transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
Southern Belize seemed to have a slightly more diverse population of bus makes than the North. In front yards and empty lots along the Hummingbird and Southern Highways from Belmopan to Punta Gorda, I saw Blue Birds, AmTrans, Wards, Waynes, Carpenters, and Thomas Built Buses. As in other places, many of them had the school district names covered in black spray paint, as if censored; I’d be interested in finding out whether this is done by the old owners (school districts), the new ones, or someone in between. Two years ago, I would have seen many more abandoned buses along the route; the recently paved Southern Highway used to take its toll on buses (in the first image below, note the picture of a bus driving through two feet of water), and many that broke down would be left on the shoulder of the road. Recently, scrap metal dealers, especially from Guatemala, have been hauling these away.
Unlike the Northern and Western Highways, which are served by many different bus companies, the Southern Highway is essentially served by only one company, James Bus Lines. Operating out of Punta Gorda, James Bus Lines is an icon of the country. Stonetree Records even uses the James livery as a motif for their This is Belize album.
The founder, James Williams, who recently passed away, was very well regarded by those in Punta Gorda. One person told me it was Williams’ morning routine to drive his truck to a bus stop known as The Dump, where residents of San Antonio and Crique Jute transfer from village buses to the early morning northbound express, just to talk with them and make sure they were doing well. The company also raffles off cash prizes to its passengers, using their ticket stubs as entry tickets. Other companies are able to make runs in the southern towns of Dangriga and Placencia, but James Bus Lines has a virtual monopoly on service all the way to Punta Gorda. A resident of Na Luum Caj told me that passengers in Punta Gorda simply will not ride another company’s buses. While much has changed since the 1989 bus report I read in Belize’s National Archives, the following still seems to apply to James Bus Lines: “Bus owners take great pride in their business and acknowledge the importance and responsibility in providing public transportation. In turn, passengers reciprocate through loyalty to specific bus firms.”
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Scheduled buses from Na Luûm Caj to Punta Gorda run only four days a week, departing at 3:00 and 3:30 AM so that vendors can set up their market stalls at sunrise. This schedule is still an improvement over twenty years ago, when the majority of Toledo’s villagers had to ride into town in the back of pickup trucks.
The main bus owner in Na Luûm Caj is Felix Choc. He operates the 3:30 AM departure using a 1994 Blue Bird All American that was retired from a school district in Arizona earlier this year. Choc also owns a 1988 Thomas/Ford conventional that made its way down from Illinois in 2003 and three older buses used for spare parts and scrap metal. Last year he sold a 1983 Thomas/Ford conventional, formerly Bus #26 in the fleet of Florida’s Duval County Public Schools, to his neighbor, Lucio Sho. Lucio, the brother of my host, now uses it to run the 3:00 AM departure.
Another highlight of my time in the village was an hour and a half long hike through the jungle to an old logging site. The holder of the logging title towed an old school bus up to the site and set it up as an overnight shelter for his workers.
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I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend five nights with the Sho Family at their house in Na Luûm Caj, a small village in Belize’s Toledo District. My visit, coordinated by the Maya Village Homestay Network, was an amazing opportunity to learn about Mopan Maya customs and life. The coordinators stated that I would be treated like a family member, “not as anyone ‘special,'” and I found this to be true. I was thankful for the family’s openness in authentically sharing their life with me. Around the dinner table the family spoke Mopan (translating into English for me occasionally), and I was welcomed to the Sunday church service they hosted on their patio.
Na Luûm Caj, which means Mother Earth Village in Mopan, is home to approximately 125 people. According to the Maya Atlas: The Struggle to Preserve Maya Land in Southern Belize, a project for which Mr. Sho was a community cartographer, the village was founded in 1986 by a group of progressive farmers from nearby San Antonio. They received land grants from the government and set up their model community, complete with environmental and ecological protections such as riparian buffer zones, just down the road from the village of San Antonio.
I arrived by bus on a Friday afternoon. After introductions with the mother, father, and five children, I sat down to a late lunch of corn tortillas, beans, and ginger tea. As I expected, fresh handmade tortillas and beans were a staple; I ended up having them at twelve of fourteen meals with the family. On a couple of occasions, I tried grinding the corn and shaping the tortillas; my efforts towards the latter inadvertently resulted in some creative shapes. By the time I left early on the following Wednesday morning, I was most grateful for the family’s laughter; after weeks of traveling, staying with a family in a home full of laughter was a centering experience.
