Belize Revisited

“How long do you intend to stay in Belize sir?”
“I’m not sure. We thought we’d just play it by ear and see what happens.”
“Well, enjoy Belize whatever you do. Welcome to Belize!” Said the Immigration Officer in a strong Caribbean accent as he stamped our passports. We climbed back into the car and left Mexico behind, geographically and culturally. Belize is a different world.

Gone is the litter, gone are the packs of dogs (generally) and gone is the everyday struggle to speak a second language. Mexico has been tough. Really tough. To be fair to Mexico it has generally been due to a run of bad luck, rather than Mexico per se. But either way it feels good to be back. Eight years is a long time and it’s difficult to believe it has been that long since we were last here, but the place hasn’t changed much. People still smile and wave as we drive by. Everywhere feels welcoming, easy and laid back.

As we left the northern Mexico/Belize border behind we first arrived in sleepy Orange Walk. Most places were closed for Sunday and the streets were empty as we drove around looking for a bank where we could get some Belize dollars. We found both an ATM and a Chinese takeaway. Result! We also later found Marmite in Belize City, panic on the streets at the hands of an over reaction to a few gang member killings and a right rear puncture on the Niva which led to Liz acting as a counter-weigh so I could jack the car up.
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With full bellies and wallets we drove on to Crooked Tree, named after the misshapen trees that were logged by Scottish settlers over two hundred years ago. The Scottish settlers married freed slaves and both the cultural mix and the crooked trees can still be seen in the village today. (Although we didn’t actually see anybody with ginger hair.) We used Crooked Tree as the base to revisit the Maya ruins of Lamanai. Meaning ‘sunken crocodile’, the ruins sit on the shore of the New River Lagoon and most people take a boat from Orange Walk to reach the ruins. We however decided to drive there via the Mennonite village Shipyard. It felt odd trundling along the road, dodging buggies pulled by horses and people in dungarees and wide brimmed bonnets. If nothing else, Belize is diverse in every way.

Last year alone Lamanai had over 23,000 visitors. So it came as a nice surprise that we were the only people there. The ticket attendant dozed in the hot sun as we walked along the jungle track to the entrance and he sat up with a bit of a start as John said hello enthusiastically. Despite John’s lack of manners he was allowed in for free and made Lamanai his play ground. We marvelled at the pyramids with admiration while John scampered over them with total abandon. For his own good and the good of the ruins he eventually went on the lead. He had his first encounter with howler monkeys and a single spindly and rather territorial spider monkey. We found it’s not easy to take the animated protestations of a spider monkey seriously. No matter how hard they shake the branches, beat their chests and shriek they still look far to flimsy to perceive as anything other than comical. They look a little like a rather hairy but naked Spike Milligan.

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Having had our intended snorkelling activities rudely interrupted by a crippled Andy Patrick back in Mexico (who I’ve very pleased to say is now home and beginning to mend), we drove south to Hopkins with a view to swimming with the fishes. We had never been before and relished the idea of a beach break. A bit of snorkelling, some good food, Garifuna culture and walks along silvery beaches with the sand between our toes. It turned out to be a day of looking for a section of beach that didn’t have twenty cabanas on it or twenty dogs. The wind howled and the sand blew in our faces and we ate overly salty food in the rain. We left Hopkins behind for the Mayflower Reserve, twelve miles inland, where we found tranquillity, jungle waterfalls and a place to sleep for £3.00. We stayed for three days.

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Eventually, the need for washing overcame us. We had been intending to wash some clothes since before we went to the aid of Andy in Mexico, and even then the need for washing was getting desperate. (By the way Andy, we somehow have two pairs of your undies. They’re very comfortable.) We decided to drive northwest to San Ignacio to do the washing and then on to Mountain Pine Ridge for some more solitude. However, our plans changed when we saw an email from Ray at Pook’s Hill saying, “pop in”. So we did. We had looked after Pook’s Hill Jungle Lodge for a short spell last time we were here and had become firm friends with the owners – Ray and Vicki. On our way to San Ignacio we called in with the intention of seeing when would be convenient to stay longer but in true Pook’s fashion we ended up staying the night. In all our travels around the world we have found that the tranquillity of Pook’s Hill cannot be surpassed. It is a truly special place and it was lovely to catch up with Ray.

