Thursday, May 9, 2013

Un-Belize-able Time, Part 1

(Unfortunately I cannot take credit for the creativity of this title; I stole it from our cave-tubing guide.)

Monday

Today was the day to cross the border, we left our lakeside campground at Laguna Azul and went south. After filling up on gas (at the border the gas was only ~$3.60/gal here versus ~$5.60+/gal in Belize). When we hit the México side of the border, we were waved to park and get our passports checked. In our guidebook, we were told that we would be able to keep our tourist card and just pay a small fee to get it stamped “Doble Entrada.” However, the official at the gate said that the “Doble Entrada” was a myth and took our tourist cards and receipts. He said we could get new 180 day passes when we came back. Then a (unofficial) guy tried to direct us to the both where we could get our temporary vehicle import sticker removed. We ignored that and went on as we would be coming back within the time limit on the sticker.

Then, we drove over the bridge to Belize. We weren’t exactly sure where to go. As we proceeded forward, we saw a small white building on the right offering insurance, but as it wasn’t by the Belizean government, we decided to bypass it. Then we saw another little white building on the right with a green road sign that said “Mexico” and had an arrow. I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean. As we drove past it, I saw a sign on the building that said something about rates. I thought that might be the insurance place, so I told Jonathan to turn around and go back. As I went to go check out what it was, someone else pulled up and a guy came out and sprayed his tires. Ah, the fumigation place. So, Jonathan pulled up as well. We paid the $5 US, got our receipt (to show to the border crossing officials later), and got our tires sprayed. I then asked him where to go, and he pointed out the road.

We drove forward and found some parking next to the “Customs Gate.” So, we parked. The officials outside told us we needed our paperwork and to walk into the Customs building. We went on in and got our passports stamped and then got in line for the vehicle import. The official there seemed to have a bit of a “concentration issue,” as he kept talking other officials and checking his phone (and answering it) and then struggling to pick up where he left off on the paperwork. Several minutes and a few signatures later, we had our vehicle import stamped on Jonathan’s passport. They asked if we had luggage to inspect, we told them it was all in the car and would hard to be brought over there. They waved us on. We got instructions for the next step, drive the vehicle through the gate and pick up the insurance at the large white building that you could see from there.

We made it through the customs gate with only a cursory inspection of the contents of the vehicle. Then we found the insurance building. It cost us $29 for a week in Belize, and we were out in less time than it took to get the vehicle import permit. We were told to put the insurance sticker in the lower corner of the driver’s side of the windshield. Turns out that all the locals get to put theirs on the passenger side. Makes us stand out, especially at those police and military checkpoints of which the Belizean insurance guy said that there weren’t really any. He lied. There were several. One of which helped us realize we had missed our destination. See, one of the first things we noticed was that Belize doesn’t believe in road signs, especially the kind that tell you the streets or directions. So, we didn’t realize we had already passed Corozal Town, where we had planned to stay that night. When we got stopped at the military checkpoint, he asked us where we were going. Once we said Corozal Town, he said that we had missed it. It was behind us. When he let us go, we told him we do a U-turn and return. This time, we found the place, I even remember passing it before, but since I didn’t think we were in the right town yet, I hadn’t checked the name so it didn’t even occur to me that we should stop.

Tuesday

Before we left Corozal Town, we made a stop by a bank to stock up on some Belizean money. And, then, because it was free and easy to get to, we decided to stop at Santa Rita, a Mayan site in town. I misread the directions and took us up the wrong road. Jonathan read the directions and figured out where we had messed up, and backtracked to the spot. When we made the U-turn to down that road, a man on a bike yelled at us. Concerned that we were breaking some kind of law, I looked back. It wasn’t a police officer, so I didn’t say anything to Jonathan. Now on the right road, we found the way pretty easily. When we stopped at the ruins, the guy who had yelled at us, caught up to us. He had apparently figured that we were searching for the ruins and wanted to make sure we made it there. Very friendly and helpful people, these Belizeans.

The site was actually being restored when we arrived. They had crews there, moving rocks, digging, etc. It was interesting to watch them work. Additionally, they were doing it all by hand. No noisy, efficient machines to assist in the work or to bother the neighbors.

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Without daylight savings time in Central America, the sun comes up really early. And, as a result, I get up really early, which drags Jonathan out of bed earlier as well. Consequently, we arrived at Orange Walk Town earlier than expected, despite the detour we took when we missed the turn to get to Orange Walk (I did mention that Belizean roads are obnoxiously unsigned). Fortunately, when we did, a guy chased us down and told us that we were going the wrong way. He then pointed us in the right direction as he turned back around to go wherever he had been headed.

