Let’s start this off with a confession. The confession of a grumpy old man born before the Internet and mobile phones and the Web and the explosion of communications technology that we have today, the confession of an Englishman whose idea of meaningful communication is sitting silently with his family round the dinner table once a year: I don’t like Facebook that much. There, I’ve said it. Yes, I know everyone from your new-born baby to your 90-year-old Nan to the Queen to Jesus is on it; and yes, because everyone’s on it, it has become a very convenient way of keeping in touch with people. It’s just taken me a long time to finally appreciate that. Even now I don’t love it, and I certainly don’t spend as much time on it as many people I know do, but its uses are finally becoming more apparent to me.
I can’t quite remember why I joined Facebook (although at my age, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning), but at the beginning it wasn’t that useful to me – at first, the only people I knew on there were people I saw regularly in person, and I didn’t need to know what they were doing via Facebook (or via any other electronic means for that matter), I saw them in the pub at the weekend and they told me. Then, over the years, I met more people and added more ‘friends’ (and I use that in the Facebook sense rather than in the literal sense – knowing someone long enough to get their email address or their full name does not make them your bestest buddy). Here’s where Facebook became more useful – as a man who’s done plenty of travelling (and is now currently living abroad), I’ve met many people around the world from all over the world, and Facebook (or something like it) is a good way of keeping up with them. Yet I still only have 87 friends! And even now the only things I use it for are keeping in touch with people, occasionally looking at their photos, posting the odd thing here and there, and stalking my ex-girlfriends through cyberspace. So perhaps I should clarify that earlier statement – it’s not Facebook per se I don’t like very much, it’s all the other stuff that it does, all the useless pointless stuff, all the stuff that everyone seems to spend their entire day doing when they really should be doing something, anything, else. Poking people, sending virtual drinks and giving virtual high-fives and having virtual food fights, playing Farmville, taking quizzes, constantly updating their statuses, becoming fans of everything from sleeping to drinking to bands you’ve never heard of, and all of this sent to you in the form of countless notifications. I don’t want you to send me an armoured car in Mafia Wars and I don’t want to know which Simpsons character I am! Add to that the narcissistic sharing of every piece of non-information about yourself (do I really need to know what you thought of last night’s X Factor? Oh and look, you don’t even have to be at work to tell everyone that, because you’ve sent it from your iPhone!), the embarrassing photos of you that someone else has taken and posted (I now also hate digital cameras, but that’s the subject of another, as-yet-unpublished, diatribe), and the terrible English (how long does it take to capitalise a sentence or type the word ‘you’ instead of ‘u’?), and you might understand why I’m not its biggest fan. Social networking has allowed the world to share everything with everyone, and we’re all doing it so enthusiastically that somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten to ask ourselves whether we should, and how we should, all that seems to matter is that we can. I’m not going to get into a philosophical debate about the quantity versus the quality of all these virtual interactions, I’m just waiting for the day someone posts a status update of “I’m in the process of being stabbed in the face, please help!”, followed by little pictures of :-(, and lots of OMGs and WTFs. Am I really connecting with people, or just sending them ungrammatical little notes through the Internet? Am I developing my personal relationships, or just pandering to my own vanity and self-importance? (And I know a thing or two about vanity and self-importance, I’m writing a blog and expecting people to read it. And I’m starting a post with a rant against sharing too much information. Oh the irony).
But as a business, even I have to admit Facebook is genius – get everyone together, get them to share everything about themselves, and then use that information to sell them stuff. It’s a marketer’s wet dream and, along with Google, a favourite website of any company that wants to monetise their products and services. The creators have very little to do to change the site, mostly they can just sit back and watch as millions of potential customers voluntarily display their personal details and consumer preferences. Its scale is massive and its potential for growth almost limitless. I may not like it that much, I may not use it very often, but I do wish I’d thought of it first.
