Bestbird Page Two:
gringo's big meal and big ideas.
A gringo is a gringo is a gringo: (22 Feb 2000) I had better pause right now to explain what I mean by the term "gringo". To me, a gringo is anyone (other than some of those of Latin extraction) who was born on to the north of the Rio Bravo Del Norte, better known as the Rio Grande to gringos. The origin of the term gringo is a subject often debated. I prefer the version that the term was first used by the natives, meaning Mexicans, of Tejas (as Texas was then known) after hearing the settlers from farther north constantly singing the old folk song that goes, "Green grow the lilacs all sparkling with dew, I'm lonesome my darlin' since my parting with you ....".
and a meal: (13 Feb 2000) It was not only the beauty of San Pedro and its
people that drew (or, maybe, only called) me to the tropics, but
also the magnetism of Belize City. Many writers, with more literary ability than
I, have attempted to explain why Belize City --with its open
sewers, its dingy or dilapidated clapboard buildings, or both,
its polyglot of people scurrying to and fro, and speaking a form
of English no gringo could possibly comprehend or some other
language not the King's English, although many of them, if the
occasion arose, could speak English very well, it being Belize's
official language, and its general funkiness-- could possibly
have such a strong attraction to gringos and other interlopers
with a certain adventurous bent. Those writers have not had much
success in that regard, so I won't even try it. But, I can't
resist speaking of one nostalgic experience during our second
trip to Belize. For some reason,
whether by design or mishap is not recalled, we spent one night (at
then the most "classy" hotel available) and most of the
next day (touring) in Belize City. During that day and after we
explained our desire to have a nice lunch to Rudon, he suggested
and took us to the Caribbean
which served Chinese food out of the center of town. When we
ascended the stairs, entered the dark room, and were guided by
our arms to a table, I immediately ordered a libation to steel my
nerves. As my drink came and my eyes grew accustomed to the
gloom, I noticed that only one other table was occupied. Then, as
I began to wonder what kind of dining experience I had to look
forward to, the nostalgic event occurred. Without warning, a
scratchy record player began to play a Korean folk song about two
lovers and a Korean mountain. The song was
Arirang, which my favorite song since my days in
Korea. I had often given my rendition of it, in pigeon
Korean, for the doubtful benefit of my
(then small) children. Some of the Korean folk songs are so good
that I wonder why they needed to use the tune of "God save
the King/Queen" for their national anthem. Could it be for
the same reason that we use it to go with the "My Country,
'Tis of Thee" lyrics? Sadly, I add that nobody at the
restaurant would admit to being Korean or having any knowledge
about the record or its origin. Anyway, although my eyes were
moistened by the poignant nostalgia of the Caribbean's ambience
and musical taste, the meal was good, the dining experience a
success, and many return visits to that establishment were
spelling postscript: (11 Sep 2000) A kind person just emailed me
to correct my spelling of Arirang and I will now add a link so you can
hear the music to it and read its lyrics. A late update: (8 Jun 2002) I finally got on the
ball and made my own page where you may hear the music to Arirang
and choose a format - midi or MP3. Just click on it or this:
Harvey and an idea: (13 Mar 2000) I had met Harvey Sedger during my second Boxing Day trip to San Pedro. Being fellow guests at the Paradise, we quickly struck up a friendship, maybe because we both wore jumpsuits; but, maybe not, because my green one appeared to be made of what burlap comes wrapped in and his blue one appeared to be made of fine velvet. Harvey said he was in the oil business and struck me as a promoter - in the best sense of the word, meaning that he appeared to be a successful promoter. You can usually tell by checking what kind of shoes and wristwatch are worn. The idea part: (14 Mar 2000) Harvey was high on doing business in San Pedro, and even mentioned (casually, of course) that he thought the hotel business would be a good one to undertake on the island. His speculation needed some thought, but not much. I knew how to build speculative homes in Houston, Texas, but I was trained in a discipline that required you to know what a project would cost to build and what price it would fetch when finished before starting the project. Also, I realized, though not fully as it turned out, that there were many drawbacks and potential problems which would arise by building where you didn't know your work force or the optimum price of anything. So, I didn't take Harvey's bait (if that's what it was) at the time.
