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Belize 2015

What made you choose Belize?  That has been a common question since we began making plans to leave the arctic Chicago winter and go someplace warm.  The answer is pretty ingenuous – we hadn’t been there before, it was going to be warm and there were beaches.  When facing -20 degree wind-chill temperatures, what other reason does a person need?

I had heard about the wonders of Belize since I was in college from students who spent their spring breaks there – swimming, caving, exploring, back-packing, trudging through the jungle – all the kinds of activities that get me excited.    Ancient home of many Mayan city-states, English as its primary language, the second largest barrier reef in the world, the Great Blue Hole (which can be seen from outer space), extant tropical jungles and hot Latin men – all of it sounding a siren call that became all the more irresistible as the thermometer dropped lower and lower.

Belize is a country bordering the Caribbean Sea between Guatemala (with whom it still has border disputes) and Mexico.  It did not gain its independence until 1981, is slightly smaller than Massachusetts with a population of about 341,000.  A tropical climate, its’ dry season runs from February through May.  The major industry is tourism – and they know how to do it right.

After our wonderful experience in Panama the year before, we wanted to again mix things up – some time spent in the forest and some time spent on the beach.  The travel agent I contacted, the information gathered from the web all indicated that this would be very easy and affordable to do.   We booked our trip for February 9 through the 17.  Four nights in the interior jungle at the foot of the Maya Mountains about an hour and half from the capital city of Belmopan and then 4 nights in San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye.

Of course, our vacation meant a vacation for the dogs as well.  They were left off at the kennel we always use and where they always seem to have such a good time.  It just never seems to be a traumatic event for them, in fact, no sooner had I walked them through the front door than Monkee was tugging at the leash, heading for the back room where the kennels are, as though she knew exactly what her space would be for the week.  We never worry about them and the care they are given at See Spot Run.
map of belize

The Grammys were on the night before our departure, but our flight was at 5:00 in the morning and so we figured we had to leave the house by about 2:30 or so in order to park the truck and do whatever security and check in was required.  So, much to my shame (I know it cost me points off my gay card), I did not watch the full broadcast but got to bed early enough to get a few hours’ sleep before the 2 AM alarm.  We made better time than we expected and despite parking in the furthest (and cheapest) lot, having to take a shuttle bus to the shuttle tram, we were at the gate and ready to go through security by 3:45 AM.  They did not open the security lines until 4.  Well, it was better than being late.

We all know the joys of air-travel these days, especially when flying coach.  The plane was on-time, full and I had a middle seat for the 3 hour flight to Miami.  At Miami we had to walk almost the entire length of the airport (which really did not feel bad at all after sitting for hours).  The 2 hour + trip to Belize found us in yet another packed plane and I was, again, in the middle seat.  We arrived in Belize City right on time. 

Belize City was the former capital of the country until a hurricane pretty much wiped it out in the 1960’s.  The capital was then moved to its present, interior location of Belmopan.  It seems that the city has never fully bounced back.  In fact, over our time in the country we were told by drivers and others that Belize City is not worth visiting and can be rather dangerous – not even the locals will generally go out at night.

The airport was small and perhaps what you would expect in a tropical country.  Stairs were rolled up to our plane; we got off on the tarmac and followed the indications by the uniformed personnel and the painted arrows to the arrival lounge and customs.  It was gloriously warm, way too warm for the leather coat I was wearing.  Although not high-tech or modern, the line through customs moved rather quickly – until it was our turn – and then I screwed it up.

I had been reading on various travel sites that although Belize is not aggressively anti-gay, that there is some animosity toward gays and Public Displays of Affection were not welcome (to be honest, this was also said about PDA’s between hetero couples as well.  So, not sure how open I could be, when the customs agent asked me about our status (they had given us one declaration form for the two of us since we were family), I said “friends”.  On that basis, he sent Allen back in line and continued with me.  I then corrected what I told him – telling him we were family.  What did I mean by family – were we brothers, cousins - how were we family?  Finally I told him we were legally married in the states.  He asked why I did not say so; I told him that I was not sure how that would be accepted in Belize.  He then gave me a rather stern dressing down, telling me that Belize is most welcoming to all people, the only ones they don’t like are those who cannot tell the truth about who they are.  OKAY then.  Lesson learned.  I was allowed to pass through and Allen was sent along very quickly.

Once through customs, thanks to the sign with our names on it, we found the driver who would be transporting us to our jungle lodge.  It would be an hour and half ride to the lodge.  It seems that everything in Belize is an hour and half away.  There are not many hi-ways in Belize and we were traveling on the George Price Highway until we got to Belmopan and then we would be on the Hummingbird Highway to our lodge. 

"Highway" is always such a relative term.  Both of the highways we traveled on were paved, one-lane each way, no curbs, no real shoulders,  infested with pot-holes and shared by cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians.  Cutting through the cities, small villages, beautiful expanses of trees and verdant fields, it was a wonder that there were not little crosses, marking deaths and accidents, all along the way – but there weren’t.  People adapt, people learn to use what they have, and they make accommodations in order to make things work.  The driving did not feel dangerous; it just kept a person alert to what was going on.
drink garnish

After leaving the highway, we wended our way on packed dirt roads and soon arrived at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Company and Jungle Lodge.  We were dropped off at the roadside welcome area and directed to walk down the stone path cutting its way through the trees, orchids, gingers and other tropical plants.  The path took us to the swimming pool and on the other side of that, the main office/bar/sitting and dining area.  Once there, we were welcomed by the host of the day who sat us down with a tropical rum drink, explained the flow of life at the lodge and had us sign all the necessary and cautionary releases for staying in the jungle. 

After he gave us the lowdown about the lodge, the schedule, and the adventures offered, we were then handed over to the bartender and manager Anthony, who would be our entertainer, counselor and authority throughout our stay.   He explained to us which forms of alcohol were included in our all-inclusive stay.  It was all the locally made rums, brandy, gin, etc. as well as the Belizean beers as well as fruit juices and sodas (YES – they had Diet Coke).  He was quite entertaining and seemed to take real pride and delight in explaining all the different concoctions that they make with the local liquors.  By the time he had completed his spiel, our lunch quesadilla arrived, with fresh, home-made salsas and then it was time to see our room.

We were led on the path, winding now through the 15 acres of botanical gardens (lovingly cared for by the owner’s wife) and to our jungle bungalow suite.  As their brochure puts it:  “The Caves Branch Jungle Lodge is centered… in the heart of the Belizean jungle, overlooking the pristine turquoise waters of the Caves Branch River and nestled below a 100-foot rainforest canopy. We are not sanitized from the jungle… we are part of it.  Our various cabanas are thatched in the tradition of the Maya and are completely screened offering a comfortable and bug free environment yet wide open to the symphony of nature…  We consider ourselves rustic and unique.”

