Thursday, October 21, 2010

Broken Streets Next To A Sea Of Blue

Let me ask you a question. When you think of a deserted island, what do you see? Do you picture a Gilligan’s Island sort of place, or maybe you imagine a bearded Tom Hanks running around with Wilson, his pet volleyball. Personally, I see a place that houses two or three tall, lush green palm trees bunched together, a plot of sand that sits in the middle of the bluest ocean and if you were to walk its perimeter, it would only take you 20 minutes max, and finally, a small hut that provides shelter from the sun. Maybe my vision seems a bit extreme for some people, but what would you say if I told you that I have been to this “deserted” island that I just described to you? This isn’t some dream I’m about to share, or even some fantasy that I built up in my mind. In the summer of 2004, I really did find myself on this exact island, in the middle of the ocean. It just so happened that this particular ocean held the second largest barrier reef in the world and surrounded the island of Belize.  
Now, I’ve done my fair share of snorkeling throughout the years; however, never in my life have I seen such incredible beauty beneath the sea, like I did in Belize. After our cruise ship docked in the middle of the Caribbean Sea; I mean, we literally dropped anchor in the middle of the ocean, we took a speed boat out to one of the many offshore cays. As we approached the small cay, I remember thinking that it looked just like something you would see in a cartoon. You know a cartoon where there’s one or two people sitting on the sand, up against the lone palm tree? Well, maybe no one else thought that, but I did.
Once on shore, all of us that were on the small speedboat, migrated into the hut and waited for further instructions. I was excited about the thought of snorkeling over the second largest barrier reef in the world. I’d always wanted to go to Australia and see the Great Barrier Reef; however, what I saw in Belize was breathtaking enough. Sliding into our flippers, we were instructed to walk backwards into the water – an effective way to keep from falling. So I’m working my way into the ocean, when suddenly my sister lets out a scream so loud that I nearly fall back into the water.

“What?” I asked panicked. My dad was frantic, wondering what it could be that made her react in such a way.
“Seaweed!” She said while attempting to get herself out of the tangled mess. 
By this point, I was laughing hysterically. My sister has always had a fear of seaweed and many of the ocean’s creatures. She’s deathly afraid of coming eye to eye with an octopus or squid – two things I continue to tell her, she will more than likely never see. I’m honestly surprised she still ventures into the ocean today.
My dad, being her saving grace, walked over and helped her to float across the seaweed, all while trudging through the green mess himself. We had two guides, one at the front and one at the back, who led us around the reef, making sure no one swam away from the group.

Of all the waters I have snorkeled in, the waters surrounding the barrier reef in Belize were by far, the most beautiful. The water was so warm and inviting, so crystal clear and blue; everything that lie beneath the surface looked absolutely beautiful.
“When you spot the Elkhorn reef, don’t go vertical in the water. You will scrape your feet along the top and cut yourself if you do!” David yelled out. David was our guide at the front. We’d struck up a friendly conversation with him during our speedboat trip towards the cay. We later found out that he was a singer and went by the name “Indio.” We ended up buying one of his CDs. 

When I spotted that Elkhorn reef, I was stunned. Not only did it emit the most beautiful yellow color, but it stood tall and wide, making it nearly impossible for anyone not to see it. I snapped dozens of pictures but due to the fact that it was a water camera I was using, the pictures weren’t too spectacular.
Along our snorkeling adventure, I spotted all sorts of fish. My dad even claimed to have seen a large angelfish. Whatever they were, each of them sported the brightest colors, swimming as if they had nowhere to be and no particular time to be there. I was so entranced by the sights below me that I suddenly felt my body coming into contact with cooler water. I noticed my mom not too far from me and with my goggles on, we both looked over to see the edge of the reef dropping off. It was one of the creepiest moments I have ever experienced in the ocean before. It was like half body was in warm water and half was in cold. Not only did the temperature of the water change, but the color did as well. Here I was, swimming in beautifully clear water, but the moment the reef dropped off, it was like looking into a deep, dark blue abyss. Needless to say, we both made our way closer to warmer water.
I often wonder what hides beneath those depths. Maybe that oversized octopus or squid that my sister is so deathly afraid of, lurks in the cold, deep waters of that small cay. It’s always fun to tease her about those kinds of things.
I may not have seen an octopus or squid, but as we traveled back around towards the cay, I looked up to see a long, skinny fish skimming the top of the water, off in the distance. The way its tail was flipping and its quickness through the water, I quickly realized it was a barracuda. I had seen one before in the Bahamas and by its blue and silvery color; I knew instantly that I needed to swim just a bit quicker and away from that particular fish.
By the time we reached land, I was thoroughly convinced that I had just seen the prettiest piece of ocean in my life. Sitting on the small beach for another hour or so, my parents, my sister and I enjoyed the feel of the sun, soaking up its rays, all while watching a tiny little crab pop in and out of various holes in the sand. It was quite humorous to watch. We just made sure our fingers and toes were properly out of reach for the crab.
Later that day, we made our way into Belize City. To have just come from the most beautiful water I’d ever seen, to this city, it was heartbreaking. The roads and sidewalks were difficult to walk on as they were so damaged and broken up. We had absolutely no idea where exactly it was we were traveling, but a short Belizean man approached us, asking if we would like a “tour guide.” Now, I cannot for the life of me remember this guy’s name, but what I do remember is something he told my dad.

“I come to America and work for you. That way I can marry your daughter,” he said, pointing directly at me. Now, this man had to have been at least 45 years old, if not older. As flattered as I was (notice the sarcasm), I was thankful for my dad declining his offer.
Belize City used to be the capital of Belize, but that title has been transferred to Belmopan. However, it still remains the primary port for ships arrivals, and due to the various attractions, such as the barrier reef and Mayan ruins, the city remains a thriving center for tourists. It is a large commercial center with markets up and down the streets. Vendors with metal carts and decorative umbrellas line the streets with various fruits, nuts, and other Belizean foods for sale. As badly as I wanted to try the fruit that smelt so sweet and fresh, I opted against it, as I am not to take my chances eating off a cart. Sorry, but I’d rather not take my chances on getting food poisoning thanks. The same rules applied when I visited New York as well, so it’s not just an island thing.

What is so sad about all of this is that the infrastructure is so very poor. As of 2008, the U.S. was one of the biggest providers of economic assistance to Belize, according to the U.S. State Department; however, rumors say that due to the Belizean government, the money does not finds its way to bettering the streets, sidewalks, and other developmental issues that the city so desperately needs.
Amidst the broken streets, I cannot help but look back and think positively about my time in Belize. I am sure there are areas that are better developed than Belize City, but for anyone interested in traveling to this island, I say, do your research and find out which areas are more suitable for shopping, dining, etc… However, one thing is certain, if you travel to Belize, take time to snorkel over the barrier reef. I promise, it will be an experience you will never forget…I sure haven’t.


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