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Monday, 05 May 2008

Belize: A Journey from Belize City to Placencia

Written by Aaron Ober
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Belize: A Journey from Belize City to Placencia, travel Central America, travel Belize, Placencia, Dangriga, Belize CityThis was my first trip to Central America. I had arrived with intentions of writing a fly-fishing and kayaking story on Glovers Reef with friend and fellow photographer Paul Kerrison, who had made arrangements with a local adventure company for the expedition. Hungry for some Caribbean sun and relaxation, I flew down a week before Paul's planned arrival. Another friend of mine, Jim Mercure, owned a small plot of beachfront property in Placencia (said to mean “peaceful point”), a village in southern Belize. He welcomed me to stay there but warned of unsure conditions. An unwanted guest had arrived in October 2001, by the name of Iris. Iris began as a tropical storm way out in the Caribbean Sea, but just before making landfall it quickly gathered strength and grew into a monster category four hurricane, with its sights set on Placencia. I wasn’t sure how the storm’s aftermath would affect my plans.

 

Have you ever opened a doorway and stepped blindly into another world? Of course I had read books, seen photos and discussed this place, but none of that mattered. I was here, and the adventure had abruptly taken over. I watched helplessly as my plans changed with the scenery. My travel partner bailed at the last minute, depriving me of the fly-fishing and kayaking expedition he had arranged. So what the hell, I thought, I'm going solo for a month in the tropics of Belize. Damn, life is good!

Not everyone agreed with me. "Stay away from Belize City at night," my physical therapist warned in between adjustments. "It's not a safe place when the sun goes down."

"Neither is New York City," I said sarcastically.

"There are a lot of parents trying to find out what happened to their beloved Billy or Brittany, who were last seen gallivanting in Belize City,” he said. “It's not the same as here, it's different; stick to the beach and everything be cool and calm, mon. And try not to strain your back while you're down there!"

His words echoed in my head as I stepped off the plane, feeling a little more than buzzed from the flight attendants generous pours of Bacardi rum. A blast of balmy tropical heat greeted my staggering body like an open oven. "Welcome to Belize!" announced a sign above the airport terminal, a brilliantly colored adobe structure reflecting the blazing sun. "Welcome to Belize City, now get the hell outta here fast!" I thought to myself, and laughed.

I climbed into a taxicab straight out of the Brady Bunch sitcom, then sat back and held on tightly as the beastly station wagon accelerated down the narrow city streets, screeching and bouncing all the way. Pedestrians passed by so closely I could have lit their cigarettes. The cabbie must have noticed the whites of my knuckles and turned to me with a broad smile.

"Relax mon, you're on Belize time now."


We pulled into the bus station with a jerking stop and waited until the bouncing motion finally ceased.

I reached for my wallet as the cabbie unloaded my packs from the back. He shot a disapproving look at me and motioned across the street to a crowd of young Belizeans hanging on a stoop.

"Don't you be flashin' that out here mon!” he said. “You'll get robbed for true!"

I quickly concealed my wallet, leaning into the wagon’s open back door to extract the bills. I was shaken by his abrupt instructions, which clearly meant: wake the f#!k up greenhorn! While I thanked him, I stole a glance across the street and sure enough, every eye was on me. I turned toward the station doors, my heart racing. “Man, I have a lot to learn about Third World countries,” I thought to myself as I purchased my bus ticket. I climbed aboard an old Blue Bird school bus, glad to be on my way out of Belize City.



The last bus departing the city that day shook and rattled down the road. It was too late to make it to Placencia, so we would stopover in Dangriga for the night. I opened my guidebook and looked up Dangriga. It is the largest town in southern Belize with a population of about 10,000. My guidebook reported that there is little to do in Dangriga except spend the night and head onward.

On the bus, three other Americans sat in the seats in front of me, and we quickly got acquainted. They were from Washington, D.C. and had recently graduated from Columbia University. We decided to find a place to stay together as soon as we arrived.

