The border between Mexico and Belize is a slow moving river called the Rio Hondo where alligators lurk and drooping trees drag finger tips in the murky green water. Crossing the steel bridge spanning the gap between the two countries Raul and I are kept busy trying to rid ourselves of yet another unwanted straggler. This one is trying to convince us to give him our passports and $10 each so he can get us our entrance stamp for Belize. I am almost deceived by his friendly charm, singsong Caribbean accent and helpful demeanour – but by now I’ve seen too many of his kind to fall for his tricks. I’m trying to think of a polite way to tell him to leave us alone, Raul on the other hand is having nothing to do with it and he abruptly tells the guy where to go.
At the Belizean immigration office we line up behind a strange looking family, the men sporting Abe Lincoln style beards under wide brimmed hats, work shirts, leather boots and denim overalls. The women wear long dresses over old fashioned leather shoes and bonnets tied up under their chins. Raul and I exchange a sideways glance – these guys look like they just stepped off a horse carriage from the 1920’s. Where were we?
A little later with passports stamped and stomachs grumbling we manage to hitch a lift to the first settlement: Corozal - a sunny beachside border town made up mostly of bus companies, money changers and tour operators. The friendly man who picks us up points out the remains of a Mayan fort on the hill behind town - forlorn and lost to ruin like so many others, yet somehow managing to hold a sense of stubborn pride within its crumbling walls.
After getting dropped off in the centre of town we find some deep fried chicken and greasy chips in the lazy, shady plaza. Groups of young Latino men in baggy shorts and basketball boots escape the heat of the sun under large trees. Smoking cigarettes and passing bottles concealed in brown paper bags, they look at us with mild curiosity as we pass. A black man in a business suit hurries past, impatiently swerving around our lumbering backpacks and pushing into the bank. A police man cradling a shotgun stands under the tall yellow church, sweeping a disinterested gaze over the people. I get the feeling that today is a day just like any other for these people. In a way it is for us too - although we’re surrounded by strange accents, new sights, and a different way of life to wrap our heads around, as a backpacker you are faced with these changes all the time and you quickly learn to roll with the rhythm.
The highway south out of town runs directly beside the ocean. It’s my first sight of the Caribbean and it’s as clear, blue and sparkling as I had imagined it would be. Tufts of palm trees sprout from the golden sand to nod and sway in the sun. Locals on bikes smile and greet us as they pass, their tyres cutting tracks in the feathers of wind-blown sand which stretch across the tar-seal. This town and its people seem to have not a care in the world and the mood is infectious.
Lazing back on our packs, we half-heartedly attempt to hitch hike for about an hour before giving in and waving down a bus - an old blue beast which roars and lurches, trailing a plume of billowing exhaust smoke behind it. We lug our backpacks on board and squeeze into a seat behind an old black lady who nods us a warm greeting. Across the aisle is another family like the one we seen at the immigration office - a middle aged couple with two blonde haired boys. They sit in silence as we chug along the long, flat and straight road, gazing solemnly out at the countless rows of sugar cane marching to the horizon. We later learn that they are Mennonites; a Christian based religion with origins in Germany who have set up a farming community here in Belize. Like the Amish but not so strict, they follow an old fashioned way of life and keep to themselves.
Belize’s lax immigration laws have made it a culturally rich and diverse country, with people emigrating from Europe, Asia, Central, South and North America, and the Caribbean islands. These newcomers combine with the local Mestizos (of mixed European and Indigenous descent), the Crioles (of solely European descent), the Garifuna (of African descent) and the Indigenous Mayan to produce a colourful and tolerant nation, the like of which you won’t find anywhere else on Earth.
Arriving in Orange Walk Town, the second largest settlement in Belize, we stop in at a small store to stock up on a few things. I ask the Criole woman behind the counter if she knows of anywhere we can pitch our tent for the night. Why of course, she replies, we can camp on her neighbours lawn just across the road. I'm a little taken aback by the generosity, but Raul jumps in and acccepts the offer enthusiastically. We buy a couple of beers and pull up some chairs in front of the store where we then pass the evening talking with the store owners David - a small olive skinned man of about fifty with grey hair cropped short over a narrow featured face and skinny arms with fading tattoos sprouting from under his clean white singlet - and his wife Maria - thick curly brown hair, big glasses a flowery blouse and a loud musical laugh. Their two teenage daughters also join us - Geri and Rebecca - intelligent, pretty and full of questions.
As the sky darkens and the street lights blink on Maria produces a small fold-out table from the house. Soon people from the neighbourhood appear to buy tickets for tonight’s lottery draw. Maria chats away cheerfully as she rips the numbered tickets out of a book and scribbles the person’s name in biro on the stub. She greets all of her customers as friends, trading the latest gossip and asking about their families. It is obviously a weekly ritual she enjoys thoroughly.
Using a screw and some glue David fixes my guitar which broke on the bus and I strum a few tunes. He shows us pieces of jade carved into the shapes of faces and animals, explaining slyly that they have been taken illegally from nearby Mayan ruins. Leaning in close with a mischievous glint in his eyes and a hint of rum on his breath, he tells us that he knows where there are much more of these precious ornaments and that he plans to export them overseas on the black market for lots of money. His wife and daughters roll their eyes as though they’ve heard this plan a thousand times before. I sit back and smile, watching the family’s good-natured bickering and laughter.
It’s amazing how quickly one adjusts to new experiences. The life of a backpacker can seem a little strange and daunting at first, but after a short time the border crossings, the hustlers, the buses and the constantly changing environment become something to be taken in stride. So much so that at times you need a taste of normality just to remind you what life is like back in the “real” world. I've seen some amazing things in my travels - some of the most beautiful scenery this planet has to offer - but sitting outside a simple neighbourhood store with these genuinely friendly people, listening to the the squeals and laughter of kids playing in the distance, watching women push strollers through puddles of warm light cast by house windows as the smell of a familys dinner floats on the warm evening air is one of the most memorable experiences of them all. For me it is a welcome return to every-day life - a life which at times seems so far away from the nomadic existence of a backpacker. I’m grateful for this touch of normality, grateful that we have been welcomed with open arms and open minds into this loving and warm environment and grateful for being reminded of the beauty that can be found in the simple things in life.
Later as Raul and I are lying in the tent, we hear footsteps and hushed voices approaching. I open the door to find Geri and Rebecca standing with hands full of tinned food and chocolate bars for us. They unload their treasure and wish us luck on our journey. We are leaving early in the morning to Caye Caulker, a small island of golden sand, mangrove trees and coconut palms off the coast, so we won't see them again. We thank them profusely, say good bye and I zip up the tent. Rolling up my towel which I use for a pillow I shake my head in wonder at the welcome we have been given to this country. The generosity and warmth the people have shown us has been amazing, and it's only the first day. With basically the length of the country left before us, I have to wonder: what other colourful characters will we uncover in this unexpected jewel of the Caribbean, Belize?