Robert J. Hawkins. International Living

‘Belize or bust’ takes on a new meaning

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Rose has done yoga by herself every morning under the palapa at the end of a pier just north of Turtle Inn. The owners let inn guests use the pier. Nice neighbors!
Rose has done yoga by herself every morning under the palapa at the end of a pier just north of Turtle Inn. The owners let inn guests use the pier. Nice neighbors!

We make plans. We make plans. We make plans.

So exhilarating.

So in control of our future.

We make plans. Therefore, we are. We make plans. Therefore, we will be.

And then, something happens. And all those plans, all those to-do lists and decision trees and carefully calibrated calculations which are designed to regain control over your life … they don’t mean anything.

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How dangerous is Belize? Let’s not ask John McAfee

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Welcome to Belize. Now, relax.
Welcome to Belize. Now, relax.

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 »

We’ve got a lot of talking to do

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Here's a last glimpse of part of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye as we took the air taxi back to the mainland of Belize for our flight home.
Here’s a last glimpse of part of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye as we took the air taxi back to the mainland of Belize for our flight home.

It is Sunday morning and I hear the sound of splashing water outside as I slowly grope toward consciousness. It is a sound I’ve heard a lot these past few weeks, the warm night rains falling on broad leafed palms and tropical growth, trickling off tin and reed-covered palapa roofs all over Belize.

But, wait. It’s Sunday morning.

And this isn’t Belize.

It’s … it’s California. We got home at 1 a.m. this morning.

I remember now.

Oh, damn.

It’s a broken sprinkler head, outside our bedroom window.

After dinner on Thursday evening, as we walked home along the beach, we encountered a fairly large crowd outside a bar. They were waiting for the beginning of the Thursday night weekly chicken drop. Yes, you know the rules, the holder of the first number on which a chicken poops wins a cash prize. They say that during high season, the crowd is so thick you can't get close to this "drop" site." Can you spot Rose in the crowd?
After dinner on Thursday evening, as we walked home along the beach, we encountered a fairly large crowd outside a bar. They were waiting for the beginning of the Thursday night weekly chicken drop. Yes, you know the rules, the holder of the first number on which a chicken poops wins a cash prize. They say that during high season, the crowd is so thick you can’t get close to this “drop” site.” Can you spot Rose in the crowd?

I fall back on my pillow and close my eyes and try as hard as I might to wish my body back to a nice tropical storm in San Ignacio, or Placencia or San Pedro and for an extra 10 minutes or so, as the lawn sprinklers finish their cycle, I am walking the white sand beach with my face up to the rain, a steady wind blowing on shore,  and the distant crash of waves against the  barrier reef fills me up with joy.

You said it, Madonna:

Last night I dreamt of San Pedro
Just like I’d never gone, I knew the song
A young girl with eyes like the desert
It all seems like yesterday, not far away

But right now, there’s a broken sprinkler head that is calling louder than “La Isla Bonita.”

Rose and I sat down at Peete’s Coffee with a couple of tall black ones and a legal pad this morning and began to draw up a list of everything we must do in order to move by February to Isla Bonita — or maybe inland to San Ignacio; no doors are closed just yet.

It is a long and slightly daunting list.  (Wanna buy some Glasshof sculptures? A piano? A house? Some furniture?  A Mercedes?)

But it will get done, item by item, day by day. It will get done.

This is Caye Caulker, just south of Ambergris Caye. It is about a 20 minute water taxi ride between the two islands. The whole population is nestled at the back end of the "C" portion of the island. A very small and very laid-back bunch of people.
This is Caye Caulker, just south of Ambergris Caye. It is about a 20 minute water taxi ride between the two islands. The whole population is nestled at the back end of the “C” portion of the island. A very small and very laid-back bunch of people.

The last few days in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye are a too fast-forward blur. We went snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. Rose went off to yoga and a massage while I took the water taxi over to Caye Caulker for a few hours. Our friends John and Rose East picked us up in their golf cart and gave us a tour of the gorgeous house they are building north of San Pedro.

Then there was a dinner out, at Fido’s on the beach in downtown San Pedro. A waiter called Squeaky greeted us as we walked in, “Bob and Rose! Chargers and 49ers, right?”

Yeah, I was stunned. Squeaky had waited on us for a late lunch a few days earlier and we’d had a brief, casual, banter about California and our respective football teams but for him to remember us several days later?

This is one of the water taxis on a regular route between San Pedro, Caye Caulker and Belize City.
This is one of the water taxis on a regular route between San Pedro, Caye Caulker and Belize City.

Pretty wild, but honestly, we’ve come to appreciate the uncommon friendliness of the people we’ve met. A day or two after we went snorkeling the head of maintenance and a maid at the Exotic Caye Beach Resort, where we were staying, came up to me to ask about our adventure. Was the water choppy? Were the currents strong? What were you able to see? Did you have a good time?

