“Everyone needs a little loving, a little regular physical touch sometimes, you know?” Once again I was on a boat, lamenting my shadowy feelings to my new Canadian friend, Brian.
“True. And yet some people seem to need it more than others,” Brian said with a hungover slur. He might be young, and he might have an alcohol problem, but nonetheless he was right.
I was sitting in the middle of the row and Brian was sitting on my left. And in between us was a passed-out local kid who couldn’t have been more than eight years old, head on my shoulder and completely fast asleep.
“Yeah, I see that,” I replied. “I mean take my dog, Tux. Weaned way too early—at four weeks, the shelter said. He wasn’t much bigger than my fist when I got him and was so nervous that even an out-of-place cardboard box would spook him. Over time he relaxed a little, but to this day he’s still pretty anxious.”
“Yeah, buddy, what happens at the beginning of life has a big impact.” Brian said.
“Did you ever hear about that Russian baby experiment?” I asked.
“Well, I forget all the details, but basically they figured out if babies don’t get enough physical contact in the days and weeks immediately after their birth they can die.”
“No way, that’s a fucked-up experiment,” Brian said.
“Seriously. We’re either not hugged enough or we’re hugged too much. Either way, we all get messed up somehow. That’s life, I guess.” It wasn’t a long ride and I looked out toward the approaching shore of Belize. The kid woke up and looked at me, a little embarrassed. “But it’s not all nurture.” I continued, “I mean, look at twins in a cradle. One’s giggling and drooling on himself while the other is kicking and screaming. They might share genetics, but have tiny differences in the way their brains were formed.”
“Maybe it’s just their soul?” Brian asked.
“Yeah, science or spirituality? Or a mix. Still to be determined,” I replied.
The shore was fast approaching and we’d soon be arriving at the Belizean port town of Punta Gorda. Brian had turned to his buddy to discuss the next part of their itinerary while I sat in a soup of my own misery and self-pity. Maybe it was the effects of my own hangover but I still couldn’t shake my shadowy feelings. My inner voice jabbed at me, a familiar nagging, asking me just what the hell I thought I was doing with my life. “You’re only running from yourself!” it said, and if the voice had a head it would have been shaking it disapprovingly. I thought back to a course that I’d taken a few years earlier called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which was basically a more scientific name for mindfulness. I closed my eyes and reminded myself of the training. “You’re doing just fine, buddy. You have everything you need. These feelings are temporary and in time they’ll pass on by,” I told myself, practicing some slow breathing to calm my nervous system down. “And hey, at least your sinuses are finally clearing up,” I thought, conjuring some humor to encourage my bitchy inner critic to fuck off.
“Where are you heading when we get to Belize?” Brian asked me, jolting me out of my mini meditation/depression showdown.
“I think I’m going to Placencia. I want to get up to Tikal in a week or so, and will cut across northern Belize. What about you?”
“We were thinking the same thing.” Brian and his friend were chill, easygoing guys and it was probably a good idea to not isolate myself, especially not in this misery slump I was feeling, so we shared notes on bus timetables and places to stay.
In Punta Gorda, on the advice of a friendly local, we ran down the street to catch a chicken bus bound for Placencia. The bus was an old American school bus, one of many that are brought down here after they get retired in the U.S. They were named for the fact that there were often people travelling with chickens, which was apparently a regular thing in Central America. A twenty-something French girl called Annabelle had sat down behind me so we struck up a conversation. She was also going to Placencia so we invited her to join us.
Immediately, Belize felt cleaner and more civilized than Guatemala. Less trash and not so many hustlers trying to sell us stuff. After a slow, couple of hours’ ride we were dropped at a small town called “Independence and Mango Creek.” English is the national language of Belize and U.S. dollars are the accepted form of currency. From Independence and Mango Creek we paid a few bucks for a water taxi called the Hokey Pokey, which took us across a small stretch of water to nearby Placencia.
