Bestbird Page Four:
ready, get going, get there.
Adding a Mike, getting a truck, loading a truck: (28 Mar 2000) Up to now I've avoided reliving the nightmare portion of the road trip Mike and I took - beginning in Houston, Texas, passing (or rather, plodding) through the wilds of Mexico, and rolling on to Belize City, Belize. I've soothed my feelings of guilt about depriving you of the pleasure of a description of that trip by telling myself that it's not relevant to the events in Belize. Maybe it ain't, but it's too good a tale to hold up any longer, no matter how much the recall bothers. So, I promise to peck away manana (which in San Pedro doesn't mean "tomorrow" - it means "not today"). The adding a Mike part: (11 Mar 2000) As plans for the grandiosity of Victoria House grew, my plan, being to take Sam and one other person with me to do most of the actual construction, became unfeasible. Construction obviously would require a much larger, and Belizean, crew (preferably of San Pedranos) and a MFIC, a term which means, in builders' vocabulary, something like a "Main Person In Charge" of overseeing and ram-rodding the workers - okay, a construction superintendent to you. Not having the ability or inclination to take on that job, I thought of Michael J. Benz. Mike was another one of those guys who cannot be described in a manner concise enough for the limitations of this humble web site - this being true because I already had known him for more than twenty years, and the many interesting tales that could be told about him would, of themselves, make a saga longer than this one. Suffice it to say that he was very smart, funny, wierd, tactful, congenial and, best of all, handy with tools; besides, you may be able to understand him, a little bit, from the tales I will tell here. Mike, then being at loose ends and a bit down on his luck, accepted the offer athough he knew that his monthly salary, like mine, would begin only when we got to Ambergris Caye. Maybe you have noticed that I speak of Mike in the past tense; if I'm up to it, you may hear more (later) about the reason for that. The getting a truck part: (12 Apr 2000) When Ab Fay suggested that we buy some construction materials which would be difficult to get in Belize, it seemed like a good idea except for three drawbacks: first, we would have to buy a truck (thus straining the budget) to haul the materials down there; second, we would have to take a long and arduous trip through Mexico with whatever surprizes that might entail; and third, we would have to pay the Belize duty on the goods, and maybe some other fees and mordidas along the way through both Mexico and Belize. As you shall see, the second and third contingencies did, in fact, come to pass; but, for the first drawback, Ab had a solution. He offered to sell VH a huge, red, dump truck and to delay payment for it until another day. Well, I knew about as much about vehicles as Ab Fay knew about Contract Bridge, so I asked handy Mike to look the deal over. Mike tried the truck's power dumper, looked underneath the chassis and hood, and kicked the tires. Then, he allowed that it was a good deal even though he knew that he would have to do all of the driving of that unwieldy monster - this for the safety of us both and of innocent bystanders. Ab then said that we were sure to need some 3/4", 20', iron reinforcement rods (to me, 3/4" rebars) and, as luck would have it, he happened to have maybe thirty of those he would also sacrifice to the cause, and on the same payment terms - so, we all labored for a while putting those in the truck bed as the bottom layer of what would become a lot of cargo. The loading a truck part: (14 Apr 2000) There was quite a delay in utilizing the truck for its main mission - getting a load of cargo, Mike, and me to Belize. The plans needed to be finished, a target amount of money needed to come in and be banked, and a proper selection of cargo needed to be bought and laded on top of the rebars. Our most interesting cargo selection, and one that would later come to play a part in a course of events which drastically changed the course of my life, was a second dump truck. Well, it really was a small three-wheeler (also red) with fat tires, a seat wide enough for two persons squeezed together, a three feet by four feet (or so) hand-operated dump bed in the rear, and a gas lawn mower engine. The plot was to use it for personal transportation on the island and to move loads around the construction site. As it turned out, neither of those functions was satisfactorily performed (as you may read about later). I had another cockamamy idea, this one being for the larger of the dump trucks. Why not shuttle it back and forth between Belize and Houston with more loads of construction materials going south and (Get this!) with a load, going north, of barely sprouted coconuts from the island. Those sproutlets could be grown a little taller and then sold, at a huge profit, to office buildings for use in atria (in English - atriums). After you have finished this page, you will understand why the script for more trips through Mexico was stamped with the old show biz term: "NUAA" (Never Use Act Again).
They're off to see the tropics: (11 Mar 2000) The red dump truck having been loaded with the 3/4 inch rebars, sheets of polyurethane, a generator, a clear 1/2 inch water hose, a chain saw, hardware for the pier, several boxes of nails, various hand tools, a surveyor's transit, many other items I can't remember, and, of course, the three-wheeler, ourselves having been furnished with passports, Swiss Army knives, and other necessities for life in the tropics, and the other contingencies having been reasonably satisfied, we were, at last, ready to go. The embarkation (going to see?) took place when Mike, who had kept custody of the truck because I refused to attempt driving the monster, came by my family's home, in Houston's Briar Village, on a very misty afternoon around the middle of April, 1980. As we drove off, my three little guys (then aged nine, six, and five) waved bye-bye from the front porch while Susan manned (womanned?) a movie camera and I got much mistier than the afternoon was. (13 Apr 2000) As I was making another addition to this page, the realization hit me that the events of that dismal, but auspicious, day happened almost exactly twenty years ago. Time goes fast when you're having fun.
