Belize, Backpacks, Basketballs and the American Tourist

I wrote a short memoir of a trip I took to Belize and Guatemala last year, and thought I would share.  If you have ever been to these places, I would love to hear of your experience.  Or, better yet, if you are planning on going, ask questions!  Enjoy!

Belize, Backpacks, Basketballs, and the American Tourist

By The Jolly Green Giant

10.11.10

The wind is blowing in my hair as we drive 70 miles per hour in the chicken bus, with windows open, on our way to the capital of Belize, Belize City.  It’s a hot day, probably 80 degrees and humid.  I’m constantly glancing toward the back of the bus, making sure all of our backpacks are still there.  I trust the people here, but it makes me nervous that our backpacks are way in the back of the bus, and that every time we make a stop, people open what was the emergency exit to retrieve their bags.  We are 4 of 6 “gringos” on the bus.  The only other foreigners are some Canadian backpackers in the front of the bus.  I feel some sort of connection to them.

We finally arrive in Belize City.  After being in the jungle for one and a half weeks, the city feels way overpopulated and loud.  I want to just sit, plug my ears and go hang out with monkeys, but I know I must go retrieve my backpack from the emergency exit.  We grab our bags, head out of the bus station and get eaten by the crowd, the taxis the music, the people.  It’s like everyone coming from the bus is heading downstream and are about to go down Niagara Falls.  We assemble ourselves and choose a taxi.  We tell him that we need to get to the ferry dock that heads to Caye Caulker.  In his best voice he replies “ya, no problem!”  We get into the old, rugged taxi with no seatbelts.  As we head into the city, I feel like even if I wanted to open my car door, I couldn’t because so many people are crowded everywhere.  There are street vendors lining up every street, loud music is playing everywhere and tourists abide here by the dozen.  It’s such a change from the chicken bus we were on just a few minutes ago.  Traffic is terrible, so it takes a while to get to the ferry landing.  Luckily we have some delicious dark chocolate from the first town in Belize we visited, Punta Gorda, to hold us over.  We finally make it to the ferry landing.  When we get out of the car, people come to help us get all of our baggage.  They must be expecting each of us to have at least 6 large suitcases and are surprised when all each of us has is a backpack.  It makes me happy.  We go into the gated dock entrance and purchase our ferry tickets.  The ferry to Caye Caulker won’t leave for another hour, so we have time to get something to eat before the ride.  Good thing because I could use some rice and beans.  We walk out of the gated ferry courtyard and back into the congested street.  Everyone is trying to sell us something.  It’s beautiful stuff they’re trying to sell, and they say they make it themselves, but you see the exact same items in every tourist city in Belize.  I prefer to buy from people who actually care about what they make and are proud of it.  We search for a local restaurant without much luck.  In Belize City, there are a lot of high-rises and Perkins.  Yuck.  Parched, we finally decide to just head into a restaurant called “Coconut Cabana” or something Americanized like that.  We are greeted at the door with a bouncer-looking guy.  He lets us go in.  It’s a little freaky that a café has to have a bouncer, but I dismiss it.  Inside, the restaurant is bare.  Plain tables and a bar is all that we see.  We sit down and look at the menu.  Cheese curds, french fries, and fresh fruit fill the menu.  It makes me think that there must be a Sam’s Club nearby.  I haven’t had much but beans, rice and lots of habanero sauce since I left home.  Now this frozen food sounds gross.  But, I’m starving, so I order some fresh fruit (which turned out to be watermelon and green grapes).  The atmosphere of the restaurant is so very interesting.  I know why the typical frozen food is on the menu, when I look around and see overweight Americans just waiting to get back on their cruise.  They are drinking Coke and from what I can tell, don’t ever stop complaining.  From what I have learned, gratitude is really the best mindset while traveling, but I don’t suppose they really care about that.  We leave our local waitress a nice tip, and proceed back to the ferry entrance.  What was a deserted dock an hour ago is now a hustle and bustle of locals and tourists waiting to board the water taxi.  Someone loads our backpacks into a lower compartment of the boat, we load, and we’re off.  The taxi ride was awesome.  Watching the busy Belize City disappear and coming closer to Caye Caulker was also very…relaxing.  Eventually we got to the dock on Caye Caulker, and were welcomed by the beach, and an old man riding a golf cart, hoping that someone wanted a ride around the town.  We opted out of the golf cart ride, and just walked on the dirt road that runs down the center of the whole island.  Well, it runs down the whole island until “the split”, a part of the island that was destroyed in a hurricane, actually splitting the island in half.  We find a nice hotel with a great view of the beach.  We plop our backpacks on the bed and go to back out to explore the island.  It’s a beautiful place with hardly any cars.  The vendors are not so obnoxious as those in Belize City.  We walk around the whole island in less than an hour.  The sun retired after a long day, but we still wanted ice cream.  We walk to the ice cream place and make our order just as the thunder starts.  We decide to just tough the storm out, because if it got really bad, we can always just run back to our hotel room.  I finish my ice cream in a flash.  Elly, my sister is a slow eater, though, so we have to wait probably another millennium for her to finish her ice cream.  I look up the street and see Jon and Joann, some travelers from Canada that we had met up with earlier in our trip.  Inanna, my grandmother, and my mom start talking to them about their trip right away.  I listen for a few minutes, but then decide to explore.  Just around the corner from the ice cream place, there is a basketball court.  There are about 10 boys playing a pick-up game of basketball.  I watch them for a while.  They are really good.  Then, one of the boys in a white shirt approaches me, “You want to play?” he says. 

