I hadn't taken a vacation in a while. I'd traveled a bit to see family, but that was pretty much it. So when time came to take off, I had a couple of ideas. One was to make one more dip into Central America and the other was to take an extended trip ton India. I bandied ideas around and the first semi-plan was to go to Belize and then over to Guatemala. The principal targets would be Lamanai and Altun Ha in Belize over to Tikal in Guatemala and then a couple of days in Antigua, Guatemala.
I mentioned this to my sister and she expressed an interest in coming along. My response was, “yeah, but you roll my way; no planning and no itinerary.” Not that she's big on planning, either, and to be sure, she's one of the all-time great travel companions. She'd had a pretty intense year and was happily non-employed so time wasn't an issue and we headed down around October 23, just in time to find out that there was a hurricane on the way toward Belize City.
We landed in Belize City and took a cab from the airport to the hotel. Our cab drive was Floyd, a terrific guy who pointed out the environs and caught us up-to-date on Belizean history. Upon dropping us off at the hotel, he gave us his card in case we were interested in using his services to tour the ruins or go just about anywhere.
We checked in at the Chateau Carribbean which is a charming old colonial building. The staff was great; I should mention now that Belizeans are about the most genuinely welcoming people I've ever met. I think they're really glad to see you so that they can share their Belizeness with you. Seriously. I don't recall meeting people across the board who are so remarkably contented. Many recognize that there are substantial issues regarding their government but they're justifiably proud of their country.
|A room with a view|
|One of the views|
|...and that should do for now.|
The first day was pretty much just getting acclimated. All we had heard was that the storm was a storm and not a hurricane. We strolled out past the New Town Barracks and checked out the Princess Hotel and Casino which also boasted the only cinema in town (“Iron Man 2” was playing; saw it already) and headed back to the hotel.
|Out around New Town Barracks|
|A little later that evening|
|and even a little later yet.|
The next day was spent exploring Belize City. With all due respect, it's not what I would designate as a destination. My original thought was to use BC as a base to travel to/from. The day's exploits were alternately amusing and for a moment harrowing. For one thing, my sister wanted breakfast. The meal we'd had the day before at the Chateau was okay, but she wanted an omelette. We headed out into the street and no sooner were we out than we discovered that the various roadside vendors were out, as well.
My sister had to fend off a woman who wanted to give her corn rows and I wound up drinking rum out of a coconut. The woman's husband approached me asking me if I might be interested in some herbal entertainment or perhaps something in a powdery form. He was impressed when I told him those days were gone but I'd indulge in this coconut beverage. After all, what's a little imbibing in the morning? There was something fun about walking around with a coconut and sipping a flammable liquid out of a straw.
It wasn't the best of rums, but it wasn't the worst and I had to admit that maybe something more substantial was in line. Nearby there was a small compound of restaurants but none that were serving breakfast. I was starting to feel a little peckish and took a seat in a bar/cafe, thinking that there might be something sis might want. She said she had to take off for the girl's room.
I sat for a bit and told the waitress I was waiting and after a bit of time, realized Tina'd been gone for a good while. This being Central America, she being a skinny blonde and me being slightly responsible, I headed out to hunt her down.
A couple of women had seen her; but the second woman pointed to the street and said she'd headed out that way.
Now, not to sound sexist or xenophobic or in general, a worry-wart (when it comes to my sister, I never worry; but concern does seem to fit the bill); but a single, blonde woman wandering around in a coastal town in Central America has a little potential for some harrassment. I was trying to decide which way I should go when she showed up out of the blue, laughing hysterically. She wasn't hysterical, but if she had been, I would have understood.
Heading out in search of a cafe for breakfast introduced her to the world of scam artists and guys who are awfully fond of single American blondes. With no need for lecture, we headed back down in search of breakfast. What we found were the not-unfamiliar vendors plying their wares and in very Belizean manner telling us to slow down, that we were walking too fast.
