About a month after I graduated from high school, I took a solo trip through Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador. As an innocent-looking-barely-eighteen-year-old American female traveling alone in third world countries, I made some “interesting” friends, and one such friend was Tanja. Tanja was of Danish nationality, Korean ancestry, and spoke English as though she were the Queen.
There are so many words I could use to describe Tanja, but in order to be succinct, I’ll settle for bat-shit crazy… with a large dollop of absolutely fearless. This was a precarious combination of characteristics that often landed us in potentially hazardous situations that I probably wouldn’t have gotten into if I’d been on my own.
And such was one rainy morning in an undefined location in Belize. A tumultuous storm had been pounding down throughout the night, causing severe flooding, and Tanja and I were pretty desperate to get back to Guatemala. We’d stayed in Belize longer than anticipated and we were nearly out of money. This is 1999, folks, and there are no ATM machines in rural Belize… nor really anywhere else in Central America for that matter. In 1999, we used this antiquated medium of exchange called travelers’ checks, but Tanja and I were out of these magical checks, and all of our worldly belongings had been left back in Guatemala at our guest house.
Tanja and I had been able to escape the town of Placencia early that morning by fisherman’s boat, but the fisherman had only been able to take us as far as… shit… where the hell were we?
My journal cites the spot as “Orange Town,” but I can’t find any existing place on the map, and I certainly don’t remember there being anything in town quite as pleasant as oranges. I do remember a strong, lingering odor of rotting fish, however, which could have easily been mistaken for citrus.
As Tanja and I stood by the dock, exposed to the elements, a bright red pick-up truck appeared crawling down the singular muddy street in the village. Tanja’s ears perked up and she immediately ran towards it, arms flailing. What the hell was she doing? The truck stopped, and I saw the driver roll down his window and exchange a few words with my Korean Danish British friend. Twenty seconds later, Tanja waved me over.
“He says he’ll try to drive us out of town!” Tanja announced excitedly. I looked at the man in the truck, then at the dirt (well, mud), creator-filled trail ahead, unable to decide which was more frightening: the enormous Belizean man smiling back at me, the prospect of drowning in quick sand in a pick-up truck on the “road” back to Guatemala, or refusing the ride only to die of hypothermia in … shit, where the hell were we again?
“I’m Winston,” the gargantuan Belizean driver said.
I took another terrified look at Winston. Sure, he was smiling, but I was also 99% sure he could strangle me using only his thumb and forefinger. Unfortunately, I had few other choices – this guy’s truck was the only vehicle we’d seen driving around in this messy storm, and I was feeling increasingly hypothermic.
“Hop in,” Winston instructed, as a sopping wet Tanja was already half-way in the vehicle.
I’m sure you’ve seen horror movies where young girls hitchhike and are promptly picked up by large, strange men who have a secret ulterior motive (surprise!). In these scenarios, there are a few different things you DO NOT want to find in the back seat of the vehicle:
Dead body is first on the list.
Buckets of ice with freshly harvested organs is probably second.
Guns and bullets (or other such weapons)… a very close third.
I hopped in the back seat of the truck, confused as to what hard objects my feet were hitting on the truck’s floor. What was going on down there?
I moved my feet to one side to allow me to peer through the limited floor space between the front seat and back.
Oh crap. Fuck me.
“Tanja,” I said, wide eyed and clearly alarmed.
“Yes, dear?” she said, turning around, clearly irritated that I was disturbing the deep conversation she was already engaged in with Winston.
“Nothing,” I croaked, biting my lower lip.
I peered through my feet again to view the guns and bullets below.
So many guns.
So many bullets.
(In actuality, there were only two or three guns, but they were very big, and at the time, that seemed like a lot. It’s also strange that I was concerned about the guns, being that I grew up in a house with at least twenty or so at my disposal, but I just had an inkling that Winston wasn’t using his firearms for deer hunting.)
After approximately five minutes of driving, Winston stopped the truck abruptly.
Shit, I was totally going to have my kidneys cut out of me, I just knew it!
