Paradisiacal Homophobia | The Caribbean Psyche

I have been wanting to write this piece for a while now. I suppose it’s a little darker than my other posts but I don’t really enjoy “oh you must try this spaghetti bolognaise from..” or “it’s only 20Euros from the airport by bus” travel writing. I’m moving my writing in a new direction this year to more poetic travel prose while also asking bigger questions about travel; our global citizenship, places where minorities cannot go, escapism through travel, ethics and larger ideas such as these.
Paradisiacal Homophobia and the Caribbean Psyche.
Joe Shaw.

“Over the last decade the attitudes of Commonwealth Caribbean people towards homosexuality have been discussed at length in the popular media. This is especially true of media outside of the Caribbean, which has taken a keen interest in what has often been called ‘Caribbean homophobia’.” (Gaskins, J. 2013). The main culprit of extensive homophobia in the Caribbean, for me, would always be Jamaica. However, my visit to the Central American-Caribbean hybrid nation of Belize was my first insight into what it is like to be a LGBT traveller. In 2005 popular gay magazine Advocate suggested in an article that the Bahamas should be moved to a ‘watch-list’ so that LGBT travellers would know to avoid it as a destination, showing how homophobia in the Caribbean spreads throughout all of its nation states. Research before visiting these places is important as attitudes between these states can differ slightly, from physical affection in public to hotels rejecting bookings from same sex parties. It makes me contemplate my situation in the world as these places are seen as the epitome of idealistic paradise. They are home to the textbook white sandy beaches, clear skies and turquoise waters. However, underneath the surface lies something much more ugly. For example; a newly-wed (heterosexual) couple can book a Jamaican honeymoon or wedding without a second thought of rejection or discrimination. It arises the question of where minorities can and cannot go in the world.

My experience of homophobia in Belize was during a festival on the island of Caye Caulker. I am eating authentic Belizean food from street stalls – barbecue chicken and rice, washing it down with a lukewarm beer because even on a night temperatures are high. Steels drums are pounding in the background, which pours Caribbean atmosphere into the street. Locals shout loudly to each other and dance by the sea. Idealistic-no? As I talk with my friend a group of locals approach my other -slightly drunk- friends and ask them “Tu Eres Maricon?” over and over again. Obviously their Spanish is none existent and they don’t understand what is being asked, much to the amusement if the local Belizeans. However, I was able to translate the accusation as “You are a faggot?”. In that situation you forget the delicious food, intoxicating beer and music flowing through your ears. You feel small and vulnerable . This is because of what we know of the homophobic Caribbean psyche. That this situation could become dangerous quite quickly. “Male homosexuals, especially, face constant threat from organized homophobic gangs. They risk physical harm and even death if they publicly reveal their sexual orientation.” (Wahab, A and Plaza, D. 2009). Although the attention in this situation was not on me, the only homosexual in that group. I still felt I had to get out of that situation so I made my excuses and left to go to the beach with one of my group. As eye contact from one of the locals would make me feel as if he had discovered my secret, which could potentially cause me harm. Now there is no way of that local knowing exactly that I was homosexual but it wouldn’t matter. There is this paranoia that even a slight queerness could somehow break this masculine shell of what it means to be Caribbean. The point of this incident is to express how LGBT travellers need to be aware in countries that are backwards when it comes to same-sex equality.

