Belize: Day 1
Note: I have bolded what I think might be helpful to a traveler or future expat.
Before I begin my tale, a quick note on flights to Belize.
I flew from Richmond, through Charlotte to Belize. Fares to Belize are very reasonable. By paying an extra $40, I was able to avoid a crazy 11 or 12 hour layover in Charlotte. I'd have easily spent more than $40 dollars in airports if I had to cool my heels for a day. I recommend you pay the additional bucks to avoid long waits.
I am standing outside the Belize International Airport near Ladyville. A torrential rain abated to a pleasant mist as I was leaving the terminal; good timing. I have my soft side, a backpack and I hope a confident, I’m-not-lost look in my eye. To be honest I am hoping for a friendly contact. This is the way I always enter foreign space. It isn’t dread or fear so much as a desire to dig in and learn the place – quickly; avoidance of looking like the silly tourist is a plus. A taxi driver named Horace turns out to be just the ticket.
By luck of the draw, Horace is the first driver I come across. I tell him I am headed for the ferry to Ambergris out of Belize City. “Twenty-five, American,” he says without pause. I look pensive and thoughtful as if to be calculating the value of the fare. This is something that has been useful in Europe. If he blanches, I’ll save a few bucks. Without the least impatience, he tells me that is the fare. I nod and toss my bags in the back seat. Horace introduces himself as, well…Horace. Makes sense. We immediately start into the weather. He tells me that the rainy season has been much heavier than normal. But I am not to worry because no matter how much rain we get, at least part of the day is always sunny. This truism will be important as my week unfolds. I nod and tell him the place looked pretty wet when we were flying over it.
“Is that a Harrier jump jet?” I abruptly ask as we make a U-turn for the exit. I am checking my memory for any mention of a Belize Air Force.
“Yes”, says Horace. “It was left behind by the Brits. Call it a gift.” The sarcasm and irony are plain and we both share a laugh. This country was known as British Honduras until 1981. Settled by shipwrecked Englishmen in 1638, it has been a free-spirited, English-speaking standout in Central America ever since. In 1981, the country gained its independence. In fact, though still a member of the commonwealth, Belize recently removed the Queen’s likeness from much if its currency. Herself is said to be displeased. Anyway, it all explains the Harrier.
Horace was very helpful in giving me the lay of the land between the airport and the ferry terminal. He pointed out property between the main road and the Caribbean that was on the market. Some of the lots are nice and according to my guide, going for about $80,000 US. I make a note to myself. I may be here for a few stories, but I am also under orders from the Admiral (my wife). I am to investigate the economy, real estate, conveniences and medical facilities.
I told Horace I didn't have a boat reservation so he put me off at the larger terminal, a choice of two. There is a second landing where taxis come and go just a short walk away, next to the bridge going into town. I paid my fare and was greeted by a smartly dressed attendant. He told me I had about an hour before the next water taxi left and offered to check my bag. I dropped my soft side on a luggage cart and walked into the open-air terminal. It was like a thousand places I've seen all over the world. On every waterfront there are merchants selling beer, coffee, snacks and souvenirs. This place is quiet. the merchants all but invisible. But in these places there is always that one character who…
"Helloooo, My friend!"
And there he is; the guy you meet in every port.The skin tone may change and the accent too, but he is there as sure as the sun. In this case, his name is Eric. He emerges cheerfully from a small shop that appears to sell everything from band-aids to ashtrays to beer. Eric is a man with a million stories. For everything you might mention, he’s got a tour, a product or an idea with which, for a price, he can meet your needs.
“Look what I have for you.” Eric pulls a well-worn trifold from his pocket. If you want to dive the reef, tour the ruins or eat at the best places in the city, he says he’s the man to arrange it for you.
Eric asked if I'd like a beer. "Belikin, my friend! Good Belizean beer!" I tell him I'd prefer a cup of coffee and he looks at me as if I'd grown a third eye.
We cross the small plaza to a coffee shop run by Bridgette. She is my second treat for the day. In a beautiful island accent she tells me she is like a perfect cup of coffee, "not too dark, not too light and VERY sweet."
