Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hasta Luego, Playa Del Carmen!

In just a couple of hours, we will leave Playa del Carmen and head up the coast to Cancun for Bill's son's wedding (on the 5th of September). It is a bittersweet morning - we are so very excited for Matt and Jackie and cannot wait for Jackie to become an official part of our family, but we are a bit sad to leave Playa. Despite it's changes and growth, we have enjoyed a lovely, restful 2 weeks here. We found some fantastic restaurants (small, local, out of the way - like we like them), met some wonderful people and stayed in an adorable hotel that we were able to treat like a home. It has been bliss.

As we leave Playa del Carmen, though, I cannot help feeling the way I do when I look at old pictures of my children. I want to hold it by it's face and scream, "Stop growing! You are perfect - I want to remember you just the way you were when you were still young and innocent."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Shopping in Playa

Many, many things in Playa Del Carmen have changed since we were here in early 2003. For example, there has been a HUGE influx of Italians. Though Playa was always full of more European than American travelers, there was a stronger German and Dutch influence before. Italians now comprise probably 90-95% of the tourist base. Because of this, the marketplace has also changed. There are so many Italian restaurants, cafés and boutiques that it has actually been a bit of a challenge for us to find decent Mexican food to eat. I went shopping today to find a dress for Matt and Jackie's wedding and had a difficult time. I had envisioned a simple linen sundress that would have been popular last time we were here, but it seemed like every shop had apparel tailored to fit Italian tastes and figures.

One thing has not changed, however, and that is the aggressive sales tactics of the Mexican shop owners. Granted, it is the slow season right now - and many of them are really hurting for business - but I cannot believe how creative they have become! When we were out today, Henry asked me how we could "find the mayor of this town" - he wanted to report all of the pushy sales people! It was another lesson in cultural differences.

I wonder if, perhaps, the shop owners all attend training seminars to learn common American phrases. I wonder, too, if these are the only American phrases that they know. So
many of these are things we have heard before, but the bar has definitely been raised with a few:

"Almost free to you, señor."

"Only today. Only for you."

"Hello, beautiful family. Come to look in my shop."

"Hello, I have been waiting all day for you."

"Hey, Beautiful Lady - braids for your beautiful niña?"

"Best prrrrrrices in town, señor. I prrrrrromise to you."

"What you want to pay?"

"Welcome back. You promised me to come back."

"Hello, Big Spender! Is that you?"

"I have just what you always need."

"Hey, señor - Let me make you a deal."

And my personal favorite, that actually made me belly laugh:
"Let me be the last one to rip you off."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Look Back

Though we have moved on from Belize, there are several pictures that I took while there that never made it to the blog. I saw things everyday that inspired my writing, but because of our early departure, I was unable to share many of them. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Reef House: our 'home' on the island

Our house was in sharp contrast to the houses that the locals live in. They live in tiny, often one or two room shanties built high on stilts. This was actually one of the bigger homes.

One of two Caye Caulker cemeteries (the other one is, literally, 7 crosses on the beach)

Henry, tracing shadows in the yard

Fantasia (18 months) and Oscar (3), brother and sister
We met these local beauties while swimming at the pier one day, and I was mesmerized by their smiles.

The bar at "The Split"
Juni told us that this whole end of the island is eroding quickly and that the bar will soon be under water (good riddance). It is pretty, but it is also where all of the riff-raff hang out.

Bill found a fun and interesting use for coconut palm bark!

Home Depot, Belize City
I saw this while waiting for the water taxi to the island - a bit different than in The States!

Henry really wanted to find a pretty conch shell, but after talking to many of the locals, we learned that to do that, he would have to find a young shell with a live animal still inside. Since it is not currently conch season, that would have been illegal. :(

Caroline's favorite midday snack: cold watermelon and toasted white bread

And, finally, Caroline gathered a bouquet of flowers that she found on the ground in our yard. They had fallen off of the trellis that connected our house to the front gate - very pretty!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Studying Tulum

When we decided to home school Henry and Caroline, I wasn't completely sure how it would work. After all, I left teaching for a reason! Despite a bit of a bumpy start, though, we are finally starting to relax into the process. While in Tulum, we visited the ancient Mayan ruins. Given Henry's obsession with Egyptian pyramids and ancient civilizations, it seemed like a natural 'field trip' opportunity. The ruins of Tulum are really quite amazing and we are using the experience to guide what and how we study.

We are so fortunate to have access to the Internet and all of it's offerings! We have been able to find all kinds of information about Tulum and ancient Mayan civilizations that we incorporate into our "lessons." The kids have read about the history of Tulum, are learning about the astronomy that guided it's creation and are writing about our experiences there. They are brushing up on their math skills daily with currency conversions (it is pretty funny to watch their amazement when they go from dollars to pesos!).

Henry absolutely hates anything that feels like school (some things never change), so finding things that peak his interest is critical to his willingness to work. He would still rather do anything other than write, though! Caroline, on the other hand, is very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. She does what needs to be done and gets ready to move onto the next thing. Hmmm, I wonder which parent each takes after . . .

