Back from Central America, that is.
I discovered a few things, to my pleasant surprise, about Belize:
It's not a Latin American country; it's a Caribbean country. Yeah, a goodly number of the people (especially in the west) speak Spanish, but EVERYONE speaks the Caribbean Creole that is based on English, but which most English-speakers will not be able to understand until it's been slowed down and repeated three or four times. Think Jamaican accent, spoken very quickly and with lots of contractions.
Like many tourist-friendly countries, it's a dichotomy of very nice houses and accommodations, against complete abject poverty. But then you go west to Guatemala, and learn that in fact the Belizians have it pretty good; even the poor ones.
The Belizian dollar is fixed to the U.S. dollar (which I'll bet they're questioning the logic of, now), at a rate of $2 BEZ to $1 US. All of the Belizian money has Queen Elizabeth II on it, though Belize has been fully independent since 1981. The Belizian dollar is a a thick coin that reminds one of an octagonal English pound coin, but has no writing on the edge. The Belizian quarter dollar is the same size and shape and color as a U.S. quarter, but the locals call 'em shillings.
Everyone is friendly there. Wear a hat, because the sun is outrageous, and because you'll need it to tip to everyone you pass on the street. If you don't want to exchange pleasantries with strangers, do me a favor and don't tell 'em you're from the U.S.-- they are very courteous, and I like to think that my wife and I acted as responsible ambassadors while there.
Cabbies there, who are courteous, helpful, and honest, are clinically insane as soon as they sit behind the wheel of their vehicles. Several cab trips involved me spending several minutes shaking blood back down into the knuckles of my hands after reaching our destination.
On Ambrgris Caye (pronounced "key"), a can of tuna can run $5.00 US/ $10 BEZ in the grocery store. Find out where the locals shop, and you can maybe get that cost down to just under a dollar for your cat-food-worthy tuna.
In San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, 90% of the traffic is in golf carts. The streets are narrow and usually sand, so they sport knobby tires. Gasoline carts are most common, and they sport full-sized license plates, front and back. Traffic laws are completely ignored, except that people drive (generally) on the right. Strangely, on the second half of the month, they swap sides of the street on which to park. I have no idea why.
Caye Caulker, which is halfway between Ambergris Caye and Belize City, is slower, less populated, and more laid-back. It's more of a backpacker's destination, and is your weed-smoking headquarters. Or so they say. I never saw a single joint smoked, though I saw a LOT of people who are tokers and make no bones about it. I'm so square-looking, I was never offered drugs in 8 days, while my wife was offered drugs 2 or three times. Wearing a backpack seems to help you get offers, if you're into that sort of thing.
The second largest barrier reef in the world is about a mile east of the coast of Belize. You don't have to be a diver to enjoy it; I'm not, and did. It seems like everyone's a snorkeling guide there, and you'd be amazed at how easy it is to intentionally lose yourself, kicking two to 20 feet above the corral reef, among stingrays, conch, nurse sharks, grouper, blue tangs, sea cucumbers, tuna, barracuda, and (once for us) manatees. I saw all types of physiques and ages doing this. Our last trip, on an old Rastafarian sailboat, I assisted an older man with his strong right arm in a sling, in getting back up into the boat at each location. While in the water, he had no problems.
At the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich
, I observed well-camouflaged
soldiers with rifles up among the trees that grow among some of the mounds. Seems they've had some problems in the past with bandits robbing the tourists, so they hide up there to try to pick 'em off as they storm out of the jungle. My guide was very uncomfortable with my question about them, preferring to ignore them, but I just wanted to know: A: were the guys hiding in the bushes with guns on our side, and B: what was the likelihood of exposure to the bandits. He assured us it had been a year since the last such robbery there. As I carried nothing more than a small-ish Columbia River lockblade
in pocket, I didn't figure to do more than find a hidey
-hole for my wife and me, should festivities
erupt. We of course carried a bit of cash in our pockets, with our passports and main cash and checks hidden elsewhere on persons.
Everything in Belize is made of mahogany. If you would use pine for it here, they use the hardwood there. Thus stair risers look delicate and insubstantial, because the hardwood is much stronger than the softwood that we use to build, here. Bathroom doors on outhouses are even made of the beautiful rain forest wood.