Now, as you’ve clearly gathered, I’m not a Facebook junkie, but I do use it occasionally, and it does have its uses (the communication part rather than the irrelevant nonsense part), and recently it proved its worth to me in that sense, after I visited the page of my friend Steve, a Kiwi who I met and travelled with a few years ago in India. His status wasn’t the usual inane drivel about what he just ate for dinner and how yummy it was, it was about how he was currently on holiday in Mexico. That’s close enough to Belize to consider a reunion. So, emboldened with this information, I messaged him. And not only did he reply, it turns out that he’s currently travelling through Central America with his girlfriend. And not only that, but they were imminently heading to Belize as part of their trip. So, thanks to Facebook, I managed to catch up in Belize City with an old friend who I’d lost touch with – I’m almost starting to like this website.
And thanks to Facebook I find myself adrift at sea on yet another broken-down boat, on the way to Tobacco Caye a few weeks later (what is it with me and boats?). Steve and Caia have headed down to the central cayes and, as they live in Australia and I’ve no idea when I’ll see them again, I take the bus to Dangriga to pick up a boat to Tobacco Caye.
From the word go, things take on a distinctly Belizean hue. For a start, there’s no official boat service to the central cayes like there is to the northern ones (including the famous and heavily-touristed Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye). Boat captains congregate at the Riverside Café in Dangriga and wait for passengers until enough people turn up to fill a boat – if you turn up early enough in the morning (i.e. for breakfast) you’ve got a good chance of finding a captain, a boat, and other passengers. But after lunchtime, the passengers thin out, the captains disappear indoors to escape the heat, and the boats bob silently by the dock. And, after a long (but thankfully) uneventful journey from Belize City all morning, that’s when I turn up.
The café’s quiet, except for one lone customer sitting in the corner booth reading the newspaper. After ordering some food and enquiring about the boats, I’m directed to said customer, who goes by the name of Captain Dog (Doggy? Snoop? I never did find out if Dog was a nickname, his first name, or his surname, so I just called him Captain. And before you say that Dog couldn’t possibly be his real name, I personally know a Belizean here, a 6-foot-something tall black guy with dreads, called Ronald McDonald. So anything’s possible). Captain Dog tells me that all the previous passengers have already left, but we can wait for any latecomers, any locals, or anyone else who turns up on the bus. So I sit down, eat my food, and wait.
Two hours later I’m still waiting. I’ve eaten lunch, drunk three lime juices and read the paper twice and I’m officially bored. It’s now mid-afternoon and it’s clear to the Captain and I that no-one else is turning up, so we negotiate for him to take me as his only passenger, if we just split the cost of the petrol. But, this being Belize, it’s not as simple as that – having jumped up like a uncoiling spring I’m immediately informed that we have to buy the petrol before we can leave! Why people in some countries (Belize isn’t alone in this respect) have this laid-back attitude to forward planning I still don’t know – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a developing country waiting hours for a bus (because the driver’s having lunch, or with his girlfriend, or playing cards, or asleep, or praying, or whatever), only to then spend the first part of the journey filling up the vehicle. So this event isn’t exactly surprising. After a trip to the petrol station (the return journey of which involves me sitting next to the driving Captain with a large plastic drum full of fuel on my lap, while he smokes a suspicious-looking and sweet-smelling cigarette and shouts greetings at every passer-by), we’re back at the dock and filling up the boat. But we’re still not quite ready. Now, it’s another car journey, this time to a deranged old man who lives in a nearby shack and who has the longest, thickest, whitest dreadlocks I’ve ever seen, to buy an enormous bag of ice and several crates of beer. Captain Dog fills up the car while the old man stares at me with one milky eye, shouts incomprehensibilities and laughs through his toothless mouth. He’s still laughing insanely and shouting unintelligibly as we drive away, I hope the Captain’s not smoking the same stuff as him. And then, we’re back at the boat, loading up the booze and ready to go. Finally. But no. The Captain pulls the starter cord, and nothing. He pulls again. Nada. He swears at the engine and pulls again. Amazingly, that doesn’t work either. After several attempts (including one where he tweaks something with a screwdriver and I use my Schwarzenegger muscles to pull the cord), he decides there’s a serious problem and we get back onto the dock without even getting our feet wet. I retire to the café for another juice and the Captain goes off to find another starter cord.
