The Hummingbird

Light pooled and dispersed between the shadows, containers of cool air vaulted beneath the broad leaves. Through the canopy vines we bathe in the greenery and soak up the wildness of nature surrounding us. I look across at Choco, sitting on a wooden bench sipping his Belikin, with the beginnings of a smile and finally a look that bordered on contentment.

I started out this morning with Choco. Round head, dewlap like flap at the base of his skull, large belly, Mayan descent. I knew little more about him despite the fact he had picked me up every day since I had been in Belize. He was very pleasant but also very quiet and he had a look as though the monotony of daily life had worn him down a little.

Each morning he would arrive at 6am to take me to the dive shop. Mostly our 10 minutes together was consumed by my excited ramblings of today’s scuba diving excursion, my sub-aquatic adventures from the day before and if we had time, what happened last night at the pub. I didn’t get much by way of a response from Choco, he nodded and responded with brief sentences like “very good” or “what will you do tomorrow?”

Today though I was going on a road trip to explore a large cave system about 3 hours from Placencia and I faced the proposition of over six hours alone in minivan with Choco. As usual he was on time. I was keeping company at the top of the road with Miguel, a security guard from the guest house at which I was staying. “Good luck with the Hummingbird” he commented as I jumped into Choco’s van and waved him goodbye from the window.

“What is the Hummingbird?” I asked Choco.

“It is the road we will be driving”

“Is it dangerous?” I asked

“No” he replied and with that we slipped back into our usual early morning one directional discussion. However, not feeling like driving in silence for six hours and tiring of my own voice, I started pressing him for conversation.

I pried from him an update on the border dispute with Guatamala and his view on whether I should hitch there the next day. Teased from him details regarding his family life and growing up in Belize. Investigated the Mayan peoples and the remnants of their rich culture; and when we had exhausted all standing topics I pressed back in my seat and felt the warm morning air flood through the window as I commented on the postcard perfect scenery along the Hummingbird Highway.

By the time we got to our destination Choco had relaxed and was now starting to initiate some discussion. I almost wished we could drive a little longer, thinking I had nearly cracked him.

About four hours after he dropped me off I found Choco diligently waiting for me for our return journey. He was leaning back against his van with his shirt off. The Belizian sun reflecting off his protruding round smooth belly. He saw me emerging from the jungle and quickly whipped his shirt back on and gave me a wave.

I had spent the morning hiking through the jungle, zip lining through its canopy, exploring an extensive cave system and floating down a stream. Wet and filthy dirty I grabbed a change of clothes and beckoned Choco to join me for lunch. I handed him a beer and we sat along a wooden bench quietly admiring the tumble of rapids in the nearby stream.

We jumped into the van and a discernibly more jovial Choco declares “Guinness is my favourite. I like Belikin but Guinness is the best.” It seems as though beer has acted as a social lubricant for the now much chattier Choco. I suggested I might want to get some beer for the trip back. “Guinness is the beer I drive best on.” Choco adds. “ I know where we should go!”

A local toothless man with a weak chin stepped from the verandah of the general store as I exited with my bag of Guinness. “You’re gunna need something to get you back through the Hummingbird.”  He quipped, following this statement with a booming laugh as he scratched his head and looked out towards the jungle.

“I wonder what he meant by that?” I asked Choco as I handed him his first can of Guinness. Choco shrugs. His beam widening as he cracks the top of his can. We swerve off down the road with Choco chuckling aloud. “I like Guinness”

At first Choco’s chuckles made me smile at him enjoying himself so much. Then I couldn’t help joining in. Both of us chuckling like school children, Choco’s whole body shaking, as we cruised the Hummingbird. Then I saw a sign by the road that said “Prepare to meet thy maker.” I still hadn’t determined the nature of the threat of this road. Needless to say it was a little disconcerting seeing that sign as Choco cracked another beer with another high pitched chuckle.

I searched the road up ahead for signs of danger but it gave me no hints. It seemed like a perfectly safe road. Perhaps there were tight turns that fall away to plummeting ravines or cliffs with loose shoulders that I hadn’t noticed on the way here. Maybe bandits that lay in wait; or could the warnings I had received be the universe cautioning me about my increasingly intoxicated driver. My vigilant watch for impending disaster was broken by Choco opening up and giving me the run down on his girlfriends. In fact now that Choco had started talking I couldn’t shut him up.

