Dumb and dumber on Ambergris Caye
One month ago I wrote a blog post titled: “I swear, the heat makes me stupid.” So what is this, I ask myself, the sequel, “Rain also makes me stupid”?
Perhaps the feeling comes from Tuesday’s Trivia Night at Coco Loco’s where I insisted with grave authority to teammates Rose Alcantara and Adam and Jackie Feldman that the tiny little atoll that the U.S. bombed the crap out of during our “We freaking love the nuclear bomb” era was called Bimini.
It is called Bikini.
Or perhaps it is the discussions about childhood Catholic guilt that Jackie and I sometimes get into that unlocks this confessional need.
Maybe I am at the point in life where doing dumb things is sometimes more entertaining and rewarding than being safe and, um, ordinary.
In the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism we accept that life is suffering. It is inevitable, as we walk through this life, that we will sometimes step into a pile of dukkha on the sidewalk of existence. Just the way it is. Avoiding dukkha becomes its own form of suffering.
Embrace the dukkha. Celebrate the sometimes dumb things we do because we are learning to love this life we have been given. That’s all I’m saying.
(And with that I add, thank you Rose for this morning’s Cafe Americano with a double shot …..)
So, now I need your help. Which of these two things is dumber than the other:
Exhibit A: On Friday night, Rose and I went to a fairly new south-of-town beach bar called Island Time. The DJ was pumping out a Motown/Big Chill kind of a soundtrack, the breeze was tropical-sweet and the rum and cokes were flowing.
Pretty soon I got it into my head that I knew how to dance.
With abandon. Read the rest of this entry »
Doing stuff we haven’t done before, Part 3: Where’s the beef
Friday nights at Wine de Vine are something of a tradition in San Pedro.
That’s the place where newly landed ex-pats and seasoned veterans mingle with locals and visitors for a few hours over reasonably priced glasses of wine and artfully composed trays of cheeses, fruits and crackers.
Yes, Flo and her staff compose a thoughtful list of reds and whites for the night, usually priced around $6-11 per glass.
We have tried some excellent wines there and, more important, made even better friendships over time.
Friday night at Wine de Vine is also where you find out who is coming to the island, who is leaving, who is celebrating a birthday or anniversary, who is not doing well, who needs help and who is on top of the world. You can get the latest news and gossip on crime, restaurants, weather, street repairs, shopping, government and local celebrations. You can get great advice on almost any island issue along with your Chardonnay.
I have come to the conclusion that people who move to tropical islands tend to have very interesting stories about the lives they have lived. Sometimes they are bigger than life but often they are about people who simply took control of their lives, decided they’d had enough of conventional American or European civilization and moved on.
There are great stories inside every person hoisting a glass on a Friday night inside the tightly packed but air-conditioned environs of Wine de Vine. Most important, we have the time and the inclination to listen to each other’s stories.
The truth is, I don’t like wine nearly as much as I like the people who gather to drink it.
Rose, on the other hand, a long-time Napa resident with a rolling front yard filled with vineyards, finds equal pleasures in good wine and good people.
Since arriving on Ambergris Caye our Friday nights have always ended the same. After several glasses of wine and much camaraderie, we say good night to all get on our bicycles and wobble across San Pedro Town in the dark toward home. There, Rose puts the finishing touches to a deliciously pre-prepared dinner and we call it a night.
Except this past Friday.
As we were leaving, a co-conspirator on many an adventure here, Stephen Thompson, invited us to join a few people at a new restaurant that has gained buzz all over the map, Texas BBQ and Steakhouse, on the same Seagrape Drive intersection as Pedro’s Hotel.
After a day of yoga, stand-up paddling, several glasses of wine and the prospect of cycling home in the dark — the idea of a late-night dinner out was doubtful. Even though we’ve been dying to try this place which boasts the meat-forward slogan “Fresh, never frozen.” (OK, that slogan carries a lot more weight on a refrigeration-disabled tropical island than in Midtown Manhattan.)
Stephen upped the ante: “We’re all heading home in the same direction. We’ll just toss your bikes in the back of the golf cart.”
Ok. We’re in.
And what a good call. This was about as close to live theater as we are going to get.
Barely open two weeks, by a West Texas man who professes to have zero knowledge about running a restaurant, Texas BBQ on a Friday night was a sublime study in applied Chaos Theory. There was no one entry point at the counter to place an order. Orders were written on the first available page of a waiters tablet then lost or forgotten. Everyone behind the counter seemed to be responsible for doing everyone else’s job. One guy walked out in complete exasperation. Meals kind of sat there on plates, half fulfilled.
