Back to Belize. This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.
My group had exited Belize. Now, we had to get the van out. As we waited, two pre-teen boys approached us.
“We will help you cross the border,” one exclaimed enthusiastically in English. That was all the English he knew. It was unclear how they proposed to help us, aside from loitering around and smiling a lot at us. Maybe they were counting on us gringos falling in love with their adorableness and giving them big tips.
I chatted with them in Spanish and learned that Juan was Mexican but his family had fled to Guatemala to escape gang violence. He didn’t say where his father was; it was just his mother and nine siblings.
“Why aren’t you in school?” I asked.
“We don’t have money for uniforms,” he answered.
Miguel was Guatemalan and he had a similar story about his family not being able to afford uniforms. Was it true? Who knows. It is a common problem around the world.
After an hour our van was released and we lined up at Guatemalan border control. As is usual for border controls, one line was for foreigners and one was for nationals. Our line included a bunch of old hippies in flowing skirts and Birkenstocks, some Mennonite women in flowing skirts and veils that made them look like nuns, and us—by now disheveled from standing in the scorching sun.
The other line was composed of local women in flowing skirts and sandals, nuns, and bedraggled small business people carrying Hefty bags full of bagged crisps they had bought on one side and would sell on the other.
Our line was tall, their line was short. Our line was pale and sunburned, theirs was brown and sunburned. Our line was anxious and loud and full of questions; theirs was quiet and patient.
Juan and Miguel hovered nearby, “helping” us. After 45 minutes I approached the counter and the border control agent flipped through my passport. “Oh my, you have traveled a lot,” he commented, smiling. He lingered over the colorful visa stamps for Kenya and Jordan. He was the first and only border control agent I’ve encountered who was friendly.
Stamp. I was in. While we waited for everyone in the group to get through, we approached the money changers with fistfuls of currency to trade our Belizean dollars for Guatemalan Quetzals. Here is a Belizean Dollar; I love that Queen Elizabeth is sharing space with a jaguar.
And here is a Quetzal:
I don’t know who the guy is but he sure is handsome, if you can overlook the mustache.
There was a black truck nearby, probably seized from narcos, that was wrapped in so much Crime Scene tape it looked like a Christmas present. Without thinking, I whipped out my phone and snapped a photo of it.
Mike stepped forward, “No photos!”
Yikes, he was right, I dropped my phone in my pocket and thankfully wasn’t hauled in for questioning. I won’t compound my recklessness by posting it on my blog.
It was time to leave our fixers, Juan and Miguel. I gave them a couple bucks each and I think others in my group did as well. Not bad for a couple of hours work, and I hope they really did use the money for school costs.
Off we were to the town of El Remate, our perch for Tikal the next day. As we drove I jotted down Spanish words I didn’t know to check later. There was a sign I didn’t know the meaning of: “Poblado.” I later learned it meant populated area. It was posted every mile or so, which would seem to dilute its warning to watch out for kids running across the road.
We pulled up at La Casa de Don David, our hotel. I ran down to the viewing platform overlooking Lake Itza to catch the sunset. There was a system by which you could order drinks on a phone, and the lodge delivered them via zip line, accompanied by disco lights and music.
But who needed alcohol, really, with views like this?