...is finished.The Worst Vacation Ever or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Belize (Day 1)
In a series of parts I will now attempt to do justice to a vacation I spent, last spring, in a little country called Belize. Bear in mind that everything I will relate is absolutely true, give or take some minor embellishments for narrative emphasis. Anyone who suffers through the entire story will realize that this epic tale of travel failure is one for the ages - but enough preface.
My girlfriend Jeanine and I arrived in Belize City sans my favorite ballcap - I left it at JFK Airport. No matter, I could buy something here - but it's really a harbinger of things to come. A sign that things had started out amiss and could only get amisser.
We made it through customs only to have the travel agency person, who was supposed to meet us, go completely AWOL. We eventually found someone who directed us to another part of the airport where we had to schedule a short puddle jumper flight from the mainland out to the island of Ambergris Caye where we were staying.
Worst Vacation Ever (Day 2) : The Police Shack and the Door to Nowhere
When you lose your passport in a foreign country - it's typically a bad thing. To get our temporary passports we were going to have to go back to the mainland to Belize City (the capital). There was a US embassy there. But we were informed by the Mata Rocks staff members that we needed to file an official police report and get a copy of that report before we went to the embassy. The only problem was that we had already scheduled and paid in advance for a day long excursion trip to some Mayan ruins. So the police and the embassy were going to have to wait.
A boat picked us up from the dock outside our room and took us to a bus which took us to some ruins which were nice and all, but of course we were a little stressed about the whole passport situation. We were dropped off at our hotel around 4 and promptly hopped on our bicycles and rode to the downtown police station.
Now, I can't even begin to do justice to this police station. It was a wood hut set up on stilts about 3 feet off the ground and no bigger than 10X10 ft. The stairs had all rotted completely through so you had to jump up into the doorway, which, of course, had no actual door. There was a desk and a few chairs plus one telephone. There were two police officers and probably six or seven people sitting or standing around in this tiny room.
I saw one of the policemen was the fellow I had spoken with the night before and I asked if I could file a formal report. He sat me down with the older officer who preceded to ask me all of the same questions from the night before. He then spent around 5 minutes looking for a blank piece of paper in the shelves of the desk. As I watched, I realized the police filing system apparently consisted of sticking crumpled wads of papers into the shelves and stacking everything on top of each other.
I looked around a bit. Sitting beside me was a woman handcuffed with a child on her lap. They gave her a plea statement to sign which I read over her shoulder. She was pleading to theft for the child on her lap. Further in the corner was a door that led to what I could only assume (from looking at the outside of the building) outside in the back. It was labeled "jail." Talk about prisons being revolving doors.
Anyway, after spending about an hour trying to explain my situation to the police and writing down everything in a formal record, I asked for a copy. I was told that I need to come back tomorrow and get the copy. The copy machine was in the other police station and they couldn't do it here. Frustrated, we left. The saga was just beginning.
That night, Erica from the Mata Rocks staff, told us that we needed to get to the embassy as early as possible - 5am if we could handle it. But the guy who makes copies at the police station (I know it's mind-boggling that they only have one person allowed to operate the copy machine), didn't arrive at the station until 8am. Therefore, the earliest we could get a water-taxi back to Belize City was 8:30. And then that boat ride was about an hour and a half. So we already knew that we'd have to wait in a long line at the embassy. But we were resigned to it. At least we could get it over with and go back to enjoying the rest of our vacation. At least that was the idea.Worst Vacation Ever (Day 3) : The Fire Station, The Embassy, and Jeanine Shuts Down Belize
We woke up early this morning to get breakfast before we went looking for the "other" police station. Let me just add, at this point, another creeping concern. A lot of places accepted credit cards, but there were certain things that you couldn't do unless you had cash. Unfortunately the only cash machine on the island which accepted American ATMs was broken (of course). Therefore, we were running dangerously low on our cash reserves.
Anyway, we jumped on our bikes around 7 to go look for some food and the station. Once we got into town and ate we asked around for directions. We were pointed down several sketchy allies and had to turn around a number of times. Apparently no one had any idea where this new station was located. Eventually we found ourselves in a very run-down neighborhood with mostly ripped-up buildings. One of them looked to be an abandoned fire station, missing the garage door. This was actually the police station. It was essentially a large room with 3 walls, a desk and some rooms in the back (i can only imagine).
I went up to the woman behind the desk and asked if I could get a copy of the police report I had filed yesterday. Here's an approximation of the dialogue - I kid you not.