AnthonyOur suite was off the main path (as are all the bungalows and suites) and nestled among the trees and plants – giving us a completely private space despite the fact that the walls were screens rather than glass or wood.  The roof was thatched and we were allowed a completely unhindered view of the wild and exotic plants, the hummingbirds feeding off the flowers and the sounds of the rainforest.  There was a master bedroom divided from the front room by an enclosed bathroom.  And, if a person was feeling the call of the wild, there was also a second, outdoor shower providing complete privacy as well as the experience of showering al fresco.  The room was cooled with ceiling fans and fresh flower petals bedecked the towel animals and bathroom counter. 

Conspicuously missing was a TV, radio, telephone or Wi-Fi.  It seems that the owner, several years ago, had put Wi-Fi in for the lodge.  However, after installing it, he would come to join the guests for dinner and find everyone staring at their phones, tablets or other electronic devices.  This was not in keeping with his vision of his lodge.  He wanted people to mingle, get to know each other, take part in the lost art of conversation and real-life interaction.  He turned the Wi-Fi off and has never looked back.  There is a single computer with internet available to guests, but the freedom of being off the grid tended to keep people away from it.  Sometimes the right thing just needs to be imposed.

After settling in to our room, we then decided to explore the facility.  There are 2 swimming pools, a hot-tub, and a large and rambling arboretum, access to the river shore where a person could also swim or simply walk through the water.   They make their own soaps as well as about 7 types of cheese.  They offer a “cheese tour” every afternoon where, in the Cheese tasting room, we are told of the cheese-making process, the differences in types of cheese and look through the glass wall of the room and into the cheese-making kitchen. 

On our drive to the lodge, our driver pointed out several horse wagons and told us that there was a good number of Mennonite communities in Belize… some more strict than others.  As it turns out, the milks used for the lodge cheese making is provided daily by a nearby Mennonite community.  I found out that Mennonites make up about 4% of the population of Belize.  The first communities came over from Russia, via Canada and speak a distinct German dialect.  They settled in Belize in the 1920’s and have been there ever since.  Another wave of Mennonite immigrants (Old Order Mennonites) came in the 1960’s from Canada and the U.S.

Dinner is served at 6:00.  The dinner routine is such that it encourages conversation, meeting new people and offers a sense of a communal experience.   A number of long tables are set up under the thatched roof patio, with about 10 people to each table.  After everyone was seated Anthony would describe the first course of the night.  It usually involved a number of different salads and vegetables, a home-made local soup, cheese and fresh-made bread as well as fruits.  There was also always a fresh pasta station that was prepared by the chef each night.  It was all laid out buffet style, and we were warned to pace ourselves if we hoped to make it through the entire meal.  Then the tables were released to fill their plates, starting at one end or the other. 

Not knowing what to expect, it was very easy to over-eat on this first course, especially with the pasta and fresh sauces.  The second course usually included several meat dishes, something special at the carving station (a fresh stuffed fish, BBQ ribs, turkey or some other featured dish) and a goodly number of side dishes.  Again, people took part table by table.  The third course – dessert – was always sinfully good - fresh pies, cakes, ice creams, fruits, chocolates – all too much, but oh so good.
dining area

Throughout the dinner time, tour guides made their way from table to table, asking what activity we would like to take part in the next day.  Some choices required a minimum amount of people and so there was some bartering among guests to fill out the needed numbers.  They would explain the choices, tell us how to dress and apprise us as to when we would leave and where we should meet.  It was all great fun and somewhat difficult to choose – there were so many different activities and a limited amount of days.

As good as the food was, it was enhanced and made more delightful by the people we would meet each night.  There were 2 guys who are in the chocolate business.  They go all over the world to get chocolate farming co-ops established and then buy the chocolate from the co-ops.  They are attempting to keep the chocolate distinct and flavorful, avoid mono-farming and help preserve the rain forests.  They gave us an overview of chocolate, speaking of it as an oenologist speaks of wine. 

There was the woman and her boyfriend from Arizona.  She claimed to be some sort of DJ, who seemed to be working very hard on being mysterious and “artsy”.  She wore sunglasses, even at night, and would stare at people as though she were trying to read their aura and then breaking her silence with a blurted our question such as “So, who are you?” or “What is making your life interesting?”.  Although she was present at every meal, I think I saw her eat only once. 

We would also share a table with a young, fairly newly-wed couple from Canada, Jen and Jesse, who were enthusiastic and amused by almost everything going on.  They and a gay couple from Utah (Paul and Jay) shared our table several times during our stay as well as several of our adventures. 

We also met a couple of women from Nebraska who are both biologists and they shared many interesting stories about their lives in the field as well as the difficulties in getting ahead in their field.  Allen thought one of them reminded him of Barney from children’s TV fame.  Of course, if you know Allen, this sort of observation is completely routine.

After dinner, people would either remain at their tables and continue their conversations or find a seat at the bar.  We always ended up at the bar.  That first night was rough – trying a number of different concoctions made with the local alcohol, seeking to find something that we could settle on.   Some were too sweet due to the fresh fruit juices; others were just not to our liking.  We bravely soldiered on, trying an assortment of suggestions by our fellow bar flies and the Anthony.  We finally settled on gin and tonic, a choice we stuck with for the rest of our time there except that Allen would often finish the night with a Long Island Iced Tea.

Toward the end of our first night there, as we made our way through the various drink choices, after most of the others had retired for the night, we were joined at the bar by a very large bull mastiff dog.  He was followed by his owner, who also happened to own the lodge.  We played with the dog for a while (as much as he would allow as he was rather shy of people and attention) and talked with the owner (Ian Anderson) about how he came to build the lodge.  It started as a place where back-packers could pitch their tents and take advantage of the largely unexplored (at the time) caves in the area.  Slowly it built to what it is today, and more plans for the future.  He and his story are engrossing, and he was very gracious and hospitable.  We would have several other encounters with him during our stay, each one cementing further our notion that this is a man we could spend hours and hours with and never get bored.

At night, the paths are dimly lit by a series of solar powered lamps, dim, but just enough light to make out the path (though this is where our phones came in handy – the flashlight app).  The nights were dark, dark, dark, but the skies were filled with stars.  In the city it is so easy to forget that there are so many stars.  With the lack of ambient light, they sparkled and danced, reflected off the river waters, reminding us of the depths of the universe.  We were serenaded by insects and frogs, howler monkeys and the rustling of leaves and branches in the gentle breeze.  It was an amazing way to fall asleep and to wake to a vision of green and the scent of newly opened flowers.  What a magical place.