They really wanted to know and dropped everything to talk abut the snorkeling.

When we first came here, I kept telling myself I’m not buying the tourism line about how caring and friendly the Belizeans are. But you know what? It is true. Not everybody you meet has  a smile and warm greeting but enough do to call it the norm.

Caye Caulker from the water taxi dock.
Caye Caulker from the water taxi dock.

Walking home from dinner along the beach late one evening,so many people who passed us said simply, “Good night.” Like the whole village was seeing us off to bed.

Contrast that with the table of guys my age who sat near us in Peet’s this morning and sounded like a bunch of Facebook flamethrowers — abrupt, insulting, aggressive, nasty, condescending, rude — and I think they were friends.

Well, for better or worse, we’re home. And we really are glad to be back. We missed friends, family and one funeral of a dear friend.

Have we found a place to live in Belize? Yes and no. Rose and I have narrowed it down to San Ignacio, near the western border with Guatemala and San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Both hold very different attractions to us.

Like I said, we’ve got a lot of talking to do.

Some more photos from Caye Caulker:

The view long the main street of Caye Caulker. It seemed busier than these pictures show. The modes of transportation along the packed-sand boulevard are bicycle , golf cart and walking -- mostly walking.
The view along the main street of Caye Caulker. It seemed busier than these pictures show. The modes of transportation along the packed-sand boulevard are bicycle , golf cart and walking — mostly walking.

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More scenes from the main street, Caye Caulker.
More scenes from the main street, Caye Caulker.

 

This is Andy. He sits in an alley next to La Cubana restaurant and slowly turns the pig on the spit. He says it takes 4-5 hours of slow turning to cook the pig just right.
This is Andy. He sits in an alley next to La Cubana restaurant and slowly turns the pig on the spit. He says it takes 4-5 hours of slow turning to cook the pig just right.

At La Cubana, where Andy's roasting pig will end up, here is the evening buffet menu. Notice the all-you-can-eat price is $25BZ, or $12.50 in U.S. dollars. The same meal for lunch is $10US. Yum.
At La Cubana, where Andy’s roasting pig will end up, here is the evening buffet menu. Notice the all-you-can-eat price is $25BZ, or $12.50 in U.S. dollars. The same meal for lunch is $10US. Yum.

 
 

Nick, The Belize Fish Whisperer, leads the way

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Hol Chan Marine Reserve from the air ... taken as we left Ambergris Cay this morning for Belize International Airport on the mainland. You can just see the channel through the surf that gives the reserve its name.
Hol Chan Marine Reserve from the air … taken as we left Ambergris Cay this morning for Belize International Airport on the mainland. You can just see the channel through the surf that gives the reserve its name.

It is uncanny. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is vast and, well, under the sea. But Nick moved through it like it was his personal playground.

He knew in which crevices the Moray eels hung out — he’d swim down and clap and they would come out like cobras to a flute. He knew where to find conch and sea cucumber. He spotted sea turtles and sting rays and sharks long before any of us.

Nick even caught a three-foot-long shark with his hands and held it so Rose could pet it. “It felt coarse, super coarse, said Rose, “Like starched jeans. I thought it would feel like a portobella mushrooms.”

Nick was our guide on an overcast, windy and choppy day off the lower tip of Ambergris Caye.

I started calling him “the fish whisperer.”

He’s been at this for five years now, taking tourists like us into the national preserve and the nearby Shark-Ray Alley to take in the vast and varied life below the sea.

Nick delivers a lecture on respecting the reserve’s environment and cautions about touching the coral or picking up shells. He points out one sandy area and says “this is the only place in the reserve where you can stand on the bottom. OK? No where else.”

You get the feeling Nick and the other snorkeling and scuba guides are pretty protective of this, Belize’s greatest natural resource. Hol Chan Marine Reserve runs right up against the Barrier Reef and is marked by one of the few deep water channels, through which come fish, turtles and more.

I went a little crazy with the iPhone camera with its waterproof cover but for what it is worth here are many of the photos that I took.  They are in chronological order, from the moment I dropped into the water until I reluctantly, got out.

The aquamarine coloring is exactly right. This is what the water looks like off of most of Belize.

I hope you enjoy them.

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Found: The Weasley Family’s vacation retreat in Belize

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Amazing what you will find when you grab a pair of bikes and just get lost on the rutted back streets of San Pedro: The Weasley Family vacation home.
Amazing what you will find when you grab a pair of bikes and just get lost on the rutted back streets of San Pedro: The Weasley Family vacation home.

After a grueling year  at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for the kids and Arthur’s  ever-more-challenging role  in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office at the Ministry of Magic, do you really think the Weasley family spent holiday in soggy old Ottery St. Catchpole, outside Devon?

Of course not!

