Friday, June 13, 2014

Leaving the Jungle, Going to the Beach

Well the day to vacate our jungle headquarters arrived with mixed feelings. We were pretty beat from the daily adventuring and ready for a couple of days by the ocean in Placencia, but we would definitely miss the lodge and all the friends we'd made there.


We had one final breakfast with all the other tourists. I think we might have eaten a little extra, the way you do when you're not sure what or when your next meal will be. It was funny because our room number had been sloppily scratched off of the assigned seating sign at our table. Seems like once we stopped paying them we stopped being besties!


If I had feelings I may have been sad to leave.


This is where the buses lined up to take people to amazing places. It was also where Robert the cab man we met yesterday was waiting to drive us. It was funny because he had the cab's hood popped up while waiting. Lydia and I both shared a quick "uh oh" glance before we got in the cab. We sat down and noticed there was a teenager in the front seat. The cab driver was turning this drive to the beach into a full flung family vacation, and both his wife and daughter would meet him there. The exact same thing happened to me while taking a cab a good distance to a city in Peru. Must be a thing.


We had a couple of photo opportunities. Here we are in a banana field. I had stayed up late the night before looking for cool places to stop along the way but I didn't find much. The natural wonders and the Mayan ruins are really the main draw in this country. I spotted Kropf's Bakery, run by Mennonites, but of course when we arrived it was closed. I've been outsmarted by Mennonites for the last time!


We arrived in Placencia and had Robert take us to an ATM to get some cash for him. It was sort of a more highly developed version of Hopkins where we went snorkeling. We got settled at our new hotel, Robert's Grove Placencia.


Placencia has been called the "caye you can drive to" because it is a very long, narrow peninsula that feels very much like an island.


Oh Robert's Grove, so much wasted potential. It's a beautiful place, right on the ocean. It has several nice pools, three restaurants, and the rooms were pretty solid as well. Unfortunately the staff was god awful. Especially in contrast with Ian's, the people at Robert's were really bad at their job. The desk staff insisted that we leave our bags with them and have someone bring them to us. Well, someone forgot and our bags never came, so we walked back and got them ourselves and dragged the bags to our room. We hadn't had even a whiff of internet since we arrived at Ian's, so we were really looking forward to it. Of course the connection was terrible, and dropped regularly. I believe that in the response the company left to Lydia's bad review on Trip Adviser, management blamed that on the weather. Pretty weak. The hotel was a good ways away from the town of Placencia proper, so we again went for the golf cart and got the heck out of there.

Pretty much my very first decision as golf cart Capitan was to pick up some hitchhikers. I'd been reading On the Road over the last several days, and I felt like if we wanted to have a comparable adventure that we needed to start picking up way more weirdos. The group was two younger women and a little boy. I later told Lydia that my new hitchhiker policy was to only pick up people that I'm sure I could beat up. So pretty much smaller women and children. The group ended up being Mayan, which I thought was awesome. One of the girls was very talkative so we got to hear a lot about her on the way to town. Her and the other woman were in Placencia to sell handicrafts that the people in her village had made. They were from the southern edges of Belize, which is home to a large population of Mayans. Somehow it came up that they eat lizards down there, which I thought sounded pretty cool. When it was time to let them off, they of course hit us up to buy some of there handmade crud. We had to say "no thanks" more than once. I figure giving them a ride was enough of a service that I didn't need to buy anything. At this point in my life my opinion on "crafts" is that I'd rather set my money on fire.


We poked around in Turtle Inn a bit on the way to town. It's an expensive place to stay owned by Francis Ford Coppola. It was nice but I wouldn't pay to stay there I'm afraid.


The airstrip was pretty funny. The planes were tiny, but it got worse. There was one of those parking lot arms that comes down in the middle of the road that went past the airstrip. The arm would go down when planes were landing or taking off that the planes wouldn't hit your car while flying by. This would be the airport we'd take out of town, so it was half funny and half scary. We had initially planned on renting a car and driving from Ian's to Robert's and then back to the airport in Belize city, but after seeing the condition of the roads and the lack of much to see roadside we changed our plans. I think we made a wise choice.


Some kids were racing our golf cart with their bicycle. The young diver had on a Diego Milito jersey. It seemed like a sign that I should smoke him in our race, which I promptly did.






