By Abby Hunt
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It all started with a piece of gum. I was riding home from work one Friday, dodging potholes and small children just getting out from school, when a big sticky wad of pink bubble gum grabbed onto my front wheel. I managed to hiccup home with the pink lump taunting me with every rotation of the wheel. My bike was hardly damaged, but in a town where bikes are the main mode of transportation, a flickering glob of pink on a wheel flashes "geek" to everyone and anyone on the street. When I reached home I tried my best to pry the pink wad from the wheel, but it was stuck on with the force of a crocodile's bite. Something had to be done.
After dinner and a few drinks (none of which influenced the decision about to be made), I decided that the only way to remove the eye sore was to ride it off. But where to ride? Town was not an option. Over discussion with a friend, the crazy idea surfaced (of course, it seemed perfectly logical at the time) ride our bikes south, all the way south of Belize, to the town of Punta Gorda.
Punta Gorda, called "PG" by the locals, is a healthy 106 miles away from Dangriga, so this was not a matter that we had long to chew over. We each set off to prepare our bikes and catch some sleep, planning to meet again at 5 a.m. to begin our ride.
Having said "Buiti Binafi" (Garifuna for Good Morning) we pointed our bikes south to begin our ride to PG. In the darkness of early morning I forgot all about the pink wad of gum adhered to my front wheel. Instead, my thoughts were drawn to the full moon to the west of us, strapped over the Maya Mountains like a stuffed coshtal*. Towards the sea to the east, the first signs of the sun were slowly beginning to make their way over the savanna just south of Hopkins Village.
With a cool northern breeze to my back, I felt as though I were half pedaling/half sailing. But as the sunlight determinedly made its presence known, so did the glaring piece of gum. It didn't look to be any less of an eyesore than before! In fact, the riding seemed to have only reinforced its residency upon my wheel. The sight of it alone caused me to lag as though I was riding through fresh, thickly laid asphalt. My riding partner (with her two clean wheels) was not about to let me blow mental bubbles in my head. She tried to distract me by pointing out local attractions such as the Cockscomb Basin and Wildlife Sanctuary, located just beyond the Mopan Maya village of Maya Center, and the turnoff road to the Placencia Peninsula where the two distinctly different yet equally fascinating villages of Seine Bight and Placencia are located. With the quick eyes of an attentive rider, she even spotted a flock of parrots that flew overhead as we passed the turnoff for Red Bank Village.
By this time in the ride we were passing men by the dozens who were heading out to work with their machetes and chipper morning smiles. They apparently had already taken their coffee. With each acknowledging nod of the head, I felt an increasing paranoia chewing away at me over the pink patch flashing from my front wheel. I needed a break.
Fifty miles south of Dangriga, we stopped for breakfast in the rapidly growing and now sizeable Spanish village of Bella Vista for our own much needed coffee boost. Letting our noses guide us as we entered the village, we arrived at a small comedora (café) which offered a smiling all-in-one host, waitress, and cook and a breakfast menu that promised to have us smiling too.
Feeling refreshed and well-fed on stewed beans, corn tortillas, and papaya, we filled up our water bottles, gave our bikes a quick once-over, and eagerly headed back out to the Southern Highway. Though I had been volunteering in Belize for over a year and had taken the bus along this same route many times-making the trip on bike made it seem as though I were entering an entirely new territory.
While riding the bus (with its constant changeover of passengers, with the wafting aromas of curbside food vendors at major stops, and with the upbeat rhythm and tunes of reggae music) renders its own world of sights and smells and sounds to fill the journey, buses simply move too fast to allow for the surroundings to be fully taken in. Cycle the same road, however, and one is granted a unique awareness of these same surroundings and more. Paved within the past five years and cushy with over a foot of shoulder to maneuver in (in the rare and unlikely event that there is more than one car in any 5 mile stretch) the Southern Highway is a cyclist's dream.
I had passed my 70th mile but the sweet smell of wild, roadside flowers that mingled with the aroma of freshly made tortillas, with just a touch of coconut milk, made me forget any fatigue that I might have been feeling. With each, loosely scattered village that we passed along the Southern Highway we were greeted and uplifted by the sounds of laughing children, who ran from their homes to meet us, their mothers giving a friendly wave. Suddenly, any fear that I ever had about busting my bike and being stranded out on the highway melted into a secret desire.
Near Bladen Nature Reserve and on through the villages of Tambran and Deep River, the day's heat brought out the dust and sap of the pine-lined highway. Consequently, it also added to the fatigue that was persistently creeping back. Anticipating the steady 12 miles of unpaved road, as if a reminder of what life used to be like along all 100 miles of the Southern Highway, we chose to take a quick rest under the shade of the bridge at Golden Stream. In the company of women washing clothes in the river and their children snacking in the citrus fields, we found it humorous to note that if it weren't for a blasted piece of bubble gum we wouldn't ever have ended up where we were. We felt a strange sense of gratitude.
Traveling at a more leisurely pace through the stretch of unpaved road, we had passing conversations with the villagers who lived along the roadside. Perhaps it was because we were so far away from our current home in Dangriga that I thought nothing of the pink piece of gum adhered to my front wheel, or maybe it was because there no longer was any pink gum on my wheel to think about. In any case, it wasn't until the hill at Big Falls, with my front wheel raised at an upward angle as we worked to ascend the steep grade, that I suddenly realized it was gone. A feeling of triumph blew me to the top of the hill and I took in the views that awaited me. To the northwest I could see endless land that left me wondering, where, in all the thickness of that jungle below, were the sights of my day tucked? To the southeast, the plunk-placed hills of PG and my route to the sea awaited me. I gladly let gravity lead my descent.
Pulling into PG was a perfect finale to my ride. Perhaps the most eclectic and cohesive town that I have ever been to in Belize, PG receives over 160 inches of rain each year, and the town and its people strive to make sure that the food and friendliness of this near utopia match its natural bounties.
With a lime juice in hand and a cool afternoon breeze gently rocking me in my hammock, I thought about all of the people in the world who might, at that very moment, be stepping on piece of gum, and how in that one instant their lives might be changed forever. Something to chew on.
* Editor's Note:
coshtal - Amerindian word for bag
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography