Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This Week: Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize


(The views expressed in the following piece are purely speculation and should not be taken as fact.)

The boat from Discovery Expeditions was drifting into the dock to pick us up. We were heading to Hol-Chan Marine Reserve for a snorkel outing off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, Belize. There were already several people on board. The driver, Richard introduced himself and his partner, Edwin. We took some seats next to another couple and stowed our gear under the seat. We introduced ourselves to the couple next to us. They were on their honeymoon from South Dakota. The bride prefaced her introduction with “I’ve been drinkin’ all morning!” Great, I could imagine her puking over the side of the boat later. Then we were introduced to Mike, who was solo and another Mike, who was not. Both Mikes, who had not met before, were also military; solo Mike was Army and coupled Mike was Marine. As they joked about their tattoos, I noticed the young woman sitting next to Marine Mike. She was quiet, wore a pink tank top with jean shorts. She was obviously cold as the wind whipped around us on the boat. She had her arms wrapped around her and her feet up on the seat. Then I got caught up with the conversation on the boat.

When Edwin asked how he would tell both Mikes apart, Army Mike replied, “I’m the good-looking one!” Then both Mikes started talking about where they were stationed. I heard something about Tokyo and Bangkok, but with the engine of the boat roaring in my ear, I couldn’t get every word.

As we made our way out to the reef, I enjoyed watching the boat wake and the island of Ambergris getting smaller behind us. Then I overhead Marine Mike answering a question Edwin had asked him.

“Yeah, she’ll take a life jacket. Her name’s Adelia. Last time I took her snorkeling she sunk like a rock. And she gets real cold too. I bought her this cute little snorkel outfit to wear so she’ll stay warm.”

I found this conversation interesting because Mike and Edwin were talking like Adelia wasn’t actually there. Since I had my sunglasses on, I figured no one could tell if I were looking at them so I took a good long look at Adelia. I realized she was much younger than I first thought…18 possibly 16? As the boat pulled into position at the reef, Mike handed her the snorkel shirt, also pink with a black logo on it and long sleeves. Her face looked - in a word my husband and I came up with over dinner that night - “third-world.” She had cocoa-colored skin with almond eyes and a few freckles. She had tiny earrings in each ear.

There were two groups of people on the boat, snorkelers and Snubas. Snuba was a way for non-dive people to breathe underwater. We, the South Dakota couple and solo Mike were snorkeling. Mike and Adelia and two college girls from the states were doing the Snuba. In Snuba the air tank floats on the surface so you don’t have to carry it on your back. Then you breathe through a regulator just like a scuba. People only go down 10 feet or so. Adelia didn’t look all that happy to Snuba. The way she clung to Mike, I’d say she was not at all happy to be in the water. Can she even swim?

We snorkelers went first since we didn’t need as much instruction as the Snuba people. With all the beautiful marine life at Hol-Chan to look at I forgot all about Mike and Adelia We saw turtles, rays, groupers, and the beautiful blue tang. The water was warm and perfectly clear.

When I got back to the boat, Adelia was already in and wrapped up in a towel. Mike was still snuba-ing, which I found funny to watch. The two college girls spent a good 10 minutes trying to get their air tubes untangle instead of looking around at the beautiful scenery. By the time everyone got back on board, Mike had given Adelia his shirt.

After snorkeling the reef, Edwin said it was time to head the boat to Shark-Ray Alley. During this short ride, Marine Mike offered up more information about himself. He said he was an experienced boater and offered to drive the boat for Edwin. He had a tattoo of Popeye (“I am what I am”) on his right arm and a tattoo of spinach on his left. He said his son had a tattoo of Sweet Pea on his arm and managed to make it through the Marines without so much as a comment. Mike was an older man, mid-60’s I guessed, short grey hair, unshaven white scruff on his chin. He was holding hands with Adelia at the front of the boat. She was quiet and looked out to sea. Between her shivering and nervous facial expression, I was convinced she couldn’t swim.

As we slowly motored between several other boats, I was beginning to wonder about this couple. By this time, Christian had struck up a conversation with the couple next to us. They were from Aberdeen. I have family in Sioux Falls so we were talking about how cold it was there (29 degrees). We told them we were from Colorado and they laughed because they heard on their hotel TV it was 70 degrees and sunny in Denver.

“Why are you here?” they asked us laughing. During this conversation, I kept looking at the young woman on Mike’s arm. She had high-arched and thin dark eyebrows, perfect little nose and shiny black hair. When Mike talked about their previous snorkels, I assumed they had traveled together, but upon closer inspection, she looked like one of the schoolgirls we saw walking along the road. Did he pluck her out of the jungle? He did talk about a trip through Guatemala earlier. Did she even speak English? I caught her staring back at me and even thought I had my sunglasses on, I glanced away. Did she know I was looking at her? Was I making her uncomfortable? Did she know what I was thinking? Was she looking for help?

Wait a minute. Maybe she’s playing him. A ticket to the US is what she’s after. He buys her things and maybe takes her back to the States. She offers to cook and clean for him, take care of him so they can get married and she gets a green card. If they did go back to the States, would Mike let her go out of the house or would he keep her locked away?

We arrived at Shark-Ray Alley. Adelia didn’t get in the water at all here, which was too bad because the fish were large and everywhere. Stingrays all over the place, hence the name and we all got to pet one. I felt Adelia was missing out.

Now that I’m back in the States, I still wonder about Adelia. Are she and Mike still together? Or did he find another, even younger girl. Should I have spoken to her? Was it my place to do so? Too many questions and not enough answers.


Writer’s notes – I’ve had this story on the back burner for a while now. It wasn’t until hearing about CNN’s Freedom Project that I decided to put it out on the web for all to see. CNN’s Freedom Project is an attempt to show the plight of modern-day slavery and sex trafficking around the world, even here in the US, and to highlight those who are trying to make a difference. For more information, visit the CNN Freedom Project website. Mike and Adeila are on the bottom left of the boat photo above.

Discovery Expeditions
Ambergris Caye, Belize
Hol Chan Marine Reserve