Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
The pre-travel is the bit I hate the most. An early flight is cool. You get no sleep cos you worry about not waking up, but you do and you shower, have a poo, and then you’re in a taxi and all is good. But the overnight flight, leaving late in the evening: you’ve got all day to fret. You’re already packed. I can’t concentrate on starting a drawing or continuing something. I just sit around, flicking between channels. Watching any football on. A bit of Serie A, a bit of Eredivisie, a rebroadcast of a Mexican playoff game, a bit of the Grand Prix. And the clock ticks by so slowly. And I have a knot in my belly, a general angst that doesn’t go away until I’m through security at the airport.
I was ready the day before, though. The strike by Lufthansa pilots meant my Saturday flight was cancelled. After half an hour on hold, I finally got through, and while they offered to find me a flight to go on Saturday, I figured there would be other people with more pressing reasons to fly, so I happily accepted just getting bumped back 24 hours.
The plane was a newish one. It’s only really when you are in a newer plane that you realise how old and rubbish-y the normal ones are. I loved the way the lights in the plane were different colours and went on and off slowly in the cabin and the bathroom.
When meals were served, the woman asked if I wanted beef or chicken. I told her I had ordered a vegetarian meal when I booked the flight. It would seem that request got lost with the rebooking of my flight. She told me she would see what she would do. About five minutes later, she came back with a spare business class vegetarian meal. Which was, indeed, the business.
No sleep, of course. Maybe five or ten minutes here and there. The new Ghostbusters was good. Enjoyed that. Watched In Bruges again too. Usually I go for a window seat, but this time I had an aisle seat. I think I’m a convert. It was way better.
At Frankfurt, I had less than an hour between landing and boarding the next plane. A good length layover, but also a bit too tight for my nervous brain. It’s a big old airport. Lots of walking. Not enough security people for the amount of passengers. And my bag was checked. A random check, apparently. If random means “let’s check the bearded dude travelling alone.”
They still have a smoking lounge at Frankfurt airport, so I had a quick vape in there, before getting on the plane. One of the stewards asked those of us sat near the front if we would switch seats, go nearer the back. Not sure of the reasons, but I was fine with that. A couple of others gave up their seats too. Towards the end of the flight, the steward came to see us all and gave us a bottle of wine each for helping them out.
Nearly every flight I’ve taken over the ocean in the past has been with British Airways. No reason other than it’s handy and familiar. The last flight I had with them, one of the staff had a wee anti-EU rant to the people sat next to me. I made a complaint next day, and to be honest, didn’t really feel like they took it seriously. So I made a mental note to try not to use BA whenever possible. And after this experience with Lufthansa, I doubt I’ll ever be using BA again when other options exist. And I’ll deffo be using Lufthansa again. They were great.
And then we arrived. Berlin Tegel airport. Hallo Berlin. Hallo Deutschland. Hallo EU. It’s good to be home.
The song in my head when I woke up this morning
Inaugural Trams by Super Furry Animals
Here’s an interesting Wikipedia article
I just had a lovely trip to Belize. Blogged about that place before, so not doing that again this time. One thing that was interesting for me was that it was the first trip of any kind that I’ve taken since 2003 without headphones. I was never really one for using a Walkman or Discman back in the day, but as soon as I got a 3rd gen iPod in 2003, I have used them virtually on every flight, bus journey, etc. I have never left my headphones at home. This time I did. No music on my iPad, no headphones. I was at the mercy of other people (bus drivers, cafe or bar staff) when it came to the music I listened to. But I’d kinda forgotten that I might actually have an internal jukebox playing in my head. I made a note of every song that played on that jukebox on my trip. All but three of those songs are available on Spotify, so I made a playlist. (The other three songs: “Receptacle for the Respectable” by Super Furry Animals, “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, and “6 Inch” by Beyoncé.) Most of the songs would have been on my iPod had I taken it. Nearly all of them are at least on my iTunes on my computer. A couple of them were songs I’d heard in a bar that stuck in my head. But most of all, it was interesting that, actually, while there were a few times that I fancied hearing something better than soca covers of Peter Frampton songs, I didn’t miss my iPod at all.
Thanks to the generosity of a couple of friends (gracias Pepe y Samuel), on the last day of June, we had guest list tickets for the Flaming Lips concert at the Auditorio Nacional, a big concert venue with: (1) a capacity of around 10,000, (2) Latin America’s largest pipe organ, and (c) some woefully under-staffed bars. Queues of 50-odd people waiting for plastic cups of beer. Fuck that shit. I’d rather not drink than participate in such business. The show was general admission within each of the various price categories. Guest list tickets were, it seems, all up on the balcony, about 35km from the stage.
It was a weird night for me. My girlfriend and her pals seemed to really enjoy it. All around us seemed to enjoy it. All of the people downstairs seemed to enjoy it. Me? Not really. There were some pretty lights, I’ll give them that. But all of the dancing creatures, it was a bit Teletubbies meets “Stonehenge.” It kinda felt like all of the theatrics were covering up for a set of songs that were, on the whole, sounded fairly average.
But, a good night of post-concert boozing hanging out with friends, chatting, listening to music, was kinda the perfect way to start a mini holiday: three nights in Real del Monte. It was a perfect start in an unexpected way: because of the drinking and the late night, it kinda forced me to not wake up and rush around in the morning. The plan was to be up, out, and at the bus terminal for about 9am. Tired brain told me NO.
I was a bit stressed about work stuff, so a few days away seemed like a good idea. I would be revisiting Real del Monte (or Mineral del Monte, not sure which is the proper name, but you see signs for with both names in the area), a place I’d first visited a couple of years back. It’s just outside Pachuca, which is about 90 minutes on a bus northeast-ish from Mexico City. It’s a pretty simple journey: subway to one of the main bus terminals in Mexico City, have a look at the bus times, find one that is going soon, buy a ticket.
The guy checking bags and metal detecting asked where I was from. I told him Inglaterra, and he asked, in English, how was the correct way to say “Tott-eng-hem Ho-spor.” I told him he was close and pronounced it as clearly and English-ly as a member of the Royal Family. The bus journey is nothing special, really: no particularly nice landscape or owt. I listened to Marc Maron’s interview with Barack Obama over the sound of a dubbed version of the Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis film “The Campaign” blaring from the bus’ TV speakers.
Once in Pachuca, there’s a dude directly outside yelling the destinations of various small combi buses. I told him I need to go to Plaza de la Constitución, he pointed at a combi. I squeezed into the tiny van that waited until it was rammed full of people (that is to say, had about 10 people inside) and we were off. I’d made this journey once before so kinda knew where I was going, but I was sat in the middle and couldn’t really see out of the window. By the time that everyone else had got off, I asked him where the plaza was, and he took me a few hundred yards further and told me to nip through the market and there it is.
I followed his instructions, bought a new cable for my phone in the market (it’s pink with tiny blue UV lights inside and only 35 pesos!) asked another guy where to get the Real del Monte combi and was soon in an almost identical tiny vehicle heading out and up above Pachuca. It’s a nice wee journey. I like the contract of arriving in Pachuca, seeing a relatively decent-sized city from street level, then a few minutes in the hills and the same place looks pretty small.
The combi stopped at various points in Real del Monte before getting to the central square and church-y bit, where I got off. I knew there were a handful of hotels, but I didn’t bother booking a room. It was a Wednesday, not really tourist-y season, no special festivals going on, and most importantly: I love arriving somewhere and not knowing where I’m going to sleep. I wandered to the hotel I stayed in last time. Door was locked. It was about 2pm. Knocked on the door. No answer. Knocked again. No answer. So I asked the security guard at the museum next door and he said they’re probably having their lunch.
So, I just went to another hotel instead. I was very thankful that I only bothered to pay for one night in advance, cos when I got to the room, the view was of a breeze block wall about 30cm from the window. Ho hum. I couldn’t be arsed to make a fuss, so I just dumped my stuff and went back out to get some food. And food, dear readers, is pretty much the main reason for visiting Real del Monte.
When one lives in a foreign land, as some of you might have experienced, food from your home country is one of the things you miss the most. There’s a level of comfort that dribbles through the mind, like a slow-moving river of melted white chocolate, when I think of British food like Marmite, Branston pickle, scotch eggs, pork pies, Cornish pasties. And in Real del Monte, they have pasties. Oh yes, muchos pastes. (Eff why eye: the Spanish spelling of pasty: paste. Plural: pastes.)
Real del Monte has a strong English–specifically Cornish–influence. Back in the day, when the people in this area found stuff in the ground, they need to mine it. Load of Cornish people came over to work in the mines and they brought three things in particular with them: well-good mining techniques, pasties, and football. Real del Monte was the first place in Mexico where football was played. I saw several ceramic tiles painted in bright colours around the town celebrating the football history and there was a big advert painted on a wall for a football museum which I couldn’t find, sadly.
The pasties are great. It’s been two-and-a-half decades since I was in Cornwall, but the “tradicional” variety of pasty in Real del Monte is as good as I remember any being in Cornwall. I say “tradicional” because pasties come in lots of varieties in Read del Monte. At Pastes el Portal which is, in my opinion, the best of the pasty places in Real del Monte (and have no fear, I tried several) you can get mole, beans, chicken, sausage, tuna, and “Hawaiian.” They also do sweet pasties: peach, apple, pineapple, strawberry, coconut, chocolate, and vanilla. (I tried the vanilla one and mmm, mmm, mmm, delish.)
I had a couple of traditional carne con papas pasties, then had a wee walk around. I went to the tourism booth outside the town’s indoor market and asked the nice people there a few questions. Specifically, about the opening hours of the English cemetery. On my last visit, we walked all the way there and found that the gates were locked, so I wanted to be sure. They were friendly, so I signed their guest book thingy and got a wee map of the local area.
It started drizzling, so I stopped for a beer in bar. The bar had Old West-style saloon doors. Inside there were lots of pictures of two things: Club América football team, and naked women. The toilet had no door, it was simply a urinal in the corner of the room with a curtain for privacy. It looked like you might vote there, not piss.
Another bar, this time with insanely loud music (yeah, grandad…) and I was soon back at the hotel, in bed, and asleep well early, and having a dream about getting back to Mexico City to find my apartment had been burgled. Joy.
I tend to wake up early quite a lot anyway, but on holiday, it’s pretty much a given. 7am is late for me on holiday. 7am, though, is still very early, it would seem, for the cafe owners of Real del Monte. So was 8am. Basically, it was 9am before anywhere was open for any breakfast. I went to a place around the corner, ordered the desayuno Realmontense from a bored-looking owner, a man whose who being screamed “the waiter/waitress isn’t here yet, so I’ve gotta deal with this shit.”
The breakfast was shite. That weird concentrate orange juice that is way too sweet, coffee that comes pre-sweetened, even the bread was sweet. Of all that, I had a few sips of the orange juice. The main part wasn’t sweet, thankfully: chilaquiles verde with chorizo.
I went back to the first hotel that I tried and there was someone there. Yes, he did have a room for two nights. Do I want to see the room? Normally, I don’t bother with that business, but after the breeze block view, I did. Lovely big room, lovely view over the town. I paid, went back to the other hotel, packed my stuff and checked in to the new place, where, incidentally, the lobby was full of pictures of Marilyn Monroe.
I asked the guy where I need to go to get the bus to a nearby village called Huasca de Ocampo, and traipsed off in the direction he told me to go. Up and above the main part of Real del Monte, to the main road that runs by the town. There was an old lady waiting there. I asked her. She told me to wait for the green bus. Plenty of buses went by, vaguely slowing when they saw someone stood at the corner. The sign on the front of the bus was really small, so I was squinting. Is it… is it… yes! I stook out my hand, the combi screeched to a halt, and I sat on the only available seat. The teenage girls sat across the way kept glimpsing at me, the gringo. The driver’s CD player was blasting out eighties hits. Arthur’s Theme, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, and Careless Whisper. As we bombed around the curvy mountain roads, I looked down and figured that, if I was gonna die in a bus accident, I’d quite want George Michael to soundtrack my demise.
Huasca de Ocampo seemed to be a smaller version of Real del Monte. A perfectly lovely little Mexican town. As far as I can tell–and I’m obviously no expert–small villages fall into two categories here: Pueblos Mágicos and non-Pueblos Mágicos. An explanation: the Magical Villages Program is something that the tourism board do to promote, err, tourism around the country. There are 80-odd of them, of which I have visited ten. Some are better than others. Some are indeed magical. Some, well, you get the feeling that the mayors of some of them used their influence to get the magical status. You can see it straight away: the streets are cleaner, the town squares are tidier and there’s generally an air of expecting tourists.
First thing I did was have a wee look inside the church in the town square. Tick. Yep, that’s that done. A nice cup of coffee (that is to say, not thick with sugar) and I asked a taxi driver how much it was to go to the nearby Basalt Prisms. Just 60 pesos. Muy bien. The Primasa Basálticos are these tall colums of rock in a ravine kinda thing, with a waterfall that does its water-y business there. It was quite lovely. Here’s some photographs:
50 pesos entrance fee. Impressive stuff. Not too crowded with tourists. I was pretty much the only non-Mexican there as far as I could tell. Half way around the ravine, there were a couple of souvenir shops and a place selling drinks. I saw other people with cocktail-y kinda things, and assumed they must be just fruit punch or something, but no! Actual alcohol. I asked if they had a beer. Yep. 50 pesos. Okay, seems steep, but it’s a tourist place, and it’s hot, so sure. It wasn’t steep. It was a caguama, a nearly-a-litre bottle. So I had this huge beer, and I’d kinda seen everything, so, well, I wandered around again, just with a massive beer in my hand. And boy was it worth it. It was nice to look at everything a second time, notice things I’d not seen before. I don’t know how it’s taken me this long in life to look at things twice at a tourist attraction, but I will be doing it again, caguama or not.
At the entrance/exit area, I asked the ticket woman if I could wait around here for another taxi to drop someone off, so I could jump in and go back to Huasca. She told me I needed to call for one. I had no credit on my phone, so asked if she could call one for me. 50 pesos. Bloody hell, that’s a bit steep to make a phone call, but, pfff, I guess it’s better than just waiting around for ages. When the taxi driver arrived, I saw the woman give him 50 pesos. Aaaah, my suspicious mind was embarrassed. It was just paying in advance for a taxi. I felt bad. The driver and I chatted all the way back to Huasca. He asked if we spoke ingles in Inglaterra. I confirmed that we did. And he said, “”aaah, like the United States…” He, like seemingly every taxi driver I talk to in Mexico, was a Chivas fan.
