The deafening crow of a rooster right outside my window shattered the stillness of the predawn jungle air. I jerked awake and sat bolt upright in bed from the sound. Immediately I was met with the all-too-familair, head spinning sensation that reminded me of the five too many drinks the night before. A sudden chill shot down my spine and I clutched the sheets around myself a little tighter.
“Holy shit…”, I muttered out loud, the steam from my breath rising up into the ceiling of the sparsely furnished jungle shack.
It was cold. I mean, actually cold. Especially for a Florida boy. And especially for being a freaking jungle in Belize. I’ve watched predator enough times. It’s supposed to be hot as hell in the jungle, right?
I laid back down in bed and pulled the girl next to me a little closer in a futile attempt to warm up and fall back asleep, but it was no use. The rooster kept crowing and I couldn’t stop shivering. After a while I had no choice but to make that painfully cold journey across the room to don my scattered clothes. All of which, however, were warm weather fishing clothes. So I might as well have still been naked when I stepped onto the porch and met the foggy jungle morning.
Near the Guatemalan border, the place I was staying at was very eco-friendly. Extremely eco-friendly, in fact.
Too damn eco-friendly. Now that I think about it.
Cold rainwater showers and latrines were all there was. So while suffering through seizure like shivers from the cold, and attempting to keep my skull from splitting like an egg from the hangover, I staggered my way to the latrines. Hummingbirds darted to-and-fro along my walk. Emerging from the fog briefly to feed from the bright orange flowers that guided the path, then disappearing back into the white mist. I probably would have slowed down and really enjoyed this picturesque walk, but I felt like absolute death and honestly had pressing business to attend to.
The latrines were, of course, filled with some sort of Satan spawned, cold-resistant breed of mosquito that had apparently taken up residence in the screen covered wooden building the night prior. So in addition to freezing, and feeling like I was going to die, I had to protect myself from losing any more heat from sheer blood loss. It was a far from relaxing bathroom experience. But while sitting on that freezing toilet seat, I realized something else: I didn’t just feel like death…I smelled like death. I hadn’t showered in days. This was an issue that needed to be fixed immediately.
So I finished up my business and sprinkled the wood shavings down the hole like a true eco-friendly person. My stomach was still in knots as I brushed off the ever-growing cloud of mosquitoes around me and stepped out of the latrines. In fact, my stomach had been messed up for over a week. Maybe I shouldn’t have drank that rainwater back on the coast… Suddenly a voice bellowed from around the corner as I came down the steps.
“Morning Alex!”, said a tall white man that was strolling down the path toward the latrines. I recognized him from a few days prior. A gentleman who did chimney sweeping in Washington state.
“Mornin’ Jim”, I croaked, my voice hoarse from whatever I’d gotten myself into the night before.
“I’m leaving for Belmopan about 10…Did you still want that ride?”, he replied.
I had honestly forgotten the whole game plan for a moment. You see, I traveled to Belize originally to do 3 things: Fly fish, Snorkel, and hike some jungle ruins. Well, all of these tasks were completed in my first week and I now hadn’t a clue how I should spend the rest of my trip. So one night, I picked up “the book” (my travel guide), closed my eyes, started flipping pages and told myself, “wherever my finger lands, that’s where I’m going”. When the pages stopped and I opened my eyes, there was my destination. A place called Hopkins on the southern coast of Belize. The only issue was getting there. I didn’t have a car, so public transportation was really my only way to get around the country. I checked “the book” and I found that I could at least get close to Hopkins by bus. I just needed to get to Belmopan to catch said bus. Well, it just so happened that Jim was leaving Belize that day, and had to drive through Belmopan on his way to the airport. He was nice enough to offer me a ride and save me from bus hopping all day, and I gladly accepted his offer. All I needed to do now was pack up my things, pay the owner of the shack for my stay, and get cleaned up.
Ah….Getting cleaned up.
I’m generally not the world’s biggest fan of cold showers, even on the hottest days. So I absolutely dreaded the rainwater shower that chilly morning. If the neighbors hadn’t been woken up by the roosters yet, I’m sure my shrieks when I hopped in the shower did the job.
Soon it was time to leave. Pack and fly rod in tow, I found the shack’s owner and paid him. To this day, I absolutely cannot remember the man’s name, but he was one of the nicest people I ran into in all of Belize. I referred to him as Belizean Jim (not to his face of course) and he insisted that I not pay him anything until I was ready to leave and had enjoyed my stay. So I said goodbye to Belizean Jim and the jungle, and hopped aboard American Jim’s car to take off to Belmopan.
The ride to Belmopan was relatively uneventful, albeit very bumpy. The roads in Belize are in decent shape. However, all the highways have -extremely- poorly marked speed bumps. If you aren’t paying attention, it’s not difficult to go full on Dukes of Hazard and get airtime in your rental car.
