ready to go off on vacation is always plenty hard, especially
getting caught up on the bookwork and taking care of all the
business odds and ends that need to be completed before leaving for
a week. Not to mention
clerical end of the business is not my strongest suit, and I often
get behind. Normally,
every so often I take a day off from the barn and spend it catching
up on paperwork, usually either on a rainy day, or on a very hot
one. But this spring the
weather has been so glorious that I haven’t been able to make
myself spend a day inside - so I am even more behind than usual!
I had a list a mile long of things that I absolutely
positively had to get done before heading off to Belize for a
holiday, not least of which was packing.
As I was scheduled to fly out early Saturday morning, I set
aside Friday afternoon and evening to get these things done.
I rode a few horses in the morning and planned to be out of
the barn by noon. Well,
a spur of the moment show-for-sale appointment delayed that until
about three, but I was still optimistic that if I really hurried and
worked all afternoon and evening I could get most of the things on
the list taken care of.
sat down to check my e-mail at about four that afternoon, and the
first thing I did was open one from United Airlines, informing me
that I could check in online for my eleven o’clock flight the next
morning. OK, check in
online, that sounded convenient.
Uh-oh, wait a minute, eleven o’clock?!?
My flight was supposed to be at 8:40, with a connection in
at 10:30! I called
United and talked to a funny little man with an Indian accent.
I learned that they had changed the time on my flight and had
not informed me, which of course made my connection impossible.
we have a big problem,” my accented friend told me.
There were no earlier flights Saturday morning with space
available. He told me,
“The only way you can get to
tomorrow is if you leave now!”
He wanted me to fly to
that evening, spend the night there, and catch the early plane to
in the morning.
NOW?!?” I was
horrified. I told him,
“I have a million things to do and I haven’t even STARTED
you better hurry up!” he informed me.
frantically threw some clothes into a bag with my diving gear,
canned most of the list of things I ‘just had’ to get done, and
. My vacation was off to
a wild start!
The next morning at the
airport, I met up with my companions for the week: my sister Patty,
her husband Rob, and their daughter Lindy, who recently graduated
from college. We caught
the flight to
, and from there took a very small plane to our destination,
those of you who are thinking, ‘Where the heck is
?’ I will admit that when Patty first invited me to join them for
the trip, I had no idea where it was either.
is in Central America, right below
, on the eastern side along the
. It is a smallish
country with a population of only about 280,000.
Its citizens are mainly of Mestizo, African, or Mayan
descent. English is the
official language, but Spanish is widely spoken.
Agriculture and tourism are the main industries.
arrived at Ambergris Caye mid-day, and checked in to our condo,
right by the beach, at a lodge called ‘The Palms.’
The island is off the coast of the mainland, and is about one
mile wide and 25 miles long. The
land itself is unimpressive, low-lying and swampy; but the shoreline
is lovely, with white sand beaches and palm trees, and brilliant
I thought the name Ambergris Caye was very lovely and
intriguing. I figured it
most likely had originated from the Mayan people, and that the word
‘Ambergris’ probably had something to do with the gods, or brave
and valiant warriors from ancient times, or perhaps untold treasures
yet to be discovered. But
upon doing research after the trip, I learned that actually the
island was named for large lumps of ambergris that were found on
the beaches. And what is
ambergris? I looked it
up on the Internet; it is a waxy grayish substance formed in the
intestines of sperm whales, often found floating at sea or washed
ashore. It is added to
perfumes to slow down the rate of evaporation.
We had our first perilous adventure that afternoon; a trip to
the grocery store! We
were staying near San Pedro, the biggest town on the island but
still fairly small, so we were happy to learn that there was a large
grocery store about a 10 minute walk from our condo.
Thinking that we would usually go out for dinner, but save
money by fixing our own breakfasts and lunches, we set out on a
shopping expedition. It
was quite hot and humid, plus we were hungry, so by the time we
reached the supermarket we were delighted to find that it was
spacious, well stocked, and air-conditioned.
were limited in how much we could buy by the fact that we would have
to carry everything back to the condo, or at least so we thought.
With this in mind, we tried to be very frugal.
We bought enough food for a couple of breakfasts, sandwich
makings for two lunches, a few snacks, and some beer and wine.
Imagine our shock when we checked out and the total came to
over $300! (Yes, that is
US dollars; it was over $600 in
currency!) We all agreed
that it was a unique experience to pay nine dollars for a small jar
of peanut butter. The
clerk generously offered to deliver our groceries to our lodge so
that we wouldn’t have to carry them; it is probably a really good
thing we didn’t know that while we were shopping, we might have
bought much more! We
decided that we would avoid grocery shopping as much as possible for
the rest of the week; it was more expensive than dining out.
