Recently I was approached to do a little writing about our life in Belize by some publications dedicated to turning ordinary developed country citizens into ex-pats. That is a pretty big business, you know.
I guess after living nine months on an island off the coast of Belize, I have gained some sort of credibility as an “expert ex-pat.” I don’t feel it, personally. To me, every day is still an enigma to be solved, a challenge to be embraced, a mystery to be exposed — albeit, joyfully.
If confusion is the first step toward enlightenment, I’ve barely put my first sandal into the sand.
Someone recently handed me this piece of advice: “Don’t take advice from anyone who hasn’t been here seven years.” Which may sound a bit drastic and arbitrary. I think the point is, a lot of people handing out ex-pat advice don’t make it that far.
Does that mean their advice is invalid?
Of course not.
It is about perspective and context. You don’t ask somebody who only recently moved here for the name of the best doctor on the island. You might ask a newcomer what their own experience has been so far with the island medical community.
You don’t ask a newcomer for the name of the best golf cart mechanic on the island. You might ask them what their experience has been with mechanics so far.
See, the minute a citizen from elsewhere becomes an ex-pat they begin to accumulate experiences and retain knowledge.
It is pretty much like travel writers. They throw themselves into strange new lands and experiences and write about what they see, hear, smell, touch, encounter. The best of them have an eye for detail and underpin their insightful writing with good research.
As someone who has only lived on Ambergris Caye for nine months I would not pretend to be much of an expert on anything related to living a successful ex-pat’s life here. I can tell you about my personal experiences, good and bad. I could never hope to write a book on how to survive as an ex-pat in Belize — not yet, anyway. Maybe in seven years ….
Still, I should not be so uncomfortable. In 40 years as a newspaper and online editor and writer I was called upon to write expertly on many topics, about which I hadn’t a clue when I started.
For example, I was once assigned to help cover a monthlong series of performances of Beethoven’s entire catalog of piano sonatas, performed by John Lil. Beethoven wrote 32 of them.
I spent a lot of time in the library ahead of each concert, researching each sonata and listening to each, over and over. (This is long before the invention of the internet.) In my “reviews” I refrained from delivering judgment upon the head of John Lil. Instead I wrote about the venue, the mood of the audience, the atmosphere, he spectacle of Lil in performance, how the the music affected me, some historical or anecdotal background, that sort of thing.
If Lil missed a note here or there, I wouldn’t have had a clue. If his performance transported an entire audience into an ecstatic scream of “Bravo!” — well — I could dig into that. Likewise if the audience was indifferent or tepid in its response.
Anyhow, by not pretending to be an expert and by simply reporting on what I experienced and saw (backed by research), I made it through the month. At the closing party, Lil sought me out and complimented my coverage. (Me to self: “Oh, crap, you read it?”) That was not my objective, but it was nice to hear.
Over the years I was also designated a rock music critic, a dance critic, a theater critic, a movie critic, a consumer technology expert, an online news editor and a transportation expert.
It could have been worse. I know a news editor who fell from grace and was assigned to be the religion and ethics editor. She quickly turned that tombstone into a must-read hotspot and she thrived in the role for more than 20 years. In your face, sniveling editors!
Bottom line: With enough patience, research, curiosity and humility a writer can avoid becoming a pompous know-it-all who really knows nothing at all. For the record, I know NOBODY like that here on the island. Also for the record, I sometimes forgot about humility and wrote some pieces which to this day I regret.
OK, let’s stop right here.
Stage note: Bob gets up from the computer, grabs a towel and walks to the end of the pier where he sits, legs crossed and meditates on the gray-black roiling cloud formations. He observes a tiny object on the horizon, rising and disappearing with the waves.
It can only be the fisherman Jose, in his little green kayak, returning from a day of harvesting from the sea. Slowly he pulls up to the dock, fighting a stiff northern wind as he cuts in from the reef. In the bottom of his boat are some conch, some lobsters. He managed to spear a single rock fish.
A neighbor buys the conch, though she professes not to know what to do with it. “Fritters!,” says Jose brightly. I buy the whole rock fish for $7 BZ. “Everything is soft,” says Jose. “You can even eat the head. Fry it up!”
He is enormously energetic for a guy who has been paddling, diving for lobsters and spearfishing in rough seas all day. I ask him how he does this day after day. He tells me that if he had to stay in town every day, he’d go “loco,” complete with internationally recognized hand gesture. Fair enough.
“This way I get exercise,” he says, “stay healthy! Exercise the brain, too. It is like a muscle.” I love his damn-near toothless grin as he talks and want to know more. But Jose has to paddle south to Coco Loco’s beach bar where neighbors will likely buy everything else he has to offer.
He’s quite a sight, this tiny old man. Maybe he isn’t that old. Maybe living most of his awake hours on and under the sea just makes him look old. He’s out there every day, alone in his tiny boat, with his spear, his goggles, his thoughts.
Is he a true Buddah, I wonder.
End stage note.
And we’re back.
OK, what I started to say is that a couple of ex-pat factories asked me to write a bit about our experiences here in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize. And I did.
I’m going to share them with you in the next week or so. I like doing these things because they force me to stop and take measure of how far we have come and do we like it still, enough to keep going. (Of course we do. No cliffhangers here.)
We’re also off to spend our first overnighters on the mainland, in a small jungle resort.
Wait. Technically that’s not correct. I spent the first two nights of this week in a Belize City cardiac clinic, undergoing an angiogram. There’s work to be done on this old ticker after the holidays. More on that soon, too.
See you soon!