And then there was Felix
Time to get the hell outta Dodge
OK, well, I managed to avoid Hurricane Dean, but it looks like Felix might be a direct hit. Dagger!
Today was spent hurriedly getting off Ambergris Caye, where I'd been lounging in the lap of luxury with my DC peeps Josh & Kathryn. Nobody's entirely sure how bad this one will be, but it was looking like all international flights might be canceled tomorrow, so J&K came home day early and I split as well. They've pretty much evacuated the Cayes and are boarding up windows in Belize City. Everyone is glued to the Weather Channel, which in addition to showing mostly-useless updates is also featuring lots of People Who Died In Severe Storms-type shows. Just what we all need, more drama!
I took a bus (a nice one! with air conditioning!) two hours west to the town of San Ignacio, which is close to the Guatemalan border. Unfortunately everyone else in the country seemed to have the same idea and I had a REALLY hard time getting a room. I finally found one, and plan to hunker down here for a few days. I don't think there will be any major issues this far inland, but keep yer fingers crossed and I'll check in when I can!
A festive hurricane party
You Better Belize It!
Today we got the bad news that another hurricane is headed this way. Buzzkill! They can't quite decide whether Hurricane Felix is going to be a category 4 or 5, but it looks like Belize is straight in its path, including the Cayes and Belize City. Nobody's making any moves yet, but we're all watching the Weather Channel to see what develops.
After our morning dive, and another relaxing afternoon spent poolside, we clustered around the bar for the afternoon deluge and got to know some new friends from LA: Matt, a TV writer; James, an animation artist who's about to be awarded an Emmy; and Veronica, a flight attendant not at all in the industry. We had a great time imbibing Brian's lethal rum punches and even more lethal tequila shooters, waiting out the rain and swatting away mosquitoes galore. Nobody was much in the mood for any complex dinner maneuvers, so we ordered a bunch of pizzas and retired to Matt/James/Veronica's room where we polished off the rest of the wine and some other treats. (And hopefully we didn't get Steven the Pizza Guy fired.)
Kathryn and I adjourned to the pool, where we were eventually joined by the three boys and then Mark, who foolishly accepted Josh's request for more wine, plus cigars and Grand Marnier. Yikes. Those of us in the pool discussed dam(n) sectors and Hollywood's best terrorist plots and other profound topics. Mark and Josh smoked the cigars and geeked out to their own conversations. Eventually the chilly wind and severe pruning drove us back to the pool deck to dry out a bit, at least as far as our skin was concerned. Just how much booze did we all put away that night?
Sharks, rays, and MOUNs
A memorable trip through the Fire Swamp
This is the kind of day travelers live for. True embodiment of the credo "As long as you have a good story to tell, it was allllllll worth it."
We began the day with a series of lovely dives. First to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, for a nice shallow dive where we saw two huge rays and a handful of other critters. It wasn't nearly as spectacular as the diving in Utila, but we all agreed that a mellow dive would be a good way for Josh & Kathryn to get back in the groove after not diving for over a year. We saw a bunch of nurse sharks approach the boat as well. Then we snorkeled for a bit at "Shark Ray Alley" where we saw neither sharks nor rays. But it was an entertaining way to spend a half hour. Next, we headed over outside the reef for a deeper dive in Paradise Canyons. (I could hear the folks at Alton's screaming "Hey! You're supposed to do your deeper dive first!" but as usual was able to ignore the voices in my head and thoroughly enjoyed the dive.) Not sure if it was due to the recent Hurricane Dean, or because divemaster Tony wasn't really big on pointing stuff out, but we didn't really see a whole lot. I have been totally spoiled by my week on Utila!
We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging by the pool, sipping some potent rum-based beverages from bartender Brian, and enjoying the fact that we seemed to be the only ones at the resort. The place is meticulously run by a family from Connecticut (Fairfield County in the hizzouse!) and we had several pleasant chats with matriarch Marilyn and her husband Mark. Nice people. Very relaxing place. After a hot shower (joy!) it was time for dinner.
We'd spent the previous night at the swank Capricorn restaurant just up the beach, so we decided to rent a golf cart and go into the town of San Pedro. Marilyn had warned us that the road was "a little rough" due to the recent storm, but once we got past the first 500 yards or so, it should get better. Armed with two large flashlights and a can of Deep Woods Off, we set out down the driveway, Josh driving, me navigating, and Kathryn in the back seat hanging onto our stuff.
