It’s Official!

“The referee is going to be the most important person in the ring tonight besides the fighters.”

George Foreman

 

There is so much to talk about dear readers.

First and foremost, let me give some hearty congratulations to the North Carolina Tar Heels on winning the 2017 NCAA Men’s National Basketball Championship. I also want to congratulate their fans, some of whom I count as friends. But they have to admit to breathing a sigh of relief after reading my previous column predicting UNC to lose. What happened last night further cemented my well-earned, self-proclaimed, title of “World’s Worst Prognosticator.” The evidence is there and it’s real.

I said Gonzaga would beat South Carolina and UNC would beat Oregon. I got those right but those two picks were just building blocks to my ultimate projection that the Tar Heels would, for the second straight year, come up short. Not because they aren’t talented, not because they weren’t the better team; simply because they would be out-coached. Well I was wrong. They won AND Mark Few turned out to be as equally inept as Roy Williams (of course having the highly overrated, surprisingly soft, Przemek Zarnowski lay a mammoth egg didn’t help).
In that same column, I opined that it wasn’t whether UConn would win the women’s NCAA title, it was by how much. 20?, 30?, 40?, I sat like a smart ass and typed. Then Mississippi State handed my ass to me.

0 FOR 2 or as my critics might say 100%.
After hoops I turned my attention to golf and went on to say that neither Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, nor Phil Mickelson will be slipping on the green jacket at “toonamint’s” end. How much money do you have? What is your house worth? How close is the nearest pawn shop? If you’re smart, you’ll take it all and divided 4 ways betting a quarter of it on each of those four guys. My track record speaks for itself.

 

Next, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to address the events of the past 48 hours in which sports fans saw one set of officials do precisely what they are supposed to do and another set achieve the opposite.
I saw a statistic today which read 44 fouls were called in the combined 74 possessions during last night’s NCAA Championship game. That’s like a billion per cent! I watched the game, TRIED to enjoy it but there were so many whistles my dog could have worn a path into the hardwood floor coming and going the room.

And now, from a number of reports,  it appears, with less than a minute left and Carolina up 1, the officials should have blown the whistle, declared the ball out of bounds, and awarded possession to Gonzaga. Instead one of them blew the whistle, declared it a held ball, and awarded possession to UNC. Watching, I was simply shocked they didn’t blow the whistle and call a foul!
A little more than 24 hours before LPGA rules officials received notice that the person leading a golf tournament had breached a rule (two actually) and was deserving of two, two-shot penalties. On live television they assessed those penalties in a timely manner and the contestants played on. Did the way both sets of officials approached doing their job affect the outcome of each competition? Most certainly. Could one of those approaches have been different? Again, most certainly (I’m looking at you zebras!).

Scores of folks are still talking about how each “score” was settled so with tongue slightly less than firmly in cheek I offer up a solution to avoid future disenchantment…
Let’s play the games without referees, rules officials or umpires! After you stop laughing, or shaking your head, indulge me. Why not? We, as kids, did it all the time. We, as adults, on the golf course, in the gym at the Y, or at the baseball diamond and soccer field at the local park, still do. You, and your friends, colleagues, partners, or teammates know if the serve is in or out; if the ball is a strike or not; if the guy driving to the hoop took an extra step; or if you happened not to put your golf ball back in the same place from which you marked it. It’s called the honor system. It’s called sportsmanship. And if one call goes against you or your team the chances are, simply because of the law of averages, the next one will go in your favor. It’s called fairness.
Producers have, in the past, televised an NFL game and a professional golf tournament using no announcers. Why don’t we try showing a game, tournament, or a match with NO officials or referees? I’m not suggesting Game 7 of the World Series, or The Super Bowl, or Wimbledon, or The United States Open Championship, or the NCAA men’s final but why not a Spring Training Game, or a soccer friendly, or a mixed doubles exhibition, or the first half of the NBA All Star Game? (some would say they play that without officials already). Heck, why not the first round of a Web.com Tour event? Many would argue, and actually this week have said, that most of the players in a golf tournament play without the benefit of the watchful eye of a rules official all the time.
Would some participants, in every sport, try and stretch the envelope? Game the system? Out and out cheat? Of course they would, I’m not naïve. But goodness gracious wouldn’t that be illuminating? Wouldn’t that give us all a glimpse into the character of the athletes we follow, like, and, in many cases, want our kids to emulate? Where’s the harm in this type of experiment? Where’s the foul? It could be a ton of fun to watch and an eye-opening social experiment.
In the end, it’s just sports… or at least it’s supposed to be.

