It’s just you and I, Bianchi

No room, said the bus driver. Illegal, actually, said the ticket agent for the water taxi. “But I am willing to pay extra to throw it on board,” I had told both of them when trying to take my bicycle back home with me . Still, no.

Things have indeed changed over the past 10 years in Belize. I had carted a stove on a bus, crammed a bicycle into the rear extreme of one and stacked 120 pounds of luggage behind the rear seats as well. When space was an issue, passengers would creatively stack themselves between cargo or lean against it while the driver went about getting to the next desitnation.

And I think only once before have I heard someone say that something is illegal in Belize.

DSCF2402

The hoi polloi of Belize bicycles: the indefatigable beach cruiser.

My dilemma? I had just hopped the cheapest boat ride across the lagoon from my village–bike included–in order to extend my passport another 30 days, which is something I will have to do until I can apply for residency.  It is a tedious errand at best, and easy to forget as one who is actually living in Belize and no longer playing tourist.

I chose the boat ride, about 10 minutes, because it is much cheaper than driving 42 miles each way with Belize gas rates hovering around $12 Belize per gallon ($6 U.S. per gallon).

My miscalculation? On our way across the lagoon I had been told by the skipper who piloted the boat from my village that he would not be taking the boat back to the village until early evening. It was 7 am when I boarded and I did not want to stay in Independence–where the immigration office was located–all day. Not exactly a tourist village, Independence is most noted by my fellow villagers for its pharmacy. I know from firsthand experience that its eateries and other hangouts are, well, forgettable at best.

My morning skipper, who either disregarded or knew of no law regarding boats and bikes, said I could probably “negotiate” my bike on board with the water taxi company for an earlier return to my village. A passenger concurred. I thus had my mind on doing exactly that, especially since I had some freelance work waiting for me at home.

When I arrived at the Hokey Pokey water taxi in Independence I favorably looked upon its posted schedule which indicated the next departure to Placencia, four miles north of my village, to be at 10 am. A 40-minute wait, so not bad, I thought. They had a beverage and snack bar beneath the shade of their roofed patio. I bought a cold beverage for my wait and then proceeded to the ticket counter where the man cited the law about water taxis and boats.

When’s the next bus leave from here? I asked. He said 10 am. Only a five minute bike ride. I headed to the bus station, where my wait would be about a half-hour. When I received the driver’s unapologetic news, I considered waiting for the next bus an hour later. Perhaps it would have space for a bike or a friendlier driver. Maybe both.

Then another thought emerged. I could get a head start by pedaling onward until I reached a bus stop where one of the later Independence departures might board my Bianchi commuter bike and I.
The Park Avenue, which I purchased from a bicycle shop on one of the hilliest of hills in Seattle, is practically an extension to my feet. I used it five days a week for most of the 54 weeks in a year to get to work and back in Seattle. When I bought it, the salesperson said she used hers as a commuter bike up and down Capitol Hill, where I lived at the time, and noted its versatility on hills, as commuter bikes go anyway.

I have never been disappointed my bike’s agility or versatility, whether climbing Seattle’s notorious hills or plodding the flat, sea-level expanse of the Placencia Peninsula.

Getting back to my Plan B, or C, actually, I figured if someone were waiting at one of the two or three shel
tered bus stops along the 42 miles, they could give me a rough guess as to when the next bus was to arrive. I had enough water in the day-pack on my back to take me quite a ways without dehydrating.

I  pedaled an unknown number of miles in the 88-degree Fahrenheit heat to the first bus stop. Not a soul there. A few more miles or so, again, not a soul. But I knew I was close to a village called Georgetown because of some familiar landmarks I had seen when driving. I knew of a little cafe a couple miles beyond the village. I think this is when I resigned myself to the ambitious but masochistic idea of just stopping at the cafe and pedaling the rest of the way home. Though my Bianchi was six years old, I had great faith in it. I knew it was up to the task without ticking me with a breakdown. It was well oiled and the tires full.

All I had to question was my endurace, as I had not rode it more than 10 miles for more than a year, well before I left the states. Workouts: nonexistent during my new habitation in Belize. Despite the odds, I just told myself, “It’s doable, Brad. C’mon. Belize is as flat as a blue crab that strayed across the road at the wrong moment.”

