From the shore of Caye Caulker, the horizon is a line of whitecaps breaking over the barrier reef before washing up gently on the beach. According to folk etymology, this island served as a stopover for sailors to have their boats caulked, but the true origin of the name is uncertain. What is certain is that any boat that made a miscalculated approach over the reef would need much more than caulk to stay afloat. Fortunately, the catamaran driver knew where he was going.
I stepped off the ferry onto a sandy little plaza where a wooden shack over the water served as both ticketing office and baggage claim. I studied the map of the tiny island while waiting for my bag to be offloaded. Suddenly a woman hurried past, breathless under the weight of a massive backpack. A shout followed her from a man standing just outside the water taxi office, “Hey! Slow down! – You’re on an island!”
I had arrived on Caye Caulker just as the moon was beginning to wane. And, aside from that frazzled backpacker on the plaza, the town had the lethargic, hungover vibe you would expect of a tourist-happy tropical island the day after the full moon revelry.
But the end of the beach party was not the only reason for the quietness on the island. There are no paved roads on Caye Caulker; traffic is limited to the puttering of golf carts weaving around potholes, and pedestrians dodging the muddy spray.
There were also fewer people than normal. A week earlier, inland at San Ignacio, I had heard reports of a mass exodus from the island of two thousand, caused by the failure of two of the four generators that provide the only source of power. With an economy dependent on travelers accustomed to such luxuries as electricity, all the residents of Caye Caulker could do was wait for the generators to be fixed and hope that the promised underwater cable from Mexico would eventually materialize.
The next day I went snorkeling. Two amusing guides and their deckhand took our group of non-divers out to visit the shallower areas of the reef. We swam with turtles, schools of fish, stingrays, and sharks. What I could see of the coral was beautiful, but I’m pretty blind without my glasses.
Later, we moved on to a different spot. A storm was in the forecast, and the wind blowing in toward the mainland was fierce. By the time I adjusted to breathing through the snorkel and spotted some interesting creature, I was jolted back up by the guide calling out to me. I hadn’t swum anywhere, but I had traveled far. Even the strongest swimmers in the group quickly tired of fighting the current and abandoned their attempt to reach the sunken barge we were meant to explore.
In another area, the water was shallow enough that we could stand on top of a mountain of shells discarded by the island’s restauranteurs. It seemed fitting, because given my bad eyes and the strong wind, that snorkeling trip was a bit like eating shellfish: much work for little reward! Not that it wasn’t enjoyable. Though laser surgery and open-water certification would have been nice!
Back on the island, I sat on the rooftop and watched as the storm gathered beyond the breakers. Better hurry up and find dinner. There was a small restaurant in the next alley over that I wanted to try, but I found the alley deserted and the restaurant dark. A woman pulled out in a golf cart: “kitchen’s closed today, we’ll open it up tomorrow.” I remembered what one Belizean had told me about his people a few days earlier – that they work when they need money. Not worries, the family in the next alley over was manning the grill in front of their festive little restaurant, and I sat down there to the best meal of my trip!
The storm continued to move closer while I ate, but I made it back to the hammock at the hostel’s rooftop kitchen without getting wet. I was reading a book as some Canadians argued in incomprehensibly fast Québequois over a pot of boiling pasta, when suddenly the floodgates opened. With perfect coordination, the staff flew up the stairs, secured shutters against the powerful wind, and unfurled a massive tarp over the rooftop. With the hatches battened down, all that remained was to wait out the storm.
The next day, on the warm, pleasant morning of January 12, 2020, I flew home, where a new storm was just over the horizon…