E: Our time in Belize was simply remarkable. I was a bit worried by the stories I’d heard from fellow travelers about how expensive Belize is and I had not expected we would want to stay long. We had also been warned more than a dozen times about Belize City being one of the most dangerous cities in Central America. Jorge, the pragmatic owner of the Hotel Carolina in Bacalar commented on the warnings saying that he takes most things in life with a grain of salt, but when you keep hearing the same thing over and over you have to pay homage. Tanya and I were very excited when we received a Couchsurfing acceptance from the Zetina family. They live on a farm in Corozal right near the Mexican border about 30 minutes from Chetumal. I had been in touch with Angel over the internet. He is one of four grown children in the Zetina clan who all live on the family farm with their respective partners and children. Angel excels in mathematics and is now a professor at the University in Belize. During his own university career he was given the opportunity to take a sabbatical in Paris. It was here that he learned about Couchsurfing. Since his return, Angel and his family have hosted more than a dozen couchsurfers at their farm. Although the single ramshackle house is already very crowded with 16 people living there, they seem delighted to host couchsurfers. The entire family loves the ability to interact with foreigners and they find it especially educational for the children. There isn’t a problem with communication either, as they all speak English, Spanish and Creole fluently and Mama speaks Maya as well. (Belize is a British colony once called British Honduras surrounded by Spanish territories and has a strong Caribbean influence.) Even neighbours drop by when the family has surfers to converse with the travelers. Although space is at a premium in the small farmhouse, the Zetinas are exceptionally accommodating. A double bed has been squeezed against one wall in the kitchen and a sheet fashioned in front for privacy. They made us incredibly comfortable during our stay preparing food for our meals and keeping us constantly entertained by giving us tours around the farm, picking fruit from the trees and even playing Wii in the livingroom with the entire family participating. We came to learn quickly that Mama is the jefa (boss) of the clan. She keeps the entire house running smoothly by delegating and overseeing all the daily chores from cooking, cleaning, doing dishes, laundry, buying food from the shop, looking after the children. She even takes the kids to the doctor or dentist herself when the need arises. We were completely impressed with Mama’s presence and energy. With 18 people in residence including Tanya and I, the amount of housework is immense. I offered to help with the dishes our first day after lunch and the job took more than two hours with two of the girls helping me. The family became very excited to have me doing their dishes and it soon became something of a show with people passing through the kitchen stopping to watch, giggle, make comments and offer encouragement. The men were actually appalled at the sight of me doing women’s work and they goaded me by saying that men don’t wash dishes. I could tell that they were secretly terrified I would set a precedent which may fall onto them. It was also brutally hot in the kitchen and even without a shirt on, I was sweating so much that some family members went off to find an extension cord and set up a fan a foot behind me. In the meantime Tanya had volunteered to help Mama with the laundry outside and was scrubbing our clothes by hand in one of the familiar wash basins with built in washboard. There we so many clotheslines and so many clothes hanging upon them that the location of the actual washbasins where the women were working became difficult to find. We also learned an awful lot about mangoes on the farm. The family absolutely loves mangoes and they are eaten everyday with relish (Editor: for the rugby lads that means with great enjoyment, it is not a condiment.) We also learned about the many types of mangoes available in Belize, our favourites being the green mango, slipper mango, hairy mango and, of course, mango #11 (yes, this is the actual name!) Apparently there are more than 30 different types of mango varieties in Belize alone… who knew? Angel’s family owns some land nearby and like so many Belizeans, they grow sugarcane. The cane is sold to the single factory in Orange Walk, apparently for a pittance. Angel expressed resentment at the low cost paid for cane by a company which turns around a solid margin selling the refined sugar to the US. Of course none of the farmers, even collectively, would have enough money to construct such a plant. Angel, his wife, Zelda, and son, Hadley, took us for a ride in their truck to see the fields and explain the process. Because the husks and weeds grow so thick it is necessary to first burn the fields before harvesting the cane. The farmers cut fire breaks along the length of the paddock and then burn sections to eliminate the superfluous growth . This provides access to the cane, makes harvesting faster, scares away the snakes and puts nutrients back into the ground for the next crop. As sugar canes