Part VIII: Belize – Coastline Hugging

The original plan for Belize had been to head inland after the Cayes to visit some of the wildlife reserves in the west before going south to catch a boat to Guatemala. But once I got into the swing of island life, I was loathe to leave the beaches and turquoise blue waters behind. So I decided to stick close to the coast as I headed south.

Nowhere has ‘Belize time’ felt quite as evident as when I arrive at Belize City bus station to catch a bus to Hopkins. There is no schedule, or indeed stop for the James Line service which connects to Hopkins via Dangriga. Upon enquiry, I’m told, “The bus is orange, you’ll see it when it gets here.” Right.

The buses are hysterical old bluebird buses that US schools used to use, all painted bright colours with reggae, chosen by the driver, pumping out of the speakers throughout. The conductors wear their caps, emblazoned with US basketball teams, back to front, their jeans low and their smiles wide. The passengers are rather entertaining too…
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For £3, it’s quite a ride.

I land in Hopkins after a punishingly long wait for a connecting bus to find a small, pretty fishing village made up of two long dirt tracks. It’s a sleepy wee place with a strong Garifuna influence. Without the strong sea breeze as at the Cayes, and of course the air con, the heat is stifling
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This is a one-hostel town, and the lack of competition is evident in the Funky Dodo hostel. It could be a cracking place with a few little touches here and there. But the owner keeps telling everyone how tired he is and how hard he works, so no request, large or small, is met!
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He’s arranged an all-you-can-eat BBQ for the following night which has tired the poor lamb right out. It is for about ten people mind, so I amuse myself at picturing how he’d get on running a busy press tent at a music festival or awards show! Then he imposes a voucher system on the BBQ whereby the food stops when you run out of vouchers. Small point Will, that is not all-you-can-eat mate. The clue is quite literally in the title…

My neighbours are the lovely, and recently engaged, Alice and Ollie who live in London. We decide to embrace the local culture by heading north to the music school for a lesson in Garifuna drumming. We meet Jabar, the teacher, and later Amol, his star pupil. Their version of a cockney accent leaves a lot to be desired, but their drumming is mind-bogglingly good.
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We make our way through traditional Garifuna rhythms such as the paranda, punta and watina and it is flippin’ brilliant fun. Jabar and Amol add the lyrics, the icing on the cake, while we stick to the basic rhythms and we actually start to sound like a plausible band. Potential band names on a postcard please. Good to finally get some value from those drumming modules I laboured over at school.

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We reward ourselves with dinner at Love On The Rocks where the seafood and catch of the day snapper fillets are served on hot rocks for you to cook to your tastes.

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The next day, I’m looking for adventure…and find this little tour company. Handy…

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I sign up for a night tour of the nearby Sittee River, and simultaneously meet Emma who later that week offers me a job in Hopkins! I politely decline as I’m not sure how many bands make it here on their world tours…

So, as the sun sets I head out to the beautiful marina to hop in a boat with Captain Levi and head out on the river. As with most Central American towns and cities, the marina is a real demonstration of the ‘haves’ precariously placed next to extreme poverty of the ‘have-nots.’ The boats are absurd, and the accents are American.

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We spot wildlife along the way, starting with iguanas and egrets as the sun sets, then crocodiles once night has fallen.

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The flora and fauna is stunning too. One of the trees produces a banana-like pod which looks like this when it opens up to flower.

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On a non-wildlife tip, I also find my most favourite name for a boat…like, ever. Presenting… ‘Nautical By Nature’

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We snack on Malay apples along the way, taking our digestive system’s life into our own hands

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At nightfall, aka croc o’clock, we get the flashlights out (sorry…TORCHES…I’m surrounded by Americans) and scan the riverbanks. Three pairs of eyes glint back at us, and as we get closer we see they’re up to 2 metres long. They’re shy though, and don’t hang around for long.

Captain Levi takes us to see a baby croc that he keeps as a pet at the water’s edge at the end of his garden. He gives us the chance to hold it, but he’ll have to tape it’s mouth up…not on my watch thanks.

