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?


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 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.

Oh. My. God. I’m not broke!

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Imagine my surprise when I found out that I still have a pension, and a six-figure one at that.  And a 401K/IRA, albeit a much punier bastard sibling.

I hadn’t looked closely at the books since Wall Street took our economy down. I just didn’t have the stomach. And besides I was still working full-time as a reporter, still loving the work I was doing and still thinking that I had a real future in my profession.

I won’t get into the indignities of being made a “part-time” employee after 27 years and consequently stripped of all benefits, including medical. I had a great run, after all, and will forever be grateful for the opportunities that came my way, whether I made good use of them or not.

The fact is, my world changed. But good – no, wonderful – things came with the bad. I’d gotten married to the most incredible woman, Rose Alcantara, and we were in the midst of a dance about how we were to merge her Northern California life and mine in San Diego.

Sometimes fate intercedes, when there is no clear path.

I quit the San Diego Union-Tribune and took a temporary, full-time communications job with a terrific public agency, San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).  And when that assignment was up I jettisoned most of my possessions (as I have done before in my life) and moved to Northern California to be with Rose.

Why didn’t Rose move to San Diego? Many good reasons: She had an infirm mother in her 90’s to care for; she had a lovely teen daughter, Caira (to whom I’d promised very early on that she would graduate high school with her friends); she had a hard-earned and thriving business in her own Pilates studio. Rose also had a large and beautiful home with an underwater mortgage that was an anchor tied to her dreams.

I pretty quickly realized that after nearly 40 years as a full-time newspaper and newsweb writer and editor whose every job was a gift of providence, I was ill-equipped to reinvent myself. (Can you imagine? I have a box of business cards on which I define myself as a “Content Evangelist.”)

I tried. I sent out scores of resumes into an eerie void of silence; I attended various classes on job searching and resume building; I was even a member of networking groups in two towns, both called Job Club – Napa on Mondays and Fairfield on Thursdays. There were some really smart and talented people in those groups and some who you could just tell would never seriously work again. There were broken spirits and also highly motivated souls determined to create their own next breaks.

I slowly came to the conclusion that as much as I love to write, I don’t think I could do it for anyone else any more. What’s the alternative when writing is all you have done for 40 years?

Well, there is retirement.

That’s when I blew the cobwebs off the links to my pension and 401K and opened the lids. (Cue that creepy screeching noise of rusty hinges.)

Oh. My. God. I’m not broke. Well, not completely.

The bad news is our “nest egg” is pretty modest. We could never move back to San Diego, for example, unless we wanted to live in some dry-toast rural East County trailer park. Our other dream, of moving into San Francisco, is tragi-comically inaccessible.  We could continue living in Fairfield but Rose was now filling her every waking hour with clients to meet her mortgage and other bills. My pension would help, but what then?

Some things began to happen. Caira graduated from high school and started college in Arizona. Last November, I got quite sick and required surgery (which wasn’t possible until April when I got enrolled in an early version of God-Bless-You-Obamacare). Both of my parents died and Rose’s mom passed away. And most recently, it appears that Rose’s house has risen above water, giving us the option of a debt-free life. Somewhere.

For reasons I have discussed before, we have opted to move to a foreign country. That would be Belize. For now, it appears that we can live comfortably, with financial room to spare, on my pension and Social Security alone. If Rose or I decide to supplement retirement with work – and we both suspect that we will – we have that option, too. We also have the option of traveling on our “surplus” income, developing a business of our own, house swapping, surfing, kayaking, reading, living…

It sort of comes down to this: Whereas before we faced an endless series of compromises and struggles living in the United States, we now face endless potential in a foreign country.

Will the reality prove us right or are we just a couple of dreamers who drank the promotional ex-pat Kool-Aid?

Well, finding out is just part of the adventure. Isn’t it?

Exclusive: Q and A on Why Belize?

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Bob Hawkins and Rose Alcantara on St Lucia in late 2011.
Bob Hawkins and Rose Alcantara on St Lucia in late 2011.

Dear friends, family and readers of Bound for Belize,

We are so excited to be presenting to you this exclusive interview with Rose Alcantara which we nailed down over lunch at the Athenian Grill in Suisun, California.

Rose Alcantara  is such a busy person. On this day she had already conducted Pilates sessions in her studio with nine clients between 6 a.m. and noon. So, you can see, getting her to sit for a series of questions was a real coup.

As we explained to her, there has been a growing clamor for answers to the big question: “Why Belize?” The subtext being, “My god, there are scores of places in which ex-pats are living happy lives in retirement, repose or regeneration.”