Why does the Caribbean have a particular problem with homophobia? Where does it come from? Well evidence suggests it comes from two sources. The first, which is ironic to me, is the British colonisation of the Caribbean. Coming from Britain myself, which has come a long way in regards to LGBT rights – same sex marriage, anti-discrimination acts in the workplace and many gay spaces in cities for example. Yet the message it left behind for its colonies has resulted in a vicious oppression of the LGBT minority. The main example during my research was the “Buggery laws”, which made same-sex intimacy illegal in 11 of the 12 Commonwealth Caribbean countries. “The term “buggery” is considered interchangeable with sodomy and was used in English legal documents to describe sexual intercourse between men.” (Gaskins, J. 2013). This shows the major influence British colonisation had on the psyche of homophobia in the Caribbean, which is still rife today. The second example is Christian fundamentalists from the US. The homophobia in the Caribbean is promoted “by the literal interpretation of Christian texts condemning sodomy” (Wahab, A and Plaza, D. 2009). An incident in 1998 Bahamas resulted in a group of Christian fundamentalists protesting the arrival of a cruise ship carrying gay passengers, which was used as an argument to re-instate the sodomy laws the Bahamas had previously decriminalised (Gaskin, J. 2013). I believe that both of these influences have created a ‘hostile paradise’ for LGBT travellers today.

So, what can a LGBT traveller do before going to a country that has strict negative attitudes towards homosexuality? And I would suggest that you still go to these places. An aspiring traveller like me believes that I should be able to step onto any beach, road or park that I want. To be stopped from doing so because of my sexuality would be a failure to myself. However, unfortunately caution should still be taken in certain places. The UK Government posts these tips:

1) Excessive physical shows of affection, by both same-sex and heterosexual couples, are often best avoided in public
2) If you intend to visit cruising areas or use a dating app, find out about the local situation and take sensible precautions if you meet someone; some dating apps have safety tips; in countries where attitudes towards LGB&T people are hostile, police have been known to carry out entrapment campaigns
3) Be wary of new-found ‘friends’- criminals sometimes exploit the generally open and relaxed nature of the gay scene
4) If you receive unwelcome attention or unwelcome remarks it’s usually best to ignore them
5) You’re more likely to experience difficulties in rural areas so it’s best to exercise discretion
6) Some resorts can be quite segregated – when you are outside the ‘gay neighbourhood’ expressions of sexuality may be frowned upon
7) Some hotels, especially in rural areas, won’t accept bookings from same sex couples – check before you go
8) Avoid possibly risky situations – don’t do anything that you wouldn’t at home.

If you do run into any trouble while abroad and you are unable to contact the local police, because of fear of further discrimination then the British Embassy in that country is your best option.
I hope you enjoyed this post. It’s an incident I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time. It actually inspired by Dissertation idea. I believe it shows an insight into minority travellers. This is where I want to take the blog this year. Rather than just describing a destination to you in the sense of where you can visit, how much things cost and public transport etc.. I want to discuss the big ideas and emotions around travel. They won’t all be serious like this but I want to push my writing into the more academic as well as poetic prose, to suit my personal writing style.
REFERENCES.

Wahab, A and Plaza, D. (2009) Queerness in the Transnational Caribbean-Canadian Diaspora, Caribbean Review of Gender Studies.

Gaskins, J. (2013) ‘Buggery’ and the Commonwealth Caribbean: a comparative
examination of the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago

GOV. UK. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender-foreign-travel-advice

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A Poem To My Mayan Family | When Guatemala Offered Me A Seat At The Table

The greatest part of my Central American experience was when we were given the amazing opportunity to take part in a homestay with a Mayan family. It was the perfect way to experience a culutre so different from my own. As I return to my own family after being abroad for what seems like forever, I look back at my other, Mayan family who welcomed me into their home. What I took from the experience was this; I will never forget sitting at the table eating the meal that we prepared together. Trying to communite with each other the best we could, with my very basic Spanish and their very basic English. Despite challenges over language we were able to still have a common connection over food, in a small house halfway across the world.

When Guatemala Offered Me a Seat At The Table.

