A String Of Expletives and Saying Goodbye To Dennis

I caught my bus back to Belize City right on time, 4.30am, and slept most of the way back. I was worried I wouldn't make it when we had to take a long detour around a town with construction, but then realized I needed to relax and that there was nothing I could do about how fast the bus went.

We arrived in Belize City at the water taxi station a few hours before I needed to go to the airport and I set out to look for Dennis. If there was one person I wanted to drive me to the airport, it was him.

I was immediately approached by yet another pushy taxi driver who basically shoved me into his car and told me he'd take me for $20. I told him no thank you I was waiting for Dennis and he immediately went into a yelling fit, telling me he'd take me for half of what he originally told me. He obviously didn't realize it wasn't about the money, it was about a friendship. He was pushy and rude and an officer finally approached us to ask if I was alright. I told him yes and the taxi driver said he'd call Dennis for me. I said thank you but no, and he did anyway.

After getting off the phone he told me that Dennis had told him to just take me. I look at him and replied, "You're a liar, Dennis wouldn't have said that." Well, that certainly threw him off guard, but I was done being polite. I had spent two weeks learning how to stand up when I needed to, navigate 2 foreign countries, and go with my gut.

He called again and relayed the message that Dennis wanted me to go to the other side of the bridge and wait. Once again, I had to tell him he was lying, because it was Dennis who warned me to stay on the safe side of the bridge at all times. I was really getting fed up with this guy.

I decided to go inside the water taxi station and buy two pastries, one for me and one for my friend. Then I waited.

Two minutes later as I stood outside, ate my pastry, and ignored the man hurling insults at me I saw the familiar blue van with no back seats and duck taped handles. Dennis was grinning ear to ear when he saw me and I shouted, "Dennis, my friend, I've been waiting for you!" He nearly jumped out of the car before it had come to a full stop to hug me. But my exclamation had pushed the angry taxi driver over the edge. A full slew of really hateful insults ensued.

"We're not your (expletive) friends!"
"All you (expletive) Americans think we're your (expletive) friends!"
"You don't know (expletive) about us!"
"Go back to your (expletive) rich (expletive) life and (expletive) tell all of your (expletive) friends what a goooood time you had here in Belize!"

Dennis finished hugging me and opened the door to the passengers side. I was in tears and I handed him his pastry. "Don ya worry 'bout him dah'lin!" "He a nobody." I looked at him with tears streaming down my face, and with absolute honesty asked, "You're my friend right?" He hugged me as best as he could while driving 40mph down a crowded city street and pulled over to get us some bags of water, "Of course I'm ya friend." he replied. Side note: I actually cried just now writing that down and recalling that memory. At the time it was a blemish on my last day, but now I realize it wasn't about the other driver, it was about the friendship albeit fleeting that Dennis and I had made.

I still had an hour before I needed to go to the airport so Dennis took me past the Coca-Cola and Belkin Beer factories and then to a little river lookout where we sipped water and he had a cigarette. I was so grateful for Dennis and the kindness he'd shown me from the very first day I arrived in this country.

We hugged at the airport and I could tell he was having a hard time asking for money, I handed him $20 and he told me to come back to Belize, and look him up. Dennis Wright. I'll never forget him.

We never took a photo together, but when I googled his name this photo came up from when he spoke about raising taxes on taxi drivers. He was one of my most favorite parts of Belize.

My flights home were quiet; quiet in my mind, quiet in my body. I was excited to go home and see my dog and horses, I missed my bed and my tea kettle. It's only when you've been away for a while that you realize how much you love the life you have.

Oregon from above.

I think Utah was as excited to see me as I was to see him.

What's next?

I leave for India in 1 week! My boyfriend and I will be spending 3.5 weeks there exploring the rugged outdoors, drinking lots of chai, riding lots of trains, and eating as much saag and curry our bellies can handle. We've never traveled together, and he's a particularly seasoned explorer so I'm excited and nervous about what this trip will bring. Saari on, ready to dance the Kathak!

Ixpanpajul 'ish-pahn-pah-hool' Say that 5 Times Fast

Ixpanpajul is a nature reserve just outside of Santa Elena, Guatemala and while we were the only people who had visited that day, I'd imagine it is a lovely place for people trying to escape the bustle of city life. 

When we arrived of course the first thing I saw was a herd of horses lazily grazing on the grounds, so I paid my fee and walked around trying to get them to trust me enough to pet them. It took some coaxing but once I had the trust of one of the stallions it seemed like I was in and the horses were happy to let me pet them and pull off the massive ticks that had adhered to their bodies. 

As a long time horse woman this terrifies me. I don't know a single horse who would not freak out if left tacked up, reins dragging. But this guy? Didn't seem to care one bit.

Pretty aloof at first.

The stallion decided I was ok and approached calmly with his head down and ears up. Horse language for, well you're ok.

And then we were friends.

These guys though, no matter how badly I wanted to put that fuzzy baby donkey, they were not letting me anywhere near him!

AH! That face! I just loved him.

The herd wandering around the grounds. No fences, no boundaries, just freedom.

We had paid for what Ixpanpajul called the 'sky walk'. It was a series of suspension bridges over the forest canopy. They tell you taht you can see all kids of wildlife including howler monkeys, but I didn't count on it. I also certainly didn't count on seeing some of the coolest tiny wildlife ever, but I did!

Our first little hike visitor. 

The first suspension bridge you come to on the walk. This was by far the longest bridge and although it was held up by what looked like extremely durable cables, it was still a little nerve wracking when I got to the middle and every move meant a big dip and sway of the bridge.

From about half way across the bridge.

Looks like sturdy enough wood to you, right?

Another little friend.

This was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. At first I thought there were giant bees hovering around these purple flowers but as I got closer and watched, I decided they looked like humming birds. But Hummingbirds don't have antennae! I decided to do some research when I got back to the hostel. 

Almost invisible to the naked eye, and extremely difficult to capture with a camera, I present to you, the Bumblebee Hummingbird Moth.The Bumblebee Hummingbird Moth is only 1.5 inches across and mimics the Hummingbird by how it flies and what flowers it drinks nectar from. I was amazing.

We watched storms roll in over the horizon.

And then found a walking stick.

I let him start to crawl on my legs but his feet have sharp stickers on them so he can hold on to trees and they did not feel good.

Such a funny animal

The forest said goodnight with some pretty spectacular clouds.

And then blanketed everything in mist.

By the time we made it back to the lodge we had walked almost 5 miles, it was very dark out and I had managed to step in a fire ant hill, which did not end well for me. We enjoyed a cold beer and a chat with the ladies at the front desk who were please we had visited since we were their only patrons for the day. 

At the end of the evening I parted ways with my hiking partner and started packing my bags for my very early journey back to Belize City to catch my plane the next day. I spent the evening relaxing in the hammocks on the patio of Los Amigos hostel, drinking rum and writing in my journal. I was proud of how far I'd come on this trip. I arrived in Belize bogged down with plans and ideas of what I wanted to do and see. And instead, had learned to relax and take life as it came, accepting people into my journey and learning more about myself as I did so. Experiencing so many different cultures and ways of life in such a short amount of time was both eye opening and humbling and I hope I can take the lessons I learned here back into my daily life.

Now, only if I can get to the airport on time.

Swimming, Guitars, Julio, and a Bucket of Beer,

I woke up lazily the next morning around 9am and wandered the streets looking for a good breakfast and coffee. I found it at a little cafe overlooking the tiny neighbor island to Flores that is home to their museum. Everything from the coffee and fresh milk to the juevos rancheros was delicious (and definitely not vegetarian) but I was determined not to be the traveller that asks, "What's in the beans?" everywhere I went. I took my time eating and relaxing since I was the only person there then sauntered back to the hostel to get ready for a swim.

View from the breakfast table. Later in the day, I will swim to that island for fun.

Incredible breakfast! All for the whopping sum of $6

Boats ferry people around the island.

The best bathroom signs ever!

I grabbed my bathing suit and towel with the intention of relaxing on the dock with my book alone, but the travel fairy had other plans for me! I arrived and went for a swim as sun was starting to bake everything around me. People came and went during the mid-day siesta, stripping down to their underwear, jumping in, swimming for a bit, and then putting all of their clothes back on still dripping wet.

A man pulled up in his car, walked down the dock, politely said hello, stripped down to his tight white skivvies, jumped in, hoisted himself back onto the dock and parked it right next to me for a bake in the sun! No strangers in Guatemala I guess! He introduced himself as Julio and asked if I'd like a beer. I mean, I guess, sure why not have a beer with a stranger in soaking wet underwear? He walked to the nearest bar (he'd put his jeans back on) and came back with a bucket of Coronas and ice. We chatted for a while and he insisted I work on my Spanish, which was fun and embarrassing. Two people, Anna (from Turkey) and Miguel (from Mexico) who I'd seen around the hostel, showed up with their guitars for an impromptu song session. We all sat around for a while singing Jack Johnson, Bob Dylan and other classics, then dispersed without a phone number or email exchanged, experiencing just a moment together, that can never be recreated or revisited.

Again sauntering back to the hostel for some food I decided I should make a plan for my last day in Guatemala, but was so content just relaxing that the thought came quickly and left equally as fast. I sat down for a grilled cheese and a salad by myself and realized the only other person eating was also by himself, so I invited him over. Turns out he was from Oregon too! He hadn't been to the dock so I agreed to show him after we ate and we made a plan to go to the nature reserve, Ixpanpajul, around 4 for an afternoon hike.

I don't actually remember his name, but he didn't seem like the adventurous type. So we sat on the dock and chatted for a while. He was in finance and had a semi-serious girlfriend who he didn't want to travel with yet because they hadn't been dating for that long, just arrived in Flores, etc etc. He asked what I knew about the tiny island (the one in the above picture) and I said not much, other than it has a museum on it. He suggested we swim to it, "because you know, it's right there".

Three things came to my mind all at once: 1) If you're trying to impress me, you are about to be very disappointed 2) You have no idea how far that is. It'd probably be a 10 minute walk (1/2 mile), but we're swimming. Totally different. 3) I was a competitive swimmer for 6 years, you are going to feel really silly when I beat you to that island.

"Sounds great!" I exclaimed, and dove in. I'm not sure he was expecting that reaction.

I tried to go as slow as I could, doing the back stroke, breast stroke, even doggy paddling a bit, but I still made it to the island and had to wait 10 minutes for him to arrive completely winded and red in the face. As it turned out though, the museum cost money, and since we had nothing but our bathing suits, we were out of luck. We waited for him to catch his breath and then had to get right back in the water and swim back to Flores. It's probably a safe bet to say he won't be asking random girls to swim to islands anymore. He was a good sport though and we headed back to the hostel to change into clothes and catch our bus to Ixpanpajul.

The Colors and Textures of Isla Flores y Peten Itza Guatemala

After Tikal I spent the afternoon wandering around and around the tiny little island of Flores contemplating my trip up until this point, swimming in the lake, chatting with local kids pushing nut carts, and letting the sunshine kiss my skin.

I didn't come to any particularly deep or meaningful conclusions about my journey during those wanderings. But all around me were bright, saturated colors on buildings, sidewalks and docks, which made me feel particularly happy for my fortunate ability to travel and experience this place.

Below is a 'round the island' glimpse of my afternoon.


The next morning I awoke at 3am and shuffled quietly out of my shared room to catch my bus to Tikal.

To attempt to describe this day would not only be impossible, but it would take all day. So to give you an idea of what it is, I'll give you the wikipedia definition and then a slide show of the day. Because I truly don't think there are word to describe what it felt like to be in a place that was so historically and spiritually significant.

"Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilizationTikal was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Though monumental architecture at the site dates back as far as the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 to 900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily, while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica such as the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico. There is evidence that Tikal was conquered by Teotihuacan in the 4th century AD. Following the end of the Late Classic Period, no new major monuments were built at Tikal and there is evidence that elite palaces were burned. These events were coupled with a gradual population decline, culminating with the site’s abandonment by the end of the 10th century."

