Crossing that bridge when we get to it

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The soon-to-be-replaced eastern span of the Bay Bridge. It goes from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island where vehicles travel through a tunnel to the western span and San Francisco.
The soon-to-be-replaced eastern span of the Bay Bridge. It goes from Oakland to Yerba Buena Island where vehicles travel through a tunnel to the western span and San Francisco.

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.

Out with the old. In with the new: TThis is an artist's rendering of the new Bay Bridge eastern span, a $8.4 billion work of art. For now. the old span is just to the right. Dismantling of it will be as interesting to watch as construction of the new bridge was.
Out with the old. In with the new: This is an artist’s rendering of the new Bay Bridge eastern span, a $6.4 billion work of art. For now. the old span is just to the right. Dismantling of it will be as interesting to watch as construction of the new bridge was.

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!

Closed for repairs: The Ministry of Works is  rehabilitating the Copper Bank/Chunox Ferry in the Corozal district. It will soon closing the larger Pueblo Viejo ferry for repairs.
Out of order: The Belize Ministry of Works is rehabilitating the Copper Bank/Chunox Ferry in Corozal district. The larger Pueblo Viejo ferry is also closing for repairs.

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!

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No! Not that trip to Belize

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Open letter from Belize Tourism Board to the cast of "Breaking Bad."
Open letter from Belize Tourism Board to the cast of “Breaking Bad.”

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.

Lighten up people! Yeah, the cast of "Breaking Bad" definitely needs a vacation to Belize ... and maybe some cargo shorts, t-shirts, sandals and suntans, too.
Lighten up people! Yeah, the cast of “Breaking Bad” definitely needs a vacation to Belize … and maybe some cargo shorts, t-shirts, sandals and suntans, too.

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.

With bookends for our trip, Belize will be a breeze

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Suddenly we have the other bookend for our trip to Belize in search of a new home.

San Pedro on Amberguis Caye -- our first stop on the road to a new home in Belize. Gosh, I hope there is a little room left on the island for us ....
San Pedro on Amberguis Caye — our first stop on the road to a new home in Belize. Gosh, I hope there is a little room left on the island for us ….

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.

Then what?

Well, then we have 10 days to go where ever and discover all that we can.

Tools for developing a vacation strategy. Filling 19 days in Belize isn't easy, when you have a wish list 30 days long.
Tools for developing a vacation strategy. Filling 19 days in Belize isn’t easy, when you have a wish list 30 days long.

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.

I am blessed with a step-son, Jon, who is my same size in shirts, shoes and backpacks -- and he has a much better wardrobe than I do. Thanks for the backpack, Jon!
I am blessed with a step-son, Jon, who is my same size in shirts, shoes and backpacks — and he has a much better wardrobe than I do. Thanks for the backpack, Jon!

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.

Waterproof camera for Belize? I’m on the case

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So, I now have an underwater camera for our trip to Belize.

This is the box my Lifeproof phone casing came in. My phone looks just like that. Imagine this phone without the case and imagine that it is falling into chocolate ... it could happen.
This is the box my Lifeproof phone casing came in. My phone looks just like that. Imagine this phone without the case and imagine that it is falling into chocolate … it could happen.

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.

Setting Belize aside for a moment ….

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“We can never have enough newspaper,” Cheryl Reynolds was saying Saturday morning to our little group of ten.

One of the storage areas that i got to organize today at International Bird Rescue. Anyone want 11 cases of Mr. Clean? It is way too fragrant to use on the birds.
One of the storage areas that i got to organize today at International Bird Rescue. Anyone want 11 cases of Mr. Clean? It is way too fragrant to use on the birds.

Yet another workshop on the future of print journalism?

Nope.

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.

An hour later, the area looked like this. Well, it's a start ...
An hour later, the area looked like this. Well, it’s a start …

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.

This little guy -- an egret? -- looks like its waiting for some friends to get out of the recovery room....
This little guy — an egret? — looks like its waiting for some friends to get out of the recovery room….

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.

