Eat or bin all the food in your rucksack. You can’t take fruit or vegetables across the border; but a bottle of rum and a packet of cigarettes per person isn’t considered contraband. We’re preparing to cross what JP describes as “the most corrupt border of all”, and we will have to denying knowing our tour leader in order to avoid lining the border official’s pockets with make-believe ‘fines’. A stamp in our passport confirming our Mexican departure, another dash of ink to log our entry into Belize, and we reconvene with JP on board a converted American school bus – or ‘chicken bus’ in traveller speak. Despite the name, not a single chicken was brought onto the bus for the entire 5 hour journey as we weaved in and out of potholes en route to the coast.
Go slow. The locals paint this motto above the doors to their stores, on the side of their boats and at eye-level on the many palm trees. No cars are on the idyllic island of Caye Caulker, only bikes and the occasional golf buggy. We walk, slowly. I’ve lost track of what day it is and I have no need to check the time. Our sea food arrives in front of us 3 hours after we order. Go slow indeed.
“Ben 10?! James?” The ship’s captain, Rob, hands out our snorkels and flippers that we tried on for size earlier that morning. Underneath the boat, 8 huge nurse sharks swim alongside hundreds of evil-looking jack fish. For their size, nurse sharks pose no threat to humans. Their mouths are similar to that of a catfish: clamping down on and then sucking their prey down their throats, almost inhaling their food. “The worse they will do is leave a hiccy on your arm if you get too close,” Chak (the ‘first maid’) warns. With that, I roll over the side of the boat and chance my arm to see how close I can get. Along the floor of the second largest reef in the world, spotted eagle rays and other stingrays cover themselves up with sand, creating an ambush for their lunch. For the group of backpackers swimming above them, the Raggamuffin Ragga King crew prepare a delicious sea food platter to replenish their energy levels after 3 hour-long dives. And on the way back, we are treated to unlimited rum punch, which “runs through every Caribbean’s veins”. I find myself in the water again after a firm shove in the back from James; and the Titanic theme tune blares out of the Ragga King’s speakers whilst I pull myself back up from my fourth dip of the afternoon. Chak pours me another rum and we continue back to shore.
In a local market, I buy a pack of hooks and bait them up with sardines. A few yards east (Caye Caulker is tiny!) takes us to a pier and I attempt to catch the same fish that I saw in the reef yesterday: red snapper. No dice, despite seeing them coming to shallower waters for dusk. We eat tinned sardines in front of a ruby sunset instead. Worse places to be.
Another chicken bus is taking us from Belize City to San Ignacio via Belmopan. Three rastafarian taxi drivers transported us and our bags from the ferry port as we got off the water taxi, and we now find ourselves hunting for spare seats while our driver twiddles the radio between stations. James sneaks on a chicken… of the grilled, jerk variety. There is still no livestock on this chicken bus, but it is much busier than the last one, and still going slow.
The pitter patter of humid rain serves as an alarm clock whilst it taps on our corrugated steel roof. We’ve been sleeping in small, wooden huts in the forests surrounding San Ignacio, and the rainfall forces me to crawl out of the mosquito net that I draped over my bed before falling asleep. Like the rest of Belize, the weather is unpredictable; and soon I am sweating in the sunshine as I scale the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich. From the top of the tallest pyramid, less than 2 miles away, I can make out Guatemala, separated from Belize by what looks like a quarry and a beige government building. I clamber down, reconvene with the group and together we hail a minibus to take us to our next country.