Originally, I was going to write one blog entry about the entire Easter weekend’s travel adventures, which included both the hair-raising bus journey and a terrifying boat ride. But clearly, once I found my literary ‘voice’, the material just wouldn’t stop flowing, so I’ve had to separate it into two parts. And here’s Part 2:
We finally roll into the small town of Independence after four hours of hell. Admittedly, the Hummingbird Highway between Belmopan and Dangriga is the most beautiful stretch of road in the country (not to mention the most evocatively-named, although the other highways are called Northern, Western and Southern, so it’s not much of a contest), and the rolling vistas of virescent jungle and citrus farms, occasionally punctuated by small villages and waving children, is a lovely sight to pass the time. When you’re not hanging on to the seat in front for dear life, that is. The twisting road means that we’re not barrelling along at full tilt anymore, although the driver still clearly thinks he’s at a rally meet. Past Dangriga and the highway straightens out, then passes through orange orchards and virgin forest, the landscape every shade of green. Occasionally we stop at a small hamlet and a group of Mayan women get on, their small, hooded, shawl-wrapped bodies making them look like Jawas from Star Wars. One elderly lady is a dead ringer for Yoda, except I think she may be even older. She’s so small it takes her two minutes to climb up the steps, and another five to walk down the aisle to a seat. Her gnarled wooden walking stick, tiny hunched frame, silver hair and lined face make her look somewhere between fifty and five hundred years old. No sooner has the antediluvian specimen sat down than we’re off again, past the waving palm trees and the wooden houses on stilts and the napping dogs.
After unfurling myself from the world’s most uncomfortable Yoga position (The Praying Mantis), disentangling myself from the seat (it takes several minutes before I feel anything below my waist), and saying goodbye to the cute little Mayan girl who sat next to us (we were lucky, as there were only three people on our seat, and one of them was a child), we stumble down the street from the bus stand to the boat dock. And, after a blessedly short wait and an equally short ride down Mango Creek and across Placencia lagoon, we’re finally here.
Placencia was once a small fishing village, but it’s now one of the country’s premier beach resorts, with plenty of top-end hotels and resorts (including one owned by Francis Ford Coppola), plus huge chunks of land now being bought by North American expats looking for their own piece of tropical paradise. Despite being one of the most popular places in the country, the low season means that there aren’t that many foreign tourists, although that’s made up for by the domestic ones on their Easter weekend. And judging from the meat-eating, alcohol-drinking and general partying they seem to be doing all day and night long, they’re making up for Lent’s forty days of fasting, prayer and penance.
That afternoon there’s a variety of family-oriented activities happening on the beach. One of the national TV channels is here, filming a range of ‘It’s A Knockout’-type games – there’s a relay on the sand involving running round chairs and drinking shots of rum, a swimming race, and everyone’s favourite, a cracker-eating contest. Every family has staked out a piece of beach and made themselves at home, with blankets on the sand covered in food and drink, small children running in and out of the water, and parents kicking back, eating chicken and drinking rum (and occasionally shouting at their recalcitrant offspring to get out of the water, or stop running around, or dry off, or come and eat something). An army of enterprising locals have set up food carts every few hundred yards to feed the masses, the beach bars are doing a roaring trade selling Belikins (that’s a beer) and Panty Rippers (that’s a cocktail of rum and pineapple juice), and the smell of barbecuing meat and the sound of reggae music is everywhere.
On Sunday we take a boat trip to Laughing Bird Caye – it’s the most popular day trip to do on the reef, and one of the closest cayes, although it still takes an hour to get there. By the time we arrive it’s nearly lunchtime, and the tiny island is already overrun with snorkelling day-trippers and dive groups. Our tour group consists of Ginny and me, a single guy from Germany, a Canadian mother and daughter, and a family of Americans from Noo Yawk, plus the children’s Israeli nanny. The German chap has a large tattoo of a naked woman across his entire back, her legs and arms spread out – she looks like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, but if Dolly Parton was the subject. I’m not sure about the sentiment behind the tattoo, but the artist must’ve had a fine needle and a steady hand, as every bit of the nude woman is well-defined and detailed. Every bit. After staring at the German man’s back for an inappropriately long time while he sunbathes, then eating lunch, and then wandering round the caye several times, it’s back on the boat for our snorkelling.
The snorkelling ends up being as good as any I’ve done in Belize – in addition to nurse sharks and stingrays, two enormous turtles sidle up to the boat for a while. We wait on board for them to surface for a breath (scanning the water next to the boat, followed by the pointing of many fingers and much oohing and aahing when the table-sized reptiles finally come up for air. Plus plenty of running from one side of the boat to the other, mixed in with loud American voices and topped off by the clicking of many cameras). The turtles seem happy to stay in the vicinity after we jump in, and everyone has a good old time slowly chasing the flapping reptiles around the boat, taking photos, and generally enjoying the warm sea and the hot sun, before going back to the mainland.
