Belize – Part 1 – Doomward Bound

Several months ago my friend and co-worker got it in his head that he wanted me to come to Belize and photograph his wedding. I explained that I did not consider myself a wedding photographer and made every effort to discourage him from this notion. After some back and forth he opted to hire a “pro” to shoot the wedding, but still wanted me to come and shoot casually with the idea that I would capture things the “pro” would not.

I agreed and arrangements were made to fly me to Belize City where I would then take the water taxi to San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye which is about 30 miles away. We booked the flight and found a hotel and I was all set.

From the get-go I was apprehensive about the whole thing. Cynthia had no interest in going and I was generally uneasy about the trip overall. I didn’t really know what to expect and I worried I would bring no photographic value to my friend’s wedding. I had a few months to stew on the subject before it actually happened and that only made my anxiety worse.

The wedding was set for July 4th so I would fly out on July 2nd. As it turned out, there were storms all over Texas due to Hurricane Alex hitting Mexico so I drove through blinding rain just to get to the airport. Check in went smoothly and while I was waiting to board the plane an alarm went off at IAH. I think it was a fire alarm. Nobody seemed all that concerned and someone did come on the intercom to say they were investigating the cause. The alarm continued for another 20 minutes and was still going as we boarded the plane.

Once the plane was loaded, we pulled back from the gate and proceeded to the runway to take off.

The rain was REALLY coming down at this point and the plane came to a stop. The captain came on the intercom and informed us that departures were halted until the worst of the storm passed. We sat on the tarmac for about 45 minutes before we were cleared for takeoff.

This had me rather stressed. I knew I had limited time to clear customs and catch a cab to the water taxi stand before the last water taxi to San Pedro departed. The thought of missing that last water taxi and having to find accommodations in Belize city had no appeal to me whatsoever.

As it turns out, we made good time and clearing customs was a breeze. And the weather was pretty fantastic. Hot, but with a cool breeze. Very pleasant overall.

I collected my luggage and proceeded to the taxi stand to catch a cab to the water taxi and I thought I was well on my way, but no.

As we were driving along, the cab driver got very excited and pulled out his cell phone and began speaking in Creole to someone on the other end, all the while looking in his rear-view mirror. He drove a bit further and then turned the cab around.

He explained that he had seen a man who he knew had jumped immigration standing on the side of the road. The man had been deported to Belize from the US and his good friend was an immigration officer and he wanted to sit on the side of the road and watch the man while he waited for the authorities to come. He assured me we would make the water taxi and I reluctantly agreed to sit. After a while he pulled out his phone again. I got the gist of the call. Whoever was supposed to be coming was not coming. He explained that there was an off-duty policeman in the store across the street so he drove over there and asked me if I wanted something to drink. I said “sure, I’d like a Coke” to which he indicated I should go in and buy one. He assured me my things would be safe in the car.

Uh, no…I’ll just wait here with my stuff thank you very much.

He got out of the car and went into the store. A few minutes later he came out with two other men who went and appeared to arrest the man we’d be watching.

My cab driver got back in the car and we headed off.

I really don’t know what happened. It could have been on the level, or I could have just narrowly avoided getting completely jacked in Belize City. At any rate, I was glad to be moving…even if it was to an as yet to be determined alternate doom.

Belize City, at least between the airport and the water taxi stand, is a hole. Very depressed with old cars belching smoke and run down buildings everywhere you look. It was not someplace I wanted to be stuck and I was praying hard that I’d make the last boat to San Pedro.

We got to the water taxi stand with 12 minutes to spare, but I was not out of the woods yet. There was a long line to get on the boat and a long line to purchase tickets. I must have looked rather desperate and confused at this point. A woman stopped me and asked me where I was headed and I told her I was going to San Pedro. She called a man over who explained he would get me on the boat but needed to get my luggage on the boat now while I went and purchased a ticket.

I thought for sure my luggage was going to be gone, but the man had me walk over and see him give my suitcase to the men loading the boat. It was oddly reassuring but still felt like it could be scam.

I got in line and purchased my ticket. My first lesson in Belize exchange rates came at this point. The woman said the cost was $30 so I gave her two U.S. 20 dollar bills. She then gave me one of the 20′s back and a $10 Belize bill. Oh yea! 2 to 1 US to Belize exchange rate. $30 Belize is $15 US so change for my U.S. $20 in the form of $10 Belize.

The man assisting me then walked me to the front of the boarding line and then said “Do you have my tip?” and then it all made sense. He was hustling tips, not looking to steal my stuff. I gave him the $10 Belize and climbed aboard.