If you want to know more about Tikal, visit here;

Early morning mist making very interesting photographs.

A king toad was the first wildlife to greet us at 4am.

Although we came for the 'sunrise hike' the heavy fog was a formidable opponent and this is about all the sunrise we got.

Morning in the jungle.

This is a pair of Amazon Parrots who noisily flew back and forth for a while.

The grand promenade of Tikal.

A 'flesh eating' spider. Yea. No problem there.

The little things in the jungle were worth every extra long look.

Even the one's with a lot of extra legs.

Especially the ones with spectacularly colored wings. 

A family of koatis hanging out near the ruins, eating breakfast.

This is one place where you are actually allowed to climb on some of the ruins. This was a massive structure with incredibly narrow and slippery steps, but the view was incredible!

A koati meets a king today and sizes him up as a play toy.

Shamans used to lick the king toads cheeks (where you can see that tiny white dot) because the poison is a hallucinogenic.

For scale!

A very large koati family.

Believe its or not, this is the plant that black peppercorns come from! If you chew on the outside green part not only is it delicious, it's slightly analgesic and can be used to numb and aching tooth. 

Ruins that haven't bee fully excavated yet.

Spiders everywhere! This is not a good place for someone who is arachnophobic! 

Inside the main promenade. These walls were the outside of people's homes.

This little spider monkey came for a visit!

And then his mama joined too!

Each open room was a house of royalty that lived in the main promenade.

Some scale as to how big this structure really is. That's me on the bottom right!

I am afraid of spiders. So when he asked if I wanted to hold her, I of course said yes.

Tarantulas in the jungle!

More of the little things.

The view we had wanted at 4.30 am turned out to be pretty spectacular! Here you can see the two tallest buildings in Tikal, facing each other. Mathematically perfect so that during an eclipse the light shines from one to the other.

The Ceiba tree or the Tree Of Life

The Friendliest Island

After arriving in Guatemala the secondary bus drivers took us to the supermercado to take out some cash because apparently the island we were headed to only had 1 ATM and it was unreliable at best.

Quetzales, Guatemala's currency

We were headed to Flores Island, a tiny little town on Peten Itza (Lake Peten). Out of this whole trip of learning to fend for myself, finding my way with the help of others, and yielding to not actually having a plan, it was this decision that made me the most proud. I had hopped across the boarder with no expectations, no guide book and no plan, other than really wanting to see Tikal, the largest Mayan ruins.

Looking back to the mainland from Flores Island on Peten Itza

I checked into the Los Amigos hostel and bunked up with a couple from New Zealand so we could get a cheaper rate and a private room. It was a really good decision, as they were on their own schedule and turned out to be really good people! The island seemed alive and the colors of the sunset reflecting on the metal tin roofs reminded me that I was exactly where I should have been at that moment.

The inside of Los Amigos Hostel

Really nicely decorated, and CLEAN!

I spent the evening wandering the streets of Flores, popping my head into all of the little shops saying buenas tardes to all of the shop owners, sipping coffee, and enjoying the warm but crisp air. According to all of the guide books, Guatemala isn't generally a place you want to wander around as a solo white woman, but I got a different feeling here in Flores. It was laid back, friendly, and welcoming. It seems here that the locals and the tourists live in harmony, even the other tourists had a certain respectful feel that I hadn't seen yet.

The streets of Flores. People sit outside on their porches all day and wave hello, no matter how many times you walk by.

We were told that there was a basket ball game going on so some of us headed to the main square to see what was happening. It was a proper basketball party and the entire town seemed to be there! The men played, the women and kids cheered, the occasional kids ball would end up on the court and someone would just bounce it off without a second thought. It felt comfortable to be there. I was used to standing out as a random white person, but here at this game, if you were here you were family, and people treated you as such.

We started to get hungry and opted for a food cart just off the court. As we approached I noted the small scribble saying 'vegetariano'. Being a vegetarian in a Caribbean country is not easy, because here, vegetarian just means you don't eat cow. Nothing else counts apparently. The next thing I noticed was that I could get a meal and a beer for $4. Sold!

As I ordered my food I looked around at what could only be described as food safety hell. I worked in a kitchen for a while and without even looking past the large skillet I had already seen 7 food violations.

Bring it, my stomach said.

I watched as he used the same pair of tongs to put my veggies on the grill that he'd used to put raw beef out cook too, without a customary rinse. I winced as he wiped his hand on a filthy towel and then pick up cheese for my tacos. And I nearly laughed out loud as he handled my friends money and then put my tacos in a box, with the same unwashed hands.

Bottoms up Guatemala! I loaded those things with 'communal bowl' hot pickled carrots and chili sauce hoping the vinegar and chili would kill lurking bacteria, then chowed down. Those three tacos to this day hold one of the top 3 taco spots in my heart. I've never tasted something so delicious, spicy, greasy and downright bacterially dangerous in my life.

I finished my beer as the second game started up and headed back to the hostel for a Tums, a shower and a good sleep. I had booked a sunrise hike of Tikal and needed to be at the bus a 3:30am .

I’m in Guatemala, How Did I Get here?

Well, I know how I got here physically. I took a bus.

After diving with the sharks in Ambergris Caye, I motored my way back to Caye Caulker on the trusty water taxi. As I arrived on the dock I saw Brian from Bella’s again, waiting for another easy target who was wishing for a comfortable place to lay their head. I politely smiled at him and walked right on by. I was not going back to that bed bug infested place!

I wandered around the island for a while looking for a good deal but finding none, because of course it was a Friday evening and hostels double their fees on the weekend! I settled on Yuma’s Backpackers Lodge because it was directly on the beach, had hammocks as seats and had a strict set of rules. No smoking in common areas, no loud music after 10, no guests, and absolutely no monkey business. The owner was German, she asked for money upfront and wrote receipts, I liked her immediately and the hostel was named after her son Yuma.

Yuma's Backpackers Lodge complete with outdoor showers, hammocks and picnic benches.

The view of Yuma's and the surrounding lodges.

I spent the evening relaxing, drinking tea, and reading a book in a hammock over-looking the ocean and watching the storms roll in from the east. The air was cool and soggy with the evening storm and smelled like salt.

After a great sleep I woke up to sheets of rain still pouring down from the sky. I knew it was time for me to move on from Caye Caulker. But first, I wanted to talk to Yuma. His mom told me he attended the Caye Caulker Ocean Academy, and I wanted to know about what projects the school had going on.

He and 2 friends have been working on a composting project or 3 years, and have been collecting the compostable materials from all of the restaurants on the island. They noticed as young kids that the island didn’t have a working garbage system. All trash generated from hotels, restaurants, hostels and boat tours, goes to a small strip of beach near the airport and is burned, much of it ending up in the ocean. Everything from styrofoam, plastic, food, tin cans, tires; you name it, it went in the burn pit. So Yuma and his friends decided they were going build a compost bin out of cinder blocks and hit the sandy, dusty streets to make compost out of food waste. Unfortunately last year when there was a big storm, the island municipality disassembled Yuma and friend’s cinder blocks in order to make stepping-stones for kids trying to get to school. They’ve been trying to gather materials ever since to rebuild. When I asked Yuma if he had a message for other kids, he said:

“Everybody has to do something. Every kid has to do something now, because if they don’t, there won’t be anything left.” - Yuma age 14

Yuma and the rescue dog.

Meeting Yuma and listening to what he had to say was refreshing, and it made me so happy to see that kids like him are determined to make a difference in their communities.

I lazily shuffled to the dock to catch a boat to the mainland with no plan and hardly any money left for the rest of the trip, even though I still had 4 days. I thought about going north, I thought about going west, and I decided it would be best to figure it out when I got to port.

As I went walking towards the dock I saw this guy cleaning his catch and feeding the rest to the birds. It was absolute mayhem in the skies!

Birds swooping in everywhere.

This was his son who was busy playing in the sand and wanted to come check out my camera when he saw me taking pictures.

He took this photo.

When I arrived in Belize City for the third time, wouldn’t you know, there was Dennis! When he asked if I needed a ride somewhere, I was kind of frantic. I had no idea where I wanted to go. North? West? Certainly not south again. And then I saw the sign.

Guatemala - $20

Decision made! With a little help from Dennis to buy a ticket I found myself running towards a bus earmarked to leave ten minutes prior, parked in the muddy streets of Belize City. It was filled with more white people than I’d seen on the entire trip.

I settled into the only open seat (on this bus you ACTUALLY had to be seated) next to a nice Belgian gentleman who was traveling alone because of a recent divorce. The bus wound its way out of the hectic city and into the countryside. The closer we got to Guatemala the more beautiful it got. Dense trees speckled with farmlands and orchards painted the landscape.

Six hours and one bathroom break later, we were at the Belize/Guatemalan border getting told to exchange money, which I did, and only later realized I’d been totally hustled out of a really crap exchange rate. I guess that’s what you get when you exchange money with guys who pull calculators and HUGE wads of cash out of their pockets. We then had to walk across a bizarre no man’s land between border crossings with all of our bags and were met on the Guatemala side by a fresh out of training military officer with a sawed off shotgun.
Note to self: Do not become a fugitive in Guatemala. 

I paid the illegal-for-them-to-charge-but-they-do-it-anyway, 20 quetzales, got my passport stamped, and walked my dusty, stinky, currently with-a-plan bum the rest of the way across the border.

Just over the border into Guatemala.

Made it!

Just One (or two) More Dives

After returning to the dock I retired to my hostel only for a quick shower and a change of clothes. The place was an absolute dump and I was afraid I’d get dirtier hanging around in there. A bunch of us had all agreed to meet at the edge of Caye Caulker called “The Split”. This area is a fairly narrow but 20ft deep channel splitting Caye Caulker into two distinct islands. Locals like to tell tourists that it was formed during Hurricane Hattie in 1961, but it was actually hand dredged and has gotten deeper and deeper over the years due to natural tides. The Split has a bar that serves watered down liquor drinks with lots of local attitude, along with Cancun reminiscent wading pools complete with tables and chairs in the somewhat body festering tide pools. Why wouldn’t we go there!?

We stuck around for a few hours while young guys tried to swim across the channel, most not even making it half way, then watched the full moon come up over the ocean. We sat together on the tepid concrete slab that was trying hard to hold some of the day’s sun in its crevasses. We lounged on one another as if we’d been friends for a lifetime and each recalled the underwater memories we’d just made.  For most of our ragged crew, this was the last night we’d see each other. Everyone was moving on, well, not myself, which made me ever more grateful for the partners I’d found.

Full moon-rise.

But how could we part without a grand goodbye? We brushed ourselves off and headed into town via the potholed streets to Fran’s. Each one of us had passed by Fran’s at one time or another during our stay on the island. It opened at 5pm and closed at, whenever they ran out. The place was truly just a shack on the beach with a bunch of picnic tables and some oil drum grills. We figured if it was always busy, something must be worth it. On the menu tonight, whole fish, or whole lobster, some sides, 2 panty rippers (the local drink of choice) and chocolate cake. It was all or nothing here. Everything’s a package at Fran’s including the company. We had a laugh as everyone inhaled their meals after such a long day, and each said our sad goodbyes wondering when we’d ever run into each other again.

This fish had seen its last day on my plate.

I meandered back into my hostel and packed up everything I had there. I was going diving again at 6am and there was no way in hell I was staying at this place one more minute than I absolutely had to. So, my bags were coming with me, and I was checking out whether someone was there to check me out or not. I guess I have probably failed to mention how absolutely disgusting this place was. Anyone who has been in a foreign hostel, which has no windows, on a Caribbean island during the rainy season, knows the funk that a place with 16+ people using the same bathroom can accumulate. Yeesh. So, I placed all of my bags near the head of my bed, tucked into the sandy sheets and set my alarm for earlier than anyone should be up on vacation. Again.

