One summer night, the family and I were sitting in the living room and an infomercial came on the TV advertising a tropical island. ”Huh,” I said to myself. “Look that up,” I announced to the room.
“The island. Look. See if it’s cheap to go.”
“Yeah, see if it’s cheap,” my mom chimed in.
“Okay.” Turns out it was immensely cheaper to fly to Mexico and then take a bus into Central America versus flying directly to the island. Three weeks after seeing it on screen we were on our way to see it in person. On the flight to Cancun, a French family sat in front of me. A husband and wife with two daughters. I don’t know if they were actually French or just spoke the language but I found it to be ethereal background noise. The girls were probably under twelve years old and their French skills were far better than mine. From what I could interpret of their mid-flight conversation, they were telling their father what they wanted to do in Cancun and he was telling them that they would have a great time. Turning to the seat on the opposite side, la belle petite fille aux cheveux blonde repeated the same excitement to their mother in English. “I cannot wait to see dolphins,” the girl said. She was so thrilled about the future that she turned behind her and told my mother too, who was sitting across the aisle. I listened in gleeful silence, delighted by the girl’s joy and language skills. I pray to have a daughter like that one day. Children are wonderful. They are the best of humanity. Exiting the airport in Cancun to find our bus is when I saw Michael Jackson dressed in his Billie Jean attire, white glove and tons of sparkle, black fedora shielding his eyes. How nice to see him on full display, moving back and forth with the automatic doors.
“Michael!” Someone yelled behind me. I tipped my fedora in his direction. It was then that I knew it would be a great trip.
Money saved meant time spent. Around two days of extra travel was the charge. We flew into Cancun and then had to spend about a day in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, before taking a ten-hour bus ride across the border to Belize City. Mexico is a terrible place, there’s no sugar coating it. Playa was full of swindlers and charlatans. An abysmal tourist town. There wasn’t much to do except purchase tacky items and get hassled to do so being that we were obviously American, conspicuously rolling suitcases around afternoon to evening. People sold fruit and blankets. There was a cart of puppies that did not look healthy with a sign attached for the charge to pet them. There was a charge for everything, even to use the bathroom and the people were not polite. The bathroom itself was an insult to an outhouse. The hours we had to wait for the bus dripped by slower than a leaky faucet. It wasn’t a large area so circling around and around was inevitable. My mom desperately wanted to rent a car and drive somewhere but in my dramatic mind, all I could think about was the fatal consequences that awaited a group of lost Americans in a foreign country.
“No way. We don’t even know where we are. Haven’t you seen the movie Touristas?” She kicked the ground and clicked her tongue like a disappointed toddler. The same unfamiliar strangers passed us and we passed them. The man selling flowers was approaching us for the third time. Being in Playa Del Carmen was like being stuck in an episode of Black Mirror.
“I cannot wait to get out of this place,” my dad said as he and I stared out into the darkness, sitting on stone steps with no back support and far too many people around.
“I know,” I said, arms wrapped around my knees as drums hammered behind me. Men in feather headdresses pounded at my back, putting on a show for others that were stuck here in an attempt to gain a few dollars. I was so spaced out with boredom that I didn’t even care to watch the show. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said, exiting the bathroom at the bus station that was as nasty as the rest of the place. I can sleep on planes but I can’t seem to nap in cars or buses as I found out during our day trip to the border. It was a nicer bus with cushioned seats but still, it’s very difficult to rest in a seated position. Around 11 PM is when we departed from that Mexican wasteland and around 4 AM is when they flashed the lights on and woke everybody up to cross the border. Exhausted, we had to unload. I felt dead on my feet as we waited to be separately questioned in what looked like a little white shack. I knew it was shady but I was too tired to care. We had read up on not having to pay an ‘entrance’ fee, it’s a scam that Mexico puts on. In the white shack that sat seemingly in the middle of nowhere, there was a desk with two women behind it. One was at the computer, the other sat in a chair off to the side. The woman at the computer explained the amount that needed to be paid so that my family and I could cross the border. Don’t do it, they’re lying, I thought. It was too bright with the fluorescents and the white walls, I was so tired.