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Stroll Down "Memory" Lane

The first time we came to Playa Del Carmen (Jan. 1999), it was sort of by accident. It was our first time in Mexico, so we went the safe route and stayed at an all-inclusive resort in Cozumel. We spent the first 3 days feeling like there had to be more to Mexico than what we were seeing (and tasting). At dinner on the third night, we met a couple who told us about this great day they had just had, and it was only a short $2 ferry ride away in a town called Playa Del Carmen. First thing the following morning, we were on the ferry heading to what would turn out to be our favorite Yucatan destination. Once Bill saw that the beaches were topless and that he could get an ice cold beer delivered to him for $1.20, we never looked back. We spent the remainder of that trip taking the first ferry out of Cozumel and the last ferry back. We had found our paradise!

We returned to Playa many times after that first trip and always stayed in small, out of the way hotels. Our favorite - where we stayed several times - was a small B&B about a half block from the beach. Our room was enormous and had a beautiful wrap around deck with hammocks where we would spend our siestas. Most times, we were the only people staying there, so it was very peaceful. If memory serves me, we paid about $36 per night! When Henry was a baby, we stayed in a small hotel a bit further away which was about $60 per night. It was a clean, simple place with incredible service so it met our needs. Today, we moved to another small hotel (Aventura Mexicana) a few blocks from the beach. We have a basic room right off of the tropical courtyard and pool - we are very comfortable and the kids are in heaven!

So much of Playa Del Carmen has changed, and I am still deciding whether I think the changes are good or not. There were no large hotels in the Playa of our past, and the beaches were dotted with small, authentic Mexican hotels divided by yards and yards of sandy beach and palm trees. It was charming. Walking the beach now (which is much wider due to imported resort sand), the open vistas and serene settings have been replaced with tightly built large hotels and all-inclusive resorts. At times, it is difficult to see where one ends and another begins. It doesn't seem right. Streets that I would never have ventured down before (mostly because they were more like sandy paths to nowhere) are now bustling night club districts. The first few times we came here, Playa only had one night club! I guess like all beautiful destinations, with tourism comes commercialism.

We have, however, been pleased to discover that some of our favorite spots are still around and thriving - though a few are in different locations. Walking to the beach today, Bill recognized "La Vagabunda," the restaurant where we ate breakfast every morning on our last trip. It was the one restaurant in all of Playa that had a high chair (one). However, the Mayans apparently never met a toddler as active as Henry and the highchair did not have a strap, so we spent many meals chasing him down the middle of the street after he would climb out and escape. We finally got smart one day, though, and stuck a piece of rope we found on the beach in the back of our stroller so we could tie Henry into the highchair. The Locals, as well as the European tourists, may have given us a lot of dirty looks, but we thought we were brilliant! The gravel floors and rickety tables at La Vagabunda have been replaced with brick tiles and solid wood, but it is still a special part of our history and we will eat there again on this visit. This evening, as we sat enjoying our 2 for 1 cocktails and appetizers in the Mayan restaurant in our hotel, we realized that we had also been here before! We ate dinner in the restaurant with a family we met in our last hotel and remembered the courtyard setting. Back then, it was not connected to our current hotel (they were 2 separate facilities), but it felt familiar all the same. Later in the week, we hope to revisit The Tequila Barrel (where Bill would sample local elixirs while waiting for me to get ready for dinner) and The Beer Bucket - a cool, upper level hang out with a great view of the action.

Right now, it feels really good to be back in Playa Del Carmen, and I don't think it is only because I was so ready to leave Caye Caulker. It is beautiful here. The biggest challenge I am currently facing is trying to remember that I am NOT on vacation . . . I am NOT on vacation . . .

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Mexican Time

We already knew this about ourselves, but we just don't enjoy spending time in All-Inclusive resorts. Therefore, after spending the past 2 nights in a nice, safe resort in Tulum, Mexico, we decided to rent a car and head up the coast to Playa Del Carmen (one of our old favorite spots). We arrived in Playa a few hours ago and cannot be more thrilled! We used to come here a few times a year - we loved it that much. It has been almost eight years since we were last here, though, and we cannot believe how much it has changed! The growth is unbelievable. If it weren't for a few familiar restaurants, it would seem like a completely new experience for us.

We found a small, cheap hotel for tonight and have already booked the next three nights in another. It is just a block from the beach and on the northern end of the town. When we came here when Henry was a baby, we stayed somewhere nearby (even though we can't find that hotel because everything has changed so much), and we really came to like this end of town. It is a little off the beaten path and away from the noises of the town. It is, however, still close enough to walk to everything. Depending on how we like the hotel, we may just stay there until we have to leave on the 31st to head to Cancun for Matt and Jackie's wedding.

We feel relieved to be away from the deep jungles (and bugs) of Belize, but our experiences there were invaluable. We saw so much and learned so many new things - about ourselves and about others - that it will be an experience we all treasure for years to come. We are ready, though, to relax a bit into a life that is a little less "work." Being in Mexico, I need to remind myself that everything is done at a much slower pace and that things (like phones and WiFi connections) don't always work the way I think they should. Somehow, though, it all works out and we enjoy ourselves enough to keep coming back.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Diagnosis: Simple Virus

Today, we got the news that we had been hoping and praying for - Henry does not have Dengue Fever! Although his fever had subsided, he developed a rash on his torso so the doctor wanted him tested for Dengue. This morning, we again hopped the water taxi to the mainland for a blood test at a medical lab in Belize City. After an hour, we were told that the Dengue test was negative. We walked the results down to the pediatric clinic to show the doctor, and he confirmed that it is just a virus - not Dengue.