The Victoria House idea takes root: (14 Mar 2000) After getting back to Houston, I saw the handwriting on the wall for my pet project, Mayfair Homes, and knew that I had better shut it down while the shutting down was good. More than that, I was fed up with the rat race on a treadmill which I was running - even to the point that I would grit my teeth when the phone rang. After reviewing the daily routine I was enduring, realizing this routine would be no better if I went to work for another builder or (horrors) returned to the practice of law, recalling the beauty and ambience of Ambergris Caye, finding that Susan's wish to escape to the seashore was even greater than mine, and formulating a contingent idea for what form that escape might take, I gave Harvey a call. The idea part: (15 Mar 2000) The idea was to build a modest and secluded hotel on the beach. I wanted it to be located far enough from San Pedro to remain secluded even after San Pedro experienced its inevitable growth; and, I knew that it was just too great a place not to suffer the benefits and, alas, the pains of that growth. But, I did want the hotel to be accessible by land from town, for obvious reasons. The construction was to be a la Paradise - maybe, for a start, ten cabanas with thatched roofs and a small two story building with my family's living quarters upstairs and a dining room, bar, and office downstairs. However, I planned to use clapboard (lap and gap to gringo builders) for all siding and not the wood (sapodilla, I think) sticks used at the Paradise. The heart of the idea was to launch an easy to build and easy to run project where my family, paying guests, and the investors could enjoy the paradise I had happened upon. There was no thought of having a real moneymaker. Therefore, each investor would have a free stay, being room and board for two or three, but in one cabana, for fourteen days (thirteen nights) per year. I would oversee the building of the place and manage it when it was finished; and, I would get an agreed salary starting when construction started, plus all my travel expenses and expenses on the island during the building phase, plus room and board at the hotel for me and my family when it opened. The root part: (16 Mar 2000) I called Harvey, who was living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and laid out the plan. Without hesitation, he said, "Sure, we'll go 50-50 on the front money, and put up equally for our shares, and I have a group of associates who would each buy a share." I told him that the money which I was to put up would not be available until I sold my house, and that I wanted two shares for the same amount of money since it was my idea, my promotion, and my work that would be anted up for relatively low compensation which would not begin until the construction started. Harvey allowed that the deal was fair and said his wire transfer for his one-half of the front money would be sent that very day, which it was.
A premature christening: (15 Mar 2000) Harvey and I having put up enough front money to get started looking for some beachfront to buy, I began to think of my plan as practically completed and started wrestling for the name of the hotel. I truly don't remember whether it was I or Susan who came up with Victoria House, but it fit right in with the British link to Belize and to the clapboard siding I had planned - all so very colonial, see? STOP THE PRESSES! I just had the thought that I had better straighten out the "who named it" point right now, and called Susan. SHE thought of the name (at the corner of Westheimer and Dairy Ashford in Houston she said - what a memory) while we were driving along and brain storming for a name that would have a British connotation. Whew! Another law suit avoided. Am I a great lawyer or what?
Flying to Victoria: (03 Feb 2000) Having the idea well in mind, I had two minor problems: finding the right land; and, raising enough money to buy the land (first) and then to build the hotel. So, it was off to Belize on Taca Airlines (which, at the time, gave away too much booze and allowed smoking so you would enjoy it) to find the land. First, although I had over enjoyed the largesse of Taca, I made contact with a Belize City (better than Philadelphia) lawyer, Derek Courtenay. He rushed in, late, with his white wig accenting his dark face and with his black robe flowing behind. Only later did I realize that my attire attracted much more attention than his on the streets of Belize City - my blue and white striped seersucker suit, tie, and hard leather shoes were a much more unusual sight, in all of Belize, than the get-up of a British barrister. Derek Courtenay turned out to be a very astute and sympatico gentleman who, both then and later, gave me sound advice of both legal and Belizean practicality. Part of his most astute advice (this being for finding land - his advice re a proper land title having already been given) was to visit with Emory King, a long-time (since 1953) gringo expatriate wise to the ways of Belize. So, that very day, I, like any responsible citizen should do, took my lawyer's advice.
Bigger circuses than me: (03 Feb 2000) Emory King (at whom you may take a peek if, the next time you watch The Mosquito Coast, you notice Harrison Ford haggling at a table in a bar over, of all things, buying land in Belize, with a local played by the properly cast Emory King) turned out to be a very interesting and useful person to know. First, he offered to share a drink with me (Taca was wearing off) and that he did with gusto. Then, he sold me a copy of his book, Hey Dad, This Is Belize, which relates the "Circus" tale and the "Chickens" tale (both of which are told below in "Tales of circuses and chickens:"). Then, he advised me to talk with a guy named Dick Hayes, a landowner in San Pedro. When I asked where I might find that esteemed gentleman, Emory replied, "When you get to San Pedro, just go to the nearest bar." So, what was a poor lad to do but go to San Pedro and find the nearest bar. An add-on: (12 Feb 2000) I just (last night) woke up and emailed Emory King to pick his brain for a second time. Being the first class gentleman that he is, he quickly responded to give me the real title (now corrected) of the book he sold me, to point out two spelling errors (now corrected) on this page, and to give me his web site address. He has been appointed Film Commissioner and, as such, is engaged in promoting the Belize film industry. Methinks the Hollywood Circus will strike again soon. If you are interested in knowing more about Belize with a lot of laughs thrown in, Emory King is your man. To visit his personal web page and see his picture, click here. The official web site for the film promotion project is Belize Film Commission and that web site, which has some great photos of the Belize scenery and people, is well worth your visit.