It’s about thirty minutes into the return journey when the engine conks out. There’s a mechanical coughing and spluttering sound from the back of the boat, a small puff of black smoke and an oily smell, and then silence. We all turn in unison to the captain, who’s making several attempts to re-start the engine, to no avail. After a few fruitless minutes he explains that we’ve run out of fuel. And there’s no spare petrol on board. Fortunately, he’s got his mobile phone, and even more fortuitously, he’s got a signal on it out here in the middle of the sea, so he calls one of his fellow captains, and we drop anchor and wait for the salty old sea dog to arrive. One of the American kids is reading a junior version of The Bible (that must be an interesting read, I wonder how it describes Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot offered his virgin daughters to a gang of sexually-deviant locals who initially wanted to have their filthy way with his male houseguests, who were angels in disguise – read The Bible, that’s exactly what it says!); while the other one is listening to the nanny’s iPod, which is playing Tupac of all things (or is it 2Pac, I’m not really down wiv da kids anymore. Is a murdered rapper, whose songs include Crooked Ass Nigga, Fuck The World and Shit Don’t Stop, appropriate listening material for a small child from a religious family? Or a small child from any family? Side note: As a non-fan of rap music, I don’t know any of Tupac’s work, I got those track names from his Wikipedia page!). We sit quietly, wondering how long it’ll be before help arrives, scanning the horizon, and hoping the waves don’t get any higher.
Finally, the captain’s colleague appears (he’s not a salty old sea dog, he’s a teenage boy in a baseball cap), and, after tying the two boats together, they fill up our engine. The captain starts her up, our teenage saviour rides off into the distance, and we’re off again. For another five minutes, until we break down again. On the plus side, this time turns out to be the last time we break down, mainly because we never get started again. It turns out there’s something wrong with the engine – maybe there always was, or maybe some air got into it after it ran out of juice (apparently that’s a common boat problem). Whatever it is, this time it’s serious – our teenage rescuer has disappeared over the horizon, we’re still no closer to dry land than we were before, and there’s no sign of anyone else nearby to help us out. The captain gets back on his cell phone and calls another friend of his to come and tow us in. As we wait, the waves start getting higher. And the occupants start getting more worried. The tattooed German suggests swimming for land, it takes a few moments to realise he’s not joking, but then of course he is German ;-). As Placencia is barely on the horizon, and looks miles away, no-one jumps in. The American children have lost interest in their junior Bibles and West Coast rap music, and are now loudly bugging their parents for snacks. And I’m staring at the sky and trying not to look at anything in the boat, lest I throw up. The sun’s beating down on us mercilessly and, even under the canopy, there’s no escape from the punishing heat. And, as it turns out, no escape from the sunshine either – as I swathe myself in sunglasses and hat, to protect my beautiful green peepers and virtually hairless noggin, I forget that water has a certain reflective power. So, despite getting no sunburn on the top of my head, I end up instead with panda eyes and a fried chin and neck, courtesy of the mirror-like sea. Sadly, it’s only optically that the sea’s like a mirror, its surface is now distinctly choppy, the boat lurching constantly from side to side as the waves smack perpendicularly into it.
This continues for what seems like hours (and probably is at least one hour). Ginny’s chatting to the Canadian ladies; the junior New Yorkers have stopped bothering their parents (who, it must be said, are only slightly less loquacious, loud and annoying than their kids!) and are now bothering the captain’s son (who only came along for the ride and must be regretting that decision); the German fellow’s staring out to sea (he’s probably still contemplating swimming for it); the captain’s quietly glaring at his dirty, smelly, broken engine; and I’m frying like an egg and feeling queasy. The boat’s now regularly heaving up and down in the ocean swell (every now and then we get hit by a wave so big that everyone on board gets sprayed in the face with salty water, the sea disappears from view for a few seconds and I feel like I’ve left my internal organs several feet below me, then the view becomes reversed into all ocean and no sky and my organs are so violently re-attached to my body from below that I think I’m about to cough up a kidney). Looking outside the boat gives you a view of two different shades of blue rolling back and forth on an emetic trajectory; and focusing on anything inside the boat induces near-instantaneous heaving. It’s like watching The Blair Witch Project with a hangover. Everyone’s starting to look various shades of green, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before someone will have to lean over the side and feed the fish with a technicolour yawn. Maybe me. I’m also starting to wish I’d never read Captain Bligh’s diaries after the mutiny on The Bounty (although nobody’s chucking breadfruit at us), or ‘Life of Pi’ (at least there’s not a tiger in the boat). And there’s still no sign of any other craft on the water, it’s just us, violently bobbing up and down in the middle of the drink. If we’re adrift for too long, will we have to try and catch one of those turtles? Or go fishing for a shark? Or start drawing straws to see who gets eaten? Will we have to resort to drinking sea water, or wee wee? And, in the immortal words of Baldrick in Blackadder II, will we drink our own, or can we try someone else’s?
Finally, rescue arrives (again). The captain’s the first to spot the boat slowly advancing from the mainland towards us, and several of us stand up and point, or exclaim in excitement. The sense of relief is palpable. I’m surprised we’re not throwing our arms around each other in some emotional-outpouring group hug. Finally we’ll be delivered from our watery hell. This time it’s someone from the travel agency that arranged the trip and, after he pulls up alongside us and has a cursory chat with our captain, we’re off again – the two skippers don’t even bother with our knackered engine, they just tie the two craft together with a rope from the front of ours to the back of our rescuer’s, and Captain Saviour tows us back into Placencia. Relaxed smiles have replaced worried frowns, and everyone’s ashen faces are now slightly less green. I feel much better already. I may even have a beer when I get back on land.
Thirty minutes later we’re back on dry land. Never have I been so pleased to see a Shell petrol station and a Belize Bank. I leave another John-shaped sweat stain on the seat as I leave the boat and, after kissing the ground (metaphorically) and getting my land legs back (literally), we leave the captains to fix the busted engine and say goodbye to our fellow castaways. And I make a mental note to add boats to buses on my list of local transportation to avoid. Maybe I’ll just be like Gandhi and walk everywhere from now on…