by JOEL HOFFMANN
In the weeks leading up to our vacation, friends and family had been asking my fiancé, Nina, and I why - of all the places in the world - we wanted to visit Belize. We had heard the food was excellent, but our knowledge of the Central American country was limited when we booked the trip.
We chose Belize because Don Groff, a colleague of Nina's at the Philadelphia Daily News who just happens to be a travel writer in his free time, recommended it when we asked him where we could go in the Caribbean without being hawked by street vendors or harassed by frat boys.
We wanted to go somewhere serene. We wanted to go to a place where time is more of a compass than a cattle prod. Americans have a tendency to return from vacation more exhausted than when they left, an urge to wring as much pleasure and meaning as they can out of every leisurely experience.
Vacation is too often another week of work, and so Nina and I decided to plan only the essentials and leave everything else to whim or chance.
That turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made.
We arrived in Belize City on June 27 at 2:30 p.m., about 13 hours after I made Nina turn down Michael Jackson's "Thriller" so I could propose to her. As our plane approached, the water looked like a strange mixture of gelatin and fish skin. I imagined squishing it between my fingers, letting months of pent-up stress dissipate. That serenity stayed with me the entire week.
The people I met in Belize were far less anxious and angry than the average American. That was especially the case at Ambergris Caye, an island 35 miles northeast of Belize City where our resort was located.
General tranquility seems to emanate from the Caribbean Sea. Its waves - gorgeous shades of blue and green - eroded my anxiety and quieted my overactive mind. Sitting in its wake was a form of meditation - no awkward body contortions required.
We ended up booking two excursions - trips to Lamanai national park, where we climbed a 272-foot tall Mayan temple, and Hol Chan Marine Reserve, where we floated between schools of fish and sting rays - but those trips wouldn't have been so significant if we had squeezed them into a week of spearfishing, skydiving, cave tubing and ziplining.
More importantly, we didn't return with a suitcase full of trinkets.
Like Billy Pilgrim's mother, many of us have been conditioned to believe that we can assemble meaningful lives from things we find in gift shops.
Belize reminded me that real happiness can't be manufactured, that it's already inside of us, but we often diminish it by valuing only what we can purchase.
Sometimes all it takes is a gentle sea breeze or a few whispered words to bring it to the surface.http://chestnuthilllocal.com/issues/2009.07.16/opinion.html