transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
The Port bus is a slow, bumpy, muddy ride during the rainy season and a great example of the durability of these old buses (and their riders). A 1994 Blue Bird transit style was making the run on the day I rode, one day after some moderately heavy rain. Once we crossed to the west of Central America Blvd., many stretches of the route were more water than road. The bus avoided getting stuck, since there seemed to be enough gravel under the ponds, but it was a slow trip.
Carlos (see below) explained that over the past few years, a government sponsored dredging project at Belize City’s southern deepwater port has interfered with drainage in the surrounding residential areas. Currently, cruise ships dock offshore east of the city, and their passengers are ferried to the shallow Tourism Village dock on smaller boats; with sufficient dredging, the cruise companies will be able to save their customers time and money by docking directly at the city’s southern port.
The motto of Caye Caulker, a small island with about 1300 residents, is “Go Slow.” People abide by this motto in their eating, socializing, and driving. Other than a few pickup trucks that haul lumber and garbage, and a small tractor used by the local Coca Cola distributor, the only vehicles on the island are bicycles and old golf carts. Even if they were not limited by the golf carts’ top speed, island drivers would be encouraged to go slow by Caye Caulker’s rope speed bumps and two traffic police officers.
The Go Slow modus vivendi, although not explicitly extolled, seems to be present in Belize City as well. Buses and water taxis often run slightly behind schedule (if they have one at all). Instead of using established stops, many Belize City buses will stop wherever a passenger is waiting. When I rode the bus back from Ladyville, the bus made multiple stops literally twenty feet apart. To me, it would make sense for passengers waiting so close together to gather in one place, so that the bus would only have to stop once; but maybe such an increase in efficiency is not in keeping with the Go Slow philosophy.
Unlike in Belize City, Caye Caulker’s pedestrians and stray dogs are relatively safe from traffic. Sand crabs seem to compose the bulk of the island’s traffic fatalities. I talked with the owner of one of the island’s golf cart rental shops. The carts are bought used from the United States, and the total cost for each cart, including transportation to the island and import duties, runs to about $4000. Even with the cost of replacing corroded parts with new parts ordered from the United States, these expensive carts can be a sound investment. The plastic bodies can last more than eight more years after being purchased used, and rental agencies can charge steep prices to the tourists for whom walking around the island is too slow.
Below are some more pictures from Caye Caulker. If you’re reading this post in your email inbox, it may be easier to browse through the pictures by clicking on the title of this post to view it in your internet browser.
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When possible, I sit towards the back of the buses I ride, primarily to minimize the number of people who see me take out my camera when I photograph the surroundings. On the King’s Park bus the other day, sitting in the back also led to a refreshing surprise. Near the University of Belize, we stopped for a woman pushing a handcart loaded with a cooler up to the bus. She opened the emergency exit door in the back, and a boy who was sitting in the back got out and helped her load the cooler onto the bus. They were having a problem getting the handcart around the spare tire in the aisle at the back of the bus, so I helped maneuver it.
When the bus arrived at its terminus downtown, the woman asked me for some help, since the other boy had alighted earlier. I stepped out the back, and brought her cargo to the sidewalk. She opened the cooler and said, “Thank you, would you like a seaweed?” I wanted to be polite, so I took one of the small unlabeled bottles filled with a thick, white drink. A bit of research revealed it to be a seaweed shake – a chilled mix of condensed milk and cinnamon thickened by the carrageenan from blended seaweed. I tried it and found it enjoyable; I can understand why the drink, which reminded me of a thick horchata, is a local favorite in the tropical heat.
Riding a local bus down Fabers Rd., a small store with a sign reading Yan kee Snacks caught my eye. Like many of the other small neighborhood stores I saw in Belize City, it was a nondescript cinder block building with metal bars running up from the storefront counter. At first I assumed its name was similar to Yankey Clothes – “We bring the New York fashions to you” – a variation on the spelling of Yankee that I’m used to.
