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Belize City—The Toughest Place I’ve Ever Been

Belize City—The Toughest Place I’ve Ever Been

Belize City by Manolo Romero

Belize City by Manolo Romero

Nothing against Belize.  The country is just gorgeous and full of nice people and jaguars and orchid-dripping jungles.  Maybe all the warnings in the guidebooks spooked me, but I found Belize City to be the most dangerous place I’ve ever been.  As usual, it would have been much more welcoming and safe if I had been traveling with an expense account.  But as a backpacker seeing the world economically, I felt at risk in Belize City.  I mention this now because I just read a story in the New York Times which makes Belize sounds like a storybook vacationland.  If you go, you may find it to be so.  But here’s the account of my first visit to Belize City (and yep, I went back a second time!).  From our book, “Wandering Magical Lands.”

October 28, 2007

Another name for Belize City is Chaos.

Batty bus (that was the line, really) disgorged us at their rundown wooden terminal just as dusk was settling over the land.  The last rays of the sun glinted off the nearby canal that serves as waterway, larder, washroom, and open sewer.

I had hoped we would arrive in daylight.  Everyone recommends that you do not walk the streets of Belize City after dark.  It’s just too dangerous.  With luggage, in search of a hotel, you are a target even in the daylight.  But there was no choice now.

I had no idea where I was going.  I was beset by self appointed “guides” even before I stepped off the bus, some of whom looked as though they would guide me to the nearest dark alley.  I would clearly need a taxi.

It seemed I wasn’t the only person at a loss.  I had avoided four French tourists on the bus—they looked like a bad lot.  Now were going to share a cab, and looked considerably better to me.   I don’t know what they told the cabbie, but the groping “guides” were getting so insistent, I just climbed wordlessly and uninvited into the back seat of the crowded station wagon with my newfound friends.   Hopefully the driver would ferry us around to a number of hotels until we found one that would be suitable.  I threw $2 in the pot and said, “Let’s go!”

I got my first real glimpse of Belize City from the back seat of that station wagon.

Batty Bus is on the Collett Canal, a grand name for one of the open sewers that languidly lace their way through the sweltering town before disgorging their festering contents into the brown sea.

Wooden houses sit on stilts, built up against the frequent flooding of this former mangrove swamp.  The open area underneath is reserved for cooking, storage, garbage disposal, and rat hotels.  Most of the houses show signs of having been painted at some time in the past.  Pastel pinks and greens and blues remain like flaking chips on a Grecian fresco.  The only fresh paint is on the billboards adorning the walls of some of the buildings–“Sugar Water–Poor Man’s Drink for Poor Man’s Pocketbook” and “Cure All Your Animals–Eradicate Screw Worm.”

Dangerous looking men, some drinking, stood on the street corners or sat in doorways.  Belize City was proving to be a rough place, indeed.

I peered out the cab window, generally horrified I had ended up in such a den and transfixed by the nightmare view outside, when suddenly there was a ruckus among my fellow passengers.  I turned to see looks ranging from disgust to pure panic on their blue-lit faces.  One woman was near tears.  They asked that the cab pull over.  After a hurried conversation, the entire group decided to return to the station and take the first bus to Guatemala, at whatever cost.

We had traveled less than 500 feet in Belize City.

I was determined to give the place a chance.  I also had a strong hunch, later confirmed, that there was no night bus to Guatemala, or anywhere else.  I stayed in the cab.  I can’t say I was sorry to see the French tourists leave.  Only now I was alone in an old station wagon, rolling slowly down dark, narrow streets with dangerous looking loiterers at every corner, drinking or fighting or peeing into traffic.

I occupied myself by looking around the car for signs that it was indeed a legal cab.  There were none.  No license, no company name, no picture of the driver.  No wooden bead seat cover.  Just a broken down wreck, slowly cruising the night streets of Belize City.  I resolved to remain calm.

Then a tall black man with long, curly hair flew through the open passenger’s side window and savagely attacked the driver.

I reached for the door handle and grimly prepared to make a jump for it.  The attacker’s feet hung out the passenger’s side window as he and the driver tussled.  I grabbed my knapsack, leaned to the door, turned the handle, and heard peals of laughter.

“Me brother, mon!”

They took a look at my face, and broke into hysterics again as we swerved down the road.

“You want a tour of town, mon?”  I took a deep breath and sat back in the seat.  Illogically, I was beginning to enjoy the crazy sense of adventure, and it sounded like a good idea to get my bearings with a little tour of town.  Plus, now that I had time to catch my breath, I realized that the driver’s “brother,” now sitting in the front seat, was achingly beautiful.  I wouldn’t have minded seeing the sights with him.

