Can chairs look longingly?

There are two routes from Placencia in the south of Belize City further north. One goes way inland first, the other is the Coast Highway. Google said we should take the Coast Highway and I had no problem with that. Google knows everything there is to know. It’s the closest thing there is to omnipotence.

After refuelling our Renault Duster at the only petrol station in the country outside of Belize City (or so it seemed) Google, via Emma, directed me to turn right. I would have. I mean I meant to and all, but the road where Google thought we ought to go didn’t show any outward indication of being a highway. The road where Google thought we should go was dirt and rock and potholes, so I drove straight past it.

One should not argue with omnipotence however and Google soon made known its displeasure at our lack of obedience. The dirt and rock and potholed road was the Coast Highway and we were being directed to drive it. So we did a U-turn, lest google become upset and withdraw its services as a form of retribution.

Onto the Coast Highway we went. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective, our journey along the inappropriately named highway was not as exciting as I have built it up to be. It was 60 kilometres of bumping along, crossing bridges that looked like they would fall down the moment we added the weight of the Renault and of wondering who had stolen away all the other people of the world.

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The smooth section of the Coastal Highway

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The best bridge

It would have made for a better story if an errant rock had ripped a hole in one of our tyres, the spare tyre was flat, and we had to traipse through the jungle in search of friendly locals to help us make our way out of the Belizean wilderness. But that didn’t happen. We got to the other end safe and sound and I imagined Google sternly reprimanding me for my lack of faith.

At the northern end of the highway, just thirty minutes from Belize City is the Belize Zoo. The Belize Zoo says the Belize Zoo is the best little zoo in the world. So we stopped in. There were lots of cool Belizean animals, all in very natural looking habitats and all rescued from unnatural early deaths rather than plucked from the wild for anthropocentric amusement.

The coolest critters were the tapirs, Belize’s national animal. They are the cutest, ugly, animal and very personable despite warnings that fingers poked into their enclosure may not remain attached to the owner’s hand. When we showed up the tapirs came over to say hello, long protruding snouts circling in the air like mini elephant trunks and giving their mouths the appearance of grinning inanely. There were also jaguars and a different toucan to the ones we spotted in Guatemala with a fantastic bright yellow beak.

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Isn’t it cute??

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This jaguar was the only one awake – he was handsome

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The Belize national bird – the flying banana

Post zoo, we dropped off our hire car and headed for the Belize Express ferry terminal for a journey to Caye Caulker. We scoffed down left over bagels, cream cheese and a tomato for lunch before boarding a brightly coloured ferry which we strongly suspected had less than half the number of lifejackets required. This however did not warrant dwelling on. If the ship went down, at least the water would be warm.

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Civilised lunch?

Forty-five minutes later and without cause to test our theory on the lifejackets, Caye Caulker came into view with its brightly coloured low lying buildings, myriad of jetties, palm trees, and waters displaying the appropriate shades of turquoise and blue. We were picked up in a golf cart, the fastest and most powerful vehicle on the island, and driven through a maze of sandy roads.

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The ferry terminal on Caye Caulker

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Caye Caulker transport

Some places you go are unpolished and rough around the edges and they are unpleasant as a result. Other places other unpolished and rough around the edges and they are charming as a result. What makes the difference is beyond me, but Caye Caulker was charming from the outset and kept my camera snapping.

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A typical street

Our apartment was up the end of the island, right next door to a tiny airstrip where a Cessna sized plane landed or departed maybe once or twice a day. Our hosts showed us how to operate the Netflix which we later availed ourselves of to watch Toy Story, Star Wars and the Karate Kid and handed us a bottle of oil which they promised would help stop the sand-flies from making a meal out of us. It didn’t, but perhaps it made it better than it would otherwise have been.

The events of the following four days are now something of a blur but generally entailed rolling out of bed in the morning when we felt like it (I am going to miss that next year), schoolwork, exploring the island on bikes with seats so low your knees felt like they were spinning around your ears, swimming and eating pasta with red sauce and a salad because it was the only complete meal which could be assembled from the local supermarkets.

Our preferred swimming spot was on the back side of the island just around the corner from what is known as The Split. It’s called The Split because it’s where a hurricane literally split the island in half.

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The Split

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Our preferred swimming spot – the camera stayed dry too

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Velvet waters at The Split

Here there is a rustic old jetty which sags and slopes and which to outward appearance was constructed progressively in the absence of any masterplan and is therefore imbued with character which cannot be consciously created. Upon the jetty sat four or five equally rustic chairs, with peeling paint revealing grey and weathered wood. The chairs looked longingly over glassy tropical waters.