PHOTOSOur first adventure of the week was a river cave expedition.  It combined both tubing into the cave on the river running through it and time to get out of the water and explore the cave itself.   Allen and I had not brought the approved type of footwear (they did not allow our soft water shoes), and so we rented some shoes from the lodge – there were some doubt about being able to accommodate my big feet, but we found a pair I could squeeze into.    There were 4 guests and 2 guides in our party.  We were loaded into a van and drove about 15 minutes to an orange orchard at the foot of the Maya Mountains.  Once we parked, we were each issued an inner tube and followed our guides down a path to the banks of the river.  It was a clear, slow moving river, darkened by the canopy of trees meeting each other across both bank.  We then walked into the river (a shock of cold water gripping our nether regions, plopped ourselves into the tubes and began paddling ourselves, backwards, against the flow of the river.  As we made our sometimes clumsy way up the river, the sky soon gave way to the roof of the cave.  Before fully entering the cave, we pulled over to a sand bank and our guides issued each of us a headlamp.  Back in the water we paddled into the deep, dark depths of the cave.

caveI was toward the rear of our group, and it was fascinating to watch the headlights bobbing along into the depths of the darkness.   I have been in a number of caves before, and though this was a rather tame experience, there was something nostalgic about returning to the underground.  It brought to mind just how much I enjoyed all the spelunking and hiking I used to do.    Once we made our way a good way into the cave, we abandoned our inner tubes and began exploring.  The cave was filled with pristine crystal formations, stalactites and stalagmites, soda straws, bacon flowstone, rim stone dams, popcorn, pillars and curtains of all sorts.  Bats flew overhead, insects were found crawling about and fish swam in the waters, some of them the blind, bleached white animals that indicate they do not leave the cave.  Allen, given his back, was being tested with the slippery rocks, the backward paddling and the uneven flooring, but he was soldiering on in grand fashion.

This cave, like so many others in the area, was sacred to the Mayans and used for ritual purposes.  There were pottery shards, ancient blades, and even a huge, intact pot that was never removed because of its size and weight.  Most of the artifacts seen were those left behind by the archeologists (and raiders) who had removed much of them at the discovery of the caves.  We were shown altars carved out of the walls of the cave, rock formations carved in the shapes of their gods, potential burial plots and fertility sites.  The guides were quite instructive about what we were seeing, though there was a point, when they enacted a shadow show by moving their flashlights in a way a fire might have moved, indicating that the shadows of two stalagmites might have been seen as fornicating people when seen by active fire-light that seemed to stretch things, just a wee bit, but I have heard of such things in other caves.

After a bit of exploring, our guides opened their packs and set out a generous lunch of cold cuts, tortillas, vegetables and eggs.  After lunch, after taking some pictures, experiencing total darkness and a bit more crawling around, it was time to return to the upper world.  This leg of the journey was much easier as we were going with the current and slowly floated our way back to where we started.

Returning to the lodge, we rinsed off and headed to the pool to do some lying around and reading before a proper shower and getting ready for dinner.  We did take some time to walk the concrete paths and stairs that lay on the other side of the major building.  Here we found a number of “tree-houses” built on concrete stilts that rose up above the canopy on the hillside that bordered this part of the compound.  These treehouses were reached by stairways leading off from the main set of stairs that took us up the hillside.  The ones higher up were two-storied and had a deck.  They were all fully embraced by the foliage on the mountain side, and looked out over the trees on the river side.  How very cool, we thought

Back at the bar, we asked Anthony about these tree houses. How many were there and was there a public viewing deck somewhere up there?  There was no viewing deck, but he did tell us that some of them have a deck on their roof – and included a soaker tub.  Wow.  Well, after talking about them for a while, he completely surprised us by asking the house manager if it would be possible for us to be moved up into one of the tree houses.  This was a complete surprise to us, and the house manager was very eager about making it happen, he just had to make sure that there was a free one and that it was not scheduled to be inhabited… and later that night, we were told to make sure to pack up our bags the next morning, as someone would be coming to move our bags to a treehouse.  How cool!  How generous and unexpected!  We had no problem with our ground level abode, but it was exciting to think about spending our last two nights 200 feet above the river.

Our second adventure of the week was going to be a trip to a baboon sanctuary near Belmopan and then some zip-lining.  We were joined by the Canadian couple and a guy from Colorado Springs who seemed to know everything about everything including why Climate Change was not a real crisis and how safe and benign fracking is.  Needless to say, I had little to say to him.

It was about an hour and a half on the road, passing much of what we had seen on our trip to the lodge.  Known as the Community Baboon Sanctuary, it is a real voluntary grassroots effort to sustain the habitat of the Black Howler Monkey (baboon in the local Creole dialect) and promoting economic development of the participating communities.  We stopped at a very simple block building, outside of which there were a few older looking men sitting at a very small table with bottles of the local almond wine for sale.

We were greeted in the center by a woman who could not have been more than 5 feet tall, dressed in a kerchief on her head and speaking with a Creole accent and very fast.  She gave a rote speech about the center, its history, what it has done for the baboons and those involved in the project and hopes for the future.  She gave this speech at 100 MPH and though it went on for about 10 minutes, I don’t think she took a single breath throughout.  It took a while to adapt to the accent and begin to hear the words she was saying and the speed did not help.  After giving the speech, she then grabbed a number of big palm leaves of some sort and we headed out to the trees.  The refuge is a series of inter-connected tree areas on private land.  The land-owners have agreed not to clear out the trees so that the baboons have a place to live and thrive.  They seem to have doubled the baboon population in the years since it was started.

Once in the trees, she reminded us that there could be no guarantees about seeing the monkeys, but she would do her best.  She also informed us about what was done for baboons who were found hurt or abandoned and pointed out several plants and trees we would best avoid touching.

After a little bit of walking, she asked us to wait and she entered a small copse of trees and began waving her leaves.  After a few moments she called us over and lo and behold, there were about 8 howler monkeys taking leaves from her, at her level.  Well, we hurried over and she gave us all some of the leaves to feed them with.  One of them was a rather large mother whose baby was clutching on to her hair.  As long as we had leaves to feed them they were very docile and almost posed for our pictures.  We warned against touching them, but they would grab at our hands and hold them as they ate the leaves we held out for them.  It was a real thrill, and satisfied (mostly) Allen’s constant desire to engage with monkeys wherever we go.

