Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Buses: Mexico & Belize

The long-distance buses in Mexico (we call them coaches in Australia) spoil me. First class buses have comfortable reclining seats and curtained windows to shade you from the Mexican sun. They play movies (though worth disregarding) and some include food (usually a simple sandwich and drink). But what I love is that they are cheap. I caught a 5-hour first class bus the other day for 120 pesos—about A$10.

Security leaving Mexico City from Autobus Terminal Norte is like catching a flight. My backpack was scanned, my hand luggage searched, I passed through a metal detector and I had two physical pat-downs. I finally took my seat and saw through the windscreen a security officer with a digital camera taking a video of the front of the bus. She then climbed aboard and walked down the aisle, recording each passenger's face! It was strange having a camera thrust at you. Do I smile? Wouldn't that look idiotic, as if I thought I was on this woman's vacation? Thankfully, my disorientation imparted a mere dazed look, like a two-year-old on Santa's knee. Christ, I thought. I hope a bomb doesn't go off and I get my stupid mug splashed on television screens around the world. "D'you know an Australian died in that blast in Mexico?" "Of course. He was the one with that cock-eyed stare." Maybe I should ask her to take it again. How do I explain that in Spanish? To everyone else this all seemed rather routine, which I guess it was.

There are no such precautions catching a second class bus through Belize. No such comforts, either. After two luxuriantly comfy Mexican coaches from Guanajuato to Mexico City and a short flight to Chetumal in the south, I took (following a five-hour sleep in a hostel) an eight-hour trip from the Mexico-Belize border to the Belize-Guatemala border in a half-clapped-out minibus with no air-conditioning and seats designed for people with disproportionately short femurs.

Belize is actually an inviting little country—indeed, I was literally invited to stay by the friendly immigration officer when I told her I was only passing through—and I was disappointed not to have time to stop. It has a Caribbean feel (being on the Caribbean and all) with dread-locked and corn-braided people of African descent, and is a member of the British Commonwealth. It is the only Central American country to have English as its national language. It is also a small-scale oil producer. Though I wouldn't describe the country as wealthy, there is infrastructure and real estate, municipal parks and schools, and towns with thriving businesses of internet cafes and DVD shops and bespoke furniture. People drive Toyotas and Mazdas and Kias, and two-storey painted mansions are not unusual among the wooden shanties.

The only thing I didn't like about Belize was the money changers at the Guatemalan border. Belize charges an exit tax of 30 Belize dollars, and having spent barely fifteen minutes physically on the soil of the country I naturally hadn't a single Belize cent. "We don't accept Mexican pesos," I was told by the clerk. "You'll have to see the money changers outside." The roaming men with belts full of various currencies are licensed money changers and present their laminated plastic in a kind of assurance that you won't get ripped off, and then proceed to rip you off. In an exchange of Mexican pesos and Guatemalan quetzales worth A$70, the guy took me for A$20. I wasn't expecting to have to buy Belize dollars so didn't know the exchange rate until I later checked.

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