Monday, May 5, 2008

Belize trip: day 9

This is my last day in paradise. Our flight out of Belize is at 11am, we have to fly out of Caye Caulker at 8.30 to make it. No problem with 8.30am, I've been getting up at 5 or 6am ever since I arrived here. This time we have breakfast at the Happy Lobster, where the service is a little more timely. We sit by a window and fool around with my camera, taking close-up pictures of each others' eyes and mouths.

We return to Popeye's, pack up and catch a golf cart taxi out to the airport, right next to the swamp we were walking in yesterday.

It's a six-seater Tropic Air flight over the coral lagoons and mangrove islands between Caye Caulker and Belize City.

As it turns out our flight to Houston is delayed due to bad weather in Houston, so we have an extra hour to hang around the airport. Sigh. As a result, I end up missing my flight from Houston to Toronto, but fortunately Continental Airlines already has me booked on the next flight to Toronto even before I arrive in Houston.

I was dreading Customs at the Houston airport because the last time I did a trip to Belize the line-up for Customs was very long and agonizingly slow. I did make my connecting flight but I had to run for it. This time however, there was no line-up and I was through Customs in no time at all. But I did miss my flight nevertheless.

I spend a little time in the huge Houston airport with Sam before he catches his flight to Seattle, where he will meet a friend in Sam's truck to take him home to D'Arcy. I call Isaac and Gretel to let them know I will be late. My flight to Toronto is delayed, waiting for a connecting flight full of passengers for this flight. I arrive in Toronto after midnight, but Isaac is waiting for me and that is the end of my wonderful trip to Belize.

The last time I went to Belize was in 2006, I spent almost the entire trip on Lighthouse Reef at a base camp from which we went out every day to kayak and snorkel in different locations. One day we went to the famous Blue Hole, a popular scuba diving site that can be seen from orbiting satellites. I learned a lot from our guides about the natural history of the coral reefs of Belize, the fish, the corals, the many different kinds of creatures living there. We lived in plastic coated canvas tents the size of small cabanas, that were waterproof but very hot when the window coverings were closed. Also our cooks were marvellous, we ate unlimited amounts of great Belizean food, washed down with good Belikin beer. By the end of the trip though we were craving fresh water to wash in, and much appreciated our last night in a hotel to wash up and luxuriate in real beds with fresh clean sheets.

On this trip, I spent more time on mainland Belize learning about the culture and history of the country, and for the kayak and snorkelling part of the trip we were moving around to different coral islands (cayes) and staying in lodges that were, with one exception, luxurious in comparison to the Lighthouse Reef accommodations. The food was very good but not in the unlimited quantities that I experienced at Lighthouse Reef. I felt I was battling hunger for much of the trip. I didn't feel I learned quite as much about the natural history of Belize, except for the time spent at the Tropical Education Centre and the Smithsonian Institute. But that was offset by all that I learned about the history and culture of the country, and the different kayaking and snorkelling experiences.

Seeing the Mayan sacred cave was a very unique and interesting experience. Sam had to choose whether he would send me to see Mayan ruins or the cave because of the limited time I had, and in the end chose the cave because of its uniqueness. It was also interesting travelling on the public buses between Dangriga, San Ignacio and Belize City. After my trip to the cave I bought a little book of Mayan history that gave a little background to what I had seen. There are so many Mayan ruins in Belize that they actually outnumber buildings currently in use. They estimate that at the height of Mayan civilization, there were around a million people living in this country, now there is only about a quarter of a million people. So Belize was once a thriving urban centre, the landscape must have been far different from what it is today.

The peak of Mayan civilization happened several hundred years before Europeans arrived in the Americas. By the time they did, Mayan civilization had pretty much "disappeared". Not that the Mayans themselves disappeared, but many of the urban centres had been largely abandoned to jungle. The long drought of the Post-Classic period was a significant blow to that culture.

Belize itself was formed after a treaty signed between Spain and England ending the long war between them in the 1500s? 1600s? Sorry, I'm a bit weak on dates. England had employed buccaneers to harass the Spanish in the Caribbean and needed to find some new form of employment for them, they negotiated this tract of land to give to the buccaneers in hopes they would find legitimate ways of making a living. Then called British Honduras, it was a kind of retraining program. The pirates who took the government up on the offer did indeed find a lucrative living there, cutting and exporting timber from the jungle. British Honduras remained a British colony right up until the 1980s, primarily because Guatemala disputed the legitimacy of this old treaty. But eventually the right of this small country to exist independently was recognized and they took the new name of Belize to celebrate their nationhood. There are several theories about the origin of the name, but it is an old and traditional alternative to British Honduras.

Both my trips to Belize have been wonderful, and I do hope to have the opportunity to return.

Mayans still form a significant part of today's Belizean population, and of course many have intermarried with other ethnic groups to form the Mestizo population of the country. Many Mayans and Mestizo from neighbouring Guatemala are moving into Belize as well. Being close to the border, you see the difference in crafts, building styles and culture between traditional coastal Belizean and inland Mayan and Latin American culture. You don't see as many of the houses on stilts inland, but you do see a lot of Mayan textile crafts. Souvenirs are different, San Ignacio has a lot of Mayan masks and woven fabric, Dangriga and Belize City have a lot of wooden crafts made from local hardwoods. Caye Caulker has a little of everything, being much more of a tourist site.

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