During the middle of the night I woke up in terror to find a guy standing over my bed and screamed, “What the hell are you doing?!” He pointed to the bed directly next to mine and said, “Well, that’s my bed.” I wasn’t sure how to respond other than, “Well then you should probably get into it.” I ran my fingers over the small pocket-knife I had on me and checked to see that it was 3a.m. I reconfirmed with myself that while this place was cheap; this was not the place I wanted to be.

My alarm went of and I high-tailed it out of the hostel to the docks. I was surprised to see Andrea and Josephina still waiting on the benches at 7am and we all reunited after only 12 hours apart with, que pasa amiga?! Apparently they had missed their boat and were waiting for another. Mike showed up as well and we planned on shuttling over to Ambergris Caye for another full day of diving. We sat on the dock laughing and eating pineapple they had bought on their way to the boat, and exchanged some jewelry to remember each other by.

Some rings I had made out of old silverware with the intention of giving them to special people along the way. These two gal were definitely the right people.

Ten minutes later I was in a cold sweat, was choking back retching, and had turned ashy white. Mike is a nurse so my first thought was, well if I vomit right here on the dock it won’t be anything new to him. My second thought was I’ll be damned if I don’t dive today. For reasons A through Z it is not recommended to dive if you are nauseated, the main one being if you take your regulator out of your mouth and puke, your first reaction is to inhale sharply, causing you to fill your lungs with water and drown. That was not the way I wanted to end my adventure so I grabbed 4 Imodium and 2 Pepto Bismol tabs and chewed like a crazy person. I spent the 30-minute boat ride breathing in my nose, out my mouth, and sipping water.

When we docked I felt like a million bucks again and wondered out loud what the hell that was all about. Mike immediately responded with “The pineapple.” Ugh the pineapple! It was already cut and in a bag by the time it made it to us, which means it was probably cut with a dirty knife with dirty hands. If he’d said that while I was trying to choke back vomit I surely would have lost it, so thanks to him for waiting.

The two of us wandered around Ambergris Caye till our boat was set to leave. Ambergris is where most tourists go and stay while in Belize. It was overwhelming to us with its big hotel resorts, fancy eateries and chocolatiers so we opted for a ginger ale and headed back to the boat where we could relax in the shade.

A gentleman we ran into on Ambergris Caye. Keeping wild animals in Belize is illegal and comes with a hefty fine, but this man didn't seem to think anything of putting this koati on our shoulders. He looked well taken care of and was certainly friendly,  but it was still hard for me to see an animal who clearly belonged in the wild on a leash.

Our first dive was to The Aquarium where we were able to dive through the canyons of the oceans and enjoy lots of wildlife. Our second dive is what I’d been waiting for. Shark Alley. I had heard that there are a few places here that the nurse sharks are so friendly to people that they will swim up to you and practically turn upside down in your arms (this position causes sharks to go into a trance-like state). Normally I am against interacting with wildlife because it can turn dangerous to animals when they trust the wrong people. But. Belize has one of the world’s largest no-take zones in the world and it is completely illegal to even fish here. The dive guides explained to us that the same sharks have been showing up for years, and the people here really understand the long-term benefit of the tourism over the short-term benefit of fishing illegally. Plus, I'd like to think that for the people who are able to interact with these beautiful animals in the wild, it gives them a better connection to an animal that is so misunderstood. So, I braced myself for something I’ve always wanted to do.

Kiss. A. Shark.

This shark practically swam up to me and turned upside down so I could grab it. When I was a teenager surfing with my dad, I saved a small shark who had been caught by some fishermen and thrown back, but wasn't strong enough to make it past the breaking water. He was flopping around on the beach, I picked him up and walked him out into the water to where he could swim away. That experience shaped a lot of my life and this was a great way to thank these beautiful and gentle animals.

Exploring the underwater canyons.

Diving certainly isn't a 'gear-less sport'

Some friendlies saying hello.

I've always been told, DO NOT INTERACT WITH MORAY EELS. They have massive teeth and can cat through your skin like soft butter.

But here I am, petting a completely docile moral eel. He saw us coming and swam up to our dive master, who wasn't carrying any food. He later told us that with the lion fish invasion, and the regulated trident fishing of them, the eels sometimes get great meals and come out to say hello in return. A very symbiotic relationship in my opinion.

Like a puppy.

I was absolutely at peace 35ft below the surface holding a shark.

A massive grouper sat agains the ocean's canyons.

The Day I Saw The Edge Of The World

Sleeping the night before anything cool is always impossible for me! The night before my Blue Hole dive was no exception, especially since I haven't dove in years and I was trying to remember all of the things I'd needed to know in case they asked. I have my Advanced Open Water license, which is something you need in order to go to the required depth of deep commercial dive trips: 40 meters, or 120ft. But it's not like riding a bike; reading dive computers, calculating bottom time, and remembering how not to panic if you're 120ft underwater and something goes wrong, is not second nature.

When I arrived at the dock at 5am, much too early for any person on vacation, I was instantly focused on the rough looking crew at the end of the dock sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. Was this our dive crew? No, couldn't be. Yes. Definitely was. I was a little skeptical since I'd just forked over half of my trip's allowance for 1 day, but the second the boat started it was all business. Blinky (one of the dive masters) and I had even dove at the same place in Israel!

A few of us immediately struck up quick friendships realizing the magnitude of what we were about to embark on together. Andrea and Josephina from Brazil, Mike from San Francisco, and I, became a little team and watched as Blinky and the other dive guides got ever more frustrated with the divers who didn't understand the concept of 'hustle'. I think Blinky's favorite phrase was "Ay! Santa Maria!" while eyeballing one of the people not listening to him.

This is what the ride out to the Blue Hole looked like.

I'm not excited or anything.
It took about an hour and a half to get out to the Blue Hole dive site and the entire ride was nothing but blue skies and clear blue water. If you are wondering what the Great Blue Hole is, you are probably not alone. Here are some facts:

1. It is 984ft (300m) across and 407ft (124m) deep.
2. It was once a limestone cave above water.
3. It was formed when sea levels were much lower during glacial activity.
4. As water filled the cave it became unstable and collapsed creating an almost perfect circle.
5. Analysis of the stalactites in the cave suggest it was formed as early as 153,000 years ago.

What the Blue Hole looks like from the air. Photo courtesy of:

The boat pulled up to the site and to me it didn't look like much, just some shallow scattered reef. It's very difficult to see the hole from the surface but I knew what was out there and I was in no way prepared for the monumental impact it would have on my soul.

Blinky practically threw the snorkelers overboard to make room for us and all of the gear. He exclaimed, "Ay! Santa Maria! Get in your BC's already!" The four of us happily obliged and were in the water before anyone else even had their weight belts fastened. I went through the dive checklist; regulator and back up reg. (the thing you breathe from), weight belt, BC (the vest that makes you float when you want to), dave gauge (tells you how deep you are and how much air you have left), mask, fins, common sense. Check, check, check.

Check, check, check. Fish lips!

Before I knew it we were instructed to sink about 10 ft under water and level out our buoyancy so we were not sinking or rising, a feat that is actually quite difficult if you're not familiar with how it feels to relax and breathe under water. I watched a couple of people struggle and turn upside-down before figuring it out and then we were all given the ok to move on. It was a short swim to the hole but on the way it was filled with small reefs and even a sea turtle!

Sea turtle, hanging out, bottom right. Loved him!

As I approached the hole I could see the massive darkness get bigger and bigger, but it wasn't until I was looking over the edge into a colossal abyss that I felt like I was looking over the edge of the world. The sheer walls dropped 400ft below me and I could see nothing into the blue depth. As instructed, I let the air out of my BC slowly and started to sink. The farther I sank the faster I sank, the more I could feel the earth pulling me to her core, dragging me down into the dark void. For a split second I thought about what it would feel like to just let go and sink all 400ft. I didn't want to test that theory though and added a little bit of air back into my BC to level out at 120ft (40m) under water.

Looking and feeling very small as I approach the edge of the earth.

Each 33ft below the surface is measured as an ATM, or atmosphere. At sea level we are at 1 ATM and as you go down the pressure increases exponentially, so at 2 ATM the pressure is doubled, and at 3 it is tripled. Our bodies are made up of mostly water so it's the parts of us filled with air that you feel the most pressure in: your lungs, sinuses, ears, and even fillings in your teeth are affected. This is also what causes us to sink faster and harder as we descend.

As we reached our bottom depth the caverns of stalactites opened up and I imagined prehistoric caves full of glistening water. We were allowed only 8 minutes of bottom time because of the risk of decompression sickness so I spent my time weaving my way through the hanging limestone teeth and watching reef and bull sharks come and check out what we were doing. At times I had to remind myself to actually look around because it was so overwhelming to feel so small.

Descending into the cave of stalactites and looking back at the rest of the group.

These limestone rocks have been dated at 150,000 years old.

My dive gauge at the bottom telling me I was 130ft deep and had 1000psi of air left.

As we ascended we made a decompression stop in order to let the oxygen gasses we acquired to release carefully. I could already see on other people's faces that they experienced exactly what I had. We got back into the boat and we couldn't seem to put feelings into words, so instead we just hugged each other and Andrea, Josephina and I curled up on the back cushions together to face the sun and warm our bodies.

Making our safety decompression stop. I'm sure my mother loves that I do things that require decompression stops in order to let the oxygen bubbles exit my blood stream carefully.

We headed to a small uninhabited island called Half Moon Caye for lunch. Mike and I decided to walk to the other end of the island to see the colony of Red-footed Boobys that reside there. Their clumsy take-offs and landings are made up for by their spectacularly graceful flying. By the time we got back we were all ready to go to the next dive site, and I was feeling refreshed by that grape Fanta and some beans and rice.

A Red-Footed Booby in flight.

Hermit crabs like when you were little!

The type of hermit crab you did not want as a pet.

A Red-footed Booby perched awkwardly in a tree.

In flight.

The clear sky and water of Half Moon Caye.

Massive iguana who wanted to see if we'd share our lunch.

Half Moon Caye's eastern side.

We motored back out for the rest of the day to dive two more sites, Half Moon Caye and Mermaid's Lair (though on the posters in the dive shop it was spelled Mermaid's Layer, I think someone mixed up their spelling on that one). These two sites certainly held more wildlife than the Blue Hole, and we were dazzled by nurse sharks, parrot fish, grouper, sting rays, and hundreds of healthy coral. It was so breathtaking to see coral that was not infected with algae or bleaching. We even witnessed our guide spear a lion fish for a waiting barracuda. Lion fish are an invasive species and they are taking over reefs worldwide. In Belize it's legal to hunt them with a small trident spear, which takes some serious skill.

The barracuda waiting for his lion fish meal.

As the day came to an end we all enjoyed some rum punch and fresh fruit on our way back to the dock. I couldn't believe that I had come here thinking I wouldn't do this dive. I simply would have been incomplete without it. The feeling of being so damn small was humbling and uplifting at the same time and I will never forget the feeling of swimming into the abyss.

Our awesome dive friends and crew from R to L, Andrea, Captain, Josephina, Blinky, Skinny, Derrek, myself, Mike and Mark.

Wishing I Could Skip To The Good Part

The next 6 hours of my trip were, well, interesting.

I gathered my stuff at the hostel and lingered a little longer than I should have, which caused me to have to run around the city trying to head off the bus. I did, finally, just as it was heading out of town. I took an empty seat in the back and enjoyed the quiet ride until Dangriga. Oh Dangriga. The town I wouldn’t mind never setting foot into again.

I sat a bag of chips on my seat to hold my spot and RAN into the Dangriga bathroom (dollar in hand because I knew what was coming). I wanted to get back to my spot as soon as I could, before anyone decided to eat my chips and pretend I was never there. A kind looking gentleman sat next to me, and across from us 3 teenage boys, who never took the bottle of Jamaican bitters away from their lips for longer than the time it took to shout.

