Paget’s Belize Journal #30

December 1: Traveling to Mexico

Getting to and from Mexico and across the border was half
the fun of the Thanksgiving trip to Bacalar to visit Carol (a
friend from the States, “wintering” there). I flew
from Dangriga to Belize City on one of those wondrous 10-passenger,
2-prop island hoppers. Since there was only me and the mail bag
getting on, the pre-flight instruction was pretty cursory (actually
it’s like this all the time). The pilot turns around in his seat
and says, “Welcome aboard. Is your seat belt fastened? Good.
We’re flying over water today, there’s the flotation device,
there’s the emergency exit, it’s 18 minutes to Municipal. Here
we go.” And away it is.

The only unusual thing about this flight was there was a co-pilot.
The only unusual thing about the co-pilot was that he had a loooonnng
cocaine fingernail on the little finger of his right hand. Didn’t
inspire much confidence in me and frankly, I didn’t think it
went with the uniform very well. Fortunately, the pilot was one
I’ve flown with before, so I didn’t worry (perhaps foolishly)
that we were actually going to Columbia. We landed in Belize
City with no problem.

The bus ride from Belize City to Chetumal just over the border
takes about 2½ hours of driving time if you take the express/deluxe.
Which I did. The bus is an express in the sense that it doesn’t
stop and pick up people along the highway (unless it’s a nun,
apparently, or maybe she had made previous arrangements). It
does, however, make multiple stops in each major town. The bus
is deluxe in the sense that there is a movie and a snack.

All buses here, even the locals, have a conductor who collects
tickets (and sells them between stations) and keeps order and
helps little old ladies and juggles baggage and cargo. On the
deluxe bus, the conductor also serves snacks. Our snack going
to Chetumal was a potted meat sandwich on balloon bread and a
box of the local equivalent of juicy-juice. My snack coming back
from Chetumal was a bag of chips and juicy-juice, because they
ran out of sandwiches before they got to me. The VCR was not
working on the way there, on the way back we got Nicholas Cage
in “Snake Eyes.” One of those copies that appear all
over the world marked “This copy distributed for promotional
purposes only, all other uses strictly prohibited. Call the following
(800)number immediately to report any violation.” No one
asked to use a phone.

On one of the stretch breaks, I had a surreal translating
experience. Both the bus driver and the conductor speak both
English and Spanish. But the driver’s English was very heavy
on the Caribe rhythms and a few Creole words thrown in just to
make it spicy and the conductor’s English was more like pidgin
Spanish. They were trying to figure out what a passenger –
a tourist who spoke English with a very pronounced German accent
– wanted (a bank with an ATM machine). And then to tell him
what to do. So I “translated.” It’s very hard to do
this without giggling.

The actual trip to Chetumal takes up to two hours MORE than
the driving time because of border crossing malarkey. We do not
know how lucky we are in the US that the crossings are so easy
for a US citizen back and forth between Canada and Mexico. Going
into Mexico was not too bad, getting out again was another matter.
Apparently if you’re there for more than three days a different set
of rules kicks in. Even though my visa stamp was for 7 days.
And since I arrived on Thursday afternoon and left on Sunday
afternoon, that was four days. Thu-Fri-Sat-Sun even though it
was less than 72 hours. If you’re there for more than three days,
you’re supposed to go to a BANK and pay them some money. And
you have to pay it in pesos. This information wasn’t in anything
I read and they sure as hell didn’t give me anything at the border
so when I tried to get out again, I was in trouble.

So were two other (Belizean) women on the bus. The amount
we should have paid was about US$15 (a tourist tax, I think,
which is fine, if you know about it). The bus conductor interpreted
for us (accents were not the issue, humility was the issue).
Finally the border official said, okay, we could pay it there
instead of going back and waiting for the banks to open Monday.
But by the time you get to the border you have converted all
your money. So I offered $20 US. They didn’t have change. Misunderstanding
the objection, I offered $40 US. No go. They sent me back to
the bus to contemplate my sins. The Belizean women worked this
out somehow, but they didn’t tell me. Then, when everyone else
was through the process, the conductor came and said I could
pay in Belizean dollars if I had exactly $34.75 (or some such
silly number). With the help of my seatmate I made it. I didn’t
ask for a receipt.

More about the actual visit next time.