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.
A good solid eight hours sleep, up at 5.15am to get the 6.15am bus. Shower, dressed, sweating virtually from the off. It’s good being a hot-blooded English human when I’m in cold countries, but as soon as I get to somewhere humid, it kills me and any pretence I have that I might look good. How can you look good when your shirt is sweaty from the moment you wake up?
The buses in Belize are great. If you are child-size. They are yer actual genuine Blue Bird buses. The American school buses that you know well if you are American, and know from films and telly if you are not American. At Corozal, there were about ten of us on the bus. On the way out of town, it stopped every few hundred yards to pick up more people. It was frustratingly slow, by normal life standards, but I am on holiday, so not too much of a worry. After leaving Corozal, the bus kept stopping, but less frequently. Where roads from villages met the main highway, there would be people waiting or getting off. As we got close to Orange Walk, one of Belize’s bigger towns, the bus was full of children going to school. At Orange Walk, a couple of Mennonite dudes got on. Long trousers, long shirts, long beards, tall wide-brimmed hats. One of them was drinking a Coke. It seemed odd to see that (says the ill-informed blogger).
I listened to Coldplay. Yes, I know. But ever since my travels in 2008, I always associate bus travel with listening to and enjoying their music. I do it now almost of out of habit. It’s comforting somehow.
Some of the people who got on the bus at 6.15 in Corozal were still on the bus as we entered Belize City, three hours later. And judging by their business attire, they must work there. A six hour round trip to work every day.
At the Belize City bus station, I got off the bus and onto the bus right next to it, to head further south. The bus was already fairly full, and I sat in an aisle seat. Ordinarily, I like window seats, cos, y’know, the view. But on these tiny school buses, an aisle seat wasn’t so bad. I could stretch one leg. The woman in front of me was reading a Kindle. Over her shoulder it was something that featured characters called Aubrey and Max. A beach house was mentioned too.
I listened to some of an audio book. Somewhere along the way, I lost the physical copy of In Patagonia by Bruce a couple of years ago before I’d had chance to read it. And because I’d already bought it, I didn’t feel guilty recently, when I torrented the audio book. I’m about half way through. I wanted to read/hear it because, well, I still dream of being a travel writer, and this is one of the books that’s always mentioned amongst the best of the genre. To be perfectly honest, so far, it doesn’t seem as great as I assumed it would be. I mean, it’s enjoyable for sure, but it’s not blowing me away.
The highway system in Belize is minimal. There’s one from the north, via Orange Walk, to Belize City. Another that goes west towards Guatemala, and another than goes from the capital, Belmopan (about halfway along the western highway) east and towards Dangriga, then south to Punta Gorda. I was on the bus that stopped at Belmopan. It emptied and filled up again with passengers and we kept on truckin’ towards Dangriga, where the landscape changed from flat to a bit hilly. Lovely jungle-y stuff going on on either side, which allowed me to ignore the guy who kept falling asleep on my shoulder.
An oldish guy across the aisle with a Milwaukee Brewers cap and a splendid moustache was chatting with anyone who would listen. At one stop, he stood up, went to the door, and chucked his empty Coke bottle onto the grass verge. So *that’s* why there’s so much trash in Belize…
A woman and her two sons sat down on the seat in front of me. The kids spent a lot of time staring at me. I crossed my eyes at one of them. He hid his head. Then looked up again. I crossed one eye (it’s a talent, y’know). He hid again and looked a bit scared. I did it again and smiled. Nope, even smiling doesn’t work. But it did stop him staring at me, so one-nil Craig.
I’d not had a piss since 6am. As we left Dangriga, at 12.15pm, I realised that I really should’ve used the five minutes that we were stopped there to have a wee. Still another hour and a half to go. I saw road signs that told me we were getting closer. It was good to know. We pulled into the new bus station at Independence (a bit further out of town than the old one; taxi drivers rejoice). I got in a cab and took the five dollar ride to the Hokey Pokey water taxi station. Joy: a good long piss.
Relieved, I went to buy the US$5 ticket for the water taxi to Placencia and as luck would have it, the TV in the cage above the ticket window was showing the second half of the Liverpool v Real Madrid game. As luck wouldn’t have it, Real were 3-0 up and looking like they could’ve utterly crushed Liverpool had they been bothered about doing so.
In the water taxi, I sat behind a couple of Dutch guys who were talking as loudly as people talk when they realise nobody understands what they are saying. They were both in their mid-forties, ie. my age, but they were dressed in that mid-forties way that is best described as Borisbeckerian. Spiked and gelled hair. Earrings. Ill-advised tribal tattoos under flamboyant shirts. Sporty shades.
Ten minutes of water taxiing (a joy, actually: across the lagoon, loads of birds and mangrove) and I take a slow sweaty stroll along the Sidewalk (referred to as a road, but actually, it’s just a concrete path raised an inch or two above the sand), to the hotel that I booked at the border the day before.
