My brother Jim wanted to close out his recent visit with an experience on the mainland of Belize. We had two days left and the “tour” had to end up at the international airport for his flight home.
We put together a whirlwind tour. And if I don’t mind saying, this could well be the template for The Two-day Whirlwind Tour of the Mainland.
Two Maya archeological sites, the Belize Zoo, visits to Spanish Lookout and San Ignacio with one great dinner and one decent breakfast that included fryjacks — and of course the thrill of navigating through Belize City and risking life and limb on 70 miles worth of the George Price and Great Western highways, bisecting the entire country. Read the rest of this entry »
Earl left a mess along the seacoast of Ambergris Caye.
You probably already know that.
Mercifully it seemed uninterested in the rest of this long and narrow island.
But the coast…. It moved down the coast at 75-plus miles an hour and shaved off nearly every pier, like a razor carving bristles off a man’s jaw. Read the rest of this entry »
Still a few hours before the serious side of Earl begins to show himself but already he’s making himself known.
Already some planks on our dock are showing an independent streak. There will be some gaps before this night is done.
Mostly it has been intermittent drenchings and bigger than normal waves. Already our little retaining wall is proving no match for the waves, and fairly modest waves at that. The sky is a somber gray but the light still projects an eerie brightness, as if the air itself is burning phosphorescence. That, and the constant rumbling as the Caribbean’s massive waves trip over the barrier reef. Read the rest of this entry »
Sunday in San Pedro: Summer Solstice, global yoga, a Mayan blessing and the hunt for a stolen golf cart
Sunday morning came early and I awoke with a 50-pound quandary sitting on my chest.
Should I take the 5:45 a.m. water taxi to Belize City with Rose and participate in the International Day of Yoga events, which would no doubt bring harmony and peace to my troubled mind?
Should I wait beside the road at 9:10 a.m. for my friend Nick Barton and travel south to the annual Summer Solstice ceremony at the Marco Gonzalez Mayan Site? Perhaps I could ask the Mayan priest Martin Choc to pray for the recovery of our golf cart.
Or, should I just go looking all over the island for the golf cart that was stolen on Saturday night while we partied at the annual Lobsterfest Block Party? Read the rest of this entry »
Scene: A hospital recovery room in Belize. It is devoid of color, character and any hint of modernity. I think of the style as “institutional gothic.” It is early evening, there are six beds, all of them filled. Three are young men in their late teens, early 20s. All three have broken right legs, plus scrapes, bruises. Two have their right arms in casts. All have been in motorcycle accidents.
On the other side of the room in the bed closest to the door is a young guy whose lungs were punctured in a knife attack outside of a Belize City nightclub on Saturday night. In the middle bed is a much older — and very caucasian — expat, looking very, very lost. In the bed closest to the window is Franklin Grant, a quiet and gentle rasta guy with a scraggly beard, red eyes and no legs.
Over each bed is a dusty metal fan. They sweep the room 24-7 and provide what little relief there is from the heat. No air conditioning, no nurse’s call button, no button to adjust the beds.
Into the room bursts the busily portentous and bald headed doctor followed a retinue of young women in white, all carrying clipboards or notebooks, with two doctorly looking men trailing. Probably interns. They carry no notebooks and project studiously bored looks. Read the rest of this entry »
The pain started somewhere low in my throat. My breathing became shallow as the pain slowly oozed like black molasses across my chest and down my left arm.
My first thought was: “OK, this isn’t in our Belize Playbook.” Read the rest of this entry »
We’ve been back in California for a week now and while we’re no closer to deciding exactly where we will make our home in Belize — either San Pedro or San Ignacio — there is one thing to which Rose and I are firmly committed: We will be living in Belize by the end of February 2014.
Rose has been quietly explaining our plans to each of her Pilates clients this week and the reaction falls somewhere between enthusiasm for our new adventure and tears.
I’ve been hearing other reactions, too, like, “Seriously? Belize Why not Panama? You should check out Panama.” Or “Didn’t you consider Costa Rica? You should really check out Costa Rica before you make the move.” Feel free to plug in the name of other Latin American countries. I think I’ve heard them all. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s one phrase we’ve learned to toss out, here in Belize: “We’ll get an early start.”