“Well, looks like this road won’t be possible,” Winston said in his sing-songy Belizean accent. I looked out the window; The road was clearly impeded by a lake, or it may have just been a large Belizean puddle; it was hard to tell.
“Is there another road to try?” Tanja inquired in her Queen’s English.
“Ooooooh, Tanja, let’s not make him go all out of his way…….” I said sweetly, reaching around her seat to see if I could eject her door open and roll out of the truck.
Tanja smacked my hand and turned around to glare back at me.
“Wait, I have an idea!” Winston said.
Oh shit. What the hell was Winston’s idea? Shoot someone and steal their boat? Because boat (or other over-sized flotation device) was lookin’ to be the only form of transportation currently leaving Citrus Village.
We pulled up to a haphazard structure made of scrap metal, plywood, and sticks, otherwise known as Winston’s friend’s house. Winston ran inside, and then promptly came back out two minutes later, giving us no indication of what had just taken place.
What was he looking for, more guns for all these bullets? Best not to ask questions, I decided.
Winston then drove to another ramshackle building… and another… and another.
At about the tenth stop, Winston ran back out to the truck with a wide smile on his face.
“This man have a boat and he say he’ll take you back to Puerto Barrios!” Winston said, oozing merriment and satisfaction. Well, that was good news. Puerto Barrios had all the luxurious amenities, like bus stations and paved roads.
“Wow, really!?” said Tanja, overjoyed.
“Wait a minute,” I thought. There had to be a catch, right?
“Yes, for $150,” said Winston.
Now $150 might not seem like a lot of cash when you’re in the middle of a crisis, but let me put things in perspective for you. I am eighteen years old. I had graduated from high school a month prior. And it’s 1999, so $150 is like, $500 in 2012 dollars, and in 18-year-old dollars, $500 is like $2,000, which is more money than I could have ever conceived of having at the time. Not to mention $150 was the approximate budget for my entire month of traveling.
Regardless, none of this information even matters, because neither Tanja nor I actually even had $150.
“We don’t have even close to $150,” admitted Tanja, clearly gutted that we were stuck in Tangerine Town until further notice.
“Oh, no worry!” said Winston, reaching for his wallet.
Winston pulled out and opened his worn, leather wallet to reveal a block of American money. Rummaging through his hefty stack of American bills, he pulled out three crisp $50s, and handed them to Tanja.
My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as an equally dumbfounded Tanja, mouth gaping, accepted the three, crunchy American bills, looking at the money, then back at Winston, then at the money again.
“We can’t accept this,” Tanja said. “We have nothing to give you in return.”
Except our kidneys! I thought, my face pressed against the window of the truck, wondering where we were really being sent off to.
“Sure you can. You girls are stuck here! Take it and return the favor to someone else,” Wiston said. Clearly this guy had really been affected by Helen Hunt’s performance in Pay it Forward.
Tanja looked back at me, and I shrugged. Then she leaned over and gave Winston a huge bear hug. I tried to lean through from the back seat to do the same, but I lost my footing rolling around on all the bullets. When I finally stepped back outside in the rain, I wrapped my arms around him, wondering why anyone would be so kind to two strangers he’d never see again.
I know what you’re thinking: How the hell are you just going to go off in a boat with this guy’s friends!? Something sounds fishy… how do you know it’s safe?
My journal reminds me of my very sensible rationale at the time:
—– I didn’t know what to do. [Tanja and I] were thinking they (Winston + guy with boat) must want to do something with us, but they obviously didn’t want to rob us, since we didn’t have any [money], and there would be no motive for murder. The worst would be [for them to] rape us, but it just didn’t seem like they would. ——
(Yes, that is verbatim. Did I mention I was eighteen?)
Tanja and I spent the next three hours huddled under a tarp in a tiny boat riding through huge waves in the ocean, eventually arriving in Punta Gorda, where we caught a bus back to Guatemala City.
Why did Winston have a block of American $50 dollar bills in his wallet that he was willing to give away to two foreign girls he’d never see again?
Add to his good karma? Maybe.
Drug dealer? Definitely, but a generous one all the same.