seems to be the only viable cash crop in this region of Belize, crop rotation is not practiced. It seems like dangerous work, but these famers have been burning the fields and harvesting cane for so many generations that they are extremely adept. Although there is a nice breeze which floods the open pasture behind the farmhouse in evening, the heat is fairly stifling inland (especially considering all the cane fires burning at any one time in the surrounding area.) Tanya and I would regularly have to beg off and ride to the ocean for a swim. The best swimming places are right in town. Corozal is definitely not an upscale vacation resort. It is an extremely poor and sleepy farm town which happens to be located on the ocean. There is not much here at all really. On one side of the coastal road are a handful of rundown hotels and palapa-style restaurants. On the other side is a grassy area which goes right to the ocean’s edge. There are always locals bobbing around in the strong refreshing current along the entire length of the town. It could be quite nice actually if it weren’t for all the garbage strewn everywhere; one of the truly depressing characteristics of Latin America. I get the feeling that most of the white faces we see here are Canadians and Americans who have been to Latin America many times and picked Corozal as a place to return again and again for the cheap prices, laid back mood and authenticity. After swimming we would go to one of the sea side bars to sit amongst the G’d out natives, long-time vacationers and local prostitutes for a Beliken beer and yet another plate of rice and beans. T: Crossing into Belize from Mexico by bus was incredibly easy, something I had certainly not expected. The bus I caught in Chetumal looked a little sketchy so I immediately befriended the first gentle face I encountered. This always proves a good idea. My new amigo Carlos is Belizean and travels this route four times a week buying parts for gas ovens/stove tops in Mexico and doubling his money selling them in Belize. There are problems in Belize with failing stoves apparently and he has the monopoly on the replacement pieces, making him one happy guy with better than average earnings. He gave me the deets on what to expect at the border; something he was obviously an expert at and it was my first border crossing of the trip. It was simple: suck up your pride and pay the Mexican official, flash a big smile at the Belizean official, walk on thru and hop back on the waiting bus on the other side. And that is exactly how it went (although I did try to get out of paying the Mexican official… and failed). Belize felt different right away. Hotter, dustier, less people and everyone speaks English – albeit a creole-influenced, jive-filled variety. I had to wait for Erik’s arrival before calling our host to pick me up so I settled into the run-down bus station, out of the sun and tried to keep hydrated. The borders take much longer for Erik as he has to go through the rigmarole of transferring and insuring the motorcycle. I suppose with the number of foreign vehicles that pass through the borders every day, they could simplify these procedures, but this is Latin America and so they don’t. Growing restless, I phoned our host’s wife, Zelda, to let her know I was in town and that Erik would be along shortly. Apparently she misunderstood because a van showed up 20 minutes later with half the family, looking for a “Mister Ernesto”. Much to my relief, Erik was coming down the street at that very moment looking pretty winded from his much lengthier border examination. Down a bumpy dirt road full of potholes, we drove to the edge of town that the Zetina’s called home. Everyone came out to greet us when we pulled up, helping with our packs and leading us to our sleeping quarters – the kitchen corner. They insisted we sit down for a meal and served us some black beans, rice and tortillas; staple food in every Belizean home. Oh… and hotdogs. They often had hotdogs on the table or other odd bits of meat, rubbing every bite with a communal fresh chili to add spice and flavor. After dinner the table was cleared for Antonio, our host’s brother, to complete a work project that was due the next day. He had an order for soccer trophies including MVP’s and four of the more extravagant champion styles. Erik jumped right in to help and became infatuated with trying to perfect each one, while the entire family watched with total excitement, the kids helping to line up each shiny plastic piece. Our first morning we awoke to Mama, always the first to rise, making fresh tortillas, a giant pot of beans for the day and setting out a coffee station. We listened as the 16 family members filtered in, ate and went about their daily chores or left for work. No longer able to handle the stifling heat emanating from the bustling kitchen we took quick, cold showers, grabbed some instant coffee with powdered milk and went about a tour of the farm property where Mama mentioned the existence of a lovely breeze. Our tour was led by everyone who was home at that particular time. Mama and the women proudly taught us about the various fruits while the children climbed the trees to retrieve us a sample of each. A very magical, refreshing morning in our new home.
