This morning we walked down the beach to the Exotic Caye Resort so Rose could attend a yoga class. A nice breeze kept the temperature cool and activity on the island seems to be picking up with the weekend.
As luck would have it, there is the Melt Cafe downstairs from the studio with a very strong WiFi signal.
So I ordered up some WiFi, fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee and a bagel.
Mark and Michelle, both retired from the Air Force, recently took over the Melt and are working hard to make a go of it. Yes, working hard is not a foreign concept in the island.
As Michelle pointed out, there is hard work and there is working hard at something you enjoy. And they clearly enjoy their cafe.
This is their first go at a restaurant — in the military, Mark was in telecom and Michelle was in operations. They are emphasizing fresh and local with a nice dose of warmth and personality.
This is a slow time on Ambergris Caye for any business, said Mark. Come October and the high season, everybody starts making a living. “You make your year from October to April,” he said. “After that it is all profit.”
Mark and Michelle took a year off after spending time in Afghanistan as consultants and moved to Las Vegas. When considering their next move they looked at a lot of countries but settled on Belize, specifically Ambergris Caye.
They are avid divers and love fishing and some day in the future there will be a boat of their own. Meanwhile they are working from 6 a.m to around 3 p.m. at the cafe and are thinking of eventually adding dinner to the menu.
They’ve got their two-bedroom oceanfront condo, their business and their dream and they sure seem to be enjoying all of them.
- OK … inhale, hold breath … jump! (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Hello, Belize, you beautiful, colorful, complicated thing you! (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Waterproof camera for Belize? I’m on the case (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Exclusive: Q and A on Why Belize? (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- No! Not that trip to Belize (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Setting Belize aside for a moment …. (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Stuff we think we know about Belize (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- In a rootless world, seeking a home in Belize (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
After experiencing a genuine San Pedro traffic jam this morning, Rose and I naturally went out and rented a golf cart for the afternoon. At least we went north of San Pedro, away from the traffic.
Even then, the clerk was horrified when I told him we were headed to the north end of the island.
“You know its been raining,” said Allen.
My blank face gave nothing away. So he continued, “The road is filled with potholes and ruts and big puddles. If you get the motor wet, it is a long way to push it back here.”
Point well taken.
He recommended going no farther than the Palapa Bar, about a half mile north of the toll bridge. We did make it a little farther, to the Grand Caribe resort.
And Allen was right to be concerned. “Washboard” doesn’t begin to describe the rutting of these dirt roads in the rainy season. My teeth and kidneys couldn’t have taken another half mile of it.
Seriously though, worse than the road is the mosquitoes.
Every time we stopped to look a a house behind a for sale sign they would swarm the cart and try to tip it over. Only the most reckless swerving on my part kept them from getting a good grip on it. Unfortunately a few thousand got through and attached themselves to major parts of my body.
So proud to be giving blood in Belize. Wish it were for a greater cause.
As everyone knows, it is not the bites, it’s the itching.
Then there’s the Dengue Fever epidemic. Apparently 19 people on the island have contracted Dengue in the past couple of week. The culprit is a small black and white striped mosquito. Frankly I didn’t look at their markings as I squeegeed them off my arms and legs. I’ll let you know if I begin to ache in my joints, contract fevers and acquire headaches.
The best antidote for a mosquito attack is a Belikin beer out in the Palapa Bar. II think the mosquitoes are either afraid to swim or can’t fight the headwinds coming off the water. At any rate, they didn’t follow us down the pier to the bar.
Like most places we’ve visited so far, this place was nearly deserted. In fact, while my burger was cooking, the few remaining guests got up and left.
That left bartender Ronny, a native Belizean, time to tell us about the enormous New England Patriots logo tattooed on to his right forearm. Seriously, why not a soccer team, like Manchester United or Chelsea? He’s just always been a fan, well, at least since his high school football coach told him about the Patriots.
Coolest feature of the Palapa: There is a cluster of inner tubes gathered in the warm Caribbean waters below the bar. You can lounge on them and the bar will lower drinks to you on a rope.
Since we had the golf cart for four hours we decided to see how far south we could go. Answer: Pretty far. It’s not like the cart has an odometer. It does have a turn signal which I was forever leaving on thus instantly becoming the old man in the gold cart you hate to drive behind …. The normally cheery Belizeans apparently are easily pissed off by tourists who forget to turn off their turn signals.
Sorry, my new friends. I’ll do better.