The landscape whizzed by and darkness descended upon us. Eventually, we rolled into Dangriga's crudely lit, dirt streets, which were alive with roaming locals and the pungent smell of fish. We found a reasonable guesthouse near the beach and checked in.

The four of us dropped off our packs, inspected the cleanliness of our rooms, decided it would do, and headed out for a bite to eat. To our dismay, the streets were strewn with trash and lined by a slow-moving open sewer that gave off a terrible stench of rotting fish and excrement. "Boy am I hungry," I thought as we wove through the staggering crowd of locals, many of whom seemed in a stoned stupor. We passed by groceries half the size of my room back home and food stands that made a prison cafeteria line seem gourmet.

An older Belizean man named Elvis approached with liquored camaraderie. He assured us that he just wanted to help show us a good place to eat. Slurring, he said that he wanted nothing in return and he put his hand out for me to shake. I gripped his leathery claw and winced at his awfully mangled, arthritic fingers. Our drunken guide professed his love for us and the strangers we passed, as we followed him to his recommended dining establishment. We rolled our eyes at each other but kept our thoughts to ourselves.


Elvis brought us to a Chinese restaurant and announced our arrival to the Asian couple behind the counter. They flashed an angry look at him and shook their heads. Obviously, this had happened before. The place was dodgy, dirty, and well, I guess it was a typical Chinese restaurant. We ordered a round of beers and I went to find the restroom to wash my hands (not knowing where Elvis had recently had his grubby mitts). This turned out to be a mistake. I found the restroom, or whatever you wanted to call it, which consisted of: two filthy toilets upon a platform with a thin divider and no doors. In front of the toilets was a rusty hundred-gallon barrel filled to the brim with stagnant water. A waterspout hung inches above the surface, probably incubating the hundreds of small, swarming flies. A reeking, putrid odor turned my stomach as I stepped farther in to the horrific scene. Gagging, I abruptly turned and walked out, gasping for air.

Retaking my seat, I looked at the others.

"Do not go in the bathroom."

Our waitress delivered our beers and we less than cheerfully toasted. Elvis was still staggering nearby muttering something to the guy behind the counter, while keeping an eye on us. “What the hell is he waiting for?” I wondered. He walked closer and hovered over our table as we looked at the menu. My appetite was by now long gone and the King was getting on my nerves. "I don't want anything in return, my ass!" I thought, as I reached in my pocket and pulled out a bill. “Elvis! Please take this.” He happily snatched the bill, thanked us with a slur and disappeared out the door. Problem solved. Now the wino could buy his booze and we could eat in peace. As we waited for our food, Ely, who was a med student, briefed us on the dangers of eating certain foods in Third World countries, most of which conveniently appeared on our plates. This was turning out to be quite a lovely evening. I picked at my snapper sandwich, removing the unsafe lettuce and tomato. Beer, that's safe. I ordered another round and greedily sucked it down. I was trying to embrace a mild buzz when the door opened.

Elvis nearly fell into our table waving a loaf of bread and a can of sardines. He showed us his purchase, thanked us for the umpteenth time and stumbled back out the door. Unbelievable, I thought. Good man Elvis! Good man. I was happy that I had been wrong. Yes, Elvis was drunk, but not off my donation. Suddenly I felt my mood lift.

"Let's go for a swim!" I suggested.

We left our meals for the flies to enjoy and headed back to the guesthouse. It was getting late, but the air was still hot and sticky and the beach was just a few yards from our rooms. I had never been in the waters of the Caribbean and was eager to feel its famed tropical warmth. We trudged through the sand towards the sound of water and the whisper of a gentle breeze in the darkness. On three, we were all in the water. Like kids at the beach we splashed and kicked, washing off the sweat and grime from the long bus ride.

The sea was warm and salty and…squishy? My toes sunk into a mysterious muck.

At this same time Brooke shrieked, "I just stepped on something really slimy!"


"Why is the bottom so gooey?" Summer asked.

Something didn't seem right about this, so I hurried out of the water. I stepped on something round that squished and wriggled under my foot and jumped ashore behind me. “What the f#!k was that?” I wondered. The others quickly joined me on the beach. As I peered around, I noticed a dark object and picked it up. It was a motor oil container. Next to it was a beer bottle. I walked farther on, tripping over a tire.