Choco it turns out was 44, had a wife and 4 kids and despite appearances was an unscrupulous seducer of tourist women. Didn’t see that coming. He started with his relationship with a Canadian tourist that he became, in his words, “overly friendly” with. He was going to run off with her, except there was a problem with his papers that required his wife’s signature. That was the end of that one he lamented.

After cataloguing a number of star crossed affairs he talked me through his relationship with a Spanish tourist who agreed to be “on the side” until she got his wife’s number from his phone and started texting her that Choco was going to leave her.  Choco denied everything and then “gifted” his wife a new smart phone, with a new number of course and broke it off with the Spanish lady.

He told me he was a bit hurt by the Spanish girl because he trusted her and she broke his trust. I tried to explain there may be some irony in a married man feeling betrayed by his lover but he didn’t grasp the concept and besides he was now having such a good time on this trip back home I didn’t want to spoil it for him. Choco and I were finally connecting. It may have taken half a day and a good deal of Guinness though.

I imagined what it would be like if I could always take the time to connect with the people around me. People I usually pass in my day that I don’t have words to say to or perhaps just no time to say them. Choco and I had little in common but for the next couple of hours we laughed, we drank beer and we ate some of the Namibian Oryx biltong I had in my bag.

By the time we pulled back into Placencia, Choco leaned over and patted me on the knee and told me he was very happy with the drive home, he had never had such a good time working and he felt like the day was for him.

We pulled up in front of my accommodation, the lady at the front desk called out “I see you survived the Hummingbird.” I looked at Choco, he shrugged again. I never found out what if any risks there are driving the Hummingbird. I did find out a lot about my driver Choco though.

Choco. Guinness lover, chuckler…. lothario.

Prey

I crawled up the sand away from the other divers desperately clutching at my chest. My breaths shallow, useless, unable to satisfy my burning lungs. I rolled to my back, sand and saliva mixing grainy on my face. Trying desperately to fill my tightened lungs with air I gasp and swallow as I wrestle my wetsuit to my waist.  I whispered to myself, ‘Moses is right; this may be all in your head.’

 

Moses and I rolled off the bow at Silk Cayes, three pronged sling spears in our hand. We signalled our descent and ducked below the white caps to the calmness of a slow ocean current. Normally an advocate of taking only memories and leaving only bubbles, today we were diving with a purpose. There was a predator on the loose. One that needed to be eradicated.

Lionfish are introduced in the Caribbean. According to local legend a resort’s fish tank broke so they threw the Lionfish into the ocean. From there, having no predators, the Lionfish have multiplied in numbers and are eating all the reef fish on the Belizean coral reef. They can consume thirty juvenile fish in a minute and can reduce certain species of fish by up to 80% in an area within a five day period. Against all other instincts, today I am a hunter.

The coral in the clear warm waters off Belize inspires an inner tranquillity. Angelfish and Parrotfish brighten the scene, Jackfish school in a twisting cloud that bends and reforms as we pass and a lazy Grouper watches on as we scour the gradient of the reef.

Lurking in the coral recesses, the Lionfish hang in suspended animation, rocking gently on the ebb and flow. Their beautifully striped red, cream and black colouration and elaborate fins a warning to their protruding venomous spines.

The Lionfish venom won’t kill a human, but it will make you wish you were dead. I keep a respectful distance as I line my shot.

At first I wasn’t very accurate and managed to “scare” more than I speared. But as we traversed the lower realms of the reef I got the hang of it and soon was dragging a couple of dozen in the bucket behind me.

I looked across to a Black Tipped Reef Shark trailing to my right. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are generally not aggressive. They are beautiful, timid and social. Since making my way to Belize to dive the Blue Hole I had many wonderful up close encounters with these curious sharks.

At six foot and over a hundred kilograms I was genuinely excited to see this shark moving in and out of my periphery. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are quite harmless…. except when you are dragging a bucket of dead fish behind you and then they are considered extremely dangerous.

As this dawns on me, I look behind me. Another shark emerged and another and above another. Four sharks, excited by the smell of the blood of the fish in the water. Casing us.

