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Almost exactly three months ago, I sat on a bus bound for the Belize border after wandering through Guatemala for about four months (minus a couple stops in the States).
I felt this contraction in my chest, then.
I remember thinking, and writing, that I felt I would always be connected with Guatemala, that I would always harbor some special feeling toward the country.
It’s still true. I still practice with my Guatemala-based Spanish teacher twice a week. I still think and read about the political happenings in a place whose landscapes astounded me and whose traditions overwhelmed me.
But even now, it feels far away. Because as this month draws to a close, it’s leaving Belize (to move on to Honduras) that my heart is breaking over.
This morning, as I biked to the little coffeeshop that has become my office here in Placencia, down dirt roads and past spiny-tailed iguanas (nicknamed wish willies) sunning themselves by the channel, I felt that familiar pang.
I arrived via a bus from Flores in late November, wondering if Belize — a country I had pegged as touristy in my mind — could possibly fill me and amaze me the way Guatemala did.
Wow, did you surprise me.
From the moment I stepped inside your borders, I realized you weren’t trying to compare with Guatemala: your history, your cultures, your languages, your food, the colors of your skin — it was all different.
I crossed the border at Melchor de Mencos and marveled at this remarkably new land.
San Ignacio showed me that you, too, have magnificent ruins and mystic rivers; it taught me to go deep. I wandered, alone, through tranquil Mayan temples; I walked alongside the Macaw and hovered over the bridge where it met the Mopan, together becoming the Belize River that would twist all the way east to Belize City.
There, I first began to get a sense of the country’s magnificent diversity — the cultural palate growing from mostly people of Mayan and Mestizo backgrounds to include major Creole and Garifuna and East Indian communities, not to mention major influxes of Chinese and German Mennonites.
Oh, how it showed in the food — so fresh and skillful and varied and laden with chilies and cumin and turmeric and red and black recado. I discovered fry jacks and Belizean curries and fluffy, plate-sized flour tortillas. I found I could eat rice and beans just about every day.
Placencia and Caye Caulker revealed your immaculate coast; your cerulean waters, your incredible sea life, your regal Pelicans — so eager for sardines they’d practically sit in my lap. I didn’t do everything I was “supposed” to do here; no, in two trips each, I never snorkeled or dived; I didn’t see what is apparently the world’s second-best reef; I didn’t go to shark-ray alley (honestly, I’m really terrible at being a tourist).
But on many nights, I sat by the docks, rum-and-juice in hand, watching the marine creatures come to me. The tarpons were terrifying and mesmerizing. The sting rays, like underwater spaceships, hovering gracefully before breaking off in a cloud of sand.
I sampled your handmade bitters — each fragrant, glass-jarred potion subtly different from the next. I biked around your potholes (OK I crashed a couple times). I sweated until I almost evaporated. I danced in your waves.
Sarteneja hosted my great baptism in poo mud — twice — and after taking 15 minutes to climb out of the muck and an hour and a half to shower it off, I discovered I was still alive. (I assumed my survival was for the purpose of telling this story over and over. Click on “poo bath” in my highlights here.)
Incredibly, the little seaside (pooside) village had more to offer, revealing shores full of immaculate wooden boats, (boat making is Sarteneja’s main industry), picturesque, quiet back roads and other non-sewage-related features.
Then, there was Corozal.
I took a crazy cab to Cerros and pondered Mayan ruins falling into the ocean while wild quash (the Belizean word for coatimundi) hung in the trees. I walked 1,000 miles around town. I got incredibly tan. It ate escabeche and cow foot soup and chirmole and so many salbutes. I got food poisoning too, but when I did, people cooked for me.
Corozal reminded me that the greatest beauty reveals itself slowly. It taught me to kill three cockroaches with one blow. It gave me friends for a lifetime.
Most memorably, it highlighted something I was only beginning to understand elsewhere: that Belizeans are the kindest, most gracious and loving people I’ve met.
Belize, how I will miss singing karaoke in your vibrant bars, riding on your public busses, all that music blasting and those lights flashing like we were having a party instead of just being transported to Belmopan.
Your juices were so fresh and sweet I thought I’d never eaten fruit before. Your onion sauce was so perfect I wondered why no one else was doing it. I learned you’d never let me go without something to eat or drink — snacks stands everywhere; even vendors hopping on busses to sell tamales and sandwiches and horchata at bus stops. I learned I would never grow weary of your food. I’ve still eaten rice and beans, almost every day.
Tomorrow, I’ll board a boat bound for Puerto Cortes, Honduras, and all points beyond. Again, I have no idea what I’ll find.
But I know I’ll always see, in my mind’s eye, the flare of Belize’s red-leafed almond trees, your sea grape branches stretching dramatically over the surf, your frigates calling overhead; that unmistakable mist in the morning, that haze at night.
I’ll miss that beautiful Creole rhythm; that Soca music soul; the way the water changes colors in the late afternoon sun.
This time, I won’t question my return.
Belize, goodbye — for now. I’ll see you soon.