TRAVEL

When An Intrepid Torontonian Crashed The Wild ‘Falling-Down Rite’ Of Honduras...

PETER STOLLERY July 1 1970
TRAVEL

When An Intrepid Torontonian Crashed The Wild ‘Falling-Down Rite’ Of Honduras...

PETER STOLLERY July 1 1970

THE ROADSIDE WAS covered with purple morning glories. The shadows were still long. It was not yet nine o’clock, but already the heat from the sun was beginning to burn the back of my neck. I turned left at a crossroads and began cycling the last four kilometers to the frontier at Reforma Agraria. I had a plan for crossing from Mexico to British Honduras and I was nervous and I wanted to see if my plan would work.

For a couple of minutes two Mayan boys rode one on each side of me and asked me questions. How far had I come? Canada! Where is Canada? Four thousand kilometers on a bicycle? Oh boy! They raced away to tell their friends.

Now I could see the bridge. The green, white and red Mexican flag stuck out from a cement building on the left. That would be Immigration and Customs. The bridge itself was made of new steel girders painted bright orange. Rising from such soft-green tropical surroundings made it look like a huge harmless machine that someone had lost. It was a lift bridge and the arms were painted grey. I could not see across to the British Honduras Police Post because of the height of the span. It seemed like a very complicated bridge for a river that was only 100 yards wide. They called the river the Rio Hondo and it flowed down from the hills of Guatemala.

Back in Merida, the capital of Yucatan, I had been told by several people who had been to British Honduras that to enter the colony you were required to show $150 U.S. or an onward airplane ticket. No bums were allowed in British Honduras. I had only four United States one-dollar bills and about 30 Mexican pesos in my pocket. Some money was to meet me in Belize, the capital of British Honduras. If I failed to get across the border, my money would be in Belize and I would be in Mexico and in a lot of trouble.

Chetumal is the last town in that part of Mexico. I spent two days there. I had a haircut so that I would look neat and not be taken for a hippie at the frontier. I paid a woman to do my laundry. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras would certainly be one of them.” So would Chetumal. During the night of September 2728, 1955, the town of Chetumal, with a population of 2,500 people, was shattered by Hurricane Janet. Four buildings were left standing. The anemometer on the airport terminal building collapsed after it registered winds of 175 miles an hour. Old Chetumal just up and blew away.

I looked really neat that morning as I cycled the 12 kilometers to the border crossing on the Rio Hondo. My hat was my proudest possession; it was a beautiful wide-brimmed optimo Panama, the old fashioned kind with the ridge along the top and an expensive-looking black ribbon. It made me look a bit like Charlie Chan. My white shorts sparkled in the sunlight, as did my white Yucatan shirt. I pedaled slowly so I would not sweat.

Officials wearing green uniforms and pistols and taxi drivers from Chetumal in cheap white shirts sat around at the Mexican end of the bridge. One of the officials directed me to a cubbyhole in the side of the building. I handed my passport to a man with tinted glasses. He retrieved my white tourist card and stamped Salida on page 16 beside an old French stamp. I made my final preparations for the crossing by digging my camera and light meter out of my saddlebags and hanging them around my neck. My plan was to look as much as possible like a wealthy birdwatcher who went in for bicycling. I remembered years ago reading about a fellow who escaped from Devil’s Island and made his way through Central America disguised as a butterfly catcher. I had thought at the time that it was a very good idea. On the back of my bike I carried my orange nylon hammock all rolled up, a mosquito net and two long wooden poles for the net. My maps were held by the same elastic springs that held my typewriter.

The taxi drivers and officials wished me good luck and said that it was 150 kilometers to Belize. I took the tattered wrapper off my bird book so that no one could tell it was for birds of Eastern North America and I took my bicycle and walked on to the bridge.

About 100 yards from the other end of the bridge was a dirt parking lot and a plain wooden building, longer than it was wide and with a door at each end. Not a person was in sight. A limp Union Jack hung like a rag from a pole painted white. Beside the turnoff into the parking lot was a large sign that said to report in at Immigration and Customs and to drive on the right in British Honduras. The sign was in English and Spanish.

