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Belize City II–Still Tough

Belize City II–Still Tough

Belize City, thanks to Britgirl17 at IgoUgo

Belize City, thanks to Britgirl17 at IgoUgo

Am I nuts?  After my first experience (see previous post), I went back to Belize City.  Why?  Well, if you look at a map of the area, you’ll see that if you are going to Guatemala from the Yucatan, there aren’t too many roads that don’t pass through Belize (and they are primative).  Plus I wanted to give the city another chance.  I had more travel experience and wasn’t so jittery about rough spots.  I’m glad I went back–I had wonderful adventures in Belize.  But you know what?  The city was still a dangerous and colorful mess.  From our book, “Wandering Magical Lands.”

October 28, 2007

I wanted to get into Belize City as early as possible, to avoid running through the streets clutching my bags after nightfall.  In Mexico everybody picks their noses.  In Guatemala they spit.  And in Belize they rob you–but with much better manners.

I had gone to the Cancún station the previous day, and looked on the boards for the earliest morning bus.  4:30 AM.  Miserably early, but better than arriving late in Belize.

“May I have a 4:30 ticket to Chetumal, please?”

The woman at the window looked glum, and sold me the ticket without speaking.  I was set.

In the morning I stumbled out of bed after three hours of sleep, packed up the rest of my things, dragged everything downstairs and out to the street, and walked bleary-eyed through the darkness.  I stepped over people sleeping on the pavement, into the yellow-lit station interior.  I watched bolts of lightning streak through the fluorescent bulb above my head, and hoped it wouldn’t explode until sometime later.  Again I wondered just what the hell I was doing with my life.

4:15.  4:30.  4:45.  No bus.  I lugged everything from one side of the station to the other.  Could I have missed it?  What now?

At 5:00, the ticket window opened.  It was the same woman who sold me the ticket the day before.  “Is the 4:30 bus late this morning?” I asked her pleasantly, fearing the worst.  I got it.

“There is no 4:30 bus, Señor.”  She wasn’t smiling.

“But–the schedule…” I said, beginning to forget all the Spanish I ever learned.

“The schedule is old.”

“There is no 4:30 bus” I repeated, making sure of the already certain.  “If there is no 4:30 bus, why did you sell me a 4:30 ticket?”

“Sir,” she answered, looking exasperated, “you asked me to sell you a 4:30 ticket.”

***

“Does your dog bite?” asks the man.

“No” is the reply.

The man bends to pet the dog, and is promptly bitten.

“I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!”

“That’s not my dog.”

Mexican reasoning.

***

I try to be conscious of what I wear when traveling.  I want to look especially decent at border crossings.  But it often seems that hippies and obvious potheads waltz through the lines with impunity, then enjoy the spectacle of me being searched.  This time, I’d had it.  I was going in comfort–in nylon running shorts and an oversized tee shirt, a gift from Paco.  It was hot at five in the morning in Cancún.

I never regretted my decision.  I had a comfortable ride, and was never searched again.

***

“Ah, Chetumal!  I hate this place.  Why does Quintana Roo have to be so damn isolated, so hard to get to and away from by land?  People who fly in and out of Cancún have no idea whatsoever just how far from everything they are.

“After waiting three hours in the Cancún bus station, it was six more to Chetumal, an hour and 30 minute wait there, and then four more to Belize City.  Screwed again in Belize–I’ll get in at dark and need a cab.  I should have stayed in bed.  I hope I at least find someone nice to travel with.  I have so many wonderful friends in Cancún, it is especially hard to travel alone in unfriendly territory now.  And, from here on in, even the first class buses are second class.  I’ll be lugging my pack down impossibly crowded aisles.  Lord, get me to Antigua!”

There were very scruffy people in the Chetumal station–long, matted hair, pink cotton genie pants, glassy eyes.  “They will get the red carpet treatment at customs.  I will be searched.”

If I could have gotten to Belize a bit earlier, I would have pushed on to Belmopan for the night.  But no such luck.  So I planned to make a mad dash for the Erie Street Guest House.  It was unfriendly, but it was a known entity, clean and safe and cheap.  And it was near Chinese restaurants.  Oh how I missed broccoli!

I was lonely on the bus.  A Belizean with a long, sad story, which ended an interminable length of time later with a pitch for money, hit me up.

It would be so much easier–or at least half as hard–to travel with a companion.  Everyone in Cancún asked me “Why don’t you take Juan with you?”  Juan had no money and no passport, for starters.  But I wouldn’t have minded having him on the bouncing Batty Bus to Belize.

Slowly, at dusk, we pulled into Belize City.  It was like walking the last mile to the gallows.  Through the windows and the gathering gloom, I watched the sharks circling.  The moment we rolled to a stop the bus was stormed by ten or twelve “guides,” tall, rough looking rastas.  With fear in their eyes, almost all of the bus riders scrambled for $10 “taxis” and rushed off to secluded hotels, the price no issue.

And then there was me.  I sat there like a bitter old poop, daring anyone to give me trouble.

I had met two Englishmen on the bus who were willing to walk through town with me.  “It can’t be that bad, right?”  I kept my mouth shut.

