My old friend Dave Dennis from San Diego sent me an e-mail yesterday that was filled with questions about our life here in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Belize. Dave’s questions echo many that we have received, from other friends and readers of the blog.
Since today marks the start of our fifth month here in Belize, now would be a good time to try and answer these questions.
For my benefit as much as yours.
I know our fifth month begins because Rose and I are both got our Visas renewed at Immigration this morning, next to the San Pedro airport. This is a process we go through every four weeks. We were in and out within 15 minutes.
The Immigration staff is quietly efficient. They review your paperwork, check your record online then hand you a bill for $50 BZD which is taken down the corridor to Treasury Department to be paid. Then back to Immigration with the receipt. Stamp the passport and good to go for another month.
But this isn’t answering Dave’s questions, or yours.
Oh, I passed on the same slate of questions to Rose for her answers. The rule is, she must answer them independently, providing her own unique perspective. Which, I’ve come to learn, a lot of people like better than mine! Rose, for the win!
I’ll post Rose’s answers tomorrow.
So, let’s dive in.
How ARE you, my friend???? Seriously, how is Belizean life treating you?
This is an easy two-for-one: Fine. Or to expand on it: Fine!
Belizean life has been very, very good to me. To be honest …
… pardon me …
I was distracted by the sunset. It is still an hour away but the array and layering and coloration of cloud formations is spectacular. Thank you, Belize, for another beautiful end to another great day.
Where were we?
Yes! Life in Belize is both better and more challenging than I imagined.
How are you feeling about San Pedro?
I think we’re both extremely happy with San Pedro. I am especially thrilled that it is so much more than the one-dimensional post card portrayals.
San Pedro is a multi-ethnic, many-layered town of more than 20,000 people, where wealth and poverty rub shoulders every day. It is the sort of place where, if you seriously don’t check your western attitudes and standards and prejudices at the door, well, you are going to be missing out on some amazing food, people and experiences.
That said, San Pedro can be dirty, chaotic and noisy, too. And sometimes a little dangerous. But don’t these sorts of things go hand-in-hand in all living cities?
At its widest, San Pedro Town consists of four streets, each with its own distinct personality. We haven’t even begun to explore all that each street has to offer. We’re going slow, enjoying one discovery at a time – like Oscar’s fried chicken at My Secret Deli, Ramon and Eva’s weekend barbecue, the breads and treats from Ken and Emily’s The Baker, conch fritters and stewed chicken from El Fogon, breakfasts at Estel’s, sunset drinks at Steve and Sue’s Coco Loco, and fruits and veggie’s from Maria’s.
Our list is still quite short but, as I like to say, we’re here for the long haul. We have recommendations for Chinese food and pizza to check out and we’ve begun to discover the hidden bargains at the Caye Supplies department store.
Because this is an island, and because it is a tourist destination, everything is more expensive than on the mainland – food and housing especially. But the more Belizean you become, the more you find the deals. For some things there really are Belizean prices and tourist prices.
The other day I stopped into a little “surplus” store that had backpacks in the window. They weren’t what I was looking for but they had a terrific display of office supplies – and small red balls. Rose has been looking unsuccessfully for these balls for her Pilates class at Zen Arcade. They had 12 – exactly the number she needed and quite reasonably priced, after Rose negotiated a volume discount. We snatched them all up.
That’s how it is. Stay open-minded, stay alert, and don’t judge. Learn and respect the culture. Works in most any city, doesn’t it?
Are you going to live somewhere else as well before deciding on a permanent location?
That was our original plan – six months on Ambergris Caye and six months in the western Belize town of San Ignacio. Now we are looking to spend the next six months on the south side of San Pedro Town.
I think we’ve found our home. We love it here. And the weather has been pretty good for Rose’s allergies and my health in general.
And friends. We’ve met so many nice people here that just up and leaving seems unimaginable.
Does island life appeal to you? Is it what you imagined?
I can say that after four whole months on Ambergris Caye, island life most definitely appeals to me. All my life I have been drawn to water. Not necessarily to jump into it. No, more often to side beside it, absorb its immenseness or the speed at which it flows, or the impenetrable and calming stillness.
