A Bus Ride in Belize
The bus reminds me of those we called old when I was in early elementary school, with the brown vinyl seats that always ripped along the top. The window in front of us is cracked in a perfect spiderweb, as if it has been sliced by a pizza cutter. Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” vibes on the radio until it gets lost in static when we drive too far from town.
An old metal sign riveted to the front above the antique-looking white first aid kit (the contents of which, I’m sure, are at least 30 years expired) indicates that this particular Blue Bird began its life in Arizona. Now it mostly serves as a commuter bus for locals going to and from school, work, or convenience stores. I think we surprised the conductor when we climbed aboard in San Ignacio, but the hand painted wooden sign in the windshield says it’s going to Belize City via Belmopan, the capital, and that’s the route we need. The fare for the 2+ hour ride costs us $4.50 USD each.
Speaking of the conductor, he stands in the open door and sanitizes passengers’ hands from a large spray bottle without a label. He collects fares — cash only — in a small vinyl pouch, like the one teachers use for field trip money, or small businesses use for bank deposits. The driver wears a pastel polo and looks a little bit like a Mayan Johnny Cash in the photo from Folsom Prison. His hair is neatly parted and he mostly drives with one hand, while answering phone calls or munching a meat pie or honking hello to other bus drivers he meets on the road.
Our fellow travelers are mostly women with plastic shopping bags. The conductor helps them on and off the bus, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the stops. All you really need to do is stand up, and the driver will find a convenient place to pull over and let you off. Feeling the pressure to rush to our next destination, I’m frustrated that the bus seems to stop every few hundred meters, and I force myself to remember that I chose to travel like this. For these people this is a way of life. And probably a pretty fucking good one, too.
As the bus motors along, closer to the outskirts of the town, some school-aged kids board. Mostly girls, but with a few boys mixed in. The girls play on their Android phones or read schoolbooks. The boys seem more interested in listening to music and watching the countryside roll by outside their windows. None of them pay us any attention.
The only passengers that seem to notice the two white people on the bus are the little kids, maybe six or seven, that shyly watch our every move. Their mothers corral them close, as if we might be annoyed by them. I smile and wave, and then they focus their attention on the next fascinating thing they see in a world that is largely brand new.
One ancient looking man in worn work clothes dozes the whole way to Belmopan, seemingly oblivious to the dozens of stops along the way. But, like magic, when we pull into the terminal in the capital, he rustles himself back to life and limps to the exit, never speaking a word.
Somehow, this ramshackle bus is surprisingly punctual, and it rolls into Belize City on tired springs right on time. We shuffle off along with the other passengers and realize we’ve barely arrived in time to board the 12 o’clock bus to Corozal, the border town near the crossing into Mexico. We’re joined by mostly young men with short dreads, but behind us sits a young woman, who can’t be older than 19, carrying a baby.
As soon as she sits, she begins nursing her child. Most of the windows on the bus are closed, and the air is stifling. Just like in elementary school, I don’t think to open them til an “older kid” — in this case a Belizean man in his early 20s wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey — brusquely reaches around Kira to open the window in her seat. I sheepishly open mine, hoping to avoid his obvious disdain. Why wouldn’t we think to open the windows, especially to make it more comfortable for a young nursing mother? As cooler air rushes in, I can’t think of a reason, and that makes me feel guilty. What a moron, to sit in a bus with closed windows, wishing for air conditioning.
This bus is louder than the first. While no Bob Marley tunes are played over the tinny radio, a fat man a few seats away from me is carrying on a lively conversation in Creole. I can’t understand much of what he says, but it seems like someone was supposed to deliver some goods and they’re either missing or late. The fat man doesn’t seem worried.
We roll out of Belize City, through the run-down city center and into suburbs that don’t look much better. Passengers get off and new ones climb on, but this bus lacks the pastoral quiet of our morning ride. This bus seems more purposed, more intense by an almost imperceptible degree. Perhaps it’s because there are more men on this trip. Or maybe it’s just because this is an afternoon bus and the driver is hurrying home to eat dinner. I’ll never know, but the feeling is there nonetheless.
When the route brings us close to the coastline, I can smell the salty air from the ocean water. We pass fields of sugarcane and corn, and I scroll through podcasts on my phone, looking in vain for something to help pass the time. My ass is sore from the worn out seat cushion, and I’m ready to be done with this bus. I’m suddenly choked by a veil of black smoke and look up in a panic, wondering what’s wrong. But luckily my panic is misplaced; we’ve simply passed into a cloud of smoke from a controlled burn, and we’re basically through it by the time I notice we’re in it. I promise myself I’ll be more situationally aware for the rest of the ride.
We pull into a dusty bus terminal in Orange Walk. It’s half the size of the terminal in Belmopan, which was half the size of the one in Belize City. But there’s at least a terminal here, more than the concrete bench that made up the bus stop in San Ignacio. There’s a small convenience store selling sodas and snacks, and I think about how good an ice cold Coke would taste right now. Instead I content myself with a few sips of lukewarm water from my Nalgene and I share a bag of Skittles with Kira. We are traveling on a budget, after all.
Next to the convenience store is a cinder block toilet, and as soon as the bus stopped a handful of guys ran off straight to its door. They’re all back by now, a couple with bottles of soda in hand, and I imagine we’re probably about to get back on the road soon. I immediately regret not peeing when we stopped, but I’m scared the bus will leave without me so I stay firmly planted in my seat, simultaneously desperate for another drink of water but feeling the panic of needing the toilet.
A few agonizing minutes pass and we’re back on the road. Every passenger’s face is buried in a phone. I think that at least if I piss myself, I’ll be the only one that notices.
As we creep closer to Corozal, time seems to stretch out. Minutes pass slowly and I wonder if we’ll ever arrive. We skirt by a stretch of road that’s under construction and then, suddenly, we’re in the heart of the city. I’m almost sad as we’re swept off the bus. I’d planned to take a picture of both of our worn out old Blue Birds, but in the rush for the next step in the journey, I failed to capture an image of the step we’d just completed.
You can learn something from anything I guess. I think much of the joy of our kind of travel is taking buses like this and soaking into the “real” world of a place, away from the artificial enclaves. Obviously there is joy in the highlights, seeing the places they put on postcards, but there is a forgotten, or perhaps for many people undiscovered, joy in slow travel on a worn out bus.