrier Reef, Silk Cayes,  snorkeling Belize, travel Belize, travel Central America, Middle Silk CayeWe docked just off the Middle Silk Caye and waded ashore. I stopped to embrace the solitude and listen. A faint chorus of wind and waves hummed gently across the lonely island. This is the quintessential, tropical, deserted island. In the shade of a coconut tree, I sat and wondered: How many messages in a bottle have been sent adrift from this powder-white beach? How many pirates have buried their booty-filled chests in the sand for safekeeping? These ideas are all parts of great fiction, I know. But staring out into the tantalizing rippled turquoise space—I truly believed it all. Feeling enlightened, I strolled dreamily along the circumference of the island in a mere minute. Tiny isn’t the word for it. Cast Away’s Tom Hanks had it good by comparison. His island was large and fruitful, lush and somewhat diverse. Here on the Middle Silk Caye, there is sand, ten palm trees, colorful crabs, sparse grass, a variety of shells--and did I mention sand? It is a castaway’s nightmare and a traveler’s dream: simple, soul-stirring, serendipitous bliss.


The Silk Cayes lie twenty-five nautical miles off Belize’s southern coast, in the midst of the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere. The three islands that make up the Silk Cayes are cleverly named North, South and Middle. Diving, snorkeling and kayaking tours set out from the village of Placencia on a regular basis, weather permitting.

 

The underwater world surrounding the Cayes is breathtaking. I threw on my snorkel and fins and jumped into the water with my camera. A rainbow-colored squid, a foot long, darted away from me, leaving an inkblot in the crystal-clear water as I snapped away. A myriad of spectacular creatures swam in and out of the coral reef. Giant brain coral seemed to mock my simple mind and begged to be touched. But the delicate ecosystem was hands off to humans. While I watched a brightly colored parrot fish devour some kind of midge, I promised myself that I would complete my dive certification, knowing there was so much more beyond my snorkel’s reach. Finally I surfaced from the maritime matinee. I sat on a stump, munching on potatoes and beans and peering out to the other Silk Cayes. “Life is good Aaron,” I found myself saying. I shot another couple of rolls of film, went for another cruise around the island, and then we were back in the skiff, gliding gracefully over the reef feeling on top of the world.

Belize, Paradise in Placencia, Pickled Parrot, swimming with whale sharks, Belize Barrier Reef, Silk Cayes,  snorkeling Belize, travel Belize, travel Central America, Middle Silk CayeWe left Middle Silk Caye behind and soon reentered deeper waters, noticing that the wind had picked up and swells had grown from five to fifteen feet. Our skiff launched through the massive waves, soaking all of us aboard. I was in such high spirits that I had no fear of the turbulent sea and shouted exuberantly while Shawn reassured the Mainers that there was “‘Nuting to worry ‘bout mon.” The more airborne we got the louder I cheered, knowing damn well that there were no life preservers onboard.

After a while we were back at Gladden Spit to have a last look around for the whale sharks. There were a few other boats nearby, rising and disappearing between the waves. As the Mainers were worrying about the rising swells, we suddenly heard a panicked cry for help. We scanned the sea and finally saw the flailing arms of a lone snorkeler far away from any guide boat. Noticing the danger, Shawn sped to his rescue and we pulled the snorkeler aboard. The man was exhausted and had nearly given up hope of being found in the swells. He told us that his boat had left him behind in the mad scramble to chase down the sharks. We tracked down the man’s boat and just before he stepped onboard, he turned, held up his camera and snapped a photo. “My saviors,” he said, and climbed onto his boat.

We then rejoined the mad search for the whale sharks, but there hadn’t been any new sightings. The Mainers were hemming and hawing about whether they would go back in the water when a whale shark appeared right in front of our skiff. I rolled overboard and swam above the beautiful twenty-foot shark. I had the urge to dive down and touch him but couldn’t muster up the balls to do it. It was hard work swimming in the surging waves and I struggled just to make it back to the skiff.

Another cry rang out and this time it was close. “He’s coming under the boat!” Shawn shouted. The two Mainers jumped off the right side and I jumped off the left. I didn’t even have a chance to breathe before I realized I was face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball with a whale shark. This forty-foot male was the largest we had seen all day. His massive head was inches away from mine and dwarfed my six-foot frame. I peered into his eye as my heart pounded in my chest. He was looking right at me, checking me out. I was struck in his fierce gaze until a burning pain in my chest finally reminded me that I had to breathe. I gasped for air as I swam above him. He soon disappeared into the depths and I looked for the skiff.

I was shaking, fatigued and had a long swim back. My arms grew heavy and I was having trouble treading in the huge swells. I hollered out to Shawn, who luckily heard my cries. I was almost ready to give in to the sea, and thought of the snorkeler we rescued as I just tried to stay afloat. They motored over and hauled me aboard. My “holy shits” were weak, my “oh-my-gods“ were little gasps. The Mainers, who had jumped off the wrong side, asked me if I had seen him. The look on my face must have spoken more clearly than words. They watched in awe as I tried to explain that I had just come face-to-face with the largest fish in the sea, and the most elusive of the shark family. I felt blessed, shocked, amazed, dizzy, and nauseous; I felt truly alive. My mind was so full it was spilling over to my heart. I quietly thanked the beautiful giants for their time and sat in silence as we headed back to Placencia, guided by a spectacular setting sun. Somehow I felt different, like I was no longer a virgin of the sea. I had looked into the eye of one of nature’s best kept secrets and I was damned if I was going to let the experience go to waste. Belize was beginning to have an effect on me, and with three weeks left of my adventure, I could only imagine what else she had in store.

© Aaron Ober

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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