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Pick A Winner

I am a terrible prognosticator. I realize it. I readily admit it. I know why it’s true. I bet with my heart and not with my head. All you have to do is look at my 2017 March Madness Bracket for proof.

 

I went to The University of Nevada so of course I picked my Wolf Pack to beat Iowa State. Then I added salt to that would by choosing them to advance to the Sweet 16. I surprised myself by stopping there.

 

I listened to some “friends” who convinced me that East Tennessee State University was going to be a force to be reckoned with so, of course, I dove right into the deep end of my brackets pool and penciled in the Buccaneers to beat mighty Florida. Because why wouldn’t I. What I didn’t do was pick the other team from Tennessee, that isn’t Tennessee, to win a game even though the “experts” said they would.

 

I did listen to those experts however when they told me on show after show after show that Duke was finally playing up to its potential and the Blue Devils were “the team to beat.” Plus my wife went to Duke. Plus I like Duke. So I advanced Duke all the way to Phoenix and then I decided they would ultimately cut down the nets. By the way I had them beating UCLA. Hey, I told you I wasn’t very good at this “picking a winner” stuff.

 

With all of that in mind allow me my thoughts on what lies ahead.

 

The Final Four(s)

On semi final Saturday Oregon will play North Carolina and South Carolina will take on Gonzaga. The first game is a Cinderella dream matchup between a team that nobody, save the school’s most ardent fans, saw coming against a group that has been destined to be there for years. In it, the Gamecocks will bring the same heat, the same muscle and the same energy that propelled them over Duke, then Baylor, then Florida but I believe Gonzaga is too big, too smart and too focused to lose. The Bulldogs win a close one.

 

Then Oregon goes up against North Carolina. I think Carolina prevails but it won’t be because of coach Roy Williams, it will be in spite of him. The guy could be the world’s worst “big game” coach but his team, while undisciplined, is too talented to lose to another occasionally messy, skilled squad. So Monday will give us Gonzaga against North Carolina and, the way I see it, the Tar Heels lose in the championship game for the second straight year. Whatever you do don’t  take that to the bank.

 

Things about the Final Four for which we can be thankful

  1. Baylor won’t be playing Oregon (our eyes couldn’t take it)
  2. Austin Peay won’t be playing South Carolina (saving us from hearing “Let’s go Cocks” followed by “”Let’s go Peay!”
  3. We are this close to never hearing or seeing those dreadful Direct TV (featuring the incredible creepy singer) and Amazon Alexa (featuring the incredible untalented Reggie Miller) commercials again  

 

One thing you can count on his the women’s Final Four. True to form, as women’s college hoops almost always is, both semi-final games feature a number one seed against a number two. No build up to any championship EVER features so little drama as this one (with the possible exception of last year’s women’s tournament, or the one before that, or the one before that, or the one…).  Connecticut, yawn, will win. The only question is whether they win by 20, 30 or 40.

 

The Masters

 

I want Tiger to play. In fact, I want Tiger to win. I have said previously in this space, and out loud, that I believe Tiger Woods has plenty of time to, not only contend in, but win major golf championships plenty of times. Not a United States Open Championship or even a PGA Championship but certainly a Masters or a British Open. Good grief Jack Nicklaus won at Augusta as a 46-year-old and Tom Watson should have won a British at 59. Those events, because of the course and the conditions, lend themselves to those kind of heroics.

 

Going in to this year’s Masters Tournament Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth are, according to oddsmakers, the favorites. None of them will win. Neither will Phil Mickelson. I can’t tell you who will win, I just know those four won’t.

 

So Put your money where my mouth isn’t and enjoy the next couple of weeks; thankfully baseball season is right around the corner. And try to remember… April showers bring May flowers and what do May flowers bring??? Pilgrims.

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Home Means Nevada

I tell ya, I get no respect. If I was a politician I would be honest.”

