Raggamuffin Tours office
For breakfast we ventured to a somewhat obscure part of the island to a little restaurant called Glenda's on the west side of the island. We'd read good reviews of their cinammon rolls, and while they weren't spectacular, they were pretty good and cheap along with a filling breakfast of eggs, tortillas and beans, as we'd come to love and rely on for breakfast. Our plans for the day included a snorkeling and sailing trip with Raggamuffin Tours. The boat left at 10:15.
There was quite a group heading out this morning, so we ended up taking three boats. Our group got the blue boat, which actually had a name with the word "ragga" in it.
Hoisting the sail
We walked down a pier and piled into a small boat to get out to the larger sailboat that was anchored further from shore in deeper water. Most of the shore around Caye Caulker was probably less than five feet deep for at least 50-100 meters (I know, I'm combining measurement systems; deal). There were about 15-20 people on the boat, plus three crewmen we knew as Captain Ramsey (the captain, of course), Patrick (young and flirtaceous with the young ladies) and Jolly (a quiet rasta man with hip-length dreadlocks).
On our way out to the coral gardens, Patrick shelled shrimp in preparation for the ceviche we would have on the return trip. We just hunkered down near one of the bases of the sails and enjoyed the wind whipping through our hair and on our skin. Most of the people were sitting on the bow of the boat, so a few of us were on what I guess is called the stern.
Patrick shelling the shrimp
That's probably the extent of my sailing terminology knowledge. It was a boat, we were on the water and it was very relaxing. Mark had never been sailing, and it was dreamlike for him. I definitely enjoyed it, although being from the landlocked and relatively water-body-free Great Plains, my brain has difficulty understanding all that open water. I guess it's really the same as western Kansas...flat and treeless as far as the eye can see, but in this case, it's just water instead of dirt. I have no motion sickness issues or fears of the water, it just seems odd that the only solid thing available to put your foot down on is the boat itself. Water is really the yang to the yin of land, symbiotic and whole.
My philosophy wavered almost as soon as I got in the water.
The open sea
It had been about 10 years since I last snorkeled. I do not like to wear protective headgear, which is what I considered the prescription goggles I had. They allowed me to see perfectly clear--underwater. But the lens started to fog up and had unremovable water droplets on it that did not allow me to see above the waves. Then I had to get used to the flippers, and carry the waterproof disposable camera I'd purchased especially for this trip. But worst of all was the current. While I was struggling with all of the above and trying to swim at the same time, I kind of lost track of where I was supposed to actually be to see the coral and other sea life. I had been trying to maintain all these things and while I'm normally very good at multi-tasking, I found that my skills did not transfer to the ocean.
Sunglasses and smiles, blithely unaware
Before I knew it I had drifted a little too far from the boat and now couldn't keep my goggles on without water seeping in. Without the goggles I could see only water and daylight. I wasn't panicking by any means; I was much more frustrated with all the things that weren't working, and the fact that my camera had somehow slipped off its wristband and was floating off towards Cuba. I swam over and actually was able to retrieve it, but only succeeded in getting myself even more marooned.
About the time that I was going to start the arduous swim back to the boat, I suddenly saw Mark. This was his very first time snorkeling, and the fact that he was able to find me dismissed any remote notion that he would have as much trouble as I was having. I explained my issues and that I was just not getting the hang of this and would be heading back to the boat, so he should go on and try to see the marine life without me.
Underwater marine life, before the current took us away
Of course, I never realized that he was in the initial throes of his own panic attack.
As I started to swim back towards the boat against a very strong current that made it seem I wasn't getting anywhere, I noticed Mark wasn't actually snorkeling--he was trying to do the backstroke. I thought it quite odd, since all the action was below the water not above, but it never dawned on me that he might have been having trouble. After all, he used to teach children how to swim!
We were probably about 50 feet apart or so when I thought I heard him make a noise. It sounded like it could be a grunt, but I couldn't tell if it were the athletic type that weightlifters make when benchpressing hundreds of pounds, or something else. But it became consistently rhythmatic--too consistent.
Nurse sharks (imagine "Jaws" theme playing)
I tried calling to him but he didn't hear me. Finally, I got a little closer and knew that my voice would be heard, but he did not respond other than the continued grunts. This got me worried and I desperately tried to swim towards him. At the same time I suddenly looked around and realized we were pretty much between two specks that I could surmise were boats. And I had no idea which boat was ours. We both continued to swim towards the closest one, but I was starting to freak out a bit, focusing on my doubts about which boat to go to, but I think subconsciously it was because I knew Mark was in trouble and I had no idea what to do.
When I finally reached Mark, I was able to see the fear in his eyes. It was a look I had never seen before and won't soon forget. I tried to talk with him, but he couldn't respond.
