Marina + Blog = Fail

2 11 2010

Why is keeping a regular blog so hard?  I am going to go ahead and blame it on genetics.

This blog is neglected, but not forgotten, and I am sure my guilt (now that I have acknowledged it to cyberspace) will cause me to furiously post 3489340543 updates in a row.

Rest assured dear readers (that’s you, Mom), that I am alive, healthy and happy.  Oh and really really tanned.


Diving Diaries

31 08 2010

Warning: the following is an over-flowery account of my diving experience at Glover’s reef, and so may be barf-inducingly cheesy.  Proceed with caution.

Dive day. To say it didn’t look promising would be an understatement: it was thunderstorming violently as we pulled out of Placencia for the hour and a half journey out to Glover’s.  But we divers didn’t care – we were planning to be underwater, not above it.  I poured a coffee and sat back to enjoy the rain pelting my face [I hear it does wonders for wrinkles].

As our boat rocketed further and further offshore, islands would sporadically come into view, undulating in and out of the sea and dotting the horizon.  A few double-crested cormorants would panic in the wake of our boat, awkwardly running across the water until they gathered enough steam to take off.   The weather improved steadily with each passing mile and, by the time we reached Glover’s, we were greeted by two old friends: bright sunshine and blue sky.  I drank the last drop of my coffee and downed the last bite of banana bread. Perfection.

Glover’s reef is an atoll, a type of reef that is essentially a ring of coral that encircles a lagoon – remains left by a sinking volcano.  Belize has three of the four true atolls in the Western Hemisphere, Glover’s Reef, Turneffe Islands and Lighthouse Reef  (the fourth is off the Mexican Yucatan).  Glover’s is about 40 km long and 15 km wide, flanked by 5 tiny islands on its south-eastern curve, and is named after a 17th century English pirate, John Glover, who used the remote atoll as a hideout.  When people think of the tropics, they tend to associate it with “paradise”.  Images of palm trees swaying in the wind, vibrant turquoise waters bordered by white sandy beaches and, below the water, coral gardens teeming with multicoloured fishes so bizarre you can’t help but think you’re on an acid trip.  Glover’s meets these criteria in every sense – it really is a magical place.   I could not stop pinching myself.

Paradise Found: Glover's Reef

Arriving at the dive site, we struggled to get our gear on as the boat rocked in the swells.  Looking around, I could not help but revel in the collective awkwardness of trying to get into our wetsuits.  All the frenetic wriggling and wrestling and cursing and contorted positions.  Smiling, I turned to open the air valve and check to make sure my tank was full – yup, 3000 pounds of pressure per square inch. Then I tested my regulator and octopus by taking a full breath from each, and shot a small quantity of air into my B.C.    The flow of air was smooth.  Party time.

All suited up, fins on, I unsteadily staggered to the dive deck at the back of the boat and stride jumped in.  The water greeted me with a refreshing chill.  After a few minutes bobbing at the surface waiting for my fellow divers, we exchanged our snorkel for our regulators, emptied our BCs of air and began to drift down slowly to the silent world below.  I slowly made my way to the edge of the wall and descended further, devouring the surrounding visual feast of sponges, corals, sea fans and rainbow coloured fishes.  Suspended and weightless, all I could hear was the sound of my own breathing. Completely at peace.

Airway to Heaven

About 80 feet down, a Nassau grouper hid behind a large yellow barrel sponge while the antennae of a spiny lobster protruded from a hole in the reef.  A huge silvery tarpon – one of the Caribbean’s most prized sports fish – cruised by to check us out, as if patrolling the wall.  A spotted eagle ray gracefully glided into view, an apparition materializing from the waters and light…utterly mesmerizing.

As the dive wore on, we rose higher to the reef flats, where colours resume their full spectrum and where reef fish dazzle in both colour and patterns. Carl Safina said it best: “ the most varied group of vertebrates on Earth is in full bloom around us, galaxies of living stars burning brightly in this blue universe”.  Mmm hmm.  I scanned 360 degrees around me to take it all in.  Nearby a swirling school of blue-striped grunts hovered above the reef slope while a vibrant stoplight parrotfish emerged from behind a sea fan.  Surgeonfishes, butterfly fishes, angelfishes all darted in and out of view. A green sea turtle lazily picked at algae, seemingly oblivious to the awestruck divers observing him from a respectful distance. The beauty is overwhelming.

