4 of February
(Picture: I sat next to one of the indigenous birds on the beach of Ambergris, Belize, and snapped a couple shots.)
On the first of February, I drove with my family of eight for four hours to a small, run-down port city called Chetumal, nestled at the bottom of Quintana Roo, tickling the border into Belize. From Chetumal, we boarded a water taxi scarcely large enough to accommodate fifteen people in its cramped quarters and were ferried off for ninety minutes to one of the two-hundred islands within close proximity to the mainland, Ambergris, right off the upper half of Belize. This trip was a necessity: we are living in Mexico on travelers’ visas, which means we aren’t allowed to stay more than 180 days in the country. So in typical expat-fashion, (as to not get kicked out of Mexico as illegal aliens) we skipped town to the neighboring country for four days to reset our visas. You know, the usual.
The drive to Chetumal was almost serene for our largish bunch. Most adults don’t realize it, but six kids under the age of fifteen make for excellent traveling buddies. We are creators of commotion, instantly endeared to any people we meet, hilarious counterparts still in touch with our raw motions, sly, adaptable, easy-going companions in the organized chaos that is our life. We scrunch our noses and stick out our tongues to the passengers in the cars behind us and pickup a monotonous three-lines to whichever song pops into our heads. And lets not forget the eating: incessant cries for totopos or an apple ring throughout the van as elbows jab and one kid snores on the floor of the car. The van reeks of the scent of young bodies, the sweat of our brows, and the grit in our fingernails. We are makeshift, patched up, been-around, and completely contented with our hassle, rush-rush lifestyle of make-do travel, despite the fact that many people believe six kids must be a rowdy handful for our parents. They are usually shocked to find out that we are more well-behaved than their own children. Mum and Papa’s parenting combined with the maturity of my siblings and I leaves no room for the wacked-out premonitions individuals commonly have. It’s not even stereotypical, those ignorant opinions of a large family. If people really travelled and opened their eyes they’d find that in most countries, women tumble out children, adopt others, and families grow grand and vast enough to fill in every position on a futbol field while still maintaining standards and morals; I find that those are the children who grow and are successful in this world: sharing things isn’t a question us and make-do parental instincts are our breeding.
Speaking of many kids, on our first full day in Ambergris, Belize, we went jaunting the length of the island (25 miles) in our rented golf cart, the premier, main mode of transportation. All of the streets in Ambergris Caye are two way, yet they just fit one golf cart in width and are more narrow than most one-way streets in America. A multitude of bikers, walkers, and the occasional taxi car mix themselves in among the carts periodically; no one drives a “regular” car it seems. Since we have too many people in our party to fit in a traditional cart, we had to rent one that had an additional backseat, facing outwards- the opposite way of the drivers’ bench. This backseat proved to be an epic, and sometimes awkward, modification to the cart, as we smiled and waved at the passengers behind us and tried not to look to conspicuous when we stopped at an intersection for too long and were left to stare at the driver.
But the open-ness of golf carts have their price I suppose! Cruising through town, some stares were thrown at the girls in our cart, and one particular group of young men even had the audacity to pull up next to me while I was manning the car alone. They reached out and shook my hand, asking my name and where I was from. I was at a loss for what to do, but I wanted to play the situation safely, so I tentatively took their hands and talked as little as possible. I had just finished telling them I was from Mexico (Guy: So where are you from? Me: Uh, Mexico. Guy: Where in Mexico? Me: Umm, southern… Mexico. Guy: Hahaha, I didn’t know there was a southern Mexico.) When, to my immense relief, Papa strolled up. (Guy: So is this the father?) I reeled around, a flood of security overwhelming me. (Guy to Papa: We aren’t gang bangers or anything. Papa: Well I’m glad.) They shook Papa’s hand and shortly took off in their golf cart, and I could tell they felt as if they were the coolest trio around as they skidded away. That particular incident guaranteed me giggles and jokes from my siblings for the rest of the day, but I had been a little shaken by the fact that I was alone when the three of them had purposely pulled up right next to me, impossibly vulnerable.