I struck up a conversation with the man, always keeping and eye on the teenagers who were getting ever rowdier, louder and more profane. It seemed as though he was a great traveling partner, until he pulled out a book of Jehovah’s Witness teachings. I don’t have anything against Jehovah’s witnesses, I grew up in a town where there were plenty and we were all respectful of each other. But now I was cornered. I had nowhere to go as he started asking about my repentance, the ‘real truths’, and God’s Kingdom. I looked around and realized I had 4 hours of this before I arrived in Belize City. I patiently listened, not agreeing or disagreeing, not wanting to open doors to conversations that I was not meant to have on vacation, all the while watching the boys open their 3rd bottle of Jamaican bitters. I was starting smell it in the air and on their breath as they (literally) shouted about everything from women to music.

A man got on briefly with a box of donuts and I took the opportunity to quiet my seat partner by buying him one. Mistake. Well, not for him, for me. As I pulled out my change purse from the top of my backpack, which was behind my seat in a pile of other bags, I saw all three pairs of drunk-boys eyes zero in on my bag. I know better than to put my valuables in the change purse that I pull out regularly, specifically for the reason of theft, but I couldn’t undo what I’d done. 

Mistake number one.

As I enjoyed my donut I watched as one of the teenagers decided he wanted to lounge on all of the bags. It didn’t take long for my seatmate and I to get back into a conversation, and for me to lose my focus on what the drunken teen behind me was doing. I happened to look at him out of the corner of my eye and see his arm jammed down into the crack where my bag was. I turned toward him, sat up on my leg making myself appear taller, looked down at his hand and then looked him in the eyes. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 seconds went by, and I refused to look away. He slowly pulled his arm out from the bags and pretended he was simply stretching. My heart sank as I realized there was no way I could enjoy the bus ride anymore, or look out the windows, having to pay attention to my bag.

He and his friend switched seats in what I can only guess was an attempt for someone else to give it a try. And I had to hawk eye them to entire time. I figured that the best way to remedy this was to start up a conversation with them, regardless of how drunk, rude, and inappropriate they were. Because that was the only way to get them to think I was crazy enough to not mess with me. It worked for a while until one of them remembered I had told the gentleman next to me that I was going to Caye Caulker. 

Mistake number two.

It just so happened, he shouted, that THEY were going to Caye Caulker too. In fact, they worked at one of the resorts there and the island is SO small, they were certain they’d run into me.

As we arrived at the outskirts of Belize City and man opened the back of the bus an dyelled “Anyone to Caye Caulker?!” We weren’t any where near the bus station where I had originally planned on getting out, but I asked him how much and when he replied “$5” I was sold. I grabbed my bag and high tailed it out of the slightly moving bus. Before I could celebrate my escape, I heard them in deep Garifuna dialect, “Wait fah us! We coming wit you!” They shoved their way off the bus and followed me to the taxi. The driver could clearly feel my apprehension but what could he do? He had 4 people who wanted a ride, so he shoved all of our bags into the trunk and opened the front side passenger door for me.

By the time we arrived at the water taxi station the boys were roaring drunk and I was starting to get nervous. I didn’t want them to know where I was staying (or that I didn’t even know where I was staying). The boat was leaving in 3 minutes and there was a mad rush to buy tickets. As it pulled away they started shouting violently at the woman behind the ticket counter, and I bent down as if I was searching for my wallet and organizing my bag. As they continued to shout I took the opportunity to slip away and run down the street lined with shops and tourists to the other water taxi station 5 blocks away. I bought my ticket in a hurry and ran into Dennis again, the taxi driver who had picked me up on the side of the road my first day. I explained to him what was going on and he assured me they would not be allowed on the boat if they tried to follow me. It was nice to see a familiar face and feel some reassurance.

I watched and waited for them to show up, but they never did.

The Belize tourism harbor was an interesting dichotomy of beautiful well kept sailboats and crumbling buildings.

So much color in a tiny space!

Many tourists only see this ONE block of Belize called Tourism Square, just before hopping on a boat to one of the cayes. It's not a very good representation of what the rest of the country looks like, and it certainly doesn't show how rich and diverse Belize is. Welcoming, nonetheless after a hard day of travel.

The boat ride was an hour and a half, and it was one of the nicest and most relaxing rides I’ve been on, especially after the day’s debacle. One of the operators took a liking to the “white girl with the big arm muscles” and let me sit up top with the captain where there were no other passengers. I watched and enjoyed, as we passed by the ocean storms, and I sipped a can of mango puree.

We had to make a pitstop to drop some people off at a private island. This was their gas station!

View from inside the harbor on the private caye.

A lonely seagull.

Ocean storms made the boat ride spectacular.

We arrived at the Caye just before evening set in and I was immediately lured in by a Bella’s Hostel representative promising free bikes, and cheap accommodation. I was sold. I just wanted a place to put my stuff. By the time we made the nine block walk, (and by ‘block’ I mean sandy streets littered with potholes the size of watermelons), he had convinced me to dive the Blue Hole the next day.

Moonrise over the east side of the island.

More adventure by the seat of my pants!

I’ve been a diver for 10 years, and although I hadn’t planned on diving the Blue Hole, I knew if I didn’t, I would regret it for years to come. I put my stuff down and headed straight back out with Brian (the gentleman who’d brought me to Bella’s) to put my name on the dive list for the morning.
Then I went in search for Nick and Simon who were somewhere on the island. “Where’s the Chinese Hotel?” I asked someone. They pointed a few blocks over and sure enough right there in the middle of Caye Caulker I was standing in front of a hotel that looked like it should have been in Shanghai. The front desk lady found Nick and Simon for me and we all went in search of dinner and drinks as I recounted the day’s insanity to them.

4 tacos, a beer, and the best catch up conversation later, I turned in to my bunk bed in a room of 9 other travellers. I felt like I was at summer camp again, and drifted off with thoughts of the great depths of the ocean on my mind.

Abandoning My Plans and Hitch Hiking Instead

After a long, bumpy, bus ride I found myself at the corner of nowhere, and a town called Dump. I took shelter in the bus station across from half a gas station and what looked like a small outdoor bar. After about 30 minutes people started meandering in and taking seats around me. I asked the man next to me when the bus was supposed to arrive. He looked at his watch and shrugged a little, making me wonder how anyone gets to and from places anywhere near on time.

After about an hour of waiting a bus arrived and I asked the driver to go to Lubaantun. He looked at me and said, “Oh I’m sorry, the bus that goes that way is the one you want.” Pointing gin the direction I 
had just come from.


I felt my heart sink. It was raining and cold, my bag was back in Punta Gorda at the hostel, and I had just watched the PG bus drive by not too long ago, meaning another wouldn’t be by for at least an hour. I thanked the man for the info and walked back to the shelter feeling dejected.
I sat down to make some decisions and remembered talking to my friend’s Nick and Simon before I had left for Santa Elena. They told me they were headed to Caye Caulker for some sunshine and snorkeling. I looked around at the clouds and the storms rolling in and out.  And I abandoned my desire to go to Lubaantun.

I gathered my bag and water bottle and headed across the highway to catch the bus back into Punta Gorda. I was determined to be at the ocean by the end of the day. As I started crossing the road, I saw a man flag down a truck and ask for a ride. I started running and caught up with them before they pulled away. He said they were going to Punta Gorda and gave me permission to jump in the bed of the truck. Saved! It rained the entire 40-minute ride but I didn’t care. It was free, I could feel the wind on my face, and the man sharing the ride with me was friendly and spent the whole time trying to convince me to come back to Belize soon. The driver dropped me off right at the clock tower, where I could find my way back to Nature’s Way hostel and I prepared to head out of town.

Poor Sleep and a Bus Ride

As I retired for the night from Christina’s home to my hut, I stepped in the wet concrete that Manuel had just laid on their front porch… for the 3rd time. It hadn’t been there when I arrived, so I kept forgetting and walking right through it! Each time the family thought it was funnier than the last, and laughed harder. I swore I wasn’t trying to do it on purpose and Christina just patted me on the back like I was a little kid and led me up the hill in the dark to my sleeping area. I really do think it was just funny because I’m a gringo, but that was ok with me.

Christina and Manuel's home. You can see the freshly laid concrete in the bottom right.

When I asked whet time I should wake up for the bus, they said that it came at 5am; but sometimes 6:15, or 6:30, or not at all.  I wanted to hug them and say goodbye just then, but she looked at me like I was silly and told me they wake up at 4am or earlier, and that I would hear them.  I didn’t really understand, but I would eventually.

To say I had a less than okay night’s sleep would be an understatement.
I checked the mattress for bed bugs, this is the jungle after all, and when I was satisfied I looked around for any unsavory friends. My visitor, the scorpion, had returned to me here apparently, unsavory indeed, so I picked up my belongings from the floor and put them on chairs and tables. I gingerly opened the full mattress mosquito net that enclosed my bed and crawled in, wiping my feet off before fully entering. With one fitted sheet, one flat sheet and a pillow that was not mine, I set out to fall asleep.

My sleeping hut which contained 4 sets of bunk beds and a small table with a candle. The outhouse is the yellow building in back. And enclosed toilet area is a luxury.

Ten minutes in, a light rain shower started, then built in ferocity, pounding the thatch roof with its fury. Thirty minutes in, I really needed to use the bathroom because of all the sweet tea, so I carefully exited the mosquito net so as not to make any gaps, checked my shoes and then ran out to the outhouse. At least it was dry.

Open mosquito net, wipe feet off, close mosquito net. Again.

Every time I felt I was drifting to sleep thunder would roll, a coconut would fall on the roof, or I would get too sweaty or uncomfortable in the position I was in a need to turn. At one point I could have sworn a wild animal was trying to claw its way into the hut. It turns out one of Christina and Manuel’s mangy dogs (no, seriously mangy dogs) was trying to bed up in a cardboard box next to the wall in order to stay out of the rain. It sounded terrifying though.

Needless to say, I was pretty exhausted when 4am rolled around and I was waiting to hear the alarm before it ever went off. I still didn’t know what they meant by  ‘you’ll year us’. But then at 4:18am I got a diesel-powered-maize-grinder wake up and wow did I understand then!

The chickens are completely unbothered by the sound of the diesel powered grinder engine.

I stuffed some, now very dry, tortillas from last night and dried fruit in my mouth and washed it down with a big gulp of water then moseyed down the hill with my bag to where all the commotion had started. I was exhausted and slightly delirious as I sat down where I could hear the bus and run to it if it did come around the corner.  6:30 came and went. So did 6:45. I was starting to worry, wondering what I would do here all day if the bus didn’t come. But then at 7:02 we heard it off in the distance, tires rumbling on the gravel road and brakes squeaking into the curves. I hugged the family for the last time and ran down the bus just in time to wave my arm up and down like you’re supposed to.

I told the driver I wanted to go to the Mayan ruins, Lubaantun and he told me I needed to get off in Dump (yes, there is a place in Belize called Dump) and switch busses. So I settled in for a long and winding bus ride and enjoyed recalling the last 24 hours.

Some really great scenery on the ride out of Santa Elena.

Back In Time - Santa Elena

The house the bus driver dropped me off at and instructed me to go knock on the door.

The woman whose house I was showing up at, thank goodness, was home. She handed me a key and told me to take it across the street to Christina and Manuel’s house, the family I would be staying with. A girl, who I would later know as Ana, greeted me, and then yelled to her father over the diesel-powered maize grinder in Mayan. The only word I was able to catch was ‘gringo’. Later when we had some time to get to know each other, I asked her about it, hoping gringo wasn’t derogatory, like it is in so many other places. She laughed and replied “No! We just don’t have another word for white people, and it’s not like a lot of you guys come out this way!” I giggled at the thought of random white people showing up at their house asking for a place to sleep and a meal.

Ana and her cousin who were pretty amused at my desire to come to their town. Mayan women, I noticed, rarely smile with their teeth in pictures.

