(Click on the photos at the bottom to make them larger)
I learned an important thing on this trip to Belize. How much we enjoy a place depends a lot on both our individual interests and temperament, as well as on the particular circumstances of the trip (like weather). I have a friend, whose opinion I greatly respect, who LOVES Belize enough to have gone back three times. At the end of this post I share a letter that I wrote to a friend in which I colorfully explain how this was not the case with me. I thought of all the people I’ve encouraged to go to Iceland. Yikes, I hope I have not steered someone into their personal version of Hell. Iceland does have stinky sufurous smelling showers, and perhaps, not everyone gives a whoot about whales or waterfalls or blazing steam vents.
Having made that point, I did do three great things that will hold up in my memory.
Snorkeling the Hol Chan Barrier Reef and Sharkway Alley
On our one beautiful day (just luck) Philippe and I went snorkeling to the Hol Chan barrier reef off Caye Caulker. This is said to be the best reef for snorkeling/diving in the whole Caribbean. I loved snorkeling! We swam with sharks and stingrays and barracuda and fish that glowed. The pictures below really speak to the experience. I was glad I had an underwater camera. This was also the occasion for the funniest human incident on our trip. When we arrived at the place the sharks hang out, one woman did not want to go in the water. The guide asked her if she was afraid of the sharks. “Oh no,” she said, “I’m lactating from my nipples. I don’t think it would be advisable.” Alrighty, then! Good thinking.
Actun Tunichil Muknal
Actun Tunichil Muknal is listed as the number one sacred cave in the world by National Geographic (must be true!). Now I’ve been spelunking quite a few times before and I could say this experience did indeed top them all in not just sacredness, but also rigor. After walking through the jungle, you dive into cold deep blue water and swim into the cave entrance. You then proceed to hike nearly a mile underground over rock formations not intended for hiking, wading at times, until you get to the place so special you must remove your shoes before proceeding. The rocks are sharp, so watch it. Finally you see why this cave is sacred. This mountain was the home of the Mayan Rain God, and he was apparently not happy during the drought which destroyed Mayan civilization nearly a thousand years ago. If you were really lucky, you were sacrificed inside this cave so that the rain might fall on your brethren. And indeed, there were the skeletons and pottery to hold the blood supposedly untouched on the ground before you.
Tikal is one of the largest and most important Mayan archeological sites and it’s located in the heart of the northern Guatemalan rain forest. The site began to grow in earnest around 200 AD until it reached a peak around 830 AD. Soon after, it began a precipitous decline, most likely because of drought, but also because of abuse of the environment, no natural water sources except for rain, and lack of a source for salt to support such an expanding population (at its peak it probably reached 90,000 people). This UNESCO World Heritage site covers 6.2 sq. miles and is composed of approximately 3000 structures, most of which have not been unearthed. The largest of these are truly impressive, especially the way they rise out of the top of the jungle. One is impressed at how aware almost all ancient people were aware of the sky. A few of the pyramids are constructed solely for astronomical purposes and mark the seasons in a way not unlike Stonehenge. I could see why so many people gathered in Tikal to celebrate the end of the Mayan calendar cycle (the End of the World!) last December 21, 2012.
Ok, now for some more truth.
Letter to a Friend; The Baldfaced Truth
I’ve been back from Belize (and Guatemala) for a couple days and I’m still processing my experience there. I’m unsure what to make of it yet.
I know I had some experiences that, removed from any unpleasantness, will be remembered in really good light. I snorkeled in an amazing coral reef that teemed with schools of fish in glorious florescent colors and turtles and crabs and stingrays and barracudas, and I hugged a shark after we fed the ravenous beasts and jumped into the water with them. I had an “extreme caving adventure” where we swam over our heads in cool black waters and then over rocks in our bare feet (no shoes or cameras allowed) nearly a mile total underground to see the skeletons of Mayan sacrifices to the rain God before they died from drought 1100 years ago. And I went over to Guatemala to Tikal, probably the most important Mayan archaeological site, deep in the Guatemalan jungle (oh, this is real jungle) and climbed the highest pyramid there. I also saw the pyramid which stood in the path of the sun during winter solstice and where thousands gathered to await the End of the World last December. OK.
The one sunny day of nine was the day we went to the reef. Nice. The next day was cloudy but I had an interesting experience having a beach massage by a Rastafarian man. He was as unselfconsciously rude to every female passerby as any drag queen I’ve seen in my life. He was using a table, apparently owned by his friend – a 350 pound woman with whom he spoke a pigeon English that I could barely understand. This was interesting to me because one of the six stories in Cloud Atlas is written in a (obviously different) pigeon English. What I could understand though was incredibly vulgar. The obese woman was jealous he had gotten my business and kept ranting next to us “woo ev’r eared of a mon be touchin’ ‘nother mon nay! F****** unnatral! Yoo gittin a f******* hard on yet de touchin dis guy? He be sexy ‘nough for yoo?” The massage ended in half the time we agreed on, but that was fine because while the massage was fake, the experience was interesting,and I’d gotten the gist.