Luck(?) at Fido's: (09 Mar 2000): I got to San Pedro late in the afternoon and, still in my seersucker silliness and carrying my suitcase, started down Front Street and sort of headed for the Paradise. Just after I passed the park, I heard some pretty good sounding guitar music and singing coming from my right and behind a concrete wall having a small opening for entry and a small hand-painted sign above that said, simply, "Fido's". I had noticed the wall, the opening, and the sign on my previous visits to San Pedro, but, for some reason I can't remember, had never entered there. This time, lured by the music, the thought that where there is music there may be a cantina, and the remembrance that I had been advised by Emory King to look for Dick Hayes in the nearest bar, I did enter. Once again a small happening started a chain of events that completely altered my future. However, I must digress a bit to get one thing straight right now. Fido is pronounced "fee-doe" (like the name of a Spanish Don and not "fido" like your pet dog). That information may save you much embarrassment or other indignity later on. My guess about Fido's being a cantina proved to be correct. To my left was a small bar, without bar stools, set in a long two story building which looked like it might serve as a sort of hotel. In front of me was a round, thatch covered structure, about twenty feet in diameter, with some tables and chairs spread about. Beyond was a larger, closed-in building which appeared, and later proved, to be empty. Between that building and the hotel-like building, one could catch a glimpse of the shore, the water, and the reef. That was Fido's in 1979. I just found "Fido's Courtyard And Activity Center" on the web and looked at the pictures. It is at the same old spot I knew and may be a great place, but it ain't "my" Fido's. The luck part: (10 Mar 2000) Only one of the tables at Fido's, the largest, was occupied when I came in. Around it sat a group of maybe eight gringo's who were, obviously, not just tourists; you could tell that not only by their dress, but also by their comfortable manner. Behind the bar or moving about were three locals who served as the musical group, the bartenders, and the general cheer leaders of the gathering - not to say that the group needed much cheering up. They seemed as curious about me as I was about them and, after some conversation back and forth between their table and mine, I was invited to join them. I recognized only one person in the group, "Fritz" Lane, whom I had met briefly at the Paradise on the previous Boxing Day and remembered by name. It was obvious that he did not remember me, so, before any introductions were exchanged, I asked, "Does anyone here know Fritz Lane from Cuero, Texas?" Everyone, including Lane, as I later learned to call him, looked startled. Lane said, "Yeah, I'm Fritz Lane, who are you?" Without answering directly, and without stretching the truth too much, I related that I had followed his trail of tobacco juice from Cuero, Texas to Brownsville, Matamoros, Tampico, Vera Cruz, Villahermosa, Chetumal, and Belize. He asked, "Are you with the IRS or DEA or something?" I vaguely answered, "Not exactly." That furthered my game for a bit, but it soon ended when I couldn't suppress a grin, and proper introductions were offered all around. As God is my witness, the person directly to my left chanced to be the very same Dick Hayes whom I was instructed to find in the nearest bar - and there he was, in the nearest bar. How about that, non-believers in Karma? Everyone in Fido's that day became my good friend over the years, especially Dick and Jan, Harold and Alice, and the band members - Wil, Dale, and Chico. All mentioned here will be mentioned again before this saga is over. Fido's did have rooms for rent, so without searching the town to find a hotel, I had a headquarters for searching the island to find a hotel site.
Learning where to walk down the beach: (10 Feb 2000) After the afternoon, evening, and morning at Fido's, I had three clues to finding the land I wanted. Dick Hayes had told me that he would like to sell the land where he had started building a hotel a few years ago but had abandoned the project. His dream, which had been even more grand than mine and premature on account of the island's infrastructure at the time, had wisely been abandoned. Also, it had been mentioned by someone that a gringo named Eugene (The last name was also given to me, but will not be given to you - let the dead and their families rest in peace.) had started a project about two miles south of town. That project, I was also told, had been abandoned after Eugene a) had taken to drink and the very, very few island girls available to gringos, b) had lost his wife, who never became accustomed to life in the tropics, or its effect on Eugene, and returned to Memphis, Tennessee from whence they had come, and c) had been killed in an auto accident while on a hunting trip in the United States. My third clue, which then seemed to be the most promising, had come from Corey McDermott, Jerry McDermott's brother, at a meeting in Houston. Corey had made a promotional pitch, complete with a slide show and a lecture on Belize, to me and a dear friend, Harold (Rocky) Rockaway, about whom you may learn by visiting the Bridge page. The point of Corey's pitch was, as he put it, "I have some land." He also said that, on my next trip to the island, I could ask Ramon Nuņez to show it to me. The only way to follow the lead of the clues gleaned at Fido's was to abandon the seersucker costume, to put on my other work clothes, a jumpsuit, and to take a stroll looking for beachfront property to buy. Using Greek and Roman logic, I decided that the best place to take my stroll was along the beach.