Other than the time that Caroline was hospitalized as in infant for dehydration, I don't think I have ever been as scared as I was these past few days. Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable than hearing the words, "Potentially life threatening," come out of your child's doctor's mouth. It has been 6 days since Henry first developed his fever and we haven't slept much. We have been riddled with worry - and with guilt.

Up until the last few days, we really didn't think that the mosquitos were that bad here (we've certainly had FAR more problems with them in Michigan). Though we each had a couple of bites, it was really the flies and sand fleas that were more troublesome. We also assumed that the strong ocean breezes would blow the mosquitos away. However, we are next to a jungle, so with every rain came the mosquitos.

As Bill and I sat waiting for the water taxi to bring us back to Caye Caulker today, we wondered how the poor islanders here would have been able to deal with a similar situation. These people face the threat of mosquito borne illnesses like Dengue Fever and Malaria everyday and have very little means to prevent it. They don't have air conditioned homes that they can close up at night and they certainly don't have easy access to medical care if and when they do get sick. It is heart breaking to think of them having to watch their babies suffer through one of these illnesses. Our hearts were breaking for Henry, and he is otherwise strong and healthy - what if he already had other medical issues to contend with?! I can hardly let myself think about it . . .

When we went to the travel clinic in Chicago, we were vaccinated for Typhoid, Hepatitis A and Tetanus and were given Malaria prophylaxis. Dengue Fever was vaguely mentioned, but there was nothing we could do about it, so we sort of dismissed it. I left the clinic thinking it was just a mild disease. Having done hours of research this past week, I discovered how wrong that thinking was! Dengue Fever is fast becoming a global threat and is every bit as serious as Malaria. However, there is little mention of it in the media. It is a serious, painful disease that has the potential to develop into Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever, a life threatening complication. Once contracted, there is little you can do other than wait it out. There is no medication, no vaccine and no treatment other than rest and hydration. It is extremely scary!

Given the events of the past few days, Bill and I have decided to cry "UNCLE!" and leave Caye Caulker in the morning. We cannot prevent the kids from getting more bites here, and we cannot relax. We have this beautiful house with big french doors that we are too scared to open, and gorgeous decks that we are too scared to sit on. It just isn't worth it anymore. We have bought tickets for the early morning boat to Chetumal, Mexico where we will board a bus to Tulum. We still need to use tonight to do some further planning, but we are thinking that we will find a resort along the shore and away from the jungle (anyone who knows us, knows how desperate we must feel to be considering an all-inclusive resort!). Hopefully, we will find a spot where we can relax and enjoy ourselves again. Kim and Ruby have been absolute life savers and have done everything in their power to make our stay here a good one, but it is time for us to move on. When we started out, we said that we would go somewhere until it didn't work for us anymore, and Belize just isn't working for us right now.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Poor Bugsy

Shit. Shit. SHIT!!! Henry's fever would come down, then spike back up as soon as the Motrin had worn off, so we decided to get him to a doctor. Bill spoke with Kim this morning and he advised us to go to the mainland, as the results of any tests done on the island would take a good week to get back. He arranged for a driver to meet us at the water taxi dock in Belize City and transport us to a private health clinic. Chester, our driver, took us to the Pediatric Clinic in downtown Belize City and left a number for us to call when we were finished.

We were pleasantly surprised with the clinic. It was very clean, brightly decorated with fresh paint, had a lot of toys for the kids in the waiting room and the staff was exceptionally friendly. It seems that a 3 1/2 day fever is taken much more seriously here than in The States! We did have to wait about 45 minutes, but the nurse gave Henry a private room to lie down in and hurried the doctor when she saw that his fever was rising while we waited (99.5 when we arrived, up to 101). Sitting in the waiting room, I kept thinking that it wasn't any different than going to Pedios when we were in Oak Park - seriously! This was definitely NOT the picture I had in my mind as we rode over!

Our doctor came in and was wonderful! He seemed very concerned and also very knowledgable. He examined Henry and told us that he is concerned that his symptoms sound a lot like Dengue Fever - a disease spread by mosquitos for which there is no vaccine and no medication. Of course, it is the one disease that we couldn't prepare for!!!! Now, we need to wait until the fever has been present for 5 days to do a blood test, because doing it any earlier could result in a false negative. Dengue Fever, itself, can go away on it's own after about 2 weeks with rest and proper hydration. However, there is a slight risk that it could develop into a more serious form. Oh, and the doctor told us not to let Henry get bitten by any more mosquitos (for fear that it would be transmitted to us through subsequent bites). Ok, Doc, no problem. If the fever continues, we are to bring Henry to a lab for a blood test on Monday. We should get the results back about an hour later. If the fever stops, we can assume that it was just a virus and move on. The doctor gave us another medication to help with the fever - something he said is a little better than Motrin - so we are trying that.