After the leaves were gone and the baboons returned to their tree tops, we marched back to the visitor center and spent some time reading all the informational materials plastered to their walls, the simple exhibits and the gift store.  We were also encouraged to buy some of the almond wine for sale by the people at the small table.

Loaded back into the bus, we then headed to a recreation area that featured cave tubing, ATV jungle tours and zip-lining.  We were there for the zip-lining.  First we stopped at a visitor center for our lunch; we were greeted at the entrance by a number of craftsmen selling their carvings, paintings and other tourist goods.  They were a bit aggressive, but we managed to get through them without buying anything.  After lunch we were led on a short hike through the jungle to the zip-line gear center.  There we were outfitted with harnesses, helmets and gloves.  We were then given a short tutorial on what to do.  Then it was a 30 foot climb to the top of the first of 8 platforms and the beginning run of about 150 feet to the next platform.  The six zip runs after that ranged in length from 200 feet to 600 feet between the various platforms.  The various runs took us over the trees, through the trees, over the river and then back down to the forest floor, sometimes reaching speeds of over 25 MPH.  It was absolutely exhilarating.  Allen had none of the troubles he faced in Costa Rica.  This was a much more professional and smoothly run operation with platforms that did not teeter when stepped upon… of course we lost some of the thrill of danger that the Costa Rican experience had offered.  And it was over all too quickly.

Back at the lodge, we headed to the main desk to ask about our new room.  Our host insisted on not just telling us where it was, but escorting us to it.  He wanted pictures of our facial expressions when we saw where we would be staying.  Much to our surprise and pleasure, he was leading us not to the lower, river view treehouses, but up higher – 126 steps higher, about 160 feet higher.  He led us to the third highest of the canopy view treehouses.  For the lodge, this was definitely one of their high-end rooms, and we were being upgraded just for being engaging.

The king sized bedroom sat on a higher level than the living room with a large bathroom and extra big shower.  The bedroom and living room offered an amazing view of the valley and jungle canopy.   There was also a second, out-door shower located near the entrance of the unit off of the main deck.  Our guide stopped us in each room to take pictures of our expressions as we took it all in.   He then led us up to a second story deck complete with a two person soaker tub accessed by a stairway off the main bedroom.  This deck, unlike the lower deck and living room was not screened in, though it was also not visible from the stairs or other units.  We were grinning from ear to ear with pleasure and thankfulness for their kindness.  Our guide finished taking his pictures and left us to settle in.  No sooner was he out the door than I was busily throwing off my clothes, running water in the soaker tub and settling in for a soak in the sun.  Allen got his sun sans tub – but made up for it later that night when we took a starlight soak- during which we were serenaded by the Howler monkeys and Allen howled right back at them.    There is something so right about “gettin’ nekkid” outside.

For our final adventures, Allen and I went our separate ways.  Allen was going to tour the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech and Xunantunich while I was going on what they call the Black Hole Drop.  I was going on my adventure with Jen, Jesse, Paul and Jay – which was perfect, they were the 4 people we had spent the most time with and really enjoyed.

We were loaded aboard what seemed a rather heavily plated, old and well-worn school bus and drove back to the orange grove we had been to on our first adventure.  This time though, instead of going down to the river we were heading up to the mountain top.  It was about a 45 minute hike up into the foothills of the Maya Mountains.  We were heading to what they call the “mother of all caves” – Actun Loch Tunich sinkhole.  The going was at times steep and wet, a series of switchbacks and a number of water stops.  I was trying not to huff and puff too much (ego, don’t you know) but hearing the Jen and Jesse, both runners and swimmers, gasping, I did not feel so bad.  Our 3 guides (2 of them carrying machetes) do this regularly and so did not seem to feel it in the same way, but they were very aware that we did not.  Eventually we came to our stopping point and our, literally, jumping off point into the sinkhole.

We had hiked to the edge of the sinkhole, some 300 feet above the basin below and 200 feet above the rainforest canopy growing out of the sinkhole basin.  Here out guides opened their backpacks and pulled out ropes, carabiners, helmets, gloves and harnesses – we were going to rappel to the ground below.  Cool!  I had had lots of experience with rappelling in the past, and this looked to be a fairly easy and straight-forward drop.  But, of course, this was a commercial enterprise, and so the chest harness, the second rope and the man on the ground (the guide who went over first) were all necessary and made the drop as safe as can be, even for a novice.

PHOTOSOnce they started tying off the ropes and such, Jen declared “I am not going first or last!  And that’s that!”  We laughed about it, and agreed her spouse should go first, the other couple second and I would go last, taking pictures of the others as they made their first steps off the ledge.  In an attempt to get those pictures, and stay out of the way of the guides, I leaned on and took hold of a tree that was fairly close to the edge.  One of the guides told me not to do that, not to touch the tree.  I did not think I was in the way or causing any problems, but he pointed out that it was not me, but that the tree was somehow poisonous.  OH!  Nothing ever came of my having handled it, but I was grateful to be told and far more wary of what I touched.

over the edgeAs is always the case, the first step, over the ledge, is always the hardest.  The looks on the faces of each person as they took their turn was absolutely priceless.  I did my best to capture those looks for each one, but given the guide being in the way, and my inability to get around a tree, they were not the best photos.  After the first 10-20 feet, we were no longer walking down the ledge, but simply hanging in the air, about 300 feet in the air, and our job was to lower ourselves to the ground below.  Hanging there, the view was incredible – the walls of the sinkhole all around, the tops of the hills and the canopy of the trees down below.  We could spin all around, the guide at the bottom making sure we would not fall – but the spinning was still very cool.  After 200 feet, we were in that canopy and the last 100 feet were about getting to the ground and the tree bases.  Those that had gone before would yell their encouragements and congratulations to those that followed.  Finally, all of us were down and a second guide then joined us.  The third stayed atop and gathered together the ropes and other gear.

After that rush, we were hiked to the mouth of the cave where we were told about its history as a Mayan ritual site and that other adventures would provide a tour of the interior.  It seems that they also do a honeymoon thing there where a tent is set up with food, comfortable sleeping gear and everything for a honeymoon night.  Guides spend the night out of the cave but within earshot – just in case.  I don’t know about that….

