Before you shake your heads, or say anything, or email me, or just inwardly groan, I know, you’re right – Easter was weeks ago (in April no less) and, if I’m going to blog about something, I should make sure it’s at least written in the same month as the thing I’m describing. In my defense (and I admit it’s not a case-winning, conviction-overturning defense), the twin devils of cooking and washing (and their equally diabolical cousins TV and beer) have kept me occupied and away from the blog. But, as it’s now the end of May (and my OCD dictates that I have to write at least one entry every month, to make the blog calendar look full), it’s time to put fingers to keyboard again.
In many ways Belize is a modern country, with a standard of living higher than many of its Central American neighbours – it has a lower murder rate than Guatemala, less gang- and drug-related crime than Mexico, lower levels of poverty than Honduras, and a history of political stability that, while far from perfect, is way better than somewhere like Nicaragua or El Salvador. That’s why so many people from neighbouring countries (especially Guatemala and Honduras) come to Belize to live and work (both legally and illegally). But one area in which this place seems undeveloped is in its public transport system – the Belizeans just can’t seem to run a decent bus service across the country.
Holidays can be a difficult time to travel around Belize. Then again, if you’re travelling by public transport, any time of the year can be a difficult time to travel around Belize. But, with more people on the move and less buses running, the holidays require a little more planning than just turning up at the bus station and waiting. And at Easter, everyone in Belize goes away. Taking a bus over this particular holiday requires the tactical skills of a General, the steely resolve of a Shaolin monk, and the patience of an oyster.
As there’s no rail network in the country, buses are the mainstay of public transport – if you don’t have a vehicle, it’s the bus or hitch-hiking. Which probably explains why you see so many people standing on the side of the road thumbing for a lift. There are only four highways in the entire country (one going north, one going west and two going south), the country’s a mere 150 miles or so from top to bottom, and the population is only about 300,000, and yet, moving any number of them from one place to another on a bus within the same day seems to be a Herculean task. Belize used to have one national bus company, Novelo’s, but since that went bankrupt, dozens of smaller companies have stepped up to fill the gaps in the service. While there are still buses running everywhere, the break-up of the Novelo monopoly seems to have confused everyone – now no-one seems to know what buses go where and at what times anymore, and when buses do leave, they seem to do so at random times of the day. Put it this way, buses run to most towns every hour or so, except the hours when they don’t run and the towns they don’t run to.
Some buses are regular and stop everywhere (and I mean everywhere, people will stand on the side of the road five feet apart and expect the bus to drive right up to them before they get on, the concept of bunching up with the other waiting passengers seems as alien to them as sobriety to an Irishman. Needless to say, regular buses rarely get above second gear and their journeys take slightly longer than forever to complete. I was on a regular bus once and we were overtaken by a man on a horse, trotting along the side of the road!). Some buses are express, which means they trawl around town picking up passengers, then pick up more stragglers on the highway on the outskirts of town (just like the regular buses); then the drivers (who all have a cavalier attitude to passenger safety at the best of times and learned to drive on a race-track, if they learned at all) accelerate violently to dangerously high speeds, which they keep up until they hit the next town, or the next pedestrian, or the next vehicle, whichever crosses their path first. Then there are the buses which are regular for some of the route and express for the rest – they do this because the bus company has a license to pick up passengers on one highway but not on another. So the bus from PG or Dangriga in the south to Belize City in the north is slowly and putteringly regular all the way to Belmopan, then suddenly and aggressively express for the rest of the journey. And then there are the bus station rules involving standing passengers – everyone is supposed to be seated, and buses aren’t allowed to leave the station with anyone standing. So, before every journey, the conductor works their way through the bus, arranging and re-arranging bodies into seats like an expert gamer playing Tetris, then alternately cajoling, pleading and ordering the remaining passengers to either get off the bus or squat on the floor. Moving around this country by bus can be both fun and trying in equal measure…
After investigating the bus situation on the Thursday before Easter, i.e. leaving it until the last possible moment, the day before (as usual), I find out that there’ll be all of three buses running on Good Friday. And after drinking too much rum on Thursday night and waking up so late on Friday that I’ve already missed the first two, I elect to have another crack at it the following day. And I haven’t made my life any easier by deciding to go to a beach resort – not only does everyone in Belize go away over Easter, they all go to the beach. My plans to go to Tobacco Caye have been scuppered by the fact that there’s only a handful of places to stay on the island, and the hotelier I rang during the week has lost my reservation and given my room to someone else. So I go to Placencia instead with my friend Ginny – she’s Australian, so she doesn’t care where she goes, so long as there’s alcohol there.