When our guide, Philip, gave the sign to ascend I was crushed with disappointment, not yet ready to leave this sublime world.  I tried to squeeze in an extra few moments by being the last diver to surface, drifting slowly and reluctantly up in slow twirls.  I took one last longing look and kicked upwards, gently breaking the surface, and so ending a wondrous, slow-motion 47 minutes in heaven.

The flag I pledge allegiance to

[We repeat this two more times.  Each dive just as breathtaking as the first.  Days like this make me so happy to be alive it almost hurts]


31 08 2010

I wanted to start August off on the right foot and so I found myself heading down to the idyllic Placencia peninsula for an epic dive trip to the remote and pristine Glover’s Reef, one of Belize’s three coral atolls.

In true Marina form, the trip down south was anything but smooth sailing.  I barely made my 3:45 bus, despite giving my cabbie, Gomez, more than ample notice. He showed up at my house at 3:37 and by the time we got to the station, the bus was just pulling out.  Nothing a frantic sprint, flailing arms and high-pitched screaming couldn’t solve.  {Note: in Belize when relying on a ride or a cab for something time sensitive, such as a flight or bus, NEVER disclose the true time of departure unless you wish to be left convulsing with stress).

The express bus is relative luxury compared to its chicken counterpart, boasting padded seating AND air conditioning.  While air conditioning appears to be a blessing for the first half hour or so (especially after a 100 m sprint with scuba gear), its unregulated blasting soon turned the bus into a deep freeze.  Windows fog up with condensation, involuntary shivers set in and brain activity slows to a minimum.  And just when I thought I had said good-bye to goosebumps for 6 months…

Four hours later, after narrowly escaping hypothermia, I was deposited at the side of the highway in a small Creole village called Independence.  I was hoping to catch the last water taxi to Placencia, which, according to the “internet” left at 7:30 pm but according to “reality” left at 5:30 pm.  Time was not on my side.

After wandering around aimlessly for a while I happened to stumble across the owner of the water taxi fleet, who told me her brother could take me across IF we could find him. I managed to scrap together quite a search party, including several cousins, nephews, nieces and a litter of grandchildren, in order to locate said brother (who was drinking rice wine in the bushes it turns out…it WAS a Friday night mind you).  Tuna (his nickname) and I piled into his tiny dugout boat with what seemed like a handheld fan as an engine and were off like a herd of turtles.

This boat ride is actually one of my most favourite memories of Belize so far. The sun had long set and a beautiful blanket of stars was dimly lighting the night sky as we cruised through a maze of mangroves.  You could just make out the silhouettes of bats and birds flying overhead.  Tuna and I made light conversation as we passed a water bottle full of rice wine back and forth.  After refusing several marriage proposals, he was gracious enough to gift me with not one, but two, seedless limes he happened to be carrying in his pocket.  Amazing.

Finally, nearly 5 hours after setting out from Belize City, I arrived in Placencia. Instead of resting my weary head, I headed straight to the bar in search of my friends Armeid and Anne-Marie.  Sure enough, I had no problem finding them – sitting in the corner of the bar downing One Barrel rum like champions. The rest of the evening is quite a blur, though I do recall hitting the dance floor like a hurricane in a valiant effort to attempt “punta”.   Hmm how to describe punta.. according to the Urban Dictionary, punta is a “rude term for the buttocks, usually female” but it is also a traditional Garifuna dance.  Fuse these two definitions and you pretty much get the idea: a whole lotta ass shaking.  I felt like I was auditioning for a rap video. [It wasn’t pretty].

Saturday, not surprisingly, was a total write off.  The entire day consisted of eating, hydrating and some serious couch lounging.  The most activity was an epic Trivial Pursuit battle (which I don’t recommend playing hungover…).

I suppose the point of this blog, in sum, is to say I like weekends.

The Flip Side

16 08 2010

Thus far, most of my blogs have been chronicling my adventures, giving a play by play account of what I’ve been up to, with sprinklings of history, culture and peanut gallery observations on the characters that have crossed my path along the way.