To me, Belize didn’t feel much different from Playa. It looked, tasted, sounded and smelled different from my home, and yet there was no initial shock or any true feelings of being in a foreign country. We accept every place we go as home and fit in startlingly well as locals, and there is a certain sense of comfort in the world, because the truth is that there is nothing to be afraid of. Belize was abound with Creoles, sparsely populated by Spanish-speakers, and fitted out with an influx of tourists: mostly Canadian and few American. The Canadian travelers were no surprise to me, it is curious to me the extent of those citizens that journey to different countries though. If I see a Caucasian wandering around Mexico, or any other country for that matter, I automatically assume they are Canadian, because for some strange reason- maybe the cold- white snowbirds and tourists are almost always of that nationality. Anyways, the streets in Ambergris were cobblestone, no different than in Playa. The town was invariably quaint compared to the grand scale city Playa del Carmen is developing into, though, reflecting a Playa of the past, with two main roadways and lots of dirt. I loved every bit of Belize. In juxtaposition, it reminded my family of St. Kitts & Nevis, with the humble, stacked homes, narrow street ways, major Creole inhabitance, and small-town atmosphere. Also unlike Playa, the beach front properties weren’t hotels and big-bucks industries erecting massive, out-of-place, modern structures. Granted, the sand and water weren’t as pristine as Playa or Tulum, but instead of economically-benefitting edifices, there was people-benefitting parks, untouched land, beachside basketball courts; nothing gated or regulated, just plain, free, do-as-you-will-ness, like how Mexico used to be.
There was one thing that did take me aback about Ambergris Caye though: the crocodiles. It was fabled that we should not swim in the lake at the foot of the villa we had rented for the weekend, or else we may die on account of the overgrown lizards the inhabit it. For the duration of our time in Ambergris, Belize, we skeptically went back and forth with dissension as to whether or not crocodiles really made the unguarded swimming hole their home. The lake was literally two yards from the villa, and led straight out onto one of the only roadways on the island. A bayou-style home with smudges of bright laundry fluttering on the line nestled at the foot of the lake would be an easy target for the crocodiles. But the casually dropped remarks to “Oh, and watch out for the crocodiles,” proved to be worthy advice, because on our last day in Ambergris, we spotted one of the prehistoric predators lazily, deliberately, cruising the waters. It was at least six feet long, and our photographs revealed thick , razor sharp scales, and gnarled, hooked teeth.Mum commented matter-of-factly that someone should put a sign up to warn people about them. I imagined pasty, unsuspecting tourists “going for a leisurely swim” and ending up on the bottom of the lake in shreds. Apparently, the Belizians don’t chide around.
After jolting through potholes on the sparsely used dirt roads outside of town and exploring any deviations of the pathway, we stumbled upon a beautiful park on the coastline. A large, wooden play structure- high up on stilts in case of a hurricane- was set up ten yards from the lazily lapping tide and partitioned off from an open basketball court by planters made from hacked off palms. Shaded benches were set up slightly inland; to the left was a short bridge leading the occasional golf cart over the water and to the right was an open-floored restaurant where the kids peed and Papa ordered Beliken beers, Belize’s premier brew. They came in thick, amber bottles that were heavy as a toaster and looked to be twelve ounces, but really only held something around five ounces of beer and tasted like Newcastle. Mum looked at me funny and laughed each time as she tipped back her head and took the whole bottle in two gulps. She always protested about the small size after drinking, and I always looked at her admiringly and rolled my eyes, because my Mum is just a professional at everything she does. That day at the park, my five younger siblings had all ran off to the play structure to run around while I sat back with Mum and Pop to talk and hang out while they had their brewskis. There just wasn’t a real appeal to me anymore with those yellow plastic slides and minuscule forts, but little did I know, things were about to change for me.
I noticed the two black boys saunter up to the playhouse as I observed my siblings horsing around near it. They appeared to be eleven or twelve, one with closely cropped, fuzzy hair and a muscular yet slender build, and the other with twig-like proportions and shoulder-length dreads tucked under a snapback. Kanon was having trouble reaching the monkey bars, so the former ventured over to my brother and proceeded to help him up before I could make it there. He held Kanon’s middle for a second before setting him down, Kanon unable to swing from bar to bar. “It’s because these bars are loose, see?” The boy twisted the bar in its socket, demonstrating why my little brother had trouble on them. The boy then swung up onto the first bar and made his way through the end, one by one, with grace and subtle effort. It looked like a challenge, and I wanted to try. “Alright, my turn,” I said with finality and grasped the first bar. He was right, doing the monkey bars was actually a little difficult when each one couldn’t be relied on to stay still, but I still finished the task. Papa was right behind me, and soon the boy had most of my family gathered around the structure.