For now? We wait . . . and watch . . . and pray.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Rumble in the Jungle

The only thing worse than being some 2,000 miles from home and being in a jungle in 100 degree heat and getting sick, is having your child get sick under those conditions. Wednesday evening, Henry came down with a fever. Before we came to Caye Caulker, we took so many precautions to ensure that this wouldn't happen! We started the kids on vitamin B1 supplements (to ward off mosquitos), took them to an allergist to get medication for their mosquito allergies, started them on Zyrtec, got vaccinations for Typhoid and Hepatitis A and began taking weekly Malaria medication. We thought we had our bases pretty well covered. In spite of our efforts, though, our Bugsy has contracted something that his body doesn't like.

Wednesday was a sleepless night as I watched him sleep on and off and prayed as his fever went up to 102.9. I spent a great deal of the night on the computer researching information about Malaria and what we should be watching for. By morning, his stomach was beginning to to hurt, so I felt better thinking it was probably just something that he ate. Ruby, Kim's wife, told us that there is a doctor from the mainland that comes to the island daily, but this - of course - is his week off. She also told us that, although Malaria is on the mainland, they don't see it here on the island. We brought along some Azithromycin, so we started him on it. By the time he went to bed last night, his temperature was back to 98.6 but is back up a bit this morning. I'm taking it as a good sign that he doesn't want to stay in the house today - he wants to get on the bikes and ride. We'll continue to monitor him and give him the antibiotic and hope that things turn around soon. If not, I guess we'll be making a trip into the mainland. Ugghhh!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Kissed a Shark and I Liked It

As I learned from personal experience, puking off the side of a sailboat on your way to a snorkeling expedition has some real advantages. For starters, it draws more fish, nurse sharks and manta rays toward the boat, as they think they are being fed (and by more, I mean dozens). Secondly, it gives your body a chance to purge any unease that could prevent you from fully appreciating what will be, arguably, one of the most amazing experiences of your life.

Today, I am still trying to absorb and process everything that we experienced yesterday on our first ever snorkeling trip. On Monday night, we went to the home of Juni Zaldivar, one of Caye Caulker's oldest and most revered citizens. We were making plans to sail with Juni the following morning and needed to be fitted for our snorkel gear. At first glance, Juni seemed to be a somber - almost angry - man and I was concerned about how he would interact with all of us. However, once he saw Bill's feet and joked that he would, maybe, just wrap some duct tape around his toes for webbing - because they don't make flippers that big - I knew we would be just fine.

At one time, this island was filled with fishermen who built their own boats. Today, unfortunately, Juni is the sole boat maker on the island. His current boat, that he completed about a year and a half ago, was built by him, completely by hand and without the use of power tools. Even the sails were sewn by Juni on a small, hand-cranked sewing machine in his kitchen. It took him about 6 months - sun up until sun down - to complete it, and there is a part of Juni's soul in every detail of his boat.

While sailing to our first destination, Juni talked to us about his connection to the sea and the incredible creatures that live there. We were, as he told us over and over, about to enter their world and we needed to do so with grace and the utmost respect. He told us how, at 9 years of age, he began taking daily swims to and from The Reef in an effort to escape an abusive father who beat him daily. He stayed out of school and spent his days at sea - the only place he felt happy. At 13, he apprenticed with a local boat maker and by 15, he was crafting his own boats by hand. Juni's connection to Caye Caulker and his simple island life is so strong that when his wife and 5 children began to discover the outside world and got seduced by it's materialism, he sent them to live in The States without him. This place, he said, is his whole world and the only world he ever wants to know.

Caye Caulker is located less than one mile from Belize's Barrier Reef - supposedly the 2nd largest reef in the world. The Reef is a protected area of Belize and is an attraction to scuba divers and snorkelers from around the globe. Ecotourism is one of Caye Caulker's biggest industries (along with lobster fishing). In fact, when we got to The Reef, we were surrounded by several other boats crowded with overpaying tourists who swam close to their boats while their "guides" sat comfortably on deck. We felt so fortunate to be with Juni.

We arrived at The Reef about an hour and a half after we set sail (about the time that my breakfast decided to make a reappearance) and prepared for our first swim. Henry fearlessly jumped right into the water with the sharks and they rays, followed by Caroline, Bill and Bijan and Wilmana (a beautiful Dutch couple that was with us). Juni stayed with me and talked me through mentally overcoming my seasickness. When my puking stopped, and I was able to get my mask on, Juni and I joined the others. It changed my life.

Juni guided us far from the boat so we could fully experience the sea. Immediately, he was surrounded by fish, nurse sharks and manta rays who seemed to know him intimately. He led us over coral, which at times was only an inch or two below us, to areas where entire schools of brightly colored fish were hiding. He cuddled with sharks and rays as if they were kittens. At one point, Juni grabbed my arm and pulled me toward him. With his other hand, he "called" one of his sharks. He held the shark, turned it over and, after stroking its belly for a minute, signaled me to kiss it. I later couldn't believe it, but without thinking, I kissed that shark like I would one of my own children. Amazing! Because of Juni's guidance and expertise, we were all so at ease - even the kids touched the shark (though Henry said that he was so scared that he thinks he peed)! Just before we went back to the boat, Juni again grabbed me and motioned for me to float on my back. I wasn't sure what he was up to, but by this point he had earned my trust so I did what he said. I tried to stay calm as he carried a giant manta ray over and placed it on my chest. It felt like a heavy, wet wool blanket covering me as it swam up and over my face. I'm not sure I'll ever have another experience when I can say that I kissed a shark and hugged a manta ray all in the same day!

