Rum punch vs michelada: 24 hours in Belize, a day out of Guatemala

Reggae is dull music, made by dull people for dull people. If you’ve ever wondered why all reggae sounds the same, here’s the answer: because the musicians were high and forgot that they already wrote the song. Just to say that I hate reggae with a passion.

But on 21 September 2018, I loved reggae. Loved it to bits.

The reason was simple. Having been terrorised for three months by ear-raping bachata and horrendous Mexican ranchera, anything would’ve sounded good to my weary ears. Reggae, rhythmic scraping on school boards, Cher’s Best Of. Anything, literally anything.

For three months, it was impossible to escape bachata, ranchera and a bunch of other dreadful genres. The music was everywhere. I heard it when I boarded chicken buses and when I entered bars, I heard it in hair salons and restaurants, coming from people’s phones or blasting loudly from the skyscraper speakers in front of supermarkets. It was the last thing I heard before going to sleep and more often than not the first thing in the morning, sounding faint from the neighbour’s hotel room. I know all the songs by heart, but – ironically – it’s not from the heart.

I challenge anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating to try to get through Guatemala’s Spotify Top 10 without belching. Abu Ghraib is a summer camp compared to this torture. Or listen to this cracker, as heard everywhere in Guatemala:

All of a sudden, reggae sounded like a breeze, like a warm, soundproof blanket in which I could wrap myself and never come out of it again, never ever ever. Alas, I’d have to throw myself into the musical inferno once more the next day. For we had entered Belize for less than 24 hours, to renew our Guatemalan visa after three months in the country. Instead of venturing further into Belize, we decided to check out Benque Viejo del Carmen. We had never visited this border town during our five weeks stay on the nearby Stardust Sanctuary Farm.

More thing for your Money!

Rebuffing the taxi drivers at the border, who demanded 10 to 15 Belize dollars for the 1,5-mile ride into town, we started walking. We hadn’t gone more than a hundred metres when the first passing car stopped. The driver shouted that he could take us to San Ignacio. Something like that would less likely happen in Guatemala. It’s not that Guatemalans aren’t helpful or friendly – they are both, overwhelmingly – just that they are less outwardly about it, maybe more self-conscious in a way. Whereas Belizeans have that American quality of small talk and seeing potential friends everywhere.

But music and level of gregariousness weren’t the only differences between Guatemala and Belize. Crossing the border was like entering another world. After three months, we all of a sudden no longer saw tiendas and comedores on every corner, no more frijoles and corn tortillas and ladies in brilliantly patterned garments. Instead, we spotted huge Chinese shops, wooden houses and local businesses called Papa Mike’s Store (“More thing for your Money!”) and Natty’s Kitchen, serving generous offerings of rice and beans and – praise the lord! – fry jacks.

Lovely Belizean breakfast of omelette with vegetables, refried beans, avocado slices and fry jacks.

Praise the lord!

Above all, we heard English and it sounded like music. When you’re not very fluent in the language of the country you’re visiting, you’re 24/7 a little bit lost. That’s part of the joy of travelling, but there come times in every traveller’s journey when all you want is familiarity. When you don’t feel like trying out an exotic dish, but just want to enjoy a good old Flemish stew with fries. When you don’t want to see the theatre of life unfold in front of your eyes on the streets, but simply want to lock yourself up in a hotel room and watch The Office. Language has a similar comforting quality. After getting by with my Tarzan Spanish for three months, it was such a pleasure to hear a language of which I grasped all the nuances.

Ultimate celebration of Belize’s diversity

The driver dropped us off in Benque Viejo del Carmen and we immediately knew that something was up. Belizean flags hung from balconies and were draped over big-ass trucks and a huge roadside bar terrace overflowed onto the pavement. Everywhere, people sat in folding chairs and on top of cars, drinking beer (mostly bought illegally at cheaper prices in Guatemala) and big cups of rum punch. Belizeans enjoy life and are not ashamed of it. Not that Guatemalans don’t. Earlier that day, we had made a toilet stop in the last road shack before the border. A Guatemalan couple, returning from a trip abroad, sat drinking micheladas. The latter is a mix of beer, tomato juice, lime, Worcester sauce and all kinds of spices. It sounds bad, but believe me: served right, it’s a heck of a drink.

It was Belize’s independence day and we were just in time to witness the festivities in Benque Viejo del Carmen. Excitement grew as the parade neared our spot next to the road. This was not your average – boring – military parade. Sure, soldiers marched by but they were soon followed by a colourful exhibit of Belizean life. It felt like everybody could join the ceremony. A marching band played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, whilst dancers, young and old, talented and crappy, swung, gyrated and twerked their bodies. Including a fat lady, because fuck it! Beauty pageant winners and stiltwalkers passed us by, but also vaqueros, trucks filled with drinking Belizeans and a gang of motorcyclists, in an ultimate celebration of Belize’s ethnic diversity. It was all rather wonderful.

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For the record: the next morning, our neighbours in what must be the grottiest hotel in the whole Central American isthmus awoke us with ranchera at 6 am. Escape was futile.

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