The following is an expansion on a recent “postcard” that I wrote for International Living, one of the biggest players in the ex-pat game. Actually it combines part of my first version with the final version that was published by IL right here. A very astute editor pointed out that I was getting a little too inside for the casual reader.
You, my friends, are not casual readers — not if you have been slogging through my stuff for any length of time!
So you get to read more about our new road, which now goes right past our driveway. I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for reading … and writing!
— Bob Hawkins
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I sit on our deck and gaze out toward the Belize Barrier Reef, not 300 yards away, in the Caribbean Sea. The postcard-perfect, white sand and the green palm trees quickly give way to shimmering strips of blue and green—colors of the sea determined by a brilliant sun, azure sky, and sea grass and sand on the ocean floor.
There is one other color that catches my eye: the dry gray mud that spackles my legs and feet.
“Here I am, at 64 years old,” I think, “and every day I get to pedal my bicycle through mud puddles.”
I can’t begin to tell you how happy that makes me feel.
In the nine months since my wife, Rose Alcantara, and I moved from the San Francisco area to Ambergris Caye in Belize, hardly a day has passed that we haven’t pedaled somewhere, rain or shine. Bicycles, you see, are simply the easiest way to get around.
While Ambergris Caye is 24 miles long, most of the living, shopping, and playing is done within a five-mile strip of land that, at its widest runs, four very busy streets deep. That is the island’s only town, San Pedro. That means everything you could possibly need is a relatively short, and flat, pedal away. Everything else — to the north and south — is filled sporadically with chic coastal resorts and lavish private homes or mosquito-infested mangrove swamps.
Not everybody cycles though. For many expats here, the preferred mode of transportation is a golf cart. We made a deliberate decision to bicycle as it just fits in with the lifestyle we were seeking: Slow down. Simplify. Stay healthy.
A bicycle certainly enables all three.
The highest point on the island is the low-profile Sir Barry Bowen Bridge which straddles the 120-foot-wide San Pedro River that divides Ambergris Caye in two. We live north of the bridge, and that is where the mud puddles come in. South of the bridge, all of the main roads in town are paved. North of the bridge, there are no paved roads.
At least, that was true until recently. The town of San Pedro has launched an aggressive program to pave the single road that runs north from the bridge. The first phase will reach three miles, from the bridge to the start of the long strip of coastal resorts, most of which are usually serviced by water taxi or resort boats.
That paved road, I’m happy to say, now reaches from the bridge to just past our condo. No more unfathomably deep crater-sized ruts filled with murky gray water!
When the second phase is complete, possibly in 2015, there will be seven miles of pavement and most of the north island resorts will have a modern road right to their doorstep.
Work is moving in spurts, with a goal of completing the first three miles by the end of December. The current season is variously described as the Rainy Season, Low Season and Hurricane Season. So far this year, it is living up to two of those: Lots of rain and few visitors.
The rain slows construction and fills the heavy-equipment-ravaged road with water-filled potholes, some more than a foot deep. Golf carts bounce in and out of them with various degrees of grace, depending on the skills of the drivers. More than a few have bottomed out, drenched their engines or cracked an axle. I recently bought Rose a good set of fenders for her birthday, a much-appreciated accessory here.
Island-living ex-pats are optimistic folks. The current catch phrase is: “It will be great when the road is finished!”
But will it?
As is true anywhere in the world, a newly paved road brings mixed blessings and opinions. Some people like the degree of difficulty required to travel north. It ensures for them tranquility, which drew them here in the first place.
Others see progress. Already new restaurants and shops are opening in anticipation of the increased traffic. By December, we will have our first north-side coffee house, Marbuck’s.
There is no doubt the road will forever change Ambergris Caye, north of the bridge.
As for me, I love bicycling through mud puddles. But on a really wet day, a firm piece of pavement beneath my tires is beginning to sound like a pretty good thing.
But pavement can’t compare to beach pedaling. All along the shore, there are about 12 continuous miles of unobstructed beach path that serves as a public thoroughfare, past lush vegetation, sumptuous homes and resorts, and alluring restaurants and bars—perfect for long walks and bicycle rides.
We now have a pretty good daily routine. In the morning, we will bicycle into town to our favorite yoga studio, Zen Arcade. Rose takes the advanced class and several days a week she teaches a Pilates class there. I take a slightly less intensive yoga class and rarely miss her Pilates.
After class, we do the day’s shopping. We may pedal south to The Baker for breads and rolls — sitting for a chat with the owner, Emily, and an occasional hot cinnamon bun and coffee, while we are there. On the way back home—we live north of the town—we stop at several grocery stores and roadside produce stands. No one place ever has everything you need. For the most part we are seeking fresh fruit and vegetables, which are brought to the island by mainland farmers on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Shopping is a social event. For example, a stop at Maria’s, one of our favorite produce stands, means Spanish lessons for Rose with Maria and her husband, Jose, while I talk with their son Jose Jr. who is something of an island philosopher. Mind you, everyone in Belize speaks English, a byproduct of British colonial days, but more and more, Spanish and Creole are becoming the preferred languages of locals.
Some days we will have breakfast at Estel’s, an open-air beachfront restaurant with a packed-sand floor and driftwood ambiance. It feels like the “Cheers” of breakfast joints — everybody knows your name, expats and locals alike. Sam, one of the waiters greets me with “Coffee, eggs over easy, potatoes, bacon, and fry-jacks, Bob?” My grin tells him what he needs to know.
On days when the winds are but an easy breeze and the waters inside the barrier reef are calm, we will stop at Big SUP, a fairly new stand-up paddleboard shop and take a couple of boards out to the reef. We tie up at a buoy and meditate as we watch the gentle waves roll over the reef. Sometimes Rose practices yoga poses on her board (another class she takes occasionally).
Every step of the way, we bump into people we know, both islanders and expats. We stop, chat, catch up on local gossip and politics, and make plans for dinner together or a snorkeling trip to the reef or a nearby island, like Caye Caulker.
All the while, as we pedal, our hearts, lungs, and muscles grow stronger. And if we get a little mud splattered on our feet…well, that’s a sign that we are indeed on the right path.