Woke up to heavy purple skies. Thought it might rain all day. Sweating it, I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. No chance. Rolled up my damp sleeping bag and deflated the air mattress. Got the most of my sleeping quarters squared away before I got out of the tent and started on some breakfast. Ben came out of his tent and by the time we put down some eggs and chorizo, the clouds were breaking and the lake started looking pretty inviting. The sun broke out of the clouds. We went for a swim and tossed the Frisbee for a bit. Dual purpose. We had fun throwing it around and it was getting clean as we did so. The frisbee doubles as my cutting board and it needed a clean from dinner and breakfast preparations.
So after the refreshing swim in beautiful Lago Bacalar, we packed up and headed to Chetumal. We fueled up before we hit the centro, and peeled right back away heading for a supermarket to spend some pesos before we bounced to the border with Belize. As I sat waiting for Ben to do his shopping, I chatted with the guy who takes care of everybody’s helmets. He taught me some Mayan... not sure which language but “Que dices” is Bashka Wa’lik. Probably not spelled like that. Closer to Bax’ka Wa’liq. Or something along those lines. Fun nonetheless. Passing time in the hot asphalt parking lot. We could have just entrusted this guy with our stuff but we were already on safety high alert getting ready for our border crossing. So I sat and smoked cigarettes while Ben shopped and then when he returned claiming to only have liberated himself from $250 Mexican, I took my turn. I wandered around the air-conditioned market, picking and choosing all the non-perishables I felt would be good to have packed on the bike. Namely a $184Mex bottle of Cazadores Reposado tequila, and ended up spending $650 MEX. God knows how I managed that. Thank god I spend very little time in grocery stores, supermarkets and WalMART.
We split for the border around 1pm. The air was hot and humid. Sweat poured from my pores as we first cancelled our tourist visas and then our motorcycle permits. Shortly after we were batting the traffic coming in from the Belizean Free Trade Zone. Minutes later we stopped right on the toll free bridge to photograph our passing under the “Welcome to Belize” sign. Surprisingly the people in the cars behind us didn’t even honk at us as we propped the bikes up on the kickstands careful not to let them slip into the voids of the steel mesh bridge surface.
Next up was a quick stop to get the bikes fumigated. Cracked me up that they only sprayed one side of the wheels. I think that paying the money was really the only important part of this process. If truly concerned about bug transfer, I’m sure they would have done a more thorough job with the spraying.
After that was the trip through the immigration process. A quick stamp in the passport and then a visit to the customs officials for another stamp for the bike and finally off to the insurance office. Of course the cost of two days insurance was more than a week, so since I couldn’t be positive that I’d get through the country in 24 hours, I needed to buy enough for a week. $29 Belizean Dollars, or the equivalent of $15 US got me a weeks worth of enough insurance to appease the authorities should I get pulled over while in Belize.
We ripped away at 3:15 headed for the ruins of Altun-Ha. We knew we could camp at a restaurant close to the ruins. The drive was meant to take us around 2 hours via the Old Northern HIghway, which was a hodgepodge of potholed pavement and magchloride gravel. We bombed along as fast as we could, taking in the sights of stilted homes sitting above the greeness of the jungle. Palm trees, sugar cane and green grass. We paid 25 cents a piece to cross a toll bridge and then we were turning off onto the Old Hodgepodge Highway. We raced along through the swamps and jungle, until we popped out into the village of Maskall. There was supposed to be a gas station here but there was nothing. A small conglomeration of houses and broken down school busses. Riding along people looked at us amazed. Only local traffic comes down the northern part of the Old Northern Highway. We ripped it to shreds, dodging giant potholes and chunks of old asphalt. I was running about 45-50mph, Ben a little smarter, a tad slower.
After Maskall, we went through Lucky Strike, again just a few houses scattered about. Mostly clapboard construction, some painted, some not. The people waved, some were Caribbean black others Hispanic. Finally we arrived at a sign that pointed right to Altun-Ha. The sun was mostly down now. It was definitely behind the jungle. There was a little ramshackle store perched on the corner, so I stepped up inside to buy some eggs. Four little black boys jumped up to help me. Each of them greeting me in perfect English. Not American English. British English. It sounded so foreign after seven weeks of speaking Spanish in Mexico. I asked for eggs and they told me they had none. They asked where it was that we were coming from. When I told them we rode in from Mexico and had come down the northern stretch of road, the oldest boy said, “Well it would be my advice to take the road the other way from here. It is in much better condition and should you be carrying on to Guatemala. ‘twill be much shorter for you then.” When I bid them farewell he said, “You enjoy our country and come back some time!” Big smile and very proud. Poor as dirt, but proud of his country and a bright young diplomat. To bad corruption, drugs and society stand in his way. Hopefully he and his brothers have the ability to break through.
