Memories of Belize
by: Dan Osborne
This will be my first time back to San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize in eleven years. Maybe a little background is necessary.
The first time I went to Belize was in 1981 when friends read an article in the Toronto Star newspaper about "The last unspoiled paradise in the world". We decided that this was the ultimate vacation so we proceeded to find all we could about this "unknown" Belize. The search through travel agencies, brochures and finally libraries yielded little information. If you are still not sure where Belize is, it was originally British Honduras and is located just south of Mexico on the Caribbean Sea.
We contacted the Don Quixote Hotel that was featured in the Star article and discovered that the resort was owned and operated by two brothers from Toronto. We reserved rooms at the resort and continued to make our arrangements. There were three couples going and one couple decided to drive the some three thousand miles to Belize, they had driven to Mexico for vacation several times so this was to be no special deal for them. The rest of us made arrangements to fly. This required flying to Miami then to Merida, Mexico and from there a smaller plane to Chetumal on the Mexico-Belize Border. Our friends would meet us there and drive to our resort near Corozal Town in Belize.
Before we left we contacted the Belize Consulate in Ottawa to try to obtain as much information as possible. It was suggested that we get malaria shots as we would be in or close to dense jungle. Passports are required so we proceeded to acquire them.
Deciding what to pack was a problem as this was a trip of mystery, so we brought along the usual things required in a tropical climate.
The trip to Chetumal was certainly an eventful one, the landing in Merida was so hard that some of the molding over my head came crashing down and fortunately no one was injured. We emerged unscathed in the 90ļ afternoon heat. The trip to Chetumal was a short pleasant flight. Our friends met us at the airport as planned and we all six piled into the car and started our journey into Belize.
The trip through Belize customs and immigration was to be our first taste of the culture I have come to love. The lone guard at the border instructed us to get out of the car and enter the immigration office, a small blue building with shutters and flaps that fold down to protect the place from the weather. Once inside he proceeded to ask the usual questions and with great flair and distinction stamped our passports and instructed us to go outside and bring our luggage into the customs building next door. We did as we were told and when we entered, we discovered we were in the other side of the same building where the immigration official turned around the other side of his big desk and commenced his officious inspection of our belongings.
We proceeded on to our resort, which was by our standards a 4 star facility with nice rooms, pool and very upscale restaurant. A very exhausted crew, we had supper a few drinks and to bed for a wonderful peaceful sleep.
The next few days were spent exploring the area with trips to Corozal Town and a boat trip to a partially explored Myan ruins. This was an experience I will never forget, as I stood on top of the highest area of the ruins which our guide explained was the former alter where the priests supposedly made their sacrifices, I was overcome with feelings that I still find hard to explain. It was as if the ancient gods were trying to communicate with me as I looked out over the surrounding jungle. To realize that a very highly educated people had inhabited these areas two thousand years before and left without a trace is incredible
The resort was a great place to relax and unwind, it was in the restaurant that we met the most interesting people. Many visitors would come from other parts of the country for meals and tell stories, and the most intriguing was of the Ambergris Caye (pronounced key) and the town of San Pedro.
We decided that this needed investigating, so on February Friday the thirteenth we packed our bags and got a lift to the local airport. Well an airport it wasnít, an airstrip it was with a three sided ten by ten foot block building on the side of a strip of asphalt in the midst of a sugar plantation. We dragged our luggage out of the taxi and stood beside the building waiting, for weíre not sure what. Getting a little impatient I took a stroll to the end of the tarmac and discovered a set of wheel tracks off the end of the runway and into the sugar cane. I didnít mention this to anyone until we arrived in San Pedro.
We heard the sound of a plane and off in the distance we could see a dot on the horizon which slowly grew into our impending flight. This was the first time I had seen what the locals call a Gooney Bird. The proper name we discovered, is a British made "Islander" with two engines mounted on an upper wing craft that holds 14 people. The lone pilot of Belezian decent merrily assisted us in loading our belongings, sold and collected our tickets and loaded us all on board. With the people he already had on board and the others who had arrived as the plane landed I happened to be the 14th passenger so I was treated to sit up next to the pilot in the co-pilots seat. As we took into the evening air, Earl, one of our group who was sitting directly behind me and a pilot himself said "that sure was one quick instrument check".
The airport in San Pedro wasnít much more impressive than the one at Corozal Town, there were a couple of small wooden buildings that looked like they might be offices but all were closed it seemed we had been on the last flight of the day as there were no night landings at that time. There was no one there at all, and as the pilot helped us unload our belongings we were beginning to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. As the plane circled around and started its takeoff an old retired British Army jeep drove onto the runway and a pleasant native gentleman stepped out and asked if he could take us anywhere. We explained our situation and that we had no reservations for a place to stay. He was delighted to take us and show us several hotels in town. We piled two of the women in the cab with the driver and the rest of us piled on the back with our luggage. The driver proceeded to drive up and down every street in San Pedro blowing the horn to show everyone that he had some customers and there were newcomers in town. The first place he showed us was up a dark stairwell to some room his aunt had to rent.