The family asked me what I wanted to do, and I admittedly, hadn’t thought that through. The bus to the farm where they grow maize and cocoa had already come and gone at 5am, so I opted for a hike to the nearby waterfall on Rio Blanco. Ana, her two cousins, and I hiked up the road for 20 minutes to the entrance, where I paid my fee and signed my name in an ancient registry book.

The falls of Rio Blanco. I jumped off from right here into the swirling cold water!

Temping my balance and coordination, walking to the edge of the falls. Somewhat dangerous places here are not like places in the US. There are no guardrails or signs warning you of danger. They just rely on the fact that you will be smarter than to go off the edge.

Incredible little wave at the top of the falls.

This place was magical. The sound of the waterfall, the smell of the earth, and the cold water rushing over me as I jumped off the ledge into the pool is such a vivid memory, but I can’t seem to give it any justice through words.

After a long swim and a few plunges into the cold swirling water, the girls ask if I had any soap and I happily shared what I had and bathed in the river with them. This waterfall and river was their bathtub, and for today, mine too. And I was beyond thankful to wash away my dirt and grime in the cold Rio Blanco. 

Our bathtub! To the right of the falls you can see the ledge we jumped off.

We all dressed and they ran up the hill in front of me. I lingered for a minute, taking pictures and trying to burn the whole picture into my memory. I trudged up the hill, feeling quite cold now that the sun had gone down, and I made it to the top to find the youngest girl, age 11, with a GIANT rock over her head swinging it down onto a large-egg sized nut. I would later google it and find out that was a cohune palm. It split open after the second swing to reveal white coconut-like meat. They instructed me to gnaw on it, so I did, feeling quite feral as I put the dirt-covered morsel to my mouth. It was delicious! As I bit into it, a sweet coconut oil seeped through my teeth and then I followed the girls and spat out the grit that was left over. We each took turns running into the jungle to collect more and smashing the nuts until we were satisfied. I’ve tried to practice eating locally and living off the land in my life, but this gave it a whole new meaning.

The insides of a cohune pam fruit.

We meandered back into town as the preparation for evening meals was beginning. Christina and Manuel had the only maize grinder in town, so I sat outside as the evening approached and watched what seemed like the entire population of Santa Elena come to their door with buckets of maize for grinding. They would enter the shed with whole fresh kernels straight from the farm, the diesel engine would fire up the grinder and Ana or Christina would grind it for them. They would exit with soft fluffy dough for making tortillas.

The diesel powered maize grinder at Christina and Manuel's house. The only one in town.

Ana pushing the corn kernels through the spinning grinder while adding just enough water.

Ana mixing the end product which will later be turned into corn tortillas.

In between grinding, Christine would sit down with me and show me how to make baskets and weavings out of ‘jippy jappy’. I don’t think that is the scientific name for the plant, but it was the only name she gave me. She said I was an ok weaver and I just needed to practice not pulling so hard (I kept breaking the dried leaves used as thread).

Christina had made plans for me to eat at a neighbor’s house and a young girl came to pick me up at what I assumed was dinner time. I had opted to turn off my phone for the day and pay attention to the sun and my surroundings instead of the actual time. She walked me across the road and through a field, pointing us to the ‘easy’ path up the gradually sloping hill. As we entered her home she introduced me to her mother and grandmother.

As I sat down on a small child’s stool, I looked around the thatch roof hut and took inventory of my surroundings. Two cats, 4 chickens, a turkey, 2 hammocks, a few sleeping mats, some pots and pans, plastic dishware and a comal, the traditional Mayan stove.

Sometimes in America, corn tortillas can be easily mistaken for a poor college kid’s food. Something you can buy a lot of for very little money. But the Mayan corn tortillas, ahhhh, they are an entirely different food than the flat dry stuff we get here! The family welcomed me with such open arms and served me a dinner of egg and tomato with some of the sweetest mint tea I’ve ever had. I later asked the T.E.A. representative about it and he told me that sugar is so precious to them that when a guest comes the use it in excess to honor them. I was so humbled.

I sat down across from the young girl and she led me slowly through the process. She showed me how much corn one takes for each tortilla, how to pat it into a circle, round the edges, and pat it down even more making a thin, soft, wafer the size of an appetizer plate. Then she reached behind her and gently placed the uncooked tortilla on the scalding comal, which looks like a giant flat cast iron skillet with a raging wood fire under it. She asked me if I wanted to try flipping it as she reached down with her tiny fingers, grabbed the scalding hot tortilla and in one swift motion flipped it to the other side.
I was nervous. Really nervous. All I could picture was burning my fingertips off and having no real clean water to clean them with.

After watching her flip them over and over, then put the white, fluffy, warm, gooey tortilla on my plate, I realized I needed to do it. My first attempt was miserable! I was so scared that I practically ripped the tortilla off the comal and ended up having to catch the fiery hot piece of food in my hand. It took a few (many) tries but I finally got the hang of it, lifting a tiny corner and waiting for that to rise, then grabbing it for the flip. We sat across from each other as the sun went down and then she traded places with her grandmother.

This was when my heart exploded and my trip was already complete. There I was, sitting across from a 93-year-old Mayan grandmother, who spoke no English, and smiled at me with a toothless grin as she made tortillas with a swiftness that only a lifetime can provide.

We finished turning the bucket of ground maize into tortillas and they packed up all of the tortillas I had personally made, probably about 16. I was shocked that this family who had so little wanted me to take so much food home. I insisted that I could only eat a few and after some negotiations I took home 5.

I spent a few minutes petting the little sorrel colt horse in their field, and then walked home in the dim light left over from the sunset: breathing in the smell of grass, river, and the burning wood from the comals of the town’s population of 200. When I returned Christina and I stayed up until nearly 11pm weaving baskets by a flashlight that I hung from the rafters of her house.

I have no pictures from the evening making corn tortillas because I chose not to take my camera, out of respect for the family and also in order to be fully engaged in what I was doing. While I sometimes wish I had pictures of this, I feel like it was the right choice.

Christina (33), the beautiful woman who housed me and taught me the art of making jippy jappy baskets. We had been joking around and she was happy to let me take her picture but would not smile.

An Aside On Freedom, Trust, and Letting People In

This trip started as something else, entirely different, in fact. Different people, different place, different mission; but in the end the only person I was able to rely on to be there, was myself. So the reality of me traveling alone in Central America grew from a few flames; one being the deep desire (wanderlust, if you will) that I possess to see new things and meet new people, one being that I have never actually traveled internationally alone, and one being that I am one defiant lady who wants to do every by herself.

Cue solo adventure.

I have never been good at: 1) asking for help 2) accepting offered help 3) letting people in 4) letting go.
I find that in the US when I ask for help, I can generally get it, but it always leaves me feeling, uneasy. It’s hard to explain. But I don’t ask for help much because of it; total person hang up. When someone offers help, I tend to assume they are offering it because they feel bad for me, want something in return, or somehow feel obligated for reasons E thru M that I don’t understand. So when people just offer their help, I generally turn them down. These two facts make numbers 3 and 4, letting people in, and letting go, virtually impossible.

This is not the case here.

At the beginning of this trip when I let Reuben, a man whom I’d never met before, drive me in his family’s van to the side of the main road where I could catch the bus, I knew I was going to start and end this trip a different person. From Dennis the taxi driver, to Sharon’s ride to Belmopan, to Nick and Simon offering for me to join them, to Elaine helping us hitch-hike, to Karla and Edwin taking me to the Jaguar Reserve, to the bus driver dropping me off at a safe hostel, and now to showing up at a random family’s door, I am learning to accept people into my space and my adventure. No, not just accept people, welcome people. I am learning to welcome the interactions that I would generally avoid, and learning to be a better person in return.

It is a wonderful thing to have so many people enter and exit my travels, simply because they want to be there. With each person that comes as goes, my tendency towards generally distrusting people’s motives is melting away.

With every bus ride, conversation with a stranger, market, evening walk, and long wait on a broken down corner for a hitch-hike, I am letting go of my need for control of a situation and letting more and more people in on the adventure.

Hopefully making for a much more complete story.

New Roads Out Of Town

After a very restful night’s sleep I awoke to the sound of rain showers, so I slipped on my trusty raincoat and set off to explore the town. My bus didn’t leave till 11 so I had some time to wander around the market.

No one was taking their boats out under the stormy skies

Boats sit idle as fisherman ready their bait.

Don't have a boat? No problem, you can fish from your car.

I walked north on the wet and crumbling concrete road past the Fisherman’s Cooperative and the wharf, into town. I had been at the market less than a minute before a tropical downpour descended on the street. I took cover under an unused tent with an older gentleman named Alex, who was from Punta Gorda but had been living in New York for the last 20 years working in construction. He was back visiting his mother who he’d not seen in 12 years. We chatted until the rain died down and went our separate ways. I wandered through the market gawking at all of the foreign fruits and vegetables and settled on 2 familiar ones, and a new one.  A banana and a starfruit cost me all of .50 cents US, I was in heaven. The new fruit I tried were these small, yellow, waxy looking balls called nance, that everyone said were very sweet. They were mistaken, because biting into one was like biting into a starchy piece of wet cardboard. I left them at the hostel in the communal area.

Walking around Punta Gorda

A family works to remove rain from the tarp on their farm stand.

Nance. The most tasteless fruit of Central America

After stashing most of my belongings in the hostel office and quick meeting with the T.E.A. (Toledo Eco-Tourism Association) leader, I was ready to do the ONE thing I had actually planned on this trip. Stay with a Mayan family in the middle of nowhere. Well, not middle of nowhere, but almost. I had read about this T.E.A. program on someone else’s blog about Belize before I arrived and I knew I had to experience it for myself.

There are a few Mayan communities that have received reliable bus access roads in the past few years, and have opened their doors to travelers wanting to experience life in their communities. In return, travelers pay the family directly for their lodging and meals. I definitely wanted to experience this and chose Santa Elena town, a two-hour bus ride north west of Punta Gorda into the dense forest. As I boarded the bus around the corner from the market, I was instructed to just walk over the 50lb bags of sugar and rice stacked 3-high in the aisle. Instead I chose a seat in the front not wanting to be rude and step on people’s hard earned supplies, but then felt silly as I watched everyone, including little old ladies, climb all over them. The bus took us deeper and deeper into the jungle and I again was the only white person to be found, which always leads to good conversations with others. I was getting used to sideways glances, and it’s not like people have never actually seen a white person before, they just want to know what the heck I’m doing all the way out here on the public bus!

Just because the roads are new and reliable, does not mean they feel safe, so I was glad when the bus driver told me it was my turn to get off. He pointed to a thatch and tin roofed house on the right side of the road, and told me just to knock on her door and see if she was home.

One of the many incredible views from the bus to Santa Elena town

As the bus pulled away I had the realization that; I had essentially chosen to strand myself out here, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, with no electricity or running water, where only one bus comes each way each day, at the mercy of people I didn’t know, but hoped were extraordinarily nice and accommodating. And wow was I excited about that! I practically ran up the path and steps to the woman’s house through the turkeys, chickens and goats wandering through her yard.

The house I was dropped off at and told to knock on the door.

Down South

Despite the unfortunate start to my bus ride, the busses in the southern part of Belize seem far more mellow and civilized. People move out of the way when you need to pass, young boys give up their seats to the elderly, and shouting is no where to be found.  People are understanding as I rifle through my bag to find my med-kit and even ask if I need help, a sure sign to me that I can breathe in the cool mountain air and relax a little.

Here, marks the second time a parent handed me their child. I had been following the lead of locals and giving up my seat to elderly people and women with children. So as a woman with a baby got on the bus I motioned to her to sit down. Her response, in very modest English was, “No, can you hold her?” and in one swift motion before I could respond, I had a very small child on my lap. Slightly startled, I did the only thing I knew worked, I bounced that kid on my lap and baby-talked her. Yep. There I was, making googly noises to a strangers baby. This scenario was starting to feel like a pattern. I realized the mom had a few other small children with her and I think she just needed a break.