I say “Sure, why not?” and he hands me the basketball.  I’m unsure of the rules that these guys play with, but they seem pretty pleased that I am playing with them.  They are of all different ages.  The youngest is probably 8 and some look like adults.  Every time I make a basket, everyone cheers.  We do the same anyone else makes a basket.  My team claps hands every time we get a basket, and even though we don’t talk much, I know that we are going to be friends.  Then the rain started.  We all laugh, but keep playing.  It must have been a millennium, because Elly is finally done with her ice cream, and they are all watching us play now.  It’s raining hard by this time, but we just kick off our shoes and continue to clap hands, cheer and make baskets.  My party is wet, cold and tired, so we decide to head home, to the hotel.  I give hi-fives to my whole team, and promise to come again tomorrow to play.  I learn that tomorrow they are all off of school, so we can play basketball all day!  WOOOHOOO!  I go to bed, filled with the bliss of being a part of a new culture, and fall asleep instantly. 

I wake up early the next morning and watch the sunrise over the ocean.  I’m excited to start the day.  We made plans with Jon and Joann to have breakfast this morning at a great local restaurant on the North side of the island.  We walk 2 dirt blocks to the restaurant made out of an old double-wide trailer home, eat some delicious cinnamon rolls and talk about our travels with Jon and Judy.  Finally we head out of the trailer-restaurant, and explore more around the island.  I return to the basketball court, and am happy to see the boy who invited me to play with them yesterday is already here, along with some other locals who I don’t remember as clearly.  All of the kids are so excited to play with Elly and me.  Elly teaches them her gymnastics moves, and I play basketball with the teens.  Later, a nearby hostel sets up a volleyball court, and we all play beach volleyball.  After a while, we are all very tired and sit down on the bleachers of the basketball court to rest.  I talk to my fellow basketball players telling them that they are really; really good at basketball and do they have a team at school?  They say that they used to have a team, but the coach couldn’t afford to pay for the uniforms anymore.  I pose another question “Why don’t any girls from here play basketball with you?”  “They don’t want to.” says the boy in the white shirt.  I’m not sure I buy this, but I don’t question him further.  It’s difficult to talk to these people, because they speak English, but I am never sure if they understand my American English.  The day went by in a flash and before long; it’s time to go to bed.  I’m really sad tonight because we have to leave really early in the morning on the water taxi so we can start our decent back to the US.  I don’t want to leave these brilliant people.  Even though my brain keeps on thinking about all of the people I’ve met and the things I’ve done since I got here, my body falls asleep, exhausted from the day.  In the morning I slowly pack my backpack and when it’s time, leave the hotel room.  I descend the staircase letting my backpack just roll down each step making very loud noises.  I wish that I could see my basketball friends just one more time before I leave, but I know it’s impossible.  We board the water taxi, and I smile as one of my team mates from basketball the first night loads my backpack into the lower compartment of the boat.  I will be back to Caye Caulker, I think.  We arrive back in Belize City, scramble through the crowd, hail a taxi and finally return to our beloved chicken bus.

We are back on the road, and I do my usual check to make sure our backpacks are still in the emergency exit compartment.  But instead of just the backpacks, I see the beautiful county of Belize, including Caye Caulker disappearing in the distance.  The good news is, the backpacks haven’t fallen out of the emergency exit yet.

The End.

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