We didn’t know whether we’d spend five hours in Belize, or five weeks. Coming from Mexico, a country that took us over a month to crawl through, Belize was a little baby, the Rhode Island of the world. One look at a map and you can see that there aren’t that many choices of places to go. It was a whole different game than Mexico where we eventually got distressed about how much of the giant country we would never see.
Unbeknownst to any of us, we were entering an English speaking country once again. “You no havta speaka no Spanish no moar mon!” exclaimed Marvin, our border agent with an embroidered shirt with the words “Tips accepted” stitched in in large letters. Thanks Marvin, I wasn’t really able to speak much of it anyways. We soon learned that “Tips accepted” wasn’t merely a suggestion, but a request. Marvin helped convince the other border agents that there was no point in searching our entire vehicle, which was a blessing, being that a vehicle search takes about 3 hours in our case. That was enough of a reason for us to drop our remaining pesos on him, and press on right into Corazol, the northern border town of Belize.
Our hardest choice that first night was which Chinese food restaurant to eat at. Corazol may have only consisted of six or seven square blocks, but it was home to probably 8 different Chinese eateries with names such as “Perfect Restaurant”, “Romantic Restaurant” or just simply “Rainbow”. We went with Rainbow for no particular reason at all and were rewarded with the most fried rice I’ve ever seen three dollars buy. As we strolled out into the breezy coastal air we heard the blaring music of steel drums from the only bar in town, the Jam Rock. It was the eve of the eve of the Belizean Independence Day, and we soon learned that that was as good of a reason as any to celebrate. The Belizeans take three whole days properly commemorate their independence, and being that that independence only occurred 33 years ago, it’s understandable. We threw back a couple Belikins (a Belizean brewery that as far as we can tell, owns the whole country) and headed back to the van, which we had parked next to the dock of a friendly local named Jose who we had met earlier. He said he had to stay at the dock overnight to watch over the boats and our company would be most appreciated since he usually has to do it all alone.
But when we got back, Jose was not there. There was, however, a discouraged looking man sitting on a swing set right next to the van and in his hand was a great big rusty machete. We looked at each other questioningly and I called out
“How are you?”
The man again didn’t respond, but instead raised the machete up at a horizontal angle and rocked it side to side, as if to say “I’ve been better.” As far as “things I want a man with a rusty machete to say after I ask them how they’re doing” goes, that particular response rated low, but there was nothing to do but just climb into the van, lock the doors and hope that his night would take a turn for the better and he could return to the cheery self he probably is. Within twenty minutes he was off somewhere else. I don’t know if we’ve been lucky or smart but after practically three months on the road throughout the west coast of the United States and the entirety of Mexico, we’ve never been put in any serious danger.
When we rose that morning, we left a note for Jose (who did eventually come back but jumped in a car at 5am to head to another independence party) and made our next move to Orange Walk, the next town over. We arrived 40 minutes later, ate some barbecue chicken, and decided that we wanted to keep moving. We hadn’t gotten a lot of distance under our feet yet and we had heard of a sweet beach spot called Hopkins that was close by. We revved up the van again, and cruised through the winding, mostly empty, and beautifully forested highways of Belize. Through the windows we saw almost nothing but lush green trees and mountainsides. At every speedbump was a family selling hot corn or coconut water. It continued this way for miles and miles until we decided to take a break at a cenote, a pool of fresh water that residing in a cave right off the highway. There we met Brian, a charming man who worked the gate at the cenote, and told us we were “trippin’” if we wanted to go to Hopkins instead of Belmopan, the capital of Belize, which was only ten minutes away and far less touristy. We took a quick dunk in the fresh cool cenote water, and then took Brian’s advice and headed over to Belmopan. “Pan is nice!” he kept saying.