Back in Huasca de Ocampo, I had lunch: trucha al a diablo. Trout in a spicy sauce. Bloody lovely it was, too. Dead tomato-ey, spicy, and served with rice and tortillas. After lunch, I made a half-hearted effort to look more at the town, but really couldn’t be arsed. I’d seen the basalt prisms, which was why I went in the first place, so found a parked combi, and sat inside with a load of locals until it was full and we were heading back towards Pachuca. I got off at the junction where I got on in the bright afternoon sunshine, and by the time I was back at the hotel it was cloudy and a bit rainy. It’s another lovely thing about Real del Monte: the English weather. I know it’s a crappy thing that ex-pats always say when they live in hotter countries, but it’s true: I miss the British weather. And it is nice knowing that when I get bored of the sunny-every-dayness of Mexico City, I can nip up to Real del Monte and wear a coat and wipe the rain off my glasses.
I spent the evening in the hotel listening to podcasts and drawing. As you might have noticed on the blog recently, I’ve been doing a lot more simple things, brightly coloured. Not sure why this has been happening. I’ve been specifically doing a lot of things that I refer to as mountains. They are not, I guess, what one would normally consider mountains, but they were mountains to me. I kinda think they are drawings that combine some of the colours of living in Mexico, with shapes or landscape, balloons, and stuff. I dunno, they feel really Mexican to me. I’m enjoying them. You can see a whole load of them here.
And while we’re talking about drawing, here’s one I did of the Prismas Basálticos. I did a pen drawing in my notebook while I was there, photographed it, and then drew over the photograph in the Brushes app on my iPad:
It was a bad night’s sleep. Not sure why, cos the bed was ace. I love those hard mattresses with big plump pillows where you can make an inverted V shape around you head so that every time you turn over, there’s still a load of pillow there. It was all perfect, but I was awake a lot. It was nice, though, when I heard the rain on the tin roofs outside. Rain on tin roofs: second best sound in the world. (Best is obvs rain in a forest or jungle.)
Another breakfast debacle the next morning. This time I asked what type of coffee they had, and specifically was it pre-sweetened. Yes it was.
Do you have it without sugar?
“No.” He told me they had Nescafe.
No thanks, what type of tea do you have?
“Camomile, mint, green.” They had no black tea.
Sigh. Okay, nothing thanks, just orange juice, please.
He looked pissed off with me for being a picky English prince. He brought me some good chilaquiles (I don’t eat chilaquiles often, so when I’m out of town, I like to indulge myself) and asked if I wanted an Americano. Yes, I’d very much like that, please. He came back with a mug of dark liquid that tasted exactly like Nescafe. Cheeky bugger was trying to trick me. But I drank it.
As mentioned above, last visit, we’d tried to go to see the English cemetery, the Panteón Inglés, but it was closed. It’s a long uphill walk because the cemetery is on top of a hill. Nice place for a cemetery, no doubt, but it was quite a warm morning, and I couldn’t be arsed, so I got a taxi. Best 35 pesos I spent.
A fifteen peso donation for upkeep. It was kinda nice, kinda odd, to see so many English names in a Mexican
graveyard cemetery. (Update: I just read on Eamonn Griffin’s wonderful Benches of Louth blog that “if it’s got a church in it, it’s a graveyard. If it hasn’t, it’s a cemetery.”) Specifically, loads of Cornish surnames. You don’t have to spend long in the panteón to learn that mining wasn’t good for the health back in the day. Lots of graves of people in their 20s and 30s. It was a nice place, though. All the graves bar one were facing England. I don’t usually feel any swell of patriotism, but I did when the woman who took my donation told me about that. There is one grave, though, that doesn’t. The grave of an English clown who lived in Pachuca, who specified that he wanted his grave to not face England.
Still sunny, a very pleasant downhill saunter back to the town. I’d kinda done all the tourist-y stuff I wanted to do, so after lunch (pasties!) I went back to my room and did a simple sketch of a drawing I wanted to do while I was in town: a drawing of the view from my hotel room window:
Line drawing complete, feeling good about what I’d done, I went out for a beer. Not really in the mood, so it was just a beer. It was raining like billyoh. Kinda soaked, I saw a beautiful sight: an actual coffee shop. A place with a proper machine. I sat down, listened to the wonderful selection of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll they were playing, and had two wonderful Americanos.
I accepted the internal shame of having the same thing again and again and had pasties for dinner, did some more mountain drawings, and sleepy sleepy slept.
I woke with a plan: start working on the drawing of the view out of the window before I go out for breakfast, then finish the drawing afterwards, hopefully quick enough to be out of the hotel before the 1pm checkout time.
It was Saturday morning, and bloomin’ heck, Real del Monte felt totally different. The Pueblo Mágico-ness was kicking in ready for the weekend tourists. Cafes and restaurants that had been closed were suddenly open and I had a lovely load of eggs and coffee at one of them while an absurdly-loud-for-the-time-of-day TV blasted out the sound of three woman yelling and cackling interspersed with pop videos. This type of TV show seems very popular in Mexico.
Back to the hotel, I packed up my stuff, then dragged the chair back to the window to continue drawing. I’d finished with 40 minutes to spare, so went over to the good coffee place, had another Americano ready for an afternoon of travelling. This is how the drawing turned out:
And here’s a wee clip of the process of drawing:
I checked out and went to Pastes el Portal and picked up what I had ordered earlier in the morning: a box of pasties to bring home.
The reverse journey–two combis–back to the Pachuca bus terminal was dominated by the smell of the warm pasties on my lap. Oh my. It was a delight.
On the bus back to Mexico City, the woman in front of me was one of those people who reclines all the way just because they can. Those people need to be made extinct. It’s a 90 minute journey not an overnight flight to New Zealand, luv, calm the fuck down with the selfish behaviour.
I did another iPad drawing on the bus, which was fun. I started drawing quick doodles of things I saw along the roadside at various points. Basically, I was making notes, but as I did more and more, I realised I was doing a composite of what the roadside outside of Pachuca was like, and, y’know it ended up like this:
Y’know, it’s kinda hard to believe that when I was doing my travels in 2008, I used to write blog posts like this every day. I’m out of practise. This one took ages.
Drawing of a wonderful place a couple of hours away from here in the state of Hidalgo.
More finger painting here.
Last morning in Belize. Up at 5am, a bit too early, really, but ready to go outside to watch the sun come up; something that has become a bit of a habit in Belize. When I opened the front gate, the dogs, Red and Grey, ran over, tails wagging. While they are looked after by the hotel’s owner and don’t seem to wander very far, they are still street dogs and sleep outside. It was, I’m not ashamed to say, an utterly lovely feeling to be greeted by two friendly dogs first thing in the morning. I’m quite sure they do that to anyone coming out of the hotel gates early in the morning, but at that moment, you can convince yourself that they like YOU.
I watched the sky change colour and a whole huddle of coots sleeping (?) in the sea seemed to wake up. There were probably around a hundred of them. Slowly the group split and they went about their morning business. They paddled to the rocks near the shoreline. Had a chat. Cleaned themselves. Dried off. Whatever it is that coots do.
A man holding his boots in his hand came out of the hotel quietly and got in his truck and drove off.
Life starts early in these parts. I like that. The older I get, the more I enjoy the early morning. You can keep your nightclubs, young ‘uns. Someone in the neighbourhood was blasting Spanish language R&B and Spanish language kids songs. Nursery rhymes and the like.
I sat on the wall by the bay, across the road from the hotel. A couple of other guests chatted with the hotel handyman. The handyman commented on an old guy walking by: “He got a young girlfriend!” one of the other guests asked the handyman (who, I’m guessing was in his late 50s at the youngest) where HIS young girl was. The handyman didn’t miss a beat: “I don’t make a fool of myself! I’m like a snake: I hit and run!”
I wore the day-before’s clothes. My bag was packed nicely, and I didn’t really wanna disturb affairs. I had fresh clothes laid aside ready to put on at the last possible moment before I checked out of the hotel. Less time on my body equals less time to get sweaty. But, by 9am, I was already sweaty and, I have to say, a bit funky, in the day-before’s clothes.
(Oh, one thing I forgot to mention in the last post was that there was this guy in the bus. Old Latino guy. The kind that can wear cream slacks, a yellow short-sleeve shirt and just carry it off, looking effortlessly cool. He had short grey hair. As we approached the place where he would get off the bus, he got a comb out of his pocket and combed his hair. That, dear reader, is an olden days thin that I enjoyed seeing. Getting off the bus after a day’s work and sorting out his look before he gets home. The last time my hair was combed was about three weeks ago when a barber did it after cutting my hair.)
I bought supplies. Some Belikins and British biscuits (custard creams, yo) and Dairy Milk. I like that Belize still sells a few Brit things that I can’t get in Mexico.
I had an average breakfast in a cafe. They had the radio on loud, it was a Spanish language Belizean station. The annoying DJ could not stop talking, every song he played, he talked over. He’d whack up the song volume for a second or two, then down again and continue yakkin’.
A guy on the street asked, “are you coming or going?” Not really knowing what he meant, but not really arsed about having another conversation that’d end with him asking me for a dollar, I continued walking and said “going.” He followed me and started his routine, he was really thirsty and wanted to get some water. “Here you go.” I handed him the half empty bottle of water I had in my plastic bag. He looked at it like I’d just put a turd in his hand, and said, “You gonna give me that!?” Yep, I am. You hustlers need to coordinate yourselves. You can’t all hassle the same people over and over again or they’ll end up giving you half a bottle of not-cold water and not giving a shit about it.
The day ahead of me was looking like it was gonna be full of waiting. I had nothing really to do in Corozal, and I didn’t fly from Chetumal airport until 8.30pm. I sat on the edge of the bed in the hotel watching a shitty movie called “Without a Paddle: Nature’s Call” with an electric fan positioned a few feet away from my head. I checked Wikipedia, and it’s no surprise to find out it was straight-to-video. I didn’t watch the end, but didn’t really need to. It was rubbish.
I kept telling myself not to rush. Take everything slow, Craig, you don’t need to be at the airport until 6.30pm. So what did I do? I checked out of the hotel at just gone 11am and went to the place where the small collectivo-style buses wait. Two dollars to the border. These buses wait until they are full before leaving. Six other seats needed filling, but, I was, as stated, in no rush. Three women who worked at the casino at the border got in. Then another dude. Two more seats filled, and we’re away. But, those seats stayed empty for a good five minutes. One of the women rapped on the window and shouted at the driver outside, asking if we could go, they had to get to. He said okay, but he took his time, like a child doing everything slowly because it doesn’t want to go to bed. He shouted at people in the general area, seeing if he could get at least one more passenger. I had Pitbull blasting right into my ear from the speaker that was, er, right next to my ear. The speaker sounded broken and distorted and the radio station wasn’t tuned in perfectly. Fun.
After getting the departure stamp in my passport and paying the US$20 exit fee—thanks for that, Belize; nice of you to dip your hand in everyole’s wallet one last time after a holiday—I saw a Belizean bus sat waiting there. I got on and I got to experience the new Mexican frontera. There are now two border crossings on the Mexico side. The old one is still used by pedestrians, but vehicles use the new one. I assume the old one will be closed at some point considering how big the new one is. The road is a big concrete and razor wire-sided road. The actual border bit is confusing. Not really any signs showing where you are supposed to go. It’s got the feel of not being finished. The immigration window was a low down desk set into a wall. It didn’t feel important; didn’t feel like I was entering a country. It felt like I was buying orange squash at a school fete or something. No glass or cameras or anything looking official. There were rubbish xeroxed-and-laminated signs saying “immigration,” and a couple of Day of the Dead pictures, and a poster of a skeleton in a disused mine or something. The woman glanced at me and filled in the official use only bits on the visa form and stamped my passport. All whilst having a conversation about her sister with a colleague. I quite literally could’ve been an Ebola ISIS hombre coming in to sneak okill order into the U.S. and kill everyone, right Mrs Palin? (Just joking, CIA, if you’re reading.)
At the customs bit, I waited with the Belizeans and other gringos for the bus to get checked and continue its journey.
Aaaah, it’s good to be back in Mexico; to see all those awesome Mexican things I’ve missed over the last couple of weeks: Scotia Bank… Applebee’s… McDonald’s… Dominos… Office Depot… Home Depot…
Sat on that bus, it felt nice that the end of my Belizean journey ended on a Belizean bus rattling its way through the streets of Chetumal, Quintana Roo. I got off and a big stupid rain cloud looked like it was ready to produce the delightfully wet mix of sweaty and rained-on, so I jumped in a cab to take the short journey to a part of town I’d been to before. A part of town where I knew I could get some good food and waste some time. Wasting time was the priority. I had eight hours to kill before my flight.
I went to Marisqueria Mi Viejo, a fish and seafood restaurant. Mexican beer went down well. It’s funny, after a couple of weeks of drinking exactly the same beer all the time, I got used to the heavy Belikin bottles. I ordered a second Victoria before realising there was about a third of my first beer remaining; the weight was about the same as a nearly empty Belikin. Food tip, should you eat fish and be down in Chetumal: try the fillet “al pil-pil.” It is, apparently, a local thing. Cooked in a light but spicy, onion-y sauce. Really really tasty.
I killed more time with a couple more beers and then went around the corner to the Museo de la Cultura Maya. It’s a good wee place. I mean, it’s not one of the world’s great museums or owt, but as small town museums go, it’s pretty good. Especially if you wanna waste some time.
It had air conditioning which was an undeniably nice blast. There a bunch of displays, explaining the history of the Mayans, there’s a few ceramic bits and bobs, and some reproductions of some of the major Mayan sites’ stelae. The main two floors have big fake jungle-y stuff along along the middle; the whole place is soundtracked by background jungle sounds, too. There are models of some of the structures, an explanation of what Mayans did with their days (growing maize, fishing, and stuff). After about twenty minutes, it occurred to me: I’m the only person in here apart from the couple of employees at the entrance. Yer Mayans were clever, what with all the astronomy, maths, and calendars. They had is thing called the Cieba, which was “the first tree.” I skim read the display, so I’m probably getting it arse over tit, but it seems like thats what they thought the universe was, a big tree, with a bird up in the heavens watching over the natural order, and an underworld called Xibalbá where go when we die that has nine lords, a god of death, and a mischievous demon. Rockin’.
I dunno, though, I dig all these types of ideas about how the universe works and the afterlife and such. But I absolutely don’t dig the Christian, Muslim, whatever-is-still-around, versions of this stuff. The Christian one, the one I have been exposed to most in my life, is dull as shit. This old dude lived her hundreds of years, he had old kids, blah de fucking blah. Boring. Boring and bullshit, too. I mean, at least the Mayan bullshit was interesting. But I guess the main point is that Mayans aren’t still banging on about it, killing people, fighting over a scrap of dirt in the Middle East, and trying to control what other people do with their made-up stories about a moody sky Santa and the kid that he had with another man’s wife.
Anyway, after the air conditioning of the museum, outdoors was a wall of humidity. Still four hours to kill. So I had a walk. Then saw a bar called Bar Peraza. Alright, you’ve convinced me, sign-that-says-“bar.”