Once at the cafe, I asked the gal, a cousin to one of our neighbors in Seine Bight, if she knew how far I had come from Georgetown. About four miles, she told me. And how far to the Placencia Peninsula junction? I asked. Maybe eight miles, she said. I knew it was 20 mile to my village from the junction. In my mind, this cold-turkey marathon ride on anything but cold pavement was becoming a glass half full. But, upon rising from the stool where I ate some nondescript nachos and drank a bottle of water, my legs stiffly opined that the glass was half empty.

Logged into my Belizean brain–sometimes much more prudent than my American cranium: Don’t stop and sit down after logging 20 straight miles on a bike, no matter how straight and flat the terrain, especially in tropical temps.

Still no commuters at the bus stops, still no buses passing by, I was in home or bust mode. Despite my Park Avenue’s indifference to a set of buns that were burning with pain on its seat, it rendered nary a protest of clicking chains, hitches in gear shifts, or squeakiness in general. If  my legs can only get me there, I thought.

During the entire journey, I would think of stopping to take this or that picture. When I had reached  mile eight or so past my biggest milestone, the Peninsula junction with the highway to Independence, my weary butt, legs, arms and hands pulled over to the side of the road on the prompt of seeing a coatimundi swagger out of the brush in mid-afternoon. The long-tailed animal, roughly the size of its relative, the raccoon, is not usually seen out this time of day, but there it was, posing on the shoulder of the road as if it wanted to be photographed.

I pulled out my camera, turned the bike wheel toward the animal, sometimes referred to as a hog-nosed coon, and made two or three pedals toward it before realizing it was just as interested in a closer view of me as I was with it. These sinewy omnivores sport tremendous teeth and jaws, making them difficult prey for even the top of the mammal food chain in Belize, the jaguar. It’s auxiliary defense mechanism are non-retractable claws that help them descend trees headfirst. It was exit, stage right, for me in the nascent stage of a potentially injurious gravitation.

Next benchmark, the Plantation, an enclave of well-healed expats, many from Texas or with connections to Texas. Here, they built mega-houses with tall towers and voluminous windows, stairways and garages that line man-made canals on fill dumped into and along the shore of the Placencia Lagoon. I was only six miles from home at this point, my legs burning more than ever.

Next benchmark, Maya Beach, another expat enclave a little less ostentatious than the Plantation. I was only three miles from my home at this point. I reached our yard and was somehow able to dismount the Bianchi upon reaching the gate, a mere eight yards from the bike’s garage, our laundry room.

Addled, I methodically raised each foot up the steps to our deck where my wife was peeling some plantain for the evening’s dish, hudut, a Garifuna specialty.

I asked  her if she knew how far it was to Independence from our village. I had never paid attention to the odometer in our van when driving there. She didn’t know.

After a hardy glass of water and some chow, I sat at my computer to browse for the distance between Seine Bight and Independence. A Belizean travel site indicated 42 miles by road. My mind said it didn’t really matter, but when conferring with my body, it curtly added, “Do a little more homework on travel arrangements next time.”

 

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Invasion of the death parties

It is about 4 am. My wife is still asleep. Our toddler, too. I am awakened in the second-story bedroom we all three share.

The DJ-directed music—-mostly a rhythmic-centered “punta rock” indigenous to Bellze’s pop culture—still permeates the wood siding and glass-louvered windows of our house. It started about 9 pm the night before from beneath a canopy on the shore of the Caribbean Sea and about 40 yards from our house. It was the second time I had awakened from the rancor, the first being around 1 am. This time, however, the din of a hundred or more huddled bystanders and listeners had diminished to a gaggle of perhaps nine or ten. It was unfortunate for me that the decibels from the sound system were not commensurately adjusted downward.

I hear the shatter of a booze bottle, a holler or two between the remaining revelers, some of whom will be seen a few hours later walking the village road as if they had an eight-hour sleep already and were looking for the party’s next phase.

Only the morning before thiDSCF2413s one, I was the delegated parent to attend to our
two-year-old who decided that 3:15 am was the time to wake up in what was a relatively quiet night, but for the fairly common barking of dogs—stragglers regularly referred to as “potlickers”—that form cantankerous packs and course the main road of the village.

So, this is not as easy a disturbance for me to shrug off as most “death parties” go. I call them death parties only because I must inject a sense of humor to what is so uncommon to my own Americanized traditions around the death of a loved one. When a person dies in Belize, there is more often than not a “wake.” This occurs within a few days of the person’s passing. But the term, wake, is a bit of a misnomer, especially if one is accustomed to the act of mourning as an overriding component.

