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  Photographs - Yucatan & Belize, June 2007

June 2007

This trip was a bit business, a bit roadtrip, and a lot of exploring exotic places. It all started because I had planned to go to the Society for Development Biology meeting, which is usually held at college campuses in the US. It just so happened that in 2007 this meeting was being held in conjunction with several Latin American societies of developmental biology in Cancun, Mexico. Now Cancun it's exactly the kind of destination Serena and I would normally seek out. I had been there in high school with my family, and while it was interesting, the strip of beach-front hotels and US-catering hotels struck me even then as unsavory. But we started thinking...

The professional meeting was a draw, but it was also an opportunity to do some exploring. We spent the 4 days of the meeting at the hotel in Cancun. Serena read by the pool while I listened to presentations and talked biology with folks. The meeting also provided us with discounted access to some of the surrounding Mayan ruins.

Chichen Itza

We took one day to visit Chichen Itza in the center of the Yucatan peninsula. The city of Chichen Itza was one of the few Mayan cities that survived into the age of the Spanish Conquest. Chichen Itza was rediscovered in the 20th century deep in the interior Yucatan forrests. It is thought to have had a mix of older Mayan culture as well as Aztec and other northern influences.

The day we were there was in the dry season. And our guide informed us that this was a blessing, and that temperatures would only be around 98° F instead of the 110° F we might find otherwise. Trees and roots had split all the Mayan buildings into rubble, and early European and American archeologists and their native labors spent years piecing things back together. Many buildings off the main paths are still not reconstructed. In this picture, Dave takes a break and gives this panther a scratch behind the ear.

On our way to Chichen Itza, the bus stopped at a place with the fabulous Mayan name of Ik Kil. The land throughout Yucatan is limestone, and water has cut many caves and sinkholes. Ik Kil is a cenote, or freshwater sinkhole. The water level is about 100 ft down and visitors can decsent a stair well to viewing points in the wall or further down to jump in for a swim. Unfortunately, when we booked this trip, we weren't told about Ik Kil, so we had no swim suits. Still, it was a neat place to see. Vines and birds streaked through the air from the surface to homes in the wall. At one observation point, really like a cave, I looked up and saw the nests of mud sparrows just a few inches above my head.

Belize

One of the main reasons we became interested in this trip was that Cancun is only a 6 hours bus ride from Belize. We were interested in Belize because it is famous for its coral reefs and other marine life. It has remained unspoiled largely because it has resisted foreign development, especially the model of large beach-front hotels, as in Cancun. Belize was also a British colony until the the 80's and most people there speak English (sort of).

Getting to Belize was an experience. We left the tourist zone of Cancun and took a taxi to the working Ciudad Cancun bus station. Thankfully, Serena has a very good working knowledge of Spanish, and was able to book us tickets to the border city of Chetchumal. This was a long ride, but the bus was as good as anywhere in the US and got to watch American B-movies dubbed into Spanish. Finally we got to the Chetchumal bus station and started waiting for the bus from the Belizean company that would cross the border. Thankfully we met two English-speaking girls (an Americna and a Brit) who had just gotten off working an ecological study on the Quintana Roo coast and were heading to Belize for the diving. So we passed the time talking scuba and sharing what American food we had.

Finally the Belizean bus arrived, and the border crossing was easy. The Belizean custom agents were friendly, and seemed to be used to a mix of backpacking American and European twenty-somethings and locals crossing over to buy cheap Mexican groceries. We got back on the bus and continued into the Belizean countryside. I was excited to see a coatimundi cross the road.

It was interesting to contrast rural Belize with what we had seen in the Mexican Yucatan. In Mexico, small scattered farms seemed to be struggling to scratch a living out of soil that was a mix of rocks and mud, growing bananas and raising goats. In Belize however, small villages had well-kept if weather-beaten cottages, fruit trees and vegetables in neat rows with fat chickens, dogs, and children roaming everywhere. If I had my pick, I'd rather live in Orange Walk than in Chetchumal.

Belize City was our destination for the night. The only large city in the country, Belize City had been the capital when it was British Honduras. After independence, people realized that it was a problem to have the seat of government in a place destroyed by hurricanes every 10 years. The buildings in the city showed this wear. We got into town during the evening commute. This was a small, if-packed third world city. Vendors crowded the sidewalks, passed by people dressed in suits, grade school uniforms, old shorts and t-shirts, and military uniforms. We carried our luggage along the cracked sidewalks and tried to read street sides towards our hotel. We finally found our hotel only after asking directions from a policeman directing traffic, a kindly old Mexican man selling rugs, and two Creol women in business suits.