After a while the little girl started fussing and the woman accepted my seat and started breast-feeding her. Nope, I cannot do that. That is where my public service stops. But I am happy that I look friendly enough for strangers to trust me with their children.

The ride down south was simply beautiful. Rolling hills of coconut trees, rosewood and mahoganies, rose and fell into a sea of misty green. The air smelled clean and the farther south we went, the more the mountains dwarfed us. The only thing that could make this bus ride better would be cassava bread pudding.

Misty mountain in the south of Belize

When we arrived in Punta Gorda, the southern-most town with any substantial population, it was dark and since I had planned on being at the jaguar reserve, I didn’t have any idea where to go, let alone reservations. The bus driver had let off most of the passengers in small towns on the outskirts of PG (as the locals call it). And the only other white people got off at a resort 10 miles back.
He asked me where I was going.

“Ehhhh.” With shrugged shoulders and slightly worried look on my face “I actually don’t know.”
He looked slightly confused. “You don’t know?” “Well what do you want to do here?” I asked politely if he could take me to the backpackers hostel. “I don’t know this place” he replied. “The cheapest hotel for people like me.” I answered.

It was like a light went on, “Ah, yes!”

After a few blocks of what seemed like going in circles, I was one of the last people on the bus, and it was at this point that I noticed the small child next to me had vomited on my pants. How did that even happen without me noticing?!

The bus finally stopped and the driver looked at me through the rear-view mirror, “You get off here.” I stepped to the front of the bus and answered, slightly concerned, “Here?” I was looking at a long alley next to a church with no signs of a hostel anywhere, and one very dim street lamp. “Yes” he said, “ walk down to the end and take a right, it will be there.”

The church (photo during the daytime) was the only thing I could see as I exited the bus.

I had a lightening fast inner monologue about the safety/danger of this scenario. Stay on a bus that doesn’t really have any destination except for probably someone’s house. Walk down a dark alley, which ends at a cliff into the sea. Try to stay on a main road and find another place to stay.
I decide to trust the guy. Something I’m learning to do on this trip, and becoming quite fond of! And sure enough, down the dark alley and around the corner was Nature’s Way Backpackers Hostel. Complete with coffee, clean rooms, internet, cold showers and home to T.E.A. - the Toledo Eco-tourism Association, more on that later, though.

Nature's Way Hostel, during the daytime.

I checked into my bedroom, and took a bird-bath. Something else I’m learning to do on this trip, and still not becoming fond of! I let the freezing cold water run over me and shut it off just as I was starting to shiver. I squeezed a silver dollar amount of soap in my hand; this would have to take care of my mid-back length hair, face and body. Could be conservation, cheapness, or maybe a little bit of both, but I did not want to have to buy more soap on this trip. After rubbing my skin and hair briskly, whether is had suds on it or not, I turned back on the freezing cold water and danced around in the slippery shower to help with the shock. I’m not sure what’s worse, being electrocuted because you have warm water or having permanent goose bumps because you do not.

I made my way downstairs and ran into my old friend Carmen, from Hopkins. She told me she was headed down the road to a place called Asha’s Culture Kitchen for food and music. Obviously, she could count me in. I ran back upstairs to change and saw someone new checking into his room so I invited him to Asha’s as well. Turned out his name was Logan, which is my middle name.

We spent the evening listening to the music I’d been craving since I got here! A man in a makeshift bicycle/wheelchair combination, played the ukulele and sang, while his band: a young European girl, a man with dreadlocks down to his rear-end, and a lonely looking fellow, alternated drums and guitars. We all danced a little, and stuffed ourselves on rice and stew beans, sweet plantains, and rum punch. I retired to my quiet room just in time for a storm to whip up over the sea, and rock me to sleep with the sound of raindrops on the tin roof.

Raindrops from the night's storm.

A Quick Unfortunate Event

I wandered up to wood porch of the Mayan Women’s Center and introduced myself to the women and kids who were there. I asked politely if I could wait on the porch for the next bus. They were happy to allow me to stay, and told me when it would arrive. I spent the next hour listening to them practicing English by reading out loud all of the books I grew up with. I recited Hickory Dickory Dock, The Lorax, and Are You My Mother with them. We giggled when the rhymes got complicated, and I was happy to help them pronounce complicated made-up Dr. Seuss words.

We all heard the bus coming and they told me I’d better hurry since, well, we all know the busses here wait for no one. And will even start pulling away with you only half-boarded. I put my heavy pack on and started running up the porch to the drive.

Just as the bus was slowing to a stop, it happened. My sandal caught on one of the uneven wooden wooden boards, and I stumbled. In slow motion. I took three giant strides trying to catch my balance, but my pack was too heavy and already tilted too far to one side. As I skid-landed on my hands, knees, and elbows, I imagined a bus full of people watching me.

The bus driver, probably feeling particularly sorry for me, waited as I peeled myself off the porch, bloody knees and all. As I boarded and got my belongings stowed precariously in the front, I looked up to find everyone staring. I smiled, quite embarrassed and asked, “Did everyone see that?” 

Simultaneously, an entire busload of people nodded their heads and giggled, seeming quite embarrassed for me.

A young girl also standing in the aisle pointed at my bloody knee and asked if I was all right. I thanked her, and replied with “It happens all the time.” We laughed, and for the rest of the ride giggled when we caught each other’s glances.

I’m not generally a self-conscious person, but a funny thing happened when I fell in front of a bus full of people in a foreign country. I let go.

When The Travel Fairy Came and Went

As Nick, Simon and I enjoyed our last morning together sipping coffee and swinging in the hammocks, I pondered what my next move was. I wanted to go to the jaguar reserve, but it apparently was quite the production to get there; starting with a mile walk to the center of town, and an attempted hitch up that same 5-mile dirt stretch of road. As I readied my giant bag and hugged my new friends goodbye, the family who we’d shared the cabana space with walked out onto the beach and saw me getting ready to hike. They offered me a ride to the junction and asked where I was going. When I told them the jaguar reserve and they responded with “That’s where we’re going, would you just like a ride?” I was thanking the travel fairy once again. At this point I had learned to just say yes, and be gracious and thankful to anyone who was willing to be a part of this journey. Go where the wind blows was starting to be my motto.

River hike in the basin.

 We set off together. The parents were Karla and Edwin, and their little girl was Charlotte. She was from Tennessee, he was from Ecuador and they had met when she was in the Peace Corps. We laughed and chatted about each of our adventures and Charlotte spoke to me in both English and Spanish.

Karla, Edwin and Charlotte

We all decided to stick together, tube the river and hike to the waterfall, since they could use an extra hand with Charlotte, and I was happy to give back for the ride they had provided me.

I had planned on staying the night in the reserve in what was described at the “Rustic Cabin”. The description on the website had promised a place to get close to nature, and enjoy the animals waking up. We paid up, and the front desk insisted that I pre-pay for the cabin. I didn’t really think anything of it, plus for $20 American dollars (almost as much as I had spent on the beach front cabana) I figured it would be good enough. As they went back to the car to change Charlotte into her suit I was shown to my ‘cabin’. Which actually turned out to be a 6ft x 6ft cell with no windows, fan, or electricity.

The travel fairy had left the jungle.

I locked my stuff up and described the situation with my adult travel companions. But not wanting to take to much time from the day (I know what it’s like traveling with kids, there’s a very short window), I figured I would deal with it later.

Crazy cotton ball fruit.

Tubing the river.

We set off to the river, inner tubes, a life jacket, and a small child in tow. Floating lazily down in our tubes through gently rippling (but quite shallow) water, Edwin pointed out some crazy edible fruits that were like biting into a wet cotton ball. The day was hot and the cool water enjoyable. As we walked back, we found the trail to a waterfall, stashed our tubes, and headed out for another short adventure. Listening to birds and the sounds of the forest, we walked quietly through the trails, arriving shortly at an incredible cascading falls with a cold swimming hole at the bottom. We swam, we splashed, and we bathed under the pounding water of the falls.

Water fall hike.

Bathing in the falls!

What it looks like to bathe here.

The view from behind a waterfall.

As we arrived back at the lodge office, I needed to decide what to do about this room. I begged, I pleaded, I got frustrated, and I nearly cried; but the front desk simply wouldn’t refund my money. In fact, it wasn’t until I halfway raised my voice that he agreed to just turn his head and let me sleep in my hammock in the camping grounds… He had originally told me it would be another $15 to do that.

My choices were to stay, likely be eaten alive by mosquitoes, not have any access to clean water and have to pay $15 for a taxi to get out the next day, or, I could cut my losses at $20 and get a ride back out with Karla, Edwin and Charlotte. I chose the latter, swearing I would never return to the Audubon Cockscomb Jaguar Basin, and never recommend them to anyone. But, in the end, I hoped my $20 went toward conservation and then shrugged it off not willing to let it ruin my day.

We drove out on the 25-mile bumpy, dusty road toward the southern highway, and the farther we went the more ok I was with simply accepting the first misfortune I had thus far. We said our goodbyes and they dropped me off at the Mayan Women’s Center where I would wait for the next bus to carry me further into my adventure.

Fish Curry Coconuts and Electrocution

The only road in Hopkins ran north to south and stretch the entire length of the town. Busses, car, bikes and beer trucks careened up and down all day trying to avoid potholes, and each other.

Ah Hopkins, what a funny place! We arrived at CoCo Breeze Cabanas (only by chance, and asking about 20 people where it was) where Nick and Simon checked in, and I explained I was on a serious budget to Sherry, the woman who owned the cabanas. She replied by telling me she felt people ended up at her place for a reason and that putting someone in the cabana for cheap, was better than having no one at all. It was at this point that I felt karma had smacked me with some seriously good stars. I must remember to always put out what I want to get back.

This was seriously the view from inside my $25 a night, arrive on a whim, cabana with a hammock. So much luck!

We changed into our bathing suits, bought a few beers, and immediately dove into the warm Caribbean water. Sherry explained to us that the Garifuna Women’s Collective was right next-door, and that there would be a party tomorrow. She also mentioned that sometimes you could see manatees from the beach we were swimming. I think Nick might have been a manatee in a previous life, because this fact made him so excited he could hardly contain himself. I try not to get too excited about the possibility of seeing wildlife because I don’t want to get disappointed, but wouldn’t you know, not 10 minutes later there they were. Now, before when I said ‘the possibility of wildlife’, that’s all I meant. When I actually SEE wildlife, all bets are off, and the sight of 2 manatees swimming 10 meters off shore made all three of us squeal like small children, repeatedly. We waded in the warm waves till the sun went down then strolled around town looking for a bite to eat and some internet.

Evening clouds from inside a random canoe on shore.

After some email catch-up, a rum punch, and a new friend Carmen, we were ready for some spicy Caribbean food. What we didn’t realize was that everything in Hopkins closes early. And with nothing open but a Chinese restaurant, we decided to just go with it. This ‘go with it attitude’ seemed to be the running of theme of my trip thus far, and it seemed to be working to my delight. I ordered the fish curry, which is absolutely not a Chinese dish, but when I got it, I could have sworn I was in India eating proper green curry with creamy coconut. I honestly wish I could pass a fork-full of that fish curry through the computer right now to you. It was that good.

We left the restaurant full and happy, and retired to our cabanas to fall asleep to the sound of wind and waves.

The next morning Nick and Simon showed up at my door looking a bit disgruntled and in need of the coffee machine in my room. Apparently they were never given one, amongst other interesting things in their room. They happily shared some of their Costa Rican coffee with me as we watched the sun come up over the water and geared up for a big day of, relaxing. We walked the town looking for some good eats and found a little fruit stand with papayas and dragon fruit that I just couldn’t resist. Nick and Simon accidentally happened upon what they described as, “the best BBQ chicken in the world” when they turned to a woman and asked her where they could get some delicious breakfast. It was only after she chucked and exclaimed, “Right hea!” when they realized she had literally dragged her grill to the side of the road and was cooking right there. They each ordered half a BBQ chicken, coleslaw, and rice for breakfast, and we all went back happy.