Ray on display
However, he continued to move; he took my shoulder and we started swimming towards the boat. By this point, the boat had actually come to us. They could tell something was wrong and were coming back around to fetch us from the water. Mark was immediately relieved but in shock at what had happened. The muscles in my stomach, legs and arms were sore from fighting the current, and I was happy to remove the flippers and climb up the ladder onto the boat. Never did I truly fear that we wouldn't make it, but it was a frightening experience to witness Mark in a true panic.
It was just enough time for our heartbeats to return to normal pace, drink some water and eat some tropical fruit they passed around in a bowl. Then we arrived at our next stop. It should come as no surprise that Mark stayed in the boat, although I should have encouraged him to get in the water.
Waving as my camera drifted out to sea for the second time
This spot didn't even require flippers or really even the snorkel to appreciate the view. The crew tossed various chunks of bloody fish parts in the water and suddenly the turquoise water was swarming with nurse sharks
. One of the guys got in and they didn't seem interested in his flesh as long as he was seeing to it that the chum kept coming. Eventually the shark disseminated and we were encouraged to get in the water with the remaining marine life, which included what they called shark rays
and multi-colored fish whose names I never caught. Conch shells littered the shallow ocean floor.
Gooey baby octopus bait
It was a perfect transition from the frightening experience we'd had the last time we were in the water. Poor Mark didn't get a chance to see it up close, but he was able to witness the action from the boat, and the sharks and rays were quite visible. He also got to see a tiny octopus that was part of the live bait for the sharks. The picture he took showed a bizarre slimy green creature that looked more like a Hollywood studio project than a real sea creature.
As we sailed out to the next stop, we had lunch. Mark had calmed down a bit by then and we were regaining some of our joie de vivre. The acrid saltwater taste was just about gone from the back of my tongue. The third and last destination was going to be a big one. The crew explained to us what we were going to do, which included splitting into small groups and following a designated guide through a maze of churning waters, coral reefs and other barriers.
Sea fans among other marine features
Looking out at the lapping blue waves towards two reference points where the current was "particularly strong," I questioned whether I'd be boat-bound for this round. However, we decided to first get in the water and see how far we could go. If it turned out to be too challenging, we could turn back. Of course, this seemed like a good theory, although in practice I really wasn't sure how well I'd actually be able to do it in the midst of the sea. A few minutes after our smaller group divisions, Mark realized he was not going to chance it and promptly got back on the boat. I was feeling inappropriately brave and decided to go with the group. At least I wouldn't be completely adrift in the ocean without someone within close proximity.
The first big challenge was trying to juggle snorkeling and listening to the guide explain what fish we were seeing.
Sea ferns beneath the sea
Between dips in the water, I heard choppy bits of words and sentences that were as unintelligible as a foreign baby with a speech impediment: "...erfish liv...in...ater...coral reef habi...here you see a...and this fish has...," and on it went so that even when I was above water, I really couldn't focus on the explanations. I did catch a few words like "barracuda" just before our guide dove under a coral-encrusted rock beneath the sea to find said creature. He invited any of us who had more stamina to complete the cave dive with him. There were no takers. This would not only involve me submerging my fragile snorkel but actually swimming under the water to actual depths and then through a cave of unknown length and out the other side, all while holding my breath. I may as well have sacrificed myself as shark bait, so I stayed safely floating in the water above with the rest of the chickens.
Deep blue wonders
I saw plenty of fish, coral, sea plants and all the magic of the underwater world. It was a surreal scene that was as bizarre to swim through as to witness live. My goggles had behaved since I learned the trick of smearing vaseline over my mustache before putting them on and coating the lenses with the soapy water they had in a bucket on the boat. It was as clear as being immersed into a liquid television set or movie theater where the colors and life unfolded around me. "Forget 3-D," I thought, "this is beyond 'D'." I really didn't care that I had no idea what I was looking at. Oh, I knew sea fans, coral, anemones and conch shells, but all the fish were too spectacular to dwell on their names.
We approached the furthest point we were to swim out and away from the boat when I realized that I was doing pretty good up to that point.
I really wasn't tired and had started getting the hang of swimming, breathing and actually seeing the marine life all at the same time. The next step of the swim involved following the leader in a narrow but direct line through a bed of shallow coral. This was a bit more nerving than any of the other obstacles I'd faced, but only for fear of damaging the precious coral and enduring the resulting sting that would be inflicted on my delicate skin. It was a tight swim and I barely moved my flippers as I glided through the water. In some cases the rocky marine life and coral were inches from the nearest appendage. But the view was even more captivating. Unfortunately because of the fragile environment within which we had to navigate, I was unable to concentrate on taking photos and missed out on capturing the best scenery on film.