The boat was nothing special. A fiberglass constuct where about 40 or so of us were crammed into the hold. Plenty of windows, but we were so low in the boat you couldn’t really see out. There was a sign that said no standing while underway and another sign that indicated that life preservers were located behind the seats.

For the record, there were no life preservers.

The boat pulled away from the pier and headed out into the blue waters of the Caribbean toward our destination.

For some reason, I had it my head that it was a 45 minute ride to San Pedro. After about an hour we arrived at a pier, but it was not San Pedro, it was Caye Caulker. We stopped and unloaded quite a bit of luggage, but no passengers. I watched nervously, expecting to see my luggage unloaded but it wasn’t. It seemed odd they were unloading luggage, but no passengers. I concluded that it must be luggage that was seprated from its owners due to mixups in baggage handling or something.

We pulled away once more and 20 minutes later we arrived at our ultimate destination.

Next up – San Pedro

Belize – Part 3 – Wedding Day

Rainbow

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Rainbow

Click the above image for full size

The room cooled down pretty well during the night and I was able to sleep. Unfortunately I woke up around 6:30 am which is 7:30 am back home and pretty much the latest I sleep in these days. I putted around a little and the decided I would go to the villa and see if Luis and Sarai wanted to get some breakfast. They had mentioned a place in town called Estelle’s which was supposed to have good and cheap breakfast and I figured with it being wedding day, they’d be up early getting ready.

I got into my golf cart and made my way to the villa.

It’s worth mentioning that the roads in San Pedro are paved with cobblestone (when they’re paved at all) which makes for a rather jostling, bumpy ride. Add to that the most severe speed bumps you can imagine and you have a pretty rough ride moving around the island. The charm of driving around in one of these things wears off really quickly.

On the way to the villa it started to drizzle and then I spotted the rainbow you see at the top. I stopped on the side of the road and was able to get a reasonable photograph before resuming the journey.

Of course, when I got to the villa not a creature was stirring. I wasn’t prepared to wake anyone up so I headed back to town for breakfast.

Let me say this, if you are ever in San Pedro and looking for a good breakfast, Estelle’s is the place. Cup of coffee, 2 eggs over medium, potatoes, toast and bacon for right at $5 U.S. And so delicious! And the patio is perfect for enjoying your meal while watching watching the sun rise over the sea.

Sunrise

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Sunrise

After dawdling over breakfast and coffee for a few hours I decided to head back to the villa once more, certain they’d be awake by now. Plus, I had no Internet in my hotel. They advertised “free Internet” but I am thinking they meant to say “Internet free” as I saw no wireless signal. Luis mentioned that the villa had wireless and packed up the laptop to go get online.

As expected, they were awake now and ready to eat. They headed in to town while I tried to get online. I was able to do a few things, but overall the connection was very slow and the online experience was just too painful.

I headed back to town once more to get my things in order for the wedding this evening. I decided to turn in my rented golf cart and figured I would catch a cab back to the villa when it was time.

Around lunch time I went to Estelle’s to get something to eat and they had the World Cup on. I watched Spain narrowly defeat Paraguay which was a treat.

Around 2:30 I hailed a cab and was back to the villa once more, which was now a hive of activity as everyone was getting ready.

This was the time I was going to use to photograph the wedding preparations. The “real” photographer would be along after awhile and I had agreed to stay out of her way, so if I was to shoot, this would be the best time.

Up next – Belize – Jay The Wedding Photographer

Belize – Jay The Wedding Photographer?

As I mentioned previously, I do not see myself as a wedding photographer. I think it is a challenge I would be too fearful to face. At least currently. I dread the thought of being responsible for the photographic memory of an event so special only to find that I blew it. Aside from my general lack of photo talent, there’s potential mechanical failure or just brain fart where you shoot the whole event using the wrong ISO or something stupid. It’s not like you can just declare a wedding mulligan and shoot again.

Luis and Sarai hired a pro to shoot the wedding, as I suggested and for the reasons I stated above. This meant that I had to stay out of the pro’s way. Something the pro made VERY clear when she arrived. But it did not mean I had to stay idle. I took advantage of the time before she arrived to catch some candids and then I was up to the balcony of the villa to shoot long distance and then back down to take advantage of some of the time after the actual ceremony.

These are the results

Next – Defying certain death!

Belize – Run For The Border!

Belize Airport

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Belize Airport

Sunday, July 4th and it is time to go home. I had a 3:45 flight back to Houston so it was simply a matter of getting from San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye back to Belize City and then to the airport where I would then only be a few short hours from returning home.

There are two main water taxi companies in Belize. Caye Caulker Water Taxi and San Pedro Belize Express. Each company has their own unique schedule, so which one you choose really depends on what time you want to go. Coming in I used Caye Caulker Water Taxi, but heading back I opted for the San Pedro Belize Express because they had an 11:30am departure back to Belize City and that was best for my time frame.

