I seem to be developing a new measure for success the longer we live on Ambergris Caye in Belize.
If we go out for an evening, go shopping, go to yoga, go for a walk – most anytime we leave our home on our bicycles – if we don’t encounter someone we know or meet someone new, then that was – in a way — an unsuccessful outing.
I know. Pretty bold statement from a guy who has lived on the island for only three months. How many people could we possibly have met in that time?
Turns out, quite a few.
When you live in a place like Ambergris Caye, where people have more time for each other and generally take an interest in each other, you tend to meet more people than, say, the typical person living on a cul-de-sac in a Southern California suburban housing development.
Not long ago, Rose and I walked into a local restaurant El Fogon for lunch. A woman, Conch Nunez, and her young granddaughter, invited us to join them at their table.
Just like that. Complete strangers will ask you to dine with them.
Conch owns Sea Turtle Gift Shop, one of the first on the island, on Middle Street. She told us about growing up in San Pedro and raising her children.
That is the way it is around here. People have time for people. Walk into a bar or restaurant twice and people will remember you. Come back a third time and they remember your name and what your favorite food and drink might be.
That’s no exaggeration.
Rudy at Legend’s, a roadside live-music cafe just up the road from our home, reminds me every time we bump into each other that I still have not spent a nine-Belikin night at the club, something I’d (jokingly) promised to do on a night I’d managed no more than four of the local beers.
There are fruit and produce stands which we pass by on our bikes where the owners will shout out “Hello Miss Rose! Hello papa!” (Yes, I am called “papa” in certain circles here …)
I lived on a suburban Southern California cul-de-sac for many years and can honestly say I knew few of my neighbors. Mostly, I exchanged the standard nod-grin-mumble that passes for a greeting between people who should know each other better, but don’t. Then rushed off to work, to pick up the kids, to a meeting, to a show, to shop.
That’s not me being anti-social. You hear about this sort of thing all the time. One of the first things I was told when I moved to Southern California was “People here will take an interest but don’t ever mistake it for friendship.”
(The second piece of advice that I received: Buy a tuxedo that fits. You’ll immediately get invited to a better class of parties. But that’s another story. )
A popular non-fiction book in those days was Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” about combating social isolation in America. Mind you, this was a best seller in 2000, pretty much before the Internet enabled us all to become socially acceptable recluses.
If you want to be a recluse in Belize, you really need to move inland and off the grid. And maybe change your name.
Here on the island, there are only so many streets and so many people. Inevitably you are going to run into somebody you know if you are riding around for any length of time.
Rose is much better at spotting people we know than I am.
“Did you see so-and-so sitting at such-and-such with you-know-who?” she’ll say when we get home.
To which I’ll go, “Huh.”
When people wave, Rose sees them. I don’t. This is probably why she is known as the friendly one.
I like to tell myself it is because I am busy dodging errant golf carts and pedestrians. My senses are locked into my primal need for self-preservation on these few narrow streets, where stop signs are theoretical, speed limits are relevant only to the next golf cart and nobody – I mean nobody – looks before entering into the street.
Who has time to smile and wave?
When we’re sitting still, however, people are amazing.
Last weekend was, under my new people-count standard, amazing.
Friday night, we went to an open house at Coconut Café, just west of Ramon’s Village. Our first-ever and still-best island friends, John and Rose East, were there. We’d met last year when my Rose and I came here on an exploratory vacation and we’ve been friends ever since. Emily and Ken from The Baker were there too. Emily is one of our yoga buddies. And we’d met the café’s owners, Timm and Donna from Kansas City, Kansas, a couple of days earlier.
We shared a table with Manuel and Flora Ancona, one of the First Families of San Pedro. I sat rapt as they talked about the early days when Dona Flora sold tickets for flights on the fledgling Tropic Air from her little concession stand at the end of the runway. Today she is a key administrator for the airline. Among her many achievements.
Manuel and Flora talked about shopping trips to Mexico and Miami and culture shock and the rapid growth and changing nature of San Pedro. They spoke proudly of their children, all still here on the island. They laughed and their eyes twinkled as they shared family stories worn smooth as river rocks from their many decades together.
Saturday morning I went down to the docks to watch the Eco-Challenge kayakers begin their two-day race around the island. As I sat at the end of a short pier, snapping photos on my iPhone, a real photographer dropped down next to me and started clicking away.
