November 2: Observations on Transportation
As I think I’ve mentioned, there’s not much in the way of paved
roads in Belize. There’s a big project to pave the Southern Highway
and most of the Hummingbird Highway is paved, and also the roads
between the major population centers in the north. But in general,
roads are sand and gravel and a few boulders, some dramatic potholes
and one-lane bridges. And people drive like the devil is after
them and straight down the middle of the road. Except where there
are giant speed bumps where a dead stop is advisable before a
first-gear climb-up and roll-down to get over. These are by
the rural schools.
In town, people also drive very fast and with a fine insouciance.
If the car or bus in front of you isn’t going quite fast enough,
just tap your horn and whip around them on the right or the left,
doesn’t really matter, scattering pedestrians, dogs, bicycles,
chickens, limeade carts, etc. as necessary. I haven’t seen any
accidents, but I haven’t figured out why. The walking and bike
riding pace is quite leisurely, it’s just the driving that is
breakneck. I wonder how many tickets some of these kids get when
they move to the States to go to school and have things like
actual speed limits, stop signs, center lines, etc.
Fortunately not too many people have cars and there is more
bicycling than driving. Partly because gas is US $2.50/gal and
it takes a lot of gas to negotiate these roads. I have become
a pretty good bike commuter, myself, but still have some trouble.
I can’t, for example, ride a bike and carry an umbrella fully
open over my head at the same time. Many of the daddies can do
that AND tote two children on the cross bar and one on the handle
bars and all their book bags and lunches, making sure that no
one gets wet. Reminds me of the full families on motor scooters
in Asia (but without the grannies, who tend to be chubby here).
Of course, no bike helmets.
Because bicycles are the preferred transportation mode, they
are also valuable. So no one leaves a bicycle even for a moment
without locking it and you take it inside with you whenever possible.
Here at the office, there’s always at least one bicycle in the
back of the room and often three. At first I left mine (the one
Tony loaned me) here or locked up at Pelican under the watchful
eye of the guard dog boys pretty much all the time. This is because
my apartment entry from the street opens immediately onto the
stairs, which are quite steep. There’s no place to put the bicycle
except in the main living area. It’s very difficult to get the
bike up there and even harder to get it down. The few times I
did it was a source of great amusement to the neighborhood eight-year-olds
and some pretty spectacular bruises on my shins. But I didn’t
think any of the kids could do it any better even if they don’t
bruise so easily. Eventually, I made a deal with Mr. Serano,
the landlord, to lock it up in the shed with his bicycle and
rain barrel. This isn’t a great solution because it means I have
to find him whenever I want to get the bicycle or put it away.
But it works.
One of my other adventures as a bicycle rider was getting
the tires pumped up. There aren’t many gas stations in town (3
or 4) and none of them is close to my usual routes. So when the
tires got low, I started asking around trying to borrow a tire
pump. But of course, in this community of very few jobs, someone
is making a living pumping up bicycle tires. Go to the church
and turn left, in two blocks look for the yard full of old bicycles.
Call out for James and for $1, he’ll come out and pump up your
tires. You can’t win an argument with him about how firm you
want them, though. Possibly he knows more about riding on sand,
but I intend to stay on the road.
You can also get around by taxi. One of the guidebooks said
you can tell a taxi because it has a green license plate. That
turns out to be the truth but not the whole truth. If you just
try to flag down a green plate vehicle, you may think you’re
invisible, because other public use (I think) vehicles also have
green plates. So you might be trying to flag down the water meter
reader. In general, it costs BZ $5.00 no matter where you go.
Unless, you want to make a stop for a hostess gift (like a BZ
$23 bottle of Ernest and Julio’s best), in which case it’s BZ
$10. I haven’t figured out how to find the phone numbers of the
taxis yet, so if Clara’s brother isn’t answering his cell phone,
I have to call Pelican and have them send someone to get me.
The reason I can’t find any phone numbers is that the whole
country is in one phone book. Works fine for the white pages
which are separated by area and/or city. But the yellow pages
are all together and hardly anyone bothers to list outside of
Belize City. Just one more mystery I may or may not unravel in
the next three months. Maybe I’ll tell you more about the buses another
time. And maybe I’ll just repress the whole experience.
p.s. Dawn and I had a great visit – snorkeling, shopping
in Guatemala, Mayan ruins (this time I did climb to the top
of El Castillo), opening of the new hospital, crowded bus ride,
bumpy ocean ride, RAIN in the rain forest I may or may not get
around to telling you about it.