I needed to renew my Visa, leaving me with a few options. Number one, head back to Mexico for a few days and come back to the region, or buzz over to Belize and then down to Honduras. I had to meet James in San Pedro Sula at the end of September, and plans needed to be made. Mexico would feel like regression, and Belize was known for being expensive. I am so pleased I chose to move to Belize, it was a hell of a month, and my feet have barely touched the ground.
I chose to move quickly and cheaply at first. I wasn’t planning on spending much time in the country, and, yes, it was a little more expensive than other places. However, to call it expensive is simply the waffle of people who don’t know how to penny-pinch like I do. Hostels are about $5 more than surrounding countries, and food isn’t almost free, but the value in comparison to the cesspit of somewhere significantly more expensive like Tulum or Cancun is astounding. Missing Belize would have been a real shame.
I hopped on a bus from Flores to San Ignacio. It took only a few hours and took us straight over the land border, which gave me no issues at all. A simple stamp on both sides and a welcome to Belize. I swapped my Guatemala’s Q for Belizean Dollars on the border with a guy holding a wedge of currency and a calculator. I expected to get gouged by the guy, but for to 50 or so dollars I traded, he only took perhaps one for himself. Looking at my handful of new money, I was surprised to see a familiar face.
My hands were full of a face I hadn’t seen for a while, and not just because she was dead and I hadn’t been in the UK for ages. Belizean dollars have the queen’s face all over them, and she’s still the hot version, unlike the old cabbage we have on the pound. I forget just how far-reaching the British empire was and just how many people fell under her yoke.
Another nice surprise, in a way, was the use of English as a first language. Don’t get me wrong, I love speaking Spanish, and I was super excited to start using everything I had learned. But, to hear my native tongue spoken by everyone, and with a beautiful Creole lilt, was refreshing. Just one short hop over one border and the whole landscape and world had changed. This was only a few miles from Guatemala, and within minutes of riding the bus over the border, it was very clear that it was not the same at all.
Typically, there were a lot of small roadside shops, stalls, cafés, and the like as we moved through the beautiful green jungle of the country. However, the buildings in the towns and villages and the small huts dotted around were not the same as anywhere else. A completely different architecture is in use in Belize and was one I had only ever really seen in games and films.
Wooden cladding made up the walls of the stilted houses around the country. It was a welcome relief from the usual unpainted breezeblock of Guatemala. Tin rooves still adorned most places, but what really made the homes stand out was the space given to verandas raised high above the ground by the seemingly floating houses.
The wooden walls commonly stood a solid 5 feet from the ground. Often, I noticed houses had more than enough space for a whole floor beneath with at least 10 feet of headspace. Wooden stairs lead up to the front of the houses that, rather than leading straight to a door, end on a veranda that runs the whole length of the front of the house. These houses are made to be sat outside of when the sun is out and safely above floodwater when hurricanes roll in. It was only after seeing the torrential downpours and almost instant flooding that I understood the high house tradition.
Peeling painted wood and rickety staircases immediately became my first visual impressions of the new country. It took only an hour or so to be dropped off at my hostel in the town just over the border, and as soon as I arrived, I knew I had made a great decision.
Yellow Belly Hostel is named after the native bird of the country, one that I saw often in the area. It had blisteringly fast internet, a free breakfast, and I only had to share a room with three other people in an air-conditioned dorm. My plans for Belize were to smash out as many articles as I could before my brother arrived and I slacked off. I had a big review to write and didn’t expect to have too much of a wild time. I was completely wrong.
San Ignacio had a few excursions to enjoy if so inclined. Most people come to the town for one particular tour that ventures into the jungle and then to an ancient Mayan cave, complete with skeletons and all. It cost a huge $120 dollars and was totally not what I fancied doing, in part due to the cost and also because I had just had my own Mayan cave experience in Flores and didn’t feel the need to spend more time inside the earth. According to the people who took the journey, it was fantastic.
During my stay, a number of people moved through the hostel. Sometimes, when traveling, you will come across a moment when all the people staying in a place just click, and the social life becomes fantastic. This is what happened in Yellow Belly, and it may have just made Belize for me. It also helped that my brain was in a place that kept me on the sharp end of sociability, and meeting new people wasn’t just easy but drug-like in pleasure.
Bubbles runs Yellow Belly Hostel, and he does it in part for the money, but I think it is more because he loves the sociability of it all. He brings people together and feeds rum punch like it is mother’s milk to his suckling hostel guest babies. It makes for a lot of fun, and his energy is the core of the place’s success. He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I liked his company a lot.