The beautiful new pelican enclosure at International Bird Rescue. Even the biggest birds have room to fly.
The beautiful new pelican enclosure at International Bird Rescue. Even the biggest birds have room to fly.

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.

Keeping track of the customers who have passed through International Bird Rescue in Fairfield, Ca.
Keeping track of the customers who have passed through International Bird Rescue in Fairfield, Ca.

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.

Somewhere in Belize there is a party going on

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Just a little over a week until we head for Belize on the “Truth or Die” Tour.

Maybe that is excessive. Let’s call it the “Boots on the Ground” Tour.

I’m excited to learn that we will arrive in time for the start of two major annual events in Belize: The Christmas Holiday season and the final months of hurricane season.

You have to love a country that can stretch out a holiday over five months.  Actually the holiday season is composed of many disparate celebrations sewn into one long seamless party that peaks with Christmas and Boxing Day, and ends with the new year.

It starts Sept. 10 with commemoration of the Battle of St George’s Caye in 1798,  when  early settlers of what became British Honduras defeated a much larger Spanish invasion force.

Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t just about every nation have a day of celebration in which they defeated the Spanish at one place or another?

That’s followed appropriately enough by Belize Independence Day on Sept. 21, marking the end of English rule in 1981, and the emergence of the new Belize nation.

I think what I said about the Spanish may hold true for the English. I mean, what country doesn’t celebrate some sort of independence from British rule?

Well, the holidays, big and small, go on from there. Maybe this is just a marketing bit to get the tourism industry through the long low slough to high season but I’m all for it. Anything that can bring out a nation’s better side and put its talents on display for the world to see — well, that’s worth celebrating.

As for Hurricane Season, I guess it has been in play since June and despite a sluggish start, forecasters are looking for a strong finish. That should cheer up the cable news channels which love to position every storm center as the Next Big Apocalypse into which they position their celebrity newscasters waist high in turbulent surf so that they can prove that it is indeed wet outside …

Caribbean storms once helped fill the vast cable TV news void left when Washington DC went on summer hiatus.  I’ve always suspected that the absence of hot air in Washington combined with the wishful thinking of TV weatherman to create a low pressure zone into which Caribbean weather patterns were drawn and stirred up into demon storms.

Let’s go to the map!

Here’s what forecasters are saying for the balance of the Caribbean storm season, in incredibly specific language:  “We estimate that the remainder of 2013 will have about 8 hurricanes (average is 5.5), 14 named storms (average is 10.5), 75 named storm days (average is 58), 35 hurricane days (average is 21.3), 3 major (Category 3-4-5) hurricanes (average is 2.0) and 7 major hurricane days (average is 3.9).”

We will pack rain ponchos.

Getting ready for Belize!

Rose spent part of yesterday poking pins into our mounted map of Belize, indicating all the places we want to visit during our three weeks. You can pretty well summarize the activity like this:  everything from Placentia, north to the border with Mexico and west to Guatemala.

And why not? Every town seems to hold a different and intriguing piece of the puzzle that is Belize.

I’ll attach a few photos here so you can see what I mean. The pins are a little hard to see, but there are plenty of them.

Approaching Belize from the west, you can see how I tried to get fancy with attaching ribbons but out plans are proving more fluid and, really, there aren't that many main roads in Belize. Rose's pins show more in detail where we'd like to stop along the way.
Approaching Belize from the west, you can see how I tried to get fancy with attaching ribbons but out plans are proving more fluid and, really, there aren’t that many main roads in Belize. Rose’s pins show more in detail where we’d like to stop along the way.
Coastal Belize --so many vilalges and towns to see en route to Placencia -- Dangriga, Hopkins, Sitee Point, Maya Beach ...
Coastal Belize –so many vilalges and towns to see en route to Placencia — Dangriga, Hopkins, Sitee Point, Maya Beach …
This area is the most intriguing -- the western part of Belize, from the capital of Belmopan to the border with Guatemala. Such towns as Spanish Lookout and San Ignacio are beckoning.
This area is the most intriguing — the western part of Belize, from the capital of Belmopan to the border with Guatemala. Such towns as Spanish Lookout and San Ignacio are beckoning.