Although we speak with a different tongue
guessing at words while simultaneously eager to understand their meaning.
We are introduced to your community in the hills.
You show us your church, your local school and businesses.
Children play basketball,
shouting to each other in a mixture of Mayan and Spanish,
before showing us your abode.
Corrigated metal for walls,
no doors, no doors are needed.
Your abeula who sits in the corner. Wrinkled hands placed on her lap
helping her daughter cook a meal
for people from different lands, backgrounds and circumstances,
all eager for a taste of your culture
nourishing their lips like orange juice.
I accept the chair your offer me at the table.
I eat the meal you lovingly cooked.
I don’t even do this at home
because something interesting is on the television.
I remember teaching you the word ‘peaceful’
over bread
and a Guatemalan history lesson.
The note I left you,
words are the best gift I can give you
as you gave me the greatest gift.
An insight into a loving family and a community
nestled between jungle and lake.
Thank you
you are all still in my heart as I reminisce
about our connection
over bread.

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Colour Explosions in the Caribbean! Caye Caulker, Belize

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As the temperature here in Stockholm slowly starts to drop, the number of layers increases. I haven’t left my apartment without a jumper for the past week. As I lay in bed shivering, I happily reminisce back to my (kinda) recent trip to Belize. Here, I sizzled under the Caribbean sun and the only *cold* in my life was the ice clicking in my drink.

Caye Caulker, Belize has the best of both worlds. After a twelve hour travel day from Mexico, I wanted nothing more than to relieve the stress and tension of a long journey by laying on the beach. It won’t take you long to see one, since the island is only 200m in width. Find yourself a palm tree, stretch out on the sand and forget yourself. The only sounds to disturb you are the gentle crashing of waves, the crackling of a nearby barbecue and a local shouting “sweeeeeeeeeeeeet” in her distinct Caribbean accent as she tries to sell snacks.

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After you’re rested then you can dive right into the livelier side of Caye Caulker . When I was there the residents were having a colour powder party with a steel drum band playing. Pay a couple of BZD for a bag of powder and throw it over your friends, or that annoying kid you saw earlier (Top Tip- cover your beer!). We proceeded to look like rainbows for the rest of the day.

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Even the dog got involved!

So, as I still lay shivering in my bed. I try and remember laying on the beach. I try to remember dancing to the steel drums, while my friend pours yellow powder over my head, and for (at least) a second I feel warm!

– I want to dedicate this post to the little Belize girl who slapped red powder on my back, not knowing i’d been severely sunburnt the day before – that definitely left a handprint!

 

Underwater Cities, Elegant Marine Life & Raggamuffin Rum Punch | Hol Chan Reserve, Caye Caulker.

Caye Caulker already has a number of serious reputations: The party island of Belize, Lobster Fest champion and the best rum punch in Central America. It can also add snorkelling to its street cred. A short boat ride from the island is Hol Chan Marine Reserve, an underwater city under the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. It is lined with beautiful corals, untouched and protected so it offers a completely natural environment. Its residents are families of sea turtles, schools of fish, manta rays, eels and a whole plethora of other marine life just waiting to share the water with you.

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The ‘Ragga King’

We set off from Caye Caulker on the ‘Ragga King’ one of the Raggamuffin Tours fleet. If you’re wanting a day filled with sun, sea and good times then this is the group to travel with. They have no control over the sun but they will guarantee the party atmosphere and make sure you get the absolute most out of what the Hol Chan reserve has to offer. We approach our first stop, here our captain tells us about the reef and its inhabitants. We are not allowed to touch the animals or the coral. The outstanding natural unspoiled beauty of the reserve is down to people like the Raggamuffin tour group. They are compellingly passionate about keeping the reserve damage free, as it should be. Once we were in the water we followed our guides around the nearby area. We saw nurse sharks and manta rays just a few feet from us and they seemed completely at home in their natural environment. The surrounding coral burst with colour and was perfectly formed, not damaged by the passing of a sailboat or the kick of a flipper. First time snorkelers don’t worry – your captains are there to encourage and help you every stroke of the way. There are lifejackets if you don’t feel comfortable.

