Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What's in the Anchorage at Belize City

Sunny downwind lee flat calm turquoise: that’s how we got from behind Spanish Lookout Caye to our date with Customs, Immigration, Health&Agriculture and – who was that other guy anyhow? He got the same $20 ‘transportation’ (no receipt!) as the first three, and now we’re good until the Ides of March.

The anchorage off the city is exposed, and little clumps of ‘mud’ from ‘state of the art' sewage treatment scoot past like autumn leaves in a stiff breeze. They don’t smell and they fall apart like dust when touched, but I still don’t like salt spray on this dinghy ride!

There’s a lot going on though. Here’s what a 180-degree scan of the horizon reveals:
Us, the only cruising sailboat
A chartered catamaran
Small fast (3x200hp Yamahas) passenger ferry (they do their 24 mile run in 12 minutes, so stay out of their way!)
A 138-foot Dutch square-rigged school ship, Astrid. College age, six months out, two Atlantic crossings, the students do all the work. The captain kindly stopped by to invite us for a beer :) but we were waiting for the tide :( so he gave us the short version, and I’ll spare you the accent: when these children come home the parents are so happy they think ‘maybe we will have more children. This one used to sit in front of computer all day now interested in things and helps and very nice to know.’
Two shrimpers, Northern I and Northern II
A German schooner, Johan Schmidt,100 plus feet ‘sailing cargo’ but looks more like some kind of passengers
Cruise ship Spirit of Independence, anchored far out and ferrying in small boatloads of Dive Discoverers, Mayan Ruin Adventurers, Nature Park Explorers and Monkey Village Shoppers (Diamonds International, Del Sol and the same cast of characters as everywhere else, and you have to show a pass if you’re entering from the street, so it’s ‘safe’)
A small container ship at the bulk wharf, being unloaded by 2 cranes
A cargo ship, the Radnor, about 300 feet, apparently in storage
Oil tanker, pinned like a Lilliputian to four corner moorings so it could deliver fuel through a hose to the tanks at the end of the bulk wharf
Two, not tug boats, but maybe 70’ open aft deck and high forward cabin, anchored
A Belize-registered long-line fishing boat
Water taxi carrying 2 palangis (non-native white people) to an outer key
A pontoon dive boat coming back in from the reef
Local sailing boat with pieced and patched sails and a dugout 1-log dory on top.

Looks like I'll have to learn html to use the pictures right. Later

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Toward Belize

or Bay-LEE-Say, as the Mexicans say. Sounds more melodic and seductive that way, I think. Here's the view from Spanish Lookout Cay toward the mainland the night we arrived.

Getting out of Mexico at Puerto Morelos took all day, but eventually the Port Captain got all the stamps he wanted. Unfortunately, it meant we had to leave with pesos rather than groceries.

The two hundred miles to Belize City took us 56 hours, which is a long time to be a little uncomfortable. The wind never really got on the nose, and never more than 20 knots, and the squalls all missed us and the ships all announced their presence early on and the temperature never went below 70 and there was a good moon and nothing weird happened beyond especially 'devil' waters from place to place.

But there was a consistent current of at least two knots straight against us, all the time. What always felt like a good six knots of forward progress turned into something less than four. We constantly lurched into hard stand-up waves, and rolled, and slapped, ad infinitum, although not quite ad nauseum. Bulkheads creaked, and the walls of the nearly-full water tanks under the settees pooched in and out, and salty damp settled everywhere.

Luckily, the Milky Way made a stellar appearance, and later the moon, with it's usual "Yikes!" moment. Next day we heard euphoric reports from the northbound boats “we were flying, over ten knots sometimes, so much fun we just kept going…..”

But for us, southbound, this passage was something of a chore. However our pet ants really got riled up. We’ve had a few ants since we left Maryland, little fast ones, and bigger but more charismatic mediums, with jaunty antennae and perky pointed abdomens. My inner anthropologist was trying to figure out if they were getting together, what their tastes and habits were, etc. If they appeared in the galley, however, I’d casually wipe them out.

In the middle of the first rough night, caravans of ants appeared, trekking single file through the cabin in both directions along the starboard side where the cabin sides meet the top. Like a vengeful goddess (although I saw myself more as a research scientist), I smote them, sparing only those who seemed to be passing messages or who carried something white. All night long, they passed, and I smote, disrupting convoys , until my watch was finished.