For the longest time last night we were the only diners in Wet Willy’s, a restaurant we chose for convenience and not the name. Wet Willy’s is an open-air palapa bar and restaurant that sits on the end of the pier across from our inn.
Seeing as Wednesday night was Ladies Night at Wet Willy’s, we were concerned that the joint might be packed.
No worries. All the hot action started later, long after we were sound asleep. If there was any action at all. San Pedro is much quieter than I imagined. There are no teeming throngs of tourists rushing down narrow streets like rainwater in the open gutter.
But there was plenty of rainwater in the open gutter, which might explain the lack of tourists, teeming throngs and otherwise.
This is the rainy season after all. But the rain and accompanying wind come as a refreshing break from the heat and humidity. It rained for a while before dinner last night, as we sat on the porch and sipped drinks. And it rained briefly this morning as we made our way to Estel’s for breakfast. Fortunately our rain gear is still safely tucked away in our backpacks ….
We met John and Rose East at Estel’s, an English-Irish couple who moved here permanently about 18 months ago. John is keeping a blog about the construction of their new home, just north of San Pedro. He also salts his entries with tidbits about their life on the island.
We kept Sam the waiter busy filling coffee cups for nearly two hours as they told us about island life and their decision to leave England for the tropics. John and Rose had been vacationing here for 14 years before making it their retirement home so it wasn’t on a romantic whim that they chose Ambergris Caye. In fact, they fell in love with it the first time they came here.
Clearly they are rich in information about making the transition but what was more reassuring was how at ease they are being strangers in a strange land. We’ll never be natives, they said matter of factually. Some here will never like you and some will become good friends. Over the years, they have gained many Belizean friends and many expat friends. But they never feel the need to join an expat club. They are comfortable moving among all on the island.
This was actually great news to me because I’m not a joiner by nature. I’ve never seen the inside of a Rotary luncheon or put on a Lions Club sash. But I really like people. And was concerned about making the adjustment from the US to Belize.
I think we’ve made our first friends in Belize.
After breakfast Rose and I took a long walk down the beach, past the remains of Ramon’s Village Resort. It was very sad. The oldest resort on the island and much-beloved by locals, Ramon’s went up in flames Tuesday night. The ruins are still smoldering. Fire took 29 units as well as a restaurant, bar, gift shop and offices. Power was out on much of the island for hours. The fire put a lot of people out of work, too.
Needless to say, it is the talk of the island.
Things have improved since the last major fire — in 1999 — during which the islands only water-pump truck experienced pump failure … after losing its transmission. Even so, it took the trucks precious extra time to arrive because the road on which the resort resides has been torn up for repaving.
That is repaving as in paving stones.
We passed by the roadwork on the way home this morning and golf carts were lined up as far as you could see as construction trucks backed in and out of the site. Seriously, an island traffic jam.
A couple of flights that can only be described — thankfully — as “uneventful” have brought us to Belize.
More specifically: the Blue Tang Inn at 1 Sandpiper Lane in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. (I’ve suddenly begun misspelling the caye as “Amberguis” on Facebook. What’s with that? Sleep deprivation?)
So, words fail me just now — hey, it is sleep deprivation!
Until the brain re-engages, here are some early photos.
As we walked back to the inn we met our first San Pedro real estate agent, who naturally offered to help us find a home. We may drop back to chat with her.
Got to love that slogan: Belize in you, Belize in me, land of the free!
We’ve crossed the old Bay Bridge for the last time.
On Saturday Rose and I drove into San Francisco for the last time on the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. We had dinner with old friends and family at a great little restaurant called Roxy’s Cafe on Mission Street.
When we return from Belize in mid-September the beautiful and long-awaited $6.4 billion replacement bridge will be open to traffic.
We won’t be crossing the old bridge Tuesday night on our way to San Francisco International Airport. We’ve decided to take the subway, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), from Walnut Creek directly into SFO.
The night after we leave for Belize the old bridge will be shut down completely until Sept. 3 as they connect the new span to the roadway. So glad we won’t be around for that. There are few ways to cross over the bay and none of them are convenient for people who want to get into San Francisco from the East Bay.
Crossing on Saturday filled us with mixed feelings. The old bridge is, well, old. It opened in 1936. It has two levels — the upper is westbound traffic, headed into San Francisco. The lower level is all eastbound traffic. There is one spot on the eastbound lanes where Rose, a San Francisco native, has to suppress feelings of panic and nausea. It has something to do with the design of the ceiling.
Neither of us can forget the images from the October 1989 earthquake in which whole sections of the bridge surface dropped out, taking vehicles and lives with them.