Once we got to the cave, we were treated to another cold meat lunch.  We also took pictures of formations, a very cool crystal wall that gave a great background to the pictures and of the sheer drop into the lower cave.  After lunch and searching, it was then time to hike back out.  Prior to this day, I had heard other guests talking about having been on this adventure.  They all talked about the 30 foot ladder that had to be scaled in order to get out of the sinkhole.  I had visions of a rope ladder thrown over the ledge, or some sort of make-shift ladder planted into the walls of the hill – maybe iron bars attached to the rock.  What I did not expect or imagine was a 30 foot extension ladder that was tied to the side of the hill, almost completely vertical.  I could not help it, I lost it with laughter.  This was something from Home Depot, plopped down in the middle of the jungle and tied in such a way that it allowed for the vertical ascent.  It was just so unexpected – and hilarious.

Because they have insurance concerns, we had to keep our hard hats on and have a rope attached to our harness in order to climb the ladder.  It really was not that bad.   A bit wobbly, some movement, but it was attached well enough that it did not feel dangerous.  We each made our way up and then gave up the helmets and harnesses.  The rest of the trek would take us back to the trail which we had descended where we met up with the guide who had stayed behind.

Our last night at the Lodge ended up being the first night there for a whole slew of new guests.  We had gathered at the bar in order to catch up with each other about the days’ events.  We had a new bartender for the night – Anthony was busy overseeing the dinner preparations and the new arrivals.  This new bartender agreed with Allen about how difficult the climb down from the pyramid is, and told us a story about a time he was there and witnessed a woman fall and tear her scalp open – she ended up dying a couple of months later.  This affirmed, for Allen, the dangerous experience he had been through and survived.

Anthony told us we might want to choose our seat before the crush of new people arrived for dinner.  We sat next to a couple who were from Wisconsin.  A lot of the conversation centered on hunting and farm life.  When the new guests arrived, they arrived with lots of kids.  Several families with  children and, we were told, there were more of the same coming the next day.  We were also joined at our table by a group of five women from all over the states – they were a group of friends who travel together for a yearly vacation.  Of course, kids and a buffet is always an interesting combination.  Add to that, that instead of the orderly table by table routine, one of the tables heard that it was a free-for-all and so the  usual orderliness of the dinner serving went out the window – at least for the first course, Anthony soon roped it back in and re-established the natural order in time for the second and third course.

Dinner ended, most of the families rounded up their children and went to their cabanas, that left most of the “usuals” at the bar and patio.  Jesse managed to have a drink too many and entertained everyone with some sort of hip-hop song that he knew from karaoke in a mix of English, Spanish and Portuguese and the dance steps that seemingly go along with it.   It was hilarious, and many of the younger staff and guests present seemed to know the song – though it was new to me and Allen.

Not to be undone, his young wife Jen then demonstrated what she had learned at her pole dancing classes, using one of the support poles as her dance partner.  This led another Canadian couple to try the moves, do headstands and in other ways contort and bend their bodies.  It was cause for great laugher and mirth, catcalls and applause.  What a great ending to our last night there.  Allen and I, as usual, were the last at the bar, finally finishing our nightcaps and letting the bartender close it down.

I was up at 6:30 the next morning, finding, true to his word, that Anthony had delivered a diet coke, a pot of coffee and two muffins to our front door.  I brought the tray in to our patio and went to wash my hands.  Returning to the patio, I found two brightly colored birds sitting on the tray and pecking at the muffins.  It was a great way to greet the day.

At breakfast that morning, Jen and Jesse were feeling the effects of their imbibing the night before, and luckily they had blocked this day out for lying around the pool and getting a massage - nothing that would require too much exertion.  We were going to be dropped off at the airport for our flight to San Pedro around noon, that left us time to sit under the patio and watch the people come and go, lay a bit around the pool and wander for the last time through the botanical gardens, along the river and through the trees.  I discovered a fern-like plant growing along the river, that when touched or disturbed curled up into what looked like dried up thorns.  Eventually, it would uncurl and resume its former look, but it was really intriguing.  We found out that the locals call it a “Twelve O’clock Plant” – but I have yet to discover its true name.   Of course, I had to drag Allen down to the river to see it.

We settled accounts, said goodbye to Anthony, Ian, Jen and Jesse and others with whom we spent the last few days (and were around), and walked up to the front gate to be whisked away to the airport and the second phase of our journey.

airport“Airport” is a kindness.  Our driver dropped us off in a big clearing cut out of the forest right off the highway.  A black-top asphalt landing strip stretched down the center of the field.  A small, wooden building, topped with a wind-sock, lay at one end and to the side of the asphalt.  As we were getting out of the van, a porter, pushing a large, rusted flat cart, took our bags, placed them on the cart and then wheeled the cart to the edge of the landing strip.   I went into the building that housed a couch, 3 plush chairs, a bathroom, water cooler and a counter, behind which stood a young man in uniform who took our names and handed me two plastic boarding passes.  There were two other passengers waiting for the flight.  

It was a warm, bright day, and Allen and I wandered around the field a bit, looking at the flowers growing in the grass, the colorful insects and lizards that made their way from flower to flower.  Eventually, we made our way back into the office to take advantage of the air conditioning.  Our plane arrived early.  It was a single-prop, 12-seater plane.  It pulled up next to the luggage carts where our things were loaded on, as well as a lot of mail and boxes being sent our way and then we were invited to board.  The attendant who gave us the boarding passes stood at the bottom of the stairs into the plane to take the passes back.

There were about 6 others already on board.   We found seats on either side of the plane, behind the wings, and since it seemed no one else was coming, they took off about 20 minutes earlier than their scheduled time – no complaints from me.

My time in Alaska had pretty much enured me to small plane travel, but Allen did not seem to be totally at ease with it all.  The flight was low-flying, a creeping ascent that allowed a great view of the land below.  There were huge swaths of forest, very square cleared areas and not many roads at all bisecting it all.  At times, we flew through the clouds – providing a ghostly sort of experience – not being able to see anything but wings and wheels.

The flight was scheduled to take almost an hour, but we quickly found ourselves flying over the coast and ocean.  The water was crystalline blue and green, with splashes of white from the coral under the water, small islets and boats traveling or simply anchored.  In less than 40 minutes from when we took off, we were touching down on an air strip ending at a concrete block building in the middle of the town of San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye.

Ambergris Caye (pronounced kee) is the largest island of Belize.  It is mostly a ring of white sand beach around a mangrove swamp in the center.  San Pedro is the only town on the Caye, though there are a number of small villages and resorts.  The main attractions are the Belize Barrier Reef and its beaches.  It is the second largest barrier reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  This small town of about 13,000 is the second largest in Belize and because scuba diving is so popular here, it even has a hyperbaric decompression chamber on the island.

