Deep paranoia overtakes me on the flight from Houston to Belize City. I scrutinize every passenger over the age of 12: Is this one on my trip? That one? Those two banked-down, aging hippies? That middle-aged couple toting two adolescent louts in skater shorts? Those two overdressed bottle blondes? Ohmigod, this is very scary.
We are on our way to an eight-day, packaged adventure vacation: sea kayaking on an island 60 kilometres off the coast of Belize. I contemplate the upsides: subtropical Belize, the former British Honduras, a small country south of Mexico with a generous Caribbean coast; sea kayaking with two guides; adventure company supplies kayaks, food and tents. Then the downsides: strangers (Vancouver-based Island Expeditions is taking 12 of us on this trip. What if my fellow travellers are idiots and I want to kill them?); they're feeding us three meals a day -- what if they can't cook? (My only previous experience with an adventure vacation was a week in the Queen Charlotte Islands aboard a schooner, where the "gourmet" cook was better able to manage the skipper's amorous needs than our gustatory ones.)
When our group assembles in the lobby of the Belize City Biltmore for dinner -- Canadians and Americans, a geologist, lawyer, professor, consultants and a biologist -- it is a very Mountain Equipment Co-op crowd. Lots of quick-dry clothing and Tevas, and no makeup on the women. We range in age from 12 to 75. Our 75-year-old is a beacon, a human litmus test. If he can climb in and out of a kayak, maybe so can we. We are united by our willingness to pay $1,600 plus airfare to sleep in a tent and use an outhouse.
The next morning, Monday, we meet in the hotel lobby at 6:20 a.m. and drive to ancient Mayan caves in the Cayo district. Our guide, Rudy, leads us on a hike through the jungle to the cave entrance. We don headlamps and go deep into the limestone caverns, where Mayan pots 900 years old sit on rock ledges. Getting deep enough into the caves to see the pottery requires some rock-climbing. This is a must-see, except for people like me who are claustrophobic and fear climbing.
Left to my own devices, I would have bailed out, but at each rock face, members of the group spontaneously move in to help me up and down. Shazam! We are a group. Through the marvellous alchemy of challenge met and mastered, we have formed a bond. Who cares what weirdos they might be at home? We're wilderness buddies now. Awestruck we traverse soaring limestone caverns.
The next morning, we drive to the coast and load gear onto an outboard motor boat for the 60-kilometre journey to Glover's Reef, which is part of the second longest barrier reef in the world. For an hour and a half, we speed over dark blue water, more than 900 metres deep. A dolphin rides the bow wave. No resorts sully the shores. We see no jet skis, no beach umbrellas, no cruise ships. Suddenly, there is an iridescent turquoise line on the horizon, pencil-thin. It widens. We're on the reef, our island home for five days.
The island is small, with white sand, palm trees and a mangrove lagoon. Each duo has a tent with two beds and a kerosene lamp. There is a pristine outhouse, an extremely rudimentary fresh-water, hand-powered shower and a small dining building. No electricity, no running water.
At lunch, we meet our next guides: Dick is a professional zoologist and amateur astronomer from Oregon. Alex is Belizean, a guide and a professional fisherman. What he doesn't know about undersea Belize isn't worth knowing we soon discover.
Wednesday 5 a.m.: Awaken in the tent, lift head, see the sun rising over the Caribbean. Ravishing. Amelia, our Honduran cook, feeds us fresh squeezed orange juice, pancakes and fresh fruit salad loaded with local papaya. Next we're on a plant walk. This is summer camp for adults, with little free time, always something active to do. The result is total amnesia about real life, 100-per-cent distraction from everything. There is no past, no Palm Pilot, no phones, no TV, no news, no cell service. It is unutterably restful, an apparent paradox since Dick, the consummate camp counsellor, keeps us moving at a steady clip.
We kayak and then snorkel, following our leaders on an underwater guided nature "hike." Needle-like barracuda shine silver; queen angelfish swim by in psychedelic colours; purple fan corals wave in the current. We learn that squirrelfish have those huge black eyes because they hunt at night, and how to listen for chomping as rainbow-hued parrotfish munch on the reef. Alex dives and tickles the tentacle of a five-pound lobster, which vamooses at impossible speed; a big jackfish hassles a small nurse shark around the "antlers" of a huge elkhorn coral; reef squid swim slowly by; and damselfish with yellow tails and iridescent blue spots flit about huge brain corals with swirling whorls.
After a shoulder-wrenching paddle back to camp, we down rum punch at sunset. Dick sets up a telescope on the beach. We see Jupiter's four moons and Saturn's rings. Dinner is shrimp with peppers and onions, beans and rice, and fresh-made rum custard. Nobody stays up past 9.
Thursday morning, we're rounded up for a coral talk, complete with notes on a blackboard. Turns out corals are tiny animals attached to each other by thin membranes to form huge colonies. They grow incredibly slowly, so a brain coral the size of a human skull is about 1,000 years old -- and vulnerable: Brush coral with your hand or a fin and sever the attaching membrane. Kick up sand, it smothers. If the water temperature rises above 31 C, corals die, which they're doing worldwide, because of global warming and the thinning ozone layer.
After the coral talk, Dick and Alex teach us how to sail a kayak. It's scary, but I get an adrenaline rush sailing my tippy craft eight kilometres to the western wall of the reef. Out there with no land in sight, at a very shallow spot on the reef, the guides set up a folding table, and we have a picnic lunch standing in the water. Then we snorkel. After the morning talk, coral is no longer just a backdrop: We marvel at brain corals two metres across, thousands of years old; purple fan corals more than 1.5 metres high; the giant plumes of feather coral waving in the current; staghorn corals like magical antlers. A large stingray undulates along the bottom. Alex shows us a discarded lobster shell and explains how the lobster sheds its shell and deposits sperm. Science and snorkelling, what a delicious combo.
The next day's subject is coral sex, the tale of coral reproduction. Dick is the pied piper leading us through our outdoor adventures, explaining the why and the how of the creatures we encounter.
Life on the island unfolds like that: fresh conch chowder and sweet potato pie, seeing the moon's craters in the telescope, a talk on tides, muscling kayaks over rising, bright turquoise waves, falling asleep to the roar of surf and wind. Has it only taken five days for this rhythm to become the song of my soul? Such is the enchantment of Glover's Reef.
For information on kayaking Glover's Reef, contact Island Expeditions at (800) 667-1630; http://www.islandexpeditions.com.