I received a rude awakening on my arrival into Central America. The journey from Merida in Mexico towards the border town of Chetumal had promised rain forest, sun, white sandy beaches and sunny blue sky.
By contrast, the border crossing into Belize, was a militarised zone of barbed wire, roughly assembled shacks and piled rubbish beside the river. The customs official as 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 Belize side informed me that I would be charged 19 dollars when I chose to leave.
The weather closed in and the landscape became more featureless as I approached Belize City. Bundled out from the bus into the streets on the outskirts of the town, the place seemed less than friendly. There were few people about, but the area was run down – the wooden and corrugated iron tumbledown buildings almost leaned down towards the streets creating a closed and shut in atmosphere.
I had a short walk towards the hostel I had booked, and as I proceeded along the narrow streets, I began to feel that the area was safer than I had first imagined. Crossing the swing bridge over the river, however, I was approached by a man who seemed to be showing greater than usual interest in my presence. He appeared to be stoned or drunk or both, so I resolved to walk by and ignore him.
He would not be deterred however – and even told me to walk slower in case I got a speeding ticket. I did not break my stride, but he continued talking, wanting to know where I was from, and listing various countries as possible options.
He finally realised that I was English. As he tried to keep up with my fast paced walk, he demanded that I give him any money that I had, adding the threat “I’ve got a knife, man. Don’t make me use it.”
I decided that it was very unlikely that the man had a knife, and judged from his manner that he was bluffing me. I therefore informed him that I had only just arrived in Belize, and had no money to give him. Today was Sunday, so I told him I needed to wait until tomorrow for the banks to open. This was entirely untrue since I had just drawn over $100 from the ATM, but was not willing to hand this over. I thought that saying I had no money was a better option than telling him I was refusing to give him what I had.
Either way no knife was produced, and the man lagged behind further and further. His only option was to shout after me, telling me not to run away like a nasty bitch.
I continued on to where my hostel should have been. Unfortunately it appeared to be non existent – or else the directions I had been given were entirely inaccurate. There seemed to be no other accommodations in sight, so I had no option but to head back to the centre of town once again.
By the bridge, I was greeted with the cry of “Hey, English. You have any money yet?” It was the same man I had encountered before, still determined to get some cash off me.
“There’s an ATM just down here,” he continued. “Let me show you.”
I told him again that I had only had travellers cheques and needed the bank to open tomorrow.
“What’s that in your pocket?” he asked, hearing the sound of some loose change rattling as I proceeded. I smiled a little, as he sounded (and looked) rather like Golum from the Tolkien books.
I told him it was just my Mexican change, as I had just left the country. He demanded that I had it over. Since this was nothing but small change, pretty useless to me and amounted to about 50p I saw no harm in handing it over.
I continued to try and walk past, but he continued to ask questions: where was I staying the night, could he take me somewhere, was there any other money I wanted to change. He even saw a woman who looked to be from Mexico, and accosted her, asking if she wanted to change Mexican money with me.
I still thought the man himself was mostly harmless. None of his threats had been backed up by actions, and he would probably have done something by now if he was going to. Still his shouting and persistent stalking was both annoying, and also drawing large amounts of attention towards me, which I thought could potentially attract more hostile company.
I ducked into an arcade, patrolled by a security guard who stopped my annoying shadow in his steps. As he was restrained at the gate, he could only shout out: “Hey, man. It’s getting dark. You need somewhere to stay man. I wouldn’t want to be out here on my own.”
This did actually seem true enough. So once I was sure the man had gone I found a cab, and asked the driver to take me to the hotel where I thought I had a reservation. He took me to an address, through the darkening streets, but my place was nowhere to be seen.
Fortunately, there did seem to be another hotel there, so I decided that this place would serve as well as any. The attentions and threats from the man had put me on my guard a little – and while I did not think that the place was especially dangerous, it did strike me that being inside would be the safest option.
I was led to my room by the lady from reception. She was friendly and talkative – in a much more pleasant way than my acquaintance on the street outside. She seemed worried that I might be disturbed by the noise, telling me that “I hope you don’t mind the music from the church next door. It is Sunday, but they should be finished soon.”