Deplaning had to wait for the stairs to be rolled up to our plane and then we were instructed to follow the arrows painted on the tarmac that led us to the main building and the luggage claim area.   Our bags were removed from the plan and then taken to a concrete square of floor marked off by ropes.  Luggage handlers would ask us to point out our bags and they would hand them to us after checking our claim tickets.  It was, like everything else on the island, very informal. 

Our transportation to our resort was not there, so we watched other passengers being picked up in golf carts that carried as many as 8 passengers.  Looking at the traffic moving around the airport it became apparent that there were at least 20 golf carts to each real car or truck.  Soon, our transportation arrived as two golf carts pulled up, bearing the name of our resort on their side – Ramon’s Village Resort.  One of the golf carts was a six-seater and the other was more of a golf-cart truck where our luggage was loaded.  As it turned out, the lodge was only a 3-minute ride away.  It felt a little silly to actually be driven there – and had we known, we probably would have walked.

Ramon’s is a collection of thatched roofed bungalows and rooms nestled between the major road running along the island and the beach.  It has its’ own dock, gift store, bar and restaurant.  We were dropped off at the check-in center where we got our keys and took note of all the religious tracts that were available in the main office. 

We were led over the winding, white-stone paths that wander through the palm trees, connecting the various buildings to our room at the far end of the resort.  Behind us was the main road of San Pedro teeming with pedestrians (without sidewalks), golf carts, scooters, motorcycles and the occasional truck or car but separated from the lodge by a wooden fence and lots of trees.  We had a second floor “jungle view” room, which meant that when we looked out from our patio, we could see the other huts and lots of palm trees with a slight glimpse of the beach and water.  However, that was not a problem.  We did not intend to spend much time in the room anyway.  We did grill the guy who brought up our bags, where the closest liquor store was – because necessities always come first.  He pointed down the road and said it was about a block up the way.  Life is good.

It was a bright, sunny, pleasant day and we decided to go get lunch.  We wandered around the town for a little bit and then settled on a beach facing little spot where we could eat on the patio and watch the water, docks and passers-by.  We watched a group of men constructing a stage on the water front in an area we came to recognize as the town center.  Ash Wednesday was only a few days away and they seemed to be getting ready for some Mardi Gras activity.  After eating, we wandered around some more along the beach and then headed to the liquor store.  Actually, it was a grocery store with a rather large alcohol section.   We found bottles of the locally made gin, the same we had been drinking in the jungle, and at a big price difference from the imports.  A bottle of the local gin was 9.00; a comparably sized bottle of Gordon’s was 35.00.  That made the choice a whole lot easier. 

That first night, we ate at the resort restaurant and then, because our waiter talked about a big party in town, we decided to walk up the beach and see what all the fuss was about.  As we made our way back to the plaza we passed an open-air church service where the preacher seemed to be on a hell-fire roll.  Getting to the plaza, we found the stage had been completed and some sort of prayer session was being concluded.  This was followed by a number of local politicians making speeches and an all-girl dance troupe doing their thing.  At some point, Ms. San Pedro, in her sash, gown and tiara was presented to the crowd. 
San Pedro Sunrise

Wandering around the town, looking for the big party, we ran into the Australian couple who had been at the jungle lodge.  They had taken the daring option of renting a vehicle and driving to San Pedro (they had actually driven from Mexico).  The trip seemed to have been a good one without incident and they were having a good time wandering as we were.  As we were talking, an anglo beach-bum joined us (calling himself Hurricane Mike).

His hair done up in tight corn-rows and accompanied by a local native who was trying to get us to buy his CD and come to his concert in a couple of days.  We needed to get away from these two, they were pushy, apparently high, and not making a whole lot of sense.  Before parting ways, Hurricane anointed Allen’s face with some sort of fragrant camphor oil he was carrying – me and the Aussies passed up the offer to be treated in the same way.  Having had enough of the “fiesta” we headed back to our room for gin & tonics and Apple radio (we had Wi-Fi here).

Each morning on the island, I would get up early to watch the sunrise and the magnificent light show that accompanied it.  It was always different and always beautiful  to watch the hint of light at the far edge of the horizon, rise up above the waters and bring light and color to the world was breathtaking.

We spent our first day simply wandering.  We took a several hour walk on the beach, shoes in hand, water lapping at the shore, sun high but with enough of a breeze to tame the heat.  It was really nice.  The white, white sandy beaches tend to be rather narrow but beautiful.  We walked away from the town, passing a number of other resorts and hotels along the way.  These were inter-mixed with a few empty lots, private homes (some quite grand) and simple shacks.  We again ran into the Australians who were staying at a resort about a 45 minute walk from our own.

For our return route, we chose to walk along the main road – sharing it with all the traffic that seemed to go back and forth at a steady pace all day long.  We made our way back to town and walked all the main streets and back to the plaza.  In the middle of the plaza was a tall, new-looking clock tower with large LED screens flashing advertising.  The base of the tower and half way up, it was wrapped in plastic.  I thought it might be a new structure that would be “unveiled” during the course of the Mardi Gras celebrations.  I was to learn better.

It seems, that as part of the festivities, the custom of the place is for people to crack raw eggs over your head (I prefer the confetti filled egg shells called cascarones) and to smear paint on you.  In fact, our resort had put out a letter explaining this to the guests, encouraging them to take part in the celebrations but to be warned – the paint will wash off the body, but probably stain your clothes – dress accordingly.  They don’t stop at painting each other, they also smear paint on the walls of buildings, fences and, so it seems, clock towers.  Many businesses had plastic sheeting hung along their walls or windows – people could plaster their paint on the plastic, leaving the walls un-marred.

The souvenir shops and art galleries offered the same mix of China-made magnets, toys, hats, t-shirts and other gee-gaws found in most tourist sites.  This was mixed with some beautiful native arts, weavings, carvings and finely worked tropical wood creations.  Also, a number of places sending the Belizean made habanero sauces, chocolates and coffees.

Returning to the resort, Allen discovered the joy of lying in a hammock, wrapped up by the hammock netting as though he were in his own, netted cocoon.  Over the course of our stay, he was to master the art of napping in the thing.  Now, he wants one for our back porch in Chicago.

Back at our room for pre-dinner cocktails, we stationed ourselves on our balcony and enjoyed the early evening darkening of the day.  We watched the birds fly over and were intrigued by some saw of hawk or erne that was sitting on the roof of the hut opposite us.  We had closed the door into our room behind us, thinking nothing of it, until we tried to get back in.  The door had locked.  We had our keys with us, but neither one worked in the lock.  We were trapped.  Allen had to pee.  After exploring the possibilities of crawling over the railing and onto the steps that led to our front door, before we got so desperate that we would yell out for help, a fellow guest walked out of her room down below.  We explained our situation to her and dropped a key down so that she could walk up to our front door, let herself in and then free us from the balcony.  She seemed a little hesitant at first, but finally gave in and ended our captivity… before Allen wet himself (or, as he threatened, watering the neighboring thatched roofs).