Rodney Dangerfield

 

The year was 2004, it was March. We were at a bar in Myrtle Beach or Austin, Texas, or West Palm Beach, FL. I was there, my guess is so was Gersh, no doubt Spo, and probably Schwartzy, Emmett, EW, and Foltzy. It was March Madness and my alma mater, the University of Nevada, was on TV.

The Wolf Pack was led by 6′ 6″ Junior guard Kirk Snyder and a 6′ 11″ Freshman from Arvada, Colorado named Nick Fazekas. The team had gone 13 and 5 in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and then won the conference tournament to earn a trip to the NCAA tournament as a 10 seed. It had been two decades since Nevada earned a birth so, for this grad, the game against #7 seed Michigan State was a big deal. It was Thursday, they were on a court in the Key Arena at Seattle Center. I was in a bar somewhere else. The Pack won by 6 to earn a date, two days later, with Midwest second seed Gonzaga. Back at the same bar, because that’s what a true fan does, 48 hours later I sat in amazement and watched Nevada not just upset the Zags but blow Gonzaga out of the gym, 91-72. It was hard to believe but the Wolf Pack, my  Wolf Pack was on the way to St. Louis and the Sweet Sixteen to take on Georgia Tech. I didn’t go but I got the T-shirt.

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Nevada lost by 5 but Pack fans took some consolation from the fact that Georgia Tech made it all the way to the National Championship game that year before losing to UConn. Led by Nick Fazekas, the Wolf Pack returned to the “big dance” the next three years and won first round games in both ’05 and ’07. I admit it’s not Duke (now working on their 22nd straight appearance) but it was a damn good run. Then Fazekas graduated and it took ten years for Nevada to get back.

The team that accomplished the feat is this one, a run and gun, put it up from anywhere, tour de force, that won both the Mountain West Conference regular season and the conference tournament. Despite those accomplishments neither Nevada’s coach, Eric Musselman (28-6 this year, 52-20 in two years at Nevada) or any of his talented players including Marcus Marshall, Cameron Oliver, D. J. Fenner or Jordan Caroline were worthy enough for conference coach or player of the year honors. “I tell ya, I get no respect”.

Selection Sunday rolled around and Pack fans all over the world waited to see who they’d play and where. We didn’t have to wait long. CBS front man Greg Gumbel called for the first bracket, the Midwest, “with games being played on Thursday in Tulsa and Milwaukee and Friday in Sacramento and Indianapolis. Many of us, especially those living in and around Reno, were hoping this would be the region in which Nevada would land because a first round date in the California capital city of Sacramento would result in an easy, over the Sierra, two-hour drive. We got half our wish. The Pack would indeed be one of the 16 teams trying to come out of the Midwest but they’d have to start in Milwaukee with, more than likely, only a handful of hearty hometown fans in attendance. Northern Nevada and Mountain West Conference “conspiracy theorists” were on high alert especially considering of the eight teams suiting up in Sacramento only three hailed from west of the Mississippi. One was Oregon the other two were Omaha, Nebraska based Creighton and Oklahoma State.

The next indignity, if you’re one of those looking for indignities, was the seeding. Nevada was given a 12 seed despite having won more games than all but two squads in the sixteen team bracket. Then came the kicker, the opponent. The brilliant minds on the tournament committee decided the 5 seed the Mountain West Conference regular season and tournament champion would face would be… Iowa State. A 23-10 team that had just dispatched with Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia on its way to winning the Big 12 Conference tournament championship for the third time in four years. “I tell ya, no respect.”

“What do you want?” you ask. Well let’s look. I would argue, as would many of my Wolf Pack brethren and “sisteren”, that a 12 seed was too low for this team. Probably better suited as a 10 seed which would have meant first round games against South Carolina, St. Mary’s, Dayton and Michigan. All, I would contend, more winnable than the Cyclones. Even if you kept Nevada a 12 seed they could have been matched up with Minnesota or Virginia in other regions. Also easier match ups than Iowa State. I will admit that as a 12 they could have also had to play Notre Dame so I guess you could say the committee threw coach Musselman a bone. “What a dog I got, his favorite bone is my arm!”

The bottom line is good teams have to beat other good teams to advance in this tournament. Nevada is a good team, a really good team if they shoot like the did in the second half of their conference tournament tilt against Fresno State or the first half in the championship game against Colorado State. Marshall, Fenner, Oliver, Caroline, Musselman and company will have their hands full against Monte Morris, Deonte Burton and the rest of the Cyclones tonight.

