We’re sipping mocha ice cream beverages served by the Chinese owners of an air-conditioned cafe, listening to mariachi music as an Amish family glides past in a horse-drawn carriage.
Welcome to Belize, a melting pot of cultures, races and nations. Salvadoran restaurants rest next to open-pit Belizean barbecues adjacent to Chinese-run supermarkets across from Guatemalan fruit stands near Amish families selling watermelons out of the back of their horse-drawn carriages. It’s a hardscrabble mishmash, an English-speaking country of 360,000 that trades as comfortably in US greenbacks as they do the colorful Belizean dollar, and everyone seems to get along just fine.
We were roused from sleep at 6:45 on a Saturday morning by two events: birds noisily welcoming the day, and the rattling cacophony of a Bluebird bus bouncing up the rutted dirt road. Time for school? Nope. It’s the weekly trash run. The bus’s roof has been crudely hacked off, the seats removed, and a makeshift ramp installed where the emergency door once rested in the back. A couple of grinning dudes in dark jeans and mirrored sunglasses grab the trash from two barrels near the gate, stopping to wish a stranger good morning with a toothy smile.
The bus is a perfect metaphor for Belizeans’ ability to make do. Duct tape holds bumpers onto cars. Houses are cobbled together with mismatched clapboards. Drivers peer through shattered windshields as common as the errant driving habits of a population with limited driving skills and a worrisome taste for beer, rum and home grown hooch. A desperately poor country, Belize at times seems held together by wire, patches and tape; it’s random and a tad lawless.
It’s a rugged, affable place where small problems are met with a shrug, schedules treated with skepticism, and many types of critters may visit you at all hours of the day and night. One afternoon, we did a double-take and then a u-turn as we drove from Belmopan and spied four teenaged boys dragging a dead six-foot snake along the road. It was a fer-de-lance, one of the country’s most aggressive and venomous snakes. The boys were proud of their catch. The snake: I suspect not so much.
If you have your wits about you and a good sense of humor, Belize can be wildly entertaining. We had bats in our bedroom, were peed and pooped on by geckos, visited by hummingbirds (one joined me in our bungalow, interrupting an afternoon nap), and entertained by a five-foot iguana who lives behind the café where we stopped for coffee. We became soaked with sweat hiking in Guanacaste park, watching Howler Monkeys feed overhead. It’s all part of the experience.
Sure, there’s the cobalt Caribbean and thatched beach cottages selling cool drinks with paper umbrellas, but that’s not the Belize we experienced. We’re inland, two-plus hours from the sea, and we got the feeling this is a more authentic slice of what Belize is really all about.
Mostly, it’s the people, which is usually the case for us as we make our way around the world.
Laughter is a plentiful commodity among the affable population, and it’s easier to get to know the locals. Chatting one day with the young man who managed the gym where we worked out, I learned that he won the Belizean junior cycling championship several years ago. Two days later, I gave him a polka dot cycling shirt I bought at the foot of Mt. Ventoux –an iconic stage in the Tour de France that any cyclist would recognize. Hernan was apparently touched by the gesture. On our last visit to the gym, he returned the favor – giving me the yellow jersey he earned, once again proving that some of the world’s poorest people are the quickest to give.
This is a deeply religious place. Road-side signs pointing the way to salvation are interspersed with tiny churches. The Western Dairies men’s room is dotted with Bible quotes – one over a urinal from the book of John, much to my amusement.
Belize has plenty of rough edges. One day we drove several miles off the main paved road toward the Guatemala border to explore Black Rock Lodge, a stunning collection of thatched huts along the Macal River. It’s accessible by a rutted road that winds through the jungle and clings to the mountain edge, rising and falling enough to rattle our borrowed car – and this driver’s nerves. A local we bumped into days said when she first visited Black Rock years ago, tourists were still being periodically abducted and held for ransom by marauding Guatemalan gangs.
Roads are lined with tiny shacks with handmade signs promoting the sale of Belikin, the national beer, snacks, freshly-cooked food, sofa repair (and washing machine repair, at the same place), and makeshift barber shops, hair salons, butcheries and well-stocked vegetable and fruit stands. Our local purveyor of all things vegetarian is Maria, a friendly, bi-lingual woman with the hips of Mamma Cass and the smile of Whoopi Goldberg who demands that we speak Spanish (poorly) and then laughs at our awkward attempts (richly).
