Category Archives: Belize

Two Weeks South of the Border: Part the End

The adventure continues and concludes in this installment, which ranges from ruins to Kaluha (words which also sum up my current existence). See how travel broadened this broad?
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After a few days in Belize, my sister, some other Peace Corps volunteers, Cute John, and I rented a “taxi” to take us to Tikal, Guatemala to see some Mayan ruins. Alwyn, our driver, didn’t want more than five people in his car, for the roads are nearly non-existent, and, as Carol Brady would have, he feared for his station wagon. Pointing out that Cute John was spun from nothing more than clouds, fairy wings, and cotton candy, we unwisely coerced Alwyn to allow a sixth in the car.

Tikal was 65 km (let’s call that 39 miles, roughly) from our starting point that day. It was a four-hour drive. To amuse ourselves, we ran through our repertoires of “theme songs from every tv show aired since 1970.” Only Cagney & Lacey stumped the crowd. As I’ve asked myself nearly every day since my adolescence, Where’s Tyne Daly when you need her?


My favorite moment of this journey was when the station wagon got stuck in a rut in from of 10 Guatemalan lads–lazing on the edge of a village well–just as we all reached the high point of the All in the Family theme song “Those Were the Days,” doing our best Edith Bunker impersonations. Jaws around the well dropped, and we set back Central American/North American relations hundreds of years, putting a particular strain on the coffee trade (you no longer have to ask yourselves, “Why can I only get an inferior cup of Sumatran java these days?” After hearing our singing, Guatemalans were thrown into a decades-long bean harvesting paralysis.)

Tikal itself is amazing. We hiked all over the ruins, ending with Temple IV, a building that loomed several hundred feet into the sky, reachable only by maneuvering a series of sideways ladders and grasping at tree roots. I nearly wept at the top for fear of the descent.

Fortunately, right then a group of senior citizens came huffing and puffing around the corner. I eyed them quizzically and asked, “Do you, by chance, know an alternate route down?” They did. All it involved was shuffleboard, ice sculptures, and me sitting on my tush and sliding down the hill).

Dusty and sweaty, we had lunch, bargained at the market, and began the drive home.

Oh. Did I forget to mention that this was the first weekend this particular border crossing between Guatemala and Belize had been open in some time? There’d been a ban because groups of banditos had been attacking tourist vehicles and “molesting” (in all fashion) gringos?

This concern was firmly tucked into the back of our collective head as we started the drive home at dusk. On the worst possible stretch of sheltered road, Alwyn, our driver, slammed on the brakes and yelled, “I smell gas!” Without another word, he hopped out of the car, dove beneath it, jumped out, ran to a nearby shack, and came back with a pan and a bar of soap. What an odd time for a sponge bath, Alwyn.

It turned out we had two dime-sized holes in the gas tack, holes that had been worn through when the tank came into repeated contact with the road as it worked through the ruts that day. Our supply of gas was in rapid leak all over the road. Keeping his head, and smelling of an Irish Spring, Alwyn went to work ripping apart the bar of soap and shoving it into the holes.

Villagers from miles around gathered quietly, silently, in a removed circle around us, watching, sharpening their knives, eyeing our flesh and firing up their barbeques. Cute John prepared to sacrifice his life in defense of the five gringas in his company from the line of men that slowly started snaking its way towards us. He, in other words, plotted the straightest line between himself and the camouflage of the jungle, knowing he could outrun us all.

In truth, we merely felt intimidated, and Alwyn saved the gas and the day. And I had a reflective moment of realizing my imagination was alive and turning cartwheels. We got home safely, gratefully.

The next Monday, Kirsten, Cute John, and I got back on another bus to return north to Corozal. During that bus ride, I finished reading GONE WITH THE WIND for the 32nd time. They all die, by the way. On the way back to Corozal, we spent an afternoon in the smoky, polluted capital, Belize City, where, as we tromped around, I missed squashing a dead rat that lay near a burning garbage heap. Good times.

For the rest of that week, once we got back to Kirsten’s house in Corozal, we visited my sister’s schools, where she was a teacher trainer. Cute John missed out on one day’s school visit, as he was vomiting blood all day, the kind of vomiting that tests the limits of one’s attractiveness.