There was indeed a boisterous and cheerful choir singing from the building beside my room. A rousing rendition of He Who Would Valiant Be cut through the night air, as I got ready for a much needed shower after almost a day on the bus.
I turned on the shower, letting the spray fall over my hair and down my back. Looking down into the base of the bath, however, I saw that there was some giant brown centipede about 8 inches long wriggling around the plug hole. I had no idea whether it had been in there all the time, had just crawled out from underneath the bath, or (ugh!) had just come out of the shower head.
Either way I resolved to get rid of the creature. I did not think it was poisonous, but in my already slightly disconcerted frame of mind, I was in no mood to be terrorised by giant critters. I swiftly redirected the shower head, and after a few minutes I had banished the slinky creature back down into the plumbing system where it had come from.
Now showered and refreshed, I lay down on the bed and turned on the fan to cool the stuffy night air. A few seconds after I had done so, the turning fan blade threw off a large winged creature which landed on the pillow next to me. After much flapping of clothes, I managed to get this insect out of the door, and settled down onto the bed once more.
I was merely dozing on top of the sheets in my shorts, as I rolled over onto my side. There in the half light of the room, just where my right hip had been, was a dark lumpy shadow on the bed. Already in a state of agitation after the monster centipede and the flying insect, I thought this was some new critter trying to crawl into the bed. Leaping to my feet and turning on the lights to identify the intruder, I realised, much to my humour, that this was no sort of animal at all – merely a collection of small coins that had slid from my pocket as I had rolled over.
I returned to bed and the rest of the night passed without incident.
There was no breakfast served at the hotel that morning, but I was provided with some very peculiar tasting coffee. As I sipped this in the main room, I leafed through the local newspaper – stories of police corruption, violent murders on the street, and a gun battle between law enforcement and the local drug gangs. Charming place.
I still had a significant amount of Mexican pesos to change before moving on, so I made my way to the bank. The bustle of a busy Monday morning restored a familiar sense of normality to the streets after the unwarranted encounter of the night before. I walked towards the centre of town along by the side of the river, where small lean to shacks sat perched precariously on the far bank.
These were homes to many families along the water’s edge, and rows upon rows of washing hung on lines at the front of the houses. A few residents of these houses made their way across the river in small rowing, punting up against the dark muddy flowing tide. Crossing the swing bridge, I glanced into the water, and saw several long green slimy creatures swimming in the water. These were neither snake, nor fish, nor lizard but a combination of all three. Falling in did not seem to be an option for sensible people.
I found a bank and went to the counter to change pesos for dollars. This did not seem to be an unreasonable request for Mexico was only a couple of hours away, and was the largest country bordering Belize. There had been no change offices at the border itself, and a major bank in the capital city seemed an ideal place to conduct the transaction.
I was entirely mistaken, however, in my belief that changing money would be possible. I was informed by the cashier that it was not possible to change pesos on the basis that the exchange rate fluctuated and it was not possible to keep track of it on a daily basis.
I made the observation that this was generally true of most currencies, but that banks were usually able to do this. I had found old women in the middle of the remotest towns of Bolivia could could usually manage a fair exchange of around six different currencies, but refrained from sharing this fact with the bemused clerk.
I was informed that the peso fluctuated too much to be tracked against 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 did make this comment to the clerk, who was obviously in no mood to discuss advanced mathematics, and merely repeated that it was not possible.
I tried to make the exchange at several other banks in the city, but on each occasion 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 onward journey, I encountered a military marching band coming down the street in the other direction. Around 40 smartly dressed young men in full army uniform, playing trumpets and banging drums. I thought I recognised the tune, and realised with surprise that it was the traditional British hymn Onward Christian Soldiers.
It seemed faintly ironic to imagine this group of guys in a small Central American city being Christian knights “marching as to war”. They carried no “Cross of Jesus” before them, and there seemed to be no apparent “Foe” for them to vanquish. The spectacle seemed some strange hangover from the days when this was a colony of the British Empire, and all public ceremonies were accompanied with the spirit of Protestantism.
It was a short walk from my hotel to the bus station, where I planned to move on to the town of San Ignacio, close to the border with Guatemala.