The road was fine at first, and we assumed Marilyn had been overly cautious, until it started to get a bit bumpy with a few puddles in the road. We'd also been warned about getting through the water hazards with some degree of speed, so as not to stall the cart, so Josh, a seasoned golf cart driver, was taking the road at a brisk clip. All seemed fine until we approached a series of gigantic puddles that took up the entire width of the road. We made it past the first one, only to get completely stuck in the second. Dagger! With the cart listing at a not-so-jaunty 45-degree angle, there was no choice to get out and push. I stepped off (not a far step, my side was perilously close to the fetid water) and squooshed into sulphurous mud up to my ankles. Ewwww! Nearly lost a flip-flop to the thick muck. It was decided that Josh would get behind and push while I attempted to find the elusive balance of enough gas to get us out, but not so much that the tires would spin futilely. It was stressful, to say the least. Poor Josh was in back, sucked into the most disgusting swampy mixture nearly up to his knees. Kathryn was attempting to swat vast clouds of mosquitoes away and wielded the Off bottle like a champ. I was doing my best to gain enough traction to get us out of this mess, and I'd just started to feel some forward momentum when I heard Josh yell "Let off the gas!!!" I did, but not quickly enough to prevent him from getting coated with a flurry of slurm. Oops! Never mind, we were moving forward, keep your foot on the gas, let's get outta here. Josh hopped into the front seat and we made our way out of there. A bicyclist heading in the opposite direction took one look at us, silently turned around, and hurried in the other direction.
We managed to make our way into town, Josh yelling out directions to help me avoid further pitfalls, and only got stuck once on a huge chunk of hurricane debris. By the time we reached Elvi's Restaurant in San Pedro, we were exhausted, sweaty, completely covered in mosquito bites, and coated in varying degrees of sulphurous muck and slurm. We, and particularly Josh, looked and smelled fantastic. Somehow they let us into the restaurant, and after a glass or two of wine, we dissolved into hysterical giggles recounting what we'd just been through. Thank god I have friends who are cool enough to laugh at this kind of misadventure! Love you guys!
The meal was over far too quickly as we gathered our courage to go back the way we'd come. We did consider leaving the golf cart in town and taking the ferry back, but decided that if we'd made it through the Fire Swamp once, we could do it again. We'd been clever enough to discover what the lightning mud looks like. And at least there weren't any Rodents of Unusual Size, not that we'd seen, anyway. Nope, no ROUSs, just MOUNs: Mosquitoes of Unusual Number. We can do this! Go team!
We did manage to make it back, and got stuck only once, in pretty much the same swampy place as last time. (There was just no avoiding it!) But knowing that we'd made it out once, we knew we could do it again. There was an instant, when Josh was once again doing his manly duty of pushing from the back of the cart, where I heard him cry out and thought perhaps he'd thrown out his back or something. But he was only reacting with disgust at having his entire leg sink into the foul mud. Grody.
When we got back to White Sands, we made sure to take a few pics of the destruction (both on ourselves and all over the golf cart) and entertained Marilyn and Mark with our tale. Marilyn decided she'd better give a more strenuous warning to the next poor sods to rent a cart. Yes, perhaps. And make sure they take along an extra can of Off. Ours was just about out.
Never a dull moment!
Onward and upward to Belize
Several rookie mistakes, en route to a couple days of pampering
Whew, today was a travel day of a different sort. Let us count the ways:
1. Air travel. Oh yeah, I remember that! You don't get on a bus but instead fly through the air in a pressurized metal tube. And get harassed by the petty indignities of airport passage... security screenings, higher border crossing fees, angry airport employees who resent you for your very existence, irritated sunburnt American tourists. Good times!
2. Meeting up with friends, yay! On the other end of all this fun was a rendezvous with my friends from DC, Josh and Kathryn, who ::ahem:: were the only ones brave enough to meet up with me on this junket. I was really looking forward to seeing them.
3. Someone else in charge. For the first time on this trip, I was relinquishing the project manager role and handing over all responsibility to J&K, who'd made nearly all the arrangements for the next few days. Even though Josh had sent me all the information about the resort we'd be staying at, and various transfer details, I'd decided to just show up. It was a deliciously guilty pleasure to not know exactly what was coming next.
So, I said goodbye to Utila and Alton's, and made my way to the airport. Annie, the marvelous travel agent Alton's works with, had brilliantly booked me a direct flight from Utila to Belize City, allowing me to avoid taking the ferry to La Ceiba *and* saving me some money in the process. I LOVE this place! The taxi was a bit late, and then the guy stopped at his house for "just 20 minutes" to hang out with his wife and kid and have a cup of coffee. Ehm, excuse me? My flight leaves at 7:30! It's 7:15 now! No worries, he assured me. They'd called the airport and the flight wouldn't be leaving until 8am. The airport is "muy pequeño, muy pequeño. Está bien." Right, I'm sure the airport is quite small, but I'm not sure what that has to do with me making my flight. But if you say so, I'm sure it'll all be fine.