We head back along the banks of the river toward the Anderson Lagoon.

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Named after the Sailor who created this convenient water way, this is a lagoon where the salt water from the Caribbean meets the fresh water of the Sittee River. At certain times of the year I’m told, the algae that this creates glows phosphorescent. It is quite a sight to behold, each time you disturb the water’s surface, you create a glow. Fish darting round inadvertently create tracer-like wakes behind them and you can virtually sign your name with your finger. It’s one of the most amazing things I have ever seem, and it is impossible not to trail your fingers through the water as we cruise back to the marina.

There is time left for a little light hammock-lounging (well it’d be rude not to) and to capitalise on Belize’s first language by catching up with the newspapers.

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Then it is onwards to Placencia, a little over two hours down the coast. It is famed for being the only Caye you can drive to, as it has beautiful beaches but finds itself at the end of a peninsula giving it an island feel. It is less authentic than Hopkins, but the beach is beautiful so it’s worth a stop. In the town, everything is connected by a network of boardwalks…

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…taking you on a tour of the town’s excellent restaurants. So, as has become the true rhythm of Belizean life, I spend my time either lounging on the beach reading this (yes people, this is finally happening!)

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or eating. Highlights include the snapper with banana and rum at Rumfish, and my first taste of Lion fish at Omar’s

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But the Belizean chapter ends here. It is time to rid myself of the inertia that has creeped unwittingly into daily life, and get back out on the road to discovery. Next stop Guatemala…by boat!

We hop over the lagoon to Independence

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…skip down to Punta Gorda by bluebird bus, then jump onto a boat bound for Guatemalan town of Livingston.

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Woops, better put my camera away…this is immigration after all. Belize, you’ve been proppah like a snappah, aarait! Don’t worry, I’m scribbling you down on the ‘countries I’ll return to’ list as we speak. At the same time, I’m rebooting my Spanish speaking software! Adios Belize. Gud maanin Guatemala…

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And the soundtrack was:
Snow Patrol ‘Eyes Open’
Liars ‘Wixiw’
People Under The Stairs ‘The Next Step’
Foals ‘Holy Fire’
Yeasayer ‘Fragrant World’
Cold War Kids ‘Mine Is Yours’
The Cure ‘Disintegration’
Flight Of The Conchords ‘Hurt Feelings’
Bob Marley Various
Crystal Castles ft Robert Smith ‘Not In Love’
The Cribs ‘Men’s Needs Women’s Needs’
Holy Fuck ‘Latin’

Part VIII: Belize – Songs in the Caye of (Island) Life

Okay, anyone remember these guys?

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The astute amongst you will recognise Norwegians Magnus and Robert from my Peruvian chapter. We did the gruelling Inca Trail together, an experience that is sure to cement good friendships, and they are definitely high on the ‘travel pals I’d like to hang out with again’ list.

So, on the way to Belize, I am excited for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am to be reunited with them on Caye Caulker, a backpackers Mecca slap bang in the middle of the Caribbean. Shit’s about to get Creole…

Secondly, I get to shelve my woeful efforts at Spanish and speak my first language once more, thanks to Belize having once been part of the British Empire. The Queen still adorns their Belizean dollars, and God Save The Queen is their national anthem. If it wasn’t that, it would likely be Marley’s ‘No Woman No Cry’ judging by the number of times we heard it…

It is a country of small population, approximately 320,000, and it is a really diverse mix of cultures from Creole, Mestizo and Mayan all the way through to Garifuna. When I land at Belize City’s tiny international airport, I immediately warm to the people and the place. Their unofficial motto is ‘Go Slow’ and I can feel myself immediately dropping down a gear as though a pre-requisite for the rubber stamping of my tourist visa.