Getting out of gringoland: (13 Apr 2000) We hadn't gone a hundred miles on highway 59 towards Victoria (the Texas one) when we were given an omen of what the trip would be like - engine trouble number one. We pulled over (whenever I use the royal or unroyal "we" in connection with the dump truck, I mean Mike) into a roadside park. By the time Mike had done his magic under the hood and alleviated the problem, it was nearly dark. But, the truck was so unwieldy from its heavy load that, unless absolutely necessary, the risk of a night drive was unwise - ergo, we endured our first night of sleeping in the cab of the truck. The next morning early we were off to Brownsville, Texas, which is as far south as you can go on the North American Mainland and yet remain in the good old U. S. of A., and arrived there, well before dark, but only after passing through an area with its own customs and laws: the King Ranch, which has been well publicized by Edna Ferber, Hollywood, the Texas Rangers, and the acts of various politicians in need of votes by the dead. We found a motel near the border where our goods were safe in a walled and guarded compound, had a safe and restful night, and were back on the job bright and early the next morning.
The two same sides of the river: (13 Apr 2000) I'm sorry, but I can't help being reminded here of an ancient remark made on radio, in its heyday, by Ish Kabibble to Kay Kayser (How's that for ancient?). First, Ish asked Kay if he knew the difference between a duck. Kay allowed he didn't, and requested Ish to answer his own rhetorical question. Ish said: "The difference between a duck is that one of its legs is both the same." That silliness makes sense to me because it's exactly how I feel about the Rio Grande border between Texas and Mexico: one of its sides is both the same. That sameness was made evident when I dealt with officialdom on both sides of the river during the crossing day. (15 Apr 2000) On the north side of the river, in Brownsville, Texas, we had to get Mexican Insurance (so that anyone we negligently killed in Mexico would get the magnificent recompense of $750.00 or so) and visas. The visas for Mike and me were no problem - but, the visa for the truck and its cargo were something else. Those visas required: producing all the proper papers for the truck, furnishing proof of ownership and receipt for purchase of every item of cargo, and coming up with a sum of money for the paperwork. I assumed (correctly) that any item of cargo not listed in the papers would probably wind up in the casa of a Mexican gendarme; and, I assumed (naively and incorrectly) that the paperwork was over with. I had no feel (and am glad I didn't) for what other charges would be levied or where. (16 Apr 2000) That afternoon, we were finally able to show our papers on the Texas side of the River and cross the bridge. In Texas, we had been told by the Mexican authorities and a gringo customs representative that we could not go on into the interior of Mexico without having a custom inspection in Matamoros, Tamaulipas; so, our plan was to check into the Gran Hotel, which was familiar to me from other, more relaxed, visits to Mexico. That first class hotel is just across the border bridge and to your left on the main drag of Matamoros. It had the great advantage of being across the main drag from one of my two favorite restaurants in Mexico. They were: the Cadillac Bar & Grill, which is in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, about a hundred miles upriver from Matamoros; and, the U. S. Bar & Grill, which you can see on your right just after you cross the Brownsville-Matamoros Bridge, and which was included as the next step in our plan before taking the truck to its inspection site. In a simple menu, each of those fine eateries listed a meal with your choice of two meats out of the several offered. I never got past the quail and frog legs. But, of course, our plan to dine at the U. S. Bar & Grill and to spend the night at the Gran Hotel was soon "gang aft a-gley." A Mexican border guard took my seat in the truck and another put me in his official car. Then he and I followed Mike and our official guide to a huge customs compound a little deeper into the interior. Our means of transport and all its cargo was there incarcerated, but Mike and I were paroled into the benevolent care and custody of the Matamoros streets.
