Somewhere in the jungle that covers the great southern Yucatan Peninsula, we crossed the border into what most people agree is the country of Belize. Even many Guatemalans agree Belize exists, despite the fact that some maps in Guatemala still include Belize as its missing eastern chunk.
It would be easier to think the country’s existence was in question if it did not suddenly transform in character and language immediately upon crossing the frontier. After eight months in Spanish speaking countries (sorry Brasil: Latin Countries), we found ourselves easily deciphering signage and small-talk alike, everyone was speaking English again. After a fashion.
We pulled into the laid back confusion of Belize City where everyone is trying to sell you something, but not very hard. The touts who met our bus seemed offended when we told them we didn’t need anything. They claimed they were only there to give helpful advice. A lanky Rastafarian followed us a ways after we asked him which direction our hotel was, telling us that the owner of the hotel would probably give him a tip for helping us. We figured that would lock us into the hotel, so we declined his services. He politely demurred and wished us a good day.
The hotel in question was no less relaxed or confusing. The man behind the counter of the Sea Breeze quoted us a price for the rooms, then handed us over to a woman who had walked down the stairs. She told us a different price. When we questioned the disparity, she told us the man didn’t work there, “he just eats here.”
Irritated, we walked out. The woman told us to be careful of a puddle on the way down the stairs.
We immediately questioned the wisdom of leaving the only hotel we knew, as the surrounding neighborhood resembled a sea-side Detroit with its overgrown lots, broken sidewalks and houses in various states of collapse. As we were regrouping, weighed down by our big backpacks and smaller bags hanging off our persons like weighty ornaments, a man in a white van rolled down his window and asked if we needed help. He was thirty-something man with a friendly ivory smile augmented by two gold-lined teeth. We were immediately suspicious of his motives, especially when he offered to drive us to a nearby hotel he knew – for free!
I offered him this piece of wisdom: nothing is ‘free’. But I thanked him politely never-the-less.
He responded with a smile that we would come to know well. We’d see it flashed most widely two days later as the three of us danced together in Belize’s Carnaval parade. But at the time he just laughed and told us not to worry: “Everyone in Belize is nice.”
I did not doubt that, but we still had a policy against climbing into vans with strangers in strange countries. Then again, we also have a policy of having a plan but we’d already abandoned that. Sheldon eventually wore us down by assuring us he had nothing better to do and soon we were in his car getting the whirlwind tour of Belize City. With his window down, he drove down the wrong way of one way streets, sweet talking the authorities who tried to stop him in the thick incomprehensible creole that is the Belizian lingua franca, referring to everyone the least bit official looking as ‘General’ (pronounced: Genar-ALL).
He did in fact take us to a decent, cheap hotel, saying the whole time, I’m gonna be real right now, this is a good place. And it was.
So what was the catch? It turned out Sheldon was a tour guide who made his living hustling for tours on the cruise ship docks. Like fishermen, he and his comrades would descend on the shoals of tourists pouring off of the giant boats, making multiple runs per day into the Belizean interior to show off what some consider the heart of the Mayan world. We had no doubt that we could thank Shellon and never see him again and he wouldn’t ask for a thing, but we liked him, as I’m sure was his plan, and we were interested in seeing all the things the cruise shippers wanted to see – just not at the outrageous prices he generally gouged them for. Since there wasn’t a ship at port, Shellon agreed on a much more reasonable price and to a catch of our own: we wanted to see two of Belize’s most famous Mayan ruins in one day: Lamanai and Altun Ha. Shellon thought for a long time, then said, “I’m gonna be real, it’ll be difficult but it’s possible. He warned that the roads were rough and that we’d be getting a free butt massage, courtesy of the Belizean government.
We left the next morning at just about 7:30. Shellon gave us a quick ride around town to finish the tour he’d started the day before. Belize City had been destroyed repeatedly by fire and hurricanes so not much of the historical center remained. In its place were built unexciting but inoffensive concrete structures, ready to stand against the next blow dealt by nature. Our hotel was on Haulover Creek which flows through town into the sea. It’s spanned by an industrial looking rotating steel bridge that is reminiscent of the spans across the Thames in London. This and the building materials for some of the other structures in Belize city had originally been imported from England, which explained the yellow brick Georgian style buildings standing where in other Central American countries you might have found Spanish Colonials.
We chugged out from the city into the country landscape of low greenery, occasionally interrupted by concrete houses or the crumbling thatched huts of Belize’s Mayan community. As we drove along the New River, Sheldon told us he was going to be real, there were tons of crocodiles in the river, but we weren’t going to see any. This seemed like an uncharacteristically pessimistic promise. In a short time we reached a little dock on the New River, and while Shellon pulled out a box of dominoes to engage the guys hanging around the boats, we were put into the hands of a speedboat captain named “Captain Chino”.
Suddenly we found ourselves roaring upriver with a boatload of other tourists who’d been consolidated by several tour operators into one group. We didn’t mind this bit of chicanery by Shellon, since we’d talked him down so far below his normal rate.
It helped that Captain Chino was a colorful character in his own right, giving the group his own version of Mayan history as seen through the eyes of a Chinese-Belizean native. He claimed the Mayans had discovered a cure for Alzheimer’s a thousand years ago (monkey brains) but that the drug companies ignored this miracle cure for purposes of pursuing profit elsewhere.
Armed with this and other alarming revelations, we arrived at the ruins of Lamanai, which Captain Chino pronounced as the largest in Belize. We all helped carry plastic red coolers into the jungle where we’d eventually make lunch. Captain Chino led the way, wearing a black plastic brimmed captain’s hat that was missing half of its golden laurels.
