“Do you like hot sauce?” the old man asked loudly in his strange accent. He was the type of elderly person who is on their way to being deaf but compensates by yelling everything he says.
“Um, yes,” the pretty, Belizean waitress answered. She was maybe 17 years old.
The two Norwegian guys at the table stiffened. “Karl, no,” one of them said under his breath. The other one started laughing.
“That’s because you’re HOT!” the old man yelled. The girl smiled warily.
“Yesterday,” the laughing Norwegian whispered to me, “He tried to pinch her ass”.
We met the old man, the two Norwegian guys, a British guy, and an Australian girl named Kate earlier that afternoon on the screened-in porch of our dive hotel in the sleepy backwater town of San Ignacio, Belize.
San Ignacio is the closest town to the Belize/Guatemala border and serves as a way station for backpackers traveling between the two countries. Our hotel was painted a bright, tropical shade of turquoise on the outside and was unfailingly depressing on the inside. The rooms were shabby and dark. There was a dank, musty smell that sank into everything - the wooden slat walls, the lumpy bed, even our luggage. I sighed as I contemplated the fact that we were paying twice as much for this place as anywhere we had stayed in Guatemala. The next morning I would find two ticks feasting on my chest and spend the next two weeks hoping I didn’t come down with some tropical tick disease.
Like everyone else staying in the hotel, we avoided our room as much as possible. That afternoon, after wandering the quiet streets of San Ignacio, we made our way to the common area porch on the second floor. Light and a little fresh air breezed in the open screens and there was a view of the mostly empty main street below the hotel. On the scattered, mismatched furniture sat the usual assortment of young, international backpackers and an older man sitting in the corner. He appeared to be yelling at the blonde Australian girl but we quickly realized he was just talking with her.
We made our required introductions to everyone in the room.
“I’m Karl. This place is a shit hole, yah?” said the old man loudly when we said hello. He had a thick accent that I wasn’t able to place.
“Where are you from?” I asked the Karl.
“Where are you from?” I raised my voice to match his.
I repeated myself even louder.
“Yah, I’m from Austria but I have lived in Queensland in Australia for the last 20 years. The best place on earth!” he said and went back to talking with the Australian girl. Karl had both a strong Australian and Austrian accent that blended together into his own unique accent. Still, I could hear each of them in his voice independently when I concentrated, much like listening to two different conversations at once.
The Norwegians guys were traveling together and had just started their trip three days before. With their non-descript good looks and long hair they could have passed for Californians except for that indefinable Norwegian quality about them. They had met Karl in another shanty hotel in Belize City two days before. The British guy had been staying at the hotel and had been traveling around Belize for a couple of weeks. The Australian girl, who had long blonde hair and looked like the sterotype of a beach girl, was on a year-long trip and was traveling north from Panama.
“How old do you think he is?” the British guy asked me quietly, tipping his head towards Karl.
“I don’t know, 63?” I replied.
“He’s 74.” The Brit answered, looking sort of smug. I took an instant disliking to him, as he was the type of person who was an expert on everything, including stuff he didn’t know anything about, and instantly made me worry that I’d come across just like him when I talked.
“Yeah,” said one of the Norwegians with almost no accent. “He was staying at our hotel. He is traveling by himself to South America. He’s an interesting old guy. He says he was rich and lost it all and then gained it back.”
I looked at Karl. He was ignoring everyone who was not young and blonde. He was tall and lean and had trimmed gray hair on the sides and back of his head but he was mostly bald everywhere else. He was pretty fit looking but seemed out of place - we didn't see that many people over the age of 50 traveling by themselves.
“He looked kind of lost,” said the other Norwegian. “So we invited him to travel with us.”
“Hey Karl!” he yelled loudly. “What did you think of Belize City?”
Karl looked toward us. “Yah, that place was a shit hole. It was a total shantytown. It should be wiped out by a hurricane!” He said loudly enough for people in the building across the street to hear him. He went back to ignoring us and talking Australian with Kate.
“When we told him that we were coming to San Ignacio,” He asked me to show him where it was on the map.” The first Norwegian continued. “I asked to see his guide book and he didn’t have one. All he had was a single page map that he had tore out of an encyclopedia.” He paused, laughing. “It covered all of Central and South America. I tried showing him were San Ignacio was but each country was so small that only the capital was labeled.”
“Can you imagine traveling with no guidebook?” the British guy asked.
“Can you imagine traveling at all when you’re his age?” replied the first Norwegian. “We made him buy a Lonely Planet.”
“This morning I heard a noise coming from his room, so I went to see what was going on,” the other Norwegian said. “He was doing push-ups. He used to be a boxer he told me he wanted me to take a swing at him. I didn’t do it.”
We sat on the porch and talked with everyone until the warm afternoon sun set and it grew dark outside. We decided to go eat together at a restaurant the Norwegians and Karl had eaten at the night before.
We left the hotel and walked up the deserted street towards the restaurant.
“How many of us are there? We should get a discount!” thundered Karl as we approached the place. “I’m going to demand they give us a discount, yah.”
“Uh, I don’t really think you bargain for food here,” the Australian girl said. Everyone else quickly seconded her.
“There are seven of us!” Karl replied and went into the restaurant. The rest of us stood in the street and listened to him demand that we get 10% off. A little embarrassed, we walked up the dark street.
“Hey!” We looked back. Karl was standing in the light spilling from the doorway, waving to us to come back. “We got eight percent!”
“I had this whole plan to travel to Costa Rica, ” the British guy said to me, with no trace of smugness in his voice, “But I think I might dump it and just follow Karl. Maybe write a book.”
“He doesn’t even have a real backpack,” said a Norwegian as we entered the restaurant, “Just a little knapsack with Snoopy on it.”
Although my path only crossed with Karl’s for a few hours and I never really talked with him, almost a year later I sometimes lie in bed at night and wonder if he ever made it to South America.