Behind, a broken asphalt road led off to the south through flat bush and hot dry trees. Everything looked dusty and forgotten.

It is best to assume that some clever person is trying to catch you. I couldn’t tell if that clever person, knowing that I didn’t have any money, was watching me from a window in the wooden building. To be safe, I flipped open my bird book as if I had seen something. I went through a little performance of shaking my head and, with some difficulty because of the hanging camera and light meter, I got on my bike and coasted down the far side of the bridge and along to the wooden building. There was a moment when I considered quietly bolting down the road, because if 1 didn’t get through I was going to have to do it at night when it would be a lot harder.

I went into the building. No clever man tried to trip me. Half a dozen police and Customs men worked behind a counter that ran the length of the room. I couldn’t imagine what the men worked at in such an out-of-the-way place, but a typewriter was working and papers rustled. The men ranged in color from beige to black and were dressed in several kinds of uniforms, from khaki tunic and navy long trousers to khaki tunic and matching shorts in the British tropical style.

The Immigration man, a young black chap, gave me a card to fill in. I immediately asked him where I might see a toucan. He looked at me kind of funny and said, “What’s a toucan?” His eyes opened a little wider.

“Why, a toucan is one of those black birds with a big, long, funny-looking bill. You know, looks like a Z. All bill and tail. I watch birds. Very interesting hobby.” I laid my Panama hat on the counter so I wouldn’t look so much like Charlie Chan and quickly flipped some pages in my bird book so the pictures would show. “That is why I ride a bicycle. So I can see better.”

After a few seconds the Immigration man said, “Yes.” He scratched his head. “I have seen birds like that. You see them in the high forest back in from Orange Walk. Do you go to all these places looking at birds?” He looked through my passport, made up of three passports tied together. He started to get interested and that was that. The Customs man said to be careful with my bike in Belize or they would steal it. “Bunch of thieves, man.” He advised me to stay at the Bellevue Hotel. Then it was over and I was in British, Honduras for sure.

The shadows were very short now. The sky was turning white and very shortly the country would start to cook. I pulled my Panama hat down over my eyes and set off down the broken road through the bush, which after a mile became fields of sugar cane. The first milestone said 102 to Belize.

My mosquito net dropped off as I bounced through Corozal, a small, busy town of white frame cottages and vacant lots. I changed my pesos in Barclays Bank and had a Coke for 13 cents in a ramshackle saloon. The rate of exchange was $1.00 U.S. to $1.60 B.H. Corozal was almost completely destroyed in 1955 by the same Hurricane Janet that blew apart Chetumal. I had not seen my net fall and that was the end of it.

After Corozal, the road was terrible and I had to push my bike. In an hour I went five and a half miles.

It was 10 miles from the bridge to Corozal and 30 miles from Corozal to Orange Walk Town. For nearly the whole distance I traveled between canefields. There were no villages, just an occasional collection of wooden cottages with a small store distinguishable from the cottages only by a Pepsi-Cola or Coca-Cola sign tacked up near the door. I saw little forest or jungle. Some of the few people I saw were Creole, some were Mestizo, the Spanish-American Métis, a mixed race of Spanish whites and Amerindians that makes up a large part of the Central American population.

On I went. The dust was really awful. And now there was traffic. Whenever I heard a motor I had to decide very quickly which way the breeze was blowing and run to the side. I would take a deep breath, pull down my hat even more, tuck my face into my shoulder and hope that I had picked the right side so the breeze blew away from me. Then the cane trucks rumbled past, often as many as three in a line, swirling white dust in a cloud that settled everywhere. Long brown sticks of sugar cane spilled from the overloaded boxes and littered the way. On the truck doors signs were painted: WORK, WORK AND MORE WORK and SEVEN DAYS A WEEK - NO REST FOR THE WICKED. The cane fields, the bushes, the trucks, all had turned the same powder-white color as the road. Heat reflected from every angle and it felt 20 degrees hotter than what was probably 95 degrees. I gradually melted in sweat and my nice clean whites turned mud-color. My Panama had greasy marks from my fingers. Now there were no shadows. The sky was white.