Each place where we have spent a few days manages to find its own way of undermining our Western “go-go-gotta-go” mindset.
And so we linger.
For just another view of the beautiful flowers and plantings around Orchid Bay in Corozal; and we travel more slowly down the rutted Chunox and San Estevan roads that runs beside Progresso Lagoon and leads back to the paved Northern Highway.
In San Ignacio, we pause for one more view of mist rising above the rainforest across the valley; and we drop into the New French Bakery for another delicious cup of coffee and pastries. All the time hoping someone would appear and say, “Wait! You don’t have to go. Stay and join us. Make your new life here.” (Perhaps our car and its stone-dead battery were also trying to tell us something on that morning ….)
But they are only imaginary voices. Nobody appears. In our heads, many Belizean voices in so many Belizean places clamor for our attention. Picking a home will not be easy.
At Turtle Bay in Placencia there were more reasons to linger yesterday than I can begin to recount. Certainly the breathtaking beauty of the place, especially after a long night’s rain, keeps us in our seats. The complimentary breakfast overlooking the Caribbean Sea definitely demands our attention for longer than it needs to.
And the people who make Turtle Inn the preternaturally charming oasis that it is — how hard it is to say goodbye to them.
Front office manager Terryann Emmanuel and I must share one last passionate conversation about Belize and conservation. We must make sure that our waiter and friend Victor gives us a call when he visits the Coppola winery in Napa later this month, so that we can share a drink and hear about his first commercial airplane ride.
We search in vain for Ivan, the beach captain, who has also been a terrific guide through the many layers of Belizean culture and who patiently drew a map in the sand to objectively show me how the proposed cruise ship terminal on Harvest Caye would fit, or not fit, into the local ecosystem.
And of course, how can we leave without saying thank you to our host, the dashing general manager Martin Krediet, who sent Rose an excellent bottle of Coppola’s Diamond Collection Pavilion Chardonnay for her birthday dinner?
Eventually we exhaust all excuses to linger, knowing that we have a long drive to Belize City to drop off the Suzuki Jimny. The rain pours down and we press on through the day. Our only stop is in the Stann Creek Valley for fresh pineapple and grapefruit drinks from the front of the citrus factory in Pomona, just off the Hummingbird Highway; and for lunch in Belmopan.
The ride up the 53-mile-long Hummingbird Highway is a feast for the eyes. We join it just north of Placencia, in Dangriga, and travel through coastal pine and scrub, through the heart of banana plantations and citrus orchards, and through lush and hilly rainforest before reaching the capital Belmopan.
From there, a sharp right turn on to the east-west George Price Highway puts us 60 miles from Belize City in a flat and nearly straight blur of farmland and scattered forest growth. We take a shortcut through Hattieville, past the sprawling Belize Central Prison, just missing Burrel Boom as we aim for Ladyville and the International Airport.
At the airport, the rental agent tells us it will be a $25 US taxi ride to the water taxi in Belize City – or we can drive the car to their Belize City office (less than five miles away) and pick up a free shuttle to the water taxi.
Except that as we are driving to Belize City from the airport, the shuttle driver, Giles, is en route to the airport to drop off a customer.
Giles is worth the short wait. Belize City is a bewildering maze of small and very crowded streets and even more crowded thoroughfares. School is getting out and the streets are jammed with parents picking up their kids at the many public and religion-based schools in the city.
There is a shoulder-to-shoulder festive air to it all. Every student wears a school uniform of prescribed colors and every school has its own colors, so the sidewalks are an undulating rainbow of energetic children with classes behind them and a national holiday ahead.
All the streets, traffic circles and parks are decked out in Belize national flags and red, white and blue triangle flag bunting. (The Belizean red, white and blue are softer, less-aggressive shades than the red, white and blue of the US.) September is Independence Month in Belize, Giles explains, and Sept. 10 celebrates the Battle of St. George’s Caye, in which slaves on the island defeated the Spanish. There are celebrations all over this young nation this month, and we seem to be missing every single one of them.
At the moment though, we are concerned about missing our 4:30 pm boat but Giles smoothly guides his Ford Explorer down alleyways that seem to materialize only for him, and like a Harry Potter porthole, we pop out right in front of the entrance to Belize Express with five minute to spare before boarding.
