Our trip to Belize happened to coincide with Carnaval. All right, actually, we specifically booked it so we’d be in San Pedro on Fat Tuesday.
Carnaval in a Latin America? You’re probably thinking of music, dancing, and drag queens. Right you are. Tiny San Pedro can’t compete with the legendary debauchery of Rio, but what it lacks in scale, it makes up for… in volume of flying paint.
At first, it’s a cute activity for the kids. Then it gets serious, as you can see in this video:
Townspeople knows what’s coming, and anyone who values their paint job invests in plastic wrap.
With its mucky beaches and mangy stray dogs, San Pedro wasn’t put on this earth for tourists seeking pristine white sands. This place is all about diving.
Along the beach, just about every third building houses a dive operation- some of them looking rather questionable. I asked around and did my research, choosing Chuck & Robbie’s while we were staying north of town, and Belize Pro Dive after we moved south.
Both places had their act together, which is something you sort of want when they’re supplying the gear that will keep you alive 100 feet underwater.
If you know anything about diving in Belize, you probably know about the Great Blue Hole.
It’s an amazing (I’m told), giant (as I understand it) impression in the earth, with dazzling (from what I hear) stalactites lurking in deep (apparently) undersea caverns. No, I didn’t dive there. Would have loved to, but it takes hours to get there and back, and the dive is so deep that you’re only down there for around eight minutes. I’m on vacation.
Instead, I visited sites just minutes from the mainland. My initial feeling on my first Belizian dive was… disappointment. That’s my curse: since I got certified in one of the most spectacular dive sites on earth, anything less than WOW! in every direction can be a disappointment. Expectation recalibration didn’t take long, though, and I soon found myself enjoying the natural canyons that run through Belize’s reef.
And the sharks. We spotted a nurse shark… then another… then… well, I almost got bored of seeing sharks. Except that I had a new underwater camera housing to try out, and they made excellent subjects.
Yet all those photogenic sharks couldn’t compare to my most magical diving moment in Belize, which happened on my very last dive of the trip. I spotted a hawksbill turtle and decided to try and get some good photos. Little did I know that he would be just as interested in us divers.
Many thanks to divemaster Bernie, boat driver Tony, and fellow diver Geoff for making that last dive possible.
Oh yeah, thanks to that turtle, too, for stopping by to say hello.
“I had a dream of San Pedro…”
Yup, this is that San Pedro, the one Madonna dreamed about in 1987. We split our Belize trip down the middle, opting to spend half our time on the mainland (Mayan ruins!) and half on the island of Ambergris Caye (scuba diving!).
On the mainland, we got the Mayan ruins out of our system and started heading east, toward the ocean. Couchsurfer Jeffery was headed south to Placencia, so we dropped him off on our way- only after comparing footgear.
Karen navigated us to the Coastal Highway, imagining, well, a highway along a coast. Instead, it was miles and miles of bone-jarring bumps.
The rental agent didn’t bat an eye when we returned our SUV- they must be used to vehicles coming back covered in an inch of dirt.
All we saw of Belize City was the route to the boat dock, and two bumpy hours later we were approaching a waterfront with a whole lot of scuba flags on display.
The sun, the sand, the laid back vibe- that’s the Isla Bonita that enchanted Madonna. Local businesses have latched onto the name of the song, as in La Isla Bonita Real Estate and La Isla Bonita Internet Cafe.
At first, it was kind of hard to find the bonita in scruffy San Pedro. I could show you these photos and gush about the Hotel Del Rio being an amazing beach paradise…
… but it wasn’t. Our (fairly cheap) hotel room featured bad lighting and uncomfortable beds in a room reminiscent of a concrete bunker.
After a couple restless days, we decided to invest in our happiness; we packed up and moved to the Mata Rocks hotel, where we (willingly, happily) paid twice as much for a comfy room mere steps from the beachside bar. That’s more like it.
San Pedro is all about the diving, and we got wet every day. Next stop: underwater.
You can check out Cahal Pech and Xunantunich and be back in your hammock sipping a Cuba libre by lunchtime. Visiting Caracol, on the other hand, takes commitment.
Getting there is half the fun. If your idea of fun is a long, bone-jarring drive on roads like these:
As we began our journey, a nice man in a gatehouse wrote down our license plate number and passed me a clipboard, saying something about his father… cancer treatment… would I like to donate money? That caught me by surprise, especially since I could hardly understand his quiet, accented English. I let him down easy and drove on.