Much cooler with a drink in hand!
Beyond the shallow coral fields, we emerged surrounding small boats that were anchored for divers. We swam among them to another shallow but flat area and actually stood up while the guide explained that we were going to try to locate a turtle. It took some hunting, but eventually we all were able to see a lonely loggerhead turtle foraging for food around the rudder of a parked boat. He later swam away but re-emerged in an open seagrass bed. By then all but one other person and me remained to witness his shy manner. I'd already run out of film on my waterproof camera, but he is preserved in my memory.
Meanwhile back on the boat, Mark enjoyed the safety and stability of not being in undulating ocean currents. I had managed to complete this last round successfully, having seen scores of intricately bespeckled fish, spellbinding coral formations and mesmerizing sea fans and other marine plantlife swaying in the water.
A small pier on Caye Caulker just before sunset
I was a little relieved to get back on the boat, but a little sad that the amazing experience I'd just had was already over. I wanted to recapture those visions of what I'd seen underwater and make them last.
The rest of the snorkelers returned to the boat and we headed back to the island. The skippers handed us all plastic cups and filled them with rum punch they'd make and stored in a huge clear drum. We also had big bowls of the ceviche that were passed around with chips. We enjoyed munching and drinking while we talked with some of the other passengers. Two girls from the US--Jacquie and Erin--and a guy from Israel whose name was Omri. It was a beautiful sail back, and the drinks kept flowing. We must have had at least six and there was still more left.
We got back, cleaned up and walked up to the Lazy Lizard to catch sunset and have another drink.
Mark at the Lazy Lizard before the Lizard Juice
Somewhere I read about a drink they made called "Lizard Juice" that was their signature drink. I really didn't think to ask what was in it, but we'd had good drinks up to now and figured it would probably be refreshing. Well, that it was! But we had no idea it was made by pouring alcohol from every bottle in the bar into a blender with ice. As I watched the bartender continue to select bottles to pour from, I became worried. He handed us each a big glass of the nuclear green slush, a devilish smile and eyes that said "you're going to be some drunken fools after this." The first taste was indeed quenching, although I could taste alcohol under the slight lime flavor. We ran into the crew from the boat and the two American girls. They all said we would be under the table after that drink.
Everything you see here goes into the Lizard Juice
As we cautiously sipped our way through the Lizard Juice, the world around us indeed became a little more wobbly. The bartender interrupted us when we saw our glasses were half empty, and surprised us with the remainder of the drink that had been in the blender. It's probably unnecessary to go into details, but by the end of the drink we were definitely hammered. It's a wonder we didn't end up in the ocean, but we managed to stumble away from that bar and into the main street with the purpose of finding food. One big mistake we'd made was that we hadn't had dinner before that drink. At least now I can laugh at Long Island ice teas.
We found Fran's, which wasn't so much a restaurant as a woman who grilled food on the beach side of the main street. She could tell we were in desperate need of victuals, especially Mark who had taken to hugging invisible palm trees in the road.
Little did we know the nuclear green drink we were holding would flatten us
I was somehow less intoxicated, but certainly far from sober at that point. We ordered whatever fish, rice and bean combo she had and scarfed it down quickly but enough to notice that it was good street food. We really hadn't eaten much street food on the island, and this was a welcome change. And it was very cheap. At the picnic table where we sat, we met a group of Australian and New Zealand girls, and as we sobered up, we talked about traveling and world politics--typical subjects given the circumstances. Afterwards, they invited us to hang out with them at their hostel. It was one we'd passed before and noticed there were always shirtless Aussies playing frisbee or football. Tonight there was indeed a group of men and women travelers and a few locals, all gathered around various picnic tables with assorted sodas and bottles of rum.
This picture, while drunk, must have had a deeper meaning
A guy named Jack handed me a small bottle that he claimed was a local rum. He forewarned me that it was vile stuff, but Mark and I must have been buzzed enough from the previous bender that we decided to give it a try. It was like swallowing lighter fluid followed by a couple lit matches. Vile doesn't begin to describe this stuff. My throat burned as if I'd gargled with a mix of battery acid and brake fluid. It was still raw the next afternoon. It's a medical miracle that our esophagi survived the ordeal. Barely able to speak fluently, I tried to carry on a conversation with Jack and Ellen, the New Zealand girl. We talked of books, humanitarian aid and more travel stories. Mark chatted with Kathleen while Ellie went back and forth between her room and another group of people. It was her birthday.
We stayed up chatting until what seemed like pre-dawn, but was actually only about midnight. At least we'd sobered up to the point of not spinning and could calmly reflect on the very eventful day.