Sunday, May 08, 2005

Taking the bus Belizian style

After leaving Caye Caulker on the Wednesday morning water taxi, we headed west to San Ignacio.

This required a three hour bus ride in the middle of an extremely hot afternoon. In all my travels so far in Central America, the local busrides have been very efficient and businesslike (in spite of the grime), but this was Belize and things seemed to work quite differently here. To start with the conductor of our bus singled us out amongst the passengers sitting waiting to board and started sweet talking us and offering all sorts of advice about where to stay in San Ignacio and what to do when we got there and would we like to buy some weed, etc. When the bus rolled up he hussled us along and extolled us to give him our backpacks to load in the back of the bus - ok, ok but why all the fuss? - and then he asked for a tip!! Meanwhile everyone else was climbing over each other trying to board at the front of the bus and grab a seat. When Katie and I got on (almost last) there were about 20 people standing in the aisle without seats and the conductor was still at the back of the bus saving us seats, waving us to press pass the angry standing passengers and sit down, and at this point the purpose of the tip became evident. However, it was a very awkward moment. But we were happy for those seats as the bus stopped every hundred yards to pick up or drop off passengers for the next few hours.

In San Ignacio we were discouraged enough by reports of low water-levels in the Pine Mountain Ridge area to skip the hike to the waterfalls that we had been thinking of doing the next day. So instead, we packed up and headed for Guatamala.

From the start, Guatamala was a drastically different experience than Belize. Within 2 minutes of entering Guatamala we were in the immigration back-office negotiating a bribe to enter the country. The dilemma: there is no fee to enter Guatamala from Belize but it appears to be standard practice to be asked for one. While I negotiated in butchered spanish with the guards, Katie was just worried about being in trouble. Since they still had our passports the only negotiating leverage I had was their discomfort at having their bluff called and their complete lack of evidence for their imaginary fee (elsewhere I have seen the entrance and departure fees posted somewhere in the office) . We each repeated our side of the debate several times while another immigration officer sat nearby eating a coconut, and finally to end the standoff we settled on a fee of $1 (down from the first request of $10).

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