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To truly love a place one must learn to hear its voice.
Gypsy by nature, travel writer by trade, my job has taken me to more countries than I can fit in a Twitter update. Some journeys have been strictly professional ventures, while with others I’ve combined work with cultural curiosity and a desire to delve into the unknown.
My first trip to Belize was in 2008. My brief for this gig: to cover the districts of Corozal, Orange Walk, Stann Creek, and Toledo, so my trail over the eight-week trip took me from Belize’s northern border with Mexico into the jungles of Toledo. In Corozal I wandered the streets and practiced my limited Spanish, eating tacos and drinking horchata amidst sun-bleached colonial era buildings before trekking by boat to Cerros and climbing its pyramid. Outside the buzzing of mosquitoes, for which the area is known, there was nothing but silence.
From there I headed south, through sugar-cane fields and into Orange Walk, where I explored the town’s street food scene and had my first encounter with Mennonites, without whom the nation’s culinary offerings would be far scanter. After this, it was south again, through the Belize District where I heard for the first time the unearthly growl of howler monkeys before heading into the cacophony of Belize City itself.
I tried to love the city, rough edges and all. Still, like many travelers before me, I found myself sticking more closely to the city’s more copasetic parts, the area around the Swing Bridge that divides the country from north to south, mostly shying away from the noise of its grittier urban bits.
From Belize City my explorations took me to Gales Point Manatee, a beautiful, picturesque village on a spit of land between two lagoons with an ever-present view of mountains to the west. Then onto the Dangriga, where Garifuna drums are heard in the streets, and Hopkins, where waves lapping sand sang me to sleep.
In each town I spent several days exploring and getting to know people before winding up in the Toledo District, an area less visited by casual travelers and travel writers alike.
Life moves slower in Belize’s deep south. From Independence to Punta Gorda, traffic on the Southern Highway thins out as it winds through jungle, orange grove, and banana plantation. Massive iguanas bake themselves in the road, masquerading as speed bumps, sometimes to their own detriment.
Just a bit under two months from the day I’d arrived, I left Belize and returned home to write my experiences up, feeling as if I’d just undergone a crash course-a Bachelor’s in Belize-ology. I returned to Belize in 2009 for a book calling for a more generalized overview. In addition to covering old ground, I also discovered the breezy pleasures of life on the northern cayes. I rode a bicycle nearly end-to-end through the island of Ambergris, stopping for yoga and a swim off a palapa dock just north of San Pedro town. I then circumnavigated Caye Caulker by foot with a Cuban cigar in hand. This trip also brought me out to the Cayo District for the first time, where from the top of Xunantunich’s El Castillo pyramid I saw Guatemala to the west and the town of San Ignacio to the east.
With just a month to cover the entire country, I used every means of conveyance known to man: planes, speedboats, automobiles, pickup trucks, school busses, horses, jungle dory, and crank-powered ferry boat. To get to Barranco, I hitched a ride on a noisy two-ton road grader that rumbled and belched smoke as I held on for dear life.
In 2011 I returned for my third and longest trip yet. If my first trip was a bachelor’s degree, and my second a truncated master’s, then this one, lasting four months and taking me throughout the nation was something close to a doctoral dissertation in Belize-ology. With more time, I was able to visit parts of the country I’d bypassed on previous trips. Seeking the end of the road, I drove to the tiny villages that sit along the porous border between Guatemala and the Toledo District, passing through some of Belize’s most untrammeled country. In Spanish Lookout, I found a Mennonite town so well-ordered that in ramshackle Belize it stuck out like a pyramid of human skulls in downtown Manitoba.
I also explored Belize’s islands further: the spread-out tumbledown huts and leaning coconut palms of Glovers Reef, the neatly laid-out tropical island luxury of Thatch Caye, and many others. My nautical explorations went deeper still when, facing a lifelong fear of deep water, I went scuba diving off of Laughing Bird Caye, emerging alive enough to pen a story for Destination Belize.
Returning to the familiar … I returned to places I’d visited before and was treated not as a traveler, but as a returning friend. In Dangriga I watched gigantic frigate birds steal fish scraps from merchants at the morning market while swapping stories with the town’s most famed artisan, drum-maker Austin Rodriguez. I took residence in Placencia, getting to know the town’s fishermen, hustlers, and Chinese merchants on a first name basis. When the crazed Rastafarian in PG who’d shouted curses at me during my two previous stays in town just smiled and nodded as I passed his shack, I realized that I was no longer a tourist.
Four months and three visa extensions later, I headed north to exit Belize through the Corozal border crossing. Before I left I made a quick return pilgrimage by Cerros to see if anything had changed since my first visit. Nothing had, at least not at first glance. But as I stood again surrounded by the ruins I realized that something had changed, something in the quality of the silence.
Whereas on my first trip I’d heard only the buzzing of mosquitoes, this time around I could swear I heard voices in many languages of Belize drifting in the air around me. From the west, murmurings in Spanish, while on the breeze from down the coast came lyrics in Creole and Garifuna. And though I did not hear voices in ancient Mayan tongues in the air, I felt them distinctly vibrating up through the stones beneath my feet.