A full day of flying has brought us here, to a dusty airport in what I assume is the middle of Belize City. Employees of the airport wheel two flights of stairs to our idling plane, securing the steps to the open doors while we in the plane clamor for our place in the exit line. Carry-ons drop from overhead compartments, bags are flung over shoulders, hair is fluffed, legs are finally, blissfully stretched. I peer out of my window while the heat from outside slowly makes it way into the aircraft, gliding over us as we wait, wait, wait. Finally, word is given that we’re free to disembark, and Billy and I shuffle our way out of the back of the plane. “I love this, in these countries, where they put steps in the front and the back,” he says over his shoulder as he leads me out. We step out into the heat, onto the tarmac, following our fellow fliers into the airport.
Everything is brown. Brown building, brown dust, brown people. Over the airport I can see palm trees, blue sky. The side of the building announces something in Spanish, words adhered to a stucco exterior. I look up at Billy expectantly, a smile spreading across my face. We’re really here. Oh my God. We made it. It didn’t seem real, even all that time in the plane and I still hadn’t quite wrapped my brain around the fact that I’d actually be somewhere when we landed.
I try to look casual, like I know what I’m doing. Like I’m not impressed. But I am. Because it’s different. Billy holds my hand tightly as I survey my surroundings like a kid, taking in every detail; smelling the air, noticing the way the breeze feels against my bare arms. He kisses me, mid-stride. “We’re here,” he says, squeezing my hand. “I know,” I say, amazed at the truth of it.
Everything about the airport is different than what I’m used to. The wide doors, the lack of a food court, the quaint set up. The toilet water is warm beneath me, the water from the faucet only comes out cold. There’s no air conditioning. The sweat accumulating on my upper lip and beneath my tank top just heightens my experience. I rush from the ladies’ room to Billy’s side, giddy like a school girl.
We make our way to the Customs line, passports and declaration forms in hand. I have no idea what to do, so I watch Billy for clues. At twenty-five, I've never traveled out of the US, but Billy had 28 countries under his belt before we arrived here in Belize. I love that I know he’s here to guide me, because I feel suddenly stripped of any knowledge I’ve ever had, unsure of what to do, just standing there with my passport, waiting to gain access to my vacation. We talk about nothing in particular, me with my eyes glued to the space just beyond the Customs Guy. As soon as I’m on the other side of him, I’m actually in a new country for the first time in my life. Once we're beyond the man behind the desk, we're legally on vacation.
A sweaty man in a button down shirt calls us up to his desk, his hand already outstretched for our documents. I can’t stop smiling while he circles and makes notes on my little declaration form. No, I’m not carrying any beef. Yes, I’m from the US. No, we don’t know where we’ll be staying. He takes out his stamp, thumps it against an inkpad and slams it into the clean pages of my blue passport. Billy, his hand wrapped around mine, nudges me with his hip. I look up at him and smile. I actually want to cry. “I’ve been stamped,” I say. “My first stamp!” I celebrate quietly as we collect our things and head to baggage claim.
Billy surveys the room, looking for other backpackers from whom we can gain direction. But there are none. I keep my eye on the slow turnstile that unleashes a parade of bags for all of us recently-landed tourists. Our backpacks, his red one and my gray one, make their way to us, and we grab their straps, still warm from the Belize sun outside.
With our backpacks secured to our bodies, we make our way to the main “terminal,” which, unlike the airports I’m used to, is just another room in the same small building. Our Belize book is tucked into one of the backpacks we’re carrying, and from that, we’ve deduced that Belize is not a country that boasts beaches. Famous for its coral, most of its sea side communities offer docks on which to enjoy the water; their beaches are more rock and coral than sand and waves. So we decide to book a flight to Placencia, a travel move made on the direction of Billy’s cousin, who promises quaint beauty and quiet beaches.
I stand behind Billy in line, letting him do the talking and make the decisions. Even though everyone around us speaks English, this is all new to me; The country, this method of travel. I'm accustomed to flying with bags of tightly-packed luggage secured beneath me on the plane, suitcases full of shoes and makeup, glittery tops for going out, casual clothes for milling about whatever city I'm in. But this is new, traveling with only a backpack's worth of belongings. No heels, no makeup. I'm not used to picking where we'll be headed upon our arrival, I'm used to knowing exactly what hotel I'll be calling home. But this was our deal: He brings me along on his annual vacation to somewhere, and I have to travel his way. Forsaking my makeup, my heels, my glittery tops.
I adjust my weight from side to side as Billy asks the Tropic Air agent, a smooth mocha woman with bright teeth and a wide smile, about the flights they offer. His speech takes on a different cadence as they speak, claiming an accent similar to hers. No contractions, no big words; simple English with clipped consonants and sharp vowels. I giggle to myself as he secures our seats on the plane.
We board a small plane, choosing solitary seats across the aisle from one another, both with views of the water over which we're flying. I've never seen anything like it in my life, all of this water, so clear and such a perfect shade of turquoise. We hold hands across the space between us while he laughs at my unbridled excitement. I look at him, saying with my wide eyes that I can't believe it.
