The Barton Creek Outpost

There are few times in this blog where I’ve felt the need to mention our accommodation. Mostly because it’s been standard hostels – some good, some not so good, some quite rubbish – and really it’s just not that interesting. Who really wants to know about the New York YMCA? Or Godzillas in Moscos? But I do feel compelled to mention the Barton Creek Outpost.

Run by American ex-pats Jim and Jacquelyn and their three (probably four by now) children, this hostel is a destination all by itself. Set on the edges of Mountain Pine Ridge this hostel is not just close to nature, it is in nature. Seriously, I was watching hummingbirds go about their business over my morning coffee.

Plants and vines and orchards surround the main house and the bunk house, which are set on the edge of fresh-water creek. That creek is also the bathing facility, and while it is chilly there is something wonderful about bathing down there. You feel like you’re one of those luxury soap advertisements where the actors are bathing in some tropical lagoon.

Jim and Jacquelyn themselves are lovely to chat to over the communal evenings meals, and Jim has his own blog about his experiences in Belize which makes for interesting reading. It’s here if anyone is keen.

The worst Christmas Song ever???

So it’s a few weeks out from Christmas. A and I are cosying up in a little hotel in San Ignacio – it’s off the main street so hopefully traffic noise will be at a minimum. But – whatever – we have earplugs for that.

We slept just fine except we were rudely awoken at the ungodly hour of 7am. Yes – 7am is ungodly to us travellers. I say rudely because it wasn’t roosters or traffic or even people talking in the hallways – all of which I could have coped with. No it was the record store across the road blaring out Christmas Carols. At 7am in the morning. Call me a grinch but that’s a level of Christmas cheer I don’t need. And it went on all day.

What really got my attention was the calibre of Christmas Carols on rotation. Apart from the traditional carols there were the country carols. Now I know that country music has a reputation for sometimes being morose, but these were something else. There were two in particular that somewhat floored me.

First up was this classic by – I’ve since learned – John Denver. Titled “Daddy please don’t get drunk this Christmas”. Really. I couldn’t help myself. I looked up the lyrics:

Just last year when I was only seven
And now I’m almost eight as you can see
You came home at a quarter past eleven
Fell down underneath our Christmas tree

Please Daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas
I don’t wanna see my Mumma cry
Please Daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas
I don’t wanna see my Mumma cry

Mumma smiled and looked outside the window
She told me son, you better go upstairs
Then you laughed and hollered Merry Christmas
I turned around and saw my Mumma’s tears

Please Daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas
I don’t wanna see my Mumma cry
Please Daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas
I don’t wanna see my Mumma cry
No, I don’t wanna see my Mumma cry

And then there was this equally sad one “Daddy won’t be home again this Christmas”. Again, I couldn’t help myself:

Daddy won’t be home again for Christmas
But I’m hoping that this little cheque will fit
Daddy won’t be home again for Christmas
Maybe this will serve to let you know I don’t forget.

The Christmas tree where I’ll be won’t be lighted
But the rain and cold will let us know December’s here
Forgive me for the letters I don’t answer
 I keep thinking I’ll be home again each year.

But daddy won’t be home again for Christmas,
Here’s hoping that this little cheque will fit;
Daddy won’t be home again for Christmas,
Maybe this will serve to let you know I don’t forget.

I know Santa Claus won’t bring you all the things you need,
But maybe he’ll be kinder if he knows,
That I won’t be home again this year to play his role,
Besides I’m much too thin to wear his clothes.

Aren’t they just the cheeriest Christmas songs you’ve ever heard! They are quite sad when you read the words but when they were played straight after Deck the Halls, it did sound quite funny and left me with the giggles. Anyway – I’m now interested to know if anyone else has ever heard bad Christmas songs? What are they – let me know!

More than a tourist trap

If truth be know, I always prefer to describe myself as a traveller. It sounds so much more intrepid and exciting than that other T word. But let’s face – whatever my preference, I am still very much a tourist, and like every other tourist I happily trot off to see all of the tourist attractions. Red Square, Berlin Wall, Chichen Itza; tick, tick, tick. I’ve come to accept the crowds and the cameras, and enjoyed many a ubiquitous guided tour.

But every now and then, there’s a tourist attraction that surpasses expectations. It becomes more than just a guided tour, it becomes a memorable experience. That is what happened for me at the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave just outside of San Ignacio, Belize.

San Ignacio was not in our original travel plans, but we heard so much about this cave from other travellers that we decided a detour was in order. I’m so glad we did.

