Exit Strategy: A Letter from Belize

You can’t really escape your problems at home.

Mara Sánchez-Renero, El Cimarrón y su Fandango: Threshold, 2014. From Almanaque Fotografía’s exhibition, “Júpiter XL.”

 

Most summers for the past few years, I’ve worked in contracting. Sometimes it takes me places: usually the northwestern states or patches around the South. Last month, I spent a weekend shuttling around Wisconsin, where I didn’t see another person of color for about three days. But the morning before I flew back to New Orleans, I ran into a Nigerian lady tending bar in La Crosse. She was holding court at this diner decked out with WE WELCOME IMMIGRANTS! stickers. We were equally shocked to have found each other.

Flying into Belize City this month, on the other hand, damn near everyone was black or brown. I knew what most Americans know about the country, which is nothing. The plane touched down just beside the Western Highway, alongside the miles of marshland surrounding the city’s outskirts. The airport flanked a mostly dirt road, lined with signs calling for abstinence and grace.

Belize is predominantly English speaking. Nearly half of its population is multilingual, and many speak Kriol, the local patois. Most of the country remains undeveloped. Charles Portis called it a “beautiful blue map with hardly any roads to clutter it up,” and folks fly down from wherever to see the Mayan ruins scattered throughout the country. Or they’ll lounge around Caye Caulker. Or they’ll fuck around with the reefs strafing the Caribbean Sea. When the rental-car guy asked me which I was here for, I told him neither, and his eyebrows kick-flipped from his face.

There were a few different answers. I’d gone for a job, but I’d mostly flown out of the States for a breather. Things were piling on a little too fast. One day, brewing tea in the office kitchen, a coworker told me he was going to Malaysia with his wife but was worried about all of the Muslims. One day I got pulled over by a cop in the city, the third time this year, and he told me I was driving like I didn’t know where I was going. Another day I was listening to NPR, and a man called in to bitch about his Salvadoran neighbors for twenty minutes. Their food smells great, he said, but it doesn’t belong. I called my boss and agreed to the trip that night.

There was one clerk ambling around my hotel’s lobby. His name was entirely dissimilar to Itzhar, so that’s what I’ll call him here. He was short and dark. He thumbed at his phone. I asked if he was from the city, and he cocked his head.

Belmopan, he said, fingering a map on his desk.

When I said he was a short way from home, he smiled a smile that I couldn’t read. Then I asked about food in the immediate vicinity. The smile evaporated.

Downtown, he said. You’ll be fine. You could be a local.

I told him I wasn’t.

But you could be, said Itzhar.

He nodded to the guests in the lobby beside me, a white couple sitting by a too large suitcase. When an attendant, this strapping black guy, rattled off directions in Kriol, the white man reached for his luggage, probably unconsciously, as if to secure it.

 *

I rented a Jeep and drove east most mornings, toward Philip Goldson Highway and over Haulover Creek. From there, the road popped into branches of vendors and pedestrians and laymen and bankers and grocers and cops and kids. Other days, I took the Northern Highway to Corozal, or the Western Highway toward Santa Elena. Folks zoomed around at all hours on mopeds and bikes and jeeps.

Sometimes I made it back before dark, but usually I didn’t. One night, a group of teens ran up on me, asking for cigarettes, and once I’d split the pack with them they invited me to some nightclub. Another night, this lady in a bar asked if I was from America, and if I knew about Texas, and educated me on the merits of Willie Nelson. And still another night, I watched a man, a woman, and some babies zip across a roundabout, straddling a motorbike and banking the curves at dangerous angles. And later I watched some kids in this alley fighting over a fútbol, until a woman tossed some water down on them from an open window.

The kids turned to the sky, a bit dumbfounded. But that was it. The miracle was gone.

*

About forty American marines had been living in my hotel. Their rooms stretched down the hall opposite doubles filled with missionary kids from Kentucky. Both groups supported construction in the Cayo District, between the capital and San Ignacio, but whenever one tribe occupied any patch of space, the other one melted away. The marines debriefed in the lobby most mornings around breakfast. They’d dissolve when teens swarmed the couches, locking arms to pray.