Manolete, mangling, and mordida: (18 Apr 2000) Before we left the customs compound, we were told by some altruistic person (and thank God we were) that we had better get a "custom broker" to help us rescue The Red Beast. As luck would have it, I found one on the premises, agreed with him on the amount of his fee, and arranged to meet him at the compound early (meaning, by local custom, 10:00 A. M.) the next day. As Mike and I were leaving the compound, we spied two buildings of more than a passing interest. The first had a sign reading, "Manolete Bar & Grill" - obviously a cantina that would be without the distracting presence of too many tourists and that was enticingly named after my favorite bullfighter. The second was a hotel which was not very memorable - which is said because I don't, in fact, remember it. Using uncharacteristic good judgment, Mike and I visited and checked in the hotel before before we checked out the more auspicious structure we had placed into our itenerary. The Manolete part: (20 Apr 2000) The Manolete Bar & Grill was definitely not a tourist trap. It had all of the quaint ambience that you would expect of a Mexican cantina as portrayed in a class "C" movie about a cowboy's 1910 adventures on the southern border of Texas. The bar lacked only a metal trench running around the bar at a level just above one's knees. In fact, I'll wager that only a few tourists had ever ventured into that (maybe seedy, but somehow pleasant) watering hole. The offer of such a wager is risked because Mike and I had noticed the furtive glances cast in our direction as we entered and the apprehension in the youthful barkeeper's manner as he came to the table we had selected. While he approached, I looked around to see what the boys in the front room were having. In the place were a gentleman (about my age) sitting at a table near ours and several much younger lads milling about the trenchless bar. None of them seemed to be drinking beer and I knew that fact bode ill for pleasing Mike, who rarely drank anything else - water being included in that exclusion. Before I could make make an inquiry about the drinks available, Mike said to the barkeeper, "Got any cerveza?" The reply was an enthustiastic, "Sí, sí, señor, pero no fria." Mike looked at me for a translation which I was able to give even though my Spanish was and is (with kindness to myself) very limited. While Mike considered the horror of drinking a warm beer, I ordered a tequila - a bold maneuver on my part considering my past experiences with and as a result of that bravery. The mangling part: (22 Apr 2000) Mike, with his innate sense of kindness, finally decided he might as well have a tequila too in order to prevent me from being alone in the use of faulty judgment. The antiquated jukebox was playing appropriate music for the occasion (without the necessity of inserting coins) and the tequila was properly served - in a glass and with a quartered lime and a shaker of salt on the side. After two or three servings of that wondrous libation, the late afternoon began to be very enjoyable. In fact, everyone in the bar seemed to be having a fine time, particularly the lads milling around the bar. They were engaged in the pleasant occupation of shooting a BB gun (an air rifle to some) at an empty beer can, which was placed on a wall-shelf about twenty feet away, and making small wagers on the outcome thereof. The tequila in me wanted to join in those festivities, so I waltzed up to the bar and asked to join. When they finally got the drift of what I was proposing, being after I put a few coins on the bar and gestured at the can, one bright lad matched my coins and handed me the BB gun. It was a pretty easy shot, even for a well tequila-ed shooter. Almost bursting with pride, I scooped up the coins and even started back to our table. But, before I could get underway, I (or maybe the tequila) had an urge to engage in burlesque. I walked over to the shelf, replaced the beer can, stood my lit cigarette on top, put my loose coins (winnings and all) on the bar, pointed at the cigarette topped can, and said, "el cigarro". The lads all nodded okay, so I gestured at the coins on the bar. They dug around in their pockets and mumbled to each other in Spanish while I carefully checked to make sure that all bets were covered. Then, as I carefully aimed my weapon at it's target and the tension in the room became overpowering, I stuck my finger in the air to indicate a time out. Then, I walked back to our table, downed the last half of my current glass of tequila, went back to my aiming post, studied the target, turned around to face away from the target, rested the BB gun on and over my shoulder, and ...... yep, nicked the cigarette off the top of the beer can. That shot was probably the crowning glory of my non-family life, and well rewarded. A mighty cheer of "Ole" was heard around the room and the barkeeper and his lads bought us several more rounds of tequila. It became one of Mike's favorite tales; and, I wish that you could have heard him tell it instead of me. (23 Apr 2000) The next morning, Mike and I, having fared better than usual in recovering from a bout with tequila, gathered our goods and headed for our appointment with the customs broker. The path from the hotel to the customs compound happened to pass the Manolete Bar & Grill and we were running a few minutes early for our appointment so .... but only for one. Mike entered first, with me right behind, and the joint was otherwise empty except for the same young bartender, who, as he noticed us enter, reached below the bar, picked up the familiar BB gun, pointed it directly at Mike, said "bang" - and, only then, let out a hearty laugh. Mike and I were, admittedly, all shook up, but we recovered with class, had one quick hair of the Chihuahua each, and hurried on with a pleasant tale to tell - a tale which both of us often related to whomever would listen.The mordida part: (26 Apr 2000) The custom broker proved to be a very efficient and, to me, impressive hombre. I had already paid him his fee, but he suggested that it would certainly "speed things up" if I gave him a certain amount of pesos to "put on the foot pedal". The thought that he was merely increasing his fee crossed my mind; but, from prior learning experiences in Mexico, I knew it was better to go along with all of the local customs (both kinds) than to suggest the better(?) gringo methods. We were allowed to watch him ply his trade in a huge room with about fifty desks, at each of which sat a young caballero with an antiquated typewriter and numerous stacks of paper. Our man went from desk to desk with our papers, spoke to the occupant of each desk, handed him our papers, watched closely as the desk occupant thumbed through our papers (maybe with a glance in our direction) and then whomped each page with a huge whomper of some kind, handed the desk occupant some peso notes of unknown denomination, and, finally, returned to us with a relieved expression on his face. He even handed me back a few (very few) peso notes and smiled as he said, "Your change." Without his kindly aid for that hour or so, we may have spent the spring and summer in Matamoros. As it was, there was nothing left to do in Matamoros except: to walk over to where another offficial sat in a cubbyhole behind a thick slab of glass; to pay that official the "official" charges for the day's activities; to retrieve our transport vehicle; and, start on our journey deeper into the interior.
