I will never tire of the feeling of waiting for a bus to go to a town I’ve never been to before. Leaving Placencia featured a lovely way of doing it, too. The place where I was staying was a few hundred metres from the end of the 20-odd km long peninsula, and the bus I’d be taking would go to the end, turn around, and pick up passengers along the way. It took nigh-on an hour to travel the length of the peninsula; so many people were scattered along its length, we were stopping and starting constantly. Most of the passengers were heading further north than I was, to Dangriga. I was getting off before then. When I bought the ticket form the conductor, I asked him to let me know where to get off so that I could get to Hopkins. He ignored my request, but thankfully, the guy sat behind me had heard me ask, and told me when to get up.
Hopkins is about six or seven kilometres off the highway. The bus stopped at the junction, I hopped off. There was an old guy stood around. I asked him if there were any buses soon. “In a few hours, yes.” So I started walking. I’d been warned about this, but figured it doesn’t hurt to ask. I plugged in my headphones, turned on “The Wall” and stomped along the side of the straight, sandy, road. I’d been told that the best way to get from the highway to the village was with a passing vehicle. It was hot. My shirt was drenched, and sweat was dripping off my face. Ten vehicles passed by before, about 40 minutes into my walk, and, as it turned out, about halfway along the road, a truck with an open flat back part (what are these vehicles called?) pulled up. A guy sat in the back gestured for me to get in. I took out my headphones, threw my backpack over the back door thing, and jumped in. The guy and I had a wee chat. He told me I’d come to the right place to relax. He was friendly. We stopped at a junction, pretty much the only junction in the village. The guy and I said goodbye, he wished me a good time in his town, and I chatted to the driver while another passenger got some stuff from the store. He asked where I wanted to go. A friend had recommended a place to stay. The driver, Johnny, told me it was nice there, and dropped me off right outside. Not to be, though. They were closed during the off-season to do some renovations, but the woman swinging in a hammock recommended another place a bit further along.
I traipsed along the road, ten minutes later saw the sign for Tipple Tree Beya, and walked up the stairs to ring the bell to see if there was a room. There was a room. About 40 dollars a night. Splendid. Two nights please. The room was one of three that faced out towards the sea. Small wooden rooms, with wood slats covering bug screens for windows. And a hammock on the deck out front. Perfect. After spending the last hour or so sweating buckets, I just dumped everything, put on my shorts and went out for a swim. Swimmy swim swim. Brain is there going, “hey relax, dude.” And it was nice. Two days here in Hopkins, then off to the western border, nip across to Guatemala to see Tikal. A couple of days there, then back up to Chetumal to fly back to Mexico City. The couple in the room next to mine were a lovely German couple. You really couldn’t ask to be sharing a hammock-y deck with nicer people. Spent some time in the hammock as the sky got darker, drank a couple of beers, and I was in bed by 11pm. It was still hot. I opened the window slats at the front and back of the room; no need to turn the fan on when there’s a lovely ocean breeze there to keep me cool.
With the windows open, a new room, thus new bed, I woke up around 5am. Just in time for the sunrise. The sky was all pink and dark purple. I walked down to the water’s edge. The husband of the woman who runs the place was raking the sand. He has the best job ever. Every morning, he does something nice and gentle and repetitive like raking sand while the sun rises over the ocean. Plus, he told me, it’s good for the back to spend some time each day walking backwards. Advice I have failed to heed, simply because I don’t have any beaches nearby, and walking backwards down the street would be mental. I had my iPod in my pocket, so I tried to draw a quick drawing of the sunrise. I did another a hour or so later. I did another 30 of them during my stay in Hopkins. It became a lovely ritual. To stop, have a look at the see, really look, and that flat block of water beneath that airy stuff changes colour so often. (Those drawings can be seen here.)
I had breakfast at a place called Innies. It looked a bit crappy from the outside. A concrete building painted pink and yellow with some kind of shower-strength leak coming from somewhere on the upper floor. Like a lot of restaurants in Belize, the glass doors and windows were tinted glass, so you can never really tell if they are busy or even open. It was open. Terrible instant coffee with what I think was condensed milk. I ordered an omelette, which came with beans and fry jacks, a local thing that’s basically like a puffy tortilla. The omelette had Cheez Whiz on top; a little daunting, but my gosh, it was delicious.
Lounge in the hammock, listen to music, read a bit, watch the grackles flying around, and squawking at each other. I like them. I like how strident they look when they walk, like, I’m. Going. Over. Here. They were brave, too. On the edge of the deck in front of the rooms were bowls of water for us to wash the sand off our feet. The grackles would hop up the steps and onto the edge of the bowl, drop big seeds in there to wash them, fish them out and fly off to have their snacks. Swimming, hammocking, swimming, hammocking. At one point in the sea, I realised that I only had a few vacation days remaining. Could I really be bothered to trek all the way, on three buses to get to the western side of the country to cross into Guatemala, change some money for a couple of days, come back, re-change money, just so I could spend the last day on buses all the way back to the northern border with Mexico? Nope. I chatted to the owner, two more nights please. Bingo. No more things to think about until I had to actually stop being on vacation. I borrow a bicycle and went for a ride to see what the rest of Hopkins was like.
