This past May, I visited Belize, my mother’s home country, for the first time in over 20 years.
The last time I visited, it was an absolute disaster. I was three years old and went so I could be a flower girl in my Aunt Sue’s wedding. But I ate a bad popsicle, fell sick with dysentery, and was nearly kidnapped by a woman in the hospital—I’m not even kidding! For these reasons and more, I hadn’t been back since…until last month. After a bitter breakup, I looked up flights to the warmest, most inviting place I could find, called my Aunt Sue, and decided that Belize deserved another try. Here is my travel diary from that week.
The cheapest way to get to Belize is to fly into Mexico, then drive in. My aunt and her friend pick me up at the airport in Cancún. It’s very small. At our hotel there’s a pool that makes its own waves—and a lot of drunken 20-somethings shoving each other into the water. But behind the pool is the beach, which looks 10 times better (and bluer). The water is chilly at first, but my aunt and I dive right in.
After dinner, the three of us hit up downtown Cancún. It’s like the Mexican Vegas, covered in lights and billboards full of BOOBS. We stop at a ridiculous bar full of waiters who can’t stand to leave us women alone. They photobomb us, make us balloon hats, and, at some point, a waiter grabs my aunt by the waist. “NO ME TOQUES ASI,” she says sternly before the waiter shrinks away. I finally get to the bottom of a margarita the size of my head. That’s the end of that.
On the road to Belize City! It’s about seven hours from Cancún. We pass by nothing but hotels for an hour before we reach a part of Mexico that people actually live in. Once we pass Tulum, there are dozens upon dozens of houses with roofs made of straw. Plus, every establishment in rural Mexico has a person’s name:
Restaurant Familiar Elizabeth
Super Marqueta Carlos
Pescaderia Don Luis
The roads immediately turn to gravel when we cross the border into Belize. We pass run-down houses and shanties made of sheet metal, wood, and grass. Never again will I complain about the noise my toilet makes back home. At least I have indoor plumbing.
As we get closer to Belize City, the roads get better, and so does the radio. Some stations play Caribbean renditions of Rihanna songs, substituting the beats with acoustic guitar and bongos, while others are stuck in the ’80s. One DJ “remixes” ’80s pop songs, which actually means interrupting them with spacey Casio keyboard sounds every 30 seconds. We pull up to my aunt’s house. It’s big, orange and surrounded by palm trees.
My aunt leads me to the backyard, where her dock is. I leave my shoes inside. It’s not until after I step on a prickly weed that she tells me not to step on the prickly weeds. They’re sentient plants—they close when you touch them, like Venus fly traps. A giant rash develops on my foot, and it itches and swells for days.
I wake up to two roosters crowing at three AM. This will become a regular thing.
My aunt is a professional photographer; today I am her assistant. We go to shoot a makeup party. The women there are all very beautiful, and very wealthy. They take great care to stress how pale I am and how much sun I need. New York sucked the melanin out of me, I joke, and now I am a vampire. Nobody gets it.
The rash on my foot gets worse. I take a magnifying glass and find that the prickly plant left a poisonous spine! We have to find a doctor. Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” plays as we drive through downtown Belize City. The song is about San Pedro, which is where we are going on Sunday. We can’t find a doctor, so I take the magnifying glass and pluck out the poison spine from my foot. I may be a city girl, but I’m not completely helpless.
IT’S PROM NIGHT IN BELIZE CITY. There’s no way to express how big of a deal this is here. It’s a red carpet event! A procession of couples arrive at the local Radisson Hotel and compete for the most memorable entrance. Hundreds of young Belizeans line the sidewalks to watch their friends. I hear that in years past, kids have showed up on scooters and been carried inside by bodybuilders, and that one kid even showed up in a helicopter. (There was no helipad, though, so he had to turn around and land in a soccer field nearby.)
Tonight, I assist my aunt through various prom shoots at her clients’ homes. After we’re done with the photos, I BEG her to take me to the prom so I can see the spectacle for myself. Some couples rent Escalades and Lamborghinis for their big arrivals, and others show up in their parents’ cars blasting Drake and Kendrick Lamar from their sound systems. Some even arrive in motorcycle squadrons! One biker dramatically revs up his engine to create a cloud of smoke. A couple emerges gloriously as the cloud of exhaust clears.
Today, we’re all cramming into my uncle’s motorboat to go to San Pedro, an island that is only reachable by boat or plane. There are nine of us: family and friends, plus my cousin’s dog, Leo.