I got to the departure pier an hour early just to stake out the best seat and was glad I did. Unlike Caye Caulker Water Taxi, the San Pedro Belize Express boats have an open air top deck and by being near the front of the line I got a prime seat with a nice view and it wasn’t very crowded. Since the boat was full they only took passengers that were going to Belize City and used another boat for those headed to Caye Caulker so it was a non-stop ride which was great.

The weather was again fantastic. I had worried that I might have to take the ride during a rain storm and that would have been less than pleasant.

The boat ride was uneventful, but much more pleasant than the ride over. The boat just seemed better than the ones operated by the other company.

We pulled in to Belize City and disembarked. After collecting my luggage I proceeded to the front of the station where the cabs were lined up and arranged my ride to the airport.

All of the cabs were in pretty wretched shape. Faded paint, dirty and in various states of disrepair. As is the norm for any taxi stand, you don’t get to choose your cab, you go in the one that is next in line.

My cab was a thing of absolute beauty (he said sarcastically). An early 90′s Toyota Minivan. The upholstery was shredded and worn and the front windshield was fully smashed on the passenger side and cracked pretty bad on the driver’s side.

My driver was a friendly and talkative fellow. His upbeat yammering was helpful in distracting me from the horrors as they unfolded in what SHOULD have been a mere 20 minute ride to the airport.

As we headed off to our destination I noticed that the cab seemed to be slipping gears. My driver would have to take the cab out of gear, rev the engine and then slip it back into gear which would then result in a forward lurch that was rather unsettling. As we approached the first of what was to be many speed bumps, the driver slowed down and as we went over it, the entire front of the vehicle made the most horrendous sound and the cab rattled and shook so violently I honestly thought the entire front wheel assembly was going to disintegrate into a heap of useless, rusty metal.

We continued on down the road, lurching as the cab found its way in and out of gear. I’m thinking to myself “just a few miles, we can make it” and then the engine died. As we coasted down the bumpy, pothole filled road rattling and shaking the driver dropped us out of gear, turned the key and after a bit of starter grinding noise, the engine struggled back to life. He dropped it back into gear and we lurched forward once again.

Keep in mind that this is not a pleasant place to be driving, but I would imagine it is a million times more unpleasant if you’re broken down on the side of the road. In my luggage is my valuable camera gear and my laptop. I am, at this point, extremely grateful I am insured.

We enter a roundabout which I recognize from the ride in and this comforts me. I know we’re going in the right direction and I know it’s not going to be much longer.

Then we spot the orange cones. The road we want to go down (the one that leads to the airport) is blocked off with a policeman indicating we need to stay in the roundabout and take a detour. We continue around and the engine dies again. The driver indicates that he needs to stop and get some gas. This is when I notice we’re on “E” and that the check engine light is on and the oil level indicator light is blinking. This is when I realize I am going to either die or miss my flight…or both.

We pull into a gas station and, I kid you not, the driver tells the attendant to give him $15 PREMIUM. Not the cheap stuff for this guy.

We get our gas and head off once more.

The detour takes us through an even rougher area of town and I am starting to get just a teeny bit concerned for my safety. The driver continues to yammer on about some inane subject or another. It is oddly comforting, but not enough to put me completely at ease. The roads being even worse than the main road, we’re rattling and shaking and lurching as we slip in and out of gear BUT, thanks to the refueling, the engine is no longer dying.

We come back out on the main road and before we can get more than a few hundred feet there’s a police car in the middle of the road, right before the bridge. The policeman gestures for us to stop and the cab driver tells me to put on my seatbelt as he buckles his own. Mine, of course, was already on.

As we’re sitting there we see a number of vehicles coming across the bridge followed by cyclists. Apparently there is some cross country bike race going on and that is what is blocking traffic everywhere.

After about 10 minutes they pass and the policeman gestures for us to proceed.

We drive a bit further and there is yet ANOTHER policeman and he is pointing for us to turn down an unpaved road leading in to the slums. Here the cab is struggling mightily and we are far, far away from anything even remotely comforting. My driver is explaining how this is a common occurrence in Belize. Detours due to anything from visiting dignitaries to car crashes and, apparently, bike races. I’m just waiting for the cab to completely fail at this point and am psyching myself up in preparation for missing my flight and god knows what else if I end up having to find another ride and a place to stay.

Fortunately we make it through the back way and on to the main road once again and then to the road that takes us to the airport.

I breathe a sigh of utter relief as I slide out of the cab and collect my luggage. I pay the driver and enter the airport.

The rest of the trip home is, thankfully, uneventful.