Sunday, 11 March 2012

Belize

A local with an improvised hat on Caye Caulker.
We crossed the border from Guatemala and were immediately confronted with a stark difference: the border guards spoke English! My first non-Spanish speaking country in some seven months.

However, the signs on the way to Belize City were not in any form of English I recognised, with political billboards sporting slogans such as, “Wi gat sohntin fu yu!” and “Time ta ran dis crowd.” Belize is the only country in Central America that was a former British colony; in fact, it still retains Queen Elizabeth II as head of state (one of only sixteen such countries – can you name them all?). This, combined with a huge majority of freed slaves, has resulted in a very Afro-Caribbean society, where people talk to one another in a beautiful but incomprehensible sing-song mix of English and Creole.

English, but not as you know it: political signs in Belize.
Belize is only 64 miles across and we reached Belize City (the old capital – Belmopan is now the capital) by the afternoon. We checked into the world’s creakiest wooden house run by the world’s friendliest lady, and went exploring. Unfortunately, it being Sunday the entire town was asleep save for only a few tourists (maybe three?), security guards and a couple of tramps. I have to admit that the intense silence lent it a rather unsafe atmosphere, where no one would be around to hear us scream. Still, it gave us an uninterrupted chance to walk around streets lined with wooden houses and buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in 1800s deep south United States.

A typical building in Belize City.
As we walked down to the port where the cruise ships would normally come in (and where a tourist ‘village’ has been set up, complete with stalls selling ‘authentic’ goods at vastly inflated prices to the passengers who don’t want to leave the cocoon) we met a security guard who was evidently a bit bored. He took it upon himself to explain to us the history of his town by way of an imaginary walk along the shore. He told us many a tale of intrigue, including one about Henry Edward Ernest Victor Bliss (could you get a more English name?), a British traveller who fell in love with the country and donated several million pounds to the country upon his death in 1926. His body is now buried next to the lighthouse and many buildings and institutes in the country contain the name Bliss.

We had Chinese for dinner, there being nowhere else open for dinner. The next day we took a water taxi to Caye Caulker, one of a group of cayes (pronounced like ‘key’), which are islands formed on coral. Caye Caulker is named after the practice of caulking, or sealing wooden boats, and is a tiny slice of a tropical island; indeed, it was sliced in two by hurricane Hattie of 1962 forming a new northern island separated by what is known locally as ‘The Split’. The current ripping through this narrow channel makes swimming across very difficult indeed, so one must satisfy oneself with the small space on the southern portion. It’s only about one mile wide at its widest point and five miles in length, with three straight roads spanning its length named Front, Middle and Back Streets. Along the first are agencies galore, the second contains an array of Chinese supermarkets, and the latter many hotels. We stayed at one end of the village in Edith’s guesthouse. Edith seemed a little distracted by an ongoing argument with a neighbour, but she let us use her kitchen to make pancakes on pancake day. Latin America has carnival, the UK has pancakes. Edith told me that many people are still very traditional and give up certain meats on Fridays and just have fish on that day. Doesn’t sound that much of a sacrifice to me.

The perfect blue sea of the Caribbean, as seen from Caye Caulker.
The island is mostly taken up by tourism and its providers, but it has a couple of spots from where to enjoy the perfect blue sea amidst the palm trees and quiet piers. However, its real attraction lies off its shore. We went snorkelling at the nearby coral reef, where Mario and his friend coaxed us into swimming with stingray. At first I was rather worried about being so close to the deadly tails of these huge, flat creatures, but after Mario had danced with one and then cradled another for me to stroke, I became more relaxed. The feeling of their smooth skin brushing against my legs, the sound of their nibbling at shells, was simply magical. As for the nurse sharks, well, they kept to themselves and didn’t look like they wanted to be picked up. The colourful coral with its brain-like patterns was also nice.

A final exploration of the southern part of the island revealed something much unexpected. Following the sound of a light aircraft we arrived at one end of a runway just as a small plane was taking off. As it rose into the air, dozens of people dressed in sports gear strode out on to the tarmac, ignoring the signs warning of heavy penalties and possible aeroplane injury/death. They sped off jogging down the strip as the sun set behind them, chattering as they exercised.

The final day in Belize was taken up with getting out of the country. Despite its small size, it took some time. First we had to take the water taxi back to the mainland and Belize City, where we ignored the advice from touts telling us to take a tourist shuttle and headed to the local bus terminal. Here we squeezed ourselves on to another chicken bus and rattled our way to the border in the north of the country at Santa Elena. Before crossing into Mexico, the Belizean border official asked us for exit fees. Note: there is a fee of B$37 (about £12) in order to get out of the country. Note also: if you smile and act Na├»ve they might just let you off part of that fee.

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