Dat's Life, Mon

By Bernadette Bernon
July 20, 2001
Punta Manabique, Cabo de Tres Puntas, Guatemala
15 55.82 N 88 36.29 W

Photo of a native bird to Belize

The rain squalls of June intensified into more complicated weather systems of tropical waves as hurricane season began, and finally our button was pushed. Douglas and I decided to hightail it for Guatemala and get some cover. The voyage from the relative protection of Placentia out to Hunting Cay in the Sapodillas, the southernmost islands in Belize's offshore archipelago wasn't a long one. From there we'd make the one-day hop over to Guatemala's Cabo de Tres Puntas, trading the isolation and freedoms of the islands for the protection of the thick jungle river called the Río Dulce, Spanish for "sweet river."

Our first official step in making all this happen was to check out of Belize. We knew, from renewing our visas a couple of times here, to set aside a whole day for this ordeal, which in another location might take 30 minutes. The nearest places to check out of the country were Placentia's neighboring towns, Big Creek and Independence, and you have to go to both because customs is located in one, and immigration in another. For $10, we hired a local fellow with a high-speed open powerboat to take us over to Independence through the shortcut labyrinth of mangrove canals behind Placentia, then wait for us there till we finished our business. We'd arranged to set out at 9 a.m. on a Thursday, the day customs and immigration were open for renewing and clearing out, but the gold-toothed driver moseyed over to his boat around 10, smiled and shrugged as an explanation, so we had a late start. We all got aboard and then he hurtled at breakneck speed for Independence. We arrived at 10:30, and Douglas and I headed on foot to immigration, walking up the parched-dirt main street lined with shacks on stilts, laundry hanging out to dry, naked babies trotting around tended by their siblings, and men and women sitting languidly in whatever shade they could find, fanning themselves.

We arrived at the office a half-hour later. For no discernible reason it was closed, and there was no indication when or if it might ever reopen. This is the kind of normal occurrence down here that, no matter how hopeful you may have been when you started out in the morning, wishing that things would go smoothly and efficiently, by mid-morning you become more resigned than surprised to the inevitability of the day's direction.

A worker pouring concrete in front of the building across the street from immigration looked up. We shrugged, he shrugged, and then he suggested we try the police station on the other side of town. With nothing to lose, we trudged along in the 95-degree heat, and, sure enough, the immigration guy had drifted over to read the newspaper at the police station. He seemed a bit put out by the interruption, but he said that after he finished his "binness" and had his lunch, he would return to the office around 1 and authorize our papers. No, we couldn't go to customs in the meantime, he said; we had to go to immigration first. Could he just authorize our papers now, BEFORE he went for lunch?

"Yeah, mon," he said, "if you pay me overtime, cause den I be working durin' my lunch hour."

"But it's only 11 o'clock," I said.

Photo closeup of catus

"Yea, mon, I be eatin' arly today." We returned at 1, and he grudgingly issued the stamps. After that, we located the main road, which was paved, and started hoofing the two-mile distance, bound for customs in the next town, along blacktop as hot as a skillet. After 10 minutes, I'm pretty sure the temperature climbed to 375 degrees Celsius. When a single truck finally came by, I threw myself in front of it, figuring he would stop and pick us up or run me over, and either would be an improvement over being swallowed by a road that was melting into tar. We climbed in the back, over a pile of tires, and arranged ourselves among 100 stacked cartons of empty Coke bottles with six Garifuna Indians already wedged in and hanging onto the truck for dear life. Their feet were like red calloused leather. I know this because, crammed in as I was, many dirty toes wiggled in my face, and it was clear that these men had probably spent their entire hard-working lives barefoot. There was no need to tell the driver of the truck where we were going, as the road in this direction only goes to one place. At Big Creek, a commercial port and nothing else, we jumped out of the truck, waved thanks to the driver, and walked over to the customs office, which was closed. The driver shrugged. We shrugged. The Garifuna Indians shrugged. Everyone shrugged, then the truck drove off. There was nobody around who could tell us anything, so we sat on the steps of the office and waited. And waited. I began to have flashbacks of renewing my drivers' license at the Rhode Island Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Photo of the Sapodillas Islands The Sapodillas are the last string of islands before heading into Guatemalan and Honduran waters.

We sat for an hour, then decided to go back to Independence, find some cold drinks and buy some fruit and vegetables, as Placentia still had a med-fly inspector on the dock and we'd been limited in what we could buy there and sneak back to the boat. We hitchhiked again in the flatbed of a truck, found the vegetable market, which was closed, and a bar with a fan, which was open. My sundress was soaked in sweat. I was filthy. We sat directly in front of the fan and ordered four 7-Ups and an order of chicken curry. Although Douglas said why bother, I asked the woman who waited on us if she had any ideas why customs was closed. She shrugged and said to try going back around 3:30.

"What happens at 3:30?" I asked.

"Nuttin'," she said. "But he be dere, maybe."

At 3:30, when we returned, the office was open. We walked in and found a snarly little man sitting beneath a nudie calendar, a 1998 girlie poster for a "Thong Night," and a hand-written sign that said, "All targets met. All customers happy. All staff eager and happy. All pigs fed and ready to fly."

