From "Are you frickin' kiddin' me?" to "no worries, mon" in 2 foible filled but easy-going days
"Where you headed?" the taxi driver asked.
"Water taxi for Caye Caulker," I said, handing him my backpack. "How much?"
"6 Belize," he said, putting my backpack in the trunk of his dented and dusty Toyota.
Six Belize dollars equalled three US dollars. Not bad. I had no idea how far the water taxi dock was, but even if it was only a few blocks, three dollars didn’t seem that much of a rip off. Heck, it would cost me that much to go one stop on the tube in London. Besides, less was likely to go wrong if I took a taxi than if I try and walk when I had no idea the route.
"What could go wrong taking a taxi?" I thought to myself as the taxi driver slammed his trunk shut and pointed me to the passenger side door. Neither of us noticed as a small black cord slipped into the trunk.
= = =
The three months prior to my trip to Belize was pretty hectic. Even though I had only recently started a new job, it wasn't turning out to be what I had hoped, so I had started to look for a new job. Juggling my present job, a job search and various issues around my flat with a broken boiler and leaking showers, I was wound up pretty well. Upon getting a new job and putting in my notice at my old work, I decided to take some time off to unwind. October 30th until November 14th was set aside on my personal calendar for some vacation time.
With a new job, I knew getting back to visit family over Christmas would be hard, so I decided that part of my time off should include a trip back to Toronto. Wanting to use some of my Air Canada Aeroplan points for the trip, I then played around with various combinations of trips involving a "London-Toronto-Someplace Warm" triangle. I eventually wound up booking a week in Belize, a place I knew nothing about before heading there except:
1. It used to be called British Honduras
2. It was a small country bordering Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala
3. There is a bar in the airport run by a little man who looks like an Oompa-Loompa called Jet
(I knew that last point as I had spent 3 hours waiting in the secure area of the Belize airport back when flying down to Honduras as the pilots waited for the fog-closed La Ceiba airport to reopen. Myself and the rest of the holiday charter plane drank Jet's bar dry of booze that day.)
I did some research and formulated a rough plan for my trip. A few days inland in San Ignacio to try and see some Mayan Ruins, and then a couple days on one of the Islands in the Atlantic chilling out. I figured out that Belize uses the Belize dollar - not readily available in the UK - but also would accept the US dollar at a fixed exchange rate of two Belize dollars to one US dollar. As I was flying through Houston, I decided to pull out a few hundred at an ATM in the Houston airport so I would have money upon arrival in Belize.
I plugged my card into the Chase bank ATM in Terminal E of Houston's airport, but instead of getting my US dollars, I got a message saying "Invalid transaction." I thought nothing of it at the time, figuring I would just pick up money upon arrival in Belize City. What I didn't know what was happening behind the scenes.
In London, I don't take out much money at all. Everyone here uses their bank cards to pay for stuff. Only the smallest transactions - like buying a pack of gum - is handled via cash. Belize, on the other hand, is a mostly cash society. I knew I would need cash for transport, food, lodging and tours. So in Houston, I punched in a substantial withdrawl.
Computers in the fraud department of my bank track all my transactions, and build a pattern of my usual transactions. If it notices something weird or out of pattern, it decides to lock out my cards. Going from an almost cash-free life in London to a cash heavy life in Belize was not expected by my bank's computers, so they automatically shut down my debit and credit cards. I didn't know it, but my attempt to withdraw money in Houston left me with no options upon arrival in Belize. For money, I had what was on me. That amounted to £30 and a twenty dollar US bill that I had.
I arrived in Belize, and was unable to withdraw any money. I tried my debit card and my credit card in multiple machines, and was unable to take any money out. I tried calling my bank, but with my credit card frozen, I was unable to put a long distance call through. I spent half-an-hour wandering aimlessly through the Belize City airport, trying to think of a plan. Finally, I exchanged my £30 for eighty Belize dollars, and bought myself an international long-distance card. I made a call to England, was able to unlock my accounts and finally was able to take out some Belize money. However, already I was two hours behind my original plan.
From Belize City airport, I took a taxi to the bus station, and then a bus to San Ignacio in the interior of the country. I settled into a hotel near where the bus dropped me off, and spent a couple of days sight-seeing.
The foibles continued over these days. I tried to book a trip to Caracol, a Mayan site about 2 hours from San Ignacio, but no trips were running due to low tourist numbers. I ended up booking a trip to Barton Caves, but during my tour the tour guide's pickup truck stalled twice and needed a jump. One of the rivers that we needed to ford was too high, so we ended up having to cross a rickety rope bridge and walk the last half hour. Upon arrival at Barton Caves the lighting wasn't working, so I had to wait an hour while the tour guide tried to get the lighting to work. The tours, buses and restaurants all had slow service, and the beer was often warmish.
The thing about all these issues was that I couldn't do a single thing about any of them. More than that, they weren't really my responsibility to fix. In my life back in London, where I have a job to do, deadlines to meet, bills to pay and things around the house to fix, every issue is something more to add onto my pile of things to worry about. In Belize, on holiday, none of it is my responsibility. I can sit back and let someone else worry about it.
In a weird way, it's nice to see the problems and know they aren't mine to solve.
And, in the the balance the food was good and the cave tour was impressive.
Barton Creek Cave Entrance
Barton Creek Cave stalagmite
Fried Chicken and Motorscooters
Hi-Et Hotel Balcony
By the time I had returned two days later to Belize City, and was catching a taxi from the bus station to my frantic brain had been tuned down to the slowly-slowly life of Central America. So upon arrival at the water taxi dock, when the taxi driver tried to open his trunk to retrieve my backpack and said, "Oh mon, where is the string? I can't open the trunk without the string!", I wasn't phased.
It transpired that the latch on his trunk was broken, and he had rigged a string to pull open the latch from the inside. By hanging the string out, he could tug on it, which would unlatch the trunk and pop it open. Without the string, no way into the trunk.
"Whatever," I said. "We'll figure out a way to get it out."
For the next twenty minutes, the taxi driver, myself and one of the workers at the water taxi company casually discussed options to get my backpack out of the car. Finally, the taxi driver pulled apart the back seat of his Toyota to get into the trunk and retrieve my back.
"Thanks," I said, handing over my fare.
"Sorry about the trunk," he said.
I shrugged. "No worries," I said. I had come to Belize to relax and get away from my stressful life, and as long as I get there in the end, that is all that matters.