“I was driving along Hummingbird Highway, headed for the Cayo District,” Janet told me, “when there was a loud thud. Something came through the window and hit me in the neck. I saw red and thought, ‘Oh My God, it’s blood! I’ve got a beak in my neck!’ I screamed and slammed on the brakes. Turns out– no blood and no beak in my neck, but there WAS a bright red Toucan laying on the floorboard. I was hoping to see a Toucan up close, but not that close!”
Welcome to Belize.
My first glimpse of Placencia, Belize, a village of 250 or so souls, was from a Tropic Air single engine prop plane as we circled over the snaking peninsula 100 miles south of Belize City.
The foliage below looked like stands of broccoli and the palm trees appeared as if they’d been arranged in the sand by a Hollywood set designer. We landed just a few feet short of the Caribbean on a sandy air strip carved through a grove of palm and mango trees. From a mobile-home terminal in the middle of the clearing, a barefoot boy approached the plane pushing a wheelbarrow into which he piled our luggage.
The month was May, five months after I’d observed Richard Sugarman pulling his hurricane-ravaged catamaran onto the beach in Xcalak, Mexico (see last issue). He and wife, Linda were due to arrive in Placencia any day now, and I wanted to be there when that happened. For now, they were stuck in Belize City, delayed at customs. While I waited for their arrival, I set out meet the expatriates who call Placencia home.
Formerly British Honduras, Belize remained relatively undiscovered far longer than most countries bordered by the Caribbean due to its location behind the world’s largest coral reef. Beginning with the Mayans over a thousand years ago, the tiny country has served as a refuge for castoffs and adventurers ranging from pirates, to slaves, to Mennonites, to most recently, American retirees putting up homes along its shores, and expats hanging out in its
Emory King, author of “How To Retire in Belize“, theorizes about the country. “No country escapes its foundation… Belize was founded by buccaneers, and an element of anarchy is always just below the surface.” Where the Rum Point Inn sits today, rum and wine bottles float occasionally to the surface from an era when early settlers sought to escape Puritan Protestantism.
Most of Placencia’s American expats agree that it was the Rum Point Inn’s owners, George and Corol Bevier, who pioneered the way for other expats to settle in Placencia. The couple arrived with their children more than 20 years ago, and without the benefit of roads or electricity, built the Rum Point Inn, one cabaña at a time. The Stanford graduates attracted over the ensuing years all manner of cultural events and movers and shakers from around the world. They’ve also provided scholarships for a number of local schoolchildren. Another American expat, Gail Dusa, told me, “The Beviers don’t wait for destiny to shape their lives. They shape destiny.”
I stayed at Kitty’s Place that week, truly “a delightfully, simple–just right resort” as its advertisements state, located on a picture postcard perfect beach one mile north of town. Kitty Fox pioneered Placencia, beginning in 1985 when she arrived for a vacation. “I stayed for about two weeks,” she said, “and bought the land, on impulse, where Kitty’s Place now sits. I left the States with no intention of staying here….but months later, I was still here – and couldn’t think of a good reason to go back.” Together, she and local Creole, Ran Villanueva (expert of all that creeps, flies, swims, and grows on the peninsula) built and established Kitty’s Place.
The resemblance between Kitty, a diminutive, take-no-guff-businesswoman, and your typical Western (film) female saloon owner, was uncanny. I kept expecting a bar fight to break out, with chair slinging and all the rest–only to have Kitty (dressed in a long ruffly Western-style dress) appear at the top of the banister and order everybody out.
Two days later, I was trudging back to Kitty’s from the Garifuna settlement of Seine Bight when an early model Ford pickup truck screeched to a stop in front of me. A willowy Laura Stern look-alike stuck her head out the window and asked, “Want a ride? I’m going to the airport.” I climbed in, and she introduced herself as Janet Baumgardner from South Carolina. She’d moved to Placencia three months earlier to help her father-in-law run the Bahia Laguna Hotel. Her 12-year old daughter and husband would soon join her.
“I love it here,” she said, waving and smiling at every local we passed. Between us on the seat lay a vial of her blood which she told me she was taking to the airport to have flown to a Belize City lab to be checked for malaria. We arrived at the airport, I thanked Janet for the ride, and walked on to Kitty’s Place.
Fifteen minutes later I was dangling from a hammock at water’s edge. The sun seemed to go behind a cloud… I opened my eyes to see Janet towering over me. “Listen Robin,” she said, “Why don’t you come back to the Bahia Laguna with me and you can swim in our pool….and we can get acquainted.”