I'd met this same character when I'd renewed our visas the month before, and it had taken a Herculean amount of flirting and complimentary tourist-speak to soften him up to a threshold of moderate civility. Today, I didn't bother. Besides I had to keep a leash on Douglas, lest he rip the guy's throat out for keeping us waiting so long. Finally, all our papers and passports were stamped, and we were officially cleared out of Belize. Before we left, I noticed a new a sign on the wall since last month: "When you are born, you begin to die."

"Nice office art," I said, and we headed for the door.

He shrugged. "Hey, dat's life, mon," he said.

Douglas and I hit the hot road. After 20 minutes we heard a car approaching. I put out my thumb. An apparition in a white Land Rover stopped, we jumped in and, miraculously, the woman's car had the air conditioning turned on high.

"Where you goin'?" she asked.

Just as I was about to say we'd travel with her to the end of the earth, if that's where she was headed, Douglas said, "Independence." Suddenly, we arrived at the hand-painted sign that said "Not Ashamed to Worship Jesus" that marked the beginning of town, and Douglas was prying me out of the SUV and into what felt like a bonfire. I couldn't wait to get back to the launch, and Placentia, and the cool breezes on Ithaka.

Closeup photo of the outside of a watermelon

The next morning, with everything tied down and put away above deck and below, we set off on a beautiful beam reach for Hunting Cay. The depths ranged from 200 feet to 20 and back down again, countless times, as the underwater terrain rose and fell. The shallows around us appeared as light turquoise patches in the darker blue. Hunting Cay was a quick stop for the night; then we set off to Cabo de Tres Puntas the next morning, sailing over the last reef we'll see for the next few months. As the mountainscape of Guatemala loomed larger and larger in the distance, and we entered the deeper waters surrounding this cleft of the Guatemalan coast, a school of dolphin played in our bow wave, and I began to think about all the things I'll miss about Belize. The country had surprised me.

I'd come here once before, about 15 years ago, on a sailing charter with one of my closest friends, Heather. Together, we'd seen a country still struggling to reorganize after obtaining its independence from England; a capital, Belize City, that was a parched and down-at-the-heels place that didn't quite know who it was — Mayan, British, Garifuna, Carib, Spanish, African; and secluded, pristine islands. It's been a pleasant surprise to discover that, since I sailed here in the 80s, the country may have grown, and Belize City may now be almost three times the size it was then, but the beauty and isolation Heather and I found in the islands years ago hasn't changed. Many nights, Douglas and I had anchorages to ourselves.

Photo of fresh oranges

I'll miss the magnificent sailing between the islands, flying along at great speeds, all sails set in 20 to 25 knots of wind, and NO WAVES, behind the country's great barrier reef! I've loved the exposure to so much marine life, and I'll always remember the day a giant black manta ray leaped up out of the water next to Ithaka as I sat for a moment resting on the side deck after a swim. Startled, for a second I'd wondered why Douglas had thrown our Sun Shower up into the air. Then I realized what I'd seen.

Whenever I think of Belize, I'll think of nature's wild color palette: the brightness of the oranges; the sparkling turquoise shadings of the shallow reefs; the blinding white cream of an isolated patch of beach; the delicate pink inside the hard conch shell; the neon green of a watermelon; the riotous blue stripe on the French Angelfish; and the softness of everything during a rain squall, as if we were watching the world through a misty filter.

Photo of raising the Q flag and the flag of Guatemala At Punta Manabique, we take down the Belize flag, and raise the Q flag and the flag of Guatemala.

I'll miss many of the people we met in Placentia. The gaggle of Mestizo teenage girls who tried to explain Creole to me one day: "It IS English," one said, speaking slowly to the dim-witted visitor. "Some words, you drag dem out. And some words you squeeze dem smaaaall, and den udder words, you drop dem aaall-together." The little boy who ran up to us crying because he saw another child steal a ball, and didn't know what to do with the information. The pretty girl who works in Olga's Market, who found the notebook and gold Cross pen I'd been searching for all day. "I din't read it or anyting," she said, as she got my book full of notes and silly pen from a locked box. "We bin keepin' it here for you, aaall safe." Jake, the beleaguered Canadian ex-pat who owns the Space Monkey internet café, for whom every day is a new version of hell as Belize City's main server constantly crashes, then comes back up for an hour or a minute or a day, then crashes again. The Garifuna Indian women who sell their intricate grass baskets to the tourists, and how they all squat quietly back on their heels, knees up and spread, traditional style. The way everyone says "Marnin" or "Howya doon?" to one another when they pass on the sidewalk. We liked Placentia.

Mostly, as we crossed the imaginary line into Guatemala, and toward the bosom of a new country, I thought of the crystal water we'd been living in, and around, and on, every day in Belize. This, I'll really miss — and the fish, a kaleidoscope of colors, and the coral beds, each a subtle masterpiece. Ahead, the mountains loom larger and larger as we near the coast and our anchorage behind Punta Manabique on Cabo de Tres Puntas. Ahead awaits the powerful freshwater river we'll enter tomorrow, a river that's been the basis of vast speculation lately in the cruising community. Ahead are another cast of officials to wrassle, another culture for us to learn about, and a terrain that requires shoes and more clothes. Ahead is a fresh chapter. As we try to hold on to the familiar, at the same time we reach out for the new.