Saturday, January 18, 2014

Carnival on the Caribbean - Belize City, Bannister Caye and the Barrier Reef

We moored this morning, a 10-minute tender ride off of Belize City. Today's main agenda was snorkeling on the barrier reef that runs the length of Belize, the second longest reef in the world, which has been on my wish list of destinations for a very long time.

We were picked up by a catamaran boatside. Everyone was issued the standard fins, snorkel and goggles. I was pleased to see the equipment was in good condition and very clean, which is not always the case for some operators. We were also issued a mandatory inflatable vest, though experienced snorkelers could deflate it upon entering the water. We tested equipment on the way to the reef while some couples writhed to Bob Marley, whose music is stuck in a loop track at a single station that broadcasts throughout the Caribbean.

Apparently, the snorkeling contingent included a bevy of well-endowed women in very small bathing suits. My wife noticed and pointed it out to me. I was polite and only looked at the covered up bits. Many, if not most, women would be mortified at being seen by a stranger in their underwear but can happily walk or dance around in a patch of fabric all day as long as it's marketed as a "bathing suit." Whereas my bathing suit looks exactly like my underwear, and I am perfectly comfortable walking to the mailbox every morning in either garment whilst scratching a cheek. Anyway, if all ladies' underwear was marketed as bathing suits, it might build body confidence in some women.

It was a nice outing and good snorkeling in 5-15 feet of water. There wasn't an overabundance of fish, and I didn't see the barracuda I was hoping to, but the water was very clear and the coral healthy.  What the fish lacked in numbers they made up for in diversity and color. There were some enormous conchs in the grass beds where we anchored, and I had visions of their occupants diced with tomatoes and peppers and sprinkled with lime. The sea urchins were particularly stunning, almost an azure blue black and with healthy looking spines. They preferred to nestle within the reef formations.

The guides used kayaks to herd the snorkelers into safe areas and away from the breakers on the ocean side of the reef. There should have been more than enough room for the hundred or so of us that got in the water, but no matter what I did or where I went I couldn't escape the oblivious human torpedoes whose mission was to seek out and sink all other swimmers. Nature abhors a vacuum, so separating yourself only attracted the rest of the herd through gravitational pull. I ran into Stacey a couple of times trying to avoid these people.

I still consider the Great Barrier Reef the best of the renowned coral reefs I've visited, though I preferred this Belize experience to snorkeling Ningaloo Reef off of Coral Bay, Western Australia. Ningaloo at the time (2010) had undergone a serious bleaching episode. But, I am reminded that in each case, the area I've explored in these vast ecosystems was little larger than a football field. I'm sure the experience varies depending on what particular patch of reef you visit at any one location.

This was the second straight excursion where Stacey convinced me to leave the camera behind. "Something could happen to it." For most of this vacation, the camera has sat safely and securely in our stateroom safe. Of course, everyone else on the trip took their camera along. If we had brought ours, and somebody stole it, we'd have our pick of replacements.

Following the swim, our catamaran stopped for 80 minutes at Bannister Caye. Each nationality must patent its own spelling of cay/key/caye, and Belize added an extra 'e' in a classic British waste of ink. This caye sat amongst an archipelago of low-profile mangrove islands and featured an enclosed beach, the obligatory souvenir shop, snack stand and bar. We had use of kayaks as part of the package had we wanted them. We settled for a sit on the beach and some nachos with salsa out of a can.

Bannister may not be man-made, but it is certainly man manipulated. No trace of mangrove remains, so retaining walls are necessary to maintain the integrity of the private island. The surface is packed lime sand, and there were plenty of chairs for relaxing and shady palms or sun, depending on your preference. I found a few very nice unbroken seashells on the beach. The rest were shattered and deadly on the feet once you got any distance into the water. The minefield of broken shells kept me close to shore and the inviting lounge chair. More than the statutory reggae streaming from the bar, it was really the calls of the tropical birds that told me "you are on vacation." Everyone else seemed to be having a good time too, so something was working.

After a quick buffet lunch back on the Liberty, we hopped on a tender for Belize City. The ship ID card negates the need to bring more formal personal identification to any of our destinations, and at first I felt cheated of a Belize passport stamp. However, it was quickly apparent the tourist compound is cut off from the rest of the city by a well-maintained razor wire fence and armed guards. Belize City for us was only a high-security tropical mall, reminiscent of 1980s West Berlin. Ich bin ein Belizer. We did not visit Belize or its namesake town in any authentic way outside of the barrier reef. Several fellow guests intimated the reputation of this English-speaking country had recently soured in terms of personal security, so the authentic experience sounds much like shambolic urban combat zones I assiduously avoid in North America from personal experience. Therefore, I will cheat and claim I have really been to Belize City. The Belize I always wanted to see was the barrier reef anyway, but I found myself peering beyond the fence several times while wondering just what I could be missing in the sanitized port environment.

