I recently celebrated our first anniversary in Paradise by straddling a toilet seat, trying to loosen the rusted bolts that hold the tank on to the toilet. And I was failing miserably.
No amount of WD-40, muscle-straining leverage, cursing and sweat was going to dislodge those suckers.
At least the water was shut off and the floor was no longer flooded.
Ah, yes. This is the part of Paradise they don’t tell you about in the glossy, ersatz-expat magazines and websites. You know, the ones that urge you to toss off all, and run away to the land of emerald and azure water, periwinkle sky, caressing breezes, white sands and swaying palms — where the living is effortless, cheap and carefree …and possibly under $1,000 a month.
I mean, I can’t complain. When the toilet tank started winning, I walked 15 feet away, stepped out on to our balcony and saw the promised land: A glorious panoply of postcard-perfect Caribbean Sea, soft blue sky, white sand and swaying palm trees.
I could sit here and take in this view all day … were it not for the broken toilet behind me.
If there is a lesson here, I guess it is this: Paradise will not make you a better plumber.
Even in Paradise, it helps to have the right tools — and I mean more than duct tape, super glue, a couple of screwdrivers and a machete. That is not a tool box for Belize.
Rose and I moved from California to San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize just a little over a year ago. What have we learned?
It can be expensive.
It can be dangerous.
It can be frustrating.
It can be challenging.
But none of that changes the game.
Living here is also:
More satisfying than expensive.
More enriching than dangerous.
More fun than frustrating.
More adventurous than challenging.
I was hoping to come up with a list of lessons from one year in the country. But it seems that I have never been a really good lesson-learning guy. Hey, I worked for newspapers for 40 years. What does that tell you about me?
So, I still stumble through life every bit as awkwardly and cluelessly as I did it when there was asphalt under my feet. It is just that now I wear sandals and sunscreen.
I’m not saying you can’t reinvent yourself as an ex-pat in Belize. People do it all the time. Some are even caught and sent back to stand trial.
You only hear about that sort of thing happening maybe once or twice a month.
You are who you are, wherever you are. Telling yourself, “I’ll be a better person once I move to Belize,” is a longshot. One nice thing about living on an island in Belize is that you have the time to get comfortable with the idea that you are who you are. Paradise can really bring out the reflection in you, and that is a very nice quality to have. Think of it as psychotherapy in the sand.
So, maybe “Paradise has bad plumbing” is not the biggest lesson from one year in Belize, nor the most practical, but I think it is a good one. People who know themselves, and are comfortable with that, can live anywhere.
By now, people who are mulling a move to Belize are thinking, “Seriously, Bob, in an entire year on the island of Ambergris Caye, that is the best you’ve got?”
But wait. There’s more. I mean I hope. People who know me know that I find it ridiculously hard to get serious about things like life lessons. But I’m willing to give it a shot because, hell, I’ve written this much. Why quit now?
Sooner or later, you are going to need a golf cart.
People who have been reading this column for more than a year can appreciate how treasonous that statement is, coming from me. One year ago I was writing about the glories of getting around on bicycles, shooting bike-porn shots on the beach, praising the locals who can get as many as four people on a single bike (one adult, three kids, usually) while texting with one hand.
And we did ride bikes — in rainy season and sunshine, through searing hot summer days and while grocery shopping. We rode to Wine de Vine on Fridays for happy hour and pedaled home with wine-blissed smiles in the dark. We biked to yoga, we biked to dinner, we biked for miles and miles just for fun.
Meanwhile we were losing pounds, getting tan and getting healthier.
But I’m not going to lie to you, eventually we bought a golf cart. It was a deal we could not pass up. A friend was moving back to the states and she needed to sell. Her price was right and the cart was in great shape, mechanically.
Why did we do it? We had guests coming in October and November. It makes shopping easier. It makes going out at night and in the rain easier, too.
Then there was my heart issue. A clogged artery in the heart that kept me off my bike and away from exercise for several months, until I could get a stent implanted.
The golf cart became a life saver.
Now? We rarely use it. It can sit for weeks without being moved. Maybe when the rainy season returns, it’ll get more use but for now, we love cycling.