Belmopan was a strange little town. It was hard to tell whether you were inside of it, or just wandering around the outskirts. As the sun got lower and lower we found ourselves driving around what appeared to be a pretty wealthy neighborhood. We figured that would mean it was as safe a spot as any so we popped the van top and got right down to business, which means we made some pasta. Ah! We had found a spot, our bellies were full, and we were settling in. And that’s when the neighborhood watch arrived. You see it was a very safe neighborhood. So safe in fact that a band of tired looking pasta eating vagabonds who live in their vehicle draws more than a little suspicion and concern. They kicked us out (our first time ever being kicked out of anywhere!) and we wandered Belmopan once again, though this time in the darkness. We found a great big field right next to the Governor’s mansion, and seeing as how there were armed guards standing outside the Governor’s gate, we decided that this was the safest spot we might be able to find in a pinch. There were no machete-wielding ruffians afoot, so it was good in my book, so we popped the top and unstuffed the sleeping bags, ready for a night of nice soothing rest.
Until two hours later when the Independence Day parade started. Midnight parades! What a thing! I gotta hand it to the Belizeans, they know how to give homage to a special day. Fire trucks honked their horns and flashed their sirens and fireworks crackled overhead for what seemed like hours but probably was only about 25 minutes. I watched from the van in my delirium and when I awoke the next morning I wasn’t sure if the whole thing was just a dream or not. What I was sure about was that I was itching to check out a new town, and Hopkins was still beckoning so we went there.
We pulled right up to the first sign we saw in the town. It said “Cool spot by the beach” which was convenient because we all happen to like cool beachside places. Children were backflipping off a T shaped dock straight ahead, which was admittedly very cool, so we trusted that the sign knew what it was talking about and we pitched some hammocks and went about explorin. Hopkins was lovely. The brown dirt roads were surrounded by palm trees, and crawling with celebratory locals who all wanted us to come sing, dance, and drink with them. The one thing they weren’t too keen on was having their photo taken, so we put down our cameras for a bit and joined in on the third day of Belizean independence celebrations, which was the actual day of Belizean independence and as such, a big rowdy parade was put together by the good people of Hopkins. This consisted of loading up a pickup truck with absolutely massive speakers and blasting reggae inspired dance music down the road for hours and hours on end while the rest of the town followed behind. There were 30 or so women dressed in colorful traditional clothing, lined up in a somewhat organized fashion, and gyrating furiously to the beat. It was incredible to see this free-form exhaustive dancing go on and on and on. We walked behind the parade with the locals for about an hour until we got hungry and ran off to get more chinese food.
When we returned to the scene of the parade, it had transformed seamlessly into a block party. Basically it was just the parade in non-moving form, now taking place in the center of town. We meandered through it a bit until we were called over by the voice of the jolly, whimsical Ms. B. She proceeded to inform Parker and I of all the goods, the bads, the ups and downs, and the obstacles that face Belize. She did all this while drinking us under the table, and by the time the night ended for us hours later I had a sobering perspective of the third world challenges Belize was facing, but a rum-soaked perspective on the immediate world around me. We said goodbye to Ms. B, whom I told rather insistently, ought to run for president of Belize (she said she would consider it) and somehow found our way back to the cool spot by the beach. On the way home I must have bought a couple bags of Cheetos because when I awoke in my hammock the next morning my hands and pants were covered in iridescent orange powder. Belize independence successfully celebrated!
But now I had new problems, and they were mostly the pounding in my head. I awoke right as the sun rose, as all of us often do on this trip. When you live outside it’s easy to fall right into rhythm with the rise and fall of the sun and adopt the same schedule. I went and took a seat at a nearby shack restaurant and ordered cup after cup of coffee as I slowly regained full consciousness. Hours later I was still in the same place, but had now been joined by a mysterious new crew consisting of two British cats, Willow and Joe, and one rough and tumble looking Belizean boat driver, Captain Breeze. After striking up a conversation with them I soon learned that Willow, owned an island off the coast of Hopkins and was attempting to build a hostel and a restaurant on it. We had actually heard vaguely of this project through the grapevine and had hoped we would run across it at some point in Belize, but we hadn’t known where to find it. As it turned out, it found us, and in one of the most coincidental events of the entire adventure thus far, we found ourselves on a boat headed towards the island about two hours later.