It was about lunch time when I got dropped off at the Belmopan bus stop. I weaved my way through a crowd of people and stepped into a hot, dusty bus terminal. People darted all over the place, and those lucky enough to have found a seat were busy trying to fan themselves and stay cool while they waited for their bus.
Speaking of buses, I needed to find mine to Dangriga. But there’s a slight issue with public transportation in Belize; there’s zero organization. On the far side of the bus terminal was the yard where all the buses pulled in. And in between those of us inside the terminal, and the buses, was a giant, black iron fence that kept everyone from swarming the buses. However, there were no signs on the gates of the fence to indicate where a bus might go. The only real way to tell where a bus is going is to wait for one to pull up, fight through a swarming crowd of people as they try to rush through an open gate in the fence, and maybe catch a glimpse of the small, handwritten sign that’s in the bus’ windshield.
Eventually I just resorted to asking strangers where each bus was going and hoped they knew what they were talking about. Soon, a bus leading to Belize City stopped in and just about half the terminal piled onto it in a massive pushing and shoving match. I bought myself what looked like a week old slice of pizza from a food vendor, and sat down on an open bench seat while I waited for the bus to Dangriga. The pizza was cold and greasy, but anything had to help the throbbing headache I was suffering through.
It was then that out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a group of white people. As a definite minority, we all kinda stuck out like sore thumbs amidst most of the crowds in Belize. But there was something unique about this group. They were all Mennonites. Unbeknownst to me prior to traveling to Belize, the country has a significant Mennonite population. Most of them speak German and Spanish, and are extremely recognizable with their wide brimmed hats, beards, plain colored shirts, and black pants with suspenders.
There were four of them. Three men and one young boy who looked like he may have been eight or nine. They walked by speaking German and I noticed (as I’m sure most everyone around me did) that one of the men was extremely tall. Like…Woah tall. Like, he probably played center for his Mennonite basketball team. I’m 6’1”, and this guy made me feel like a midget. He smiled at me from underneath his big red beard, and lead the boy through the terminal to stand in line at one of the gates.
A little while later I learned that the line they were standing in was the line I wanted to be in, so I grabbed my pack and fly rod and moseyed over to stand in line behind them. One of the men was actually speaking English to a Belizean woman and her son when I grabbed my spot in line. Immediately I was able to tell that the man was American, and through inadvertent eves dropping, I caught on that he was from a Mennonite community in Missouri. He apparently had friends or family that lived here in Belize, and he’d come down to visit them. I wanted to strike up conversation with him, I really did (at times I can literally talk to a wall), but my hangover had reached full on “wish-you-were-dead” status, and words just never formed.
The American switched back to German to speak to his friends including the tallest one and his son. I was in no position to learn their names, so I simply referred to tall one as Mennonite Jim, and his son, Mennonite Jimmy.
Over time, the line I was in began to take shape of something new. Anything but a line, in fact. It was more like a crowd. More and more people joined the sweaty mass of strangers as a subtle pushing match began. Everyone wanted to get onto this bus.
Finally, the bus showed up and the gates opened. What happened was something I wasn’t really expecting.
Have you ever seen the black Friday videos where Walmart opens and people rush through the doors like water from a broken dam?
Yeah, it was sorta like that. Except through a single, 3 foot wide gate. I tried my best to get up to the front, but it wasn’t much use. The bus filled up, and I was still a few people back from even reaching the gate. But I noticed something. Everyone but Mennonite Jim’s Missourian friend had made it onto the bus, and it was about to leave. The American Mennonite pleaded with the man at the gate to let him on. There was some yelling between the gate guard and the bus driver. Another bus showed up at the gate next to us. It unloaded people. There was a crowd of people moving all over the place outside. And finally, before the bus to Dangriga could leave, they let the Missourian on the bus.
Good. I’m glad at least Mennonite Jim has his friend.
But bad news for me. The next bus wasn’t for another hour.
Determined to not miss the next bus, I propped myself up with my fly rod tube, and didn’t move from in front of the gate for the full hour. By the time the bus finally showed up, another crowd had formed around me. And just like the time before, the gate opened up, and the shoving match ensued. Suddenly I was pushed from behind and a fat woman stepped in front of me, followed by a man and their kid. To my right, I watched as another fat woman shoved an older man out of the way and made a B line to cut me off too.
At this point I’d seen enough, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to wait another hour for a bus. I went full on, Black Friday, super-shopper Mom mode. There might as well have been the last Tickle Me Elmo doll on that bus. And it was gonna be mine!
The fat woman to my right was coming in hot and from the look in her eyes, I was her next trampling victim. I immediately faked a cough, covered my mouth, and turned to catch her under that arm with my elbow and deflect her out of the way. Simultaneously and accidentally (I swear), I stepped on the shoe of a middle aged man and he was forced to slow down and be swallowed by the writhing masses behind me. I stumbled through the gate into that dusty loading zone not a second too late. The gates swung closed behind me. As I removed my pack and climbed the steps of the old American school bus, I looked back to the terminal at all the people behind the iron bars. There was one person in that crowd that stuck out.