After exploring and experiencing for over an hour, we were back on the boat. Juni gave all of us sliced oranges to remove the salt from our mouth while he told more unbelievable tales. He told the story of a time, about 10 years ago, when he came upon a shark that had been speared by a fisherman and left for dead. He carried her to a more protected area and fed her. He returned to feed and nurse her everyday for the next month. Eventually, he saw her tail moving furiously and knew that she would survive. All of a sudden, he noticed something on the underside of the shark's body and quickly realized that she was giving birth! He helped her deliver 2 babies (though only 1 would survive) and he continues to visit and play with the shark's 'grandchildren' today.

We sailed for about another half hour to a different location along the Reef. This time, we got in the water and swam with sea turtles! I couldn't believe it! They were only about a foot away from us, but Juni asked us not to touch them - just observe - so we obliged. We watched with amazement as they swam along and fed on the turtle grass that lines the ocean floor. They were like nature's lawn mowers, eating constantly and clearing huge patches of ocean floor. I thought Caroline was going to cry with emotion - it was so beautiful! We swam in this location for another hour - which was about all Caroline's tired little body could withstand - and got back into the boat.

It took us about 2 hours to slowly sail back to the island, during which time we drank coffee and ate delicious sugar cookies that Juni had prepared. We spent some time talking to Bijan and Wilmana, but mostly, we were quiet and thoughtful. We were all trying to wrap our minds around the gift we had just been given.

I had mixed feelings about writing this story. Juni is an intensely private man who wants his world to remain unchanged. There is something so peaceful and comforting about listening to him. When I asked if I could take his portrait, it was obvious that he is not comfortable in the spotlight. He said that he did not want to be all over the "Damn Internet" where the gringos would learn how to find him. National Geographic came to the island a few years ago to do a documentary about Juni and his life here, but he would not release the rights and they were not able to make their film. After some thought, though, I decided that there are great lessons for all of us in hearing Juni's story. He is a man who, despite hardships that would challenge even the strongest among us, is at peace and harmony with the simplicity of his life and who has a truly spiritual connection to the sea. At 71, Juni Zaldivar may not be around to inspire the world for too much longer. When Juni passes, Kim says, Caye Caulker will lose a piece of it's heart. So, too, will I.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Kayaks? Really?!

We rented sea kayaks yesterday ($20 US for 2 double kayaks for 2 hours) from an island legend named Chocolate. At 82, Chocolate is the oldest person we've met here. He is a tiny, wirey white haired man who never stops smiling. I did not take any pictures of our outing, as Henry was my co-pilot and I didn't trust that our boat would not capsize. It was an interesting morning, for sure. I've never kayaked, and Henry thinks he is an expert (having had a bout in the Lorenz's kayak along the shore of a quiet Lake Michigan). Of the 4 of us, Bill is the only one to have any experience in a kayak, and he was in the other boat! Our morning went a little like this:

H: "Mom, you're not doing it right!"
J: "Henry, I'm trying - I don't know what I'm doing!"
B: "Jude, you're going in circles!"
J: "Gee, really?! How the hell do I go forward?!"
B: "Well, for starters, you're sitting in 6" of water. You need to get to deeper water."
J: "And how am I supposed to do that?"
B: "Paddle backwards so you can turn around."
J: "Now we're just going in the other direction!"
B: yells, "Stop yelling! Put your paddle in and make the boat turn around!"
J: "Wow, thanks for the brilliant advice, Einstein!"
H: "See, this is why I wanted to ride with Dad."
C: "Henry, we're beating you!"

We were like the Griswalds - yelling at each other like a bunch of stereotypical ugly Americans - while a quiet man and his son watched from the shore. It was not our finest moment.

Eventually, and in spite of Henry's 'expertise', I righted my kayak and we were able to get out to sea. I was not prepared for the strength of the current and my arms/shoulders did not like the workout they were being given (I should be more careful about what I wish for). Once we were out a bit, we started seeing some marine life. The water was especially clear, so we saw several more starfish, small lobsters, crabs and schools of small fish. It was pretty awesome. We stopped for a bit to cool off in the water and promptly lost Henry's sunglasses and a paddle from Bill's kayak (we got the paddle back), so we gave up on the swimming. We found out later that we were swimming in an area that is known to have a lot of crocodiles (yikes!)!

We returned the kayaks to Chocolate and finished the morning with a swim off the pier that we like. Some of the local boys who were also swimming there showed Henry a small sting ray in the water. He thought it was pretty cool to be in the water with the ray. Me? Not so much . . .

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Missing You

I feel fairly certain that Bill would disagree with me, but I have never thought of myself as an especially spoiled person. I'm the tenth of eleven children, after all, so I think I learned pretty early on to be grateful for and appreciate what I have. Sure, I like nice things and I have always had expensive tastes, but I'm not the kind of person that needs things to be happy. This is what I thought, at least, until I came to Caye Caulker, Belize.