I headed north, and after about 20 minutes of leisurely cycling, found myself at the top end of the village. On the beach, at a bar called Driftwood. I’d been told about this place by a guy who runs a bar/restaurant in Placencia, and it was as good as he’d said. They do pizza. Really good pizza, actually. It was pretty dark and empty inside. The guy who runs the place came out from the back room. I told him there was a few dogs, including a mean-looking pitbull/mastiff mix outside the door. He thanked me, cos she’d got out of his garden, and told me the dog was a sweetie. He gave me a menu, a beer, and I went and sat outside where the bar area has an open window and a, y’know, bar with stools. Not poop. High backless seats. We had a chat. He was, I guess, early 30s, originally from the northwest of England. The three dogs outside were all his and his partner’s. It was nice, in this country with so many stray dogs, to see people adopting some of them. One of them did a weird dipping-the-head motion every ten seconds or so. Apparently he’d had distemper, and the dipping was a tic he’d developed since then. He was a cute, friendly dog, though. A few afternoon beers and I was nicely buzzy. Cycled back to my room. Did a bit of swimming, hammocking, reading, and was truly knackered. At twenty past eight.
There was a big thunderstorm during the night. The whole room lit bright by the sheet lightning. Early to bed, so up before sunrise again. Same as the morning before. Watched from the water’s edge, had a wee chat with the raking man, did a couple of drawings, and then made a coffee in the drippy drip machine, after the Germans had given me half a packet of coffee that they didn’t need when they left in the morning. Back out on the balcony, and I had a chat with my new neighbour, a British woman from Newcastle. She could talk. I’d barely said hello before I was knee deep in her life story. Not that she wasn’t pleasant, you understnad. Although she did use the word “Chinaman” once.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but sat with my flip-flopped feet in the sand outside the pizza was a problem. I was bitten to fuck by sand flies. Mean little bastards. I estimated that I had about thirty bites, but when I counted, it was over seventy. Itchy. So very very itchy. I had a walk to go to a coffee place a bit later, they had Wi-Fi, and my willpower was weak. As it happened, when I got there, there’d been a power cut throughout the village, so no Wi-Fi, but I did get a coffee that had just brewed. I asked the teenage-ish girl who served me where I could get some cream for my sand fly bites. When she saw that both of my calves were covered in bites, her eyes widened and she said, “O! M! G!”
I walked back towards the room/hammock/sea. Stopped off at a place called Iris’ for some breakfast. Other guests from my place were there. We chatted. Dutch. Nice enough people. She was allergic to loads of things so ended up eating air for breakfast or something. Back to the same old swimming/hammock ritual for the remainder of the morning, until I fancied a change, so went for a wee ride up to a bar called King Cavassa Club near the centre of the village; that is, near where the road out of town is. A few beers in the sunshine, while the bored but pretty young woman who served me flicked through TV channels.
More swimming, and I think I got to the point, after two nights in Hopkins, where I was actually relaxed. In the water, not really swimming, my feet barely touching the sea bed, though, not thinking about anything other than the waves that I’d rise up to crash into a little bit. Kept on doing this. And after I’d been out there for 15 minutes or so, I saw a pelican dive bomb into the sea, and he/she righted him/herself and gulped down a fish. This was about 15, 20 metres away. I was bouncing as the waves pushed me up, the pelican just stayed still and let the waves pass underneath. The waves, though, were pushing him/her towards me. He/she didn’t seem to care. I stayed still, kept my arms under the water, and eventually, the pelican was about two metres away. It was amazing. we were that close to each other for maybe ten seconds. Then a few flaps of the wings, and he/she was off to get more snacks.
That night, the non-relaxing crept in. I woke up several times in the night thinking that I’d missed the sunrise. I hadn’t. It was still dark every time. Another lovely sunrise, though, slightly tainted by some guy a couple of house down using a circular saw before 6am. Another incredibly lazy day. Back at King Cavassa Club for lunch (stewed chicken, rice and beans). While I was there, a Hungarian family wanted to know when the next bus was. They asked in Spanish, and the waitress didn’t speak Spanish. She tried to tell them that the last bus of the day would leave at 2pm. It was 1.55pm. They somehow managed to have a vacation here without speaking English. They didn’t understand that they needed to get their arses into gear. The bus stopped across the street, so it’s not that far. But they’d just bought coffees. I got up in there, told them the story in Spanish, and they gulped down there coffees and got to the bus on time. I feel that that should be enough to get me into heaven if this God character really exists. I got up to pay for my lunch, and saw the guy I’d first met on the back of the truck when I came into Hopkins. He smiled, and said “Hello, Craig.” He remembered my name. I had not remembered his. We had a little chat and said goodbye. As I cycled back, I was heckled by a kid, “Hey, straight hair!” He and his friends giggled like crazy.