“When you enter by land or by sea…” the woman repeated, a speech that was obviously rehearsed. She was pointing to a form on the desk with a pen. The woman claimed there was a fee to enter Belize and although the air smelled of deceit my dad took out his wallet. Thinking it was $30 USD in total.
“No each, ” my mom said to him. ”This isn’t right, ” she said, looking at the women who had scammed many before and many after us.
”Oh, each?” He said. ”I don’t even have that.”
”You can pay half now and half later, ” the woman who was the mouthpiece for this facade said, abruptly breaking away from her script because the American across the desk had pulled out his wallet, the other woman, her accomplice, said nothing.
”What, ” he said, it wasn’t a question, it was a confirmation that this wasn’t legitimate. They can’t suddenly offer a discount. This was supposedly government, not retail.
”This is a lie, ” I said to myself, ”you’re lying.” I looked at her but she showed no emotion. What if we just start yelling? They could be armed and we are pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
”This is all I have.” She took the money.
”You should be ashamed of yourselves, ” my mother said as we left. Back on the bus, the driver acted as if he didn’t speak English so he didn’t know what was going on. ”Did anyone else pay a fee?” My mom asked the other riders. Others had been taken advantage of but we still weren’t in the desired country yet so not much could be done. What a piece of trash Mexico is. More corrupt than Illinois. My brother and I took our seats. A determined blonde woman approached me. ”Did you guys pay?” She looked indignant.
”Yeah, we did.” She scoffed and left the bus as if she were going to do something about it. No reimbursement happened on our part though. When she boarded the bus again she was saying how she’s a Belizean citizen and they try to get her money every time. I thought it would’ve been nice for her to warn everybody beforehand. I was stressed from the uncomfortable ride, lack of sleep and now boiling from having been lied to. After Swindleville, the next stop was customs. I had to wait in line while filling out information. Standing is a task in itself for me, now I had to fill out information while balancing. Thank God for my family because I didn’t bring my Service Dog for this international endeavor. The customs agent wondered why I looked so tired. “It’s 5 AM,” I snapped.
“Have a good trip,” he smiled as he handed my passport back to me.
“Just happy to get out of Mexico. Thanks.” Hours later, we rolled up to a bustling area of people coming in and out of a concrete area with benches and convenience shops designating it as a transportation point. American products were being sold at the shops that lined the back wall. Buses pulled up with more tourists and residents on the other side of the iron fence. Some homeless people loitered there. I watched for what felt like a long time, a man with a bum leg make his way inside the bus station and through the shops, very slowly. He moved as fast as the hours we had spent stuck in Mexico. I wondered what these people thought of me and the way I moved. I wanted to buy a Redbull but I didn’t know how long we’d be here. We had to take a regular taxi to get to where our rental car would be. In the past forty-eight hours, I had used nearly all forms of transportation. A car to the airport, two cars because ours had a smoking engine in the middle of the highway. We were fortunate enough to get an Uber and still make our flight. From the plane, we took a bus for longer than I’ve ever been on a bus and now a street taxi.
“How is it here?” My mom asked the driver as he cautiously backed up.
“It’s not so bad during the day but you don’t want to stay here,” he said, weaving through the traffic of the rundown city.
“Good to know,” she said. He was a nice man who drove quickly and precisely. I was happy to get out of there, being stuck in Mexico was one thing but being stranded in Belize City was another.
San Ignacio was inland and reminded me of the jungle. The place we stayed was a small, two bedroom with one bath and tile that was broad, thick and gleaming. The room I stayed in was no more than a bed and a wooden dresser. Right down the gravel street was a restaurant decorated in lights and warm cherry wood. It was too late for coffee but I ordered some because I was curious to see if there was a different taste in this new place. Brought out on a crisp white plate was a cup of black coffee paired with a mini pitcher of cream. There was no difference in deliciousness, only the familiar richness that I know and love. For dinner, what they delivered to me was a generous portion of pork chops coated in a sweet glaze resting atop a bed of rice. The waiter’s recommendation for fun was to visit the caves, something he does on his days off. Having eaten and feeling satisfied we walked the streets of the town as the sun went down. Gravel crunched beneath my boots, the air was warm, the place was quiet apart from our conversation. It was a fairly silent arrival to the jungle island.
