Don’t Stop Belize-ing

Adventures seldom come easy or cheap. Backpacking through a foreign country is always an experience and more so, if you dive into it, with limited preparation and funds. Crossing the border from Guatemala into Belize was this kind of adventure.

In theory, the adventure was going to be brief, cheap and manageable. Dr. Anabel Ford invited my summer MDP team to El Pilar – an archeological site right on the border of the two countries—for a big celebration of her initiative on Mayan forest gardening, relevant to our work with the ramón seed in Guatemala. According to Google maps, the site was just 2.5 hours away from where we live in Flores, and most people I spoke to assured us that getting to Melchor de Mencos—the last town on the Guatemalan border—would be simple and that crossing should be relatively straightforward. I wasn’t worried. If I could cross the Cambodian and Vietnamese borders with zero language skills, I could probably handle this one. No big deal, I thought.

The crossing was actually easy. Everything was smooth sailing with a hired driver that took us from Flores to Melchor, and promised to pick us back up at 6 pm. Perfect. On to the next country.

To cross to the other side, we had to take a short walk on a bridge over the Mopan River. Painless. Even immigration on the Guatemalan side was quick and free, which I suspected might have some cost with some crooked authority figure. The Belizean checkpoints were a breeze, too, though the language drastically changed into Caribbean-tinted English and Creole. Spanish was also spoken, but it seemed the language of choice was English. Obviously, that was not a problem. All was still well.

One of the first glitches of the plan was that we were supposed to arrive to the bus station in Belize’s San Ignacio—a town 9 miles from Melchor—by 11:15 am to catch a bus to El Pilar. We left Flores way too late and by the time we crossed the border it was already past 11 am. I hoped that this bus would be late —true to the reputation of every developing country—but if all else failed, I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find another bus, or some alternative transportation option. Not worried yet.

After making it through the Belizean immigration, we landed in a parking lot with various taxi drivers ready to scoop us up. I’ve had bad experiences with poor transportation negotiations in past (mis)adventures, but here, I dominated not just one, but the two main languages spoken, so I was determined that it wasn’t going to happen this time. I found a trustworthy face and asked him how much to San Ignacio, and he gave us the relatively fair price of $5 USD each for the 9 miles. Fine. Uber would be about this much, I thought.

Upon arriving to San Ignacio, we encounter glitch number two: it was Sunday. This was truly my mistake for taking it for granted that buses would run as they always do, regardless of the day of the week. In Indonesia – my main reference point for how this would all go – public transportation would be running normally with no interruption. Weekends aren’t really a thing in Java. Nope. Everything was closed, including the tourist information center and the bus offices. Ok, starting to get a bit complicated.

As soon as the Belizeans hanging around the bus station caught wind that we were foreign and semi-lost, they descended on us like vultures on wounded prey. The culture change was sharper that I had expected, and intimidating. They also spoke Creole to each other so that we couldn’t understand them. Still, if traveling has taught me anything is that positivity will get you far, so I remained calm, mimicking the sun and radiating all the good vibes that I could summon. This took some effort, as I had to counteract the frustration and negativity the other two girls in my crew were justifiably feeling.

Because it was the middle of the day and there were enough people around, I never felt real danger, but still it’s never great to get hassled, and even worse, hussled. Some of these men tried selling us on the idea of paying $100 USD to El Pilar—only another 9 miles away—because the “roads were bad.” Hell nah. Not only was this ridiculous and blatant robbery, but we also didn’t have that kind of money. Once they caught this fact, their interest waned, but not before they gave us an earful about how—as women—we shouldn’t travel alone and worse still with no money. F*** these men. Internally, I lost my cool for a minute.

Once we managed to fend off the sharks preying on our vulnerability, we got some breathing room and sat on the sidewalk to gather our thoughts and formulate a strategy. One of the nicer and more helpful men had suggested that we take a taxi for $3 USD each to some place called “Bullet Tree.” With a name like that and in my understanding of the conversation, this place was some sort of resort or hotel that lodged tourists headed to El Pilar. That sounded like a good next step to me, but my crew was debating heading back to Guatemala. Seriously? We’ve already come so far.

At this low-point of near defeat, a man we had talked to earlier walked by with his bucket of tamale-like food and gave us a small pep talk. Go to Bullet Tree, he insisted. It’s not far, and you will find a ride, or you can just walk! He spoke in funny aphorisms that I anticipated would end differently. For example, he started with “No money…” and I expected him to say “No problems.” What he actually said was “No money, big problems.” Thanks, man, for killing my wannabe-Caribbean mentality. I did appreciate the last gem he left us with: “Money talks, bullshit walks!” In addition to his wisdom, this dude gave us three tamales (or whatever they are actually called) for free and called it a “blessing from the Mayans.” I think he may have thought that we had zero money, when we actually just had less than was being requested from us. More importantly, we were simply unwilling to hand over such exorbitant amounts.

