Vagabond Dreams Outtakes are “deleted scenes” from my book. Think of them as a “Special Features” disc of outtakes and curios. This incident took place in Belize…
Belize City was a bit like Bluefields on the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua: a seedy place with an aura of decay. But it didn’t feel like Central America. The musical lilt of Caribbean English had already displaced the Spanish I’d grown used to, and that Latin timelessness was missing, as were the Spanish colonial buildings and the social hunting ground of the plazas. Belize had a different sort of timelessness: a lazy island grace of rusting corrugated roofs and gap-toothed smiles.
Water taxi engines fired, and we motored out of the dirty estuary and into the sea. Piles of luggage filled the centre of the open boat. Passengers squeezed onto benches that lined both sides. Only three were locals. There were no backpackers; the country wasn’t quite cheap enough for them. I was deep behind the lines of White Leg territory.
Three Brits sat in the bow. Their close-cropped hair and angry red sunburns gave them away — that and the fact that they were thoroughly trashed at 8am. Belize still hosts a small British military contingent. Prior to independence in 1981 it was British Honduras; a centuries-old thorn in the side of the Spanish Main, founded by pirates and logwood cutters. The territory is still shown as a province on Guatemalan maps.
The Belize I saw was little more than a carbon copy of every other overexploited Caribbean vacationland. And it marked the end of my road — but only for this journey. I knew by then that the terminus of each trip was a fallow period, when the lessons learned broke free and rose to the surface. I needed to think through those lessons of my Central American road before they got buried beneath the day to day routines of home. And so I stopped in Belize not to observe or to experience or to sightsee, but to buy time.
The water was transparent blue, and the tropical sun warmed my face and legs, inducing a comfortable torpor. I breathed deeply of the fresh salt air as we bounced through light chop that peppered my clothing with gentle spray, and I slept.
An hour later I was among coral islands. I jumped out at the wooden pier of Caye Caulker. The next stop was a larger island with roads and cars, geared to wealthy package tourists. I wanted to be able to walk everywhere.
A few sandy roads threaded the little village, but cars had been prohibited. Electric golf carts hummed as they rolled past at pedestrian speed. Wooden stilt-houses were painted yellow and blue. There must have been a time when they were vibrant and cheerful, but they’d since become blistered and cracked. The faded buildings resembled the people in a way: they’d let themselves go in the listless tropical heat. Island girls in calico shuffled down sandy streets with a lazy swirling gait. Rasta wannabes with matted dreds and knit caps loafed by the pier drinking beer and selling weed. The white legs of tourists flashed like ice shards in the sun, with souvenir t-shirts proudly displaying their past travels and origins.
The main strip was lined with open-air restaurants and bars. Trinket shops sold Guatemalan handicrafts at inflated prices. A profusion of dive shops offered packaged SCUBA and snorkel excursions to all the same places. After Corn Island, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
I found a cheap room at Lucy’s Guesthouse on a side street. It took some searching. Lucy was a wrinkled black lady with a ready smile and a low chuckling laugh, and I liked her immediately. Her guesthouse was quiet. The party places were further down the strip. She placed a deep wooden armchair on the veranda in front of my room, and a hammock swung limp in the sandy yard. I knew right away where I would spend my island evenings.
Places like Belize made me feel a little ridiculous. Locals pandered and deferred to white trash North Americans, the bottom of the suburb-dwelling TV generation back home. Down there they’re wealthy. Bob and Martha, obese beyond belief, waddle around in tent-like Bermuda shorts; they argue and fight over twenty cents for a crummy whittled handicraft and think their bargaining quite shrewd. It’s a microcosm of vapid Western pop culture, consumer cannibalism garnished with quaint dark-skinned locals and musical accents. But the locals all want what the tourists have.
Moments in those places shattered the aura of adventure that had permeated my travels at the far edges of the map. They reminded me of the bland homogenization that’s infecting the globe. I couldn’t buy in to the illusion of paradise those places tried to present, and I felt guilty to be a Westerner.
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