Bestbird Page Three:
money, mo' Memphis, mo' meals, mo' work.
"M" for mo' money and Memphis again: (24 Mar 2000) After I got back to Houston and brought Harvey up to date, he and one of his Canadian group came up with their one share each money. There was then enough money to finalize the land purchase, make plans for the construction, and continue the efforts to raise enough money to get the construction started and then finished. After getting drafts of the final papers from the Memphis lawyers and the approval of Derek Courtenay thereto, it was back to Memphis to sign the papers and fork up the money. The papers conveyed the Cypress Point land to Victoria House, Ltd., a Belize Limited Company, of which I and two of Derek's secretaries were the only incorporators, and they had assigned their shares to me. The right of first refusal to the 1700 minus feet of beach to the south was given (as in the earnest money papers) to "Mervin Key, or his nominees". I'm trying to illustrate how squarely I dealt with the investors. At this point, and for a long time thereafter, they had only my Oklahoma and Belize word. I knew, even if they didn't, that such a word from me was enough.
Three buddies and only two beers: (25 Feb 2000) I had paid for the land and it was time to get on with the plans for construction. Sam Geisenberger (just "Sam" from now on) and I realized that it was time to wind down the affairs of Mayfair Homes (as chronicled in the Cabana page) and Sam, who was a pretty good draftsman, began to help me (gratis) with actual plans and specifications for the hotel. The original plan was to build along the lines of the Paradise, but to use clapboard siding, a la Belize City, instead of the palmetto sticks which Jerry had used, probably out of necessity, when he built the Paradise; and, the first plot for the actual construction was hatched. It was that Sam and I, plus a buddy of ours who, out of courtesy, will remain unnamed, would build the hotel with little local help. You may have guessed that they, being much younger than I, would be doing the actual physical labor without much help from me. I needed, and wanted, to go back to San Pedro to get the land clearing started so there would be a better presentation to lure investors. Sam and the unnamed buddy, although they had been there before, wanted to join me - just for the hell of it. So, off the three of us went on a Dutch basis, although my bill went to the Victoria House account as, from then on, did all my trips to and stays on the island. They stayed at the Paradise; I went the cheaper and friendlier route by staying at Fido's. As they were entering the Paradise, my buddies had spied, near its entrance/exit, an establishment -really, the side yard of a casa- which sold local beer at a much friendlier price than the gringo beer sold at the Paradise and which, therefore, was our home base for the trip. Later I learned that the owner of the open air beer bar was Milo Paz, a man of honor with the courage to defend it. Milo soon expanded his operation to include rooming facilities and a pleasant inside bar. The two beers part: (26 Feb 2000) The brand of beer sold at Milo's in those days was sometimes Charger, sometimes Belikin, and sometimes both. The Charger came in a greenish bottle and the Belikin in a brown, but there was little to choose from in their quality, which was very high indeed. My buddies preferred the Charger, but I preferred the Belikin with its more European flavor. On a later visit to the island, I noticed that the Charger had all but disappeared and, on a still later visit, that it was totally gone. There was a vicious rumor going around that Barry Bowen, the owner of the Belikin brewery, about whom and which you will hear more later, had pulled an old Belizean trick on his competitor. The dirt, which I didn't believe for a minute, was that Barry had gone to Guatemala, where the green bottles were being made, and purchased (for an extended time) the future production thereof. Be that as it may have been, you may learn the truth of Belikin beer and of the quality methods used in its brewing by paying a visit to A Tour of Belize Brewing, an article by Dennis Wolfe and with the courtesy of The San Pedro Sun.
