One of the first people I met when I came to the island.
Exploring town and finding a cool spot to rest was my priority, so I wandered ahead without Elbert. All the streets were sand and everyone I encountered, children, adults, shopkeepers and bartenders alike were barefoot and dressed in a simple fashionless style adorned only with gold teeth and tattoo. A sign outside a tavern read, "No shoes, no shirt, no problema." Contented faces of a widely varied descent smiled, waved or nodded at passing strangers and fellow Ambergriseans. Among themselves they spoke an odd form of Spanish mixed with Mayan and broken English to outsiders. In the entire town no building was over two stories. An ancient Roman Catholic Church’s bell tower that rose above everything marked the town’s center.
The trade winds cooled Front Street best, and my quest ended at a beachfront establishment called the Holiday Hotel. Its heavy carved mahogany doors to the street were propped open in a gesture of welcome.
I walked in, crossed the lobby, passed the bar and stuck my head out the beachside exit to a verandah overlooking the reef.
It was furnished in brightly colored adirondack style furniture and surrounded in red Hibiscus, busy with visiting Cinnamon Hummingbirds. It and the beach beyond were shaded by towering coconut palms. The whole unbelievably serene setting was graced with the low and distant roar of the reef beyond...heaven!
Suddenly from the lobby a disturbing gruff voice boomed, "Is that your dog?"
I turned to discover Elbert behind me and confronting him was a large scowling woman.
"He's my dog, Elbert said, "or I'm his person. However you want to look at it."
She bellowed, "There are no dogs allowed in this Hotel," pointing a stiff arm with crooked finger at the door to the verandah she yelled, "Afuera!"
"He doesn't understand Spanish," Elbert said calmly. "Bubba would you wait outside while I have a drink at the bar?"
I quickly exited and plopped down on the verandah. With no adieu, the woman turned and stomped away. From behind the bar a short, stocky Spanish man said, "That's Celi, she owns the Hotel, lives upstairs. What would you like to drink?"
Elbert settled in the stool and asked, "Is she always like that?"
He chuckled, "Only when she's awake!"
"I'll have a Caribbean rum and coke with lime, thank you."
After mixing the drink his eyes cut to the door and he asked, "What's your dog’s name?" I glanced over to see Bubba's head sticking inside. His mouth open, with his drooping tongue supporting a long slobber sickle.
"Bubba," I responded, "and mine's Elbert. What's yours?"
"Chico," he answered quickly and distinctly unlike the others I had met. With a large hand, genuine grip and warm smile he gave me a masculine single shake. "Nice to meet you. Would your dog like some water?" "Well...Bubba would prefer a beer. Could you pour some beer in a bowl for him? He'll drink it outside!"
He poured the beer into a large stainless steel bowl, and I sat it outside. Bubba was gazing at the frigates soaring overhead. Before lapping up the beer he looked up at me and smiled. I could tell he was not going to mind the verandah at all.
I returned to the bar and asked Chico to request the front desk reserve me a room for the night.
As the afternoon progressed Chico began a line of questions that I'm sure he asks everyone who sits at his bar for any extended length of time, but still he managed a convincing display of concern.
Reciting as he washed bar glasses in the sink he asked, "How long are you here for?"
"I'm going to stay. I'm not really a tourist. I plan to build on some land I've just bought on the island."
"What kind of work do you do?"
"I'm a vocational teacher but I plan to teach SCUBA diving down here."
"Want to go diving? I'll introduce you to my cousin Tito."
"Chico how many dive masters are there on the island?"
"Well let's see. Tito, Nano, Marko, Turiano..." He began to count on his fingers and mumble to himself eventually coming up with a figure of ten, all with names ending in "o."
"Sure let's set something up!"
"What else would you like to do? I know everybody."
"Well, I like to write, and Bubba likes to do bird watching."
"Your dog is a birdwatcher?"
"Sure, he's a bird dog. Loves the sport."
Chico offered to set up a tour with his cousin Cholo to ‘Rosario Caye,' a neighboring island he claimed was inhabited by hundreds of Herons and Spoonbills.
Continuing with his repertoire of questions he asked, "What do you write?"
"Witticisms, but nothing lately! I was hoping the local newspaper might humor me with my own column."
"A column about what?"
" I don't know yet but I'm sure it will come to me."
"I'll introduce you to Bruce and Victoria and the San Pedro Sun. They will print anything. Don't worry I'll fix you up! Want another drink?"
"Yes and could Bubba have another bowl of beer?"
"You're going to get me in trouble!"
"Chico, you are full of information. I seem to have stumbled into the right bar. I was hoping you could help me find my way around the Island."
Chico responded with, "It’s easy: we have Front, Middle and Back street. The sea is in the front of the island and the lagoon, in the back. Put your right foot in the Caribbean and you're going north. Left foot, south. Simple! The town ends just a little way to the north in a river with no bridge, and the south end is a Maya Ruin called Marco Gonzalez."
"Chico, my property is on the north end."
"UA-OH, you are going to need a boat. My cousin Turiano can find you one quick!"
The following weeks at the Hotel, Bubba and I got to know San Pedro. Diving , fishing, exploring, drinking with Chico and trying to stay out of Celi's way.
One could say San Pedro is a dream. Someone could say San Pedro was as if it were set in another time. Someone else could say San Pedro is as if it was in another world and they would all be saying the same thing.
There is salt and sand, towering coconut trees, fishing boats pulled unto the beach, large piles of empty conch shells, tall stacks of lobster traps and bleached wooden houses.
San Pedro is a Roman Catholic fishing village and early every morning, except Sunday, the men went out fishing. The mayor was a fisherman so he went out. The town councilors were fishermen so they went out; the justice of the peace was a fisherman. It gave the town a peaceful air during the day, nothing important or official could happen. All shops and businesses closed for lunch and most for the remainder of the day. Afternoons were for sitting in a shady spot. During the morning if you needed meat you went to see Hipalito the butcher. If you wanted vegetables you went to see Mario at the vegetable stand. Fish were at the co-op and bread was at the bakers. If you had a problem you went to visit Constable Orio at the police station. San Pedro was a poem and in some way it all seemed to surround Celi's Holiday Hotel.
The tourists stayed at her hotel, ate at her restaurant and drank in her bar. The locals and expatriated gringos of the village seem to be drawn to its lobby. Some waiting to see what would come to town next, others just drinking to forget life before San Pedro.
The bar opened at dawn and didn't close until the last wandering vagrant dollar had been spent or retired for the night. Not that Celi was avaricious, she wasn't, but if one wanted to spend money she was accommodating. Celi's position in the community surprised her, as much as she could be surprised. Over the course of years everyone in the village that drank had owed her money. She never pressed her clients, but when the bill became too large, Celi cut off credit. Rather than patronize another bar, the client usually paid or tried to. Her wealth may have been entirely in unpaid bar tabs, but she lived well and had the respect of the village. In some sense she was San Pedros benevolent Queen.
I kept looking for some sign that this wasn’t paradise, but it eluded me.