It looked a bit sketchy from the outside. You couldn’t see inside, and there was a painted sign saying it was prohibited for women to enter. But the idea of having something to write about got the better of me. On the inside, it looked worse. Just a big open room with light blue walls and lots of white plastic Sol, Superior, and Tecate-branded chairs and tables. Painted in black on the walls was “CERVEZA.” Underneath that in red and yellow was “$20.00” A piece of grey card covered the first zero and on it a “2” had been erased in white paint and a black “3” painted over the top. The ceiling fans were rusted and bent. The columns holding the fans had been spray painted fluorescent green. It was dark in there. Just one bare lightbulb over in the far corner, where there was a beer fridge, a microwave, a few bottles of salsa and ketchup, and a middle aged women who looked a bit like Kim Jong-Il. (Although, to be fair, Kim kinda looks like a middle-aged women, not the other way around.) Next to the kitchen-y area was a small stage with a pole in the middle from ceiling to floor. Well, well, well. It’s that kinda place. There were only three other people in there. All women. All employees. The Mexican music was super loud. Hurt my ears a bit. But they played Los Karkis, one of my favourite Mexican bands. They play fast silly music. It made me kinda happy to hear their music. I wanted to imagine that this club hops at night with middle aged, overweight, not-traditionally-attractive women letting lose by half-heartedly dancing around a pole for similarly-aged men. The most business they did for the 45 minutes or so that I was in there was from two sources: 1. The two beers I drank, and 2. The steady stream of men coming in paying five pesos to use the gents.
Okay, it was impossible to kill any more time without just keeping on drinking. So I stood at the taxi rank nearby and waited. One pulled up with a passenger already inside, and asked where I was going. The airport. He said, okay, and explained he’d take me there after dropping off the woman in the front seat. Cool. After she got out, we had a chat about Mexican football. He, like a lot of people I saw in Chetumal, was a Club América fan. We talked about Cruz Azul’s magnificent (for me, not him) 4-0 victory against América last month.
I was at the airport three hours before my flight. Not bad really when you consider I had eight hours to kill since crossing the border. Like the museum, the airport had air conditioning. And like the museum, when I nipped out of the terminal to have a fag, I was reminded of the humidity in this part of the world. I didn’t want to be in an air conditioned space, though. I wanted to feel the humidity for as long as I could. But as the sun went down, the mosquitoes came out, so it was bye bye humidity.
It’s a small airport. The entrance hall is has no seats. There’s a couple of booths selling drinks and snacks, and another selling ugly watches and perfume. There’s nowhere to sit apart from the floor. But I do kinda love the fact that there’s an Interjet ticket sales desk and that people were using it to get tickets for that evening’s Mexico City flight.
I caught a reflection of myself in the airport bathroom mirror. I had a small backpack—not much bigger than rucksack you’d use in your daily life. When I did my travels in 2008, I had a pretty big one, but I’ve come to realise that unless you’re going to multiple climates, you don’t need to take a load of stuff. Enough clean clothes for six or seven days in a warm climate doesn’t need a bigger bag. That’s my hot travel tip.
A security guy pulled back a glass screen door, and we all traipsed through to the check-in desk, then went through security and sat in the over-A/C-ed cold departure lounge. A kid with plastic spider about the size of his hand. He vroom-ed around and shot it with his bandaged index finger. Totally in his own wonderful world as the spider flew through the lounge, ricocheted off walls and then fighting in mid air with a toy helicopter he got out of his pocket, while the rest of us stared at, typed on, or talked into our devices.
I was sat in seat 1A on the plane. The logical, organised part of my brain was happy with that. The guy in 1C did his best to ruin that by being one of those people who refuses to just do what they ask re. turning off your devices. Yes, well done, Mr I’m-So-Important. The moon was bright and it was nice to see the clouds illuminated and the big dark shadow of mountains. We landed and the altitude hit me straight away when I walked to the luggage carousel. An impatient taxi ride humming Going Home to myself, and I was in the lift, opening the door, and giving girlfriend a hug. It was good to be back.
Right then. Thanks for reading. There has been a total of around 25,000 words in these 17 posts. Which is about half of the Great Gatsby. I hope you’ve enjoyed the unedited ramblings. Really: thanks a lot for reading.
Sitting down to write about the day, I looked at the quick notes, keywords, I wrote and it’s bonkers really to see how much I have written about something so simple as a day spent mostly on buses. So, feel free to bail out now.
After two and a half hours of walking in flip flops the day before, I was a bit achey. Achey feet, achey calves, and a bit of an achey back. I guess it must be because one walks a tiny bit differently in flip flops than one does in shoes.
Shower, last bits of packing, last glance at the sunrise over the sea, and I was out and getting coffee from the lovely friendly woman at Brewed Awakenings by 6.30am. I walked to the Hokey Pokey water taxi. Someone was playing Love Hurts by Nazareth really loud. Being in a boat on a lagoon in the early morning is quite a nice way to start (a) the day and (b) specifically, my day of travelling. At Mango Creek, I hopped in a taxi to go to Independence bus station. (When I say “hopped,” I didn’t actually hop.) The taxi driver had bad breath. He asked how I was doing, and before I could answer he snorted, hocked up a big greenie, and spat it out of the window. Nice. He stopped to get petrol. I looked at my watch, but didn’t say anything, cos I’m a wimp. C’mon, man, if we rush, I can get the 7am bus instead of waiting for an hour, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon. he must’ve sensed the impatience, cos when we got to the station he pulled up right in front of the bus and said, with a smile, “The Belize City bus, man!”
As the bus rolled out, we passed someone’s front yard, where ten vultures were stood perfectly still with the wings spread. It was hot and sunny. The sun was behind the trees almost completely silhouetting them, save for a few bright leaves that the sun was reflecting off. I settled into the the rhythm of bus travel quickly. The windows were open, it was sunny, a nice breeze, music on, mind emptying. When the bus stopped at Dangriga for ten minutes, I hopped off and went for a smoke. (When I say “hopped,” I didn’t actually hop.) Next to my bus was the express bus, the one that doesn’t stop to pick up people standing by the road. Not bothered. Couldn’t think of anything more enjoyable at that moment than being on the slow bus. Yes, the express bus has air conditioning, but why should I care. I was hot, a bit sweaty, but I’ll be out of Belize in a day and a half; I wanna enjoy this weather as much as possible.
And the next part of the journey is the nicest: from Dangriga to Belmopan, through the hills, the jungle, the orange groves, the lovely clear shallow creeks. The sun burnt through some clouds and splashed bright greens and yellows across the hills. There was a village called Steadfast Community. I wonder if I could live here (Belize, not Steadfast Community). I think about it a lot. I go back and forth. Sometimes the idea of all the stuff I would miss about the modern world (fast Internet, sports teams, concert venues, choice in supermarkets, etc.) makes me think that, no no no: it would do my head in. Other times, I wonder how important those things actually are to me. But, for now, the “no” vote is winning. I feel that may change at some point. But right now, I’m looking forward to being back in Mexico just to have a different beer, buy Camel cigarettes, watch YouTube clips without it taking forever to load.
Mennonites stood by the road next to their horses and carts. Younger Mennonites played volleyball in a yard. This was not like the short tight shorts version of volleyball. The men wore full length shirts and trousers, the women wore skirts down to the shoes. Saucy minxes.
Another ten minute break at Belmopan. I went to the bathroom. A selection of the graffiti in there. I notice a theme…:
I want cock in my ass! Call or tex me
Fuck me in the ass! Call or tex me
I love to suck cock! Call or tex me
An attractive woman joined the bus at Belmopan. A guy hopped on a few moments later. (When I say “hopped,” he didn’t actually hop.) He walked up the aisle staring at the screen of his phone. When he passed the woman, he jolted away from his phone at stared at her chest for a moment and sighed. She had all eyes on her for a huge part of the journey. The guy sat across from her kept sneaking a look out of the corner of his eye. A guy sat across from me was just openly staring for the whole journey. Another guy near the front kept turning around to have a look. She took it all in her stride.
At Belize City I had a wee bit of time. I smoked a roll-up outside the station. One of the taxi drivers looking for customers said “What you smokin there? You smokin a curly?” I assumed this was slang for marijuana. I showed him the tobacco packet. He said, “Yes! A curly!” I didn’t ask why he called them curlies. Because the ask tends to curl a little if it gets a bit long on the end? Or because you roll them up? Or something else. But I like it, and will endeavour to keep using that word.
A guy wandered around yelling “Suuuuh-weet! [long pause] coconut juice.” Jehovah’s Witnesses had a little rack of literature and tried to convince Belizeans to switch teams in the God League. A couple of other white people with backpacks hung around, and as is always the case, we ignored each other. I find it amusing how often this happens. Everyone is friendly with the locals, they exchange hellos, but if other tourists (and that’s what you are, white dreadlocks boy, you’re a tourist, don’t fool yourself) say hello, they’ll either ignore it or do it half-heartedly. Awww, sorry, am I spoiling your delusion that you are discovering a place that nobody from the West has been to before?
I got on a bus heading north to Orange Walk. We passed a seafood restaurant that proclaimed that they were “Shrimply the best!” this was e most local of all the buses I’ve taken. For most of the journey out of Belize City, we were picking up and dropping people off. All to the thunderingly loud soundtrack of reggaeton.
At Orange Walk—a very dusty town, it looked like a cheap knock-off of Pompeii—I sweated in the sunshine of the temporary bus station. Nobody seemed to know exactly when the bus to Corozal would turn up. I ate some delicious plantain chips. I sweated some more.
The bus arrived, we all piled on, then we stopped about a minute outside the bus station and waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually, another bus rolled up, and our bus filled up completely as passengers from the other bus all hopped on. (When I say “hopped,” they didn’t actually hop.)
The last bus’ reggaeton was replaced on this bus by very loud Mexican pop music. The sort of awful low production values and lazy lyrics shite I hear every day around Mexico City.
In front of me were two lads, late teens or early twenties. One of them had a red, yellow, and green necklace and a purple and black cap that read “YOUNG MONEY CA$H MONEY BILLIONAIRES” next an altered New York Yankees logo. The N in the interlocking NY had been made into an M, which I guess stands for Young Money. The other lad looked like a Mayan version of a young Shaun Ryder. They were like dogs in heat. Every time a woman got on the bus, they craned to look at her. Every time a woman got off, they poked their heads out the window to see her one more time. It was a cartoon. It pretty much didn’t matter what these women looked like. If they were vaguely attractive and between late teens and early thirties, they were ON it.
After leaving my hotel at 6.30 in the morning, I finally arrived in Corozal at 3.30pm. I hopped off the bus. (When I say “hopped,” I didn’t actually hop.) Rather than going straight to the hotel, I nipped into a bar called Primos that I’d been to on the first day of my trip.
I sat there, got a beer, and immediately the guy sat just around the corner of the bar extended his hand and said hello. He was Bill. Nice guy. Former Washington DC policeman and college recruiter who now just holds up the bar in Belize. His pal, a guns out, mirrored shades, Canadian, kept showing Bill and I meme-type stuff from his Facebook feed on his phone.
Walking to the hotel, a guy yelled at me from behind. Hey buddy! Okay, here we go. He’s gonna ask for some money. And yes, he did. But at least he had the honesty to come out and say, “I’m just hustling” when I asked how his day was. I gave him a dollar for his honesty.
I was good be to be back at Sea Breeze. The two dogs—Red, a four-legged reddish one, and Grey, a three-legged greyish one—were outside. Red didn’t move. Grey, though, got up and hopped over wagging his tail. (When I say “hopped,” he DID actually hop.) What a lovely fella he is. They are both street dogs, but Gwyn, the hotel owner, looks after them, allows them into the building, and generally gives them a better life. I sat in the bar and chatted with Gwyn and a couple of other guests for the length of a couple of Belikin stouts. The day was catching up with me. I was tired. I went out for a burger, a nasty burger, and as soon as I got back to my room, I was dead on my feet. Even the guy in the next door room playing Fox News at a gajillion decibels couldn’t stop me from falling asleep by 8pm.
The holiday is mentally over for me. There’s two more days until I get home, but it’s over in my head already. Wednesday is a travel day, and Thursday is a check-out-of-the-hotel-and-bum-around-for-few-hours-and-then-travel day. Really, though, the holiday has been over since I came back to Placencia on Sunday. That was a bad call, to come back here. Of the four options I had for my last few days, this is the one I shouldn’t’ve taken. I should’ve either stayed in Hopkins or gone up to the cayes. Stepping backwards, coming back a bit further south, to a place I came to early in my holiday, wasn’t the right idea. I’ve spent a lot of time in my room, haven’t swum once; essentially, I’ve just been killing time before I go back to Mexico, rather than Being On Holiday. Which is stupid, really.
The old habits, wanting to be really organised, kicked in. I packed my backpack as best I could in the morning, even thought I had a full day and night remaining in Placencia. Clothes for the morning chosen and laid in a neat pile. Clothes for the next day separated from the rest in my backpack so that I have minimal unpacking and repacking to do on Wednesday. This level of organisation burns holes in my brain. It’s not actually good to do this. I spend time planning where to put important stuff (passport, cash, spare glasses, camera, phone, keys) NOW because they need to be in my little bag that I use daily when I travel, but I need that bag NOW too, so they need to be—aaaaaaargh! Shut the fuck up, brain.
Before I came on holiday, I erased everything on my iPod so that I would have to consciously choose what I wants to listen to while I was in Belize. It’s a good thing to do. I recommend it. You’ll be surprised at how much stuff is on there just cos it’s always been on there. I put on a few favourites, but mostly it was stuff that I’ve not listening to for a while or just not gotten to get to know very well at all. I’ve spent the last few days listening to King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown when I’m sitting around on the beach or walking to get coffee. I think that’s because I’ve heard so much reggae stuff that I don’t really like (Legend, light modern seaside reggae in bars, crappy bar bands doing reggaefied covers), and wanted to remind myself that it’s not all crappy. And what a way to remind yourself of that! I love how rewarding a listen that album is. No matter how often I’ve listened to it, there’s never a time when I don’t notice something new in there.
But, I am reminded that stressing too much about little things WHILST ON HOLIDAY is stupid.
And, of course, it’s stupid to moan, especially when reminded by CNN over breakfast, that there are, amongst many other and things in the world, families of 43 students that went missing in Iguala still hoping and praying that they might be alive.
Thinking again about Loud Boy from yesterday’s post, I got a bit paranoid and started to wonder: do I sound like him I these posts? I hope not. I really hope I don’t come across as someone who is all “yeah man, I’ve been here before.” Basically, I don’t wanna be a dick about being somewhere in these posts.