The guidebook recommends allowing three hours to drive the next 50 miles. And visitors need to be at a meeting point by 9am, so they can be escorted along the last stretch of road by guards (a system originally instituted to prevent banditos from robbing tourists along the route, though the area is safe now).
For two long hours, the only break in the scenery was this checkpoint. I pulled over and looked around, but it was deserted, so I drove on.
Arriving at the meeting point just before 9:00, we were surprised to be the first ones there. Until we realized we were actually at the ruins. That checkpoint was the convoy meeting point, and we’d blown right by it! The armed policemen drinking coffee at a nearby picnic table didn’t seem particularly concerned, and this minor mix-up meant that we got to see Caracol before any other tourists had arrived.
On this bright, sunny day, having the sun beat down on us was a welcome change from the weather at home, as Karen explains:
The local howler monkeys put on a show for us, though they were awfully quiet for a creature with “howler” in its name.
Time to start the long trek home, over that same rough road. After driving for a while, we came upon the checkpoint I had ignored earlier. I slowed down to see if anyone was around. Someone was. He was motioning me to pull over.
Pasting a smile onto my face, I hopped out of the car and bounded into the small hut. Two young men in uniforms lazily reclined in wooden chairs, their rifles sitting on the table in front of them. My strategy: kill ’em with kindness. “Hi, ya know, I apologize, but earlier-”
“You’re the ones who didn’t check in this morning,” one officer said without emotion.
I put on my best dumb tourist act, telling him how we had mistakenly… innocently… ha, ha, how silly of us… driven past HQ this morning. He slid a notebook over to me and asked me to sign in. I wrote my name beneath all the law-abiding tourists who had checked in earlier. Car make and model. License number. Then I stopped.
“Do you want me to fill in the time?” I inquired. No, he would take care of that. I had suspected he’d say that. He’s going to mark down that we checked in this morning and exited this afternoon. We won’t get in trouble for driving through; they won’t get in trouble for missing us. We were on our way.
After run-ins with gun-toting boy soldiers, I always like to relax in a natural pool. Like the Rio-On Pools, along our route back. They’re really impressions in the rocks along a river.
I found a mini hot spring and relaxed, until I felt the call of the bumpy road once again.
After a couple more hours of driving, we passed through the gate that marked the beginning of our journey this morning. The friendly guard put a checkmark next to our license plate number. All vehicles accounted for, nothing to see here.
Thanks for visiting Caracol. Now where’s that Cuba libre?
Preparing for our two-week trip to Belize involved a new wrinkle that we haven’t encountered in years.
What to do with the dog.
Meet Cosmo! He’s a rescue mutt who joined our family last fall, and this is our first extended time away from him. Luckily, we have friends kind enough to look after him. Shortly after Karen dropped him off, I received this text from our dogsitter.
Attaboy, Cosmo. Remember who loves ya.
Next Stop: Belize. All it took was two short flights: Milwaukee to Atlanta to Belize City. At the airport, we were met by Jeff, a Couchsurfer who had contacted us the week before about sharing a ride. We piled into a junky rental SUV and headed west (east would have put us in the drink) to San Ignacio.
Mayan ruins abound in this area of Belize, two of which are very close to town and easily accessible. The next morning, we explored Cahal Pech, which may have once looked like this:
Now it looks more like this:
After lunch at the famous (apparently) Benny’s Kitchen, we headed for the other nearby ruin.
Xunantunich is one of the earliest Mayan sites, and it’s fun, too, because you can climb all over it (should we tourists be allowed to do that?).
Back in San Ignacio, we walked around as the shopkeepers were closing up for the night and discovered more of those stray dogs, this time using the decorative fountain as a drinking fountain.
And yes, Karen pets them. Even ol’ Big Ears, who we saw a few nights in a row.
Don’t worry, Cosmo, it’s only temporary. Her heart belongs to you.
Whew! The blizzard of Prague/Dresden posts from the past is at an end, and we’re beginning a new adventure in the present: Karen and I are seeking warmer climes for two weeks in Belize.
As I finish packing, it strikes me that once upon a time, I traveled around the world for nine months with the orange bag pictured below. Now I need the blue one for two weeks in Belize.
Have I become a clothes horse? Nope. A scuba diver.
While not as geared-up as the true die-hards, I do bring along my own mask, snorkel, dive computer, and flashlight. On this trip, I’m going to try out a newly-purchased underwater camera housing, taking my photography to new depths.
Onward, to Belize!
On my last day in Dresden, I hit the bricks early to experience the city waking up.