As I continued my rides around the city, I noticed a large number of groceries and restaurants with Chinese names scattered throughout. After passing Tan Liang Shop, Ma Ma Chen’s, Tow Tow Grocery, and Ah Wing Saloon, I realized the relationship of Yan Kee Snacks to the Yankee that first came to my mind was probably completely unintentional.
Carlos, a native Belizian who helped run the Seaside Guesthouse I stayed at and gave me some great advice in my first week in the country, shared some of his thoughts on the preponderance of Chinese-owned food stores. He estimates that 90% of the food outlets in Belize City are owned by Chinese or Taiwanese immigrants. They gained a substantial share of the fried chicken market by significantly undercutting the prices of other proprietors. The Chinese grocery stores, often staffed by immigrant family members who are compensated in-kind with lodging, maintain regular hours throughout the day, unlike the stores that take the customary lunch break and close once they feel they’ve made enough money for the day. Carlos also shared the story of a Chinese investor who bought both the Caye Caulker Water Taxi Association and the San Pedro Belize Express when they were in financial trouble, gaining a monopoly on ferry service while appeasing customers with promotions and giveaways.
Foreign investment is big in Belize. The Museum of Belize, recently opened in Belize City’s old jail, was funded in part by the government of Taiwan. In 2008, the value of the Belize’s imports was 1.6 times the value of its exports. The 2008 estimate for the country’s external debt was $954.1 million; with a population just over 314,000, that turns out to be more than $3,000 of foreign debt per person (in comparison, this figure is $43.35 for the United States).
Some fellow travelers passing through the Seaside Guesthouse talked with an official at the Austrian Consulate General, a brother of former prime minister Said Musa, and he explained to them that consumer goods are relatively expensive here because so many are imported. The Musa family owns Brodies, a large department and grocery store chain in Belize. The Brodies I shopped at definitely had a full array of goods from the United States.
The Swing Bridge, over the mouth of Haulover Creek in Belize City, is an icon of the country. The back of Belize’s $50 bill even features the small span. It was constructed in Liverpool, opened in 1923, and is the only bridge in the world that still regularly rotates open from a central base. Every morning and evening, workers manually swing it open using rods inserted to the underlying circular track so that taller boats can pass up and down the Creek. The salty air has caused some corrosion, and because it was designed so long ago, today’s heavy buses and trucks are not allowed to cross it.
Since Belize City only has three bridges over Haulover Creek (the other two are the Belcan and the Belchina), unexpected problems on any one of the bridges can cause significant traffic congestion to propagate throughout the city. An article in the Amandala newspaper describes the delays from recent unannounced construction:
The closure of the Belcan caused a traffic bottleneck on Cemetery Road, as this is the main artery used by drivers wanting to get to the Northside via the other two City bridges…It has been quite a while since anyone has seen the Belcan Bridge swing – one Belize City Council worker told us it has not happened since the last hurricane threat. Today, the bridge was closed at roughly 9:00 AM and scheduled to remain closed until about 11:00 AM as a hired crane was deployed to lift out massively corroded metal from the turntable and to lower replacement parts into the manhole…Asked why the Ministry of Works team chose a Monday morning to undertake the works, the government official on the site told us that they had to wait until the crane was available to them. The Ministry of Works, he told us, does not own one. We observed that the crane being manned by a Mennonite man was labeled National Crane Service.
I wanted to see a traffic jam resulting from the opening of the Swing Bridge, so one evening I walked around the area from 5:00 to 5:30, when my guidebook said the event would occur. I then sat down with an ice cream cone on King Street waiting, but the bridge did not open. Disappointed, I returned to my hostel before most of the shops closed and the streets emptied.
The next morning, I rode the Lake Independence bus. Downtown, it starts and ends its circular route at the Sarteneja bus stop, at the south end of the Swing Bridge. As I got off the bus at the end of its run, the driver and I started talking about my project and buses in Belize. When I finally walked out the front door, I realized it had been blocking traffic, and there were now cars backed up along the Swing Bridge and down Regent Street. I ended up seeing the Swing Bridge traffic jam that I wanted to.