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Swimming with Nurse Sharks. Photo Credit: Madeleine Damlos
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Nurse Sharks. Photo Credit: Madeleine Damlos
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Nurse Sharks at Hol Chan.
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Our first glimpse of Hol Chan’s beautiful coral. Photo Credit: Adam VanLo

Next, we moved onto the second of the three stops on the trip. This was the best as it was the actual Hol Chan reserve. When we arrived, there were other boats with a host of snorkel groups. Our group split up into two teams and set off around the reserve in opposite directions. The clear waters surrounding Belize give you an incredible view of the metropolis that lies underneath the waves. A whole eco system of wildlife going about their daily business. It’s hard to focus on one particular area, as one second you see a giant mantra ray skimming the sea floor. Then a group of fish swim directly beneath you, followed by a gentle nurse shark swimming a few feet in front of you. Our captain would dive under the water and point out different fish species so we didn’t miss out on seeing a lot of wildlife. We continued to swim through the reserve, the water got shallower and shallower until we got to the coral garden. Here you had to swim very gentle strokes because the coral was only a few feet below you, and the last thing you wanted to do was harm it in anyway. The coral was so vibrant in colour, and the patterns made it look like you were floating above the surface of another planet. The fish were just as colourful. The best views of the day were a massive green eel, and a baby sea turtle that hurried back to its mum when it saw our ugly faces swimming towards it.

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The Hol Chan reserve. Photo Credit: Adam VanLo
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The fishy residents of Hol Chan reserve. Photo Credit: Adam VanLo
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Manta Rays. Photo Credit: Adam VanLo
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The coral garden of Hol Chan. Photo Credit: Adam VanLo
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The coral garden of Hol Chan. Photo Credit: Adam VanLo

 

Only a few members of the group snorkelled at the third stop – myself included. This was a lot quieter than the other stops and we saw a few more tropical fish. I’m glad I went to this one because I saw a pufferfish! Once we were all back on the boat it was time for the famous Raggamuffin rum punch. We were warned at how strong it was, but after a couple of drinks we didn’t care and we were all dancing on the deck to the music. The best way to finish an unforgettable day!

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Captain Kevin & our crew. Photo Credit: Megan Lurkins
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Party on Deck! Photo Credit: Megan Lurkins
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‘Rom’ Punch. Photo Credit: Megan Lurkins
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Boat Party. Photo Credit: Megan Lurkins

Run punch aside it’s incredibly clear how much the team at Raggamuffin care about their work on the reserve. They made sure each and every one of us respected the reef and the wildlife that inhabit it. We saw how much they care for it, and how far their work goes to keeping the reserve as natural as possible. I personally left with a new found appreciation for how beautiful the world can be if we look after it and leave it unpolluted.

 

I write this post wishing everyone in Belize, particularly those in Caye Caulker safety as the country is hit by Hurricane Earl. Many have been left without homes and I hope the island can recover quickly.

Red as a Caye Caulker Lobster | Slap on that Sun cream!

At this point we were in the fourth or fifth day of our Central American trip. The weather was showing no signs of cooling down, as the temperature scale didn’t drop below 30degrees. The sun belted down on us constantly. Being from the cold north of the UK, this was a shock to the system and as expected I started to burn. I could cope though because it was only a bit on my shoulders, no biggie – it happens! It was all going so well, until I underestimated the power of the Belizean sun on a snorkelling trip….

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This was the result of not wearing a shirt before spending the whole day snorkelling. It was my own fault, our guide told us to make sure we were covered and protected. Like a child pouting at its parents for having to put cream on, I similarly thought I knew best and left my back exposed to the sun the entire trip. Other members of the group commented on how my back was a ‘bit red’. Thinking that they meant my shoulders, I shrugged it off and told them I would be fine. It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel and looked in the mirror that my mouth dropped. My entire back was bright red in a perfect outline of burnt skin. If you placed a finger on it the skin turned white before leaving a brief mark. This would be the cause of a lot of pain and peeling the next few days of the trip. My one top tip from this experience is… Cream up!! It didn’t help that I started with factor 15 on my pasty, British, white skin. It might just be me lacking common sense but it’s an easy thing to forget. You don’t want to end up like I did – red as a Caye Caulker lobster during lobster season.