One day, I asked Itzhar about it. He said it didn’t really matter to him. You’re all American, he said, grinning, a little sadly, then he shushed me with a finger to answer the phone.

More than occasionally, I dropped by the front desk to ask Itzhar questions. Things Google could’ve told me. The television shadowing the coffee blared on about administrative scandals. He asked what I thought about the president, and I told him I don’t think about the president, and he nodded, briskly. He said that was pretty weird.

One day, Itzhar told me that, depending on how deep into Belize I traveled, I couldn’t donate blood in America for a while. I told him that gays couldn’t do that in the States anyways. When he smiled, considering me, I tried to do the same. He didn’t switch the subject or anything like that. We both sort of mulled in our silence.

Queer culture is a phantom in Belize. Of course, I’d seen lone stares and stray smiles. The usual silent commerce. But nothing beyond that. It wouldn’t have been safe. The country had, until last August, outlawed same-sex intimacy, full stop.

One night, a guy from Mérida who laid cement asked to buy me a drink. I didn’t decline, although it took me a minute. Our bartender’s eyes glazed over us, but she didn’t say shit about it. This guy was warm, probably in his forties, in this half-buttoned shirt and too snug pants. He was visiting, he said, in town for about two minutes. His sister was marrying a man from San Ignacio.

Some fucking cabrón, he said. This is the last night of peace.

But it’s a beautiful country, he said, what a fucking beautiful country, fucking out of this world. When he ordered more shots, our bartender actually groaned.

Later on, I helped him mold himself into a cab. He told me to watch my ass. Before the taxi had even driven away, he’d all but fell asleep in his seat. Back inside, the bartender asked me why my friend had left his phone, pointing to a BlackBerry on the counter.

It sat there like a dead thing. Neither one of us touched it. We just stood there, not picking it up, waiting for something to happen.

*

It rained every day. Life was consistent in this way. The clouds congregated among themselves and pissed all over the country. One day, during a strong shower, I needed to go to the bank, and Itzhar recommended a cab.

It’d be better for you, he said. It’s what I’d recommend.

Why, I said, and he smiled a little bit.

You know, he said. Safety.

I laughed and declined. Not ten minutes later, a few kilometers from the city center, a cop flagged me down for a checkpoint by an intersection. After blinking at my ID, he showed it to his partner, who mouthed my name to himself until he’d confirmed that I’m not who I am.

He asked me to pull over. We began the delicate dance: He asked why I was here, and I told him. He asked for another form of ID, and I asked him why he needed it. Confirmation, and I said what for, and he told me I looked young, younger than the age on the card, and I told that we’re all young, really, it’s just perception, and he told me that was well and good but time had passed him by, and he asked if I had a passport on me and I said that I did not.

Eventually, we stalled. We’d reached the point where he should’ve asked for money. But he didn’t do that. He just waved me along.

On the way back to the hotel, I ordered six burritos from a window. The further downtown you go, you’ll pass through circuits of carts and panaderias and huts. There hadn’t been anything particularly surprising, or even rare, about the stop, but I felt cheated. I thought about Wisconsin.

The window held four grandmotherly women. They hobbled, hunched, chatting over each other in Spanish. Their stall looked worn, like a thing that’d lived many lives, and when one of the ladies looked my way, I knew that once she’d been devastatingly beautiful.

When she asked why I didn’t order another burrito, I smiled, and then I did. Then she smiled back. She said there was no way I was eating all of it.

¿Eres de aquí? she asked, and I told her I was not.

Ah, she said, como ellos.

She pointed at some men behind me. All three of them wore cameras. A fanny pack poked from one’s hip.

Pues, I said, no se si somos similar.

¿Y porqué no? she smiled.

No tenemos las horas en la día.

Some teens in an alley blasted Jay-Z’s record from a truck. When I looked their way, they nodded right back.

Si claro, said the woman. She smiled, bobbling a tortilla.

Pero todos somos amigos aquí, she said.

*

When I made it back a few hours later, Itzhar asked how it went. I didn’t mention the cop.

