Thursday, August 24, 2006

Brief impressions of Caye Caulker

Down at the swing bridge in Belize City, the water taxi to the cayes was a ramshackle but businesslike covered speedboat holding about 40 passengers on hard benches, the boat powered by three big 200 horsepower Yamaha outboard motors. Everyone filed aboard from the crowded and chaotic boat terminal, 2/3 of the passengers not-yet sunburned budget tourists with lumpy and already-grimy backpacks with protruding one-liter water bottles with suck-spouts on the theory that you can't trust the water here, and 1/3 island residents bringing large household items like refrigerators still in the boxes. Non-budget tourists fly to the islands.

But it's not like the old days. This boat was covered (though the windows were broken) and unlike in the old days the boat was not loaded to the gunwales with cargo and passengers, and some life vests were visible under the benches. I made the mistake of sitting on the middle bench, which had no backrest. At the end of about an hour of travel I would regret this choice. We were knee to knee with the passengers seated on the bench lining the bulkhead. Those opposite me were college-age girls from Australia.

The big engines rumbled to life and we moved away from the boat terminal and picked up speed down Haulover Creek. By the time we passed the last "no wake" sign in the harbor our heavy boat was moving along fast at full throttle, pulling a wake behind it that would rock an aircraft carrier.

One of the Australian girls was quietly vomiting into a plastic bag. Her nausea was something she came on the boat with, not seasickness--the ride was bumpy but the boat was not swaying in the way that sets off inner-ear alarm signals.

Being Australian, the puking girl neither sought sympathy, nor received any from her friends.

I meditated on the roar of the engines for an hour--conversation was impossible, though shouted remarks could be exchanged. After an hour we were passing the south end of Caye Caulker, formerly mangroves, which had a few mango-flesh colored McMansions that had sprouted since the last time I was here, when was it? gee, almost ten years ago. Wow, time moves like a fast motorboat.

At the front dock, we were greeted by a hustler who touted improbably low room prices (remember, we were water-taxi tourists, not plane tourists, so "cheap" was a taken-for-granted selling point) if we piled into his golf-cart taxi to be taken to Hotel X (whose actual name I have now forgotten). But we had a place in mind a hundred yards from the dock, so we needed no transportation. It turns out, though, that the improbably low-price rooms would all have been, um, filled, and by then you would have already paid off the taxi. We verified the actual prices at Hotel X later.

Tina's Backpacker's Hostel was colorful (see photo below) and cheap, and pretty bare-bones. The rooms were small and dim, but they were for sleeping, right? Communal bathroom and showers. Tina's has a kitchen and a fridge, and if you had a lock you could stow your valuables in wooden drawers that had insubstantial hasps screwed into them. The great thing about Tina's is the outdoor part, the porch and yard, with a couple of big tables in the shade (mostly) and several hammocks and a porch swing, all shaded by palms and overarching tree-size sea-grapes. The dock in front of Tina's has fallen into the sea, but there is a surviving covered pavilion over the water that requires a short leap to get onto, which has several broken chairs and a lovely view.

Caye Caulker has not yet been "ruined," as we nostalgiacs say, but I can see it is on the way. By all reports Ambergris Caye has not only been ruined, but is a truly awful experience, combining first-world prices and traffic, with colorless remnants of third-world inconvenience and discomfort, plus mangrove-destroying accommodations for the mega-rich-and-decadent on the outskirts of San Pedro Town and on up the island. We had been advised to avoid it and we did.

Caye Cualker has essentially no cars. Well, there is a fire truck and a police pick-up truck, but that is all I saw while we were there. Golf carts and bicycles can be rented, and are in widespread use. You can walk from one end of the village to the other on the unpaved, pale-sand streets in 15 minutes if you walk fast. If you walk south from the village you get to the realm of the McMansions and some of the pricier places to stay.

The barrier reef, second longest in the world, is the main attraction. And the island ambience.

