Our trip to Belize began at 3:30 last Saturday morning. We crawled out of bed, grabbed our bags, and groggily made our way to the airport. Our travel — a 3.5-hour flight to Houston, a 2-hour layover, and a 2.5-hour flight to Belize City — was uneventful. Just the way we like it.

Note: I used to be an over-packer. When I flew, I’d check a large suitcase stuffed with clothes, as well as a carry-on and a daybag — even for weekend trips. No longer. I made this trip with just a carry-on and a daybag, and even that felt like too much. Next time, I’ll pack even less. (Though I will remember to bring a t-shirt or two.)

My first clue to Belize’s character came at Philip Goldson International Airport in Ladyville, 11 miles northwest of Belize City. Walking from the tarmac into the airport is like walking back in time; I immediately though of the grade school I attended in 1975: the wood desks and doors, the linoleum floors, the lack of most modern technology.

And immigration was perfunctory, at best. The officers who processed our passports were so busy chatting about their weekend plans that they hardly gave us a glance. It took Kris longer to use the washroom than it took for us to make it through immigration and customs!

By far our biggest adventure of the day was the drive from Belize City (or Ladyville) to San Ignacio (and the Black Rock Lodge). We were picked up at the airport by the amiable John, who drove us the two-plus hours to our accommodations.

Internet Cafe

It’s difficult to convey what the roadside is like in Belize, but I’ll try.

If you’ve ever seen how folks drive in India (on The Amazing Race, for instance), then you have an idea of what the roads in Belize are like — though admittedly on a much much smaller scale. We drove on the Great Western Highway, which, despite the name, is a standard two-lane road like you’d see in the Oregon or Washington countryside. (Much of the drive reminded me of going from Estacada to Salem by way of Molalla and Silverton.)

Traffic is chaotic. Vehicles travel at wildly different speeds: Some loaded lorries were crawling at 20 kph; our driver preferred 100 kph. Motorcycles weave in and out of traffic, passing on the left or right. And the roadside is filled with bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Many of the pedestrians are hitching a ride, just like the U.S. in 1975. So, the beds of many pickups were filled with two, five, or six passengers, just like the U.S. in 1975.

Gaby's Motor Cycle Repair Shop

The Great Western Highway is filled with bus stops; the buses themselves are often old and rickety. (In fact, we saw a couple of shattered and abandoned bus hulks by the side of the road.) But through this chaos, order emerges. Drivers and cyclists and pedestrians are all keenly aware of each other. Maybe it’s just because traffic is relatively light, but I never felt unsafe.

After about ninety minutes of driving — first through swampy land, then through savannah, and then through jungle — we reached the twin cities of Santa Elena and San Ignacio, which are divided by the Macal River. As we drove through town, John honked and waved at people. They waved back. “That’s my little daughter,” he said, waving at a seven-year-old girl in a pink dress. She was standing alone outside a store.

Guatemalan Girls

Note: I loved how independent children seemed to be in Belize. Everywhere we went, kids from six to sixteen walked and talked and played without adult supervision, either alone or in groups. Yet another way the country reminded me of the U.S. circa 1975.

Black Rock Lodge signThe final approach to Black Rock Lodge is over a washboarded gravel road six miles long. In some places, the potholes are so large that John drove on the shoulder to avoid them.

“What’s this orchard?” I asked John as the headlights revealed a grove of flowering trees. John stopped the truck and rolled down the windows. After two hours of air conditioning, we were swamped by warm and sticky air, and by a heavy, sweet scent. “Those are orange blossoms,” John told us. “It’s one of my favorite smells.” And now one of mine, too.

We reached the resort just in time for dinner. Dinner at Black Rock Lodge is served family style — you sit at one long table with all of the other guests, and the staff serves you each in turn. (Your only options or “meat” or “veg”; other than that, everyone has the same meal.)

“Hi,” said the fellow sitting next to me. “My name is John and I’m from Oregon.”

“Ha!” I said. “My name is John, and I’m from Oregon, too. I’m a writer.”