We were accompanied by a nice Belizean kid who told us he owned a restaurant in the city.  We stopped at the restaurant first, a three table hole in the wall, and then went on to Erie Street at a trot.

Along the way we picked up a looming, drunken black man, close to seven feet tall, screaming threats and dogging us everywhere.  “Where you goin’?  I’m gonna take you there.  This is my town.  What you doin’ here?”  We finally shook him at the U.S. Embassy.

The Englishmen, now at a jog with their mouths hanging open, looked at me in astonishment.  “You mean you’ve been here before, and you came back?”

Inflation had hit Belize.  The hotel room was double in price, to 15 dollars.  I would have paid 50.  I was too tired and hungry to complain.

Against all warnings, I would have to go back out for food.  I took off my watch and my money belt, and walked alone into the darkness in search of my Chinese restaurant where I had spoken to the young girl the year before.  But the restaurant was now a bar, and the few Chinese entrees on the menu were priced at $10, tea extra.

I was starving.  The Belizean kid had waxed poetic about his little restaurant, and if I wanted food, it looked like I would have to search for it there.  But it was on the other side of the Swing Bridge, halfway back to the bus station, in a real bad end of town.

The neighborhood was nasty at twilight, but now in the dark it was pure hell.  Skinny, half naked men sat in doorways or walked the stinking streets, their eyes searching.  I thought I would never reach the restaurant.

The kid wasn’t there.  A gristled man in his late fifties sat at one of the back tables, smoking.  “Oh, you’re looking for Smurf!” he told me.  “He hangs around here sometimes.”

I knew better, by this time, to ask for a menu.  “Do you have food tonight?”

“Sure.”  It’s always a bit like pulling teeth.

“Whatcha got?”

“Soup.”  No further descriptions forthcoming.

“Great–I’ll take a bowl of soup.  Anything to drink?”

“Well, we collect rain water in a cistern on the roof.”

“Uhm, I’ve got my heart set on a coke.  Fix me up some soup, and I’ll be right back.”

I ran around the corner, to a tiny Chinese grocery I had seen on the way.  A man, a woman, and young girl sat in a pool of light, peeling vegetables.  They looked up questioningly as I walked in.  I bought my coke, and they told me I could get my deposit back if I returned the bottle.

I raced through the streets, back to the restaurant, ready for food.

There in my place sat a large, steaming, beautiful bowl of hearty soup, thick with potatoes and rice and carrots, with a large, upright, club-footed bone standing in the middle of it.  The bone stood a good four inches above the rim of the bowl, and was rather carelessly sawed off at the top.

“MMMMMM!  Looks good!  What kind of soup is this?”

“That there’s Cow’s Foot Soup.”

And so it was.  Tipping the bone backwards, I exposed the hoof.  The nail was gone–whether removed or dissolved into the soup, I wasn’t sure.  But it was a foot, no doubt about it.  Where the hoof had been was gelatinous, hairy meat, tongue-like in texture.  The bones and flesh were held together by cartilage and more gelatin.

“You gonna like that!  Cow’s feet is aphrodisiacs, you know?”

“No, I hadn’t heard that” I said, standing the foot upright in the center of my dinner.  “How long will it take to work?”

“Oh, there’s no tellin'” the old man said with glee.  “You might go outta here and find somebody in five minutes!”

I ate the soup.  It was one of the best dishes I had in seven months of travel.  Then I considered going out on the prowl, but ran back home and went to bed instead.

***

The next morning I was out at 7:30 to take pictures of town.  Belize City is an unbelievable place, and I wanted some photographic backup.  I started early, reasoning that the nasty element who harassed me the night before would still be in bed, sleeping off their drunk.  I could roam the streets unmolested.

Wrong.  The nasty element takes shifts.

I only took pictures of very innocuous things–the Swing Bridge, the river, city streets.  No people, no private homes, nothing that would make anyone take offense.  I had snapped five or six pictures when, standing at a quiet intersection and focusing down the road, I heard someone a few yards behind me.

“Don’t snop dat photo, mon.”

Everything was set.  My finger was on the button.  It was a great shot.  I clicked the shutter.

“I’m gonna smash you f^#*+n’ camera, mon!”

I whipped the camera into the bag around my neck.  I heard footsteps coming up behind me, fast.  I didn’t turn around.  I just bolted.

I’m not a world-class runner.  I was born with my right foot on backwards–it still flaps in the breeze–and I use that as an excuse.  But I set records that morning in Belize City.

I tore around the corner and came upon the Chinese grocery from the night before.  The family was sitting in the same spot, still peeling vegetables, as if they hadn’t moved since the night before.  I rushed to the back of the shop.

My threatener was a big man, tall and sinewy.  He stood at the door of the market, shaking his fists and screaming.  The Chinese family never once looked up from their work.  Finally the man went away.  I pictured him waiting for me around the corner.  I acted like I was browsing through the store for a few minutes, as if I couldn’t possibly have been the cause of all the ruckus, then I turned to leave.  Just as I reached the door, the Chinese woman called out.

“Wait!  Did you bring back your coke bottle?”

Dan and Omar

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