The one night we spent on the island was pretty magical. We took the day walking around, snapping photos, jumping into the water, trying not to step on sea urchins, and chatting it up with Willow and Joe. Joe had just recently come to the island, not even three weeks back, but had quit his job and sold all possessions in England with the intent of living on the island with Willow for at least as long as it took her to construct the hostel, and probably more. Joe told me that he’d never been to a place in his whole life where he could sit around and think about absolutely nothing until he came here. The island was simple, and clarifying. His mind was at ease for the first time in years. It was a beautiful notion and as my own mind raced thinking about the possibilities of dropping everything to become an island person, I was definitely more than a little jealous of the Zen state he had found.
That night, however, there was no hope for Zen. As soon as the night hit (and we subsequently felt the gravitational pull of sleep that comes with the darkness), so did the fierce tropical storms. It seemed as though 10 seconds couldn’t go by without lightning striking somewhere offshore. I lay on my mattress in the palapa and watched crack after crack of flickering lightning, and felt the epic booms coming from all directions. It was actually pretty beautiful to see, but made sleeping near impossible. When the morning returned, the whole crew was a little groggy and ready to get back to the land.
We made it back to our cool beach spot around noon, and made the consensus that we needed to keep moving. In fact, it was probably time to leave Belize. We took off thinking we could probably camp out in the border town of San Ignacio and try to cross over to Guatemala bright and early. San Ignacio (like almost everything in Belize) was only two and a half hours away so we had time. It was a bittersweet drive. Belize had been fun that’s for sure, and it had been so drastically different from Mexico that just getting that type of culture shock was very welcome, but we hadn’t made a lot of headway on our project in Belize. It seemed that nobody really wanted their photo taken here. They were almost offended by the notion of it most of the time, or they wanted some sort of immediate payment. Even after explaining that we wanted to print off their photos and give them back, people were still quite skeptical. It was saddening for us, so we attempted to alleviate that pain with a very common treatment: Pizza.
We stopped back in Belmopan to order ourselves a nice pie to share between the four of us but were met with tragedy again. The pizza was too expensive for our daily budget. We walked out of the joint with our heads hung low, but when we trudged back over to the van we looked up to see a woman standing there with her two children. She was a Mayan lady, and she had approached us on the off chance that we might buy some of her carved artwork. Aidan told her that sadly we didn’t really have enough money or room in the van to take on any new artifacts, but we did happen to be a group of traveling photographers with a stockpile of photo paper and if she wanted some pictures of herself and her children, we would be happy to oblige. We braced for the standard “no” that we had heard so often in our last week in this country but somehow this time it didn’t come. Instead the woman nodded excitedly. We looked at each other with huge grins and sprung into action, and what happened next was absolutely incredible.
Unbeknownst to us we had parked the van right on a path that hundreds of kids were taking home from school. It didn’t take long after we had snapped and printed photos of the Mayan woman’s family that we got utterly swarmed by children tugging at our shirts saying “can I go next?!” It was the most gratifying experience of giving photos that I had ever experienced. The kids wanted to see every single part of the process and watched eagerly as every single print sluggishly plopped out of the printer. They laughed and pointed at each other’s pictures, and then they did something I didn’t expect. They began trading them! Instead of keeping pictures of themselves, they were giving those pictures to their friends, and in turn keeping photos of their friends for themselves. It was so unselfish, it was opposite of egotism, and not something I had expected at all. In our current world where practically everyone (myself included) is so eager to decorate their digital walls with the best pictures of themselves, these kids would rather line their pockets with photos of each other.
That’s why we are out here. That’s what we came for. And it could not have been a better note to leave Belize on.