Tobacco Caye, Day One

March 20, 2010 in Belize, North America, Travelogue

An island night sounds entirely different than a jungle night.  Gone are the howler monkeys and the jaguars calling to one another beneath the canopy.  In their place is the hum of insects and generators powering the few electric lights on Tobacco Caye.


Tobacco Caye

We weren’t entirely sure how to get here and we were even less sure of what to expect.  Tobacco Caye is a five acre island about 18 miles off the coast of Belize.  We’d called ahead to make a reservation at Lana’s, as we’d met a couple of backpackers who recommended her as “the grandma of the whole island.”  Reservations might not be the right word.  We couldn’t call here, as there’s one pay phone to the entire island, and that’s it.  We spoke to someone on the mainland who sent word out by boat that we were coming, only he told her yesterday so the first thing she wanted to know when we arrived today was why we were late!  “Ask for Captain Buck at Riverside Cafe,” was all of the instruction we got as to how to get here.

We made an interesting parade heading down the main street in Dangriga this morning, hauling a melange of waterproof Ortlieb bicycle bags, dive bags, instruments (Hannah goes nowhere without her violin) and those hardy Mexican mesh bags that are worth the 3000 miles to get them.  Ezra moaned loudly about his heavy load (the lightest by far) as we stopped to buy a new package of Dramamine (or what passes for it here) at the pharmacy and to hit the ATM one more time… Lana takes only cash.


Osprey that nests on the boat house

And then, there he was, skinny as a rail, all arms and spidery legs with three teeth left in his whole head, sea-salt worn skin the color of Italian coffee; it was impossible to tell his age.  “DEAHH you ahh!” he flopped his whole self as he gestured to us to follow, “Com ahn, mahn, we been waiting you since yestah-day.”  “Are you Captain Buck?” Tony asked, skeptically.  He grinned with all three teeth, “No mahn, I take you to him, com on, da boat be waiting.”  And off he trouped ahead of us, looking for all the world like an African marshwiggle (from The Narnia Chronicles, C.S. Lewis).  It turns out the boat wasn’t waiting for us, it was, in fact, leaving without us, fully loaded, we had a full hour to wait.


We sat on the pier and watched the iguana tail floating next to the propellor of a moored boat.  “Hey Dad, can I touch it?!” came the inevitable boy question, then, “What happened to the rest of the iguana?” “We ate it, mahn,” said a golden toothed fellow supervising the repair of a gas line.  “You need a ride to the keys?” asked the dread locked fellow fixing the boat.  “No, we’re waiting for Captain Buck,” Tony replied.  There was some quick talking in the local dialect between this fellow and Buck, one f-bomb dropped and then they both smiled.  “If you want,” said Buck, “you can ride out to da key with Doggie heah instead.  He leaving in ten minute.”  The gear was stacked in the middle of the boat with care and wrapped solidly with a blue tarp.  The children were packed, with considerably less care, into ill fitting life preservers and piled on top of the gear.  “You know,” I whispered to Tony, “I don’t believe this fellow has the Ontario required emergency gear on board.  I don’t see a bucket, a rope, OR a whistle!” I winked, thinking of the pail of useless junk required by law that is stacked in the front of my parents’ canoe in Canada.  “Ya think?!” he replied with a wink.


Our Dock

Doggie turned out to be an excellent Captain, dressed in red from his backwards hat to his shorts, he surfed us out across the waves and out of sight of land.  There was only one slightly unsettling moment when he uttered an expletive and the engine nearly died, “I pulled out da gas line… dang thing not quite long enuf,” he grinned, gold rimmed teeth gleaming in the sunshine.  “You want me to hold it in there?” I asked.  “Nah,” he said, twirling the drain plug of the boat around his ring finger, “It be alright, and don’ worry about dis, it jus’ be da plug so dah water runs out da back.”  “I know,” I replied, “I grew up on boats.”  “Ahhh!  We all good den!”  He proceeded to regale us with stories about nearly capsizing his boat with loads full of lumber and the dangers of trying to turn around against the waves in high seas.  In the end, we liked him so much we took him up on his offer to return tomorrow and take us fishing, with hand lines, over around the mangroves; his company alone will be worth the $20 BZ.


This little island is all we were hoping for:  tiny, remote and not overrun with other folks.  It’s all privately held land and each family has built a few cabanas or rents out a few rooms.  Doggie walked us right over to Lana and after her first inquiry as to our whereabouts yesterday (which she attributed to the terrible weather) she said, “Well, I made you shrimp fried rice for lunch yesterday, and since you didn’t come, I saved it for today!”  And so she had; the best brown rice cooked in coconut milk with diced shrimp and veggies we’ve ever had.  The kids begged her for the recipe and spent all afternoon wondering what magic she was working for dinner.

The accommodations here are simple.  We have the entire downstairs, which consists of two rooms, plywood walls painted Caribbean blue, sheets hung for curtains in front of the commode and shower stalls, an oil cloth covered table and a bed with only sheets printed with lips for covers.  There is a screen door to keep out mosquitos, but it’s not doing much for the roaches the children discovered:  “MOM!  There was a HUGE cockroach in our room!  Hannah was “the man” and squashed it, but I took it out and it made this BIG crunch!” announced Elisha.  It’s ramshackle at best, but exactly what we were hoping for, and idyllically perfect for the next week.

The children and I took the big excursion around the entire circumference of the island.  It took ten minutes to walk.  We noted the carefully raked sand (no need for shoes for the rest of the week!) and the numerous coconut palms, the dive shop and the Marine Center, which seems to serve mainly as the internet cafe.  More than a little disconcerting to me were the piles and piles of conch shells around every inch of the coastline, evidence of a genocide that surely the oceans cannot support.  I wondered what the reef would look like.

The children spent the afternoon building castles for their knights out of conch shells and hanging off of the docks watching frigate birds eat the intestines of a barracuda being expertly disemboweled by a local fellow, and pestering a moray eel that lives beneath the dock with a long reed, unsuccessfully trying to get it to strike.  They snorkeled a while around the little lagoon and found star fish of several varieties, urchins in a rainbow of colors, and even an eagle ray up close and personal.  This gives me hope for the reef, in spite of the conch death on shore.