I sit here at our table and look out on the lagoon with wind-whipped ripples racing across the surface. I keep hoping to see another crocodile or a fish jump or a bird swoop down and snatch a fish. All of these things signal life and balance. And that, in turn, opens the door to hope.
I can walk over to the Caribbean Sea and listen to the waves crash over the barrier reef, contemplate the almost mystical illumination and clarity of the blue-green water, peer at the painted fish darting in and out of the pier shadows, watch the sea birds soar by and try to imagine just who the water taxies are shuttling up to the northern resorts.
As a teen in Pennsylvania I grew up beside a biologically dead river. It was called The Black – thanks to spewings from wood pulp mills and coal strip-mines up-stream. It looked more amber in the right light. But it was dead. The federal government’s EPA brought that river back to life and now, on summer days, hundreds of people float lazily down the Clarion River. Others fish. The eagles, hawks, geese and ducks all came back, too. I cried tears of joy when I saw people actually in the river for the first time.
Now, Belize is locked in an awkward dance with well-financed developers who want to turn entire islands and atolls into playgrounds for the wealthy and cruise-ship class. They all want to tear up completely what is already there and reshape it into their own vision of paradise – an “ecologically sound” and “environmentally friendly” vision. Of course. I’d love to see how that would happen.
This 24-mile-long island has plenty of development but it could be worse. The original mandate was “small resort” development and much of it is. Some are “small” when compared to Disney World. It has plenty of failed projects, too. Which should serve as a warning to others , but probably won’t.
I don’t understand the economics of the island yet. Next to the national flag, more properties fly for “sale signs” than anything else. And yet, the real estate prices are staggering to a pensioner like me. It’s all boom and no bust. I guess the dream of owning a piece of paradise will always keep the customers coming.
Just like everybody else, I guess, we want to someday own a piece of paradise. So maybe I’m a bit hypocritical. I’ll try not to love Ambergris Caye to death. But I will salute and nurture its health whenever I can.
Do you ever find yourself bored … or perhaps you do sometimes but you don’t care?
The moment I met Rose Alcantara, my life stopped being boring.
The pace and demands on our lives have certainly changed. We no longer have to work to pay off a California lifestyle. We can shape our time as we see fit and leave it as full or empty as we like.
When you don’t have to do anything, you can do everything.
But of course, we don’t.
At the moment, our days are anchored by yoga and Pilates classes. Rose takes yoga every morning except Sunday and now teaches four Pilates classes a week. She takes a painting class on Thursdays. I now take four yoga classes and all four Pilates classes.
We shop. But not like you. Our food is all fresh and acquired as needed. That might require four different stops to buy what we need for the next couple of days. As we only get around on bicycles that can take some time and we only buy as much as we can carry in our bike baskets. And of course you chat with the folks at the produce stands.
We’ll go for an evening walk up the coast or a bike ride, just for fun.
We read an awful lot. (Elizabeth Warren, I’m almost done with your biography. Jo Nesbo, you’re next.) Rose is cruising her way through the entire “Breaking Bad” series. We watch “24” together on Mondays, “The Good Wife” when in season, and sometimes a cooking or dance competition program. We have access to a half-dozen football channels and I expect to be watching a lot of World Cup. Once in a while we’ll happen upon a movie that is worth watching.
The island’s lone cinema, the two-screen Paradise Theater, is a short walk from our front door. Last week we saw Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” with fewer than 10 others – in a 200-seat hall. The theater operator, a nice young fellow who lives in the condo right below us, came out to warn us that the screen width changes in the move, a creative twist of the director. Not his fault! Also, he adjusted buckets in front of the screen to catch the rainwater leaking in and advised us to change seats if we were getting wet.
That’s island life. And it was a grand movie which we discussed it deep into our breakfast on Sunday at Estel’s. And we didn’t get wet.
To be honest, I’d like to be writing copy for an online outfit in the states. I miss the endless online deadlines and the newspaper ones, too – almost as much as I hated them when I wrote for a living. Maybe it is just the adrenaline rush.