One by one, they came into sight and then disappeared into the blue. No longer objects to be marvelled at. They were now vicious and energetic hunters, their eyes beady and foreboding, focussing on Moses and I. The hunters had become the prey.

I tap the fins of Moses ahead, signal that something is wrong and raise my hand flat, sideways and vertical against my forehead. He points at his eyes and signals we move ahead. The sinister outline of their pointed snout and blackened dorsal prowling across our perimeter, skirting the margins then darting away.

We flee across the base of the reef, escaping the predation of a pack of menacing sharks. Through the watery depths, my heart racing, fins kicking double time. Sharks following frighteningly close.

I look again to my air supply. As this was my first spear fishing experience, I had failed to fully appreciate how quickly you can use the air in your tank as you exert yourself at depth.

I signalled to Moses again that something was wrong. This time signalling that I only had 25 bar left in my tank. I cursed myself for my stupidity. An advanced diver I knew better than to get myself in this situation. I looked up towards the surface as a figure casts an alarming shadow. 25 bar wasn’t enough to get me to the surface with an appropriate safety stop.

We signal to each other to head towards the surface and to stop at 5 metres. If we don’t wait there for 5 minutes we put ourself at great risk of decompression sickness.

Suspended in the blue we float, bubbles trailing to the surface. The sharks return, circling below us. I count five now. My tank is nearly exhausted, the sound of our strained breathing and my heartbeat in my ears the only sound.

As my tank empties I grab Moses’ emergency buddy regulator and we both pull the remaining air from the one tank for the rest of our safety stop, silently keeping a watching eye for the sharks. It was getting quite tough to pull the air through the regulator from Moses’ tank into my lungs when Moses signalled it was time to surface. Moses looks at his watch, gives me the OK and I start to ascend.

As we fin to the surface I look around, I cant see the sharks. There is only one thing worse than seeing a pack of frenzied sharks in your midst and that is not seeing them. Then Moses’ watch starts sounding. This was his dive watch telling him it was not safe to surface yet. We waited another minute but his dive watch was still going crazy. Moses signals for me to surface. I pause. We can’t ascend too quickly after diving so deep but there was no choice, we had no more air. I look down, still can’t see the sharks.

I sat on the back of the boat as we made our way to the nearest island. My chest tight, unable to take a full breath, lungs felt like they were burning. Moses sits next to me explaining he thinks his watch is broken, “we are ok, no problem, we are safe up.” I wasn’t so sure. “Its no problem Robbo, this…” he points at my labouring chest, ” this in your head.”

 

I lay on the beach, half in the water. The sun warming my tanned skin. The fire down the beach wafting grilling Lionfish and the flow of the wave gently rising to my navel. The clouds above stretch across the blue, interrupted by a palm fidgeting and rearranging its shadow. I roll my eyes closed, concentrating only on my breathing. Deep, slow, I breathed.

Eventually I return to the group, a plate of Lionfish awaiting me. The crew and some local islanders enjoying the merits of our excursion in a postcard perfect scene. I pull up a patch of driftwood near Moses. “You ok Robbo?” he enquires.

“I think so Moses, I just had to give myself a good talking to. I’m alright now”

“We will go down again then after lunch?” He queries, picking at the remains of his fish

“Absolutely mate, I wouldn’t miss it.”

A lo Cubano (The Cuban way)

You don’t walk through Havana, you stroll dreamily but with an excitement that really only grips you when you explore a new city. And when you do that in Havana it is as though everything you have known is forgotten and you are born again, learning a new world for the first time. The streets are alive, the musica heady and emanating from the corner of every old town bar. Street vendors sing for our attention and cats lazily watch on as we make our way towards our accommodation.

We rented an apartment in the old town for CUC40 per night. Options were scarce but our casa particulares was only the equivalent of AUS$30. The owner, like everyone else in Cuba, spoke no English. Usually this is no problem. In fact we revel in determining our way deep in another culture. However today two Nicoles booked to rent this apartment…. on the same day. This added a degree of difficulty to our interactions, as our Spanish had deteriorated to phrases used most regularly on Speedy Gonzales cartoons.