Medical and dental care here is far better than you think. The private practice doctors here on the island get high marks from the people I have spoken to, for basic medical care. The free, public medical center has given me very good care in the past year.
An extremely talented cardiologist in Belize City implanted the stent in my heart just over a month ago. I would match his knowledge, clinic facilities, and medical equipment with any doctor’s in the U.S.
Rose is getting dental work done here on the island (at a fraction of U.S. costs) and so far she has a fine looking (and complete) set of teeth.
A local musician we know recently had a medical emergency and chose to get his care at Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, the public (free) hospital in Belize City. Keith was in there for five days. Here is his very informative blog posting on that experience.
(Please note, my dear anti-Obamacare friends in the U.S., that poorest of the poor Belize manages to provide a minimum of guaranteed medical care to all who live here. Just saying, it isn’t only the entire rest of the wealthy First World nations that offer some nationalized medicine to their citizens.)
Rust, mold and termites are your enemies
Even concrete buildings, such as ours, have termites (and ants). Well the lovely wooden furniture and cabinetry does. Termites thrive.
So does rust. You should see our year-old bicycles. Everything that can rust is rusting. Things like computers, radios, toasters, cell phones and the bolts that hold your toilet together all corrode or rust much faster here. Plan accordingly.
If you have cell phones or iPads, I’d look into waterproof packaging such as those made by Lifeproof. There are others, as good if not better. They’ll keep the guts dry and keep the dust out of the inner workings.
Dehumidifiers are a good investment when you live in high humidity climates, especially on an island. Every once in a while I will take the two leather belts I never wear and wipe the mold off, then lather them down with coconut oil. Seems to work.
While we are on the subject — leave that great collection of cotton T-shirts at home and invest in lightweight, breathing, quick-drying, wick-away shirts and pants. You will thank me.
Also, invest in a sturdy pair of sandals. My Columbia sandals were bought just before we moved here. I have worn them every single day, including on our trips to the U.S., England and, recently, Merida, Mexico, and they have held up beautifully.
I don’t own any shoes. In fact, for a wedding in England, I bought shoes (and a sport coat, socks and tie) in a charity shop and donated them back after the ceremony.
There are three very believable stories for every event
This falls under the universal axiom: Be slow to judge.
Here, you never embrace the first story about an event because one or two equally plausible stories will come along in short order.
Great example: Yesterday, a dump truck and a golf cart collided on the recently built concrete road north of the Sir Barry Bowen Bridge.
People have been waiting for this accident to happen ever since the road was (mostly) completed. Everyone drives too fast on what was once a bumpy, rut-filled dirt road.
Yesterday everyone blamed the dump truck driver.
Today, I learned the elderly golf cart driver accidentally put his vehicle in reverse, panicked and backed out of the Village Market parking lot into the path of the truck. The truck may still have been going too fast, but the driver’s role is shifting.
I promise you that tomorrow there will be a third version.
You can pick the best version of the bunch, combine details or ignore it all and go fishing. Just reserve judgment.
People come, people go
There are many rhythms to island life. The ebb and flow of people is one of the most pronounced.
People move here for the rest of their lives and are gone in six months. People come for a one week stay, make a lot of noise and then are gone. People come for a while, go home, then come back, then go home.
“I don’t make friends unless they have been here for two years,” said a friend recently. OK, she didn’t say it absolutely had to be two years.
Even in a year, we have met of lot of people who are no longer here, some by design.
We have friends who live here for a few months, then move on to another home in another part of the world. Lots of Canadians and Americans winter here, six months on and six months off. Even those who live here year round will take off for a month or two once the high season ends (and the rains begin).
Right now it is high season and we’re entering the bonus round, Spring Break. We’ll see many students from Texas and Florida, lots of wet t-shirt contests, lots of DJs and lots of vomiting on the beach, I suppose.
Well, this is when Belizeans make their money for the entire year. Hotels and resorts are full, snorkel and diving boats are full, bars and restaurants are busy. Soon enough, we’ll get our island back. The birds will return, the streets will be empty.