We saved money that night by going to a nice seafood
restaurant and ordering the lobster!
dinner we walked home along the beach.
We stood out on the end of the pier and admired the
equatorial stars, and some of the southern constellations we don’t
get to see at home. It
was a beautiful clear night, warm and balmy with a good strong
breeze. We enjoyed the
sounds of the water and the wind.
I had set my alarm for seven o’clock.
When it went off, I got up and looked out the window and
marveled at how dark it still was.
I got dressed and went for a walk on the beach.
I was amazed at how still and quiet everything was; I had the
beach almost totally to myself.
The sun was just above the sea, and there was a lovely
breeze. I walked along
enjoying the solitude. Then
I glanced at my watch; it read 5:20.
I had set my alarm clock, but had forgotten to change it for
the time zones; I had gotten up two hours early.
No wonder the sun was just coming up and I was alone on the
After breakfast we went next door to the dive shop and
collected our scuba gear. We
met our divemaster, Rolando, and his son who was helping him, also
named Rolando. They took
us out on a small boat called the ‘Carmelita.’
The reef runs roughly parallel to the shoreline, in places
there are bits of it sticking up above the water at low tide, and
you can see the waves breaking on it with small whitecaps.
Rolando told us it is the second longest barrier reef in the
world. On the way out to
the dive site we saw a dolphin; we watched as it swam near the boat
and checked us out.
We are all certified scuba divers,
so Rolando (senior) gave us an informative and humorous briefing on
the diving protocol for his boat, and into the water we went.
It was very warm, no wet suits needed.
The visibility was fair, though not as clear as it can be
because they had been getting a lot of wind and rain recently. Rolando
senior accompanied us on the dives, while Rolando junior would man
the boat and pick us up when we were ready to surface.
As I have always found when diving
, the undersea life we saw was varied and spectacular.
The tropical fish come in a rainbow of colors; some of my
favorites include the yellow-tailed damsel fish, a deep blue with
iridescent light blue spots like neon, and the brilliantly colored
parrotfish, which comes in a wide variety of colors. The
tiny purple and yellow fairy basslets, the indigo hamlet with its
bands of shaded blue, and the graceful and extravagant angelfish are
just a few of the beautiful fish that inhabit the reefs; there are
literally hundreds of species that you see each time you go down.
You often see large eels, rays, sea turtles, and an almost
endless list of other unique underwater creatures. The
coral builds the reef into an intricate maze of underwater canyons
and ravines; you never know what will be waiting around the next
Lindy told the divemaster that she
wanted to see sharks; she had never seen any while diving before.
We saw nurse sharks almost right away; these are fairly
benign members of the shark family, and they somehow remind me of
great big catfish. The
largest were around four feet, and they were placid, so we could
approach them fairly closely. We also saw a
tiny spotted drum, brilliantly striped in black and
white, swimming in small circles with his long elegant dorsal fin
gaily waving above him. These
small fish are often hard to find, and I always love to see one. A
school of hundreds of colorful Creole Wrasses swam right by and all
around us; they are among my favorites, and I always love the chance to swim with these purple fishes.
After two really nice dives we
headed back to the condo, where Rob made Margaritas.
We went to the crab shack for lunch; after all, we couldn’t
afford to eat in too often!
After lunch we rented a motorized golf cart and set off to
explore the island. There
are not very many cars on Ambergris Caye, but the golf carts were
everywhere; in fact you had to be careful to avoid being run down in
the street by them. We
had been warned that the roads were not very good; this proved to be
an understatement. We
drove on sand roads that were very wet and uneven, with large
water-filled potholes. As
we were discovering, it was the rainy season!
We left San Pedro and followed the
road that headed toward the southern end of the island.
We left the tourist resorts behind and traversed through a
residential section; it was very poor and somewhat depressing, with
small houses and shacks built up on stilts, and everything half
We were in search of crocodiles; we
had heard that there was a place along here where you could see
them. We had been told
that sometimes tourists buy chickens at the grocery store and put
them on a rope to lure the crocodiles in to the shore for a meal.
With the price of groceries on the island, the thought of
this seemed extravagant indeed!
Chickenless but enthusiastic, we headed out through a less
populated area of swamps and ponds to try to find the crocs. We
had been told that they were just 10 minutes up the road, but we had
gone far longer than that with no sign of them.
We came to a section of road
that was especially bad. Rob
was doing a valiant job of driving, but the golf cart was a piece of
junk, constantly stalling out. We
tried to cross a huge pothole in the road, but the water proved to
be deeper than we had realized; the cart quit on us again and was
stuck. As we were
contemplating our dilemma, suddenly we were viciously attacked! No,
not by the crocs, but by several million bloodthirsty mosquitoes!
