“What do you like best about living here?”
My neighbor Anthony just pitched that question to me. And my answer was a swing-and-a-miss.
“Well,” I fumbled around, stalling while my thought processes kicked into gear. If there is such a thing as a WD-40 for the brain, I needed me some. “That’s a really good question.”
I started to say … the people. Reject! EVERYONE says “the people” and with good reason. People who live on a tropical island just tend to be nice, or nicer than elsewhere. They smile and wave and help each other out. They care. They sometimes have the time to listen to your windy anecdotes.
I started to say … the weather. Reject! People who say the weather don’t live here year round. If they did, they would know that, like weather elsewhere, weather changes. It is good for a while — sunny, clear days with cooling breezes. And bad for a while — cloudy, rainy, damp, windy. Sometimes the rainy days can go on for weeks.
I started to say … the beauty. Reject! God, this place can be painfully beautiful. But as in all things, beauty only takes you so far. Too much and it becomes normal. And we all know “normal” is “boring” spelled backwards. (Or is it the other way around?) Beauty was once a thing that required struggle to create, serious effort to witness, and deep understanding to appreciate. Now all it takes is Photoshop.
And then, like whirling icons on a slot machine, answers popped up and spun away: the cultures … the lifestyles … the cost of living … conch fritters … rice and beans … the cheap beer and rum … the clear blue-green sea … fresh coconut water … papayas and mameys … jerk chicken … bicycles … nature … kayaks and paddleboards … yoga and Pilates … wine socials … covered dish suppers … weekend BBQ stands … four-week old mail …. crunchy waves on the reef … the steady NE breeze … a working golf cart … spontaneous parades … a smile from a stranger … a sunset cruise … a day snorkeling on the reef … so many holidays …
Of course, I didn’t work out all this right then and there while searching for the answer to Anthony’s question.
I went with what I do best: Open my mouth, say something and wonder later what it was I said and how ridiculous I might have sounded.
So, what do I like best about living on Ambergris Caye? I can honestly say, “all of the above” but such a sweepingly inclusive answer is really no answer at all. Is it? I mean, you can’t just say “Oh, I like everything!” can you?
My answer to Anthony was “Time. And the freedom to shape it the way that I choose.”
Now, what did I mean by that?
No, seriously, what did I mean? Help me out. I haven’t a clue.
It is a good question that everyone who moves to a tropical country should ask themselves — especially if they retire to a tropical island — sort of a not-so-hypothetical hypothetical:
If you were suddenly given all the time in the world, what would you do with it?
Because, sooner or later, that is what you are going to end up with — time. Lots of juicy, attractive, undemanding, indifferent time. An embarrassing enrichment of time. A thick slurpy, boiling pot of overflowing time. A long flat plain to the horizon of time. A bottomless well of time.
And then you die. Or something.
But what to do between now and then?
People who come here with a plan can fill time pretty easily. Anthony, he of the question that started this whole thing, is building a school up north. So many of our friends came here to open up businesses or start new ones. Some — my retired friends — find themselves at the center of numerous civic fundraising projects, school volunteers, volunteer boards.
All of which makes me wonder . . .
Can one really be blissfully unaware of the steady beat of time while simply sitting in a chair, gazing out at the Caribbean sea, counting pelicans, noting passing boats, waiting for dolphins (and unicorns) as clouds float by?
Although, I prefer to call it meditation. (It is best limited to one or two sessions a day. Preferably early — before opening up Facebook and getting all obsessed with the crazy shit going on in the rest of the world.) I, alas, have found whole days slip by while in such a muse.
Some days I feel like high-fiving myself, just for bicycling into town to pay the electric bill. Hey, I chafe at the idea of strapping a Fitbit on my wrist. Technology can be such a bully.
Shameful, I know.
So, time is my mistress, and I am guilty of treating her indifferently.
The second part of my answer? “The freedom to shape time”?
I need to do a better job of that, too.
The first thing I need to do is stop attaching First World values to my time. In my old life, as a newspaper writer and editor, I was paid for my time and the words I wrote or edited to fill it. Often that time was compressed into deadlines and the words were expected to come fast, be accurate and be readable. The more I could do in less time, the more I was valued.
Until I reached a certain age and the whole business was sold off to money-grubbing . . . well, that is another story for another day.
After nearly 40 years, I reached an epiphany: “OK, enough of this bullshit.”
