Ambergris Caye, where we’ve spent the last week, is an island. It is home to a few large trucks, a handful of minivans that serve as taxicabs, and lots of bikes and motor scooters — but by far the primary mode of transportation is golf carts. They’re everywhere, and in San Pedro, the big town on the Caye, the carts are lined up and carefully locked with all kinds of mechanisms — chains, padlocks, and variations of The Club — as people go about their daily business.
One thing about golf carts: although they seem puttery and slow and therefore safe, they remain motor vehicles, as capable of a fender bender as any car. And, with no seat belts or other forms of passenger restraints, they can be dangerous in a collision. We saw a rear-ender where a little girl in the trailing cart went flying into the windshield and came up stunned and crying.
For the most part, Kish and I stuck to bikes and our feet.
The basic Belizean unit of currency is called a “dollar,” but the $20 bill has a nice picture of a younger Queen Elizabeth on it, rather than Andy Jackson. And if that’s not jarring enough, the dollar coin is a weighty hexagon — also with the Queen’s visage. It would be a cool ball marker on the golf course, but it doesn’t seem like real money, does it?
After a while, you really don’t care. It’s beach money. Call it sand dollars. You’re not taking it back to the states with you, and then trying to exchange it at some midwestern bank branch with a befuddled clerk trying to figure out the “exchange rate.” If you brought it back, it would just end up in that box with the weird change in it, right? So spend it while you can. On your last day of Vay-Kay, head down the beach to that nice bar where the beer was especially cold, and give the barkeep and the cook an especially generous tip. They deserve it!
The goal, ultimately, is to spend every paper and metal scrap of vacation currency before the departure plane leaves the runway.
Today we cycled back into the heart of San Pedro to a craft bazaar where local artisans sell their own handmade goods from wooden stands. Our mission — to find a matching bracelet at the request of the Lake Artist — was a success when a craftsman said he would make a matching bracelet, then and there. Thirty minutes later, bracelet in hand, we rolled back out of town.
It was a hot day, with clouds of dust rising from the road as trucks and golf carts rattled past. Suddenly, as if in answer to a thirsty prayer, a tiny, brightly colored grocery stand appeared on the side of the road. After ducking inside, Kish emerged triumphant, an ice-cold grape Faygo in hand. She loves grape Faygo. What are the odds?
Of course, I hate grape Faygo, but I couldn’t help but marvel at our good fortune as Kish mounted her bike and pedaled away, quaffing the soda as she went.
My doctor has long been after me to eat less meat and more fish. It’s easy to rationalize ignoring his heartfelt advice — which is what most of us do with doctorly advice, when you think about it — in Columbus, Ohio, which is more than 100 miles from any substantial body of water. It’s not exactly the fish capital of the world.
In Belize, though, there is no viable excuse or rationalization. So, I’ve been eating seafood until it’s coming out of my ears. Ceviche. Grouper. The whole red snapper shown above, complete with head, eyes, and little bones that you pick out of your mouth. And lots of shrimp.
It’s all fine, I guess, and I suppose I’ve added a few minutes to my lifespan by adhering to doctor’s orders. But to my mind the highlights of my Belizean culinary experience so far were the stewed chicken I attacked on Tuesday and a flavorful jerk chicken sandwich yesterday.
It seems like every place you go in the Caribbean has its own beer. Why not? Few things complement blazing sunshine and the smell of salt water and cocoa butter quite like a cold beer in a bottle beaded with condensation, one you can roll in your hands as you feel the tropical breeze and hear the rush of the surfing sand.
I’ve had Carib, Piton, Sands, Kalik, and more Caribbean beers that I’ve forgotten. Belikin, the Belizean contribution to the brewing arts, fits right in. Like the rest, it’s a lager, crisp and clean and with a nice finishing tang, well-suited to rinsing that salt water residue off your lips and easing you into the evening.
Kish and I came to Belize to get away from the grayness of a Columbus, Ohio winter. We haven’t had to worry about snow this year, but we’ve had the standard dose of overcast skies that makes everything seem flat and monochromatic.
