Belize might be the last place on earth I’d like to be. It has that feel. The, I can die here because it’s that peaceful, vibe. Similar to that time I visited Cancun and got very sick. I was waking up periodically, thinking I was dying or had died because when I would come to all I could see was white sand beaches under the sun. Belize far exceeds Mexico, the Carolinas far exceed Mexico, running over a pothole while trying to dislodge a seed from your teeth and subsequently biting your tongue is enjoyable compared to Mexico. For those who have been reading this Belize travel series, part I explains my disdain for that country. Part II tells about my introduction to paradise. This part, part III, discusses how I came face to face with my worst fear. Before we go deep, let’s discuss the lighter side of living in a tropical utopia, coffee shops, a variety of them exist in San Pedro. I come from a Starbucks dominated area so any time I travel, it’s such a relief to not see that green and white mermaid. There are so many independent coffee shops that deserve more business. Coffee shops are a goal when traveling. I enjoy sitting and absorbing the world around me. Coffee culture is something I unexpectedly enjoyed about New Orleans. Not the chicory. I know those in NOLA love it but I don’t want dirt in my coffee. It tastes like tree bark to me. They mixed it with coffee originally so it would be cheaper. Half satisfying elixir, half hippie sludge. I looked it up. Chicory is characterized as a “tough, hairy stem.” Who wants to grind that up and drink it? Dirty coffee and filthy streets aside, New Orleans is a place I would absolutely visit again. That city is a terribly beautiful place. An older, more interesting version of New York. A place that is losing its soul, a soul it is fighting to keep.
I found some phenomenal coffee places in San Pedro, too. In my navy tank top and matching Converse, I walked into the Lavish Habit, appropriately named, considering how much coffee I consume. A small place that utilized its space well. Hardwood floors, a sit-and-stay-awhile section near the counter where order options were written on a chalkboard. Everything was made in house. I took the minutes I stood in line to scan the room. It felt like the kind of place where I could fulfill my secret dreams of being a barista. On a shelving display stood a blue hardback copy of Alcoholics Anonymous propped up against a book by Rick Warren. Above that was a matching pyramid of blue mugs and a frame with the word ‘wonderful’ written on it. Also, there were a couple of things that looking back and not having fully noticed them in the moment, were foreshadowing for my life. A book standing on the top of the shelving unit entitled; Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll had a black rose on the cover. Below that book was a small burlap sack of coffee beans with a gray crown on the front. Rose is a family name. Rose is my name. Roses are the theme for Mindless Peace and black roses are my favorite. Also, I now have a black and gray crown tattoo wrapped around my arm. I gave my order and then went over to take full advantage of the lounge seating. An elongated cushion and pillow set up against the window. On the wall across from where I stretched out was a tree with greetings written in different languages. When everybody had their orders we decided to go sit outside and enjoy the sun. Comfy chairs and tables were in the alley beside Lavish Habit. I set my cappuccino down and noticed a conch shell in the corner, my feet rested on white rocks. Above the coffee shop was an apartment, probably where the owners of the place resided. That seemed fun to me, to live above where you work. On the second story of a patchily painted mint green home at the back of the alley, was a laundry line that stretched across the porch with clothes strung across it. “How do they get their whites so white?” I wondered.
We didn’t want to sit too long because we wanted to make it to church on time. The church was lovely, it was held in a building that I thought might be a school during the week. Walls painted red behind the projector screen that showed worship lyrics and then Bible verses. I don’t remember what the sermon was on but I do know the preacher talked about Nehemiah who built the wall and also, Satan, formally known as Lucifer. Lucifer was awesome. Lots of people don’t know that because they think that name is synonymous with the devil but it’s not. Lucifer was the ultimate angel before pride crept in his heart. He got swelled up with the idea that he could be better than God. He repeated these “I will” statements in the book of Isaiah. Honestly, when does making things about yourself ever end well? That church was love. They didn’t have much and they didn’t need it. Belize doesn’t have American accouterments and it shows. I believe that’s not a good thing but a great thing. The people are kind, they pay attention, and they sacrifice their time to help others. Church in Belize felt authentic to me. Church in the states often feels as nourishing as eating processed food.