Cruise line buys Belizean caye of its own

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Norwegian Cruise Lines is nothing if not persistent.  Denied permission to build a cruise ship terminal on an island off southern Belize earlier this year, NCL announced on Wednesday the purchase of another set of islands, called Harvest Caye (pronounced “key”), that it plans to turn into a southern tourist attraction for its cruise ship passengers.

Artist's rendering of Norwegian Cruise Lines vision for its southern Belize port on Harvest Caye.
Artist’s rendering of Norwegian Cruise Lines vision for its southern Belize port on Harvest Caye.

The big difference is that the original island, Crawl Caye, was in a marine reserve that formed part of the barrier reef —  a World Heritage Site. It was a clumsy, insensitive move that was ultimately rejected by the Belizean government, despite its outspokenly favorable attitude toward the cruise ship industry.

The government, which has a memorandum of understanding with NCL encouraging eco-sensitive development of an off-shore port in southern Belize, said it would approve the right proposal.

NCL may have found the right one. The 75-acre Harvest Caye, three miles off Placencia, has already been approved for resort development.

Currently all cruise ships check into Belize City to the north, the country’s largest and most crime-ridden city. Some cruise lines have cut back on stops in Belize, the major reason given being port congestion. Belize took in 728,000 cruise passengers on 315 cruise ships last season, October 2012 to May 2013, according to Business Research & Economic Advisors.

The entire population of Belize, a country the size of Massachusetts, is about 300,000.

A second cruise destination would certainly relieve pressure on Belize City, for a short while. NCL has several new ships under construction and says it wants to quadruple its business with Belize.

While NCL would like the cruise terminal open in time for the 2014-2015 season there are many critics lined up against the plans. The sudden disgorgement of thousands of passengers runs contrary to the country’s eco-tourism strategy, they say.

NCL promises the $50 million project will be sensitive to the surroundings and “eco-friendly,” but a project this large is a game changer regardless of what is promised.

According to an NCL press release, “While the master plan for the 75 acres is still under development, the vision is to create a world-class cruise destination, consisting of two locations: an island destination with docking/tendering facilities and a mainland connection point for inland tours.

“Major components of the project are anticipated to include a floating pier, island village with open-air structures on raised platforms, marina, transportation hub for tours to the mainland, a lagoon for a variety of water sports and a relaxing beach area. The goal is to design an authentic experience grounded in the storyline of nature, ancient culture, art, adventure and music that celebrates Belizean, Mayan and Garifuna history and culture.”

That’s some pretty big stuff.

IDEA Inc., a Florida company that designs ”branded ports” has been hired to carry out the vision.

It’s here: ‘House Hunters International’ unofficial drinking game

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I have grown children so I know all about drinking games.

For example, they tell me that “Shark Week” is one long drinking game during which viewers pound back a slug of beer  when they hear an Australian accent, when a shark leaps from the water, when a diver enters an underwater cage, etc.

Besides the sociability, these games are often designed to highlight, if not outright mock, the mind-numbing triviality and repetitive cliches which stitch these programs together.

house-hunters-internationalHere’s my candidate for a drinking game: “House Hunters International” on the HGTV cable channel.

Don’t misunderstand. I love this show. Rose and I can watch two to three episodes a night before we have to do something useful, like slap each other up the side of the head to restore blood circulation to the brain. “House Hunters International” is the TV version of crack for budding ex-pats.

The fact that all episodes are shoehorned into the same template, regardless of where they take place, is what makes it so suitable as a drinking game.

Here’s the template:

A couple – gay, straight, married, unmarried, just friends, doesn’t matter– from somewhere in the U.S. decides to move to a foreign country where a nice looking real estate agent asks them what they are looking for in a new home and how big a budget they have to work with.

The agent then proceeds to show the couple the first of three properties. Usually one property is under budget, one is over and one is spot on. Usually. Sometimes two of the three can be over budget if the seekers have unrealistic expectations.