By contrast, the new bridge is an architectural delight — looking so light and airy as if it could float atop the famous San Francisco fog.
Unlike the western leg of the bridge, from Yerba Buena Island to the city, the new bridge comes with bicycle lanes. Crazy, I know, to essentially have bike lanes only halfway across a span. Perhaps someone will come up with a carrier business to transport bikes and riders from the island to San Francisco.
Anyway, my San Diego friend and former colleague Greg Gross promises to come up to Oakland when the bridge opens and we will cross it together on bikes. Greg is a New Orleans native who grew up in Oakland and is the author of a great blog “I’m Black and I Travel.”
I guess we’ll pedal over to Yerba Buena Island and back — since the bicycle path won’t connect to the island for some time — then look for a place to have lunch in Oakland. For now, cyclists are jokingly calling the bridge “the longest bike pier in the world.”
Another reason to anticipate the bridge opening is a sense of familial pride: My engineer son, Christopher, was involved in designing some aspects of the bridge. I think he had something to do with the cables.
Eventually the old span will come down and reveal the new one’s true unobstructed beauty. It promises to be as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge.
We’ll be sorry to miss all the bridge opening hoopla — ironically that is the sort of thing I helped plan for San Diego Association of Governments for a brief time. They loved holding ribbon cuttings for segments of highways, bridges, bike trails …. never a problem to get politicians to the opening of a transportation project!
By contrast, there are two small car ferries across rivers on our way to Corozal in Northern Belize. Both, I hear, are closed for repairs. I look at the humble ferries which move traffic across rivers in Belize and I wonder what that $6.4 billion spent on the Bay bridge could do for transportation in this country.
I guess, for now, they are non-bridges we’ll have to cross when we get there (and find an alternate route!)
The adventure starts Tuesday night!
- Bay Bridge bike path to Yerba Buena rolling along (sfgate.com)
- Lengthy, costly trail to Bay Bridge’s eastern span (sfgate.com)
- New east span of Bay Bridge set to open Sept. 3 (sfgate.com)
Our friends are now sorted into two camps: Those who watch “Breaking Bad” and those who don’t.
Before the recent season-opening episode news that we are planning to move to Belize was met by a whole range of reactions – mostly curious, supportive. Some nod wistfully and wish they could be moving there too. Some cautiously ask, “Have you really thought this through?” (We have.) Those who have been to Belize are unreserved in their praise for the little coastal country. Best. Vacation. Ever.
But ever since Saul suggested that meth kingpin/school teacher Walt should send his brother-in-law/DEA agent Hank on a trip to Belize the reaction to our upcoming, well, “trip to Belize” has been kind of interesting.
Those who watch the show understand all too well that Saul was employing a dual-edged linguistic dig into Walt’s ribs. It is a nifty sounding metaphor for offing Hank and maybe burying him in a shallow desert grave. On the other, Hank has apparently been claiming that another inconvenient character had fled to Belize, something apparently nobody believes — and I think Saul is kind of letting him know that.
I say “apparently” and “I think” because I’ve never seen “Breaking Bad.” Nor has Rose, although this week she watched the first half-hour of the very first episode on Netflix, just because so many friends are now associating our move to Belize with the show. She thinks she could get into it.
Me, I’m still not certain I want to invest the time.
But thanks to the recent episode, I’m now aware of how many people do watch “Breaking Bad.” I’d say, scientifically, it is a hell of a lot.
In a weird way I feel like a Level C celebrity, now that “Breaking Bad” has invested Belize with a cache of lethal coolness. I mean, we were talking about Belize long before “Breaking Bad” was, dude.
I think that — cooler than the “Breaking Bad” reference – is the way the Belize Tourism Board has responded to the suddenly – if fleetingly – hip expression. First, they get that it is a TV show. Second, they get that any publicity on television is worth a thousand tourism trade shows and a million newspaper stories.
So the government agency did the only possible thing it could do: It got on board with the show and invited the cast to get in bed with Belize. They turned “Breaking Bad” into “Breaking Good” for Belize.
The tourism folks, who claim to be fans of the show, have invited the cast on an actual trip to Belize once the show ends.
“We figure you will all need a little time to relax after a riveting season and, if you ask us, there’s no better place to relax than Belize,” writes the tourism board in an open letter to “Breaking Bad.”
They also have cleverly provided some vacation suggestions, keyed to the nature of each character: “… we have the Blue Hole for Walt, purple fish for Marie, geology for Hank, great music and friendly people for Jesse, delicious breakfast cuisine for Walt Jr., several nice locations to swim for Skylar, colorful clothing for Saul …”
The invite has gone crazy on media around the world, maybe even crazier than the show itself.