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We did however tear ourselves away the next day, reluctantly, and are now in Mountain Pine Ridge as intended. We have just this moment done the washing in a mountain stream and have turned the pine trees into a Chinese laundry. We’ve been enjoying travelling some of the lesser-used roads in Mountain Pine Ridge and are currently camping at the corner of Navy Road and Silvestre Road. Neither road is on any map and the sign is hand painted. We’re not actually too sure where we are to be honest. We’re surrounded by overly large and fresh puma tracks which appear to have been hot on the heals of a tapir. I hope the tapir is still in one piece but can’t help but hope that the puma has also recently eaten! It’s nice to be here – kind of. There’s a soft whistle in the air as a breeze drifts through the pines. They’re silhouetted against a cloudless sky and a million stars in every direction. There isn’t a car to be heard, there isn’t a single light from an overhead plane, just as there is no light pollution from a village or town anywhere near. Neither Navy Road, nor Silvestre Road has a single tire track upon it, other than ours. The only marks on the road are our own, the wildlife or those of the fissures made by the seasonal rains. No one has been here in a very long time. Belize is only a small country but it is still so easy to loose yourself here. Belize is a very special place.

This will be our last blog for a while. Now that we’re here we’ll be visiting friends and chilling out for a while. There won’t be too much ‘blog worthy’ stuff happening; just plenty of washing in all probability.

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The Days of Andy


“Andy has had an accident. Can you go to Chetumal?”

These words defined our New Year.

Since we and Andy went our separate ways from the chilly mountains of Sierra Madre to go in search of water pumps and tropical Christmas’ we’d been playing leap-frog around southern Mexico, exchanging emails about where each of us was heading to next, revising suggested rendezvous points as our dynamic plans changed almost daily. Andy spent Christmas diving in Puerto Escondido on the West coast. We intended to spend our Christmas on the East coast, South of Veracruz but found only disappointment there. Guide books are subjective things and our guide book lead us to believe that our chosen Christmas destination was a place of tranquillity, endless beaches and culinary delights. It transpired to be a coastline of scruffy villages, barbed wire fences and scowling faces. We felt as welcome as a turd in a coffee pot and left swiftly. A six hundred mile drive along the coast to the Yucatan ensued and we found our corner of paradise fifty miles down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere at four o’clock on Christmas Eve.
IMG_jungle roadThe track bumped us along limestone bedrock, between jungle palms and savannah, into mile upon mile of mangrove and eventually to a remote lagoon with flamingos and pelicans as our festive neighbours. The ruins of Isla De Jaina were lapped by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico and it was all ours. Beside the lagoon we made a long-deserted visitor centre our home for Christmas.
IMG_visitor centre1Hammocks were slung, the tent was pitched on the terrace of the visitor centre and our days were filled with swimming, eating and watching sunsets and wildlife.
IMG_dinnerChristmas dinner, lunch and selected nibbles consisted of caviar, coconuts, cottage cheese, steak and garlic shrimps. An eclectic mix of our favourite foods (not all eaten together!). It had been a hard won paradise-Christmas but we found it and loved every second of it. We had our very own visitor centre, a fifty-metre high observation tower, the company of birds, tapirs, wild cats and manatees. It took three days of hard driving and nights in a selection of pay-by-the-hour love hotels but we got there in the end.
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One of the better Love Hotels!
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From the ruins of Isla De Jaina we drove East to Bacalar, a small town on the shore of another turquoise lagoon of the same name. The lagoon was beautiful and the town was quiet but there was something missing. We still dreamt of having at least one margarita for Christmas, but we weren’t going to find it in Bacalar. We drove on to Majahual. Eight Years previously Majahual had been the scene of a very fondly remembered Christmas with a fellow called Raoul, his young wife and a scorpion up my trousers. (Another story for another time.) Majahual was devastated by a hurricane in 2007 and we were keen to see if Raoul was still there and if a margarita could be had on the silvery sands of the village.

