Tuesday, March 21, 2017

I Have Found the Garden of Eden. Its Name is “Belize”

Our ship docked on Harvest Caye (pronounced 'key') - a private island that belongs to our cruise line, Norwegian. We walked the long pier to the island, in a melty hot early morning. The sea was calm, and the mangrove forest was unperturbed, hovering over the Caribbean Sea as if afraid to touch it. Only the tippy toes of the roots were barely scratching the crystal blue waters. Pelicans floated lazily in the cove and there was no wind, really. Just a calm, warm air, and quiet. The promise of a hot day. 

Pelican along mangrove forest, on the Caribbean Sea 

We walked around the small island, while we waited for our (smaller) boat to take us to the Belize mainland. Everything around us was pristinely green and tellingly tropical. The smell in the air was of blooms and perfume. Palm trees of all sorts of species and banana trees lined the narrow alleys in the park of Harvest Caye. The vegetation was robust and lush green. It was like a tropical or a rain forest – just green and exuding steam.

The thatch roofed bars and souvenir stores were elegant and clean. No sign of 'cheese' really, in Belize. All the touristy stuff is subdued and elegant. Never too much of anything, never anything too loud. The land and the forest rein supreme. Everything else is built within it, where it fits. There is a sense of peace and non-intrusion of the man made construction because of this layout.

Our boat took a while to come, so we waited patiently while listening to island music and rock and roll. We boarded and chose to be on the upper deck. Little did we know that we had the craziest toothless captain there is. He drove that thing, with 100+ tourists on board like a maniac, jumping waves 10 feet in the air, or so it seemed, with us rolling from one end of the benches to another trying to stay on the deck and not be flinged into the ocean. I was afraid for my life on that thing and how I did not throw up, with all the seasickness I usually feel, I have no clue. I think only sheer fear kept me surviving and wishing for another day on land. The only thing that rested my fears were all the other staff: they were laughing and were calm and composed, enjoying the ride as they were bouncing left and right and up and down on the boat. I figured, they knew the captain knew what he was doing and this was “business as usual.”

Once we reached the land, more thatched roof cabins and gazebos welcomed us. And more flowers. Flowers like I have never seen before – just growing everything like weeds.

We boarded a bus next, which was going to take us to a spice farm which is also a botanical garden. Our guide, Raf (short for Rafael), was a funny and intense man, who told us that there is no “yes” in Belize. The proper way to agree with someone was “Ya, mon.” Sounded a little Jamaican to me, but I could not argue with the guy who told us he is Mayan, and still believes in human sacrifice. So, 'Ya, mon!' it was.

Belize is an English speaking country, a former colony, so everything you see is in English. Belizean English sounds similar to Jamaican English. Just like the staff on the boat, all people we met were calm and always smiling. They have a laissez-faire attitude about everything. Nothing is ever a rush, nothing is ever a panic. It's a lull of a life, seemingly, all under an understanding smile.

Our bus trip took us through a rural area, very small villages, and lots of banana plantations. Raf told us it's mango season, so some people were selling mangoes on the side of the road, from thatch-covered tables transformed into ad-hoc booths. The roads were surprisingly great, nothing like the potholes we muddled through in Honduras. There are road signs, too, in Belize, and speed limits, too, unlike Honduras, as well. 

Banana plantation

The homes we passed looked very poor. Just simple abodes, and very rundown and old. The houses were made of brick and most of them were covered in stucco. Some were made of wood and the roofs were made of straw or palm leaves. Although it was a week day, there were lots of people just sitting around, looking at traffic and talking to each other. Mostly women and kids, and some older men, too. 
Through the villages of Belize

The banana plantations were interesting – they cover the bananas in bags, to make them grow faster, Raf said.

We arrived at the spice farm at around 11 AM or so. The heat wave was just about to hit. We felt like we were dropped in the rain forest – the vegetation was thick and sweating, wrapping us up in a blanket of warmth and dew. And the smell … oh, my word! I have never been in any place on the planet where the air smells just like when you bury your face in a bouquet of lilies or freesia, or any other flowers with a strong aroma. You did not have to look for a bloom to smell this. It was out there, in the open. With every breath, you inhaled perfume.

The Visitors' Center was a wooden construction – think log home meets mahogany island architecture. They had a few things for sale, but again, not overwhelming and not 'in your face' touristy kind of sales. People were quiet, subdued, welcoming and very happy looking. 