In the morning the field of combat switched to the galley, the ants having apparently abandoned the starboard flank. The war of attrition continued throughout the day, as I threw my lightning bolt, pointed my fickle finger, even used weapons of mass destruction such as the blade of a knife in a gap along the trim.

Well, I’ve pretty much got them all, I thought, and I’m a little sorry because I enjoyed their presence, before they got uppity. That was yesterday.

Today, the larger ants have retreated to an undisclosed port-side location, where they are apparently digging bunkers and filling the sandbags, because our Forensics department has identified piles of frass and masonite dust.

“They’re eating the boat” Doug says. “You’ve got to do something.”

So I’ve concocted a tasty, pasty potion, honey and boric acid, and applied it in a place where I can watch what happens. But insects will inherit the earth, so I don’t think this will be the end of it. Meantime, we've got to get legal in Bay-LEE-Say.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On the Bus - Tulum and Playa del Carmen

What I learned at Tulum was that only 40 or 50 families lived inside the compound, which is about three times the size of what shows here. There was a wall, and the rest of the population lived outside it, all the workers who tended to the folks inside as well as to themselves, that is. One theory for the collapse of the temple/calendar/religious civilization is that the workers simply stopped working. Think where all the modern resorts would be if that happened now!

There was a stone structure here designed to pick up the sound of the wind and broadcast it inland, a sort of advanced hurricane warning system. And there was a 'lighthouse' that could be aligned with a cut in the reef. Honey was an important trading commodity, and there's even a stelae with a bee on it, which might have looked better stuccoed and colored, as all of these buildings were at one point. Nice spot.

Playa del Carmen might be the fastest growing city in Mexico, Armando told us. It's where the passenger ferry to Cozumel departs, and it's got the most Norteamericano looking highway we've seen - car dealers with flags, drive-through fast foods - sprawl, but small-scale. On the way there we passed 4 cement plants in 20 miles. But on a little detour through the part currently being 'developed' the jungle was being cleared by machete and curbs for the roads dug by hand.

Tourism is the main reason for this town too. The main pedestrian shopping street has a sophistication that, say, Ocean City, lacks, but it's still only a block from a beach full of sun-bakers being served drinks by boys in long pants and sleeves. And I liked how the people from the dive shops would walk the half block down to the beach and stride on out into the water.

There were several interesting-looking hotels back through gardens and alleys, and a complex of about 50 hotels at the other end of the street. There must be nightlife here! But I don't know how I'll ever get to be anything but a morning person.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

On the Bus - Chichen Itza

What impresses people about Chichen Itza is of course the sheer size of the city. Clearly the gods were mathematicians and astronomers, or honored by same. The main ziggurat is cunningly put together. Imagine how it must have looked stuccoed and colored.
All its parts represent something on the Mayan calendar and their numbers are manipulate-able in significant fashions. I wonder what I'd have thought to build or worship (as an elite, of course) on a dark and warm jungle nights.

What I liked best was that the steps on one side of the temple and the big carved snake head at their base, and those pieces alone, shine when they are lit by the solstice sun twice a year, to create the effect of a plumed serpent descending. It must have been quite a sight for people unaccustomed to "special effects."

Then there’s the Ball Court where the best players got to play for their lives, or should I say, for their deaths. For it was an honor for the winner to die, beheaded, spurting blood, as shown in the stelae. That's the loser groveling in this one. You’ve got to wonder if the glory of the sacrifice was enough to keep the winners sanguine as long as they needed to be, or if they’d have second thoughts at the end.

The third thing was how did all these jillions of stones get shaped and placed with no metal and no wheels? Flint, and manpower, said the guide (I should have asked about the beheading). Why didn’t they use carts and pulleys to move things around? Because the religion was so devoted to cycles and renewals that the use of a round symbol for such prosaic purpose would have been offensive. Or something like that. Looking for a modern equivalent, I came up with the controversies over stem cell research as an example of a culture that would keep such tools sheathed for intellectual reasons.

And then we were on our behemoth of a tour bus, being shopped at the Mayan souvenir center, and dipped in a cenote sinkhole/cave/pool before getting shunted to a different bus for the long ride home. UPS couldn't have done better delivery job!

There was a bathroom in the basement of this bus. The guide did a long riff about making phone calls down there: that you could make all the local calls you liked, but no long distance please “and we will all know, because the air conditioning will tell us.”