This whole interaction revived the energy of the majority of the crew, and one of the girls supported the idea to keep trying to get to El Pilar. It was still early in the day and, either way, our ride in Melchor wouldn’t be there until many hours later. Across the street, I could see a large, heavy taxi driver in a neon green shirt watching us from a distance. He was looking out for our group to see if we’d take him up on the offer to drive us to Bullet Tree. After some debate, we got in his car and on we went.

I was feeling good with this decision and radiating the good vibes became easy again. I chatted with the taxi driver while he played random old tunes on a USB device on his old-school car radio. This man drove with great tranquility, emitting the Caribbean calm I’ve been seeking. Music helped, too, and the positivity was once again high—until we got to Bullet Tree. Aqui estamos, said the driver, who turned out to be from El Salvador, having come to Belize to escape the violence of his country. This? It was just a random, small village with an unimpressive hotel that said “El Pilar” and a mediocre medium-sized store on the side of the sole main road. That was the extent of it all. At this point, I was pretty much at a loss, but guiding this whole experiment, so it was up to me to determine the next step. I prayed to the universe for some sort of sign.

At that moment, I saw a saw a literal sign for a resort about a half a mile down the a bumpy, dirt road. I took this as an indication that we should try our luck there. The driver drove down in his low automobile, unequipped to go through the road’s conditions. I really hoped he wouldn’t charge us extra because I needed to conserve all the dollars I had left in case this adventure really went south. Though we got a little bit lost at first, we finally arrived at a beautiful hotel on the river’s bank with Bob Marley playing on a tablet computer.

The view of the Mopan River from the blessed resort in Bullet Tree, Belize.

English or Spanish?  I asked the lady at the bar. English, she replied, and I proceeded to explain to her our situation and how we’d like to get to El Pilar. I’ll make a call, she said. Some minutes later she came back and offered us a taxi driver willing to take us to El Pilar and back to Melchor for 100 Belizean dollars—$50 USD. Yes! We paid the driver from El Salvador, whose name turned out to be Angel. The significance of that name was not lost on me.

With Jaime, our new Belizean driver, the good vibes were at an all-time high. Jaime’s automobile also didn’t seem equipped for the supposed “bad roads” to El Pilar, but he assured us that he had gone up the path often. We chatted on our way up the muddy path, and I admired the landscape. Unlike the Petén, the land here is highly deforested and there wasn’t anything to see in terms of wildlife. It was crazy to see such vast cultural and geological differences between the two neighboring countries. The human diversity in Belize, and their trilingual abilities, were truly impressive.

We drove for some time, until we encountered a single file of cars—unexpected bumper to bumper traffic. The hold-up was indeed a bad part of a muddy road that had swallowed a large bus. Glitch number three. It was never determined for sure, but it seems that the bus blocking the road was the one we were supposed to be on from San Ignacio. All the passenger were safe, yes, but very muddy and just as stuck—and late—as us.

The large bus stuck in the mud and blocking the road to El Pilar.
Many of the guests stuck behind said bus, trying to make the event.

At this point there was little to be done. The access to El Pilar was blocked, not only for us, but for a significant number of guests headed that way. Jaime suggested we walk the remaining two miles. Ha! We were all wearing dresses and relatively nice shoes that weren’t going to make it through mud. This was definitely glitch number four. (Ladies: when adventuring, wear good walking shoes.)

Jaime parked the car and we got out to assess the situation. We joined the other guests parked behind the bus, and chatted up with two older couples – personal friends of Dr. Ford. They were also dressed nicely, so we weren’t the only silly ones venturing into the mountain with inappropriate clothing.  We told them our plight, and they offered us beer and a ride in the bed of their red truck once a tractor rescued the bus. It took several tries.

To end this long story, we arrived to the event at about 2pm, and due to all the delays, nearly all that was scheduled—including some key lectures I wanted to hear from Dr. Ford—were cancelled. That was extremely disappointing, especially after all that effort. To add insult to injury, on the way out Belize charged us a $15 USD exit fee each. Sigh. Still, nothing is ever lost, and though there was little immediate gain for our work in commercializing the ramón seed, I think there’s more to come from this relationship we’ve established with Dr. Ford. Nevertheless, I don’t want to leave my beautiful, lovely Flores or Guatemala any time soon.

Participating in the Mayan Forest Garden celebration in El Pilar, Belize.

Also, a special thanks to my mother, because I know that her prayers and good energy she sends my way are what magically keeps me protected in all the crazy things I do. And a big thanks to my MDP summer crew, because they didn’t stop Belize-ing!

You better Belize that there were plenty of puns and hashtags developed in this adventure. Here we are on the last little struggle to get to El Pilar with our driver, Jaime, and another guest dressed just as nicely as us. #PleaseBelize #SummerMDP

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