Beautiful Belizean wood carving in Harvest Caye park 

They boarded us again, this time on an open air tram, to take us through the spice farm. Our guide explained all the vegetation that we were seeing and how most of the farm was especially laid out, and how some of the plants and trees were not native of Belize. The American owners of the farm (from West Virginia) brought all sorts of spices and fruit trees from the Pacific islands, and India, and they planted them alongside local tropical fare. The tour through the farm was not only incredibly picturesque because of the beautiful vegetation, but it was educational, too, as the guide explained to us how certain plants grow and how they pollinate and how much work is really involved in extracting the spices from these plants.

We learned, for instance that the vanilla blooms are hermaphroditic – they contain both male and female parts – but they are incapable of self-pollinating. So, the farm hands have to uncover the female parts of the flowers with a toothpick and touch the male parts to the female parts, in order for the pollination to happen. This must happen within the first 24 hours of when the flower blooms, because after 24 hours, the flower dies. This ensures that a vanilla pod is created and the pod is the only part of the plant from which the vanilla extract is produced. No wonder that vanilla is the second most expensive spice (second to saffron). 

Vanilla bloom and pods

He picked a cocoa fruit for us and I was surprised to see that it looks much like a coconut. My husband tasted the pulp inside it (which is white) and he said it's a bit bitter but it does not taste like cocoa. It always amazes me how things we know and love today came to be: what made people think for the first time that which part of what fruit or plant is consumable? Just amazing. 

Cocoa fruit 

There were tons of trees that didn't produce but after so many years. Others that produced for 4-5 years and they were done after that. So much patience, so much effort, so much know-how to extract such coveted goodness. This is why it's doubly important that we do not destroy what is left of our green planet! It takes a long time to regenerate!

We learned that the pepper plant is much like kudzu: it's a vine, and the pepper grows in bunches, like grapes, on this vine. The white and black pepper come from the same plant – the difference in color comes from the different ways of handling the peppercorn: one leaves the ripe, outer layer on (the black) and one removes it (the white). 

Belize's many blooms 

We also found the black orchid, which is the national flower of Belize. This is by far the smallest and most delicate orchid I have ever seen in my life. I never knew before, but orchids grow on trees, much like a lichen, or a parasite plant. My brain still has trouble using the word “parasite” and the word “orchid” in the same sentence, but there you go. The black orchid is easily the most delicate bloom I have ever seen. The color is a deep purple, or … black.

In the rows where they didn't have fruit or spice trees and plants, they planted bushes and flowers “just for beautification”, they said. Just to make it “pleasant”: hundreds of rows of bougainvillea, azaleas, wisterias, lilacs, water lilies and lotuses. There was no corner without a bloom! The place was called “spice farm and botanical garden”, but being in the middle of many other forests, it seemed like part of the country and the natural landscape. It did not feel like something designed by man. It was a true garden of Eden, just wild and gorgeous. 

One of the many rows of bougainvillea 

My only complaint about the spice farm was that we did not get to spend a whole day there. After a couple of hours and right after our tram tour, we had to board the bus again for our return trip to our smaller boat which would take us to our ship. I could have gotten lost in the rows and rows of trees and plants and taken pictures till my camera card would have run out of space. It was a sad 'good bye' for sure. 

The sacred lotus flower 

On the way back, Raf thanked us for visiting his country. He spoke about the history of the country, about what makes them unique in Central America, about how they are a 'free country and free to do whatever they want'. He encouraged us to come retire there, where the retirement age is 55, taxes are low and everything is beautiful. He also told us that only Americans come and buy land in Belize. His family, who is Mayan, they don't believe in buying land, because we don't 'own' the land. It belongs to the earth, and we're just 'renting' from it. So they live on it, borrowing it, but they don't sell it, they share it with their families for generations. He pointed to the Mayan mountains in the horizon, and he said “the land between here and the mountains is all Mayan land, it belongs to the people.” There was an air of confidentiality in his tone, as if we were just let in a big secret.

We had very little time when we came back to the boat to do much of anything else. We were so exhausted from hopping so many means of transportation that day. But it was all worth it. To experience another land, so different than ours, and so mysterious and painfully beautiful and raw was humbling. To be so privileged to do it in peace and to be welcomed with respect by another nation is something we always take for granted when we travel abroad but something that we should always be grateful for. If we had gone to Belize 500 years ago today, I am sure things would have been significantly different.