This time I’ll be watching from home. I have no idea what Gersh, Spo, Schwartzy, Emmett, EW and Foltzy will be doing. CBS Sports’ Seth Davis thinks Nevada can win and so do I. If they do a return to the Sweet Sixteen, and another T-shirt is not out of the question. Neither is earning a little respect.

 

 

 

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Bye Bye Belize

My wife, Sarah, planned our vacation to Belize to include a final, full, day unencumbered by any plans. We woke up before the sun and because the lodgings at The Turtle Inn face east, including our own Starfish Cottage, we held hands in bed and watched it rise above the Caribbean Sea lighting up the Belizean sky in various hues of orange. Every day of the vacation started with, at the very least, a delicious cup of Guatemalan coffee and this one was no different. The four of us (Sarah, me, Bob and Susan Green) washed down a variety of morning delicacies with two French press pots of the rich, black, caffeine filled ambrosia and discussed what was in store for the day.

Sarah and Susan decided they’d spend the first part of the morning on paddle boards. I volunteered to play lifeguard (even though I would have had to corral and actual lifeguard if either actually needed help) while reading the next book on my list, Before the Fall a page turner written by Noah Hawley. Bob was going to read too but he decided to do that, on a lounge chair, in the comfort of the deck that surrounded our private pool. Time floated by on a soft, spring breeze and the early morning activities gave way to a mid morning walk along the beach and eventually lunch.

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The food at The Turtle Inn, and Blancaneaux before that, was delicious but the salads, made with fresh, garden grown vegetables, were especially good. Leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, mint, basil, and more, coming out of the ground not 25 yards from where we ate, were flavorful and filling. After lunch we headed back to the Starfish Cottage for a spirited game of bocce. Susan and Bob against Sarah and Keith, first team to 21 wins, best two out of three. The in-laws jumped out to a big lead but we battled back, first tying and then going ahead and on to win game one. game two was less competitive despite Bob and Susan trying to make a spirited comeback of their own. Sarah then decided we should “mix it up” so she partnered with her dad to take on Susan and me. This game to eleven. With the “pig” changing hands and finding hiding places in the sand, they piled up a few early points but then my mother in-law caught fire and brought us back to even at 10-10. Since you had to “win by two” I was imagining this game lasting for a while when Sarah nestled a ball up next to the “pig” and Bob expertly blocked our approach. I had one last chance to continue the game but failed miserably on my attempt and Sarah and Bob exchanged high fives (after setting their champagne glasses down, of course).

Post bocce seemed like the perfect time to get back on the resort provided bicycles and ride back into town to try the gelato which everyone said might be the best we’d ever have. I don’t have a lot of gelato experience but after enjoying a scoop of Stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shards) combined with a scoop of cinnamon I couldn’t image gelato any where in the world tasting any better. Sarah and Bob both had Cappuccino  while Susan showed an amazing amount of control and abstained. Satisfied, we rode back to The Turtle Inn and took a dip in the Triangle Pool (filled with warm, salt water) then hung out some more before it was time for dinner.

The next day was departure day and we left for the air strip expecting one last bumpy Belizean ride, this one in a DeHavillan Twin Otter DHC-6. The prop plane, with room for 22 (including our pilot and co-pilot) was clearly a veteran of this flight from Placencia to Belize City. We boarded first which meant we Sarah and I got a birds eye view of the cockpit. The pilot taxied to the end of the runway, turned around, revved the engines and let her loose. Once up in the air we levelled off at a cruising altitude of somewhere between 1440 and 1520 feet above the ground and settled in for a surprisingly smooth flight.

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Starting our decent into Belize City drove home the notion that our vacation was, indeed, at an end. It was a terrific trip. We’ll all remember Caracol and the caves (Barton Creek as well as Rio Frio), the jungle, the beach, the food and the drink. Most of all I think we’ll remember the smiling faces of the incredibly hospitable Belizean people. Johnny, Pedro, Gilberto, Viktor, Susilly (just call me Susie), Baromeo, Virgil, Umberto, Graciella, and the rest. We’ll remember the bumpy roads, the diverse landscape and the barrier reef. I’ll remember not dying in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

 

 

If any of this encouraged you to check out Belize for yourself may I suggest doing a little research online. You’ll need bug spray and suntan lotion; a good attitude and a sense of adventure; a full iTunes playlist and a good book or two. Might I also suggest shooting Rachel Hornaday at Central American Journeys an email Rachel@centralamericajourneys.com she did right by us and I’m sure she’ll do the same by you.

