Out of the corner of my eye I could see the two men under the tree. Horizontal and relaxed, shaded from the penetrating midday heat, one chewing on a long blade of dry, brown grass, the other pulling on a cigarette.
“That’s total evidence of this tropical climate, that tan you got right there baby – you look like syrup,” the first one drawled, removing the straw from his mouth.
His friend sat up and a large, lazy grin spread across his face, wrinkling his thick, jet-black, skin. He pushed his dreadlocks out of his eyes, cooing, “I like the way you walk baby – why don’t you come over here?”
I received their comments with a mixture of mild irritation and amusement. The men here are forward. The beer and cuba libres flow freely and the Caribbean sunshine goes to the head like an intoxicating drug.
Strikingly set apart from its Latin neighbors, Belize, home to a diverse mix of people and cultures, often feels like several different countries at once. The Creoles (descendants of the African slaves and British pirates who first settled here) speak the official language of English with musical lilt, Caribbean flavor, and poetic license.
Spanish is the first language in the north and some towns in the west, where the Maya and mestizos (persons of mixed European and Central American Indian ancestry) concentrate. Garfunas (of South American Indian and African descent) dominate the south, and small pockets of Europeans, Chinese, East Indians and North Americans also make up Belize’s improbable population, adding to its unique charm and character.
Creaking and bumping into Belize City by bus is truly a feast for the eyes. Chaotic and bustling with activity, loud voices can be heard selling oranges, pineapples, cigarettes, jewelry, clothing, and, as I wouldn’t put past some shady Belizeans, their own grandmothers.
Whether they’re trying to sell something, help you out, or scam you, the colorful language and facial expressions used by the friendly Belizean people always bring a smile to the face. “Honey, you could die three times and still come back,” responded the boat hand when I asked if my ticket to Caye Caulker was good for the return journey.
The cayes are numerous islands that bask in the shallow warm waters of eastern Belize. The essence is on relaxation, with street signs on the pedestrian Caulker reading ‘Go slow’, ‘Hesitate… you are here’ and, my personal favorite, ‘Betta no litta’.
The sound of reggae beats and smells of charcoal grills fill the air. Beach huts and ramshackle hotels dot the length and breadth of the caye (about four miles long and only 600 meters at its widest point) and brightly colored hammocks swing from palm trees.
Five star luxury it isn’t. Caye Caulker is a poor man’s Caribbean. Shrubs and roots pepper the white sand, and there are few places to swim or sunbathe because of mangroves and lack of space that is not covered by grass or buildings.
Yet despite this, Caulker maintains a certain amount of charm and character. Serving mainly as a jumping off point for the coral reefs, it’s largely uncrowded during the day. Those who remain on the caye can be found swinging in hammocks or diving off the jetty into the deep waters at the ‘split’ (so-called because of Hurricane Hattie that literally split the island in two in 1961).
Over the years, Caulker has suffered the wrath of many powerful and dangerous hurricanes. This is evident in structural damage to flimsy beach side hotels. Many palm trees lie broken or bent along the shoreline, and Caulker’s most popular swimming spot, ‘the split’, is testament to the devastation a fiercely whirling hurricane can wield.
The islanders who live here are familiar with the tropical storms that ravage their home every year. Living in fear of a hurricane large enough to raise their houses to the ground means that their houses are little more than a few slats of wood nailed together, as if the less ostentatiously they build, the less they will have to rebuild when the time comes.
Children run around with dirty noses and huge smiles. The older ones launch into triple back flips off the jetty, throwing themselves into the air, daring each other to jump higher or further, or splash louder. Theirs is a lifestyle handed down by parents who have witnessed how fragile life can be. No one here takes themselves – or anyone else – too seriously. There’s a sign hanging outside the Sand Box bar which reads:
On the third night of my stay, I went to the Sandbox and unexpectedly witnessed the capabilities of a tropical storm firsthand. I watched as the ink-blue sky was suddenly illuminated by a fork of lightning, followed by a rolling boom of thunder. I saw the black silhouettes of the palm trees swaying against the backdrop of the night and felt the power of the wind.
The rain poured furiously. Sheets of water fell from the sky, blowing sideways into the bar, as it was caught by a heavy gust of wind, drenching those inside within seconds. The bar tender ran towards the door and pulled down the wooden hatches, winking at me.
As crash followed crash, and the intensity of the rain continued, I asked a local near me about Hurricane Keith – the last major hurricane to rock the island. He chuckled as he described the noise of the wind and the ferocity of the rain.