At the Bahia Laguna Hotel, Jose sliced open a coconut with a machete, and Janet filled the halves with rum and pineapple juice, and topped them off with straws. We floated in the pool on air mattresses imbibing native drinks while the 45-year old blonde told me about life in Placencia.
For starters, last week, two of the hotel’s housekeepers, Garifuna sisters Lucy and Maggie, asked Janet to help them embalm their deceased mother. Together the three women stuffed the dead woman in Garifuna tradition, with rum-soaked rags. Next, they emabarked on a middle-of-the-night search for a casket. Garifuna funerals occur quickly after death, due to high temperatures and lack of modern embalming methods. The next day at the funeral, Janet sat between Lucy and Maggie at the front of the church.
Janet told me, “It was so hard….my own mother was not expected to live much longer… I’d never been to a funeral quite like that one. Everybody cried and sobbed…”
The deceased woman was revered by villagers as one who was tenderhearted and selfless. Janet marched alongside the villagers to the graveyard where the casket was opened one more time, and the woman’s personal belongings placed inside, before lowering it into the ground. “What a gift it was to be there,” Janet said. “I was so humbled.”
That night my new cohort, Janet, escorted me to the Lagoon Saloon where she said I would be sure to meet plenty of expats. We stopped along the way at Wallen’s Grocery Store, where from a cinder block house on its roof, a 53-year old Willy Nelson look-alike appeared, clambered down a ladder, and hopped into the back of the truck. His name, I would learn, was William VanTassell, known in those parts as Wild Bill.
In the yellow halogen lights of the open-air Lagoon Saloon mosquitos circled, Bob Dylan wailed, and twenty or so long-haired men and women perched on stools, some singing along, others leaning into each other talking. I felt like I’d crashed a 60’s reunion.
At our table, Wild Bill told me his story: He arrived in Placencia, he said, a year earlier after driving around the U.S. in a motor home. An accident forced him to begin thinking about settling down. On the word of two ladies he met in Colorado and his subsequent research, he began to believe that there was a village in Central America called Placencia, which had everything he was looking for: Favorable money exchange, fresh food, great diving, and a laid-back lifestyle, complete with thatched huts and wild animals.
“I drove straight there,” Wild Bill said, “and rented my house. Now that I’ve been here awhile, I find my decision was right on the money. Day to day life is great. I dive for lobster in 80° water in the morning and fish the reef in the afternoon. I’ve never felt so alive and healthy in my life.”
The Vietnam veteran adds that he receives $1200 a month in disability payments(“they say I’m crazy, and I agree”) which at current exchange rates equals $2400 Belizean. With the average income in Placencia $800 Belizean per month, Wild Bill lives quite comfortably. “I don’t have to worry about Big Brother looking over my shoulder,” he said. “If I want to get drunk and stand on the beach and scream, I do–without anybody calling the police.
In fact, I’ve done just that, and people come out of the palm trees and scream with me, and light up a joint and say, ‘Nice isn’t it?'”
“If a person was looking for a place to call home away from home, this is it,” Wild Bill said. “It’s paradise in paradise. But it’s not for everyone–especially those who like creature comforts.”
Mike and Bonnie Cline, owners of the Lagoon Saloon, arrived in Palcencia in 1982 after leaving the states and sailing for three years through the Caribbean. At that time, Placencia was approachable only by boat and had no electricity, no telephones, and no water delivery system. Four years ago the couple built the Lagoon Saloon.
“Opening a business here is easy,” Bonnie said. “You just need a work permit…. I’ve heard they’ve done away with the six month wait. Then again, that’s always changing. People are moving down here so fast–they need workers.”
I asked Bonnie if the rumored correlation between alcoholism and expats was accurate.
She concurred saying, “Expats tend to drink because there aren’t any theaters or your other typical entertainment.” “And,” she added with a grin, “they’re just following the old medical advice to ‘stay in the shade and drink lots of liquids.”
When he’s not manning the saloon, Mike works as a realtor. He says that all one needs to buy property in Placencia is cash, as mortgages are almost nonexistent. Prices run, he said, from $15,000 for a canal-front lot to $100,000 for a beach-front lot.
I asked Bonnie what the biggest change has been since their arrival. “The road that was put in in 1989 changed everything,” she said. “Now we have electricity, drinkable water, mail delivery three times a week, and even garbage pick-up.”
“On second thought,” she added, “Computers! A year ago, I didn’t even know how to turn one on. Now Mike and I have our own web site. Believe it or not, there’s even a new internet cafe in town called the Purple Space Monkey.”
The next day I lunched at Kitty’s Place with two retired couples, Peter and Marcía Fox, from Northern California and Gail and Lee Dusa, from Colorado. Both couples were in the final stages of building their dream homes on the beach.