The number of tourist-filled boats zipping north and south, between resorts and town, is impressive right now. They are like speedy water buses, filled with stiff-bent, pale people, leaning bravely into the wind, eyes straight ahead, one hand holding cap to head. OK, some aren’t pale, more a lobster-red.
Needless to say, we cherish most the ones who will still be here when the season ends. They are our yoga and Pilates partners, our happy-hour pals and snorkeling buddies. Most have lived here many years more than we. They are generous with their knowledge, wise in island ways.
This is not Paradise
Shocking thought, isn’t it?
I mean, it’s Belize. Home of the Blue Hole. The Barrier Reef. The toucan and the tapir. Jungle forests! Mayan ruins! River caves! White-sand beaches! Blue sky! Blue-green waters! Belikin beer and One Barrel rum!
Paradise is what you find inside the sharp edges of the post cards.
This place is more real than that.
We are surrounded by real world problems, and I’m not even thinking of the six toilets in the next building over that erupted like volcanoes a few weeks ago.
This is a pretty violent corner of the world. There are gangs and there are drugs and there is extreme poverty. Add it up. Factor in cheap and easy guns and you get a hot spot that can make Camden, New Jersey, look like a safe zone.
Innocents die in the crossfire, too. Like a two-year-old boy here recently. Sometimes ex-pats are the victims, like my neighbors who were badly beaten in their own home for no reason by a deranged young man.
Well, I didn’t mean to get off on such a grim topic but it is all part of what you don’t see outside the edges of the pretty postcards. It is like complimenting a woman on her nice legs and not even noticing her 160 IQ.
Consider trash. It is everywhere, especially in the poorest neighborhoods. For decades, people have piled trash on the edges of lagoons to build land. On some remote streets the trash just piles up to avoid having to take it to the municipal dump. On the Caribbean side, trash floats in over the barrier reef and fills our beaches.
This year the sargassum has floated in and covers our shores where it sits and rots and smells like an old septic system. Like winter in New England, it looks like it will never end.
Learn the names of the people who make your life easy
Belizeans are a beautiful, wonderful, complicated, multi-ethnic people. I have come to the conclusion that every Belizean has an amazing life story and when asked, respectfully, they will tell you that story.
It often involves triumph over extreme poverty, disease, affliction, violence, lack of education. Many Belizeans dream big and work hard to make those dreams happen, like the young resort sous-chef who is raising her little brother and saving to go to a culinary school in Indianapolis.
Fred sweeps the Sir Barry Bowen Bridge every morning. He is a man of dignity with a thankless job. We makes a point to say hello to Fred when we cross the bridge and ask how he is. He smiles, we smile.
Jose paddles out to the reef every day around 11 a.m. in his green kayak and dives for fish, crab, conch and lobster (in season) and comes back around 5 p.m. with his catch which he sells to waiting customers in the Tres Cocos area. “I have to go out,” he once told me. “If I hang around town I’ll get in trouble and go crazy.” My heart stops some days when I see him battling the wind and waves in his tiny craft, but he always returns.
Lenny has been pedaling his bike up and down the island for 23 years, selling wood sculptures and bowls. He seems to be everywhere at once. How does he do it, day after day? If you ask, be prepared for a sweeping evangelical riff on the power of God, and the need to provide for seven children back in his native Belize City.
You might be able to live here for under $1,000 a month, but would you want to?
I’m not saying it can’t be done. It is just that I have yet to find someone who is doing it.
Real estate is expensive and getting more so. Sometimes I feel like that train has left the station for us.
A wise friend and 20-plus year resident of Belize says there is a big difference between the asking price and the amount owners will accept. Part of the problem, he says, is that taxes are so low, there is little incentive to sell. But some places have “for sale” signs that are older than the dewy-eyed real estate agents selling them.
So, you never know. Timing, circumstances, a hurricane, an urgent need to return to the states, a tip from an insider — something will jar loose the right place at the right time.
For now, we have a very nice, and nicely furnished, two-bedroom condo in a spectacular location, right on the Caribbean Sea. It has everything we need and it is $1,100 a month.
