The Run From Orange Walk

Monday, November 09, 2009

South of the border, down Mexico way. South of the border again, to Belize today. Phil never sung these lines, but he should have. I’m not saying he’s a great singer, but it would’ve made a great Sinatra-esque intro to this blog post. For you see, we were heading to Belize, taking a bus from Tulum to Chetumal (164 pesos) and then another bus from Chetumal across the border to Orange Walk, Belize ($US 7). Aside from having to pay $20 to leave the country – I guess if you can’t afford it, you’re forced to immigrate. Luckily, neither Phil nor I are taking up residence. Crossing the border, otherwise, was pretty straightforward. What’s in the bag? Any guns? Alcohol? Etc etc? For some reason, in the distance there was a NASA hangar-type building that I thought might prove handy if I needed to get away from Belize very quickly. And then we were driving again. We weren’t far from the border but there were definite differences. It felt immediately more overgrown, more jungle and less civilization. We occasionally passed or were passed by pickup trucks with up to 9 or 10 people in the box. And soon, after a few local pickups in Corazol, we heard that very unique mix or English, Spanish, and then that bizarre mix of English, French and maybe some Spanish known as Creole.

As the bus pulled into the town of Orange Walk, I was starting to question our judgement. Speciflcally my judgement, since I kind of dragged Phil along for the ride to see Lamanai. We got off the bus and declined the taxi rides, walking up Victoria St to where Akihito, the cheapest place in town, was located. It was under full lock down, the gate padlocked and no signs of life. In fact, the first five or six places we came across were all in similar array, barred, gated, and closed. A random guy asked if we were looking for a hotel to which we said sure, and he pointed the direction of the James. We thanked him and he started walking and talking with us. As we walked along he switched from telling us stories about how he used to be a boxer but he doesn’t fight outside the ring, he respects people. Then he was mentioning something to Phil about being in jail for “guns”. And that’s when he flipped into ‘guide’ mode, starting to explain the church we were walking by.

Neither of us were especially worried by him particularly, it was clearly bluster, but as we walked down the road towards a run down shack with friends of his on the porch, both Phil and I wondered if we’d be better off turning and finding another place. Still, we were there and got the tour but the rooms were sketchy like crazy and about as secure as a house of cards on a sailboat in a hurricane. Which, I don’t know if I mentioned, was part of the reason we were in Orange Walk... not for a house of cards, but because Hurricane Ida had been making the weather along the coast terrible and we wanted to be inland for an escape and hopefully a bit of safety, too. This place didn’t feel all that safe, now that we were there. Eventually we saw a hotel that looked nice and were willing to pay a bit more for our security. The price was actually pretty great for what, in backpacker terms, was a luxury suite. We paid $10/night for two nights. So we kind of blew the “really expensive” Belize thing out of the water.

Sort of. The reason we were in Orange Walk was to visit the ruins of ancient Lamanai, which you reach with a boat ride up the New River, approximately two hours upstream. The cost of this is a not insignificant $40, which, when backpacking is quite a bit to see ruins. But it’s more than that. The boat trip, 4 hours total on the river, is guided as well as a walk through the ruins. And, it turned out, we would have about as knowledgeable a guide as could be hoped for. After getting settled in, Phil and I walked around town just as the sun was setting and found what was probably the only place still open on a Sunday night. A little Chinese grill which did a pretty reasonable $3 2-pattie burger. Phil and I were both surprised at the large number of Chinese here... our guide would later tell us that many had been brought in as cooks for mahogany logging camps in the early 1900s but at the time it seemed the town might be more Chinese than Belize. After our burger, we walked to the only other place we’d found open, a sort of sad homage to Chinese bars with a bunch of derelict slot machines (complete with one poor soul playing two at once) and our first taste of Belikin beer. Not bad... smooth like Pacifico, flavoured like (according to Phil) Innis ‘n’ Gunn.

That was our night. The next morning we were on the pier for our Jungle Tours trip up to Laminai at 9 AM. Along for the ride were a Polish father and daughter, two Belgian guys, a German girl, Phil, myself, and our guide, Wilfredo. He was definitely university educated and could talk at length about Belize, Mayans, and any plant of animal (or ruin) found therein. We travelled up the river, stopping to watch birds here and there, feeding some inquisitive spider monkeys (one of which boarded our boat), talking about the sugar mill and its new co-gen appendage, or the Old Master rum distillery further up. We talked about the history of Belize and of the Mayans and two hours later, arrived at Lamanai (Mayan for “Submerged crocodile”).

Lamanai had once been a city, archaeologists estimate, of 220,000 people. There are enormous mounds of dirt that have covered more pyramids and buildings than are visible today – enough to support today’s population of Regina. And yet, aside from one other group of five that we only saw when we ate lunch, we had it entirely to ourselves. And I would occasionally run back to spots I’d noted when Wilfredo was done talking at which point I DID have it to myself. A very cool and surreal feeling, let me tell you. Wilfredo did a great job explaining the building, from the Jaguar temple to the Temple of the Mask. That’s no surprise given the man’s experience working with archaeologists in various Mayan ruins all over the place. He was telling us how much taller the building had been before time wore them away, some growing beyond the heights of Egyptian pyramids. I shrugged this off as pride speaking but then he showed us evidence, and how the buildings were actually built atop older buildings in layers like an onion, as rulers changed and new symbols of greater power had to be established. This gives a whole new perspective on some of the buildings we saw which were already impressively high as he peeled back the layers and showed remains of larger outer ones.

The boat ride back to Orange Walk left us alone once again as the others were all chancing a late-evening arrival into Belize City... something we’d been strongly advised against. So we again went to visit the Chinese burger shop and this time skipped the beer to check out a club that was pumping music out. Walking through a fluorescent tunnel the smell of urine grew until we turned the corner and found two women and a man having drinks, one of which was probably the waitress. We continued turning and walked right out the door, picking up (in addition to some cheap sandals to replace my mismatched ones) a bottle of local coconut rum and some orange juice. We were almost home when four people were walking down the street towards us, one of them with eyes locked on me like he was trying to scare me. I didn’t avert my gaze, either, but thought that I would offer a friendly greeting to ease the tension. “Hola!” I said as he got closer. And then, in that very muddled Creole-English that you learn to decipher over here, he replied, “Hola, assahole”. Traditional Belize greeting, I guess. Which is why we were saying goodbye to Orange Walk the next morning.

Orange Walk Photos


Anonymous said...

I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
And you et an account on Twitter?

Dean said...

Sure, would love if you have a link to the quote and/or let me know what blog you're on.

Thanks for reading!