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Can chairs look longingly?

We often made our way here late in the afternoon. We would lock our bikes beneath a palm tree on the corner of the sandy road, walk out upon the jetty, strip off and dive in. The water was neither too warm nor too cold and looking back to shore was to look back on old barnacle encrusted boats, palm trees and a little old thatched roof shelter, all illuminated in the golden glow of the late afternoon.

As we swam the sun would drift slowly toward the horizon and afternoon turn to evening. Amy and Oliver would climb all over Emma and I, and leap off my shoulders and it sometimes occurred to me as all this went on that I felt happy. I realised, without meaning to, that I was where I wanted to be and with whom I wanted to be there and it was all just so perfect that there was no point contemplating the past or fretting about the future.

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Happy kids

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Walking on water?

Of course, it didn’t last. ‘This too shall pass’ goes the old adage, and so it did. Someone got hungry, or someone got tired or the light dipped just below optimal signalling it was time to go. We would dry off on the old jetty, unlock our bikes and pedal back through town, picking up pasta, red sauce and salad again for dinner.

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Caye Caulker scenery

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Jetties some functional, some not

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Functional for sea gulls

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A perfect spot

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A really awesome DIY catamaran in front of crazy jetties

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A few miles out you can see the waves crashing on the reef

On our second day we signed up for a day’s snorkelling on the reef with ‘Carlos Tours’. I was most pleased when it turned out that Carlos took his tours out on his forty-foot catamaran and not a ten-foot bathtub with a ten-year-old outboard like all the other tour operators. I have developed a phobia of old outboards, particularly when I am reliant on them to transport me multiple kilometres back to terra firma.

They Gypsy Queen however was a sailing vessel and therefore had built-in propulsion redundancy and this pleased me greatly. Not to mention the fact that sailing is an inherently pleasurable way to travel. Perched upon the bow of the Gypsy Queen with warm winds billowing our sails was a hypnotic pleasure. The waters were not deep and the seagrasses, sand and coral of the ocean floor made for a swirl of colour beneath the swell.

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Hopping in

We stopped to snorkel three times during the day. The first time was just on the edge of a gap in the reef where the larger ocean swells swept into the inshore lagoon. The Gypsy Queen rose and fell on its anchor as we leapt overboard to snorkel just tens of metres from where the reef forced waves into crashing white water.

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Photo bombed!

The second snorkel of the day was a stop atop a seagrass meadow like the one we visited near the Silk Cayes. As the anchor was dropped a schools of nurse sharks, jack fish and rays swarmed the back of the yacht. There were masses of them. So many we had to jump in to the water a little to the side of the back of the boat to avoid landing directly on top of them.

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Crazy numbers of sharks

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It was busy in there

Like the Silk Caye trip, it was amazing to be in the water with so many sharks, fish, rays and turtles especially because there were lots more of all of them this time around. Our guides also had a thing for swimming up behind the big nurse sharks, giving them a hug and gently rolling them over onto their backs before massaging their bellies. They seemed to love it and just lay there totally relaxed as we came forward one by one to stroke them as well.

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Oliver with a shark

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They just relaxed in the guides arms

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The rays liked the sea grass too

When we were done, the sharks were rolled back the right way up where they seemed to wake up from a peaceful sleep and lazily slink off into the blue. We made a third stop at another smaller gap in the reef where we swum between corals overlooking a deep channel. A large green moray eel and multiple sea turtles including a loggerhead and a green were the best bits. We sailed back across the waters late in the afternoon as the sun slowly lowered itself.

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The moray eel – he was cool and a little creepy

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Eagle ray

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Greg and Amy watching a turtle

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Heading home

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Sailing girl

We left Caye Caulker after four days, returning the way we had come and still actively avoiding contemplation of the lifejacket situation on board the ferry. We were delivered to the airport in a hair raising and frenetic taxi ride where we perused the gift shops to use up every cent of our Belizean cash and changed into warmer clothes in anticipation of our arrival in the sub-zero temperatures of Toronto in winter.

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That’s us waiting in the airport

 

Posted in 2016 Trip | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Storm and sharks

‘Ahh Moses’, I said as I made up my mind. ‘I’m not comfortable with this. We’re going back to the island’.

Moses pulled his head up out of the water, looked around and nodded agreement, though he looked a little reluctant. Moses was our snorkelling guide and at the time we were about 250 metres off a tiny sand atoll known as the Silk Caye. Silk Caye was 26 kilometres from the mainland. We were on a snorkelling outing to Belize barrier reef.