A ferry from Tampico: (18 Apr 2000) The drive from Matamoros to Tampico was much too far to tackle in the short day remaining after retrieving our truck from its time in custody, so it was necessary to stop along the way and spend the night at a well lit filling station which also had sandwiches for sale. That was our second night (Please help me keep count.) spent in the cramped cab of our make-do as a substitute, mobile motel. When we got to Tampico, we had the first (another count, please) little bite of mordida while on the road rather than at an official mordida payment station. As would become the usual case, I had no idea what our violation, if any, was. But, the policeman seemed content with the amount of the "fine" - which I offered to pay directly to him rather than to put our loaded truck under the kind protection of the whole local police force during the duration of more formal proceedings. Tampico did not appear to me to be half so attractive as it was pictured in the movie, "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," or half so pleasant as sung about in the Herb Alpert ditty with the same title as that of the town. The ferry part: (19 Apr 2000) I don't remember if my AAA Travelogue told me that we needed to take a ferry to head south out of Tampico, but we did. It was another ordeal (out of my innate sense of courtesy, not detailed to you) which involved waiting in a long line for the next trip of the ferry, being forced aside for a few more trips while the operators figured out what to do with us, and (you may have guessed again) paying a toll that was (How shall I put it?) negotiated. But at last, we were out of Tampico and off for the ancient and magnificent city of Vera Cruz, at which we were planning to have a well-earned day of rest.
La Bestia Roja: (06 Mar 2000) Somewhere in the wilds of Mexico, Mike and I decided that the dump truck, having got us this far, should have a proper name. We thought of one, pulled the truck over for a proper christening, and scrawled "La Bestia Roja" in the accumulated dust on both doors. Yes, the writing was red because the red of the truck showed through in the places where our fingers had scratched. If you don't know what "La Bestia Roja" means in English, look it up - a clue being that, from there on out, she (no longer an "it") was called, by Mike and me, The Red Beast. Well, since it didn't seem to rain in that part of the year in that part of Mexico, the written titles stayed there all through the trip and drew many smiles or puzzled looks, or both, from innocent bystanders along the way.
Vera Cruz and other crosses to bear: (23 Apr 2000) After the unscheduled delays in Tampico, we knew there was no way to make it to Ciudad Vera Cruz before dark; but, partly because we did not see a safe place to park our mobile motel for the night and partly because we were looking forward to spending the night in a first class hotel after the rigors we had endured in Matamoros and Tampico, we plowed ahead and did, in fact, make it all the way to Vera Cruz without incident other than Mike's ordeal of a little night driving. The other crosses to bear part: (26 Apr 2000) We didn't know, but found out as soon as we entered Vera Cruz on the Saturday night before Easter of 1980, what the traffic would be like in a large Mexican city on a holiday weekend. It was a (no pun intended) nightmare. The road which was marked as our path led us into center of town and by a large plaza with hundreds of people milling about. Mike wove his way through the throng in the plaza and stopped by the side entrance to a large hotel. I jumped out and ran to ask about lodging and/or parking for the night. The manager looked at me as if I were from outer space instead of just from outer Vera Cruz. Need I say more about the outcome of my quest? (29 Apr 2000) As I got back to The Red Beast, I spied a large policeman engaged in a conversation with Mike. Mike told me that he thought his policeman wanted me to get in the police car with another policeman so that both vehicles could "go someplace". I told Mike to stay calm and do just as was suggested. My policeman, who was not a friendly sort of cop, and I followed The Red Beast, Mike, and Mike's policeman, who was the MFIC of the caravan, to a part of town where no life forms (except for the four of us) were out and about. Both vehicles stopped in that dark and ominous location and the four of us exited and gathered at a spot between the two. The MFIC seemed to be highly irate about the fact that the 3/4" rebars extended about two feet beyond the rear of the truck bed. He was very experienced in dealing with gringo transgressors and, in setting the amount of reward he would get as payment for his polished performance, he used excellent tactics - such as using the reliable "okay, we'll go to the police station" gambit - always effective to strike terror in the hearts of gringos. Finally, a bargain was struck and Mike and I were once again back on the road in search of lodging. (30 Apr 2000) The drive out of Vera Cruz, being necessarily risked on a dark night, along a narrow highway between mountains and with no rest stops on either side, and during a Holiday weekend when everyone in Mexico seemed to be going to or from Vera Cruz in one hell of a hurry, was hard on poor Mike. He was so pressured and agitated that I would have felt sorry for him had I not been too frightened, by the vehicles whizzing past us in both directions, to worry about the emotions of someone else. After about three hours of the ordeal, we found a lighted area at what, in Oklahoma or Texas, would be called a truck stop. There we could stop, eat, and rest from what was left of the night after the Vera Cruz fiasco. Vera Cruz, for me, just ain't what it's cracked up to be.
