Our second trip to Belize brought us back to Tobacco Caye, a tiny island juxtaposed with crumbling buildings and postcard perfect palms. We stayed in small cottages with bed bugs and sandy sheets. While commiserating with another couple (who got food poisoning, along with my mom) we learned that they just arrived from our next stopover on our trip: Caye Caulker. They told us about a snorkeling experience with a guide that seemed to be almost more fish than human. He used his hands to “talk” to the fishes.
We were intrigued.
They told us his name was Juni. Every night after 7pm, he would wait on the balcony of his house, across from the basketball court on the main road, and wait for people to approach. He would size them up and either agree to take them out on his boat, or decline.
After arriving on the Caye (and waiting until 7pm), we nervously approached and asked him if he’d take us out snorkeling. We made the likable Luke our spokesperson. After a long pause (I’m sure it seemed longer than it really was...), he agreed.
We were invited into his home, and one by one, sat down on a chair before him. He would silently examine each of our feet, walk over to a shelf of fins on his living room wall, select a pair and hand them over. The fit was right every time.
The morning of our snorkel trip, we boarded Juni’s sailboat- a boat he built entirely by himself. We sailed out to Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The reef is a popular place for tourist snorkel trips, but Juni knew when to leave and where to go, to avoid the masses. When the sailboat slowed and anchor was dropped, we prepped for our time in the water. Juni washed our masks and advised that once he went into the water, he didn’t lift his head...he immersed himself completely in this underwater world...the fishes world, his world.
The first stop was a large open sandy area. Sea turtles were nibbling on sea grass below. Rays were drifting over the sandy bottom. After entering the water, Juni made several motions with his hands (sliding them together, snapping his fingers) and fish starting swimming his way. Large groupers appeared from under the boat and swam toward us. They were particularly fond of my mom- later we dubbed her the “grouper glutton”. Juni would make a signal with his hands and huge rays would swim right up to our faces. Juni had prepped us in the boat, that if they swam up to us, to roll over onto our backs underwater and they would glide over our bodies (and face). It was an indescribable feeling having these giant, and somewhat intimidating, creatures float over our skin.
Our second stop was spent exploring the reef. Juni called the fish with his hands and a school emerged. These fish would follow him as we swam through the reef, swimming by his side the entire time. He did NOT feed the fish, they just seemed to know him. We swam through the coral passageways, following Juni’s lead. He knew when to pause and when to speed up, to allow the currents to effortlessly push and pull us through the maze of corals. We swam in harmony with the ebb and flow of the tides, allowing us to swim inches away from the coral, without touching it. We got a fishes view of the reef, swimming in Juni’s school.
We’ve been snorkeling all around the world, and never before have we felt so connected to the sea, its creatures, its movement, its hugeness and awesomeness. For this one day, we were a part of the sea.
Sailing back to shore, Juni shared his story with us. He grew up on the Caye and his not-so-good childhood attracted him to the reef. He would swim a mile out to sea, to the reef (at age 5!) and would lose himself underwater. Later in life he became a boat builder and eventually started sharing his love, knowledge, and respect for the ocean, by leading snorkel trips.
It was an experience we will never forget. We wanted our baby to have a name with a great story. A story about adventure and passion and wisdom...a name with earthy roots and worldly aspirations. We named him juniper wild...juni. Our ‘juniper blue’ eyed boy will grow up traveling, exploring, discovering and meeting good folks that make life interesting and real (like juni of the sea). We look forward to telling him this tale.
AND this story wouldn’t be complete without sharing the “outtakes” (sorry Luke).
Luke (who has never been sea sick before) got a bout of sea sickness on this trip. While in the water, he threw up watermelon chunks and was swarmed by fish. They jumped out of the water, swam up his shorts, molested his face, all for a taste of watermelon goodness. I am a little disappointed that I missed seeing this (sorry, Luke)...my mom saw it all and tells this part of the story fondly.