During my stay in Yellow Belly hostel in San Ignacio, it also happened to be the celebration of the Battle of St George Caye. This festival is the memorial of when buccaneers, slaves, and the Brits beat back the Spanish from invading the country. Although a lot of credit is given to the English for the defense, another popular opinion by the colonially bitter instead gives credit to the monstrous barrier reef that runs the length of the country. Either way, a party was afoot, and Bubbles had a plan.
Belize City, commonly mistaken as the capital, still hosts some big events and is only a few hours from San Ignacio. Bubbles owns a huge minibus, and he had seen an opportunity for a party. The evening before the celebrations, he approached me with a plan. We hop in the bus early in the morning. Load the cooler up with rum, snacks, and ice, and make the journey to Belize City to watch the parade and take part in the revelries.
Obviously, there was absolutely no way I would turn down the opportunity. As the evening went on, the two of us invited more and more from the Hostel. It didn’t take much to persuade people that heading to the city would be worth it. Some were hesitant due to the rumored violence, and others because of the journey, but by the end, we had pretty much filled the bus, and the table we were sitting around was buzzing with the excitement of a trip the next day.
The next morning we all loaded into the minibus, with Bubbles dad manning the wheel so Bubs could get loose. As we all piled in, two new guests who had only just walked through the door also squeezed in after dropping their gear in their room. Half an hour after the originally planned time, we set off for the local supermarket. We were making good time.
Everyone grabbed what they needed. Rum is cheaper than water in Belize, and it tastes fantastic. Between myself and three other women, we picked up a few liters of coconut rum and enough pineapple juice to have more than enough for the day. Snacks, cups, and ice were loaded into the van, and we prepared to set off. Just as we pulled out, we got a call. Two more people had arrived at the hostel, and we needed to go get them too. It was fine, we still had time, and now we had enough rum to drown the buccaneers from all those years ago.
The van was full. So many great people, some apprehensive, others geared up for a party, everyone now sporting Belizean flags, bands, hats, glasses, and more patriotic garb. The journey was a long one, but the mood was high, and the conversation was great. The van was full of bubbling chat and laughter the whole journey.
I was lucky enough to sit next to Lisa. We talked about cameras the night before during the plans for the trip. She had a focus on portrait photography, and I wanted to know all about it. She is an ex-curator from Belgium, with a previous life in Amsterdam and a family lineage from El Salvador. She had been living across the lake from me in San Marco for the past number of months, studying the Mayan people, getting in touch with her spirituality, and collecting together information for a book she has had stuck in her mind for years.
I don’t get down with spirituality. My amygdala is calcified to the point that it can be used to cut diamonds, and even the thought of doing yoga makes me feel a little sick in my mouth. I have spoken at length about my feelings on monetized pseudo-spirituality and often liken it to televangelism. Lisa listened to my stubborn, bitter rants and took it all on board. In many ways, she agreed. Satiated, I was able to relax, and we didn’t stop talking until we arrived in the City.
There is something so affirming about a conversation with someone completely new that has the ease that that one did. Lisa is someone with opinions, direction, and goals, each of which has been thought about deeply and explored to the full. It results in conversations that can be opened up and rarely result in anything less than an hour of discussion. When someone knows a lot about something they love or something they want, any subject is impossible to not be completely engaged in.
A good friend of mine once told me that he would never date someone under the age of 30 for one reason in particular. When someone is 30, they have most likely had at least 10 years to become an expert in something. They have had, given they’re not a dullard, a long time to become obsessed and informed on a subject, hobby, or passion. This results in someone imbued with interest and excitement. You can listen to them talk about something they know about, watch them get passionate and obsessed with something, and the resulting conversation is intellectual and interesting. Lisa is the quintessential example of this. Talking with her was always an exercise in intellect. Not in the way that it was pompous or necessarily high brow, but more in the sense that opinions, facts, and passion kept the subjects interesting and allowed us to argue, discuss, comfortably disagree, and often see eye to eye on a much deeper level than I had maybe become accustomed to. It also helped that we had similar passions and areas of intrigue, even if we often differed on which sides we sat on.
Either way, the journey flew by, and the mood in the bus was only getting more electric the closer we got to the city. Bubbles kept the tunes on blast, and before we knew it, we were pulling into the dilapidated but buzzing city.
