We were completely unsuspecting when we woke up in the middle of the night in rural Belize, surrounded by water. We spend the next half hour stranded between intense chaos and incredible clarity, in a flash flood brought all our plans to a standstill.
Baz Luhrmann once put someone else’s words into a song, a line of which rides around in the back of my brain. Don’t worry about the future, it says. Worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.
Of all the precautions we had taken, of all the locks we had added to our Bus, of all the things that left us in a state of discomfort during our trip, those were not the things that left us feeling defeated. In the daily sphere of international overlanding, you concern yourselves with thieves, with GPS trackers that you hide in your vehicle, with bears and crocodiles, with repairs that will blow your budget through the roof. Car accidents, carjacking, invalid paperwork, or dirty cops. You pay attention to the weather, avoid hurricane paths, immediately pull out your phone when you feel your Bus shaking in the night and realize it had to have been an earthquake. But you cannot – and should not – think of everything on the long list of things that can go wrong.
Worrying, after all, is as insignificant as bubblegum.
I had been looking forward to this visit for a long time. Not because it was more special than other visits from people at home, but because Sven and I had been having a rough time lately. Our Bus had been feeling particularly cramped. A visit from good friends and time with people other than each other was exactly what we needed.
It felt good, picking them up from the airport, making camp that first night. Caro and Konsti, two of our best friends back in Germany, would be here for two full weeks. Our plan was to spend some time in Belize (they wanted to go diving) before heading on into Guatemala together.
Caro and Konsti are maybe our most adventurous friends, well-versed in international travel. They planned on literally driving with us for the two whole weeks – not something we usually do when people from home visit. But Caro and Konsti had visited us up in Alaska, and they knew what to expect of two weeks with us in the Bus and the risks (such as not catching your return flight on time) that buslife entails.
Los gringos estupidos
We decided to head to the coast of Belize first. It was day two of their two-week visit, and we weren’t scheduled to be on the coast until tomorrow. We scanned iOverlander for a good place to stay along the way, somewhere where we could just camp together and hang out. We picked a spot labeled By the river and went to check it out. It was along Belize’s simply gorgeous Hummingbird Highway. The river, we would learn later, was called the Sibun.
We found a dirt road leading off of the highway to By the river, and headed towards it. It seemed fine. More than fine, actually – you could only see us from the highway if you tried, and the spot was nice and shady. A lot of garbage – the leftovers from previous visitors – but that was nothing new.
We set up our awning and hung our tarp over it, because, as always, rain was in the forecast. It rained every day at the moment during Belize’s wet season. But that was nothing new, either.
We hung up our wet clothing, making provisional clotheslines all around camp. And we hung up the mason-jar candles that I made back in Oregon. The guys decided to get out the fishing pole and see if they could catch something. Caro and I sat around and mused about how guys don’t seem to like to talk about deep stuff with each other because they would rather go fishing.
I gave Caro and hug and we sat in the dirt and watched as dusk settled over the beautiful scenery. Look, she said, if you imagine it, you can see how the hills make the outline of a woman laying down. I sort of saw it, but mostly I was happy to remember how my friend can see shapes all over nature, in clouds and rocks and mountains. Those little surprises – of things you remember you had forgotten about someone you know very well – are very special. The moment made me smile.
We cooked dinner, and Caro fell asleep in Big Emma, while the rest of us watched the moon rise and talked about SpaceX and Elon Musk. I wondered, for the hundredth time, what it would be like to colonize space.
There were long periods of silence, the kind that good friends like. The night radiated tranquility. We watched the river flow past us, at some point to end up somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. We eventually blew out the candles and left them hanging beneath the awning, smoke fading out into the night. As we curled up to go to sleep, it began to rain.
I can’t sleep well, it is raining so hard. I don’t usually sleep on our top bunk, but I do when guests are here. I turn over. I have to pee, I think. But I didn’t want to disturb everyone else. If someone on the top needs to exit, everyone will wake up. I’ll wait until the rain stops, I think, and doze back into a half sleep.
It started then to rain
I awake to Konsti’s voice, exclaiming, Leute, aufwachen! AUFWACHEN! – Everybody, wake up! WAKE UP!
There is that tone of voice. You know it when you hear it, immediately. Especially if it is a loved one who says it. In a way that you know no other thing, it says, Listen to me, I mean what I am saying. This is serious. It takes me no time to be completely alert. Within seconds, all four of us are awake.
Es gibt Wasser im Bus! He says. There’s water in the Bus!
Water in the Bus? I think to myself. Great, something is leaking again, is my first thought, but that doesn’t explain his tone. Water in the Bus is stupid, of course, but not an emergency. Before someone asks if we have a light I am reaching for our headlamps, which I keep around Eduardo’s neck at night. I hand the other one to Sven and switch mine on and look down.