Placencia was immediately strange. It was a little too clean. While there were some relics of Garifuna culture, it felt sterilized. As we walked down a pedestrian pathway that ran parallel with the ocean, we passed vendors selling chintzy items like conch-shell earrings and tacky beaded bracelets with Rasta colors and words like “Ya Mon” woven into them. While there were some people of color, it seemed like most of the inhabitants were older expats, many of them looking rather despondent and miserable. As I passed one cheesy-looking American tourist I said hello but he didn’t respond so I grabbed him by the shoulders, looked him in the face and yelled: “Wake up!”
Okay, I didn’t actually do that, but goddamnit I wanted to, if only just to summon some sort of sign of life out of him. People like this were one of the problems with the world, I thought darkly. Here they are in a beautiful tropical place, bellies fat from eating and drinking too much, walking around like overweight, neo-colonial zombies.
“This place looks like it has a margarita happy hour!” Brian was smiling and pointing toward the beach at a way-too-scrubbed-clean restaurant called the Tipsy Tuna. “We should come back here after we find a place to stay, eh?” Goddamn Canadians, they’re just so damn nice and easygoing all the time, I thought. I decided to hold my tongue and not tell everyone that Placencia felt like a beach resort that had been loosely inspired by Livingston, designed by Mickey Mouse and purged of all the black people. Whoa, dude. Chill the eff out! I told myself, aware that I was orbiting around a black hole of shittiness.
As we continued down the path we passed a group of drunk American women on a bachelorette vacation. I hated this place already. Most places were either booked or too pricey for our group. Turns out Belize was at least double the cost of Guatemala. A little further down we arrived at a place called Anda Di Hows which was literally under a crazy woman’s house. But it was right on the beach and the lady was nice enough to make room for us.
“I have two spots left in the dorms for USD$20, a tent for USD$12 and a hammock for USD $10,” she told us.
“I love hammocks!” Annabelle exclaimed, clapping her hands together.
“Well, I have a sleeping bag so I can take the tent,” I offered.
“We’ll take the bunks,” Brian said, pointing at his buddy.
After we checked in, the Canadians and Annabelle went to the Tipsy Tuna for margaritas. Intent on reversing my mood I went to find a gym to get my blood flowing. I walked back out to the main road, to the first of two gyms that had popped up on my smartphone map. The first one brought me to a locked door on the second floor of an apartment building so I continued to the next option called “Evolution Gym,” which sounded more promising. Eventually the route veered off the main road and down a residential street. I got to the end of the block and looked at my map, realizing that I’d somehow passed it. I retraced my steps to find a chain-link fence with a faded sign hanging from it. In the front yard of a rundown house sat two burly looking locals, smoking a large joint and taking apart an exercise bike.
“Welcome to Evolution, mon!” one said, waving me into the yard, I opened the gate and stepped inside. “You want some?” He offered me the joint.
“No thanks, just checking out the gym,” I replied.
“Ya, mon! Check it out!” He handed the joint to his friend and approached me. “I’m Thomas, let me give you the tour!” Thomas proceeded to show me around a series of rusty equipment that lay strewn around his front yard. Some of the barbells were actually just metal poles that had been set in buckets of concrete on either end.
“And we also have classes!” Thomas said proudly. He pulled a dusty chalkboard from behind an unplugged fridge, revealing a list of scribbled activities. “Boxing, cycling, weightlifting …” he read. “What do you need, mon?!”
Evolution cost $10 a day and I thanked Thomas for the tour, indicating that I might return later. I was truly inspired by his enthusiasm, if not his gym, and I decided to walk back down the beach and find a place to do some yoga instead. After a while I walked by a dilapidated beach shack that looked incredibly out of place in between a newly remodeled house and some garishly painted beach huts. In comparison to its neighbors the shack, which was almost certainly abandoned, looked as if a creative beach spirit had blown together a rustic dwelling out of parts of other old shacks and some driftwood. But I liked it, it had a strong character, bucking the norm like a homeless person who stubbornly refused to leave Disneyland. So I stepped onto the creaky porch and peaked through the boarded-up windows. The living room was empty besides some bedding heaped in the corner and some trash strewn about the place. It looked like it might have been a squatter’s residence but the porch was flat enough and had a great view so I laid down my mat and began my yoga practice.