The Weasleys were featured on “House Hunters International” back in the early 1980’s,  as they went in search of a vacation home in sunny Ambergris Caye, Belize, where they could enjoy sun, surf and sand — and still find a touch of Merry Old England in the former colony known as British Honduras.

As the HGTV program put it at the time: “Can the Weasleys find a rambling quirky structure that complemented the Burrow and their own eccentricities — without all that English fog to thwart their attempts at tanning freckled skin? Will a summer home in Belize put that old magic back into the lives of these hard working wizards and witches?”

You bet.

These days, locals say, the beginning of high season is marked by the sudden influx of carrot-topped, freckle-faced Weasleys in San Pedro.

Some say that, in recent times, even a paunchy, sun-burned Harry Potter could be seen tooling about in Arthur’s 24-foot fishing boat, here cleverly and magically disguised as a sunken derelict while the home awaits the coming of the Weasleys during high season.

Locals recall one gift shop that tried to market “Weasley Belizely” T-shirts back in the early 1990’s, but most people didn’t get it, mainly because J.K. Rowling hadn’t yet published the books that splayed open the secret life of magic. Way ahead of their time, the shirts were eventually discontinued.

I really, really think this is it, a Weasley vacation home if ever there was one, on the lagoon side of San Pedro.

What do you think?

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Globe-trotting cyclist’s take on San Pedro: Not cheap

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Frank E. Briscoe, the "old guy on a bicycle," told us a bit about his bicycling adventures before dashing off to catch the air taxi to Belize City.
Frank E. Briscoe, the “old guy on a bicycle,” told us a bit about his bicycling adventures before dashing off to catch the air taxi to Belize City.

Rose and I bicycled over to the Ambergris Brewing Co. for lunch today. It is on the water, next to the Blue Tang Inn where we stayed when we first arrived in San Pedro.

The intent was lunch and to thank Don, the owner for referring us to Bob Hamilton a straight talking, bare-footed, ponytailed ex-Canadian who now sells real estate. Bob spent a lot of time with us, giving his perspective on Ambergris Caye real estate and he suggested some folks who handle long-term rentals who might also be able to help.

The million dollar view from the "curb" tables at the Ambergris Brewing Co. in San Pedro, mbergris Caye.
The million dollar view from the “curb” tables at the Ambergris Brewing Co. in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize.

While waiting for our lunch a cheerful, slightly rotund but clearly energetic fellow appeared from nowhere like Alice’s rabbit and with a hearty handshake to Don said he could only stay for one beer because his flight was leaving in an hour.

The energetic character Frank E. Briscoe, freelance writer, motivational speaker and super-enthusiastic bicycle rider.  He pedaled from the San Juan Islands to the Florida Keys, all around Holland, and enough other places to log more than 30,000 miles since 2005. Did I mention he turns 67 this year?

He has a website about his adventures in cycling at www.oldguyonabicycle.com.

Frank had just spent the last 29 days in Belize, mostly on Ambergris Caye and was leaving the country by bus only an hour before the 30-day limit which requires you to renew your visa for $100. Frank is taking a Belize City-to-Cancun bus. There, he’ll be house-sitting for about six week.

He was planning to bicycle from Chetemul, at the Mexican border, to Panama City but his bicycle companion backed out on him. Frank said he just wasn’t up to making the trip alone. And that sounds more than reasonable. That’s a 1,500 mile cycle through mountainous terrain in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Hey, Frank. Maybe I should go with you!

Anyhow, Rose and I were so disappointed to catch only the fleeting last few minutes of this most gregarious fellow’s time on Ambergris Caye. He reminds me a great deal of my old airborne globetrotting friend Bob Gannon who has a knack for making lifetime friends where ever he lands his airplane.

Frank did say before he left that he was not crazy about San Pedro, mainly because prices for everything are pretty much what they are in the U.S. “On the other hand,” he added, “Caye Cauker is my kind of place. The pace is slower, the prices are lower and it is just more relaxed.”

Caye Cauker is on our list of places to visit before we leave on Saturday, perhaps a day trip by water taxi. It is just south of Ambergris Caye and much smaller, but its quiet barefoot village charm appeals to many whom we’ve met.

After Frank wraps his house-sitting project he’s returning to Belize, possible to bicycle the 60 miles or so to San Ignacio from where we have recently returned. It’s a good bicycle ride – decent roads for Belize, interesting and undulating landscape out west but without steep mountains.

When he gets to San Ignacio, by bus or bicycle, the first person he’s going to look up is Ginny Ophof our dear friend from Rainforest Realty who spent half a day showing us the town. Apparently they have been corresponding and she’s promised to show him a good time in San Ignacio. We know from experience, Frank is in for a real treat.

Funny, sometimes I feel that Belize is just one big neighborhood in which your friends are no more than two steps removed from other friends, no matter where you are in the country.

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?