Dec 2019 30

“And Andrew, don’t pick up any hitchhikers.”

This was the only advice my father gave me. And although I am long past the age of needing advice from him, I was on my way to drive around Belize, his home country, for a week.

So, good advice.

Which is why I let out a long, internal sigh, when I gazed in my rear-view mirror at the man whom I had picked up and was sitting in my backseat.

There is a stretch of highway in Belize that says ‘Prison Area – do not pick-up hitchhikers’. And this is where this person had hopped into my rental vehicle.

I had been in the country for about an hour.

How did this happen, you wonder?

Well, the roads of Belize are as wild as the interior jungles. ‘Paved’ is a relative, loose, term. The better arteries are chalky, pock-marked surfaces that resemble the better parts of the moon. And the rules of the road can be just as structure-free. Expect to be passed at wild speeds, ramshackle Belize buses to be coming at you in the wrong lane, and the ‘sleeping policemen’, as they are called – sometimes unmarked speedbumps.

Many times in the past I have no doubt wrecked the suspension of a rental vehicle in Belize by taking these too fast.

It was at one of these bumps that I slowed down to take at a reasonable, polite-Canadian speed, and a Policeman signalled me to stop. This happens once in awhile in Belize. They checkstop to make sure you don’t have any unwanted stowaways.

As I slowed down to talk to the Policeman, he went to open the back passenger door and tried the handle a few times. It was locked. Silly me. So I did what any law-abiding Canadian does – I unlocked it. He opened it and got in.

“Thanks for stopping. I was going to take the bus.”

What?

“Who are you?”

“Dunkirk, sir.”

“Where are you going?”

“Belize City.”

He was grinning ear to ear. His very proper and clean uniform said ‘Prison Guard’ on it. Not a cop.

I was blocking traffic. I had a moment to decide. Pick this person up, this stranger of about 25 years old who was baking in the afternoon Belizean sun, or be a complete dick and drive off, scared.

Sigh. Non-dick mode engaged.

“Fine. Get in.”

Sorry, Dad.

Over the next 30 minutes, we had a conversation through the rear-view mirror. Me in the front, Dunkirk in the back. I learned that Dunkirk worked at the Belize Prison. For the last 8 months. He had a Belizean degree in Agriculture but was finding it hard to get a job, so he took what came along. The Prison.

We small talked about family and how he was waiting to get a girlfriend because he wanted to be financially stable before doing that. He wouldn’t be going out on New Year’s Eve because he didn’t want to hang around with the wrong crowd.

In Belize City, it would be very easy to get in with the wrong crowd.

“Where are you going, Andrew?”

“After one night in Belize City, I have no idea. Maybe a Jungle Lodge. Then a beach town. Who knows? No plan. I have family here in Belize but no one knows I’m in the country. I’m trying to stay off the radar.”

Basically, you could kill me and leave me at the side of the road and no one would know I’m missing. Shut up, Andrew.

We continued our talk, covering Belizean politics, corruption and the state of the country, and I began to appreciate all the things back home that I take for granted. My job. My first-world status. My knowing that a bus will come along every 5 minutes. My ability to just say ‘Fuck it, I’m hopping on a plane for Belize tomorrow and gonna do whatever for a week.’

I stopped near the phone factory to let him out, as he asked, pulling up on the dusty gravel shoulder and kicking up a cloud.

He opened the door to exit into the said cloud. I turned in my driver’s seat and we shook hands.

“Good luck to you. It was nice meeting you.”

“Thank you, Andrew. You, too.”

“Oh, and don’t stop for any people dressed as Belizean Army. There are a lot of robbers impersonating them lately.

Good to know. Prison Guard might be a good guise as well.

As I watched him scamper away, I thought about how I’d probably never see him again. Will he find that girlfriend and start a family? Will he find a job in Agriculture? What am I doing here on some crazy mission to feel the homeland under my feet? Where do I belong? Who am I? Where am I heading tomorrow?

It is a few days later. I am at a lodge in the Jungles of Belize. As I type this, I am also speaking to someone who says she writes books about unlocking the divine being within us. 2019 is going out the same way it came in – full of embracing odd opportunities that come along. And opening my mind. And remembering you get back what you put out there.

We’re all passengers on this ride. Buckle up.

See you all next year.