Hey, look at me, I’m writing about it and I’ve never even seen a commercial for “Breaking Bad.” Although if the cast does show up in Belize sometime in the future I’ll be the first to buy them a round of Belikin beers at Crazy Canucks or a Pantiripa at the Rum Cigar & Coffee House.
We should be right at home by then.
Suddenly we have the other bookend for our trip to Belize in search of a new home.
We’ve known for weeks that our time in Belize will begin with a few days in San Pedro on Amberguis Caye. And, yes, I know that is where every tourist in Belize goes.
No mea culpas here. There’s a reason everyone flocks to the sinewy, crowded island off the mainland coast. It seems to have everything you ever imagined in a tropical island – funky beach bars and restaurants, snorkel and scuba trips right out your front door, white sand beaches and palm trees, sun and … it’s the iconic island life you see in movies. And in your dreams. This is our decompression.
We soon enough grab a short flight back to the mainland, pick up a car and work our way north to the Corozal District and a little casita on Orchid Bay. Corozal holds some intrigue. I’ve read lots that says there’s nothing to do there. And yet, it is right up against the border with Mexico and mere miles from some of the most impressive Mayan ruins in the region. We’ll see what “nothing” really means.
Well, then we have 10 days to go where ever and discover all that we can.
Rose and I have been poring over blogs, travel stories, maps and books, especially a couple of Moon handbooks “Living Abroad in Belize” by Victoria Day-Wilson and “Belize” by Joshua Berman, as well as the Lonely Planet guide “Central America on a Shoestring” and the photo-rich and relentlessly upbeat “Belize” from Insight Guides.
Still, filling those 10 days has remained sketchy at worse and aspirational at best. We’ve stuck enough pins in our map to keep us on the road for 30 more days.
We are trying to balance our roles as tourists and prospective immigrants. Blue Hole? We can visit that once we live here. The Mayan ruins of Altun Ha, Xuanantunich and Cahal Pech? Perhaps two out of three on this trip. The remote and lesser developed Toledo District of Southern Belize with its great hiking and camping? Once we live here.
Then yesterday, as if it were reading our mind, Groupon sent Rose a new offer for a package deal at a resort in San Pedro with a name that reminded me of that lovely film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” – only this is the Exotic Caye Beach Resort. (Did I mention that “caye” is pronounced “key” in Belize?)
That would put us roughly back where we started and seems a great way to end our trip.
Now with fewer days in the middle, the rest of our trip has fallen into place: two days in San Ignacio in the western most territory, near the jungle-enshrouded border with Guatemala and three days along the middle coast exploring Dangriga, Hopkins, Maya Beach and Placentia – all potential places where we could eventually live.
Daddy, start packing
One other event today brings this trip ever closer. My backpack arrived. Actually it belongs to my step-son Jon who has spent the past year-and-a-half in Nicaragua and Guatemala working on his “Life Out of the Box” project. Jon and his partner Quinn are back in the states through the holidays so he graciously gave up this huge rucksack, a Gregory Whitney, so I wouldn’t have to buy a new one.
Now I must begin imagining what I will fill it with.
So, I now have an underwater camera for our trip to Belize.
It is called an iPhone.
Well, an iPhone wrapped in a Lifeproof casing, which the company boasts is “Water proof, dirt proof, snow proof and shock proof.” I think it might even float.
My step-daughter Caira bought one first – I think for yet another reason: She is constantly smashing the screen on her phone. This casing should slow down the fracture-rate.
Cai and a friend tested the case by taking some underwater photos and videos in a neighbor’s pool. They came out spectacular.
Given the clarity of the water in Belize, I think this will be adequate for aquatic shooting!
(Update: The Lifeproof case was a gift from my beloved wife and partner, Rose Alcantara, for which I am most grateful! Jeesh, how did I leave that out?)
The Lifeproof case came with a bonus: improved audio. Ever since my phone got basted with melted chocolate (not a long story but not that interesting …) the audio has been almost non-existent. Now I can actually hear people talking when the speaker is on.
If the case lacks anything it is a loop for a cord to hang the phone around my neck or wrist. Chances are I will drop it in the water and test the supposition that it may float. If not, I’ll be doing some rapid dives to recover it.
On a side note, my design engineer son Christopher is on a quest to build an insulin pump that is “as tough as the people who use it.” Lifeproof is all about iPhone and iPad cases but it occurred to me that Chris, who has had diabetes since age 2, should talk to them about designing a shock-proof, water-proof case for insulin pumps.