The porter tags and stows our backpacks, the clerk takes our $60BZ/$30US for the watertaxi and we join the last remnants of a line of people entering the craft that looks slightly like a Buck Rogers rocketship.
We think we’re the last. People keep boarding after us … and keep boarding … and keep boarding … and then the crew asks all of us seated on the center bench to stand so they can add more baggage into the hold. And then they keep boarding … until every square inch is filled with tropic-warmed flesh. I counted close to 100 people in the belly of the rocket, including one brightly colored and feathered Carnival costume for a lady getting off at Caye Cauker.
What a relief when the taxi finally hits the open water, rises up on hydrofoils and sprints across the blue-green surface to Caye Caulker and its citrus-colored fishing and party town. About half the passengers get off here and only a few board, so the balance of the trip to San Pedro is – dare I say it? – a breeze.
It is dusk when we dock in San Pedro and Rose and I take a leisurely hike down the beach to our new digs – the Exotic Caye Beach Resort. The front desk is already closed but the security guard is expecting us and leads us to our room where we find handwritten greeting from Alfredo and some vouchers for dinner and breakfast. Dinner is fish and chips at a place upstairs from Crazy Cannuck’s, a legendary San Pedro beach bar.
But we’re as sleepy as off-season San Pedro tonight, so there’ll be no late-night carousing for us. It is home to read and to bed. In the morning Rose has yoga only steps from our front door and I know I have a cup of hot coffee and a WiFi connection waiting for me at Melt’s, the café just below her yoga studio.
In some ways it is beginning to feel like we’re coming home to San Pedro, where our Belizean adventure began, seemingly ages ago.
It is with some sorrow that we announce the departure of Rose’s constant traveling companion, Monkey Bob.
Somewhere, most likely at Orchid Bay in Corozal, northern Belize, Monkey Bob decided to remain behind. Our guess is that, as we packed for the journey to San Ignacio, Monkey Bob remained asleep under the covers.
Always one to seek out the positive, Rose is hoping that Monkey Bob finds his way into the arms of the one little child who currently lives at Orchid Bay year-round. If so, he will make her delightful companion until other children arrive, likely in the High Season, starting in November.
We held out hope that Monkey Bob would hop aboard one of the many colorful and inexpensive buses that crisscross this little nation, tying together Belize City, Corozal, Belmopan, San Ignazio, Spanish Lookout, Placencia, Punta Gorda, Dangriga, the Guatemalan and Mexican border crossings, and all points in between.
But he didn’t.
Monkey Bob had a talent for amusing Rose when she was bored, distracted or lonely. He would pose almost anywhere in an attempt to make her smile at his antics.
The little monkey.
Monkey Bob’s favorite past-time was photo bombing. He loves the camera and the camera, in return, loves him. Not since Marilyn Monroe has a face been so naturally drawn to the lens, and drawn by the lens.
We carry on, now back in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye for five days. Yes, without Monkey Bob, but still very much in love, even more so, with this spectacularly diverse and welcoming country.
All this means is that Monkey Bob is moving here permanently, months ahead of us.
We will meet again, Monkey Bob. On a beach or in the jungle, somewhere in Belize, we will meet again.
- OK … inhale, hold breath … jump! (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Hello, Belize, you beautiful, colorful, complicated thing you! (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- In Belize, ‘What do you recommend?’ opens doors (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Two points of view on San Ignacio (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- No! Not that trip to Belize (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
I learned something about myself today and learned how to begin loving a town that is pretty much foreign to me in almost every respect.
When we rolled into San Ignacio, the other day I was bewildered by how taken Rose was with this western Belizean outpost, close to the Guatemala border.
She started uttering “Beautiful!” shortly after we left the nation’s capital, Belmopan, and kept it up pretty much until we passed through Santa Elena and drove across the one-lane bridge into San Ignacio.
Where she was seeing beauty, I was seeing dust, dirt, decay, traffic and chaos. San Ignacio and its people look nothing like anything from my past. It was all so … so … so … foreign.