I was mid sun salutation when a Rastafarian guy appeared from some trees next to the house and went into a side door. After a few minutes he came back out, returning from the way he’d come. He didn’t really pay much attention to me so I just continued doing my yoga. As I was wrapping up, an older white couple straight out of the summer catalogue of J. Crew approached from the direction of the beach huts.
“We’ve never seen anybody on this porch before,” the woman said. She was American. “Are you staying here?”
“No, it just seemed like a nice place to do some yoga.”
“Oh, well we heard it used to be a drug den,” the man said. “But we always thought it would make a nice property with a little clean-up and paint job.”
“Let’s take a look, honey,” the woman said, strolling up onto the porch. They both peeked through the boards.
“Oh, this could be just wonderful,” the man said.
“Seems like there’s a lot of development going on here,” I said.
“Oh yes, we began buying property here ten years ago. It’s really gotten so much nicer.” She smiled, nodding at the gaudy huts. “We just finished renovating those,” she said proudly. “Well, enjoy your yoga.”
“Thanks,” I smiled. A fine example of neo-colonialism in progress, I thought to myself as they strolled off down the beach. But this time my judgment all felt lighter. The yoga had helped lift my mood.
I had told Brian and the others that I’d meet them at the Tipsy Tuna that evening so after a nap and a shower I headed back out. On my way to meet them I came across a pizza place called Chachi’s. There was some great jazz music coming from upstairs so I ordered a slice and decided to explore. As I reached the top of the stairs the jazz band came into view and to my surprise I saw an old friend of mine, right at the back, drumming his heart out. His name was Chachi and somehow without making any plans I’d stumbled upon his restaurant! We saw each other and exchanged surprised smiles. After the show we went down to the bar to get a drink.
“What a surprise, man!” he smiled. “Seeing your face in the crowd. I heard through the grapevine that you were coming down here but forgot to follow up.”
“Haha, yeah, I knew that you were somewhere down here but forgot to find out where.”
“And here we are! Well, cheers!” Chachi raised his glass. I asked what he was doing here and it turned out he’d come down to visit and a friend of his had offered him the opportunity to run this place.
“It’s been fun. But it’s kind of a weird place. I think I’m getting ready to go home. Or just go somewhere else.”
“Yeah, it is a little weird. What’s the deal with the old white zombies?”
“Haha. Yeah, that’s one of the reasons this place isn’t quite what it used to be.” He laughed. “Some are expats. Others are property developers. Others are just escaping the winter. Whatever they are, many of them seem to be living out their days in a fog of the easily accessible pharmaceuticals.”
Chachi had to get back to work so I grabbed another slice and walked over to meet Brian and the others. The scene at the Tipsy Tuna was as cheesy as I expected but I was a few drinks in and my initial reaction was receding, replaced by more jovial inebriation. I found the Canadians, who had made friends with another couple of Canadians, two nice women, who were sitting at the table next to us.
After my third rum and coke, as I made my way over to the restroom, I locked eyes with a stunning tanned young lady and promptly walked right past her and into the restroom. As I stood at the urinal I amped myself up. “Don’t overthink it, buddy. Just go say hello.” I looked in the mirror, smoothed down my beard, pushed up my eyebrows and left the bathroom.
“Well, hey there,” I said as I approached her.
“Well, hey there,” she replied, mimicking me. Her name was Coco. American. Probably in her early twenties. We immediately fell into a super easy interaction. I told her about my trip. She told me about coming to Belize to spend time with a long-lost brother. Something about her birth father leaving with him when she was a baby. Amazingly, she’d been in town for a couple of months yet had not yet explored anywhere else in the surrounding area. I joked that she should let me kidnap her and whisk her away on an adventure. She laughed, flashing a perfect smile and tossing her head back. I bought drinks for the Canadians while we traded contact info and I told her I’d catch up with her later. After a slew of card games, nachos and cocktails we were ready to call it a night. It seemed that Coco had already left so I drunkenly commended myself for getting her number.