We arrived at the airport -- HAH! more like a short tarmac strip with a forlorn shack at one end -- and in fact the flight didn't arrive until after 8am. I sat in the taxi for a while and got completely eaten alive by mosquitoes. One last fond farewell, thanks so much. When the plane touched down, the taxi drove over onto the tarmac and helped me load my bag in. Nobody even asked for my ticket. We just took off. Beats the hell outta the torturous security line at Dulles, I'll tell ya that!
Well, it turns out the concept of "directo" is about the same with planes as it is with buses. You may stop a few times and pick up or drop off people, but you probably won't need to change vehicles. We touched down on Roatán, in La Ceiba, and also in San Pedro Sula before heading onto Belize. At La Ceiba we actually had to get off the plane and go through customs, immigration, and security. All at an incredibly rushed clip because the flight was about to take off again any minute! No stress there! I'd totally forgotten to save enough Lempiras (Lemmywinks!) for my exit tax and had to hit the ATM. While there I noticed that it also offered an option for dollars. Hmmmm, this might be a good time to replenish my supply of greenbacks. The Atlantic Airlines rep was hovering nervously over my shoulder so I didn't take as much time as I should have, and failed to notice that even though I selected the "dollars" option, the machine asked me for the amount in Lempiras. Rookie Mistake! So I was a bit shocked to see a big pile of Lemps come spilling out of the machine. There was a bank nearby but it wasn't open yet, and I had to get a move on. So I took my wad of Lemmywinks and hoped I'd be able to exchange it later. I still have 'em, if anybody's interested in some cambio action.
Next step was immigration, where I had to fill out the usual inane form and get a new stamp in my passport. I was once again rushed enough not to notice what page the woman had actually placed the stamp (Rookie Mistake #2! you know better by now!) and so got to stand there nervously while the security staff paged through every single sheet of my passport looking for the damn thing. And just as I was going through the security machines, I realized I'd forgotten to take out my Swiss Army Knife and pack it with my checked stuff. Rookie Mistake #3! Of course they confiscated it, which was no big deal because I can easily get another one when I return home. But it was completely unnecessary. Thank god I am sure J&K will be bringing their own corkscrew with them. ;)
Finally, I was able to get back on the plane, and there was no more drama until we reached Belize. I had a few hours to kill before Josh & Kathryn's flight arrived, so I sat up in the "Waving Gallery" and caught up on my journal entries. Or at least tried to. Didn't get very far due to a handful of distractions. First, an entire Belizean extended family gathered to wave goodbye to Auntie Somethingorother. A dozen children screaming and waving in unison. It was most amusing. Next, THE biggest bug I have ever seen (even bigger than the cucarachisima in Tortuguero, people!) flipped over on its back on the ground in front of my picnic table. I don't know what this thing was, some kind of beetle or something. Its flat back looked like a huge brown leaf, at least three inches long and almost as wide. Its creepy hairy legs wiggled furiously in the air, as it attempted futilely to right itself. I couldn't take my eyes off it, and I couldn't believe nobody else noticed it. The Belizean family tromped around it, oblivious. I was sure some small child would accidentally get too close and have his or her foot swallowed whole by this monstrosity. After a few minutes, I was almost rooting for the thing to get upright just so I could see what the hell it was. Alas, a guy noticed it and scooped it up between two pieces of cardboard and took it away. Bummer.
And finally it was time for the flight from Miami to arrive. I waited with all the other anxious family members, hoping to get a glimpse of my friends so I could wave to them as they walked from the plane into the airport. Unfortunately I didn't get to wave like an idiot because they didn't look in my direction, but I did manage to give them each a huge hug and kiss once they made it through immigration and customs. Yaaaaaaay! Friends from home! It was a bit surreal to have these two worlds collide in the middle of the Belize City airport. But I was thrilled to see them.
We hopped a quick Mayan Island Air flight to Ambergris Caye and were greeted by a taxi from our resort. Following a quick supermarket stop (gotta stock up on wine, don'cha know) we caught a private boat to White Sands Cove, an absolutely beautiful resort on the northern end of the Caye. Those of you who have been following along with my adventures will understand when I tell you just how exciting it was to have a hot shower with actual hot water! Not to mention two, count 'em, two fluffy towels to use after said shower. And a whole different set of beach towels! Plus, water that could be drunk directly from the tap. Oh, the luxury of it all. Yes, this'll do.