Belize is a young country. It’s full of excitement, play, danger, immaturity, and growth.
It used to be British Honduras 33 years ago. In fact, our arrival coincided with the anniversary of independence. Everyone in the country is attending these celebrations as if it was their own birthday. All 350.000 of them. This small country has fewer people than any city I’ve ever lived in. But it has a more diverse population than most of the worlds metropolitans due to its easy immigration policy and fresh opportunities. Although the official language is English and the Queen is still on the coins, people of German, Dutch, Russian, Chinese, Maya and African origins call Belize home.
The whole country was celebrating, but we didn’t attend the independence day festivities. It seemed like it was going to be too crazy. In a way, we almost avoided it. Instead, we did what most tourists do as soon as they arrive in Belize; visit the world’s largest living barrier reef. When you look at a map displaying ocean depths, you realize that Belize seems to extend far into the Atlantic, long before it reaches any oceanic depth. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that it has a shallow sea laying before the ocean. At the edge of this drop, far off the mainland, lies a series of small islands that make this country worthy of a visit for many foreigners. Hardly anyone goes to these islands and comes back without some sort of diving activity. We are no exception.
Having ‘done’ the reefs, we could have driven through Belize in one day. But there was another island we wanted to see. One that sits inland, on a lake… Crooked Tree. We found that this strange fishing town has a very strong isolated character. In fact, during heavy rains, it occasionally gets cut off from the rest of the world, because the long elevated road connecting it, gets submerged.
We found a peaceful lakeside spot to camp and watched the fisherman. One of them even let us borrow his canoe.
On our way back to the mainland, we stopped in front of this blue house and picked up a woman and her son waiting for a transport.
She was left by the babies’ father and goes to the forest to hunt Armadillos and Gibnuts also called Royal Rats for meat. Little Joey watched us very attentively all the way. We gave him our toy monkey as a present.
This ad for lottery reads “Mek Mi Rich”. Most people in Belize talk a strangely simplified version of English called ‘Creole’.
Parked at the Center for Tropical Education, Erdem and Gerome are trying to figure out the next destination using guidebooks and iOverlander, our new favorite app.
Lise hasn’t quite learned to be afraid of things yet. Here, she’s trying to feed a badass alligator with branches. The alligator seems to be interested in the little human leaning over.
A small visit to Blue Hole National Park and St. Herman’s cave proved to be pleasant, except that it marked our departure from the Dauphin family with whom we had been travelling for the past three weeks. We hugged and kissed Eva repeatedly, who was in tears… We hope to meet them again somewhere in Guatemala.
The guard who took us around in the park showed us a cacao tree. We had never seen this plant before. He took one of the fruits and sliced it open to show us an alternate way of eating it other than processing the beans into chocolate. Each seed is engulfed in a white foamy substance that can be sucked off. It gives off a fragrant sweet sour taste that’s quite enjoyable.
There is another interestingly isolated community in Belize. The Mennonites. Originally from Europe, this group of people immigrated to Central America to start a communal life based on their religion. The town they live in is called “The Spanish Lookout”. As soon as you enter this town, you feel like you’ve been transported to another land. We spent two nights here enjoying the western luxuries they brought in. Several Belizeans insured us the “Germans” were the most industrious, skilled, and productive people in Belize. Some of them still use horse and carriage and dress in old-fashioned clothing. They speak a strange version of low German mixed with English – familiar sounding but not understandable to a regular German speaking person.
Our first night was in a trailer park that seemed to be straight out of Trier’s Dogville or one of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs. Gustav Reimer, the owner, told us we were his second customer in 15 years.
The second one was in the Community Park Hall. A giant steel roofed structure right by a lake.
It was a great opportunity to dry up our tent and improve the water-proofing with various sprays we purchased in the nearby hardware store. We are hoping to now own the first waterproof Flippak tent, since the rainy season has taken quite a toll on our California-standard “waterproof” storm-cover.
On the western edge of the country, up on the mountains, is a Maya site most people don’t visit because it’s hard to get to. We had heard that it’s possibly the largest one, and trusted in our ability to drive there despite the rain and rough road conditions, so we decided to visit “Caracol”.
On our way, we were stopped for registration. The officials want to know who’s heading that way in case they don’t come back!
The road was very satisfying since we had been looking forward to do a long distance four-wheel drive route ever since our departure. About two-thirds of the way, we were stopped at a military base and told that it was “too late” to continue. With 20 kilometers left and the clocks showing 2 PM, we were surprised about this interruption. However, the soldier told us that we could stay within the military barracks, and continue in the morning, so we obliged.
Daniel, the soldier in charge of the base, showed us where we could camp for the night, but it was too early to settle down, so we decided to visit another cave in the area and he offered to escort us. We had great time together walking in the forest, trying to photograph bats and insects despite the fact that he was carrying an automatic rifle the entire time. Daniel is surely the most friendly and courteous soldier we’ve met so far.
This harmless looking bug living inside the cave is in fact quite dangerous. Daniel told us that some people bitten by the Chagas live only ten more years.
Later that night at the base, we cooked and had dinner with other soldiers. This was the closest Sarah would come to experiencing military from within. We talked briefly about their reason for guarding this front. Being very close to the Guatemalan border, this part of Belize is exposed to some illegal logging activities. In fact, encounters ending with armed conflict between illegal Guatemalan foresters and Belize Military are quite common in the area. As we listened to their stories that night in the dark, we didn’t know what was waiting for us the next day. Neither did they…
The night was promptly ended with my awkward remark: “I think we’ll go to bed and cuddle up!” One of the soldiers sitting in the dark who hadn’t spoken a word all night said to the others jokingly: “Yes, let’s go cuddle up too! Isn’t that what we do here?”
We woke up with the arrival of a truck bringing provisions. This ‘majestic’ military vehicle seemed to be a leftover from the days of British Honduras. It even had the flag intact. I was delighted to learn that it was going to be escorting us to the ruins. Never had such an interesting off-road partner…
We were the first to arrive at the site. Soon enough a few other guide vehicles showed up each with small groups of tourists. Before noon, there were about 14 tourists including us in this huge antique city. In fact, Caracol in its heydays had a population greater than today’s Belize City.
We started walking around photographing things of interest including a dangerous looking snake we later found out to be a “jumping viper”. We warned the other groups in the area about the location of this snake and made new friends in the meantime.
As usual, danger is not the wild animals but humans. We were enjoying a quick break on top of the Caana Pyramid when something terrible took place. We shot the video below within moments following the incident.
Despite the shocking effect of this incident, we did not feel intimidated. Not just because we were not the target, but also because things just don’t seem as scary when you’re experiencing them directly. I’m beginning to think that our sense of fear is usually independent of reality. It precedes any realistic evaluation. In fact, in any truly dangerous situation, fear is the last thing we need. Incidents happen when you least expect them.
Later that night, we watched the news on television. It felt really strange to have witnessed something that made the national news. We feel very sorry for this young father and his family. The border dispute between Belize and Guatemala is a very old problem that seems to surface every now and then. Politicians of both countries should do their best to resolve this issue if they really care for their people. Usually, people on either side of the borders are not that different from each other, but they are the only ones suffering from things left unresolved on diplomatic tables.
Since then, we’ve continued our journey south in search of some peace and long deserved rest. This is the first time we’re staying in a hotel in months.