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Trouble brewing in paradise

I wasn’t comfortable because a rain squall which had been looming off in the distance all morning had finally caught up with us. Bright blue skies had turned grey. Balmy zephyrs had become a stiff wind and glassy waters had become choppy and rough. Ten minutes beforehand I had looked up from the coral and asked if the approaching weather would be a problem. Moses didn’t seem to think so but instead of floating serenely over the reef we were now being bounced along in a one to two-foot swell with the occasional gulp of water splashing down snorkels.

Moses may not have thought it was a problem, but it wasn’t Moses’ children swimming in the middle of the ocean with a storm breaking overhead. We started swimming back to the island. It was hard going into the waves which kept slapping us about the face and pushing us in the other direction. It was better just to keep your head down looking at the coral where the wind and rain just seemed to disappear.

Our beautiful beachfront cabana back on the mainland at Placencia seemed a long way off. Placencia is a sleepy little town, accessed via a drive down a narrow sandy strip of land on a road with more speed bumps than the highways of Jordan.

Our cabana was a kilometre out of town, overlooking a large bay. It sat just metres from the water’s edge. Palm trees swayed overhead in the steady breeze and water lapped gently at the shore. There was a hammock hanging from the veranda and two chairs positioned with views up the beach on to the ever-changing hues of the horizon.

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Our cabana by the beach

The proprietors, Jacob and Tyrone, were super friendly and allowed us to use their paddle boards for free. Pleasant hours were spent paddling, swimming and clowning around in the calm waters between school work, reading books and writing blogs. The only downside was the world’s smallest sand-flies that munched us to pieces every time the wind dropped.

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Blogging, reading and waiting schoolwork

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Relaxing

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Kayaking

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Beautiful sunrises

Back out at sea, it took about twice as long to get back to the sandy Silk Caye as it had to swim away from it and without wishing to over dramatise the whole situation, I was relieved when we finally made the shallow sandy water where we could sit safely while the wind blew and the rain fell.

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Relieved we made it back to the Caye

How quickly things can change. The squall blew for another 15 minutes before passing over completely and the clear sunny skies returned. The boat which had delivered us 26 kilometres offshore to the Silk Cayes was nowhere to be seen. It was off on a scuba expedition with some other customers. Pelicans and ospreys fishing in the waters surrounding the island kept us entertained along with scores of hermit crabs which scurried here there and everywhere.

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Just a small hermit crab

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An osprey with a fish

When the sun was shining Silk Caye was the very vision of a tropical paradise. It was worth going out just to splash around in the green and blue waters as they swished upon the sandy shore. The atoll was surrounded by coral except at one end where sand made a friendly path out into the waters.

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Silk Caye

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Arriving in paradise

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So many awesome blues

On our first snorkel outing we circumnavigated the island taking about an hour to complete the lap. Amy has always been at home in water and this was no exception and Oliver surprised me with his ease and delight in exploring the underwater world.

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The underwater world

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Tricky family selfie

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No smiling – it makes your mask leak

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Looking closely at the reef

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Healthy coral

My favourite fish was a vicious looking barracuda who watched us pass as it sat motionless. Emboldened by its seeming lack of concern at our presence I swum a little closer. It reacted by opening its mouth wide, sharp teeth flashing and angling toward me. I backed off and hurried to catch up with the others while it disappeared into the hazy void.

Our boat returned to pick us up a short while after the bad weather had cleared and took us another mile seaward before dropping anchor seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The crew indicated we ought to don our gear and jump overboard. We did and landed in relatively shallow water.

The bottom was covered in sea grass, like a marine paddock. Fingers of light reached down to make the scene shimmer and shine. No coral here… but sharks everywhere. There were at least ten of them in view as soon as we hit the water. The spot is a regular stopping point for local fisherman to clean their catch and the sharks linger and wait for the home delivered meals.

They were nurse sharks and totally harmless but if you’ve never swum with sharks before, as we have not, it is a thrill to be suddenly in their midst. Some were big (two to three metres) others were smaller and they all glided silently around us and back and forward around the boat floating above.

Amy swum up behind me straight after taking the plunge, enthralled but full of nerves. Nerves however quickly became superfluous. Curiosity arose to take its place. It seemed we all wanted to know how close we dared to get without tempting fate.

Amy and her underwater camera were in full flight and the rest of us were keen to be featured in a picture with a shark (or three). Several eagle rays and southern sting rays also joined the scene and just when our time was up and we were being summoned to return to the boat a hawksbill sea turtle swam along and we were granted an extra 10 or 15 minutes in which to enjoy his or her company.

