Monday, December 31, 2012

Escape from Paradise Island

My Cuban adventure now feels like a hazy dream, with painterly splashes in the back of my head, and the texture of rust still crisp in my palm. Shortly after arriving to Cancún I resolved to rest a couple days before heading into the heart of Guatemala. My departure, however, was postponed after overhearing a German couple at the reception of the hostel. ‘We want to drive through Central America’, they told me. We researched the paperwork they needed to own a car, and set on an exhaustive quest for the best automobile they could get for under $2,000, perhaps an air-cooled Volkswagen or a Japanese four-cylinder. Dozens of polished wrecks later, we came across a bright red, clean “vochito” (Beetle). I can now say that Andris and Latoya, the –now– happy owners of this vintage beauty, will be recurring characters in this expedition.

After two weeks in storage, it started on the first touch of the key. Flawless!
The evening we purchased the car I drove down to Playa del Carmen, where I parked next to one of its most touristy streets. I just could not make any sense of that place: the people who run it, the architecture, its visitors. The Riviera Maya has too much neon that reminds us of our excess back home, and too many locals who keep quiet as they smilingly take the money from the pale drunks. As I walked in the dark beach heading back to the car in visible disgust, I saw an empty coconut lying in the middle of the street. I picked it up, removed the straw, and called it a free breakfast.

The following morning I woke up a little bit after dawn, and took one last swim in the Caribbean. Twenty minutes later my fingers glided across the windshield, covered in a mix of fine sea mist and thin sand, and set on to clean every window for the long journey ahead. I savored the coconut with the racing heart of a child, turned the ignition and drove down to Chetumal, right in the border with Belize.
Is the whole country going to be like this? I am screwed!
I really did not know what to expect out of Belize. I knew it was a country full of expatriates, a tax haven, and had gorgeous beaches worthy of a magazine cover. The first few miles were pretty much a bombed-out airstrip, but as soon as the road smoothed out, the path became straight and allowed for some relaxing time listening to the radio. I was happy to find Jazz. Jazz, after hundreds of miles of Rancheras and noisy “bandas” music, Latin Rap and all the irritating tunes that could ever tamper with my mood. It was a good day as I drove past Orange Walk, but suddenly the day became much better, right after I found an old friend lying next to a local appliance store.

Yes, an American-spec W123 Mercedes! I later found dozens of them, used as taxis.

“Is that your taxi?”, I asked a dark man at the counter. “Yes”, he replied with a hint of surprise. We got talking for about twenty minutes about the W123 Mercedes he owned, and I offered to diagnose some issues he was having, as I knew the car well. “When I shift it in drive, it vibrates a lot”, he said with a worried frown. I moved the shifter back and forth, and much to his relief I found the problem to be $20 worth of rubber motor mounts. “Someone should import these to Belize, they make for very good taxis”, he said. That got my mind working hard, igniting my brain to flare idealistic visions of parking lots full of old Mercedes diesels, and a shiny white showroom with vintage cars refurbished to like-new condition.
Orange Walk, possibly the most harmless town in the route so far.

I spent the night in a fenced motel in the outskirts of Belize City, run by a woman with a deeply uninspired attitude. The next morning I toured around the capital, which really did not have the imposing skyscrapers one would expect out of a tax haven. As I drove towards the Guatemalan border, I savored, mile by mile, acres of green plains that reminded me of Mississippi, and the gorgeous environs of San Ignacio.

Out of not having anything else to show on the route, here's a picture of a telephone booth in Belize.

Once in Guatemala I camped within the impressive natural reserve of Tikal and visited its legendary ruins the following morning. Shortly after, and over eleven hours of torture at the wheel, I found traffic jams, roadwork, large trucks pestering the air, local Mayan women lighting smoky fires at the side of the road and a motorcycle accident that actually taught me what exact hue human brains are. Jazz had long disappeared from the radio. But still, past sunset and with a sore shoulders, climbing up the mountains around the capital with the engine running a little hotter than usual, I managed to pass the borders of Antigua and park in one of its quiet cobblestone streets, where I collapsed on my cargo bed into deep, deep slumber.

Wait, what is that tall thing in the distance?
At 7.30am, I had all these ruins to myself!
It's hard to take pictures of landscapes when you are trying not to kill yourself on the road...
Strangely familiar landscape in the line of Kansas or Arizona...

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