Story by Bernice Notemboom
Photography by Keith Fialcowitz
I love to solo travel.
I take a deep breath of salty air and slip into a Yucatan hammock. Just as I contemplate pouring myself a drink, a Belizean fisherman named Mose picks up my duty-free bottle of Captain Morgan rum and examines the label.
“He was the worst of the ornery lot,” Mose says. “Morgan’s punishment for pirates was to have them drink a quart of it without stopping.” He pours us a glass of the captain’s meanest and shakes his head in disbelief: “Morgan lacked the simple quality of having mercy.” The next day, Mose takes me to a neighboring island, once owned by Morgan’s relatives, to see unmarked graves, which most likely contain the remains of pirates. “There are probably rum bottles buried with each of them,” says Cully Erdman, owner of the resort where I’m staying.
Like those pirates, I am island bound. For me, the exile is a luxury, a two-month-long Robinson Crusoe-style experiment; for the pirates, it was a job requirement. They used these islands as lairs from which to mount attacks on trophy ships and as a refuge from pursuers. The fisherman motions at a small channel between us and the next island. “Pirates preferred to sail small ships,” Mose says. “They could slip into these shallow inlets or atolls where larger ships could not follow.”
“Has anyone ever found a treasure on this island?” I ask.
“Not yet,” he says, smiling.
Later I read that buried treasures are one of the most exaggerated beliefs about piracy. Most pirates were of such spendthrift nature that they seldom accumulated enough treasure to bury.
The idea for this sojourn occurs to me on a cold, rainy November day as I pore over the Caribbean page of my atlas back home in Montana. My eye stops at a cluster of islands surrounded by Glover’s Reef, a marine reserve seven miles wide and 20 miles long and named after a pirate. Within the reserve lies a tiny private island, Long Cay, which seems the perfect setting in which to disconnect from the world. I join Slickrock Adventures for what looks like the ultimate Belize adventure package.
After an easy flight to Belize City and a three-hour boat ride, I’m there. As I set my bags on the dock, I’m welcomed by Jim Schofield (“Lord Jim”), a veteran islander who moved here from Arizona. He has a seasoned, sun-wrinkled face, testimony to a life outdoors. He grins when he sees my laptop computer and stack of books.
“You’ll be lucky to read one book while you’re here,” he says.
He grabs my bag and shows me to the bathroom facilities, featuring a composting toilet and a bucket with holes in the bottom for a shower. The island has limited electricity and no running water, making it largely unplugged. The path to my cabana is a minefield of hermit crabs. I climb stairs decorated with conch shells and, once on the porch, I stare into a horizon of brilliant blue Caribbean nothingness.
The next day we take a boat to a patch reef to snorkel. “You’ll love it, fish of all colors of the rainbow,” says Elmo Nunez, another local fisherman, as he yanks the starter cord of the outboard motor. The boat skims over shallow turquoise waters. When we stop, I don my mask and fins and climb down into the sea. The moment I put my face underwater, my body, buoyant in the salty swells, lifts to the surface.
I see why this reef is called the Aquarium. Schools of fish surround me. Their nibbling at the coral—occurring in brain, elkhorn, and pipe varieties—makes a popping sound like Rice Krispies in milk. I swim toward a rainbow parrotfish, but it dashes off when it sees a spotted eagle ray approaching. A curious barracuda swims up to my face, attracted by my glistening earrings, Nunez explains later.
I settle into a daily routine centered around the natural world. During the new moon, a hatch of baby sea turtles erupts from the sand, struggling frantically to get to the ocean. We put them in buckets and release them beyond the surf. One morning, as I sit on my porch sipping coffee, I spot an osprey diving for its breakfast. Then I see porpoises leap from the water in a synchronized dance. As the tides go out, I watch crabs and octopuses crawl through tidal pools. I can sit all morning and think of nothing in particular, no schedules, no plans for the day. I just stare. The longer I’m here, the more I surrender to this timeless existence.
After one month, I haven’t turned on my laptop once, and my books are still neatly stacked. I'm starting to like this outdoor adventure travel idea. My internal clock is set to the biorhythms of the island and its animal inhabitants. Schofield calls this island time, “You are not caught up in chasing your tail,” he says one morning. “You live the moment and become more easygoing.” Indeed, I have slowed my life to the pace of an iguana warming itself in the sun.
I finally get up from my hammock when the sky turns dark gray. A tropical storm approaches. A fierce north wind rushes through the palm leaves, howling its way across the island. Buckets of rain pound the soil. A blue heron seeks refuge in the wind shadow of my cabana. Paradise is turning violent.
Welcoming this shower, I life my face and gulp the sweet rain. The soft, fresh water rinses the sticky salt layers caked on my face. I never imagined that rain could be so lovely. Then it stops. Patches of blue sky are poking through; within minutes the sun is back at its full tropical strength.
Refreshed, I walk to the boat dock where Nunez has just returned from a fishing trip. Every night we eat fish. We either buy it fresh from the fishermen or catch our own. (One day I dive down and grab a conch and place it on the bow of my sea kayak. I watch with amazement as it throws itself back in the water. I have not eaten conch since.)
I step into his skiff and start sorting and counting the fish. Nunez grabs me by the arm and motions for me to stop. “If you count the fish, we will catch no more,” he says. “It’s an old Belizean belief.” He smiles as he guts a huge snapper.
That night we eat fish empanadas with homemade bread. I sigh with contentment as I watch the full moon rise. I wonder if the pirates who once lived here ever relished island life between their murderous raids. But how can one know the minds of those who valued treasure over human life? Still, cut off from the world, immersed in a timeless paradise, I have to believe that even pirates would be moved by the beauty and serenity of this little island of palms as they stared out across the Caribbean Sea.
Belize Adventure Travel packages and Belize tourism information: Slickrock Adventures, (800) 390-5715. Contact them for information on this trip, jungle/sea combo trips, Belize Barrier Reef snorkeling vacations, and a three-day tour of the Mayan pyramid, contact Slickrock Adventures: (800) 390-5715.