All, my, friends, know the low rider.






Well we had very little to do but cruise around and eat and drink, all of which we did over and over. There were little booths all over selling tours and excursions. We purposely came to Belize in the off season on the cusp of the rainy season in order to get better prices and avoid all the tour-folk. Well as a result most of the tour booths were closed, and those that were open didn't seem very motivated to give tours. We tried to book a couple different ones before giving up.

We did bump into the couple that had accompanied us on the Tikal trip which was fun. Belize being such a small country definitely facilitated this. They were just wasting time like us. They had booked some sort of scuba diving excursion but the water was too choppy to go. That made me feel less stupid for not having planned something similar ahead of time. Later on in the Houston airport immigration line we bumped into another couple that we'd met at the jungle lodge. Pretty funny.

The next day we laid around and read our books a bit, swam a bit, and then gave in and rented another golf cart. I made sure we got a different one, because the one we'd had the day before was making some pretty nasty grinding sounds. Turns out someone was having a little too much fun driving over the country's many speed-bumps in a very bumpy, speedy fashion. Darn tourists.

This time we drove away from town toward Jaguar Bowling Lanes.


We had seen the place on the taxi ride to town but I had ruled it out. "Surely we'll have more exciting things to do than go bowling!", I had incredibly wrongly thought to myself.


Bowling is bowling, which is always fun. There was a World Cup game in progress on TV which was a plus. Then I noticed they had wifi! That place was like heaven. We joked that we wished we were staying at the bowling alley instead of our crummy hotel.




Back at the hotel we did get to see some pretty awesome lizards.


They move surprisingly quickly.


Hotel pool.


The hotel's breakfast went surprisingly later. Like until 11:00. I took advantage by eating it for breakfast and then again later as an early lunch. Baller.


We just so happened to be in Placencia on the first day of Lobster season, and many of the restaurants in town had lobster advertised, so we went for it.


One thing that made Placencia nice is that when a restaurant was called Omar's, Omar was standing out front grilling. This happened to us a couple of times.






I had the grilled lobster. It was nice and fresh.


The next morning was our final one. We headed to that tiny, scary little airport to face our fate.


Oh, Robert's Grove. So pretty yet so bad.


Our boarding passes were these big plastic things that they reused everyday.


The Tropic Air plane was pretty small.


We got on and sat up front. As you can see there wasn't anything separating us from the pilots. The seating reminded me a lot of a school bus, with long bench-like seats with no dividers or armrests. I had to hunch over to get in, as the plane had super low ceilings. No overhead compartments here. My carry on just had to sit in my lap the whole way to Belize City.


It was pretty scary. The plane was so small that it flew really low. The flight was pretty smooth but it was just so small a plane that every little bump was traumatizing. They were stingy with the air so the plane was really hot and stuffy. When we stopped half way in Dandriga to pick up more passengers, Lydia said she wished we could just ditch the rest of the flight and take a cab for the remainder. I was about ready to puke by the time we got to Belize City.


At least the view was nice. 


Through some quirk of airline occupancy we flew first class all the way back to St. Louis: Belize City to Houston, Houston to Washington D.C., and D.C. to St. Louis. This was my first taste of the airline high life, so I wanted to get the most out of it. Anytime they offered me anything the answer was yes. Well after flying all over North America first class won. I couldn't drink another drink, or bite another bite. They really keep you busy in first class. Hot towels, drinks, and snacks just wouldn't stop coming. By the end I just wanted to be left alone and try to take a nap. It was an awesome experience though! I can't wait until I have enough frequent flier miles to take a long flight in first class. They give you beds on those things!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Blue Hole and Market Day in Belize

Today was our "rest day", meaning that we didn't have an excursion lined up with the lodge. By this point we were feeling pretty beat so it was a welcome change of pace. We weren't just going to lay around though. We had a little adventure of our own cooking.

We talked to the staff the night before about the market in nearby Belmopan. Word on the street was that the bi-weekly farmers market was where the Mennonites sold their produce. We had more than enough food at the resort but we did want to talk to some Mennonites. It wasn't in our guide book either which made it extra fun.


Abel the rather intense excursion organizer let us in on a little tip: a bus comes by the road that the lodge is on once every hour on the hour that would take us to Belmopan. He said we should take it if we want an "authentic experience". It was pretty darn authentic.