There is definitely water in the Bus. And a lot of it. Piece by piece, I register the situation. The floor is covered with water, at least an inch high. Why is the water so high? How could we be leaking that much? The physics didn’t add up. Was there this much water in the front, too? I point my headlamp in that direction and see someone’s shoe swimming between the front seats. Water everywhere. Okay. The only explanation was one that didn’t make sense to me yet. I pointed my light out the open sliding door. From my position on the top bunk, I could see our picnic blanket outside, the one we sat on discussing SpaceX a few hours earlier. It was moving eerily, wafting around like it was unsure if it should stick around or not. This whole process takes me only a few seconds and I realize: the whole river is this high. It must have flooded. Oh no.
As I look back at the watery floor, a fish, about the length of my hand, swims across it and disappears into the cockpit.
Guys, what should we do? says Konsti. The question hangs in the moist air of the Bus. People start talking. Stop, I command, we need to focus. Just shut up for a minute and THINK. Everybody goes silent.
The final blow hits inch by inch
Since second one, my heart had been beating fast. I can feel it in my chest. The adrenaline has already kicked in – it probably kicked in the moment Konsti let out that first cry. Now that I’ve understood the situation, my first instinct is Save Big Emma. Taking care of our Bus is always our first priority after our own wellbeing. But how? If the river is this high, the first thing under water is our engine – it is the lowest part of the car. If we start her now, we will only make things worse and I know it won’t get us anywhere. Can we push her? Is there any other way we can get her out? No. No.
Whatever else happens, Big Emma has to stay here.
Lack of alternatives leads me to immediately accept this: who knows what damage this will do to her, but there’s nothing we can do about that right now. Not with water that would be up past my ankles if I was standing on the floor. We collectively think for thirty seconds before the final blow hits.
Konsti, today’s bearer of bad news, uses that tone again. Leute, das Wasser steigt! – Guys, the water’s rising!
No more time for thinking. The consequences of those four simple words are immediately clear. We have to leave. Now.
Clarity and chaos
We all suddenly spring into action, as Sven, then I, jump down from the top and things begin happening. Konsti hops into the water – up over his knees – outside the Bus, where our picnic blanket used to be. He opens the passenger door and starts scrambling together belongings, as Sven exits and heads towards the engine compartment. Caro says, Who has a bag? and I scramble to find an empty one that happens to be within reach.
Was ist der Plan? – What’s the plan? someone says.
I answer the group with certainty. If we can’t move Big Emma, the consequences are obvious. When you have only one option, there is no decision-making to be done. We are walking out of here, I tell them.
Caro – still sitting on the bed – seems rather lost, is asking Konsti questions that I immediately forget. Here, I tell her, and thrust the empty bag into her hands, Pack whatever I give you! She takes the bag.
A responsible traveler always knows where to find her towel
All the while twenty other things are happening at once. I get one laptop out of the secret compartment below one of our drawers. The drawer and all its contents ends up on the front seat somewhere, forgotten. I need to get to our other secret compartment, but it is located in a difficult-to-reach spot. Not only it is much lower in the Bus, you also have to dig through all of our tools to get to it. I lift the bench and throw laptop number two at Caro. It’s edges are already wet. That tells me the water has risen almost to our bench. Five minutes ago, when all of this madness began, it was a foot lower.
I stop myself from thinking of what that means. Now is not the time. The only item on the agenda is Get your shit and leave.
I get to the compartment, retrieve our passports, and remember to grab the envelope full of cash marked Notfall – Emergency that I had taped to its ceiling. Konsti and Caro are figuring out the whereabouts of their passports and what else they need to bring. Has anyone seen my phone? someone shouts. I open our electronics drawer. Thankfully, I have quite a few Internet Days behind me (days when Sven and I get everything we need to work online and set ourselves up at Starbucks for the day). I know what pieces belong in our computer bag. Laptop chargers. Harddrive. Phones. Caro’s way I send them all. Think. Think. I stop for a moment of peace, in water that is halfway up my legs inside our Bus. Think. What else do we need? Whatever I don’t take now, I might not ever see again. Sven grabs our Nikon from the front seat.
Shoes! Konsti says, and I immediately start hunting. I open our shoebox, and ask myself Which of these are the most useful? and pull out my yellow hiking boots.
Guys, what if there are snakes in the river? Someone mentions. Fuck, I say, crocodiles! We had seen plenty in Belize’s rivers already. Everybody looks around at everyone else. Machete! says Sven and I reach over to the front seat to grab it. Whoever goes first gets the machete, I say, and there is no more discussion about it. We are almost ready to go.
Wait, I need underwear, says Caro, a last minute thought. I look around and see a bathing suit bottom and hand it to her.
Good luck, Big Emma
Each of us is holding a bag above our heads and we step out, one by one, into the cold, chest-high water. This is insane. And we need to leave. Konsti goes first, machete in hand, one of their traveling backpacks over his shoulder. Caro is next, carrying the bag I had her pack. They have one headlamp, we have the other; beyond those two beams of light is nothing but the unknown darkness of the night and an angry riverload of water. Sven, our camera bag on his shoulder, waits for me. I go last. We are captains, making sure the passengers take the first lifeboats away from the reality of our sinking ship.