“Now I have a game for you,” he turned to me deliberately,”how old do you think I am?” I eyed him again: sturdy legs, lightly chiseled arms, slightly shorter than me, and with proud, but handsome features. He still looked eleven.
“Mm, thirteen,” I said generously. The thing is, the kids in my family look much older than we are, so almost everyone I meet in different places looks much younger to me than they actually are, especially the Mayans in Playa, with four foot tall boys turning twelve. I assumed he must really be around the age I guessed though, because of the way he asked me and something about his attitude hinted that he was a little older than his appearance suggested. I wasn’t far off. He raised his eyebrows and gave me that corners-of-the-lips-turning-down , head-nod of approval. “Fourteen,” he filled me in. I was taken aback for a moment as I realized he was the same age as me. It made me rethink how I’m living my fourteenth year in comparison to how he was living his, and it struck me that I’m still so young, yet I don’t act or feel like it. I was slightly envious of the boy’s youthfulness.
“What’s your name?” I fired back at the fourteen year old. He clearly pronounced probably the most difficult, lengthy name I’ve ever heard, but before I could laugh and good-naturedly ask him to slow it down for a rookie, he cut us all a break.”But no one can pronounce it, so people call me CJ, and that’s Hassam.” He nodded in the direction of his spider-monkey friend, who had climbed on top of the monkey bars with ease, easily eight feet off the ground. “You guys wanna play some tag?” CJ offered. Everyone agreed, even me, and I couldn’t even remember the last time I played a game of tag; somehow, CJ and Hassam made it seem as if it would be the best thing in the world. I set down my baseball cap and Aviators and tied my long blonde hair up. “Me and him, we’ve never been caught before so uh…” CJ boasted and trailed off. “Oh, really?” I goaded him on, and the game began.
For the next forty minutes, CJ, Hassam, my siblings, and I, plus a petit Creole nine year old and a fifteen year old Hispanic who later joined in, all played tag. CJ’s claims about being fast turned out to be very true, but Hassam was even faster. The boys swiftly outran my brother Aidan, one of the most athletic, speedy kids I know. I still had not been caught, and somehow had outran the boys for long enough that they got bored and tried to catch someone else.
“So you’re the fastest? Let’s see about that!” Hassam challenged me, and I took him reeling into the street, past the beach. Eventually he caught me, and it became a matter of gleeful revenge to tag him back, but as I was about to tag my new friend, he jumped onto the closest palm tree and wormed his way to the top, head against coconut. Visions of Mogli flashed through my head, as my bewilderment turned to awe. “Do you know how hard I tried to do that?! Man, how did you get up there so easily??” I thought of the day my family had spent Tulum with our good friends Christy and Andrew and their adorable son, Clayton. It had become sport to try to hoist ourselves up the vulture neck-like trunk of the palms, but even Andrew hadn’t made it too far up the tree, and now this boy had made it to the tippy top in .2 seconds. There was no fanfare, no swagger associated with Hassam’s feat. In fact, it wasn’t even a feat to him: it was, instead, simplest, the most natural thing in the world, and I assumed he’d been climbing trees like that his whole life. I pathetically made it three feet off the ground before I was unable to go any further, and Hassam had escaped my revenge. “Well, if you want to play it that way,” I said coyly,”then I’ll just wait here until you come down.” Hassam groaned and shifted his grip on the skinny trunk, ten feet in the air. But CJ came to his friend’s rescue and lured me off with the prospect of another person to tag in his confident, swank manner.
We took a short break midway through, and in the heat, I stripped off my shirt and played in a bikini top, sweating to high heaven. I was having a blast, and the best part was that I felt like a kid. CJ and I took refuge in the play structure while the kid who was IT prowled the ground. “Your hair looks tough,” he commented, gesturing with his chin to the section of my hair I shaved off. “That a good thing?” I asked, keeping up the small talk as we eagle-eyed the ground and crouched on our haunches. “Yea, it’s good to look tough here. You gotta be tough,” he explained. “Hey, I live in Mexico, it’s not too different,” I reasoned, proud, as always, to call Mexico my home. The time with CJ, Hassam, the young Creole girl, and the fifteen year old boy, named Ivan, ended too soon. I really liked the bunch, especially CJ and Hassam, and I wished I had more time with them. I had a feeling that they could be some of the best friends I’d ever had, if circumstances were different and we were staying in Belize; or maybe it’s just that I love people too much.