And then we discovered Prince Charles, a raconteur if there ever was one. Dude was chock full of pseudo-history about Belize, but was really, really entertaining. Well, I thought so. The cafe we wound up in wasn't exactly four-star – it actually kind of, um, sucked – but his tales were amusing (he could go on for ninety minutes but we got the 20 minute performance.) The most amusing aspect of this was that he claimed to have collaborated on a book about Belizean history with a historian who somehow, never got around to paying him. In fact, Prince Charles had had quite a storied bio if one was to believe him. I saw no reason not to...
We did some additional wandering around with an eye to heading out to Altun Ha the next day. I figured we'd head there first and then determine the specifics for Guatemala. I think we headed over to the old Governer's house and checked out Bliss's monument. There's more to do in Belize City, by the way, but I think it's a case of do you want to? If I lived there, of course, I'd see the city with different eyes. However, as happens when you don't live in a place and you have other things you'd rather do, it's best to check the degree of harshness; but I have to admit, I was getting kind of done with BC.
First things first, though, I called Floyd and booked him for a run out to Altun Ha. I bargained him down in one of the few times I've ever been successful at this sort of thing, and I ask you to keep that in mind over the course of this episode.
|This and the following is just from strolling along the coastline.|
|The winds kicked up a bit and clouds began rolling in; but this was just the harbinger of Richard.|
We headed out early out toward Ladyville where Floyd was from. Along the way, we stopped off and bought bananas by the roadside that the three of us shared. Floyd has a daughter in London who has come back to visit him, but whom he's never gone to visit “because you see, sir, and I'm ashamed to admit it, I am afraid to fly; but my wife is not and she's been several times.” Floyd pointed out the area he was from and how it's changed over his life. He paid especial regard to the investment that Chinese and Taiwanese businesses are making in his country, mostly in the form of hotels and other sectors of the service industries.
Once at Altun Ha, we headed into the park. The day was overcast and we found Annemarie, our guide. Annemarie is Belizean but had lived in the U.S. (California and the northeast, as I recall), Guatemala and Mexico. She was terrific in her knowledge of archaeology and the site, of course. Unfortunately, as we were ascending one of the higher platforms, the rainforest decided to show off why it's called that. No biggie, though.
Some thunder and lightning later, we huddled in Annemarie's office where she showed off some sandstone carvings of Aztec calendars and carved quasi-Mayan maks. The electricity was out, so there was no way to swipe credit cards but Annemarie said there was an ATM in Ladyville and she'd be happy to take us there if we didn't mind waiting while she picked up her son to have him come and watch the site and the store.
We walked out to the parking lot and there was Floyd. I had thought he would have headed back to Belize City and picked up other fares, but he said he was perfectly content waiting for us, that he often came to Altun Ha because he liked the peace and quiet. He knew the ATM Annemarie was referring to and dropped her and me off at her house so she could pick up her son, drop him off at Altun Ha and we'd all meet up down the road. All of this seemed so close, I didn't give it much thought timewise.
I met Annemarie's family. Her husband and another son were working on the family spread, and she and I and her son took off down the road in her Land Rover. We picked up and dropped off one of her brothers-in-law en route and dropped her son off at the site. On the way to Lady Walk, we chatted about traveling, her extensive moves around the hemisphere and her general contentedness with Belize. She said “we don't have much money, but we have this; what more do we want?” as she pointed to the surrounding forest and utter beauty along the road.
|The remarkable Annmarie on my right.|
Maybe three-quarters of an hour had gone by. We caught up with Floyd and Tina outside a gas station near Ladyville where I paid Annemarie for the masks and an Aztec calendar. I'd given Floyd a little cash but as an aside, my sister told me that that day was his day off. Admittedly, he didn't have to accept the proposition, but likewise, it occurred to me that this was a day where he could have been doing something else. So I paid him his original fare plus tip. He had accepted a lower fare, granted, but the man was so truly gracious, I couldn't justify sticking to “my bargain.”
Once we arrived back at the Chateau Carribbean, the young lady at the front desk, called me over. She said that she'd understand if we wanted to move to another location as hurricane Richard was due to hit the city this evening. I kind of shrugged my shoulders until she added, “no one will be here; all the staff are heading home; plus there's no back-up generator and, um, your room leaks a lot.” That was nice of her. We headed for the Radisson next door.