I have lost count of the number of wide eyed ex-nomads who have recommended Caye Caulker to me. One of Belize’s selling points is its reef, the second largest in the world, which in turn means a wealth of cayes to visit, but Caye Caulker is the budget traveller’s choice. It’s a beautiful limestone coral sand-covered island, around 20 miles east off the coast from Belize City which I journey in a nippy wee water taxi.

It’s a breeze to navigate the island as it’s so small. Basically everything you need is on one street, Front Street, which runs the length of the island…or the much shorter street that runs parallel behind it, the imaginatively named Back Street. As a result of its meagre breadth, its azure waters glimmer beckoningly at you bookending each street that connects the two.

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In 1961, Hurricane Hattie split the island in two and the locals then dug this split out to widen it thus creating a convenient waterway from the east to the west of the island. It is at this spot, nicknamed The Split, where most people swim and lounge around on the sand.

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Here on the caye, I decide to cross the line from fan assisted oven to air conditioning in my room, opting to trade up from usual hostel standards to a beautiful cabana with its own private dock. Of course, once you have crossed this line, there is no going back (as I will later learn in the stifling heat of Hopkins.)

The Tropical Paradise Hotel (or Club Tropicana as I like to call it) will be my home for the next seven days.

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To complete the convenience of this place, it even has a ridiculously tiny airstrip. Coconut airways anyone?

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Once reunited with Norway, we settle well into island life. This is the kind of place where all your action plans melt away, and you can make rather a good effort of doing absolutely nothing. It is bliss. If this place came with an instruction manual, it would mainly read like this…

1. Make sure you catch the sun set as it drops into the Caribbean at least once…but take beer

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2. Get a golf cart and slip into such extreme inertia that you refuse to walk anywhere

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3. Fill aforementioned golf cart with beer

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4. Go snorkelling to Shark Ray Alley on a reggae sail boat, and inadvertently star in your own personal hip hip video (y’know chicks in bikinis, Shaggy pumping from the in board stereo with a rap-a-long from the horizontally laid back captain)

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I like this shot a lot, mostly because of the limelight grabbing Frigate bird in the background

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5. Fill your hotel fridge full of enough rum and beer to do you the week, then accidentally have to replenish supplies the very next day…and again the next

6. SEASONAL: Make new friends with random backpackers on St Patrick’s Day, but try to ignore their ridiculous tattoos (yes that is indeed a six pack…what a tosser)

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7. Get to know the neighbours

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8. Drink rum cocktails…on docks

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…in bars…

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…and on boats…

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9. Match the sound bleed of the countless reggae bars by operating a Bring Your Own Disco…cue dancing at all times of the day

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10. Become a local in the I and I reggae bar and Oceanside nightclub, virtually shouting “the usual” on entry…and having your own table

11. Indulge in a ridiculous amount of seafood including ceviche, shrimp coconut curries and rum and ginger snapper fillets

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12. Spend time surveying the locals and their customs. For example, the man who just walks around shouting ‘sweeeeeeeeeeeeet’ every two minutes, that guy who is out on his bike 24/7 and The Cake Man who sells the most unBelizable banana bread you will ever taste

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13. Go slow…that’s an order

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14. LOL your little heart out with good friends

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All too soon it was time to leave our island paradise, and it was with the heaviest of hearts. With plans afoot for our next hang time at T in the Park, we bid Caye Caulker adieu.

Taxi!

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And the soundtrack was:
Woodkid ‘The Golden Age’
Shaggy ‘Sugar Cane’ (you heard)
The Black Kids ‘I’m Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You’
Bob Marley Various
M83 ‘Midnight City’
The True Vaults ‘No Goodbyes’
Beastie Boys ‘Make Some Noise’
Thumpers ‘Dancing’s Done’
Haim ‘Don’t Save Me’
Mos Def Various
Elton John ‘Tony Danza’
The Pixies ‘Where Is My Mind’
Friendly Fires ‘Friendly Fires’
Flight of the Conchords ‘Business Time’
Elbow ‘Open Arms’
Charli XCX ‘Stay Away’
LCD Soundsystem ‘New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’