Riding the School Bus in Belize

Continued after my previous story, First Impressions of Belize

We were the first two passengers on board the tiny school bus leaving Placencia, so we took photos of the tiny brown seats our bodies and our backpacks weighed down. About 7:15 the bus was on its way with a few other passengers. The reggae music started, and I prepared myself mentally for the joys of hearing a repetitive beat for the next several hours as we made our way to Belize city.

I was sleepy and squished-in
We switched buses in the small town of Dangriga, a town made up of West Indie and slave decedents. Patrick got off the bus before me, as I had been asleep. I stumbled off looking for my pale, silver-haired Australian white man. But I didn’t see him amid a crowd of of colorful faces  – the lovely multicultural aspect that makes Belize so unique. Then he stuck his head out of a different bus and called my name. He looked anxious and barked at me to get on the bus.  Yikes! I hurried on, not realizing it was leaving so quickly.

Hustling on with the late-comers, I realized that I was in the middle of a group of thugs. I’m not a “thug” expert, but I knew there was something intimidating about these guys. Perhaps it was the sleeveless tees, the loud indiscernible Caribbean slang, the sagging pants, and the shoving nature in which they moved/pushed me with them. As we headed towards the back, the man in front of me with wild dreads started singing loudly, and he reminded me of reggae artist Sean Paul.

(It is moments like those I love and hate because I am forced to confront my own biases and my own unavoidable American existence. I’m forced to realize that I am not comfortable in every situation, and though I preach acceptance, I cannot deny my own fear when shoved in the middle of a group of people who are not  just like me. In a circle of strange culture, gesture and movement, I’m grasping for familiarity through conjuring up America’s top-40 radio hits)

The hoodlum quartet loudly shuffled to the very back of the bus, and I got free from them midway and plunked myself down next to Patrick. As our giant western bodies and backpacks engulfed the seat meant for 6thgraders bottoms, I reckoned this was going to be an alert and uncomfortable ride. 

The man with dreads continued to sing obnoxiously. He shouted at people outside the bus, talking to the other thugs around him, and asking people in the front for money. A middle-aged Latino woman stared at the men as if to say “you should be ashamed,” but the men did not care. As more and more bus riders turned around to stare at these attention-seekers in the back, I searched for Patrick’s hand. When locals are concerned, I am concerned.

The men had been shouting at a young guy in the front, and eventually he headed to the back of the bus with money in hand for them.

The bus rumbled and Patrick and I stared straight ahead. Patrick hadn’t said anything the entire trip, so I asked him what was wrong.

“I’m just a bit concerned about those guys in the back,” he said.  “One of those guys approached me for money while you were still on the other bus.”

We got asked for money on a daily basis while travelling in Central America, but big Belizean back-seat bus riders were more intimidating than Mexican kids on their bicycles.

We rode along, never looking back even when they shouted at us to turn around.  Well, not me but Patrick. They thought he was American.

“Hey American mon! American mon! Turn around! You, guy in the blue shirt!” He called insistently, and I wanted to turn around and say “He’s AUSTRALIAN, leave him alone!”

We were the only gringos on board, and we stared firmly ahead while people in front would occasionally look back uncomfortably. At one point, after one guy would not quit shouting out the window, even the bus driver looked back warily.

It wasn’t a terrifying ride, just an uncomfortable one.I convinced myself that this was just like riding the elementary school bus, complete with the bad kids riding in the back. There were some similarities. The current school bus was just like the one I rode as a kid. Outside the Belize bus, it was sunny and bright just like the weather I experienced growing up in South Carolina.  The “bad kids” in the back really didn’t do anything too bad besides looking thuggish, singing, and hassling people, just like the ones from my childhood.

As the bus passed the infamous giant cemetery that marks arrival to Belize City, I had lulled myself into complete comfort, enjoying imagining I was a kid on a reggae-blasting bus in Carolina.

It was when we were getting off the bus in Belize City that I noticed the handcuffs. The tall black hell-raisers we’d ridden with were being directed by their much shorter, smaller, armed Latino escort!! (Armed with big guns as well, how did I not notice this while we were riding?!) The soon-to-be jailbirds were no longer singing, they were all sullen.  They were less excited than I was to exit the bus.


“They were handcuffed!” I exclaimed to Patrick. “They were prisoners!


“Yep,” he agreed.  “You didn’t notice that when you got on?  I guess that’s how they transport convicts in Belize.”

What an interesting country.

1 Comment

  • I think this is a really interesting dilemma you stumbled upon in Belize. It can be important to find that balance (when we are socially uncomfortable) between prejudice and being cautious. Perhaps more important is recognizing the difference between the two, which you have done well here.