After landing, our plane turned 180 degrees and began to taxi back down the airport’s only runway. I wondered out loud as to the safety of such a maneuver. My fears were soon laid to rest when I was informed there was only one flight a day to Belize and we were it.
The Belize City airport is on the northern outskirts of town. It provides an unsettling first impression of this small Central American nation. The runway stretches past the entire Belizian Air Force – one tiny fighter jet and four guys in blue uniforms leaning against a tired old pickup truck. The one-room cement block bunker that houses customs, baggage claim, and a cleverly concealed restroom was cooled only by a couple of floor fans. They barely made a dent in the humidity.
This was my first trip to the Carribbean. It was also my first taste of a so-called Third World country. In spite of its serene location and its trade ties to the United States, there is little prosperity as we would define it, especially in the small coastal towns. Homes are simple one- or two-room structures raised about seven feet off the ground to allow for storm waters. The kids typically are barefoot and clad in T-shirts and shorts varying from new to tattered.
The two contrasts to this poverty are striking. No matter how decrepit, nearly every home was adorned with either a TV attenna or a satellite dish. Television is their one link to the rest of the world, especially the U.S. Just ask any kid on the streets of Dangriga or Punta Gorda who their favorite baseball team is. Thanks to a Chicago superstation beamed down from the heavens, the answer is more often “the Cubs” than not. I was publicly ridiculed by one 10-year-old when I foolishly revealed my team of choice was the Red Sox.
Teenagers in the Pine Tree State typically gravitate toward a new set of wheels when they earn enough money. In Belize, teens are also known to cruise town in the company of gleaming chrome and a bright paint job. However, their prize mode of transportation is not a car, but a mountain bike. It’s quite a status symbol among the kids. It associates them with the success of a relative who “made it big” in America. A family member travels to, say, New York, Boston, or Miami, finds work, and sends money back to Belize. If they return in person, they are most likely to be accompanied by a Specialized or Giant mountain bike.
Although I was there on business and never got a chance to ride, it didn’t take much imagination to see how suited the country was to travel by mountain bike. The roads are narrow and crude. Cars are few and far between. Most traffic consists of trucks hauling goods to and from the seaport towns. Truck drivers tend to drive like maniacs, but if you can dodge them, the scenery is awesome. The major road from Belize City to the capital, Belmopan, passes through the coastal plain before it begins its journey into the jungle. Among the foothills the trees clear to reveal banana plantations, lime groves, and corn fields, some climbing up steep slopes, taking advantage of every precious scrap of land.
Cycling in the heart of a steamy rain forest may not seem like the perfect vacation, but one reward is Blue Hole National Park. A short footpath leads to a pool of water with, of all things, a vibrant blue hole in the middle. Mineral deposits on the river bottom create the sensational color. It’s a sharp contrast with the greens and browns of the jungle. On the return trip up the path, the fragile, orange blossom of the Bird of Paradise caught my eye. No sooner had I snapped a photo of it when a monkey scampered through the leafy canopy overhead. They are more often heard than seen.
Descending to the coast again, the road passed the unmistakable thatched-roof homes of Mayan farmers. Our charter bus, a castoff from an American school system, came to an abrupt halt after rounding a bend. This time it was no animal in the road. It was a roadside stand nestled beneath a towering tree. The proprietors offered cold sodas from a Coleman cooler and the special of the day: rice, refried beans, and a flour tortilla wrapped around chicken and vegetables. The evening meal in the tiny hamlet of Placencia is a refreshing change. The screened restaurant ushers in the ocean breeze as we dined on native lobster.
In most coastal towns the accommodations are basic. A bed, a fan, and a light bulb. But you tend to sleep well. The summer heat and humidity sap the energy from you no matter how strenuous your physical activity gets. I was lucky enough to get a wakeup call in the form a persistent parrot perched just outside my window. If he hadn’t begun calling “hola” as soon as there was daylight, I might have slept the whole day away.
Out on the already busy street, the bicycle took on a utilit Out on the already busy street, the bicycle took on a utilitarian function. A man pedaled by with relative ease considering the huge television strapped to the rear rack. Trailing behind was a trio of children, a white plastic water jug dangling from the handlebar. The handlebar of a tricycle on which all three managed to find room. One pedaled, one pushed off scooter-style, and one huddled in between. Their laughter filled the morning air. If only I could make my daily chores as pleasurable.