A one-bedroom, similarly situated, might run $900 USD/month.
The farther away you are from the water, the less expensive rents are: You can find one-bedrooms for $500 to $700 USD, usually fully furnished. In sketchier neighborhoods you can go even cheaper.
On the mainland the cost of living drops dramatically. In San Ignacio we have seen two-three bedroom houses that back up to a river, furnished, for $750 USD/month. You also need a car to get around.
Packaged food prices are high, as everything is brought over on barges and boats. Fruit and vegetable prices are much lower than you’d find in the states but the supply line is erratic. The rule is, if you see something you think you might want, buy it. Tomorrow it will be gone.
What we find is, the longer we stay and the better we get to know people, the more we become eligible for “locals discounts.” It might mean cheaper food prices at a produce stand or a few extra onions, corn and mangoes tossed in the bag for good measure.
One store has locals, ex-pat and tourist prices posted. Many places like hardware stores simply knock off 10 percent when you ask for the locals price. The local airlines will give you 10 percent off and the water taxi to the mainland offers locals a 50 percent off discount card. As locals, our bridge pass is $50 BZD a month, a fraction of what a visitor is charged. Without a pass, the bridge is $5 BZD every time you cross. (Bikes and pedestrians are free.)
Waterfront restaurants mostly are pricey and geared for the tourist trade. Off-the-beaten-path restaurants, often offering the best food, can be surprisingly inexpensive — and rubbing elbows with locals can launch great conversations and friendships.
Our friend Wayne sets up a portable barbecue stand in town on weekends. He’s one of many who do this to supplement income. Today I picked up a right-off-the-grill barbecue chicken breast, rice & beans and coleslaw to take home to Rose. Price was $8 BZD.
But we’re still here
Tomorrow morning I will be paddling out to the barrier reef with my friend Jeff. He called today to invite me to go snorkeling and spear fishing. I’ve never spearfished before.
Tomorrow night we’re meeting up with friends for a sunset cruise on a 50-foot catamaran.
People here do that. They call you up and say “We’re putting together a boat to go snorkeling on the reef and then resort-hop our way home. You in?”
Hell yes I’m in.
Today, after yoga, a group of us met at a restaurant out on the end of a dock for a two-hour lunch — some food, some drink and a lot of great conversation.
When we travel through town, it is the rare day that we don’t bump into friends, stop for a while and catch up.
Sometimes, San Pedro feels like a very tropical Mayberry RFD. (Ask your parents if you don’t know Mayberry.) People wave to people and say hi. Sometimes, they are total strangers.
Not only despite the harsh realities but because of them, I love Belize. I love that it is a young country still struggling for an identity. I love that its people are indomitable and filled with big dreams.
I love both the postcards and the stuff that sits outside the frame.
I love that I can wake up every morning, stare out through palm trees into the blue sea. I love that every day I can decide what I want to do. I love that the people we have met have enriched our lives. I love that my transportation choices are to walk, bicycle, take a water taxi or take the golf cart.
I love the breeze that seems to never quit and always cools. We have never used the air conditioning in our condo.
I love that on some days, I can walk up to a man on the beach and buy a gallon of fresh coconut water as he sits there with his machete, cracking opening new coconuts to fill the next jug.
I love to sit on my deck and watch the pelicans soar through the palm trees. I love the huge boa that recently took up residence by our front door and the iguanas that run around like feral cats.
And I love that, when I could not remove the tank from the toilet, our neighborhood handyman Mario dropped by with the right tools in about 10 minutes. A half-hour later, we had beaten that porcelain monster into submission. Together.
One last note
There are no vast sweeping white sand beaches on Ambergris Caye. I don’t care what the literature says. If you want wide, deep-sand beaches, go to Cancun. We have little beaches, seawalls and lots and lots of turtle grass close to shore.
It is what it is.
I am tired of answering the question “Where are the white sand beaches?”
So, repeat after me: “No sweeping white-sand beaches on Ambergris Caye.”
Now, if you journey out to some of the 200-plus other islands off the coast of Belize, you’ll find some of those beaches.
Just not here.