I’m leaving Corozal this morning and heading south to Orange Walk which is about a couple of hours away. This will be my first local bus trip and I’m a little nervous, but it will also be my first look at the Belizean countryside, which I’m looking forward to.
My new friends Rosita and Sylvia see me off on the bus. Rosita has recommended a place to stay in Orange Walk, The St Christopher Hotel, and has called ahead to book the accommodation for me. This is just so typical of the warm and friendly hospitality of the Belizean people that I am becoming accustomed to.
The local buses run frequently and are not restricted to stopping at designated bus stops. People simply flag them down wherever they are and get off where they want to. This means however that the buses don’t really run to a time table as everything depends on how many times they stop and questions about how long the trip will take are always answered with vagueness.
The bus that I want to catch eventually comes along quite a bit later than expected and Rosita steps out onto the road to flag it down. She has already explained to me where to get off in Orange Walk so I don’t have to walk too far with my backpack and also tells the Conductor to make sure I get off at the right place.
However, I’m not sure about putting my trust in the Conductor after Rosita tells me the story about a couple of tourists who missed their stop and ended up going all the way to Belize City!
As we drive out of town and I look around at the countryside I am reminded of tropical far North Queensland. The houses are mainly built of weatherboard and are perched on stumps, presumably for the same reasons as they are in Queensland. They are raised off the ground which gives better air ventilation and helps to avoid termite invasions. It also gives the foundations better stability during heavy deluges in the wet season.
The surrounding countryside is mostly dense tropical forests with palm trees being a prominent feature. However there is also farming here and the sugar cane harvest is in full swing, so large open sided trucks laden with sugar cane frequently thunder past on their way to the refinery.
The bus is old and the brown vinyl bench seats are hot and sticky to sit on in the oppressive humidity. There is no air conditioning but there are small rectangular slide down windows by each seat all along the bus, which can be opened to different latch points to suit your comfort.
A kind of Belizean/Reggae music blares out of speakers and can just be heard above the noise as the bus rattles along on the sealed but uneven road.
I quickly realise that having the window fully open does not necessarily mean comfort as the strong windy breeze batters at my head, slapping even my short hair violently around my face. However everyone has them open and the wind just adds to the noise.
With monotonous frequency the bus will suddenly slow down and swing into the side of the road to pick someone up or let them off. Women with young children and babies; old ladies with laden bags; men of all ages, some struggle on or off, others leap off at the last minute and often people run up and leap on as the bus is already moving off.
The driver frequently blasts his horn but I can’t work out whose attention he is trying to attract or why. It’s a kind of mayhem and I’m loving it. But I’m frequently tossed about in my seat due to the constant stopping and starting and bumpy road and I’m glad I don’t get motion sickness.
The conductor spends his time going up and down the isle taking the passengers fares after they get on. I’m astonished to find out that my two hour trip only costs me £1.60!!!
Somewhere along the highway in what seems like the middle of nowhere we come to a college and the bus is suddenly inundated with students. A pretty young girl sits next to me and we smile pleasantly at each other in greeting.
Now there is only standing room left and everyone is crammed in. Even with the open windows the heat inside the bus is stifling and I think I’m in a modern day Central American “chicken bus” with students instead of chickens!
Further along a man jumps on and starts pushing his way up the crowded isle. He is calling out something inaudible and is carrying a number of small plastic bags, each look and smell like they have three or four small cobs of corn still in their leaves in them, but the cobs don’t look quite fat enough for the size of the leaves.
He is selling them to the passengers and I ask my companion what they are. She explains that they are a kind of cooked corn kernal mixture wrapped back up in their leaves. As he comes back down the isle she buys a bag from him and offers me one to try. At her instruction I pull back the leaves to expose the mixture. The corn kernels have been mashed and creamed with butter and laid back inside the leaves in a long shape depicting the original corn cob. The mixture is firm enough to eat with your fingers and is still warm and very tasty. She eats a little of hers and then places it in her bag and I have a feeling she only bought it so I could try it.
By now we are chatting and she tells me that she is studying biology and would like to become a Marine Biologist. We talk about Belize’s Barrier Reef and the “Blue Hole” which I don’t have time to visit on this trip. The college has around six hundred students who come from all around the area. Her home is in Orange Walk which means she travels on the bus for an hour each way to attend college which starts at 8am. She leaves home at 6.00am each morning to allow for delays in the bus schedule.
The corn man leaves the bus having made his sales and soon another vendor jumps on trying to sell his corn bags, but everyone who wanted to has bought theirs and sadly the vendor has missed the bus on this one!
A little later my companion notices an old man standing in the isle and promptly gives him her seat. Once he reaches his destination she joins me again and when we arrive at Orange Walk she gets off the bus with me at the place Rosita had told me to get off and escorts me to my hotel to ensure I find it ok.
I’ve survived my first “local bus experience”! It has been completely without stress and all thanks to the helping hands of strangers. Once more Zues has taken care of me.
It is obvious that my young companion is a rather special young lady who has a huge capacity for kindness and generosity and as she leaves me at the door of the hotel I wish her every happiness and success in everything she dreams of doing in her life. As she walks off towards her home I send up a little prayer to Zues and ask him to take extra care of her throughout the journey of her life.