Back at Anda Di Hows my tent was smaller than expected. I think it was actually a kid’s tent because I had to sleep in it diagonally and my head and feet still poked the fabric walls. Also, it turns out that sand is much harder to sleep on than you might think. After a poor night of sleep, and being less than enthused to stick around, I decided that I’d continue on to my next destination, Hopkins. Over breakfast, I said goodbye to Brian and the others, who were heading out on a tour to some lagoon or other to see some turtles or something. We planned to keep in touch and maybe hook back up in northern Belize.
Once I was on the bus I messaged Coco and to my delight she responded almost immediately. She said she was sorry for disappearing the night before, something about her brother getting too drunk, but said she was interested in taking a little side trip so to let her know how Hopkins was. Well. That. Is. Just. Fantastic. News, I thought.
Later that afternoon I arrived in Hopkins, a dusty beach town that had more of a raw, authentic Caribbean vibe, which I instantly appreciated. My hostel, The Funky Dodo, was easygoing and upon checking in I met a rugged-looking older man who’d rented a motorcycle and told me about some great local adventures he’d been on; I made a note of the rental shop’s location. I messaged Coco and told her that “Hopkins is awesome and you should come visit tomorrow so we can go on that adventure we talked about.” Again, she responded quickly and told me she’d look into bus schedules.
Ten minutes’ walk down the dusty street I found the motorcycle rental shop which was run by a badass, Dutch woman. She gave me the rundown and told me about a nearby national park that was worth visiting. She also told me that she had a small Airbnb behind the motorcycle shop. It only cost a little more than my hostel bunk so I told her that I’d be back the following morning to rent a large, powerful-looking dirt bike and that I’d also like to book her Airbnb for one night. The game was on! As I strolled back down toward my hostel, Coco messaged me that she was coming the following day around lunchtime and was excited for our adventure. I smiled at how my plan was all coming together. A beautiful young lady was coming to visit me, I had my own room and I was ready to explore the rugged, rural landscape of Belize by motorcycle; now I just needed to remember how to ride one.
As the afternoon went along I got increasingly anxious. What if I’d forgotten all my lessons? In my mind I tried to recall how the shifting mechanism worked. It was basically like a manual car, just using your hands for the clutch and feet for the gears. Pretty simple, right? I hadn’t promised Coco anything about a motorcycle yet, so I talked to the hostel owner about the possibility of renting bicycles instead. He was a large, jolly fellow and eager to help.
“Oh, that’s a long bicycle ride. It will take you a few hours to get there and back, most of the afternoon probably. You’d probably be coming back in the dark. I’d definitely recommend going by motorcycle.” So, motorcycle it was.
That evening I went to see some beach-drumming but the real entertainment was watching the local Garifuna men hit on much older white women. I was always impressed with how most black guys seemed so much more unabashed in the expression of their sexuality. As for me, I was feeling a little out of practice. Is this an innate skill? Can I learn it? Can I learn it by tomorrow?
The next morning, I nervously walked down the road to pick up the bike. It was a powerful beast and the owner sensed my apprehension.
“When was the last time you rode, again?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s been a little while. A few years since I got my license. Since then I’ve ridden a couple of times.” I didn’t tell her it had been only on automatic scooters, not on an actual motorcycle.
“How about I jump on my bike and join you for a quick spin,” she kindly offered.
“That would be great!” I said thankfully. We started our bikes and I immediately stalled mine out. On the second time I got it running and we took off down the road and after a few minutes of bumpy gear changes I began to get the hang of it.
“Good job,” she said. “Use the clutch to control your speed a little more.” She instructed me to do some slow U-turns. “Now you got it. Look at where you want the bike to go,” she said. And soon after that she left me at a dusty intersection and went back to her shop. My lesson was over.