Caliente es el sol en la playa, tambien la suerte: (11 Mar 2000) Before taking my stroll while the sun was hot on the the beach, I imposed on Wil Nuņez (the only other person who seemed to be out and about) to scrounge up a cup of instant coffee, then went down and across Front Street to the Blake House for more (also instant) coffee and a light breakfast of bacon, eggs, tortillas, and refried (black) beans. Sorely missed was fresh milk, which continued to be a serious problem visited on me in San Pedro (Belize City, too) until much later when the Mennonites came to my rescue. One further small task remained before my stroll - to visit Dick and Jan Hayes for directions to where their beach property was located. They were then living in the best and largest of the quarters in the apartment house owned and managed by Cruz Nuņez, of which and whom you will hear more later on. As always, they were gracious hosts and, having been through the early stages of what I was trying to do, gave me as much help as they could. But of course what he had tried to do (and what I was soon to take a stab at) is a bit like being in combat - only someone who has been through it can know what it is really like. The hot sun on the beach part: (12 Mar 2000) First, I went to the spot on the south edge of town where Dick's property was. It had enough beach front for my purposes but, to me, it also had the drawbacks of being too close to town and having large concrete blocks (presumably as part of the proposed foundation) strewn here and there. Then, I went on down the beach for a way, and came to a frame house with a gentleman sitting on its porch. We both said, "Hi", and were soon engaged in a talk. I gave him one of my Mayfair Homes calling cards and explained what I was up to. He introduced himself as Dick Parham and spelled his last name for me. Much later we would become very good friends, fellow conspirators, and drinking buddies, but then I was very wary of him and his talk about the beautiful pieces of land on which he had a listing to sell. Being anxious to find the site where Corey did "have some land", I soon left him with the thought that we would see each other later. I went on down the beach for about a mile from town to where Ramon Nuņez already had built, on a rather large piece of cleared property, a main two story building with a large bar, then unoccupied and unattended, downstairs, and a large dining room and kitchen upstairs. I think, there were also some thatched cabanas (a la Paradise). That was the Ramon's in 1979. The only person I could spot told me that Ramon was out fishing (guiding) so I gave him a Mayfair card and asked him to tell Ramon that I would be back later in the afternoon. From there, the beach grew very narrow so I went back to the only road leading south out of town (the only road period at that time) and headed on south to see what I could see. I went on past San Telmo (see "A saint, a don, and a horn" on Bestbird Page Five) to where the "road" became more of a path and, a little farther on, came across what I guessed had been not only the beginnings of Eugene's aborted project, but also the property which Corey supposedly had. It consisted only of one small ramshackled structure and maybe another small broken up foundation or two in the surrounding jungle. But it was near the beach and, therefore, was fine for my purposes if it's dimensions were right. Then, growing tired and hungry, and wanting to find Ramon himself as Corey had suggested, I headed on back to Ramon's. Had I walked about half a mile farther, I would have seen a more attractive piece of land. Little things meaning a lot were afoot again. The "la suerte" (lady luck) part: (13 Mar 2000) When I got back to Ramon's, I found the man himself on the beach. I told him briefly of my purpose and asked if I could be shown the site where Corey "had some land". Ramon seemed strangely hesitant about the matter, said he was very busy, and asked another person (an employee, I assumed) to drive me to the spot. That was done and it was indeed the same spot that I had guessed was what I was looking for. Returning to Ramon's, I found him again to inquire about where and to whom I should go to talk about buying the land. Ramon seemed vague about the matter and it was obvious that he didn't even want to talk on that subject. In fact, he sort of abruptly ended our conversation and started walking away. As he did, I called after him, "Ramon, who owns that land anyway?" Over his shoulder, he replied, "Some guy in Tennessee". Well, BINGO, Greek and Roman logic again provided the answer to my query. The land was owned by Eugene's heirs, whoever and wherever they were.