I glanced over.
“Excuse me?” she said.
She laughed. “I am Tia Chocolate, or, well, that is the name I used on a column I haven’t written in a while. Although I’m thinking of starting it back up.”
So, we talked a bit as the kayakers warmed up. I gushed about how much I enjoyed her stories about Belizeans. Mary, her real name, talked about getting burned-out on the column and her current plans to write a memoir-based book.
Two days earlier I’d written about this woman’s prose and now we were sitting on the dock in the bay talking about writing. Now we are friends.
Saturday night, Mike and Ann, more yoga buddies, came over for dinner. Mike has been a developer on the island for years. He is also – though he might demur – becoming an excellent baker. Mike brought a from-scratch coconut crème pie and a fresh-baked loaf of sourdough bread to the feast and both were superb.
Ann is an engineer-turned-travel writer. So, needless to say, there is no shortage of topics to talk about with another writer. Just a great evening that started with sunset and drinks on the balcony and ended with a full-on, four-point attack on that crème pie.
Sunday morning, Rose and I headed for Estel’s for breakfast and the finish of the Eco-Challenge race on the beach at Central Park. The first people we saw were Casa Picasso owners Adam and Jackie, sharing a table with the island-ubiquitous Rebecca Coutant, the San Pedro Scoop blogger. (Rebecca is everywhere!) All of us have sweated it out together in the yoga studio at Zen Arcade.
Pretty soon, the table next to us was filled with the laughter of still more yoga friends – Gaylynn, Michelle and Monica. Scattered around the restaurant were other friends of Rose, virtually all women with whom she practices yoga.
As I write this post the yoga connection becomes clearer. But this is how you meet people, right? You go out and do things, you go places and soon you find people with common interests, and by definition, interesting people.
Sunday afternoon, we stopped by the home of Marty and Carrie O’Farrell. After nine years, they are moving back to the states. This was yard sale day for them. The memories of similar days are still with Rose and me and still a touch painful. What is just “stuff” to buyers is a lifetime of accumulated memories to the sellers.
I was feeling their pain as we entered their home.
It was with a bit of relief that I got to bypass the sale and visit with Marty who was going through underwater cave videos on his computer. Marty is one of, if not the foremost, cave diving specialists on the islands and his videography is amazing. Check some of it out here.
He showed me maps of a gigantic cave system sitting directly under Caye Caulker and video from another that is practically out our backdoor in the lagoon. He talked of the thrills and dangers in exploring underwater caves.
Marty also talked of their nine years on the island and some of the lessons learned, friends made and uncertainties that they face in the future, back in Seattle. Rose and Carrie were having similar conversations in the front room where all their life possessions were on display.
As we were leaving, Marty and Carrie gave us the neck of a bottle from the 1700’s, found while diving off San Pedro. It is thick, heavy for glass, a deep green with edges worn smooth by the waves and sand. It now sits on a shelf with the few talisman-like keepsakes that Rose and I brought with us, a symbol of our new life, I think.
Just before dinner, Rose and I walked over to Coco Loco’s for a sunset drink and greeted the bartender Marlon August. I was happy to tell him that I’d downloaded a copy of his memoir, “My Life and Travels in Belize.” We greeted our neighbors, Ed and Shirley, who had just returned from a daylong cycle up the island to a sweeping lagoon-side beach. They had the same idea, beverages before dinner.
Ed and Shirley arrived on the island almost the same day that we did and with the same plan: Rent for a year while figuring out just where we want to live. They, too, made a decision to get around on bicycles. While they moved here from Las Vegas, Ed and Shirley lived for many years practically next door to me in San Diego. We swapped a few tales of our most recent adventures and discoveries and memories from days back in the States.
Steve, who owns Coco Loco’s with wife Sue, dropped in. They’d just returned from some R&R in Placencia where they’d met up with Adam and Jackie, our friends from yoga and Casa Picasso.
And so it goes. On an island this small, the degrees of separation are far fewer. Sooner or later you are going to bump into somebody and if you talk long enough, they probably know half the people you’ve already met. And sometimes you can start to call them friends, too.
I am humbled by how welcome so many people have made us feel.
Which is a great way to live, in my opinion.