Belize is a country I have come to know relatively well, in as much as one can know a place by being a tourist there. I just returned from my fourth trip to the country, and have now spent a total of six weeks in the country. There are times there when I wonder why the hell I keep going back. But there are also times when I imagine that I’d enjoy spending a longer chunk of time there to let the place really sink in. (The lack of decent Internet speeds, and the measly 30-day tourist visa are probably the main reasons for not really bothering to investigate what it would take to spend three or four months there.)
The last time I visited, I looked for flights direct from Mexico City to Belize City, and there were none, so ended up taking a ridiculous route via El Salvador and Costa Rica. This time, I did what I should’ve thought about doing before: flying to Chetumal, about 4 hours south of Cancún, and about 10 km from the border with Belize.
In the last few months, I’ve taken brief trips to Puebla and Oaxaca, and both times, enjoyed that feeling of having my backpack on, going to the bus station and waiting then heading off. I enjoy bus stations. They’re totally better than airports. That first day of my trip, though, had the potential to be a relatively stressful one. I didn’t have much wiggle room when it came to flight or border crossing delays if I was to get to the Corozal (the closest “big” town across the border) to get a bus to Belize City that would allow me to get the last bus of the day to my ultimate destination, Punta Gorda, right in the south of Belize.
The trip started off in the worst possible way: my upstairs neighbours (I don’t know their names, but lets call them Cunt and Twat) were having one of their idiotically loud parties. Despite previous complaints, and an assurance from them that they’d give me prior notice to any more of their parties, they keep on failing to bother. I’ve been in this apartment for three-ish months. They’ve had seven all-night parties in that time. And I’m not talking about a regular loud-ish party; I’m talking full-on massive sound system and lights, and going on until well into the next day. It was already 1.30am when I got home from having a few drinks with friends, so no point in even contemplating the possibility that they would turn the music down. I turned right around, and went back to my friend’s house, had another couple of beers and got three-ish hours sleep on the sofa.
For some reason, I decided to not take a taxi to the airport. Took the subway. A bit of a delay on the first two connections. A bigger delay on the next one. Arrived with about ten minutes until the flight closed. Got through the queue to check in with the gracious help of people in front of me in the queue. (The airline I was using doesn’t have individual desks for specific flights.) Exhale. The flight spent a wee bit too long waiting to get onto the runway, but in the end, it was a smooth one, arriving in Chetumal on time.
The airport in Chetumal is small. And, the good thing about those airports is the way you walk off the plane down some stairs and you can feel like the Beatles or a president for a few moments. Plus, arriving in a town on the Caribbean coast, you get the brilliant blast of heat. My backpack was one of the first on the carousel, out the door, “taxi!,” and straight to the Mexican side of the border. Got the exit stamp on my passport, then did what I’d been looking forward to ever since I booked the flight: walked across an international border.
There’s about a kilometre or so between the place where you enter/exit Mexico and the place where you enter/exit Belize. The Mexico border dudes are closest to the border. Just a hundred metres or so walking along the edge of the road until you are on a bridge crossing a river, the actual border between the countries. On the Belize side, there’s a few food places, a shitty-looking mall and a casino. I guess you’re technically in Belize there, but as I’d exited Mexico, and not yet had my passport stamped to be allowed to enter Belize, where am I at that point? I mean, if Belize were to refuse you entry, and then Mexico did the same when you tried to return, what would happen to you? Where would you be?
Something else that exists before you reach the immigration thingy, is taxi drivers looking for business. Friendly guy honed in on me, telling me he’d take me to Corozol for 20 US dollars. (In Belize, US currency is valid. One US dollar is equal to two Belizean dollars.) I bullshitted, told him a “friend” had told me it was 20 Belize dollars. He said he’d split the difference and take me for 30 Belize. After we’d agreed on that, I found out he wasn’t the driver. He was just the pimp. A Latino guy was the driver, and his pal, an old fella with greying dreadlocks sat in the front, me in the back. They drove me to the immigration point. This was a few drive through areas, like toll booths, and an office off to the side. I got out of the cab, went into the office. I was the only visitor in there. The immigration guy asked why I was there. Holiday. Noted that I’d been before. I love it here. Asked about the London Olympics. Don’t really care that much about it. Then we had a wee chat about the Belizean team. He didn’t know how many athletes would be going. (I just checked: they have just three competitors attending: Kenneth Medwood in the men’s 400m hurdles, Kaina Martinez in the women’s 100m, and Eddermys Sanchez in the men’s 66kg judo.) Kinda got the feeling he would happily have had me standing there chatting for ten minutes. A quick buzz through customs, and I’m back in the cab, chatting with the two chaps. Both of them awesome. We talked about the Queen’s jubilee. Belizeans seem to love her, and I found out why. Back in the day, Guatemala wanted Belize. They thought it belong to them. British Honduras as it was then known, had its borders protected by British troops. Thus, the Queen-lovin’.