That night was the last night for fresh lobster on the island.  They cease the lobster trapping for a few months to allow them to breed and replenish.  So, of course, it was imperative that we eat lobster - which we did.  Grilled to perfection with a variety of sauces and salsas – it was everything a person wants fresh seafood to be- and a very generous serving.  The margarita that accompanied our meal was not half-bad either.   Not a bad way to spend Valentines’ Day.   During our meal, there were a number of other couples at the restaurant, all taking pictures of themselves eating.  This led to my explaining to Allen what “photo-bombing” was.  That was a mistake, as he spent the rest of the night trying to do just that – luckily no one hit us.  On our way to and from the restaurant, 2 different individuals offered to sell Allen a joint.  What is it about him that screams out to the right people that “this is a man who is interested!?”  Of course, the purchases were never made, but not without a little prodding from his overly-cautious husband.                   

The resort had its own dock and (seemingly) collection of boats.  They offered a number of different sight-seeing, snorkeling and diving excursions of varying lengths and skill.  But, checking with a mom and pop operation down the beach from us, we found similar trips for less money.  We chose the cheaper option.  So, before going for our Valentine meal, we made arrangements for a “snorkeling among the manatees” trip.
                  We arrived at their dock at 8:45 in the morning for a schedu

led 9 AM departure.  The sun was already pretty strong and I was grateful I had bought a cap the day before.  Our guide was not overly enthusiastic about our arrival.  In fact, he called the woman with whom we made the reservations on the phone to let her know that “the guys YOU took the money from are here” and she would have to show up because if he took us, it would leave the office un-manned.  Not a pleasant beginning.  We waited until the woman showed up; in the meantime our guide fitted us with fins (telling me my feet were big enough that I didn’t need them), snorkels and masks.  It wasn’t real apparent what sanitizing methods had been used on the snorkels before we were to put them in our mouths, but I guess that is part of the adventure.

When the woman (it turns out she is a co-owner of the operation with our guide- whom she suspects is stealing from the business) showed up she was bearing a rubber glove for our guide (neither Allen nor I can remember his name).  It seems that a few days prior, he was cleaning fish in the surf and was bitten by an eel who mistook his blood soaked hand for food.  It really did a job on his hand and he had to be flown to Belize City for stitches.  Well, of course, he was not to get the stitches wet, and though he put the glove on, at first, he would later abandon it as he instructed us in snorkeling. 

on boatThen we were off.  It was a swift boat ride across jewel-colored waters.  He told us that the deepest it gets on this side of the reef was about 10 feet.  Hard to believe how incredible the colors of the waters are, broken by the white of coral on the floor.  Once we got to the area where they normally find manatees, we anchored and he began to give us instructions on how to snorkel.  This was Allen’s first time, my second (my first being 25+ years past).  He had us go into the water, one at a time and hold on to a life preserver tied to the boat.  He just wanted us to get comfortable in the water and calm about breathing through the tube before allowing us to swim further from the boat.

It was incredible.  Allen was a bit unsure about it all and felt he would tire easily, but he was doing well.  We found no manatees, and so after some time spent looking around under water, he had us get back in, consulted with some other boaters and moved to a different spot.    That is, we moved once he got the motor going.  It was not turning over and he fiddled with it for a while, finally taking the cover off and, using the strap from a life preserver as a pull rope – the motor turned over and we were on our way.  This turned into something he would have to repeat each time we stopped. 

Our second stop was over a sunken ship.  I mentioned to the guide that the first time I snorkeled; I was wearing a life preserver that helped me stay afloat.  Perhaps we could give one to Allen and he would be more comfortable.  He thought that might be a good idea and called over to another boat which leant him a life preserver (I guess safety standards in Belize do not require carrying enough for all your passengers).  It helped.  Allen felt more comfortable and was able to move around more easily. 

It was an incredible sight to see the multi-colored fish swim in and out of the windows and cracks of the long ago sunken boat.  There were all types of fish in a variety of shapes and sizes, sting rays, and octopi among other things.  I kept turning my head and so filling my tube with water, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. 

While we were swimming and looking, our guide consulted with other boats and guides, and pretty much concluded we were not going to see any manatees that day.  Well, it is not like they could guarantee that they would be there waiting for us.  So he headed for an area called the coral gardens and then shark alley.  OKAY.  The coral gardens were just that – huge areas of coral of all shapes and sizes.   What an amazing variety of fish there were, what incredible colors of fish and coral, sea plants swaying in the waves, all of it seen through crystalline water – it really was a head trip.  We swam and looked, looked and swam.  I made use of the underwater camera I had bought, but knew right away that the pictures would never capture the beauty and “otherness” of it all.

Shark Alley was an area where a lot of nurse sharks tended to hang around.  After anchoring, the guide threw some small, smelt like fish over board.  This attracted quite a number of sharks as well as jack-fish and needle-nose fish.  Once there were a sufficient number of sharks near the boat, Allen was told to jump in, to pet the sharks, to swim with them.  It is a difficult thing to throw yourself into the midst of a bunch of sharks – even if they tend to be bottom feeders that very seldom hurt people.  My mind just kept saying these are sharks… people stay away from sharks.  I am sure the same thoughts were going through Allen’s head, but he threw himself in, and nothing bit him.  I soon followed suit, and we were both swimming with the sharks, and jack fish and rays and all sorts of other creatures.  As we snorkeled, every now and then another small fish was thrown over-board, causing another feeding frenzy by both the fish and sharks.  When there was no food to be had, the sharks tended to slowly swim away.  However, their cue for food was the sound of the motor, so every now and then our guide would gun it, and that would call them back to look for food.  How many times can a person use the word incredible?

We floated and looked, and barely noticed when it began to lightly rain, so entranced were we by the sights before us.  After a decent amount of time in the water, we were called back to the boat.  We were heading back.  First, however, we followed a couple of massive sea turtles for a little while, thrilling when they lifted their heads above the water.  Moving on from there, we found ourselves in a school (pod?) of dolphins.  The guide was “playing” with them.  Circling around them with the boat, and they would circle back at us.  This happened a number of times, and they would leap out of the water as if to say “come and get me’.  It was a lot of fun.

