Located on the Ambergris Caye, one of many small islands that make up the Belizean archipelago off the nation’s coast, San Pedro is a brochure city on it’s face. It’s beachfronts have the works, you see: sea food restaurants, endless bars, white sandy beaches — a vacationer’s dream, on paper at least. But as I’d come to find throughout a recent weekend stay on the island, beyond those neon beer sign lights and timeshares and American retirees dreaming margarita dreams lives a city on the brink — a city so penniless, that it’s children hock homemade necklaces to strangers for food money. And that was in the first 5 minutes. As for the rest of my time there, well, I’ll let you be the judge. The following pages contain a personal account of my experiences in San Pedro, Belize.
Arrival: 10:15 A.M. 27 March ‘17
It hadn’t been ten seconds since my feet hit the beach when I felt a light tug at my shirt. I spun around to find a tan little thing — no more than six — her neck burdened with enough shell jewelry for two times the crew of our boat.
“Hi, hello! Would you like one?” she stammered, eager but clearly nervous as she offered up a small shell necklace. “My sisters and me, we make ‘em!”
While I’m typically no sucker for a sales pitch of this kind, I think it was her lisp that did me in. Or maybe it was the kind of raw sincerity with which she’d asked, the kind only a child can convincingly produce. Whatever the case, I couldn’t bring myself turn down what was quite clearly, in her eyes, the best necklace ever made.
“Sure, sweetie. How much? Or, uhm… Qué precio?”
Her face lit up with a giggle at the sound of my clumsy Spanish.
“Dos cincuenta!” rang the victorious reply. At least I knew I wasn’t being hustled. I forked over the petty cash and she beamed, traded me the necklace, and promptly scampered away. It’d be by far my favorite purchase of the week.
Having pleased the tiny salesman, I looked around. I was having a hard time putting my finger on Belize so far. The heat was remorseless — that much was clear — and the all-consuming sunlight kept other adjectives at bay, despite my efforts. “Muggy”? That’s as good a word as any. “Chaotic” …that may work, too. One thing I can report with confidence, though, is that the word “Paradise” — despite being plastered on hotels, restaurants, and kiosk merchandise alike — appeared to be more of a slogan than a guarantor of life around here.
I managed to wave down a cab, and made for the Paradise Village resort, a gated community for part time residents and tourists like myself. My cabby was Jamaican by blood, but he’d lived in Belize for 12 years now, and called it home. “Things move slow in Belize,” he claimed, belying the scene outside. The streets of San Pedro were in fact alive with traffic in every imaginable form: golf carts, dirt bikes, cars and even plain old bicycles flew by with what could only be described as a kind of learned indifference for pedestrian life and limb. Horns blared, dirt and sand mixed and spat from the narrow roads, all while children and animals darted along unmarked sidewalks unattended. Chaos indeed.
“The people here — we’re lazy, but we own it, you know?” he chuckled. Fair enough. I thanked the man as we pulled up to the place, and asked him what I owed.
Forty fucking dollars? For a 10-minute cab? Christ, I thought, but I wasn’t about to ruffle feathers this early on. The look on his face as I passed him two 20’s should’ve indicated my mistake, but it was only as I watched him speed away that I recalled that the US dollar is worth double in Belize. Twenty, he’d meant. I‘d owed him twenty. “Brilliant”, I muttered, remembering my grandfather’s old vacation idiom:
“The tourist and his money are soon parted.” Duly noted. I struck off to locate my room.
I have to admit, it was a stunning place, this Paradise Village. Each and every condo had a balcony overlooking the pool, which was located in the middle of the plaza, and which also looked like a rather inviting refuge from merciless heat. Palm trees lined the snow-white sandy walks between the condos and an outdoor bar & grill, the very existence of which was a pleasant surprise to me (I’d hardly skimmed the brochure). The day took an additional uphill turn upon my discovery of the fully-stocked liquor cabinet in my room, and with that, all remaining pretense that this would be a productive weekend dissolved. I was in my element, now — pure vida.
Hell, I wasn’t even here for work, anyway. Initially I’d offered to write up a travel piece for my hometown rag, the San Luis Obispo Tribune, but their offer had been so meager that even I wasn’t sure I could bare the indignation. More specifically, they’d asked me to do it for free. No matter — This was now officially a vacation. And I certainly wouldn’t be the only one drinking the day away, as just outside my window danced a group of 50-somethings so drunk they could barely manage the Macarena. “What’s one drink?” I thought, selecting some Caribbean rum from the shelf.
As one drink turned to four, then five, and day turned into evening, I watched from my porch as the Paradise Village staff worked busily on behalf of their all-American patrons. The Belizeans didn’t seem to resent the dynamic, but slowly, I began to. Look at all these fat, drunk Americans, spilling booze and crushing margaritas while the natives cleaned their mess. The whole scene was just a little too …familiar. I mean, I knew Hispanics filled these roles in my country, but here? Isn’t this their home?
As it turned out, the big picture was decidedly bleaker than even the microcosm before me could suggest. A quick flip through the only book provided by my coffee table — a book simply titled “Belize” — revealed two dreadful stats: First, that one in every three Belizeans worked in the tourism business, and second, that the industry accounted for around $400 billion of the tiny nation’s GDP. Instantly, the truth became clear: It didn’t matter how these people felt about their subordinate roles. They needed them.