My last night in Hopkins, early to bed, awake at 4.40am. Plenty of time to make coffee and enjoy the sunrise one last time. Hopkins is a beautiful, sleepy place. Could happily have spent another week there. But it was time to leave. On the 7am bus. It was already packed. There are only a couple of buses a day, so, y’know. The conductor was young-ish guy, baggy jeans, a basketball vest over a t-shirt, Miami Heat cap, and, awesomely, a Hannah Montana backpack. It took about an hour to get to Dangriga, the next big town, where I had to get another bus. Stood outside the station, having a smoke, this guy comes up to me and asks if I wanted to buy some DVDs. He had about ten in his hands. I didn’t recognise any of them.
Then he offered me a CD, “It’s by P. Diddy!”
He asked for a cigarette. I gave him one. “Can I have two?”
“Can you give me a dollar so I can get a burrito?”
Tired of him, I just gave him a one dollar coin. A cab driver nearby rolled his eyes and asked why I gave him money. I shrugged.
The guy came back and said, “A burrito is two dollars.”
That’s not my problem, so, “Sorry.”
He then made sure I noticed that his blue shirt was a Snoop Dogg shirt. He pointed to the logo on the chest, then turned around so I could see a cartoon dog drawing on the back. He held out his fist. I bumped it with my fist. And then he left.
The bus from Dangriga that would take me to Belize City via the capital Belmopan was not a school bus. It was a Greyhound bus. With air conditioning, and seats big enough for adults. It was luuuuuuuuuuxury. Never in my life did I imagine a Greyhound bus would feel like luxury. A very pleasant journey. I enjoyed it on the way south, and I enjoyed it again on the way north. There was a sun halo for a while, too. But I needed to piss like a race horse by the time we arrived in Belize City. Off the bus, straight to the filthy bathroom. Utterly disgusting. I had my backpack on, so there wasn’t space to stand at the trough with two people already there. Had to use a stall. There was some sort of foul-smelling casserole in the toilet. I daren’t touch the handle to get rid of it. There were casserole stains on the wall, too, that seemed to have been put there with the intention of writing something. Graffiti told me that this was “THE SEX BATHROOM.” Other graffiti described things that could indeed happen in a sex bathroom, and in a country where most people are not white, there was graffiti that demanded that N-words should leave Belize. The floor of the bathroom was wet. I was wearing flip flops. I would spend the remainder of my journey wondering what the hell hideous things my feet now had crawling on them.
The next bus I needed would take me from Belize City all the way to Chetumal, across the border in Mexico. And as luck would have it, it was right there, filling up with lots of people. I nipped ’round to the back of the bus to avoid the queuers at the front. One spare seat, right at the back, next to the pile of luggage. I dropped my backpack on top, sat down, and spent the rest of the journey wedged between a whole load of luggage and a small old man with awesome, yet quite greasy, long hair. By the time got to Corozal, the closest town to the border, there were just a handful of people left on the bus. Me, an old Mennonite couple, a mother and her two toddlers, and a couple of German backpackers. We trundled towards the border. We all got off the bus to get out passports stamped exiting Belize. Back on the bus into the queue of traffic over the bridge that separated the two countries. As the bus sat there in the queue, we all got off and walked to go through Mexican immigration. The guy there barely looked at my face, didn’t say a word, scanned my passport, and I was back in Mexico. Eight-and-a-half hours on buses, and I need a place to stay. I had no idea at all where I would spend the night before my flight back to Mexico City the next day. But the bus passed a couple of places near the bus station. First one I went to, Costa Azul, was cheap, just 19 dollars a night. And I soon saw why. Basic. No towels. Less than half a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. Horrible lighting. Plastic coated remote control. The people who worked there – seemed to be an extended family, various members of which were behind the reception desk at various times – were all really happy. To each other. Whenever I needed to ask a question, they suddenly stopped smiling and answered in a monotone, bored, manner. After all the travelling, I had no real desire to spend my one night in Chetumal doing anything other than watching telly with the air conditioning on. I’m not proud of myself, but I got a pizza from the Domino’s down the street, and settled in, watching “Hitch” and “Rush Hour 3.”
And that, aside from the scanning machines not working at Chetumal airport, and having my backpack searched by hand like a man artificially inseminating a cow, was my vacation.