The turquoise blue waters surrounding the cayes of Belize gave us a chance to flex our paddles before we jumped back into the Scenic. Heading west towards the more temperate area of the Maya Mountains, we visited sacred caves and took sandy tracks to ancient cities. Crossing the border into Guatemala, the condition of the roads was our harbinger of things to come...
We were about to cross into Belize from Mexico, and we decided to withdraw some cash-just to be on the safe side.
The man was waiting for us as we came out of the bank, perspiration dripping from under his baseball cap. He looked desperate and on the verge of a breakdown. He greeted us timidly as we approach the Scenic. "Is this your car?" he asked, and upon our positive answer he let out a huge sigh of relief.
"Thank goodness. I saw the car and I was hoping the owners would be foreigners. You see, I need assistance, I don't speak Spanish, and well, I am plain frantic. I have just hitchhiked all the way from Escarcega, a hole if you ask me, where I had to leave my wife and two kids. We came to Mexico as a gift from my church-I am a minister in Chicago, and we were on our way to Cancun by bus, from where we were going to fly home. We changed buses in Mexico City, our luggage did not. Everything was in the luggage: Credit cards, tickets, clothes, passports. I came here in hopes that there is an office to help tourists. Do you know of any?"
We looked at each other. No.
"Well, maybe there is a church that could help?"
Yes, possibly. It was getting late, however, and most offices were closed. "Could you help me? I hate to ask, I realize travelers such as yourselves have budgets to uphold..." Oh geez. The last thing we wanted to do is give money to a stranger.
"I am out of my mind. Look, here. I will give you my wife's wedding ring as collateral. As soon as we get back to the U.S., I will put the money into your account. Please, you are my only hope. I need to get back tonight. My wife is diabetic, my kids are sick, and if I don't return, they will worry."
"Bus tickets back to Acapulco for four people," he said. "And food?," we asked. "If you could, that would be too kind." His story was too absurd not to be true. The fact that my father is a minister, and that two of my sisters are diabetic, was too much of a coincidence. Giving him a few hundred dollars, we took him to the corner, from where he hitched a ride back to his family. With tears in his eyes, he thanked us graciously, shaking our hands firmly. We felt we had done a good deed.
One week later, we discovered the phone number and address were fake, the ring zirconium, the money never returned. So much for border towns.
Belize is a minuscule country, approximately the size of Wales. We'd heard it is a bastion of wildlife, nature, and beauty. Driving towards Orange Walk, the second largest city (14,000 inhabitants), we imagined grove-lined streets swaying in the wind, British-colonial wooden houses reflecting the evening sun. We ended up staying in a concrete block the size of a prison cell, eating at the only restaurant that was open: Chinese.
Belize is a mix of ethnicities, the majority being Creoles, descendants of African slaves and British pirates; followed by Mestizos, mixed European and Central American heritage; the indigenous Maya; and the Garifuna, who come from South American Indian and African descent. As we soon discovered, Belize also has a rather large population of Chinese residents and the majority of shops and restaurants that are always open tend to be theirs, especially during holiday weekends.
Perhaps because of our recent dupe, or perhaps because of the recent headlines of looting and riots in the capital city, we were on edge. With the car covered in stickers, we were too conspicuous for any would-be thief, and we made our way in and out of the capital quickly. Heading to the coast to get some use out of our kayak and to enjoy the crystal-clear waters of Tobacco Caye just off the coast from Dangriga, we felt as if we'd entered a ghost town. The streets were deserted, shops closed...ah yes, the holidays. We ate Chinese noodles once again, and after dinner the streets started to come to life. The music of Punta rock, drumming with calls and responses from other drummers, filled the night air and the chatter of locals in the streets kept up a lively air. Welcome to the Caribbean!