After more struggling and great discouragement I came to rutted pavement. On my left was a small park that looked like a field, except that someone had planted a small banyan sapling and the plaster statue of a woman stood on a cement base. There was an empty traffic circle and cross streets that went down a slope to the left. Large spreading huaya trees that shaded many of the thatched houses were full of jackdaws eating the huaya fruit and making a noisy fuss. This was Orange Walk Town. There was not an orange tree in sight.

Three teen-age Creole boys directed me to the Miramar Hotel Restaurant, a rambling, two - story, wooden structure standing nearly flush to the main road on the right. An electric Heineken’s Beer sign was over the door.

Two or three local men sat on a bench in front of the hotel. I watched as a Mennonite boy with reddish skin and pale bleached hair hawked peanuts at five cents for a small brown-paper bagful. You could have bought the peanuts cheaper in the United States. The boy was dressed in blue farmer’s overalls that must have been very hot, and he wore a straw hat. He spoke a rough mixture of German, Spanish and a few words of English. I knew that about 1,000 Mennonites came from northern Mexico in 1957 and that they formed one community at Blue Creek in Orange Walk District and one on the upper Belize River.

I locked my bicycle and stood it so I could watch the rear wheel through the open door of the Miramar Hotel Restaurant. I decided that I was not going to pedal another foot that day. I would spend Saturday night in Orange Walk Town at the Miramar Hotel.

The jukebox in the saloon played, In Belize Central Square I’ll Meet You. Three or four fellows were drinking and they played the same song all day as loud as the machine would play. On the wall in the saloon was a card which read, PLEASE DON’T STEAL THE GLASSES. In the restaurant a notice was plainly posted beside the cash register:

All Persons who have Outstanding Bill for year 1969 with Miramar Restaurant Prop, please settle by 15th Feb. or their Names will be Posted Outside.

Half-leaning at the restaurant counter stood a young, blond-haired man, drinking bottled Heineken’s Beer. Drinking with him was a man who looked full blooded Mayan, had a briefcase sticking from under his arm and was clearly drunk. I found out later that he was an insurance adjuster from Belize.

I rented a room from the Miramar Restaurant Prop. I would call him a totally tan man. His shirt was tan, his trousers were tan, and he was tan. Even his glasses had beige frames. He looked over the top of them as he rented me a room upstairs.

He told me, “You would be perfect in the eight-dollar suite. That is where I would like to see you because it would somehow fit. Unfortunately, Mr. Goldson has it for two nights this weekend and he arrives this afternoon. Mr. Goldson is our Leader of the Opposition.” The Prop.|showed his white false teeth. “I used to be with his party and he always stays here when he comes to make a speech. Take the three-dollar room.”

I had $10 B.H. after changing my money. There were three-dollar and two dollar rooms. I asked what the difference was and if there were mosquitoes.

“The difference? Why, sir, simply a question of luxe. Amenities. Comfort. You get what you pay for. We all know that.” He said it with a serious face. “Our rooms have screens.”

My three-dollar room was not larger than seven feet long and five feet wide. I had to take off my clothes in the hall. A piece of quarter-inch plywood separated me from a Guyanese sugar extractor. On the other side of him was his friend who was a chemist. We were all part of the same room because the plywood panels only went up eight feet. In Belize Central Square I’ll Meet You came up under the floor.

I had a shower. From the bathroom window I could see a big sign on the Church of God: REVIVAL AND FINE SINGING WITH FRED VAUGHT. Beside the Church of God was the Mennonite House. On the other side were two thatched cottages. A beautiful Creole girl worked in one of the kitchens and then came outside to feed the chickens. She looked up and kind of grinned. I was thinking that British Honduras was just the place for me.

