One last time, we dive back in to the suffocating heat of Belize.
As I step through the threshold of my room at the Belcove Hotel (more of a two-story home with extra beds, really) out into the brightly plastered yellow hallway, I feel the air squeeze in around me, encasing me in a layer of warm, sweet humidity. It’s late; I’ve slept through most of the day trying to recover from whatever unlucky virus I picked up in Costa Rica.
I tiptoe down the hall to the balcony that opens up onto the river cutting through Belize City on its way to the Atlantic. Salty air tickles my cheeks and tosses wispy tendrils of hair onto my already sticky forehead. I can hear the woman in the room behind me scolding her children. Loud, inarticulate reggae vibrates from a few buildings away to my right. It is a Friday night, after all.
It feels good to be in hot, humid air again. One of my favorite sensations of home in the American South is walking outside at midnight and feeling the warm air envelop you, hug you into it. Summer nights have a sense of magic to them, like at any moment we could be sprinting across town or a beach or a lake and it wouldn’t be any surprise at all.
I came out to the deck to sit for a moment and write, to try to capture a part of this place on my last night in it. I’m sitting on the same porch, thinking way back to that afternoon before the first trip, a full month ago. Marshall and I were on the eve of our Moondance Adventures-funded seven-week foray into Central America, leading three groups of teenagers through SCUBA certification in Belize, then surfing, community service, and whitewater rafting in Costa Rica. Knowing names at the airport the next day was absolutely mandatory. We were reclining in the wooden chairs on the balcony, watching the sun melt into the Caribbean Sea to our left, flipping through information sheets to memorize names and faces and hometowns.
A small, swarthy man with dark hair hopped through the doorway, wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. He was followed quickly by a fully-clothed blonde friend. After he’d gotten the requisite shirtless Instagram shot with the sunset, he introduced himself and his friend as an Englishman and Frenchman on a backpacking excursion through the Yucatan, Belize, and Guatemala. We traded travel stories while the sun sank, and Marshall warned them against venturing into the bar down the street after nightfall; Belize City is NOT known for safe, foreigner-friendly nightlife.
And so we chatted like this for a while, Belikins in hand, accents flying, in the middle of the hot, dark, Belizean night. Then, out of the heat, an electrified ripping noise, and everything went black. I mean the entire city went off the grid in under a second. The four of us shared an exchange of moonlit panicked faces, and Marshall ran downstairs to check with the front desk.
He returned with reports of padlocked front doors and “don’t worry, it happens when the weather changes,” as we all looked up to a barren, cloudless sky. We swallowed our Purge-esque nightmares for 45 minutes, and sure enough, survived to see the lights restored to the city.
I sit here now, on the same porch, a month later, with a greater appreciation, if not affection, for this place and the personal growth it has forced me through. My mind leans forward to the days ahead, my third return to Long Caye and our final visit with the people we have befriended throughout the summer. Soon the only reality of this place for me will be photos, journal notes, and memories. I take out my phone and spend an hour or so swiping back through the entries . . .
Stormy night on Long Caye, our semi-private island a 2.5 hour boat ride off the coast.
I awake to crashing thunder and torrents of rain hissing in through the screens. Quickly and wordlessly, I run to shutter the windows and doors as Marshall and I work our way across the room. I check on the girls, he runs downstairs to reassure the boys. The effects of a tropical thunderstorm are felt quite thoroughly in a wooden house on an island with no electric grid or emergency resources. Rain means more water for cooking and showering, though. The house vibrates with each wave of rolling thunder. We are gifted a momentary pause in the downpour.
The wind is whining, people are up and about, restless with the electric energy in the air. You can even see the next bucket dump of rain a few miles away to the south, charging at us full steam ahead. After a few days of nice clear weather and just as passive people, my bones are stirring for some excitement.
The cook’s daughter and the captain’s nephew are giggling on the porch, young and giddy and full of summer. My belly is swollen with the stewed meats and sweet beans that populate our diets here, not to mention the occasional barracuda.
I love the feeling of a big storm about to hit. A decent deposit of rain gives the entire island a nice pat-down, especially the bugs. After ending the first trip with 92 mosquito bites, I welcome any force of nature willing to beat back the nasty beasts for a few hours. Wet nights mean I can temporarily escape the hellish confines of the sheets I’m forced to cocoon in each evening. In 85 degree weather with no wind, covering your entire body in cloth is the last thing on your mind. Until you try to sleep without it and stay awake all night swatting at the buzzing and biting and wondering if this is how they torture people in the CIA. I won’t miss these incessant harbingers of itch.
But for now, I’m on this island, humming with anticipation of the storm to come. I welcome some chaotic disruption.
Dehydration becomes a permanent state.
I woke this morning to the unfortunate realization that I had passed out, fully clothed, totally unwashed the night before, and slept an entire eight hours without moving an inch. My stiff joints and sticky, muck-covered mouth were proof enough. I looked in the direction of the window for some sense of time. A bloody, radiant, scorching sunrise met my sleep-swollen eyes.
“Damn,” I said, and quickly rolled to the right to hide for another hour.