It's still "relaxed" as everyone says, and indeed I saw and smelled a good deal of marijuana being smoked. Takes you back.

The old island fishing economy is mostly gone, I think. No doubt there is still commercial fishing, but tourism is now how most islanders make their living. That's probably for the best--they are certainly more prosperous now. I'd say there is a widespread consciousness by islanders that the health of the reef, and ecological responsibility in general, is important for their livelihood now and in the future. On the other hand property owners stand to make a lot of money clearing off mangroves to build new houses. Clearly, some have succumbed to this lure.

Many of the beautiful locally built wooden sailboats of the old fishing fleet are now gone, and the rest are now used to take snorklers out to the reef. Those sailboats, which all had a deck and a cabin and several "dories" (i.e., small dugout canoes) stacked on deck or sometimes towed behind for the crew to sleep in, were common the first time I visited the island, and I was sad to see that they are increasingly replaced by big motor boats. The fishing sailboats had a live well in the bottom of the boat which admitted sea water for keeping the catch alive on a multi-day fishing trip. The fast motorboats can ice the catch down and get back in a few minutes.

The island is divided in two by "the split," a channel which may or may not have been created by a hurricane. In any case, the split, which is free of sea grass, is the place to swim and, if you wish, sit at an open-air bar and watch the swimmers while drinking rum or Belikan, the national beer. Sea-grass between the island and the reef, which is important for ecological health of the reef and fishery, keeps the rest of the island from being very good for swimming from the shore. The split has a ruined pier to sit on while you are not in the water. The water, of course, is clear and beautiful.

It was the rainy season, which reduces the number of tourists, at least American tourists. Lots of French and Germans. Very unhealthy and severe tans, that shade of reddish brown that hurts just to look at, were much in evidence.

We spent some time with Eve's uncle Simeon Young, who is Belizean and who operates a dive shop. His family in the old days were all boatbuilders and fishermen. He was adopted as a small child by Eve's grandmother Lois some time after she married a Belizean fisherman back in the 1970s. Simeon is a few years older than Eve. His business seems to be prospering. He took Hunter out on a half-day dive trip.

On this trip I habitually awoke about sunrise, and on a Sunday morning at dawn I was walking down the sandy streets where a few island people were out sweeping the sand in front of their houses or businesses--an old fashioned practice I remembered from past visits. As I walked past the yellow police station with closed louvered windows I heard a man's loud screams coming from the upper floor of the station.

A scowling arms-crossed policeman with dark sunglasses stood in the shadows in front of the station in a don't-ask-about-this stance. I walked on, as did the islanders passing by, hurrying up a little and not speaking to each other, uncharacteristic for islanders. In 2003 a police constable was suspended for fatally shooting a man in the back of the head in this same police station. The constable claimed self defense. I have not been able to find out the disposition of that case, but it was clear from islander response this morning's unpleasantness that it would not be a good idea to stop and inquire of Sunglasses about the screams. Nothing to see. Move along.

But by and large visitors and islanders alike, while we were there, seemed to be enjoying life. Most of the islander friendliness seemed to me to be genuine and not part of a hustle. I liked being there. The food was occasionally good, and was never bad, and usually cheap. Our stay in Caye Caulker was a couple of days of relaxing, hanging out, reading in shaded hammocks in Tina's yard, and going out to the reef. And in my case, taking photos of frigate birds and boys playing in dugout canoes.

A sign on front street says "Go Slow." Everybody did.

A few photos follow. (More photos, including a lot of other parts of Belize, plus family stuff, can be seen at my Flickr page, in more or less random order, with varying amounts of explanatory material.)

The front porch of Tina's guesthouse

The view from Tina's pavilion at water's edge

This is a traditional fishing boat, with a non-traditional cargo and painted non-traditional colors. Striped, unpatched sails are also an innovation.

A view of kids playing in a dory on the beach.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

I'll try to put up some remarks about other places in Belize soon.

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