Belizian sewage technology hasn't advanced enough to handle paper. There are signs everywhere reminding the tourists to dispose of paper in trash cans provided. That said, Belizian bathrooms, on the average, smell better and are better cleaned than American public restrooms. They are not open to the public, though. Want to use the potty at a Belizian restaurant? Better buy a drink. TANSTAAFL. I'm actually cool with this, because:
The beer of Belize is Belikin. It comes in four basic styles: regular, served in 9.5 oz bottles that are very thick-walled and look like 12-oz bottles, Premium, that tastes a little different but gives you a full 12 oz bottle, Lighthouse, which is I think a cream ale in 7.5 oz bottles, and Stout, which is sold in the same 9.5 ounce bottles as the regular, but has a blue cap instead of the green one. Belikin beer is good. All of it is good. My wife and I preferred the Premiums, though, because of the value. ($3 BEZ at a bar.) Belikin also is licensed to bottle and sell Guinness Extra Stout, strangely. There is some Heineken found in Belize, in little cans. I drank a LOT of Belikin on this vacation. In Belize, they think nothing of drinking beer on the bus, or on water taxis, or before breakfast. It's hot-- have a cold beer. The drinking age is 18.
The local rum in Belize does not seem to make you go blind, which is the best thing that I can say about it. Oh, and it's cheap. But I didn't price it against their local paint thinners, where you might get a better deal. When there, be sure to call for a brand of rum that tastes good.
Coconut palms, which are not indigenous, are everywhere there. They are picturesque, and useful. After seeing several locals do it, I finally had to try getting a drink myself, by knocking down a brown coconut, smashing it once against the tree trunk, and drinking long from the several ounces of coconut water that drains out of the nut. The locals swear that it is a secret to longevity, and I have to admit that I routinely under-estimated ages there. In fact, the average coastal Belizian, especially on the cayes, is very good-looking, and typically in good physical shape.
The local fruit is fantastic. Bananas picked ripe from the tree are generally 5 for a dollar (BEZ), and limes are about 10/$1 BEZ. The limes are so sweet that you can eat them alone, like oranges. There are mango trees everywhere.
Every restaurant seems to serve ceviche. I was indifferent to the conch ceviche, but the shrimp stuff, made with lots of fresh cilantro, is out of sight. Never tried it made with snapper.
Belizian food that the locals eat is good, but it's hard to get it in the resorts. We finally got adventurous enough to hit the street vendors on their bicycles and the street stalls. Fantastic tamales made in the Yucatan style, made flat and steamed in banana leaves, were all over. The standard Belizian dish is beans and rice (more rice than beans), sold with your choice of meat (usually chicken), with the incredibly hot local habenero sauce for condiment. Sometimes this would come with a fried plantain atop the rice. This stuff was cheap, filling, and plate-licking good.
At the border with Guatemala
, the guards carried cruiser-stocked Mossberg
and Remington pump shotguns and belts with extra shells. In a jungle environment, this made since. Then, further into the country, I found that the Guatemalan
country seems to have gotten a real deal on pistol-gripped shotguns; they were everywhere. Soldiers had them. Police had them. Guards had them. The guys at the ticket counter at the Tikal Mayan ruins
had them. They guy who came to take our ticket in the jungle had one.
Upon return to the main park from the walk among the ruins in Tikal (Guatemala), I noticed also a couple of guys in beige t-shirts with chromed or polished-stainless round-butt K-frames either stuck in their waistbands or discreetly in their laps. I stopped to chat with one, who admitted that he was with the Guatemalan national police.
The only cops in Belize that I saw openly wearing sidearms were either customs types at the airport, or were wearing the enormous British-style sergeant's stripes on their khaki uniform shirts. They carried Hi Powers.
They don't serve fresh coffee there. Everyone makes instant. Strange, because they grow it there. Who knew?
Okay. Gotta run shave off my vacation beard to go testify in court. More later. Sorry for the Vacation Chat, but I'm really kind of doing this as a travel journal for myself. Hope it's not too boring. Many more pics later, some from underwater film that I took.