07 June 2013

Fight or flight... or both?

"Fortune favors the bold"
-- Pliny, the elder

Tons of time & thought went into planning my holidays in Belize.  I worried about bad weather and lost reservations.  I never anticipated the most difficult part would be leaving Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I arrived an hour early at PIT around 5:30am. The line for US Airways was over a city block long. I tried my hardest -- at my boyfriend's request -- to be hopeful & diplomatic. 30 minutes before the flight departed I was getting antsy & decided to take matters into my own hands.  With the encouragement of another disgruntled passenger ahead of me (who had to suffer through the line to check baggage), I snuck around to an over-looked kiosk on the fringe of US Airways’ long counter.  I imagined someone in line or an employee would bust me, and I was fully prepared to give them my sob story, but I managed to slide under the radar.

Tickets in hand, the “alternate security checkpoint” (advertised as less busy) offered little hope of making the flight on time.  Though the queue moved, I did the mental math & once again, knew I would not make my departure.  Desperate, I scanned my potential victims like a lawyer does the jury: I needed a younger (to empathize with me), personal traveler (business people are all about business) and male (to bat my eyes at).  There he was, the lone African-American carrying a duffel bag.  As we neared each other at a bend in the queue I asked in the most innocent tone possible.  Like a charm, the sweet guy from Chicago let us ahead of him.  Thank you God for making me a female.

Because of my insulin pump I always have extra screening from the TSA, so – with 15 minutes remaining – I instructed my boyfriend to go on without me & inform the flight staff that I was en route.  Finally through PIT’s security checkpoint I hustled downstairs to the tram’s platform & saw my boyfriend still waiting.  Inside the tram to the terminal I devised a game plan. It was sink or swim time.  I took only my backpack, left the rollerbag with him & would make a last-ditch sprint to the gate as there was no way we could both run with the suitcases. I tied my boots’ laces tighter.

Before the tram doors were entirely ajar, I squeezed through.   Like clockwork, people flooded out of the tram cars ahead of mine, so I hugged the wall and by-passed everyone.  On the ascending escalator I hurdled steps two at a time.  I was the only person awake at this hour through the deserted corridors of terminal A.  Every time I inhaled my lungs seared, but I pressed on.  Closer.  My legs ached and begged me to slow.  I thought back to my increasingly difficult exercise regiment at the gym this past month & told myself “this is what you’ve trained for.”  I pressed on past the vacant stores.  Closer.  Like a beacon of hope, an employee stood in the middle of the long highway, waving me toward her.

The older woman grabbed my ticket. I could barely speak since my mouth was so dry, but managed to croak that my boyfriend was coming.  The lady snapped “You have to make a decision to get on this flight or wait for him.”  Excuse me?  I knew she was just doing her job, but it was early, I felt like I just completed a marathon & the plane had not yet sealed its hatch… over my dead body was this employee going to flog my vacation while I idly stood by!  I snapped back at her, “he’s right there!” & pointed to a random guy further down the strip.  This seemed to temporarily appease her.

I needed time. I needed to stall.

I fumbled for my identification; I feigned I checked baggage & began asking questions about it; as I rummaged through my backpack "looking" for my passport (although it was in my pocket all along) my boyfriend & another, older gentleman arrived at the gate out of breath.

Sweaty and beat, I shoved my way to the very last row of the plane.  My boyfriend and I simultaneously plopped into the seats and took a few minutes to decompress from the stressful situation.  The rain pelted the window as the jet became airborne.  From one of my favorite quotes “we were half-way out of our rut.”  As long as everything went smoothly with the flight from Charlotte, North Carolina, we would make it to Belize today.  
I rather enjoy the international terminal at smaller airports.  I get to read all the different destinations & eye the people headed there.  I judge them & wonder “why Mexico City?” but that concourse just feels happier. The majority of those passengers aren’t flying to a funeral, or for a job interview, or to return to the habits of home… they’re going off, into the world of their own accord!

CLT to BZE was uneventful & I watched the colors of the ocean change.  Out the window, cobalt blues changed to lighter turquoises and even mixed with the white of the sand.  The clouds were lined up like cabbage in a field & made for an inviting backdrop to Central America.  I studied the coastline (I practically had it memorized from all the hours spent on Google Maps estimating driving distances) and deduced we were somewhere around the Yucatan Peninsula.       

As soon as the airplane’s wheels touched the pavement, it violently slowed.  Even from the rear row it looked like there was little runway left.  Then, something I had never experienced before occurred: the jet screeched to a stop & turned around on said runway.  Yes, in Belize there was only one international airport & one runway – which doubled as the taxiway & loading area.

I emerged into the midday sun – still in my long-sleeved shirt, pants & hiking boots – and my breathing temporarily lapsed as I inhaled hot, humid air.  Like something out of the olden days, I descended to the tarmac via a flight of stairs on wheels.  There were no ramps nor gates.  Everyone on my flight from the U.S.A. funneled through one exit with one Customs desk.
Customs was a slow process.  No sooner was I out of the airport, then I was in a taxi whisked away to el puerto a.k.a. the port.  From the back seat, I watched Belize City unfold before me.  A chubby Latin chiquita a.k.a. little girl wandered alone on the squalid streets & I thought “I would never let my daughter run around here by herself,” but then I remembered, this was another world.  Belize did not have the crime issues the United States had.  Still, this did not settle well with the maternal side of me.  Here, there & everywhere, stray dogs ran rampant.  The cab passed a decrepit building held up only by thick tree branches.  Our driver informed us there was a speed limit, but no one really obeyed nor enforced it.  According to him, there only three stoplights in the entire city so the main concern was decelerating before you wrecked your suspension & axles on the scattered speed bumps (for which there were no warning signs).  A few times the driver gunned the car into oncoming traffic, thus passing slower vehicles in our path. 