These wakes are more like community festivals, open to all. Women in the village will prepare food, usually soups along with rice and beans or stewed beans, for those who are to arrive on the particular evening. Beer will be sold or made available as will wine at times. People are free to bring their own beverages as well, and these are usually the ones still partying into the wee hours while sharing their wealth of alcohol to those who have already exhausted their supply or the change to buy a drink. Needless to say, because of a wake’s festive accouterments, many in the village who may not otherwise attend a person’s wake come for the food and beverage, if not to indeed tie one on, as we Americans say.

Music is always a key ingredient to these wakes. Loud, penetrating music that can often be heard from hundreds and hundreds of yards away in the otherwise docile Belizean darkness, mitigated only by the soft soughing of palms along the shoreline on less eventful nights.

Within a year of the particular person’s demise and exclusive to the wake, something ingrained in the Garifuna culture here takes place. It is called a Nine Night. As far as my research has led me, I deduce that its origins were woven together from Africa to the islands off of Belize where the Garifuna culture’s embryo began to take form hundreds of years ago during the slave-trade days across the Atlantic.

And, again, there is music, drink, clamor and resulting unruliness from what is usually just a small though noticeable few. Usually, the volume of Nine Night foot traffic and sound decrescendos with each progressive evening. The Nine Nights, as well as the wakes, are most often held where the deceased had lived, thus the proximity of the wake below our house on this particular evening in early March.

As is often the case, I cannot simply go back to sleep, even when our child finally returns to his slumber on these occasional premature mornings of his. I toss in the bed as the music blasts on. I curse to myself in more than a whisper. Fortunately my wife and child are heavy sleepers. They are predisposed from my angst and my inability to fall back to sleep.

At about 6:30 or 7 am—when our boy normally awakes—it dons on me that the music probably won’t end until the church bell rings for the deceased’s formal services—usually about 8 am. I therefore surrender to calling it an elongated morning and rise from the bed, amble to the kitchen where I pour my traditional morning beverage, a cup of hot yerba mate. If everyone in the house remains asleep as of 8 o’clock, I can wait for the four rings of the church bell to expire and drink my tea in temporary solitude on our deck.

I am partly okay now.

 

 

 

Village

DSCF2219Hingi Mingi, which is probably just a nickname because Belizeans have one for everybody, hails my wife with a “hello” that seems to emanate from the top of his lungs rather than the bottom. Indigenous to Mesoamerica, Hingi, a slight man of probably 60 or more years to my best estimation, is wearing his usual faded-blue sweatpants hiked a half-dozen inches or so above his discalced feet, which are making baby steps toward our gate, like those of a dog or cat that has been shooed from someone’s yard continuously for its encroachments.

My wife is still asleep, but I am up with our nearly 2-year-old son who likes to rouse me around 6 or 7 in the morning. All voices coming from the roadside can be heard clearly from the kitchen window, which faces the road’s northward approach from the second floor of our house. Even the meager volume of Hingi’s voice can be heard. As usual, I look down to see some freshly uprooted wild flowers with their dirty, dangling roots cradled in his hands.

“Hi, HIngi.” His head then bends up as if one of my words were a raindrop. As usual, he wants to sell my wife what he has harvested, though from where we never exactly know. I see him often just walking up and down the village road, which is the main road that stretches from one end of the Peninsula to the other. Sometimes if he sees me coming from the opposite direction and from the opposite side of the road, he will cross it to intersect me. I will say, “What’s up, HIngi?”

Hingi Mingi replies with the usual, “Just looking for a good Samaritan.” I have to tell him, once again, that I have no money to lend today.

Hingi is one of a very few Indians in the village who will beg me for money. The paucity of the village, if given a characteristic, is egalitarian. Its demographic stretches from the Mayan to the Garinagu (or, more popularly, Garifuna), to the Creole, to the Mestizo and sometimes to the proverbial “Gringo in Belize” (that’s Jerry Jeff Walker for a Caucasian whose tropical dream has stumbled over a misplaced bottle of rum or the unforgiving stump of a property he could not quite get off the ground). Unemployment prevails while industry either side-steps the village or creeps at a pace slower than that of Hingi Mingi’s.