From top to bottom: Crazy Pitaya (dragon fruit) that turned everything it touched an intense reddish/purple. Getting creative with a hammock strap in order to cut down a coconut (best alternative in a country where the drinking water is not safe). My coconut bounty after I had massacred it with my multi-purpose Light My Fire knife.

As the afternoon party approached I was again excited for the potential of drums and shakers, this was the Garifuna Women’s Collective we were at, after all! But as the giant speakers came out and the American pop music of Miley Cirus and Pink came on, I had to just giggle to myself and relinquish my day to climbing the coconut tree (it was easier to drink the coconut water than it was to find clean drinking water), getting burned to a delicate lobster color, and spending the afternoon relaxing and goofing off with the locals.

The thing to do amongst the young men at the Garifuna Collective party, was
to one-up each other with difficulty of flying acrobatics.
By the evening we were all ready for a hot shower (supposedly this place had hot water) and a good sleep. Nick and Simon had moved into my cabana, and I had moved one over, because apparently their cabana the first night was pretty less than desirable. I was looking forward to a warm shower and stepped into the beautifully tiled tub. Letting all of the salt rinse off of me, I took my time and properly washed my hair for the first time since I arrived. As I finished and went to turn the water off and a weird twinge jumped up my arm. I drew my hand back thinking I had upset an old nerve injury by twisting my hand a funny way, and rubbed the area near my elbow that sometimes hurts. When I felt like it was gone, I reached toward the shower nozzle again, and this time a massive twinge shot through my arm and into my neck! I was being electrocuted! 

Apparently while the warm water does work, it’s warmed by an exposed electric component and the metal handle was a perfect conductor. 

Who knew about this fact?! Apparently not me. I jumped back and stepped out of the shower, which was still running, put my sandals on hoping for some sort of grounding affect, and wrapped a towel around my hand to turn off the water. Can’t say I’ve ever experienced that before! Except for that one time as a kid when I stuck my finger in the electrical socket behind the couch in our sunroom.

Feeling a little fuzzy, I sat out on the porch for a little while and relaxed to the sounds of the ocean. Finally, as I retired inside to brush my teeth, a non-friend who had apparently snuck through the cracks in the wall welcomed me. I screamed as I saw the 4-inch scorpion ascend the bathroom wall next to my toilet. Naturally, the first thing I did was grab my camera and snap a few pictures of it, and then try to find my tennis shoes to kill it. I’m not usually into killing anything; this was an honest exception though. As I ran back into the bathroom with my shoe, it disappeared into a hole in the wall and I the spent the next 20 minutes plugging up every crevice in the bathroom with toilet paper and picking up everything I had resting on the floor.

My un-invited non-friend who visited me in my bathroom.

Another un-invited friend we found in the grocery
store. Apparently Hopkins is full of terrifying

Despite the electrocution and scorpion, I fell asleep fast and hard. Again listening to the wind, waves, and storm rolling in over the coast. Tomorrow, another adventure.

Hitch Hiking and Hopkins

As our bus pulled into the Dangriga stop, it was immediately obvious why Simon and Nick thought it was a bad idea for me to go alone. We jumped out the back and were immediately accosted by people hustling us for taxi rides, bus rides, places to stay, DVD's and food. All three of us were completely overwhelmed and trying to be polite, but it seemed that no one understood “No, thank you, we’re ok”. I was fabulously thankful I was not alone and couldn’t ask for better new friends.

I had needed a restroom for longer than can normally tolerate, so I left my bags with Simon and Nick and practically ran through a woman trying to charge a dollar to use the toilet. As I returned, I chirped to the guys about “Being charged a dollar to use the facilities!” They pointed to a sign I'd missed that read, "$1 to use the restroom". As it turns out, this is typical in Belize and you must pay to use public toilets. I looked around for the woman whom I’d almost knocked over in my hurry, to apologize and pay, but couldn’t find her. Note to self; bring a dollar to every bathroom.

In all of the commotion, a woman had noticed the only 3 white people in the station looking completely confused (we were pretty hard to miss), looked up from her seat and said, “Whea ya tryn’ ta go 'oneys?” Her voice was like an angel to us. We told her we were trying to get to Hopkins and with all of the excitement of a firecracker she replied, “I’m goin’ ta ‘Opkins!” “Ya can follow me, I’ll show ya whea to get off.” Ah, Evelyn, our angel. We chatted with her for a while about the new guesthouse she was opening up, where she was from, what we were doing there, and then promptly boarded the bus at 5:15, just like she said we would.

Station after station more people packed on the bus, and when it was finally our turn to exit, we were fantastically relieved. Except, the bus apparently doesn’t drop you off in Hopkins; it drops you off at the Hopkins junction, 5 miles of dusty potholed road away, in the sweltering Caribbean heat. “Don ya worry!” Evelyn said, “We hitchhike!” I honestly don’t know what we would have done without her.

She instructed me to stand with her, and wag my thumb. The guys apparently didn’t need to do this. So there I was, standing on the side of a dusty road, looking fantastically pale, blonde, and touristy next to a woman who reminded me of Fannie Lou Hamer in a Kentucky Derby hat. This moment will be etched in my mind forever.

Not 5 minutes later a man with an old overland vehicle pulled up and waved us in. Evelyn took the front, while Nick, Simon, and I jumped in the truck-bed with the spare tire and the machete. 5 miles of dusty road later, we were in Hopkins, hoofing it to the end of town where Nick and Simon had a reservation, and I, well, I was hoping there would be a room.
Nick, Simon, and a very large machete.

Enjoying the bumpy ride in the bed of the truck. Unfortunately this is the
only picture have of Evelyn (in the front seat).

When Things Almost Went Wrong

Coming down is a hard thing to do.

Blissfully unaware of almost everything, due to my experience at the zoo, I entered the Belmopan bus station. Why are bus stations here so incredibly insane? So insane in fact, I haven't even been able to take a single picture of one because I'm afraid I might get trampled if I stop for a moment.

This is what the busses look like once you're on. Every 
seat full, plus people standing in the middle!

It all hit me at once, the smell, the sweat, the heat, the shouting, the mass chaos, and then the fact that I was the only white person anywhere. Belize is a diverse mix of African, Caribe, Garifuna, Mayan and Quetchi people, and apparently not many tourists take the local chicken busses to get around. No matter though, I had a solid plan and asked a nice woman where I was supposed to be. She said, “Honey, don ya worry ‘bout a ting, da bus’ll be hea soon.” I was headed to Dangriga, the supposed hub of the Garifuna culture, with romantic notions of drums, sisera (musical shakers made out of a gourd), dancing and sweet cassava bread.

I weaved my way through the semi-lines and lumps of people and got to the back of the station where I found myself next to two lovely British men who’d been traveling for almost a year. A year! I was immediately envious. We struck up a conversation and immediately became friends as we joked about travel mishaps, adventure, and life. This part of my trip shall henceforth be know as, My Time With Nick and Simon, Who Saved Me.

I told them I was going to Dangriga and they looked at each other like I was crazy. “What’s wrong with Dangriga?” I asked. And as they started going through the laundry list of why I shouldn’t go, including: muggings, bed bugs, and a general dislike of foreigners, I realized this time, off the beaten path was maybe just a little too far. Instead, they invited me to join them on the beach in Hopkins, which turned out to be a mellower version of Dangriga. All of the Garifuna culture, less aggression. I guess that’s the beauty of traveling alone with only a semi-plan! When things go wrong, or when things go right, you can always go with the flow.

But first, we still had to get there and the 4-hour journey did not start well.

We practically ran to the back of the bus to jump in from the back door, since that’s what the locals were doing. We promptly stowed our luggage and took some empty seats. That’s when everything went downhill.

A man also trying to get down south boarded the bus and immediately pushed his way to our seats in the back. We could tell he was furious from before he even reached us, and before we even had a chance to open our mouths, he was inches from our faces, fists clenched, and shouting an array of obscenities. In fact he was shouting so loud and so close to our faces, I could barely understand what he was saying. Apparently, we were in his seat. I admittedly, was slightly terrified, but Nick and Simon stood their ground for a moment before really assessing what this guy was capable of, so we all collected our luggage and exited the bus.

From what I can tell, if you don’t have a seat before the bus leaves the station, you don’t go. Once the bus is out of the station, like I said before, no rules apply. I guess this guy just really needed to make that bus.

We sulked back into the station and waited to catch the next one, disappointed in how lawless the busses are. As it turns out though, the next bus would turn out to be one of the best rides ever.

Getting to know Nick and Simon was like getting to know brothers I never had! We laughed so hard at times I was certain everyone was staring. And, being such seasoned travelers they knew just to go with it, and buy whatever pastries were in the giant tub the man boarded the bus with. We did, and one .50-cent cassava pudding square later, I was hooked. It was like eating a sweet, caramel, dense, absolutely heart-attack material, cloud. And it was one of the best things I’ve ever had!

Cassava pudding bread. An absolutely amazing heart-attack in a bag.

Apparently no matter what I’m doing, I look very non-threatening, and this bus ride would be the first of many times a parent put their child on my lap. Yes, you read that right. Multiple parents have given me their children on this trip. We noticed a man barely squeezing on a seat with his wife and children, and invited him to come sit with me, as my seat was empty. He did, for about 5 minutes, and then plopped his daughter in my lap and told her, “jugas con ella”. Play with her. I spent the next 2.5 hours getting glitter rubbed on my skin, answering questions, and promising I would try to come to her birthday party; not next week, or the week after, but the week after that. In the end, I gave her my ring as a birthday present and took a picture for memory.

My new friend and her new birthday present, who shared her glitter with me, all over my arms.

All of the negativity from the earlier scuffle washed away as she said goodbye and waved at me as she walked toward her home.

The rest of the bus ride was spent wishing we had more cassava pudding and enjoying the beautiful jungle that surrounded us.

When I Died And Went To Heaven At The Zoo

I realized the Belize Zoo was going to be something incredibly special before I even got there, but I didn’t realize just how much this little zoo was going to impact me until I arrived.  To be totally honest, I’m not sure I even know how to start talking about this place.

I had contacted the zoo prior to my trip and asked if they needed any supplies that I could bring down. They did, and I was happy to pack them into a bag and hand deliver them! When I arrived, I was greeted warmly by Jamal, their education coordinator, who was so gracious for the effort he gave me a personal tour of the zoo! I was introduced to the tapirs, Belize’s national animal, the toucans, the scarlet macaw which is endangered in Belize, and of course, Lucky Boy the jaguar that the zoo rescued from near starvation.

Runt the Toucan was pushed out of his nest as a fledgling and suffered a twisted beak, a broken eye
socket and stunted growth. He thrives at the Belize Zoo and loves to receive raisins from visitors.

Hand delivering Runt some raisins. 
Jamal explained to me that the zoo has never, and will never, take animals from the wild. All of the animals that end up there are a result of injury, surrender from an owner, or cats that have learned to hunt cattle and the zoo is a last resort to keep them from being killed by farmers. I thought to myself, “Incredible!” “A zoo that doesn’t take wild animals.” Now that is a beautiful model to follow.

 But it doesn’t stop there; the zoo has tons of    educational programs for Belizeans to learn about the native animals. But not just at the zoo, they go to rural communities with animal ambassadors like Happy the barn owl and Rose the crocodile to explain to people that these animals are not what the superstitions say they are, and that they’re incredibly important to the eco system. They also have what they call the “Problem Jaguar Program” which educated farmers about why they should never kill a jaguar who has killed their livestock and instead enlist the zoo, for free, to come and trap it. Unfortunately, jaguars have such a large range of territory and they are solitary animals, so relocating them is extremely problematic. So, the Belize Zoo works diligently to habituate animals to keepers by regimented feeding and training protocol and then work closely with zoos in the US to find homes and mates for the jaguars. One of their jaguars successfully found a mate at the Philadelphia zoo and had two beautiful cubs!