Part of the appeal of this blog is that it is so unlike the newspaper business. There are no deadlines, I can write what I want, it doesn’t matter if anyone else reads it or likes it … because it doesn’t make any money. I don’t need to be famous, at my age.
When people say I should be “monetizing the blog” my eyes glaze over. My one business plan for the blog is this: I need to go out and do interesting things so that I have interesting things to write about. Like entering the hospital for a few days. Hopefully, the type of “interesting” will improve with time.
In other words, it gets me out of the house. That’s all. Some days it may just get me out of bed and that may be enough. We’ll see.
But, I have other things I want to do:
Learn the harmonica. I brought one with me. I must learn before it, and I, get too rusty.
Learn Spanish and Creole. Belize is an English-speaking country but frankly the people having the most fun speak Spanish or Creole (or Kriol). Language opens doors. Face it, we’ll always be outsiders until we speak in the language of the natives — be it Spanish, music, dance, Arabic or Korean.
Read books. This I have done although finding books that are really interesting isn’t as easy as I thought. Just the same, who ever invented the Kindle is my hero.
Write a book. I don’t know why this is on the list. Every retired news person is expected to write a book so they can suffer one last humiliating rejection, when no one reads it or likes it. … A lot of people assumed that is what I would be doing with my time. So far, I have fooled them completely. (I refer you to the previous item and the over-abundance of uninteresting books already available.)
Record the oral history of Belizean elders before it is too late. Karen Brodie, a most-talented expat photographer, has spent the last year taking portraits of many of the island’s native elderly. The pictures tell a beautiful story and the deep lines on their faces suggest there is another story to be told.
Learn the unwritten history of San Pedro Town to really understand how it functions. Are there really seven ruling families? How do things get done? Who are the most powerful people and who has the power to make good happen? We come in from outside and expect things to be done our way. Why should that be? We’re the guests here. Understand and learn respect. That will make for a happier island.
Organize a monthly public roadside cleanup — for the first two miles north of the Sir Barry Bowen Bridge on Ambergris Caye. That would include the eastern shore public bike path as well. The whole island needs a cultural change when it comes to trash. And it is happening. I’d just like to make a small contribution.
Drop from a size 38 waist to a 34-36. This isn’t vanity. It comes with keeping myself healthy. I know a really good Pilates teacher who can help me reach this goal, too.
Learn how to use the GoPro that is sitting in a shoe box with 32 unique attachments.
Learn how to master this Chromebook and make it into something more than a typewriter and Internet tool.
Paddle a kayak from Ambergris Caye to the southern border of Belize, while touching on perhaps 20 of the country’s 200 islands. I would agree to have the entire journey filmed for the National Geographic Channel or Discovery — and also have a daily hookup with students in classrooms around the world.
Have the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan call me up some day and say, “Mr. Hawkins, we’re in a bind and need your expertise. A helicopter will be waiting for you at the San Pedro airport. Thank you.” A guy’s gotta have dreams, right?
Spend endless months at a Mayan city excavation site with a dental pick and a horsehair brush, peeling away the layers of dust until this once-glorious history is unearthed and exposed completely to the world.
Learn the names of and be able to identify every bird that lives in Belize. There are about 600 species in Belize, according to H. Lee Jones in “Birds of Belize.” I would like to learn how to sketch and waterpaint them too.
Learn the names and healing properties of every plant in Belize. Discover a new plant that makes people irrationally happy and content when times are tough. (No, not that one …) I would like to also sketch and waterpaint the plants, too. I am currently reading a very delicate copy of “Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Mayan Healer” by Rosita Arvigo, and it is fascinating.
And the barrier reef fish. Might as well paint the fish, too, because at the current rate of development their days are numbered. But so happy that Leonardo DiCaprio and his investors will be performing a rescue operation on an uninhabited island here, by turning it into an ultra-high end resort. Leo’s publicist should get a huge bonus for framing that conversation.
Be adopted by a small pod of dolphins on the barrier reef who would swim up to the dock every day and click-click, “Can Bobby come out and play?” Of course, I will try very hard to learn how to speak dolphin. Remember? Respect.
Reach the ultimate level of mindfulness through meditation, in which all things are revealed and the meaning and purpose of life is laid before me, exposed in all its naked truth. There will be no reality TV show around this one.
Bake bread. I think I could make a decent loaf of herbal sourdough bread.
Make a difference. In the end, isn’t this what we’re really all about?
I guess it would be really tacky to set up a crowd-funding website for all this. Wouldn’t it?