Friday, April 2, 2010

The Jesus Lizard, Part Three

By the time we got to Chan Chich we had already seen troops of Howler Monkeys, gotten used to the morning skies being filled with Macaws, seen Tucannettes (yes that’s the diminutive Tucan) waddling around like they were normal looking, which they were NOT, checked off at least 50 birds on our bird lists, been to the open vegetable and meat market in Belize City, eaten our fill of Mangos, and the bus had broken down twice . . . we had been in Belize for all of twenty-four hours.

The bus belonged to London, our driver. He was a Garifuna from Dangriga, a southern coastal city in Belize, a city we would visit later in our journey of the country, a city that would be a challenge for everyone to deal with. London was probably in his forties, although he looked like an old man. He had three or four wives and several children. London was a saint, a complete saint. Nothing made him mad, nothing worried him. His bus was an old school bus that had one ambition in life—to be a torture device. Not only was the bus loud, it rattled and shook and jerked and bounced and threatened us with its hard green naugahyde seats. We were the shock absorbers. The roads in Belize are dismal, all except for the Hummingbird Highway, that’s the only stretch of road that was paved when I traveled there. The rest was just dirt and rocks that led from place to place. And as we bumped along parts of the bus fell off -- really. A bolt would go rolling by, right down the aisle and one of us would pick it up and holler to London and London’s reply was always the same, Hooooold on to it and I’ll fix it when we come to a stop. At first I worried about the luggage racks coming down on our heads, but that fear gave way to an obsession that would occupy my mind for the entire trip—the fan belt.

I never cared a bit about fan belts before I went to Belize, never gave them a second thought. But London’s bus gave me a special appreciation for the fan belt -- I learned how it could make or break my day. London’s bus had the sort of engine that depended on a single fan belt for its very survival. Some engines, so I have been told, run with the aid of two, even three belts, so if one belt goes, that’s okay, you’re still in business. But London’s bus liked to live on the edge. So if the belt stripped or broke, we were dead on the road. The bus liked to toy with us and its game was all about kicking its fan belt loose and stranding us. The first time the bus broke down was on our way out of Belize City. . . we hit a bump and there was a pop and a whir and then the silence. We rolled to the side of the road and London and Nigel got out of the bus, opened the hood and started wheedling around up there . . . great mechanical bangs and murmurings, while I sat with the troops. Five minutes later we were back in business and on the road to Chan Chich. Nigel sat next to me and over the din of the road and through a veil of dust coming in the windows he told me the fan belt had popped off, not a problem. And I, knowing not a thing about fan belts, blinked and then offered the troops peppermints from my goodie bag.

Two hours later we were on the Northern Highway and that pop and whir and roll to a silent stop happened again. London opened the door and motioned for Nigel to follow. Up came the grey hood of the bus again and this time I got up and went out to see what the matter was. I found London head down in the maw of the bus engine and Nigel steadying London’s balancing act. Nigel looked at me and smiled, “Never fear, just the fan belt again . . . say, this might take a while longer. Why don’t you tell everyone to get their binoculars and come on out. This is a great place to bird!” I did as I was told and went back in the bus and made a short announcement to my dusty, red faced crew, “Nigel says we’ll be on the road again shortly, but in the meantime this is a lovely place to take a break and bird.” They all pulled themselves up and started digging around for their binoculars and cameras and bird books. As they trundled past me and out of the bus, Miss Rockbottom stopped, breathed heavily in my face and said, “WHAT is wrong with THIS BUS?” I smiled and said “Nothing to worry about, something about a fan belt. I am sure they will fix it and we’ll be on our way.” Of course I wasn’t sure, but that was my story and I was sticking to it. Eloise was not satisfied with my answer, but it was clear by this early stage in the trip that she took nothing I said seriously. She waddled down the steps and out of the bus into the bright sub-equator sun, she was flushed with the heat, and her shoulders seemed tired from holding all of her upright. She disappeared round the front fender of the bus and I heard her boom at Nigel, “WHAT is wrong with THIS BUS?” I heard some pinging about inside the engine and I absentmindedly sat in London’s seat, the driver’s seat, for a moment and turned the great steering wheel back and forth as though I was driving the bus . . . an empty bus, I was headed north to Mexico! The sun was beating down on the trail of dust I was leaving behind me, and I was being chased by Federales—I had stolen the bus! I had abandoned a group of American tourists in the rain forest and taken the bus by force. I was crazed with speed . . . my daydream was cut short, “Hey! Wolfy! We need some sunscreen!”

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