The kids in the schools were a scream; the teachers were barely adequate. At the first school we went to, the teacher wasn’t in the classroom with her nine 3 and 4-year-olds. She was making herself some popcorn in a nearby building. As far as school supplies went, the only toys or creative materials any classroom enjoyed had been sent down by my sister’s friends and family. But what you can’t do with a little paper and tape…


At the end of the week, we accompanied one of Kirsten’s schools on a field trip to a resort called Don Quixote’s. A few of the kids, after much coaxing, would get into the water of the swimming pool there, on the top step of the shallow end. None would go into the nearby sea. Culturally, there is a fear of being wet, as it leads to sure death, apparently. My sister had already learned that, on the days it was raining, she didn’t even need to get up and visit her schools, as no one would be there.


Towards the end of the trip, Cute John went to Antigua, Guatemala, where the sight of his smile and the smell of his minty breath stopped traffic. My sister and I went to Chetumal, Mexico, where I got a cheap hammock and a wheelbarrow-sized bottle of Kaluha. From there, I took a bus alone back to Cancun and found the myriad “hey, baby” come-ons helped me decide to spend some quality time in my hotel room. In Belize, groups of men hanging out on the corner are known as the Leaky Tire Brigade because of the zzzekkksy “SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS” noise they make when a female walks by. By the end, I was able to advise my sister that, upon her return to the States, her biggest adjustment wouldn’t be to the vast amounts of produce available in the shiny grocery stores but rather to not being noticed and commented upon with every step in public.

Ultimately, on my last night there, as sweated and scratched at bug bites, I had an epiphany. my biggest point of pride from the whole trip was this: due to a sorry bit of mis-packing back in the States, I had done it all without deodorant.

Two Weeks South of the Border: Part One

 

Guess who not only has 50 research papers to grade in the next week but also has the honor of serving as a witness in a big ole lesbian wedding extravaganzapalooza this weekend? I even get to give a toast at the reception (something along the lines of “May you always wear the same size and, therefore, enjoy double the wardrobe from this day forth”).

While I’m off grading and toasting, I leave you with the first installation of a travelogue written in 1990, when I was 22 and traveled to Belize to visit my sister, Kirsten, during her first tour as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. What you’ll read here is my 22-year-old voice, typed directly from a letter I sent out upon my return.

By the way, although most of my weeks in Central America were spent in Belize, I actually flew into and out of Cancun, as plane fare was drastically cheaper to that tourist spot. So don’t be confused: even though there should be, there’s no Cancun, Belize.

Here ya go:
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As I sit here wilting in a Cancun hotel, it seems as good a time as any to record my recent adventures. Actually, Kirsten asked me to compose some thoughts about my visit to Belize, thoughts that might supplement her less-objective observations. Seeing as she’s the sister who used to sit on me and engage her unwilling sibling in “let’s-see-who-can-slap-the-hardest” fights, I’ll comply with her request. Childhood conditioning sticks.

I flew into Cancun on February 19 and was met by our favorite Peace Corps volunteer. I’d been told by Mom that Kirsten’s hair was falling out due to the anti-malarial pills she had to take; my sigh of relief that she didn’t resemble Don Rickles was audible. You’ll be happy to know that our near 3-year absence from each other didn’t keep us from settling down in front of the t.v. as soon as we hit the hotel. We spent two nights in a gorgeous tourist haven on the beach, swam in that unnaturally aqua and clear sea, wandered the markets, drank the two twelve-packs of pop I brought on the plane as a gift, and, uh, watched t.v. Kirsten speaks Spanish like a native–all the cab drivers told us–so don’t let her beg off otherwise.

1990: The year when glasses frames and hoop earrings were literally interchangeable. Let’s all congratulate my sister, at this juncture, for getting contact lenses and leaving those specs behind. The earrings, however? Totally Beyonce in 2008. I was ahead of my time.

We also spent a rather depressing hour and a half at Cancun’s Hard Rock Cafe, stuck at the same table with a Canadian named Larry, a sorry and recently-separated 34-year-old chain smoker who wanted nothing more than to “party with some babes.” Unfortunately, Kirsten and I had to go back to the hotel and, you know, watch t.v.