 The national flower of Belize: the black orchid.
Click the picture for the whole album of this trip


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Exploring Roatan, Honduras, and Looking for 'Salva Vida'

Growing up and reading sailor stories, I have always tried to understand the mystery the ocean has held for man for so many centuries. There is something that happens when you are in the middle of nothing but miles and miles of wet, both long, and wide, and deep... There is something that happens in the heart, a sort of panic mixed in with fear, but also something that happens in the brain, sort of a satisfaction that you have reached another border, maybe the ultimate, in human undertaking on earth, at least. It's definitely its own unique experience, to be matched or compared to nothing on solid land. I would definitely encourage it, even if you, like me, can't float a lick and there is nothing more scary in the whole wide world to you than drowning. It's worth it, I tell you that much.

After a whole day and a whole night at sea, where you see nothing but waters, not even seagulls or bugs, we woke up one morning to land, only about what seemed to be 100 yards away from the ship. It was probably more like a couple of miles, but it seemed awfully welcome and close. We docked in Roatan, which is an island in the country of Honduras.

As we walked off the boat, there were dark clouds gathering about, menacing and too close to the tippy tops of the lush green trees. We shooed them away with all our might: we had only about 6 hours to spend on this island and we did not want some random sprinkle to ruin our vacation pictures.

We docked in this small marina, but you could not see any other ships – just ours. The island looked like a small hill, all covered in forests.

We joined our group and off we went, with our guide, Sonja, a bubbly lady of 35 (she honestly looked more like 18) to reach the landmarks we had planned for the day. Sonja is Honduran, born and raised. More precisely, a Roatanese (?!), she exudes pride for her island and she will definitely be my favorite guide on this trip, not because of her knowledge necessarily, which was basic, at best, but because of her passion. She does nothing, not even breathing, with lack of it. And she is contagious.

Sonja assured us that the clouds will pour for a bit, and then they'll blow over. Someone said, “oh, it's like Florida. It will blow right over.” She looked puzzled. But she was right: it poured cats and dogs for about 15 minutes and then the sun came back to stay for the rest of the day.

She stuffed eight of us in a minivan, and off we went to our adventures. Being driven like maniacs through the very crowded streets of Roatan, we learned that there is no speed limit, nor traffic signs or traffic lights anywhere on the island. It's just “the honor system”, she said. I figured that's a lot to be left to a lot of honorless people, but who am I to judge, right?! The streets were not only very narrow for the too much traffic they absorbed, but they were full of potholes like I have not seen since communist days in Romania. You could comfortably curl up and take naps in some of them, and no one would even notice. 

The size of the potholes we drove through 

She pointed landmarks to us, the Hospital, the pharmacy, the private Catholic school, another public school. Kids wore uniforms and they were out in groups, possibly just starting the day.

We stopped at what looked like a souvenir mall, for 20 minutes. To ask eight Americans to shop for all their Honduras fare for all their family at home in 20 minutes in a large store which they are not familiar with is a crime, I believe, and everyone was very confused. I am not sure whether people thought they should better give it up altogether and not even bother looking for stuff, or to just not worry about the time and shop to their heart's content and just be late for the minivan. Sonja kept threatening to leave without us if we're not back by the time she gave us, or that she won't take us to all the other places we had signed up for if we're late. And some people completely disregarded the whole time affair and we ended up being there for more like 45 minutes, rather than 20.

We continued towards what seemed to be “out of the town”. The island is only 80 miles long and 8 miles wide, so the whole place feels like one cohesive town, but there are areas of nothing but hills and forests, with no homes, that feel like the outskirts, at least. Sonja pointed out houses that belonged to “rich people”: “This guy, right here, he is American. He is very rich. Look at his house! But he did a lot for Roatan. He did a lot of good things for the island. This lady, she's the rich guy's sister. She is rich, too! Look at her house.”

There were hundreds of houses that looked condemned, seeing them through American eyes. Some of them were leaning on one side, some of them on rickety stilts, barely holding on, some had no windows, just holes covered with cardboard. They had no driveways or lawns leading to the front doors, which were mostly wide open, they were pitched on small molehills, really, randomly, it seemed, sitting on nothing but dirt. The only indication that someone was actually living there were all the clothes hung on the lines outside, usually in front of the house, or on the front porch. Sometimes, a chicken or two pecking at the dirt. She did not talk about these houses at all.