Mr. Sho took an interest in my project and we spent a few afternoons talking to some of the local bus owners (including his brother). Other highlights included washing my clothes in the river (steering clear of a scorpion on the rocks), using the outhouse (and steering clear of a tarantula on the wall), and hikes through the mud (and not being able to steer clear of some deep mud).
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After Belize City was leveled by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, government officials began planning a new seat of government. The initial phases of Belmopan, Belize’s capital city, were constructed between 1967 and 1970. To me, the resulting master-planned city of 16,000 people felt the closest to Woodbridge or a college campus that I’ve been since leaving home.
A highlight in Belmopan was my research at the national archives. The staff there pulled up a couple of great reports on buses for me, one of which was a Masters Geography thesis from 1989 entitled “50 Years of Buses: A Case Study of the Bus System in Belize, Central America.” It was fascinating to read this report and consider how the system had changed (and, in some cases, remained the same) during the course of my life.
An interesting facet of the Belmopan Bus Terminal was the prevalence of signs reading “No Standees Permitted.” While a nationwide law prohibits standees on buses, this bus terminal is the only place I have seen it enforced. One of the concessionaires in the terminal even takes it upon herself to warn passengers of the surprising enforcement, shouting “push your way through the boarding gates and to the bus, otherwise you won’t get a seat and you won’t get a ride” when buses pull in. Indeed, Belmopan is the only city in which a government Terminal Management Unit employee boards each bus before departure and ensures all passengers are seated. Being in geographical proximity to the seat of government seemed to increase concerns with the law and government regulations. Yet this effect also seemed to have quite a limited radius; once the buses left the terminal and headed towards the Western and Hummingbird Highways, they stopped to pick up numerous standees.
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In Belize, I had the opportunity to meet Juan Guerrero, an artisan boatbuilder. Since he was 14, he has been taking locally harvested timber and transforming it into beautiful sailboats in the town of Sarteneja. Located in the northeast tip of Belize, Sarteneja was historically a fishing village and is still home to many of the country’s small boatbuilders. Quite a few of the sailboats I saw in Belize City and Caye Caulker had their origins in Juan Guerrero’s workshop.
The lifecycle of these sailboats presents an interesting contrast to the typical lifecycle of the buses I’m studying. Instead of being produced from thousands of anonymous industrial parts on an assembly line, these sailboats are uniquely crafted from various local woods by one craftsman in his backyard. Instead of heading south like the old school buses, the boat I saw being manufactured was, according to the wishes of its future captain, going to head north making no/low-emission trips to Cuba ferrying organic produce grown around Sarteneja.
In Corozal, I was able to get a tour of the Gilharry/Venus Bus Lines shop from the owner’s son. Talking with him, and interviewing the owner a couple days later, gave me a great sense of the history of passenger transportation in Belize. I’ll publish highlights from that interview soon. In the meantime, here are some pictures of the older buses that are kept at the shop for parts.
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One night in Corozal, I decided to wander over to the cluster of Chinese restaurants southwest of the town plaza for dinner. My experience at the one I chose, Border Chinese Restaurant, induced a cultural sensory overload. I ordered from a menu with Chinese and Belizean food written in Mandarin, Spanish, and English, trying to talk over a Taiwanese cable news broadcast, ranchera music, and chiming slot machines. Accompaniments to my fried rice included fruit juice from Honduras, Marie Sharp’s hot sauce from Belize, and La Choy soy sauce from Irvine, California. On the wall were posters for Belikin Beer (Belize’s local brew), Guinness Beer, Coca-Cola, as well as a Santa Claus mask (in July). Christmas decorations and a Chinese lantern hung from the ceiling.
In response to this bewildering array of imagery, I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to have some books delivered to me. So I had David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity and Frederick Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism sent down, and I (re)read them with my travels, and especially this dinner experience, in mind. Postmodernity, in the words of Wikipedia, describes “the economic and/or cultural state or condition of society,” while postmodernism describes the philosophical, artistic, and cultural response to this condition. A number of concepts in these books helped me think about the Border Chinese Restaurant.
Jameson argues that a “constitutive feature” of postmodernism is “a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary ‘theory’ and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum” (Postmodernism, p. 6). Simulacra, images with transformed (often reduced) significance and substance, were featured prominently in the Border Chinese Restaurant. The cable news from Taiwan being shown on the TV, had very little meaning to me or the Spanish-speaking men in the bar; it was just a series of flashing images. Similarly, the Mayan temples on Belikin bottles have been reduced from their complex meaning to a society of ages past into a Belizean corporate logo, which is further transformed here by its spatial interaction with Taiwanese, Irish, and Mexican influences. The swimsuit models in the beer advertisements on the wall were women transformed into flat, inked images encouraging the consumption of alcohol. Of course, in postindustrial capitalism, simulacra are employed to spur consumption/consumerism. Perhaps Santa Claus exemplifies this; one face is instantly recognizable as a mandate to buy toys for children.
