Why is it whenever we prepare to leave a place we feel compelled to clean it as if the queen of England were going to come as soon as we depart and perform a white glove test? I know that no matter how much we clean the boat now, we’ll do it again as soon as we return. It seems to be a ritual programmed into our DNA that we are unable to suppress. So clean and organize we must. Our flight to Florida is less than a week away.
These times of transition throw me off balance a bit. A part from the physical work required in putting the boat to bed, I must search for a purpose in our upcoming land based stint. Boat life is so simple and one’s purpose clear: Fix the boat. Move the boat to the next destination. Explore destination. Fix the boat. Write about it. Find a place to get water and food and fuel. Fix the boat. On land the focus is not so sharp. Of course we’re excited about our granddaughters Trynity and Madyn coming to stay with us and seeing all our family and friends, but what is my purpose? What am I trying to accomplish? Does it matter? Anyway…
We arrived at Tortugal marina in Rio Dulce on June 26, my birthday. A fitting gift. It felt like coming home. Departing Livingston, where we checked back in to Guatemala, I sat on the bow of Mary T drinking in the scenery while Kenny motored up the river snaking between the towering, verdant cliffs. Locals paddled dugout canoes and cast their fishing nets in high arcs, while motor boats transporting people up the river zoomed past. Belize is nice and the waters are crystal clear, but Rio Dulce is special. Our friend, Julia Bartlett, took us out to dinner at Dreamcatcher’s to celebrate my birthday. Kenny and I both had lobster ravioli. That will be our last lobster for the year.
Our last days in Belize were consumed with replacing our transmission. When we received word from UPS that the rebuild kit was due to arrive, Kenny removed our transmission and we lugged it into Belize City traveling by ferry from Caye Caulker. We booked a room for two nights at the New Chon Sing Chinese Restaurant and Guesthouse (a first) hoping the repair process would not take long. Ron Sanchez, the mechanic met us at the ferry terminal and took possession of the transmission. We told him we’d call him as soon as we got our hands on the rebuild kit.
The New Chon Sing Guesthouse was right across the street from the ferry terminal, which was one reason we chose it. There wasn’t a “reception area” so to speak, so we entered the restaurant to inquire about our room. The front area where you order carryout was full of school children in uniforms picking up lunch and men sitting on benches around the edge of the room smoking cigarettes and drinking beers. Interesting mix of clientele, I thought. There is a sizable Chinese population in Belize and they seem to be the primary middle merchants. In Caye Caulker, nearly every grocery store is Chinese owned. Some seem to have integrated and intermarried with locals, while others speak only Chinese. Chris, the owners’ son at New Chon Sing was very affable and most helpful.
Chris led us to the guesthouse up the street and showed us our room which had a fancy locking system to which we could choose the combination. The room was clean, the bed comfy and the air conditioner worked flawlessly. What else can one ask for a fifty-dollar a night joint? Belize City does not have a lot of charm points and is considered dangerous, but if you stick to busy routes in the daytime, it’s not a problem. Most of the crime is gang/drug related, just like American cities. So we walked up the street past derelict buildings and noisy bars to a restaurant behind a chain-link fence that looked like it could have been in Annapolis. It was clearly where the well healed dined. It was pricey for Belize standards but not terribly expensive. The food was decent, but the place was overly air conditioned and just felt weird to me.
Although UPS confirmed our package arrived late that afternoon, it’s location was not clear. We figured it had to be somewhere in the vicinity of the airport. We had given Ron Sanchez’s address for delivery, but had learned that it would be held up in customs because it was coming from a foreign country. We would have to wait for the following day to pick it up. We walked over to the Radisson and had some cocktails by the pool bar. It’s close to the water, so there is always a cool breeze there.
That night we ordered food from the Chinese restaurant and ate it in our room sitting on the bed and channel surfed through a load of garbage on the TV. It wasn’t until the following night we discovered several HBO channels and stayed up way past our bedtime watching all manner of scintillating programs.
The next day we learned where our transmission was being held hostage: the warehouse of Taca Airlines near the Belikin Beer brewery out in the vicinity of the airport. Chris, hooked us up with a driver who would give us a little bit better deal than a cab we’d hail in the street. The driver’s name was Stanley and he drove a beat up van, dressed like a raggedy rapper and spoke as if he had marbles in his mouth. Kenny confessed later he couldn’t understand him at all. But Stanley was a gregarious, hardworking man with a heart of gold and two kids to raise. He even came inside the warehouse with us to pick up the package and stuck around to give us a ride back to town.