All too quickly we were back at the dock.  Although the beginning of our journey was a little rough, our guide turned out to be personable, informative, interesting, funny and encouraging and affirming in our clumsy efforts at snorkeling.  It was a really great day.   During our day, he told us of another island that we should check out called Caye Caulker – “a good place to sit under the palm trees and sip on a beer.”    He told us we could take the water taxi there.

We determined that that would be a good place to go the next day.  After finding some lunch, Allen returned to the resort and I went to check on the water taxi schedule.  When I got back to the resort, he was already wrapped up and snoring away in a hammock on the beach.

That night we ate at a restaurant that seemed more covered courtyard than a building in its own right.  One “wall” was an art store, another a jewelry shop.  Beachside, it was open air with a small stage in the corner where a duet played light country/pop.  We went fried that night – fried conch fritters, chicken and cheese stuffed jalapenos and chicken flautas.  Luckily the margaritas cut through the grease.  Before and after dinner we returned to the plaza, hoping to find a big fiesta – but still not yet.  We had been led to believe that this week before Ash Wednesday would be frantic and a real party – but so far that was not our experience.  Oh well, it was still just a thrill to be out at night, in flip flops and shorts, a light breeze but totally comfortable, even warm.  Chicago looks even crueler than it is when seen from the tropics.

Our taxi for Caye Caulker was not going to leave until 10, and so we spent the early morning reading, writing, sitting and enjoying the view.  Though our last full day in town had started out very cloudy and windy, by the time we were heading to the docks, it had turned bright, sunny and hot.  We walked through the souvenir shops a while, making our list of things we wanted to bring back but made sure we were near the front of the boarding line so we could sit at the upper level of our boat taxi.

Once the boat arrived at the dock, we had to wait for everyone to disembark – a process that seemed to take forever.  The boat seemed to have only two levels – an open air upper level and a lower level covered by the upper.  It just did not look like it could possibly hold the number of folks who were getting off.  There seemed to be so many, that I began to seriously suspect a third level of seating.  They must have really been cramped.  It was like a clown car, more and more kept coming. 

Once it was emptied, we were then free to board, and we did indeed get seats on top, toward the front, right beside the captain’s chair.  Because of the  sun (I suspect) our captain was well protected with long sleeves, a hat, sun glasses and a balaclava covering his face – looked very much like a mummy.  The trip to Caulker took about 30 minutes and it took another 30 minutes for us to decide we had seen enough and would return long before our originally planned 3:00.

Caye Caulker seems to be very popular with backpackers and budget travelers because of its cheap prices, laid-back vibe and a surprisingly large number of restaurants and bars.  Its’ motto, seen on several signs, seemed to be “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Worries”.  With only about 1300 year round residents, it was surprising how many amenities there were.  There are no proper beaches to speak of, but there are plenty of docks spread around the island. 
restaurant swing

There are only 3 roads in town, all of them sandy.  The majority of places of interest are found on 2 of the 3 streets.   We strolled the streets which were lined by older run-down looking shacks, guest houses and small hotels.  None of them looked too grand or even up to Motel 6 standards.  There were a number of people para-skiing and wind surfing in the quiet bay.  There were small arts and crafts stores, a few Asian-run grocery stores and the typical hippie cum tourist shops.  What did surprise us was a small wooden building with a thatched roof and an authentic Starbucks sign on the front.  Starbucks here really seemed odd and out of place.  It was the first multi-national chain store that we had seen since arriving in Belize (none of the hotels or resorts we had seen seemed to be aligned with Marriott, Sheraton or other recognizable chains).  The bars and restaurants were painted in bright colors, as were many of the private homes on the island.  We saw maybe half a dozen golf carts and no cars at all.  It took us about 20 minutes to walk the entire town and decided our guide had been right – a good place for a beer under the palm trees, but not much else.  I suspect that if we were 20 years younger, this might have been a great place to get high in one way or another and just “be”.   We decided to take the next taxi back.

To kill time, we stopped at a brightly painted, multi-colored restaurant on the beach.  It was an interesting place with lots of picnic tables and, instead of chairs or benches; there were bench swings to sit at.  We chose a booth with well planted seating instead.  We had conch steak and chicken strips accompanied by a cold beer.

Our taxi was coming from Belize City and so already had a number of passengers when it arrived.  This meant we did not get an upper level seat and shed light on just how many folks could be stuffed into the lower deck – with luggage that was stowed not only in the hold, but under the bench seats and up and down the aisles.

After getting back to San Pedro, I went to pick up some of the souvenirs we had agreed upon and Allen headed to our room for a much needed bathroom break (damn chicken strips) and then to the hammock.  I joined him in a near-by hammock and we spent a long little while lying there until it was time for me to go for the lime-tonic-gin run.

As usual, our first stop that evening was to the town square.  Finally, there was some Mardi Gras activity.  There was a band set up on the stage, blaring music, people dancing around the stage, faces blotched with paint, clothing marked as well.  People were squirting paint at each other from squeeze bottles.  On the main streets pick-ups with live bands or stereos playing from the beds, people gathered around the trucks, dancing or holding one another down so their compatriots could squirt them with paint.  One group, trailing behind a pick-up blasting music were dressed in matching outfits, hobby horses made of broom-sticks and wooden horse cut outs doing some sort of synchronized dance.  Women dressed as men, men dressed as women.  All of them seemed to be having a very grand time and, luckily, they allowed us to watch or pass by unmolested, unpainted.  That night we dined at a restaurant recommended to us by Jen and Jesse and each of us enjoyed a very flavorful curry – mine chicken, his shrimp.  Over the years I have developed an allergy to shrimp (and only shrimp) that has kept us from eating them at home.  This trip was an opportunity for Allen to indulge in the crustaceans and he had them for several meals.

After dinner, we made the rounds of the souvenir shops and picked up the things we had decided on earlier.  Returning to our room and doing some packing, Allen showed off all the free soaps, shampoos and skin creams that he had been collecting since our arrival in Belize.  What we are going to do with them, I have no idea.  He has plans to put them in a basket where he can pull them out and show them off when we have company.  This is something his dad did when we visited his home several years ago.  The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.

We ended our night when we finished our bottle of gin.  We toasted one another and we toasted this wonderful country of warmth, welcome and adventure.  We declared that this was definitely a place we would return to.  The next day would be spent in airports and we would not get home until after 10 PM – and it would be less than 0 degrees.  Oh well, we were ready to face the remainder of winter after having re-charged our minds, bodies and spirits in warmth and pleasure.  Next year – we’re still debating – maybe Ecuador.