Her husband, Robert J. Hawkins, was available – he’s always available. Some call it retirement. But we wanted a fresh perspective to this very important question. So, over lunch, we put the screws to her thumbs and these are the incisive answers that came forth from Rose Alcantara. (Full disclosure: She paid for lunch. And we did go home with her after the interview … if you catch my drift.)

Question: Why become an ex-pat?

Rose Alcantara: I think it is time for an adventure, the newness of it all. With expectations for a less-stressful life, a less-expensive life and to get out of my sameness. You know, change it up a little.

Q: Interesting phrase “get out of my sameness.” What does it mean to you?

Alcantara: Instead of my day-to-day schedule driven by the demands of work and paying bills, a little freedom to choose what I want to do. To be able to open up my eyes, my taste buds, my sense of smell. To change my perspective on what living is, or is supposed to be.

Q: Why not just take a nice long vacation?

Alcantara: A vacation is just too short a time to step out of your comfort zone. Usually when you return from a vacation you are looking forward to sleeping in your own bed and getting back on schedule. I don’t want that. I want to bring out a different side of me and that can only be done by stepping out of your day-to-day routine for good.

Q: What makes you suited to being an ex-pat in what is decidedly a Third World country?

Alcantara: When I left university I got my first professional job as a dancer traveling in Middle Eastern Europe. That was followed by living for two years in Western Africa, in Gambia. I believe the time spent there prepared me for any drastic changes to my life today.

Q:  You have a reputation for being something of a globetrotter. Can you list some of …

Alcantara: Sure!  Egypt, Spain, France, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Wales, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, New Zealand, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, Virgin Islands, St,. Lucia, Andorra, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy … does Hawaii count?

Q: Ok, ok. We get it. Thanks.

Q:  And how about your husband?

Alcantara: Yes, he’s moving to Belize with me.

Q: No, no. We meant, how do you think he will manage in a Third World country. Has he been around much?

Alcantara (with a patient smile): He’s been to England, Mexico and St. Lucia … did we decide whether Hawaii counted? But seriously, he’s been keenly in favor of this move from the beginning. As for adaptability, he grew up in a family of eight boys and a sister and spent two years in a – to hear him tell it – hellishly Dickensian seminary. He can adapt and put up with a lot. Besides, just this morning he said to me, “Rose, I can live anywhere as long as you are there beside me.”

Q: Quite the romantic.

Alcantara: Would I marry a man who was anything less? I think not. Beside, being a romantic is helpful when you are moving from a way of life that you have embraced since you were born.

Q: Ok, so, why Belize?

Alcantara: It is consistently listed as one of the top 10 places to which ex-pats retire. The country’s official language is English. It is close to the U.S., less than two hours from Houston by air. It offers a variety of environments from coastal living to jungle. There is a multitude of cultures, Mayan ruins.

This is not to say the Belize is the definitive place to move for us. We’ll give it a good six months try and then see if it is a good fit.

Q: We understood you took a quiz in the magazine International Living which purportedly told you which ex-pat-friendly country best suited you.

Alcantara: You are good. Yes, you did your homework. We did take the quiz.

Q: And …

Alcantara: Well, my husband’s results pointed to Belize. Mine said Uruguay. But that is way far away if we have to come back for a family emergency.

Q: Does the proximity to the U.S, mean you are expecting visitors?

Alcantara: Oh, we’re counting on it. Part of our criteria is to find a place with a spare bedroom for guests. It will be very sad to say goodbye to so many friends. My children, I’m less worried about. They are well-traveled and I know we’ll be seeing them in our new home.

Q:  Can you draw us a picture of the life you imagine in Belize?

Alcantara: Ideally I’ll be able to work as a Pilates or yoga instructor, something in health and fitness, but perhaps for just a half of the day. Or we could create our own business in the hospitality area, maybe manage a residential project with my husband, or buy a larger fixer-upper that we can turn into a Bed & Breakfast.

Q: When did the idea of becoming an ex-pat first arise in you, during your wedding in Mexico last year, perhaps?

Alcantara: Really it was while following my son’s travels in Nicaragua, during the time that my mom died. Jon and his partner, Quinn, briefly managed a beautiful resort/hostel on a lake in Nicaragua. They were covering temporarily while the owner looked for a permanent manager.

Well, we immediately thought, “We could do that!” but we weren’t in a position to drop everything and fly to Nicaragua. But it got us thinking. My son also gave us a subscription to International Living, a magazine/enterprise devoted to convincing people to retire abroad. Also, my husband was so onboard with the whole idea.

