Belize..... the smiles and the stories.
Updated: Mar 13
A Panga boat weaves through the harbour heading out to a Caye, possibly Ambergris or any one of hundreds of others. Behind it, across the water, a row of colonial age buildings set bathed in light as a column of clouds glide by. The buildings are painted de rigour colors of all tropical homes; cream, turquoise, pink with light green roofs and red tin that have become sun damaged and are now a light rose.
Michelle is tall with Carmel, freckled skin and a loose tan afro sitting on top of amethyst eyes that seem at peace. She owns the Harbourview Boutique Hotel and Yoga Spa. It is a respite between coming into country and getting out of Belize city. She drags a chair to our table, gently coaxing her new waitress to bring three glasses and a sweating bottle of Chardonnay. She sits through our whole dinner, needling us to tell her about Trump and in turn, letting us know what her MP father would think of their current government. She explains to us her ability to see people's futures and how she was stuck in an Ashram in northern India for 6 months because of Covid. She is delightful and a precursor of almost every single Belizian we met.
She has a delicate little compound on the harbour, filled with Breadfruit trees, Mangos, a small pool surrounded by oil lamps and Bread Nut trees. The portico we sit on is white with a Robin's Egg Blue roof and the scene as the sun sets belies any nefarious activities that are or are not happening in parts of the city. For now it is pleasant, calm and beguiling, with all the languid insouciance a harbour in the tropics at sun set shall ever contain.
Out on the town it is quiet. I do not know what the guide books meant and what the small, petty hand ringers on Trip advisor go on about- one is in more danger in Boulder, Colorado than Belize City. Why do Americans, at once the most fearless, intrepid souls on earth, scare so easily today? Belize City has seen its heyday come and gone it is true and there are hulking, brokedown palaces, their Georgian columns pushing a kilter by Date Palms and winding vines and made less proud by the soft clinch of humidity. A young boy does a flip and in one motion, curtsies and says,"come on man let me hold a dollah." An older man with jaundiced eyes takes his cue and explains the boys has no mom and no dad.
The Guidebooks also say that the infrastructure is a mess, that the roads are potholed to smithereens. This is not true at all and as Costa Rica is lauded for their literacy and conservation, they could take a cue from Belize in road maintenance.
Alexa, our Maya Air liaison meets us at the counter and takes us through the airport to our gate, waiting with us. I assure her we are fine but she says it is part of the service. The plane is tiny and the Pilot seemingly not out of high-school but portraying the lazy confidence of a captain, hops in, taxis with his door open and closes it just before taking off.
The green quilt of Belize gliding by underneath is utterly tropical, punctuated by wild copra, green jungles and darker green rivers bowing back on themselves. It all looks like a living wall. The pilot winds the Aileron as we descend, foots the rudders, handles three or four knobs on the ceiling and gets back to his yolk, seemingly rubbing his head and patting his belly until we instantly dodge through a down draft and he pulls the nose up at the last second. Holy shit.
Our shuttle drive takes us further south from Dangriga and inland. For hours Melvin talks non-stop in a sing song patois. He is Chechi Mayan but with eyes closed, sounds like Bob Marley talking about fussin and fightin and enunciating words like repatriation as Rih Pate Riashuun mon. We pass a Garufina community. He points and says "Dem Garufina get ta shakin when da drum go. He also intimates they practice voodoo but the reality is probably closer to the fact that they are former St. Vinciens mixed with Carib and Arawak and American slaves just into dancing and drums.
He has little compunction for the veracity of his tour as he quickly details the reason that the Taiwanese diaspora gets favored treatment because they, "gave 50 Beagle dogs to the Belize police." But I take most of what he says for truth.
Further down the road we pass Cockscomb basin. Melvin explains that Scarlet McCAws fly over the ridge from Guatemala to have their chicks but Guatemalan poachers sneak in to take the chicks back to sell. The ridges are tall, looking like the limestone karst topography one sees in Thailand or the Philippines.
And then the intrigue ratchets up. The beguiling, rapscallion backdrop of this postage stamp country is getting more and more interesting. Melvin points out a horse and buggy. A bearded man dressed in a dark suit, sits bolt upright next to a younger man in a flat brim hat and buttoned gingham shirt, sweated through. "Now ya got Mennonite and ya got Amish. Dems Mennonite." Melvin Explains that they make fantastic pre-fab homes and that his people go to sit with them outside their houses to learn farming techniques.
There is more to the story. Further south, the vines wrap tight and the dirt turns red and that is where the good stories are. In the 1990s a rogue group of Mennonite men set to growing a particularly good strain of pot in clandestine back lots on their farms. In the dark of night, they loaded Cessnas bound for Mexico and later to the U.S. They used the same airstrips that Pablo Escobar used to stop before the final push to Xcalak or the strip just south of Tulum in Sian Kaan biosphere reserve. To this day it is said that Casa Malca resort in Tulum, was Escobar's watch point to alert his men that the Federales were driving south on the tiny sand road.
Escobar's fingerprints are all over Belize. His pilots also dropped bricks in the waters north west of Ambergris Caye, to drift in on the tide. Villages up and down the Southern Yucatan knew the process to slowly re-hydrate the coke on their stove tops. Interestingly, these are the same waters plied by Blackbeard in the 1700s, ultimately where he took on Water off of Turneffe Caye, which is now a premier fly-fishing atoll.
We drive through torrential rain, passed Mayan settlements, more Mennonites in their buggies and then pass the Confederate Cemetery in Forest Home. In one last act of fealty to their ideal, Post Belem, yet before Reconstruction, Planters and beaten Confederates left New Orleans, bound for Belize. This idea that they would go so far to extend their planter-slave owner rebellion is fascinating. They arrived in Southern British Honduras(at that time,) and set about creating sugar cane plantations. To this day, remnants of their ruins sit rusting in the Jungles of Orange Walk, Belize. I am reminded of the French Colonist dinner in "Apocalypse Now Redux." They were relics of the past that could not or would not give up and died wan and sweaty, of dysentery or dengue in the wet jungle, a Victrola record spinning until it set still.
It was this rapscallion expatriation combined with missionaries, slaves, pirates and intrepid square pegs that created this pepper pot of history. It is always the naves, the thieves, the ner do wells that are pre-disposed to haphazardly try for their fortunes outside normative society, that create the greatest stories. The pirates, the privateers and volunteers pushing westward through the desert, the salty dog drinking too much rum in a bar in Nevis, the operators and agents, the surfer doing time in the Denpesar hotel K for coke in her surf bag that create real drama.
We sit by the pool at our luxury jungle lodge. We watch a Toucan in a yellowed Jacaranda tree and listen to Howler monkeys hoot. A giant American from Alabama shouts to the waitress, falling out of his old Datsun truck."I want my cheeseburger... best goddamed cheeseburger in the country." We later learned that that was Nelson, An expat who sold them Sorrel from his hibiscus farm. He was never far from his cooler of Belikin beer anywhere he was around town.
That is Belize. Its history. Its people. The stories. The layers of fascinating information that, at the end of the day, is what travel is about right? One could sit on a beach chair drinking rum punches, and we did that too. But the real reason to go somewhere is to learn and to grow. To move through the land and to touch and to become a better version of ones self. I only wish that I had discovered Belize sooner.