That afternoon I was eating my beans and rice and munching an English chocolate bar when three of the most unlikely looking characters walked in the door. They ordered ham and eggs. They were three elderly men, all dressed in green - and - brown camouflage — paratroop outfits in Orange Walk Town. Each man wore a baseball cap with a long peak and brown, French-army-type running shoes. They were Americans with midwest accents and they looked out of place.

The blond-haired man slid into a chair opposite me. “Tiger hunters,” he whispered. “They come from a camp back in by the Rio Bravo. Those fellows pay a lot of money, man, to shoot a tiger. That’s big business.”

“Many tigers around here?” I asked.

“Oh yes, man. Lots and lots of ’em way back in. They don’t come out much on the road. But around Cayo and Pine Ridge they’ve got lions and red tigers, man, and you want to be careful. Don’t ride around there on a bike without a gun. Those red tigers are mean, man.”

Red tiger. Jaguar. That was really something. I had bicycled 500 kilometers from Merida in Yucatan where there was nothing bigger than iguanas, across the flat bush into Central American jungles and jaguar country. The blond-haired man bought me a beer and told me about the dance.

“Man, there’s big happnins at Yo Creek tonight, man. They’ve bought up a name band from Belize. The settlement pays, man. You got to pay about three dollars, but only if you dance. You don’t pay if you don’t dance. There’s a bar and drinks is cheap, man. There’s been a strike at the sugar factory here in Orange Walk and it was just over Thursday.

Most of us only got two days’ pay. Nobody’s got any money.”

Yo Creek was six miles west. Somehow I felt that a dance would be a very good idea for a Saturday night: just what I needed after a rough day.

“Don’t hurry, man. It don’t start before 10 o’clock and they’ll be goin’ strong till three or four in the mornin’. Take your time.”

After sundown I put on my long trousers and went for a double rum at the Paradise Beer Parlor. As I strolled through the warm evening. I smelled marijuana through the open window of the Vietnam Bar, where they sold the stuff over the counter by the joint. Orange Walk Town had really come to life. Jukeboxes and radios blared from every house and saloon; that openness of the tropics was in the air, where doors and windows are wide and part of the street and everyone is more natural and unassuming. Soon I was whistling In Belize Central Square I’ll Meet You.

Loud shouts. There was a fight in the Tropical Club and men shoved to get out the door. This was the kind of action that I liked. I joined a large crowd gathered in the street in front of the Cine Club. Crashing and thumping sounds came from the second floor, which was called the Guinness Dance Hall. There was a piercing scream. With many other men, I climbed up a post and crawled along a ledge to watch through the open window. On the floor, two small Japanese women were having a wrestling match. They had been brought especially from Mexico City. Wham! Crash! Screech! It was a fantastic sight. Only the classy people were inside because they had not been on strike and could afford the tickets. An East Indian man in the front row stood up excitedly and rubbed his hands when one of the small women jumped on the other one. We fellows on the outside hanging on the ledge were laughing very hard.

I bought three peeled oranges in front of the Tropic Cinema, which was showing a Spanish film. Profanadores de Tumbas. It was nearly 10 o’clock. I thought that I would go to the dance and walked up to the traffic circle. Half a dozen young men lounged around, looking for a lift. One told me, “The bus is gone, man. And I think it is just goin’ to make one trip. You have to see if you can catch a lift. The taxis are thieves. They are takin’ five passengers at 75 cents each and no one can afford that, man. We’ve been on strike. Seventy five cents — why it is only six miles, man.”

I sat down and waited for something to happen. I talked with a man who was called George. He said he was Mayan. He told me that nearly all Indians would be at the dance. “We don’t like Creoles much, man. They live the good life in the towns and get all the best women. We live in the bush and do the hard work. Me, I’m from Yo Creek but now I'm workin’ at the sugar factory. Let’s go, man.”

A big green truck pulled up to the corner and stopped. We all ran for it. “Twenty-five cents,” George yelled. Some 10 men and women of all ages already sat on planks that had been set up in the back. We jumped aboard. Off went the truck and we all ducked our heads and covered our noses and mouths from the dust. Halfway to Yo Creek the driver stopped and we paid out 25 cents each. A little farther on was a taxi with a flat tire whose passengers had paid 75 cents each. As we went by them we whistled and jeered and told them what suckers they were. After a while we arrived at a large area of lights in the darkness. People streamed to the area from trucks that had brought them from all over Orange Walk District. We parked with the trucks and joined the happy flow.