This swerving, chaotic ride was nothing new to me: I have rode shotgun [and white-knuckled] a few times in Mexican taxis before.  However, I got a huge kick out of watching my boyfriend from the backseat.  His head was on a swivel, as he looked from one shady street to the next.  It excited me to watch him become overloaded with the new sights, people & form of driving. When we finally arrived at the port, the first words out of his mouth were “I wish I would’ve recorded that wild taxi ride!”

01 June 2013

Living dangerously

"In History, stagnant waters, whether they be stagnant waters of custom or those of despotism, harbour no life; life is dependent on the ripples created by a few eccentric individuals.  In homage to that life & vitality... One must live dangerously if one wants to live at all."
-- Herbert Read

The first two weeks after I booked my trip to Belize, I spent most evenings laboring over an ever-changing itinerary.  I took particular care when I planned Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday's activities, as these were also the days cruise ships scheduled excursions in the country. Unlike Puerto Rico, email was the quickest & easiest way to secure accommodations, but be warned: internet is shoddy in Belize (the general rule seemed to be I would receive a response anywhere from one to three days).  

Like Puerto Rico, some tours & businesses were impossible to track down.  For example, Carlos Alaya – publicized owner of Carlos Tours – did not have a website, email address nor phone number (I refused to dial/pay for an international call).  I messaged a fellow TripAdvisor member & asked how to find this guy?!  Ann C’s response was outrageous: “The way to book is to go to the office the day before and write your name on the paper on the door.” Um, what if it rained? What if the paper blew away or ripped off?  What if another traveler wanted to go & erased my name?  I’m all for simplicity but this was a caveman’s protocol. Yet, I assumed la sistema a.k.a. the system worked for Ann C & a multitude of other travelers, so I let my worries – at least about snorkeling – temporarily dissolve. 

Other worries materialized too, like staying within a pre-set budget. Two months away, the best lodging on Caye Caulker, sadly, was already booked.  Based on my experience, any lodging on any of Belize’s numerous cayes, filled up seasons in advance since they were gateways to many SCUBA sites.  Via email I finally found an affordable place & with relevant amenities (air-conditioning; free kayaks; porch) but was bummed to learn that Caye Caulker Rentals charged an extra $10 USD per day, per person – therefore, pushing the price over the amount I was willing to pay. However, I learned the art of heckling from my father during our three trips to Mexico and insisted that Caye Caulker Rentals waive the extra person fee.  Case in point, the rental company accepted my proposal!

It never dawned on me that I would need vaccinations & other preventative medicine because Belize was geographically closer than Washington state. Luckily, I stumbled upon the information while I mulled around the U.S.A.’s travel security website.  La mapa of Belize was painted fire truck red (except for a pocket around Belize City colored yellow), that indicated the widespread cases of malaria – one of the world’s deadliest diseases.  I vacationed in Mexico on three separate occasions, and never heard a peep about the illness, but that was Mexico/North America.  Even though Belize abutted Mexico to the north & northwest, it was considered Central America.  How different could the nations’ communicable diseases be when they laid adjacent to each other on a map?

The condition of Belize’s water was worrisome too.  Some of my favorite things were discouraged due to their possible contamination: raw tropical fruit (I could live off fruit alone), ice (the perfect complement to any alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage) and washing one’s face in the shower.  Like an athlete trains for a marathon, I began conditioning for vacation, but have you ever tried to take a shower without 1) washing your face and 2) getting a single droplet of water on your lips?  Both proved challenging – especially with my long hair.  Countless times I bent over in the shower only to have water rush down my neck, into my mouth; I stopped keeping track of how many times I accidentally wiped my face with my wet hands.

I paid a visit to my general practitioner for a joint Hepatitis A and B immunization.  Plus, I was laden with new travel questions, as this was my first trip to a progressive nation. Dr. V forewarned me about the unsanitary water then added “…and I assume you’re staying on a resort [like I was when I contracted diarrhea] so be careful.”  I did not have the heart to correct her.  The truth was, I planned on gallivanting around the islands, northern lowlands and western jungle.  When I rattled off my multitude of questions: should or shouldn’t I tan to avoid sun-poisoning? It’s dry season, but should I still take an anti-malarial medicine? Is there anything stronger than Dramamine for motion sickness? What if I get sick in Belize? Can you refill my anti-nausea medication, just in case? What are the symptoms of having drank contaminated water? Will my Hepatitis B vaccine work since I don’t yet have the entire series?  These were all valid concerns in my mind.  Stone-faced, Dr. V looked at me and asked, “Why are you going again?”  Dr. V had revealed her true colors.  “It’s okay that you don’t understand” I thought to myself & tried not to get irritated by her judgmental question.  This woman – in her years of education – had not yet grasped the allure of traveling… and I doubted she ever would.  I empathized with her. Yes, Belize sounded risky, but why couldn’t she empathize with me? I didn’t label her all-inclusive, gorge-yourself-at-a-buffet-every-night resort a cop out for traveling.

Dr. V had me spooked though.  I started wondering what I had gotten myself into?  If I puke more than twice, I almost always end up in an emergency room/intensive care unit for two days with vomiting fits every 10 minutes.  However, the flights were booked & I was going.  I prayed every night for health abroad, not only for my personal comfort but because I fully intended to make Dr. V eat her words.