Tourists outside Belize City. Photo by Bernt Rostad.
I got off the plane in Belize City, and within five minutes I knew I didn’t want to be there. This was supposed to be my vacation, but now I had to spend a week with my family in this third world hellhole.
It felt like I had never been to a worse place in my life, one of those places with brightly colored buildings that look like they were bombed out, with people pulling donkey-carts at the airport. It looked almost post-apocalyptic. Plus my phone wouldn’t work, I didn’t know the money exchange rate, the language, where I was supposed to be going, or anything. In short, I was lost.
I had been lost in foreign countries before, several times. In fact, I usually plan on it. It’s fun. There’s something beautiful about getting lost in a completely strange place — the moment when you realize you are lost is a magical moment. You get to see things in a fresh light and because you are totally lost, you are also totally free.
After a while, I figured out how to check my messages with my credit card. I heard the message that I knew was there; my family was stuck in Houston until tomorrow. I deciphered the name of the hotel over one scratchy message and wrote it down:
Hotel Del Rio
There was more to the message, but I figured I would get a cab and call them back from the hotel.
In the rust-covered cab, I thought I smelled pot, so I asked the large black man with a high voice, “Hey… what are the cops like here… I mean, should I worry about police?”
He seemed confused, “Why?” he asked me. “Are you planning to break the law?”
Well, yes I am, I thought. Along with getting lost, I like to add a little danger to the mix, but when we crossed a military checkpoint (something I’ve never seen) I realized this was something different. I might have to be careful.
So, I sat with this cabbie trying to find a way to weasel my way into a drug deal until he took me to the smallest airport in the world after 10 minutes or so. He told me this was the best way to get to San Pedro. I had no idea. I kept telling him that I was a stupid foreigner – as if he didn’t already know.
I started feeling really bad about getting on a 6-seater without really knowing where I was going, but the girl behind the counter offered me a piece of candy. She had these beautiful brown eyes and smiled at me in such a way that I thought, “What the hell, at least the girls are beautiful.”
Right after I got off the plane, someone yelled, “Ganga?”
I looked back to see a true Rasta-man with foot-long dreadlocks on his bike looking at me. I thought about it for a moment. I was hesitant, but he certainly didn’t look like a cop.
Through my slight hesitation, without missing a beat, he slipped in close and asked me how much I would spend on a quarter ounce. I figured I was going to have to be swindled just a little bit, so I offered him 100 dollars.
As I walked to the ATM, I had dreams of the wild night that would get me through the rest of this vacation, but when I handed him the money he shoved this little rock hard thing in my pocket. I stopped and told him it was “never a quarter ounce.” So, he offered me an ounce for $50.
It would be a good deal even if it was bad weed, so I agreed. I paid him again and he took me to a cab. He told the driver to pick up an ounce.
I don’t really know why I agreed. I was just going to wait for my family anyway, plus he was offering to take me out on a Hunter S. Thompson-style adventure, with crazy parties and everything. I thought of the girl at the airport, and hopped in the cab with my bags and everything.
After I saw the place we were going, I held my bags tight. There was no front door and the windowpanes were falling out. It looked like Haiti after the storm hit, and now I was stuck there. He waved me over “quickly, quickly!” I stepped through the broken gate into the mud-yard, and followed him up the rotten wooden steps into the hovel.
Several large men took my stuff and told me to sit down on the bed. It was smaller than my apartment, and it looked like at least five people lived there on a regular basis. The only thing they had was a CD player, one of those monster players from the ’80s, a checkerboard with bottle-caps, and a bed.
A beautiful young woman offered me some water. She sat in the far chair with her legs curled up, and she kept handing me these little blunts. After I smoked a few, I told them to roll a big one. I thought I would impress her with this.
I thought that I could have a chance with her… until everything started getting weird after they started smoking cocaine. That said, I didn’t really feel like HST, though. This wasn’t the crazy experience I expected.
