A “60 Minutes” piece from 1985 in which Morley Safer travels to Belize is cruising around the Internet. Like any 15-minute television essay on an entire country, it packs a little truth around a basket of cliches and misses more than half the story.
Tootling up and down the Belize River in a panga, Safer looks rather rakish in his rumpled white linen suit and black shirt — in a faded “Miami Vice” sort of way. He pronounces the country corruption-free, poor but not direly poor, filled with cheerful people from many backgrounds, a country comfortable with itself, a country ripe for exploitation, and on the cusp of great change.
Great change, from television.
He got that one right.
Safer also outlines what Belize is not — not a Banana Republic like many of its neighbors, not suffering under a brutal and despotic government like many of its neighbors, not overly exploited by the US like many of its neighbors.
A young Dean Barrow describes Belize as “fairly free from paranoia, fairly free from hysteria, and fairly free from excesses.”
Then came television, right?
Mind you, the country was officially less than five years old when Safer visited it. Thirty-five years later, Belize still seeks an identity of its own. I have been here just a bit more than four years and I feel less equipped to explain Belize to you now than when I first arrived.
Belize is still very much as Safer found it, and yet so much has changed.
The gentle mystery of Belize has grown into an intriguing enigma. And I love it all the more for the vast amount that I do not understand.
Yesterday I found a scrap of paper with an unattributed quote on it which expresses brilliantly the need for patience and persistence when trying to understand Belize. “(Do) not throw away a savory fruit because of the coarseness of its envelope.” Yes, Belize can be a “coarse envelope” but for those willing to dig in, the pleasures of discovery are immeasurable.
My own opportunities to understand Belize are running out because I will be leaving the country shortly, probably forever.
On April 15 I will enter the Immigration Office in San Pedro Town one last time and Marlon will flip through my passport filled with monthly stamps and curtly ask me how soon I am leaving Belize.
I used to say “Maybe never. I really like it here.” (Wrong answer.)
For once, I will give him an exact date, April 26.
I like to imagine that Marlon and I will both be a little sad that our game is coming to an end.
I won’t know for sure what I really think about Belize until I am far removed from it. Should somebody ask me tomorrow if they should move to Belize I would ask in return, “Are you curious to find out who you really are?”
If yes, then, by all means, move to Belize.
Belize isn’t some grueling trial by fire that beats you down like Marine Corps boot camp.
It is more a trial by inconvenience — but with sand, and palm trees, and incredible weather, and a beautiful blue sea, and a cold beer.
Mainly, it is not wherever it is that you came from. Not even close.
That can drive some folks crazy. How you deal with this stuff defines who you really are.
In the end, you may or may not like the answers, but you can’t deny their validity. You can’t hide from yourself in Belize. It strips away your pretenses, exposes your prejudices, crumbles your facades, challenges your illusions, magnifies your strengths and weaknesses.
If you are paying attention, Belize becomes the mirror you must stand before and say, “This is who I am. This is me.”
For example, I’m a lot more boring in real life than I ever imagined. Sometimes I write something people find interesting or enjoy and they mistakenly think I must be interesting and enjoyable when in fact, I’m not.
Which is most likely why I write.
To me, happy islanders are the ones who embrace such newfound revelations.
A real jerk now doing time in a Texas prison helped coin a phrase when he rampaged his wrecking-ball self through here: “If you were an asshole in Texas, you’ll still be an asshole in Belize.” Insert any state or nation. It still applies.
I was fairly shy and introverted in the states. Nothing has changed. I’m OK with that.
But let’s be real, most people don’t come here to discover themselves, or re-invent themselves, or run away from their old selves.
They come here because it is just a damn good place to live.
Even though I am moving on, I still feel Belize is a damn good place to live.
If there is a problem with living on a long narrow island such as Ambergris Caye, it is that pretty soon, the person you see coming toward you from the other direction is most often yourself. Or, worse, you pass the same places so often that you stop seeing them entirely.
I no longer dole out tips for living successfully on a Caribbean island. I no longer assume everyone has the same interests, tolerances, weaknesses, dispositions as me. I will say (again) duct tape, superglue and a hammer will get you past most every domestic infrastructure situation.
One more thing, if you must pass judgment on expats and locals, do it sparingly. Wait a few days and listen to all three sides to a story before doing so. You’ll be happier and your universe will grow larger.
Adam Marsland, a Los Angeles musician and self-proclaimed desert rat, recently observed, “I think all of us need some sense of a far horizon in our lives.”
For these past four years, the Caribbean island of Ambergris Caye off the coast of Belize has been our “far horizon.”
In all that time I couldn’t imagine a better “far horizon.”
Belize has fulfilled dreams and fantasies; opened up adventures, friendships, and discoveries; enabled growth and understanding — all of it beyond my limited horizons of a half-decade ago — and my even more-limited imagination.
Maybe it is because of all these things that I am now leaving Belize. I can never say I’ve grown too big for Belize but maybe the growth I have experienced has made tropical island life just a little too small.
For me, anyway.
If it is specifics you seek, on why I am leaving Belize (I never speak for Rose), you would hear a torrent of familiarities. All the usual cliches apply: lower cost of living, new cultural experiences, access to good medical services, closer to family, fewer bureaucratic hassles, more opportunities to travel elsewhere …
And on, and on. You have heard them all from the dozens of forever friends who left long before us. And they all apply.
One thing for which I will be forever grateful is how Belize taught me how very little I need to be happy. Living simply in Belize is not deprivation. It is about eliminating all the material things and status markers that defined you in your past life. Like a mango, the more you peel away to get at the fruit, the happier you become.
And Belize has made me very happy. I have wanted for nothing in my time here.
Belize’s greatest gift, and one I probably squandered most, is time. Time to sit and embrace the stillness, time to meditate, time to think, time to write, time to read, time to be, time to walk slowly, time to ride a bicycle, time to savor home-cooked meals (thank you, Rose), time to appreciate, time to fall in love all over again, time to recognize gratitude, time to be present.
But now there is only left time to go.