We settled into our room - small but clean - and started thinking about dinner. Belize City has a rough look, so we though it was best to get some local input. We went downstairs and on the back porch/dock over looking the canal where we found the young American-accented, dread-locked innkeeper having a beer with a wiry old American ex-pat in tight jeans and white t-shirt. We gave some introductions, and asked where we could find a good cheap meal. Avoid the streat carts, our innkeeper told us, "Eat on the street - Get hepatitis C." He said as if he were an American rapper, and gave a laugh.

"If you sit down someplace, you'd better say close. You might have trouble after dark", said the older guy. "If you look like me, they don't give you any trouble." He gestured mildly with his beer from his old flip-flops up to his comb-over. He probably weighed 100 pounds. Finally they suggested the grocery story across the park at the center of the city, and we took their advice. The local offerings: Mennonite cheese, johnie cakes, British biskets, Indian-style samosas, and local beer. Walking back to the hotel we passed the park and hundreds of large black birds are russling between trees with a murderous chorus. An old man missing an arm at the shoulder stumbled from the fray of birds. He looked as if he'd never had a bath or a haircut and he walked heedless into traffic shouting obscenities in English and other languages, at no one we can see, but with great feeling. We nervously waved off the solititations of several taxi drivers and turn the corner to our hotel.

With our American sensibilities a little jarred, we got safely to our room. After a very long day of travel, we sat and toasted to our success. The food was excellent. I was particularly excited because we'd managed to find a brand of flaky flatbread stuffed with raisins that I remembered from childhood. Strangely, in my adult life I've only ever seen them in foreign grocery stores with British or Dutch historical connections.

Caye Chaulker

The next day we crossed the swing bridge to the landing of the water taxi. The coast of Yucatan and Belize has a 300-mile barrier reef system and there are many islands along the length of it. We got a shuttle to one of the smaller islands, Caye Chaulker, with only 750 residents. This former pirate lair was recommended by friends as an excellent place for diving.

We left the noise and ugliness of Belize City behind and sped across the water for an hour. Fishing shacks raised above the water on slits slid by in the distance, and we weaved between several uninhabitated mangrove islands. Finally we approached an island with brightly colored houses and pulled up the Caye Chaulker dock. The picture above shows Serena with our gear. The boat next us bellows to Capitan Jacko (who will enter the story later).

We headed up the dusty unpaved streets of town looking for the hotel we'd reserved. Again we had to ask for local help, this time from a guy cruising leasurely on an old bicycle. This is the town hippies would build if they lived on a tropical island. In fact, it seems like laid-back but pragmatic Belizeans and Koreans have built it. But a lot of young hippie tourists are passing through. There are only about 3 gas powered vehicles on the island. Golf carts and bicycles are the rule.

Our hotel is a long-sought refuge, and over the next few days we will spend a lot of decompression time here. The room has A/C, but better than that every room has a porch and hammock. Lying in that hammock over, I read a thick anthology on the naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace. The owner's Pomeranian dog would wander the yard. Locals would come by before sunset to sell fudge, popcorn, or (my favorite) fresh banana and pineapple bread. We also befriended

Caye Chauler was also full of semi-wild cats. They were lean, but unlike many tropic places we've seen, they were in good health. No worms and all were spayed. Those that had been spayed or neutered had clipped ears - and there were a lot of clipped ears. We befriended two local cats, who would sit with us in the hammock, and share a beer on the porch at night. We were also visited by this geko in the thatch above the porch.

Diving

The reason we'd come here was for the diving. We stopped by the only dive shop recommended by our guide book. This was not like signing up a scheduled dive trip in the US. The variables were the wind and our interests. We wanted to do a night dive? Tonight would be best. Are you ready? So that's what we did...

Scuba is an amazing thing. When I learned I partly expected myself to be claustrophobic underwater (my certification dive was in an Indiana rock quarry where I couldn't see beyond my out-stretch arm). Instead, I have always found breathing underwater to be one of the most exhilarating experiences. As we motored in the dark one of the reef's edge with our guide Edwin, I wondered again whether dark water would feel menacing. The first plunge was strange - I think it always is - but once I had equalized buoyancy I felt that calm fascination.