I checked in, had a shower, a couple of glugs of mezcal from my hip flask, then went out to the Barefoot Bar, a beach bar, a short walk along the beach from the hotel. I drank Belikin stout and chatted with the older couple at the next table. They were retired hospital workers from Wheatland, Wyoming who bought a house down here. They seemed genuinely happy to be living in Belize for seven months a year. They thought I was nuts for living in Mexico City. I googled Wheatland, Wyoming. It has a population of 3,627. It makes sense that Wheatland natives would think living in DF was nuts.
A band started up. Just a guy with a guitar, singing, and his mate playing a bongo and a cymbal. They started up with a cover of With or Without You. They said they had a spare bass and harmonica if anyone wanted to join their “fun” and “funky” “jam session.” Without needing to be asked twice, I stepped up to the plate, grabbed the bass guitar and sang a few Police songs. The locals clapped. The ovation lasted for several minutes. I went back to my beer. Men wanted to shake my hand, woman wanted to shake other bits of me.
Obviously, that’s not what happened. They played Eagles, Pretenders, Bob Marley covers. Enough was enough. I paid up and went back to the hotel. I could hear the jammers jamming from my room. Black Hole Sun. I watched a good twenty minutes of Children of Men on my iPad and fell asleep before 9pm. I kinda like how Belize does that to me. I wake up dead early and go to bed dead early too.
You always worry when you’ve got an early flight. You have to wake up earlier than normal, so you try to go to bed earlier than normal. That last bit never works. I was in bed at 9pm, but didn’t sleep til gone 11. And that worrying about missing a flight is never necessary. I’d set my alarm for 3am, but woke up naturally at 2.58am. I gave myself an hour before the taxi was due. Again, though, that was unnecessary. You only need an hour to get ready if you are unprepared and like to hit the snooze button. The snooze button is something I haven’t used since I was in my twenties. If I need to get up, I get up.
Buzzer / yes? / taxi / I’ll be right down / goodbye to girlfriend / in taxi / empty roads / pay / receipt / check in / last smoke / security / wait / plane.
The guy sat in front of me snored like a bastard. He sounded like he was trying to snort gravel through a straw.
An expensive taxi from Chetumal airport to the border and there I am, ready to do my favourite thing in the world: cross an international border on foot. At the Mexico side of the border, you have to pay 300 pesos to leave. Paid the money, gracias, then walked over the bridge above the river at separates Mexico and Belize.
The first time I made this journey, two years ago, I was naive, and got a 15 US dollar taxi. On subsequent trips, I’ve not been stupid. There are small buses, like VW van-size, that charge two or three Belizean dollars (US$1=BZ$2). It’s a ten minute walk from the bridge to immigration on the Belize side. A guy in a van pulled up alongside and told me it was three dollars to go to Corozal, my destination, about ten miles or so away. Sweet. I gave him the dollars, he drove me to immigration, and said I’ll wait for you on the other side.
Immigration is a stand alone building that, until last year, was just a few wooden desk and some relaxed dudes with ink pads and a stamp. Now, though, those desks have perspex screens and cameras and the officers seem more uptight. Not sure if it’s true, but I’ve heard that the US government paid for the security upgrades.
The officer looked at my passport, asked why I had been in Mexico for so long. I told her. She asked where I was going in Belize. I told her. She asked if I had hotel reservations. I told her that, I had reservations for a couple of places, but not for a couple of others. She asked to see the reservations. I told her that I did them online and don’t have print outs. She asked about Placencia, a place where I didn’t have a reservation. Well, it’s not tourist season, so I figured I’d just arrive and find somewhere (this is something I like to do; arriving in a place and not knowing where you will sleep in kinda exciting.) She pushed my passport back through the hole and said, I can’t let you in if you don’t have somewhere to stay. I asked what I was supposed to do, she gave me a look, and turned away. Okay then, thanks for your help, ma’am.
Very very fortunately, there was a tourism desk at the entrance. I told the guy what had happened, and that I’d previously stayed at Sea Spray and One World in Placencia, so maybe I could try one of those. He looked at his screen, went to the Sea Spray website and used his own private cell phone to call them. Yes, they have vacancies (obvs). I spoke to someone on the phone, who was nice and friendly, telling me the difference between the rooms (prices, A/C, telly, sea view, etc). This was all fine, but just gimme a room. I told her my credit card details, and gave the phone back to the tourism dude. I heard his end of the convo. He told her that, yes, I think we have a fax machine. Pause. Well, if you can do it soon, because this gentleman is waiting to get into the country. When he ended the call, he said that she said that she would fax confirmation in 15 minutes.
