And The Winner Is …

In keeping with the England team, laziness has overcome us this last few days. Unlike England, I feel we have earned it.

Caye Caulker is a fairly typical Caribbean paradise island, only it’s absolutely tiny and doesn’t have much of a beach to speak of. It is beautiful and it’s diminutive size makes wandering around very pleasant.

Our hotel for the first night was nice but we had decided to splash out on something nicer once we had a chance to look around and, whilst Annika slept, I checked out a few places. In the end, we settled (inevitably) on the most expensive place – a whole apartment in a small block of six with a shared pool and a jacuzzi on the roof.

We moved into the new place midway through England’s limp victory over Slovenia and were instantly glad of the refreshing cool air generated by the air conditioning as we walked in. On the way in, Annika had spotted a marvellous sight at the beach side restaurant nearby – a whole pig roasting on a spit – and so we decided to keep our travelling companions, who were back in the bar ready to watch the Australia/Serbia game, waiting whilst we consumed mountains of succulent roast pork and large slabs of crackling.

Since we had a posh apartment, we invited the others (along with new recruit, Steve) along for the evening. I wandered down to a nearby pier and bought some snapper from a local fisherman, waiting while him and his friend expertly cut the tails off their haul of around 200 lobsters. Whilst I waited, I enjoyed the sideshow – two foot wide stingrays prowling in the ankle-deep water looking for scraps along with all the other fish whilst huge frigate birds circled in the sky above, waiting for fish guts to be thrown into the sea before swooping swiftly at precisely the right moment to snatch the fishy loveliness just as it hit the surface. It was fascinating and the fisherman had to raise his voice considerably to get me to notice that he was done.

We made an attempt at a home-made Thai green curry paste which wasn’t bad, considering the lack of vital ingredients, and a good night was had by all. Much rum was consumed and we even had a bit of a hippy, musical sing song from Steve who had brought his own guitar!

We had all booked to go snorkelling the next morning but I, in particular, was not feeling too great as the boat sped off in the direction of our first stop, Holchan Marine Reserve, an area of protected reef nearby. I have never been very confident in the water and the number of people that were around me made me slightly nervous as we all began swimming around the shallow water, looking at the fish and searching for the rarer things we’d been told we might see. Within a few minutes we’d seen a turtle, lazily gliding along, and a few people caught sight of a shark from a distance. By the time the day was done, we’d not only seen around 10 sharks from close quarters, we’d all touched one – held firmly by our guide, Harry – and had a good feel of a stingray. The shark was quite rough to the touch – like smoothish sandpaper – and the ray was extremely slimey, much more like you’d expect a fish to feel in the water. We’d also seen a moray eel, tempted out of its hiding place by some sardines which Harry had hidden in a conch shell. The last stop was an area where manatees often hang out and, after a bit of a wait, one was spotted near the boat. Everyone began to jump in and swim towards it and, despite Harry urging everyone not to chase it away, the sight of 30 or so pairs of flippers thrashing towards it was, understandably, too much for the lad and he turned tail and scooted. Sadly, my swimming skills were never going to be up to the task, so after around 20 minutes of frantic efforts to try and catch up with the group of manatee-chasers, I gave up and returned to the boat, exhausted.

The previous night’s drinking had finally caught up with me by the time I got back and some afternoon sleeping reminded me of my upcoming 36th birthday on Sunday. An evening meal of local lobster which took an age to turn up was swiftly followed by a return to the land of nod, my body looking forward to a nice long lie-in.

Annika had to leave at 6am the next morning as her and Susie had booked to dive The Blue Hole, one of the most famous dive sites in Belize. As she got ready to leave, she told me that she’d woken in the night to find me sat up, staring at the wall next to the bed. When asked what I was doing, I replied “I’m looking to the side”. She found it hard to argue with that, apparently.

I managed to force myself to get out of bed and as far as the sofa in time to watch the football – a hotly anticipated game between Brazil and Portugal which turned out to be quite dull. The weather was getting a bit grey and the streets – made of very fine, white sand – had turned into a kind of thin, grey cement after the previous night’s rain which I found had splattered up the backs of my legs after my only excursion outside the apartment between the two football matches.