I picked up my backpack at the Dodo and rode back to the motorcycle shop. After getting set up in my clean—but more importantly, private—new apartment, I rode over to the bus station to wait for Coco. She arrived a short while later, wearing bright pink hot pants, a bikini top and a smile as big and bright as any anime character. In the light of day she looked even younger than I remembered, probably in her early, early twenties. Instead of focusing on how I’d been in my teens when she was born, I focused on the fact that I possessed the experience of an older gentleman.
“Hieeee!” she squealed. We hugged. Not too long but long enough that I inhaled the fragrant smell of her freshly showered hair. Wait, was that creepy?
“Surprise!” I said, stepping aside and gesturing to the mighty red-and-black Yamaha dirt bike behind me. “I hope you’re ready for an adventure.” I hoped we both were.
“Oh wow! I am! I’ve only been on a motorcycle once before!” I decided to refrain from saying, “Me too!”
“Well, let’s roll,” I said, instead. I threw a leg over the bike, handed her a helmet that I’d brought for her and she hopped on the back, her tanned legs straddling me and sending a thrill through my body. We took off with relative smoothness, down the main road and out onto the highway, Coco’s pink hot pants fluttering in the wind.
Coco held on tightly as we turned into the Mayflower Bocawina National Park and headed into the jungle. The road was gravelly and full of potholes, but eventually after a white-knuckled journey we made it; if Coco had been nervous, she hadn’t let on. There was a variety of waterfall hikes to choose from but I heard that Antelope Falls was by far the most spectacular, so we paid a small fee at the entrance and began a leisurely hike along the trail. But before long we were climbing on a narrow path, grappling with vines and roots as we ascended a steep series of waterfalls. When we finally clambered out of the jungle and arrived at a lookout, we were rewarded with sweeping views of the valley from which we’d emerged. The water flowed down from the mountainous jungle above us, cascading into a large pool before gushing over the precarious rocks near where we stood, finally disappearing down into the valley below. The valley itself lay spread out into infinity, a rich carpet of greens layered with ever more greens, endless amounts of lush foliage painted on the landscape as if drawn by a child who only had a green crayon.
A little further up from the lookout was a secluded pool where we cooled off and had fun by staging a mock photo shoot under the waterfalls, taking pictures of each other posing and flexing in the brisk water. Eventually we pulled ourselves away from the Edenlike surroundings and began the hike back down the mountain.
We got back to the motorcycle and rolled out of the jungle just as the sun was setting. I rode into Hopkins, feeling victorious with a beautiful woman on the back of my ride, a beautiful woman who still had all her limbs and skin fully attached to her body. It was a good day. And it was to be a good night. A night for celebration.
When we got back to the apartment Coco rummaged through her bag and pulled out a bottle. “Surprise!” she said. “I hope you like rum!”
“Well, I think we deserve a drink or three after that successful expedition, I’ll get some mixers from the market across the street.” By the time I got back she was freshly showered and just wearing a towel. She looked more radiant than ever.
“Well, don’t you clean up nicely!” I said.
“Your turn, smelly!” she grinned as I pulled off my admittedly odorous tank top. She poured us a couple of rum and cokes as I continued to undress down to my underwear. I took my glass into the bathroom and left the door open just enough for her to peer in, you know, in case she felt so inclined.
“Do you know how I can tell that it’s going to be a party night?” I asked as I stepped into the shower.
“How?” she hollered from the living room.
“I’m drinking a rum and coke in the shower.”
“Well, here we go!” she said giddily.
And oh my, did Coco like to party. On our way out the door she filled a water bottle with more rum. “We might need this,” she said mischievously as she slipped it into her bag. We found a seafood restaurant and immediately befriended a nice, quiet Swedish couple who were on their honeymoon. We ended up joining them and when they asked how we knew each other Coco spontaneously made up some crazy story that we’d met in a Mexican border town where she was eluding the authorities.
“You know, nothing major!” she’d said when the couple looked at each other a little nervously. “Just a misunderstanding over tax evasion, really.” She grinned that enormous grin. “And now we’re getting married!” she said, raising her glass. “Well, cheers!”
