We find ourselves in the bed of a pickup truck, speeding up the highway from Placencia to Hopkins after having just watched our driver conduct a drug deal. The truck weaves back and forth over the middle line. We’re not particularly surprised given that the driver has stopped at least twice for a beer for the road. We look at each other and know we’re both thinking the same thing: “This is it… This is how we die.”
How did we get here? Well, a series of pretty logical-at-the-time choices that we would probably make again. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
Setting the Scene:
We arrived in Hopkins expecting a relaxing few days. We also knew that some of the bigger coastal towns were celebrating a yearly event called LobsterFest. We were slightly disappointed knowing that we were going to miss it, but had made the decision that going to Hopkins was the best use of our limited time despite knowing that there would be no partying or lobster-eating there.
Act 1: Successfully Being Backpackers
Upon arriving in Hopkins the prior night, we successfully found our way to the hostel The Funky Dodo. Despite the humidity and bugs, Eric decided to do the social thing and read his book in the shared courtyard. He meets another young couple and begins to chat. They are on their honeymoon here in Belize and seem like fun! After a nice conversation, they explain that they met an American expat in town at dinner. They had struck up conversation and he had invited them to drive down to Placencia with him for the LobsterFest! They admitted that the expat (who I will now call Bill for simplicity’s sake) was potentially a little crazy in the not-unusual American expat in Latin America way, but he seemed friendly enough. He had offered them the drive for company, gas money, and a few beers. They seemed to have done sufficient reconnaissance, even asking around the restaurant to several locals, who assured them that Bill often enjoyed the company of tourists, and that he was a good guy. It sounded like a great opportunity to us, and we were thrilled when our new friends asked us to join them and Bill on their day to Placencia. We went to bed congratulating ourselves on successfully meeting like-minded backpackers and finding our way to LobsterFest after all.
Act 2: The Trip Down
It rained all night, and when the sun rose sullenly the next morning, we weren’t sure whether the trip was on. Our new friends still planned on it and we all headed out to the appointed intersection to meet Bill. After waiting for about 45 minutes with nothing to show for it, our friends went back to the restaurant where they had met him and had the owner call. He showed up a few minutes later in a 4 door pickup truck. He hadn’t been expecting to drive 4 tourists down so he had brought his own guest and the rest of us crowded into the back. Here we had our first hint that perhaps we were in for an adventurous day. It was about 9:30 am and Bill’s companion (and we will continue to refer to her as such because we were never formally introduced) was starting the morning with a beer and a joint. Oh well, we thought, we’re all on vacation today!
Bill explained a lot about the areas we drove past as we headed south toward Placencia. We learned a lot and enjoyed his stories and various opinions about the changes he had seen in Belize in the past years. Though, we were slightly concerned again as we stopped about 45 minutes into the trip at a road side bar where he purchased a beer, which he chugged quickly while we checked out the bathroom, and then on we went!
Some of the huge mansions outside Placencia
Act 3: Placencia
We arrived safely in Placencia before noon. Placencia was a nice, but touristy town. We were shocked as we passed some of the outskirts with enormous mansions. It seemed a stark contrast to most of what we had seen in Belize so far as well as the smaller hovels closer in. It turned touristy again near town center with a lot of shops and little restaurants. Bill took us straight to the beach where our LobsterFest plans began in earnest. We immediately saw a small shack where a Belizean woman was cooking up lobsters. She took our orders and told us to return in 25 min for a delicious lobster lunch. We were confident that we were getting completely fresh lobster cooked in a local way – score! While eating, we met yet another couple on their honeymoon as well. The 6 of us hit it off, and they invited us to walk the beach with them. Bill told us to have fun, enjoy the day, and find him when we were ready to go home. We was a little concerned about leaving him with no super apparent way to get back in touch, but the laid back Belizean attitude eventually overwhelmed our worries. We left him and his companion and a waterfront bar and off we went to enjoy a lovely walk along the beautiful sand beaches of Placencia and a short dip in the warm water. We relaxed, ate icecream, drank beer and rum, and overall had a lovely time… until Della looked at her watch and realized it was past 3!
Act 4: Where it got pretty weird… and potentially dangerous
By this point, the original couple we had traveled with were a little tipsy and having a really good time. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry to find Bill again. We felt that we needed to, as we weren’t quite sure how far his laid back attitude would go. In fact, we somewhat suspected that if we weren’t back when he felt like leaving, we just might end up with no ride back to Hopkins at all, especially that had likely been drinking all day. So, with several bouts of gentle nudging we got ourselves back on our way toward where we had left Bill. It turned out that we were right, and we actually ran into Bill a few minutes later… He was in his truck, heading out of town! Luckily he did stop and we breathed a sigh of relief that we wouldn’t have to figure out alternative transportation. We had been so cramped on the drive down, and it was now much hotter, so we decided to ride in the bed of the truck and give the other couple the seats. And I think we were really glad that we did. The first hint of problem occurred when the truck took an unexpected turn off the main road and began its way into a clearly more impoverished part of Placencia. Here is what occurred as we saw it from the bed of the truck without hearing any conversations:
We stop and Bill’s companion gets out of the car. She stumbles over to where there are several kids sitting in lawn chairs by the road. Words are exchanged along with what looks like a wad of cash. We start to feel uncomfortable as several of the local adults and kids around glare at us. The kid who took Bill’s companion’s money ran off down the street as we waited. At this time, the same thought went through both our heads: This seems a lot like the Wire! Uh oh… We continue to wait, but the boy does not come back. After awhile, Bill’s companion gets noticeably perturbed and begins to yell at the girls still with her. They yell back. After watching for awhile, the only thing we can guess is that they took her money but did not transfer any product. We still don’t know exactly what happened, but after a lot of yelling and Bill getting out of the car to grab his companion, we were back on our way. Phew.
Oh yeah, and Bill stopped another time on the way back to get a beer to go from one of the highway side pubs. He was almost stumbling by this time.
Act 5: Reflection
It turns out we were lucky to be in the back of the truck- though if there had been a drunken crash, we surely would have died. But the couple who rode in the car said that they had it even worse than fear of the death- because Bill and his companion argued forcefully the entire way back. The day makes for an interesting story and there were definitely some enjoyable moments, but we came back feeling exhausted and just relieved that we were alive. The trip soured the time so much for our companions that they debated on leaving Hopkins several days earlier than they planned.
Lessons Learned: It is always wonderful to work the normal backpacker adventures into a trip, though it is probably advisable to have backup plans in case something goes wrong.
Pros: We bonded enough out of the experience that we traveled with the other couple for the rest of our trip and quite enjoyed them. (We ultimately convinced them not to leave Hopkins early, and I think they appreciated that in the end.)