Imagine that. We go to Belize to find a place to live and I’m struggling with the fact that it seems foreign to me. Maybe I am the Ugly American after all. Maybe I’m not the easy-going, adventurous, intrepid traveler that I thought I was.
Rose was San Francisco born but has roots in the Third World. Her father was Philippine and her mother came from Mexico. She’s an all-American girl but well-traveled around the world. She even carries a British passport, as well as her American one. She once lived in Western Africa for two years. She’s traveled in more countries than I can find and name on a map.
Me? I went to England once, as a pampered travel writer. Then there were two weeks on St. Lucia where Rose taught yoga as a guest at an absurdly upscale resort. (Anse Chastanet. Look it up, and drip with envy.) Real easy to be a world traveler when you are traveling first-class on somebody else’s dime.
But being of the world? More challenging when you are not wrapped in the high-walled comfort and exclusivity of a five star resort that has carved out its own self-contained space in a foreign country.
I wasn’t digging San Ignacio and I was liking myself less, for the only reason I could come up with was that I was “uncomfortable.” This wasn’t a place or culture that I was familiar with.
So Friday morning we got up, skipped breakfast at the place we were staying – Ok, a resort … but slightly threadbare and time worn one! – and walked down the steep hill to downtown San Ignacio. We passed a hotel where the Queen of England has stayed not once, but twice. Could we afford a room there, I wondered?
We grabbed some pastries and coffee at a place called the New French Bakery — which used to be called the Old French Bakery before it recently moved — where we heard numerous accents, none of them French. I think the total cost for three fresh-baked pastries and three cups of coffee was around $5 US. Best coffee I’ve had this whole trip, too.
We strolled across the street to the open-air market where fresh fruits and vegetables were going for a fraction of what we pay in the US. I was told later that on Saturdays you can get almost anything you need at the much expanded market, including jumper cables for your dead car battery …
The market lead to a stroll along the muddy and rain-swollen Macal River and across two one-way, single-lane bridges, one of them Belize’s only suspension bridge.
A funny thing happened as we walked through parks and markets and the town. I started picking up on the rhythms of the street and the smiles and greetings from perfect strangers. I was growing comfortable with San Ignacio. Well, a little.
We dropped in on Ginny Ophof at Rainforest Realty. She and Rose had been keeping up an e-mail conversation since Rose heard her program on Belize Talk Radio. Ginny knew of our plans and was totally onboard with the idea of trying out a place for six months before making a permanent commitment.
We talked about San Ignacio and expats – Ginny is Dutch but has lived around the world – and a bunch of other topics. She told us about her feisty 86 year-old mother who is an artist and has lived 30 years in San Ignacio, lately in what she called a “tree house.”
Ginny rang up Amalia Quiroz and Lovelia Seguro at the local branch of Atlantic International Bank and got them to hold off on lunch so we could get down there and open a bank account.
Amalia walked us through the paperwork and Lovelia explained the finer points of the Qualified Retired Persons Incentive Program (QRP) which provides me with all sorts of financial incentives if I commit to depositing a minimum amount of cash in a Belize bank each year.
When we were done, Ginny picked us up and showed a sampling of what’s available on the local market, even though she knows we won’t be returning until next year and might not even decide to move to San Ignacio. We saw riverfront houses for $600 and $700 a month and a brand new two bedroom house filled with native hardwoods going for $139,000. The builder was onsite and beaming with pride. “I just get better and better with every house,” he said with a broad smile.
Over a delicious lunch at a little street corner kitchenette in a tiny shack that could barely hold the three women cooking inside, Ginny told us stories of expats and family and the ups and downs of being a stranger in a strange land. The lunch, by the way, consisted of two delicious quesadillas and a burrito and three all-natural fresh fruit juice drinks and the bill was less than $12.
She told us about the La Ruta Maya Canoe Race down the Macal and Belize rivers. that starts in San Ignacio and ends in Belize City on the coast. Thousands of people join in the race and turn it into a four-day celebration. Her mother became a local celebrity after she painted the first map for the race, which many people laminated and still use.
Once she learned that Rose once danced and taught ballet professionally she stated, with mock insistence, that we MUST live in San Ignacio. The town, she said, hasn’t had a ballet teacher for the school kids for two years. Many ex-pats, she said, are coming up with after-school programs to keep kids involved and away from trouble.