Three stops later, and we're in Placencia. We make our way out of the 12-seater airplane and into the wide-open airport, sliding through the thick heat on our way inside. A sign on the door, "No shoes, no problem. No shirt, problem," makes us chuckle as we enter. "They do call it 'Barefoot Paradise,'" he reminds me, pulling open the door and letting me go ahead of him. We are lead to the taxi we've requested, and climb inside the back of a mangy old minivan. Billy tells the driver the name of a hotel he read about on the plane ride. The car bucks and lurches to start as the pock-marked driver nods and says "No problem."
We drive over bumpy dirt roads, as Billy recalls his days in Africa. He tells me about the public transportation there, how, in Ghana, there would be maybe ten or fifteen people squeezed into the five seats our taxi offers. I try to listen intently, but I'm too wrapped up in what's just beyond him, outside of the dusty windows. We heave through ruts and over blemishes on the dirt road, taking a narrow passage that squeezes between the ocean and a field of lush grass. We fly down a poorly paved road, where small buildings - homes and businesses - litter the low shoulder. We come into town, one road snaking through crisp white buildings, with tropically painted trim. Aquamarine, fuscia, orange, they pop out and away from the homes they highlight.
The driver stops in front of a small restaurant. "Here you are," he says to Billy. We look around and see nothing, beyond some residential homes, a few restaurants, a pharmacy. "Sea Spray?" Billy asks, loudly enough to be heard over the whining engine of the car. "Yeah," the driver says, turning his large body and opening his door. He lumbers around the vehicle and opens the back of the van. He pulls out our backpacks while we squirm out of the side door. "Sea Spray," he continues, dropping our packs on the dusty road at his bare feet, "is just that way." He points between the two buildings in front of us, nodding at the elevated sidewalk stretched between them. "Follow that," he says. "You'll see it."
We heft our backpacks over our shoulders and do as we're told, stepping up onto the narrow beige footpath. Conversations drift out of the screened windows of the buildings around us. Spanish music in one home, rap blasting from another. Coffee colored children run toward and around us, hopping off of the sidewalk and into the sand to pass. Bright pink flowers fall from imposing bushes sprouting from the sand, and, just off in the distance, we can hear the ocean.
We cross a T in the sidewalk and there, nestled behind squat palm trees, is our hotel of choice. Their lobby is a small building, just a desk and four walls, open to the sidewalk and, behind it, the beach. Billy talks to the man on duty and I peer out the back door. My shoes, flat-soled and pink, have trapped sand between my toes. I'm sweaty, and travel weary. But I'm in awe. It's dusk, and through the narrow door of the hotel, I can see the ocean. Palm trees undulate over clean sand, the remnants of the sun dancing over bright blue water. So this is why he travels so much, I think to myself, resting my shoulder on the door frame. I could finally see it, the draw to be somewhere different, somewhere new. The view, my surroundings, the town: They were all a surprise, a welcome diversion from what I see, day in, day out.
"You ready?" Billy says from behind me, chin hooked over my shoulder, taking in the same sight as me. He dangles a key in front of our shared view, and scoots around me to lead the way. I don't even have to answer.
Our second-story room is simple - seafoam walls hugging a basic bed, a bathroom, a small TV. But what it lacks in amenities it more than makes up for in location. The windows and the back door open to a porch, replete with multi-hued hammock and wooden beach chairs. The railing gives way to beach below us, affording us our own private view of the shore line, the water, the sky. The air is thick inside, and the single ceiling fan offers little relief. But out on the porch, a steady breeze flies up from the water, tousling my hair and ruffling my skirt with cool, damp fingers. Billy exhales and stretches out in the hammock, his long body curling the fabric into a lone parenthesis. He stretches his slender arms and rests them behind his head as I rest my elbows on the white railing. "What do you think?" he says, eyes closed. I look at him. "I think it's amazing," I reply, before resting my eyes back on the ocean before us.
Dusk has passed by the time we settle into our room, and we make our way to the restaurant a short walk from our hotel. The restaurant sits right on the shore, the thatched roof stretching over our heads the only thing between us and the air. We order drinks and seafood, and look out on the moon-kissed ocean while we wait.
Sweaty glasses of coconut rum and pineapple juice are set on the table by our smiling waitress. Billy makes a lazy circle in his drink with his straw, then sets the straw on the table. With his long fingers, he lifts his glass, tilting it toward me. "Toast?"
I smile, bowing my head and tucking my hair behind my ear. I take my own glass and hold it even to his.
"To us," he says, "for making it to Belize." I nod and pull my drink toward me. "And," he says, "to you. To your first trip away from America."
"To me," I agree, laughing. We take sips of our sweet beverages and resume staring at our new surroundings.
Bellies full, we take walk down the deserted beach. Shoes in hand, our toes slip through the sand as we head to no place in particular. "I do believe," Billy's shadowed figure says to me, "that this is officially a romantic moment. Moonlit walk, sand, ocean, foreign country." I agree with him, leading us to a pair of unoccupied beach chairs.
We rest our tired bodies in the whitewashed seats, our legs stretched out in front of us. "So, what do you think?" He asks me again.
I turn my body to look at him in the dark, and offer him a serene smile.
"I can't believe I'm here."