I love being on this little, remote island because it is so different from anything that I know, and I am getting the opportunity to watch my family change and grow into better people and into a stronger unit. However, I am starting to miss a few of my 'creature comforts' that had become such a part of our daily life in Chicago.

I miss, for example, shopping for fresh produce at Whole Foods - it was one of my favorite pastimes. Fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce here and the produce stands look nothing like the works of art at WF. When you eat local, seasonal produce, you get what you get, and here you don't get a lot. What is available, though, tastes good despite it's unattractive appearance. I also miss my workouts tremendously! Even when we wake up in the morning, it is already so hot and muggy that I've only managed a few Pilates workouts. I guess the slow biking will have to do for now! I miss the city and it's constant stimulation, but am working on appreciating the peace of the island. Being the foodies that we are, I miss going out for a great meal. So far, the restaurants have not knocked me over, but I have an amazing husband who prepares delicious meals for us at home, so we are not going hungry. Most of all, I miss our family and friends (all of you), who have encouraged us through every phase of this experience so far. You are all here with us - in your own little ways - guiding us down this path. Thank you for all of your love and support. We love and miss each and every one of you!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Double Dip Day

Yesterday was an extremely hot day - probably our hottest so far. Given that we are on a small island, we were not able to get an official temperature reading (the closest location we can find is Belize City), but you know it's bad when even the locals were complaining! One of the things that I've noticed here is that there are not many old people wandering about (we found out that 60% of the population on Caye Caulker is under the age of 12). When we were in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico, there were dozens of little old ladies, all probably 100 years old or more, lining the streets. My guess is that it isn't a matter of old people not being on the island, they probably just know better than to come out into the heat!

Bill got up early and rode down to Glenda's to pick up some hot rolls to eat with our eggs. After breakfast, we rode to The Split to swim and cool off in the ocean breeze. There were quite a few swimmers this time, as I am sure others had the same idea. Though I am not a lover of the ocean, I did get in the water and swim with the kids. Caroline was thrilled! The sun was blazing, and even with diligent sunscreen application, the kids got pink so we only swam for about an hour. After picking up some groceries for the day, we headed home to rest.

I think Henry and Caroline may be getting a bit hungry for companionship. Today, they made 'buddies' out of a couple of coconuts that they found in the yard (glad we brought the Sharpies). Caroline calls her's 'Little Miss Coco' and Henry named his 'Coco Bro.' Henry seems especially attached to Coco Bro - I guess he really misses his real bro'! He wanted to sleep with his coconut, but Bill nixed that idea. As Bill pointed out, it is akin to Tom Hanks' volleyball friend in the movie, 'Castaway.' They are enjoying each other's company, though, and seem to be learning how to work together more.

We decided to treat ourselves to dinner at one of the nicer restaurants on The Caye - Don Corleone's, a favorite of Kim's that specializes in Italian food with a Caribbean twist. Since it is located on Front Street, close to The Split, we went early so we could squeeze in another swim before we ate. There was a storm rolling in, and the water was much choppier and murkier than it had been in the morning. I decided to sit this one out (I know, I'm a wimp). Henry was over the moon about finding a live starfish in the water! He took some time to examine it and share it with anyone else around that was interested, and then threw it back in the ocean. It has been so much fun to watch the kids learn about all of these different kinds of wildlife in their natural habitat, rather than at the aquarium or zoo. I hope they are building memories that will last a lifetime!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Retirement Suits Him

The night before he retired, my mom fell and broke her neck (though we wouldn't discover the break until the day after he retired). Because I was spending so much time at the hospital with Mom, Bill had to take charge of the kids and the house. He began his retirement in a very non-traditional way and never complained for a minute. There was no fanfare - no celebration. He had to take the kids to doctor appointments, travel clinics (where he was introduced to Henry's extreme reaction to needles), parks and beaches. He had to facilitate details for our trip and our move and had to get our family ready for the next phase. He was amazing.

It has been so nice to see him get a chance to relax and regroup on the island. He gets up early in the morning, maybe goes for a run, makes breakfast and settles into island mode. He has been writing, reading, cooking and learning about local traditions, all while continuing to be the glue that holds us together. It is because of his hard work through the years that our family is getting this opportunity and we will forever be grateful. I'm still not sure how I got so lucky!

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Glenda's did not disappoint! Breakfast offerings were simple but delicious. Bill and I both had omelets with homemade cinnamon rolls and freshly squeezed orange juice. Bill said the coffee was incredible. Henry and Caroline each had an orange juice, cinnamon roll and one of Glenda's famous fresh, hot buttered rolls. Bill and I had a hard time not grabbing the rolls off the kids' plates - they were that good! In all, the meal cost us about $15 (US) and was worth every penny. Caroline summed it up nicely when she said, "We are DEFINITELY coming here again!"