We are both resolved to learn Spanish, which I think will someday become the official language of Belize. Spanish and Kriol are both spoken a lot here. As Spanish was in San Diego. It just opens your world up to new people and experiences. Someday, too, I fully expect we will have diving licenses and grow webs between our fingers and toes.
Oh, yeah, and I write this blog. I may even write a novel, once I meet just the right characters either on the street or in my imagination.
Bored? Yeah, I guess. But only when we choose to be.
Will you be looking for some kind of work or is that down the road, once you decide on where you guys want to live?
Oops. I just kind of answered that, didn’t I? I am officially retired but if the right offer to write were offered, I could become unretired in a heartbeat.
Becoming part of a community means doing things for the community. When I find ways to give back to San Pedro, I will.
How are you and Rose getting along? So glad to see you are writing regularly and she is now teaching yoga. From the photos, it looks like life agrees with you.
Rose has her own take on this but I think the dynamics of our relationship are constantly changing, for the better, considering we are together practically 24-7. We count on each other more than we ever did before. We talk more, we disagree/discuss more, we joke and laugh more, we share more, we love each other more, we encourage each other more, we are kinder to each other.
I think we also say “What did you say?” more often. I’m not sure if that is poor hearing or simply tuning out. But we both do it.
We hear all the time of couples who move here and implode. Some relationships aren’t built for expat life. Sometimes it is just a case of one person being in love with the island and the other hates it. I don’t know how you prepare for such a thing but my guess is that moving to a foreign country to repair a relationship is a risky bet.
We have some routines, too. For example, Rose will cook incredible dinners most nights … and I will clean up. (OK, I win that one.) We do our wash separately. I keep the bicycles in running order.
I miss Rose when she isn’t here, even if it is only for a few hours. We are friends, lovers and companions in a strange new world. It is not “us-against-them.” More like, “we’re in this together.”
What was/is the hardest part of moving and living there? What’s the best??
As corny as it may seem, the hardest part is the distance from friends and family. We miss very little of modern life in the States. We don’t miss the highways and vehicles, the big-box store overabundance of goods, the chain-store mediocrities, the constant in-your-face push of marketing, the day-to-day anxiety of making ends meet ….
I miss seeing my grandson, Brody, grow up. I miss watching his mom and dad, Cami and Brendan, become amazing parents. My youngest son Chris and his wife Katie just moved back to California and I felt bad that I wasn’t there to help. I miss meeting my son Ryan in San Francisco and catching up on life over a dinner or drink. I miss Rose’s kids, Jon and Caira, too.
My social life broke up in fragments. First I moved from San Diego and said good-bye to nearly 30 years’ worth of colleagues and friends. That was very hard. Then we both moved from Northern California where Rose’s friends had become my friends. That was hard, but much harder for Rose.
Rose is a lifetime Bay Area resident and many of her friendships run extremely deep. A lot of tears were shed on the way to Belize.
We are grateful for e-mail, Facebook, Skype, Face Time, WhatsApp, and all your thoughts and prayers.
Has one of you adapted faster/better than the other?
I don’t think so. We’ve been moving so carefully through this new life together that if one stumbles, the other is there to carry the weight. Except when Rose accidentally rode her bike over a seawall and banged herself up … but I was speaking metaphorically, wasn’t I?
At some point, I suppose we’ll develop separate interests and friends but right now we’re like one person.
Besides taking fierce pleasure in this expat life, Rose once lived in The Gambia and so knows some of the sacrifices, adjustments and experiences we must encounter to succeed in Belize. And she has been good with all that from the start.
Are you returning to the states this year?
We are, briefly. A family wedding in early July in England will be followed by some travel around that island. On July 19 we’ll fly to San Francisco and reconnect with family and friends there until Aug. 11.
I plan to buy many Gillette razors and more than a few Fast-Dri T-shirts. I also need a new pair of glasses. In England I’ll have to come up with a blazer, a tie and a pair of shoes – as I have none of those in my wardrobe here.
Shoes, now there is something I haven’t thought about for four months.
Are you happy?
Most definitely. Thank you for asking.