Welcome to Caye Caulker | Belize’s Party Island!

Despite only being there for a short time, I had left Mexico with many great memories. I had experienced things for the first time and I was already dreaming of my next visit. However, I didn’t have much time to ponder over Mexico’s paradise because we were about to enter our next country, Belize. Home of the party island of Caye Caulker, where the rum punch flows and the lobsters fill up your plate!

Before we could experience the Caribbean delights that Caye Caulker had to offer, we first had an eight hour journey to endure. At 6am we hopped onto our private van to the border town of Chetumal. Here we were ushered off our transport and quickly moved onto the public ‘chicken bus’. These are old American school buses that the countries of Central America bought off the USA. They paint them in a whole plethora of different colours and crazy styles. The name ‘chicken bus’ comes from how crowded they get, on average they cram three to a seat and have people squashed down the aisle – like chickens! Luckily our first experience with the chicken bus wasn’t so bad (we would be a lot more squeezed together on later trips!).

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Sitting on our Chicken Bus!
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Our ride to Belize City! (Crossing the border)

The border crossing from Mexico to Belize took about an hour – don’t forget if you’re leaving Mexico you need to pay a border fee, this changes from time to time so check how much it is when you’re in the country. After we had our passport stamped we were officially in Belize. It was amazing to see how much it instantly differed from Mexico. Driving through the country the atmosphere is much more Caribbean than Latino or Mayan like in other Central American countries. The landscape is a mixture of green plants, bare dusty roads and sparking rivers, which shine in the intense sunlight. The views were enough to keep you occupied on the four hour bus journey to Belize City. When we arrived at our destination we just had enough time to stretch our legs before walking to the port to catch our boat to the island of Caye Caulker. After hopping on the boat it’s just a short half an hour drive to the island, on your way you pass many other smaller ‘Caye’s’ which look desperate to be explored! Other boats come past you in the opposite direction. The sea wind blowing in my face was completely refreshing after the journey we’d had.

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Welcome to Belize!
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Hello Caye Caulker!
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Excited to Come into Port

As the boat started to pull up we could see our first glimpse of Caye Caulker. From one paradise in Mexico to an even more picturesque one here. We hopped off the boat and stepped onto the white beach, covered in palm trees. We were unable to check into our hotel because the power was out on the island, which apparently happens quite frequently. We couldn’t be annoyed at this for long because we were in paradise after all. We decided to pass the time by exploring the island, it only takes you about 20 minutes to walk around it all. There is the main bar at the end of the island called ‘The Lazy Lizard’ here we enjoyed 2-for-1 drinks while some of the group swam in the water.

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The Paradise that is Caye Caulker!

Night had arrived and there was no sign of the power coming back on. People shopped in the supermarkets with torches desperately trying to get what they needed before it closed early. We were starting to think we would be spending the night sleeping on the beach. After such a long day of travelling we were ready for food to lift our spirits. We went to a place called ‘Wish Willy’s’, which I think is just someone’s back garden. We sat and enjoyed a proper Belizean feast. Lobster, chicken, rice, potatoes, fish and whole garden of vegetables. All enjoyed by candlelight. The lobster was the star of dinner because we had come during Caye Caulker’s lobster season. People come from all over Belize (and the world!) to get their hands on it while it’s at its best. During our meal the power came back on twice, each time it was met with a roar of excitement but soon after it was off again. As we were about to head back to the hotel it finally came on for good.

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Lobster (courtesy of the lobster season) by Candlelight 

With a full belly and a nice helping of rum punch it was time for bed. We left the group and wondered down the road to our hotel room. My first impressions of Caye Caulker were that it is out of this world. The scenery alone is perfect. The beaches and the surrounding sea are a travellers dream. The food and the party atmosphere are enough to make you want to pack up and stay here for good. I went to bed that night dreaming of what adventures I would get up to on the island when I woke up. I could hardly wait!