This blog, however, is going to take a bit of a different twist.  I feel compelled to paint the whole picture, to write about the “other” side of expat life, the dark side most of us leave out when we email home.  But a side just as real as all the fun and adventure – not everything is sunshine and rum cocktails.  It’s funny, how when we relate our experiences to other people, we tend to hide behind our smiles and happy photos, so afraid of showing vulnerability.  So afraid to admit to others, but most especially to ourselves, that things may not actually be as great as we make them out to be.

I am no stranger to travel or living abroad.  I have always welcomed the exposure to new places and people with open arms, believing there is no better way to push your limits, to open your heart and mind to different perspectives and ways of doing things.  So I jumped at the chance of coming to Belize, seeing it not only as a chance to develop my career, but also as a prime opportunity for a great deal of personal reflection and growth.  I think, in hindsight, I was a bit naïve coming into this.  I came armed with high expectations and noble intentions and, well, there are some days I look around and am overwhelmed by waves of futility and think “what on earth am I doing here?”

For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of working at the interface of marine conservation and international development.  It is a personal calling that I see more as part of my identity than as a job.  Like so many in my generation, I just want to leave a positive legacy, do good with my life, whatever that means.  So here I am, parachuted into a situation as someone with apparent “expertise” but who, in actual fact, has no real background or context for the role I have taken on.  I underestimated how difficult it would be to work effectively in another culture, it’s a whole new ballgame with unfamiliar rules, and “tricks of the trade” that worked at home don’t necessarily work here.  I didn’t expect it to be easy, but man, there are days I am so frustrated by my lack of progress I feel like I am crashing repeatedly into a brick wall.  Please don’t confuse this with complaining, because it’s not – it’s just the reality of my experience and, at the end of the day, I see it as a most humbling opportunity to learn how to communicate and connect.

Outside of work, while I have had many wonderful experiences in Belize, I have had equal if not more, difficult and trying ones.  There have been times, especially at night, when I feel like I am drowning in loneliness and suffocating by isolation.  While I have joked about having no friends, I have actually found really difficult to operate without a support network immediately at hand.   It’s not like I need to go running to people for every little thing – I place a lot of value on the art of being alone, and am content and comfortable spending days, even weeks, in no one else’s company but my own.  But there comes a point where you just want to be surrounded by people you care about, and who care about you – you realize that that’s so much of what life’s about.  And some days, as you watch planes flying overhead, you’d give just about anything to be on them, to be anywhere but where you are.

It would be quite wrong to assume that, because of all these painful times, I regret coming here.  Quite the contrary.  I have learned more about myself than I ever imagined.  This experience has enabled me to recognize so many unconscious patterns and behaviours in the way I have lived my life – I don’t have my priorities quite right, I take people for granted, I am far too absorbed by what I think is the “right path” in my head and don’t leave enough room for options, I let fear and guilt dictate too many decisions. I think one of the most difficult aspects of this process is patience.  Once you unlock the Pandora’s box of your mistakes, there is an extreme sense of urgency to fix things immediately, to make things right .  And I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of helplessness when you realize that there is nothing you can do, right now anyway, because quitting is simply not an option.  Six months starts to feel not like the fleeting amount of time it is, but more like an eternity, a prison. But, at the end of the day, all you can do is breathe, take one day at a time and have faith you are in the right place.

My time in Belize has forced me to open my eyes and take stock of what ultimately matters in my life.  And I’ve found the answers now are far different from when I started here 3 months ago.  So yes, despite all the hardships, frustrations and loneliness, I believe I was meant to be here, I needed an awakening, I needed to learn these lessons and make peace with myself.

My first flood

13 08 2010

Monday July 26 was like any other Monday in Belize:  I grudgingly got out of bed after multiple snooze sessions and fumbled my way to the kitchen to make some coffee in my trusty stovetop espresso maker.  I then ate a hearty, but boring, breakfast of raisin bran, to which I added an extra share of raisins because, contrary to their advertising, two scoops is simply nowhere near enough.  I showered, cold water only of course, and selected yet another inappropriately casual outfit to wear to work. I then hopped on my bike, and commenced the 8 minute journey to work, sweating profusely while expertly dodging potholes and stray dogs along the way.  Just another day in the life…

In true rainy season form, it started to dump rain round late morning. Living in Vancouver, I am certainly no stranger to copious amounts of wet stuff falling from the sky but, I have to say, “rain” here takes on a whole new meaning.  It’s almost violent, attacking the ground with such force that you can’t help but think the skies are under siege.  And the thunder. Good lordy.  Starts off at a manageable, but ominous, low rumbling but quickly crescendos into fierce bursts that leave you terrified and whimpering under your covers for Mommy.   It literally shakes the ground, setting off car alarms in its wake.