 After the three properties have been shown, the seekers must make a decision. But first they must throw out one of the three properties. That done, they enter into some half-hearted, sometimes whiney, banter over the remaining two, culminating in the Miraculous Agreement. Yes they always agree on one or the other property. And act pretty pleased about it.

I’d fall out of my chair if a couple failed to agree on a house and, in fact, separated after an angry spat. Just ain’t going to happen. Even though you can sometimes sense the strain when, perhaps, only one half of the duo is following a dream of becoming an ex-pat ….

Anyhow, two or three months later the crew checks in. The chosen abode is appropriately personalized and the ex-pats  are just flat out – happy. With their lives. With their new house or condo. With everything. … Just. So. Damned. Happy.

“House Hunters International” is like ex-pat catnip.

(Just for a change I’d like to see the film crew return to find a couple of ill-groomed retirees floating in a sea of beer bottles and pot, with every stick of furniture just as they left it. … You can’t tell me ex-pat retirement doesn’t have its dark side.)

But enough of that. Watch a few episodes and I promise you’ll be hooked, slipping into a phantasmagorical reverie  of a life lived on the Left Bank, in a steamy Latin jungle, on a sun-dappled Caribbean beach, in a London flat, in an Amsterdam aerie, in a Thai retreat ….

So, here’s the show and the rules for the House Hunters International Drinking Game. Please, play responsibly and don’t abandon your home for an ex-pats life until you’ve sobered up:

  1. Every time a seeker says “Wow!” — take a drink. (Be careful. This one alone will put the most stalwart game players under the table quickly. There are a lot of “wows” – often warranted – on this show.
  2. Every time someone enters a room and says “Awesome!” — take a sip.
  3. Every time the camera cuts to a real estate agent tapping away on a laptop (usually after the second property has been shown) – take a drink.
  4. If the real estate agent is walking on a city sidewalk or a beach with cellphone to ear – take a drink.
  5. If the real estate agent makes a face filled with gastric discomfort after hearing the couple’s budget – take a drink.
  6. If the seekers insist on both a swimming pool and an ocean view – take a drink.
  7. If the seekers insist on an ocean view and swimming pool and ultimately pick a property that has neither – take a drink (and send one to the table where the real estate agent is sitting …)
  8. In fact, if any non-negotiable is abandoned by the end of the show – take a drink for each one.
  9. If the real estate agent confides to the TV audience that one or the other “will have to compromise” – take a drink.
  10. If the seekers insist on being close to the urban action, then complain about the street noise that rises up to the balcony – take a drink.
  11. If the husband stretches out on a bed – take a drink. Take a second drink if his feet hang out over the end of the bed.
  12. If the wife complains about the size of the kitchen or the bathroom – do not take a drink.
  13. If the husband complains about the size of the kitchen or bathroom – take a drink.
  14. If an objection to a house somehow feels contrived for the benefit of the narrative – you’ll know after a while — take a drink.
  15. If there are continuity issues – winterbound Vermonters with deep  tans on their first day hunting for a Caribbean island apartment, for example – take a drink.
  16. If the couple decides to go out and buy a dog before they know where they will be living or if they have a job – take a drink.
  17. If either seeker is still wearing the same outfit by the time the third property is shown – take a drink.
  18. If the couple is walking and holding hands as they discuss the three properties – take a drink.
  19. If they high-five each other or kiss at the end of the selection process – take a drink.
  20. If they have no body contact at the end of the process – do not take a drink (and plan on snagging that property for yourself as soon as you can get to Chile or Australia or Wales…)
  21. If the couple goes over budget – take a drink.
  22. When someone in the same room says “I want to live there!” — take their drink away.
  23. If you actually guess which property the couple will select – take a big drink.

That last one happens less often than you would think. I mean, who knows what is really going on in their heads and how much money they really have to work with? In fact, there are all sorts of variables that just can’t be packed into a single program, making an accurate pick tricky.

That’s all part of the challenge. We have seen some fabulous — and fabulously affordable —  properties on this show. Right along with the couples seeking a new home, we’ve said “wow” to charming spaces, artisan quality craftsmanship, breathtaking views and the low rents and mortgages.