Bravely, I wore a long white skirt to the Hard Rock, a place where the nachos have been known to attack lesser womenswear. The gladiator sandals I’m wearing, though? Totally Lindsay Lohan in 2008. Seriously, these photos are convincing me that I was a fashion visionary.

On the third day, a college buddy of mine, John (Juan) flew down to escape the boredom of a post-B.A. pastry chef’s position. We three hopped a taxi to Playa del Carmen, ate pizza, and then jumped on a boat to Cozumel, a little island town that, despite being overrun with gringos, feels like Mexico. We ate dinner at Carlos & Charlie’s, the type of tourist restaurant where, if you don’t seal your lips, you’re apt to find a tap of wine shoved down your throat. Kirsten charmed yet another waiter with her accent; I hear the pitter-patter of little accents already. The tables at Carlos & Charlie’s have butcher paper and chalk laid out for the customers’ doodling pleasure, so, somewhere in Mexico is a piece of paper that proclaims “Mi hermana habla espanol muy bien.” Look for it.

The next day, we taxied out to a resort/beach place for the day where Kirst and I snorkeled for the first time, shrieking with delight after we got over our initial fear of the big, bad fish right there, brushing up against us. We don’t even eat ‘em, much less submerge our faces where they, um, do, you know, their business. John disappeared with a book for several hours, reappearing with tawdry tales of flirtation not fit for mixed company. That night we took our su8nburns to Neptuno, “the” disco, and shook our booties while the waiters shook their heads. They played “The Lambada” a kazillion times (the natives are wild for it, but because that dance has some barkin’ choreography, not a one can actually reproduce the moves they’ve seen in the video). I’m pretty sure if “The Twist” were spun at the disco, and Chubby Checker was yodeling away, yet everyone stood rock still, fingers snapping, agreeing “Muy groovy tune, Chubby.”

Adrift in a salt-water scrub, Nature’s Exfoliator

Finally, it was Friday, and we were ready to ease into Belize. To be honest, I don’t really remember what happened that day–it’s all a nightmarish jumble of hellish bush rides and bruised buttocks. What I do recall is surprise, surprise that there is a definite demarcation between Mexico and Belize (and, as I was later to find, Guatemala). Contrary to my expectations of “Central America as A Country,” we had to stop on each side of the border, fill out forms, go through customs, and get our passports stamped. It was in marked contrast to traveling in Europe, where the countries all seem to mesh together. And there’s a marked change in the look and feel of each country, althoug separated by only 10 feet. Many Belizian homes resemble the Clampetts’ shack before Jed struck Texas Tea, so you can imagine my relief when Kirsten told the bus driver to pull over in front of a relatively-palatial house. Indeed, Kirsten’s Belizian home is pretty nice, if you don’t mind only one sink in the place (in the bathroom; a kitchen sink is overrated), no hot water, and minimal water pressure. Sometimes I’d hold the handle down for a flush for so long that I’d have to go again before the bowl had emptied or refilled. Bathing in her house is best accomplished by heating a pot of water on the stove and adding that to a big bucket of cold water; it is a process called “mixing.” The next step is to take a little bowl, scoop it into the mix, and dump it over your head. I smelled of slightly-rancid yum on this trip.

Because my pal John reads this blog, I have carefully selected this photo of him for inclusion. He’s still that damn cute, even when–especially when!–he washes his unmentionables in the shower, as we had to in Belize.

The day after we got to Kirsten’s house in Corozal, we leapt joyfully back onto another thumpity bus and headed south to Cayo District where a couple other Peace Corps volunteers are stationed. We ate that night at an ex-British soldier’s restaurant where I tried my first Belizian beer and, indirectly, my first extended coupling with the toilet. It soon passed, in a manner of speaking, but it put a damper on the reggae/soca dance we attended that night. All of the songs at the dance were at least half an hour long, which not only gave us an aerobic workout but also allowed me to go have a squat and then come back to twirl, all during the same tune.

In any country, in any decade, sisterhood is not the suck. Unless you’re a Gabor.

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Up next: we run out of gas.