“Ah, memories!” I exclaimed romantically, now nicely buzzed. “On to more important matters. I heard that there was a mini-golf tournament going on tonight.” I knew Coco was up for it before she even clapped her hands together with glee.
“Well, we weren’t going to stay out very late …” began Swedish husband.
“Oh, imagine the fun it would be!” Coco exclaimed, grabbing the arm of Swedish wife.
“Well, I guess we could play a round or two,” Swedish wife smiled.
We finished dinner and walked down the road to Windschief Beach Bar and MiniGolf. The tournament was already long over by the time we arrived so we decided to make our own tournament. We rented clubs and balls and got some more drinks. By this point Coco and I were on a bender and even the Swedes had loosened up. Coco was heckling each of us and when it was her turn she exhibited a flagrant disregard for any rules. Each hole was themed with historical or geographical significance, as explained on the back of the scorecard, which I made sure to read loudly and in a dramatic tone. Eventually, despite Coco’s lamentations, I was crowned tournament champion, which I celebrated by pole-dancing with a palm tree while the others did penalty pushups. Of course it all made complete sense at the time.
Long after the Swedes had left, after some boisterous rounds of foosball and after most of the expats at Windschief had made attempts to hit on Coco, we left the bar and began walking home, arm in arm.
“What a day!” I said.
“And what a night!” Coco said, hugging herself closer to me. What a night, indeed! I thought.
“I think I need another shower,” Coco said as I unlocked the door of my apartment.
“Me too,” I said. Now was my chance. “You know, shower time happens to be one of my favorite times. Perhaps we could save some water and share one?” I grinned, setting the stage for romance. And. Then. This. Happened:
“What? Eww, gross!” she replied and I laughed. Then she laughed. And then suddenly I realized she was serious so I laughed again, this time to mask my own disappointment. And just like that the magic was over. Any sexual energy that had been building up rushed out of the drain somewhere down near my root chakra. The bathroom door closed, along with any possibility for romance. I brushed my teeth in the kitchen sink and crawled, defeated, into bed and Coco crawled in a short while afterward. The few inches that lay between us that night might as well have been a mile.
When I woke up Coco was gone. It wasn’t a complete surprise; she had told me she was going to catch an early bus, but I didn’t really think she would follow through after the night we’d had. But sure enough she had set her alarm and caught the bus out of town. All that was left was a throbbing headache, a raspy throat and the bitter taste of sexual frustration. “And that, my friends, is just a great example of what rejection feels like!” I exclaimed, fist-bumping the air, as I crawled out of bed. The only thing to do was really laugh at the ridiculousness of it all; that and the note that was stuck to the mirror:
“Thanks for the fun times! Had to take off early. Safe travels!” Followed by a string of hearts. Friend-zone hearts.
During mini-golf the previous evening I’d arranged to hitch a ride with the Swedish couple up to Belize City where I’d catch the afternoon ferry to Caye Caulker. I had my bags packed and was waiting in front of the motorcycle shop when they arrived.
“Where’s Coco?” Swedish husband inquired as I hoisted my bag into the back and slumped into the rear seat.
“Oh, Coco,” I said, remembering the fictitious dinner conversation. “She left this morning for Placencia.”
“Is everything okay with you guys?” Swedish wife asked, concerned.
“Haha! Yeah, everything’s fine.” They were both a little taken aback. “She isn’t really wanted for tax evasion. And we aren’t getting married. In fact I just met her two days ago.” They laughed as we drove down the dusty road and out of Hopkins.
A sudden tropical downpour made driving slow. I was lying down uncomfortably in the backseat, working through my hangover and inner shadows. Someone had stuck a Chiquita banana sticker to the roof of the rental car. Did you know that the Chiquita company used to go by a different name? Yep, you guessed it, The United Fruit Company, the same company that helped instigate the Guatemalan civil war decades earlier.
