Bit by the dumb traveler bug

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Because it has become a tradition for us in Central America, Dave and I crossed the Belize/Mexico border after dark, on foot, and without having exchanged currency. How this keeps happening, I don’t understand, but at least it makes for a good story…

Guatemala to Mexico. It seemed like an easy enough trip until we discovered that there is not yet a border crossing in northern Guatemala. Our fastest option was to cut through Belize. We looked at a map (a dumb thing to do sometimes, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts) and we decided to try to get from Flores to Chetumal, via Belize, in one day. The good news is that the plan was successful, the downside was that it took a lot longer than we planned.

We arrived in Belize City with 7 minutes to spare before the last bus to the border departed. What is strange, is that there hadn’t been any delays on our trip from the Guatemala border. We don’t really know why we arrived to the Belize City bus station so late in the day. But based on the map, the border really wasn’t that far away- we figured we’d arrive within two hours.

We drove and drove. The daytime heat started to fade and the afternoon breeze picked up. As the little chicken bus worked it’s way up the long straight road, we watched the sun slowly start to set on the horizon. I asked the bus driver how much farther to the border– he laughed and said ‘at least two more hours’.

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Two more hours. We would be arriving after dark, we didn’t know what time the border closed or if it closed at all. We hadn’t exchanged pesos, and we didn’t have the US dollars needed to pay Belize’s exit tax. We hadn’t eaten all day, and didn’t bring a food stash with us. We hadn’t done any research on Chetumal- the Mexico border town we’d be arriving in. If one could fit all the dumb travel choices that could be made into a single day, this would be it.

The border police informed us that there was a nearby ATM that dispensed the needed US dollars, and Dave talked a minivan driver into taking him there. I stood in the nearly vacant lobby of the Belize customs office, our luggage piled in the doorway, with three officers staring at me in disbelief. Understandably so– because who else actually shows up at a border crossing this unprepared?

$40 less to our names, a long dark walk between border offices, and two more passport stamps later, we found ourselves on Mexican soil. We’d solved the first puzzle, but now faced the next problem: no pesos. A border official pointed us in the direction of a bank, which was closed. A police officer, loaded with an enormous machine gun, finally pointed us towards a city bus and told us that we had to go to downtown if we needed to exchange money. But what about the bus fare? He chuckled. He had that ‘you guys are idiots’ look in his eye. We couldn’t deny it.

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God bless Mexico for kind people, jovial attitudes, and compassion for dumb people like us. A woman on the bus (heading home from her job in Belize) offered to exchange the pesos she had with us. The bus driver held the bus for us while we figured out our fare. Two other passengers offered suggestions about the best stop for us to get off at. They pointed us in the direction of a cluster of guest houses and discussed where the best place would be. In short, those wonderful strangers on the bus took really good care of us.

Fourteen hours after leaving our hostel in Flores (Guatemala), Dave and I sat at a plastic table in a tiny shoebox of a taco shop in Chetumal. The owner’s kids played with dolls on the floor, and the grandmother ran fresh tortillas through a press. After ordering, we were told to run down to the shop on the corner to buy a few beers to accompany our meal. The air was warm, the music festive, and the food divine. The simplicity of life was enveloping. Suddenly, everything was exactly how it was supposed to be.

After thirteen months of travel and with 20+ countries under my belt, Mexico remains my favorite. It’s perfect here.

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