15 minutes is a long time when you are in limbo. I went outside for a smoke. It was humid. I was sweating. I went back inside and chatted with the tourism guy. He was called Bernard. He asked where I was in Mexico. When I told him, he looked at me like I was nuts to live somewhere like DF. We chatted about our lives, his ex-wife, my girlfriend, his job, my job. All in all, he was the perfect person to be stuck dealing with this situation. Laid back and friendly.
After 20 minutes, the fax came through. I shook Bernard’s hand, thanked him for being so helpful, and went back to the immigration desk. By this time, a different person was there. A man about my age. I told him that his colleague had insisted I have a hotel in Placencia. He didn’t even look at the fax. He asked how long I’d be in Belize, then stamped my passport and wished me a good stay. Obviously, the three dollar bus guy had gone by the time I left immigration.
In Corozal I stayed, again, at the Sea Breeze Hotel. It’s my third time there. It’s cheap, basic, but I like it. The owner is a Welsh former roadie. He’s got plenty of tales to tell, which, depending on how he feels about you, he seems willing to tell after a couple of beers. If this hotel was on the Gordon Ramsay show Hotel Hell, it’d be fun to see who would punch who first. The problem, though, with watching that show is it kinda makes you paranoid about every hotel.
After a quick shower, I borrowed one of the hotel bicycles and went for some breakfast. Went to Al’s Cafe, a place I’d not been before, but had seen recommended on a blog about Belize. Eleven o’clock, though, was too late for breakfast. I had lunch. Rice, beans, stewed chicken. Average.
While I was eating, this guy came and sat next to me. He kinda looked like a curly-haired version of Neymar. Handsome chap. He started his pitch. He carves wood. He showed me his hands. They looked like he carves wood. He told me he’s not a bad guy, not begging for money. He told me he didn’t ask me for money when he saw me ten minutes earlier, so “you know I’m not just a beggar.” Then he asked me for money. Just a couple of dollar so that he can get the bus to Belize City, so he can sell his carvings to the people getting off cruise ships. I didn’t give him money.
Next stop was Primos’, a bar near the water in the south of the town. When I say that, you probably think I went a decent way on the bicycle, but no, it’s a small town, and it was only a few minutes on the bike. Like a lot of Belizean buildings, it was wood. Open sides. Loads of flags hanging from the roof: Belize, USA, Mexico, Canada, Panama, Honduras. Pretty much all North and Central America represented. Tiny white ants ran across the bar. A Canadian woman sat near me played whack-a-mole with them. Killing ants with her thumb. Here, there, here, there. She had quite the task. I talked to her male companion. A bug eyed man (he had beautiful blue eyes, actually) with a nicotine stained moustache. We chatted about life. He told me they’d been in Belize for four months, yet he spoke with all the weariness of someone who had lived here for decades. He was from that part of Canada where they frack. He told me that a few shitty companies have ruined fracking’s reputation for everyone. If done responsibly, he said, it’s not dangerous. But, of course, this is a man who has retired in his fifties after fracking for twenty-odd years, so I’m inclined to feel he has an interest in fracking’s reputation.
As mentioned above, this was my third time in Corozal. The first time I was there, the best food I had was at a place in the centre of town called Purple Toucan. The next time I visited, Purple Toucan had closed and the delightful Mexican-Belizean couple who owned it had moved their restaurant to their own home, about a fifteen minute bike ride into the countryside away. It was renamed Tucan Mexicana. I took the bike in the midday sun and sweated my way out there. It was closed. And looked like it wasn’t functioning anymore. None of the seating and tables were outside the front. In their place, just the concrete ground and several loud barking dogs. Belize is always the same, but always different.
I returned to Primos’. Club sandwich and another Belikin. Fun fact: Belikin beer has had a redesign. And as with most redesigns, it’s not as nice as it was before. I was tired and a bit sleepy. I returned to the hotel, had a lie down, but my brain stopped me from having a nap. I watched the Barcelona-Ajax game for a bit, and then went out for supplies: water and custard cream biscuits.
I got stuck back into the Belikins at the hotel. The owner was sick. He had food poisoning. I sat alone in the bar, marking down the beers I drank. He came out occasionally, groaning about his dodgy tummy and arse. I flicked through the channels on the telly, and eventually found a channel showing game one of the World Series and spend the next couple of hours participating in the NotGraphs live chat.
When my iPad battery died, I retired to my room and watched about ten minutes of the remaining innings before falling asleep.
A few days ago, I did a drawing of a flower and lots of things in the earth. I’ve updated it. I have a feeling this drawing could grow and grow.
I did this drawing a few weeks ago. The idea was to not do any re-drawing. Just draw once and hope it comes out alright. Some are, as you would imagine, terrible. But I kinda like the drawings of Stevie Wonder and Steve Perry.
I kinda think this is the most Mexican-influenced drawing I’ve ever done.
Here’s a drawing I did from memory. It’s not any place in particular, but it’s kinda based on memories of being nightclubs in the East Midlands and North of England in the early ’90s.