I still couldn’t shake my gloominess. I missed my friends back home. I wondered if I had made the right decision in my travel route. I wondered what might have happened if I’d just had one more day with Stella, my Tomb Raider fantasy girl from Rio Dulce? If anything, my interaction with Coco had made me even more attracted to that strong and confident German woman, who embodied elegance even through her backpacker facade. She drank, but not excessively. She was mischievous, but not brash about it. I thought about the unabashedly sexualized Garifuna men at the bonfire the night before and wondered if I had been assertive enough with her. I decided to share my romantic frustrations with the Swedes.
“Well, you know, European girls can be a little more traditional than American girls,” Swedish husband said, glancing at his wife after he said it.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, they usually expect the man to make the first move,” he said, carefully watching his wife’s reactions. “I mean, as independent human beings, women are completely welcome to also make the first move if they like,” Swedish husband said, hedging his bets. Swedish wife nodded her support.
“People have to be clear with what they want,” Swedish wife said.
I thought about this for a while. The world was in total uproar over sexual harassment allegations that had been recently sparked by the #metoo movement, a social media phenomenon in which no celebrity, executive or politician was untouchable. The movement was also causing a huge amount of sexual confusion in both men and women. Most men were completely terrified about expressing themselves sexually for fear of overstepping any boundaries and meanwhile women were complaining about the lack of strong, confident men. But I thought I had been pretty clear. Hadn’t I?
“So how do men strike a balance between asserting themselves and being respectful?”
“Well, just be honest,” Swedish husband said.
“Yes. But also know that sometimes women just want to feel taken,” Swedish wife said.
“Okay, so men today need to be both honest AND assertive?” I offered the Garifuna guys at the bonfire as an example. They laughed.
“Honest and assertive … and respectful!” she laughed. “It depends on the woman, too. We are complicated sometimes!” Wasn’t that the truth.
The Swedes stopped at the zoo and invited me along but I told them I’d stay with the car. Despite being crammed in the back I fell into such a deep sleep that when I woke up we were already driving again. I’d awoken from a bizarrely disgusting dream in which I was eating tacos, full of limp lettuce. But instead of taco shells it had been slices of jellied ham that I was peeling off a cylindrical stack like those blank CDs that you used to buy back in the day.
“We’re almost there. Hungry?” Swedish husband said, passing me a bag of fried plantain chips. And I was, despite the revolting taco vision, so I took a handful.
“Thanks.” I said, shaking off the dream and choosing not to attempt to analyze its cryptic meaning.
It was still raining when they dropped me off at the ferry terminal. “Hey, take care of yourself, Dougie!” Swedish husband said. “And be careful of flirtatious tax evaders!” This time they both laughed. We shook hands and I stepped out into the rain, running into the terminal with just enough time to catch the last ferry to Caye Caulker.
As the shore of Belize City receded, I recalled the highs and lows of the last twenty-four hours. I was still a little bummed out but not totally consumed by Coco’s rejection. After all, not everyone has to like or be attracted to me. There’s plenty who are, I told myself. I tried to list things I was grateful for. I sent some text messages to family and friends. I practiced some breathing exercises, long inhales and exhales. I told myself that I was awesome a few times and even sort of believed it.
The infinite possibilities of being on the road can make it tempting to jump from place to place, person to person, propelled by a subtle yearning, a desire to achieve contentment. It can be so easy to blame my environment for my mood. When I’m in the mountains, I think about the beach. When I’m at the beach, I think about the lake. When I’m alone, I want to be with people. When I’m with people, I want to be by myself. It can be an exhausting cycle until I just settle down and remember how to just be content with who I am, where I am and what I have. I took another deep breath and reminded myself how fortunate I was to be out here, able to explore my inner and outer world.
It was raining on Caye Caulker. Puddles filled the sandy streets and the lady at Go Slow Guesthouse had just bitched me out for leaving my backpack in the wrong place. Despite the aggressive nature of the hostel owner I decided to stay for two nights and the following day the clouds parted for just long enough to take a tour boat to see some sharks and manta rays. I snorkeled up close to the creatures, peering into their strange looking eyeballs, trying to imagine how they saw the world. Did they feel joy and happiness, pain and suffering in any comparable way to us? I’m pretty sure they didn’t really question their place in everything or get too bent out of shape if they got rejected.