Mantra: Live Simply

When Bill and I were in the planning phases of our life together, we had two main goals in mind. The first was to grow our minds and spirits (and those of our children) and the second was to live simply. Life in Caye Caulker is helping us achieve both of those things. Daily, we encounter new people, experiences and ideas that challenge us to view our world differently. For example, the electricity on the island is supplied by a diesel generator, so we are forced to operate with as little electrical use as possible. Though we do use small window air conditioners on most nights to cool the bedrooms, they are turned off as soon as our feet hit the floor in the morning. Our house has incredible windows and french doors throughout, so we are trying to maximize the ocean breezes. We spend the majority of our time reading, drawing and writing outside on the decks, and artificial lights are used minimally.

There are not many sources of income for the local islanders, so they try to earn as much as they can from the little bit of tourism that the island enjoys. Things like restaurants and modern conveniences are not cheap. Because of this, Kim has given us some tricks to live like the locals do and to shop where they do. We have found a warehouse that will deliver cases of beer to the house for about $1 per beer, and Bill found some of the best shrimp I've ever tasted for about $4 per pound. I won't be drinking Vodka while I'm here, as it runs about $35 for a small bottle, but I have found Rum to be very affordable ($8) and a nice, tropical alternative. Bill is happy to ration his bottle of Sapphire Gin that he purchased in the duty free store at the Houston airport.

We have only eaten one meal at a restaurant and it was the incredible meal at Rose's on our first night. Bill is having so much fun looking for local items to cook at home. We are still waiting to run into the fishermen as they come in on their boats to try to negotiate some fresh fish, but Kim assures us that it will happen, if we are patient. We carry our empty egg cartons to Chan's market in the morning and buy fresh eggs supplied by a local farmer, and I assure you - they are the best eggs we've ever eaten! The kids have fallen in love with the sweet white bread that we buy from the Caye Caulker bakery (probably because they've never been given white bread). They are able to make themselves toast with peanut butter and think they are cooking!

Yesterday's meals were wonderful: beans with local cilantro, onion and avocado for lunch, and homemade tortilla soup (using freshly made tortillas and local chicken) and grilled shrimp for dinner. Not bad! We are going to try Glenda's, a favorite of many of the locals, for breakfast today. We are very excited.

It is amazing how shedding some our possessions and baggage has freed us to live differently. Little by little, we are discovering that we don't need much to make us feel happy and fulfilled - we need only the company of each other and the possibilities that it provides. As we keep reminding Henry and Caroline: We aren't on vacation - this is our life now.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Our Neighbors

We discovered a family of iguanas living under our house! So far, we have seen 5, but there may be more. They are huge - certainly not the cute little geckos we have seen in Mexico! In fact, when he first discovered them, Henry ran into the house and yelled, "Mom! There's a Komodo Dragon in our yard! Come See!"

The iguanas seem to favor the hot, sunny climate of the island. We didn't see them at all yesterday when it rained. Much to our delight, they were much more active today as the sun reappeared and it was very HOT!

Attaching our house to the front gate is a beautiful flower covered trellis where the iguanas like to hang out. Once we realized that the flora ended before it reached our deck, and the iguanas, therefore, wouldn't be able to reach us, we were excited about the opportunity to get a closer view of the lizards.

Meeting Some of the Locals

Both of the kids brought along their allowance money that they had been saving. Because money seems to burn holes in Henry's pockets, he couldn't wait to purchase a piece of handmade jewelry from one of the many local 'artists.' After seeing several different pieces that he really liked, he met Calvin. Calvin is this cool, laid-back Rasta who let Henry design his own piece. They worked together to choose the prettiest and most special beads in his lot. The largest bead in the center of Henry's necklace isn't a bead at all - it is a mangrove seed. The locals call it "deer eye." When you rub it along a hard surface, it gets really hot and gives off a clean smell (kind of like soap). As reported by Calvin, "It is very special, Mon," and will bring Henry lots of luck (he may need it)!

While on our bike ride through the jungle yesterday, we were greeted by a couple of local boys, Viktor (8) and Brian (6). They were out collecting Coco Plums - a local fruit that grows wild on the island. There are a couple different varieties: pink, black and purple. The boys were collecting the pink ones and generously offered some to us. They are a small fruit - a little bigger than a large olive - with a bright white meat. They have little flavor, no juice and a dry, powdery texture. Though I don't see the allure of the Coco Plum, I'm sure they are one of the few sources of fresh fruit that are easily accessible to the locals and, therefore, considered a delicacy.

Caye Caulker is different than other, more touristy places than we have been in that there is only a small number of locals who try to scam the visitors. Unfortunately, they keep finding me. While at The Split today, a friendly woman named Kim talked me into having Caroline's nails painted. "Only $1," she said. I figured that was a bargain, and Caroline looked excited, so I agreed. She spent a lot of time talking about her own daughter which just drew me in more and more. After the beachside mani/pedi (which I would NEVER have paid for in the States), she said, "$20 Belize ($10 US), please." When I questioned her, she said that the $1 price was for a hair braid (which she briefly mentioned but I ignored because I wasn't interested in any more braids). What a sucker! Live and learn . . .