My favorite experience in Belize- aside from our adventures with the native kids- was our crusades through the rutted, gritty pathways along the coastline of Ambergris. We stopped at an unnamed convenience store in the middle of no where on one of the anorexic roads and bought peach juice in cans and juice packets, putting our lips to the containers when the bumping of the cart allowed us to. Kanon leaned against my chest and swung his legs over Aidan’s lap as we sped through beautiful Belize, utterly alone.
Two notable differences between Mexico and Belize are the fact that Belize’s official language is English and they don’t use pesos- they accept Belizian dollars or US bills. I’ll admit it: the switch to English was culture shock for me! I remember when I first moved to Mexico seven months ago, and I was never at odd ends with the Spanish, yet now, switching back to speaking my native tongue, I’m having trouble. Everyone is fluent in English in Belize, so I barely had to speak a lick of Spanish there, but it still came out. I ordered food accidentally in Spanish and was unable to recall the name for piña in English. (It’s pineapple by the way.) Now, although the language did throw me off, it wasn’t as big a problem as the fact that all we had to pay with was pesos. Leaving Belize was a whole different story than the smooth trip we had into the country, and part of it had to do with the pesos/Belizian currency issue. We dispatched at seven thirty to our ferry to get home on Monday morning. Our personable taxi driver, George, who had fetched us when we had arrived to the island, didn’t show up for our pickup, so we had another driver phone us a ride. By this time, it was much later than Papa had wanted to set out for the ferry, and the driver informed us that the docks we were trying to get to weren’t the correct ones. We waited in the car when we made it to the port, and just as the driver had said, we had to drive to another port where the ferry was taking off, even though our tickets said otherwise. Slightly exasperated, we rushed off to the second port and bid the kindly taxi driver a buen dia. At immigration, we were required to pay an additional fee upon departing and arriving plus the cost of the ticket to take the water taxi. Stuck with cash in pesos, Mum, Aidan, Kira, and I raced to the center of town- which actually wasn’t that far- to draw out Belizian dollars from Scotia, the only bank in Ambergris that accepts a six digit pin number. But Mum quickly discovered that the ATM machine was out of order, and the bank wasn’t to open until nine o’clock. We stood at the door of Scotia, unable to figure out a plan of action. The ferry was scheduled to leave in a few minutes and the bank wasn’t available to us for at least thirty minutes. To me, it looked as if we were going to end up stranded in Belize, without our rented golf cart or any villa to go back to, but part of me knew that Mum would work it out. It’s one of my favorite skills she has in her repertoire. She caused enough professional commotion to get one of the bank employees to help her. He said there was nothing he could do at first, but after a minute, he told Mum to tell the woman at immigration that a certain Giovanni was going to make the payment work. We galloped back to immigration and Mum heralded Giovanni’s name like a flaming torch- whoever Giovanni was- and suddenly, we had the money needed and we embarked the ferry without any much more ado.
But this ferry ride wasn’t as fluid as the first was: Delilah ended up with motion sickness and spent the hour and half heaving up the previous two days’ worth of food. I conked out to the soft rollicking of the boat and Janis Joplin fervidly crooning out her adventures with Bobby McGee.When the water taxi finally docked back in Chetumal, we were detained for another two hours: first by a soldier with a distracted dog attempting to sniff out drugs but ending up with a nose full of the backpackers’ soiled socks and sustainable snacks. Next Mum and Papa took thirty minutes filling out six kids’ traveling forms or other, plus their own. While the kids crashed against the crumbling wall of the immigration office, I stood in line with Mum to have our papers stamped and approved. We were last in the line of young adults with big backpacks, unique looks, and tattoos- world travelers, no doubt, and I watched them with a careful eye, knowing that in a couple years I’d be doing what they were. At last, we loaded our car with our two and a half bags of luggage (I love to travel light; to be able to pack up in a minute and move on to some other place with a second’s notice.) Back on the highway to Playa, we took a pit stop in Tulum to eat at our favorite restaurant there, and stumbled into the house on Calle 44 later that evening. Another check mark off my bucket list: got Belize down, and I can’t wait to return, maybe even run into CJ and Hassam again someday.