Saying good-bye to a long-time friend who got us through many a tough road and never left us stranded: Big Red.
I spent the first full month of our time in Belize scouring the country for a vehicle for Lori and me. My sojourn took me from PG to Belize City to Cayo and everywhere in between. I can’t remember how many phone numbers I collected or how many people I asked about vehicles for sale, but our patience was rewarded one hundred fold when we came across Big Red.
Hillside’s Facilities Manager, had been actively looking for vehicles for us as well. Nearing the 30 day mark of my in-country search, he happened to see a red 2000 Isuzu Rodeo in excellent condition for sale in PG. By the time I got a hold of the owner, he had returned to Dangriga (two hours north) where he owned a used tire shop. I had a promising phone conversation with the owner and thought it would be an excellent vehicle for us if even half of what he said about it was true: Low miles, runs and drives excellent, looks great, no mechanical issues. No mechanical issues in Belize? Looks and runs excellent? Even after only being in Belize for a month I knew that no used vehicle under US$10,000 in this country could possibly be all of those things at once. Nonetheless, I was willing to take the leap and hopped the 6am express bus up to Dangriga the next morning. My first glimpse of Big Red’s svelt red coat was from the window of a James Express bus flying by. The driver was nice enough to let me off at the next speed bump and I went to go meet the owner.
And she was beautiful, inside and out. I put the key in and she fired up on the first crank and hummed like a brand new car. There was no way this vehicle had spent much time in Belize. And sure enough, it had just arrived, fresh off a barge from Florida. After learning this, I feared that the price seemed reasonable because I’d have to pay the import tax on the vehicle, but sure enough it had already been paid. I drove it on paved and unpaved roads and took it to a mechanic. I even got the owner to take about 20% off the price. It took the better part of a day in Dangriga to transfer the title, insure the vehicle and wire the money to the owner, but by sunset, I rolled out of Dangriga a vehicle owner in Belize.
There’s something very cool about being a car owner in a foreign country, something very exciting and satisfying that I just can’t quite explain. I’ve only been a vehicle owner for half of my adult life, so having any car to my name is generally a luxury, but this was something else. Driving down the Placencia peninsula, windows rolled down, bright blue Caribbean on the left, palm trees swaying in a warm breeze, just me and Big Red — definitely one of the high points of our time in Belize. But the best part may have been that Lori had no idea that we were now proud owners of a vehicle. The next day was St. George’s Caye Day and she was due to meet me in Placencia, vehicle or no vehicle. I told her things hadn’t worked out on the phone, then met up with her in the morning at a coffee shop. We walked around looking for a bike for her and stopped in front of Big Red. I asked Lori, “so, what do you think?”
Big Red changed our lives considerably. We lived about five miles outside of town and having a reliable car meant that, not only could we get drinking water and groceries a lot easier, we could also go out occasionally in the evening (evening bus service out of PG is virtually non-existent and taxis are unreliable and expensive). On the occasional weekend, having Big Red meant being able to take trips out of town to take advantage of the natural playground all around us.
We did eventually find a bike for Lori, “Little Red.” Big Red never got jealous of Little Red, even when Lori was using the bike as her daily driver. The Rodeo was the first SUV that Lori or I had ever owned and it was great to be able to throw the bike in the back and go.
Big Red also enabled us to make monthly visits out to Back-a-Bush, which is a fantastic retreat in a Mayan village and a great antidote to the PG and Hillside bubble.
Big Red proved herself again and again on the rough roads of Toledo district, heading out to Blue Creek, San Pedro Columbia, San Miguel, San Felipe and Belcampo Lodge numerous times. However, like any vehicle, the little Isuzu Rodeo that could still had her limits — for example, when the lakes and streams around Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary completely swallowed the main road out there in December for multiple months (pictured above).
Big Red is a 2000 Isuzu Rodeo LS 3.2L V6 with rear wheel drive (suspension, high clearance and good tires are much more important than four wheel drive!), automatic transmission, and fairly loaded.
The Toledo backroads tore a sizable gash in her aging rear tires, so we gave her a pair of Hankook Dynapro AT-M all-terrain tires, which had great traction on wet and dry unsealed roads, and offered excellent handling on wet and dry blacktop. We ended up sacrificing about 5 mpg of fuel economy on the highway with the new tires, but it was worth it.
By the second month of driving the Rodeo, I had a hunch we could pretty take it anywhere we needed to go. While planning Lori’s parents’ visit to Belize in February we had originally decided to all hop a bus to the Yucatan. After further consideration (and number crunching) we thought it would be a lot more fun and economical just to drive. On February 20th, 2014, Big Red made it to the farthest point away from PG while we would own her — Izamal, Mexico.
In the coming months, we made trips up to Cayo, Belize City, Hopkins, Placencia, back to Crooked Tree, and everywhere in between.
One of the most unique journeys with Big Red was taking her on a hand-crank ferry across the Mopan River to the Mayan archaeological site of Xunantunich in July.
On one of the last days with Big Red, we attempted to drive between San Miguel and San Pedro Columbia, a journey we had managed effortlessly a number of times. This last time, however, the bridge was washed out, making the journey impossible.
We never did make it to “Columbia” that day, which seemed like a fitting end to our time in Belize. Big Red and I were willing, but the universe was telling us something else. With a heavy heart, I turned her around and headed home. It would be the last time I would drive her out of PG, but took solace in knowing that she’d be in good hands after our departure (an incoming Hillside volunteer had agree to purchase her).
Three days later on a brilliantly sunny day, just like the day I found her, I left my big, red travel buddy — washed, waxed and vacuumed, and sitting comfortably under her trusty carport — in paradise where she belonged and headed north to do something I hadn’t done in over a year — take a plane to the next destination.