But, lo! I did have the mental wherewithal to try and enjoy my last non-travel day. I, er, took a bus. Just a short ride, a one dollar ride, up to Seine Bight, the next village along on the peninsula. Seine Bight is, like Hopkins, a mostly Garifuna village. And it looks kinda similar. Most of the buildings are wooden and on stilts. Coconut trees, hibiscus flowers. The main difference is the road through Seine Bight is paved and pothole-free. That’s tourism and real estate for you. Pretty much the first thing that happened when I hopped off the bus was a tiny adorable child waved at me from a few feet away. Aah, that’s nice. She said hello, I said hello back. It wasn’t very busy there. Not many people on the streets. But I did see a coati wandering across the road. I didn’t really do a whole lot while I was there. Just wandered around, had a look, said hello to children who seemed to be the friendliest people around. Not that people were unfriendly, as such, just, y’know, not interested in a gringo in their village. At the north end of the village, I asked a guy where was a good place to go for a drink: “In the village.” Walking south again, I asked another guy the same question: “Dunno.” I asked a third guy: “You can get one at the store.”
I gave up. Having checked the bus schedule before I left, I knew it’d be a couple of hours before another bus would come along going back to Placencia, so I figured that it only took about ten minutes to get here, so it can’t be too far to walk. Flip flops, though, aren’t the best for walking on the road. Especially my nearly-ready-to-be-thrown-in-the-bin flip flops. It was kinda muggy. Cloudy, thankfully, but still kinda humid. I was getting a sweaty t-shirt. I passed a resort bar, just as it started to rain, so I nipped in for a well-timed beer.
Further along the grey grey road, as more and more SUVs or 4×4 type cars bombed past me, I started to mentally hate them all. I wanted to play “What’s The Time, Mr Wolf?” with them all, and then set wolves loose on them for not reading my mind and slowing down to offer me a ride. Non-psychic bastards. I took photos of things along the way, and every time I caught a brief glimpse of myself in the black glass, just before the screen activated, I was more aware that, yes, it’s you, Craig, walking along this road. I wonder what a Caribbean version of Arab Strap would sound like? A sports bar was closed. Damn you, I could be watching Liverpool lose in Madrid if you were open. Lots of land for sale along this road. Eventually, this peninsula is gonna be all gringos, all summer homes or retired folk, all in these perfect little suburban plots of sand ready for perfect cabins that’ll push the prices up on the rest of the peninsula, and inevitably change life in good ways and bad ways for everyone. Then there’ll be a hurricane. There will inevitably be another hurricane here one day. And this peninsula is so thin and so close to sea level, it’ll all get fucked. (Not, of course, that I’m wishing that on anyone.)
Walking walking walking. The road takes a turn to go around the end of the small airstrip. At that point, the road is dead close to the sea, so I left the road, took off my flip flops and walked along the beach. Figured that’ll be a nice way to get back to the hotel. I walked for a while along the beach where there were no buildings. Then I heard a dog barking, and saw it and two more dogs, who joined in, as I passed by a couple of houses with pools. The barkingest dog was kinda getting territorial. Walking alongside me, barking. Alright, fella, shut the fuck up.
I came to a cement wall. Right up to the edge of the beach and some exposed roots of a big dead tree there, too. Oh. Seems like someone decided to make this bit of the beach private. While the dog still barked, I saw a kid in one of the holiday cottages I was near. “Can I cut through your yard to get to the road?” The kid looked like it was a funny question, and said, “sure.”
Back on the road, I saw why the bit of beach might be walled off. I was in front of Turtle Inn, one of Francis Ford Coppola’s fancy resorts where it costs a bajillion quid a night. The front is the tidiest bit of land in the whole of Belize, I think. It also looks like the sort of place where coconuts in the trees are actually motion sensors to make sure the plebs don’t try to enter the premises. (It looks dead nice on the website, actually.)
I walked on the road a bit more, then saw a bit of rough ground next to the beach and had another go for a bit, then back onto the road, and started to recognise stuff: I was close to the hotel.
A young local fella on a bicycle passed me and said hello. He was super friendly. “Hello! How is your walk? It’s very nice weather right now!” Pleasant wee exchange. A couple of minutes later, he doubled back and cycled adjacent to me on the other side of the road. He asked where was I from. Where was I staying. It is good weather for fishing. That’s what I’m doing now, actually, going fishing. I’m just waiting for his friend. He is English too. He’s gonna be here til January. Did you come to Belize alone? My English friend is here alone, too. He was with his dad, but his dad has gone to Mexico until Christmas. Do you like Belize? Do you like drinking? Hey, you should join us later. I told him, thanks, but I’ve gotta be up super early in the morning, so I’ll be in bed early. He said OK and that was it, off he rode on his bicycle.
After walking for two-and-a-half hours, I was finally back. I went straight to the bar for a beer and some food. As I walked in, a woman said, “you made it, then.” I turned to see a middle-aged woman I didn’t recognise. She told me I cut through her yard earlier. Oh, the one with the barking dogs? Yep. I explained that I couldn’t go further, and she said, oh, it’s just erosion of the beach, you can go through, you just have to walk throu the sea a bit.
At the store, buying some water and biscuits for my long bus journey on Wednesday, the guy in front of me paid for his stuff, then got out the Happy Cow disc of mushy cheese triangles, and just started eating them right there. Right there at the counter. Didn’t move for me or other customers in the queue, just noshin’ away on his cheese triangles.
I went to a different bar in the evening, simply because my, ahem, local had the shitty “reggae with tropical vibes” band on. It’s a simple thing that I’m gonna miss when I’m back in Mexico City: bars having a bar. With stools. And strangers all sat near each other. And you can be quiet. Or maybe you’ll have a conversation. These types of places just don’t exist in DF. If you’re alone, you sit at a table and a mesero comes over and deals with you. Maybe it’s because I’m used to British pubs where you can stand at the bar, and if not, you still go to the bar to get a fresh pint. Maybe it’s because I really enjoyed sitting at the bar in my brief times living in Bellingham, Wa. and Toronto. Or maybe it’s just that I like sitting at a bar on a beach in Belize. Or maybe it’s just the booze. Lovely booze.
I’ve never worked in a restaurant before, but I bet those of you who have will hate the woman who sat at the next table when I had some breakfast. She took ages deciding where to sit. She told the server this was her favourite place to eat in Placencia (if that really is the case, she has low standards cos the breakfast I had was the absolute pinnacle of average) and just as the server started telling her about the breakfast specials, she butted in and said, “Lemme tell you what I want, and maybe you can see if the cook can do it for me.” She told the server she wanted a piece of red snapper and eggs, “and how much will that cost?” So she wanted something specific, but she made sure the server knew that she had to come back and tell her the price before she gave her non-menu order the thumbs up. The server explained it’s the breakfast menu right now, but she will ask. Were I the chef, I’d’ve told her to fuck off, but the chef was clearly a better human than me. The server returned and told her, yes, she can have that and it’ll be $15. By this time the woman had moved to different tables twice. She umm-ed for a while, then said yes to the $15 non-menu breakfast. Then, like one would talk to a child learning to tie its shoelaces, she told the server exactly—exfuckingactly—how she wanted the snapper cooked. “Crispy on the outside, not too crispy, not burnt, and soft inside. Crispy outside, soft inside, okay?” She went to the bathroom and returned to find a couple sitting at the table next to where she had been sitting. She kinda stopped, frowned, then moved to a different table again. I try not to use this word so much these days, but she was a cunt. I left before she got her food or (obviously) paid her bill, but for the sake of this story, let’s just assume she tipped poorly, shall we?
Spent some of the morning touring the gift shops of Placencia village. Not really that hot, frankly. I don’t like faces carved into driftwood, and the kind of Mayan trinkets being sold here, I could buy cheaper in Mexico City. Looks like I’ll be filling the spare space in my backpack with delicious Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, then.
After slogging around—slogging, I say—for a whole hour doing that, it was time for a beer. Then a not-nap (my just-invented name for when you don’t sleep, but just lie around for a bit doing nothing). Before too long, it was time to pick up my laundry. Oh! the pressures of my stress-filled life. The place I’d take it to was just a house with a plastic sign on the garden fence. The small entrance to the house had a couple of washing machines and a dryer. The front door to this area was open. I went in and knocked on the next open door, which was to what looked like the family kitchen. I knocked and said hello. No answer. I knocked again a bit louder. I could hear a TV from a room with its door closed. No answer. I knocked a bit louder still and for a bit longer. I worried that the knock had an impatient tone, so when there was no answer again, I tried to knock in a friendly rhythm. Knock-na-knock-knock, knock, knock! Nothing. Sigh. I took a couple of steps inside the kitchen and saw my clothes in a pile on the table. I knocked again and semi-shouted hello. Nothing. Okay, fuck this. I went to the table, checked that all my clothes were there, had a quick look at the other pile of clothes, grabbed my Kraftwerk t-shirt from that other pile, mentally congratulated myself for having the forethought to check the other pile, put my clothes in the plastic bag they were resting on top of, dropped a Belizean ten dollar note on the table, and shouted hello once more. Still no reply. So I put the kettle on, put a teabag in a mug, and had a look at the books on the shelf while the kettle boiled. Lots of Stephen King and Patricia Cornwell. I shouted hello again. Nothing. I sat on the sofa with my cup of tea and read a two-week-old newspaper (EBOLA SCARE IN BELIZE CITY HARBOR!). I finished my cup of tea, and realised I’d been lying for the last few sentences, since the bit about putting the kettle on. Actually, as I was walking out of the kitchen with my clothes, the woman came out of the room that had the TV on. She didn’t seem phased in the slightest that I was in her kitchen. She asked if that blue t-shirt was mine. I said it was, I checked the other pile and found it.
I went to the bar around dusk. From the first sip of Belikin, it was obvious: I was kinda bored of drinking. I’ve done a lot since I’ve been in Belize. Every day, and a lot of it daytime drinking. It just didn’t taste good, wasn’t going down well, and I was tired of overhearing expats talking about home like it was paradise. There’s an element of that in my life in Mexico; I do kinda romanticise Europe, and London in particular, but to hear these dudes, complaining about every little Belizean thing that goes wrong, it’s like: just go home, dude. Go and get an apartment in Florida.
I ate at Dragonfly Moon, a Chinese restaurant in the village. It’s kind of a joy to see Chinese people who seem happy. As mentioned before, Chinese people in Belize are often talked too quite rudely, and, in my experience, tend to operate their stores as a smile-free environment. Chinese restaurants here tend to be pretty basic places. Fuel stations for Belizeans. The most rudimentary of decorations in the restaurants. A general atmosphere of “this is work, nothing more.” Dragonfly Moon is different. It looks nice. There’s nice lighting, nice chairs and tables, cushions, screens that separate a few sections of the restaurant. The woman who I think might be the owner, is a lovely, friendly person, who smiled a genuine smile when I said the food was really nice.
Some new people arrived at the hotel. Americans. One of them looked spookily like someone I used to be friends with, until he proved himself to be an absolute dick. It was creepy. I saw him three times in the evening and each time, I was like, “is that Tommy?” (I changed the name, on the tiny tiny tiny off chance that he or someone he knows might read this. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction. Just know: whenever he crops up in my mind, I still wanna punch him in the face.) This hotel is like one of those motels in an American film. A strip of rooms on the ground floor, and another strip on the first floor. It’s not as grim as you’re imagining cos it’s on the beach, but it is pretty basic (fun fact: it was the very first hotel in Placencia). They all sat outside their two rooms, drinking, listening to music on a cell phone. One of the lads was banging on to the others about how much he’d travelled, where he just been, how he was planning to go home via Las Vegas, and how he first came to Belize in 2004, “before most Americans knew about it.” As if he was reading my mind, another guest, an older guy, opened his door and asked them to be a bit quieter. Loud Boy got his hackles up, “I didn’t come all the way down to Belize from Seattle to be quiet!” The exchange continued. The older guy asked why they didn’t just go to a bar if they wanted to drink, talk, and listen to music. Loud Boy’s next line made me giggle: “I’m on a budget, bro.” A door was slammed, and Loud Boy continued being ostentatiously loud. Slowly, though, his mates started talking quieter. The music was turned down, and eventually the bravado had gone. It was, though, a reminder that I will be returning to Mexico City in a few days. Back to an apartment where any relaxing I wanna do is dependent on my neighbours not deciding that listening to loud, shitty, music is what they wanna do at ten, eleven, twelve o’clock at night, or one, two, three, four o’clock in the morning. The end of my holiday is creeping into my mind…
After Saturday’s doggy adventures, I (obviously) dreamt about having a pitbull. We went record shopping together.
Still itchy as heck from the sand flies from the day before, I put in bug spray. Too much. My skin felt like it had been varnished. But, considering how much the insects seem to like me, a lot of bug spray is, as Jesus Jones said, never enough.
My last morning in Hopkins, so I stood at the water’s edge and just stared at nothing for a while with my coffee. My brain has mental tinnitus. Always a buzz of something there that I can never quite quieten down. But, I’m nearing the end of my holiday, so I’m getting close. On the way back to room, I alternated the footsteps with my original footprints, so that I left a nice pattern of me me me in the sand. Hard to describe, so I’m going to break my self-imposed protocol and post a photograph:
After three days of nothing resembling friendliness from the guy at Donglee, the local store, I got a hello, a please, and a thank you. But he did them all with a mush of sandwich in (and creeping out of) his mouth so he must’ve known how disgusting I think talking whilst eating is. 1-0 Donglee. (Having said that, someone came in while I was being served and wanted to ask him something and opened with, “Hey, Chinaboy!” so every time I think Mr Donglee is being rude, something comes along to remind me why.)
I packed my bag, checked out, and got a taxi. I told the guy I wanted to go to the junction. He repeated that as if the words were from a song: “TOOOOOO THA JUUUUNCTION!” He seemed to like loud proclamations: “Hopkins has a lot of Catholic roads: hol(e)y!” And fully punctuated: “She. Is. Abyoo. Tee. Full. Woman.” I concurred and he said, “I hate living in Belize; too many beautiful women…and you can only have one! And you want them all!” He turned on the CD player and exclaimed, “MUSIC!” Unexpectedly, it was country music. He took a call on his phone. He had to go home and fix a water pump. He sped up to try and pass a slow minibus. The minibus sped up. He said, “Go if you gonna go, don’t if you gonna don’t.”
At the junction I waited under a tin roof shelter. It had taxi numbers and graffiti written all over it:
FUCK ALL HATERS!
TAKE ACID NOW
HATERS MAKE ME FAMOUS
And a little more nicely:
I LOVE GOD AND MY FAMILY
I’d specifically planned my trip with a few open days near the end so that I could decide what I wanted to do. I pretty much had four choices. I could go inland, towards the Guatemala border; I could go north and take a boat to the cayes; I could stay in Hopkins; and the one I chose: I could nip back down to Placencia. My nuts brain chastised me for wanting to go backwards and revisit Placencia, but the other options weren’t doing it for me. I wanted to stay at the beach, I couldn’t be bothered with the expense of boats to the cayes, and the amount of sand flies at Hopkins was making me a little crazy.