The wow factor is pretty big. I mean, why would you travel halfway around the world to live in a ho-hum house in a blah-blah-blah community? Maybe if you are in a witness protection program. But not if you are going about the business of reshaping your life, controlling your destiny and launching into the next big adventure of your lifetime.

You want the “Wow!”

And I’ll drink to that.

PS: Any other rules come to mind? Post them in the comment section below!

Leo’s Belizean island bling fuels fantasy

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Many of you have asked, “Will you be living next door to Leonardo DiCaprio in Belize?”

To which I reply, “Ha. Ha.”

Surely everyone knows that Leo – may I call him Leo? – owns an island. To live next door would mean treading water for an awfully long time.

DiCaprio’s 104-acre  island is about two miles long and just off the coast of Belize City. Are private islands to become the new celebrity Belize bling? The new gated community? (Everyone knows paparazzi can’t swim.)

Well,  there are about 450 more cayes (pronounce it “keys”) out there and many are indeed for sale. So it seems inevitable that celebrities would start scooping them up like jewelry. Hey, wouldn’t you if you had millions of dollars at your disposal?

As a selling point, quite a few of them list their proximity to DiCaprio’s island, Blackadore Caye. Like this one, Rosewood Caye — 25 acres and yours for under $1.3 million. It claims unobstructed views of Leo’s island, a mere four miles away.

Not that you’ll spot Leo through your binoculars or be able to cruise over and invite him aboard for drinks. DiCaprio and a co-investor plan on developing the island as a Four Seasons eco-resort. What the future owners of Rosewood will see is a presumably lovely and extremely expensive resort that is at one with nature and American Express. Maybe. It has been nine years since the island was purchased.

Wee Wee Caye, yours for a little over a half-million dollars. But it is no where near Leonardo DiCaprio's caye.
Wee Wee Caye, yours for a little over a half-million dollars. But it is no where near Leonardo DiCaprio’s caye.

My current favorite Belizean island for sale is one sent to me by my son Ryan. We shares my fantasy streak, apparently. It is called Wee Wee Caye (Yes, wee wee key) and it comes with its own solar power, dock, boats, marine research facility and a list of universities that have leased it in the past. Less than an acre, the appropriately named Wee Wee is off the coast of central Belize, far from Leo’s domain.

In Belize, DiCaprio isn’t the first celebrity to come up with this idea, either. In 2001, director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, bought Turtle Inn, a resort in Placencia. Hurricane Iris almost immediately obliterated the place leading Coppola to think, “My god, what am I doing? Living through “Apocalypse Now 2: The Resort”?

Coppola must have been toughened by the endless series of off-screen (well on-screen, too,  if you count Marlon Brando) disasters that accompanied the making of his masterpiece “Apocalypse Now.” The Coppolas set about rebuilding the resort in their own vision, which is today an award-winning combination of rustic and elegant.

Our budget teeters more toward the rustic, so if anything, Turtle Inn will be a drive-by glimpse in the mirror. Those $400-plus per-night off-season rates are too rich for me!

Placencia is really a slender, dangling peninsula, not a caye.  I get the impression that it is a less-developed version of the slender, dangling Ambergris Caye, which is an island and the country’s leading tourist destination.

But, hey, wait a moment. As the oceans continue to rise — thank you, climate change — you have to wonder how many of these islands will be around in 50 years or so.  Not that I’ll be around to shore up the shore.

Still, owning an island has got to be one of the all-time top day dreams. They all seem to come standard with white sand beaches (often imported to the islands), mangrove forests, palm trees, aquamarine blue waters and heavy, heavy fantasy potential.

Buying one would make for a great episode of “House Hunters International,” the HGTV series that can be ridiculously addictive.

I can hear the narrator, Andromeda Dunker, now: “Coming in at $1.2 million, Bob and Rose’s budget is going to provide some challenges. Finding an island close to Leonardo DiCaprio’s  that has a five-bedroom cabana with hot running water and flushing toilets, wet bar, pool, 9-hole golf course, WiFi and a deep-water dock won’t be easy ….”