In the morning, we walked to a breakfast place down the road, it was seemingly the only one in the town. The orange juice they had was the freshest I have ever tasted. The breakfast place in San Ignacio is where I first learned of Fry Jack’s, deep fried dough pieces shaped in circles or triangles that are a common part of the Belizean breakfast. There was no rush to get the check delivered. There was absolutely no rush at all, in this restaurant or anywhere else on the island. It wasn’t even clear where the waitress had gone. I could hear the cooks talking in the kitchen through a rectangular cutout in the wall behind the booths in the diner. An American show played on the TV hanging in the corner. “Hey, can they get the check?” An older white man pointed to our table, yelling toward the kitchen. “You’re welcome,” he said after we thanked him for getting their attention.
“Thank you, it was delicious,” I said, forcibly sliding out of the booth.
“You got to let them know what you want.” The man who helped us inside said as we exited. He had his long, silver hair pulled back in a thin ponytail that reached past the middle of his back and dark sunglasses over his eyes as he leaned on the ledge of the outside seating, holding a small styrofoam cup. “It’s very relaxed here.” My dad laughed and told the kind stranger that we’ve noticed and that’s part of the reason we came. The man’s name was Frank, he was from New York and he had lived here for more than a decade with no intention of ever going back to the states. “I married a beautiful Belizean woman and had some kids right up the hill,” he pointed in the direction of his home. He said he works out every day and the neighbors know how tough he is. His storytelling went from light to dark in a snap when he told us about a senseless crime that happened recently. I asked him why he moved here originally. “You want to know? Cashew wine.” I wasn’t sure if I heard that right or if he meant cashews and wine. He meant what he said. Cashew wine is the reason Frank left North America and made a life here.
“That must be some good wine,” I said. There were a few businesses and restaurants where we were at but not much went on in the jungle town. The first week of this trip felt like a mission trip and not a vacation. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to find beauty in uncommon places, all that matters is knowing where to look. My brother and I wandered the roads and stumbled upon two murals. Easily the most vibrant scenery in the area. One boasted of blues and purples and the other mural shown bright yellows, rays of the biggest star we see every morning. A tree in the foreground with a toucan perched at the top, an animal I would see in real life before this trip was over. The brown roots formed camouflaged words that read: under the tree, we flourish. Hanging from the emerald green leaves is what looked at first to be tangerines, which some were but upon closer inspection, some of the orange ovals were actually fetuses painted in the same color and shape as the fruit. I stood next to the children and posed with them peacefully hanging beside me from the tree of life. I posed in front of the blue mural too. The color palette was more flattering against my hot pink T-shirt. We’ll call the yellow mural, The Children and the blue mural The Woman because the subject of the second was the profile of a female painted in purple, shades closer to lavender than plum. Her ear was a flower colored magenta, her lips a beckoning blue, seemingly kissing me because of how close I stood. A hummingbird drank from her nectar filled hair. Perhaps she was meant to be Mother Earth. The center of the painting radiated rings, luring a kaleidoscope of butterflies to its center. I let one perch on my finger. Finding things with magic in them ceaselessly reminds me of Neverland. Walking around at night we found a table full of souvenirs for sale, I figured I should get something for someone. Also, I wanted to help these people in any way that I could and if that meant buying a piece of black stone with their country’s bird etched on it and some handmade bracelets, so be it. I loved the people but this place is not what I expected. It was not what I had seen on TV that made me want to visit. It took me days to remember I was in Belize and not Brazil. For some reason, when I would go out on the porch and look across the street at the dilapidated pastel houses and see flags jutting out, immediately I would think, I’m in Brazil, I need to go to the site where Michael Jackson filmed one of his movies for the song ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. Then I would stop floating and my feet would come back to the floor as I realized I was nowhere near there. However, there were some other famous sites I could visit, the caves and the Mayan Ruins. We took a bus to the ruins, an actual bus, as in what I rode in elementary school. They don’t just use them for the young