Minutes later we were pulling into the Mayan Wells backyard under a high-pressure sodium lamp filling the place with white-blue light. Huge trees spread their branches in every direction. I felt as though we were deep in the Louisiana swamps. Insects chirped and buzzed. The whole place was alight with an energy. The proprietor, I think his name was Carl, hobbled over to greet us. 70 years old with a 30 year old attitude. He greeted us with his southern drawl, making it even more surreal. We were supposed to be in Belize, but it was feeling more and more like Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia or East Texas or Louisiana.
Carl set us up and showed us what we needed to know. The location of the bathroom, the light switches, etc. And retired for the night. Ben and I whipped up some impromptu dinner and retired as well. The border crossing and all the sweaty details had me spent. The night was unseasonably cool and I slept like a baby. I awoke around dawn to the morning cacophony as had become the norm, but today the bird sounds were different. These were the jungle birds of Belize and they were different than the birdsongs of Mexico. Some had a shrill and warble that was fascinating. It sounded like an internet or fax connecting. Totally bizarre.
During breakfast Carl came over and began a little preaching. He carried on about guys in tight white shirts and tight little ties scheming to levy his money from him in any way that they could. He talked about Gubberment and how they were schemers as well. And these two were in unison riding on the backs of the working man. Leeches of society, just living off another man’s honest work. But God is going to straighten that out. And hopefully soon. He said with certainty that when the day comes those who have cheated people of their hard earned wages and those who have become corrupt in the Gubberment will receive their fair punishment. He said he’s not sure why the good Lord is waiting so long but the day will come because it is written that way in the scripture. To which, he rattled off some scripture. Deep South, I’m telling ya. Deep South right here in Political Central America.
I didn’t really disagree with him. When I went to get $5 US Dollars from my tent to pay for my nights camping, I unzipped the tent and reached in for my wallet as usual and suddenly I was being bitten all over my legs. I looked down and the line of marching army ants that had amazed us for hours as we ate dinner last night, were climbing up my legs and biting me all over. I tried to shake them loose but they just kept coming. Scenes from the latest Indiana Jones movie, where the guy gets devoured by flesh eating Peruvian Red Ants flashed through my mind. I did everything I could to escape their relentless attack. I shook my legs, swiped them with my hands, but then they just started crawling on my hands and biting me there as well. I panicked for a quick moment continuing to get bit and stung constantly. I finally snapped from my panic, ran to the concrete pad under the thatched roof we’d been eating under and stomped and shook and swiped as best I could to rid myself of these devilish beasts.
When I got them off my body it took another half hour for the stinging of the hundreds of bites to subside. I looked at Ben who was still laughing at my dance. They say you gotta shake out everything you put on in Belize. I answered back, “Well you said our line of marching ants was gone. We know where they are now. Marching right past our tents. This should make packing up interesting.” And it did.
But we managed to get our tents disassembled and packed up on the bikes probably only transporting a dozen or so of the little bastard children of SATAN. We rode down another km to the ruins of Altun-Ha. They were a mish mash of reconstructed temples and some grass covered mounds that showed the scars of attempts with dynamite to gain access to the inner riches of the temples. The site was pretty small, but the light was nice as long as the sun was behind you. So we boogied through in a half hour and got back out just as hundreds of tourists from the docking cruise ships arrived in several tour bus loads.
I grabbed the remainder of my belongings and headed out of Mayan Wells. I waved a farewell to Ben and blasted down the road alone again. But rather than dread, I felt liberated. Back on my journey again. Ripping solo through the beautiful, flat, green countryside of Belize. I took in the sights and marveled at how quickly the little towns on the map blurred by. The houses were especially compelling. I couldn’t get over the variety of different shacks. The broken down ones alongside the fancy fenced in plantation style homes. I finally stopped to photograph a few of them. I thought that a good photo essay would be ”The houses of Belize“ with the abundance of color, character and the different styles, it could keep someone busy for a minute.