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Waiting for a snack

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The only sharks that can sit still

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Just swimming over some sharks

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Eagle ray

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Hawksbill turtle

Then, all too soon, it was over. We climbed back aboard our vessel and were whisked across the water back to Placencia. Another day done, another unforgettable experience.

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The ride home

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Nice

Posted in 2016 Trip, Belize | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Quit monkeying around

‘Hey you monkeys, quit monkeying around’, said Emma gazing up at two spider monkeys hanging from their tails high in the canopy of a forest in Guatemala and pushing each other around. Telling monkeys to quit monkeying around amuses me greatly. I love it and so I adopted it as my own and told every monkey we came upon after that to quit monkeying around, whether they were or not.

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These ones wouldn’t quit

We went to Guatemala for a day, because we could. Because it was there and so were we. Because how many times in your life do you wake up and say to each other, ‘hey want to go to Guatemala?’. Because it was a whole other country. Because 24 countries in a year is better than 23 and because while Belize has lots of Mayan ruins, Guatemala has the biggest and best Mayan ruins of them all – Tikal.

I still took some convincing though. Nobody told us Belize would be as expensive as Europe. Why is Belize as expensive as Europe? I feel I can be forgiven for assuming we could spend two weeks in Belize within the constraints of our budget, but apparently not. Especially if you decide to go to Guatemala for a day. Ouch.

Emma and I sat down and had a heart to heart about it one morning while Amy and Oliver were working on a lesson in botany. I had been busily adding up the price of re-establishing life at home and trying to reconcile that with the cost of going to Guatemala. The two however were not entirely congruous so we concluded that on balance we’re still more into buying experiences than we are buying stuff. Our new car probably won’t have a sunroof and there’s a good chance that door in the back of the garage, that we have been talking about for ten years, will be talked about for ten more. And that’s ok.

Luke, who picked us up early the next morning to take us to the border explained why everything was expensive in Belize. According to Luke it’s because Belize produces almost nothing, imports almost everything and the government slaps close to a 100% import duty on everything that comes across the border. He did say the literacy rate of the children is 97% or something – one positive for the high taxes.

He also blamed the high cost of everything on the entrepreneurial Chinese who relocated from Hong Kong to Belize at the time the British yielded their rule of said province to China who know how to buy in bulk and are snapping up all the supermarkets and forcing everyone else out of business. Luke was a font of information that may or may not be true on almost everything you may or may not ever have wanted to know. He was also funny and engaging and it was easy just to sit back and listen to him talk.

Luke has three daughters himself and once a year he makes a trip to the US to buy a new car for his business. While he is there he buys a year’s supply of shampoo and conditioner and other assorted goods which he loads into the new car until it is bursting at the seams. On the way home, some of the goods may become inducements for the officials at the border crossing to significantly reduce his import duty. All par for the course for life in Central America one supposes.

We didn’t need to provide inducements to the Guatemalan border officials to get into Guatemala fortunately, although Luke left me with the impression war between Guatemala and Belize could break out any time and I was coming rapidly to the conclusion that I didn’t want to be anywhere near the border when the shooting started.

Guatemala lays claim to a much larger slice of Belize than Belize and the rest of the world concede. Luke thinks this is funny, even though Belize has a population of 375,000 and Guatemala 14 million. He’s pretty sure Britain’s got their back. Many of us used to think the US had our back too. I wonder if that’ll stick come next January. But I digress.

The border crossing went smoothly. I was only nervous when Carlos, our guide on the Guatemalan side who we had known for all of 20 seconds, disappeared with all our passports to get them stamped. ‘But, but, but…’ I blundered softly to myself as he vanished. Fortunately, he reappeared ten minutes later and all was well. A passport in the hand is worth everything when you visit random Central American countries on the brink of war (it’s not, but Luke spun a good yarn).

An hour’s drive through the Guatemalan countryside ensued. Guatemala is a wealthy country Carlos told us, for five percent of the population who have a strangle hold on all the major industries and power. Not so much for the rest. Look what that lead the US to do. But I digress again.

We soon arrived at Tikal, one of the mightiest cities of the ancient Mayans. Ancient Maya was not, as I would have thought, one cohesive society but rather a bunch of warring city states (a bit like the ancient Greeks). I’m not sure which king of Tikal it was that saw fit to immortalise themselves through monumental structures of stone but it is a time-honoured method of shoring up your power base. No wonder Donald Trump has big plans for US infrastructure. But there I go, digressing again.