Mennonite Jim! But…how? I watched him, his son, and his friend climb aboard the bus an hour ago. He had a frustrated look on his face, and he turned to quickly weave back through the crowd, his wide brimmed hat eventually disappearing in the masses.
Aboard the bus there was, of course, no empty seats, so I was forced to stand. And by stand, I mean that the bus driver made me put my pack on the floor and sit on it in the middle of the aisle as we took off through town.
As the bus slowly worked its way through town to the outskirts, I couldn’t help but think about the Mennonites I’d seen. The only thing that I could presume had happened was that the Missourian got separated. Mennonite Jim, Jimmy, and their friend realized they’d lost their American friend and in the chaos of another bus pulling in, they bailed from the bus to rejoin their friend in the terminal. In that same confusion, there was obviously some room freed up on the bus, so the Missourian Mennonite climbed aboard, not noticing that his friends weren’t there. This, of course, wouldn’t be much of an issue except I could only assume they weren’t using cell phones, and now the American was well on his way to Dangriga alone while his friends had no way to tell him they were (now) two hours behind.
I was, at least, grateful to finally be on the bus south. Once we’d gotten a few blocks away from the bus station, it was apparently OK to go ahead and stand back up. We made a few stops here and there to let some people off, while almost immediately others climbed aboard to take their place. By this point I’d been shoved nearly to the back of the bus. Using my fly rod tube like a cane and bracing myself against a seat, I attempted to get comfortable and settle in for this several hour bus ride down the Hummingbird Highway. Turns out I’m -just- tall enough to not be able to stand straight in an old school bus. So I was already a little uncomfortable by having to bend my head down.
Just before leaving Belmopan for good, the bus made one last abrupt stop to allow a few passengers on board. I looked up to the front of the bus, and who do I see step on?
What the hell?
How they made it halfway across town on foot that quickly is a mystery to me. But given how hard they were panting and sweating told me that they were booking it. They’d obviously played this game before as well. Anticipating that the bus would empty a few seats before leaving town? Something I never would have thought of. Even though they were all still complete strangers to me, I couldn’t help but feel like they were my oddly dressed buddies. Maybe it was because I’d been living vicariously through them for the past two hours. Or maybe I was just delusional from dehydration. Who knows?
The bus soon found the Hummingbird Highway and took off to the south. Over the course of a few miles, we climbed higher and higher, up into the mountains. And as the grade got steeper, the bus began to slow to a crawl. With each switchback and windy turn, the bus engine roared louder and louder over the strain to get the passengers to the pass. I honestly began to worry whether or not the bus would make it and I looked around to see if any of my fellow passengers looked worried.
Most were asleep. Those that weren’t just stared out the window at the slowly passing jungle, bored out of their minds. I looked up in front of me to where Mennonite Jim was standing, but all I could see of him was the bottom of his beard. The rest of his head was disappearing into the ceiling of the bus.
That lucky son of a…
Ever crafty, Mennonite Jim had managed to stand directly underneath the emergency escape hatch in the ceiling. His overly tall self was perfectly comfortable standing upright, while I was still forced to bend my neck to fit. Almost as if he knew I was watching, he suddenly poked his head down, looked back at me straining to stand, pointed, and laughed at me. Then gestured to the escape hatch and stood back upright.
Rub it in why don’t you…
By this point the bus was moving at a joggers pace up the mountainside. There was no way it could take much more and I was certain we were about to break down in the middle of no where. Oddly enough, there were random bus stops even all the way out here, and every time we stopped to pick up a passenger, I was sure that was it. That we’d finally broken down. We picked up several more guests and I got shoved a little further back in the bus as we took off again at a snail’s pace.
Eventually, we reached the pass. The bus sped up slightly as we went around a bend in the road and then…Well…
You know that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster and it finally finishes that climb to the top? It levels itself out for a brief, heart-stopping moment, then plunges back to earth at a terminal velocity?
It was something like that. Except faster and about a thousand times more terrifying. The old school bus shot down the downhill side of the mountain at paint-peeling speeds. Each switchback sent the bus tilting at about a 45 degree angle while we sped down the jungle road. One of the turns was enough to dislodge the sleeping old black woman in the seat next to me. But she didn’t wake up. Instead she just continued to sleep through our land speed record attempt by resting her head on my hip. Jungle racing by in a school bus, old woman asleep on my hip, Mennonites laughing at me, and a white knuckle death grip on my fly rod was a strange enough scene, only made stranger by the music. Christmas was just around the corner, and a Jamaican steel drum band was playing their rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” over the bus’ speakers.