I visited Marcos again to be voluntarily brutalized with Crossfit. He didn’t speak much English but I understood “Vamos!” As well as the triggering beep of the clock. What I thought was eight rounds turned out to be eight minutes of dumbbell carries, rowing, and ring rows, had I known that it was only minutes I would’ve pushed myself harder. I’m notorious for losing track of the numbers in terms of the clock, the rounds, and the reps. I should probably have a separate coach just to yell what numbers I need to know. Usually, I end up doing more work than necessary and I think my body is grateful for that so my Crossfit confusion isn’t a total waste. Marcos told me I did well and I gave him a sweaty high five.
“I want to swim with the sharks,” my brother said. Out of the assortment of activities, we could do in this euphoric atmosphere, of course, he picks that.
“Have fun,” I said. Mentally preparing what I would do in our luxury villa while they went and got wet.
“No, you’re coming,” my mom said, I laughed, not bothering to look up from my book. “They’re not the kind you’re thinking of,” she said.
“A shark is a shark,” I said. Nervous at the very mention.
“You’re coming,” she said, “we do things together.”
“No, I’m not.”
“If you swim with the sharks I’ll do Crossfit with you,” my brother said. This was enough to get my attention but not enough for convincing.
“Not a fair trade,” I said. “You don’t like working out, I’m terrified of what you’re asking me to do.”
“This is how you’ll get over that, ” my dad said.
”Maybe if mom didn’t take me against my will on an interactive Jaws ride when I was eight years old at Disney, where I was supposed to be having the time of my life but instead, I was screaming my lungs out because a giant robot shark jumped up and out of the water against the rickety boat we were on, I’d be totally okay with today’s adventure.”
”Oh stop, you loved the Tower of Terror.” I do think free-falling is exhilarating. I was afraid she would draft me into this experience too so I went willingly with various escape routes in mind as we headed down the pier. There were dogs everywhere on this island, different shapes, and sizes. I spent time petting a Pug while my dad registered us for snorkeling. We had to be fitted for flippers. Awesome. My freakishly small feet will finally come in handy, they won’t have ones that fit and then I won’t be able to go. One size was slid on my foot and slipped right off my heel. I fought back a smile.
”There we go, perfect.” He said, fitting me with a smaller pair. Feet don’t fail me now. The pair of black rubber shoes fit insultingly well, I frowned. I could stress myself into a period, can’t swim with blood in the water. Oh, that’s right, I remembered.
”I can’t swim, ” I smiled, “can’t swim, can’t go, ” I shrugged.
”We have life vests and a guide who will travel with you.”
”How accommodating, ” I said. “What if I feel like I might get my period?” No one said a word. My body was letting me down in more ways than usual today. ”How many people have been eaten doing this?”
”None, the sharks are big but calm.” That statement was nonsense to me.
”Oh, I can’t believe this is my last day on earth.” My head dropped between my knees.
“Come on, stay in the boat then, scardy cat.” I waddled with my family to the boat. We got strapped into our blocky life vests. There was a whole group going snorkeling, we had to pick them up as we went along. My arm flexed as the boat roared. Hanging on during the ride was tough. How was I expected to navigate the water? I was not going to leave this boat. I was in shut down mode. Deathly quiet is how I get when I feel stuck and scared. “Read your devotional for today,” my mom said, to my brother, noticing the color had drained from my face. It was about fear, facing fear, not being afraid, being courageous and trusting that God is always with you. “Well that fits,” my mom said. Clever, Jesus, clever. The boat filled with people from Germany, Spain, and Texas. Totaling about ten or twelve of us. Maybe they’ll get eaten before me. Our captains were cheerful, relaxed and sarcastic. We would be snorkeling in two spots, a shallower spot to see the assortment of aquatic life and then Shark Ray Alley. I was not leaving this boat.
“C’mon, I’ll do Crossfit,” my brother said.
“Don’t care.” Why oh why am I sober?
“I dare you.” I locked eyes with him. Daggone it, I cannot resist a dare. “Yes,” my brother said, victoriously, knowing he had me.
“Excuse me? Do you have any tequila?” I asked the guide who wasn’t the one driving me to my death. There was a demonstration on how to clean and position your snorkel masks, also how to breathe through the tube. I could opt out of the dare. No, I can’t. I can’t opt out of a dare. My chest dropped at the realization of what I was about to do.
“There will be lots of fish here. Maybe even some sharks. Stay in this area. We will be out here for about an hour.” One of our guides announced, going over safety and mask function one last time. Climbing over a boat into the sea was a lot harder than climbing a pyramid. Getting over the chill of the water was quick because it was sweltering hot out. Remember to breathe, I told myself. “If you look, we have plenty of fish right by the boat.” My brother came up from under and told me to dip my head down.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” I screamed through my breathing tube. Swarms of silver fish. Swarms, right there. “Oh my God!” When I lifted my head my brother was laughing hysterically while imitating my screams.