San Andres and the devil: (23 Apr 2000) The drive to San Andres Tuxtlan (see NOTE: - below) from our rest stop south of Vera Cruz was not as far, and not nearly as hard on Mike as what he had suffered through on the Matamoros to Tampico leg and, in particular, on the night leg to, through, and from Vera Cruz. That previous night's rest in The Red Beast, though shorter than usual, helped him regain his strength because the nights were getting cooler and freer of mosquitos as we got higher up in the foothills of the coastal range. San Andres Tuxtlan (or, at least, the part of it we got to see) was a very pretty town perching high above a beautiful setting. One side of the main drag was lined with attractive buildings; the other side had no buildings. Rather, it had a precipitous drop down to the meanderings of a small river which, before we entered the town, we had crossed over on a high bridge. But, as we passed along that road, I had little time (and Mike had none) to enjoy the view. That was because the devil, his right hand man, or some other evil force had joined us along the path of our journey. NOTE: My memory on the name of the town may be incorrect because my MapQuest shows it without an "n" on the end. It reminds me of the old line: I don't remember her name or what we had at dinner, but the wine was a Margaux '61. The devil part: (24 Apr 2000) Actually, we knew before we entered the town that evil was lurking along our path. We were warned by an event that had occured earlier in the day. Mike had been careful, more from a sense of self-preservation than of obedience to law, not to exceed the eighty KPH (fifty MPH) speed limit posted along the road. We had been used to various types of vehicles whizzing on past us, even during the night drive out of Vera Cruz. But, we did not expect a huge passenger bus to loudly honk, overtake, and pass us as if we standing still. The driver of the huge passenger bus which did that very thing must have thought, as I did for about thirty seconds, that the red 80 signs meant eighty miles per hour - said because that bus was surely approaching that speed. Well, about thirty more minutes down the road, as we passed through a very small town, we saw that bus again - this time, resting on it's back in the bottom of a ravine about fifty feet from the road. We wove our way on through the traffic, consisting mostly of ambulances and police cars, and proceeded on at a pace which was, if anything even slower than it had been. Then, as we neared San Andreas Tuxtlan, the evil force, having successfully used its wiles on the bus, turned its attention to us. (27 Apr 2000) Just as we entered the town, The Red Beast decided to live up to her name, maybe as revenge for what she had been put through during the last few days. From under her hood, she began to let out a loud, incessant, and bloodthirsty scream. Pedestrians to our left stared as we passed along, Mike seemed close to panic, and I was thinking about yelling "Geronimo" and jumping out, which I might have done had it not been for the uninviting gorge on my right. Standing in the middle of the road, at the far edge of town and the intersection where we were to make a left turn to stay on Highway 180, stood a policeman. Mike wisely guided The Red Beast straight ahead on to what became a dirt road which led us into a less inhabited part of town. He stopped to take a deep breath but, before he could exhale, a police car pulled up alongside. The policeman in it, who had captured us fair and square, spoke pretty good English and listened patiently while Mike explained that we were in desperate need of a mechanic. The policeman was very polite as he explained where we might find a "mecanico" and that our traffic violation, making loud noises, was a serious offence. I went through my how much is the "fine" if I pay it directly to you" routine. He told me, I paid it, he left, and Mike and I were off in The (screaming) Red Beast to see the mechanic. (01 May 2000) Mike followed the directions to the mechanic's location, which was on the edge of town and the road we wanted to follow to the south. The mechanic's workshop consisted of a small delapidated building with various defunct vehicles scattered around. Three or four men and one young lad were milling about and watched with interest (and, perhaps, some amusement) as The Red Beast came, quite literally, to a screeching halt. When Mike tried to explain the problem to the men, it became apparent that the young lad (El Pequeño to Mike and me) would have to act as a translator. We were told that el jefe mecánico (the boss mechanic - El Hehfeh to Mike and me) would have to make the diagnosis and that he was out of town until the next morning. That meant another night spent in The Red Beast for Mike and me after we took turns walking several blocks back to town, while the other guarded The Red Beast and it's cargo, for a very unrememberable (I mean unremembered.) meal and to bring back some sandwiches to suffice for breakfast. (02 May 2000) El jefe mecánico did show up the next morning and quickly diagnosed the problem as a bad head gasket, a conclusion which Mike had already reached. El jefe mecánico and his helpers got the head of the engine off and the gasket was, indeed, in bad shape. El Pequeño, who had also showed up to watch the fun, relayed the message from el hefe that we could: (A) wait maybe a week or two to get a new gasket custom made for The Red Beast or (B) let El jefe attempt to fashion one from a large sheet of felt-like material which he had in stock and showed to Mike. It was an easy choice for Mike even though he knew the rinky-dink way might not get us far. Because the space available under the hood was too small for any grownup to do the task of marking the felt-like stuff so that it would be the of the same size and shape as the defunct gasket and fit the motor head, this was a job for El Pequeño. He did the deed in about an hour. Then, El jefe did his thing and, in another hour or two, The Red Beast was ready to roll and, as far as I know, is still rolling with that make-do gasket. Also, although we didn't know it at the time, we had enough remaining luck to make it to Villahermosa, Chiapas before dark.