Guy’s gotta have dreams, don’t he?

In a rootless world, seeking a home in Belize

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I came across an interesting term today, “serial relocators.”

The fellow who used the term is Dan Prescher, a correspondent for International Living, a magazine/website/enterprise rather breathlessly devoted to convincing people that they can have a hell of a lot more fun living somewhere else in the world — somewhere other than wherever the heck it is  they are now.

Under our current circumstances, Rose and I mostly agree with the contention.  There are better options than trying to live out our lives in California. We love California. We just can’t afford California. Not the way we’d like to live anyway.

According to Prescher, during the last 12 years he and his wife “have called seven locations in four different countries home.”

My first thought was “Wow. Get restless much?”

But to be fair, Prescher essentially works as a foreign correspondent for International Living, so a certain amount of mobility comes with the territory. Prescher acknowledges as much in a recent IL essay: “We’ve gotten used to moving every few years to different places and writing about them…places that offer something special to expats seeking new opportunities and adventures abroad.”

So, he’s just a guy chasing a story, trying to stay current with the latest ex-pat trends.

In truth, there are all sorts of “serial relocators.” Some, like Prescher are chasing employment. Others are chasing a dream. Others are running away from something. Others are nourishing an appetite for change. Some might be trying to reconcile a failed ex-pat fantasy. Some are making a calculated financial move. Others are just restless, for whatever reason.  Regardless of the motivation, mobility seems easy, almost too easy, as many Second and Third World countries discover that First World retirees can be a useful revenue stream and employment generator.

On the one hand I admire that kind of mobility. In today’s wired in world you can have mobility and connectivity simultaneously. Parachute into a new country for a couple of years, soak up the culture and camaraderie and then jet pack out to the Next Big Thing — all the while  hanging on to your newly found friends by Skype, e-mail, blogging, Facebook … friends and family are only as far away as your next WiFi connection.

When my stepson, Jon, and his partner, Quinn, were developing their project lifeoutofthebox.com in Nicaragua, many were the night that Rose would talk with them face-to-face on Skype. Seriously it is the next best thing to being there.

It may sound paradoxical but one of the reasons Rose and I look forward to living in Belize is so we can travel more frequently. Our hope is that this move will bring our living expenses so far below our income that we will have something most of us have not seen since the 1980’s – a surplus. And that surplus could translate into travel for us.

Our intent is to move to Belize and throw ourselves into our new life there for six months to a year … and only then stop to figure out whether we have found a true home or not. Key to this, as another Belize blogger once wrote, is to approach the country as a potential immigrant, not a potential ex-pat. Make the emotional commitment.

I suspect it will take a lot to convince me to seek happiness elsewhere. I tend to stay put where ever I plant my roots — until nature, need or necessity forces me to move on. I’m the guy, after all, who spent 30 years in San Diego working for the same company.

If I were really honest with myself I’d point out – to myself – that I lived in 10 different places over those 30 years and held at least a half-dozen uniquely different positions with the newspaper company. So, it is not like there wasn’t variety during my San Diego tenure.

One of the attractions of Belize is the marvelous puzzle that it presents when trying to figure out just where to call home. There is so much variety, all within a nation no bigger than Massachusetts. (You see that comparison in virtually every story written about Belize. And Massachusetts, by the way, is not exactly tiny, says the guy who lived for many years in Rhode Island.)

Right now, we’re trying to get past all the easy stereotypes that are generated in the tourism and travel book descriptions of the myriad Belizean geo/cultural regions.  That’s something we won’t be able to honestly do until we’ve spent three weeks roaming around the country, sampling the fare.

Without even stepping into the country I’ve conjured up impressions and prejudices about various regions. Those are the main things that I don’t intend to pack when we travel to Belize later this month. I want to look at everything with an open mind, an open heart and an objective sensitivity.

Rose and I both expect that upon our return we’ll be able to pretty definitively answer the question “Where will you be living in Belize?” But, will we be living there for the rest of our lives? That’s going to take a lot longer to answer — and researching that answer will be just the adventure we are seeking.