I could see no village in the darkness. The centre of attraction was a large, open dance floor where couples moved about under a palm roof supported by poles. The name band from Belize played a soft, Spanish-American beat from a raised platform at the back. They were Creoles and there were another half a dozen Creoles in the crowd. They were the only ones who could dance very well. George explained that these Creoles were local people and that that was all right. The rest of the crowd was Yucatecan Mayan and Mestizo. Nobody wore the Yucatecan native dress; everyone dressed like West Indians, the men in trousers and sport shirts and the women in dresses too long to be in style. The language was a mixture of Mayan, Spanish and English.

The bar was set up and a great crowd of men was pushing around trying to get at the drinks. Beside the bar was a diesel-truck engine that throbbed and produced electricity for the lights. Probably 500 people milled around in the 50 yards between dance floor and bar. Two smartly dressed police constables stood quietly and watched that things did not get too far out of hand. Long leather switches stuck from their pockets; they carried no firearms.

George introduced me to his elder brother, a wiry little Indian man in his 40s who used to be a chicle collector. As a part-time job many of the men around Yo Creek collected chicle from the tall, whitish tree that grows wild in the deeper parts of the forest, The three of us went to the bar. For 10 cents you bought a shot of what they called white rum or tiger claw. It was 80% ’alcohol, the strongest drink I ever drank in my life; so strong that when I inhaled the fumes from the paper cup it acted like smelling salts. My head jerked back uncontrollably and my eyes twitched.

I drank about 10 shots of tiger claw before I found out that I was buying it the expensive way. The best way was to buy a small eight-ounce bottle, called a chop, for 40 cents. That was the way to get completely blasted for less than one dollar.

Everybody was there. I saw the blond haired fellow, who waved and shouted, “Hello, Peter.” He was with the Mayan insurance adjuster, who had recovered and was now getting drunk again. Most of us could not afford the dance, so we drank instead. By two o’clock in the morning there were drunken men lying all over the ground. I had never seen people get so drunk. Sometimes a man would let out a sharp cry as though he had been shot and fall to the ground. His friend would run over and drag him to a safe place. It got so bad that you had to be very careful you did not step on somebody.

The really impressive performance happened after two o’clock.

I was spending a lot of time blowing my nose, which was running from the dust. A chap said to me, “You’re sick, man. That’s what you need, man. That rum.” We stood by the dance-floor rope and chatted for a moment.

Just then a taxi came by, moving very slowly through the crowd. Leaning against a parked car was an Indian man. He was drunk and his head had fallen forward, so that he looked at his feet through glazed eyes. His feet were sticking into the path of the oncoming taxi. One foot was a little farther out than the other. The taxi driver blew his horn and the man shifted, but not enough. The taxi went by. The man stayed leaning against the car. Suddenly, after some minutes, he let out a terrific scream. Everybody turned around. He was pointing at his foot. “I been moshed, man,” he cried in a voice of horror. “I been moshed, man." Sure enough, the tread marks ran right over his shoe and his foot had been squashed flat. He let out another terrific scream and his friend came over and looked at his foot. In fact, we all looked at it with interest and I heard people saying to other people, “He’s been moshed, man. He’s been moshed quite flat.” One police constable came over and looked and shook his head. “You are an ass, man. That’s what you are. An ass. You were too drunk to move, man.” The constable walked away again. By now people thought it was a great joke and we were all chuckling. Finally, his friend held him by one arm and he hopped painfully away.

At half-past three I took the bus back to Orange Walk. Some fellow got mad at me because my head kept falling on to his shoulder. There were drunks lying on the road all over town. I climbed over two lying in the doorway of the Miramar and went up to bed. It had been a long day but I was happy because now I had a feeling of the country.