We’ve driven a good chunk of south-central Belize, bumping along the decent roads and not-so-decent paths. We navigate the north/south “highway” below our guest house in a borrowed 4×4 whose 235,000 miles is reflected in each rattle. There’s Western Highway and the George Price Highway, indistinguishable from one another except for the roundabout in Belmopan that fails to announce the split. To our eyes, it’s the same potholed two-lane road.
Most of our time is spent back and forth between Belmopan (the capital, population 15,000) and San Ignacio/Santa Elena, twin towns that boast roughly 17,000 inhabitants. Main roads are paved, but you’re on your own once you leave the major thoroughfares.
We visited Belize City, which was the country’s capital until Hurricane Hattie came along in 1961 and leveled the place. What with the active annual Caribbean hurricane season and Belize City’s proximity to the water (it’s below sea level, fronting the sea) locals thought better of having the nation’s political and economic hub so close to the ocean, and chose Belmopan as the new capital. Now, Belize City is a pretty rough place with little to offer.
As for the new capital in Belmopan, locals seem to have moved everything – government offices, banks, the national archives, etc. – except people. With 15,000 inhabitants, Belmopan is the tiniest, strangest capital we have visited. There is little there, other than the US and British embassies, imposing concrete compounds nestled next to one another on the city’s outskirts, a few banks, restaurants and a decent open air market surrounded by taxis and local buses. There is a profound lack of parking – and I’m a tested veteran on this issue. If you don’t own a taxi or drive a delivery van, you’re left to fight over one of the few legal places to leave your car.
Other towns and villages – San Ignacio/San Elena, Spanish Lookout, Teakettle, Blackman Eddy (where we are staying) and Hattieville, and where most of Belize City’s inhabitants moved after the floods brought by Hurricane Hattie in 1961 – are tiny, economically-challenged outposts. There are dozens of tiny local restaurants offering mostly the same fare (rice and beans served with stewed chicken or pork, tamales, burritos and fajitas, and of course the legendary Belizean cowfoot soup). Non-red meat eaters, we pass on the soup, as easy to resist as it is the “boil-ups” promoted at most roadside eateries. (Boil up is a Belizean staple handed down from slavery days that is made from ground pigtail and fish, plantains, eggs, cornmeal cake all boiled and then topped with coconut oil and onion-tomato sauce. Locals slurp it down with a couple of ice cold Belikin beers.)
Larger towns prominently feature one of the more bizarre fixtures of Belizean towns – enormous, well-stocked Chinese supermarkets.
Lin’s, Chin’s, Huang’s and Lee’s stand shoulder to shoulder to Mamma’s finger lickin’ chickin’, Dis Dah Place fast food, Ko-Ox Han Nah (Let’s Go Eat), Sweet Ting, Chaa Creek, and the reliably delicious Western Dairies, revered throughout Belize for its pizza, fast food, and fabulous ice cream. Western Dairies also offers one of the consistently inexpensive commodities we encountered: ice cream.
Otherwise, prices are shockingly high. Diesel fuel is $6US per gallon, and fruits, vegetables, sauces and kitchen staples all cost substantially more than we’d expected. No wonder locals struggle by with public transportation and eat an inordinate amount of rice and beans.
Ethnic diversity reigns. Horse-drawn carriages ferry Amish families to and fro along the Western Highway, a windy, un-lined road from Belize City through Belmopan, into San Ignacio and onward to the Guatemala border about half an hour from where we’re staying. Traffic is controlled by a series of mountain-sized speed bumps (referred to as pedestrian crossings) big enough to destroy your shock absorbers if you fail to slow. Enterprising people line up by the side of the road at each speed bump selling coconut water, snacks, and hitch hiking from town to town.
It’s a place full of movement that seems to yield little progress. Trucks blast by the highway 110 yards from our bungalow from 4 a.m. till 10 p.m., shuttling goods to and from Guatemala. Birds wake early, and the howler monkeys begin their serenade at day break, getting an early start to the day.
Just like the trash collectors.