After a few hours I retired to the Tropical Education Center for dinner and prepared for what would be one of the coolest nights of my life. Since many of Belize’s animals are nocturnal I opted into the ‘night tour’ and I was excited beyond belief and felt like a kid when I arrived. We walked around the zoo by the light of headlamps to the sounds of big cats calling, it was a sort of low ‘huff, huff, huff’ and it was fantastically eerie. Active, alert and ready for food, the cats saw us before we could see them. The keeper readied his bucket of raw meat and went to work with us watching. He fed each cat differently according to species. For the ocelot he occasionally held it up quite high, about 7 ft off the ground so they could jump and mimic they natural hunting abilities, and for the margay he held the meat a bit longer so it could work on getting it out of his hand. It really was a beautiful thing to watch.

Oh! How could I forget! I got to feed a tapir a banana!

And to round out the night, the terrifying song from troop of howler monkeys serenaded us.
As I retired to my room at the education center and slept under the canopy to the sound of rain and song bugs, I dreamt of big cats, conservation and adventure. This place is magical, and I don’t think I can accurately describe it in words, so I hope the pictures will do.
A very shy Grey Fox

Jaguarundi-I did not even know these existed!

A Harpy Eagle, one of the largest of the eagle species.

I honestly don't remember what this rockstar chicken-bird is!
The most precious Margay on the planet.
On a complete high from the night before, I awoke to a jungle rain and headed to the education hall for a quick breakfast and a stroll back to the zoo to say goodbye. I was lucky enough to be watching a keeper feed the Harpy Eagle when a call came over his radio for someone to come to the front and receive an animal that was being surrendered. You see in Belize, it’s illegal to buy, sell, trap, keep or trade any wild animal. Of course, people do it anyway, but the zoo will accept animals without question and release them if they can, or give them a forever home. Today’s animal was a coatimundi, or quash, for short. I don’t know the exact circumstances of where they got him or why they had him, but I was allowed to watch as they did the intake paperwork and accepted him into their care. What a treat!

An even bigger surprise was when I was able to meet Sharon Matola, the zoo’s founder. We both have a background in animal behavior and training, and hit it off right away, talking about exploitation vs. conservation and our responsibility to the environment. One signed book, and a 30-minute car ride to the Belmopan bus station and we promised to keep in touch.

My experience with the Belize Zoo was the best way to start my trip. After 24 hours of hectic travel, hanging out with lots of animals  under the rainforest canopy was just what I needed.

Rules Need Not Apply

After 24 hours of travel; sleeping under chairs in the Houston airport, one delayed flight, stale-ish bagels and warm cheese for dinner and breakfast, I was ready for some muggy but delicious Caribbean air.

That my friends, is not what happened, and somehow it always seems I have the most bizarre travel experience!

Starting at the beginning though. My flight from Colorado to Houston (which was already 2.5 hours late) started by an airline attendant outright threatening not to let any of us on the plane if more people didn’t willingly check their bags at the gate. Willingly. Right. This is going to be interesting! Needless to say her threats were idle at best, hopefully because she realized she would have been overthrown by an angry traveling mob, and we arrived in Houston without incident where I proceeded to attempt a few hours of sleep under a row of chairs. 1 crying baby, 2 vacuum cleaners, and 1 carpet cleaner later, it was 4am and I had switched benches 4 times. I could not wait to board my flight to Belize. On the plus side, I met a new friend in the airport named Ruben, who was from Belize and visiting his 86-yr-old mother for the first time in 4 years.

Sleeping on the plane, bingo.

As I stepped off in Belize hoping for some delicious air, I got a generous lungful of jet fuel and a healthy dose of safety reminder when I realized there were no actual barriers between those of us deplaning and the plane/propellers, and a heavily distracted woman practically walked into a death trap. Note to self: pay attention.

My new friend Ruben offered to take me out to the main road where the bus stop was, so I didn’t have to walk the 5k with a heavy backpack. After considering my options, and meeting his 86-year-old mom who hugged and kissed me, I graciously accepted the offer. As we barreled down the small road passing other cars on which ever side Ruben’s brother pleased, and the proceeded to make what would be considered and absolutely illegal U-Turn in the U.S. it occurred to me; RULES NEED NOT APPLY here. They dropped me off across from a field of horses and all felt right in the world. I am eternally grateful for Ruben and his family who offered their help to a total stranger, because hoofing that road would have been the pits. I hope Ruben reads this and tells his mom I say hello. She was a wonderful lady.
Field Of Horses

As I stood on the side of the road at the ‘bus stop’, which actually was just another woman and her little girl standing there waiting to wave down the bus, I engaged in the worldwide declaration of “I’m a friendly foreigner who is neither here to give you a hard time or pretend I’m better than you” that I know.

I complimented the little girl’s shoes.

Before I knew it she was my new BFF and her mom, amused by the antics, was striking up a conversation with me. Then as if the bus/taxi fairy was looking over both of us, her friend (who happened to be a taxi driver) drove past, slowed down almost to a stop, (no, literally, the car was rolling the entire time we loaded in), and asked where I was going. “Belize City bus terminal?” “No problem, I take a tip.” He replied. This seemed like a pretty decent deal compared to the $25 taxi ride you can catch from the airport or the $2 bus you have to flag down on the side of the road.
As I entered the bus station through hall crammed with people asking where I was going and if I wanted help with my bags, all I could think was, “This is going to be amazing havoc.”
Chicken Bus

I was right.

With not a sign for a destination in the place, nor a price list, I boarded my first “Chicken Bus” smelling of dirty unwashed skin and un-brushed teeth (the bus, not me). I can’t explain the feeling of ‘right of passage’ I felt, and I’m very thankful for my seat-mate, Richard, who I’m pretty sure was sweating out old whisky and hadn’t showered in weeks, who also made sure I got off at the right stop.
31 miles later, according to Richard, I unloaded in the rain at the end of a long driveway that would lead me to my absolute happy place. The Belize Zoo, where conservation and education is thriving with all of their beautiful animals and brilliant keepers.
Tropical Education Center at the Belize Zoo

More on that tomorrow though, a rum is in order now!

The Un-Plan

1 purchased book, 23 bookmarked websites and 16 crumpled-up pieces of paper later; I still have no itinerary for my 2-week trip to Belize.

I’m currently in the Denver International Airport waiting for my delayed flight to Houston, so I can wash my face, rinse my armpits, curl up under a bench, and sleep in the airport terminal. This is what flying cheap and in the offseason offers… and I find it amazing. It’s all part of the experience to me, and I am fully aware that as I grow older (approximately 50 years from now) a bed and an actual shower might become something I’m not willing to skimp on. So for now, tying my bag to my leg, and rolling my jacket into a pillow for some shut-eye is on the itinerary.

Ugh the itinerary…

I imagine this trip is actually going to be really hard for me! I mean, not really, but hear me out. I grew up with pretty planned out vacations; here one day, there the next, all of our hotels booked weeks in advance, and a laundry list of things we wanted to see/do. We always had a plan.
Now, I don’t have a single hotel, tour, car, bus, or otherwise booked. I’ve spoken to locals through the country and the answer I keep getting is, don’t worry about it; you can decide when you’re here. They follow up with, “You’re in the Caribbean, go slow”. This is an entirely different way of traveling for me. I have NO WHERE to be for 2 weeks. Actually that’s not true, I’ve agreed to spend time at the Belize Zoo to deliver some supplies to them. Ok so I have somewhere to be for 1.5 days, that still leaves 12.5 days of uncommitted time. Whew! It’s overwhelming and exciting.

So now I have 13 tabs open on my computer, a map, a pen, and a little notebook, which I am now refusing to make a calendar on. And I’ve decided to go with fewer expectations, less worry, less plan and no compass, except the one in my eyes and heart.

Belize in 3, 2, 1.

No, thank you, I do not want the terrifying nightmare malaria pills.

All of a sudden, this trip got real. Like, real real.

Despite that it was crawling with snot filled, crying children, I bravely walked into the Jackson County Health Department yesterday to get all of the necessary vaccinations and prescriptions for my trip. The woman at the desk asked where I was going and when I told her, "Belize", she gave me a blank look and replied, "Where is that?""I've never heard of it." I wanted to yell, "It's on our continent, silly!" But then I realized to a lot of people, Belize is just a New Jersey size blip on the map. Europeans, it's just a smidge bigger than Slovania. So how is it that Belize is such a well kept secret? I actually have no idea yet, but I'll elaborate on this more when I find out!

I proceeded to get stuck with a tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis vaccine (apparently they only come in a package) and a Hepatitis A vaccine, plus oral medication for typhoid and malaria (which I am still unsure I will take). Belize has a low rate of dengue fever too, but there's not a vaccine for it nor is there a cure, so I'm just going with it... Bug spray it is! As the wonderful nurse was trying to distract me with a story about Shrek 2 so I didn't look at the GIANT needle, I realized, I am actually doing this. I am packing 1 bag with nothing but essentials, flying to a country I don't know for 2 weeks, and doing nothing but exploring, with myself.

Hold please... Let me explain to you quickly how I got to this place. How my story went from climbing the highest mountain in Bolivia with a big team, lots of cameras, publicity, budget and big names, to exploring an entire country by myself as cheap as possible.

As anyone who has travelled with other people knows, you grow to learn that nothing is confirmed until you are all actually in the destination together, and even then, things can go awry. We had the plan, we had the team, we had the anticipated departure and arrival dates, and we had the quest to make big moves, and tell a long story about water and the people connected to it from summit to sea. I was going as the liaison for all of the sponsors and clients; the link to the outside world. But I likely wouldn't have summitted the mountain, as I had my ACL replaced a year ago. And I wouldn't have kayaked the rivers, because although I grew up on the water, I am definitely not a class 5 kayaker. I was in it for the story, and the experience.

But all of a sudden we no longer had a list of clients, then we didn't really have the commitment of the sponsors, and then the kayakers. Ha! The mere word 'commitment' sends shivers up a kayaker's back. Trust me, one of the dear boaters is (still) my boyfriend. Our trip just didn't look like it was going to happen. My dear friend Jake, who had been organizing most of the logistics, found a broader water story in Peru at a lake high in the mountains, in an undisclosed location, where they had just discovered a new species of frog, amongst other unbelievable things. We had been invited to take a few clients and come tour this protected lake. We pushed, we pulled, we practically begged, but the interest just wasn't there, and once again I found myself disappointed but repeating the words, "You should have known this could (very likely) happen."

So what does one do when faced with this predicament? Well, I bought a one way ticket to Central America. Kidding Mom! It's got a return flight.

What really happened was; I looked at a map, I racked my, "Years of Outside Magazine" brain for a place I'd always wanted to go, and I remembered a place where clean rivers kissed the ocean, and where that ocean still teemed with wildlife: manatees, fish, sharks, crocodiles, sing-rays, turtles, dolphins and even the occasional whale-shark, and those are only the aquatic animals! A place where ancient culture and voices of past reverberate through hundreds of ruins and new generations work hard to preserve the place they call home. This was my place. So I bought a ticket.

The more I've learned about Belize, the more I love it. They've protected 40% of the rainforest which is home to jaguars, monkeys, ocelots, kinkajous, mountain lions and tapirs, just to name a few! They have the world's largest ocean "no-take zone" where fishing is absolutely prohibited; and they are incredibly focused on teaching the importance of conservation to their children.

This place is Beasts of the Southern Wild, meets ancient Maya culture, meets eco-protectors, and I have just 3 weeks to learn the bus system (or the hitch-a-ride protocol), decide where to go and, who am I kidding... google everything about this country, draw lots of dots in my book and decide to get off at every bus station in the country!

Thanks for joining me on my journey. I hope you'll follow along and experience Belize with me!