“I’m a writer, too,” said John. “My wife Carol and I live in West Linn. Where do you live?”

I laughed again. “We live just across the river from you, in Oak Grove.”

John motioned to the couple across the table from him. “This is Beth and this is another John. They’re from Tigard.”

Black Rock Lodge

So, we’d traveled all day and covered thousands of miles to sit down for dinner with virtual neighbors. (Another strange coincidence: The music playing in the background as we ate was obscure 1980s “alternative” stuff, such as Opus and Marillion and Echo and the Bunnymen. In other words, the stuff I listen to every day.)

After a long day of travel, we went to sleep early. Kris put in her earplugs so my snoring wouldn’t keep her awake. I stayed up, lying in bed, listening to the sounds of the jungle.

15 Replies to “Winter Vacation 2010, Day One: Belize”

  1. Amy Jo says:

    Looking forward to hearing all about your trip!

  2. jdroth says:

    Kris says: The couple on our other side at dinner was from Denmark. Throughout our stay, we had great chats with the locals from Belize and fellow guests from London, Saskatchewan, Philadelphia, Long Island, and Connecticut. There was a French family there our first night, but they left before I had a chance to practice my French.

    • Lauren Strunk says:

      The honeymooners from Long Island love your blog! All I did (Lauren) was Google you and found you instantly!!! It was wonderful talking to you and Kris. I love your pictures!

      Best, 1/2 of the Long Island Couple

  3. Monevator says:

    Great point about the independence of children in countries like Belize J.D.. I’m sure it’s just our paranoia, particularly when you consider their roads are far more dangerous (roads being a statistically much bigger risk than the bogeyman of popular imaginations, who is anyway and sadly probably already known to the family).

    The price we pay is huge – parents tied down, children growing up unused to activity and so on.

    I have missed the back story, but why 1975? Did you do a US road trip that year? I thought you were younger, must admit.

  4. Mom says:

    Are you back now? Did you feel any effects from the Chilean earthquake? Look forward to hearing more!

  5. jdroth says:

    Yes, Mom, we’re back. And no we didn’t feel the earthquake. We were airborne, probably over Denver, when the earthquake occurred. But even if we had been in Belize, we wouldn’t have felt it. It would have been like standing in Portland and feeling an earthquake in Iceland!

  6. Karol Gajda says:

    That is so crazy JD! Something similar happened to me recently. I came to India to learn how to build a guitar by hand in a small workshop that only allows up to 3 students. On my 3rd day a new student arrived who grew up not too far from me in Michigan. Just a short 10,000 miles away. 🙂

  7. Raghu Bilhana says:

    Just on a side note. Americans were the happiest during the period 1960 – 1975. There are research articles to prove this. I am not making this up 🙂 . Americans have been going a lot after material possessions since around the last 20 years. Another proof that more material possessions don’t make you happier.

    Anyways, I assume you had lots of fun. Enjoy …..

  8. Pat says:

    I have been reading your “slowly”postings and was intrigued when you mentioned Belize. I visited there briefly and couple of years ago and just came back from Costa Rica, so I was interested in your impressions. There were 6 of us “citizen scientist”from all over the country that gathered to help a licensed bander band ruby throated hummingbirds in an effort to track their migration. The bird’s weight is the same as a large paper clips and flies thousands of miles every year! Anyway it was good to hear you say you stayed up to listen to the jungle sounds. That is one of my favorite souvenirs too. Sense of smell is the only sense hard-wired to our brain but that sound certainly is memorable and gives me a great sense of comfort. Now the scent of organge blossoms will always remind you of Belize.

  9. Paul says:

    I’m planning on going to Belize this summer and I was curious if you decided to get any immunizations for your trip? How did you locate your accommodations, etc.? Thank you for any information you can provide.

  10. robert says:

    “It took Kris longer to use the washroom than it took for us to make it through immigration and customs!”

    >> Good to know that my wife is not the only one that takes this long in the bathroom airport!

  11. What a great experience!

    Too funny running into another writer that is practical a neighbor with the same first name… Just curious, what did the other John write?

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