ones though, during the ride we met a young man who was going to college to be a teacher. He told us where our stop would be and then selflessly offered to miss his stop that was after ours so he could walk us to the ruins. That’s the kind of people Belizeans are, selflessly generous. We insisted he stay and we made it just fine. The ruins are giant stacks of rock that rest in this clearing of manicured grass bordered by forest. They are massive works of stone and I was glad I wore my gym shoes because I fully intended to climb them. I wanted to reach the top of the tallest ruin. From the ground, the stairs appeared endless but once I was on them I took it one giant stone slab at a time. Some sections of the steps were farther apart than others so I found it easiest to incorporate my arms and climb with all four limbs like Teva would if he were here. My boy would not like this. He probably wouldn’t be able to get traction going up. I don’t know exactly how many stairs there were, perhaps a hundred, maybe more. I am certain that any climber would get a solid leg pump out of the experience and I am also sure that whoever climbs the ruins should not look down while doing so. We took breaks for pictures or when we found holes in the ruins shaped like coffins but other than that, it was all about the climb. The steps were wide and shallow. I swear, had I not done Crossfit for an entire year before this trip I wouldn’t have even made it halfway up let alone to the top. With sweat on my back and determination in my mind, I kept going. There were others climbing too. What I didn’t expect was to see anyone standing at attention but that’s what I ran into. “Hello,” I said, to a tan man dressed in boots and dark camouflage holding a rifle. He turned to me from where he looked out at the trees and said hi. “Are you guarding the mountain?” There was laughter behind me.
“No,” he smiled, “the border.” These ruins border Guatemala and men like him stand guard to take down intruders. I asked if he ever had to shoot anyone and he said no. I took advantage of the unexpected encounter to catch my breath and then I told him to have fun and stay safe. There was some kind of path around the side of the pyramid that led you inside of it and up a ramp, to a wide opening carved in the stone that overlooked a sea of treetops. It was tempting to rest my legs over the ledge but I didn’t because I’d watched stones fall on my ascent and I didn’t want the next falling thing to be me. We rose from the floor out of a hidden staircase, one that would be easy to fall into if you weren’t looking, to a trickier pathway. I was already hot and sweaty and now I had to scale a ledge. I did it while saying my prayers. Below was the outline of what may have been a courtyard at some time in the distant past. We reached the top of the pyramid and walked past stacks of stones to get to the front. A guide was explaining facts to a couple on a tour. When there was a pause, I interjected.
“Excuse me, mister tour guide?” The people he was guiding laughed.
“Were people sacrificed here?” I asked, morbidly eager for a confirmation. What else could it be? It looked like the Mayan version of the Colosseum.
“No,” he shook his head, “this was a royal residence. Where we stand was a palace and the smaller ruins were housing for other royal family members. Down there is a courtyard where they would sometimes play games.”
“Well, that is not what I was picturing but thank you.” We were up so high I was too nervous to stand near the edge but I had to look down so I crawled but then I decided to slither to the edge because the sleek stone was slick with rain. My muscles were tired and satisfied. My mother told me to be careful. “Let’s have a planking contest,” I said. She came to the edge where I was and we propped ourselves up in a high plank, she beat me. It was a wild view. All those steps below me now. The other ruins dwarfed in comparison to this, gray, boxy palace. Other stone structures on both sides were grown over with grass and are said to be the graves of royalty. The pyramids rested on the brightest grass I’ve ever seen, so beautiful, so serene. I looked out over the land on the side of this mountain, taking it in, knowing it was a matter of time before going down so I had better enjoy it. Behind me on one of the small stacks of stone that were part many in a pattern on this roof was a sign the read; ‘No Climbing.’ Getting back to the ground was much more difficult rising into the clouds. Thankfully, about halfway down I found a staircase. “Figures I would find this after,” I said, going down the steps on the side that was closest to the Guatemalan border. When I got to the grass again, I fell. How ironic, I climbed a mountain and when I’m back on the ground, that’s when I fall. I rolled my ankle but figured it would be okay. I did want to take a picture at the bottom of the stairs so I could see it and remember to only look back to see how far I’ve come.
