One of the ways cruise ships make extra money to pay the people who are spraying you with disinfectant is by offering shore excursions at every port of call. I chose Norwegian Cruise Lines because they had the longest port calls meaning we could be off the boat longer and presumably enjoying the countries we were visiting.
We had 4 port days and I signed us up for 2 excursions as a family and 2 where the minimum age was 8 (too bad, Z.) We alighted first at Roatan, a 30 mile-long sliver of an island off the coast of Honduras. Behind the port facade of pink concrete buildings designed to look posh and tropical, the island was poor and lacked organized garbage disposal service. But it was friendly and Gumbalimba Park was beautiful. The park is a (safe) haven for Howler Monkeys who are not native to the island but are apparently so threatened by lax government protection on the mainland that their defenders moved them to Roatan. Our guide was young, charming and could snatch a palm-sized lizard from a leaf before you had time to blink. Then he would hang it by the jaws from a willing person's earlobe, surprising because you can't help but wonder why a lizard would want to hang onto a human earlobe for any length of time.
As we approached the monkeys, we were told to remove dangling earrings, floppy hats and to put away any food. This made me nervous, having had my run-ins with aggressive monkeys and baboons in Africa. So when one scampered toward us on the path I was ready to duck and cover. But he was hardly interested in us. Rather, he jumped into the nearby garbage can and fished out a plastic Coke bottle, deftly unscrewed the cap, and drained the contents into his opened mouth.
I don't personally have "Hold a Monkey" on my bucket list, but if you're someone who does, Gumbalimba is a great place to visit. You don't exactly get to hold it, rather, the monkey uses you as a sitting perch while the handlers surreptitiously pass it a peanut and the photographer snaps your expressions. Sometimes the monkey will paw at your face or scramble over your head but at no time did a monkey poo or pee on a tourist. I suspect the ones who did were beaten soundly and banished from the tribe, now fending for themselves on tropical fruit and Coca Cola.
Our last stop in the reserve was the Insectarium. I figured we were going to walk into a reproduced rainforest filled with hairy critters that make the back of your neck prickle. Instead, the air conditioned room was filled with glass cases behind which were half the world's moths, butterflies and arachnids impaled on silver straight pins. Z asked, "Mama, are they dead?" I considered my reply because I wasn't certain yet if Z felt the same way about butterflies as he did kittens. So I said, "They lived long lives and died of natural causes. Then scientists mounted their little bodies on this styrofoam so we could admire their beauty up close."
From there we were bused to a nearby white sand beach where we ate Honduran hot dogs and Honduran hamburgers and deposited our clothes on white plastic lounge chairs and eagerly waded into the azure blue bathtub waters of the Caribbean. Although we were sharing the beach with 300 others Vitamin D deficient white people, there was a real advantage to a private beach: security. It had never occurred to me when I was an outsider observing a tour group on a beach that the only difference between us, besides the amount we were paying to be there, was that they weren't tying their knapsacks together in knots and stashing them behind shrubbery because they were paranoid about theft. If you observed long enough, you started to notice the smart looking employees in polo shirts and sunglasses hanging out at the peripheries, making sure no crime was occurring. This allowed us to explore the coral reef as a family and Z took to his mask and snorkel like a pro. The reef here was pretty spectacular, inhabited by many colorful fish varieties, and frilly creatures that looked like undulating white trees, sporting the massive feathered headdress of a Las Vegas showgirl.
The day C and I rode a yawn-worthy zip line and floated through a cave of geologically dripping limestone, Z got tender with a dolphin. Dolphins have to be about the most obliging animal in the ocean, happy to do tricks and kiss thousands of tourist each year, all with a grin on their faces. They must be benefiting from the Prozac and Celexa being flushed into the water supply. What else could account for their tolerance?
Another day C and I tried out the crossbreed sport of Snuba: snorkeling and scuba. A small raft held the oxygen tanks and our breathing apparatus was connected by a 20 foot line so we could stay underwater and drop down to about 15 feet. This particular area of Costa Maya had been heavily damaged in 2007 by Hurricane Dean so most of what we were seeing underwater were the planking and rebar left behind by an obliterated pier. Our guide told us the coral was making a comeback and maybe it was, but to my untrained eye recovering coral looks suspiciously like concrete pilings. Just as my cynical self was ready to write off snuba in hurricane-ravaged waters as a waste of time and money, our new friend Cheryl popped up to the surface and proclaimed the experience "Just awesome!" That made me realize how easy it is to filter new experiences through the lens of my past, allowing the comparisons to dull any present joy. Cheryl was totally in the moment, recognizing that a half hour breathing underwater with fish and anemones and man-made detritus was, indeed, awesome. And I thank her for that.
For the next few hours I had the brand new experience of having someone bring me an unlimited supply of watered down cocktails while I lounged in the sun. The beach waiters weren't allowed to take tips upon delivery of a drink and so without fishing into my backpack every 15 minutes, I sucked down a margarita, pina colada, tequila sunrise, hurricane, and took a daiquiri to go when it was time to board the bus. Sadly, I did not slur, stumble or hug strangers as can happen when I drink even one Catholic-made margarita. If you're a connoisseur of mixed drinks, don't even think of coming on this kind of cruise.
You might ask yourself, now where is it you were? I had to ask myself the same question. In fact, the people on the balcony next to us were even more befuddled and wondered aloud whether Belize was part of Mexico and if Cozumel was its own country. I will admit that as long as I was warm, the sun was shining and my child was happy, it mattered not for those 7 days what nation I was in. I think that's what cruising will do to you. Because at the end of the day, everyone around you was either from Texas or the snow-encumbered Mid-West, the food was American contemporary with a side of comfort, and you lost yourself on a deck chair reading a dime store novel. But for one week? I could handle that.