Clearing and hustling: (24 Mar 2000) Someone directed me to Cruz Nunez as the best man to organize the land clearing. So he and I made a Belize contract. He said he would hire help and oversee the clearing, and I said I would pay him 1/2 now (so he would have the money to hire help) and 1/2 when the clearing was done. It was a contract certain of fulfillment - he knew he wouldn't get his money unless he performed his end, and I knew that I would have an ephemeral welcome in San Pedro unless I did likewise. In San Pedro, the extended Nunez family outnumbered the Key family by about, I would guess, thirty-five to one. Over the years, Cruz and I had many dealings and always did what we said we would do; although, one of us might be a little late sometimes like, for instance, when I would fall behind in my rent at his apartment project - but that's another story. The hustling part: (25 Mar 2000) It was time to zero in on raising money. After enough time had elapsed for the clearing to be well underway, Harvey finally got himself and five or so of his Canadian group together to visit San Pedro for a look-see and the story that went with it. They stayed at the Paradise (which made me a little nervous knowing that there was a risk of the group buying some swamp from Jerry - here insert a smiley emoticon) and I stayed at Fido's. My main memory of the trip is the event which occurred as we approached Cypress Point in a large dingy guided by Eduardo Brown (yes, a good friend of mine later on - but he never told me if "Brown" was really "Moreno"). Eduardo's eyes grew big and he blurted out, "This land? You bought this land?" The Canadians were impressed with the deal but, during the trip, did not say whether they would come in. However, Harvey got them in line later, one by one, and their money came through albeit not with the alacrity an honest promoter would wish.
The point in a bar: (03 Mar 2000) On the trip during which I made arrangements to get the clearing started or on the trip when the Canadians met, I was having a beer at the Blake House (it's name may have been changed to Barrier Reef by then, but, for a long time after the change was made, it was still "Blake House" to San Pedranos) with a gringo whose name or connections I don't recall - this for a reason you will soon understand. It being in the heat of the day, we were quite alone (except for the bartender) and, for some reason, were discussing the tract of land where Victoria House was to be located. My companion sagely told me that my big problem was that the land was located on a point, which indeed it was - a bulge in the island's coast known as Cypress Point. Then, he patiently explained that the point, being out front, would be much more subject to erosion, particularly from storms and the inevitable hurricane. We went on to a couple of other subjects, then he left the bar. The bartender, who was a young San Pedrano preferring bar work to the rigors of lobster fishing, and I knew each other only slightly; and, he had given no indication that he had tuned in on our conversation. But, in a little while, after the other gringo (I was still a gringo then.) left, the bartender said to me, "Mervino, the point is there because it doesn't go away in a storm!" That was the end of my worry about that point.
Mo' money, mo' plans, and no pool: (26 Mar 2000) The main problem with my plan, from beginning to end, was raising enough money to get the job done. After Harvey and one other Canadian had put up their money but before I went back to Memphis to close the land deal, I started making contact with friends and acquaintances with the wherewithal to handle the deal. Thus, there began to form the group of investors that I will refer to as the Houston group of investors. I had agreed with Harvey that all the investors should be able to get along together and both of us should have a say about who came in. When I mentioned to Harvey that one potential investor was a friend of mine who was a swell guy with only one blot on his record, being that he had been tried and acquitted of the murder of Sir Harry Oakes in the Bahamas of 1943, Harvey opined, "Well, that's not so bad." The mo' money part: (27 Mar 2000) One of my first non-Canadian contacts was with Albert B. Fay, Jr., who will now be referred to as "Ab" - the nickname by which he likes to be called. Ab and I had known each other for several years and had socialized on occasion at the home of his first cousin and of my wife Susan's brother, who lived across the street from Susan and me for a time. Ab listened to my pitch and, as I expected, was noncommittal. Later, Ab called me and said that he and his father wanted to take a trip to check the island out. I knew that Ab and his father were both big on sailing and fishing, that Ab's father (whom I may refer to as "Mister Fay" although some people got to call him Albert) was a very heavy hitter indeed, and that his resume included having been the U. S. Ambassador to Trinidad. Sometime later, Ab called me and asked, "Mervin, why didn't you tell me the fishing was that good down there?" We set up an appointment at Mister Fay's office where I showed them the paperwork and detailed my deal. During the meeting, Mister Fay asked me how good the