Bush Banking

Bush Banking

You might not believe me, but the following story is 100% authentic as it is bizarre.

The year is 1967; I was working at the main office of an international bank in Belize City, Belize (back then it was British Honduras). The bank had a branch office in Corozal in the north of the country, close to the Mexican border. At the end of the sugar cane harvest, hundreds of local workers needed to be paid, and to accomplish this, the branch needed a large amount of cash.

So myself, a fellow employee by the name of McDonald and a large wooden box containing the equivalent of $200K in cash were transported in a Cessna 172 from Belize City to a dirt landing strip carved out of the jungle, several miles outside Corozal. The pilot, Kurt Binder, was an old German WW2 Luftwaffe pilot who did not seem mind that I was British (or so it appeared at the time).

Once over Corozal, the usual protocol was for the plane to buzz the bank at a low altitude to signal someone to drive to the landing strip to pick us up. That day however, the bank was completely surrounded by hundreds of local workers waiting to be paid. Regardless, we buzzed the bank, landed, unloaded the cash, waved our plane goodbye and waited for our ride. After 45 minutes we realized no one was coming, and with no way to communicate with the bank (cell phones were not even on an inventor’s radar), we started walking down the narrow, overgrown access lane towards the main road. About a mile and a half later and sweating profusely, we flagged down a “mammy wagon” and the other riders gladly helped load our cargo and us on the top of the transport (fortunately no questions asked). So, off we went into town. Looking back, it really was surprising that no one asked any questions, after all, two complete strangers emerging from the jungle dressed like assistant Walmart managers (minus the pocket protectors), carrying a single large box should raise some questions. Arriving close to the bank we maneuvered our way through the crowd, delivered the loot, breathed a sigh of relief and sat down to cool off.

The story did not end there. The three local tellers were completely overwhelmed doling out cash, so we were pressed into service by the branch manager. Now here was the problem— neither of us spoke any Spanish and the locals were unable to read or write. We needed a way to pay the workers, but we didn’t know how to identify who was who. The solution? Their employers furnished lists with names and distinguishing features such as scars, birthmarks and disfigurements. With one translator between us, what ensued, in retrospect, was comical. For several hours, we saw enough body parts and quizzical looks to last a lifetime. This was bush banking at its finest. The following day, we gladly returned to Belize City without further incidence. One last note—looking back at all this, what now seems crazy, seemed quite normal at the time. Regardless, I am happy and mostly grateful for the experience.