Edwin led us along the edge of a reef, and we search with our lights for interesting creatures. Edwin soon found a Spanish lobster, which pulled in its legs to its flattened, armoured carapace as Edwin gently handled it. The eyes of spiny lobsters reflected our purple at us as we passed through caves. Fishes had a strange look, moving slowly. Edwin found several sea slugs and sea cucumbers. I saw what I think were a number of long thin nemertine worms. Tiny crustaceans tickled my hand as like buzzed my light like moths at a summer porchlight. Towards the end of our bottomtime, we came upon the highlight of that dive. An octopus about the size of my hand squiggled along the coral. She flowed like water and shown a translucent green in our lights. She squeeze through a creavace, but we manuveured over the small outcrop and saw her come out on the other side. Sadly few of my pictures from that dive came out, and I had run out of film by our encounter with the octopus. We returned to our hotel room enraptured and exhausted.

The next day we relaxed. Caye Chauler is a mangrove island, and so it doesn't have much in the way of beach front. What there is mostly doubles as main street. However, in the early 1990's a hurricane cut the island in two, driving a deep sandy channel just north of the town. This isolated a few people's houses, but the up-shot was that people then had a sandy place to swim. We hung around the channel in the morning as figgit birds circled with an eye for fish. Heading into town for lunch we ran into our British companion from the Chetchumal bus station and traded stories and plans for the coming days. Then back to the hammock for siesta.

The next day we had signed up for a snorkeling trip. We are not drivers who get excited by going deep for its own sake. Plenty of cool things caan be seen in shgallow water without the danger or time limitations of scuba. Anyone can snorkel, and so this trip doubled as a booze cruise for many of the young visitors to the island. He crew of the sailboat consisted of two young crelo guys who looked like experience scuba and snorkel guides. The captain, Jacko, was introduced, but didn't say much. He looked older, with short sun-bleached dreads and strangely blue eyes for a weathered crelo.

We made several stops. Each was amazing, and it was obvious that the coral here was healthy and growing. Our first snorkeling stop was led out along a reef ridge above a deep channel. As we swam, a school of tarpin passed below us - each fish was at least six feet long. The wall of the reef was amazing, and many of the more adventurous in the group dove down to scrutinized some bit of coral or group of fish. Serena started getting annoyed that one guy kept diving down and touching the coral. He was an amzing diver, who could stay below for several minutes and would fearlessly swim into the larger crevices. Now coral and other sessile invertebrates grow when their larvae settle onto rocks and bits of dead coral or places where they can out compete algae or bacteria. So in a very really way, every surface (except the sand bottom) of a reef is alive. Serena dove down to tap this guy on the head and sign "hands off". Peace restored, we continued...

The next stop was shallow water, and this was the only place in the barrier islands, which is otherwise protected, where the guides routinely feed sharks and rays. Several green nurse sharks showed up for a free meal of conch and rays started circling the water to clean up scraps. "Who's going in first?" taunts Capitan Jack in a strong Carribean accent. With trepidation and excitement we don fims and masks and in we go. I get a picture of one of the few lingering nurse sharks. The rays are much more social and will tolerate being pet if they're also getting food at the same time. Many people mob one ray apparently okay with the attention. I manage to touch a passing ray which somehow feels more satisfying. Eventually, we fan out to look at the surrounding fish and coral heads that are no less amazing.

After lunch and one more snorkel stop, the crew breaks out the booze and we start the slow motor back. While we have been seeing the sights, one of the crew has caught a conch and made ceveche. This is a carribean dish in which raw fish is "cooked" in the acids of a salsa. I know enough about parasites to know that conch ceveche is probably a bad idea if I waqnt to avoid liver flukes or hepatitis. But we are sitting near the hatch and Captain Jack, who is becomes much more animated, literally pops up, dreads hiding his eyes, "What you doing up here? You must have the ceveche. I the Captain. You must have the ceveche!"

I've had a few cups of rum and cool aide, and I give in his manic request and try to avoid the conch.

"You must have the conch!"

At this point, I decide that if I drink enough rum, it will finish any sterilization that the salsa might have missed and go for it.

As it turns out we are sitting next to the coral-toucher. He is apologetic and interested to hear that we are biologists. He and his friends have just graduated from engineering school in France, although he is Morrocan. We chat pleasantly with this young French group. Captain Jack joins in after one of his frequent pops up the hatch. The ride back is great, until on of the Frenchmen seems to insult Captain Jack with a little too much sarcasm and he heads toward the bow to brood. At the dock, all is forgiven and forgotten as we finish the rum.

    Copyright 2007 David R. Angelini