Until next time.

 

 

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Belize Day Four… Snorkeling And More

“You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat”

Martin Brody to Captain Quint in JAWS

 

Thursday was snorkel day for our group and I am not ashamed to admit I opened my eyes that morning with a knot of dread in my gut. We made our way to breakfast and enjoyed more great coffee, some fruit and a little bit of protein. We had no idea how many people would be joining us for our day trip out to the barrier reef for a few hours of snorkeling and lunch. We also had no idea how big a boat we would use to accomplish this. I swallowed a couple of Dramamine and we headed over to the Dive Shop to pick up fins and a mask. We were greeted by Zane and Nick, the pros that would be in charge of this aquatic adventure. I made quick work of trying my gear on knowing it would be the last time any of it touched my skin, other than when I carried the stuff on and off the boat (did I mention I’m not a water guy?).

This discomfort with all things H2O concerned is a mystery to me. I was born on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, lived near water (lakes, rivers, coastal areas) all my life. I also have vivid memories of childhood road trips, headed to all points North, West, East and South. My brothers and I piled into the car’s back seat for hours until dad decided it was okay to stop. Our only ask was that any overnight stop, be it a Ritz Carlton, Holiday Inn Holidome or rickety highway side motel, had to have a pool. Later in life my father spent at least part of every single day in the ocean during the more than three decades he and my mom lived on Maui. Maybe I’m right to blame it on Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg and that initial viewing of JAWS.

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We boarded the boat; a vessel stretching all of 25 feet in length, powered by twin Yamaha 150 engines. Our hosts, Zane and Nick welcomed us and then informed the group that it would be a 45 minute trip to the island around which the snorkel tour would commence. We were joined by our friends from Toronto (who had also made the trip from Blancaneaux to the beach), a trio of southerners from South Carolina, and a pair of European gentleman. Of course somebody made the obligatory “Gilligan’s Island 3 hour tour reference”. It wasn’t me and I did not laugh.

 It was yet another bumpy Belizean ride. But these jolts were different from the rough mountain excursions we experienced. Those were consistent to virtually every traveler, the ones that came before us and the ones that followed. We all hit the same holes, rode over the same humps. By contrast, these varying hues of blue bounces were uniquely ours. Caused not by dirt, rocks, and rubber but instead by nothing more than trillions of gallons of salt water and the Belizean breeze.

 So off we went, with Zane at the helm, first through the mangrove lagoon and then out to the open water. We passed several islands and atolls along the way, me hopeful each was our ultimate destination. Without fail, none were. What was normally my very reliable internal clock seemed to be on the fritz so I couldn’t, with any sense of satisfaction, know how long 45 minutes was. In fact, as we passed yet another body of land that I figured must be perfectly suitable for underwater wildlife viewing, I started to think we were just going straight out into the Caribbean Sea until we ran out of fuel. I surmised that Nick and Zane, like Virgil a few days before, were direct descendants of the ancient Mayans and maybe human sacrifice was still in play for them.  A third member of their crew, introduced only as “chef” (later I found out his name was Santiago) was there not to cook for us but instead to cook us for them. I must have appeared mortified because Sarah patted my hand and asked how I was doing, snapping me out of my hydrophobic reverie. I smiled and said, “fine.”

Moments (or was it hours or days) later Zane pointed the boat on a direct course for what appeared to be a speck with palm trees. It got only marginally bigger as we slowed, dropped anchor, and then he backed the boat onto a mound of sand no more than 200 feet long and 80 feet wide. We had arrived.

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Nick took half the group in one direction around the “island” while Zane shepherded the other (including the people I love) in the opposite direction. I remained a landlubber and wrote this. They emerged from the water about 45 minutes later with tales of spiny lobster, blue tang, eel, jelly fish, barracuda and squid sightings. I happily reported that I saw several species of the pervasive North American Snorkeler.