A couple of women got dropped of by another taxi. I tried to understand what they were talking about but it was impossible to understand the creole. We all waited for about twenty minutes, and one of the women said, helpfully, “this is the bus, young man.” Young! Aaah, that was nice.
I paid attention to the bus. Normally, when I’m on the bus, it’s just a Belizean bus. A Blue Bird bus. But this time I wanted to pay real attention to where I was. I enjoyed staring out of the window. But with the landscape out of focus; staring at the reflection of the other side’s windows reflected in the slightly brown-tinted windows on my side. Concentrating on that was broken by a load of butterflies resting or something on a patch of mud by the road. Butterfly, schmetterling, papillon, mariposa: a nice word in most languages. I stared at the reflection of one window on the other side of the bus. That window was open. How bright it looked compared to the other closed windows. A woman on the other side of the aisle was sat in front of the open window. She had pinky-brown tinted sunglasses rested on top of her head. I focused on them for a while, trying to watch the landscape go by through an open window through the glasses on a woman’s head in the reflection of a window next to my face.
I looked up at a open window in front of me on my side: brightness. So blue and green outside. The turquoise sun visor decal thingy on the windscreen catching reflected on the metal window frames. And a big distorted reflection off the same sun visor decal thingy and the yellowish grey road on the curved cream roof above the front few seats.
We stopped along the way to pick up more and more people. Then we stopped at a place selling food. Four wooden poles supported a rusty corrugated roof. Underneath, an oil barrel had been fashioned into a grill. The driver and conductor bought food in polystyrene containers. Those containers and the thin black plastic bags they come in should be the national symbols of Belize.
The smell of grilled chicken wafted through the bus like gravy smells in the old Bisto television commercials. It smelled gooood. I was hungry.
FYI: Dubnobasswithmyheadman sounds great on a bus in Belize.
We overtook a small old pickup truck. The back had eight people sitting in it. They was also several guitars and a keyboard. The people were smiling and laughing. They seemed happy. I enjoyed seeing them being happy.
It’s the bus journeys that give me time to think and, probably more importantly, time to not think, to feel, about Belize. I feel content, at ease, on buses. Buses are by far my favourite mode of transport. Fuck planes. They’re expensive, uncomfortable, an increasing ballache to deal with, and terrible for the planet. Trains are great but are dependent on infrastructure being there. Cars… well, I’m not much of a driver. I passed my test, I have a licence, but I’ve not actually driven a car since 2005. Buses are the best. You are with other people, strangers. You are in it together and you cross the land. Crossing the land feels important to me. Knowing, seeing, feeling the time of the distance.
It was just a brief 45 minutes on the bus, I got off at Independence, took a quick pothole bumping taxi, and with three minutes to spare I jumped on the Hokey Pokey water taxi from Mango Creek to Placencia. It was raining by the time I got there a quarter of an hour later. I walked straight back to Sea Spray, the hotel where I stayed a week ago. I got the same room, too. I dumped my stuff, and went to the same bar a couple of doors away, and sat in the same seat I was sat in the last time I was there. I drank the same beer, served by the same barman. It was American football day on telly. Gringos sat around the bar talked about their fantasy teams. A couple of beers in, I realised I wasn’t in the mood for drinking all day, so I went back to my room and watched YouTube and went on a journey on the Wikipedia tree. Read an article, open a link on that article in a new tab, repeat repeat, then notice you’ve been reading Wikipedia for three hours.
Shitty live music wafted into my room from the bar. Cover versions, every single one rendered in a parpy keyboard light reggae style. But the wind was helping drown it out. It was dead windy. The palm trees outside my room clattered together, the sea was loud washing up on the beach; deep deep deep on the beach, all the way to the edge of the hotel building. I read up on Bob Marley. I’m down on him, but, really, it’s not fair to blame him for every beach bar playing just his greatest hits. I made a mental note (and now, a typed note) to listen to his early music, the non-Legend stuff. I ate bread and cheese. Drank water. And went to sleep.
It felt like a lazy day, even though I actually did more in the way of exercise than I’ve done the whole holiday. (It also feels a bit silly mentioning that I had a lazy day whilst on holiday. Feels redundant.) nothing particularly extraordinary about the day. I had a swim, swung around in the hammock, read a little, listened to Neil Young’s On the Beach, started doing a pixelly drawing of a custard cream biscuit, which I’ll finish when I get back to Mexico, I reckon. But I had the urge to do something. Nothing extravagant. No proper tourist outing or owt. I ended up doing something that I don’t think I have ever done in my life.
I went for a walk on a beach. An hour and a half there and back. An hour and a half walking barefoot. I really do think I’ve not walked barefoot like that before. I mean, I guess when I was a child, I probably played on the beaches of southwest England and south Wales for longer, but not a proper walk; not an I’m-going-for-a-walk walk.
The first 60 feet from the sea in all of Belize is public land. No private beaches here. Which is clearly a great thing. (The very idea that anyone can make a beach private fills me with a small amount of rage.) Each beach front property has its own section that they make kinda “theirs” what with raking, cleaning, a palapa, some chairs and whatnot, but nobody can stop you walking there. Having said that, I was only interested in the first few feet. The wet bit of the beach. The bit which every few seconds would get wet from the sea.
The guest houses, cabanas, and hotels are spread out. They, on the whole, are the ones with the raked sand. The other places, though, are a lot more interesting. You see, running parallel to the beach is the main road in town. The beach is the back garden of most of the houses along that road. It was nice to take a walk on a Saturday afternoon. To see life going on. Kids playing football. Adults relaxing. Chickens chickening. Fishermen fiddling with their boats or nets.
From behind me, out of nowhere, a dog came thundering past me, splattering me with wet sand. He turned around, quickly, then came back and looked up at me, circled back to face forwards again, and then he was like, right, I’m gonna hang out with this guy for a bit. People here do have dogs as pets, but there are also lots of dogs that just wander the streets. In Hopkins, those strays tend to look better than in other towns I’ve been to. Like, I’ve not seen any here with wounds, and I’ve not see any skinny ribby dogs. But still, dogs tend to react the same way. They are hopeful and wary. Hopeful you might be friendly, but wary that you might be nasty, too. As me and my new pal walked along the beach, a little kid spoke to me. He spoke quietly, so I had to ask him a couple of times what he said. “Don’t let your dog kill any chickens.” I told him the dog wasn’t mine, but if I saw him going near any chickens, I’d stop him. The dog, though, wasn’t really too interested in me. It seemed like he just fancied a walk, a run, on the beach, near a human. Poor lad, though, seemed constipated. He tried to go a few times. Legs quivering, but no cigar. Each time he did the scraping his bum thing along the sand. And after each attempt, he came bounding past me afterwards as if he was trying to convince me all was good, did the biz, let’s rock.
As swiftly as he appeared in my life, he disappeared. Seems like he was a south side dog. (The road that comes to Hopkins from the highway meets the village’s main road in the middle. There’s stuff off to the left, the north, and stuff off to the right, the south.) Gulls stood in a line along the far end of the pier, at the point where the north side meets the south side. Things seemed a bit more active on the northern end of my walk. A couple of beach bars were open. Families had barbecues going. Couples drank under a palapa. A whole load of young fellas listened to reggae, smoked weed, and ate grilled chicken and fish.
The clouds blocked most of the sun, there was a nice breeze, and there was a slight thrill that, as the clouds got darker, I could see that maybe it might rain on me at any moment. A fisherman stood up to his waist in the sea, doing fisherman-y stuff with his nets. The seashore here has a lot of rubbish. The usual stuff: food packaging, bottles, a flip flop here and there, the odd breeze block, and a rusty fridge. Obviously, the last couple of things are likely to be local trash, but a lot of the trash in these here parts come from the Caribbean. Either from other countries, islands, or dumped by cruise ships. And that all washes up on the beaches of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico.
It started spitting with rain. The clouds didn’t look dark enough for me to worry too much about getting a soaking, but still, I couldn’t really be arsed to have to walk all the way back dripping wet. Now, I was going to type “as luck would have it” here, but (a) what a horrible phrase, and (b) it wasn’t luck at all. I was quite close to the Driftwood Beach Bar at this point. I knew I was heading in that direction. Had no real plan to go there again, for the third day in a row, but what with the spitting rain, fuck it: I’m on holiday. Before I left Mexico, I did some research, and wrote down a list of bars and restaurants that sounded nice. I went to absolutely none of them. I enjoyed being at Driftwood. So rather than force myself to do different things, I let it slide. I did what I wanted, which was to sit on a stool, with my feet in the sand, at the bar at Driftwood.
Elton John was playing. It seemed to him she lived her life like a candle in the wind. It’s nice to hear Elton now and again. Your Song came on. It’s weird that my mind kinda prefers the Ewan McGregor version from Moulin Rouge!, but that’s what my mind does. Must watch that again. Lovely film.
A Canadian guy and his Belizean wife arrived and stood near me at the bar. He was very talkative. She not so much. It soon became apparent that she couldn’t get a word in edge ways. He kinda looked like someone in a photo of the early days of the Wild West. Scrawny, deep creases in his face, huge huge huge ears. The only modern thing about him was his crumpled cap and a backpack that he never removed. When he found out I was English, he started yakkin’ about the Vikings, Romans, Picts, Angles, and Saxons. And that if the Scottish had voted Yes, the English should’ve rebuilt Hadrian’s Wall. Somehow he switched to the topic of Quebec and their version of French and how horrible it was. He didn’t realise, of course, that another guy there was from Quebec. The latter dude took it all quite well, seemed to not want to get into an argument. Once he had left, old timey guy retold the story of talking about the Québécois (thank you for your help there, auto complete) when a guy from Quebec was sat right there, as if I hadn’t just witnessed it all moments earlier.
He seemed like a dick. The sort of person you don’t wanna get talking to. Or rather, talked at. My end of the conversation dried up once he started banging on about “the Muslims” and how they want to take over, how there was no need to invade a country anymore, you just move there and slowly take over like a disease with “their Sharia law.” Oh God, this is tedious. His wife sat saying nothing. I was in two minds what to do. Should I just lie and say, my girlfriend is Muslim, and provoke either a confrontation or him to start caveat-ing his bigoted views? Instead, I wimped out. Just sat there, leaving his points unanswered. Can’t be doing with this guy. Not that he got the message now that the conversation had become a monologue. At one point on his meandering journey through Racist Forest, he head-nodded to the side, in the direction of the black bartender, when he used the word “slaves.” Pfff, I got up and went to the bathroom. Didn’t need the bathroom, just wanted a break. What should’ve happened was that I should’ve spoken loud enough for other people to hear and reminded him that the local black people in Hopkins are Garifuna. And they were never slaves. Their ancestors were, yes, cargo on a slave ship, but they ran aground and escaped before they could become slaves in the New World. Goddamn it, I really should’ve said that at the time… But really, I’m not gonna change his mind, and I know I’m just say/writing/thinking this to justify letting it slide, but all that would’ve happened was his wife would’ve got an earful about that damn English liberal all the way home. He was hungry, and they only do pizza at Driftwood. He wanted a burger. So, thankfully, he fucked off.
Later, one of the guys who’d been grilling and listening to reggae that I passed on my walk came up to the bar. Clearly, so clearly stoned. He smiled and extended his hand. He went for a fist bump. I went for a handshake. Paper wraps stone. He chatted up the barmaid. She ignored him. He kept flashing me a conspiratorial smile and using new lines on her in a creole I couldn’t understand. When the male Mexican barman arrived, he flashed me another smile. He talked to him in Spanish and kept calling him his “novio,” his boyfriend. The Mexican guy wasn’t amused, which amused stoned guy even more. The Mexican told him, “I wouldn’t fuck you even if you were a girl.” He laughed and said, “If I was a girl you’d be suckin’ my pussy all night long.” This was the perfect thing to be observing after the racist Canadian. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to earn some money, when the guy saw I was rolling a cigarette, he looked over, leaned in, and said, “I got some killer green if you want…”
I was being eaten by sand flies. Nasty little fuckers, I kept waking up during the night to scratch the dozens of itches on my calves and feet. It’d soon be dark. I paid up, said goodbye, and walked back along the beach.
Another stray dog that had been hanging around the bar decided to tag along. This one stuck by my side. Kept looking up at me, wanting some sort of recognition. I talked to him. He didn’t understand cos dogs don’t speak English. I threw a stick. That’s more like it! He went bounding along the beach and came back with it. I took it out of his mouth and threw it into the sea. He leapt through the waves and played with the stick, taming it, and dragging it back out. This went on all the way up the beach, past the pier. I started to worry that once I got back to my room, I’d be leaving a sad dog behind. It was getting darker and darker. By the time I was nearly home, it was fully nighttime. The dog still chased the stick every time I threw it. I stopped for a chat with a lady who was stood in the sea up to her ankles, drinking a glass of wine. She had just arrived in Hopkins “a few minutes ago.” I liked how she had got straight on the case. Relaxing. Sea. Wine. We said our goodbyes, and the dog was nowhere to be seen. He’d had his fun. I miss having a dog. Long time readers (anyone..? Anyone..? Is this thing on..?) may like to know that Billy is doing great. Happy and looking as young as ever in Berlin.
When I was doing my travels in 2008, a friend emailed mildly chiding me for seemingly spending so much time blogging. I felt it was a tad unfair at the time. I can hear her email in my head when I sit down every morning to write these blog posts. But to me, it serves two purposes. If I didn’t do it, I’d keep a far less detailed diary, and the only difference in time spent, is that I don’t use shorthand, and I try and make it readable, rather than a series of notes. Secondly, I like writing. I don’t do as much as I’d like to, and having the routine of doing it every morning helps me get better, I think. Reading the first couple of posts from this trip and the last couple, my writing has clicked back in as time has passed. Back in the old days of this blog (Christ, it’s almost been ten years) I wrote about my daily life a lot more than I do now. And while these Belize posts could do with some serious editing, hopefully they might be the start of me writing more regularly again.
It’s no great revelation to write that it is lovely to wake up and hear the sea. But it is. Fisherman were out, fiddling around with their boats, chatting away. There was the sound of the grackle, that sounds a bit like a child pretending to do a rapid gun noise. I was up early, at daybreak, making coffee, looking out at the sea. The owner’s husband apologised if he woke me up. He didn’t. But he explained that their dog had got out and he is blind. Two years old, he just woke up blind in March. Poor thing. He said the dog is getting good at knowing where things are, but when he messes up, he tends to do it at full pelt.