After a solid hour and a half of torrential rain, I noticed a large puddle of water forming on the floor of my lunchroom-cum-office.  And I am on the second floor! I looked out the window and noticed that cars were taking on amphibious qualities as they navigated the flooded streets.  During a short break in the rain, I decided to bike home, figuring it wasn’t that bad.  In case any of you were wondering, biking through sewage and garbage filled water is not as fun as it sounds.  I don’t think I have ever gagged so much in my life.  I arrived home to find the plywood covering the moat entrance to Casa Gnoma completely washed away. Awesome.  As I slid down the ditch, I lost not one, but both my flip flops, and had a helluva time retrieving them as they were floating away in the river that was supposed to be my street!  Amusing in hindsight, maybe.

Flooded street in front of my house

Thankfully, I had remembered to close all my windows (a rare occurrence), and Casa Gnoma was a dry haven.   I hunkered down for what I thought was going to be a few days, plotting out how to best ration my meager food supplies.  But, after a sound night’s sleep, I emerged to find virtually no evidence of the flood, save a few puddles.  I thought I had dreamt the whole thing.  However, upon closer inspection, the puddles contained tons of stranded fish, which got stuck once the river receded back within the confines of its banks.  I admit to attempting to launch them from the side of the road, back into the creek, but gave up after missing a couple times (fish are not so aerodynamic, go figure).

That concludes the experience of my first flood.   Pretty low on the epic scale, I know.  Not that I’m complaining…

Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter…

2 08 2010

I saw a manatee! I saw a manatee! I saw a manatee!

[insert dorky dance complete with lots of flailing limbs and ill-timed hip thrusts].

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I can divulge the backstory.

So my wonderful friend, and travelling companion through Australia, Merr came to visit.  Upon reuniting, we immediately beelined for Caye Caulker, arriving just in time to catch happy hour and sunset at the Split, followed by a delicious dinner of grilled shrimp kebabs and barracuda steaks prepared by Chef Maurice in the ramshackle yard that is his restaurant, Wish Willy’s.  Undeterred by the fact that we had made arrangements to go for a full day snorkeling adventure the next morning, we were downing Belikins like they were going outta style.

As a quick aside, Belikin is the national beer of Belize.  It is terrible.  And you pretty much go directly from being sober to hungover without the drunken middle part.  And oh the headaches it bestows…An investigation into the dysfunctional & sadistic reasons I continue to drink it, despite these major shortcomings, may be the subject in a future aside in a future blog, but I doubt it.

Anyway, early the next morning, we eagerly boarded our sailboat, the Ragga Gal, and headed out to sea for the day. Ahoy matey!  We were headed north towards Ambergris Caye and the crown jewel of the northern cayes: Hol Chan marine reserve.

Bear with me here, another aside.  Established in 1987, Hol Chan is Belize’s first marine reserve, and is now arguably the most popular snorkeling and diving site in the country.  The reserve was named for a 30-foot-deep cut in the barrier reef, “Hol Chan” means “little channel” in the Mayan language, but actually covers an area of about 7.8km2.  Over 160 species of fish have been identified in the reserve, along with nearly 40 species of corals, 5 sponges, 8 algaes, 2 seagrasses, 3 marine mammals and 3 species of sea turtle. Woot woot.

Our first snorkeling stop, a channel between Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, proved to be the absolute highlight of my day and possibly of my time in Belize thus far.  Merr and I quickly ditched the rest of our lollygagging group and snorkel-sprinted out to the channel in hopes of spotting a manatee.  It wasn’t pretty but it was lightning fast. After what seemed like an eternity of scanning, I could faintly make out a dark shadow emerging in the distance.   Sure enough, a manatee was slowly and lazily loping its way straight towards us!  It came right up, looked us in the eye and slowly meandered off. I’m sure its departure had absolutely nothing to do with me screaming into my snorkel and doing an awkward underwater manatee celebration dance.  What a magical moment!