Chris breaks as many insulin pumps as Cai breaks phones.
He’s an active guy – mountain biking, running, snowboarding, skydiving, wakeboarding. Diabetes has never defined his lifestyle and he’s not the only one.
Right now, he is on an 18-day trek down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon with some friends. He packed three insulin pumps in separate waterproof bags and stashed them on separate boats. Maybe with a pump made for his kind of lifestyle he wouldn’t have to do that.
I’ll have to wait until he gets back to hear what he thinks of the Lifeproof idea.
“We can never have enough newspaper,” Cheryl Reynolds was saying Saturday morning to our little group of ten.
Yet another workshop on the future of print journalism?
Volunteer orientation for International Bird Rescue. When you process hundreds of wounded, sick, abandoned sea birds in scores of cages, yes, you need newspaper to line the cages.
I listened with a grin and tried not to dwell on the irony of a 40-year newsman confronting the ultimate end of his lifetime work.
I was at the sprawling facility on the wind-raked and sun-baked edge of the Suisun wetlands to become a volunteer. Two days earlier I hadn’t a clue that this facility existed until I passed by while out on a bike ride. A half-mile up the road I turned around – something turned me around – to investigate.
Next thing I know I was telling myself, yes, I could put in a few hours a week helping these folks.
The Fairfield complex is one of two first-call facilities during the inevitable oil spill off the coast of California. In fact, by caring for birds all year long, the legion of volunteers and handful of full-timers here are preparing themselves for the day when a tanker sinks or an oil well erupts in fire covering scores of sea birds in oily muck.
I can give them a couple of mornings before we leave for Belize and perhaps more time upon our return. Very excited to be able to help.
Is there a Belize connection? Sort of. There is Belize Bird Rescue, which focuses mainly on parrots and other exotic birds. But there are also shore birds and sea birds and where they exist there is conflict with development and birds in need. Some way, I’m sure, I’ll be able to apply the knowledge I learn here in Belize.
Beside, take one look at this International Bird Rescue bird cam and tell me you wouldn’t want to work here!
Jumping right in
Tuesday morning I drove to International Bird Rescue to begin my first day as a volunteer – well, half day.
I walked through the gate, dropped my bag and immediately began helping to off-load boxes of frozen fish from a tractor trailer. Not a word was spoken as we passed the boxes from truck to cart to freezer.
As I quickly learned, not a lot of words are spoken on the grounds. As Cheryl Reynolds explained, talk is kept to a minimum because these are birds bought in from the wild and, with luck, they will be returned to the wild someday. Human voices can cause stress and even worse, the birds could grow comfortable with the sound of humans and even equate it with food. You are not even supposed to make eye contact with the birds!
So there’s a kind of monastic air about the place. And that sort of reminded me of my years in a Catholic seminary where talking was limited to class time, some meals and the occasional recreation period. As much as I hated that time of my life, I liked returning to the idea of working in silence.
Thich Nhat Hanh had taught me many years ago that in the practice of mindfulness, silence must envelope you, your senses, your emotions, your environment.
So in the spirit of mindfulness, I went about picking up trash and organizing big piles of junk. Joyfully.
International Bird Rescue plans a big dedication ceremony for its newest facility, a very large enclosed pen for pelicans, gulls and other flying birds. It is so big that pelicans can fly from end to end, flapping their wings into the wind.
Lesser projects tend to get dropped and forgotten when a shipment of abandoned ducklings or a pelican with a fish hook in its throat arrives, so there is “stuff” lying all around the campus.
I spent the morning consolidating stuff – concrete blocks with concrete blocks, tree limbs with tree limbs, tools with tools. I did what I could to organize two depot areas for ice chests, PVC pipe parts, lumber, electric pumps and a host of odds and ends.
There’s more work to be done but I left after a mere four hours coated in dust, sweat and grime — with a big smile in my heart. It felt good to be useful.
The real beauty in this facility is the selfless work that the small staff and dozens of volunteers do to save the lives of aquatic birds. When there is an oil spill, I’m told, this place hums around the clock with machine-like production lines – washing oil off birds, feeding them, repairing wounds, giving them a chance to revive before release.
I’d rather pick up trash than witness the devastation of an oil spill but the reality is that day will come. I hope I am ready.
Meanwhile, I’m hoping to do whatever I can to help International Bird Rescue put its best face forward when the public and politicians arrive for the dedication.