I laugh, "Okay then, pour me a cup that's just like you." And so I have two characters to while away my wait for the boat. Bridgette mentions more than once that she loves everybody. To hear her say it, you believe it.
Let the Celebration Commence!
Back on my flight into Belize, I made the acquaintance of Joe, a farmer from California. Like me, he is ex-military, likes good conversation and was good company on the plane. He was visiting Belize with family. Presently, the group appeared in the terminal and took up seats near a bar closer to the boat landing. When I told Eric and Bridgette I'd be joining my new friends they thought it a fine idea. They left their storefronts wide open and came along. Eric set about hawking beer for his neighbor's establishment while Bridgette charmed the whole group.
I sat down with Joe and his wife, Paula. Joe kindly bought me a beer. Introductions were made followed by the usual banter; Where are you from? Where are you staying? What are your plans? This while Bridgette gave massages to the ladies to relax their travel-weary necks and shoulders. As it happens, this group was headed to Ambergris Caye for a destination wedding. Somewhere between the second beer and boarding the boat to San Pedro, I was invited to come the wedding and write about it. How cool is that?! See Destination Weddings also on this travel page.
Books by the Author
Before moving on, a note about Eric and Bridgette: As I've said elsewhere in my travel section, there are folks like this all over the world. In the Navy, we call them "Hey Joes". Some are a genuine pain in the ass. But in most places, they are good folks. Trying to help you is their rice bowl. I never use them for anything significant or hand them money to arrange things elsewhere. But I give them an ear. If you are going to be in town or are planning to relocate to an area, you won't gain anything by being short with these folks. And they do have some inside scoop. Eric told me about good diving and where not to buy real estate. He was right on both counts. I didn't buy his services, but I didn't begrudge him $5.00 for his hospitality.
At about 1530, we boarded one of the larger, two-deck ferries for San Pedro, Ambergris. These taxis are a busy bunch, piloted by fine boatmen. They know only two speeds: all ahead full and tied up to the pier. Fares run about $16.00 to Ambergris and Caulker. The boats run frequently throughout the day. I won't say exactly who was drinking gin on the boat ride over, but I think one of the culprits looked a lot like the author. All I can say is, before indulging, check with the captain.
The boat threw a sweet rooster tail as it sped into the Caribbean. I decided to kill some time talking to other passengers. I got into a conversation with a woman named Lisa. She's an American who has been living in Belize for several months per year for almost four years. She is thinking about not leaving anymore and has a place north of the bridge in San Pedro that she rents for $123 per week. She says it isn't fancy. Lisa doesn't need fancy. It's clear she lives her life at a different speed than I do. She has an enviable cool that comes from living life on her terms. I ask her to tell me about Belize. She says that there is too much to tell, but she says, "Everyone comes here with their own idea of what they want Belize to be! Most of the time they leave disappointed." I took her words on-board and was determined to not be that guy. I was going to meet Belize head-on and for what it was; no preconceived notions. That was one of the shortest and most valuable conversations during my week in-country.
The boat put in at San Pedro, right on the beach, at about 1700. Now, this is what I expected Belize to look like. I grew up spending weekends on the Jersey shore. This was so much better! This place is a Jimmy Buffett song. There is activity everywhere, but no one appears to be in a hurry.
Fresh off the boat, I realized that I was famished. I needed dinner…NOW. Lily's Treasure Chest is right across the sand from the pier. They could have served shit sandwiches and I'd have been grateful. I ordered what the menu called conch chowder. I would eat a lot of chowder in the coming week, but this bowl tasted curiously like Pho, (pronounced: fah) a Vietnamese dish I refer to as grass soup. I'm not a fan. But my stomach was empty. I demolished the soup. I visited Lily's several times during this trip. The service is good and it's comfortable place to wait for a boat.
Next time, I'll tell you about the place where I stayed. Not too shabby.
Matt Jordan is a travel writer living in Thornburg, Virginia.