We watched a documentary on the Mayans the night before we went to Tikal and learnt about one Mayan King, somewhere in modern day Mexico I think, who ascended to the throne when just twelve years of age under less than perfect claims of inheritance. He solved the problem by declaring his mum to be a deity thereby making him the son of a Goddess. Perfect! He probably also went on to build a bunch of big stuff using the labour of the population at large to prove that what he said was true. There’s a simplicity to it which both beggars’ belief and is infallible in its internal logic.

Still, Mayan architecture has stood the test of time and Tikal is proof of that. It is a vast city of stone slowly but steadily being reclaimed from beneath the thick cover of the jungle. There is a better than even chance that every hillock in this landscape is sitting atop a Mayan structure, waiting to be unearthed.

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There is one under there waiting to be unearthed

It has an other worldly vibe to it which Steven Spielberg has known about for decades. In Episode IV of Star Wars the Millennium Falcon lands on Yavin 4, a jungly rainforest moon. It’s from here that the rebels commence their attack on the Death Star. That was filmed from the top of the unimaginatively named Temple IV, where we sat and soaked in the view with fifty of our closest friends. Carlos is fairly certain it will be closed to visitors in coming years as more and more people visit and the damage that does becomes too much to bear.

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How it looked to us

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How it looked in Star Wars Episode 4 – credit here

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With some of our closest friends

We also visited the central plaza of the ancient city with its steep sided temples standing proud again after the jungle has been meticulously peeled away. A short distance from that we visited the ancient king’s bedroom. A tiny room of about four by three metres wide which confirmed my long held view that the lifestyle of the average Australian today far exceeds that of the kings of old. Relativity is everything when it comes to wealth.

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The central plaza area

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More of the central plaza

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Walking through where the ‘nobles’ lived

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The jungle just keeps growing over it

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The King’s bedroom

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This shows the scale

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The stones below were to make offerings to the deities

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See the temple in the background?

Toucans fluttered here and there as we explored and they had me enthralled in equal measure with the ruins. The locals call them flying bananas which I think is a little unfair. Their magnificence is just wildly erratic, that’s all. You couldn’t invent a beak like that and if you did nobody would ever believe you. A toucan has no right to credibility other than the fact that it exists.

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The best picture (of at least 50)

I paid homage to the unlikely existence of the toucan by patiently snapping away at it to get a nice photo while the others relaxed in the shade of a tree and tried to drink enough water to replace that which was stolen away by the twenty-nine degrees of heat and nearly 100% humidity. There were other cool critters like the coatimundi (racoon relative) but we didn’t see the tarantula or boa constrictor that I had been hoping for, even if that was a long shot.

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The coatimundi or coati for short

We crossed back into Belize as easily as we passed the other way only this time I was more relaxed. Carlos had won me over and the automatic machine guns on the shoulders of the officials remained slung behind backs rather than cocked and ready suggesting that armed conflict was not imminent.

Luke picked us up on the Belize side and no sooner had our seatbelts gone click than he started telling us all about the Central American immigrants that flood across the Belizean border using it as a transit to the USA because Belize is the only central American country with an open border with the US. I couldn’t vouch for any of it but it was fascinating nonetheless. He also thought Donald’s wall along the Mexican border was hilarious and that it would soon collapse under its own weight from all the holes that would be dug beneath it.

The next day Amy and Oliver were swinging from the rafters. Literally, swinging from the rafters, so we needed to get out and about again. In downtown San Ignacio we found just the thing, a course in chocolatiering. As you will no doubt be aware, the ancient Mayans were one of the first, if not the first, to discover the cocao bean and our host was of Mayan descent.

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Literally!

We tasted our way through the whole process starting with the raw fruit, followed by the fermented and then sun-dried beans. After that we crushed and ground beans on an old-school style grinding stone into a smooth paste. Honey and hot water were added along with chilli, cinnamon and nutmeg to make our very own hot chocolate. It was superb.

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The place to go to learn about chocolate

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Ready to crush

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Nearly ready

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Just a dash of local honey

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Delicious

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Cheers to the Mayan chocolateirs

It wasn’t until 1800 and something that westerners started adding vast quantities of sugar to cacao to make the chocolate we all know and love. While the Belizean’s seem more than happy to export their crops for this purpose, they themselves suggested the cacao bean should be considered more akin to the coffee bean and enjoyed in its natural unsweetened state as their descendants did for thousands of years. As for me, sweetened or unsweetened, it’s all good.

 

 

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