I received a rude awakening upon my arrival in Central America. The journey from Mérida in Mexico to the border city of Chetumal had promised rainforest, sunshine, white sand beaches and a sunny blue sky.
Rather, the border crossing with Belize was a militarized zone of barbed wire, crudely assembled shacks, and rubbish piled up by the river. The customs official when I was leaving Mexico demanded 200 pesos for the pleasure of having been in the country, while the equally grumpy and officious woman on the Belizean side informed me that I would be charged $ 19 when I decided to leave.
The weather got closer and the landscape became less characteristic as I got closer to Belize City. Crowded from the bus onto the streets on the outskirts of town, the place seemed less than pleasant. There were few people, but the area was dilapidated: the crumbling buildings of wood and corrugated iron almost leaned into the streets creating a closed and closed atmosphere.
I walked a bit towards the hostel I had reserved and as I made my way through the narrow streets, I began to feel that the area was safer than I had imagined. However, as I crossed the swing bridge over the river, I was approached by a man who seemed to show a greater interest than usual in my presence. He seemed to be drugged or drunk or both, so I decided to go ahead and ignore him.
However, he was not discouraged, and even told me to slow down in case I received a speeding ticket. I didn’t interrupt my step, but he kept talking, wanting to know where I was from and listing various countries as possible options.
He finally realized that I was English. As I tried to keep up with my fast pace, he demanded that I give him all the money I had, adding the threat: “I have a knife, man. Don’t make me use it.”
I decided that the man was highly unlikely to have a knife, and judged by his manners that he was deceiving me. Therefore, I informed him that I had just arrived in Belize and had no money to give him. Today was Sunday, so I told him that he had to wait until tomorrow for the banks to open. This was completely untrue as he had just withdrawn over $ 100 from the ATM but was unwilling to hand it over. I thought telling him that I had no money was a better option than telling him that I refused to give him what I had.
Either way, no knife was produced, and the man fell further and further behind. His only option was to yell after me, telling me not to run away like a nasty bitch.
I continued to where my hostel should have been. Unfortunately, it seemed to not exist or else the instructions I had been given were completely inaccurate. There seemed to be no other accommodations in sight, so I had no choice but to head back to the city center one more time.
By the bridge, I was greeted with the shout of “Hey, English. Do you still have money?” He was the same man I had met before, still determined to get some money from me.
“There’s an ATM down here,” he continued. “Let me teach you.”
I told him again that I had only received traveler’s checks and needed the bank to open tomorrow.
“What is that in your pocket?” he asked, hearing the sound of a loose gear rattling as I proceeded. I smiled a little, as it sounded (and looked like) quite like Golum from Tolkien’s books.
I told him it was just my Mexican change, since I had just left the country. He demanded that I finish it. As this was just a small change, quite useless to me and amounted to about 50p, I saw no harm in handing it over.
I kept trying to get through, but he kept asking questions: where would he spend the night? Could you take me somewhere? Was there any other money you wanted to change? He even saw a woman who appeared to be from Mexico and approached her, asking if she wanted to exchange Mexican money with me.
He still thought that the man himself was mostly harmless. None of his threats had been backed by actions, and he probably would have done something by now if he were to. Still, their screaming and persistent stalking were annoying and they also brought a great deal of attention to me, which I thought might attract more hostile companies.
I got into a game room, patrolled by a security guard who stopped my annoying shadow in his footsteps. While pinned to the door, he could only yell, “Hey man. It’s getting dark. You need a place to stay, man. I wouldn’t want to be here on my own.”
Actually, this seemed quite true. So once I was sure the man was gone, I looked for a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the hotel where he thought I had a reservation. He led me in one direction, through the darkened streets, but my place was nowhere to be seen.
Fortunately, there seemed to be another hotel there, so I decided that this place would serve as well as any other. The man’s attentions and threats had put me a bit on my guard, and although I didn’t think the place was particularly dangerous, I realized that being inside would be the safest option.
The lady at the front desk took me to my room. She was friendly and talkative, in a much nicer way than my acquaintance on the street. She seemed worried that the noise would bother me and said, “I hope you don’t mind the music from the church next door. It’s Sunday, but they should be over soon.”