One of the interesting ings about Belize is the stores. Specifically, the supermarket type stores. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen one that is anything close to super. There are two near where I’m staying. Donglee (not sure if it’s one word or two from the way it is painted above the door. Could it be Dong Lee? Or could it be Don Glee?) and Happy Shopping Center. Both are run by Chinese families, as are a lot of these types of shop in Belize. I went in one of these stores for the second time since I’ve been in Hopkins, to buy deodorant. Both of my visits were, as with pretty much all visits to Chinese supermarkets in Belize, fun. The people running them seem so miserable all the time. Now, I’ve heard the way other people speak to the Chinese in the supermarkets. They get called “Chiney” and “Chinaman,” are general talked to with very little respect. Last week, when I said good morning and asked how a guy in the store was doing, he looked genuinely surprised that someone would ask. So in a way, it’s no surprised that they can’t be arsed to be friendly. I’m not gonna be in Hopkins long enough, though, to get a smile or anything from the guy in Donglee. The deodorant was in the end of a glass case at the far end of the counter area. I went to the guy.
Nothing. No reply.
“Can I have the Old Spice deodorant, please? The red one at the end over there.”
I repeated myself.
“You go get it,” he said.
So, they put stuff behind glass near the counter, yet, when he can’t be arsed to move, anyone can just go and get stuff, then.
Freshly showered, I went for a swim. Dumb idea, really. Wrong way round, Craig: swim first, shower second. But, swim I did. I like those moments where the glaringly obvious comes into your head like a new thought: if I could physically do it (let’s ignore the need for food or water) I could go anywhere in the world from here. I could swim to Mexico, Argentina, South Africa, Europe, Japan, Kiribati. I could swim with whales and dolphins, whales and dolphins, yeah.
I didn’t, though. I got out of the water, showered, then thought, WHAT THE HECK, I’M ON HOLIDAY, and went for another swim. Sat by the sea for a while, read a bit, did drawings of the birds and the older women paddling a bit along the beach. A third swim, and I noticed that when I came out of the sea, I always have a brief moment, a very brief moment, where I allow myself to believe I’m in a Bruce Weber shoot, or in the Herb Ritts video for Cherish by Madonna. It does last long, because the reality is so so so much more depressing, but it’s nice to have that tiniest of moments where I’m a gorgeous model.
Feeling like I should really do something on a Friday night rather than go to bed before 9pm again, I took the bicycle and went to Driftwood, where they were having a Hallowe’en party. I’m not much for this particular celebration, but, y’know, I don’t hate it either. I had on my costume (Sweaty Red English Tourist) and creaked my way through the village. The bike I’m using really could do with some oil. Creaky creaky creaky. It got worse and worse as I went along. Several times on my journey, people passed comment on the noise. “Noise pollution, brother!” “That needs greasin’!” “That sounds nasty!” A frog leapt out in front of me before I had time to move. He leapt between the wheels and across the road. Hooray, Mr Frog.
Driftwood had an Alice in Wonderland theme. Some kids had painted big toadstools and flowers, and the bar tenders had Mad Hatter hats. Lots of playing cards were around. I kinda felt out of sorts. At occasions like this, when I’m on my own, I tend to not be able to grasp the inner fun me, and just end up sat at the bar, expressionless. And when I have no expression, I look miserable. It’s an affliction.
Local gringos had made an effort. There were pirates, disco wigs, cavemen and women, zombies. One guy bought me a beer when I asked him if he’d come as Hunter S. Thompson. “You’re the only one who got it right!” He and I chatted for a bit. Washington Nationals fan.
Local locals, as opposed to local gringos, didn’t seem to bother much with the Hallowe’en costumes. At the bar, a bunch of Americans and an obnoxious Englishman chatted away about Paul Nabor. They had no idea who he was, but they thought they should go to his funeral on Saturday, because “it’s probably gonna be a wicked party” and “we could just pretend we know who he is.” Knobends.
I talked to the barman. He was cool. Half-Mexican, half-Belizean. Thinks about going to work in Cancún for the money, but likes living in Belize. People got drunk and danced to the 70s and 80s stuff the DJ played. And then we had a band. They played one set of stuff, which I wasn’t that bothered about, so I went and sat outside and cooled down a bit. The DJ came back on, I returned to my bar stool, and soon enough, the band started up again.
This time, they played Punta, the main kinda Garifuna style of music. Two drummers. A couple of dudes with maraca type things. And a guy signing. They also had a guy playing rhythm on acoustic guitar. The band were getting well into it. People started dancing. Garifuna people danced effortlessly. Gringos made an effort. But the dancing and gapless set, where one song drifts into the next, kept the atmosphere going. It was getting hot. My glasses were actually starting to steam up. And for about 10-15 minutes, it was genuinely magical in there. There was something special happening. The band were loose, a bit ragged around the edges, but the room was theirs. It was good to be there. The DJ came back on, and, yes Thriller, etc., but how could he follow that? I love Bad Moon Rising and The Monster Mash, but, I didn’t want to be there as the night got sloppier. I got the bill, and cycled back to my bed.
It rained all night. There’s no better sound, really, if you have a touch of tinnitus. Rain on leaves in the jungle is wonderful to drown out the buzz. It was loud and every time I was aware of the rain during the night, it was loud. Still raining when I got up and went across to the main building for breakfast. I took the umbrella that, helpfully, hangs up outside the cottage door. Put my hand in to open it and something damp touched my hand. I shrieked and dropped the umbrella, then briefly saw a tiny frog leap off my hand. Not so tough, Craig, are you?
After breakfast, I packed up my backpack and said goodbye to Kate, and Ian gave me a lift into town to get the bus. It was lovely to see them both again, and I will miss them and Hickatee Cottages. Really, if these blog posts have convinced you of anything, it should be that visiting Punta Gorda and staying at Hickatee is worth doing if you fancy a trip to Belize.
The bus sat, driverless, for ten minutes before we left. It was quiet during those ten minutes. Me and eight other passengers. My mind focused on the quiet. And, as is often the case, quiet isn’t quiet. We have just learned to kinda ignore sounds. The quiet was actually full of sound from inside the bus. The squeak of people moving on the seats. The sound of people rearranging their bags, getting their seating area just right. The sound of people removing snacks from the bags those snacks came in. The sound of crisp packets and the accompanying waft of a salty corn smell. Every sound, apart from the munching, was the sound of plastic.
The bus ride was painless, just three hours. Listened to The Orb’s first album, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, which works quite well with the Belize landscape and heat. A woman across the way changed her kid’s nappy. We all got a waft of that smell, which, may be a cute sweet smell to parents, but to me: it’s just the stink of shit.
I got off the bus at a junction. The bus doesn’t go to Hopkins itself. It’s about six km from that junction to the village itself. Last time I was here, I had to walk a couple of those kilometres before someone pulled up and asked if I wanted a lift. This time, though, things were different. There was a taxi driver waiting at the junction to earn some money off anyone getting off the bus. That anyone was just me. It was $20. Yes, please. He was a friendly man. A red baseball cap over his grey beard and slightly buck teeth. He asked where I was from. I told him and he exploded with joy. Not literally, obviously. He looooooves England, he visited three times when he was in the army. He told me the whole story of his army career: got thrown out of Catholic school for swearing at a teacher, didn’t finish his education, was given a chance by the army, and had a 33 year career with them. He seemed like a lovely man. At some point I told him I lived in Mexico. He said that he didn’t like Mexicans. But “they are better than Chinese.” Oh, dude, I was enjoying this conversation, then you had to go and go all weird on me. I quickly changed the subject to talk about Hopkins. That was a more pleasant way to finish our conversation. I asked his name. He smiled and said with a boom, “Boots!”
The place where I am staying in Hopkins is the same place I stayed at last time. Aside from the more spendy luxurious rooms, there are three small rooms that directly face the sea, about 20 metres away. Last time I stayed in the room on one end of the three. This time that room was already booked, so I booked the other end room. I figured that, because the walls are quite thin, it’s best not to be in the middle. The only thing about the other end room is that the toilet and shower are outside. Now, when you are sat at your desk in Mexico City, dreaming of your holiday, the idea of an outside bathroom seems quite… romantic. And it’s the cheapest room (obvs). Cute. Quaint. When you are here and fancy a poo, though, it’s a tad annoying. But, the room is nice. Comfy bed, wooden slats covered with a mesh to keep the bugs out instead of curtains and windows, fridge, coffee machine, and a wee desk. As I write, I’m drinking coffee I made myself, sat at the desk, with a nice gentle breeze coming in from the sea. If you take off your glasses and imagine a bit, it’s possible to think that you are a proper writer living in a fisherman’s hut or something.
I took a lazy cycle up the main road (that is, a dirt track with speed bumps made out of thick rope) to the north end of Hopkins to a place called Driftwood Beach Bar. (An aside: I wonder how many businesses at seaside towns are called Driftwood?) obviously, they were playing Bob Marley’s greatest hits. But, having had a moan about it in yesterday’s post, it kinda didn’t bother me so much today. Plus, I made an effort to try and listen to the songs rather than just hearing bobmarleytediousbeachmusic. And, yes, it was possible to remember what it was like to hear those songs fresh. Still can’t be doing with Three Little Birds, mind.
The woman behind the bar was chatty. Canadian, had run Driftwood for six years, and hey, come down tomorrow, we’ve got a Hallowe’en party. I had a small and delicious pizza. There was a Manchester United teddy bear hung behind the bar. When I say “hung,” I mean “hanged.” The owner’s ex, who I think I met on my last visit to Hopkins, was a fan, but the barman is a Barcelona fan, so he hanged the teddy bear. Good lad. The Marley gave way to a homemade compilation. The Cars, Tears for Fears, Thompson Twins. A couple of Americans were also eating pizza. On his way to the gents, the male half walked past me and asked, is that a Reds hat? It is! A replica of the 1901 Cincinnati Reds cap to be precise. We had a chat about baseball. He’s a Houston Astros fan living in Austin, Texas. He and his wife are on their honeymoon, which explains why they’re spending 50 US dollars a day renting a golf car to get around town. Alternatively, that shows that I’m a cheap bastard, only willing to spend 10 Belize dollars on renting a bicycle.
I bought some bread, cheese, and milk at the store. That’s tonight’s evening meal and tomorrow’s breakfast sorted. While it’s nice to be on holiday and eat at restaurants way more than I normally would, there’s also something fantastic about being very very basic.
I smoked on the verandah outside my room as the sun went down. Then in the nearly dark, I noticed movement, lots of tiny things moving on the decking, next to the ashtray. Ants! Big fucking ants! Oh my gosh, there’s a dead gecko there, and tons of these huge ants, are having a feast. Rather than dealing with it, the holidaymaker in me kicked in, and I went and told the owner, and she came down and did what I could easily have done: scooped up the gecko on a piece of paper and got rid of it. I helped out by using a broom to shift the ants. After the excitement, it was time for a lie down. And by 8.30pm, I was fast asleep.
Woke up with Buffalo Soldier in my head. Not good. I started talking the lyrics to myself, though, in a posh British World War II army commander voice, and that made it better. Bob Marley is a funny topic. Acknowledged pretty universally as one of the greats, yet also quite annoying to listen to. Over-playing has ruined a lot of his songs. If you are within 100 feet of a beach, you will hear his music. Why did that happen?
Over breakfast, I was chatting with the couple from Manchester, and music came up, and we were talking and this and that and the guy mentioned Coldplay. And he said it in quite a disdainful manner. I laughed, and didn’t mention that, while I know I know I know, I do still quite like them. They are not a guilty pleasure. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. Pleasures are pleasures. I love Cartoon Heroes by Aqua. I’m not ashamed of that. It’s not a guilty pleasure. I’m not hiding it. Coldplay is a different thing, though. It’s easier to be bold about what other people would see as a guilty pleasure if it’s totally outside the norm of the generally accepted “good music.” (Another awful phrase.) Coldplay, though, are at the uncool edge of the good music spectrum. We, those of us into indie/alternative/college/whatever-you-want-to-call-it rock music, probably love quite a lot of music that the members of Coldplay love. I laughed along with the dig at Coldplay and felt a little sad that I didn’t come out and say all of this then. But, of course, it took being back in my room for me to properly distill this into words. And I began to wonder: what would’ve been Coldplay’s career path if they had released their first record in the 1980s. (Before I go on, let’s just acknowledge that Coldplay is an awful name for a band. But then, so is Radiohead. Terrible name.) So, the first Coldplay album was released in 2000. But if we imagine that their first album, with the same songs, had been released fifteen years earlier, it might’ve been produced a little differently, a bit janglier, and they would probably not had a big hit like Yellow was. That might’ve got to the top 20, but not much more. And their second album would’ve come out in 1987. Maybe a bit more piano, the odd violin and cello here and there. Playing bigger venues. And for the third album, would they have started filling out the sound and aiming to sneak into the U2, Simple Minds market. Or would they have been influenced by the dance music and been kinda like James: an indie band that added a shuffle rhythm and got lumped in with all the baggy stuff? Oh, I could think about shit like this for hours…
Another lazy day for me. I cycled into town, through town, and out the other side of town for a kilometre or so. Just to do something. At Cattle Landing, a small community at the bend in the highway that then goes inland and away from Punta Gorda, I turned around and had a beer at Waluco’s. A bar under a palapa. The telly was showing the 1991 European Cup final (Red Star Belgrade beat Olympique de Marseille on penalties). At the same time, the speakers were playing the Craig David album, Born to Do It.
Lunch at Gomier’s, the great vegetarian-ish place, and back to the cottages for a nap. I rarely nap. Maybe a couple or three times a year. It was nice to be that relaxed. In the evening, we all went out together. That’s Kate and Ian, the Hickatee owners; John and Nicky, the Mancs; and me. We ate average food at Asha’s. They have a great location. It’s a big room, with an outside deck, on a platform over the bay. Like a small pier, really. Great location: ugly as hell restaurant. It looks half-finished. Gordon Ramsay could do with stopping by and sorting them out.
We then drove inland to a sports hall near the airstrip. Last week, Paul Nabor died. He was 80-odd years old. He was an important musician in Belize, and particularly for the Garifuna. His funeral will take place in Punta Gorda on Saturday, and the town is getting ready for a lot of people to come, including Belize’s important people. The streets around the church where the service will take place are looking spicker and spanner. Last night was the first of four nights of music in tribute to Nabor at the sports hall. A little hut in the back corner sold drinks, the wooden bleachers filled up with people, and there was a stage decorated in the colours of the Garifuna flag (black, yellow, and white- sorry, black, GOLD, and white: why is it that people with flags never say yellow, it’s always gold?) with a big vinyl banner showing a photo of Nabor and the words KING OF PARANDA. This first of the four nights featured only local musicians. Things kicked off with a load of girls in traditional dress dancing and singing. That was nice. Then a godawful jazzy reggae band doing Bob Marley covers. The last act we saw before leaving was this band who seemingly played one long song. Ian later told me, no, there were six songs in there. The drummers and percussionists (there was no other musical accompaniment) just didn’t stop or pause between songs. Good stuff.
Back at the cottages, Kate, Ian, and I smoked cigarettes on the verandah and had a chat. It was my last night at Hickatee, my last night in Punta Gorda. It has been an absolute delight to be here and again.
