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Hamish McKenzie - in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata

Thursday, February 03, 2005

After too long in Tulum, a tourist haven of sun-smacked white sand beaches on Mexico's gringoified Yucatan Peninsula, I was in need of a little light entertainment. Good then that Belize, a beautiful bastard of a country, exists.

If you're anything like me -- ie, from New Zealand -- you'll probably know very little about Belize. Here's a quick synopsis: it's a small country bordering Mexico and Guatemala, and close to Honduras; it's home to about 200,000 people; sugarcane is its main product; it's more Jamaican than Central American, which means that it worships Bob Marley and, sadly, if the people aren't listening to reggae they're swooning to tacky ballads.

But goddamn, they can shake their Carribean asses.

My first night was in a charming small town called Orange Walk, population 16,000. The second-biggest settlement in the country. Straight off the bus we were accosted by the friendly local drunk, who we think wanted some money but between his drunken slurs and his thick Creole accent (think Dubwise without the pretence: "Peace to Jah," etc.) we weren't quite sure. Later we were to learn from our charming Taiwanese hoteliers that the drunkard used to be a teacher. Over some cold Belikins, the local beer, the hoteliers told us they've had to chase the man away from the bar 200 times. The husband proved it to us by whipping a pistol out from his pocket and 'escorting' the drunk back out onto the street. I think he said something like, "Which leg you want me to shoot?"

It's remarkable what can be learned from Taiwanese hosts and a few Belikins. Belize, I learnt, is home to Mestizos (like Mexicans, a mix between Native Americans and Spanish), Africans, Garifuna, Mayans, Chinese, Indians (yes, of the curry variety), and even 14,000-odd Mennonites (who are much like the Amish). The Mennonites produce about half of what Belizians consume on a daily basis: rice, wheat, milk, poultry, eggs -- all without using electricity and basically dressing like farm-gimps (wide-brimmed straw hats, check shirts, and overalls with braces). They have an agreement with the government that they don't have to pay taxes or serve in the military. It's a very tolerant country, our hosts told us, and relatively stress-free.

But they do have vampire bats. Apparently the locals have to lock their dogs up at nights because the bats like to feed off their ears. The thing is, the bats' teeth are so sharp that if they bit you'd never even notice. They wouldn't really be a problem, but they're carriers of rabies, which they're conveniently immune to. They also have a curious ability to find their way back to their blood sources for repeat feeding, kinda like highschool kids with liquor stores that don't ask for IDs.

Belize also has an AIDS problem. Marriage isn't really respected, and sex is well enjoyed (again, the highschool kid analogy seems apt...). While we were at the hotel bar, we had the pleasure of meeting a rather inebriated individual by the name of Oscar. He was in the company of the Deputy Prime Minister's secretary (yeah, it's a small country), who he charmingly described as his "side lady". In addition to this, propogation seems to be one of the country's big money earners. By law, men are required to pay $50 (US$25) a week in child support. So, said our hostess, "some ladies make babies their business".

Not far from Orange Walk (well, nowhere's far from anything in Belize), there lies a beautiful island called Caye Caulker. It's a 40-minute boat ride from the festering wooden shack city that is Belize City. Nobody really does anything on Caye Caulker. It's relaxed to the point of sedated, and things move slow. It's a thirty minute wait for food at any cafe, and at least that long waiting for the bill after you're done. The island's specialty drink is the appropriately-named Panty Ripper, a pineapple/rum mix which, taken in sufficient quantity, brings on all the effects of drunkenness.

Not having anything approaching a decent beach, Caye Caulker remains relatively immune to the damaging effects of tourists from the nearish Cancun (which is basically like Las Vegas with a beach, and without the class). But it is close to the world's second-largest barrier reef, which I was lucky enough to snorkel amongst. I got to touch a shark, Mummy!

The rasta man is out in force in Caye Caulker. If they're not asking a pretty tourist girl for a "ting," then they're appreciating "da sun shining on her beautiful face". Even in 30-degree temperatures they're wearing tea-cosies to hold their dreads, and they get around in pimped-up golf carts, replete with extra tread and a booming stereo system. Their favourite bar is called 'I and I' and it serves Panty Rippers near a shrine to Bob Marley. Love and rahspeck.

Unfortunately I didn't have long in Belize; I had set my sights on Guatemala, where I have been told repeatedly I must spend a lot of time. Good coffee, good people, great nature, great times. I'm in Flores now, a small town on an island near the Belize border. Today I did Tikal, the famous ruins in the jungle, which have the grand distinction of featuring on Star Wars Episode One, Part Four. They're my sixth ruins so far, so I probaly didn't fully appreciate their splendour. Suffice to say they were marvellous, and it was a very hot and sticky day. I did, however, refrain from buying a beer on site. There seems something just a little odd about consuming an intoxicating beverage on an ancient site of mass human sacrifice... Then again, those Mayans sure were into their 'shrooms...