“You know people can hear you right?” I did not know that. The water was so blue, like Windex but clear. My flippers hit the sand and I stared at the greenish coral. We weren’t supposed to step on it. I tried to grab the silver fish that were swimming with me but they were fast.
“We’re going deeper now,” the guide said, tugging me along on the rope that my vest was attached to. My feet had no ground to stand on now. There is a whole world in the Caribbean Sea that I knew nothing about before going below the surface. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Below me, the guide was pointing to something in the coral. He swam up to the surface. “Did you see the eel?” He asked,
“No, I don’t think so,” I said. He plunged down again, swam into the coral and pulled out a long, green thing with a pointed face. He was casually swimming in place, holding an eel with both hands, making sure I saw it. He let go and it slithered away. “I saw it,” I told him, once he surfaced. He seemed satisfied and pulled me along through the water that had pruned my fingertips. We were in the deep now. I was nervous. I looked around and saw my family in various phases of exploration. My dad was testing how long he could hold his breath under the sea. My mom was on the surface with me. My brother was probably somewhere riding a turtle. The Spanish couple was close by and the man couldn’t seem to get the hang of wearing his mask correctly. I put my face through the surface again. A barracuda sat motionless in the distance like a ghost. Identical to the scene in Nemo. When I looked again, it was gone. Please don’t eat me. People were shouting out that they found sharks. There’s what’s gonna eat me. Breathe, I reminded my unnervingly defenseless self. My long pruned fingers were dangling like bait. Manicure looked great though. Hopefully, I leave with all ten of my freshly painted cobalt nails.
“Sharks, Gen,” My mom said, treading beside me in the water with a grin like Bruce.
“Could you not? I’m literally in the ocean.” There were a few of them, copper, medium sized. One gently swerved about thirty feet under me. Breathe. We swam through that salty water for quite some time. Absorbing the underwater art. Soaking in the blue. This was the first stop of two. Getting aboard the boat again, in the back of my mind, I was afraid I’d get chopped up in the propeller. I know of someone who actually died that way. I did ram my hip into it at the beginning of the excursion, a hard ram into the metal. I’m really good at that sort of thing. I was so convinced I was bleeding I made my mom check. No blood. I did not become ceviche that day. I was lifted back in, wet like a raisin and given a towel. I hate that feeling, the chill that comes with damp skin. The crowd cheered when asked how it was. Then we were off to feed the sharks. Feed them? I’m not feeding them. Who’s feeding them? Can we not feed them? Can someone feed me tequila? If I’m gonna get eaten I’d rather not feel it. The dare didn’t specify my sobriety. The boat went out further into the sea. Tons of open water. They said there would be chum in the water and the sharks would come quickly but they won’t stay long. The sharks were Nurse sharks which apparently, are not aggressive but I did read they suck and twist chunks of flesh off their prey. Why am I doing this again? Oh, because I have too much pride to turn down a dare. Sharks are my biggest fear, if I conquer this, I’ll be fearless. They did not specify how many sharks there would be and I’m glad they didn’t because if they would’ve told me I’d be bobbing amongst 40-50 sharks I would’ve stayed in the boat. They were everywhere. Clusters of copper fins, congregating wherever the chum was. My brother got hit in the head with chum. I watched groups of twos and threes swim under the boat.
Down below in the sand was a giant, shining manta ray that I thought was being attacked by sharks but the clouds of sand were swirling around because they were trying to get the food beneath the ray. I saw another ray in the distance, a huge, spotted one. Their size made them much more intimidating than the sharks. It cascaded toward me, it would easily be able to wrap around my whole body twice. It didn’t help that I was basically naked and fully dépendant on this life vest to keep me afloat. Things are so much more nerve-racking when naked, the vulnerability amps up the stress and a two-piece suit is no more than a bra and underwear. Eyes glued, I half waited for the massive pancake to close in but then it drifted downward. Without warning, a shark that was at least 5’ long swam right by my face. If it wanted to eat me, that would’ve been the moment. I felt much better after that. I wasn’t quite confident enough to stare into their tiny eyes on either side of their flat heads but I was considerably calmer. These Alanis Morissette sharks had plenty of shots that they just didn’t take. Their mouths were oddly small. They didn’t even look like they could eat me if they tried. Who would’ve thought? It figures. Another shark came close enough to touch, I reached out but then pulled back. You have to respect the sea, I thought, like Ross Geller who wore two life vests. One of the other snorkelers, the guy from Texas, grabbed the shark by the tail and wrestled with it. I thought it might whip around and bite him because, in human terms, that’s assault. For a split second, I wanted to see that. Then I thought no because there would be blood and I was too close to the action.