Villahermosa and vittles: (15 Apr 2000) Late in the afternoon of an arduous day among what seemed like many, we drove along a stretch of road high which passed high above the city of Villahermosa, Chiapas. The city, beneath us on the right, presented a very pleasant view which I was enjoying very much when Mike suddenly shouted, "Merv, look up there!" I did, and there was indeed a beautiful, mirage-like, sight above us on the mountainside road. Lo and behold, it appeared (and turned out) to be a first class hotel with an easy entry for The Red Beast. I am almost certain that this is a recently found photo of that hotel and its surroundings. The hotel is the large building near the center of the photo. We checked in, secured The Red Beast, performed our ablutions, and went to the dining room for a few libations and a well deserved feast. The vittles part: (17 Apr 2000) The food, service, and ambience offered in the dining room were excellent; but, since pure drinking water is always a problem for gringos in Mexico, we were forced to be satisfied with drinking a good local beer served in huge frosted schooners that you would expect to see in a San Francisco or Milwaukee pub, not in the sub-tropics of Mexico. We bore the inconvenience with fortitude, mostly because when you emptied one schooner, the friendly waiter didn't refill it, but brought you another one just as full and frosted as was the first. In fact, Mike and I were bearing up so well with our water deprivation, that a startling event occured. As Mike's second schooner was getting a little low and mine was empty, I gave the waiter, who was standing far across the room and out of Mike's line of sight, a little nod that the waiter and I knew was meant to signal him for another round - by this time, the waiter and I had found a solution to the language barrier. Soon thereafter, the waiter, bearing two replacement schooners of beer on a large tray, approached our table from behind Mike and reached around him to pick up Mike's almost depleted schooner. Then it was that Mike, alert to the presence of a possible predator, saw the hand approaching his mug, jerked up his head toward the interloper, and shouted, "Not so fast, Rodriguez!". Well, maybe the waiter was named Rodriquez, because he didn't take the event so hard. He just jerked his hand back as if it were burned, waited until Mike took one last swig, and finished his waiterly duties. The next morning at breakfast, we drew the same waiter. This time, he seemed anxious to make Mike happier with his service and gave him a high degree of courtesy and attention. But, maybe, he overdid it some with a maneuver that, literally, made me break out in gales of laughter. Finally, it came time to empty the ash tray, which was placed half way between me and Mike. The waiter, all the time keeping his eyes glued on Mike, who was engrossed with his refried beans, gingerly moved his hand toward the ash tray; but, he pulled his hand back before daring to grab the dirty object away from Mike. Then, with a very stealthy move, he finally picked up the ash tray, let out a brief sigh of relief, and hurried away from the table. Buster Keaton could not have performed the skit with more skill.
A ruinous day off: (17 Feb 2000) By this time, Mike and I deserved a whole day off away from The Red Beast and the Federales (I know they weren't Federales.) so, after breakfast, we joined a tour of the ruins at Palenque (yes, that's a link to its home page) which was not a long drive from Villahermosa. Besides needing the respite and satisfying my standing desire to visit any nearby ruins, another good reason to visit some ruins at this opportunity was that, the relationship between Guatemala and Belize being what it was at the time, there would be no practical way to visit the much larger ruins at Tikal, Guatemala, about fifty miles from the Belize border. Tikal is now readily accessible by land (cheaply) from several starting points on the Belize mainland and by air (not expensively) from Belize City and San Pedro. You may visit Tikal and learn about physically getting there from Belize just by clicking here. After the tour and one more night in the hotel, we were off on the last leg of the trek through Mexico.
A day in Chetumal: (06 Mar 2000) Chetumal, Mexico, to be mentioned again in Two ways north to Mexico, is located just across the Hondo River from Belize and not very far from Corozal, Belize. The Red Beast, Mike, and I arrived there, early in the afternoon. Mike and I noticed that the town had a new, clean, and planned look about it. We didn't know, at the time, that this was partially because Chetumal, which, at some previous time, had been known as "Playa Obispo", had been leveled by a hurricane - in 1948, I think. We also didn't know that several San Pedro families had migrated from that part of the Yucatan. Anyway, our plot was to spend the night in Chetumal and face the border crossing, along with the full day's drive to Belize City, early the next morning. But, the tropics (I guess that, technically, we were in the sub-tropics, but we were below the Tropic of Cancer, and that's the tropics to me.) frequently force a change in the best laid plans of lizards and men. As we were going along, looking for a place to spend the night, we heard the seemingly inevitable sound of a Mexican type siren. Looking behind, I spotted this little brown police car whose driver was frantically waving us to pull over. Mike pulled over, stopped the Red Beast, and slumped over on the steering wheel, while I thought about how to handle the expected lecture in broken English which would improve as soon as the speaker was asked if the fine could be paid directly to him. By this time, I was getting pretty good at that ritual. But, before I could begin the routine by asking what the problem was, the officer said in perfect and unaccented English, "Would you like to sell some of those 3/4 inch iron reinforcement bars?". With much relief, I explained that we would like to, but they were listed on our papers and we had to have them when we left Mexico. He nodded, smiled, and said, "Okay, thanks a lot for stopping." After he left, Mike and I looked at each other and both of us, almost in unison, said something like, "Let's get the hell out of Mexico." That we did, and pronto.