"T" for Texas and Tennessee: (14 Mar 2000) Back in Houston, Texas, I had to address the problems of Mayfair Homes, but uppermost in my mind were making a deal to buy land on Ambergris Caye and making sure that the money would be there to pay for it when the opportunity to buy came. The last part of that was solved with a call to Harvey in Canada. We had already agreed that my dollar contribution would come when Susan and I sold our home. Harvey said that his contribution and that of at least one other Canadian would come when it came time to pay for the land. But, how was I to find the owner/s of the land? That part proved to be easy, even though there were no web search engines at the time and no web to search. As it turned out, finding the owner was as easy (and difficult) as calling the telephone operator and asking for Memphis, Tennessee listings under Eugene's last name. Lo and behold, there was a Mrs. Eugene listed - the right one too!
"M" for Memphis, Middlemen, and Magnifico: (16 Mar 2000) Mrs. Eugene answered on my first call and, after I told her what I was up to, she said that she had some bad memories lingering on for the place and was interested in selling all the land she now owned (as Eugene's sole heir) on Ambergris Caye. But, she added that all the information was in the hands of her lawyers and I would need to come to Memphis where she would introduce me to them. That was good enough for me. She had not been to San Pedro in many years; so, I presumed that she and her lawyers were a little behind the times on the value of beachfront property on Ambergris Caye. I made my plane reservations to Memphis, called her back, arranged to meet her for a trip to the lawyers' offices, and proceeded to do just that. The Middlemen part: (17 Mar 2000) Her lawyers' offices were fancy and on the main square where the courthouse and some other important looking buildings were located; and, her lawyers seemed like square shooters and not bent on killing a deal with legal niceties, as some lawyers have been want to do in similar situations. The important part of what they told me was that the land that I had looked at, being where the aborted building had taken place, could not be sold because of title problems. They knew that I would assume that creditors had tied that property up in litigation or with liens, and I did. However, the good news was that the 9+ acre vacant tract on Cypress Point was available along with the next 1700 feet of beach to the south, less about four small pieces of land on which houses had been constructed and sold. The bargaining was finished before lunch. The Magnifico part: (18 Mar 2000) I (the papers were to be in my name) would give $1,000.00 for a three month option to buy the Cypress Point land for $42,500.00 and then have a six month right of first refusal on the 1,700 (minus) feet of beach property. To myself I started humming the old Tex Ritter tune, "Draw Up The Papers, Lawyer." That they did while Mrs. Eugene and I went to a lunch she had invited me to. The lunch was pleasant and on her, and our talk went well. She told me why she had the bad memories and spoke of other personal things, like the circumstances of her husband's death. Then, it was back to the lawyers' offices, pay the $1,000.00, get the papers signed, and get back on the road and the ball.
Back to Courtenay and the Courthouse: (21 Mar 2000) I wanted to hurry back to San Pedro and find the land on the ground, and it wasn't long before I was off to Belize again. But, before I walked the beach to find the land, it seemed prudent to stop off in Belize City for a visit with Derek Courtenay. I showed him the maps and signed papers re the land, and he told me he would check to make sure the title was clear. In the meantime, he said that (if I was curious) I could stop by the Courthouse and look for the papers by which Eugene had acquired title. I had searched courthouse land records many times before, but this time was the most interesting search I ever undertook. The land records were kept in the basement of the Courthouse and in huge dusty books scattered around in what seemed to me to be no particular order. I showed the map of the land to the man in charge and, after searching and moving the record books around for awhile, he finally placed one book on top of a stack and opened it to a particular spot ("spot" being just the right word). The legal history of the land seemed to be all there (passing through the Alamilla family which, with the Blake and Parham families, held legal title to most of Ambergris Caye in times past) except for one critical document - there did not seem to be a deed to Eugene. I called Derek and told him the result of my search. He said he would take a look and that I could check with him on the way back through Belize City. When I went by his office to do that, he sort of giggled and said that, indeed the subject paper was there, but hidden under another document. As I would have said after learning more about the tropics, it was no big thing. There would be no problem with getting a clear title; and, Derek said he would write an opinion to that effect for the benefit of prospective investors. As always, he did what he said he would do.
Finding what I bought: (10 Feb 2000) After getting back to San Pedro as quick as I could, I located the land on the ground and was highly pleased with my luck in the draw. To get an idea of the view (which, of course, helped a lot in luring investors) from the site, click Victoria House View and see two images - a photo taken from Victoria House, looking towards San Pedro, and a pretty map of Ambergris Caye which locates both the town and the Victoria House property. That map also locates Hol Chan, a cut in the reef which is now part of a Marine Reserve just to the south of Victoria House. The Reef at Hol Chan is aerial view of the reef which may also be spied from the Victoria House beach.
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