Somewhere, I thought, the hidden cameras of “Hell’s Kitchen” must be recording all this for a spin-off. Just imagine Gordon Ramsay with a Texas drawl.
I ordered a pulled pork plate with corn on the cob and baked beans, only to find out much later that they were out of pulled pork, corn on the cob and baked beans.
To be fair, we were there at the end of an extremely busy Friday when concentration, stamina, tempers and reason had all boiled over into absurdity. Those guys were operating on fumes.
And in this mix, the owner Chris Burke is running around trying to tie up the loose ends on failed orders, maybe a bit too gruffly.
I don’t revel in other people’s pain but I had to stare with the fascination of a pedestrian witnessing a car wreck.
Here’s the thing: Everyone’s meal arrived, more on time than not. (I was able to substitute a very tasty beef brisket.) And the food was delicious. Stephen pronounced his steak the best he’d had in 20 years of living in Belize. Rose had a decent hamburger. Other folks were equally as pleased.
And Chris, frazzled but still Texas-big, turned out to be a pretty congenial guy who may be learning the restaurant ropes in real time but, man, does he know his meats and how to cook them.
He even brought out a huge slab of raw prime, safely sealed in plastic, to show us how really fresh his beef is. Straight from the mainland Mennonite farm to our dinner table.
Others we have spoken to since say the key to great service is to get to Texas BBQ during the off hours, like 2 to 4 p.m. when nobody else is thinking lunch or dinner.
Chris has as many dreams for the future as he has cuts of meat stashed inside the 14-hour smoker. He wants to expand the seating – there is one large table right next to the meat smoker. He plans an incredible breakfast menu. I honestly couldn’t keep up with his dream stream of consciousness.
But, damn, I wish him well.
After dinner Stephen and our newest friends, from Nashville, whose names I lost in all the beef and wine (Sorry!), did indeed port us and our bicycles home.
That’s oddly a mixed blessing for me. I enjoyed hitching a ride home but I dread getting used to or becoming dependent on a golf cart — mine or someone else’s. I like cycling but the rains are coming and as Rose teaches more and more, she’ll need better transportation.
Against my own faulty judgment we may soon be in the hunt for a golf cart, electric or gas I don’t know.
But the real lesson for me this night was to consider the answer “Yes” more often when someone suggests an adventure.
That lesson was applied the next day over a late breakfast at Estel’s — last of the season for us before they closed their doors — when our friend Ed Butterick suggested we all go on our first poker run that night. But first we’ll need to smell the coffee roasting. …
Doing stuff we haven’t done before, Part 1: Solo snorkel
Doing stuff we haven’t done before, Part 2: What’s SUP!
Next up on Doing stuff we haven’t done before: Smell the coffee roasting
I swear, the heat’s making me stupid
I thought for sure that it would rain last night.
While cycling back from Annie’s with a bag of chips for dinner I felt like the mythical fish on a bicycle (“A woman needs a man like a fish ….”).
No feminism reflections here. It was just so muggy that it felt like the air itself would burst open like a balloon and unleash torrents upon this parched little island. Read the rest of this entry »
Four months in Belize: We’re got some answers, Part 1
My old friend Dave Dennis from San Diego sent me an e-mail yesterday that was filled with questions about our life here in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Belize. Dave’s questions echo many that we have received, from other friends and readers of the blog.
Since today marks the start of our fifth month here in Belize, now would be a good time to try and answer these questions.
For my benefit as much as yours. Read the rest of this entry »
Zen Arcade is suddenly bursting with new activities, services
Scooped by my own wife. Can you imagine that?
Well, the word is out, Rose will be teaching a Pilates course at Zen Arcade starting Monday, June 2.
Those of you who know Rose from her own studio in California know this is a wonderful thing for her. She is a born teacher – full of knowledge, love and enthusiasm. She needs an outlet like this to express her true personality. Read the rest of this entry »
Bicycling Ambergris Caye north: 24 clicks to home
If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads. ― Anatole France
Every journey in life should begin at the end of a pier, on your back, beneath a palapa. They have a way of putting you in the right frame of mind, whatever the distance you plan to travel.
If you don’t have access to a pier and palapa, think of them as a very pleasant metaphor. When the going gets tough, the knowing duck under their mental palapa and chill for a while. Read the rest of this entry »
Bicycling San Pedro Town: 22 clicks to home
Bear with me here.
We’re going to try something new, and I’m afraid a bit amateurish.
I want to try to recreate the experience of traveling around Ambergris Caye on a bicycle, to give readers a more-accurate sense of what life is like here — the traffic, the chaos, the odd sights, the sweet shots, etc.