Since the hurricane and huge rebuilding programme has taken place and the people of Majahual have done a good job of bringing a devastated village back to life. Unfortunately however, the isolated charm and thatched cabanas have been replaced by concrete hotels and party-all-night bars. Its not the place it used to be and Raoul is no longer there. We found his house but it is long abandoned and just a shell of what it once was. We drove down the old coast road, dodging deep potholes and dogs to find an alternative place to stay. We found it and we even found our margaritas but neither us nor John found the tranquillity we sought. With hoards of unfriendly dogs in every direction we spent our time fending them off and protecting John. We’d have moved on again had it not been for our intended rendezvous with Andy. He was hot on our heals and due to meet us the next day, intending to overnight in Bacalar to avoid riding after dark and spend New Year with us.

“Andy has had an accident. Can you go to Chetumal?”

These were the words that Liz read through sleepy eyes at six-thirty the next morning. The email said little else but we believed he had a suspected broken ankle. We piled ourselves and John into the Niva and drove South to the border city of Chetumal via Bacalar to collect Andy from the hospital and his bags from the police. There are three police forces in Mexico – the Municipal Police, the State Police and the Federal Police. None of them in Bacalar had his bags and a few hours of detective work ensued. Everything Andy had in Mexico was in those bags (including his insurance documents) and it was vital that we tracked it down. Finally we found it in a Police holding yard, still strapped to a motorbike that had bounced hard very recently. Eventually we also found Andy. The sight was shocking.

Bloodied sheets, bloodied body, a drip, broken and dislocated ankle, broken knee and broken ribs. He lay on a beaten up gurney in a corridor looking as alone as anyone I have ever seen. He had been the victim of a hit and run accident as he rode into Bacalar at 4:00pm the afternoon before. A rural pick-up style bus had done a U-turn right in front of him. He’d done his best to swerve out of the way but it clipped his knee and bike at around sixty miles per hour. He said he could remember trying to stay conscious, unable to move and wandering if the next vehicle to come along would finish the job off. It was one of those accidents that could happen at any time, anywhere in the world. Unfortunately it was Andy’s time.

It was perfectly clear that Andy was not going anywhere anytime soon and we relocated to be closer to him. We spent New Year’s Eve with at the hospital and beside the lagoon at Bacalar after all but there wasn’t much celebration taking place, more drowning of sorrows if anything, despite the view.
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There are two hospitals in Chetumal, one for the people who can afford to pay their taxes and the other is for all those people who have very little in the world. Andy was with the poor, where the minimum of care is given, where resources are stretched beyond breaking point and where staff do their best but its not good enough. We have known Andy for over ten years and he is one of our closest friends. Many a good evening has been spent putting the world to rights or talking of or woes, laughing and sharing the good times and the bad together. We know Andy a hell of a lot better now. Between the three of us we have shared bed baths, sworn, shouted (a lot), stolen equipment, made tea, cried and laughed. It has been an unmitigated week of hell for Andy, for us, for his family and his friends. It has also been a week that has shown us what friendship really means, the kindness of relative strangers (again), the complete lack of compassion by others and just what teamwork can achieve. We waved Andy off from the airport yesterday, bound for a hospital in England, an operation and a few months of mending.
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We were on hand and able to be at his bedside but so many other people rallied round for Andy and got him home. His sister and wider family in the UK, his girlfriend, Gary and Danielle in Mexico City, America in Chetumal, Louis in Bacalar. One thing is for sure; Andy is well loved by a lot of people.

Andy, we love you dearly and will send you the hospital bill soon.

Oh, and P.S. Happy New Year everyone.