Q: Don’t you see Belize as just a tropical extension of the American lifestyle?

Alcantara: Not really. We’re more interested in immersing ourselves in the local culture (of which ex-pats are a part). I want to experience the diversity of other cultures that make up Belize and live together in harmony.

Q: What will you most miss about your life in America?

Alcantara: Friends. (Long pause.) Friends. And family.

Q: Thank you, Rose Alcantara.

Alcantara: Anytime. Are you gonna finish that souvlaki or can I have it?

Seven more reasons to like Belize

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OK, so I lied (sort of).

I did (sort of) promise that the next post would begin to answer the question “Why Belize?” and I will get to that more directly in the next post, when I publish an exclusive interview with Rose Alcantara that I conducted today during lunch at the Athenian Grill in Suisun, California.

Meantime, here are some little bits that indirectly answer the big “why” question.

Seven more reasons to fall in love with Belize:

  1. The tallest building in all of Belize is an ancient  Mayan structure
  2. There are more than 900 Mayan sites in a country barely the size of Massachusetts. That’s more Mayan sites than Starbucks in Los Angeles.
  3. Belmopan, is the smallest capital city in the world.
  4. The country’s entire population fits somewhere in size between that of Riverside, California and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  5. There are around 450 islands off the coast of Belize. Can you imagine how long it would take to explore each one — allowing time in between for fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving? (One island is currently for sale for $450,000 and includes boats, a scientific research center and a dock. It is .86 of an acre and is 8 miles from shore. You should check it out. It is called Wee Wee Caye.
  6. Nowhere in Belize will you find McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King or Starbucks. You will find small cafes and lots of open markets with fresh food.
  7. It seems like there is a festival almost every day in Belize celebrating something, somewhere.

Primary Source: ReefCI

Stand by for the exclusive interview with Rose Alcantara!

Well, that was easy …

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Deciding to move to a foreign country was a lot easier a decision to make than either Rose or I had imagined.

It began sort of like this.

Rose: “Life shouldn’t be this hard. Let’s move somewhere that we can live well and not struggle to meet all these bills.”

Me: “OK.”

Mind you, some sort of decision has been in the works for some time.

It probably started in February 2012 when Rose and I got married in the Baja coastal village Los Barriles, which has its own growing ex-pat community. We have good friends who live there in a fabulously beautiful stone, glass and open air aerie atop a small mountain.

They’re happy. They’re part of a community of people who have time for each other. They do the sort of things we talk about. They live life on their own terms and don’t seem to be missing much.

Their life is more about “Guess what I did today!” and less about “Guess what I bought today!”

We could do this, we said, before turning back to the demanding business of being newly married and combining our separate lives into one.

But, one by one, lines that tethered us to this land fell away. Both my parents died in recent years. My career as a newspaper editor/writer died, too. Rose’s mom died. My three grown sons were out on their own, all with excellent jobs and two married. Rose’s daughter had begun college in Arizona.

Then Rose’s son, Jon, and his partner, Quinn, moved to Nicaragua to start a socially conscious business called Life Out of the Box. One night they showed up on cable channel HGTV’s “House Hunters International”  which followed them around the coastal town of San Juan Del Sur as they hunted for a cheap place to live while starting their business.

Everyone who has watched the show has gone away shaking their heads in disbelief. Jon and Quinn were shown three properties, as is the show’s inflexible format, and asked to decide on one. The first was a very inexpensive but sketchy apartment downtown with no hot water and a kitchen/common area shared with … whomever happened to be in the other bedrooms. The second was a brand new, but tiny, efficiency with a swimming pool.

And the third one.  Ah, yes, the third one. A little bit out of town, it was a spacious two-bedroom cottage with all-wood cathedral ceilings, fully furnished, a huge kitchen. Landscaping that just screamed “Welcome to Paradise!” All utilities and WiFi included.

The cost? A comfortably close to budget $700 a month.

Did I mention that it was a five minute walk to the beach?

Well, it was so obvious which one Jon and Quinn would choose. (Cue the tension driven “decision music” – Dunh … da da … dunh … da da … dunh dunh.)  Apartment Number one.

What? No. Wait. Jon? Quinn? What about No. 3 with the WiFi and hot water???? And CHEAP?

Well, they had their reasons.

But it occurred to us that with my pension and Social Security alone — if I chose to retire — we could afford way more than $700 a month, even though that dreamy Nicaraguan house was way more than adequate.

So, we started thinking … and looking.

Next: Yeah, but why Belize?