The pastel Belize City has a tropical Venetian look from the water.

Each vacation, I normally try to find a t-shirt that was not obviously mass-produced in Asia specifically for the tourist trade, the one a local might wear. My best outcome ever was an Elko Mining Expo fishing derby t-shirt Stacey bought me at a clearance shop in Hibbing, Minnesota, all the more sweet for having lived in Elko, Nevada for nearly ten years previously. My onetime chiropractor in Twinsburg, Ohio gave a t-shirt to new customers for marketing. These are the type of shirt I look for, the one that says "I've really been there." Pulling this off is difficult anywhere people pay to visit. It is a near impossible task in the faux Belize City. In the real Belize City, I might be giving away a shirt.

On the verge of striking out after several generic trinket outlets, we came upon a domestic chocolate shop that carried organic chocolate from the interior and an assortment of related apparel. I was drawn by the lure of free samples, which always guilts me into an obligatory purchase. I now own a Moho Chocolate t-shirt, and apparently I would rather fall in chocolate than love. No one ever reads the garment tag, and Honduras is close enough to Belize to count as buying local, so I was satisfied. We threw in a 45% cacao organic milk chocolate bar to cement the authenticity of my experience.

It was hot and humid, which was pleasant after the past winter in Ontario. But the chocolate began to melt, and we sought refuge from that catastrophe. Cooling down in one of many high-end duty free shops full of watches and jewelry that were designed and made nowhere near Central America, I felt the continuous presence of a sales clerk ready to pounce if we showed even the slightest interest in one of the glass-encased wares. A solid future in car sales, he followed us back and forth all over the large showroom. I could not pause even a moment for fear of engagement. I began to to fantasize physical violence against him, but that would have meant an unpleasant visit to the other side of the security gate. We left, chocolate consumed.

Good chocolate from Belize. I lifted this picture from their website.

We breezed through a few other generic shops, but we'd seen the same at other ports of call. The port pharmacy was an exception. Business there appeared brisk, and I wondered how many tourists were stocking up on dodgy, over-the-counter "Viagra" and "Vicodin" pills in unlabeled zip-lock bags. A friendly sign on the wall suggested to "ask for the special." Antibiotics were on sale by the handful.

We took the next tender back to the Carnival Liberty, after only an hour-and-a-half at the port complex. Shortly before arriving, one of the tender crew gave the obligatory speech thanking us for using their ferry and casually commenting on the tip box, "the proceeds of which will be shared evenly between the crew." This always feels like a precondition for release. Tips are meant to be for good service, not meeting the minimum requirements of the job. When I arrived at the gangplank, the helpful mate made the customary warning to watch my step while thrusting the tip bucket in my path. There was no escape without jumping overboard. I shrugged and told him I was not carrying any money, which was true. I did not tell him my wife had already disembarked.

It's not that I have anything against tipping. I'm normally a very generous tipper, particularly for good service. That's part of the DNA of an American. We'd give 15% for moderate abuse and a reasonable amount of spit in our meal. But, cruise ships don't even follow the tradition of suggesting tips for the various services any more. They are automatically added to your fees. And, after three days of activities for which there is a built in and substantial gratuity, I'm tiring of the request for "additional" tips. All cruise ship receipts actually use that term. We drank the bottle of water from our cabin today. On top of the wet bar charge on our account, I was bemused to see a $0.60 tip for delivery of a replacement bottle of water I will never drink.

We enjoyed the boat's excellent Guy Fieri burger station after the active day of swimming, then caught up on a little reading and writing and our standard walk around the deck. Tonight was the fourth formal dining on board, but we ate sparingly after the late snack. I might return to Belize again, and I want to do so as an active participant, not as a hypertensive butterball in need of suspect port pharmaceuticals, so I try to savor my food at sea without going overboard. There is something enjoyable about contemplative digestion between meals. Afterwards, Stacey and I passed through the buffet just to verify that, yes, all the main dining room options were here too, but under slightly different packaging. The "filet mignon" was rebranded as medium rare steak. We were bewildered to recognize some people, loading mountains of food on the over large buffet plates, who we'd just seen at dinner. There are huge amounts of food eaten and wasted on a cruise ship, but I don't want to stumble through another busy day tomorrow in a food coma.