I did it. Gotten in the sea, sober and swam with sharks, my biggest fear conquered. If they were aggressive it would’ve been different. Aggression makes everything different. That’s why I was frightened by the Jaguar at the zoo because I knew he wanted to eat me. The sharks only wanted to eat. I’d be writing a different story had I taken the plunge inside a steel cage. I would still have a phobia because that scenario is one where you’re asking for the worst. Diving down into their territory when all they know is instinct and you happen to be there. That’s like getting upset if you got shot after breaking into someone’s home. Respect the sea. That day in San Pedro I was able to downgrade my phobia to a rational fear of fight or flight when it comes to aggressive creatures. Someone had made snack bars for us and they were the perfect thing to eat after being out on the water all day. Sort of like cake with coconut and honey. An improved version of Baklava. The salt from the sea had literally sucked the color from my lips. It made me panic that they turned pale so fast as if someone had come up to my face and erased the reddish hue from my top and bottom lip, leaving them a muted peach. Then I remembered this happened before when I ate too many salt and vinegar chips. Still, no one else I knew had lost the color of their lips. I had conquered my ultimate fear but what I didn’t know was that the worst was yet to come. Walking in the flippers was difficult so one of the guides, the more handsome and charismatic of the two tan men, scooped me up and carried me along the pier new bride style. I was so fond of how easy this made things I pointed to where we were staying and said, he could carry me home if he wanted to. “This is definitely going in your review,” I said as I held on. “Unbeatable customer service.”
“Happy to do it,” he said. Out of the sun and in the air conditioning again is when it hit me, my back burned. I asked my mom how it looked and she audibly gasped. I was red from my neck to the end of my spine and I was feeling it. I don’t tan. I don’t like it. I actively avoid being in the sun on hot days so when I am under the rays it results in a flash burn. My mom was red too, really red. We needed one of the non-burn victims to go get something to help. I didn’t know what could help that we could find in Belize but we desperately needed something. I moved only when it was absolutely necessary. I was afraid to look at how red I was in the grand mirror with the fabulous lighting if I did it would be too real. My mom put on the TV to distract ourselves from the searing pain. The MTV Movie Awards were on.
“Leave it,” I said, making the mistake of lifting an arm from where I laid on my stomach, irritating the skin on my tricep. “I want to see who’s nominated,” I winced, settling into the white blankets. I have a love/hate relationship with the entertainment industry I think it’s as captivating as it is insidious. Truthfully, I wanted to see who would be the recipient of a specific award. An award that was renamed the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award in 1991, honoring the man who changed the landscape of music. It’s quite an accomplishment to have an award named after you while you’re still alive. In 2018, Jennifer Lopez was the recipient. “What, why?” I questioned where I laid uncomfortably on the bed. My dad returned with Aloe. “I don’t know if I want to do that, it hurts so bad.”
“You have to or else it will get worse.” I didn’t think it could get worse but I agreed.
“It’s called the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, if they’re not gonna say his name when they present it, they shouldn’t have named it after him.” JLo then proceeded to fail in acknowledging Michael, the reason she was even holding that award in the first place, then she had the audacity to thank one of the worst people in the business. That is when I started screaming at the television. I wasn’t only burning on the outside now. My yelling was not because of the Aloe my scorched skin. I was yelling because Hollywood is a vile place populated with vampires who feed on souls. “I can’t believe they’re like this,” I said, even though it’s easy for me to believe.
“How’s your back? My mom asked, having put lotion on her burns. Initially, we had put sunscreen on but that stuff needs to be reapplied incessantly.
“As hot as my anger right now. I got the worst of it. You guys were swimming, I was floating the whole day. Cooking like a burger on a grill.”
I refused to look at the TV. You know what? It’s okay. Hollywood is gonna do what Hollywood does, and in time they’ll get theirs. I’m not the judge. What I can do is elevate. I can choose to elevate. I will elevate and right now, I will elevate in paradise.