"I don't think swimming was such a great idea guys! There's trash on the beach!" I said.

Brooke and Summer shrieked in unison and ran back to the room, anxious to wash off. To make things worse Doctor Ely brought up the risk of tetanus and hepatitis. I shivered as I stood in line for the shower. Dangriga. The word was strangely similar to the word danger, and what a s#*!hole. I couldn't wait to be back on the bus heading south.

 

Belize: A Journey from Belize City to Placencia, travel Central America, travel Belize, Placencia, Dangriga, Belize CityI awoke just before dawn and sleepily peered out the window. The brilliant scene shocked me to life. I quickly dressed, grabbed my camera and raced toward the beach. I had never seen such a display before. The vibrant colors were folding and mixing, transforming as the sun rose over the placid Caribbean. I snapped shot after shot, as pelicans flapped and flew from a twisted pier in the foreground. I noticed two men with a tripod down the beach and made my way toward them. They turned out to be Czech photographers and we quickly got lost in conversation between shutter bursts. A local youth appeared with a net and waded into the sea to catch baitfish, producing a near-perfect silhouette.

Belize: A Journey from Belize City to Placencia, travel Central America, travel Belize, Placencia, Dangriga, Belize City

 

As the sun rose, so did my spirits. I had all but forgotten the going-ons of the night before as I made my way back up the beach. A new day had dawned on this land of, of...Pampers? Pampers! Was I actually seeing this? They littered the shore, along with bottles, tires, shreds of clothing and trash bags. I followed the trail of trash back to our swimming spot and nearly got sick. It was a landfill! Those squishy things under our feet last night were shit-filled Pampers! I quivered with disgust and forced myself to look away and to forget. Yes, I must forget I swam in that Pamper-infested sea! I must forget and leave this bad, bad, place.

 


 

I returned to my room and crawled back into bed. Anxious to clear my head of all that was unclean, I concentrated on the sound of rustling palms and drifted into a cozy sleep. I awoke to voices outside my window and wiped the sweat from my face. Damn was it hot! It was now nearly noon and my companions were lounging in the shade of the balcony. Ely was entertaining himself by trying to chip his way into a coconut with a pocketknife. We exchanged good mornings, laughing about the night before. I told them I was up at dawn for the spectacular sunrise but decided to leave out the part about the Pampers. They could find that out on their own if they wished. Our bus wasn't leaving for a few hours, so we decided to take a walk and explore this derelict hole a little more thoroughly.

We wandered alongside a sludgy canal embraced by thick, balmy air and stopped to watch two men cleaning barracuda in front of their skiff. They were cheery men who answered our dumb questions with a smile. They offered to guide us on a fishing trip, chartered of course. I had to remind myself where I was. What Third World really means: you make a meager living by doing whatever you can. Dumb tourists were easy meal tickets. We politely declined and continued along the canal toward the open sea and a recommended café for lunch. I was pleasantly surprised by the café’s ambiance, compared to Elvis' pick from the night before. We opted for the breakfast menu and dined heartily on huevos rancheros and strong Guatemalan coffee; a long bus ride lay ahead.

***

“Welcome to the jungle!” blasted out of my headphones from a mix tape I had brought along. The song made me smile as I peered out the window at the lush jungle that blanketed the tall peaks of the Maya Mountain Range. Belize has one of the richest ecosystems in the world, home to a treasure trove of species of plants and animals. What lurked deep in the vast Belizean jungle would have Axl Rose screaming "Oh, won't you please take me home…to my mommy!" Jaguars, toucans, howler monkeys, crocodiles, scorpions, spiders and a plethora of deadly snakes had made this a favorite stomping ground for the late, great Crocodile Hunter. The sun was starting to inch its way beyond the horizon, creating a spectrum of brilliant colors over the mountains. The moist jungle canopy shimmered and sparkled like a sea of emeralds. It seemed to reflect the magical, mysterious history of the ancient Maya who ruled this land centuries ago. I felt like a child waiting for Christmas, eager for the adventure to unfold.