Both sides of another border: (19Apr 2000) We had only one more international border to cross and, like the one farther north, one of its sides was both the same. On the north side, there was an ordeal which consisted of the border guards faking an inspection of our cargo to make sure everything we brought in was listed in the papers, meticulously peering at and stamping those papers for about thirty minutes, and (surprise, surprise) telling me how much more money we owed. Having endured those inconveniences with the best imitation aplomb we could muster, we were allowed to cross the bridge; thereby, and with premature relief, we passed out of Mexico and into Belize where, temporarily, I felt at ease. (27 Apr 2000) I had thought: that the second border check of The Red Beast and its cargo would be cursory since all our transport papers on each were in order and stamped with Mexican ink smudges in proof of that fact; that, even though the Belize government relied on duty as its main source of revenue, the amount of duty we were to pay would be certain and easily calculated from our transport papers; and, that the formalities of such checking and payment would be done in Belize City where the trusty Rudon could defend our goods from the claws of officialdom much better than I. Alas, I thought wrong three times in a row. (10 May 2000) It was late in the afternoon when we crossed the bridge into Belize, and the event reminded me of the remark my dad used to make when we crossed a bridge over Red River and re-entered Texas from Oklahoma: "Smell that air, boy. Ain't it better?" (23 May 2000) Just across the bridge and to our right was a fairly large building that housed the immigration station. A quick check there revealed that we would not be allowed to proceed to Belize City to be processed and to pay the inevitable duty, but that we would have to spend the night right there and do the ordeal the next morning. Of course, that would mean another night in The Red Beast and two new experiences for Mike, being (1) his introduction to the Belize Sand Fly, a tiny but especially vicious animal that comes in droves and compares to the Oklahoma Chigger as lightning does to a lightning bug, and (2) his first taste of a Belikin Beer which, in preparation for what proved to be a miserable night, we found in a small store located just across the street from the immigration station. I could not identify whether the store, which had a few tables and a few cases where canned edibles were stored, was primarily a food store, diner, or beer joint. But, at any rate, it was operated by a very nice lady who was, obviously, the owner, waitress, cook, dishwasher, and bouncer. (25 May 2000) The nice lady let us stay until early in the morning when she got sleepy, which seemed to coincide with her having no more Belikins to sell. So Mike and I were ousted to endure the sand flies and things that come and peer in the night. (26 May 2000) We had been told by several people, including the Belikin lady who was the only one of the advisors whom I assessed as being reliable, that we would fare much better at the immigration station if we got a particular individual to represent us. That gentleman seemed (and proved) to be a welcome addition in getting us and The Red Beast processed, and he quoted a reasonable fee for his services. The procedure was for some guys to crawl into the bed of The Red Beast and check things off on a piece of paper, this being (presumably) for the purpose of disclosing any contraband not listed in the lengthy manifest; but, had we known of those guys' efficiency in that regard, and been so inclined, we could have grasped a fine opportunity to be first class smugglers. The whole operation was overseen by a imperious and swaggering martinet in some kind of uniform and carrying a large night stick. His manner suggested that he was there to enforce the rules and regulations without pity, compassion, or sense of humor. At the end of the process, the martinet had disappeared and left it to our rep to come to Mike and me, standing a little way from The Red Beast, and break the news as to how much duty was owed. I had no idea of what the correct amount was and was not startled by the final figure; so, with U.S. cash being full faith and credit in Belize, I gave our rep the amount owed as duty and the amount of his fee. I naively assumed that, as soon as he returned with the receipt, we would be on our way - but no, that was not to be. (02 Jun 2000) When he returned, he had the receipt and manifest in hand but told me that several items had been left off of the duty by the martinet (who had by then emerged and parked himself, with chest puffed out, by The Red Beast) and that, before we were allowed to leave, we needed to pay some sort of "adjustment" on account of that oversight. While we were discussing the proper amount to accomplish the "adjustment" and I was expressing my reluctance to pay what amounted to a bribe, the martinet grew restless. He then bashed The Red Beast with his night stick and yelled something like, "This is not proper. This is incorrect. Something must be done about this." When I went over to him to inquire what the impropriety was, other than that he wanted what about 100 yards north of where we stood would be known as his mordida, he irately pointed his night stick at the speedometer and said, "This has been around more than once." I asked him to wait a minute and went back to where Mike and our rep were standing. I asked the latter to find out how much it would take to make the "adjustment". Then, I watched intently while he went over to the martinet for a short visit and listened with interest when he gave me the figure which, as I now recall, was $175.00 U. S. I was reminded of the old comedy routine entitled, "Pay The Two Dollars" and coughed up the amount of the "adjustment". Our rep made the exchange of dough for papers and, as soon as the papers were in hand, Mike and I hurried back to the relative comfort of The Red Beast and our journey deeper into the interior.