We stayed with the family for three days, enjoying every minute of the simple farm life. It was quite a welcome change after the many days in Mexico where it was tough to find peace and quiet at any hour. It was so amazing to watch this family interact, each of them able to keep such a patient and calm demeanor while living in such close quarters. We ran around with the kids, playing soccer or blowing bubbles and helped out with the farm chores. For every meal, Mama, who is half Mayan, made sure our plates were full and even cooked us special meals, such as Pollo Relleno (a traditional Mayan dish: ground pork/beef mixed with herbs & spices and made into a meatloaf with a boiled egg in the middle) a real treat for a large family to afford and we were touched by the gesture. On the morning of our departure to catch a ferry to Ambergris Caye, Mama woke up extra early (the only boat leaves at 6) to ensure we got breakfast, freshly picked mangoes and she even washed out some dusty travel mugs for coffee para llevar. She made sure Erik moved his bike to the shadiest spot and put a towel over it for safe keeping until our return in a week, gave us big hugs and wiped a few tears. Mama helped and comforted me while I suffered a severe ear infection, she taught me all her tricks on how to properly hand wash laundry and cheered on as I played with the kids. During these times we shared many laughs and really became part of the family. Mama didn’t want us to leave. It was a stunning sun-rise boat ride past many, tiny, uninhabited islands. I had assumed like in Mexico, nobody would be about when we set foot on Ambergris Caye so early in the morning, but I was totally wrong. In Belize, the daily activity and work schedule is unique. The average person wakes up at 5am, starts work at 6am and breakfast isn’t served anywhere on the island (or in all of Belize) past 8am. Maybe if you’re lucky or know of an ex-pat owned establishment you might find breakfast at 9am but nothing after that. Mostly every shop closes from 12-2pm, when families enjoy a big lunch together. Dinner service at the majority of restaurants is finished by 8pm. And it didn’t appear that anyone took siestas. We found a gringo joint serving up a “late” breakfast before hitting the streets to find a hotel. The Lonely Planet and all other guides suggest narrow San Pedro (the island’s only town) contains a small street grid, approximately five blocks wide and ten long. We wandered out to the supposed edge of town and were surprised to find a world apart from the quaint beach hotels, colourful bars and tourist shops we’d first encountered. We’d found the ghetto. The swampy, grimy suburb that everyone pretends does not exist. A shocking, sad sight a mere ten minutes on foot away from the tourist zone, the area is made up of busted-up, extremely weathered wood and scrap metal dwellings, built on stilts to avoid flooding. Many of the homes are in various stages of construction or repair, glued or tied together using scavenged materials. Every inch of ground aside from the skinny dirt streets are covered in wreckage from past hurricanes; the locals having added to the filth with their own trash. There appeared to be no drainage system, pools of stagnate water are nearly unavoidable. Despite living in such poverty most people waved hello as we passed, pleasantly surprised to see white faces cruising within their territory.
Finding our way back to the friendly and clean part of San Pedro, we caught a ride in a golf cart (the island’s main form of transportation aside from pedal bikes & a few motorcycles) with a couple of American tourists and got set up at Pedro’s hostel. Peter, or Pedro, is a British ex-pat who’s got the cheapest (for Belize that still means $35/night) digs in town, complete with two small pools filled with rowdy young travelers. At the massive Rugby-style sports bar on site, we made friends with Damian, an American in his early thirties who’d been importing and exporting goods to Ambergris with his own company for the past year. He left everything behind for this new Caribbean life and the only thing that sucks, he says, is that when he makes a new friend, they’ll be gone in a week. He was so fond of us that one evening he lent us his brand new golf cart so we could jet into town to keep an appointment with a friendly woodcarver we met on the street that day. Edwin creates gorgeous art from indigenous, recycled wood from around the island. His table, set up on the main street each day and night, shows off a collection of traditional Belize sculptures; sting-rays, sharks, angelfish and other local animals. We liked his cleverness as much as we liked his artistic style, so we commissioned him for a project; a gift for the Zetina family. We had returned that night to check out the piece of wood he had scrounged for us from his friend’s old farm house from the back of an old chair. He’d chosen well within our criteria, a rectangular slab of multi-coloured wood, a stunning dark piece with a swath of yellow stretching along the top. I then begin a cross examination of his skill set, equipment, approach to design and ask for a sample of his work – the only way to be sure he had indeed