Traveling the Yucatan and Central America on $20 USD a day
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Snorkle tours, local lifestyle and lobster hunger that can’t be sated

By: Laura Lazorski

It’s a good thing that Caye Caulker is so nice because I couldn’t get out of Belize City fast enough. It had a mangy film to it that the ferry to Caye Caulker blasted away with saltspray. The water got clearer and clearer as we progressed to the island, and after a short 30 minutes we pulled into a wind beaten dock in the white sun. The water here was clear as an aquarium, and silver fish cut by. I saw a barracuda circle suspiciously.

People are friendly on the island, and almost immediately we were being led to a hostel, called Dirty McNasty’s, by a local, named Gilbert. He does get incentive to scout for hostels (wink). But beyond that he is friendly as are the other islanders. Here, when you refuse sellers’ wares they just wave hello next time they see you rather than pushing the goods anew. They remember you, and you all end up at the split or the reggae bar later on.

The split is where everyone goes to swim. It is a deep channel carved by a hurricane that tore the island in two a long time ago. Supposedly, a crocodile lives there too, but I never saw him. There is a fun bar there, and a cement breaker, and everyone flops around drinking Belikin in the shallows or while treading water from the dock’s edge. The island’s motto is go slow. You see it scrawled over cement or worked into tour advertising schemes. Go slow the people remind you. It is a walking island except for a few ATV’s, so the people you pass all have a measured gait and an eye to the horizon. “Go slow, girl” they remind me as I hurry from the split to the hostel. It took a while to settle in, and I slowly began to wonder “where was I rushing to all the time?”

I came to Caye Caulker with the intent to get my open water diver’s certification. But alas, when we checked on the price it had gone up $100 and now cost an expensive $400 U.S. to be certified. Boo. We went to every dive shop on that island and of the few that even offered the class, $400 was the lowest quote. It was just too much. So unfortunately the mysteries of the deep would not yet be revealed to me. I did, however, book a snorkel tour on a real sailboat with Raggamuffin tours. Raggamuffin is located on the main street, just past the head of Crocodile street, and there I signed up to snorkel the Hol Chan Marine Reserve as well as shark ray alley and the coral gardens.

It’s said that coral reef at Hol Chan is just smaller than the Great Barrier reef, but more developed because it has been protected for longer. It certainly was a sight. Since the reefs are not in too deep of water, snorkeling is actually a pretty great way to tour them. I saw hawksbill sea turtles, moray eels, nurse sharks, sting rays, and many exceptional fish.

The guides were good too. Mine had two extremely long dreadlocks that were easy to follow under water. Whenever he’d see something of interest he would point to it and then gesture everyone up to the surface. He’d surface, drop the snorkel and call out the name. “Sergeant major fish, people. Sergeant major fish.” And then he’d pop the snorkel back in and dive down, scouting for more. He knew where they lived and what they ate so he could really draw some neat creatures out of their holes (like the moray eel), and yet he was very respectful of their environment too. When anyone swam too near the turtles he would gently stop them and gesture away. There’s a great respect for the reefs and reef life that I was happy to witness and participate in.

Though the Raggamuffin crew made sure we had a great time, with drinks and fresh fruit and confident guides, they could not ensure the mystic manatee would visit. The elusive sea cow was on the lam that day, and was one mammal I could not cross off my bucket list. The tour was absolutely worth it, and you don’t want to go to Belize without seeing their fantastic reefs. Do take Dramamine if you get seasick though because I watched a poor lady have just the worst time ever, so sick on the sea.

Another bonus to being on Caye Caulker this time of year was lobster for every meal. And that is what I had, and each night I had it in a different place. I had it at Wish Willie’s and at Rose’s too. But then I fell in with some islanders and heard that Enjoy Bar was the place to go. And it was. Get there a little before you are really hungry because they make you wait for it, but it is worth the wait. Wish I had one right now. The remainder I can’t believe I’m about to write. The Coca-Cola down there is exceptional. I don’t know if it’s the giant 500ml glass bottles with their perfect-fit long straws, or the fact that it’s made with real sugar. But they really are refreshing and easy on the stomach. And I don’t’ even drink Coke in the States! But down there I got what’s known as Belize belly, and lobster and Coca-Cola were just about the only two things I could stomach then.

We finished our stay on Caye Caulker by checking out two bikes and cruising the island. I wished we had done this sooner because it is the best way to check out the island. There were many lovely docks and homes out past the airport. I was fascinated with the above sea-level graveyards that were looking east out over the water. A grave marked the sunrise and sunset of one Crispin Rosado. I stepped back and to the side to see for myself the view that his headstone faced. The wind whipped the palms that neatly framed the sea, and far off the waves rolled in.

