I arrive in Belize and immediately notice two things: 1 – Belize has the smallest international airport I’ve ever seen (the only international flights it handles are from the US and Mexico, and the last flight arrives at about 4pm, after which the airport closes. Heathrow or JFK it ain’t!), and 2 – it’s raining. Really raining. In fact, rain is a word that doesn’t do justice to the downpour that’s gushing out of the sky.
I’ve been to countries in the tropics during the monsoon season, so I’m used to the odd torrential downpour, but they don’t seem to have the same violence as this. It really is hammering down. The airport car park is already flooded, drains are overflowing, people are splashing through puddles the size and depth of paddling pools, and the sound is deafening, as raindrops the size of hens’ eggs lash down on the rooftops. The other thing that distinguishes this weather from your ‘average’ rainy season storm is that, in other tropical countries, the rains don’t seem to last that long – they start suddenly, normally in the morning, go on for a few hours, then by the afternoon it’s stopped just as suddenly, as if someone just turned off the shower. But whether this is the last-gasp tail-end of the hurricane season or just a random weather front, it goes on. And on. And keeps going.
After a brief moment of uncertainty, where I have to convince the immigration official to let me into the country, as I haven’t specified a local address on my arrival card (because I don’t know where I’m staying), and I can’t phone anyone to get the address (as my phone doesn’t seem to work), he relents with what I come to know as typical Belizean casualness, and I make my way out of the airport to join the throng of tourists and locals outside staring silently at the weather. Fortunately, Mark, my colleague at the BCVI, is there to meet me and he drives me through the biblical downpour to the house where I’ll be staying. On the way, I notice a few other things about the country, which have since been borne out by a little more experience: for a developing country, Belize has an awful lot of very big cars on the roads – pick-up trucks, vans, SUVs, people carriers, and vehicles that in Australia would be called Utes. In other, similar countries I’ve visited, most of the locals, whether because of road conditions or financial reasons, favour motorbikes and mopeds – in Thailand and Vietnam it seems the whole population is out on the roads on mopeds, normally with the rest of their family and all their possessions perched precariously on the handlebars. But here it seems the car is king. Perhaps it’s the American influence. Or perhaps the four-wheel-drive and higher clearance helps to navigate round (or through) all those flooded potholes. On the open road the traffic’s light, but as we get into Belize City the narrow roads, potholes and sheer number of other vehicles means that, instead of driving in a straight line, we’re forced into a series of elongated S-shaped curves, as we drive round holes, pedestrians, parked cars and the occasional dog. The Belizean driving style seems to be to go in a straight line for as long as possible, even if it means appearing to be on a direct collision course with another vehicle, and then dodge the offending vehicle at the last moment with a sudden but nonetheless casual wrench of the steering wheel. Just in case my colleague Mark is reading this, I’d like to stress that he’s an excellent driver, simply that that seems to be the way people drive here ;-). I met an expat Englishman later that day who’s lived in the country for years, and he drives like that too, so it must just be how it is here.
After being dropped off at the house where I’ll be staying, meeting the couple who own it, and having my first Belizean meal (lunch of chicken, rice and beans – a meal that I’ll come to know and love), I meet the aforementioned expat Englishman – his name’s Mark, he lives in the same house, he works for the government and he’s from Liverpool. And what’s more, he’s hired a car for the weekend to go down to the south of the country for the holiday (the following day is a national public holiday). And, despite only just meeting me, he invites me along for the ride. Despite having not slept for the previous night (I spent it in Newark airport surrounded by transients whilst trying to arrange myself around the world’s most uncomfortable chair because I was too tight to pay for a hotel for five hours), the idea of seeing some of the country and the culture with a friendly guide is too much to turn down, so I say yes, and several hours later, after Mark’s finished work, we’re on the road south to Dangriga to celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day.