With this realization acquainting itself with my conscience like a wrecking-ball might, I noticed a young maid deliver some towels to my door, and flash a nervous look in my direction. I swear that ever since that New York nightmare Donald Trump invaded the Oval Office, the way Hispanics look at me has changed. The same faces that once cast neighborly smiles now donned looks of hesitance and suspicion …as if they were expecting me to spit on them. I drained my glass, and watched silently as the young woman laid the towels at my feet, met my gaze, and slipped away to tend to the next house down.
Maybe paradise really does exist on the island, I thought. But there clearly ain’t enough to go around.
Margarita Dreams: Midnight-Thirty. 28 March ‘17
“It’s the políticos, man. They don’t give a rat’s ass about the people. We vote ’em in, we tell ’em how to do it right, how the people are hungry. But the only thing they listen to is the sound of, uh… shit, how do you Americans call them?” he said, pointing to the register up front of the bar.
“Cash register”, I replied.
“Yeah! Yeah man, the sound of a cash register. Ca-Ching!”
“Well, there’s something we have in common”, I quipped. “My country’s President is a corrupted loud-mouth freak. Fuck politicians.”
The young Hispanic roared with laugher at my unintended joke, and demanded another round of margaritas.
My second day on the island had been mostly uneventful, and I enjoyed shooting the shit with the local stranger. He’d approached me in the bathroom earlier that evening, requesting that I join him as he snorted cocaine — an offer I’d respectfully declined, until it became clear that “no” was not an answer he’d accept. Something about a man with tattoos on his face shouting foreign orders in a dive-bar bathroom stall has a way of opening up the mind to new experiences, I’ve found. And besides, it wasn’t the first time I’d indulged the drug, though I didn’t often. But even for a rare user like myself, it was obvious that what he had was good blow. I wasn’t surprised — this was Central America, after all. And anyone who knows a damn thing about drugs knows that Central American is ground zero for the American drug trade — especially coke.
Ubiquitous drug use was a reality of life in Belize, according to Dion. All throughout his childhood he’d seen ’em, used ’em, been around ’em, and had finally started dealing them by the time he turned 14. Their constant presence hadn’t phased him, even from a young age. And in a way, I thought, that fact made his situation tragic all the more.
By his own admission, though, the drug trade was the bane of Central America. Despite being caught up in the United States’ so-called “War on Drugs”, the market in Belize was as alive as ever before, and active enough to earn the small nation a place on a U.S. blacklist for drug trafficking hotspots in South and Central America. Dion claimed he only dealt to supplement his income as a carpenter, and I don’t doubt that. What else was he supposed to do? Shine the shoes of some obese White American? Dion was a nationalist, and his friend’s were too.
“Prefiero morir de hambre que servir a esos jodidos Americanos todo el dia.” (I’d rather starve than serve those fucking Americans all day long) one man remarked, when I asked about the Paradise Village. I didn’t take offense. It seemed obvious that they wouldn’t like Americans. I tried to picture a bunch of retired foreigners plopping down in California and watching as my family mopped up their shit — day in and day out — just to make a goddamn living. I’d probably hate those people too, regardless of their race or their creed.
It’s something about the young men of a nation. It’s the ancient tribal code, the territorial instinct. It’s the thing that screams “Get out!” — out loud, when the guns are on it’s side. And when they aren’t, the eyes will speak for it instead. “Get out, get out”, that silent scream …It’s the reason they hate us. Same reason why we’re doomed in the Middle East. But I digress — too drunk to write. Goodnight.
Daybreak through the end of stay: Sunrise. 29 March ‘17
Mongo’s diner as the sun comes up. Mexican rice, baked beans on a corn tortilla. Black coffee, two clove cigarettes. And this A.M., bleak news on the side, intruding on my morning routine in a cacophony of jumbled chatter. There’d been a killing last night — and not the “good kind”, as my waiter remarked, in reference to last night’s business haul. Not the good kind, no — a murder. Gang related was the word on the lips of just about everyone, though despite this, no one seemed particularly disturbed. In fact, the locals I spoke to over breakfast seemed completely unfazed by the whole ordeal. Rather, they spoke about the incident with a kind of giddy fixation on the dirty details, as if they were discussing the latest Kardashian drama. This is a strange town.
I wiped the sweat from my brow. 7 A.M. and the heat was rising fast. A kind of moist, heavy heat, the kind that consumes you. I’d spent the whole damn weekend sweating my body weight in that intolerable pea soup, and was feeling positively ill (though considerably lighter). It was time to go, and I was ready. I had a boat to catch in 30 minutes, so I ordered one last lime margarita to kill time and my rising fever, and watched the sun come up.
I suppose I never did find the paradise, though frankly, that may just be due to my own neurotic freakery. I never can tell. But whatever the case may be, I’d like to think that if it does exist, it’s a place where kids aren’t raised on drugs and crime, where the tourism doesn’t remind you of apartheid, and where there’s just a little bit more equality for all.
And maybe a few less gunshot deaths, to boot.