Enough Navel Gazing

Enough navel gazing! Rather than sitting around on the boat, we’ve been industriously touring by bus as Doug recuperates – the marathon tour to Chichen Itza, the kinder, gentler tour to Tulum, the public bus to Playa del Carmen, and even, sort of by mistake, a ride around the strictly local side of Cancun. And we took a tour of the resort associated with our marina - a time-share sales pitch -WHEW!

Mexico -the Yucatan part anyhow- is coming into focus rather in the way that a black-and-white print appears through its developing bath in a darkroom. I’ve never minded clearing customs, or grocery shopping, or any of the other mechanics of cruising because you get to peek behind the curtain. The hospital, and now the buses, are serving the same purpose.

There really is a lot to like, especially about the people. Here in Quintana Roo, and further south too, they’re Mayans. I hadn’t quite registered that when Cortez arrived from Spain in the 1500s and started swinging his sword, the Mayan culture had already peaked and dwindled– the temple builders were gone for mysterious reasons of their own and their temples were being overtaken by jungle.

The Mayan people are still here and elsewhere in (Central) America, only without the memory of their ancestors’ exploits. Now, they’re dealing with a not-entirely unwelcome invasion of tourists.

Their land is a flat limestone plateau, no rivers, except underground, not much soil, full of sinkholes, tilting slightly towards the sea. Their jungle, what I’ve seen, looks more like scrub than rainforest. But the Yucatan has beautiful white sand beaches, clear turquoise water, sunshine and warmth.

Until about 40 years ago it didn’t have much else. Then the Mexican government waved its wand. Now the former 1000-soul fishing village of Cancun has half a million people and 27,000 hotel rooms on a 12-mile long off-lying strip of beach. The rest of the coast has been dubbed the Riviera Maya and every couple miles there’s another ostentatiously gated, fenced, all-inclusive resort on the beach. All told there are an additional 20,000 hotel rooms on the Riviera, plus golf courses, condos, villas, etc, etc. and more coming.

There’s some big percentage of Mexico’s foreign exchange that supposedly comes from this place. It’s also said that forty percent of the hotel jobs are reserved for the Mayan people. And I'll bet the minimum wage is pretty minimal.

So, considering the tourists and the politics, I’m pleasantly surprised at how nice everybody is. You can walk, down the gauntlet of vendors at the temple sites, between little shops in places like Isla Mujeres, and even in the more upscale shopping street, Fifth Avenue, of Playa del Carmen and salespeople will try to interest you in their goods. Sometimes you’ll hear a little whisper “Cheaper than K-Mart!” or “Why you in so much hurry? Take your time!”

It’s done in such a friendly, good-humored, non-aggressive way. If you say no, thank you, they’ll go back to their conversations, their cell phones, their music, with a smile. You don’t get the feeling that some child will not be able to go to school if you don’t buy that mariachi hat. Or that you’ll get jumped in the alley. In fact, in Isla Mujeres no one even locks their dinghies on the beach – there have been no incidents for years.

I’m glad they seem to be keeping their balance, because there some pretty striking nominees for the Tourist Hall of Shame in the drunk, loud, and naked categories. What would possess a middle-aged man, waiting to see a bank manager (female), to wear a T-shirt advertising his genitalia:“I’m SHY. But my (not BRAIN!) is BIG.” Maybe he was dressed by someone who didn’t like him much.

Well, I didn’t intend to rewrite the cruising guide, or launch a screed on the politics of giving all your beach front to international hotel conglomerates so they can build luxury enclaves out of imported materials for disrespectful tourists, so I’ll move on.

Actually, I’d happily vacation here, in a place like Puerto Moreles, a small town with small hotels, pensiones, apartments, with beautiful beaches, a snorkeling reef a couple hundred feet out, bus connections to everywhere, nice people. Why, there's even an English-language bookstore - all those Canadians need to read!

And I wouldn’t be alone- it seems that many gringos live in this area, at least seasonally. The Spanish-speaking tourists, and there are several, seem to come from (South)America, Bolivia, Argentina.

Almost every American chain store is here too, from Sam’s Club to Hooters to Ernst & Young. The parking lots are small, and the box stores smaller yet. I’ve hardly seen any SUVs, and the ones I have seen are all from the Federal District – Mexico City.

I’ve been seeing high school age school children, both boys and girls, carrying dolls. I probably terrorized the young man I attempted to interview on the subject, but learned it’s a school form of family-planning class – the doll has to stay with you all the time. It is hoped you’ll remember what that means exactly when you’re tempted to make one of your own. The thing is: these are small, dark people, and the dolls are like the tourists, big, pink, blue-eyed North American.