jaguar hunting on the mainland was these days. I allowed that I had no earthly idea. As I was leaving the office and had made it as far as the front porch, Mister Fay said to me, "Mervin, so you will know, the jaguar hunting is no good anymore, no matter what you hear." Maybe two days later, Ab called me and said that he and his father would go in together on just one share. Although I didn't want to have too many investors that I had to get along with, I liked Ab, needed their money badly at the time, and felt that they were good people to have on the letterhead. So, after I explained that, in fairness to the Canadians, the one share would be entitled only to a total of a two weeks free stay, Ab said okay, I said okay, and all was okay. At about the same time as more of the Canadian money started dribbling in, Ab and his father came up with their money as scheduled. Later on as money got even tighter, they bought and paid for another share. The mo' plans part: (28 Mar 2000) Ab had seen the preliminary plans which had been drawn by Sam while I annoyed him by peering over his shoulders with my suggestions. Ab wanted to hire an architect to draw the plans and I went along with him, perhaps taking my first missstep in changing the course of my vision for Victoria House. Although I knew that the architect was Ab's friend and associate, I did not have the guts to say "no" when Ab wanted the architect to spend a week in San Pedro (at VH expense) to get a "feel" for the island style; Ab was worried about style while I was worried about money, but he was the only one of us with both. To be fair to the architect I must add: he did take my ideas into account and we met several times while the plans were being drawn; and, when concrete pilings (of which I had seen a possible result on the property of Dick Hayes) were added to support the wood structures, when my clapboard siding was changed to boards and batts, which were not being used anywhere on the island or, I suspect, in all of Belize, when a separate building to house employees (whom I had envisioned as commuting from town) was added, when a separate building for a bar was added, and when a pier which conformed to Ab's suggestions (including heavy iron ties and planks which ran lengthwise - neither of which feature could be found on any other pier on the island) was added, I made no serious objection other than to look puzzled. Now, to be fair to me, I must add: I knew the building of the separate bar and the pier could be delayed if money got tight; I had been assured by both Harvey and Ab (who frequently compared ideas either directly or through me) of the sure availability of enough money to finish the project and could not envision people with wherewithal to let the project die in the middle of the game; and, most of all, I guess I just got caught up in the swing of things. The no pool part: (31 Mar 2000) Even at this early stage, Ab was suggesting his thought that we needed a swimming pool in order to "keep up with the competition". In 1979 there was only one swimming pool in all of Ambergris Caye (downtown at Celi's San Pedro Holiday) and it wasn't fresh water, and I had no intention to compete with Celi or with the hotels in Cozumel. I pointed out to Ab that we had the best swimming hole in Ambergris Caye, and maybe in all of the Western Hemisphere, right there on our beach. But, to my shame, I failed to address head on the readily apparent start of a schism in our respective views of what type of operation we would be seeking, and added only that the pool question would be put aside for another day when the money part was more settled.
Tales of circuses and chickens: (16 Feb 2000) At last, I had raised enough money to pay for the land, to finalize the plans for construction, and actually to start construction. Also, I had been assured by some of the investors that enough money to finish the job would be no problem, and I realized that, given man's innate proclivity to be more easily romanced by a big deal than a small one, it's easier to raise a million dollars than it is a hundred thousand. Yet, I had an eerie feeling that my original plan for a small, comfortable, laid-back hotel, where I, my family, and visiting gringos could enjoy a serene and secluded getaway in a paradise, was threatened by the subliminal visions of some of the investors for a new thing on Ambergris Caye - a loud, swinging, Cancun style (if you'll pardon my metaphor) circus that would bring in lots of gringo dollars, a vision which I wanted no part of and concerning which I was chicken. As it turned out, my premonition was correct - compare the year 2000 ambience of Victoria House with that when it opened in 1981, and even sadder to say, of San Pedro, with that which I first found in 1977. That sad result (at least to me) may have been the first time that the circus prevailed and the chicken man lost, an obscure allusion you will understand when I have finished and you have read the whole of this paragraph, which tells the two tales first told to me by Emory King. The circus part: (19 Feb 2000) This nearly true story tells of a grand one-ring circus that migrated from Mexico to Belize City in the early 1900's. At first the circus did very well, but (remember?) the