The bus made a jerking stop alongside a banana plantation, shaking me out of my contemplative state. School kids clambered off and ran towards a cluster of shanties set up high on stilts. The old Blue Bird school bus was packed tight with a mixture of Spanish, Creole, Garifuna, European and American passengers. We were once again speeding down the Hummingbird Highway, known as the most scenic drive in Belize. Suddenly a loud bang from below nearly made me jump out of my seat. A clanking noise ensued which signaled a flat tire. We coasted to the junction with the Southern Highway and stopped to check the tire. I cursed under my breath and sarcastically pondered Belizean AAA.

But luck was on our side, the tire was not flat. A chain had somehow wrapped around the tire along the way. I breathed a sigh of relief, then sighed once again as we turned off the smooth, paved highway and onto a dusty, dirty, rut-filled road. My brain shook inside my skull as we rattled down the last stretch of narrow highway before our destination. While massive dump trucks sped by dangerously close, filling the bus with a thick cloud of dust, I sat with my head down and eyes closed, taste-testing Belizean soil.

 


 

I was nearing my destination, the isolated fishing village of Placencia. This “peaceful point” is part of a peninsula that stretches out southwesterly into the warm Caribbean Sea. A tranquil, 13-mile-long lagoon, often called "the nursery of the Caribbean," borders the land’s western side. Much of the area’s sea life was hatched in these deep, protected waters. Manatees, dolphins and saltwater crocodiles are some of the creatures that make the lagoon their home. The seaward side of the peninsula is blessed with sugar-white, palm-speckled beaches. Beyond these beaches lie hundreds of tiny cayes spread along the second-largest barrier reef in the world.

 

Our bus passed small villages on this narrow peninsula. From my sweaty perch, I could see the tantalizing aquamarine water beyond. I gratefully departed the bus at Placencia’s village center, which consisted of a Shell gas station, a bank and a wharf. The sun sizzled Belize: A Journey from Belize City to Placencia, travel Central America, travel Belize, Placencia, Dangriga, Belize Cityoverhead. I grabbed my pack and headed for the main street, which is known as the narrowest in the world. The three-foot-wide "main street" connects the entire village with a quarter-mile of concrete poured over a base of conch shells. I was impressed by the unique conch construction that creatively utilized one of Placencia's natural resources.

 

My friend Jim owns property at the end of "main street" next to a big ol' mango tree. There were still huge piles of debris everywhere, skeletons of houses, fallen trees and so many palm stumps that the land resembled an ashtray. I was floored by the amount of damage Iris had caused, but my happiness to be here could not be tarnished. It was still a gorgeous scene of sugar-white sand and coconut palms rustling in the breeze. I passed by a half dozen small tour shops offering a wide variety of trips. One trip that caught my eye was diving or snorkeling with whale sharks. I couldn't wait to check it out. The main street abruptly turned into a jigsaw puzzle of concrete, which I had to leap across while carrying my heavy pack.

 

At the end of main street, I searched for the big ol' mango tree Jim had described. There was no mango tree in sight. In fact, I hadn't seen a mango tree anywhere along the way. I approached a nearby house and was greeted by Christina, a stunning Italian beauty. Regretting my filthy appearance, I asked her about my friend’s land. She pointed past her front yard at a scraggly, overgrown plot with a large tree stump amid heaps of debris. She told me there used to be a giant mango tree there, but like all the other trees with very shallow root systems, it had blown over in the storm. I opted to camp next door on the beach instead. I made arrangements with the landowner and set up camp.

I flung myself in the sea minutes after pitching my tent, scrubbing off the thick layer of sweaty grime I had accumulated on the bus trip. The sparkling azure water must have been eighty degrees. I soaked, swam and floated like a cork, as I indulged in the salty splendors of the Caribbean. I felt the winter stress leaving my body, replaced by my first savory taste of a peaceful paradise. I decided to grab a bite to eat and wander around the village. A rum and Coke was definitely in order.

© Aaron Ober

 

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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