The employees at the warehouse quickly located the package, which we opened in front of a customs officer, who then started calculating the duty we’d need to pay. “We were told by a customs officer in Belize City that we wouldn’t need to pay any duty if it was for our boat, which is a U.S. flagged vessel in transit. It is considered ‘ship’s stores’. I have all the papers here to prove it.” “You’ll need a customs broker, then” she replied, unmoved. “But it’s only worth a little over $200, and we were told that we would only need a broker for items worth more than $1500.” To which she replied, “If you don’t want to pay the duty, you need a broker.” I wanted to tell her this country was making me broker. In the end, we paid the duty. It was clear I was not going to win the argument.
It was still early in the day when we delivered the parts to Ron and hoped he might be able to have the transmission ready for us the following day. To kill time, we visited the Belize museum and learned about the early colonial days, logging trade, slavery, and different kinds of local music. For lunch we ate at a restaurant serving traditional fare. Kenny ordered curried chicken and I had the beef stew. I liked it, but Kenny was less than impressed. Back at Chon Sing Guesthouse we geezed at the TV and napped.
In the evening we called Stanley back to drive us out to Bird Island which is a nice little spot on the water with a restaurant. On the ride out I pointed out someone drinking water from a plastic bag and told Stanley I’d seen adults throwing those bags on the ground. He explained that it was a good way to keep people employed picking up trash. Good work for the old and handicapped. I was dumbstruck by his response. At the outdoor Bird Island Restaurant, there was a lovely breeze and they made some very powerful cocktails which greatly enhanced our moods. Stanley called midway through the meal to ask if we were ready to be picked up. I had to admire his work ethic.
The next day arrived and we called Ron in the late morning to see how it was going. Unfortunately, he had an emergency job to take care of for his steady clients with the dive boat and hadn’t started working on our transmission. He wouldn’t be able to get to it until the next day. We decided to return to Caye Caulker and Mary T on the next ferry. We’d miss the cable TV, but it didn’t make sense to keep pouring money down the drain in Belize City.
A couple of days later we got word from Ron that he’d completed our job. We nearly wept with joy. As our visas would be expiring in a few days, we decided to kill two birds with one stone on our return trip to Belize City and get our visas extended. When you come into Belize on a boat you are only given 30 days. If you stay longer, you have to present yourself again to the port authority, immigration, and customs, so they can charge you more money for shuffling paper. We called the faithful Stanley to see if he could drive us to all the government offices, a process which usually takes about two hours “No problem. I gotcha.”
Stanley met us at the ferry terminal, but he was not to be our driver that day. A cruise ship was in port and he was trolling for clients to take on an inland tour to caves or ruins. His wife, Cheryl Lynn, would be driving us instead; actually his wife, her mother and her baby. They were much quieter than Stanley who talks a blue streak. The two year old was adorable and amazingly well behaved and undemanding. It wasn’t until the end that she started to get a wee bit fussy. When we’d finished making our rounds to the government officials and paying through the nose, Cheryl Lynn dropped us off at the ferry terminal where Ron met us with the transmission. We were back on the ferry to Caye Caulker at noon. Phew.
That afternoon Kenny put the transmission back in Mary T and we tested it at anchor. It worked! After more than two weeks in Caye Caulker we finally departed. The winds were fair and the seas following. After three delightful day sails, we were back in Placencia. Our timing was perfect as lobster fest was just getting underway! The lobster season had opened a few days earlier, and it’s a big deal in Belize, because the season is so short. There was loud music, booths of arts and crafts and all manner of lobster: lobster pizza, lobster kebabs, whole grilled lobster, lobster balls, lobster ceviche. In two days, we tasted all of them but the pizza.
The highlight of the festival was running into our little friend Ama and her parents. Ama was excited to participate in the watermelon eating contest. About twenty kids gathered in a circle and each was given a slice of melon. The judge explained that when the music started they could start eating and when it stopped, they had to stop eating. Whoever ate the most would be declared the winner. I videotaped Ama who dug into her slice with great vigor. I’m not a big fan of eating contests, but this one seemed pretty harmless. After about a minute the music stopped and much to my surprise, Ama was declared the winner! She was delighted and her parents beamed with pride. (Video to follow on YouTube).
The day after lobster fest we took the Hokey Pokey water taxi from Placencia to Independence to check out of Belize. We made the usual rounds, collected paperwork and paid the fees. The same day we sailed in the direction of Rio Dulce anchoring in New Haven where we had spent our first night in Belize on our way north. That was the day our sail tore…
It was a grand trip, all in all. A real joy to be back on the water aboard our beloved Mary T. Soon we’ll be back in Bradenton Florida with our beautiful granddaughters. And maybe I don’t need any more purpose than that. Just coming home to see everyone is enough. And we hope to see as many of you as possible!