There’s supposed to be a normal bus service on the Saturday, although the bus station is suspiciously full of people and suspiciously lacking in buses when I arrive. As usual, no-one has the foggiest idea of when the buses are arriving or leaving, so I peruse the ‘timetable’ while I wait for Ginny. The schedules consist of a series of yellowing hand-written charts glued to (and now slowly peeling from) the wall, covered in endless, barely legible additions and deletions, all written in a language that looks like a combination of Sanskrit and Esperanto. Fortunately, a station attendant passes by while I’m goggling at the wall, asks me where I’m going and, not only is he one of the few people who knows the real timetable, but he tells me the bus is leaving in the next few minutes. As he leaves, he wishes me a cryptic and slightly worrying ‘Good Luck’.
I understand what he means when the bus turns up. There’s clearly far more passengers than space, everyone has heavy, bulky luggage with them, and everybody is about twice the size of me. They all have the twitchy, angry body language of people who’ve been waiting for hours for this bus, and the desperate look in their eyes that suggests they know there won’t be another bus for hours. And they’re already blocking the door to the bus in their attempts to get on, even the driver can’t get out, and the poor man’s probably dying for a cup of coffee and a wee. Cue the steely resolve of the Shaolin monk. Or, even better, the sneaky craftiness of the weasel. I force my way through a gaggle of steatopygian women, run round the back of the bus with the other single, unburdened passengers, and we haul ourselves through the back door and into any available seat. I leave Ginny to fend for herself, this is no time for gallantry. After much pushing and shoving and sweating and cursing, everyone who can get on is on – Ginny’s up the front and I’m squashed in the middle. And finally, after the obligatory game of 3-D life-sized Tetris, the vendors coming on to sell everything from peanuts to newspapers to seaweed milkshakes (they’re actually surprisingly tasty), and the sudden realisations from the passengers that someone’s missing, we’re off.
It doesn’t take long for us to have our first near-death experience. This being an express bus, we’re hurtling at full speed down the highway. The stereo’s playing reggae songs at ear-splitting volumes although, once again, it only seems to be me that notices – Belizeans have a tolerance for, maybe even a love of, excessively loud music and TV. The kind of volume that would make Helen Keller’s ears pop is considered a gentle whisper here. We’re overtaking another, slower bus, honking the horn to remind everyone else of our presence. There’s a large truck about a hundred metres ahead, coming very fast in the opposite direction, and showing no sign whatsoever that it intends to slow down, and it’s also honking the horn. The truck ahead is getting closer. And closer. And closer. I’m convinced that any second we are all going to die. Our driver’s still got his foot on the accelerator, not slowing down in the slightest. We’re on the wrong side of the road, there’s the slow bus that we’re overtaking (and more cars in front of it that we’re now also overtaking) to our right, and a ditch to our left. So there’s no room, should our driver suddenly decide at the last minute to abort mission and get out of the way. If he realises that the oncoming driver is not going to yield in this high-speed game of chicken, he’s got nowhere to go to avoid a collision. The truck’s right in front of us now. Then, just when I think it’s too late, just when our vehicles are about to smash into each other, vaporising us all in an explosion of glass, metal and twisted bodies, two cars to our right suddenly open up a space for us, as if parted by the hands of the resurrected Jesus himself, and we slip back into the traffic. The truck whips by us with a huge blast of air and a receding horn noise, avoiding contact by what looks and feels like millimetres. Am I still alive? Incredibly, I think I am.
Fortunately, once you’re out of the towns and into the countryside, there’s hardly any traffic on the roads (even on busy days), so it’s at least half an hour before we do it again. This time it’s another bus. We’re overtaking a pickup truck, the back packed full of what looks like farm labourers, and the bus is coming right at us. Our driver doesn’t seem the slightest bit concerned, he’s having a nice conversation with the equally oblivious conductor, neither of them paying attention to what must be our imminent doom. He must have a deathwish. This time the madman will surely kill us all. He honks the horn. He honks again. He keeps honking. He leans on it like it’s a magic button that will somehow alter the laws of physics. Yet his foot is still right on the gas pedal, not easing off one scintilla. I can feel my hands involuntarily tightening on the seat in front. I can’t move. I don’t even think I can breathe. I (along with all the other foreigners in the bus) am now paralysed with fear. There’s a collective holding of breath among the Westerners as we all brace for impact, think fleetingly of our loved ones, and prepare ourselves to be thrown through the windows. But yet again, somehow, we survive, we’re safe, back in traffic on the correct side of the road, nothing but a celebratory toot on the horn and another blast of air as the two vehicles whoosh past each other.
Eventually we arrive at our first stop. I peel myself out of the seat, stagger towards the door and fall out of the bus, leaving a dark brown John-shaped sweat mark in the seat fabric. Fortunately, Ginny’s neighbour is getting off at this stop, so I can change seats. Unfortunately, my new seat is right above the front wheel arch, so there’s even less room than normal, and my old seat is immediately bagged by a new passenger. So I get to spend the rest of the journey with my knees at ear-height, hunched over like some enormous praying mantis. Next time I need to go on a long journey in Belize, I’m hiring a car…