Since it was so early, I thought we could make a stop by a bakery. We pulled into town and found it to be a set of confusing one-ways and narrow, crowded streets. So we decided to try to find some parking and walk. That turned out to be pretty hard. One guy signaled us to try to park in a small spot. However it was too small and the guy behind it wanted out (after we tried pulling in), so we pulled out and continued on. Fortunately there was a spot just around the corner (or at least we didn’t see a sign and didn’t get a ticket for parking there). As we parked, the guy who tried to help us park earlier came and started talking to Jonathan. Super friendly people, as I said before, a bit uncomfortably so, at least for us anti-social engineers.

After getting some goods at the bakery (some breads, a donut for Jonathan, and a carrot cake for me), we decided to go to the Belize Tourism Board office there in the middle of the plaza near where we parked. She gave us directions for how to get to the two Mayan sites that we (I) wanted to visit. The free one, Cuello, is the oldest known Mayan site in the world. To get visit, though, you have to get permission from the distillery that ones it though. So we walked over to the local plant and asked for permission. They gave it.  After a stop at the nearby internet cafe (BZ$3/hr), we went to check it out. It was outside of town in a field. We went to the wrong gate the first time, but that allowed us to get instructions on how to get the rest of the way. Then we went to the wrong gate the second time. It had large rocks in front of it, and I told Jonathan that I didn’t think we could get through. Fortunately, at that time, the guy came over and pointed to the next gate. We got it right that time.

DSC03419 The Cuello Distillery

DSC03421 The only unearthed pyramid at Cuello. You could see tons of areas that looked like more buildings buried, though.

As it was still rather early in the day, we decided to head to Lamanai via land (most visitors come via a water taxi up New River). After taking the roads, I can see why most people take the boat. The roads were bumpy and probably took just as long a boat trip would. So, if you can part with $80pp, it is probably worth it.

Lamanai was intriguing, mostly because of its setting. The views of the water from the pyramid was nice and there were howler monkeys. When we approached the ball court, there was suddenly an indescribable noise, something similar to a large growl at first, but it continued into a bit different sound. At first it sounded like some predatory animal like a jaguar had found distaste with us or something. I asked the groundskeeper there and he said it was the howler monkeys. The sounds they made changed over time, though. As we got farther away, it reminded me of the sounds that the Universal Studios Jurassic Park ride plays to make you feel like you are in a jungle surrounded by dinosaurs.

DSC03467Clones!

 DSC03452 Check out how large these Cohune palm leaves are! 

DSC03478 As we neared the visitor’s center to leave, we finally saw the howler monkeys.

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After we finished, we tried to find a place to sleep there. We asked the park rangers, but they said that couldn’t interfere with local businesses. We found a eco-lodge recommended in our guidebook, but they wanted $178US for a bungalow. Just so you know, eco-lodges are just an excuse to provide you a buggy, cheap room (made palapa-style) with no air conditioning, if they are really good, they provide you a mosquito net over the bed. I am not really into eco-lodges especially when they charge an arm and a leg for it. They told us there was a cheaper place in town called Gonzalez Guest House, but they didn’t provide good directions for it, just that it was orange. After wandering through the small town, we eventually found it. They wanted $80BZ ($40US) for a room with hard beds and cold showers. After we agreed to it, she told me that the main water line in the town had busted that day and they hadn’t fixed it yet. There was only enough water left in the lines to use the restroom, not shower and they would bring us a bucket so we could rinse off. All that money and we couldn’t even get a shower, just wouldn’t work for us. If we drove back to Orange Walk Town, we could get a shower for $15 US. So, we got refunded and drove back to Orange Walk Town.

On the way back, our GPS took us on a different route, through Shipyard, a Mennonite village. Apparently, just before sunset is the popular time for the women and children to go on a buggy ride. One of the best sights was an old grain-hauling truck cab, stuffed with 4 or 5 Mennonite men, all wearing overalls and hats. They looked a bit cramped, and I am impressed they weren’t hitting each other in the ears with the brims.

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One interesting thing about this Mennonite colony is that there were no beards on the men. My Mennonite relatives all grow beards once they get married. I guess it is too hot and humid here to have them.

 

Wednesday

We rose and got ready without much fanfare and drove to Belize City. We were thinking we catch a ride out to the Cayes from there and go snorkeling. After navigating through the narrow, crowded streets of Belize City, we were stopped a military checkpoint. The guys were confused by us, I guess. At first, they tried to tell us that our insurance was expired. I explained we still had 4 more days or so. Then after that was cleared up, they needed to have our passports in addition to Jonathan’s license. We literally spent 5 minutes there while they filled out paperwork. The second guy wanted to make small talk and talked with Jonathan about the van and the GPS, how he needed to get one himself to do some traveling. As it was taking a while, I asked him if there is a lot of paperwork for tourists. He said no, that they do this to everyone they stop. I guess we just attract attention… Finally, we made it to our next campground, Cucumber Beach Marina. Already hungry at 10 am (we had been up since 6am), we decided to head into town eat at Dit’s Restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that is popular with both locals and tourists.