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It turned out that “Chef Santiago” was actually there to prepare lunch for us and he did a masterful job. Bar-b-que chicken, rice, beans and salad filled our bellies as we soaked up the sun. This tiny piece of land in the middle of a body of water that bordered the Caribbean served as the host site for several other groups of tourists. All enjoying the adventure. As we finished up our lunch Zane advised our group that we would next get back on the boat (named Something’s Fishy) and head deeper into the barrier reef toward the sea for 30 to 45 minutes more of snorkeling, this time with the hope of seeing turtles, remoras and nurse sharks. We were definitely going to need a bigger boat!

Most of the group did just that and did see remoras, turtles, grouper and conch. There were no sharks in sight, nurse or other version of elongated Elasmobranchii. Nick informed those of us remaining in Something’s Fishy that the annual visit by hundreds of whale sharks wouldn’t happen until March. So if you want to swim with the Rhincodon typus (ranging in size from 30 to 60 feet by the way) head to Belize any time between the first of March and the end of May.

The trip back seemed quicker and less intense. Mostly because trips back almost always do, but partly because I had left the lion’s share of my fear, anxiety and dread of the unknown back at Silt Caye with the chicken bones from our lunch. I am fairly certain that if I ever have the extreme misfortune of being shipwrecked or on an airliner that goes down at sea I will immediately volunteer as the first to be killed and eaten. I have zero interest in finding out what other fate might await me.

Back at The Turtle Inn we decided to hop on the bikes and head into Placencia to try out the acclaimed gelato about which we had heard so much. So in we rode. Sadly this day happened to be the only day of the week the gelato shop was closed (we did go back the next day and it was delicious!) so we explored a little, found a coffee shop that served excellent Guatemalan espresso, and picked up some bars of Belizean chocolate at one of the many Chinese owned and run supermarkets.

We (mostly me) were thrilled to find that the gelato stand at the Turtle Inn was open for business when we returned so that craving was pacified for at least a day. The Starfish Cottage welcomed us back and we enjoyed what remained of the afternoon and then the evening dining at Auntie Luba’s, the restaurant at the resort that specializes in Belizean Creole cuisine. It was another wonderful day in an amazing place and the best news of all was that we still had another full day ahead of us.

 

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From The Jungle To The Beach… Belize, Day Three

We were scheduled to leave Blancaneaux on Tuesday, Valentines Day, and did just that after breakfast, a short walk and an hour or so by the pool. Honestly it was, like the delicious Belizean chocolate, a little bitter sweet because I think we had all grown fond of Johnny, Pedro, Gilbert, Cesar and the rest of the extremely friendly resort staff. At least I had. We bid adieu to our expert guide, Gilberto the previous afternoon and we were now greeted by another smiling gentleman who would take us the Copolla’s sister resort, The Turtle Inn, 3 hours away in the seaside city of Placencia. He mentioned his given name (which we couldn’t pronounce) then, with the quickness of someone having been through the exercise more than once, told us to call him Virgil, so we did.

 

Within the trip’s first 15 minutes we learned Virgil was a farmer by trade, making a few extra bucks, working freelance in the tourism industry between crop rotations. We also found out that our driver was a direct descendant of the Mayan natives that occupied much of what is now Belize for thousands of years. He was quite proud of his heritage and told us so on more than a few occasions. During one genealogy lesson Virgil explained that his grandparents still made offerings to the Mayan gods before certain meals or ahead of planting corn or tomatoes. “But,” he assured us “human sacrifices” were no longer part of the routine. “It’s against the law now,” he said with a straight face. Reassured by, and comforted in, that knowledge the four of us settled in for our three hour tour.

 

Belize has a diverse topography. At times it looked like Florida, other times Colorado and occasionally I was reminded of the Northern Nevada of my youth . The closer we got to Placencia the more I saw the southeastern United States out my window and my wife agreed saying, “this could be anywhere.” Soon enough we saw the water. Lagoon and mangroves on one side, the interior main channel  that led to the barrier reef ,that led to the Caribbean Sea out the other. After the ride, this one almost exclusively over paved roads, we arrived at The Turtle Inn and were greeted by, Martin, the General Manager and more smiling faces. The Turtle Inn’s casitas looked a lot like the structures at Blancaneaux but the location couldn’t have been more different. Sand, sun and palm trees replaced jungle, rocks, pine trees and a rushing river. We were reminded of our snorkeling excursion (set for the next day) and told which restaurants and bars were open and which amenities (kayaks, paddleboards, games, bikes) were at our disposal. The town of Placencia was less that 15 minutes, by bicycle, away; twice as long if we walked and, of course, a shuttle was always available. In town, they said, we would find bars, restaurants and the best gelato in Central America. Then we were shown to our accommodations.