In fact, there was a boisterous and joyous choir singing from the building next to my room. A rousing rendition of He Who Would Be Brave tore through the night air as I prepared for a much-needed shower after nearly a day on the bus.
I turned on the shower, letting the spray drip into my hair and down my back. However, looking towards the base of the bathtub, I saw that there was a giant brown centipede about 8 inches long writhing around the hole in the plug. I had no idea if it had been in there the entire time, if it had just come out from under the tub or (ugh!) It had just come out of the shower head.
Either way, I resolved to get rid of the creature. I didn’t think it was poisonous, but in my already slightly bewildered frame of mind, I was not in the mood to be terrified by giant creatures. I quickly redirected the shower head, and after a few minutes, I had banished the sneaky creature back to the plumbing system it had come from.
Now showering and refreshed, I lay down on the bed and turned on the fan to cool down the stifling night air. A few seconds after I had done so, the spinning fan blade threw out a large winged creature that landed on the pillow next to me. After a lot of shaking the clothes, I managed to get this bug out the door and made myself comfortable on the bed once more.
I was just dozing on the sheets in my shorts, while rolling onto my side. There, in the gloom of the room, right where my right hip had been, there was a dark, lumpy shadow on the bed. Already in a state of agitation after the centipede monster and the flying insect, I thought it was a new creature trying to get into bed. I jumped to my feet and turned on the lights to identify the intruder, I realized, to my humor, that it was not some kind of animal, just a collection of small coins that had slipped out of my pocket when I had turned around.
I went back to bed and the rest of the night was uneventful.
Breakfast was not served at the hotel that morning, but they provided me with a very peculiar tasting coffee. As I drank this in the main room, I flipped through the local newspaper: stories of police corruption, violent street killings, and a shootout between law enforcement and local drug gangs. Charming place.
I still had a significant amount of Mexican pesos to change before moving on, so I headed to the bank. The bustle of a busy Monday morning brought a familiar sense of normalcy back to the streets after the unwarranted encounter the night before. I walked to the center of town along the river bank, where a small shed of shacks sat precariously on the opposite bank.
These were homes for many families along the water’s edge, and row upon row of clothes hung in lines in front of the houses. Some residents of these houses crossed the river in small paddles, facing the dark and muddy tide. Crossing the swing bridge, I looked out into the water and saw several long, slimy green creatures swimming in the water. These were neither snakes, nor fish, nor lizards, but a combination of all three. Falling didn’t seem like an option for sensible people.
I found a bank and went to the counter to exchange pesos for dollars. This did not appear to be an unreasonable request, as Mexico was only a couple of hours away and the largest country on the border with Belize. There had been no change of offices on the border itself, and a major bank in the capital city seemed an ideal place to carry out the transaction.
However, he was completely wrong in believing that it would be possible to exchange money. The cashier informed me that it was not possible to change pesos due to the exchange rate fluctuating and it was not possible to carry out a daily follow-up.
I made the observation that this was generally true for most currencies, but that banks were generally able to do this. I had encountered old women in the middle of the more remote towns of Bolivia who could usually handle a fair change of about six different currencies, but I refrained from sharing this fact with the puzzled clerk.
I was informed that the peso was fluctuating too much to be compared to the Belize dollar. But since the Belize dollar is pegged exactly to the US dollar, there is in fact no greater fluctuation than that between the peso and the US dollar. I made this comment to the employee, who was obviously not in the mood to discuss advanced math, and I simply repeated that it was not possible.
I tried to make the change in several other banks in the city, but each time I received the same story. The currency was too volatile for the bank to keep track of its daily movements.
On my return to the hotel to collect my backpack for the trip, I met a military band coming down the street from the other direction. Around 40 young people elegantly dressed in full military uniform, playing trumpets and playing drums. I thought I recognized the melody and realized with surprise that it was the traditional British anthem Onward Christian Soldiers.
It seemed a bit ironic to imagine this group of boys in a small Central American town being Christian knights “marching like to war.” They carried no “Cross of Jesus” in front of them, and there seemed to be no apparent “Enemy” they could defeat. The spectacle seemed like a strange hangover from the days when this was a colony of the British Empire, and all public ceremonies were accompanied by the spirit of Protestantism.
It was a short walk from my hotel to the bus station, where I planned to move to the town of San Ignacio, near the Guatemalan border.