Sunny Eaton is a local attorney and 4-time nominee for Out & About Nashville’s Faves & Raves. Her wife, Karin Balsley is a network engineer. They have been together for 6 years and live in East Nashville. Sunny and Karin left everything behind to take a two-year drive, with their dog, through Mexico and Central America. Their story has been featured in Curve and Wandr’ly magazines and Expedition Portal.com. They are working on a book titled I Can. I Will: Women Overlanding the World, expected to print in Spring of 2018.
For the 2nd part of our four-part series, they invite you to join them on the journey. If you haven't done it already, read part 1 first.
Finding Our Wild, Finding Ourselves – Part 2: Belize
We had Mexico in our rear-view mirror, and Belize in our sights. After six months of day-to-day fumbling and struggling through with our mediocre Spanish, a few weeks in an English-speaking country was a welcome respite.
I was imagining a young Tom Cruise behind a beachfront bar, flipping glasses, with UB40 playing in the background (only people over 35 will get that reference).
Belize is popular tourist destination and was our first Caribbean country. We knew it would be incredible: breathtaking, culturally diverse, and easy to navigate due to its small size and full community of American and Canadian expats.
Crossing international borders by land, in your car, with a dog, can be dizzying. Each border is different, with a variety of paperwork requirements, wait times, and levels of chaos. Belize was only our second border crossing of the trip, and we were not yet pros. Days preceding were spent organizing documents, preparing and getting excited. The night before our crossing, we did the obligatory Facebook post announcing our plan to cross the border in the morning.
“I would never go to Belize. They still put gay people in jail there,” came the response to my post. It shook me. I’d researched gay laws in all of Central America and had been pleasantly surprised. We went to many gay bars in Mexico and generally felt safe to be who we are. Old ideas were making their way out.
I suppose, because of Belize’s reputation for having a high volume of American tourists and retirees, I had assumed progressive attitudes. I had assumed incorrectly. As it turned out, Belize was the last country in Central America to have anti-gay laws on the books. A string of acts of violence against LGBT people had been plaguing the country for months.
We agonized over whether or not to continue with our plans. You may be wondering, why not just be in the closet? It wasn’t quite that simple.
First, we have our website on our vehicle. One look at the site will tell you we are a couple. Second, I have served on many boards of gay rights-centered organizations. I was President of the Gay and Lesbian student association at my law school. These are the bits of information that you find when Google searching my name. Then there is the question of whether or not we wanted to spend our money in a country that has such a negative attitude towards gay people.
In the end. we decided to go. Our choice was to not limit ourselves only to the comfortable or safe and certainly not to be told where we could and could not go. But we WOULD be careful.
We took down the “About Us” page on the website, put together a story about why we were two women traveling together and caravanned with other traveler friends. We knew the most difficult behavior to keep in check would be the things you don’t think about: the way a couple looks at each other, unconscious touching of each other’s waists, sitting with our legs touching. There would be no room for mistakes.
Our first night did not go so well. Belize was far more beautiful than we could have dreamed—lush and green, with waters bluer than the clearest sky. Our first stop: the border town of Corazol. We stopped at a local bar, did the traditional first toast of a new country and set up camp in a park at the center of town, on the water’s edge, called “Rainbow Park.” The irony was not lost on us.
Keep in mind, we had spent 6 months of driving and camping in big, scary Mexico and not one bad thing happened. There wasn’t a single moment where we felt uneasy or as if we were at risk. We were in Belize for less than a few hours when a man approached our tent in the middle of the night. Our friends woke and chased him away but it was terrifying. And the night wasn’t over.
Fast forward a few more hours to sunrise, when another man parked his car as close to ours as possible. We looked out of our tent window to find him happily masturbating in our direction. He wasn’t deterred by discovery: he just waved, smiled, and kept going. It wasn’t the most welcoming experience.
Right then and there, Karin and I considered simply turning around and re-entering Mexico, traveling a few hours east, and going to Guatemala instead. I’m glad that is not the choice we made.
