by Alexander Hackett
Important scenes: Molina, shitfaced and shouting on the boat from Belize to Guatemala, bottle of rum in hand.
There are days in Central America when nothing much happens, indolence spread out before you like a dog in a patch of sunlight. And then days like this, when everything explodes into a flurry of activity.
To recap: a young man wandering aimlessly, desperate to get lost. I yearned to be far away, and cut off from everything I knew. And so I flew in a string of tiny cessnas from San Pedro on Ambergris Caye to Belize city. Touched down quickly at Dangriga, and then on to Placencia. Strange, almost aggro vibe. The next day, caught a boat, the "Hokey-Pokey", across the lagoon to Independence - full of smart-alec Belizean kids riffing, teasing each other in Creole. Black, mixed-race, Asian kids all danglings their arms and legs off the sides. "You look like Shaggy, white boy!" one of them shouts at me with a smile. "Where's Scooby-Doo?!" At the end of the swampy labyrinth, Independence was a dusty, forgotten town with nothing much going for it. Over the pot-holed dirt road to the bus station, a wait on a white plastic chair in the shade. Local rastas on the stoop swearing energetically in the sun, bemoaning various slights.
A Yellow Bird schoolbus rolls up. All in. We head out. It's mostly large Mayan families, elegant in crisp, colourful fabrics, conversing quietly in Spanish. The driver looks like Luis Guzmán. The landscape changes, becomes lusher, hillier, more beautiful. Low, humped mountains in the background. Some of unnatural shape. Hidden pyramids? Everything so green and rustic, tidy plots of land with houses and neat little farms on them. We head in to Punta Gorda. The bus driver asks me where I'm going, To the boat, I say, and he directs me to customs. Then the carnival begins.
I pay my exit fee, 38 Belize dollars. It's a ramshackle post, languid locals chatting loudly in chairs, swatting at flies. I change some cash to Quetzales to make sure I have enough for the boat ride from Puerto Barrios to Livingston. Next to me a baggy-shorts, backwards ballcap, smart-ass kid is holding court. He asks me for a US dollar to buy liquor at the duty-free shop. I say no. Then wait. We enter the most laidback customs ever. An obese woman stamps my passport. I mill around aimlessly, wait some more. Eventually the boat's "captain", the smart-ass kid, his friend, and two plump, dainty women in high-heels emerge. We're ready to go. One last passenger emerges: the psycho Mexican. Uh-oh. An archetype, of sorts, in these parts. His name's Molina. Pointy leather shoes, greased hair, crazy cackle. "Buy some booze!" he tells me, before we've even been introduced. The captain looks at me with a tired smile and twirls his finger around his ear: "Está loco!" We get in the boat, a long 10-seater with twin outboard motors, open-aired. The sea is choppy. We bounce all over the place, up and down and side to side, getting drenched in sea spray.
No sooner are we off than Molina pulls out a 1 litre bottle of spiced rum. He'd planned this with backwards-ballcap kid, Yonatán. They chug deeply, rum sprays everywhere as we churn recklessly over the waves. Molina cackles and lets out piercing manic wails: "Aiiiieeeee!!" He urges everyone to drink, drink. It's a kind of rodeo on the open Caribbean. The whole time I'm thinking: This is the official boat service from Belize to Guatemala. The captain laughs and shakes his head but doesn't slow down. We're going at a breakneck pace, it's like riding a bull. Molina and his accomplices wave the bottle in the air, laugh and shout and sling their arms around each other's necks. They push the bottle in my face. There's no way out. I take a few long slugs, to their great delight. They cheer in unison. "It's good! It's good, si?" Up and down over the waves, in and out of sea-troughs in the punishing sun. My ass smashes down onto the hard seat over and over. Bruised coccyx. The two plump Guatemaltecas giggle girlishly, cleavage jiggling. At one point Molina reaches back and grabs my hand, pledges undying friendship. "You are my brother! Come with us!" He urges me to get off with them at Puerto Barrios where, he says, there will be many women.
This goes on for 45 minutes, the bottle of rum passed round and round. And then Molina crashes hard. He gets so drunk he can no longer sit up straight and slumps to the bottom of the boat. His head bangs loudly against one of the benches. His glasses fall off. At one point he rises up, stumbling, and flings himself at his two friends. They grapple. Yonatán pisses off the back of the boat, hanging on to the outboard motor with one hand, swaying precariously as it continues onward full-speed. It's a shit-show extraordinaire.
