She came slowly but suddenly, like a blurry silhouette on some beach sunset and you’re entranced at first sight, but it’s only after the sun has dipped behind a cloud and you can make out the details within her figure do you realize that you’re truly enthralled.
Belize had it all. Spanish speakers to practice with, English speakers for some daily chit chat. In many ways it wasn’t all that different from Mexico. But the houses were more likely to be made of wood. Everything was a bit more expensive. The food was vastly superior, a sort of healthy version of what’s so prevalent in the Southeastern United States.
We drove along a dirt road, the dust itself glowing that particular shine that only dirt on your first day in a new country can manage. The road came to a river crossing, and we were shuttled across via a hand-cranked ferry that looked barely sturdy enough to support us, let alone the other five cars that would board it behind us. A man with thick biceps and a full gut rotated a pulley that carried us all safely to the other side.
The jungle lined exactly both sides of the road as it continued easterward to Sarteneja. “God,” I looked at her, my lovely girlfriend full of the same awe at this country, sitting in shot gun and smiling out the window, “this is nice.”
We had been in Mexico for nearly six months and, with all due respect, it was just getting old. The food particularly. Sometimes the communication barriers. But more so, we just love the feeling of new. And the newer it feels, the more in love we become.
Another hand-cranked ferry. More dirt road. More jungle. It’s bumpy, potholes like an endless buffet of nothing but Swiss cheese. Something smells like gas.
“It’s probably just this spot,” I say. Everyone nods as though that’s a realistic answer in this country.
We make it to Sarteneja, though the road only got worse. I crawl out of and under the Bus and inspect everything. No problems. No smell. I climb on top and inspect our spare gas tank. All seems fine.
As I hopped back in, heading now more and more into the heart of a tiny but bustling town in the middle of nowhere, everyone’s halving their faces with smiles. Young kids on bicycles stare at the Bus which, unlike in Mexico, is an oddity here in Belize. The young girls put their heads down giggling when we smile back at them, the young boys point and do their Belizean accent’s worth of, “Whoaaaa!”
We’re a rusty old van driving down the road and to the townsfolk here we might as well be the Saturday afternoon matinee.
Renée runs into what everyone in town keeps referring to as, “The Big Store” to pick up some groceries before we head to a hostel that allows camping, just out of town, back into the jungle.
She returns a few minutes later. “They don’t take pesos,” and she reaches into her wallet, pointing at a blue credit card, “and they don’t take credit.”
Pesos and credit are all we have.
Might as well take our chances on the hostel.
Mangos fall like short range grenades you can eat seemingly non-stop. Horses run wild around the property. A young woman comes to the barbed wire gate, opens it, and lets us in.
“I got your Facebook message,” she says in a gorgeous Belizean accent, “we have room, yes, yes, come in.”
She accepts credit, and even gives me fifty Belizean dollars in change. I’m glad to have it and we rent, for $3 Belize each, two bicycles for Tristan and I to ride back to the Big Store and buy a few necessities. Beer, toilet paper and chocolate to be precise.
Turns out, they not only speak perfect English but also do take credit. Depends on who’s working, I guess.
My head is full of the joy I can seemingly only get from an incredibly unusual situation. I walk out of the store cracking myself up with thoughts, try and convey them to Tristan, and we ride back to camp. He’s a 14 year old teenage boy who’s spent most of his life traveling around in small spaces with his parents and little brothers, and I love him for his willingness to participate in galavants of this variety.
“Would you like me to arrange you a taxi?” she asks. We’re headed to Caye Caulker, an island, in the morning.
“You can leave your van here,” she points to the spot where we’ve parked for the night, just out of range of that big mango tree. “But when will you return?”
“About a week,” I reply.
“Okay well if it’s on Saturday, maybe you don’t want to,” she smiles, lighting a cigarette. She’s dressed modestly in many ways, but at the same time a bit scantily. It’s nearly summer this far south and she’s a young and attractive woman living in a very remote town, running a hostel for backpackers. We’re a family full of young children driving around without any local money in a foreign land.
“We’re going to be having a big party!” she continues. “But you’re welcome to come, there will just be loud music and dancing.”
I chuckle at the reality that I don’t look like a guy who enjoys loud music and dancing. But I don’t. I guess I look like it, I just don’t actually prefer it. And we end up changing our plans to return the day after. I’m old, and I don’t mind one bit.
