I wait for the bus under a streetlight. I am the first one at the stop, but soon about 10 more tourists arrive and wait with me. They are all couples. I am the only loner. The bus arrives a bit late, but we set out toward the eastern border. Last night, I became acutely aware of the fact that I was headed to Belize City, which is notoriously crime-ridden and dangerous for tourists, and had no money for a bus. Due to crime, many of the ATMs are closed on Sundays and wouldn’t you know it, today is a Sunday. I had no US or Belizean currency. How was I to get a bus to Punta Gorda and out of the city? I was recommended to avoid Belize City at all costs, but the convenience of the bus straight across the border was too great. I wouldn’t have made the trip if I had learned about the ATM issue before I purchased my ticket, but there was no turning back now. Belize City has 105 homicides per 100,000 people, the third highest national murder rate in the world. Most of the violence is gang related, but I didn’t wanted to be counted among the unfortunate 105. I tried to sleep on the bus, but the risk I inadvertently took weighed heavy on my mind. I chatted with the Guatemalan woman who sat next to me and seem unphased. The tourists around me did not seem particularly bothered either, so I tried to convince myself that I had nothing to be worried about either. I was told that I should try to be let off at either San Ignacio or Belmopan, but the bus driver refuses to let me off anywhere but Belize City.
We arrive in the Guatemalan border town of Melchor. A man boards the bus. “Oh boy,” I think to myself. “Here we go again. How much do I owe…” However, the man merely informs that we should not pay any emigration fee to the Guatemalan authorities, nor does Belize have an immigration tax. He also offers to buy my remaining Quetzals at a perfect exchange rate. I accept immediately and offload every quetzal I have left, giving me enough to get to Punta Gorda. I now feel much more secure. The border crossing was simple and fast. I still need to get used to speaking to people in English, especially latinos, as I am strongly accustomed to speaking Spanish. We board the bus on the Belizean side of the border and once again set off to Belize City.
The change on the Belizean side is noticeable almost instantly. I start seeing blacks amongst the still latino-dominated populations; the roads are free of speed bumps and are actually intact asphalt; large, well-constructed homes; and newer cars. We pass the Belmopan turnoff, which would have been not only safer, but also faster, as all buses to Punta Gorda pass through Belmopan. About an hour later we reach Belize City. The city is distinctly different from the rest of the countryside. Poorly-constructed shanty houses are crowded together. Folks sitting on stoops glare back at us. We reach the ferry to Caye Caulker, which is a major backpacker destination and the goal of all the other tourists on the bus. I immediately grab my bag and hail a taxi to the bus station. The dreads of my driver reach to his waistline. He listens to a nationalist radio station complaining about Guatemala, who claims a large part of Belize to actually be Guatemalan territory. We arrive at the bus station a short taxi ride-later. I am very glad that I did not walk. Two kids joke about my hat shouting, “Yee haw!” and other cowboy phrases. I duck into the bus station, which is a welcome refuge where travelers of all sort gather and wait for the repurposed school buses which serve as public transport about the country. I wait for the James line bus, which arrives shortly after 11. Once on the bus, I am finally able to relax after my stressful journey here.
Belize seems to be a wonderful multiethnic experiment. Onboard the bus with me are Creole and/or Garifuna blacks, whites, Mennonites mestizo latinos, one of potential two (Qeqchi or Mopan) Maya groups, west Indians, and Chinese. I won’t go so far as to say that the experiment is working. The Maya, who make up 17% of the total population, are the lowest rung on the social ladder and are often discriminated against by the Creole and whites in positions of power. However, I have experienced a great deal of kindness in the country and everybody is extremely welcoming. My smiles are met with eager smiles back, rather than the suspicious or courteous pursed lips I have grown accustomed to in Guatemala and Mexico. That is not to say that discrimination and inequality do not exist, but merely that they are nearly as pronounced or apparent as other places where I have traveled.
I nap a bit and watch the world pass by through the window. People come on and off as we drive along. We arrive in Punta Gorda just before sundown. The road bumps into the ocean and meanders along the shoreline. Families picnicked in little palapas near the sea and swam amidst the calm lapping waves. A small harbor protected the boats docked therein behind some mangroves. I had been on a bus for 11 hours and had not eaten anything but 2 bananas and 3 slices of bread for the 15 hours that I had been awake.
I stopped in the first hotel along the main road into town and booked a room for that evening. I ordered dinner immediately, downed some grilled chicken and a Belekin, the national beer of Belize and probably the most drinkable one I have had in Central America, and fell asleep.