Me: I'd like to pick up a copy of a police report I filed yesterday at the other police station. I need it to bring to the embassy so that we can replace our passports which were stolen.
Woman: That will cost $8.
Me: Are you kidding me? Fine. Whatever, here (reaching for my wallet).
Woman: Oh, I'm sorry. I can't take the money. The person who takes the money isn't here.
Me: You have to be joking. Why do you need a person who takes the money?
Woman: Because he has the key to the cashbox. We can't take the money unless we can put it in the cashbox.
Me: Well, when will this guy arrive who takes the money? We're in a hurry.
Woman: I dunno. I haven't seen him for a few days.
Me: WHAT??? (Frustration setting in)
(This argument continues for some time before I finally convince her to take the money)
Me: Okay, you'll take the money. Now can I get a copy of my report?
(She disappears into the back and returns empty-handed. About 25 minutes have elapsed since we arrived.)
Woman: The guy who makes copies is not here. I can't give you that report.
Me: WHAT? I need that report! Last night, I called the police station and they told me that he would be here at 8 this morning. Can you just go make the copy? Hell, give me the original and I WILL MAKE THE COPY! (Frustration reaching a crescendo - I am actually yelling now)
Woman: I'm sorry only he can make the copies. And he's at court all day today and won't be back until Friday. He is also the court stenographer. (It was Wednesday).
Me: We need the report today because we're going to the embassy today. I don't know how else to explain this.
Woman: I'm sorry. I don't know how else to help you.
Me: How about making a copy and giving it to me?
(This goes on for another 10 minutes before I extract a promise to fax a copy to the embassy upon request. I copied down the phone number of the "new" station and we left extremely frustrated.)
I mean, come on, what is the actual likelihood that they are going to be able to fax a copy of the report to the embassy when they can't even make a copy? I sure as hell didn't see a fax machine. I didn't see a copy machine either. Hell, I didn't see a telephone. I didn't even see another person. There was a door. I could only hope that it led to a copy room and at least one competent human being.Worst Vacation Ever (Day 3) : Continued...
We had already missed the 8:30 water taxi and the next one left at 9:30. The only other way back to Belize City was taking the small little propeller planes that ran every hour. However, they were much more expensive and as I mentioned, our cash flow was running dangerously low. Anyway, we headed over to the water taxi. We paid and boarded the boat and began - what would become a hated ritual - the trip to the mainland.
We arrived in Belize City 90 minutes later and found a cab driver. He took us to the embassy, driving through what he described as the "bad part of town." It was only about an 8 minute drive. We got out of the taxi expecting to wait at the back of a huge line. It was 11:30ish. Mata Rocks staff had told us to get there at 5:30am. The security guard informed us that it didn't open for US citizens until 1:30pm. After being assured that there was nothing we could fill out or do in preparation for our appointment, we extracted a promise that we would be first in line (after all the place was empty and we were the only ones there) and then went to find some lunch.
We found a little hot dog stand fairly close by and were approached by a local taxi driver named Jimmy. He told us that he did private exursions trips for $150 US dollars where he'd drive us out to the jungle and hire a guide and take us cave tubing. We told him that sounded fantastic, but we were staying in San Pedro and had to catch the last water taxi back to the island at 4:30. He said that would be no problem as long as we left before 2:30.
Well, that was exciting for us, because we thought today was going to be a total bust spent dealing with the passports. We got really hyped about the prospect of this cave tubing extravaganza. Big Mistake.
After lunch we sat in the courtyard of the embassy waiting for 1:30. But this was "Belize time." 1:30 came to mean 2:00 before they opened the doors to us.
We went in and explained the situation. The first thing the woman did was give us a ton of forms to fill out and told us to go to the back of the line (which had formed since 11:30). I complained that we had been waiting there for almost 3 hours and we had asked if we could fill out any forms in the interim and were told no. She frowned and ignored me. We filled out the forms and then cut in line. There were some evil eyes that WE ignored.
The woman looked over our forms for a few minutes and then asked for our passport photos.
What??? What passport photos? She told us that we needed to bring some passport photos. Well why didn't she tell me that the first time we were at this window? Sorry. She gave us a map to the nearest photo shop.
It wasn't close. We took off on foot and followed the map back into the "bad part of town" and were offered weed about 25 times. I think they may have been offering other things as well. Anyway, we finally arrived at the photo shop pretty much giving up on our tubing trip as this whole process had taken quite some time. We took the photos - the angriest passport photographs you'll ever see, and returned to the embassy. Another 20 minute walk. Tubing was out for sure.