You know, life on a Caribbean island as seen through the eyes of a newly landed American ex-pat riding a Taiwanese bicycle and shooting pictures with a China-made iPhone. Read the rest of this entry »
Humbling island discovery: People have time for other people
I seem to be developing a new measure for success the longer we live on Ambergris Caye in Belize.
If we go out for an evening, go shopping, go to yoga, go for a walk – most anytime we leave our home on our bicycles – if we don’t encounter someone we know or meet someone new, then that was – in a way — an unsuccessful outing.
I know. Pretty bold statement from a guy who has lived on the island for only three months. How many people could we possibly have met in that time?
Turns out, quite a few.
When you live in a place like Ambergris Caye, where people have more time for each other and generally take an interest in each other, you tend to meet more people than, say, the typical person living on a cul-de-sac in a Southern California suburban housing development.
Not long ago, Rose and I walked into a local restaurant El Fogon for lunch. A woman, Conch Nunez, and her young granddaughter, invited us to join them at their table.
Just like that. Complete strangers will ask you to dine with them.
Conch owns Sea Turtle Gift Shop, one of the first on the island, on Middle Street. She told us about growing up in San Pedro and raising her children.
That is the way it is around here. People have time for people. Walk into a bar or restaurant twice and people will remember you. Come back a third time and they remember your name and what your favorite food and drink might be.
That’s no exaggeration.
Rudy at Legend’s, a roadside live-music cafe just up the road from our home, reminds me every time we bump into each other that I still have not spent a nine-Belikin night at the club, something I’d (jokingly) promised to do on a night I’d managed no more than four of the local beers.
There are fruit and produce stands which we pass by on our bikes where the owners will shout out “Hello Miss Rose! Hello papa!” (Yes, I am called “papa” in certain circles here …)
I lived on a suburban Southern California cul-de-sac for many years and can honestly say I knew few of my neighbors. Mostly, I exchanged the standard nod-grin-mumble that passes for a greeting between people who should know each other better, but don’t. Then rushed off to work, to pick up the kids, to a meeting, to a show, to shop.
That’s not me being anti-social. You hear about this sort of thing all the time. One of the first things I was told when I moved to Southern California was “People here will take an interest but don’t ever mistake it for friendship.”
(The second piece of advice that I received: Buy a tuxedo that fits. You’ll immediately get invited to a better class of parties. But that’s another story. )
A popular non-fiction book in those days was Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” about combating social isolation in America. Mind you, this was a best seller in 2000, pretty much before the Internet enabled us all to become socially acceptable recluses.
If you want to be a recluse in Belize, you really need to move inland and off the grid. And maybe change your name.
Here on the island, there are only so many streets and so many people. Inevitably you are going to run into somebody you know if you are riding around for any length of time.
Rose is much better at spotting people we know than I am.
“Did you see so-and-so sitting at such-and-such with you-know-who?” she’ll say when we get home.
To which I’ll go, “Huh.”
When people wave, Rose sees them. I don’t. This is probably why she is known as the friendly one.
I like to tell myself it is because I am busy dodging errant golf carts and pedestrians. My senses are locked into my primal need for self-preservation on these few narrow streets, where stop signs are theoretical, speed limits are relevant only to the next golf cart and nobody – I mean nobody – looks before entering into the street.
Who has time to smile and wave?
When we’re sitting still, however, people are amazing.
Last weekend was, under my new people-count standard, amazing.
Friday night, we went to an open house at Coconut Café, just west of Ramon’s Village. Our first-ever and still-best island friends, John and Rose East, were there. We’d met last year when my Rose and I came here on an exploratory vacation and we’ve been friends ever since. Emily and Ken from The Baker were there too. Emily is one of our yoga buddies. And we’d met the café’s owners, Timm and Donna from Kansas City, Kansas, a couple of days earlier.
We shared a table with Manuel and Flora Ancona, one of the First Families of San Pedro. I sat rapt as they talked about the early days when Dona Flora sold tickets for flights on the fledgling Tropic Air from her little concession stand at the end of the runway. Today she is a key administrator for the airline. Among her many achievements.
Manuel and Flora talked about shopping trips to Mexico and Miami and culture shock and the rapid growth and changing nature of San Pedro. They spoke proudly of their children, all still here on the island. They laughed and their eyes twinkled as they shared family stories worn smooth as river rocks from their many decades together.
Saturday morning I went down to the docks to watch the Eco-Challenge kayakers begin their two-day race around the island. As I sat at the end of a short pier, snapping photos on my iPhone, a real photographer dropped down next to me and started clicking away.
