Swimming with sharks

Day 9 - Belize City

Night was not Belize City's best side, black was not its colour. We fell in a parabolic curve down through Mexico, gravitating towards the little country sitting below the peninsula. The book helpfully outlined the places not to walk at night in Belize City - just about everywhere. We caught a cab with a German called Benton or Fenton or something and made for the Smokin' Balam Guesthouse. Our landlady also instructed us to 'be careful' and with nervous glances all around we walked to the main street in search of sustenance. We collared a copper to ask about gringo-friendly venues and though his suggestion of a bar down a dark alley was not taken seriously his advice to 'stay safe' certainly was, despite the fact that he should surely have a hand in that. Carmita's by the famous swing bridge was relatively friendly and a couple of buckets of Belikin (Belize's #1 beer, sorry, 1 beer) softened our angst. We had Lyndon's (after Johnson) undivided attention the bar being, as it was, bereft of other custom. We ended up having a pleasant evening perched out on the front step of Carmita's with the former president, the owner Alex and a guy called Jeff, they even invited us to a party the next day and 'party' beats 'high-murder-rate' in rock-paper-scissors. We did pluck up the reckless courage to visit the bar down the alley - the next day, in daylight. But not before a brief walking tour to Bird's Island, a tranquil spot where the city's literati chill. The island looked largely unchanged in the 50 years since Hurricane Hattie came through here and blew the capital 50 miles inland. As far as wildlife went - the birds, well I guess they went. There were two dogs angry at our transgression who made a barking beeline for us only halting their charge at the last minute. We left Bird's Island. Friendlier company was found at the aforementioned bar. JC was an imposing man who ran the security there and it seemed impolitic to complain when he helped himself to one of our beers. His right-hand man and girlfriend (one suspects she would be anyones girlfriend for a little US) also joined our libations but I was distracted from complaint by the large bag of weed JC had just placed into my hand. They were the Belizean Laurel & Hardy if Laurel & Hardy offered you drugs and prostitutes instead of slapstick comedy. As for the police? Don't worry about them amigo, they're all corrupt. We looked on from our hostel as a Christmas parade wended its way through the city in the distance. It must have wended its way through some neighboring countries too given the time it took to reach the spot on the main road where we had subsequently positioned ourselves. Joining us at Carmita's party afterwards was a tall rake of a rasta called Eldon who had come over from a nearby Caye (island, pronounced key) to feed tourists riddles, information on his sexual prowess and an endless supply of bullshit. The decision was made that if Eldon was here the island could only be the better for it and a visit was required forthwith. The Cayes are an hour and a world away from the city's simmering menace. As we bisected the mangrove forests our boat carved a great cross in the wake with a frothing geyser at its centre. The hankerchief that my fellow traveller had brought with him indicated a fundamental misunderstanding of the island's renowned watersports but I wasn't missing out on snorkeling the world's second largest barrier reef. We floated like weightless clouds above clear skies and sylvan fields of vivid, living rock while leopard rays flew slowly below. Bulbous spheres of Brain Coral with twisting mazes carved in their surface lay next to elegant fans caressed gently by the wind of current. Giant Grouper eyed us warily while shoals of smaller fish moved across the horizon like swooping flocks of birds. My breathing was slow and steady, my vision clear, I felt as if part of the ocean. Mountain ranges rose to my left and right, the valley floor seemed miles below but gravity held no sway. We circumnavigated the channel and drifted over undulating, brittle coral beds watching fish of a perfect purple dart in and out. Wrasse and beaked Clowns scoured the reef with sudden, jerking thrusts. We returned to our airy domain to explore further down the reef in search of its more.....emotive inhabitants. I dropped again into the temperate ocean with a note of anxiety quite absent before. Dark shapes swarmed the boat in a morass of fin and frenzy. Their slicing form evoked ingrained childhood fear, a two-note terror. But all they sought was food thrown from above, competing with Rays and greedy Petrels for the scraps of fish. Don't pull their tails or put your hand in their mouths and no harm will come, fair. Once the bucket was emptied and the fish had dispersed we clambered aboard our bobbing launch. It was exhilaration that took me as soon as I removed the mask from my face, a pure lightness of being. A wonderful experience only improved by the recounting. We leave behind an odd cultural melange of Menonites, Rastafarians and dear old Queenie staring up from every note.
Belize, interesting.

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