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Starfish Cottage was both quaint and captivating, despite being more ready than not for a modest updating. The personal pool with four lounge chairs, as well as two separate, set for four, dining areas at which to enjoy an Oceanside meal or beverage more than made up for a well worn shower knob or a not quite cold enough fridge.


 There are many types of people in this world and I know intimately of two; those who love the beach and those that do not. I know this because I am of one kind and my wife’s parents, the wonderful Bob and Susan Green, are of the other. In case you’re wondering, my amazing wife is somewhere in the spectrum in between.

 

There are now two periods of time when I get caught up on my fiction reading. The first, and favorite, is on an airplane, while it is flying from one destination to the next. The other time I sink my teeth into a book is when my wife and in laws are sinking their toes into a lake, sea, ocean or pool. I know how to swim (kind of) I just don’t. I also don’t bathe, I shower. There are things in the water with sharper teeth, quicker reflexes and better instincts than me. I saw Jaws when I was on the verge of exiting teenhood and the memory of that film is as vivid as ever. It’s all I can do to get in the water in the first place and I prefer to be out before I get all the way wet. So while they take a dip, I dive into the next thing on my reading list.

 

On this trip that happened to be Michael Chabon’s newest, Moonglow. I had given it to myself as a Christmas gift and had only managed a few chapters thanks to two short flights. The flame of the story burned slowly for me at first but I was hopeful the fire that ignited inside so many of the tomes written by my favorite authors would combust along the way. It didn’t. A third of the way in I just wanted it to be over so I set my cruise control on “powering through” and that’s what I did. I detest not finishing a book once I start it ( I feel the author deserves that much at least ) and sometimes I end up pleasantly surprised when a book turns a corner. Even though Moonglow was well written and there were sections of chapters and complete chapters that I enjoyed the book, as a whole never made the turn. I loved Wonder Boys, Summerland, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Gentlemen of the Road. Not that Chabon cares but I hope his next book will captivate me like those did.

That was a digression, I know but the fact is the rest of the day was spent enjoying the sun. Then we had a drink (mine was a delicious concoction called a Rum Pegu) and a delicious dinner. I enjoyed it like it might be my last because part of my mind thought it might be. You see the next day we were jumping in a boat and heading straight out to sea, to the barrier reef.

And that, my friends, is tomorrow’s tale.

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Our Belizean Adventure… Day Two

After our terrific and educational trip to the ancient Mayan city of Caracol, a refreshing adult beverage and an amusing, delicious dinner overlooking the bountiful Blancaneaux garden, we got a good night’s sleep in anticipation of another fascinating day in Belize.

Our destination, on day two, was Barton Creek Cave and our guide, once again, was the incomparable Andres Gilberto Lucero. Sarah (my wife) along with Susan and Bob (my in-laws) were very much looking forward to this trip. Because it involved a number of things that give me the heebie-jeebies (water, darkness, tales of human sacrifice and bats!) I was not. But heck, it’s vacation and thousands of people have preceded me into the mouth of the single passage, resurging stream cave and came out to tell the tale so how bad could it be? That’s a rhetorical question by the way. We greeted “Hill” and were escorted into a another, different, slightly older, Toyota Land Cruiser.

We went a different direction than the day before but we travelled over an equally bumpy, narrow, dirt road. The previous day our tour guide pointed out bushes and trees that produced all spice, lemon grass and other assorted natural wonders. On this trip “Hill” was quick to point out different flowers, fruits and fauna. The most interesting section of the trip to the cave was when we navigated our way through a Mennonite village and marveled at the size and scope of the livestock and crops. Gilberto informed us that these people, farming this land, fed a huge percentage of the population of Belize. We bounced and bucked toward our ultimately destination and finally arrived.

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We would be dispatched in two separate kayaks, Bob, Susan and Gilberto in one; Sarah and me in the other. Sarah wanted to paddle and that was A-Okay with me. The only problem is that meant I was going to be sitting at the front of the kayak with no physical means with which to defend myself. We donned both helmets and life jackets, boarded our tiny vessels and headed into the belly of the beast.

