One man in particular, short in stature with skin as thick as leather and hair as white as snow. An extremely distinct voice you can hear from miles away, recounting stories from his past, his struggles and attempts to keep the manatees safe and preserved. Chocolate, a retired fisherman and manatee enthusiast, took us out on his fishing boat to Swallow Caye, the wildlife sanctuary. His health, despite his determination and strong will, appears to be deteriorating. Soon he will no longer be able to brace the open sea. You can see it in his eyes, the pain and suffering he has endured, the strength and determination he has. He can not bring himself to retire, his love for the manatees is too strong.
Swallow Caye, a shallow area of water surrounding the mangroves in which the manatees live, eat, and breed, up until 2002 had been a dangerous and unpredictable area, speed and fishing boats racing by while manatees grazing on sea grass. Chocolate, precariously balanced on the stern of the boat, with his right finger pointed out to see, wide rimmed hat held on by a Manatee embroidered baseball cap, recounts his experiences. The carelessness and harm towards the manatees is unforgettable, you can see this in his eyes. A small tear rolls down his cheek.
Playing an extremely crucial role, in 2002 the Swallow Caye Wildlife Reserve was established. Chocolate is ecstatic and extremely proud. He is passionate and protective. His fear is that no one will care for them when he gone. An extremely strong willed and passionate man, he has saved the manatees, which would have most likely become extinct in the waters of Belize. We return back to land, I am inspired and saddened.
It's 5:15 am, the earliest start yet. All 10 of us, + baby J, pile onto a small boat and head towards the mainland. It's bumpy, sprays of salt water brush past my face. The baby is bundled in a blanket and has drifted to sleep. I am jealous. We are now gliding through a narrow stretch of what appears to be a race track for boats. We are surrounded by mangroves and unfamiliar birds. As I imagine our boat gliding over crocodiles and snakes, I am terrified. We arrive at land, safe and sound. Our bellies are filled with fresh lime juice and johnny cakes. We are in a small village of 10, the locals are trying to persuade us to buy their handy crafts, I feel awkward. We pile into a brightly colored somewhat dilapidated rasta-bus, and head into the jungle. Within 5 minutes, I am asleep.
We are now being ushered onto another boat, slightly more comfortable. The sun is beaming onto my skin, I am getting a healthy glow. One more hour and it will turn into a burn, but for now I am content. We arrive at Lamanai Ruins. A leisurely stroll, with a guided narration, we spend the afternoon admiring and climbing ruins. I stand at the top of High Temple, with a 365º view of Belize. I look down and there is a scorpion on Mr. H's foot. Howler monkeys are screeching in the background. It is eerie. Once the tour had ceased, again our bellies are full, the tour guide asks if have we brought any rain gear. I look at the sky and it's black. We pile into the boat and the rain starts. It is fast, plentiful, and heavy. The guide gives us his jacket to shelter baby J. I am drenched, baby J quickly falls asleep, I am jealous.
Back on the island, I feel content. My heart starts to warm, as does my skin. The next days adventure involves bright coral, colorful fish, nurse sharks, moray eels, lobsters, and sting rays. The reef is so beautiful and vibrant. Locals are proud. Recent strides have been taken to protect the reef, and efforts have prevailed.
Our guide, giant and Rastafarian in nature, gently places a sting ray into my arms. All I can think about is Steve Irwin. I am not sure this is safe, he reassures me it is. As I stand in the water, nurse sharks swimming around my feet, I am holding a sting ray. Its eyes are looking at mine, I can feel its breath as it is starting to align with mine. I feel exhilarated and mildly terrified.
Our last day is spent island hopping. The sea is slightly more rough. My muscles are clenched as I try not to fall out of the boat. We snorkel, it is amazing. So many colorful fish and coral. I try riding an underwater scooter, the novelty wares quickly. We stop for lunch on Goff's Caye, a small island with a silky smooth white sandy beach, turquoise water, coral, sea creatures. I want to live here. I lather on the SPF, but it's too late. The water has washed off its effects and I burn. Returned home, tired, sore, exhausted, and burnt, we eat our last meal, potato salad, watermelon, pineapple, beans and rice, seafood galore. I am exhausted, possibly sun stroke, nevertheless I feel amazing. Caye Caulker will forever hold a special place in my heart. Until next time.
(Wish Willy family-style dinner)