Our host confused, thought she had one guest named Nicole coming in on the evening flight and so didn’t pick us up at the airport in the morning. As travellers who always pack a healthy dose of patience and good humour, my Nicole and I made our own way into the city, unruffled. In fact we were delighted to do so, finding the incursion into new realms energising.

The building in which we were to reside for the next week had a dangerous look to it. There was no predatory vibe from the people, more from the broken staircase, the exposed nails and electrics, and the balconies that hung on the dirty facade out into the street. Hung sounds too secure, more dangle precariously than hung. Held by layers of peeling paint, remnants of a chore long since abandoned.

The doorbell didn’t work so we managed to follow someone in and meandered our way through the building, at times finding ourselves moving through people’s living rooms that had somehow over the years morphed into common walkways. They smiled and nodded, unphased as we passed by their tele.

There was no one home in our apartment but through an elaborate display of hand gestures and broken Spanish that may have looked like interpretive dance to the onlooking residents, a neighbour found what I guess were the communal keys to all apartments and let us in.

We somehow managed to sign out a need also for the owner’s phone number and after much referencing of our phrase book I managed to communicate to her that Nicole was aqui ….ahora. Here? Now? A squeal that seemed like a mix of delight and panic came down the line. Then click. Nicole asked if she was coming? I shrugged.

We spent the next 15 minutes taking in turns of walking onto the balcony and waving to the children on the opposite balconies, when our host burst into the room with a flurry of hugs and a niece in toe that could translate in broken English.

We worked out the apartment had been double booked and so a couple of phone calls later by our host and we were being led through the streets of the old town to our new apartment by the niece and her boyfriend who were eager to find out everything they could about Australia. The new accommodation was equally small, dated and tired but clean and our new host was lovely. So with that sorted we headed out into the city.

The streets of Havana are clean, save the rubble of abandoned building sites. The architecture captures perfectly time and place and still in places shows glimpses of their majesty in the 1950s. Now they are run down, their brightly coloured paint faded though to charming hues. Doors, walls and balconies maintained over the last 60 years only with bits of wire to keep them functional. The sides of some buildings possess the stigmata of stairways and rooms that were once in an adjacent building that didn’t survive the decay.

People sitting in corrugated iron doorways or on the footpath in front of their house watch on as we explore their streets. Their clothes dry in barred windows as they gather around a small television. Their doors all open to the street for ventilation. As we walk towards the centre of the old town we pass the faces of those who look worn and saddened by poverty, contrasted with those that laugh and dance in a carnival of energy and pizzazz. Vintage cars pass you in the streets and add to the scene which demands you to wander wide eyed. For a moment then, you are transferred to a world that looks like Las Vegas may have looked 70 years ago…. If nothing was ever maintained again. An intriguing and maybe a little sad product of the country’s politics.

A truck commercial on television in Australia 10 years ago was for a “one tonne Rodeo.” The commercial was set to the song Guantanamera. The country’s most noted patriotic song calls to us from every other bar. It has been slightly ruined for me now as I can’t get the damn commercial out of my head.

We head to La Floridita for my Daiquiri and La Bodeguita Del Medio for my Mojito. An old lady, craggy face, hat and long cigar, the Cuban portrait personified stares at me as we walk by and then bursts into a loud cackle throwing her head back in full body display. I think I missed the joke…..  or maybe it was me?

This was our first stop since leaving Mexico. Mexico was an easy lover. She provided brilliant food, breathtaking lodging and relatively easy travel. Cuba makes you work for her love. The food is not so great, you continuously encounter money situations and the accommodation is certainly questionable. But Cuba is a seductress. She has a rhythm, a vibe that is intoxicating, that takes you by the hand and draws you into a salsa dance curb side.

The smoke from fat Cohiba cigars drifts into the air around us, tantalising our cerveza cristal and 18 year old rum before catching the cool breeze and mixing with the music from the band. We sit back on our plastic chairs on the street corner, taking it all in as the humidity of the day lifts.  Glad we made it to Cuba before the western world arrives in droves, with their oversized red shoes and golden arches; putting a Starbucks and Hooters on every other corner.

I look across to Nicole enjoying the Cuban music and sing along….. “one tonne Rodeo, guajira, one tonne Rodeo.”