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july 19, 2005 -> the black sheep of central america: belize

Across the border, the hills flattened, faces darkened and the houses grew legs.  Elevated on narrow stilts, they looked like big-bottomed women who had hitched up their skirts before wading across a stream – which, essentially, was the idea.  Most of Belize is a flat, flood-prone, swampy plain facing a stormy corner of the Caribbean.  In 1961, Hurricane Hattie devastated Belize City, a catastrophe that led to the creation of a new inland capital, Belmopan.  Just before we reached the coast, we passed Hattieville, a refugee camp that grew into a suburb named after its tempestuous founder. 

All the mechanics' garages and grocery stores alongside the highway had Chinese-sounding names.  In the back of the bus, four youngsters gabbed in Mandarin Chinese.  I had helped lug their heavy baggage across the border, without any thanks.  “You're welcome,” I said in Chinese as they shuffled down the aisle.  Nori joked that they must be opening a new ‘China Shop,' and that the suitcases were bursting with gimcrack Chinese goods.  Fifteen minutes later, they got out next to a sign that said “Taiwan Cooperation Project.”  Ah.  We had seen those signs before.  As one of the twenty-five (mostly small and poor) nations that still recognize Taiwan's independence from China, Belize receives significant financial aid in return.  I later learned that most of the Chinese business owners were Cantonese: China's most mercenary merchantmen.

Our bus had covered the width of Belize in only three hours.  Smaller than the US state of Massachusetts, Belize has just 300,000 citizens.  (El Salvador has seven million people in roughly the same space.)  Wedged between the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala and the Caribbean, tiny Belize is Central America's black sheep: the only nation whose history doesn't include 300 years of Spanish colonization.  By the close of the seventeenth century, English enterprise on the Caribbean coast of Central America had moved from turn-a-blind-eye piracy of Spanish galleons to organized smuggling.  Much to the annoyance of the Spanish, who claimed – but could not control – the whole isthmus, the English began logging the interior of what is now modern Belize, bringing Jamaican slaves with them.  Today, English is the official language, though Spanish is widely spoken.  Queen Elizabeth II smiles on the Belizean dollar.  Finally, almost 40% of the population is of African or Afro-Caribbean descent.  At times, Belize feels like a Caribbean island blown ashore by a hurricane. 

Belize is a magnet for scuba divers and sport fishermen.  The western hemisphere's longest barrier reef parallels Belize's coast, 10-40 miles from the mainland.  Hundreds of islands dot its 184-mile length.  Ever since Madonna “fell in love with San Pedro,” Americans have descended on Ambergris Caye (pronounced ‘key,' like the Florida Keys) and its less ritzy neighbor to the south, Caye Caulker.  Q: Why did the Material Girl not sing “I fell in love with Ambergris?”  A: Ambergris doesn't sound as Spanish as San Pedro. Also, ambergris is a grey intestinal secretion of sperm whales, which was found to be a handy fixative for perfumes.  In Belize City, we boarded a powerboat with forty other tourists and sped towards the cayes, which distance and perspective had fused into an unbroken barrier of palms.  We watched the old capital diminish until only the Radisson Hotel and the Princess Hotel & Casino were visible, floating above the watery horizon.

Just before razing Belize City, Hurricane Hattie's winds and waves cut Caye Caulker in two.  It was never that large to begin with.  Shortly thereafter, the northern, less-developed half was designated a wildlife refuge.  “All of nature wild and free.  This is where I long to be: la isla bonita.”  I recalled the video for the song: Madonna dressed in laughable eighties' fashion, jumping and spinning her way down a dirt road.  We walked the white sand path from the ferry pier near the caye's southern tip to the “Split” in less than ten minutes.  Frigate birds soared overhead, their V-shaped wings unmistakable.  Unlike the frigate birds of the Galapagos Islands, I noticed that the males did not have a red, inflatable pouch beneath their jaw.  A strong current moved through the turquoise channel: a decaying beach bar on one side, a mangrove fringe on the other.  It would have been easy to swim across, but no one did.  Instead, a pale, chubby tourist with an even whiter “Cancun” T-shirt fished from a concrete pier near the bar, sneaking looks at sunbathing women.