Lamanai may or may not be to largest site in Belize, but it does have the distinction of having been the longest continually inhabited Mayan city. Built around 1500 B.C., it was still populated when the Spanish and later the British arrived in Belize. Like in Flores, which had been a thriving Mayan city with the Spanish found it, it crossed my mind that so many mysteries of the Mayan world may have been solved if the first Europeans to encounter them had just stopped to ask a few questions before sacking their temples. How was the famous ball game played? Can you translate these hieroglyphics for us? What was the cause of your society’s collapse? Will the world end in 2012 like Jerry Bruckheimer predicts?
Having the foresight to ask these important questions might have required a little intellectual curiosity though and the only question the Spaniards felt was relevant at the time was, where’s the gold at?
We pulled ourselves up the side of the High Temple pyramid to get a view of the surrounding site. As usual the steep stairway was slippery and uneven, so a sturdy rope was provided to aid against death by tumbling. The view from the top was spectacular and Captain Chino claimed the settlement we could see in the distance was in Mexico. I found this hard to believe as we were still a long way from the Mexican border, but I liked the idea that we were finally so close to our southern neighbor. A few members of our group, also Americans, wondered out loud at the dense jungle that still clung to the back of the pyramid. As Captain Chino was sitting on a bench in the shade far below us, I took it upon myself to point out that the part we’d climbed up had been uncovered and restored but that it was very expensive to do so. Since the back looked a lot like the front, you could save money by only uncovering half. Then I pointed to where in the distance the otherwise flat jungle landscape was disturbed by a number of suspiciously symmetrical lumps. I showed them what I’d only recently realized myself: that the currently visible remains of the Mayan civilization are only a small percentage of the vast metropolises still buried beneath the wilderness.
When we returned to the dock, Shellon popped off of the picnic table bench, abruptly ending what looked like had been a raucous game of dominoes. We got back in his van and headed to our next destination, Altun Ha.
Shellon’s tours are usually cut and dry. He picks up tourists from the cruise ships, brings them to either Lamanai or Altun Ha and then rushes them back to the port. If he drives efficiently, he can do several tours per day and make a good amount of money. What he had never done before was to visit both sites in one day, and while he knew there was a road between the two, he told us, “I’m gonna be real right now, I haven’t been on this road for 15 years. It’s worse than I remember.”
We might have agreed it was bad if we hadn’t recently come from Guatemala. There certainly were potholes the size of Galapagos tortoises, but they weren’t filled with water and there was no oncoming traffic or any avalanches to be seen. It was dusty and remote and led us past Mayan villages that looked unchanged since their ancestors ruled what is now Belize. The thatch roofed huts were so compelling we asked if we could stop and take a picture. Shellon would have stopped to let us nap in a hammock if we’d asked.
We approached a little family that was cooking and playing games in an unkempt yard. We asked in English if we could take a picture and the mother nodded. Soon a half dozen children had gathered to see what was going on. We told them they had a beautiful house, just like the Mayans from Lamanai. One of the kids said something that included the word Maya, but it could have been creole English, Spanish or a Mayan tongue because we didn’t understand. He gestured for us to wait then ran into the house. He stopped in the open doorframe and once again gestured, holding up his hand: wait.
We waited. Some of the adults stared at us suspiciously but the children were all smiles. Shortly the boy ran at full tilt back out of the house and skidded to a stop in front of us. He opened his hand to reveal three bone white carved shells. Two seemed to be part of an old necklace but one was carved more intricately than the others. We could just distinguish some sort of animal shape worked into its back. The boy smiled a set of perfect teeth as white as the shells and said, “Maya.”
Despite the blistering heat I felt a chill. It was the small and precious inheritance of a desperately poor family, direct descendants of a once thriving culture. We were honored to be shown these shells and told this to the boy and his brothers and sisters. He smiled again and closed his earth colored fingers around the treasure. They all waved as we climbed back into Shellon’s van and continued into the overgrowth.
We reached Altun Ha with moments to spare. A huge friendly man with a massive plume of dreadlocks and no shirt was just starting to close the gates. Shellon introduced us and we shook his rough hand. The ruins of Altun Ha are small and relative to what we’d seen, unspectacular. Some of the pyramids had been stripped of their stone to pave a road after a farmer offered the government access to the “big piles of rock” on his land. Only after one of the buildings had been dismantled did they realize their mistake and turn a road project into a archeological dig. The most significant find was a life sized jade sculpture of a head that was buried in a tomb. It’s the largest artifact of its kind ever found, and immediately went missing. Well, a replica is on display for the original’s protection, but it is by no means clear where it is being protected.
When Shellon dropped us off at our hotel, he invited us to join him at his friend’s house the next day to watch the Carnaval parade. Belize shares the date of its Carnaval with no one, and proudly so. Even though plans at the friend’s house fell through, we found Shellon’s ex-wife, their 13 year old son and his ex’s new husband standing along the parade route. Along with a dozen other family members, we stood beside the closed street under umbrellas, shielding us from the burning sun. As the dancers passed in sections between trucks filled with speakers, Shellon repeatedly told them to pull us into the parade. He knew half of them, and they gamely ground up against us in ways not suitable for print. The three of us were doubled over and close to tears we were laughing so hard. I tried to turn the tables on Shellon but him getting attacked by the dancers wasn’t nearly as funny as a bearded gringo being mauled by a painted lady sparkling with glitter and pure Carnaval joy.
Towards the end of the parade, as the last lines of scantily clad dancers passed, Shellon shouted above the fading bass, “Well you can’t say you didn’t have a good time in Belize City.” He turned to the step-father of his child, “When I first met these two they said ‘nothing is for free’!”
We all laughed.
“But I said: Everyone in Belize is nice.”
I might amend that one simple truth a bit before handing it out to the next stranger who offers us a ride. I still believe nothing is free, except for maybe friendship.