The ATM cave system was used heavily by the Mayans for many ceremonies and rituals; it’s chambers and ledges are littered with ancient ceramics and the remains of human sacrifices. To see them involved first a 40 minute hike through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, to the cave mouth, and then another two hours swimming and scrambling through the caves. The scrambling, swimming and climbing was always going to win me over but what took this tour beyond merely another show-and-tell was our guide, Martin. Of Mayan descent, he spoke with such eloquence and pride about his ancestors that you couldn’t help but be moved by his words.

At one point he had us turn off our headlamps and walk single file – one hand placed on the shoulder of the person in front – through the cave in the dark. I cannot stress how dark it was – you could not see your hand in front of your face. And then – as we waded through the waist-deep water in the black – Martin began to sing a Mayan prayer which echoed all around the chamber. It was truly beautiful moment.

Soon afterwards he took us to some rock formations which he – after leading tours through the cave for years and years – had learned to “play”. Tapping gently on different parts of the stalectities, he was able to create a rippling melody that left everyone amazed and delighted.

When it came to explaining the significance of the relics, Martin again had all the knowledge. He told us the stories of Maya – how they lived, who they worshipped, what this cave meant to them. He told us the stories of the human sacrifices – including the Crystal Maiden – who willingly gave up their lives for their beliefs. What I loved about him was that he would give you the official explanation – devised by learned anthropologists – and then he would tell you what he thought. His interpretations often made as much sense – if not more – than all the academic theories.

The tour left us quite exhausted – four hours hiking, swimming and climbing will do that to you. But it also left us with the distinct knowledge that we had just visited a holy place, as holy as any church or mosque that you may care to step into. It was a cave and it was a tour, but at the end of the day it was also a very spiritual experience.

Chilling on the Cayes

Don’t bother. Too American. Bit of a shithole. These were some of the things I had been told about Belize before I arrived. In truth I was hesitant about spending too much time there. However, after spending a good two weeks there I can now only conclude that the people who had told me this were either a) blind or b) never saw the cayes.

Our first stop was Caye Caulker, a tiny island which in parts is less than 100m wide. It’s not the prettiest island I’ve seen –  it had the ubiquitous swaying palm trees and blue waters however the beaches left something to be desired – but there was just something about this place.

It’s a place where shoes and shirts are optional, swimming substitutes for showering, Bob Marley is compulsory, lobster tail is an affordable menu staple and rum is stupidly, stupidly cheap. In all seriousness, 1.75L of rum costs around $12. That would explain my pathetic attempt at “The Worm” in the Oceanside (the best and only nightclub on the island). Probably would also explain the Kylie karaoke and crashed bicycle.

Incidentally, here’s another for the “It’s a small world” file. On our first night at the hostel, one of the guys tells me he’s a second year medical student at Notre Dame University, and given I know a little bit about the medical school system, we start chatting. And then I remember something:

“You know, I once had a personal trainer who was studying medicine at Notre Dame, but at the same time he was also looking into becoming a jet-fighter pilot. I wonder if you know of him?”
“Yeah. He’s in the kitchen drinking rum.”
“Sorry?”
“Yeah. He’s my mate, he’s in the kitchen drinking rum.”

And so he was. To top things off these two med students were also best mates with my physiotherapist back in Sydney.

Caye Caulker is a lazy lazy place – there’s not much to do other than drink rum and make friends, which was just fine with us. It took us six days to decide we should probably leave or risk becoming part of the furniture at Bellas, our hostel.

A and I hopped on a Raggamuffin three-day sailing and snorkelling tour. Twenty of us piled on to the Ragga Queen which took us along the Belize Barrier Reef – the second biggest reef in the world. Snorkelling, storms and story-telling by the bonfire – this trip had it all.

The first snorkel stop was a dream. We anchored just metres from the reef and within seconds of plunging into the water I found myself casually swimming among hundreds and hundreds of fish. And beautiful fish at that; they shimmered in silvers, yellows and blues as they darted around rocks and delicate fan corals.

That night we camped on Rendezvous Caye, an island no bigger than your average suburban block. Entirely formed from sand and reinforced with some cleverly placed retaining walls, there are exactly three palm trees on this island.

The next day was more swimming and more snorkelling. However at the second snorkel point, off Tobacco Caye, I had to face my newest fear. A stingray. A big bloody stingray that was patrolling the inlet. But I am proud to say I did it – I got in the water after only 10 minutes of minor hysterics, and then proceeded to explore the surrounding reef for the next half hour. It was here we saw the fabulous Lion Fish, and made friends with a tiny yellow fish that seemed intent on swimming alongside us for the entire time.

Our last day however, was no so great. A tropical storm had whipped in overnight, and the sea was quite rough. For me this meant several hours battling sea sickness – but I managed to make it to shore without disgracing myself, thankfully.

So, Belize. Too American? Not yet. Bit of a shithole? Not one bit. Don’t bother? That would be a huge mistake.