Instead, we continued forward with our friends, despite raw nerves and the sour taste in our mouths. On a trip like this, a day—and how you feel—can turn on a dime. Our second day in Belize was full of adventure, backroads, and hand-cranked ferry crossings.
We arrived at our next campsite, a placed called Backpacker’s Paradise, in Sartaneja. It was owned by a French woman named Nathalie. Walking to her office, I saw it, like a beacon: Everything I needed—a rainbow sticker on the door. As it turns out, Nathalie is a DJ and had DJ’d Belize’s only gay pride celebration, the previous year. She educated us about the growing gay movement in Belize and the brave people there fighting for equality. We were encouraged.
Over the following weeks, we explored the many towns and beaches of Belize. Towns bore names like Crooked Tree, Indian Church, and Orange Walk. We encountered our first, though certainly not our last, crocodile infested rivers. We camped at the marina in Belize City and traveled to the islands of Caye Caulker and San Pedro, we put our toes in as much white sand as possible, and we swam in as much blue water as our sunburnt skin could handle. We snorkeled and scuba-dived and ate fresh lobster brought in by fisherman on tiny boats. In Caye Caulker, the motto is “Go Slow!” and that is what Belize taught us to do … to be patient, to wait. Good things are almost always on the horizon.
This sort of trip, however, is nothing if not unpredictable and just as we were getting acclimated to the heat, sandflies, and salty air, we received news of a hurricane on the horizon. We were camped on in the parking lot of a beachfront hotel in Placencia, a small coastal peninsula. Surrounded by water on all sides, we had no choice but to head to the mountains and look for shelter.
A little-known fact about Belize is that it has a large Mennonite population. And let me be the first to say, Mennonites make fantastic cheese. They also seemed to have the nicest and most affordable Airbnb’s in Belize.
After buying groceries, liquor and charging all devices, we set off for the mountain refuge we had found on a Mennonite cow farm. Upon arrival, we found a stunning, two-story chalet … that had absolutely no protection from the coming storm and was surrounded by large palm trees with plenty of coconuts that could be propelled like sky-bombs!
The next several hours were spent boarding windows with whatever we could find and relocating our vehicle to higher, palm-tree free ground.
The storm was everything we had anticipated, wild and roaring. We lost power early in the night and did not regain it for three days. Roads flooded, livestock was lost, and many buildings lost roofs. Finally, after a week, the water receded and it was safe to travel.
Nathalie, the DJ from Backpacker’s Paradise, told us about Belize’s second-ever gay Pride celebration, scheduled for the following week. With trepidation, we decided to attend. We arrived in the city on the parade’s scheduled day and found neither rainbow flags nor drag queens. There was no thumpa-thumpa in the air and no glitter on the street.
I emailed Nathalie and asked what had happened. We were told that there had been violent protests because the US Embassy in Belize City flew a rainbow flag for Pride month. This bold action led to attacks against the local LGBT community. The celebration had been cancelled.
Disheartened again, we returned to exploring and set out to make the best of our last days in Belize. We drove the famed Butterfly Highway and explored the ATM Caves. We learned how to open coconuts without spilling the water and that coconut oil mixed with baby oil is the best way to stave off mosquitos and sandflies. Nights were spent crab-hunting with pepperoni and paperclips (you had to be there).
Two days before we left Belize, the Belizean Supreme Court struck down their law against gay relationships, eliminating the final law of its kind in all of Central America. We were proud to be present in the country when it happened and, of course, had drinks to celebrate! Although Belize has a long way to go, this lifted some of the shadow that had been hanging over our time there.
Belize turned out to be a wonderful country with unmatched beauty, diverse in races, religions, and cultures. We do not regret going. The Belizean gay community exists, albeit quietly, and there are efforts to change Belizean attitudes. Progress will always happen. Love will always win. Everywhere.
Tune in next month for Part 3, where we recount meeting the lesbian mafia of Guatemala, camping next to an active volcano, and finding a magical lake.