We cut back in line, again, and gave the woman our photos. She took them and told us to wait outside for them to call our names. We went back outdoors and waited for another half hour before they called our names. We went to a different window with a different woman who asked us a few questions and then told us that we needed to pay $175 (or $350 Belize). I pulled out my credit card and she shook her head. Cash only.
Are you &$!%ing kidding me???? I don't have $175 in cash. For god's sake we've been walking in Drugtown, Belize. I'd have to be a total moron to carry that kinda cash on me. Shrugs her shoulders.
Where's the closest ATM that takes US bank cards? Other side of town. Back by the water taxi.
At this point we don't have enough cash to pay for a taxi. So we walk all the way back to the ATM - about 40 minutes. Back by all the same shady individuals. More weed offered. No thanks. I get the money out of the ATM and we grab a taxi. Back to the embassy. Again.
We get there and pay for the passport replacements.
"Come back tomorrow," she says, "they'll be ready around 1:30pm."
We had to really hurry back to catch the last water taxi back to San Pedro that night. Getting stuck in Belize City would have probably meant death or worse.
So we rode the water taxi back to San Pedro that night, arriving back around 6pm. We grabbed a nice dinner, but it was tainted by the knowledge that we would have to waste another day going back to Belize City to pick up the passports. But I had come up with, what I thought, was a way to save the last full day of our trip. We were going to schedule a snorkling trip for the morning off San Pedro and then we'd grab a water taxi to Belize City, pick up our passports, find Jimmy and go on that tubing trip, coming back in time to catch the last water taxi back to San Pedro. Well.... that was the plan anyway.
That night we were exhausted. After dinner we came home to crash. We decided at dinner that we were just going to crawl in bed, turn on the A/C, and watch whatever was playing on HBO. Well... I jumped in bed and turned on the TV. Jeanine went to wash up. On her way to the bathroom, she stopped by to flip on the A/C. She turned the knob and I heard a weird noise and simultaneously the lights and TV went out.
We went outside and the entire island all along the coastline was dark. Nothing. We learned the next day that the entire country had lost power for over 8 hours. JEANINE HAD SHUT DOWN THE POWER TO THE ENTIRE COUNTRY OF BELIZE!
That night we slept in the stultifying humid air sweating ferociously. I finally got to sleep only to be awoken when the lights came back on in the wee hours of the morning. Well, at least it couldn't get any worse, right? Wrong.
P.S. We didn't end up needing the police report at all. In fact all of that time with the police, where we might have been actually enjoying our vacation, was wasted. Another time where the Mata Rocks staff's information was amazingly useless and wasteful.Worst Vacation Ever (Supplement) : Why Mata Doesn't Rock
I want to just interpose, for a moment, a few words about my disappointment with the staff at Mata Rocks. Let me also offer the countervailing caveat that the owners were not present at any point during these events. They were on "vacation." I don't understand where you go for vacation when you live in Belize, but maybe somewhere cold. Maybe Newfoundland.
A list of complaints in short:
1. The bag was stolen on their premises, under the nose of their security guard and they were not only not helpful, and not only actually hurtful (as you will know if you read my account), but they were down-right mean about it.
2. One of the staff members actually told me something to the effect, "Well you shouldn't leave your bag out on the balcony." I felt like saying, "Well, you shouldn't be such an $#!hole about it." Of course I know that, there's no reason to say that to someone you should be helping.
3. They repeatedly gave us misinformation about how to get our passports replaced and didn't apologize when we told them about their mistakes. It would have been easy to look up the answer on their internet connection but they refused.
4. The rooms were dirty and filled with ants - and we stayed in 3 different rooms over the course of our trip.
5. When the power went out - they refused to leave the bar to light a candle in our room, yet they did it for other guests. They were mad at us because we had been complaining about the disrespectful service.
6. Several times they scheduled events for us that fell through and they didn't even apologize.
7. They refused to refund any of the over $2500 we spent there despite all of these problems.
8. They are now refusing to cooperate in getting us the police report that we need to get our insurance claim on the lost items.
9. Read the account if you want to get a better sense of what exactly happened.Worst Vacation Ever (Day 4) : Out of the Embassy, Into the Jungle
If you're keeping up with the saga you'll recall that today was to be the last full day of our trip. The plan we had orchestrated for the day involved a morning snorkeling trip which we had scheduled through a private friend of one of the Mata Rocks staff members. He was to pick us up at 7am. We wanted to get in a nice long snorkel at Hol Chan Reserve, pet the sharks, kiss the rays, etc...