They were in a feeding frenzy, feasting on any areas of
exposed flesh while we frantically slapped and scratched at them.
We leaped out of the cart into the ankle-deep murky water and
managed to push the cart to solid land, slipping and sliding and
slapping in our frenzied efforts to avoid exsanguination.
Once back on board, we turned around
and headed back towards town as fast as we could, with Rob pushing
the sputtering vehicle to the max as we tried to flee the voracious
insects. No more
exploring the swamps for us!
to self: When golf
carting through an area known as “
,” bring bug spray!* We
later learned that this area was where the Harrison Ford movie by
that name was filmed.
On the way back to town, we did find the lake with the
crocodiles. We saw
several large ones floating in the water not far from the shore, but
we couldn’t get their attention, lacking a chicken on a rope for
bait. We tried to use
Lindy but she wouldn’t cooperate.
stopped at a small store and bought a bottle of bug repellant; this
turned out to be one of our better purchases throughout the week!
In the morning it was back on the Carmelita with Rolando and
Rolando. We went out to
the reef again on the boat, and we had two great dives.
We hung out with the groupers; these large docile fish will
often approach divers and follow them.
There were several really big groupers at our dive site,
about three feet long, and they were very curious and friendly.
They swam with us for most of the dive.
One of them went face to face with Patty, peering in her
One of the highlights this morning was seeing the eagle rays;
these large graceful creatures appear to fly through the water as
they flap their huge ‘wings’ in slow motion.
We also saw a large green moray eel swimming; it is unusual
to see one of these out of its hiding place and in the open.
A large silver tarpon passed by; he was about four feet long.
Scuba Diving gives you a great sense of freedom.
Once you achieve neutral buoyancy, gravity ceases to exist,
and you can float over the underwater caverns and canyons; it feels
like you are flying.
As you go along, on the one
hand you have the reef, the bright coral and the colorful fish, and
you follow the edge of the wall searching the nooks and crannies to
see what unusual or rare things you can find.
You examine the diversity, and you delight in the details.
The mood is bright and inquisitive, like a sunny day.
But on the other side, you look out
from the reef towards the ‘great blue yonder,’
where you might see a flash of silver as you catch a glimpse
of a game fish as it swims swiftly past, or a ray, or perhaps a
shark, or who knows what else. It
is mysterious and compelling! You
always want to go see what waits around the next corner, or just
below in the next ravine. Part
of you wants to head east and down and just keep going.
I love to soar out over the top of
the cliff, away from the other divers, as if I was going to just
swim away from the wall and out into the sea.
But of course, I don’t dare get too far from the others, so
I soon have to turn back toward the reef.
But all the while the open water beckons.
We splurged and made lunch at the condo, accompanied by more
of Rob’s famous Margaritas. Then
Patty, Lindy and I walked through San Pedro and checked out the
shops. We bought Rob a
tee-shirt with the following inscription:
Feed the crocodiles.
Swim with the sharks.
Climb tall coconut trees.
Raft over waterfalls.
Drive fast over potholes in overloaded Golf Carts.
We thank you for your support!
Little did we know that by the end of the week we would have
engaged in many of these activities!
met Rob for dinner at ‘Carambas,’ where we took advantage of the
fact that lobsters were in season.
Since mosquitoes were also in season, we liberally slathered
ourselves in bug spray for the walk home along the beach.
We got up at 4:45 to be ready when
the water taxi picked us up at 5:30, and headed out for Lighthouse
Reef. Today we were to
dive the Blue Hole!
We were joined by about 15 other
divers for the two hour boat trip out to the location, with a
breakfast of fresh fruit and stale cookies provided.
I always love the boat rides; Lindy and I spent most of the
trip out on the bow, except for when the seas got so rough that we
were in danger of being thrown off and had to scramble back inside.
The Blue Hole is a large underwater
sinkhole which was made famous by Jacques Cousteau in one of his
documentaries. It is
surrounded by a coral reef and shallow water, 40 to 50 feet, but the
Blue Hole forms a perfect circle about a thousand feet across, and
within this circle the depth plunges to over 400 feet.
The hole is the opening to what was a dry cave system during
the Ice Age, when the water level was lower and the caverns were
above sea level.
The Blue Hole
There were about eight divers
in our group. The dive
captain gave us a briefing; he told us to stay together in a line
during the dive, and that there would be two divemasters in case of
trouble. We would
descend to 130 feet, where we could stay for just 8 minutes.
At this depth one has to be very careful; if anything goes
wrong you are a long way from the surface!
