“Kitty, kitty, kitty!” our guide called, and he threw another sardine into the reddish-brown water. It was so hot that the bottoms of my sneakers melted on the wooden bridge. About 1000 insects buzzed around my head. The only things missing from the mangrove were the crocodiles.
No, we weren’t exploring the dangerous jungle in our backyard this time. Instead, we were looking for crocodiles on the northern part of Caye Caulker. Caye Caulker is one of the tourists’ favourites in Belize. We’d decided to rest here a bit after 30 hours of flights and layovers, before going to work on the Stardust Sanctuary Farm.
It hit us already in the port: Caye Caulker is no idyllic deserted island. There seemed to be no locals. The whole island looked like an endless tourist street with bars, restaurants, yoga studios, tour agencies, diving equipment rentals, souvenir stalls and so on. We shivered in horror and started looking for a cheap guesthouse.
It was three o’clock, the sun baked us with pleasure. Dripping with sweat and groggy of tiredness we ended up resting on church stairs. Yes, a church. Surely that was not built for tourists. Who were the people going to this lovely pinkish church? Teenagers in school uniforms chased each other when we finished our snow cone with syrup. Another sign of locals! But where the hell did these people live?
It took us a couple of days to find it out. Next to a little nature reserve, behind a tiny airstrip, started real life. Miniature houses, local food stalls and shops without a single tourist in desperate need of water. That’s where the people lived who chopped 7-euro fruit salads for long-legged New York girls.
Ay ay ay!
We walked, swam and hunted down new and exciting flavours in street food stalls. One early morning, on our way to the beach, a talkative man stopped us. William worked for a tour agency but also had his own business on the side. By canoe, he took tourists to see crocodiles. He promised to catch us fish and grill it on a campfire. It sounded great.
We rowed in the hellish heat of midday until we were burned like tomatoes. Who could have guessed that your ears could burn, right? Another life lesson learned. Luckily, the bamboo gate to the crocodile park already loomed ahead of us. Alas, the gate was closed with a heavy padlock.
“Locked?” Our guide’s eyes were suddenly as big as plates, and a wave of surprise rolled over his face. But that little obstacle would not stop him from showing us the crocodiles. He manoeuvred our canoe skillfully precisely on the side of the locked gate and jumped right into the brown muddy water where the crocodiles were probably having their afternoon nap.
William was barefoot. He made a step, then another one and he almost reached the other side of the gate on the boat bridge when, all of a sudden, he sank waist deep into the mud. “Ay ay ay!” He took a couple of rooster leaps and was back in the canoe. That didn’t work, he needed a better plan.
He pulled a wooden crate out of the mud and made a bridge out of it. All we had to do was to take a step onto the construction, take a jump onto the boat bridge and in we were. Without thinking twice, we followed our guide. The crocodile park looked a bit like an Estonian bog, the only difference being that it was not a bog, but a mangrove- a swampy and muddy saltwater area with trees that had funny roots. Instead of boardwalks, wooden bridges zigzagged over the mangrove. Spider webs covered the handrails of the bridges, just like in an adventure movie.
“Quickly, quickly,” shouted our guide, “mosquitos”. We ran towards a little shelter that looked like a bird-watching platform. A pretty yellow sign shone on the pole next to it, “Don’t feed the crocodiles”. William dug into his plastic bag, fished out a sardine and threw it in the water. We waited with great anticipation for the moment the first pair of eyes would emerge from the water. A couple more fishes found their way into the water, but it seemed like the crocodiles didn’t have any appetite today. “Damn it! I should have bought a chicken,” cursed William. He told us how he’d taken a German guy here just yesterday, a tourist who’d encountered these scary reptiles for the first time. “I have seen them every single time,” William said.
“Okay, let’s go a bit further!” William ran ahead of us. “Quickly, quickly, or my feet will burn,” shouted our barefoot guide. We ran over many bridges but found nothing. “I have never been this far,” he admitted while we were nearing some kind of hut with big letters painted on it: “Entrance to the park $25.” Now it became crystal clear. We had sneaked in secretly and, of course, William had no intention to spend too much time near the entrance. He definitely didn’t want to hang around the ticket booth. So we returned to the first platform. William continued throwing more and more fishes into the pond, but nothing. We lingered ten more minutes, then it was time to go.
Say no to drugs
The misfortune continued. Back in our canoe, William’s phone rang. It was his mom who announced that William’s sister had been shot and was in the hospital. William was distraught. He told us how his sister had just turned her life around. She had said no to drugs and had found God. We offered to go back to the shore so that William could go see his sister. He just shook his head. His whole family lives in Los Angeles, so there was nothing more for him to do than to send his prayers and hope for the best. With sad thoughts like these, we rowed to William’s usual fishing spot. The sea was greenish blue, palm trees swung in the wind in the distance. Not bad. We waited. After fifteen minutes William packed up his fishing equipment. “No luck!” he said.
We cruised back to the beach to swim a bit instead. The underwater life was not extraordinarily spectacular in that spot, but I saw a couple of fishes and a pretty red sea star down there. When the water got into my mask, I came up to fix it. “Hey! Do you see any big seashells under the water? If you do, bring them to me,” shouted William and he took a sip from his Belikin beer. I didn’t see any big seashells, but I knew you could buy them from the souvenir stalls in Caye Caulker. Belizians are business-minded. Often they’re having up to five different jobs to support their families. So, no surprises there.
In spite of the lack of crocodiles, we were happy about our adventure. It was fun to circle around the island in a canoe. Tired and content, we enjoyed the happy hour in a local bar, which basically meant a couple of tires and swings in the water where you could sit and sip your rum punch.
I woke up in the middle of the night. Something was howling outside. It was the wind, so strong that I was convinced it would blow our chicken-legged house straight into the Carribean sea. Was this a tropical hurricane? Nope, just wind before the very first rain.
In the morning, there was no sign of rain. The sun was shining brighter than ever, and I could hear happy tunes of “Hallelujah” coming from the local church. When I looked out of the window, I saw a bride and a groom walking towards the holy building. Our last day on the island had arrived.