We woke up early and got our stuff together and then went out to wait at the dock. 7am. No one shows up. 715am. Still nothing. 730. I know island time is slower, but this is beginning to try our patience. 745. We go inquire with one of the staffers. She calls the guy. His wife answers. Boat broke down. He's not coming. Well, nice of him to let us know. Too late to schedule a replacement.
We make the best of it. There was a kayak rental place down the beach a spell which we took advantage of and had a nice little time.
At this point in our trip the endless parade of horribles had just become funny. Really, there was nothing left to do but laugh at the situation. It wasn't life threatening. It was just a vacation. And hey, if you can get through this with a girlfriend/boyfriend, you can get through anything.
So we hopped on the water taxi back to Belize City around 11:30. We then took the now familiar stroll down the lane past the drug dealers and snake picture guy on our way to the embassy. Once we arrived, thankfully, we only had to wait about 15 minutes before they hooked us up with our temporary passports. No problems! Too good to be true. So we were all set. All we needed to do was go back to where we had lunch, find Jimmy and go tubing.
Jimmy was nowhere to be found. There was another man, however, another tax driver he said. Jimmy was not here today but he knew Jimmy and he could help us out. I asked him if we could go tubing. He said sure, but not today if we wanted to catch the last taxi back to San Pedro. What if we left right now I asked him.
"No way. Couldn't do it."
But, I told him, Jimmy told us it could be done easily, just yesterday. You could see the mental calculations churning in his forehead. He was thinking: Hey, I haven't made any money today and here are two Americans offering me $150. Why not?
"Yeah. No problem. We can do it."
It was almost 2pm.
You may ask yourself how we could possibly be so stupid as to believe that this was going to work out. After everything we'd been through... you'd think we would have learned. You could ask yourself that. You could ask me that. And this is what I'd say:
"I don't know. I. Really. Don't. Know."
We got in the taxi and drove out of town. We made a brief stop at an ATM so that I could pick up some cash to pay him with, because I had a feeling we might feel a little rushed at the end of the trip.
The driver, I've forgotten his name, was very friendly. He told us about the history of the island as we drove into the jungle. One particularly interesting anecdote surfaced when we told him we were from New York. One of his children had moved to Brooklyn actually and been shot in the face. At the tender age of 18. He was returned to Belize where he was brought to the ocean and submerged with raw liver covering the wound in his head. And now the boy is the happy father of four children.
The trip to the tubing drop-off point took a long time. Too long. Around 45 minutes in I began to get very nervous. It was 245 and we hadn't even reached the destination yet. The driver kept smiling and telling us stories, while Jeanine and I merely exchanged knowing looks of desperation. Why did we put ourselves in this situation?
It was around that time that we turned off the highway. "This," explained our driver, "is why many taxi drivers don't make this trip." I couldn't imagine what he meant. But then I realized. We were on a gravel path. It must have done quite a job on his little van's shocks. From the feel of it, frankly, I was doubtful that there were any shocks left. We were driving excruciatingly slow. We had to. It was a very bumpy ride. And it was taking forever. We only had a few miles to go, he told us. But it took almost 20 minutes.
It was 310 when we arrived.
I did the math in my head. 310 now. Drive takes a little over an hour. Last water taxi leaves at 430. We have to leave to go back now. I mentioned this to the driver.
"You told us we'd be back for the last water taxi."
"Yeah, I guess not. But the last plane leaves at 5:30."
That was our only option left really. And even then it would be pushing it. We got out of the car and our driver went looking for a guide. He found one he knew and I tried to explain our situation.
"How long does the trip usually take?" I asked him.
"Hour and a half, give or take a little."
I did the math in my head. 3:15. Hour and a half. 4:45. Over an hour to drive back. 5:45. Last flight. 5:30. No good.
"Can we do it in under an hour?"
He pauses for a moment. Inspiration.
"Yeah. I think I can do that. I know a shortcut."
We grabbed our things, including our passports, which the driver insisted would be safe in his unlocked, windowless van. We'll take our chances with the river, thank you. Jeanine insisted on holding the water-tight bag with the passports. I had been officially deemed "irresponsible."
At this point, I should mention that I had recently torn my PCL - a ligament in my knee - only about a month before. I only say this because it becomes very relevant very quickly. Basically it meant that moving any faster than a brisk walk was quite painful.
