My first drive through Belize City was about an hour after I landed at the airport in Ladyville. Consensus was that quickly in and out is the only way to go. A month and a half later I found myself decidedly reticent about returning for a weekend. The city, huddled masses, traffic, all running circles around a creek, what's fun about this right?
It didn't help that all the guidebooks I've been pouring through for a broader perspective keep trashing Belize City (perspective from a guidebook! who am I kidding). It really seems that not even the local folk like the place much, confirmed by my most excellent tour conductor from Royal Mayan Travel & Tours, Mark McField, who says that most people get here and can't wait to get out. But just a second, if nobody likes the place how does it happen that 70,000 people live here? Well for a start, Belizeans, like Belize City, are complex and full of contradictions. They don't like the place, but they love it. You know?
I don't know maybe I'm a freak but this city has a pulse that I seriously dig. Get a beat on it and it feels good. Or maybe the month in Dangriga with weekends in the cayes set me up perfectly for the mad, chaotic splendor of it. Either way, what I uncovered was an intimate explosion of sights and sounds moving to the rhythm of real personality. A personality that I personally liked very much, thank you.
Mark drove me through the streets with windows down for full effect. Outside the van, Belize City was running a sprint. There was a 'thank God it's Friday' look on Mark's face as he negotiated the van past 3 cars, two dogs and a chicken that was crossing the road. (Don't ask me why.)
So we did the colonial stuff like St. John's and
courthouse; we did the impeccably appointed and outfitted Belize Tourism Village; we did Yarborough Cemetery where hybrid Belizean blue bloods lay eternally resting, and all the other historically significant spots too. It was all good, a journey into the Central American colonial remnants that shaped the space, and into the enterprise and commerce that's shaping it still.
But it didn't become real until I went to jail. (Just kidding Mom, it's the new Museum of Belize.) The old jail on Gabourel Lane is a subtle, elegant building and would look just as fine on a street in London. Delicate paths wind their way around grounds that are manicured and gentle. It has symmetry, I think. The only outward sign that it was ever a jail, where both guilty and innocent unfortunates met horrible fates, is the big, black gate outside the building.
Inside the building I was blown away by interior design that didn't bother with the gratuitous introductions most museums suffer from. The second I walked in I was glided right to historic Belize City and into an exhibit that chronicles a unique and compelling 362-year saga of freedom found and lost, and found again. A story that sucked me in and mesmerized me for an hour and a half. And that was just the first floor.
The City spat me out on the second floor where I got picked up by the ancient Maya in a dugout canoe. We journeyed from 2000BC to 1500AD with Mark's play-by-play enlightening me on the ancient, incredible, infinite Maya civilizations that were the first Belizeans ever. They've found over a thousand sites in Belize so far, the digs have yielded so many artifacts that the museum fairly overflows with them. Got a chance to get face to face with Kinich AHau, esteemed Sun God, he ain't pretty but he's priceless, and besides when you're a God looks don't count. There was a clay plate carved with a scene of aboriginal Maya playing a ball game 1500 years ago that made me think of the '02 World Cup. These guys were a civilization before civilization was cool.
Back on the streets of B-City I was overcome with affection for the place and couldn't wait to get out of the van. I had insight, now all I wanted was to smell and taste it. I needed texture. We stopped for batteries (the camera died because I had taken too many pictures at the museum) and we dodged dogs, bikes, kids, cars and street vendors until we got to the quiet street leading to the Belize Tourism Village. It was after 4 and the Sun was in a nice place to window shop the village's stores, perched on a pier that overlooks the cool Caribbean and much of the City. Cruise ship passengers are dropped off here to wander into the city's waiting arms. It really is a village. Shops, a food court, an Internet cafe, everything you could want including guides and literature on the city and the country. Helpful people, smiling staff, it's a great way be eased into the city experience.
Dropped off downtown at 9 am, I had a chance to see Belize City in the act of waking up. It took two hours to revive and, unlike the day before, Saturday's pace was more like a happy stroll. The swing bridge, the shops, the food, the music, the people, it was all unexpectedly wonderful. Market mazes to wander through, people in animated Creole converse, the smell of fry jacks and eggs and fresh pineapple juice, boats moving in and out of Haulover Creek. I don't remember the books talking about this. Old Creole men congregate on the steps of the stores for Saturday fellowship and exchange news while making time to smile and chat with random passersby. Texture beyond what I had hoped for.
Lunch was an impromptu affair of rice and beans and meatballs bought from the kind and smiling ladies on an Albert Street corner. I could have eaten six plates instead of the one I settled for. It was delicious, homemade and hearty with a splash or two of Marie Sharp's hot sauce; taste to compliment texture. I sat on a concrete bench in Central Park, recently renamed Battle Field Park just in case anybody mistook if for the one in New York, and ate to the pace of a happy stroll.
I left Belize City not too much later that day feeling like I had made a friend. A friend who had forgiven me for my rush to judgment and had unpretentiously shared her stories, people and places with me. I had new understanding and a healthy respect for the city and the people, they have braved so many invasions and catastrophes yet always emerge stronger, with more character, and smiling. Always smiling. I will return to discover the after dark adventures that promise to open up still more worlds. This time, I will look forward to the re-union.