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Island Expeditions Story Contest – 1st Place Winner – by Karen Kachra

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My Island Expeditions Belize Vacation - I was a Belize virgin heading for Paradise Islands. Yes, this is a love story.

Girl Meets Belize…and twelve new friends The first magical moment came after darkness fell on the first day of our adventure. We’d long since left Belize City and electricity behind us. Eventually even Anastasio, our guide, fell silent as he drove us newcomers down the two-lane highway. If Belize is such a small country, I thought, why does this wilderness stretch on forever? Anastasio turned off the road and the van’s headlights lit up a sign for the Tropical Education Centre. Tired, hungry, and more than a little curious, we spilled out of the van. In the middle of this marshy nowhere was a neighbourhood of immaculate tiki huts on stilts. A web of pathways dotted with solar lamps led us to a spectacular dinner (honestly, I’ve never tasted beans that good) and then to bed.

Some people bonded even before we left the mainland. While tasting Marie Sharp’s hot sauce on their scrambled eggs. Spotting a massive green lizard from the TEC balcony. Or gazing out the window at the jungle-covered mountains along the Hummingbird Highway. We learned about fishtail palms and orange groves and saw villages that people had made with their own hands. That’s when I think I fell in love with Belize. So beautiful. So uncomplicated. And then we were on the water in a powerboat, wind in our faces, eyes scanning the horizon to see what was in store in for us. A beach, as it turned out, where we met our new guides, Karm and Moses. Looking back, I can’t imagine vacationing without these two. Well, I can, actually—in that evil twin trip I don’t know what birds to look for, don’t see any interesting fish, don’t learn about Belize’s history, don’t dance to its drums, don’t taste fresh coconut water, don’t fondle a sea cucumber…okay, you get the picture. Luckily Karm and Moses stayed close. First off, they supervised our "wet exits"—now that’s one heck of a way to get to know people fast. Then they pulled out a map as big as a tablecloth and showed us our kayaking route. We paddled past boobies and over a convention of manatees before we landed at Paradise Island and claimed a hammock each. WOW the snorkeling was soooo good. Grunts, sergeant majors, damsels, wrasses, trumpet fish, parrotfish, squirrelfish…(I was warned that if I went home talking about "red" fish and "blue" fish I wouldn’t be allowed back in Belize!) None of us wanted to leave the water. It’s a sign the relationship’s going well when you spend all day together and then you come back for more after hours. Like the night we all drank beer and watched the sun set. Oh, and again the next night. And the next. Yep, that was pretty much it: paddling and snorkelling, interrupted by hearty meals and topped with a nightcap. (I’ve always wanted to use "nightcap" in a sentence.) It was a satisfying existence. Full from the lives of special people and their stories and from the wild creatures that surrounded us. Karm told us we were a family, and at first I thought pssshaw. But we were. We traveled together, snorkeled together, helped each other pull our kayaks in and out of the water; we shared our good finds—"look, over here, an eagle ray!"—and reassured each other that nurse sharks don’t have teeth. From Paradise Island we paddled along the reef to South Water Caye. On this three-acre island, with nothing but glittering blue sea for miles around, our family sat down together to an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, and toasted our good fortune. The night sky above was filled with more stars than I had ever seen. Girl Loses Belize…and her new family I knew it was coming, the day I’d have to fly home. I knew I wasn’t going to forget Claire, celebrating her recent divorce, or Steve and Elaine, who’d traveled all the way from Alaska. Alex and Marcia were on their first vacation together while John and Bernice had been traveling, off and on, for the past six months. I wasn’t going to forget the time the whole bunch of us chased after a sea turtle. The feel of a starfish in my grasp. I wasn’t going to forget the intriguing Smithsonian research house perched on Cari Bow Caye; itself perched on the endless barrier reef. I wasn’t going to forget snorkeling along the mangroves, spying on baby fish where they hovered amongst neon sponges. Or clapping eyes on that crazy, prehistoric specimen called a snout-nosed batfish. I wasn’t going to forget any of my experiences but dammit, I wasn’t going to have any of them anymore. I’d discovered this precious piece of the world, got a taste of its colour and rhythms, and I’d already lost it. I shook hands with Karm and Moses and nearly asked them for a job. Instead, I said a prayer for the future of Belize, that it may remain pristine and small and joyful. If anyone can keep it that way, it’ll be the people of Island Expeditions. On the boat ride back to Dangriga town, I wasn’t the only person who was unusually quiet. Girl Gets Belize Back… Okay so this title’s ironic. I’m not in Belize, and I might not see any of my twelve new friends again. We’ve been sharing photos, though, and emails. We have underwater pictures of each other holding conch shells and staring at jellyfish. Memories of the extraordinary few days we shared, so far away from normal. Right now it’s more of a long distance relationship, but Belize hasn’t left me. Belize is there in the long breaths I take when I’m stressing—I think of the swells of the vast ocean, of the full moon rising over this vastness. I remember places where there is only being, not doing. Eat your fruit fresh and don’t clutter your days with unnecessary "luxuries." Yes, Belize is on my mind and in my heart. And set on my computer desktop. Thanks to a four-pack of Marie Sharp’s hot sauces, I can still taste it on my tongue