Caye Caulker perfectly fit my Caribbean island expectations: white hotels with bright trim, Rasta-themed bars, sandy paths and open-air seafood restaurants.  The beaches, however, weren't great, the mosquitoes swarmed at dusk, and you needed a boat to get to decent snorkeling spots.  As far as I could tell, a decent percentage of the male islanders spent their days loitering under palm trees, carving wooden statues, smoking pot and chasing white women – apparently, with success.  We saw dozens of beautiful, frizzy-haired, mocha-colored kids playing on the beaches.  I thought of Madonna's saccharine lyrics again: “Warm winds carried on the sea, he called to me, ‘Te dijo, te amo'” – he told you ‘I love you.'  I remembered the three Australian girls that we had met in Nicaragua.  They had hated Belize.  “It was just too much!” one complained.  The ceaseless winks, cat-calls, barroom advances, unwanted contact and professions of love had forced them to flee.

“Where'd you go to school?”  That classic American size-up line whose answer established wealth, intelligence and political views was asked nightly in Caye Caulker's bars.  Everyone wore a “Costa Rica,” “Cancun” or “Señor Froggy's” T-shirt.  One night, a group of twenty Americans destroyed the ambience of a breezy waterfront restaurant with a ridiculous group discussion.  “What do you think has been the most inspirational part of the trip?” the female leader asked.  The responses made me cringe.  “I just loved getting a chance to see how people down here live,” another woman replied, “they've got so little and yet they're so happy!  It made me realize how little we actually need!”  Evidently, several expensive rum cocktails were actually needed.  I couldn't figure out what they were doing there.  They drank too much to be missionaries, and were too sappy to be corporate employees on a “team-building” exercise. 

While I snorkeled with stingrays, Nori endured a three hour beating on the boat ride out to Lighthouse Reef and the Blue Hole – one of the most famous dive sites in the world.  Jacque Cousteau discovered the 400-foot deep pipe-shaped reef in 1973.  (According to the dive guides – which I could not confirm – Cousteau promptly blew a hole in the reef so that the Calypso could motor inside.)  Entry to the marine park cost US$100 per person, plus US$150 for the three dives, making the day-trip a pricey adventure.  We decided that only one of us should go.  As the keener diver, Nori got the nod.  From the surface, the Blue Hole was stunning – like floating atop a dark blue pupil within an emerald iris.  But the deep dive – 30 to 35 meters (95 to 110 feet) – meant dark, cold water.

“It was freezing down there,” Nori told me later.  “And one of the other boats had chummed the water for a ‘shark feed' dive, so we had a dozen black-tipped reef sharks and one really big bull shark circling us the whole time.”  With only six minutes at the maximum depth, there was little time to explore the very unusual, giant stalactites that appeared to hang from coral ledges.  In fact, the Blue Hole was once a limestone cavern whose roof collapsed.  When water levels rose, the deep cave and all its limestone formations were drowned in seawater.  The stalactites were interesting, but Nori found the coral and fish life disappointing.  She preferred the second and third (much shallower) dives on Lighthouse Reef, though she professed surprise that for a remote reef “the coral was not as pristine as you'd expect.”

On the way back from a snorkeling trip the next day – which included an unscheduled swim with two wild dolphins – we stopped for refreshments at St. George's Caye.  In 1798, just offshore, a small British fleet crushed a Spanish squadron that had been sent to finally dislodge the pesky claim-jumpers.  Hardly a footnote in the history of Her Majesty's Navy, our guide described the battle as “the most important historical event in Belize.”  Still, the British did not formally claim Belize.  However, in 1821, when much of Central and South America won its independence from Spain, the British rejected both Mexico and Guatemala's claims to the area.  British Honduras became a crown colony in 1862.  One hundred and twenty years later, Belize finally received its independence – by UN decree – in 1981.  Guatemala refused to renounce its claims until 1986, a policy which forced the UK to keep troops stationed in Belize.  British soldiers still do jungle training in Belize, finishing with a few weeks of R&R on St. George's Caye.