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The first thing you (I) notice is how dark it is inside. You don’t go far before the natural light emanating from the entrance to the one-way cave disappears. “Hill” has equipped us with powerful flashlights and I switch mine on immediately. Now I am moderately reminded of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, except there is no gift shop or cotton candy waiting at the other end of this boat ride. The beams of flashlights held by Gilberto, Susan and Bob light up parts of the cavern revealing massive stalactites and ever-growing, constantly evolving stalagmites. The drip, drip, drip of the water seeping through the porous rocky walls is a constant, slightly creepy, reminder of the ever-changing landscape inside the cave. And then there is the naturally amplified sound of the fluttering of bat wings followed by the flash of a flying mammals.

“Don’t worry,” Gilberto says surely sensing my dread, “only a few of them are vampire bats.” Then, of course, he chuckles. I sit, in the front of the kayak, statue still except for my right hand that carefully, moves the beam from the flashlight over the walls and ceiling of the cave. “Hill” points out carefully placed pieces of pottery found inside the cave by archaeologists searching for clues, trying to learn about the lives of the Mayans who once treated this place as a sacred site. In addition to the pieces of clay Gilberto was also more than happy to show is skulls and bones because, as was tradition, human sacrifices were performed inside. As we travelled deeper and deeper into the cave my heart race rose and my desire to be heading the other way heightened. At one point we all had to duck under the stalactites in order to keep going and then, finally, we reached a wall of rock that was impassable unless we abandoned the kayaks and swam. Time to turn around, I thought. :”Time to turn around,” said “Hill”.

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On the way back toward the entrance we passed a number of groups, in kayaks of their own, heading deeper and deeper into the cave. They looked like they were having fun, I wondered what they thought I looked like. Then Bob decided it would be cool to turn off all of our flashlights to find out “just how dark it really is”. Off went the beams, mine last, and off they stayed for exactly one second. Mine came back on first. A successful exit was followed by a bumpy car ride back to Blancaneaux, our heads filled with memories and impressions of our time inside the earth.

We had lunch and then Sarah, Bob and I decided to hike to Big Rock Falls, about an hour walk from Blancaneaux. Susan decided the “hot pool” sounded better so she stayed behind. A basket, by the door of our casita, was filled with umbrellas and walking sticks and, as a lark, I grabbed a staff for each of us on the way out. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. The resort staff informed us that the trail to Big Rock Falls was “flat”. In hindsight they may have been right if there is some pack mule in your ancestry.com biography. Either that or “flat” is actually Belizean Creole for “sucker” and they all enjoyed a good laugh at our expense. In their defense the trail did start out flat and stayed that way for about a minute.

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Along the way the terrain turned rocky and muddy and the walking sticks came in more than handy. Small bridges, fashioned from wood, logs and stones did their best to keep out feet free of water and mud save for one puddle that caught me by surprise. The hike was beautiful, at points hugging the, very western United States looking, Privassion River and at other points winding its way up through pine trees and scrub brush, and demanding. We reached the halfway mark and started to descend back toward the water.

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That descent involved a series of small, steep, unevenly placed wooden steps that made that part of the hike an extra adventure. The three of us finally reached the end of the trail, decided we’d opt for taking the road route back to the resort, and spent several peaceful moments enjoying the 150 foot waterfall.

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The road back, while quite a bit more boring, was much easier to navigate. We met up with Susan who informed us she very much enjoyed her pool time and we got ready for cocktails and then dinner during our final night at Blancaneaux. After dinner I enjoyed two fingers of a very good Belizean rum and we retrieved the game Clue from a bookshelf in the main lobby. Upon opening the box we discovered a few of the cards (Miss Scarlett, The Library, The Candlestick among them) were missing so we attempted to play the game without them. It was mostly a success. Susan ended up “winning” even though I forgot to mention that The Theatre was also one of the cards we did not have. If there was one suggestion I might make to the fine folks at Blancaneaux to make the experience there even more enjoyable it would be to invest in a few more games, just in case.

We would spend one last night in the comfort of our casita and packed, getting ready for the next day of our Belizean adventure… a trip to The Turtle Inn and the beach. And that’s a tale for another day.

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