belize is abruptly different. how can things change so quickly? even the land itself seems to acknowledge the border. certain plants grow on one side but not the other. the cattle are a different shape and color. the people on the streetsides are suddenly multi-ethnic. i wonder if the cultural difference on either side of a border is the result of the line we’ve used to divide ourselves. starting out the same, do we evolve in two different cultural ecosystems after the line is drawn? or were these people different all along from those in mexico? and maybe the line has been drawn accurately at their differences... it’s only two short hours to belize city, and we travel fast, largely alone on the road except for massive trucks spilling over with green sugar cane stalks. nonetheless it’s getting dark as we hunt for accommodation in this cramped town on the water.
dan and rick have both been here before, and there’s not much to this small country. a lot of poverty and high prices don’t help the appeal. our plan is to leave the bikes in the city and ferry out to caye caulker for a few relaxing caribbean days before heading west to guatemala. so we find a hotel with an imposing fence owned by a reserved bangladeshi. dan and i play some good cop bad cop and persuade him that his alley is the perfect place for our bikes and then we head out for the night with a norwegian couple and an american girl. the streets are instantly caribbean. everyone wants to be my friend, and everyone wants to sell me drugs. i decline one kid’s offer, but he graciously gives me some advice on the local scene: ‘remember, in belize, the more women you fuck - the bigger your funeral.’ (typing that feels even dirtier than saying it.) i meet another guy claiming to be the neighborhood’s ‘protector’ and bring him into a bar with us and buy him a beer purely for the entertainment value. my investment comes through when he pulls off his shirt and tells us a frenzied and disjointed tale of his bullet-hole scars and subsequent resurrection.
by noon the next day we’re on the island eating fish and drinking bellikin. by three we’re at the dock putting away buckets with a couple of kiwi pilots arguing about which way ‘west’ is. we swim 100m over to the uninhabited north island, scramble up a tree on the water’s edge, and jump off into the ocean, hollering loud enough to get the attention of the girls on the dock. we party pretty late this night.
this is supposed to be a paradise, but i find the island tough to enjoy. the sand flies are horrendous. the humidity is unprecedented - dryness an abstract concept - and every local stops you in the road to pitch the quality of his drugs (they’re all lying). i’m also reading the monkey wrench gang and its tales of the wild, empty colorado plateau leave me feeling trapped. so i rent a kayak on my own and score a bit of freedom. i’m not sure if i can circle the island before dark, but i’m thinking about it. then i spot a muddy inlet, possibly a canal dredged through the island to shorten the fishermen’s commute. a young guy, solo, beats me to the mangroves, cutting his outboard as the water gets dark and shallow. he looks back at me paddling in behind him and asks in a thick caribbean accent if i’m actually entering the inlet. ‘yeah, obviously.’ ‘mon, there’s crocodiles in here!’ at first i think he’s messing with me, but the road sign in front of our hostel does say crocodile street… ‘are you serious?’ ‘yeah mon!” warily i ask ‘so you wouldn’t recommend i paddle through here?’ ‘mon, i don’t even recommend it in my boat i’m in!’ adrenaline pumping, i turn and paddle back to sea with the most silent graceful strokes i can conjure. when i reach the bar at the north end, the same place we spent yesterday, rick’s chatting away to some new friends in the midst of the spring break-like scene. at his encouragement, a couple of english girls jump in, toss me, and commandeer my kayak. i laugh and climb onto the dock to share a bucket until my ship comes in.
the next day we set off on a highly recommended snorkeling and spearfishing tour with a young, tattooed, stoned entrepreneur named jacob. the reef around caye caulker is a major attraction; dan was out diving yesterday while rick and i suffered through hangovers. the appeal of snorkeling here is that certain spots on the reef have not only been reserved against fishing, but that locals actively feed the life that comes in. the result is that in a single day we see more underwater life while snorkeling than rick says he’s seen cumulatively in all his 150+ dives. the water is so shallow that it’s a struggle to dodge the nine stingrays swimming around us. a loggerhead turtle keeps bumping into my back. some 25 nurse sharks swarm around us with scary speed, vacuuming baited shells tossed to the seabed. for the second half of the tour, we’re out of the reserved areas and armed with spearguns. jacob teaches us what to aim for, but the fish here are so wary and my ability to skindive so miserable, that in over two hours i don’t hit a thing. i’m massively humbled when rick swims up alongside me, dives three meters, fires under an uninteresting rock, then grabs the snapper he’s just caught and is back off to the boat before he hits the surface. dan shares my luck as far as bragging rights go, but we all share in the feast that follows. returning to the hostel, we cook up a hard earned meal from our day’s catch. there's enough fish but not quite enough rum.
belize is a fascinating destination, but i’m no jimmy buffet. by now half the island has probably overheard me pining for a mountain breeze. and though i’m really eager to go, the boys are too. diving the blue hole turns out to be outrageously expensive, so we decide to catch a morning ferry and make for guatemala. when we collect our bikes they’ve been corroded by the salty caribbean winds. we make our way past men drinking in the sunshine and colorful cemeteries and head west through the countryside. ‘how crazy’, says one of the boys, ‘that it took us forty days to get through mexico and today we’ll cross an entire country in an afternoon.’ as we ascend to the guatemalan border, the rain begins. it feels like central america is greeting us with a mischievous smile.