been truthful about his abilities. The letters he carved using his portable router were not quite what I had envisioned and Edwin graciously handed his tools over when I confessed my trade as a jeweller. So there we are in a dark corner of some grubby street, Erik carefully watching over the forming crowd of young, local men as I started carving into the piece of wood. Mañana we returned and Edwin had done up a branch with mangoes around my carved letters, a fitting representation for the Zetinas. I took more time out to perfect the plaque as locals and visitors alike came to see what the hell some white chick was doing using an electric router to carve a piece of wood on the streets of Belize. Of course, I loved it. When we finally made it back to bid farewell to our adopted family and presented our gift, they were extremely grateful and after Mama stopped crying, she displayed it front and center in the family room. The highlight of Belize was most definitely the snorkeling trip we took off Ambergris Caye. The longest reef in the western hemisphere was of course fascinating, but the guide really blew us away with his knowledge and presence in the water. The fish seemed to know him. He has been snorkeling and free-diving the area of Shark Ray Alley and surrounding spots for 7 years; when he put out his arms, the sting rays swam onto them. When he knocked on a piece of coral, his friend the green moray eel emerged, anxious for a feed and a pet. He coaxed a nurse shark towards him, eventually cuddling it like a newborn, belly up for each of us to tickle. We spotted a number of other sea creatures, most notably a family of turtles and a 6 foot barracuda- scary! All my nervousness was alleviated by his superb guidance and information, although I may have panicked momentarily when Erik ambitiously entered the water first, backwards, landing directly on a shark! Luckily this did not pose a problem; nurse sharks aren’t known to attack humans. It was a brilliant adventure, well worth the $50 splurge. Also good for a quick visit, is the extremely mellow Caye Caulker, where we meandered along the sandy streets, indulged in fantastic grilled fish and swam in the stunning teal waters with other young travelers. An island fit for weed smokers and casual beer drinkers – this Caye seems to attract a twenty-something crowd that lay upon its beaches and filled up the islands few bars. We found a private cabin off the beach for a ridiculously cheap rate of $5/night, at which we rested for two before hitting big bad Belize City. The accommodations were fairly pitiful, but we did manage to book in at place on the murky Rio compete with numerous secure steel gates and run by a very sweet lady who cooked a decent meal. During our walk, on which we encountered the gangsters, the rich, the extremely poor and a few tourists, we felt completely safe. The city was not what we had expected as “the most dangerous city in Central America”, in fact, it is kind of boring, dusty and disgustingly hot. Don’t go looking for trouble and you’ll be fine as is the usual rule in any place. We did make one little mistake in Belize City. After our long tour of town and a few sunset beers on the river, Erik fixed the wobbly ceiling fan in our room (wedging a bible in the top) and we took siesta. When we woke, around 7:30, we got ready to go out and find some dinner but to our surprise, the tall gates at the hotel entrance were all locked up and the streets were silent. SILENT. The hotel owner was in her pajamas, kitchen closed, lights out except a tiny tv on the wall, tuned to COPS Belize- a little frightening. She shrugged at our request for food or freedom, explaining that it is illegal to be out on the streets past 8 and sorry, her chef services were done for the day. We were out of luck and certainly were not going to insist release. Sure enough, the streets remained vacant for the duration of our rooftop patio dinner- a stale bag of pretzels.
Belize tends to get a bad rep, but we didn’t really understand why that is, for the most part. It can be frustrating, for example, to find your way around- there are no street signs in most towns and you can drive miles without finding a person to ask for help. (Belize has the lowest population density of any country in Latin America). Men are sometimes passed out on the sidewalks. You may run into young dudes clad in matching gang colours during a bus ride (yes, this happened to me, but I happened to be licking mango residue from my pocket knife which seemed to amuse them). Your bus may break down (this also occurred). Internet connectivity is scarce. You can’t go out after dark in most places (only safe on the Cayes). You must eat a lot of rice and beans. Strangers may smile at you and men will most certainly whistle at you if you are female- ah! Like in any city, you are going to see some characters that you wouldn’t exactly be thrilled to encounter in a dark alley, but with your chin up and some common sense there should be no problems in venturing off the beaten tourist path in this country, in fact it is our recommendation if you want to experience any excitement at all. As Erik says, “don’t fear the dog and it won’t bite you.”