In the morning the taxi arrives. It’s a beat up old red pickup and all five of us load into the back, headed for a dock where we’ll toss a few suitcases onto a boat and ride out to one beautiful island to have a breakfast laden with mimosas and pancakes and English speaking waiters before catching another boat to our final destination.
We arrive on Caye Caulker and are greeted by offers of cheap taxi rides, tours to a giant hole in the ocean, bag carrying and marijuana. We decline on all for the moment, there will be plenty of time for all of that during our week here, and immediately duck into the shade of a bar just next to the dock aptly named, “Sports Bar”.
The bloody marys are fantastic, by the way.
A week is spent swimming and drinking and walking the streets as rasta types yell, “Hey Lioness,” to Renée and her dreadlocks while crews of local burnouts fill every corner playing drums or chanting something that sounds a little like rap with no beat. We are in heaven, particularly Renée as jerked chicken and fried chicken and chicken salads and steaks and basically a ton of food that isn’t just some type of taco is served everywhere. Iced coffee is an option. Craft beer, sadly, is not.
The next week we have plans to explore Belize as free wheeling Bob Deelings, I’m taking a week off of work…but there was that gas smell, and the starter issue. When we return, the Bus is safe and sound. The party left only a fraction of the beer bottles and cigarette butts on the ground I had imagined it would. No one stole our home on the road.
“How was Caye Caulker?” she asks, hungover.
“It was fantastic,” I say things like that and random other small talk. Now that we’ve been to a place with an ATM, I respond, “We can settle up with you now if you’d like!”
We owe her around $100 Belize.
“Ugh,” she shakes her head and lights another cigarette, “in the morning. I need to rest awhile. The party…” She thinks for a split second, “You’re not leaving early are you?”
No, we aren’t leaving early.
It turns out, we’re not leaving Belize at all. At least not the way we wanted to, in a week, and with a running vehicle.
We do settle up around 10am and then hit the road. The starter plays nicely with us as we reward her with a bumpy, dirt road, taking a few different turns in an effort to venture south. The Bus is clearly not right. I don’t smell gas, but I can tell she’s having trouble keepin’ on keepin’ on. We come to a stop sign and I can’t get her into gear.
I hop out. Crawl beneath her. I’m about to fiddle with the clutch when I burn my arm. Fucker is hot!
“I’m going to turn it off,” I say to Renée, also hot and bothered in shotgun. The kids are holding together rather well. Turning it off wouldn’t have made it that much cooler. But I was going to mess with the starter and I didn’t want any surprises. Looking back, that’s a ridiculous idea, but I’ll leave it to each of you to realize why on your own, as I had to.
And had to, I did. When I turned the key back to off, the Bus wanted to continue running. I unhooked the battery, she died, I tried again. She wouldn’t start, but she wouldn’t stop trying to start either.
So once again in this life of living in a nearly 40 year old vehicle that was at one time a parts car, I am in the hot sun, my toolbox out, reading through manuals on how to fix things I have never had to fix before.
Few people pass us, but those who do offer assistance.
“Thanks, but I don’t need a jump,” I say to a couple of guys in a small white pickup. They nod, smile and drive off. The driver holds up a beer as if to say, “Cheers” as they disappear around the corner.
“Are you a mechanic?” a white guy asks me as he pulls up and turns his own car off just next to us.
“No, but I play one in real life,” is my response. I think I’m being clever, but I’m too frustrated and dripping with sweat to care if it may have sounded a little snappy.
“I don’t know,” I toned down my voice to this Good Samaritan, “It’s something with the starter. If I could get it going…”
He knew what I meant, same old same old with an old stick…just push it until it’s going fast enough, hop in and throw it into second gear, let out the clutch and magically the engine starts. He–and two other guys who’d appeared suddenly and out of nowhere–pushed us down the road. I did the tricks, the Bus did her magic.
We made it out of “the middle of nowhere”, but at the first stop sign died again, in front of a house where a very lovely old woman was working in her yard. She called to the house and her husband produced himself with a hand on his belly and an intrigued look on his face.
Unlike in Mexico, no one here wanted to work on the Bus. They didn’t offer to open her up, start ripping things apart (which had always been to my dismay) and could understand my rejections when that ever did come into play. Instead, he asked me, “Want a ride to the mechanic?”
The mechanic, mind you.
“Yes, thank you!” I hopped in and we drove to what looked like a fruit stand to me, but he swore was the mechanic’s shop.