I glanced over.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“Tia? Are you Tia Chocolate? Oh, god, I’m sorry. It is just that you look like this local writer that I’d just mentioned in my blog.”
She laughed. “I am Tia Chocolate, or, well, that is the name I used on a column I haven’t written in a while. Although I’m thinking of starting it back up.”
So, we talked a bit as the kayakers warmed up. I gushed about how much I enjoyed her stories about Belizeans. Mary, her real name, talked about getting burned-out on the column and her current plans to write a memoir-based book.
Two days earlier I’d written about this woman’s prose and now we were sitting on the dock in the bay talking about writing. Now we are friends.
Saturday night, Mike and Ann, more yoga buddies, came over for dinner. Mike has been a developer on the island for years. He is also – though he might demur – becoming an excellent baker. Mike brought a from-scratch coconut crème pie and a fresh-baked loaf of sourdough bread to the feast and both were superb.
Ann is an engineer-turned-travel writer. So, needless to say, there is no shortage of topics to talk about with another writer. Just a great evening that started with sunset and drinks on the balcony and ended with a full-on, four-point attack on that crème pie.
Sunday morning, Rose and I headed for Estel’s for breakfast and the finish of the Eco-Challenge race on the beach at Central Park. The first people we saw were Casa Picasso owners Adam and Jackie, sharing a table with the island-ubiquitous Rebecca Coutant, the San Pedro Scoop blogger. (Rebecca is everywhere!) All of us have sweated it out together in the yoga studio at Zen Arcade.
Pretty soon, the table next to us was filled with the laughter of still more yoga friends – Gaylynn, Michelle and Monica. Scattered around the restaurant were other friends of Rose, virtually all women with whom she practices yoga.
As I write this post the yoga connection becomes clearer. But this is how you meet people, right? You go out and do things, you go places and soon you find people with common interests, and by definition, interesting people.
Sunday afternoon, we stopped by the home of Marty and Carrie O’Farrell. After nine years, they are moving back to the states. This was yard sale day for them. The memories of similar days are still with Rose and me and still a touch painful. What is just “stuff” to buyers is a lifetime of accumulated memories to the sellers.
I was feeling their pain as we entered their home.
It was with a bit of relief that I got to bypass the sale and visit with Marty who was going through underwater cave videos on his computer. Marty is one of, if not the foremost, cave diving specialists on the islands and his videography is amazing. Check some of it out here.
He showed me maps of a gigantic cave system sitting directly under Caye Caulker and video from another that is practically out our backdoor in the lagoon. He talked of the thrills and dangers in exploring underwater caves.
Marty also talked of their nine years on the island and some of the lessons learned, friends made and uncertainties that they face in the future, back in Seattle. Rose and Carrie were having similar conversations in the front room where all their life possessions were on display.
As we were leaving, Marty and Carrie gave us the neck of a bottle from the 1700’s, found while diving off San Pedro. It is thick, heavy for glass, a deep green with edges worn smooth by the waves and sand. It now sits on a shelf with the few talisman-like keepsakes that Rose and I brought with us, a symbol of our new life, I think.
Just before dinner, Rose and I walked over to Coco Loco’s for a sunset drink and greeted the bartender Marlon August. I was happy to tell him that I’d downloaded a copy of his memoir, “My Life and Travels in Belize.” We greeted our neighbors, Ed and Shirley, who had just returned from a daylong cycle up the island to a sweeping lagoon-side beach. They had the same idea, beverages before dinner.
Ed and Shirley arrived on the island almost the same day that we did and with the same plan: Rent for a year while figuring out just where we want to live. They, too, made a decision to get around on bicycles. While they moved here from Las Vegas, Ed and Shirley lived for many years practically next door to me in San Diego. We swapped a few tales of our most recent adventures and discoveries and memories from days back in the States.
Steve, who owns Coco Loco’s with wife Sue, dropped in. They’d just returned from some R&R in Placencia where they’d met up with Adam and Jackie, our friends from yoga and Casa Picasso.
And so it goes. On an island this small, the degrees of separation are far fewer. Sooner or later you are going to bump into somebody and if you talk long enough, they probably know half the people you’ve already met. And sometimes you can start to call them friends, too.
I am humbled by how welcome so many people have made us feel.
Which is a great way to live, in my opinion.
I opened the newspaper — and you won’t believe what happened next *
We have a local phone. It only took, what, nearly three months?
Let’s just say there wasn’t any overriding, compelling, just-gotta-have-it reason to acquire another phone. Rose and I are big e-mail users and the communications lag suits our new lifestyle just fine.
It used to be like this: Read the rest of this entry »