Saturday, September 17, 2005

Belize City

Chateau Caribbean Hotel 9:00 p.m.

I'm sitting in the second floor bar of this hotel. I couldn't pass it up, though the $63 rate, including my "AAA" (NOT AARP) discount, is very expensive according to the guides. But the air-conditioning works, and it's fairly clean.

It's an old white-washed colonial-style structure right across a narrow street from the bay. The building, formerly a hospital, has been a hotel for twenty five years, and is well-worn now. It can't compete with the luxurious "Radisson" next door.

Fireworks going off at the carnival 100 yards away. Some sound ground level. It's like a war zone. I was over there a little earlier walking through the crowd of revelers. A rich mix of peoples: mestizos, Creoles, a few caucasian Americans and Europeans (an American looks quite out of place, talking on his cellphone in the middle of the crowd.) Tried a plate of six mini-tacos and a "Superior" beer, then watched the folklorico dancers.

***

Once again this morning, I stayed in my hotel room right up until check-out, trying to make use of the internet connection. A last-minute check on exchange rates for Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama, since who knows when I'd connect again. Took a surprisingly long time to locate a gas station. I wanted to go into Belize with a full tank. Went to "McDonald's" for a chicken sandwich, fries and soda. A mindless choice - I didn't want to think about food right now, but I also didn't want hunger to be a distraction, so I fed the beast. The bill, about $5.60, was quite comparable to the U.S. and, I would assume, very expensive for the locals.

The border was only a fifteen-minute drive from Chetumal, and very simple. There's a fenced in duty-free zone on the Belize side. For those going beyond, an entry permit is needed. Parked at the immigration office and went inside to see what they required. An officer checked, then stamped my passport and said he was giving me thirty days, though I told him I'd be in Belize a maximum of three days. Another looked at my motorcycle title and asked how long I'd be in Belize. He then wrote in the passport that I have three days' permit.

Then I retrieved the bike and drove through customs. They looked at the passport and waved me through.

Less than a mile down the road, there's a police inspection point. "Can I see your insurance?" Excuse me? I started to pull out my useless U.S. insurance certificate.

"Did you purchase Belizean insurance?"

"No. Do I need it?"

"Yes."

The policeman directed me to return to an office just outside the customs gate.

"The Insurance Corporation of Belize" office is conveniently located. A new, clean building. I was the only customer. I walked in and told the gentleman behind the counter. "Buenos tardes. Necessito 'Belizean Insurance'". He asked "what language do you speak?"

"English."

"We also speak English here in Belize."

Raul Gilharry assisted me in the fairly simple matter of providing a liability insurance policy. He said it was cheaper to buy a week's coverage than three days'. I think he said it was $26B ($13 USD) for the week. When I mentioned the BMW is actually a motorcycle, he said, "oh, that's different!" It is $36B for the week, and cannot be purchased at a daily rate. He said it made no sense, but those are the rules.

I wasn't about to quibble. I was just delighted that the process was simple, and that I could fully understand somebody again. I talked with Raul about Belize. He said the economy is poor, and the government is not doing much to help, though tourism is booming. I told him I think Belize will follow the Riviera Maya in its development. There are too many rich northerners looking for a piece of paradise.

He recommended a few sights to see while I'm here, including ruins, and the zoo. Belize has the World's second longest barrier reef, and that's one of the big tourist draws. With my poor eyesight, snorkeling and scuba diving hold little appeal. Raul said I should try "beans and rice", the local dish that can be quite good if done right.

Speaking of eyesight, I've noticed that glasses are relatively uncommon south of the border, and I wonder if they're an unaffordable luxury, or do people here perhaps have better eyesight? (Then I saw the immigration officer reviewing my passport, holding his head about six inches over the desk.)

Belize is a very small country, and my map large scale, so my track moves across it pretty fast. There is quite a mix of people here (Raul's heritage is native mestizo and Asian Indian). A large percentage is of African decent, but you also see Asian and European influences.

Seeing signs in English, everything comprehensible, it was as if things were being instantly translated! In the first town, I tried to get some cash at two ATMs, but neither would process the transaction. After four or five attempts, the second bank held a clue: a large red sign taped to the machine "for Atlantic Bank cards only." My engine warning came on and remained. "This is not the way to start..." (The light later went out.)

Many people waved as I drove by, particularly those riding bicycles (and there are many.) I'm struck by the smiling faces (especially the blacks). There is definitely a Caribbean feel, unlike Mexico. The music blaring from shops and street corners has a strong island influence.

Riding along the banks of the Belize River, I came upon large crabs skittering across the highway. Hundreds of them. I pulled over to watch. But for them the two-lane highway was a killing field. It was a slaughter, as shells popped under tires and the air smelled of crab flesh. I learned later they are Blue Crabs and this is the season they're out in numbers. (At the hotel, they scurry into burrows in the garden.)

Continuing into Belize City, dodging crabs all the way, I worked my way to the waterfront. A security guard standing outside the "Radisson" pointed me to this hotel as a more reasonable alternative.

The person who invented those car alarms that feature six different sirens ought to be locked up in a cell and forced to listen to their creation for the remainder of his (or her) life. One was set off outside the hotel, and continued until it timed out.

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