An hour later and it’s now 5pm. I’m getting to the point where I’m convinced I’m staying the night here, Steve has called and texted me several times (I’m not sure if it’s me he’s worried about, or the beer), and I’ve personally met all the locals of the area, and their families. As there’re no other boats available, we’re going in Dog’s or we’re not going at all. And it’s looking much more like the latter option. But at long last we get a break – the Captain’s back, he’s got the new component, he’s installed it, and I finally hear a sound I thought I’d never hear today – a working outboard motor. The ice (which was transferred to a more climatically-suitable location) is back from the café’s freezer, and the Captain’s waving me over. Amid shouts and cheers, we ease away from the dock and head off. Everyone around has heard about our predicament and has come out to see us off, I don’t think Columbus had a more enthusiastic send-off. After narrowly avoiding two small boys who are swimming at the river’s mouth, Captain steers her out to sea, opens her up, and we head towards the cayes.
About ten minutes later, the engine conks out. Perfect. After more pulling, cursing and tweaking, Captain discover that it’s not the starter cord after all, it’s the carburettor. And, bobbing about on the open sea, we’re not in any position to fix it here. Even my trusty Swiss Army knife can’t help us. But after some more fiddling with the Captain’s screwdriver and some more muscular yanking from yours truly, we get her started. And fortunately, by keeping the revs low and going slowly, Captain keeps us chugging along all the way there. It just takes us an hour and a half instead of an hour, and we stop unexpectedly and suddenly about ten times during the journey. Along the way there’s a beautiful sunset, although I’d probably appreciate it more from the deck of a beach bar with a cold beer, than in the middle of nowhere with not even one other boat on the horizon. And I learn more than I ever knew, or ever wanted to know, about outboard motors and how to fix them.
Eventually, we arrive. As the dock is next to one of Tobacco Caye’s two bars, there’re some people drinking, and the bar owner’s outside waiting for his precious cargo (I mean the beer, not me). As we pull up, everyone comes out to meet us – it’s the homecoming equivalent of leaving Dangriga. Columbus has finally returned with news that the world isn’t flat. As the caye is so small, and my friend Steve is a friendly character who’s been there long enough to meet everyone (certainly everyone in the bars), everyone now knows me by extension – “You must be John”, “So this is John?”, “Are you Steve’s friend? You’re finally here!” – these are the first things that everyone who meets me says to me. Clearly my arrival has been anticipated. We unload the cargo, Captain Dog goes off to find a mechanic for his knackered engine, and I track down Steve and Caia (and with my arrival already the talk of the island, an island that’s no more than 200 metres across and with about six small guesthouses, it’s not difficult).
After meeting up with them, washing myself under a limescale-encrusted dribbler of a shower (fresh water may be scarce here, but the locals needn’t worry, I’m not going to waste any showering under that), and having dinner, we head to the bar for the start of what becomes another great weekend in Belize – the caye’s so small that everyone knows each other, and pretty soon I do too. Steve’s booked me into the best-located bungalow I’ve ever stayed in (it’s not near the water, or at the water, it’s right over the water), and Dan the barman, despite his fearsome appearance, pours the most generous measures of alcohol I’ve ever had (it’s probably the first time I’ve ever had to ask bar staff to give me more Coke and less rum!). Tobacco Caye’s perched right on the Belize Barrier Reef, and it’s a boat-ride away from Glover’s Reef, one of Belize’s three atolls, so it’s a diver’s and snorkeller’s delight. You can kayak round the island, or just find two palm trees, a hammock and a tropical breeze. And, after a couple of days of activities (plus plenty of eating, drinking, socialising and the aforementioned hammock-swinging), it’s time to go back to Dangriga and back to work. And at least this time the boat doesn’t break down. Tobacco Caye may have been a nightmare to get to, but it’s a dream once you’re there, and I hope I have as good a time when I go back. I’ll just bring my own boat next time, to be on the safe side…