Back at her office, she marched me down to a small brightly colored shed — a very bright tropical green — in which a Scottish (I think) fellow named David sometimes sells fish but mostly decimates other ex-pats at cribbage, exchanges gossip and witty retorts and runs a paperback book exchange. An American couple, Mike and Judi, from New Jersey and North Carolina respectively, were hanging out, playing cribbage.
David was in high spirits because the couple had brought him a large pouch of dark pipe tobacco to replenish his nearly depleted supply. “In the nick of time,” exclaimed David, holding up the pouch. He was tossing off one-liners like Billy Connolly unleashed.
Mike and Judi had lived in several places in Belize before settling on San Ignacio. It is, in their term, “the most normal city in Belize.” They’re very happy and offered us the sum total of their experience so far, including impressions of various Belizean towns and their experience shipping furniture and goods through an Alabama firm. Naturally we exchanged phone numbers.
As we were sitting around the cribbage board, Hector Mar pulled up in his pickup truck for our trip to Xunantunich, which I wrote about yesterday. As we left with hearty handshakes and well-wishes all around, David flashed an impish grin and said, “Remember, when you come back: dark pipe tobacco!” He held up the over-sized pouch from Mike and Judi for emphasis.
I got a funny warm feeling, just knowing that someone expected us back – and in time to refill his cache of tobacco!
Much of the road to Xunantunich is lined with eco-lodges and large houses with stately well-kept lawns. It felt like an upscale Western-ish suburb compared to the urban chaos of San Ignacio.
Hector, who had once been vice-mayor of San Ignacio filled much of the drive to and from the Mayan ruins with stories of his family and life. When Hector’s turn to become mayor came up in rotation, he deferred to a “younger and smarter” council colleague “with better ideas.” The older politicians weren’t having it and crushed the young man with the bold ideas and drove him from politics and San Ignacio.
Hector quit politics but not before working with “the people” to drive out the leader of the older politicians, after first coming to the man who had been a mentor and giving him a chance to resign with dignity. “Because I spoke with him first and acted like a man and told him exactly what I intended to do,” said Hector, “we are friends to this day, even though he had to leave politics.”
Hector left politics for another reason, too. His wife, a Guatemalan who had paddled across the border into San Ignacio at 14 to find work, was dying. Hector made a promise to God to serve him alone if his wife was spared.
She recovered and Hector became a Christian minister. They served their church together until she recently passed away. “God gave her to us for nine more years. How beautiful is that?” said Hector with a slight welling of tears.
He talked a bit about what it feels like to live without her, and I recognized in Hector some of my own older brother, Jim, who suddenly lost his own wife earlier this year.
When we separated, Hector invited us to come stay at his home, become part of his family and enjoy some good local cooking when we return to San Ignacio. And there it was again, “when you return to San Ignacio.”
Friday morning we were planning to leave early for Placencia and make a few stops along the way. One problem: I’d left the lights on in the Suzuki Jimny and over the last two days the battery was completely drained.
That’s when Carlos Panti showed up with jumper cables. Even though he was at our hotel, Cahal Pech Resort, to pick up another couple for a tour of nearby Mayan ruins he took time to charge the battery and make sure the car was running for me.
Carlos told me about recently starting his own tour guide business after working for bigger firms for several years and about his wife who teaches at the local high school and about the great deal he got on his SUV. He gave me some advice on keeping the Jimny running safely after putting it through some rugged roads. And he told me about his father who was caretaker at the Xunantunich archaeological excavation site for 25 years.
He talked about cave tubing, which is one of his tour specialties, and promised us a great experience “when you return to San Ignacio.”
Needless to say, this brief immersion into San Ignacio has left me with a very different impression than the one I started with. It only took getting to know a few people just a little bit to start to liking a lot this city of 9,000 people (20,000 if you count the surrounding “suburbs”).
Like Hector Mar had been saying, “It is through our stories that we learn, that we teach, that we find God. And I have many many stories.”
We may have to return to San Ignacio to learn and record those stories.
But first I’ll need to pick up an extra large pouch of black Cavendish pipe tobacco.