Trams rolled down nearly-empty streets as the sun emerged from behind majestic buildings.
After snapping photos for a while, I found a park bench overlooking the Elbe River and watched the day begin.
Guided by the map I’d picked up at my hostel, I tracked down a shadowy remnant of Dresden’s Socialist past.
Some other images from my Dresden wanderings.
At night, I finally got around to exploring the more modern area of downtown and found shopping, shopping, and shopping. And the obligatory wacky-shaped movie theater.
One last glimpse of the Academy of Fine Arts on the Altstadt side of the river.
On the Neustadt side, a Tim Burton moon looms overhead. You know, the kind of moon that wouldn’t be out of place in The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Each night, walking back to my hostel, I’d pass a statue of a golden rider. That’s Dresden’s golden boy, August the Strong, Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, and- most importantly to me- patron of the arts. He attracted to Dresden the artists and architects who created the impressive buildings I’ve been ogling this week.
Another former Eastern Bloc city, another museum full of Socialist detritus. More elaborate than the Museum of Communism in Prague, Dresden’s DDR Museum occupies several floors in an appropriately stark building.
There are rooms full of artifacts and walls full of posters from youth rallies, evocative photos, and year-by-year timelines. Mostly in German, which made the visit less fulfilling for me, but this is, you know, Germany.
A common feature of these museums is reconstructed rooms and shops. What is this supposed to convey, exactly? That people had funny, square TVs in 1950? I knew that.
I am a sucker for abandoned currency, though. And abandoned film technology. And the Robotron!
Patrons start their visits on the top floor and work their way down, so it was at the end of my tour that I discovered the automotive collection, including the Trabbis that the members of U2 and I are so taken with.
To fans of Kurt Vonnegut (like me), Dresden is synonymous with his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children’s Crusade.
During World War II, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners of war hid in the basement of a slaughterhouse while the Allies bombed the crap out of the city. I’m a big fan of Vonnegut, the observant cynic, lover of words, Mark Twain for our time. I brought along my copy of Slaughterhouse-Five and re-read it on my way to Dresden. This required me to temporarily set aside the new Jim Henson biography– not an easy feat for me. When the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is captured and transported to Dresden, Vonnegut writes:
The Americans arrived in Dresden at five in the afternoon. The box car doors were opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of heaven to Billy Pilgrim.
Somebody behind him in the box car said, “Oz.” That was I. That was me. The only other city I’d ever seen was Indianapolis, Indiana.
So here I am in Dresden… Oz… Vonnegut’s city, the backdrop to his most famous novel. What will I do?
Take the Kurt Vonnegut Tour, of course. Details were a bit sketchy on the website, but a couple emails later, I had a date with Danilo. We met next to the statue of King Johan on Wednesday morning, and since I was the only person on the tour, we basically chatted as we walked around town.
Honestly, there’s not that much to see here related to Kurt Vonnegut. Danilo regaled me with tales of Kurt Vonnegut’s life and pointed out various buildings as we walked, providing a bonus architectural and cultural tour.
For example, he pointed out the distant building that looks like a mosque. Danilo says it’s actually a factory; apparently, the designer took advantage of a law that exempted religious buildings from paying certain taxes.
But let’s not get off track here. The ultimate destination of our tour is slaughterhouse five, the actual facility where Vonnegut sought shelter from the bombing. We walked for quite a while along a tree-lined sidewalk, leaving the city center behind, passing a hill that is made of rubble from the bombing.
Finally, we came upon a collection of buildings enclosed by a gate. Danilo walked up to the guard shack and exchanged some words and gestures with the guard. The Kurt Vonnegut Tour, it turns out, is really a handshake deal by which some guards let us in the back door.
The back door of what? Well, check it out:
Hold that place in your mind, and read this:
There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.
It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.
So it goes.
Odd to be contemplating man’s cruelty to man while standing next to the coat check, but that would probably suit Kurt Vonnegut just fine. And by taking this tour, I had seen parts of Dresden I never would have with my nose buried in a guidebook.
Freed from the “we’re on a tour” formalities, Danilo and I chatted about topics non-Vonnegutian while riding the tram toward downtown, and I learned that he was a teacher in the Soviet days. Though he has no wish to go back to the old ways, he says it’s been difficult to make a living since the fall of Communism, as politicians spend more time looking out for themselves than their constituents.
I tipped Danilo with my leftover euros, we said our goodbyes, and I was left alone with my thoughts. As my buddy Kurt put it,
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”