Another very relaxed day. The troop of howler monkeys that live in these parts were very close by in the morning. The sound of their howls really carries through the jungle. It was like someone had set up big speakers out there.
Long trousers. Long-sleeve shirt. Buttons done ups at the collar and at the wrist. Time for a walk in the jungle. I find it quite exhilarating. A little bit of fear, but a lot of excitement. The fear mostly because I am alone out there. There are jaguars and snakes out there. And while jaguars very rarely attack humans, and snakes in these parts tend to come out at night, you never know, do you?
I love the jungle. I love it for what it is and I love it for what it does to me. I love that it’s just a really vibrant example of life happening. All stages. Big trees and plants, small trees and plants, new shoots sprouting from amongst the dead leaves, plants, and trees. It’s like an office, restaurant, maternity wing, and cemetery all in one.
What it does to me is it stops my mind wandering. It makes me focus: pay attention to your surroundings and nothing else, Craig. The jungle makes me stop thinking about work, drawing, ideas, blogging, etc. It’s just: there’s a load of ants, hundreds and hundreds of them, and they nip like a bastard if they get above the shoe.
I walked into a spider’s web. A massive construction, maybe two metres wide, with threads up, down, front, back, left right. I freaked out a bit initially when I suddenly felt web all over one side of my face, but soon calmed down and saw a big golden silk orb-weaver sat in the web up above. It had black and yellow legs about two inches long and it’s back was orange and the size and shape of a cigarette butt. I asked Kate at the cottages what it was called so at I could write it above and then had a quick google: there are photos of birds stuck in this type of spider’s web.
Thinking about that web, it could be kinda cool to do like a transparent Rachel Whiteread sculpture type thing. So, you fill the empty space between each silk line of the web and then highlight those silks with some colour, so you can get a good solid view of what the spider has made.
The ground was quite soggy, so it was good for pretending I was could track animals. Lots of foot prints around. I made a note of some and checked a book, and it would seem I saw coati prints. And some monkey poo. I saw monkey poo. Monkey poo. Poo.
A bit later, the monkeys were up in the trees above the cottages. Five of them. Mum, dad, three younger ones. One of them was hanging by its tail from a branch. It made me think that maybe evolution could’ve done with letting humans keep the tail.
As I type (early Wednesday morning), I can see the monkey eating leaves in a nearby tree. This place really is quite wonderful. Apart from the big bastard swollen doctor fly bite that I have on the ring finger of my left hand. Could do without that, but it’s a small price to pay when you can watch monkeys over your morning coffee.
I made some toast. There was no real Marmite but some kind of supermarket own brand copy. I opened the lid and it was rancid. I cut the toast in half diagonally (cos I’m posh) and walked into the lounge. I saw a car pull into the drive and that was when I realised that I wasn’t actually waiting in my mum’s lounge to surprise her with my visit. I looked around and, yes, none of the things here are my mum’s. I don’t know these people getting out of the car, but, fuck, I climbed through their open dining room window and now need to get out of her sharp-ish. No howler monkeys to wake me up in the morning.
I come to Belize to relax. I’ve by no means done everything there is to do in this country, but on previous trips, I’ve kinda done a smattering of the to-do-in-Belize stuff, and living in Mexico City fills me with the desire to do absolutely bugger all on holiday. This was a day where the bugger all really started kicking in.
I cycled into town to eat something. Gomier’s, the good vegetarian place, was closed, so had an average burrito from somewhere else that I forget the name of, and cycled back up the road a little to a place called The Olmec Bar and Restaurant. It was fairly rundown looking place with loud music coming from inside. I went inside and the pretty young woman smiled and got me a Belikin from the big chest fridge. A couple of dudes sat at one side. The back of the room had a stage and a load of music equipment, but on the whole, it kinda looked like a disused scout hall. There was a poster for Guinness Foreign Extra showing the rear of woman from head to thighs. She was wearing a black bra and short denim shorts. She had her back arched and a bottle of stout resting just above her the top of her shorts. None of yer fancy arty Guinness advertising here, no sir: just beer and ass. A tiny black kitten walked by. I took my beer outside and sat on a wooden stump next to the sun-bleached pink wooden fence topped with unfinished wood planks that served as a place to put your beer and an ashtray. A bunch of old timer expats sat out there. They looked like they that been sat there for days, weeks, months, years. To save space in my small backpack, I brought rolling tobacco and papers with me, rather than cartons of cigarettes. (Belizean cigarettes are awful, and you can’t buy Camels or anything here, thus the need to bring stuff.) I got out my tobacco, and started rolling one. The woman behind the bar yelled at me, in a voice that was half stern and half who-the-hell-does-this-guy-think-he-is, “you can’t smoke THAT here!” She, of course, thought I was smoking marijuana. I showed her the packet. She smiled. One of the guys who was drinking inside walked out the door and stopped at the kerb and hocked up a load of phlegm and spat into the street. Then his finger to one of his nostril and nasally spat another load of snot out. He returned to the bar, up-nodded at me and said hello. I paid up. Three dollars for a Belikin; the cheapest I’ve had since being here.
I cycled back to Hickatee Cottages and spend the afternoon reading. Ate some dinner a bit later and went to bed around 9pm. Relaxing really is starting to kick in.
There was this big party, right. Loads of pristine shiny glasses. Waiters in crisp white shirts. Tiny bits of delicious food on huge silver plates. At the end of the hall, there was a big iron-framed service elevator. It was stuck. People were yelling from inside. I grabbed a crowbar and pried open the door. I shouted out, “Could someone help me with this door please?” Nobody even turned a head. I held the door open on my own as eight or nine people eased themselves out of the elevator car. None of them said thank you. They just went and talked to the other people as if nothing had happened. No one said thank you or any kind of acknowledgement. That is what woke me up. Nobody said thank you. And the howler monkeys were at it again.
I never sleep as soundly as I sleep here at Hickatee. Crappy dream aside, it was a wonderful night’s sleep. I opened the shutters and it was delightful sunny day.
I chatted with the pleasant German couple at the next table over breakfast. They live in Berlin. Reflexively, I said “oh, I used to live in Berlin,” but then, not wanting to speak in my patchy, half-forgotten German, I told them I was just there for a year or so, in 2001. I had to remember this half-lie constantly for the rest of the conversation. Things I knew from later experience were suddenly, “a friend told me that [x]” or “I was visiting a friend in [some later year].” They were dead nice, though, and as they checked out and headed north, made a point of giving me their email address and telling me that if I ever visited again and needed a place to stay, to get in touch. How nice is that?
I did some drawing. Got my small notebook and a pencil out and drew a few of the plants in the garden. In my head, there and then, it was the plan for the day: coat my self in bug spray and spend the afternoon drawing plants, like I was some 18th century explorer or something hear on the business of the Crown. Sir Craig Robinson, tropical illustrator the His Majesty. This plant, native to southern end of the Caribbean coast of British Honduras, has no name, thus will be called, Craigus Robinsonium. Biggus Dickus. He has a wife, you know…
That plan, though went tits up when I noticed fire ants nipping at my ankles. Little bastards were all over my sock. I took my shoe and sock off and there was about ten of them all up in my feet’s business. I regrouped, soldiered on–I am British after all– and had a wander around the garden again, but kept finding reasons to put my notebook away. I liked the idea of spending my time drawing, but I didn’t actually wanna do it.
The owner of the cottages, Ian, and I had a chat about the garden. He studied plants and stuff, but he wasn’t a landscape gardener or designer or anything. He’s done a wonderful job of highlighting what’s out there in the rest of the jungle. It’s like, in Mexico City, we have people who get onto the subway with a portable CD player attached to a speaker in a backpack, and the first song on the bootleg compilation they are selling has a few seconds of each song, which they play to entice you into giving them 10 pesos for a CD-R. The garden at Hickatee Cottages is like that first song: a bit of everything from the local jungle.
I’m quite we all have typos at we make fairly regularly. I was never taught to type and considering how much time I spend at a computer, it’s ridiculous really that I only use a couple of fingers on each hand. I tend to make the same errors when typing on an iPad. The worst of them, because it affects a lot of words, is that for some reason, when hitting the T and H, I don’t seem to do it write, and they go un-typed. So “that” becomes “at,” and “the” becomes “e,” “with” becomes “WI” (autocorrected as capital letters, so I assume, with iPads being American, that’s the abbreviation for Wisconsin, not Women’s Institute.) Not sure why that happens, cos I never seem to have problems if I type a T or H in other situations. Only together.
Who invented all the fun collective nouns? I hope it was just someone being playful. Someone who thought, damn, the English language is malleable as hell, let’s stretch the shit out of it, and came up with murder of crows or a closer of cats. The Internet is obviously ace, but sometimes, it’s just a little bit too easy to close a discussion with tap tap tap: well, here’s the factual reason. I kinda miss the days when a question like “who invented all the fun collective nouns?” could provoke a few minutes of discussion.
I tried to relax. I lay on the couch in my room in my underwear reading a book. I put the book on my chest, and started up and out of the window. The odd hummingbird hummed by. Tiny little things, not much bigger than an adult thumb. I could feel the relaxing there. Just out of reach. You know like when you wanna sleep, and you start drifting off, and then something–a noise on the street, perhaps–snaps you awake again, and the drifting disappears from your brain and you feel properly awake again? Kinda like that.
As the sun fell, and the sky got darker, the jungle grows louder with every incremental darkening of the sky. Like someone has their hand on the hifi volume dial and is trying to move it a continually and slowly as possible up to ten. If, like me, you have a touch of tinnitus, the jungle sound is so helpful for sleeping. Instead of spending money developing arse implants, couldn’t doctors have spent their time sorting out tinnitus?
Before dinner, I had a chat with a couple from Manchester. Good people. In their early fifties. They’re hear on holiday celebrating their 25th anniversary. I did the mathematics: 25 years… Manchester… And yes, they met amongst all the Haçienda stuff. It was lovely to be sat in the Belizean jungle discussing acid house, the changes in English football culture, travel, and left wing British politics.
City Craig, the anxious tetchy me, kicked in early. It was my last morning in Placencia, I fancied a last early morning on the beach. The sea had been relatively rough during the night. The waves on the shore were quite loud, and a lot of the trash and stuff that washes up on the shore had been washed away again. I sat down on one of the hotel’s wooden beach chairs. A few moments later, a couple who were also staying at the hotel sat down a couple of chairs over and started having a conversation and harshed my mellow. Ignore them, Craig. Ignore them, just enjoy the view. Couldn’t. I’m a dick.
Just before seven, it started raining. Just as I was about to check out. The woman at reception seems like a happy soul. She’s always singing to whatever is on the radio. I smiled and gave her the room key. I head-nodded towards the rain through the open door and said, “perfect weather to walk and take the water taxi, right?” She cocked her head and said, “no it’s not, it’s raining.”
At the coffee shop, I ordered a regular coffee. While I waited, an elderly guy, with that kinda old man stubble that looks way more stubbly because of the silvery bits that catch the light, was in a chatty mood. He asked the people behind the counter where they were from. He asked where I was from. And then returned to his young companion who sat, looking miserable and sugar daddy-ed, wearing a Backstreet Boys reunion tour t-shirt.
An aside: how hard and brittle your toenails feel after a few days of sand and flip flops, right. It’s like they grow dead quick, too. I’ve got a wee cut on the inside of my toe, right next to where the holder-onner bit from my flip flop goes. It hurts. Sympathy, please.
At the water taxi, I sat in an open-sided shed (imagine being under a table with very tall legs). There were a couple of people there waiting already. A young attractive woman walked up and an older guy, maybe late fifties, early sixties got all lascivious. He mmm-mmm-MMM-ed. Told her she was lovely and just blathered on and on. The woman laughed, didn’t really say much. A bit of polite smiling. Obviously, this is no great revelation, but damn, it must be irritating having to put up with that shit from men.
The rain started coming down harder when we got in the boat. I was on the starboard side. To my right was a big sheet of white plastic that ran from the bow to the stern. (Look at me with the technical terms, eh? Left, right, front, back!) All the other people sat on the starboard edge of the rows of benches started dragging the plastic out and over their heads. I did the same and soon enough, all of the passengers were underneath the plastic. It was like we were in a big deflated balloon. Rain drummed on the top of the plastic, wind blew it around. It was tough to hold onto and keep taut. At some point in the journey, I noticed that it was less taut than it had been, and that my head shoulders and back were all touching the plastic. It was loud in there. As the boat slowed and we arrived at the other side, I pulled the plastic from over my head to find that, for the majority of the journey, I’d been the only person underneath. The two women next to me giggled. I put on my laugh-at-myself very British voice, and said “good morning! Well, that was fun.” They looked at each other and giggled again.
An air-freshener of taxi drivers (that’s the correct collective noun) were waiting on the dock. I got one of them, and as I sat in the front passenger seat, he looked out the window at the aforementioned gigglers and said, “pretty girls…” He opened the back door of the taxi and asked them if they wanted a ride. They did. Canny bastard, though; he got five dollars from me and from them, even though his original fee was just a fiver for the journey.
I had a shitty two-dollar sandwich at the bus station (pitched to me as cheese and tomato, but in reality it was a lake of mayo with some orange and red bits that were a slightly different texture).
The bus arrived and, wahey! the driver was the spitting image of Otto off the Simpsons. We left the station, and on the way out of town, took a slow left turn at a junction. As we did so, an older red-faced, red-bearded Mennonite guy ran out of the bushes waving his hand to stop the bus. *theatrical whisper* I bet he was having a poo.
It took us less than an hour and a half to get to Punta Gorda, the southernmost town of any size in Belize, but it took another 20-odd minutes to get to the bus terminal from the edge of the small town. Everyone on the bus wanted dropping off at very specific points. Why get off here where the bus is stopping for two people already, when you can get off 20 yards up the road?
I walked to Central Park from where the bus dropped me. Central Park in Punta Gorda is quite similar to the more famous Central Park in New York. That is to say, they are both called Central Park. The Punta Gorda one is a small triangle of short, patchy grass and dust. I approached a couple of guys leaning against there cars. They were indeed taxi drivers. The elder of the two said, “taxi?” I said yes. The younger of the two asked if I was smoking a blunt. I said, no, just a cigarette. If you want any weed, he said, just come find me.
On the way, the driver started talking about food. He liked fish. Then he clarified: well, not *likes,* but has to eat it more because of his diabetes and bad eyes. Hold on, what’s wrong with your eyes, Mister Driving-me-down-a dirt-road-in-the-jungle?
I have written here about the joys of Hickatee Cottages on several occasions. This is my fifth visit. The night before I left Placencia, I mentioned to a couple of people that I was coming to Punta Gorda. The reaction from both was “why?” Hickatee is why.