Since I am apparently all over asides in this blog, here is a little blurb on manatees, just because they are oh so cool.  Manatees are bulky and awkward looking, and are commonly referred to as the “gentle giants of the sea”.  They belong to the taxonomic order Sirenia, a group of 4 species representing the only herbivorous marine mammals living today.  Belize boasts the greatest density of Antillean manatees in the Caribbean region, likely because of the extensive seagrass, mangrove, coastal and estuarine habitats available within the Belize Barrier Reef Lagoon System.  Also, when it comes to manatees, Belizeans have exhibited a strong conservation ethic, designating several wildlife sanctuaries and becoming one of the first Caribbean countries to establish a National Manatee Working Group and to adopt a Manatee Recovery Plan.  Despite these efforts, manatees are considered endangered and in continuing decline, threatened by an onslaught of anthropogenic activities ranging from boat strikes to poaching to habitat degradation.   Here’s hoping we get our S@#t together enough to ensured the continued survival of these elusive creatures before it’s too late.

Ok next stop on our snorkel tour was Shark Ray Alley, about a mile south of the Hol Chan cut but still within the marine reserve.  Shark Ray Alley sure does not leave much to the imagination:  as the name suggests, this area is stocked with nurse sharks and southern sting rays galore. The area apparently used to be used by local fishermen to clean their daily catches, and the remnants, thrown overboard, attracted loads of these opportunistic elasmobranchs.  Now, tour guides chum in these wonderful beasts by the dozens, creating a full-scale feeding frenzy, much to the delight of their squealing customers. This is a practice I am not particularly fond of and do not condone, but it certainly registers better than shark finning on the scale of “shitty things humans do to nature”.  Thank gawd nurse sharks are docile!

Nurse Sharks @ Shark Ray Alley, Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Last stop was Hol Chan Cut, a very cool spot even considering the eleventy billion tour boats all competing for a glance of the area’s abundant marine life.  As soon as I slipped overboard and looked around, a huge black grouper cruised by, looking grumpy as ever.  Good sign. As we swam along the cut, huge schools of snapper and grunts were swaying back and forth in the current, Green moray eels were poking their sinister looking faces out of their hiding spots, while barracuda swam up, a little too close for comfort, to give us the evil eye. The reef flats were covered with seagrass beds, and we spotted numerous green sea turtles happily munching away, seemingly oblivious to the crowds of snorkelers.

Green Sea Turtle @ Hol Chan Marine Reserve

That night, Merr and I went for an incredible mixed-grill dinner at Habaneros, washing it down with several refreshing mojitos.  A perfect end to a perfect day.

Unnecessary formalities – Caribbean style

21 07 2010

The Caribbean is full of contradictions.

We have a tendency to assume things in this part of the world are always laid back, with a chill rasta vibe and “manana” attitude.  And, to a large extent this stereotype is fitting.

But what a lot of people don’t see is the extremely formal side to Caribbean living, likely a legacy left by past European colonial rulers (in Belize’s case the British).  I was completely unprepared for this.  Excited by the prospect of a low key tropical lifestyle, I gleefully abandoned the “biz-cas” attire of my consulting days in exchange for shorts and flip flops. And, all I have to say about that decision is OOPS!

I come in everyday to an office full of pleated khakis, the most freshly pressed shirts on planet earth and newly buffed leather shoes, while I look ready to sit on the beach with a margarita and a good book.  Wow do I ever feel like a douche.   This is also a world where colleagues (even in-office-colleagues) address each other as “Mr.” or “Ms.”.  So much for the days of throwing stressballs over cubicle dividers and leaving taxidermied frogs in one another’s desk drawers…

My inspiration for today’s blog actually came from an email I received from a colleague in the Turks and Caicos.  The unnecessary formality of it all caused me to 1) spit coffee onto my computer screen and 2) to talk in a ridiculous British accent using the most flowery language possible for the rest of the day.  And hitherto, as per my previous sentence, is the aforementioned electronic communication:

Dear Ms. Winterbottom Thank you for your email. We will endeavour to do our utmost best to assist you with the information requested. By copy of this email to my Scientific Officer, Mrs. Kathy Lockhart, we shall revert back to you with a response as soon as we collate the information.  Kindest regards”.

I would like to thank my most distinguished colleague for providing me with endless delight and amusement on this most radiant summer’s day. Cheerio.