Connected to the depthlessness of simulacra is the ease with which they are superimposed. Flat images with little inherent significance allow for a “collage of superimposed spatial images” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 302), such as the one in the restaurant. Superposition of otherwise unconnected images is also a mark of postmodernism in art, as seen in the example below from Jameson’s book (an example which, strangely enough, includes what looks like a mirror image of the Santa Claus from the restaurant). The prevalence of these collages and juxtapositions throughout the world mean that “the postmodern body…is now exposed to a perceptual barrage of immediacy from which all sheltering layers and intervening mediations have been removed” (Postmodernism, pp. 412-413).
This “perceptual barrage” is enabled by “a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system” (Postmodernism, p. 6). The availability of local news from Taiwan (and Los Angeles, Miami, etc.) on Belizean cable television certainly illustrates the interwoven global expansion of technology and capitalism. Jameson goes on to write, “This purer capitalism of or own time thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way” (Postmodernism, p. 36). Even in a small restaurant in a small town in Belize, purchases were linked to the United Kingdom, the United States, Honduras, Mexico, Taiwan, and the web of globalized capital.
These complex global webs lead to spatial confusion. Jameson elaborates:
So I come finally to my principal point here, that this latest mutation in space – postmodern hyperspace – has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world. It may now be suggested that this alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment – which is to the initial bewilderment of the older modernism as the velocities of spacecraft to those of the automobile – can itself stand as the symbol and analogon of that even sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational networks in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects (Postmodernism, p. 44).
In other words, if I were blindfolded and taken from the United States to the Border Chinese Restaurant, I would probably be unable to guess with any accuracy my location, and this inability points to salient characteristics of our global economic and political system. Harvey writes the following about postmodern fiction:
Spaces of very different worlds seem to collapse upon each other, much as the world’s commodities are assembled in the supermarket and all manner of sub-cultures get juxtaposed in the contemporary city. Disruptive spatiality triumphs over the coherence of perspective and narrative in postmodern fiction, in exactly the same way that imported beers coexist with local brews, local employment collapses under the weight of foreign competition, and all the divergent spaces of the world are assembled nightly as a collage of divergent images upon the television screen (The Condition of Postmodernity, pp. 301-302)
I find his use of the beer example amusing given the coexistence of Belikin and Guinness in the Border Chinese Restaurant. I also find the image of collapsing spaces helpful; the Border Chinese Restaurant (though near the border between Mexico and Belize) was more about the implosion and mixing of various cultures rather than the separation of two.
Also contributing to this bewilderment is the prevalence of reification, turning practices and relationships into things. Jameson explains, “The other definition of reification that has been important in recent years is the ‘effacement of the traces of production’ from the object itself, from the commodity thereby produced. This sees the matter from the standpoint of the consumer: it suggests the kind of guilt people are freed from if they are able not to remember the work that went into their toys and furnishings” (Postmodernism, p. 314). Now more than ever, for example, we are disconnected from the production of the food we eat. It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to trace how a bottle of La Choy soy sauce would, like me, start off in Irvine and end up in Corozal.
How do we deal with this increasing spatial bewilderment and obfuscation, especially when it so heavily involves our participation in world political and economic structures? Jameson proposes developing “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping” (Postmodernism, p. 54). In some ways, I think this is what my project is trying to accomplish. I am attempting to investigate not production, but instead “de-production,” the re- and de- commissioning of our old goods. The environmental and economic and environmental implications of “de-production” are perhaps just as important as those of consumerist production. Following retired school buses here in Central America has given me a small, concrete foothold in attempts to map (both graphically and mentally) my participation in these wider global systems.
But maybe in a culture where images are increasingly stripped of meaning, these attempts, and my travel as a whole is just adding to the information overload. As Harvey warns, “Depthless images are deployed to capture complex meanings. Travel, even imaginary and vicarious, is supposed to broaden the mind, but it just as frequently ends up confirming prejudices” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 351). I don’t know whether my year of travel will truly broaden my mind to see past the image overload and spatial bewilderment of the postmodern condition. One thing’s for sure: I was able to get a lot of blogging mileage out of a plate of fried rice.
Various former school buses in the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts of Belize
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