It’s about an kilometre and a half outside of town, virtually invisible on the satellite pictures on Google Maps. There are six rooms–in five small cottages—and a bar/restaurant building. All are spread out amongst some wonderfully-designed jungle gardens. There are loads of different types of trees and plants, attracting butterflies, birds, and insects. It’s a beautiful thing to sit on the verandah and just let your eyes and brain relax into the green.
After a good catch-up chat over coffee with the owners Kate and Ian, I took a bicycle into town to get some food. I ended up at the north end of town at a place called Gomier’s. It was too hot to cycle at any speed beyond not-falling-off speed. A smell of weed came from the jungle along the side of the road. I asked Ian later, and nope, they don’t have skunks around here, so it really could only have been weed. Apparently people go into the jungle to smoke. Duuuuuuuuude.
Saturday afternoon, and the streets were lazy. Dogs slept in the middle of the road. Kids wandered down the middle of the road, too. The occasional old dude on a bicycle. A couple of houses had the sound of drumming coming from within. There were kids singing in a school building. A guy in a park tossed baseballs up and hit them high in the air to kids with gloves. A couple of teenagers played basketball. Six or seven women and girls sat under a tree braiding each other’s hair. I said good afternoon to a guy on a bike, and he replied, “easy, bro.” A car, up on blocks in a front garden, pumped loud reggae from its stereo.
Gomier’s was doing likewise. A small street-level porch with bar stools facing out to the street. Two gringos were there chatting over the incredibly loud reggae. I sat off to the side at a plastic table under the palapa. I ordered some food and a beer. BBQ tofu with brown rice and salad. It was really tasty. (Caveat: virtually everything is tasty when it comes in a BBQ sauce, right?)
As I finished up my meal and lit a cigarette, a little Mayan kid, maybe six or seven, holding a bucket, came and stood next to me. He was doing the sad face that begging kids do in Mexico City. Every sentence he spoke began with the words “please sir.” He was offering me tamales. I told him I had just eaten. He asked if I would buy one again. I pointed to the empty plate in front of me. He asked again. I told him, no thank you, but if I saw him tomorrow, I would definitely buy one off him.
“Please sir, you can save it up for later.”
“No, I’m sorry.”
And then he snagged me:
“Please sir, it’s not good to be mean.”
How could I refuse that? I bought one. Later on, Ian told me that the kids’ parents sent them out and they couldn’t return without an empty bucket. I guess you perpetuate things by buying them, but sometimes, some high-minded principles need to be slackened: I’ll be buying a dollar tamale next time I see him, whether I’m hungry or not, just to help him go home before ten o’clock at night.
A truck pulled up, and a tall thin guy with grey dreadlocks inside a yellow hat, wearing an LSU Tigers t-shirt, got out. He said hello, then came into the restaurant. He introduced himself as Gomier, the restaurant owner. We shook hands. He had fingers as big as budgies. I told him that I enjoyed the food. He sat down and we had a chat. Originally from Saint Lucía, he ran a health food store there and then, with no professional cooking experience, came to Punta Gorda and opened a restaurant. It started off as a vegan place, but the business demands of a town like this has meant he’s started selling fish dishes, too. A lovely chap. Tasty food. I will undoubtedly go there again in the next few days.
After a few beers, and more chatting with Kate and Ian and other guests on the verandah at Hickatee, time for bed. Nothing quite like sleeping in the jungle. The noise. The unremitting sound of millions of creatures out there. It’s wonderful. As I turned off the light, I could hear howler monkeys making that 40-a-day growl they make. Being back here, and knowing that I’ve got four more nights in the jungle, is fantastic.
It doesn’t take much for my brain to ruin things for me. A brief chat yesterday about rays, manta or otherwise, left me paranoid. Up at 5.45, shorts on, grab a towel, and out to beach. I took my specs off and went to the water for a swim. Without my specs, though, I’m relatively blind. After a wee swim, I settled down, crouching in the water so that all but my head was underwater. Is that-? That shape-? Is that shape? No, it’s not. Yes, it is! That’s a ray hiding in the sand! Don’t be stupid, Craig. Of course it’s not, you’re just being paranoid. But what if it is? You don’t have travel insurance. And aside from the cost, being stung would very literally be a pain.
I’ve already got loads of bug bites. I think they are sand fly bites. People here call them “no-see-ems” because, obvs, you don’t see them, just feel the aftermath of their lunching on your body. Despite lacquering myself with DEET at least a couple of times a day, the lower half of my legs are a galaxy of red bites. I can see the Plough! There’s Orion! I get paranoid, too, that all this DEET is gonna strip the skin away, then the muscle, then the bone will start to bubble and melt like cheese on top of a pizza. I’ll go to sleep feeling fine, and wake up, try to get out of bed and fall on my arse because all my legs have disappeared because of the DEET. I got some on my lip this morning – just touched my lip ever so briefly – and the horrible bitter chemical taste stuck around for a few minutes. Obviously, it is now eroding my tongue and throat.
Whilst I was swimming, a guy walked along the beach. He stopped and yelled, “you wanna buy a wood carving?” I realise you wanna sell stuff to gringos, dude, but there’s a time and a place. You can safely bet I don’t have my wallet with me when I’m doing breast stroke in the sea at six in the morning.
It’s really nice being awake early in Placencia. For one thing, it’s the coolest time of the day. There are fewer people around; the grackles and dogs are up and about, looking for food. There’s the pleasant sound of hotel employees raking the sand on the beach. And as you walk around, you are duty bound to engage in the Belizean hobby of saying hello to everyone. This is something I find fascinating. It’s obviously not a distinctly Belizean thing that people say hello, but I don’t go to many places where it does happen. Walks in the English countryside produce a lot of hellos and good mornings. And walking anywhere in Belize does, too. I like the different types. I tend to go for one of two things: a “good morning” before noon, and a “hi” after noon. Some men will do a proper hello, others will mutter, some will just raise their hand in a lazy wave, others will just make some vague noise that is the Belizean phrase for “fucking tourists…” Women, I have found, engage in this behaviour less. Whether it’s just that they don’t say good morning to male tourists, I don’t know. My fellow visitors mostly seem happy to do it. The older ones, anyway. Younger people don’t seem that arsed and this stuff.
An adorable child in school uniform asked, “do you know what time is it?” “Is it,” not “it is.” I told her, and as I continued my walk, I could heard her repeating the time quietly over and over.
Everywhere in Placencia smells of paint. The tourist season doesn’t start here for another week or so, so there are still lots of places doing renovations ready for it all to kick in again.
I had coffee at Above Grounds. It’s a building on stilts. And they sell coffee. Another coffee shop in Placencia is called Brewed Awakenings. Puns all around. Above Grounds is nice. They were playing the Stone Roses when I arrived. And the owner is a friendly Scot who was happy to chat for a while on the verandah looking out over the main street.
Here are some highlights of a conversation about a Harley Davidson that two Americans had at the coffee shop:
That your beast? (it was)
That’s a sexy bike (it was nice, sure, but not sure if I’d describe it as sexy)
I thought yours was black (no, it’s grey)
It’s like a gun smoke pearl (no, it’s grey)
I painting my Mustang like that (grey, then)
You can tell from the angle of the dangle (no idea what he was referring to)
I went to a laundry place. Just a hole in a wooden shack with a shutter opened. Nobody was inside but there was a buzzer. I pressed it. Nothing. I pressed it again and waited. I heard a toilet flush. Then a shifty-eyed guy came out, he didn’t say anything. I asked if I could get some washing done and if so, would it be ready today? He rubbed his face, looked everywhere but at me, and half-mumbled, “yeah.” I told him I’d be back with my washing and then went to a different place to get my laundry done.
Back at Barefoot Bar in the late morning. Ordered a beer. Was passed a beer. Took a sip. Water. That tastes like water. It Is water. (Budweiser joke goes here.) I tell the barmaid. She tastes it, shows it to other people like I’d found the elixir of life in their fridge.
Had a brief exchange with a guy. He was from Oregon. I asked where. Eugene. “Aah, the Emeralds!” I replied. He seemed incredibly unimpressed that a British person would know the name of a minor league baseball team in his home town, and just asked where I was from. I told him Lincoln. He shouted, “Yorkshire!” I corrected him. He shouted “Yorkshire!” again.
I sat at the bar and made a decision to not multi-task. If I was smoking, I not also be looking at Twitter or reading my book. I put the cigarette in the ashtray when I took a sip of beer. I put the beer back down, took a drag, then put the cigarette back in the ashtray while I wrote these words. It was difficult to do. I only managed doing it for ten minutes or so before the modern trained brain kicked in and I got back to doing several things at once.
The very friendly barmaid, Mel, asked what I was “doing on that thing” all the time. I told her I was looking at Twitter. I felt ashamed and ordered a shot of their homemade bitters.
Just like the night before, there was power cut around dusk. It was a perfect excuse to get away from the terrible bore I was sat next to (that is: a conservative Republican who wouldn’t stop yakking). Had a wander down to the end of the peninsula to Mojo Lounge. A lovely little restaurant on the first floor, overlooking the street. I wasn’t overly hungry, but had some wonderful jalapeño poppers. It was moderately busy, but one of the nice things was, that as a solo diner, I wasn’t just shoved off in the corner somewhere. Didn’t feel like I was taking up space at a table for four. While I was there, the staff brought small glasses of some cocktail to everyone for free. White, dark, and coconut rums with orange and mango.
By that time, the booze was catching up with me. I wandered back to the hotel, lay on the bed, and was asleep before 8pm.
My first non-travel day. I was clearly on holiday for the first two days, but with all the moving around, planes, buses and water taxis, I can’t say I was properly relaxed. There was a point at the beach bar, where I just sighed and could feel the travelling drift away.
I woke at 6am. Well, I woke at 2am first and considered that it was too early to get up, so went back to sleep. At 5am, I woke up and heard the rain on the trees and roofs (shouldn’t that be rooves?). At six, the rain had stopped. I put on last night’s tshirt and decided not to shower: there was a big ass Caribbean Sea just 20 feet or so from my room.
There were only a people on the beach. A gringo woman having a walk, a couple of local chaps jogging, another dude having a slow walk. He stopped to talk. Ordinarily, I’d’ve happily chatted, but I kept my answers short. It was 6am, dammit, nobody goes to the beach at that time for a chat. I was there to just let my eyes relax, watch the early morning sun behind the clouds, and empty my brain. I rolled a cigarette. The guy continued his walk. And I stood with my feet in the warm clear calm water. A shark! Oh my- oh, no, it’s a dolphin. Hola, Flipper! He went under the water then resurfaced a bit further along. He did that three or four times. He must’ve realised I put my camera away, cos that’s when he leapt out of the water, doing that dolphiny thing. I audibly “wow”-ed. I’d never seen that not-on-telly before.
I had a swim. One of the big regrets in my life is having let my interest in swimming drift away. I was alright at it when I was a kid (bronze medal 50 metres freestyle Lincoln Pentaqua swimming club, yo). As with the boy scouts, it somehow got away from me in my teens. I swam for a bit, then just crouched in the shallow water for a while. I find it difficult to relax in general, but there, in the water, without my spectacles, or a device that could link to the Internet, I felt relatively relaxed.
Coffee and breakfast (a relatively boring omelette), and I was ready for the day. And as luck would have it, it was a couple of minutes to eleven, so I went to the bar, had a few stouts, sat around and watched the local expats congregate. I get the feeling that retiring to Belize would be terrible for your liver.
Realising I’d spent most of my awake time in Placencia at same bar, I decided to check out another bar. Yoli’s is a thatched kinda palapa thing on stilts over the water on the southern end of the peninsular. A good twenty minute saunter away. Exercise! I walked past the football field one corner of the field had a backstop for playing baseball. When I was here in 2012, there were kids playing baseball. Now, home plate is the only patch of dirt that remains. (Later, I asked someone about it, and they said girls used to play softball but not anymore because, he said, “they got fat.”)
Sometimes you have a brief interaction with a stranger that reminds you that humans are, fundamentally, good. A brief interaction that makes you and the other party smile. I was walking down a dirt track towards Yoli’s and an older couple in a golf cart (a popular mode of transport here) pulled up alongside me and asked if they could give me a lift. I told them that, thanks, it’s not necessary, cos I’m just going to Yoli’s, a few yards away. I told the guy I liked his accent (Texas) and he said the same about mine and asked where in England I was from. “Lincoln.” I explained in vague geographical terms where it was and dropped the tedious “joke” I always tend to tell Americans: we leant our name to one of your presidents. He laughed and said, well, being American, I guess we just stole it. We all laughed, said goodbye and wished each other a good day.
At Yoli’s, there was just one customer and a barman. They were chatting. As I walked up the steps, the customer shouted, “Liverpool!” referring to my LFC shirt. He was a Londoner, a Chelsea fan. Worked in computers. Moved around all over the world. One of those people who was kinda vague about his work and method of supporting his lifestyle. Nice bloke, though.
A huge silver-fronted black shelf of cloud was covering the peninsula as I left Yoli’s. Time for food. I walked back along the Sidewalk, and felt a drop of rain. A full ten seconds later, I was drenched. It was like the heavens was water cannoning me. I did what I could to protect my iPod and wallet from turning to mush, covering them with my hand inside my pocket. I nipped into Barefoot Bar to escape the rain. Had a beer and a moment or two later, the power went off. And it stayed off in the village for over an hour. At least that meant the shitty light inoffensive beach-y reggae was off, too.
It got dark, and I was sat there in my sunglasses, hoping it’d stop raining soon so I could go and put on my regular specs. There are few minor niggles I hate more than wearing my sunglasses when it gets dark. A soaked German guy came in and sat beside me. He asked what beer is good. I told him the choices are pretty limited. It’s Belikin or Belikin stout unless you wanna fork out for imported Heineken. He was a tour operated based in Berlin. He’d spent the last month going around Central America checking out places to bring German tourists next year. Seems like the best job in the world, that. He chugged his beer down, said goodbye and was soon replaced by an American drinking rum and Fanta.
Hungry, I went to a Chinese restaurant called Dragonfly Moon. There are lots of Chinese people in Belize, and lots of Chinese restaurants. To be honest, the Chinese food I’ve had in Belize before has been pretty ropey. Big plates of sodium. Dragonfly Moon was great, though. I ordered a cheap boring dish (chicken fried rice) not really wanting to spend a lot of money on crappy food, but it was delicious. No need to smother it in hot sauce or soy sauce. Fresh with loads of tasty vegetables.
Back at the hotel, my neighbours were watching telly. Loud telly. As often seems to be the case, the telly in the next room in any hotel seems to be showing some sort of car chase. But if Belizean telly is anything like Mexican telly, there is always one of the Fast and Furious films on one of the channels at any given time. In Mexico, it always seems to be the one set in Rio de Janeiro. I’ve seen that so many times, just because I can’t be arsed to search for anything else to watch. Earlier at the bar, the rum and Fanta dude was joined by a couple of women. They were chatting away about various things, and Vin Diesel came up. Both of the women agreed: they preferred The Rock.