I lazed about atop my sheets and listened to the children gather just outside my door, waiting politely for breakfast to be served. When they began to filter in to the dining room adjacent to my own, I clambered out of my mosquito-netted bed and tried to make myself feel a little more human in the bathroom. Teeth brushed, face scrubbed, I examined my freshly bumpy forehead in the mirror, frowned, and walked next door for breakfast.
Breakfast, as it turned out, was terrible. Eggs should not be gray. I nibbled at my toast and sipped some painfully sugary “orange” juice while chatting calmly with the kids about how they slept, how were the bugs, and did you see the crocodile under the house?
Soon the dive master and his assistants arrived to get the kids geared up. After everyone had their very own mask, snorkel, fins, BCD, and regulator, we walked across the beach over to the big service dock to begin the SCUBA lessons for the day. And so I sat and watched.
I snuck off to the house to “grab something super quick” and was greeted by four fat iguanas congregating in the yard. They seemed terribly busy, so I slipped between them up the stairs to the first floor, where I was greeted by a rather large friend of theirs that skittered by a foot from me and nearly removed my heart from my chest. I huffed and jogged upstairs.
I returned to the dock after retrieving the GoPro (which I would later lose to a maze of coral on the ocean floor) and a bag of Doritos, all without waking the slumbering Marshall in the next bed.
We loaded the equipment onto the boat and zipped out to the first confined water dive spot. The kids bumped around gathering gear and instructions and eventually all tumbled their way into the water. I sat on top of the boat, watching from above, sneaking bites of my secret snack when no one was watching. I quickly inhaled the entire bag, laid down on my stomach, yanked my shirt off and promptly fell asleep. An hour or so later I awoke, sticky and cranky from dehydration. The sunburn gained during this hour would prove to cause substantial suffering over the next few days. I believe I’ll send a photo of it to the MoMA.
Today I finished my last dive of the summer, and it finally feels good to be in the water.
Boy, did it take a while to get here too. I barely remember the first open water dive in mid-June. I think I blacked out from terror. The reality of descending 30 feet to the reef below and the inability to escape to the surface in case of respiratory malfunction did not settle upon me until I attempted to do so, and subsequently spent the entire 40-minute dive choking down panic. The next day, I had to stop my certification plans because my left eardrum had decided it was no longer along for the ride. It took the entirety of two trips to get myself certified and SCUBA savvy. I still hold my ears to protect them from the bubbles.
Yesterday, while the kids were down below finishing their second confined water dive, I took a break from my Amy Poehler-soaked days and took the chance to stretch the limits of my new comfort zone. I took only a mask and swam out far from the boat. It felt amazing to be alone in the ocean. No fins, no tank, no people, no nothing. I floated around for a while, enjoying the hyper-buoyancy of this super salty water, and practiced my best mermaid kick. I felt good. I felt comfortable. I felt blissfully unburdened.
The clouds hang low here, always seeming to skirt the earth just out of my reach.
I am laying beneath the bright, burning moon on the beach at Long Caye for the last time, listening to the tiny waves lap at the coral-crusted shoreline. Some unfortunate gossip reached my ears today that has soured my views of people I had held in quite high esteem. Does it really matter if you do a lot of cool things and have been to a lot of cool places and know a lot of cool stuff if you are still shitty to the important people in your life? I’m sad and wish I’d stayed ignorant. I don’t think there is any going back now.
In other ways, today was a great day. We went to Half Moon Caye and saw the red-footed boobys and the giant hermit crabs and then went fishing with the captain and I FINALLY GOT TO HOLD MY SHARK!
After two unsuccessful attempts to get her onboard last trip, it’s safe to say I had my hopes skyscraper high. When we finally had her in the boat I was so happy I nearly exploded in tears. She was beautiful and agile and smooth and a perfect summation of the incredible power of nature to create such a fantastic creature. I have cemented my fate as a total shark nut.
And then one of the kids totally outshone me and pulled up a three foot nurse shark on a hand line. And then ANOTHER kid straight Crocodile Dundee wrestled it to the ground and finagled the hook out of its mouth. Spirits were stratospheric as we ran up to the house bragging about our 41-catch afternoon and near-tooth experiences.
And so passed my last day in this hot, humid corner of the world. A strange little island, hidden deep in the Caribbean, keeping everybody’s secrets.
Sitting curled into a wooden chair on the deck of the Belcove, I take one last sweeping view of the cityscape. The summer has been a whirlwind of learning: between 15 days of diving, more hours on a boat than I care to count, and one nearly-busted eardrum, I feel like I’ve aged five years in one season. I hardly recognize the shadow of a girl that slipped out from under her broken self last May.
I realize now I will probably never come back here. It doesn’t make me particularly sad; I don’t belong here and I don’t want to. But there is always a strange sort of melancholy about leaving a place with no plans to return. I feel I owe it to this city to remember some of it, even if it’s just the hot, salty air.
The content of this post was adapted from a collection of journal entries made between the 7th of June and 22nd of July, 2016 in Belize City and Long Caye, Belize.