The houses she pointed out (the “rich” ones) all had solid metal bars at all the windows and in front of the front door. All of them were fenced in, and the fence was 6-8 feet tall, with metal gates. We asked her if security is a problem and she vehemently denied it, although the security bars told us otherwise. She said “In Honduras, the crime is high, not in Roatan. If security were a problem in Roatan, the boat would not leave you here. It doesn't dock in Honduras.” Although we always thought we were in Honduras, on Roatan Island, she very often referred to Honduras and Roatan as if they were two separate countries.

She told us you cannot go to college in Roatan, except “for easy stuff, like a nurse or an electrician”. “If you want to be an engineer or a doctor, you have to go on a ferry, to Honduras.” When she pointed out the hospital, which looked like an oversized house, hardly capable of housing any large amount of equipment or humans, she said “people don't go to the hospital here. You have a lot of home doctors who can take care of you. Hospital is too expensive and a long wait.” I imagined hundreds of babies being born at home, most likely.

She started telling us names of herbs and various fruits and what they cure: diabetes, high blood pressure, headache. Then she told us the best cure for a cold is “two shots of tequila and salt” and “honey, you are better, the next day. But two shots. And it works!” Every muscle in her body jiggled as she expressed how you are up and ready for action the very next day, even if you had the worst cold of your life the day before. She “did it last week.”

We stopped by an iguana farm next, where iguanas live like pets. The farm belongs to a guy who wanted to protect iguanas from becoming stew on the island. “They taste like chicken” - she said, licking her lips. But if they come on the farm, no one kills them, they are protected. They were definitely the friendliest iguanas I have ever seen. We could feed them by hand and pet them, and they were tame. The farm also had parrots, monkeys and lots of fish, as well. The farm was minuscule in size, comparing to the American-size farms and reserves. To experience these creatures this up close though was a treat. 
This guy is an an 'agouti'. Looks like the biggest rat you have ever seen but he does not seem to mind humans, nor the owners of the farm seem to mind him roaming around.  

Onward we went towards what seemed to be the top of the island. Much like Oahu, the island seems to be a huge mountain in the middle of the ocean. The more we climbed on through the potholes, the better view of the ocean we gathered. She stopped us at what seemed to be an ad-hoc farmers' market, with people selling Honduran artifacts, mostly made of mahogany and teak – which are local precious, rare woods that Honduras is famous for. From this small market we could see the coral reef, which is one of the main attractions in Roatan: part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, it is the second largest coral reef in the world. The view from the top of the mountain was amazing: just what you dream about when you are thinking about The Caribbeans: blue and turquoise waters in millions shades, crystal clear and bottomless, as far as the eye can see. 

Atop the highway, overlooking the coral reef ashore Roatan Island

We continued the trip through winding roads, dodging motorcycles, and many other vehicles that honked left and right for the right of way. You know, that whole “honor” thing. Peeking through the forest, we saw glimpses of the ocean, at times, amongst the poor homes, through the trees, a shipwreck here and there, on some of the bays.

Most businesses looked like mom-and-pop stores, some of them convenience stores, most of them geared towards mechanical repairs, of cars, or other appliances. Lots of ad-hoc tables with people selling pineapples or bananas. One huge plant looked brand new and very fancy, and it was located right there, on the side of the winding road, between us and the ocean. Roatan really feels like it has just one road slicing through the middle of the island. The plant had the name “RECO” in big, bright blue and yellow letters written on all the equipment and all the semi trucks parked in front. Sonja said with a longing in her voice: “An American built this. This is aaaall his. All this land.” She held her chin in her hand and shook her head left to right, like you do when you're looking after your loved one walking away and you know it's the last time you'll see them. A sadness overtook her eyes for a brief second. I found out later that that was the electric company that supplies the island with electricity. I would imagine that makes some cash in a place like this.

The amount of trash on the streets of Roatan is overwhelming. At times, mountains of trash, 8 feet tall or more bookend the streets without sidewalks. Drainage ditches are full of empty plastic coke bottles and food wrappers. Stray dogs roaming through it.