I couldn’t help my mind from wandering back to preaching Carl. I was stressing over the terribly corrupt and messed up financial system in the U.S.A. at the moment. My mind was filled with thoughts about the working man getting screwed over so devastatingly by sleazy bankers and then having our hard earned and spent tax dollars going to bail these crooks out. I just don’t see the justice in it. Everyone’s got their arms up about ”Socialism“ when we talk about some kind of centralized health care system, but I haven’t heard much about socialism when it came to spending upwards of $20 TRILLION dollars to bail out the economic crash masterminded by a very few fellers who only stood to gain from it all. While the working man’s retirement plans crumbled these guys walked away with multi-million dollar bonuses. I just don’t understand what keeps honest hard-working Americans from taking up arms. Isn’t this why we have the right to bear arms. To defend our Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness from enemies that attempt to usurp those things from us. Honestly now. The heads of those banks that had the shortsight and poor planning to allow their banks to fail and then had the audacity to take giant bonuses on top of their already giant salaries should be hanging, and I mean literally hanging, swinging from their fat white necks, on Main Street all across America. But why should I care I thought to myself... I didn’t really lose anything. I don’t have anything to lose. But when I think about the people whose retirement hinged upon the success of Wall Street, who are now forced to keep working until they die. Or the people who lost their jobs, whose homes are now in foreclosure that cannot afford to even put food in their mouths... the rage just built up inside of me. I let bits of it out by imagining fictional plots where people who had ended up on the wrong end of these scams, drew up arms and with a snipers skill set out to rid the earth of scumbags who can’t ever even spend the billions of dollars they’ve robbed from the little man.
Just as my tension nearly squeezed every bit of life from the handlebars of my rumbling motorcycle, a black as night teenager rode by me on a rusty old BMX bike and shot me a smile as big and bright as the fullest moon glowing over ebony waters. It shattered my temper sent me giggling on my way across the rest of Belize. I’d been sucked clean out of the present. In those moments of disgust and distemper, I’d might as well have been riding in New York snow down Wall Street itself. When here I am... Snapped back to reality and the present moment by a teenager that poor as he is riding down the road on a beat down BMX’er gave me the best gift in the world. A big genuine smile. I’m sure he thought that I had everything in the world. Little did he know that what I needed at that moment more than anything was that precious gift that didn’t cost him a cent to give. I switched gears revved up the bike and let my mind revel in that gift, in that lesson. Smile man. It’s all you really gotta do.
When I pulled into San Ignacio town, I crossed a rickety old wooden bridge that tried to pull me down. I pushed on. The vibe here in the town was so different than in the green rolling countryside. The dusty streets were crowded with cars and people. Smells of barbeque and diesel fuel mingled in my nostrils like strangers passing in a dark alley. Present there together but not wanting to share space too close with each other. Each of a different walk and place and wanting to keep it that way.
A Rasta on a huge horse rode right up to me. The horse’s head right above mine. I felt like it was towering over me. His nostrils poised to drip horse snot all over my helmet. The Rasta greeted me and spoke to me in Spanish. This caught me off guard. He asked me if I wanted to buy some Mota. ”Naw man, I’m about to cross the border.“ I answered in English. He continued in Spanish, telling me that his horse was hungry. I just shook my head. Another shakedown. I looked across the road behind the Rasta with greying dreads, bare-chested and strong. There was a motorcycle cop watching us. I looked up at the rasta again. This time he yelled, ”C’mon man give us a dollar!“ I looked up again. His horse rearing up over me as I revved the bike a bit. I yelled to him ”Listen man. I’m on a big journey. I need my money too.“ Besides, I didn’t have a dollar to give him. All I had was a five. I had a funny feeling about this guy. And pulling out my wallet on the street in a dirty border town with a cop watching from the other side. It just didn’t feel right. ”HAVE-A-GOOD-DAY, MON!“ He yelled sarcastically, pulling back on the reins of his horse riding off down the hill.