“Common–we go get some beers.”

I snapped out of my reverie.  Great–I could see it now.  I’m shuffled off to some distant, isolated dive, pay to get the two of them loaded, and then I’m stuck on my own in the middle of the night in front of some bar.  And that’s one of the better scenarios.

“No thanks,” I answered politely.  “I’m really tired.  I just want to find a hotel and get some sleep.”

“How about some ganja, mon?”

“Ah, thanks, no.”

“Wanna do some lines?”

“Not tonight, no.”

“Don’t do drugs, huh mon?  You want your [hieney] licked?  You can get anything you want in Belize City!  We got lots of [willing young lady parts] here.  [Brackets mine].  Anything you like.  Hey–BABY!”  The driver leaned out of the car window to pinch a girl on the butt.  She just smiled and walked on.

The driver went on to offer a menu of sexual practices, delights, and perversions, some of which I doubt are physically possible.

My hormone-riddled daydreams were interrupted by our arrival at a guesthouse.  Against my better judgment I left my pack in the car to climb up the rickety front staircase and inquire about a room.  I was begrudgingly led to a tiny, windowless cell, yellow by the glare of a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling.  The only plus was the coatimundi tied to the front rail.  I asked to see another place.

Around the corner and through an alley was a marginally nicer end of town.  Near the American Embassy we found the Erie Street Guest House.  Orchids on the front porch, windows, shared but perfectly acceptable bathrooms, and a good price.  I jumped at it, happily paying my guides an extortionist rate to be safely deposited at a decent hotel with my luggage and my virginity intact.

***

At first glance the guesthouse appeared to be a true haven.  A small lending library, the flower-filled porch, conservation posters, vegetarian meals–all promised a cozy stay.

But the atmosphere was fatally marred by the attitude of both guests and management.  Ty, the American manager, was miserably uncommunicative, given to monosyllabic answers and vague grunts.  He appeared perpetually annoyed.  And my fellow “house guests” seemed much less interested in the natural history of Belize than in emulating the pirates who once preyed along this forlorn coast.

I couldn’t decide if the fog of piss-poor attitude that hung over the Erie was due to the city, loaded with bad vibes, or to the people themselves.  Some come to Belize for the jaguars and the reefs.  The folks at the Erie came to be left alone–or to hide.  And no one would care to look for them in this odd elbow of the world.

***

Once I got settled in, I realized just how hungry I was.  I had fasted for some days, and had finally beaten the runs.  How the heart can sing over a solid movement!  But I absolutely had to venture into the Belizean night for food.

The city is an awful place, smelling of sewage, populated by dangerous, desperate looking people.  Everyone is in on a scam.  They stand on street corners and smirk at you.  Bums follow you from place to place, bellowing drunkenly “Where you goin’?  Der nuting over der.  I take you to a good place.  You got a couple a dollars?”

At the front door of the guesthouse was a map of Belize City, with a warning.  “Be in your hotel room by dark (6:00).  Walk only the roads marked in green.  Do not use any of the other roads, ESPECIALLY AT NIGHT.”  Four or five blocks were highlighted with green magic marker.  None of them led anywhere near the bus station.

I trotted in the muggy heat down the middle of the road, steering clear of loiterers, racing from street lamp to street lamp.  Very inconspicuous.  The sun sets quickly in the tropics, and it was pitch dark.  I heard laughing and shouting and dogs and crickets.  But I wasn’t accosted by anyone.

After 8 or ten blocks I came to a more commercial area, and found an empty Chinese restaurant.  I practically wallowed in greasy fried eggplant with bits of chicken, downing all with cups of tea and a Belikan beer.  There were jewels amidst the dirt, even here.

I slept well that night, my chair pushed up against the door.

Dan

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5 comments to Belize City—The Toughest Place I’ve Ever Been

  • It’s not always easy coming up with new content, but you really can do it well!

  • jps101

    I believe it ‘s called the Betty Bus Lines… not “Batty”. We rode it down from Chetumal in 1981.

  • jps101

    It’s called the Betty Bus Lines, not “Batty”… I rode from Chetumal to Belize City in 1981. Crazy place Belize City back then. Sounds like it hasn’t changed much.

  • Eric

    Hi Dan, I’m Belizean and it’s about time that someone posted some other truths about Belize other than it’s a beautiful country with nice people. Thanks for keeping it real.

  • 5cocomoco7

    Hi Jimmy–Thanks for writing. There may well be a Betty Bus Line in Belize, but I did travel on Batty Buses. The company was founded by the Batty brothers. Found it on Google. Dan

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Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.