For people looking to restore a dash of color to their lives, Belize is just what the doctor ordered. The buildings at our resort are painted bright colors; in fact, rather than room numbers each cabin goes by its color. (Ours is “aqua.”). The same is true of buildings in town. The boats and floats are every color of the rainbow, the pool is a bright blue, and the radiating sunshine brings out every hue. People wear bright clothing, and even the drinks at the bar seemingly are made with a goal of giving the rods and cones in your eyeballs a good workout.
It’s really nice to see bright colors for a change.
Today Kish and I cycled to the outskirts of San Pedro Town to meet up with the Fellow Readers for lunch. With the intrepid Mr. FR at the wheel of their golf cart, we cruised through the bustling streets of San Pedro in search of authentic Belizean cuisine, and found it at a place called El Fogon, where the food is cooked on an old open stove and you sit at wooden picnic tables carefully positioned to maximize your exposure to a large fan. All of the produce used in the food preparation is kept in baskets and crates right by the stove, next to the kindling.
Mr. FR and I both got the stewed chicken with beans and rice. It was a wise decision. The chicken was fall off the bone tender and delicately seasoned and went perfectly with the moist beans and rice, all washed down with the local beer. You could add to the spice level with a homemade salsa that would burn your lips, but I opted for the basic seasoning — reasoning that hot sauce would only up my beer intake and leave me less capable of navigating past the potholes on our five-mile bike ride home.
We’re staying at a terrific little beachside resort on Ambergris Caye in Belize. It offers snug, thatch-roofed cottages, excellent food, a beautiful beach, and an infinity pool, among many other amenities. Every day, resort workers rake the sand, cart away excess sea grass that has washed ashore, and leave the beach in the pristine, white sand state that resort-goers demand.
Just down the Caye, however, is an unattended section of beach, and here we get a glimpse of the impact of our plastic, disposable, consumer culture. Belize lies at the western end on the Caribbean, where the prevailing winds blow. On this section of beach every imaginable bit of disposable debris — a huge range of differently sized bottles, jugs, tubs, bits of strofoam, storage containers, and even soccer balls — have collected on the sand, mingled with the sea grass. It’s disgusting, and unsightly, but mostly it’s sad. Whether through thoughtlessness or inadvertence, the human plastic culture has left its ugly mark on an otherwise pretty beach on a fine, sunny morning. If one small section of beach is bears this gross collection of crap, we can’t really begin to imagine the impact of the junk on the sea as a whole.
This morning we had a hearty breakfast, then decided to borrow some bicycles from our resort and pedal the five miles south to San Pedro. Our bikes were of the old-fashioned, balloon-tired, single-gear, pedal brake variety, with a top seated cruising speed of about 5 mph. (Standing, you might get it up to about 10 mph, and give your keister a respite, besides.)
The design of the bikes turned out to be welcome for two reasons. First, there’s lots of interesting things to see on any tropical roadway, and if you zip by too quickly you’ll miss some of it. Second, the road was unabashedly rustic in spots, and too much speed would do nothing but produced bruised kidneys and sore wrists. Slow moving, wide-tired bikes that could navigate between the potholes were the preferred mode of transportation — better than small cars, golf carts, or even motor scooters.
On our ten-mile round trip we learned that Minnesota is not only the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but also a brand to be reckoned with in the dentistry field in Belize. We rolled past condos under construction and dive bars on the beachfront, learned that bikes aren’t subject to the apparently occasional toll charged to cross the bridge north of town, were mystified by the exchange rate between Belizean and U.S. dollars, and for refreshment bought warm fresh water delivered in a sealed plastic bag. All were part of the many charms of the bumpy road to San Pedro town.
Kish and I decided to get away from the grey Columbus skies for a few days and chose Belize as our destination. Tropic Air is one of the local airlines, along with Maya Airlines. We and a dozen other passengers took this sturdy propeller plane across the bay to Ambergris Caye. I’m used to prop planes that make an ungodly racket, but this plane was remarkably quiet.
You really know you’re in the Caribbean when you cross over that sparkling, crystal clear, blue-green water.