Over lunch they commiserated about construction delays, unexpected set-backs, the lack of skilled labor, and in the Fox’s case, an unscrupulous contractor. In spite of the headaches involved in building their homes, Peter, a tall, bespectaled man, was relaxed and gracious in manner, looking decades younger than his 70 years.
Marcía, a striking 50-something woman with silver hair and Caribbean blue eyes, assumed a motherly role with me, which I didn’t mind. Her attire consisted of a flowing cotton dress and rubber flip-flops. When I stood at the airstrip a week later, waiting for Tropic Air to take me to Belize City on the first leg of my trip back home, Marciá and Peter disembarked from their Gator tractor, and sent me off with a hug.
Fifty-six year old Lee Dusa is a retired IBM employee, and his wife, Gail, an educational consultant who continues to do business from Placencia via a computer. The Dusa’s are spearheading a program whereby U.S. schools will donate used books to Belizean schools. All that was needed when I spoke with them a week ago, was funding for shipping.
Later that afternoon at the Dusa home(which faced a stunning view of the Caribbean), Gail handed me a bar of soap, a bottle of lotion, and a fluffy towel and insisted that I soak my bug bitten feet in her new shower.
“We decided that the time to live adventurously was now,” Gail said while I toweled off my feet. “Also, we wanted our children and their families to WANT to visit us, so we chose to retire in a location that we knew they would want to return to.”
About the building a house in Placencia, Lee said, “The unanimous advice of the American homeowners here is ‘Be on site to supervise your job.'” The Dusa house which would have taken nine months to complete in the U.S., took 2 1/2 years to complete in Placencia, even with Lee’s supervision.
Lee told me there were a number of reasons he and Gail chose Belize. “First,” he said, “Foreigners can own land here. Second, it’s an English speaking country. Third, it has a stable government. Fourth, the lack of human density, and fifth, it has tremendous natural bounty.” When asked what the drawbacks are, he answered, “Poor roads and dismal medical services.”
Gail said, “I had this idyllic vision of living down here that involved me kicking back in a hammock–but it ain’t happening. There’s so much to be done that it brings out the altruistic.” She’s currently planning a teacher’s training seminar in Placencia, which will include local Belizean teachers. “The cultural exchange can’t help but be Win-Win,” she said excitedly.
“Moving here has been a wonderful experience for us.” Lee said. “Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to others? Certainly.”
That evening I joined Janet and her friend Tonya Patrick at a party at the outdoor Bamboo Room. Creole and Garifuna couples danced the sensuous Punta while anglo tourists and expats did their best to imitate them. Over the music of “Patu and Calbert”, a local Reggae band, thirty-seven year old Tonya told me she was thinking of leaving her husband. The two had arrived in Placencia along with their teenaged son two months earlier having hauled a houseful of antiques AND marriage problems all the way from Indiana. They’d been told that household goods were duty free if one moved to Belize permanently. At customs however, they learned that the items were duty free only if you had a work permit or residency papers. To qualify for residency, one first had to live in Belize for twelve months. “Consequently,” Tonya said, “If we wanted our stuff, we had to pay, and it wasn’t cheap. Same with our car which we’d been told would incur a 10% duty. When the inspectors saw our thirteen-year old Land Cruiser, they tagged it a luxury vehicle and upped the fees. In the end, a car we puchased for $7,800 in the states, cost us $3,800 to drive into Belize.”
Happily, I recently received an Email from Tonya that said, “Miles and I are doing fine. I would say our prognosis is good. Life is definitely better now that we’ve put in our time and proverbial dues. It would appear that the locals (both Belizean and expats) can see that we’re here to stay and not just tourists with a pipe dream.” She’s tending bar at Kitty’s Place and Miles will soon become Executive Chef and Food and Beverage manager at Rum Point.
The following night, I was eating dinner at Kitty’s Place, when Ran with his azure eyes set in a brown face framed with wild hair, extended an invitation to me to fly with him to Belize City the next morning. Richard and Linda had been given the go-ahead, and they wanted Ran to help them sail the boat to Placencia. He asked if I would I like to join them. Would I!
In the next issue of EscapeArtist, I’ll share Linda and Richard Sugarman’s action-packed journey in pursuit of a dream–a dream which ultimately took them through a hurricane, the death of a close friend, a six-month delay, dire financial shortages, and more–before they sailed into their final destination, Placencia, Belize.)
A week in Placencia, Belize, showed me that the oft-repeated analogy of Noah’s Ark to Belize (due to prolific bird and animal species) was an apt one–with one exception. In Placencia I’d uncovered every species of expat known to man.