“I heard that wind and it was like he saying ‘I got a whole lot more where that came from!’” He stopped suddenly and looked sombre, his face taking on a deadly serious composure. Gesturing towards the hatches, which were rocking fiercely in the wind he said, “this sound just like Keith.”
My horrified face must have been a picture, because he took one look and let out a loud, belly laugh. “Honey this bar wouldn’t be here no more if this was another Keith!”
The next day, wandering lazily along the caye, the sun was out and the puddles had drained away. Food stands and tour operators were open, and tourists and locals were swimming in the clear waters again.
Deciding it was time to go out on the reef, I was bombarded with offers. Huge, brightly-colored banners plastered with underwater pictures are displayed outside every store, and it is hard to see much difference in the services offered.
My concern was that I would end up on an overcrowded party boat and have to compete for space and equipment. I began to examine some of the flyers I had picked up before noticing a small painted sign reading ‘JUNI’ in white letters on the side of a beach hut.
A man of about 60 was gently rocking on a chair on the balcony, looking down at me with an expression of faint amusement.
“Are you Juni?” I asked. He nodded calmly, fixing me with an intense gaze. At last he said: “If you’re looking to go out on the reef, I have something very special going on out there.”
I liked his soft brown eyes and the coral cross he wore around his neck. I liked his calm manner and knowing expression. He was the type of person whose presence made you feel safe and I decided to go to the reef with him.
Although nurse sharks enjoy a placid reputation and are rarely provoked, I was nervous as we sailed into Shark Ray Alley and I could make out the shape of one swimming beneath our boat, the magnifying quality of the water making her appear huge. Juni had timed our arrival just as the powerboats, heaving with sunburned bodies, were leaving.
He threw out the anchor into the green waters below and, in his unhurried manner, turned to face us: “I am going to tell you a story. You will never have heard anything like this before.”
As he stood on the edge of the boat, he looked like a mythical character, serious and earnest. “Almost ten years ago I was in my boat when I came across a female nurse shark that had been speared by a fisherman.” He spoke softly, as if confiding a great secret.
“She was weak and bleeding. So I brought her some food and stayed with her for a while. The next day I went back and fed her and stayed some more time with her. I went back every day and, after three weeks, she was up. She was better. She swam with me all day.”
He paused and looked round at each of us, as if to make sure we were listening, and then continued. “One day I noticed that she was getting fat. I called her gordita,” he smiled: “I did not realize that she was pregnant.”
He went on to tell us of how she had two babies and, although one of them died, the other had three babies of her own. For ten years now Juni had returned almost daily to swim with his sharks.
As beautifully as he told the story, I could’t help but feel cynical until we spent a couple of hours with his shark family. On that day, just three of them came, the grandmother and two of the young sharks. As soon as Juni splashed into the water, they were by his side. They followed him closely, and we followed Juni.
Every movement he made, they moved with him. When he rolled over and when he swam, they did too, playing with him as he turned them over and stroked their undersides.
Juni beckoned to me underneath the water and I swam close to him. He nudged one of the baby sharks toward me and I patted her back. Her skin was scaly, like the rough surface of a cat’s tongue. Juni turned her over and I held her in my arms for a moment and stroked her soft belly.
Swimming with these sharks gave me an insight into how intelligent and peaceful they are. Each beautiful, graceful movement they made and their acceptance of us was touching.
I was unnerved only when they speedily changed direction, making a sudden U-turn, and three meters of shark swam towards me. Their two barbels (thin, fleshy, whisker-like organs on the lower jaw that sense touch and taste) hanging low, like teeth, provoking an irrational fear of sharks instilled in me from watching Jaws many years ago.
But there was no malice in these sharks, just an inquisitive playfulness. When Juni led us back to the boat he gave the sharks one last pat on their heads, and a morsel of fish each before they swam off away from the reef and out of sight.
Watching the sharks go, I realized that I had never felt such a close affinity with wild animals before, and it was elating. A smile appeared on my face that refused to fade.
As we sailed back to the caye with the warm air blowing in our faces, I noticed the name painted on the side of Juni’s boat – Trinity. I asked him why he had chosen this name. He smiled and said “My boat, my ocean, my sharks… my trinity.”
Juni was a man who needed nothing more in his life. The wooden slatted beach hut, lack of family, even a home that was rapidly being built upon and blighted in the name of tourism, mattered little to him. Out on the blue horizon are his family. On his boat is his home.
Caulker was evacuated just two days after I left. The strong winds of Hurricane Chantal, with gusts of up to 100 km per hour stopped just short of being a classified a true hurricane, whose winds much reach over 119 km. I thought of Juni, and the words he had spoken through a wide smile: “I like hurricanes, they control the gringo population.”