We sat by the road and sweated profusely, even in the shade. We had a bit of hike from our room to the road, which wouldn't have been a big deal but the heat and humidity made it much worse. It was was probably quarter after when the bus appeared; We were about ready to give up and call a cab. We didn't see any actual bus "stops" so we just waved from the side of the road. By the time the driver saw us he had to screech to a stop and then back up in the middle of the road to meet us. It was an interesting start to an interesting ride.


The bus was nearly full and we just barely got to sit together. There was no indication anywhere what the bus route was, so we just kept our eyes open and hoped. There aren't a whole lot of roads to choose from in Belize so that certainly simplified things. Upbeat music was playing which I enjoyed. It was quite the homemade sound system: on the luggage rack above a home stereo speaker was laying on its side and tied down with wire. The ride cost $1.


We ran out of seats but the bus just kept on picking up more passengers, who stood in the aisle. That seemed to work until the money collector guy on board hurriedly motioned that everyone take a seat. I joked that there must be police around. Sure enough, we pulled up to a police check point. A straight laced looking officer climbed on board, gave us all a look-over, and then walked off.


We de-bused at a pretty central seeming bus station and got our bearings. There were lots of market stalls, but they seemed awfully permanent and not very interesting. I asked a random normal looking woman for the scoop, and sure enough the farmers market was in a slightly different part of town. It was hot as heck so we grabbed a cab. The cab driver was nice and seemed eager to share information about the city and country. He handed me a print out of the World Cup match schedules. Being without internet in the middle of the jungle I had completely forgotten that it was even happening!


Ultimately the market was fun to poke around but there wasn't a Mennonite to be seen. Apparently they only come on particular days. Those crafty Mennonites had outsmarted us again. Ultimately the journey was much more interesting than the destination, but definitely worth the trip.


I notice advertisements for a free outdoor film series sponsored by the US Embassy. I also noticed a few police cars had "donated by the US government" written on the side. Belize definitely seemed to have a better relationship with the US than say, Nicaragua.


Back in the car with our faithful cab driver Robert Popper, I asked about the US/Belize relationship. He seemed to agree that the US is generous, but that we can be pushy as a result. For example, he said that the US government could come and arrest someone pretty much at will if they wanted to and take them back to the US. What I expected to be a warm fuzzy conversation ended up being a really serious subject for him. I felt embarrassed for bringing it up. We arrived back at the lodge without further event. We liked him enough that we booked him to drive us to Placencia the following day.


The towel animals were cool but by the time I got back to the room every night I was too tired to deal with them crowding my bed space. Vamoose!


We headed to the restaurant area to have our only lunch of our stay. The food was delicious and it was nice and peaceful compared to the high production dinners. We could also play around in the pool without vying for space. After lunch we decided we'd like to have a tasty drink out of a coconut.


The bartender was super nice about our weird request. He did say he's worked there a year and no one has ever brought him coconuts before, which made me proud to be one of the awesomest tourists he's ever met. My words, not his.


I don't remember if it had a name but there was coconut cream and coconut rum involved and it was fantastic.


Even the sodas have to be de-rusted via napkin before drinking. Very strange indeed.


The second mission of our lazy free day was to walk across the street to Blue Hole National Park. God help you if you confuse that with Blue Hole National Monument, as I complained about before arriving.


This place had a fee to enter as well. So many entrance fees, so little time.


It was a very beautiful place, to be fair. The water was unnaturally blue. I believe the story is that an underground cave's ceiling collapsed and was filled with water, creating a really deep but small body of water. The water was pretty darn cold so we didn't stay too long. We both agreed we'd rather be in the pool back at the lodge: warmer water, no bugs, and prepaid food and drink.


The fish didn't seem to mind the water temperature.




Ya'll come back now.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Snorkeling Off The Coast Of Belize

We did a fantastic job of mixing up our excursions. We'd had a blast in the jungle, and now it was time to hit the beach for a little snorkeling. First, we would have to be driven from Ian's to the coastal town of Hopkins.




We passed a big facility where orange juice is made.