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Go Slow"

There are no cars on Caye Caulker, except for a few delivery trucks, and the motto of the island is "Go Slow." Kim arranged for us to have bicycles for the month so that we could get around like all of the other locals. Our 'no helmet = no wheels' rule that we were adamant about in Chicago has fallen completely to the wayside. Most of the locals ride barefoot, so I'm sure helmets aren't even a consideration!
It rained on and off all day today, so it was a good day to hop on the bikes to explore some areas of the island. The kids were so happy to have the freedom to ride their bikes down the middle of the street without helmets! Caroline's bike is just a tad bit too big for her, but she is using her iron will to overcome it - she does not want any help getting on/off her bike. Riding through the village today, I had to chuckle to myself watching Bill and the kids in front of me. Bill was using hand signals to indicate turns, but I'm pretty sure the locals thought the crazy American was just being friendly. The only rules of the road here seem to be 'go slow' and 'watch out!'

What a difference a day makes!

We made it to the beach yesterday. Swimming is best at an area of the island called "The Split," which separates the north and south ends of the island. Though the beaches are not expansive oases like many other places, they are calm, serene and covered in white sand. Henry decided that he is not a huge fan of salt water because he was too stubborn to wear his goggles and the salt made his eyes burn (imagine that). I was pleased to learn that the salt water made me more buoyant and I was able to float for the first time in my life (seriously!). Caroline and Bill were just happy to 'be.'

Perhaps not the smartest move of my life, I decided to get into the island spirit and have my hair braided. Miriam, the girl who did the braiding, suckered me into it by giving me some sob story about needing the money to pay for her kids' school supplies. Yah, right.

O!M!G! Most. Painful. Thing. Ever. Most of the time, I had my finger nails dug into my leg to keep from tearing up in front of the kids. Then, to add salt to the wounds, when I got home and in front of a mirror, I realized that the braids only accentuated my gray hair! By the end of dinner, I had already ripped the braids out to relieve my pounding headache! I won't make that mistake again!

Monday, August 2, 2010

We made it!

Well, we made it to Caye Caulker, a small island off the coast of Belize yesterday afternoon. When we landed in Belize City, the customs agents seemed a bit suspect of these crazy Americans who were planning to spend a month on Caye Caulker ("The Key" to locals), but let us through with only a few questions and dirty looks. From that moment on, my mental boundaries were tested.

We were greeted by Jason, our driver who was sent to take us to the water taxi over to the island. Though he was very friendly, getting in to his rickety Suburban while he pushed aside old flip flops, beer bottles and clothing was a little unnerving. He also had a friend passed out in the passenger seat, so I was sure they were going to pull over and rob and abandon us somewhere (they didn't). As we drove through the streets of the "city," I could feel the ugly voices of racism and prejudice trying to surface. It is definitely a third world country, and I will just need to get over myself!

Waiting for the water taxi in 95 degree heat and humidity, Bill ordered a bottle of beer and was pleased to find it only cost $3 Belize ($1.50 US). The 45 minute taxi ride to the island was cooler but crowded with lots of hot, sweaty travelers - mmm.

When we arrived on The Key, a Canadian man named Kim met us (he is the property manager for our rental and has facilitated all of our logistics thus far). He put us and our packs on a golf cart to get to the house. While Bill and I were checking in and signing the traveler's checks, Henry and Caroline made fast friends with LuLu, the driver. He is a warm, engaging local who is very proud of his island. He taught the kids how to crack open coconuts with rocks and to drink the milk and scrape the 'meat' with their front teeth. Though they jumped at the chance to try something new, they both said it was pretty gross!

Our house for the next month is a beautiful 2 story home in the jungle. Caroline keeps saying that she cannot believe that it's a private house and that we get it all to ourselves! Kim went over the basics with us - like where to buy liquor, get groceries, which restaurants are best, and where to swim. He also told us which spots on the island to avoid because they are inhabited by crocodiles (thanks, Kim!). I was a little taken aback by his warning about security. Though he said there is almost no danger to us personally, our possessions could be targets. He warned me not to be too showy with my camera, so we'll see how what kinds of images I am able to gather here.

It was getting dark and we needed to eat, so we set out to find Rose's, a recommendation of Kim's. On our walk to dinner, I was pretty alarmed by the sounds coming from the trees along the side of the road - given Kim's warning about crocodiles. Luckily, however, Henry had his trusty flashlight and discovered that the sound was not crocodiles at all, but little blue crabs that walk along the road. Phew!

Rose's was incredible! When you walk up to the restaurant, you are greeted by a man showing you items from today's catch. He literally had piles of fresh lobsters, shrimp & vegetable kabobs, huge pieces of grouper and mackrel steaks to choose from. Bill and Henry each chose the $30 (Belize, = $15 US) lobster and Caroline and I selected a $20 grouper filet and the guy threw them on the grill right there. We were able to get a table right above the grill, and Henry was fascinated with the process. He couldn't take his eyes off the grill and had so many questions for the guys working the grill, which they graciously indulged.

By the time we finished dinner, we were all tired and hot so we decided to get back to the house rather than explore like we had planned. We still hadn't organized our things, so finding what we needed to get ready for bed posed a challenge that I wasn't in the mood to face. Finally, after a quick shower, I dropped into bed wishing that I could just be at home - with my cozy Sleep Number bed and double head, high water pressure shower and then I realized: Oh yeah. We sold it.