An arrival and a big step indeed: (07 Mar 2000) We got to Belize City just before dusk. After all the rigors of the trip, and the recent difficulties at the border, all we wanted to do was to get the truck to Rudon for safekeeping, registration, and licenses, to check into a hotel, to clean off the Mexican and Belizean dust, and to have a few beers and a good meal before bedtime. It was unfortunate that we got there at the time of day when traffic was at it's most jamming. There was a policeman in the center of Front Street where we wanted to make a left turn (just before we got to the swing bridge) and go to Alamilla Wharf - Rudon's usual haunt. When Mike slowed to make the left turn, the policeman looked like he would have apoplexy and frantically waved us to proceed across the unswung swing bridge. That Mike did; and, we went on through the middle of town to a safe turning place and retraced our steps through the center of town and across the still unswung swing bridge again, this time to make a right hand turn. The same policeman gave us a broad smile and politely waved us on down Front Street for half of a long block where stood Rudon at his usual station when he did not have a fare. Rudon told me not to worry, that the truck would be safe at his house where he had barking dogs and a shotgun. When Rudon told me not to worry, I didn't - as always. I gave Rudon the keys and agreed to meet him sometime the next day when he would have the truck registration papers for me to sign. The big step part: (08 Mar 2000) The rest of the evening's agenda when pretty well. We walked the two blocks to the Luxury Hotel for one of those "Nights in the lap of Luxury" (about which you may read under that title on Page Three). We checked in with the proprietor at the hardware store next door, performed our ablutions as well as could be expected in our cubicle, and stepped outside to meet our fate for the evening. That is, I stepped, but Mike practically bounded out the door and, faithfully following the directions he was given, strode towards the Upstairs Cafe for "Dinner upstairs" (about which you also may read on Page Three). Then, out of the night, a booming voice asked Mike, "Where you goin', Big Step?" Anyway, the query having been rhetorical, the evening at the Upstairs Cafe and the Luxury Hotel went well and without surprises.
A banker and a beginning: (26 Feb 2000) The next morning, after breakfast at Mom's, I, in my seersucker silliness again, waltzed into the Royal Bank of Canada across the street, met a banker, and (with a check drawn on the US bank where all the Victoria House money was deposited) opened an account in BZE Dollars. The then (and during all of my stay in Belize) official rate of exchange was two BZE Dollars for one U. S. Dollar. The bank was allowed to charge, and did charge, as always, an exchange fee of .875% on each exchange - either way. I knew that there was an unofficial exchange rate on the streets where one could do much better than that with a US Dollar, but I sure didn't want to mess with that can of worms, at least not in such a large transaction as the banker and I conducting. It was necessary to put all the money in BZE Dollars because the law was that accounts in US dollars were not permitted without government approval. I knew that this money would soon go bye-bye, so there was no need to wait for the nod. In our discussion just before the account was opened, I pointed out to the banker, whose name I well remember but see no need to use, that, since I was, in effect, loaning the bank money right then, it seemed reasonable that, in the future, the bank would reciprocate in that regard. Then, I said, to effectuate a beginning of that reciprocation, I was willing to deposit a larger sum in an interest bearing account against which I would borrow at a lesser rate of interest. He patiently listened to my silly spiel and, just as patiently, explained to me the quaint (to a gringo) Belizean custom of a bank lending money through the allowance of overdrafts on a (secured) account, and that the total amount of money the bank could lend, from time to time, was subject to governmental regulation and, therefore he might not have the money to lend at the time I wanted to borrow. I did like his candor and, mostly because of his continuing candor and honest frankness, he became my all-time favorite banker. My past experiences with bankers had caused me to rank them just below used car salesmen and far below bookies in honesty and candor qualities. (30 Mar 2000) Well, lo and behold, through the miracle of the internet and the astuteness of Fidel Ancona, I have just re-established contact with Francis Castillo, my favorite banker, and gotten his permission to disclose his real name, provided that I don't stretch the truth about him too much. We expect to keep in contact. Now, ain't that a good show after these many years? The beginning part: (12 Apr 2000) Now it was time to get to San Pedro and get to work. I walked back to Rudon's haunt at the Alamilla Wharf, where Mike was to meet me with our suitcases. Rudon was there with the papers to sign in order to register and license the Red Beast. After that, Rudon was to have the cargo of The Red Beast reladed on the Caribbean Queen and/or the Emma V. for shipment to the main pier in San Pedro - at the time I told him we were ready for it. I didn't worry about the stuff being okay in the meantime, because Rudon had already explained to me that his home was in the country and well guarded by his well trained dogs (trained to bark for warning and bite for effect) and his twelve gauge shotgun. Well, there was nothing left to do except have Rudon take us to Municipal Airport for Mike's first trip to San Pedro.
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