The village is unavoidable for one who is bicycling, motoring or golf-carting from the tourist hub of Placencia northward to the ex-pat laden communities of Surfside and Maya Beach. I have read internet discussions from recent visitors to the Peninsula that liken Seine Bight Village to a refugee camp. Most of the roadside abodes are constructed of ticky-tack boards on stilts of wood, founded by pier blocks. I have seen white bicyclers stop with broad smiles while taking a picture of even broader smiles donning the faces of a gaggle of small Garifuna children. Belize offers the tourist a sea-load of such young portraits; nearly 40 percent of its population is aged 0-14, with the gender split being almost down the middle.

Despite the almost abject poverty that lines the village road, the pikni (Creole for children) do not betray their disposition in spirit. The Garifuna, especially, show an indefatigable buoyancy, despite circumstances, at any given moment. I remember helping teach a computer skills class at the school during my initial stay here. The children would come into the classroom, huddle around the teacher to hear what they would be taught for the day, and while waiting for the preview to end, one would invariably start dancing–without a shred of music; only the teacher’s drone and their shoeless feet. It may have been the morning’s sugary popsicles (called Ideal pops) that fed their improvisational evanescence of foot, but it was dearly something I had never witnessed, nor considered possible. I was actually starting to put music to their feet as I waited to assist the teacher with her lessons.

The pikni here roam from house to house (the proof often showing up on our porch), and young peripatetic teens–often carrying their baby or heavy with baby–saunter up and down the main drag seven days a week. By law, a child can drop from school at the age of 14. Often this saves a parent the annual tuition of a little more than $100 Belizean dollars (the equivalent of $50 or $60 U.S.), as well as a few BZ bucks a day per student for lunch money and $70 or $80 BZ for textbooks. It is a considerable expense for the average income of a villager. So, a noticeable number of the young are not fully equipped to step out of the whirlpool of poverty and premature motherhood or fatherhood by way of academic credential.

Alas. At this point I must recess from my keyboard as the clock nears the time our stepdaughter returns from school. The porch awaits she and her retinue with more open arms than mine.

A tittle above sea line

Children's parade during Seine Bight Days in August. FYI: Northerners, it is always August in Belize.

Children’s parade during Seine Bight Days in August. FYI: Northerners, it is always August in Belize.

Here on the Placencia Peninsula we are as good as in the sea. I am not being figurative. At various points along the 19 miles between a couple buildings in Riversdale to the eco-tourist village of Placencia, the peninsula borrows a space from the Caribbean Sea of barely 200 yards in width. One can step one rung down on a ladder to a given resort or condo dock and validly claim below-sea-level stature.

The sea here does not stop at the tideline. It visits us quite often, as evidenced by rusty burglar bars on windows, rusty indoor refrigerators, rotten wood steps and rails, crumbling vehicles and drippings on the kitchen floor from snapper hooked only minutes before the cooking of dinner begins.

The Peninsula life is one that can bring new perspective to old eyes, an ancient epidermal to the bottom of a newborn’s feet, and unmetered time to dwell on things Caribbean, things worldly, and things that don’t amount to much more than washed away sand.

Here in Seine Bight—once a cultural hub for a people known as Garinagu that is now being squeezed like the last lime on a tree by a burgeoning phalanx of mostly anglo developments—the sea is a bed partner. Never more than a few hundred yards away, it gives, takes, shrugs, roils, rests, sleeps and wakes up with you. Just like the sand fleas that carpet its shoreline.

I first came here in 2003 by aegis of a kind couple who just wanted someone to stay at their newly built home away from home while they were out of the country. I stayed for nine months by virtue of an equally kind boss who granted me, in essence, a sabbatical from nine straight years at my editor’s desk in Seattle, Washington.

Time marches, tides change and I am now sitting here at home in Seine Bight, far from my single life in Seattle and eleven years after my first sight of Belize. I now have a wife, son and stepdaughter—each enchanting, vigorous and always challenging—who share with me our space between the lagoon and the sea.

So as you read a treatise, an encomium, a haiku, an analysis, report, rant, poem, regression or cerebral bilge on this site, take into its context a set of eyes that lived here eleven years prior to what is now a relative bustle of development, and eyes that are now eleven years older.

I hope at the least I can evoke a thought, a burp from the cranium, a recoil or even just a sigh from what I post on this blog, which is still waiting its windows, doors, steps and rooms while the sea’s breath lurches around my keyboard. Check in with me later.