I rode away a bit jaded. It is growing wearysome being looked at like a giant Dollar sign everywhere I go. People don’t know that I have pretty much my life’s savings invested in this journey. That I’m not wealthy. That if I gave every person a dollar that asked me for one, I might as well pack up and head home now. But the whole situation sat funny with me. Should I have helped a brother out? Would it have mattered? Would he have thought highly of me when I was gone? Or would I just have been another sucker tourist that he managed to levy a dollar from. I resigned to the fact that I’d never know. I’d made my decision based on instinct, and so far my instincts have guided me well. I thought back to that big passing smile. I thought about how I would have given him a dollar. I wanted to ride the twenty miles back and give that kid a dollar to make things right in the world.
I revved on knowing that there would be many more challenges in the next hour. Borders are full of good and bad people. Unfortunately they don’t all have nametags declaring which they are. I put my guard up and rode on. Minutes later I was watching my bike through the window of the departure hall. Paying my $30 Belize Dollar fee for leaving their country. I had been there for 22 hours, didn’t eat a single Belizean meal or even drink a Belizean beer. What a shame, I thought. To have blown through such a wonderful country and not really experienced much of the culture, after spending seven weeks exploring Mexico. This thought was fleeting as I sweat my way through the deliberations of canceling my motorcycle permit crossing from Belize into no man’s land and starting the whole process over while trying to keep an eye on my bike and another eye on my paperwork. Getting my visa was easy. Hand over the passport and $20 Quetzals. (That I’d fortunately exchanged for Mexican Pesos back outside the departure hall in Belize.) Getting the permit for my bike required that I walk 100 yards across a bridge into Guatemala to get photocopies of my passport stamp, my license, my registration and my passport photo page. I was sweating bullets. Figuratively, as my moto sat by its lonesome unprotected waiting anxiously for my return, and literally as I was walking in the hottest of hot time of the day in this humid jungle environment in full motorcycle jacket, pants and boots. Sweating bullets. I got my 40¢ copies and made the trek back to the customs desk, where again, I kept one eye on the bike and one guy on the customs agent filling out my forms. He handed me the paperwork, told me to walk across the room and pay at the bank and bring everything back to him one more time. I did this dance with a sweaty smile and remembered all of the advice about keeping your cool during the crossing process. Sure enough all was well. I paid my $40 Quetzals to the bank, got my sticker and necessary paperwork. Got my bike fumigated with some cancer-causing, birth defect sauce for another $12.50 Quetzals and was off riding across the bridge I’d just walked.
BIENVENIDOS A GUATEMALA!
I pulled up to a gas station that looked like it was straight out of my childhood memories from the early ‘70’s. I quickly did some math in my head and bought 2 gallons of fuel (enough to keep me from running out between here and Tikal) for $60 Quetzals from a 15 year old named Estefan Vargas, who guessed I was 25. Love this kid. He was enamored with my bike and couldn’t stop checking it out as we chatted in Spanish. I asked for directions to Tikal. He pointed me up the rocky gravel hill, the opposite way I’d have gone if I hadn’t asked. He smiled and waved as I rumbled out of the station.
Phew and that was it. I was suddenly back in the green countryside waving to smiling people and jamming out to Burning Spear in my helmet. Gigante was loving ripping the hills, enjoying the cooler weather and we pushed further into Guatemala shooting for the unknown in El Remate. Seeing as it was the 23rd of December, I was unsure if I’d find accomodations. As luck would have it, I scoped out two places and on the third found my happy little oasis. A rustic cabin with mosquito netting over the windows, thatched roof, a hammock and chair on the front stoop set in a wildly landscaped garden, feet from a restaurant that Lonely Planet calls the best food for miles. Oh yeah and yesterday until 9pm had blasting full strength wireless. Oh and I nearly forgot... Is on Lake Petén Itzá, which is incredibly beautiful. There is a long dock extending out into the lake and ends with a thatch roof palapa to dive from. I watched an incredible sunset after video chatting with my mom thousands of miles away. Took a quick dip in the lake, a quick shower and cooked up the last chorizo from Mexico, while sipping Cazadores tequila from a Gatorade bottle. Looks like I’m set up for a great Christmas. Hope the internet comes back on to chat with the Family at the annual Semlak Christmas Eve party at Mike and Essie’s.
Merry Christmas everyone, from Lago Petén Itzá, Guatemala, where it is about 65ª at 9:30 am. Santa’s gonna be sweating here.