“I wonder what they’re thinking about,” I joked with the captain of the small boat as I climbed back on board.
“The same as any of us, mon. Food and sex!” he laughed. He was probably right.
My cold had returned in the form of a dull sore throat. The forecast for the next few days was continued rain and I felt the urge to keep moving west toward Tikal, so later that afternoon I sat in my bunk at Go Slow and planned my departure for the next day. The plan was to take the ferry back to Belize City and catch a bus to San Ignacio near the border.
That afternoon I’d run into the Canadian women from the Tipsy Tuna at a yoga class so we all decided to go for a shrimp ceviche and lobster dinner. After the feast we hit a local dive bar, the Barrier Reef, where there was a dance competition taking place between the foreigners and the locals. It was funny, and a little bit embarrassing, to watch my pasty compatriots display their lack of rhythm on the dance floor with such inebriated gusto. But everyone was having fun, especially the local guys and the white chicks, although the local women and white guys didn’t seem to be nearly as sexually compatible. After the competition one of the Canadian girls turned to me and drunkenly admitted how much she loved black men so I played Cupid and introduced her to a very handsome Belizean man who I’d made friends with at the bar. Soon they were getting freaky on the dance floor and I decided to duck out and get an early night in preparation for my return trip to Guatemala.
The journey to the small town of San Ignacio included a brief, gritty stopover at a bus station in Belize City but was otherwise uneventful. San Ignacio sits near the northern borders of Belize and Guatemala and is mostly known for a couple of Mayan sites, including the ruins of Xunantunich and a network of caves where the Maya conducted their ceremonies. I decided to book a tour to Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, also known as the Cave of the Crystal Maiden, but despite being flaunted as adventurous and challenging it was not nearly as thrilling as our excursion in Semuc Champey. Our group, which consisted of myself and a group of Canadian retirees, waded across rivers, through muddy paths and eventually into the dark caves, this time equipped with helmets and headlamps. Our guide was a muscular Belizean guy named Patrick. He was relentlessly flirtatious with the older women on the tour, especially the chubby ones, while they giggled and blushed.
“Jenny Craig ain’t got no business down here in Belize, you know what I’m saying, mama?!” He asked this question at least half a dozen times over the few-hour tour. “You ladies like cacao? Well, I’m two hundred and ten pounds of chocolate love!! Yah, mon! Talk to me, mama!” Patrick was less friendly with their husbands, who smiled awkwardly as they stumbled along behind their tittering wives. Eventually after weaving under stalactites and over stalagmites we came to a small, calcified skeleton, the remains of a young girl known as the Crystal Maiden. It was the final, sparkling evidence of a sacrifice that had happened around 1000 AD during some of the most challenging and drought-stricken years of the Mayan collapse. Skeletal legs akimbo I couldn’t help but wonder if rape had been part of the sacrificial proceedings. If so, it still hadn’t done much to stave off the impending drought.
San Ignacio had plenty of cheap, greasy street food and I met some fun German kids at a fried-food stall that evening. I was well aware that I was eating and drinking too much in an attempt to numb myself out of my mild depression. And then in a moment of gross self-pity I realized that I was turning into the same despicable foreign zombie that I had so despised just a few days earlier in Placencia. I just needed to buy some property, paint it gaudy colors, get a Valium prescription and the transformation would be complete.
I made a note to myself that for the rest of my trip I would prioritize healthy destinations and activities. I saw a pattern that when I could stay in one place a little longer, buy my own food and cook for myself, I tended toward a healthier style of living. And staying healthy usually helped keep me positive and upbeat. And when I was positive and upbeat I stopped blaming things and inevitably felt more complete within myself. So I wasn’t feeling my best but I also wasn’t feeling like a neglected Russian baby just yet. But still, what does a guy have to do to get a little physical touch these days? I laughed to myself as the bus drove across the Belizean border gates, back into Guatemala.