No one died, I said.

That’s something to be thankful for, he said.

I told him he was funny, and he said, I am funny.

We leaned on opposite sides of the counter, watching North Korea launch their missiles.

Everything is funny eventually, said Itzhar, and he reached up to change the channel. 

*

One night, the rain turned incessant, and I ended up in this Greek diner a few blocks from the hotel. The place was mostly empty. A father sat with his son by the window. Every five minutes, the kid leapt from his chair, and when his father looked up from his phone, the man looked genuinely shocked he was gone. He’d chase the kid back to his seat, kissing him on the forehead. Then the kid would wait another moment before sprinting down the hallway again.

I watched them do that. The host made his way over. He was a heavy guy, cheesing under a fresh layer of beard. He asked how I was doing, and I asked him for some keftedes, and he smiled at the menu before he said they didn’t do that anymore. When he slipped into the kitchen, a black woman emerged. She glared at the father and son, and then at the kitchen behind her. Then she made a noise I’d only ever heard on television: a shrill, near-silent, between-teeth scream.

She looked at me. I smiled or something.

Listen, she said, you want to ere something? Me work ere for nine years. And da man dat seat you? Im ire me back when im no ave no building. Im nah know no English, and me ah teach him. Me.

Im ire a lot of people since den, she said. But me? I’m still ere. De only one. But Im only ire Spanish now. And im know me nah speak it. Im know it causes problems

Imagine, she said, being de only black person ere. Imagine. De only one.

I told her that might be difficult.

Im too nice, she said, nodding at her boss, before disappearing again. She tied my food in a knot on my way out of the door.

I’d made it down the road and across the street when the owner waved me down. He was holding a bundle: a fresh batch of keftedes.

The man shook my hand, glowing. I left him waving on the curb. He was still waving when I turned around, but the next time I checked, he was gone.

*

The night before I flew back to Louisiana, I asked Itzhar if he wanted a smoke. I’d done what I needed to do for my job. Nothing had imploded, more or less.

Itzhar said he didn’t do that, but he could use some fresh air.

They kill you, he said, pantomiming a toke, smiling as wide as I’d seen.

He’d spent the past ten minutes being quizzed over a bill. Once we’d made it outside, he said we should go for a walk instead. I squinted at him. It was well after dark. I told them that wasn’t necessary, but he was already unclipping his name tag.

Really, he said, and then he was already behind the counter, and then we were stepping out of the hotel, out of the parking lot, and down the road.

Itzhar asked if I liked Belize. He asked if I’d come back. He asked if I could live here, and I said people could live wherever they had to. He looked a little thoughtful, and he opened his mouth. Then he closed it again. He asked for a cigarette.

I had flown out of my life in one country and into the same life in another. The realization was exhausting. There will, I guess, always be moments like this. The same way that you couldn’t escape the larger ailments, you couldn’t ever entirely outrun these either, and I started to bring it up to Itzhar, but then he started hacking from the smoke.

We crossed the road at a traffic circle. We stalked past an armed guard. He watched us for a second, doing some mental math.

There’s this quote by Heraclitus I found on my parents’ bookshelf when I was a kid: “Geography is history.” He’s been dead for two thousand years and that line will always be true. There are problems, and then there are your problems. Focus on them all and you’ll end up cross-eyed. But the time will end up passing you by either way.

It’s a little crazy, said Itzhar, after a while. I looked to see if he’d elaborate on that sentiment, but he did not.

And that’s how that evening ended. I checked out the next morning. The clouds above the city looked as clouds can look. From his post, Itzhar asked if I had a jacket, and I told him I’d survive, and he told me not to worry about it. Everything would work itself out.

We thanked each other. We shook hands for too long. And then we shook hands again. I rolled my shit out to the taxi, the clouds beginning to multiply. The sun disappeared. A chill crept in. Bystanders along the highway looked up, as if expecting news. But nothing fell from the sky. Not down the highway or over the bridge. And when it finally happened, we’d left the ground, we were already in the air.

 

Bryan Washington divides his time between Houston and New Orleans. His first collection of stories, Lot, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. 

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