tropical factor began to influence events. The lion tamer eloped with the tattooed lady, someone stole the cash box, and the citizens of Belize City tired of seeing the same acts over and over - they could watch more exciting shows just by visiting the swing bridge; so, the circus decided to return from whence it came. But, the devil sent his right hand man in the guise of a storm; and, the transport ship which carried the circus folks, equipment, and menagerie crashed on the reef (as luck would have it) near its break which serves as the marine entrance to San Pedro. Of course the good gente (no appropriate English word comes to me) of San Pedro rushed to the rescue and saved all the remaining circus folks and most of the animals which at least to the San Pedranos, must have seemed very exotic indeed. The circus folks were grateful and were charmed by San Pedro, so they tried their best to fit in and even put on a performance (as well as they could under the conditions that prevailed) in the center of town about once a week. But, alas, the remaining animals did not fare well on the island fare and died off one by one; and, the remaining Circus folks, not being fishermen by training, found existence difficult and one by one, drifted away. That was the ignoble end of that Circus; so, to this very day, whenever a strident gringo, with or without blue suede shoes, speaks of what grandiose plans he has for Belize and how his methods will be so superior to those employed by the locals, he may be met with a considerate countenance that advises, "Remember, Boss, Belize bigger circus than you done brukdown." The chicken deal: (22 Feb 2000) This tale, as told by Emory King, reveals a certain -How shall I put it?- cultural schism between gringos and Belizeans. A gringo once brought his circus to Belize and, learning about the lack of a reliable source of chicken supply for the most popular Belizean meal of rice and (black) beans, always served with a small piece of chicken on the side, immediately realized what a fortune could be gained from a chicken farm. So, he acquired the joinder of his trusty Belizean guide in that auspicious enterprise by explaining that he, the gringo, would put up enough money for the original stock of chickens and constructing the necessary facilities, the Belizean would contribute his labor and his land in the interior, and they would split the profits fifty-fifty. The best part of the deal from the Belizean's point of view was that, if the endeavor failed, all costs and expenses for the original stock of chickens would be borne by the gringo. Well, the gringo came up with $1,000.00 US, and went back to gringoland for about a year. When he returned and his trusty guide picked him up at the airport, he immediately asked about the chickens. The Belizean rolled his eyes, groaned, and said something like, "Oh, Boss, I'm so sorry. The lizards got in, there came a blight and the chickens die." The Belizean was so distraught that the gringo could not help feeling sorry about his plight; and, over a pleasant Belikin Beer or two in the local's bar at the Fort George Hotel, he handed the Belizean $500.00 US, and said, "Here, my friend, why don't you give it another try?" This time the gringo was away for about six months and, of course, when he returned his first question was about the fate of the second batch of chickens. His Belizean friend smiled broadly and said, "Oh, Boss, I bought five hundred chickens, I sell eight hundred chickens, and I have six hundred chickens." "Great", said the gringo and asked, "How much profit have we made?" To which his friend somberly replied, "Don't you remember, Boss? Your chickens died."
A lesson not heeded: (07 Mar 2000) In retrospect, it's easy to know a lot of things. For instance it's easy to see now that, having found an ideal piece of land of almost 10 acres (which, by law, was the maximum size of a tract to be owned by gringos) with nearly 600 feet of beach front and located on a remote point (remote, but only 2 1/2 miles by land from charming San Pedro) within view of the barrier reef, Harvey (not the imaginary rabbit) and I alone could have bought it as an investment and without plans to build a hotel. We now know, of course, that the vacant land would be worth a hell of a lot of money in a few short years and that I might have avoided a lot of toil, misery, and fruitless endeavor. I would still have had San Pedro to visit, that being the good part of my island adventures. But, like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing; sometimes, I feel about the venture like I did about going to Korea - it was hell on occasion, but I'm glad I did it. In defense of my lack of foresight, I will make three points. Firstly, I did have a dream which I set out to fulfill. Secondly, I had told the investors that I would get the job done and, along the Red River border between Oklahoma and Texas, where my true roots lie, it is (or was then) customary to do something just because you said you would. Lastly, and most importantly, although I did know about circuses and chickens, I was not then fully informed about the claws of the tropics - speaking of which, I will now devote three paragraphs to my favorite hangouts in Belize City.