Our snorkeling base would be Jaguar Reef Lodge. We learned that this place is owned by the same Ian Anderson as our jungle hotel, and it really felt like a beach version of the same idea. We booked a couple of nights on the beach at the end of our trip, and I think we were wishing we had known about this place beforehand. Probably could have even gotten a discount. Oh well.








After we went through the amusing process of getting masks and flippers that fit everyone, we hopped on our little speed boat and hit the waves. Or they hit us. The water was pretty choppy and there were some bone jarring hits. Lydia was doing the classic "keep your eye on the horizon so you don't barf" trick most of the way to the reef.


The reef in question is the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest in world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. This is the part where I briefly mention my poor waterproof camera. I once had a dream that I would buy a camera that could take pictures in the very face of the ocean. I could have brought this camera everywhere: the rainy jungle, the tuby caves, the depths of the coral reef. It would have been my trusted companion. The damn thing died after ten minutes of use in the hotel pool on our first day there. I spent over $300 for ten underwater pictures of Lydia's feet. They are lovely feet, but that camera is going back to the store. Next time we go to a watery trip like this, I'm buying a GoPro like a big boy.

So use your imagination, loyal reader. We were swimming above all types of coral. The wavy leaf ones, the giant brain looking ones, and the multi-tubular organ looking ones. We saw a couple different varieties of rays, some covering themselves with sand and laying flat on the seafloor, and others flapping their little wings through the water. We saw a giant prickly looking lobster that our guide poked out of its den with a piece of pipe. There were these cool red squirrel fish with giant scary eyes. I got yelled at after straying from the group while swimming with a school of bright blue fish. There were maybe 12 people in our group, and after getting a couple of flippers kicked in the face Lydia and I both decided that sticking with the group as directed was way overrated.


We stopped for a mid snorkel snack at Southwater Caye. "Caye" is oddly pronounced the same way as a Florida "Key" and the tiny island meaning of the word is the same.


I like to eat things that I find lying around (like acorns) so I was quickly obsessed with eating a coconut, and gathered a few that I found laying in the sand. One of guides scoffed at my find: they were too old and brown. 


Luckily our guide had access to a big stick.




After knocking a few out of the tree, he showed us how to pound the thick green rind off the nut by smashing them on rocks.


I quickly followed suit. All of this stick swinging and rock smashing made me feel like a caveman.


The meat inside was moist and tender.


We ate one and packed a couple in our bag to drink out of back at our jungle hideout.


I think that some of our snorkel buddies just laid around on the beach with the 4 hours of free time we were given after snorkeling was over. Not us! We rented a golf cart and hit the road.


Our first stop after cruising around a bit was lunch at Innie's Restaurant. We read that Hopkins has a decent Garifuna population and we wanted to sample some of their culture. Innie's had a couple of Garifuna dishes that we wanted to try: Hudut and Bundiga.


I had the bundiga, which was a whole fish atop a kind of gravy made from bananas and coconut milk. It sounds really sweet but it wasn't. The bananas were cooked to act sort of like dumplings. Very good.


Lydia had the hudut, which was another whole fish with a coconut based soup with a side of mashed plantains. The two dishes sounded almost identical on the menu but the result was quite different.


Belize-made Marie Sharp's hot sauce was probably on every single restaurant table in the whole country. It's carrot puree based, which is novel.


We continued our Garifuna experience with a visit to the Lebeha Drumming Center and Cabanas.



I think it was a bit too early in the day because there weren't any other patrons present, but the drummers put on quite a show for us anyway. Then one of the guys offered to teach Lydia some steps.


After a significant amount of peer pressure I was roped into trying it myself. Luckily for everyone with eyes and a sense of rhythm and/or decency it was a brief attempt.


Belize has the largest lizards running around that I've ever seen outside of a zoo.


Well we had sampled the Garifuna culture and had a good time along the way. We still had time to burn though, so we cruised around town a bit more. Then we ate again.


Down came the rain and washed the spider out?


We had some fry jacks, which was a Belize dish we had been wanting to try. They are sort of a breakfast food, so the poor lady seemed confused when we ordered them. I see no reason to not eat these things with every meal. Pretty basic, they were fried dough balls but were very airy. We dipped them in some jam. Lydia got to try the local pineapple variety.


Back at the jungle ranch, I saw a cockroach about the size of an iPhone.