The worrying about the tight wiggle room with getting to where I wanted to go turned out not to be anything to worry about. I was well over an hour early, had a Coke at the bus station, and got on the 11am bus from Corozal to Belize City. Buses in Belize are old American school buses. Like the ones you see in films. They don’t have a huge amount of leg room, or luggage room (it’s all just stashed in a wobbly pile at the back where one of the seating benches is missing), and they’re not overly comfortable. And they have music playing really loud. (During the journey we heard a lot of reggae. And in the middle of all this proper reggae: “All That She Wants” by Ace of Base.) The bus set off, but we’d not got more than half a kilometre before we were stopping to pick up another passenger. This was repeated quite a lot. If you want to get the bus, you don’t need to go to a station or a bus stop, you just stand at the side of the road and get on.
The bus stopped in Orange Walk, the only major town on the route to Belize City. It filled up to the point where there were ten or so standing passengers. A guy sat next to me. An Indian guy who’d been living in Belize for a couple of years. I could tell, as I sat in the window seat, that he kept looking at me. Like he wanted to talk. And when I glanced over at the other side of the bus, he started chatting. I took my headphones off, had a brief get-to-know-you chat, who where why what. He asked about night clubs in England. Pause. Then he asked if there were any “naked clubs” in England. I told him, that, yes, there are places to see naked girls dancing in England. He told me there were none in Belize. I asked him if there were naked clubs in India. He looked shocked that it was even necessary to ask such a question. No, there were not any naked clubs in India. Then he rambled a bit about the conservative nature regarding such things in India, and out of nowhere, told me the law was very harsh in India regarding rape. Err, what the fuck!? There was a moment where I wondered if I was sat next to a rapist. The conversation was very stop-start. We’d discuss a topic, be silent for a minute or so, then he’d come back with another question.
“Have you ever had sex with a black girl?”
I have not.
“Don’t do it in Belize…. baaaaad.”
Pause for a minute.
“Have you ever had sex with a Mexican girl?”
I have, yes.
“Did you pay for it?”
Three hours after leaving Corozal, the bus pulled into the station at Belize City. It’s not the nicest place in the world, the bathroom was disgusting, and I got the feeling that straying too far from the outside of the station would have me walking around neighbourhoods that I shouldn’t be walking around. I’d missed breakfast, only had a mini packet of crisps and a coffee on the plane, so ate a burrito at the bus station. It was about 90% tortilla which was welded to the greaseproof paper it came wrapped in. An hour or so later, the bus heading for Punta Gorda pulled in. There was the polar opposite of an orderly queue to get on the bus. A couple of younger fellas jogged to the back of the bus to open the back door and bypass the queue. I followed them and got a seat. The bus pulled out of the station, rammed full of people. As we got onto the street, someone outside the bus was shouting at the driver to stop. A girl of maybe 11 or 12 was running to jump on the bus. One of the passengers shouted the girls name. It was her mother. She’d gotten on the bus without one of her children.
Soon after we left Belize City, about eight hours since I left my apartment, I started to get that feeling. That lovely travelly feeling. My mind was emptying of all the normal stuff. Just staring out of the window at the landscape, the houses, the small villages. We headed inland first to the capital, Belmopan, and then back through a more jungle-y landscape towards the coastal town of Dangriga. It was lovely looking to see jungle again. There’s very little in life that makes me feel something inside like seeing jungle. There was obviously no air conditioning on the bus, and with the windows open, the smell of another country, another landscape blew in. A smell of heat, humidity, trees and plants, smoke from fires in villages. The bus was half empty after we left Dangriga. Now heading more or less directly south, this final part of the journey was long and dark. After being on a full busy bus all the way from the very top of the country, with ten or so remaining passengers heading to Punta Gorda (the most southern town of any size), it was really beginning to feel like heading to the last tube station on the line. Which it was. Around 9.30, the landscape became familiar. The barely-lit highway turned into yellow sodium-lit street heading into Punta Gorda, a town I’ve been to three times before. It was a feeling like that when, as a child, you fall asleep in the back of the car, and wake up when you are nearly home, and you know that you will be in bed shortly. I got off the bus in the centre of Punta Gorda, got in a cab, and head a couple of kilometres out of town to Hickatee Cottages, where I’ve stayed every time I’ve been in the town. It was fantastic to be back, to see Kate and Ian, my friends who run the place, again. Sixteen hours of travelling, and I was sat on the verandah, having a beer, chatting away. And then, it was time to sleep. Sleep in a lovely small cottage with the jungle all around and a thunderstorm that shook the building, and rain hitting the leaves of the jungle. When I can’t sleep normally, I’ll go to YouTube and find one of those rain sounds videos, dim the computer screen, and fall asleep. I did not need YouTube, I had the real thing.
It’s been a couple of week since I got back from Belize. As part of my efforts to not spend much non-drawing time using my electronic devices, I made notes about the trip with a pencil in a notebook. Thus, it’s not just a matter of copying and pasting blog posts about the trip. But, that’s kinda nice. It means I read my notes, and relive things a little, extending the vacation feeling just a little bit. More about the trip over the next week or so.