Breakfast at Mom's: (12 Feb 2000) There is an old Oklahoma Indian adage, taught to me by a white man, that advises - never eat at a restaurant named "Mom's", never play cards with a guy named "Ace", and never bet on a football team with a quarterback named "Boomer". Well, I've done all three of those things several times and with varying results, so I have first-hand knowledge that the adage does not always represent the best advice. There was a restaurant by the name of "Mom's" (but, if you pronounced it the gringo way, instead of properly to sound like "Mum's", you would be recognized as an interloper) right by the swing bridge in the center of Belize City. (15 Feb 2000) Mom's, before it was destroyed by fire in the mid 1980's was, maybe, the most fascinating restaurant I've known - not particularly great food; but, your meal was served in generous portions - not at all an expensive decor; but, the various signs on the wall, like "Take a tour to ...", "... the best guide in Belize ...", "Today's Menu", and the biggest of all, " ... rent a locker for your back-pack or ... ", added a pleasing practicality - not the best of seating arrangements because, although the dining room was fairly huge, most of the tables were usually occupied and, if you picked an empty one, you were invariably joined by another diner or two; but, that quaint custom often led to many interesting and educational conversations, so that you would find yourself joining someone else instead of picking an empty table - and, not the best table service in the world; but, when, at breakfast time, you sat at a table, whether occupied or unoccupied, you were immediately served a big mug of steaming coffee, and you did not have to ask for a menu which you will remember was easily readable on the wall, and then, when you were served your meal, your check came with it. Added attractions for me were the small total amount of the check and another Belizean custom, which I soon learned, of not requiring tips and not expecting any tips to exceed ten percent; however, I must admit that this custom unnerved me until I realized that, in Mom's, any left tips might be recovered by others than the waitress. By now, you can understand why Mom's was my favorite and most frequently visited breakfast eating place, far preferred by me over the Fort George Hotel, Belize City's finest at the time, with its sedate, white glove ambience and its first-class food and service, and why I had my breakfasts at Mom's from early on until the fire. The reopened Mom's with its better furnishings, better food, better service, and maybe better johnnycakes, and with its new location far from the swing bridge, was not the same; and, to me, it was not nearly as interesting or enjoyable. I nearly forgot the Johnny Cakes: (29 Mar 2000) It was at Mom's that I had my first Johnny Cake, a Belizean delicacy which is best when served fresh from a home-made hearth manned (or rather, womanned) by a Garifuna (a Carib-Belizean) chef. Mom's were good too. Later on I'll tell you some more about the Johnny Cakes I enjoyed and the Garifuna ladies that cooked them.
Dinner upstairs: (08 Mar 2000) The Upstairs Cafe had many of the same advantages, like location and prices, that the Luxury Hotel had (read next paragraph) and some advantages that it did not: a well stocked bar, a friendly and loquacious bartender, a reasonably attractive dining room, and very, very good food, particularly the pork chops and turtle steak, both reasonably priced. It became the place I usually ate my evening meals in Belize City, and some of the noon meals, the latter being when I was not out and about with Rudon, or when I didn't have time for a leisurely noon meal. I hope the Upstairs Cafe still flourishes. If not, don't tell me.
Nights in the lap of Luxury: (08 Mar 2000) The building in Belize City with my favorite sleeping cubicle was named the Luxury Hotel by a Sino-Belizean (meaning only that he appeared to be of Chinese extraction) gentleman who owned it and a hardware store next door. By the name he gave the hotel, I suspected that he had a wry sense of humor and my suspicions were borne out in our many conversations to come. Luxurious, the hotel was not, but, it was conveniently located near the swing bridge, just across the street from the main police station and the largest taxi stand in Belize City, about two blocks from where Rudon hung out at Alamilla Wharf, and only a couple of doors down from the Upstairs Cafe, of which I just spoke. The rooms, though tiny, were clean, the beds were adequate and had clean bed clothes, the bathroom facilities worked, and the price was right - about 1/5 of that at the Fort George or Bellevue. Where I liked to stay in Belize City was a Luxury I could afford.
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