Belize, April 2002
The kids and I are the last ones to leave the plane after it touches down at the small airport in Belize.
As soon as we step outside, I see my brother-in-law immediately. Lou’s trim white beard and safari hat are unmistakable. And even at this distance, I think I can see the bright blue of his smiling eyes. I raise my arm and he gives an enormous wave from the airport terrace in response.
Lou was married to my sister Karen for a number of years before her premature death from cancer. I have several reasons for traveling to Belize with my kids – the most essential of which is to keep Lou tightly in the family embrace.
The kids and I collect our bags, then pile into Lou’s beat up old Mazda to begin the two- hour drive west across Belize to his farm in Teakettle Village. But first, Lou says, he’s going to make a quick stop in Belize City. He needs a part for his water heater. “Unless you want to take cold showers,” he says laughing. Not a problem, I say, we can stop for the part.
The buildings in Belize City are old, run down and shabby. “Belizeans don’t quite get the idea of maintenance,” Lou says with a chuckle, in response to the expression on my face. Many of the houses here are propped up precariously. Or leaning. Or half-empty shells. Some are only partially built. “It takes a long time for most people to save enough money to build even a cinderblock house,” he explains. “So they just add to it when they have the money.”
Lou parks the car and hops out. I start to open my door, but with an uncharacteristically stern expression he tells me and the kids to stay put. So we sit in the car with the windows down (his air conditioning doesn’t work), sweating in the heat, taking in the scene around us.
I notice we are parked near a small building open to the street and selling liquor as several men, in various stages of intoxication, pass by. One, a shirtless Rastafarian, stops and stares at the three of us in the car. His dreads, thick and knotted, tumble down his black back in a slow race to the sidewalk. The three of us watch silently as he raises his arm and leans in closer. And then he is eye to bloodshot eye with me, and I can smell the liquor on his breath but it’s too late to close the window. He opens his mouth and a torrent of words stream out, of which I can only understand “Book of Revelations” and “de Bible says.”
Unsure of what to do and hoping this is nothing more than a drunken blessing. I thank him. He stares for a moment, then he moves on, muttering to himself. The kids sit wordless, motionless in the back seat.
Several long moments later, I catch a glimpse of Lou in the rear view mirror, returning from his errand, and carefully stepping around the body of a man sprawled on the sidewalk. I can’t tell if he’s dead or just sleeping.
He gets in and shifts the car into gear. I tell him about the Rasta’s speech. “That’s why I told you to stay in the car!” he laughs.
We drive off through the narrow streets of colorful, tumbled buildings and, turning a corner, pass a man urinating on the sidewalk. Lou looks at the kids’ faces in the rearview mirror and seeing their shocked expressions, laughs again – both amused and hoping, perhaps, to put them at ease.
Moments later, we’re out on the highway, or what passes for a highway here – one lane in each direction and mostly paved – and on our way to Teakettle Village. The landscape reminds me of Africa and when I mention this to Lou, he says that was also his first impression of Belize.
Initially, the country is flatter and less jungle-like than I had expected. But the further west we drive, the more interesting the scenery gets. Hills begin to emerge from the ground covered with trees and vegetation we are unfamiliar with. The occasional smattering of dwellings we see seem randomly tossed by the side of the road, like dice rolled from a shaken cup.
No particular architectural style dominates, but there are hints of Moroccan arches, Spanish wrought iron gratings cover windows, and occasionally Cuban/Caribbean colors brighten up the monotony. I’m looking for any signs of happiness or beauty – or anything I can relate to – and I realize even this description makes it sound lovelier than it is. Few homes have doors. Windows are covered by screens or lattices or louvered shut. Small wooden houses balance precariously on stilts. Most houses seem to be assembled from an assortment of salvaged or scavenged building
“What’s the speed limit here?” I ask, not that Lou is speeding, but because I don’t see any signs.
“There isn’t one,” Lou responds. “There are a lot of bad accidents.”
“It’s so desolate along these stretches of highway – how would anyone know if there was an accident at night?” I ask.
“Oh, they find them in the morning,” he says with another one of his easy going, I-accept- the-world-as-it-is laughs that make him such a pleasure to be around. I begin to relax.
Until, just moments later, we pass the remains of a small blue car, in pieces by the side of the road. “That one was two or three days ago,” Lou tells us. “Three people killed. Hit a bus.”
“I’ve read the busses are actually quite safe here,” I comment.
“Well, the Belizeans are using old school busses from America that Americans won’t use for their kids anymore…” He pauses meaningfully and turns to me, letting his expression fill in the rest of the sentence.
The rest of the ride passes with idle, catching-up-on-the-family chatter. The kids listen quietly from the back, taking everything in. We’ve traveled more than halfway across Belize by the time Lou slows down and turns north off the highway onto Young Gal Road – a dirt and rock-strewn road that takes us up through the hills and past a dozen more ramshackle house, each with its own assortment of rusted cars, cows, chickens, goats and barking dogs.
Colorful wash hangs neatly from a line off of almost every porch. There’s the occasional glimpse of a Belizian sitting quietly in the shade, an occasional dark arm raised in greeting as we jolt by, bouncing between the rocks and the ruts.
Eventually we turn onto a dirt lane that runs through a hundred-acre orange grove that originally belonged to Lou’s farm, until he sold it to “the Chinese.” On the other side of the grove, striking groupings of tall palm trees change the scenery dramatically.
We have arrived at the farm.
To be continued…