Belize is a tiny little country, about the size of Massachusetts, nestled between the southeast end of Mexico and the northeastern border of Guatemala. About a quarter of the 250,000 people living here live in the biggest city, Belize City–making it about the size of Mountain View.
In other words, it’s a really, really, really small country.
Belize City itself is nothing much to speak of, looking mostly like a very rundown beach town–quaint wooden houses with the boards bleached like driftwood, balconies rickety and falling down, rot everywhere. It’s not quite an abandoned beach town, because people clearly live there, but there are at least thirty years of rot and failed maintenance running around the town. I didn’t think much of it, and was glad to get away.
I had planned to pick up a swimsuit and some doxycycline (antimalarial) and then hop a bus to Punta Gorda, but quickly discovered that today was a national holiday and all businesses were closed. Also that I’d already missed the bus to Punta Gorda. The taxi driver suggested that the plane to Punta Gorda had not yet departed, and perhaps I could catch that. So, I hopped over to the municipal airport.
The airport wasn’t quite what I’d been expecting. They took my credit card and gave me a ticket. Then I looked around noticed my pack had disappeared, and panicked completely, thinking someone had taken it. (I had just come from Guatemala City, where anything not nailed down will vanish instantly.) I spent the next minute kicking myself for being such an incredible IDIOT as to let my pack out of my sight for one second, and then realized that it was safely under a counter. The baggage guy had very helpfully come over while I was buying my ticket, and put it with the rest of the bags. I relaxed, settled in to wait, about three hours, for my flight to leave.
(One of the things I like about Third World travel is that you spend a lot of time waiting, with nothing particular to do. This probably sounds bizarre, but it’s not like waiting for a bus at home, where you have twenty things you planned to have done that day. Instead, you get pleasant time to think, to reflect on your journey and your life, and not worry about missing anything, because nothing you do will make the bus come faster.)
As I was boarding the plane (a Cessna 60 Caravan), I realized I’d forgotten to present my boarding pass. I fumbled through for my ticket, then realized I didn’t have a boarding pass, but the gate attendant waved me on. “Oh! I forgot to give you a boarding pass. Well, never mind.”
The plane itself was a tiny little propeller plane, with room for just twelve passengers, and the pilot right up in front–more like a car than an airplane. There were only three of us, so even the tiny plane was mostly empty. Two men loaded the luggage–four battered old bags, a sack of onions, and a giant bag of green peppers. As the airplane taxiied down the bumpy, gravelly, ancient runway, the wing struts creaked alarmingly, but we made it up into the air, and I gasped with delight. Below me spread all of Belize.
We flew for about fifteen minutes, then landed at Dangriga, the third-biggest city in Belize, about twenty miles away. We came down over the treetops–big trees covered with yellow bloom popped out like goldenrod, and delicate, purple-blossomed trees grew like orchid lichen. Feathery tufts of coconut palm punctuated the green canopy. Then I saw the runway, and blanched. It wasn’t run-down, it was ancient.
But, improbably, we made it down with a thump and a rusty squeal. The pilot waved at the terminal, but no one was boarding, so we were off again.
The wonderful thing about flying in a private plane is that you can see everything. It’s not like being in a jet plane, where you’re too high up to make out the detail–this was more like an aerial tour of Belize. My map had come to life–the green coastline, the squiggly caracoles of rivers, the purple shadows of the giant barrier reef looming through the turquoise water.
Fifteen minutes later, we stopped in Placencia, where stubbly mangroves rose up from the water on their elevated roots, looking for all the world like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice brooms from Fantasia. I kept expecting them to get up and walk away. We rose up again, turned sharply–I thought the pilot was circling to look at two wildfires sending up giant plumes of smoke a few miles away–but then we landed five miles away, at the Savannah Forest Station, to drop off our last remaining passenger. I was alone in the plane.
Twelve minutes later, the plane came down with a bump. I had arrived in Punta Gorda, 80 miles south of Belize City. I had traveled two-thirds the length of the country in just under an hour, including four stops along the way.
I am forever amazed by the tiny scale of Belize. In Guatemala, it takes forever to get anywhere–it took my bus four hours to get to Quetzaltenango, which is not too far from Guatemala City. In Belize, you can drive from one end of the country to another in about eight hours.
So anyway, I’m now in Punta Gorda, and staying in a place that’s pretty basic but not too bad. My friend Herve, who is an eminently civilized person, would probably die on sight upon seeing my room–peg-board ceiling sagging, ancient two-inch mattress with paper-thin sheets, broken window covered with torn mosquito mesh, rusty old fan and no air conditioning–but, fortunately for both of us, he’s not here. (I’m really quite fond of him, and would hate to see him die in such an untimely manner–so useless, and so unnecesssary.) The showers are cold, and the water sporadic–yesterday the shower was only a trickle, today they got enough water to turn it on again–but for a cabin out in the back-country, it’s not at all bad, and it’s only $11/night. After I fixed the mosquito netting with the duct tape I brought along (oh yes, the traveling tigress is prepared for everything), it was just fine.
Tomorrow I’m going off into the Mayan villages, and will probably spend the night there, so I may not be able to write for a day or so. I’m sure I’ll be having adventures, though. 🙂
P.S. Cacao IS grown around here!! I’m heading down to the local cacao grower’s association as soon as I finish writing this email. Hot dog! I hope I can get to see it being grown, processed, etc.