The second divemaster would be prepared to bring up anyone
who experienced difficulties. He
told us that once we were down in the hole, the focus would be on
exploring the construction of the cavern and the unusual formations
we would see there; not to expect to see a lot of fish - though we
might see sharks. As he
again stressed the importance of staying together and carefully
monitoring our gauges, we realized that this dive was definitely not
for the faint of heart!
our group was all in the water, we gathered below the boat at a
depth of about 45 feet. The
white sand floor sloped downward to the entrance.
The hole below us was a dark deep blue; little light filters
into it. Several large
groupers accompanied us as we swam down to the rim.
We hovered there, looking into the darker water below us,
before going over the edge and down into those mysterious depths.
descended we saw that the walls consisted of many huge stalactites
and stalagmites; they were massive, and you could swim in and out
among them. It was
gradually dropped down deeper and deeper, and following our dive
master we proceeded among the magnificent formations. I
brought up the rear of the group.
At 130 feet, I felt very aware of how deep we
were. The light was dim,
and because of the pressure, breathing became more difficult.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion in this silent
world, and there was a sense of unreality to it.
It was unique and beautiful; and also a little scary!
What happened next seemed even more unreal.
Glancing away from the wall formations out to the dark blue
water of the hole, I caught a quick glimpse as a shadowy figure swam
swiftly by, a faint silhouette in the dim light.
Looking again, I saw it return; the sleek body of a shark,
closer now. It
disappeared into the distance, but soon I glimpsed it again; now
there were two of them. They
were circling around near us, checking us out – but now there were
The sharks continued to move closer, and to multiply in
numbers with every pass. They
appeared to be between five and eight feet long.
Each time they would move out of view and then return again,
reappearing out of the murky depths, there would be more of them.
Six, eight, now a dozen; soon there were more than fifteen
sharks circling near us!
Several of the sharks broke off from
the others and came closer. Two
of them swam straight towards me.
I started to think that maybe it wasn’t too smart of me to
be at the back of the line! They
came right at me, close enough that I could see their beady black
Pretty much every diver wants to see sharks.
Non-divers always ask, “Aren’t you afraid of getting
attacked by sharks?” But
the truth is most scuba divers live for shark sightings, as it
happens but rarely. Of
course, none of us want to see ‘Jaws’ coming after us, but a
chance like this to see sharks in action in their natural
environment was an exhilarating thrill.
I wasn’t afraid of them.
As the two sharks swam closer, I reflected on the fact that
dozens of people dive in the Blue Hole every day, and that the dive
master had warned us that we might see sharks, and that he was
responsible for our safety and did not seem unduly alarmed; so I was
not scared. But as they
got almost close enough to touch, I started thinking, “Maybe I
should be!” At the
last second the two approaching sharks dived underneath me, and
turned and swam back out into the darker blue.
The sharks continued to scope us out
the whole time we were down in the hole, and several of them
accompanied us back up to the top.
We had an eight minute decompression stop at 20 feet, and we
could see a few of the sharks still circling around. Once
back on to the boat, we learned from our divemaster that most of
those we had seen were Caribbean Reef Sharks, commonly encountered
in the Blue Hole, but that there had also been several bull sharks
among them, which are known for their particularly unpredictable and
sometimes aggressive behavior. I
wondered if these were the two that swam towards me!
We all thoroughly enjoyed the whole
experience, and voted it one of the greatest dives ever!
We went to an island and had lunch on the beach among the
palm trees; we had chicken, coconut rice and beans, potato salad,
and coconut pie for dessert. We
went for a nature walk along a path among the palms; we saw a really
nice iguana, several large hermit crabs, and the nesting place of
the red footed booby. These
large birds are protected there, and we saw literally thousands of
them from a tall viewing stand.
As we were on land instead of water, we were also fighting
off the mosquitoes; they seemed to think we were delicious.
Our guide said that the
mosquitoes really like “sweet white gringo meat!”
In the afternoon, the boat took us to a marine park where we
had two terrific wall dives. We
told the divemaster that we wanted to see turtles, and jokingly
asked if he could promise some on this dive.
He replied that sure, he would promise us turtles.
Also, whale sharks, great whites, mermaids, hammerheads and
penguins. He said, “In
, we promise everything; but no guarantees!”
We did indeed end up seeing two really nice sea turtles on
that dive, each about three feet long; we watched them swim past us
in slow motion.
The two hour boat ride back to Ambergris Caye was an
enjoyable way to finish off a great day, sitting on the bow with the
wind in our faces and the spray occasionally getting us damp when we
hit the bigger swells. The
boat crew served us coconut rum with diet coke, it tasted horrible!
(To be continued .