Done in fairly choppy waters, the girls reported that their diving experience was more like The Grey Hole when they returned late afternoon but they enjoyed what they saw and have underwater photos to prove it.

Caye Caulker celebrates the start of the lobster season in June and the festival was due to kick off that evening with Miss Lobster Fest 2010 – a bizarre beauty pageant for 16 and 17 year old girls who are all bidding to win a scholarship for the next year. We managed to leave the apartment just as the rain began to throw it down and I was wondering whether this enforced and unplanned view of the outside world on the laziest of my lazy days of recent times was going to be an experience I would regret but it turned out to be well worth the soaking.

With the venue changed to a marquee on the beach so that the contestants and audience would not get wet, the event opened with the Belize National Anthem, ‘sung’ by the crowd in a way which really gave away the fact that this was once a British colony – by sorrowful respect and some scattered mouths opening and closing silently. Once introduced to the judges by the compere, who looked and sounded for all the world as if he was reading their intros for the first time in his life, the girls made their first appearance, dancing to one of these modern pop songs I hear so much about these days.

From the moment contestant number 3 made her first stride onto the stage, it was very clear who everyone wanted to win. All the teenagers present screamed their faces off in a manner reminiscent of fans of The Beatles or Take That, descending into silence when number 4 walked out. This was going to be a walkover.

Local dance acts and music punctuated the show as the evening wore on, but it was the girls that we were all here to see and the crowd watched, spellbound as the five young hopefuls were put through their paces with tests such as ‘Can you act like a model whilst wearing a carnival outfit which features a head piece so high that it constantly brushes against the marquee ceiling as you walk?’ and ‘Can you remember the lines of a sketch you’ve been rehearsing for six months whilst having to navigate some odd-looking props, some of which have been soaked in the rain and don’t necessarily work that well?’.

The round which really put them under the microscope though, was the traditional ‘Answer a tough question on stage’ round, so prevalent at these events. Their answers, as I’m sure they always are on these occasions, were painfully scripted but who could blame them – after all, what is a 16 year-old girl from an island in the Caribbean supposed to know about offshore drilling?!

Formalities complete, the judges retired to make their decision and the crowd, safe in the knowledge that their girl was a shoe-in for the sash, chatted excitedly.

In the past, people have often criticised me for being a bit cynical but surely no-one, outside of the contestants and the screaming fans, could have failed to be amused when the host announced the winner as number 2, causing confidently strutting number 3 to hang her head in shame as her rival was presented with the bouquet?! It was a moment of pure gold and I think we did well to hide our mirth.

Saturday was affected by yet another rum hangover and the list of foodstuffs consumed said much about the night before. Eggs on toast, warmed up chicken curry and mountains of popcorn was only the beginning and, by the end of the day, we all agreed we had overdone it somewhat.

The news that Tropical Storm Alex was rolling across the Caribbean to be in town for dinner time was most amusing for us. Narrowly missing an earthquake, another previous tropical storm and a volcano eruption had had us believing that we were quite lucky but this time there was no escape. The local TV station had announced that there was a curfew from 6pm and everyone was panic buying candles and basic foodstuffs in fear of the worst.

In the event, it wasn’t so bad and all that happened was one hell of a lot of rain and vicious winds causing large ocean swells but nothing that caused any damage and by this morning, life was back to normal.

Today has featured a scintillating performance by The England All Stars in the World Cup 2nd round and Annika managing to predict a 3-1 win for Argentina over Mexico which earned her £30, despite her criteria for thinking that they are a good side being that they have nice wine.

It has also been my birthday and the lady of my life has looked after me all day long and generally been rather lovely. Our new friend, Susie, who stayed with us last night after her hostel threw her out in case the place blew away in the storm, bought a packet-mix cake for me which, after being mixed in the same machine we used for our Thai green curry the other night, has an interesting after taste but hey, it’s the thought that counts!

The weather has picked back up today and hopefully tomorrow will feature some more prolonged outdoor laziness as we are nearly done here. Next up, some place called London. I bet it’s horrible.