Backpack, rain jacket, sturdy walking boots and my iPod -- my essentials.

When traveling in Latin America, 200 km can quickly turn into a four-hour bus ride. But I don’t mind. In fact, I really love the travel days. Racing to be first on the bus and have my pick of the seats. Second-class buses vary wildly in the quality spectrum and in order to have the best window views you need to get in there early. Once I’ve found the perfect row, I settle down into the bucket and wriggle around until I find a position where I can stare out the window, doze off to sleep occasionally and access my backpack with ease — it’s a difficult task, but one of luxury and one that I relish.

Backpack, rain jacket, sturdy walking boots and my iPod -- my essentials.

Backpack, rain jacket, sturdy walking boots and my iPod — my essentials.

Long bus rides are a sort of meditation for me. I generally don’t like to talk during them, which is something Xavi is beginning to realize. Sometimes I shut my eyes and recline my seat to spend the ride drifting in and out of sleep. Other times I’ll have my notebook out and write lists or thoughts or begin working on short stories that I most likely will never finish. But the constant is my shiny purple 16gb  iPod nano. I take it out of my backpack and carefully unravel the cable of my earphones and switch the lock button off. I form the soft purple foam to fit my the shape of my ears and block out all the noise on the bus. Then I choose something to listen to — this is the most difficult part, but nothing is more obvious than when I know I’ve chosen the right music. Sometimes I won’t be paying much attention to what’s playing, but then there is the moment when it seems as though there is magic in the air and your hair stands on end and you can think of nothing else than how incredibly lucky you are that someone has created music for this exact moment. And I can’t help but smile, I’m horrible at hiding my emotions.

I watch the window and listen to the music passively; I do a lot of thinking on bus trips. I don’t necessarily think of specific things. Thoughts, memories and ideas pass through my mind as quickly as the trees pass through my window. I’ll occasionally latch onto one for a moment but soon I get lost in the scenery again. And then my meditation breaks as I notice the music and right then I am completely enamored by  the ability of musicians, after all these years, to still create music that is new and affecting.

Driving down the coast from Campeche to Sabancuy I watched out the windows as the pelicans would swoop down to graze the water searching for fish as other seabirds spiral-dived straight down 20 or 30 feet into the water to reappear with fish in their beaks. The pelicans would then follow suit. The palm trees were blowing in the wind and the waves were crashing with the shore. I was listening to Beirut’s ‘Port of Call’ and all of a sudden the view out of my window took to the music — the birds were diving in rhythm, trees were passing my field of vision to the beat of the song and the electric wires we were speeding past stretched and dipped from pole to pole like lines on a sheet of music and I could swear it was perfect. And it’s times like this where you realize music is sometimes the missing element to turn something ordinary into something spectacularly inspiring.

Generally, music is superfluous when I’m traveling — a sleep aid, a way to kill time — but there are times when the music unexpectedly becomes the driving force of a moment that otherwise would have passed unnoticed. Not to say I don’t love music or it isn’t a major part of my life. But when I travel and I’m seeing new places and people, I think sounds are a major part of the experience — the local soundtrack.

But there are certainly times that are bettered by my own musical offerings. There really are no better albums than The Best of Leonard Cohen, Explosions in the Sky, Chet Baker or Townes Van Zandt Live at the Old Quarter to slip into your ears and usher you to sleep on a long overnight drive. Or maybe if I don’t want to sleep but just relax and watch the window I listen to Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom,  Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Lou Reed. When it comes to writing I find inspiration and motivation in Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg, MIles Davis or John Coltrane. And what could possibly be more inspiring than Otis Redding’s voice aching out of the small portable speakers when it’s late at night and you’re sitting on the beach drinking your fourth rum and Coke — the stars are the brightest you’ve ever seen, the edge of the galaxy stretches wide and nearly opaque across the black sky. You can’t help thinking that the water lapping at your feet, slowly burying them in the cool, wet sand, connects you to all the water across the planet — including the small stream you spent summer afternoons playing in as a child in Ohio. It’s impossible to articulate the intensity of emotions that surface at this moment.

In fact, Otis Redding can find his match in nearly any moment or situation; the ability of his voice to provoke so many intense and unexpected emotions is astonishing. The next time you’re feeling down, I challenge you to sit outside at night by yourself, drink a bottle of wine and listen to You Don’t Miss Your Water — just wait and see what you start figuring out.