Making Marine Friends | Turtle Beach: Akumal, Mexico

After being invited to spend the day at Tulum beach, I thought I had seen all the paradise that Mexico had to offer. That is until I discovered Akumal bay. Mexico has endless white beaches with the bluest waters. Tourists from all over the world come and relax on the sun loungers. They eat at restaurants overlooking people building sandcastles and paddling. Akumal is not like these other beaches, here you will find yourself sharing the sea with one of the oceans most beautiful inhabitants.

During my short time in Mexico, Akumal soon became a must see after hearing it is a turtle reserve. The opportunity to go swimming with these amazing creatures is something I couldn’t miss, as this would be completely impossible back home. Other members of the group we were travelling with told us how amazing it was. With one full day left in the country we made it our mission to spot some turtles! Me and my partner jumped once more into a ‘collectivo’ and this time we ended up exactly where we wanted to be. I’m putting this down to the car being full of other tourists going to the same place. Unlike last time when it was just us and we ended up the complete opposite of where we wanted to be!

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When we arrived at Akumal we made our way down the main street. This is lined with various souvenir shops and a supermarket, as well as endless groups of people wanting to sign you up for turtle snorkelling tours. At the end of the street there is the Diving Centre. Here I learned that there are two beaches. Half Moon Bay is the quieter of the two and doesn’t have any turtles in the water. I would recommend going here if you’re not that interested in going swimming and seeing the turtles. It is also a good opportunity to get away from the crowds that take over the other beach. The main Akumal beach is through the Diving centre. This is a lot busier and you have to make your way through the gatherings of tourists wearing orange life jackets, who are getting ready for their turtle tour! One friend from our group recommended visiting the beach at 8am. She said the tour groups aren’t on the beach at this time so you would have the water all to yourself. It is also quieter for the turtles so they are more likely to make an appearance.

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We had lunch at the restaurant on the beach, which I believe is a hotel establishment. It is mostly used by the people staying there, nevertheless we were treated to a delicious and authentic Mexican lunch for a reasonable price. Afterwards we walked down the beach and found a more private spot under a palm tree to shield us from the sun. Then we debated whether or not to do a tour. If you’re staying in the area for your entire holiday then by all means I think it’s worth doing. We were travelling to other places so wanted to save money. We opted for a cheaper solution – I walked back up the main street and found a shop that sold snorkels. They cost around 300-350pesos (approx. £10.). Being frugal I went even cheaper and just bought some goggles and a separate tube to breathe through.

Upon making it back to the beach I strapped on my goggles and waded through the water. You have to go pretty far out and it’s hard without a life jacket so I only recommend doing this if you’re a strong swimmer. I also had nothing over my nose so every time I put my head under the water to try and spot a turtle I had a rush of seawater going up there, which wasn’t a pleasurable experience – I suppose that’s what I paid for though. After about 20 minutes, zero turtles spotted and getting very tired of swimming I was starting to lose hope, but I knew if I swam back I would miss out on seeing one. I was determined to get what I came for. I saw a group of people with lifejackets on nearby shouting to each other. They were obviously part of a tour and where there’s a tour there are turtles! I swam near enough to them and dived under the water again.

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(Photo Credit: Hannah Kent)

There before my eyes was a sea turtle. I was surprised at how big it actually was. It lounged on the sea bed lazily eating the plants, completely unbothered by the fact it had about twenty pairs of eyes staring its way. The group moved on after a couple of minutes but I was too intrigued so I stayed and watched my new turtle friend. After a while the sea water was getting too much for me so I decided to have one last dive before returning to shore. When I went back under, the turtle swam up a couple of meters from me and then just like that it was off and I swam back to the beach to share the story.

It was an amazing experience and I really recommend visiting Akumal because the chance to see the turtles isn’t something you should miss. However, if you’re going freestyle like I did then make sure you’re careful around the tour groups. Don’t go and join the group, they have paid for a guide and you haven’t. Do what I did and swim on the outskirts of the group so it doesn’t look like you’re trying to get a free tour. You still get amazing views of the turtles!