He asked me what I liked, boasting to me, “I’ll take you anywhere, man,” all while he was perched on his little seat, looking at the gate through the wood panels.
There was something curious about his movements. He noticed me looking at him and explained in a simple way, “I just got out of jail.”
That’s when I started to get scared – as he smoked more cocaine his eyes grew wild.
“How long did I go to jail for?” he asked his brother.
“Two years,” his brother muttered. This was very different than what I had heard, at first he said that the cops weren’t a problem.
“Two years?!” I said, “How was it? I mean, where did you stay – what are the prisons here like?”
Very seriously, he turned to me with wild eyes and said, “There is only one prison here, and it’s a hell-hole.”
We both got scared, I guess because he immediately ordered me to take the pot and put it in my “tennis,” pointing to my dress shoes.
“I will,” I said, looking for an opportunity to leave.
He stood up in a coke fever and told me that I had to do it right away. He grabbed my shoes and put the giant bag of pot into one of them. He quickly calmed down and ranted about how his father landed on “Plymouth Mountain.”
I corrected him, saying, “Do you mean Plymouth Rock?”
He shook his head.
“That’s where I get my name from. I’m the Pilgrim,” he said, and continued to talk about our plans for the next six days.
If he had it his way, I would have spent over $1,000 partying with him. He even told me he would take me fishing and everything – but as he was starting to act crazy on coke, and the guy sitting next to him was getting in a fight with his friend. They were yelling at each other in Creole. I thought I had better leave soon.
Pilgrim kept inviting me all over the place. “We’ll take you out… How long are you here?”
“Just a few days.”
“We’ll throw you a big party tonight, it’s all about you. You’ll come with us every night”
I realized it might have been a bad idea to tell him my name and where I was staying. Pilgrim went out to find us a cab so we could continue to party. The girl was kissing Pilgrim’s brother. I peered through the wood panels and saw Pilgrim walk around the corner.
I sat in fear – wondering if he was going to get the police and arrest me. I was paranoid because he had just gotten out of jail, and he might have made some sort of deal or something. That’s what they do sometimes, they let you off early if you help them catch unsuspecting tourists.
Just before he left he said, “It’s cool how you trust us. It was ballsy of you to trust me and my brothers… We could have easily robbed you and left you in the jungle.”
Then he left, but the worst part of it was that he left for a long time, and as I was looking out the window panes I saw a man in uniform come up to the gate with Pilgrim.
This is it, I thought, I’m going to jail in Belize for something so stupid as a couple of joints. I frantically focused on the uniformed man, looking for some sign that he was a cop. I don’t know what police look like in this country; he could be the mailman for all I know.
I planned my escape route. I would take my bags and go out to the river until I could find some place to resurface in the jungle. Finally, trusting my gut, I picked up my bags and left. On the way out, I muddled together a stoned explanation to the brother. He could be in on it to. I remember saying something like, “I’m just going out for a breath of fresh air,” or something stupid.
I quickly ran down the steps and squeezed through the gate. Not seeing Pilgrim anywhere, I walked fast to the end of the road. A man in a mesh tank-top stopped me to ask, “Hey honey, you looking for anything?”
I hurried past, and put my glasses on to make me look tough, but it just made it hard for me to see in the sunset.
I kept walking in a stoned stupor for a long time, hoping to see some familiar landmark in a completely foreign country. Really, I just wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t see Pilgrim again. But I realized I didn’t know where I was going. So, I asked a cab and he pointed in the opposite direction. He offered to take me, and after the guys in the golf cart behind us started yelling, I got in.
When I got in the cab, there was no everyday conversation. I was not about to placate to anyone. So I told him what I really thought about his town and his driving. I was not afraid to speak up for myself, because I had just been through something, and made it out alive. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Being lost, scared, and making it through is the scariest thing you can do. And after the fear ebbs, you are left with only confidence in your new-found strength.