Belize was initially planned as a relaxing, sun soaking, beach lounging, week of unwinding to reward ourselves for completing the first 6 months of our 80 hour work week residency training. Instead, we packed our days chock-full of adventures that left little down time for chilling at the beach. I can’t say that I am at all disappointed in our choice to fill out our week with activities, especially looking back at the amazing memories that we made.
The biggest challenge // adventure of the week was completing our open water dive certification. The three day certification course included a morning of videos and four dives. On each dive we had to fulfill a different skill set, including clearing the mask of water, removing regulators to simulate running out of air, and buoyancy control. Instead of a pool, like the usual site for learning skills during certification in the US, we were thrown straight into the ocean. I must say that the initial descent involved wide eyes of utter panic on my part. As soon as my head went under water, I immediately felt claustrophobic and suffocated all at once. Once I took the inaugural breath underwater, I felt a calm settle over me. Not that I wasn’t still anxious as can be.
Did I mention that until this moment of diving, I had never been above my waist in the ocean for mind numbing fear of sea creatures, most notably sharks? I hadn’t even been snorkeling before, and for some reason I decided that facing my fears head on without any form of gentle introduction was the best way to handle my phobias.
Our first dive took place in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. We swam alongside a magnificent sea turtle, intermingled with schools of brightly colored fish, and witnessed the majestic glide of a sting ray through the water. We later went to Shark Alley, where fishermen have fed nurse sharks scraps of fish for decades. These 5 feet long sharks that truly look like giant catfish surrounded the boat and lapped up chunks of fish straight from the dive master’s hands.
The other dives were through Esmerelda’s Canyon, Mermaid’s Lair, and Tuffy Channel. On the white sand sea floor between two walls of coral, we worked on buoyancy control. I couldn’t focus on the dive master for more than 2 seconds without feeling my stomach drop, as nurse sharks continually rubbed against my leg. I kept reminding myself that I had to calm down in order to not zap my oxygen supply by hyperventilating. Ultimately, the dive master gave up on the buoyancy lesson to hold onto one shark so we could pet it. That shark acted like a lap dog, just calm and tame as could be. Some of the other fish we took note of included the yellowtail snappers, rainbow parrot fish, black durgon, bermuda chub, barracuda, sergeant major, and spiny lobster.
I found diving a paradox. I was in a constant state of fear of being in the open water with the potential for hammerheads, tiger sharks, bull sharks, and various other terrifying beasts that Jaws properly prepared me for, along with being in perpetual awe at the hidden gem under the sea’s surface that so many people never see. It really is a whole new world. (Go ahead.. belt out Aladdin’s best song!) Two particular moments stand out from my dives as moments where you can’t believe how incredible and miraculous this earth truly is. The first was when I was waiting for Whit and the dive master to finish a skills training up on the surface when I was still down on the sea floor. As I was just floating there, I noticed the back and forth slow motion of the sea grass moving with the surge. The rocking motion coincided perfectly with my inspiration and expiration that were amplified by the regulator. This meditative moment reiterated how I am one with the earth, although as humans we tend to believe we are superior to mother nature. The second moment was during the ascent from our last dive. As we performed our safety stop about 15 feet from the surface, I was shocked to realize we were in a sea of floating jellyfish. After the initial shock wave passed, I felt time slow down to a creeping pace. The jellyfish movements pulsated in synchrony with my breath. It was an incredible moment, that unfortunately was short lived as we started getting stung repeatedly and all over. There was no way to ascend without exposing every body part including our faces to their tentacles.
The Blue Hole. Need I say more? What an ingenious work of art on mother nature’s part. It is a 300 meter wide sink hole surrounded by a coral reef. Another sea faring adventure I had yet to experience was snorkeling. Due to the depth of The Blue Hole (40 meter dive), we weren’t qualified to descend that far, therefore we opted to stay on the surface and stalk the little fishies from above. Although there wasn’t a ton of marine life to lay eyes on in The Blue Hole, the experience of being inside such a natural wonder was worth the 3 hour boat ride. Afterwards, we had a traditional Belizian lunch on a picturesque island called Half Moon Caye. We then made our way to an area called “the aquarium” for our final snorkel of the day. The snorkel guides trailed leftover lunch rice behind them as they swam along, attracting fifty to sixty Bermuda Chubs that swarmed our snorkel site. I guess not only locals and tourists alike enjoy the savory coconut rice.
We also visited one of the Mayan ruins during our stay. We took a prop plane over to Orange Walk to meet a Rastafarian eco-tour guide for our river cruise to Lamanai. Lamanai means “submerged crocodile” in Yucatec Maya and was a prominent Mayan civilization from 4th century BC to 17th century AD. We visited the Mask Temple, High Temple and Jaguar Temple. The Mayans believed that when an elite or ruler died, the god he/she identified with died as well, in order to guide the ascent to heaven. Once a god died, they shaved off the nose and mouth of the god’s masks to signify death, as seen below in the bottom right picture.
During the hour long river cruise, our guide pointed out crocodiles, tiny bats, snake cacti, and various birds. He had the eyes of a hawk, spotting tiny creatures while zooming along river bends. We also spotted a Mennonite community. According to our guide, the Mennonites produce 70% of the agriculture consumed in Belize and are expert carpenters and welders.
Some of the most poignant memories I will cherish from this vacation are the moments of utter stillness and presence. Whit and I spent an evening on the dock stargazing and imagining cloud formations as crabs, horses, and human figures. The cool eastern breeze brought the scent of sea salt to our nostrils as we reconnected emotionally and spiritually, all whist overlooking the onyx colored ocean. Witnessing the ocean’s continual transformation from onyx to iridescent green to aquamarine to turquoise captured my imagination and made me long for a paint brush or camera to capture its beauty. I enjoyed taking the time to just look and absorb the beauty of my surroundings. I never before realized the various shades of green, yellow, rust colored orange, and maroon that a single palm tree frond exudes. And there is so much allure and charm in the relaxed way of life of islanders. As Anakha Coman said, “The Divine flow that wants to move through me requires stillness.”