Eventually the road flattened out from its 90 degree vertical pitch, and the bus returned to a relatively safe speed. At that point I felt safe enough to abandon my surfer-like stance in the aisle, and stand upright again. I soon realized I wasn’t hitting my head anymore.
What’s this? I thought to myself, looking up to see I was now standing under the rear emergency escape hatch. Oh how the tides have turned Mennonite Jim! Look who’s laughing now.
Never one to miss out on a good joke or Karma, I looked up ahead to see that Mennonite Jim had been pushed back from the other escape hatch, and was now bent over like a giant, red beared Quasimodo. He looked back at me and I pointed above my head and stood upright, shooting a giant, shit-eating grin back at him.
He didn’t even crack a smile in return. He just glared back at me in jealousy. Maybe my Mennonite humor isn’t what I thought it was.
After reaching Dangriga, the bus continued south.
By this point I’d miraculously acquired a seat, and I spoke with the person who collected tolls at the front of the bus about my get off point to get to Hopkins. It turns out there’s only two buses that go to Hopkins each day, one in the early morning, one late evening. Not wanting to wait until dark to arrive in town, I opted to do the next best thing (or so I thought). The bus I was currently on went past the road that lead down to Hopkins. If I got off at the intersection of that road, it was about a 4 mile hike into town, which seemed doable. Especially considering I wanted to stretch my legs a bit after being in vehicles all day.
The roar of the bus engine faded away to silence as I stood at the intersection of the highway and the road to Hopkins. The sounds that soon took over were the chirping of songbirds and the soft sea breeze that rustled the trees and carried the familiar smell of salt. Ahead of me, the road continued to vanishing point to the east, and wherever that road ended was my destination. So I began to walk.
Numerous cars and trucks passed by while I trudged along with my giant hiking pack on my back, and my fly rod tube in hand. The road soon turned to dirt. Each passing vehicle left a massive cloud of orange dust in their wake which, in turn, enveloped me and forced me to cover my face with my shirt to avoid a coughing fit.
I could hear another vehicle coming up from behind and I stepped off to the shoulder to allow it to easily pass. But to my surprise, the little black truck actually slowed to a stop next to me. A Hispanic man (not Belizean), rolled down his window and with a very strong Spanish accent asked, “Hopkins?”
To this day, I’m still not sure why I decided to become a hitch hiker near the Belizean coast. Maybe I was sick of walking? Tired from the long day? Maybe I still wasn’t thinking clearly thanks to the fading hangover? Who knows?
But I hopped right into the bed of that little pick-up, and off we raced toward Hopkins. The road was partially under construction and bumpy as hell, but I was thankful for the ride. I would have spent my whole evening simply walking down that road into town. I still needed to find some food and a place to stay for the night, so the sooner I could get there the better.
I got my first glimpse of Hopkins while sitting on an old tire in the back of that pick up truck as it pulled into town. The town itself was extremely small, pretty dirty, and its pothole riddled dirt roads made for a bone breaking ride.
When the truck came to a stop, I was almost near the center of town. On either side of the road were small restaurants, hostels, and groceries. I grabbed my pack, bailed out of the truck, and thanked the man profusely for the ride into town. I watched as he drove off to the south on, what I could only assume, was his way to the next town down called Sittee River.
Ready to find where I’d be sleeping that night, I proceeded to walk into a few hostels around the immediate area. I checked out two of them, and it wasn’t until an old woman was busy showing me one of her rooms that I realized something was amiss. My hands felt empty. I was holding onto just a water bottle. Something was missing. Something wasn’t right. Something….
“OH SHIT!”, I said out loud, interrupting the old woman as she led me down a hallway to another room. “I’m sorry…I’ve…I’ve gotta go!”, and I raced back down the hallway and into the dirty street.
My fly rod. Gone. Bouncing around aimlessly in the back of a stranger’s pick up truck on the way to Sittee River. I’d somehow managed to simply leave it sitting there in the bed of the truck. I remembered grabbing my pack and bailing out. Nothing more.
I felt ill. Sick to my stomach. And it had nothing to do with the hangover.
How could I have let this happen? You. Freakin’. Idiot!
It was a helpless feeling. I didn’t really know what to do. Sittee River was a dead end. The only road out was right back through Hopkins. Did I sit there and wait for the man to come back? What if he was spending a few days there? What if he drove back late at night? Could I recognize him? Or his truck for that matter? Should I walk the 5 miles down to Sittee River on the chance that -maybe- I could find his truck there?
I didn’t really have much of a choice. I needed that fly rod back and the sooner I started looking for it, the better. Still trying not to have a full blown freakout/meltdown, I took a big swig from my water bottle, tightened up my shoes, and started the long, dusty walk to Sittee River to search for the missing fly rod.
That’s what I get for bumming a ride…
Part II of this tale is just around the corner. Stay tuned!