CHEERS TO BELIZE: Everybody knows your name on friendly, tiny Caye Caulker
October 14, 2007
Story and Photos by AMBER HUNT
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
As I stepped inside the Barrier Reef bar, I heard the last thing I ever would have expected while on a tiny island off of Belize:
"Amber!" yelled Mike the Bartender. "Here comes trouble!" It's the kind of greeting you might expect when you've been a regular for years. This, however, was just my second visit to the oceanfront pub on Caye Caulker, a Central American island boasting about 1,200 people -- tourists included.
Mike had worked the previous night, too. Now he knew my name.
Normally, this might have been off-putting. After all, when you're some 2,000 miles away from home and you're a woman traveling solo, you can take comfort in anonymity. Slide under the radar and you feel less likely to land in trouble.
That might work in big cities like Paris and Tokyo, where I've felt dwarfed by the realization that the world is huge and I am such a small, insignificant part of it.
But Caye Caulker is more small town than foreign island. Meet someone and you're likely to know his whole story after a single conversation.
And he's just as likely to know yours.
Signs point to Belize
I'd decided on a whim that I wanted to take a tropical trip. I asked a well-traveled colleague to rattle off some ideas. He insisted Belize would fit my loose criteria: beachy, tropical and safe.
Enter here serendipity: The same week I decided on my country, I met a couple who had traveled to and from Belize since the 1970s to identify Mayan remains.
Among their suggestions: Caye Caulker (pronounced Key KAW-kerr), a 10-minute plane ride from Belize City.
It seemed the most versatile, offering beach life with the option of island hopping -- or mainland visits -- as desired.
After about five hours on a plane from Detroit, I landed on the island on a Thursday afternoon to begin my nearly weeklong stay. The puddle-jumper skipped to a stop on a dirt landing strip. At the end stood a hand-painted wooden sign: "Welcome to Caye Caulker."
Of the dozen or so people on the plane, I was the only one stopping here. The rest flew on to nearby San Pedro, a bigger island, with cobblestone streets instead of dirt ones and far more bars and beachfront.
A man named Lulu grabbed my bags and tossed them into the back of a golf cart. This is Caye Caulker's idea of a taxicab.
Lulu gave me the rundown as we clunked along the pocked road toward Seaside Cabanas, my destination.
"You have three streets," Lulu said. "Front Street, Back Street and Middle Street."
I thought he was joking. He wasn't. The island is all of 1 1/2 miles wide and 5 miles long -- and a chunk of it is undeveloped marine reserve.
As we drove, Lulu pointed out some attractions: the elementary school, a quaint pastel-colored building with an aging playground; the sun-drenched church, away from the main drag of restaurants and bars.
We turned a corner and he pointed at the I&I Bar, a half-indoor, half-outdoor hangout where he said the young people go.
We reached my hotel, a series of linked cabanas. Mine cost $100 a night for an air-conditioned room with a semiprivate rooftop patio overlooking the ocean and a pool.
By American standards, this was a nice room for a great price. In Belize, I was living the high life.
Everybody knows everybody
Within an hour of arriving, I wandered down Front Street, eyeing the weather-worn storefronts and dreadlocked locals.
Some people milled in and out of the stores -- designed as much for tourists as for islanders -- and there was the occasional twentysomething with a backpack, but the island was quiet, peaceful.
A man slept on the sand between two palm trees, his bicycle a few feet away. It was about 90 degrees and sunny. A light breeze swept through laundry as it line-dried in the back yards of modest wooden homes.
Occasionally I'd make way for a passing golf cart. There were just a handful of cars on the whole island -- and they belonged to bigwigs such as the island's banker. The rest walked, bicycled or drove golf carts to get around.
It took less than 20 minutes to reach the end of the island, where I stumbled into the Lazy Lizard, an open-air bar and grill. People slept in hammocks on the restaurant's dock and ate at ocean-hugged picnic tables.
Here is where I met my first of many reccurring island characters: Zumandu. (He'd be Bartender No. 2.)
Zumandu could tell I was new to Caye Caulker. I assumed I must have looked like a blank-eyed tourist. Turns out, he knew simply because he hadn't met me yet -- and he meets everyone.
"Here, everybody knows everybody," he told me in a thick Caribbean accent.
Case in point: Despite the island's scarce crime, a visiting couple recently was robbed of some money and their passports. Word spread about the incident, and within the day their goods were returned.
People look out for each other on the island, Zumandu said.
Welcome to the family
When I visited Hawaii, I felt a definite islanders-vs.-mainlanders mentality. No one was rude, but you sensed that no matter how long you stayed on the island, you'd always be looked at as a tourist.
Not so on Caye Caulker. Visitors sometimes account for half of the population, so you feel embraced as part of the culture. You're not a pesky tourist; you're a consumer and a guest, and islanders happily strike up conversations to learn what brought you there.
Especially if you're a woman. If you're female and you need an ego boost, go to Caye Caulker. You're complimented so much it actually starts to get annoying. (Who knew that was even possible?)
That means, too, that you can't be meek: Sometimes you need to be firm but friendly as you insist you're not interested -- not entirely surprising when visiting an island whose most popular drink is the rum-based Panty Ripper.
I met an ambitious pursuer on that first walk down Front Street. He touched my arm, flashed a silver-studded smile and offered me illegal drugs -- despite the huge signs warning tourists that marijuana might be prevalent, but it's still a no-no. I didn't bother to learn his name.
I did, however, learn Stephan's, a friendly 32-year-old whose job was to wave people into the Barefoot Caribe Restaurant and Bar. He sat down at my table during lunch one day, uninvited but not unwelcome.
Like many island workers, he lived in Belize City. He took a 40-minute speedboat ride to Caye Caulker several times a week to work.
I ran into him several times. Once, he looked at my wedge sandals, shook his head and told me to take them off. They were too dressy, he said.
So I went barefoot.
I'd meant to take advantage of some off-island activities, such as a sunset jaunt to the barrier reef to go snorkeling, or a day trip to Belize City to visit Mayan ruins and zipglide over the jungle.
Unfortunately, I put those mini-adventures off, and the last two days intermittent rains caused the water to rise too high, so the organized trips were canceled.
It was just as well. Staying on the island meant I met more people. Like TV Tom, the good-natured boozehound who owned the island's only electronics store -- featuring the best 1992 had to offer. And Gringo Jack, a Florida transplant who bragged about his popular, street-side shrimp-on-a-stick enterprise.
I learned the most about Mike the Bartender, who had moved from Guatemala after nearly dying in a car wreck. Born in London, he'd decided to take a year off. That year had come and gone, and now he was planning to become a Belize citizen. We traded sharp-tongued barbs and downed shots.
Then there were the backpacking transients, such as Jai and Dave. The two twentysomethings -- from Australia and Ireland, respectively -- had met on a bus in Mexico and decided to join forces as they tooled around Central and South America. We all ended up dancing at Oceanside -- which, with some 50 people crowded inside, was the place to be on Saturday night.
I met Jai and Dave by chance when the two wandered into the Barrier Reef and sat down next to me at the bar.
Mike walked up, slapped a pair of napkins in front of them and issued an ominous warning: "Beware of that one," he joked, his head motioning to me. "She's got a foul mouth!"
Yep, he knew me, all right. It seemed like everyone did.
Contact AMBER HUNT at 586-469-4682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.