We see a lady washing clothes on a washboard at a sewage pipe. Someone points that out. Sonja assures us that some people can afford washing machines, but they are not worth buying, because they don't clean your clothes. “The clothes are dirty after they go through the washing machine”, she says with pathos. “They are. You use the washboard and they are clean! I mean C-L-E-A-N. Nah, not worth the money for the washing machine.” She, then, tells us that some women wash clothes for other families to make money and that sometimes that's the only income for that family. 

Washing clothes in the 'stream' 

After a short stop, we headed towards the Las Palmas Beach, a small resort, which is under construction right now, to build villas for future tourists. However, the patio and the bar are in use right now, and this is where our lunch will be. Las Palmas is this pristine beach, with soft, white sand, sun chaises meticulously lined up like little soldiers, waiting for their guests. She told us we have almost two hours just to enjoy the beach and eat. 

Easily my favorite beach the entire trip: Las Palmas Beach, Roatan. It was small, clean and uncrowded. They are still building out the resort yet, so I am sure it will not stay quiet for much longer.  

This was probably my most favorite spot that day. The beach was pristine, and so quiet. The water was again beautifully clear and bottomless. We ate the best grilled lobster tails at the bar, and we had to try Sonja's heartfelt recommendation: the Honduran beer, “Salva Vida”. She told us: “I don't drink. But every once in a while, very rarely, I have a little Salva Vida, and it's yum yum … makes you happy.” - then, she giggled with a guilty grin. 


The contrast we saw at every corner was stark: the dirt and poverty of most people and the riches and safety of a small number of them. There is definitely a feeling I have experienced in Third World countries everywhere: there is no middle room: only a very small high and an overwhelming low. People are serious and preoccupied in Honduras. All except for Sonja. She is a smiling beauty and nothing seems to ever crush her spirit and her cheerfulness.

Sonja continued her stories on the way back. She continued to make the very clear distinction between Honduras and Roatan: she tells you constantly that fruit is best on the island, not on the Honduran mainland, because they don't put hormones in it “to make it fat faster”, like they do in Honduras. She is proud of the way things are on the island. It's like her personal brand, and she wants us to make sure we come back.

The poverty is palpable, though, like a beating heart, you can feel the tough life of most people here. She tells us that gas is over $5 a gallon (it was $2.30 when we left Utah), and that she makes $25 a week. We ask her if she has a car, and she says no, cars are too expensive, and gas is too. We ask her where she lives and she says “on the other side of the island” - I am imagining at the end of this 80 miles of land, because we were on the West side of the island. We ask her how she gets to work and she says by bus, which is $1 a day. We asked if she can get a cab and she vehemently denies “no, no, cabs are expensive. They are $2 from one end of the island to the next. I take the bus, because it's only $1.”

Through this whole journey I am thinking how spoiled I am, as an American, and how hard life is in some places. I have lived a life close to that life so to me, this is as real as it gets. I can smell that life, still. All of it, including the trash and the stray dogs. I think of my friend whose Honduran father came to the United States and is now a lawyer with four beautifully accomplished kids himself. He started there, on those streets.

It feel fortunate, but also guilty. I want to help. I make sure we tip her well. She tells us that at $25 a week her salary is not enough to feed her son. She says she does the job for the tips, and some people tip and that's her livelihood. I make sure we give her extra – anything helps, and everything is not nearly enough.

We go back to the ship and we buy a hot cup of freshly brewed Honduran coffee. I didn't have any, my husband did, but it smelled like the best coffee I have ever come across in my entire life. So strong, oily and perfumy, in a masculine and bold way. From the deck on the ship, we look back to this pretty port, all clad in flowers and bidding us farewell. 

The view from our ship back onto the marina in Roatan, at sunset.  

Salva Vida” means “lifesaver” in Spanish. I can't help but wish for a lifesaver for the population of this small island. They are beautiful people and they tell a beautiful story. I left them wanting only the best, cleanest, safest and most abundant gifts in life. Or maybe, I didn't get them at all. Maybe they fulfilled their happiness as is. With all the penury and bare-bone-ness I have seen in Roatan, Sonja was happiness incarnate: jovial, laughing even when she talked about the hardships (no hospital, no college, no money for cars), simply brimming with pride about her land. Maybe they have figured out their “salva vida” after all, and maybe it's more than just a beer.

Me, with Sonja. Click the picture for more shots from this journey