We went to dinner that night which tasted incredible and afterward, given that the drinking age is lower than what it is in the states my brother wanted to get shots. I’m not much of a drinker anymore but I will drink on vacation. He wanted to get six but I said let’s start with two. We ordered snake bites which are: tequila, hot sauce, and lime. Absolutely the best tasting shot I’ve ever had. I had experiences with the ‘best I’ve ever had’ in Belize. We did those shots and then got two more. He was bothered that I didn’t need much booze in me to get a good buzz going. I remember being in a very good mood for the walk home that night and laughing a whole lot. It’s a thrilling disappointment that I now know I love tequila.
I may be a dramatic writer who speaks in hyperbole often but if there was ever a time death was truly too close for comfort I can think of two instances. One is a car crash that I caused across multiple lanes of traffic and the other is the time my family and I drove up the side of a mountain in Belize. Thankfully no animals or people were harmed in either of these events. To get to the caves that are so popular your local waiter visits them in his free time, is quite the trek and not easy to find. Not to mention, life-threatening considering we were driving up a mountain in a stick shift that would’ve been shaky on a paved road. This mountain trek wasn’t like the ruins because, on this journey, we got stuck. Stuck. On the side of a mountain path with no guardrail in an unsteady car. Hello, death, my name is Genevieve. I’m ready to meet Jesus now. We did our best to stay calm but the stress was as real as the tumble that car could take. We could die out here. We’re stuck and who knows if we’d ever be found. This was bad. We weren’t even sure if we were on the right path to the caves. As the reality of the trouble we had gotten ourselves into sank in, a man an ATV rolled up and asked if we were okay but the answer was obvious. He was more than willing to help. He guided the car back into the brush that made it easier to turn around and cautiously we turned away from the Grim Reaper and his scythe. That random stranger was an angel on earth. No idea where he came from. Turns out he was the tour guide for the caves we were trying to get to, they were closed and he was riding home. “I’ll take you on a tour,” he said. “Sure, sure. Follow me.” Heart rates lowered as we tailed someone who had saved us who also knew where he was going.
He explained the cave tour as we fastened our life vests, part of me wanted to wear two. On this day, I had a right to be paranoid. He was a young tour guide, probably my age, mild-mannered and very comfortable walking around barefooted. He pulled the canoes close to land and graciously assisted me into the wobbly boat. Our weight had to be evenly placed to avoid capsizing. I knew we were in a quarry or whatever cave water is called but as we drifted into a mass of darkness, this felt like the place Jaws would be. The boat won’t tip. There are no sharks. This tour guide already saved our lives once today. He could do it again. Breathe. Inside the cave, the teal water reflected like glass and the walls, my goodness, the walls went up for miles. It was breathtaking in the best way to lean back in that canoe and try to see where the walls met at the top but I couldn’t. I asked about Mayan sacrifices before and now I was in the place where they had happened. Our tour guide whose name I will probably misspell so apologies in advance to our hero, is pronounced like Google without the first g, paddled us to the site of a past human sacrifice. High up on a ledge, embedded in the wall was a skull, it’s round shape clearly visible when light was shone on it. “That’s believed to be the skull of a small, virgin, woman.” A shudder rippled through me as I resonated too closely with that description. Oogle’s words describe me perfectly. I could have been a Mayan sacrifice. Being a tour guide is one of the most lucrative, prestigious jobs in the country and he was phenomenal at it. He was informative, helpful, patient and kind. He even helped me sit upright again after we had to lean as far back as possible to drift under some stalactites. “Here’s a fish,” he said, shining the light close to the glass water. I saw the ghostly outline of a swimming mass beneath the surface. The pyramids didn’t make me feel small but being in the belly of this cave certainly did. The walls glittered with minerals. I asked about the history of the Mayans as well as the Aztecs, he discussed the division and crossover between the people. Oogle himself was a product of both sides, one of his parents Mayan, the other Aztec. He discussed the differing food between cultures and what he liked best. These caves are a sight. Something that has to be experienced. Something photography could not do justice. Something one has to absorb. Those caves are lovely, dark and deep. I asked Oogle about his work and he said being a tour guide is the best job he’s ever had. He said he loves it and his passion showed. It’s a gift to be able to do work that you love. He said he has a wife and daughter at home to provide for, two halves that made up his whole heart. I told him if he keeps working like he is, he’ll be the best.