We grabbed our tubes. Jeanine, our guide, our taxi driver and myself took off up the path. The nature of this tubing experience was that you carry large rubber tube up a steep jungle path to a point where you put the tube in a river and proceed to leisurely float down through a series of caves and small rapids, back to where you started. Unfortunately, the meaning of "leisure" had long since eluded us on this vacation.
Our guide insisted on doing his regular schtick but at an accelerated pace. We were basically jogging (in our sandals) and running along the path.
"This is a tree. This is where monkeys live. This is a bush. That's a rock. That's a hole. Look out for this. Look out for that," our guide spit out at a rapid pace as he jogged in front of me up the path. He was basically talking at an unintelligible speed between breaths as we hurried to keep pace. Our more than hefty taxi driver brought up the rear panting heavily, struggling mightily.
It would have been comical if it weren't so frenzied.
We did the 45 minute hike in 15 minutes.
We got in the water and sat in our tubes after a very frenetic tutorial on how to float properly. He had us hook our feet into the tube in front of us and face upstream. With our tubes all hooked in a line, our arms were free to paddle downstream. We paddled furiously down the river through the caves. Our arms were churning rapidly. Not leisurely.
I'm sure it was quite the image. Some sort of metaphor about people from the big city with an inability to "SLOW DOWN." But in any case, we were in a hurry. We did not want to be stuck away from our hotel and all of our things on the wrong landmass when we were leaving the next day. Plus, we had nowhere to sleep.
Whenever we got to shallow water and our butts began to drag on the bottom, our guide would jump up and literally drag us down the river. He would be half jogging as he took hold of our two tubes in either hand (the taxi driver would stand and walk as well) and pulled us heavily over the gravel bottom. It was quite painful really, but he was determined to show us the genuine experience I suppose. As if this was somehow more relaxing for us. But rest assured he was rewarded well for his effort to hurry things along.
At a certain point, I felt the charade was over and it would be best if we abandoned the whole "floating down the river" thing altogether. We grabbed our tubes and walked for the rest of the way.
As we returned to the taxi, our guide called out to his friends to inquire as to the time.
Under an hour. The guide turned to me and gave me a one-hundred watt smile as he put up his hand.
"One hour! My new record!" He exclaimed, almost giddy with delight.
I gave him the high five. He deserved it.
We settled up and returned to the taxi. 4:20. We put our things together and climbed into the car. The driver didn't get in.
"I'm gonna take a quick shower."
Apparently he didn't recognize the nature of the situation. He walked toward the showers and returned about 5 minutes later. Jeanine and I were trying to ignore the obvious. That we were quite likely to be royally screwed.
The ride back was the probably the most nerve-racking taxi ride I'm likely to ever take. And that's saying something if you've ever ridden around in a nyc cab. Of course the trip back down the gravel path seemed to take longer and minutes have never gone by so quickly as when I so resolutely stared down that clock face.
Our driver was almost deathly silent the whole ride back. I think he may have finally caught a whiff of our desperation. Finally the clock began its inevitable ascent toward 530. No civilization in sight.
He insisted that the airport was nearby. I began contemplating my options. There didn't seem to be any good ones.
5:27. Still nothing and from what I understood about airports, it's generally better to be earlier than later.Worst Vacation Ever (Day 5) : The Epilogue
I feel a few words are necessary to bring this memory to a faithful conclusion. For a majority of this recollection I have been rather causticly harping on the unfortunate events of my trip. But I think those events are the ones that make my particular experience interesting.
It is at this point that I probably should "give Belize its due." The country itself is beautiful. The ocean and its wildlife are sublime. The people are genuinely friendly - particularly our taxi driver when he wasn't lying to us and our tubing guide, who was the man.
There were, no doubt, many frustrations along the way, but we actually enjoyed our trip nonetheless. Okay... maybe sometheless. But our trip to the Mayan ruins at Altun Ha and the jungle spa was wonderful. We enjoyed our sea kayaking and exploring the beaches and town of San Pedro. And yes - we finally did go snorkeling on the morning of our last day - Day 5. It was great.
To end the suspense, though you may have guessed it, we caught that plane back to San Pedro. Maybe the only big thing that had gone right all vacation. We arrived at the airport at 5:37 and "Belize time" saved us. We left the ground at 5:40.
Would I go back to Belize? Certainly. Our trip would have been very different had I not left that backpack out on the balcony. My account merely underscores the nature of the obstacles you might come across in any developing country. But, hey, it's an interesting story and one I thought appropriate to share. http://www.afoolish.blogspot.com