The next seven days it poured rain, and it was about this time that I began Dante’s descent into Hell.
Rain + Earth = Mud. Mud, Mud, MUD!! Rain + mosquitoes and ticks = plagues of mosquitoes and ticks. Naturally, our first stop was the (admittedly well done) Belize National Zoo. It was there that my unsuspecting (ignorant!) self alighted into insect central wearing shorts and no Deet. Mosquitoes and flies and ticks LOVE LOVE LOVE me!! I’m insect repellent for everyone else! My blood is TASTY! I knew I was being bitten, but not that anything was going to try and burrow under my skin. I left the zoo not really knowing yet how bad the situation was, and my descent was accompanied by two fiercely brave and cheerful Angels of Survivalism masquerading as young British hitchhikers that we stopped for because it was rainy. [They were undergoing training as “Expedition Leaders” and had even spent a night alone and abandoned in the jungle in the rain with nothing to repel the insects but a “fire” they would make (!) and smoke them out, no shelter and no water except from the sky]. Anyway, when we (I was accompanied by my French friend Philippe who is not as tasty to insects) arrived at the Lower Dover Jungle Lodge I was needing to pull little black things out of my legs and massive itching ensued. The next day we took our arduous “extreme” caving adventure, while the rain continued outside. The next night the owner of the lodge remarks upon seeing my legs, which were only getting worse as each wound festered, and the mosquitoes were gathering in west central Belize upon hearing news of my arrival, that “Oh, didn’t I give you guys mosquito nets? Those cabins aren’t mosquito proof, but we don’t always think of it because they don’t seem to bother us.” That’s probably why she had never heard of hydrocortisone cream. By the way, Philippe says he found a mosquito in his apartment, during a Paris winter, a full day after his arrival. The mosquito nomad thought he was in MY suitcase!
OK, so the next day I gather my gumption to head off to Tikal and Guatemala with Philippe and a fellow Jungle Lodge traveler who needed a lift. This was an expensive border crossing because a lawyer has to be procured to allow the rental car into Guatemala. Anyway, we arrive at a truly spectacular archaeological site. In the rain. We hired an over the top pleasing guide who we decided we could understand best if he just spoke Spanish. Now comes something I don’t think I told you. I’ve been experiencing some strange health symptoms the last few months. A heaviness in my lungs and an occasional heart arrhythmia. So, half way through this hike in the rainy insect laden jungle I find myself short of breath. Holy s***, I’m having trouble keeping up. I’m getting dizzy. This was made worse by the fact that each step was into two inch thick mud and leaves and one wrong move and your face is in it. Philippe, gentleman that he is, offers to carry my bag as if he were my boyfriend and I let him. [Aside to my blog readers: I had an easy diagnosis upon my return. My blood pressure meds were causing my blood volume to fall. My heart didn’t have enough blood to pump. Off those meds now and back to normal] I make it to the top of the highest pyramid one step at a time. At the top I pray to the Gods in thanks for giving me such a palace of a home (the one in Michigan) and I reflect on the pathetic life of the Mayan slaves.
–during this time we come upon our Survivalists two more times in random places across Belize–
Back at the Jungle Lodge. I cower under my mosquito net. I can’t help but scratch my legs until they nearly bleed. There is a mosquito bite inside my lip (?!) and it’s swollen. I’m filthy, muddy, exhausted, and half my clothes are soaked because, as of course you know, by definition nothing will dry when it’s 100% humidity. I yearn for a hot shower but it lies outside among the mosquitoes and across muddy jungle; even the toilet is in an outhouse. Meanwhile, the hippy family running the place is moseying about nonchalantly, even Philippe is not too bothered, my new Survivalist friends are probably racing the leeches across the Mopan River, the Belizean children are playing in the dark rain next to the highway, and I even have a nomad friend who is living his life out of a backpack without much money (that’s you). [Another note to blog readers: political incorrectness ahead. Although I’m gay, does that give me the right to say this? Probably not.] Please excuse what I’m about to say because it is wrong on so many levels, but do you know how I felt? I felt like a f****** sissy. I could hear my fellow boy scouts taunting me from back in my childhood. Was I a poser adventurer? I was down on myself.
My ascent from Hell took 48 hours of plane travel through cancelled flights and snowstorms. Still, I think there might be a God because every time I took a moment to think grateful thoughts for any kindness showed to me, another angel showed up.
Here is a thought that come to mind:
–I could take you on a tour of my house at the moment and give talks about my appreciation for each object. I have FOUR (! insanity for sure) indoor toilets, one which is ten feet from my bed. A DRYER for my clothes and not just a machine that cleans my clothes but also my dishes for God’s sake! I have a garbage disposal that grinds up food that’s “extra” and sends it down the sewer system, never to be seen again, by me at least, like magic. Tropical plants thrive here, but nary an insect in sight. I have two big flats screened TVs which I can watch in comfort during the blizzard outside.