FOR months I had a recurring dream-cum-daydream about Belize. A vivid mosaic of sunny skies, warm blue seas, exotic marine life and oodles of sweet rum melded into a tropical travel fantasy that I was yearning to live out.
But things aren't panning out as planned. I've just entered the former British colony from the jungles of Guatemala and because of a chronic toothache I haven't slept for two days.
To make matters worse, my first port of call, Belize City, is a shocker. Dusty streets and dank buildings rule, vagrants doze and beg on broken footpaths and rusty cars choke the roads, belching out exhaust fumes.
With the sky overcast and a downpour imminent, I dive into a battered old taxi. The Rastafarian driver says his name is Winston and that he is at my service, sir.
I tell him I'm looking for a half-decent hotel and a decent dentist.
"I know just the one, mon," he says, grinning to reveal a mouthful of golden teeth. "And don't you worry about staying here, mon. I get you to the dentist, he does the job and we get you on the last boat to the islands. It's much nicer there, mon."
When we arrive, the surgery is empty, save for the receptionist and a nurse, who says the dentist is out.
"Don't worry - he'll be back in a few hours," she says with a friendly, casual air.
I look at the clock. At this rate I'll be stuck in Belize City for the night.
My discomfort must be obvious because the receptionist rings her boss and urges him to come sooner. Five minutes later, he bounces through the front door.
"Hello sir," he says, baring his gleaming white teeth. "And what can we do you for?"
After an hour of being fussed over by the dentist, the receptionist and the dental nurse, I'm just $40 lighter, but the throbbing pain has vanished.
I call Winston, who drops me at the port - a few minutes before the last boat departs - and soon enough I'm on Caye Caulker, a pretty, pint-size island of colourful clapboard houses, where the friendly, laid-back locals get from A to B on bicycles, tricycles and golf buggies and, come nightfall, serve fabulously fresh seafood feasts in restaurants and street stalls.
The next morning, I go snorkelling in the seas off Caye Caulker (which neighbours upmarket San Pedro; said to have been the inspiration for Madonna's La Isla Bonita).
I feel as if I'm dreaming again. Beneath a brilliantly blue, cloudless sky, I'm swimming in warm, turquoise waters drenched in tropical marine life. Sharks, eels and rainbow-coloured fish dart past me. Octopuses, turtles and rays glide along the seabed.
Later, with the sun about to sink over the Caribbean, I'm back on the boat, reggae songs drifting from the stereo. Jerry, the gregarious boat captain, pours me a glass of rum punch.
"Here's to Belize, mon," he says as we drink, the sweet rummy flavour trickling slowly but gloriously down my throat, as my toothache becomes a distant memory.