Our GPS told us the restaurant was near the canal that it dropped us off at. So, finding the first parking spot that we could, we got out to walk the rest of the way. I found what I thought was King Street, but decided to ask a road worker to be sure. She said that it was and then proceeded to give me directions to restaurant that I wanted to go to. As a “favor” to her kindness she wanted a dollar to buy herself a water. I didn’t have any. And as we started walking we were regaled with offers of taxis. We walked and walked and walked. Jonathan was ready to give up and cook something ourselves. But, then I saw a house number, so we continued walking to find out if the numbers were going up or down. We finally found another; they were going down, which was good. Then we crossed over another canal and it was right there.

Map picture
Pins from left to right: where we parked, where the GPS said it was, where the actual restaurant was. (Notice all the one-way streets)

The restaurant wasn’t anything I would have chosen to eat at, based upon looks alone. At least it was clean inside. You go to the window/register area to order, then you go sit down, and they bring the food to you. Kinda half service like you get at a Hardee’s or Carl’s Jr.; I believe this is a result of the fact that Belizeans, as a general rule, don’t tip. I had read about some of the traditional Belizean meals, so I figured we would try one out. Their menu was small, so there weren’t a lot of options. We went with the stewed chicken and rice and beans. As an interesting note, in Belize, there is a distinction between rice and beans and beans and rice. With rice and beans, the two items are made in the same pot at the same time. With beans and rice, the beans are made separate from the rice and to be spooned over the rice when you are ready to eat.  For both combinations they use red beans and cook them in coconut milk.
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The rice and beans were excellent. The chicken was very tender and juicy, but it had a combination of spices that was a bit weird to me—not that it was bad, just a bit too foreign for me, maybe. Oh, and there was a fried plantain (or banana—not sure which)! Have I ever mentioned how much I love these?!?!

When we paid, I picked up a lemon pie for dessert for later. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Where I grew up, lemon pies were lemon custard pies piled high with meringue—a recipe that had been passed down through generations of Mennonites. This was not a custard. It is simply a lemon and milk (and sugar?) mixture. No meringue or whipped cream on top either. I asked the person behind the counter (I assume the owner) about it, and she said there were no eggs at all—so Jonathan could enjoy it as well. I must admit that when we ate it a few hours later, it was heavenly.

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As we walked back to the van, I reminded Jonathan that we were in desperate need of getting some laundry done. We were tired and in no mood to figure out how to do the snorkeling, but we needed laundry. There was one laundromat mentioned in our guide book, so we got in the van and attempted to navigate the maze of Belizean streets in our van. It wouldn’t be so bad—they are mostly square—except that there tons of one-ways and a plethora of road construction. I was able to direct Jonathan to the street the laundromat was on, but between the road being narrow and there being nowhere to park and getting farther and farther away from our location as we tried to circle back to it, we decided to try the one we saw when drove into town the first time. As I tried to get us to the road, we crossed over the only manually-operated swing bridge remaining in the world. After this comes the fun part. I mentioned that there is a ton of road construction in Belize City. We went down the road from the bridge, looking for a place to turn left. After we did, we ran into road construction. Our only option was to turn left again. When we did, we ran into another road block, just another block in. So we had to do a U-turn. Then, thinking that the way we came was blocked we decided to try to get back over to the bridge road, by turning right. This turned out to be a dead end (I had only looked far enough ahead to verify it was a one-way in the direction we wanted, not enough to see the dead end). So we backed ourselves out of there and went back toward the original road construction that had detoured us. Fortunately the backhoe had moved and we could continue straight through the road. At this point, tired and frustrated with Belize City roads, we decided to go back to the campground and figure something out later. I managed to get us there without any more mishaps.

DSC03507 You can see the road construction behind and two vehicles trying to get turned around.

We decided to take a short break—check some email, etc. and then work on some laundry. The marina did have laundry machines, but they weren’t hooked up and didn’t have the tokens required to start them. So, with no other options than going back into Belize City, which really wasn’t an option in our minds, we decided to do laundry by hand. It was quite the system. I would soak and scrub the laundry in our trash-can-turned-wash-bucket, and then stand in the shower to rinse it. Jonathan would wring them out and hang them on some lines strung from our van to the nearby porch of an abandoned building.

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After all this, it was time to rest for the rest of the day. Definitely an interesting one.

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