There's freighter ships in the distance, lumbering into Puerto Barrios. One of the ships is from Saint-John's, Newfoundland. I find that odd. At one point the captain of our little vessel tries to cut in front of one of the huge freighters. He charts an angle and guns it as fast as we can go. At the last minute we realize we're not going to make it, we'd get rolled and sunk. We cut hard to the left, brake and go behind the ship. We're tossed violently by its wake. Molina is almost delirious, flopping around and moaning. Yonatán and his friend are now having a great time making fun of him. We make it to Puerto Barrios. Molina's father is waiting for him and he is livid. Molina has to be carried bodily along the pier to his father's car. "No, this is unacceptable," we hear him say, spitting and cursing. "Totally unacceptable."
Silky dusk arrives. I buy my ticket to Livingston, get my passport stamped at customs - the sign in the office says: "Check Immigration." I grab a donut at the mini-market for 4 Quetzales. All is calm, boats bob by the dock and we all wait, a blonde German couple calm and wide-eyed behind me.
We set off for Livingston. Past two more freighters, from Monrovia, Liberia, this time. Charged electric dimming dusklight. The jungle coast alive and breathing to our left. Sweet breeze on our faces to cut the humidity. We're bashing, bashing over the waves. 20 minutes later Livingston appears, a pool of soft lights in a natural harbour. We jump to shore, and locals assail us with offers for rooms and hotels. I get out of the tangle and start up the steep hill. It's a moody, ambient town, accessible only by boat, isolated on Guatemala's north coast. And I'm filled with joy.
Full darkness now. Heavy palm fronds everywhere, warm encroaching greenery and strange tropical bird calls. Livingston is a village on an alien planet. I get a room at the Hotel Ríos Tropicales, run by a Chinese father and daughter team. Everyone is glinting with a sheen of sweat. I'm perfectly lost and the heat is sensual, the heat is all-enveloping. I have dinner and a few Gallo bottles of beer at the Mac Tropic restuarant nearby. I chat with a Frenchwoman and a young Canadian guy from Toronto. Get a little buzz going. Say goodnight to them, go out to wander the quiet village. Inky darkness. Far beyond the edge of town, I hear the loud animation of the local Garifuna - aggression? I walk into a bar and there's a drum circle taking place. A huge black woman and some kids are chanting, dancing and chugging along on their drums.
I go to the counter to order a drink and burst out laughing: the bartender is a young kid, maybe 10 years old. Super-serious look on his face: Can I help you? I order a rum and pineapple. I laugh watching his tiny hands handle the large bottles. He calls out to his mother to ask about serving size and the correct amount of ice. She answers from behind a curtain. Then he goes back to his task with intense concentration.
Jasmine the pretty Garifuna girl hits me up, gets me to buy her a drink, inquires if I want weed, flirts with me. She dances barefoot on the dirt floor, hips gyrating, sweat on her perfect skin, smelling of coconut oil. A boyfriend comes in and points at me, screams at her. I'm not sure what's going on, but it's tense. It's getting late. Time to leave.
But I'm lost. A little tipsy and I forgot how I got there. I'm on a dirt path, the breathing jungle rising up in walls all around me. Another massive black woman is lumbering towards me. I stop and ask her in Spanish if she knows where the centro is. But I seem to have startled her. She backs away, confused and frightened. Her eyes dart side to side. "Centro, centro..." she babbles. She starts tugging at her shorts, pulling them to one side at the crotch. And finally, still standing and looking me straight in the eyes, she unleashes a massive torrent of piss. A weird, entranced look on her face, mouth agape, eyes bulging. I'm shocked. Am I a ghost, to her? The stream of urine splashes noisily onto the dirt for what seems like an eternity. For some reason I wait until she finishes, fixed to the spot. Then I turn away and hastily keep walking. Strangest thing, strangest of days. I find the hotel, go up to the stifling room with its paper thin walls, the backpacker couple next door is making love. Every motion audible.
To sleep, and woken at dawn by what seems like an army of roosters.
Alexander Hackett is a writer, musician and translator from Quebec's Eastern Townships. His fiction and journalism have been published in English and French in the Northwest Review, Yolk Literary, The Toronto Star, La Presse, Le Devoir, The Montreal Review and Cult Mtl. After graduating with a degree in Literature and Philosophy from King's College, Dalhousie in 1998, he worked as a teacher in Gambia, West Africa and later in Mexico city. He completed a Master's in International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, England, and currently writes for Concordia University's School of Graduate Studies. You can follow him @x_hackett