I make an effort to close our sliding door. I try once, twice, four times, but the weight of the water won’t let her close. Here, we’ll try together, Sven says, and puts his free hand on the end of the slider. One, two, three! Still no luck, the door is not going to close. We have to go, and turn to leave, wading over the stones along the bottom of what used to be our road. I don’t look back. As we walk out of sight of Big Emma I think, I forgot to say goodbye. Big Emma will hate that.
Good luck, I tell her under my breath. If any Bus can do this, you can.
The Hummingbird Highway
It takes us about a minute to get out of the water, trudging slowly along the side of the river in a weary line, balancing shoes and bags and whatever else we are holding above the waterline. But the water does end. I hadn’t realized, until we were on the road, that it might not have. We might have walked straight out of the Bus and into the wider river. We had all simply assumed that the road would be waiting undisturbed further along for us to join it. On the other hand, what alternative would we have had? Staying in Big Emma was obviously not an option.
We stop and gather ourselves for the first time in what had to have been the longest ten minutes of our lives. We put on shoes, and Konsti and Sven continue discussing whether or not they should go back and chain the Bus to a tree to make sure she doesn’t float away. It really hits me that our Bus might not be there when we get back. No. I straight up command them, you are not going back. You saw how fast the water was rising – it’s not worth it. They look at me and the matter is settled. We’re just going to have to risk it.
We walk up towards the highway. My mind is racing. What next? We’re not out of the woods yet. We are still in the middle of rural nowhere in the middle of the night. We are in our underwear, and soaking wet, and are carrying a machete and our most expensive gear. We come to the conclusion that the only thing to do is to hitchhike somewhere else, anywhere else. Being here is cold and doesn’t help us.
Ironically, we had heard from other travelers that you shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers on the Hummingbird. Lucky us. But it’s not like we have a different choice, not at 3:30 in the morning.
The big question
We walk along the highway in the rain. There’s a pendulum going off inside me as the consequences of all of this sink in. But now is not the time to dwell on that, we still have to get out of this situation. And besides, what help is being pessimistic now? A sense of natural positivity comes over me. My friends are here because of me, this is my Bus. It is my responsibility to take care of us. Me going all wonky and useless with uncertainty right now wouldn’t serve that goal at all. Positivity was the only logical choice.
I make sarcastic comments, attempt to keep the mood lighthearted. We talk about what it was like, and keep trying to flag down a ride. Eventually we realize that we should put the machete away, that might help. We walk across the bridge that spans the Sibun, under the orange glare of the lights that sparsely line the highway. We look for Big Emma, but there is no chance, the darkness doesn’t let up. The scene feels unusual, sinister, and strangely peaceful. It is not panic, or hopelessness that fills my spirit. It is a kind of peace. There is no choice but to accept that this has happened, whatever consequences that brings.
At least you woke up when you did, Caro says to Konsti. How did you know to wake up? Konsti responds: It was the splashes that gave it away. Rain doesn’t make splashes like that.
Gott sei Dank, someone adds. Thank god.
Four sets of soaked footsteps walk along through the night. Eventually I dare to ask the big question. Sven, I say, this is the end of our trip, isn’t it? The silent scene permeates. Maybe not, he answers. You never know.
Eventually a guy from South Africa, on his way to an early-morning visa appointment in Belmopan, Belize’s capital city, stops and picks us up. We keep our lighthearted tone going during the conversation, it’s better for everybody this way. He asks what happened – because obviously something has happened to us – and says, Yeah, it’s kind of common sense not to park next to rivers around here.
No shit, Sherlock. He drops us off in Belmopan.
As we traveled in that car, there were not enough periods of silence for me to think. My words did not match the rubble that was caving in inside me. I wanted to crawl inside and start sorting through it, but there was no time. Keeping control of the conversation kept stealing my attention.
We were safe – my friends were safe – and the inconsistency of that state was a hurdle my mind couldn’t quite understand. But we were not all safe. It was so contrary to our instincts that I just couldn’t believe we were driving away from Big Emma. And yet, that was the only path that logic dictated, the only viable option. Acting had become separate from my feelings. After all, Big Emma is an object, no matter how much we personify her. She is not as important as we think she is. When it came down to it, that had been obvious.
Back in Alaska, when we first met Tessa from The Bus and Us – who were already done with their own trip to Argentina in their Bus – she gave me parting words: You have no idea how much you will come to love your Bus. What she didn’t know was that we had already loved her for years, already had a common history that solidified our bond. But she was correct – that love had only grown since we had left the North. It broke my heart to drive in the opposite direction, into the dark Belizean night, away from the friend that I felt like we had betrayed, had left alone to fend for her own fate.
What a Tuesday, and it was only 4 AM.
Would we ever see Big Emma again? It was a question none of us could answer.
Tune in next week for Part 2 of The Consequences of a Flash Flood.