He got out and began to speak Spanish to the woman who worked there. I don’t speak a lot of Spanish, but I knew what he was going to say before he said it, motioning for me to get back into his truck.
“The mechanic is sick.”
He drove me to another house, saying it was a friend of his who’s capable, but he wasn’t home.
“After my daughter gets back, I can tow you to Orange Walk.” Orange Walk is the big town, 7 kilometers away.
His daughter was in school. He drove me by the school to show me exactly where the school was, and stopped to look into the barred up place as though he was either checking if maybe it had gotten out early, or maybe just to check on his daughter’s well being.
We drove around some more, he showed me a few other places I suppose he thought were interesting in his town, before returning to the Bus. My favorite part of all of our small talk during that time was when he said, “Yes, we are bilingual!” He was proud and I was happy for him, for everyone in Northern Belize it seemed, for so easily mastering two languages.
“I’ll just call someone for you,” he said as we returned to the Bus. Something about the school changed his mind, I guess, about towing us personally.
We’ve already been towed in a variety of manners. Via no less than two tow straps down dirt roads and sandy beaches. We’ve been pushed by a small Toyota that barely ran, from behind. So when the tow truck showed up, suggested (in Spanish) that he should hook up to the back of the vehicle instead of the front, and then motioned for us all to get inside as he pulled us, back wheels in the air, in reverse, all 7 kilometers down a dirt road that was now not only bumpy, but full of speed bumps surrounded by moats, we were barely surprised. I even almost fell asleep at the wheel from all of the excitement.
There were two guys in the tow truck, the first was the boss and he didn’t choose to speak any English if he knew it. The driver translated everything between us.
“We are going to take you to Brownie,” he said as we pulled over just before Orange Walk. “He’s a Canadian. A good guy.”
We pulled into Brownie’s workshop and were greeted by a young man. Everyone conversed in Spanish until finally the young guy got on the phone and I could hear Brownie and the driver chatting about our situation via speakerphone.
“Go over to the parts store,” he said in perfect English, “and make sure they can get the parts. I don’t want that thing sitting in my driveway for a week while we wait on parts that never come.”
Brownie was a dick. I went to the parts store, conveniently just across the street, and asked them if they had it. Mind you, I don’t know what the problem is exactly, so I just ask, “Can you get parts for a 1978 Volkswagen Transporter?”
Long story short, their system doesn’t go back that far. We aren’t in Mexico anymore.
“I didn’t like Brownie,” the driver tells Renée while I’m gone, “Never trust someone who wants the parts before looking at the problem.”
Made sense to me. We drive around to a handful of other houses claiming to be mechanics.
“Hey Juan,” one of the guys at one of these “shops” says over the phone, “jah man I got de jab for u,” and that’s my best interpretation of the Creole language he’s now using as he speaks with whoever’s on the other end.
“I know u can handa it,” he says. It makes me smile. I love the accent. I love the promise of the sentence.
A few more back and forths go by.
“So u no ‘an handa it?” Another dead end.
Finally, the tow truck duo takes us to a fellow by the name of Dito.
“I don’t know,” he says, “I’m kind of busy. Call me back at 8 tomorrow.”
8am he means, or so I thought. We rent a cabin near a river and I do just that, call him at 8:01. Don’t want to seem to eager.
“No, call me back at noon.” He pauses, “Call me at 1pm.” He’s been working on it, but he’ll tell me to call him back at 4pm during our next call, and then will deliver the news, “It’s burnt up. The starter is no good.”
I didn’t want that news. I didn’t want to leave Belize.
In Mexico, some guy on the side of the road would have just opened up the starter and rebuilt in by the morning. In Belize, they just seem to have a more American approach. If it’s broke, buy a new one.
We can’t buy a new one though. They don’t sell them in Belize. Experience has shown us that international shipping in Central America can take a month, easily. Chetumal, Mexico is the closest place that might have the part.
It’s Monday, and I’m supposed to be on vacation. We’re supposed to be exploring Belize randomly and without care for Internet access or telephone meetings. We’re supposed to be exploring Belize!
We weigh our options over drinks that night, a river full of crocodiles and egrets before us, the moon high and nearly full, oh so bright.
“So we push start it in the morning and head back to Mexico?”
Heavy hearts agreed on that plan, that night.
As I’m once again hopping into the old girl, turning the key, sliding it back into second, a host of men pushing us from behind, dirt and sweat and grease covering my entirety, Renée looks over at me.