The water is bright green. We watch the waves crashing up against the barrier reef to our right, then make a pit stop in Caye Caulker, a popular destination for hippies and frat bros. There’s a bar outside, and everyone is lounging in the sun. A child comes up to me and shows me a lionfish sitting in a bucket of water. “That doesn’t belong in this ocean!” says my aunt. We’re pretty sure it’s dead.
My uncle owns a row of townhouses on the island, so we stay in one of them. Behind it is a cage full of talking parrots, who greet us by making kissy noises. We lie out by the pool, where I apply my SPF 50 sunscreen about every two hours. Still, by the end of the day, I am BADLY sunburned. It’s the worst one I’ve gotten in my entire life. My family is a little baffled by this, but they’re all much darker than me. At least they brought aloe!
We walk around the town of San Pedro. I find my aunt’s white pashmina shawl and use it to expertly cover my massive back sunburn. In our group, the men are fixated on drinking, while the women are fixated on shopping at some pricey grandma stores with wide-brim hats and tchotchkes. I’m left to explore the town with my aunt’s friend’s daughter. She says she didn’t like me very much until she realized I wasn’t a teenager, like her. I pause to reflect on this before we walked into an ice cream shop/arcade full of 12-year-old boys. “I found you some boyfriends,” I joked, but she turned red. Oops. We wander off again, looking for a shop with UNBELIZEABLE beach towels. I procure one, as well as some stickers that say DON’T STOP BELIZIN’. We buy some peppered mangos on sticks, then walk back to the boat to return to the city.
Today, my aunt and I set out to Cayo to see some Mayan archaeological sites. We drive toward Guatemala for three hours, passing many sugarcane fields and rolling hills of green. We stop at Xunantunich, my aunt’s favorite site, but we have to cross a river by a tiny, man-powered ferry to get there. A man cranks a wheel to get us across. Before we approach the ticket booth, my aunt turns to me and says, “DON’T TALK.”
The man at the booth says it’s $10 for non-residents. “Do I look like a tourist to you?!” my aunt snaps in her Kriol dialect. “And her?” asks the man. She insists I’m a cruffy (Kriol slang for a Belizean person), too. The man laughs and lets us through.
“Xunantunich” means “Stone Woman” in the Maya language. The “stone woman,” which is actually a pyramid, is HUGE. It stands tall above the jungle at 130 feet. My aunt suggests we climb to the top. I cling to the walls when we get there, but she snaps photos at the pyramid’s edge like it’s no big deal.
We climb back down and spot a family of howler monkeys in the trees! They’re a little shy at first, but my aunt and I eventually get great pictures of them. In the meantime, iguanas chase after each other on the grass. My aunt says big cats live out here too, but that they wouldn’t bother tourists in the daytime.
Next we visit Cahal Pech, or “Place of the Ticks,” a smaller archaeological site that was once an elite Mayan mansion. An archaeologist tells us that what we’re standing on is only the tip of the iceberg that is Cahal Pech. He suggests that the structure runs about 50 feet or so below us. My aunt and I walk through stone corridors and tunnels throughout the site.
We drive past my aunt’s old farm, where my second cousin now lives and maintains the fruit orchards. I try to photograph a peacock, but it won’t stop meowing and prancing back and forth across the field. The geese and the chickens on the farm don’t care—they probably hear it all the time. A cow walks towards me and moos. It’d be a lot more idyllic if mosquitos weren’t attacking my whole body! I jump inside my aunt’s car and fall asleep until we make it back home.
Is it over already? My uncle has a meeting in Chetumal, across the Mexican border. He offers to drop me off at the bus station there so I can catch my flight in Cancún. My aunt loads us up with bagels and coffee because she rules. If it wasn’t for airport security, I’d take all of my favorite food from this trip and smuggle it back to New York. My aunt tells me that her aunt knows how to smuggle Belizean chicken cutlets into the States, but I assure her that I’ll be fine.
At the tiny Belizean customs office, and I show the man at the counter my American passport. “You’re not a Belizean?” asks the man. “Well, my family is,” I laugh. “You look like one to me!” he says, before stamping my passport. I feel really warm and giddy inside. I’m proud of surviving relatively unscathed this time (besides the havoc wreaked by the poison prickly thing, the sun, and the bugs). I tell myself I’ll be back again soon. I think it’ll only get better every time I visit. ♦