“People will come from all over the world just to get a tour from you, the best tour guide in all of Belize.” Who gives a full tour when they’re already off the clock? Someone who loves what they do. Someone as kind as Oogle.
“Can we turn out the light? I want to see how dark it is.” My brother asked from his canoe that he shared with my father in front of ours.
“Okay,” Oogle said, “ready?” Can we not, I thought. There we floated in total darkness. As if the sun itself had burnt out like a bad bulb. The darkness that I imagine Hell to be, void of even the hope of finding anything luminous. I could see nothing. Not a hand in front of my face, nothing. I was blind. The only sense I could pick up on was hearing the slight trickle of the glass water as Oogle rhythmically rowed a paddle through it. This is how dark it must’ve been in the hours after Christ was murdered. For three hours post-crucifixion, the world was black. Not like the absence of light, black as if light had never existed. If I were Roman soldier 2,000 years ago, I think that’s the moment I’d be sure we messed up. We literally blotted out the Son. Thank God for forgiveness, Romans 10:9. In the present, the only thing that kept me calm in that canoe was knowing the light would soon return. It was a relief when Oogle switched it on and air entered my lungs again. How terrible it must be to sit in true darkness. Thank God for light. I was blind but now I see.
The structure of the cave with its protruding cliffs reminded me of the scene in The Lion King, where Scar sings and struts around menacingly to ‘Be Prepared’ as an army of hyenas marches through the haze of a nefarious green mist below the brother of Mufasa. The deeper we drifted inside the cave, the lower the ceiling became. The path of the glass water grew narrow and the stone icicles crept close to our heads. Before it got impossible to sit upright, we decided to turn around. I did touch the wall then to lessen the impact of the canoe hitting stone as we rotated. My palm pressed against the rough structure that left a damp, grainy residue on my hand. Bats swarmed around us as we headed toward the entrance. I loved it. They flew so fast you couldn’t even make out what they were. My brother was less enamored by their flight and more fearful, yelling and ducking in his canoe. I laughed because there were too many bats to avoid. They were harmless fruit bats. Before we left, my brother insisted on climbing the cliff at the cave’s opening and diving into the water, something the guide himself wouldn’t do. Bats he’s afraid of but cliff diving, no problem.
That evening we found a corner store and purchased a bottle of cashew wine for what I think was $7.00 USD which came out to $3.50 BZD. The plan was for my brother and I to have a drink on the porch. I waited for him to end his phone call but our bonding time never came. I guess he drank by himself that night. I sat outside with my cup for what felt like an hour looking down at the street. There was the sweetest dog across the way, a door or two down behind a chain link fence,gray and fluffy with pointed ears. The dog greeted passerby ever so shyly, ears down, tail sheepishly wagging, eyes pleading, as gentle as could be. A sweet dog melts the heart. I figured my brother wasn’t coming to join me so I brought the plastic cup to my lips and took a sip. It was awful. Heavy and nutty. Like cough syrup mixed with almonds. Terrible. “Frank moved here for this?” I asked the open air. Frank doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I took another sip or two to give it a fair shot but it was like drinking old wood. Cabernet avec sawdust. I came back inside and sat down in the living area to check my phone. The Queen of Soul had passed away while I was out of the states. She’s the one who sang many songs I love yet it didn’t occur to me to look up the artist. ‘Think’, ‘Respect,’ ‘Son of A Preacher Man,’ ‘Pink Cadillac.’ She even covered Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep.’ That woman looked better in her casket than I have ever looked in my life.
Suitcases were packed because it was departure day and I was sitting there minding my own, reading a touching tribute to the Queen from another soul singer I adore, about to tear up when my brother came up from behind and scared me. I jumped, my phone flew in the air and crashed into the tile facedown.