After unloading the bus of people, coolers, and the rum punch barrel, we headed into the throngs of people to watch the parade. We had arrived just in time and made our way, two by two, behind Bubbles and I as we transported the cooler along the broken pavements. Bubbles took care to point out the missing manhole covers as we traversed the broken pavements. Sadly, his message didn’t get all the way down the line. One of us, too absorbed in the chat and cold cup of rum punch, disappeared down a pit.
From the front, all we heard was a scream. Turning around, we could see the poor woman’s head poking just above ground level, and she didn’t look too happy. These manholes were full of old water, all sorts of broken glass and metal, and the sides were sheer concrete. She was pulled out immediately, but the damage was already done. There was a lot of blood, but she put on a brave face.
Bubbles, the ever-gracious host, immediately whipped her back to the van and tied her leg up. A huge gouge ran from almost her ankle to her knee, exposing fat and what looked like bone. She took a brief minute to lose consciousness while she was bandaged up, but 15 minutes later, she joined us roadside with a fresh drink in her hand and no sign of dampening the party. I have rarely met someone who has let themselves be so unfazed by such a grievous wound before. The party went on, and what a party it was.
The streets swelled with color and sound. Huge floats dragged by American trucks rolled down the street. Each one carried a DJ, a huge entourage often throwing sweets, beads, and other bits of merchandise, and sound systems that wouldn’t look out of place in a stadium. They blasted endless Reggaeton, Dancehall, and Reggae bangers to their colorful, dancing tails.
Behind each float came the entertainment. Men, women, and children danced for hours behind these walls of sound. Each new group came with a different style, but everyone was just as impressive as the last. Enormous outfits of feathers, beads, silks, and lace adorned everyone. Despite the sheer volume of outfit, everyone was still almost naked somehow. The costumes were suspended from their bodies, both exposing everything while still being absolutely monstrous.
The dancing was wild and hilariously sexual. If you even stepped close to the front of the crowd, you were immediately pulled into the road and ridden by half-dressed dancers. The whole scene was loud and colorful and left my face aching from smiling. It was a feast for the senses in every sense, and the joy of the people around me was infectious. The pride of Belizeans was visible not just in the way they celebrated but also overtly in their open conversation about their country. It was a common occurrence to be approached by someone and welcomed to their place and converse about the wonderfulness of it all. It’s a patriotism I can get behind, so at odds with the violent nationalism so often seen in other countries. Welcoming and warm.
We managed to catch the parade twice in the day. Once at our original spot, then after piling into the van again, we took a shortcut and ended up at the endpoint of the parade, right by the stadium. We all stopped off at a food truck that served some of the best fried chicken I had ever eaten. Crispy and delicious, spiced to perfection, and accompanied by more and more rum punch.
As the dancers made their way through the last miles of their dance, they didn’t let up at all. If anything, as they gyrated their way to the finish line, they put more into it. By this point, nobody stood by the roadside was safe. Look one of the befeathered dancers in the eye, and bam, booty all up on you. The atmosphere was fantastic, and the energy seemed endless.
We made our tired way home to San Ignacio. Promises of continuing to the afterparty were made, but few of us really knew if we would make it. However, the festivities hadn’t yet finished. We all disembarked from the van, took various showers and drink breaks, and it was time to head down into the small town for the local celebrations.
We were all now bonded for life through trauma, music, dancing, and sexy outfits. The day had flown by beautifully, and it had been one of those rare moments in which all present just seemed to click. Oftentimes, in places like hostels, there will be big groups, and yet the science is just all wrong. Pleasantries and light conversation will be had, and the odd drink is shared, but the real core just isn’t there. This was not the case with the group from Yellow Belly Hostel. From where I stood, we got on famously. It was good for the soul and a social explosion I feel like I needed after my period of sadness and solitude back in Flores. It broke me out of my cyclical funk and reminded me that I can connect and enjoy it too.
San Ignacio held many pleasures and joys for me during my stay, mostly to do with the people I met. As it came time to move on, I had been convinced by Belize enough to decide to continue my stay here. The Caribbean islands of Caye Caulker beckoned, and it just so happened that a number of the people from Yellow Belly were also heading that way. We all ended up booking into the same place and ventured out, backpacks on, to figure out the local transport to the island.
I had got work done, made plenty of new friends, and absolutely torn the Cyberpunk 2077 community a new one with a horrifically scathing review that resulted in some rather funny Reddit posts.