We declined this and after a couple of other stops we ended up at a beautiful place on the beach with all the doors hand carved out of mahogany. This may have been The Holiday Hotel, but Iím not sure. After a wonderful fresh fish dinner we retired to peaceful sleep.
The morning brought the most spectacular sights to our eyes. San Pedro sits on the second largest coral reef in the world and the sandy beaches give way to the most beautifully coloured water I have ever seen, it is truly indescribable, a blue-green that will take your breath away. Just on the horizon you can see the waves breaking over the reef but the water inside the reef is always calm and peaceful. The water is only about 5 to 15 feet deep inside the reef but drops to over 300 feet deep outside, this is where the scuba divers find the best diving and wonderful sights.
We decided to go searching for more affordable accommodations and just a block away we found the Coral Beach Hotel and some of the most wonderful people you could find anywhere. Allan and Helen Forman and their family owned and ran the hotel which evolved around their home which they had added to and expanded till it was the maximum three floors allowed in San Pedro. The restaurant and their living quarters was on the main level and the guests stayed in the upstairs rooms as the continuous breeze provided comfort from the steamy Caribbean heat. Unfortunately it has been demolished to make way for a new hotel, but the memories of sitting around the dinner tables listening to Allan tell stories in his deep voice punctuated with his most infectious, rumbling laugh will always remain with me.
The people of San Pedro are the heart of the attraction of this country, they are so laid back that you feel comfortable and at ease with them after a few minutes that you think you have known them all your life. One of their sayings is "no problem mon", one of our acquaintances lost their passport and went rushing into the hotel office all upset and exclaiming the problem of the loss. The attendant said "no problem mon" to which our friend screamed "what do you mean no problem?" the attendant replied "no problem for me mon, problem for you."
They tell the story of the American who decided to become a permanent resident and built a home in San Pedro. After a year or so the hinges on the front door rusted and made it hard to close and he said "I must fix that mañana". After another year one of the hinges broke and the man said "I must fix that door, maybe mañana." After another year the other hinges broke and the door fell off and the man said "Well we donít need a door there anyway" This is the most relaxed atmosphere I have ever encountered and it only takes a couple of days to discover you have been seduced into this wonderful world of peace and tranquillity.
Another thing you soon learn in Belize is that mañana does not necessarily mean tomorrow, it means not today. If someone says they will do it mañana donít expect it to be done tomorrow they will get it done someday, donít be anxious.
You donít need to take a lot of clothes with you to San Pedro, a couple of shirts and shorts is all you really need. Some long pants and a jacket may be needed as you get on the plane at home and when you return. The atmosphere is summed up in the slogan you see everywhere in San Pedro "no shirt, no shoes, no problem".
In 1981 there was no TV, the only radio was on short wave and the telephone service was via radio to the mainland and you couldnít talk an hear at the same time. At first I was so afraid that I wouldnít know what was going on in the world, I didnít know and after a day or so I didnít care and you know what? The world got along quite well without me knowing!
After two weeks in Belize I got home and the crazy drivers zooming around me back in Cornwall didnít bother me at all, and I wondered what the hell the hurry was all about. Unfortunately this idyllic bliss only lasted about a week, and I too, was zooming about in my frenzied rush to get here and there. Too bad.
Almost every year for the next ten, I was able to return to my unspoiled paradise, but life seems to throw unexpected things in our path. In 1993 my spouse contracted cancer and we decided on a Caribbean cruise where she would have more personal attention and it was a wonderful experience. She passed away in March of 1994 and in April I was given early retirement, it was a very traumatic time and I bought an older motorhome and spent the summer fixing it up, and in October followed another couple to Mexico. I spent the winter in Melaque, a little fishing village in Mexico and had a wonderful time and made many friends, but it wasnít San Pedro.
In 1995 I became reacquainted with Betty, a lovely lady whom I had known and admired as a friend for many years, and we married two years later. We continued vacationing in Mexico as we had mutual friends there, but the longing for San Pedro continued. This year I get to show Betty my dream as we have decided to vacation in San Pedro and will be leaving on February 22nd. Betty is also looking forward to the experience, and we spend a lot of time on the messaging board at "ambergriscaye.com".
This kind of brings us up to date, but I have many stories of my travels in Belize and will continue to ramble on about them, and of our new adventures in San Pedro.
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