Planting roots in Belize

Free Men And Adventurous Souls

“Welcome home, my friend!” That’s how I’m greeted every time I arrive in Belize.

I’ve felt at home in Belize since my first visit in 2003, and, since then, I’ve worked to make it my second home. I return monthly. When I took my family with me on one of my early visits so they could see what I was so excited about, my children said, “Dad, you have more friends here than you do at home.” They’re right.

These friends I’ve made in Belize have come from all over the world, and all have fascinating stories. Some are adventurers, others educators or entrepreneurs, some salt-of-the-earth folks looking to make new lives.

Most people you meet in this country have two common characteristics. They are hospitable, and they are fiercely independent. The average Belizean–including those who’ve adopted this country as their homeland–would choose to live in a humble home and off the land and sea rather than be beholding to someone. This country operates according to an old school mentality that many of the world’s more developed nations have forgotten.

Amigo’s is one of my favorite Belizean watering-holes. I walked in one day recently to find my friend Pete sitting in his usual spot at the end of the bar having a cold Belikin beer. I sat down with Pete and ordered a Belikin for myself and another for him. We started chatting. Pete mentioned that he’s building a guesthouse near his home about a mile down the road. He invited me to go see it. We jumped in my truck and went to check out Pete’s project. We walked around the jobsite, then went over to his house to say hello to his wife Glenda and to get a couple of mangos off the enormous mango tree in his backyard.

On the way back to Amigo’s, I was curious. “Pete,” I said, ‘”I don’t mean to pry, but, if you don’t mind me asking, did you get a good deal at the bank, I mean for the money to build your new guesthouse?”

Pete grinned as he replied, “No, mon, I didn’t get a loan.”

I was really curious at this point, so I asked, “Pete, how about your home and truck?”

“No, mon, no, mon.”

Now, Pete’s home is not a McMansion, and his truck did not just roll off the showroom floor, but they are his, not the bank’s. “You don’t owe anybody, do you, Pete?” I said.

Pete answered, in his Creole way, “No, Phil, I cyant lif like dat.”

And I realized why my Belizean friends don’t have the same stressful lives as my American friends. Pete is a descendant of loggers and slaves, but today he is a truly free man. I explained to him that, back in the States, a lot of Americans right now feel like slaves to the banks and their jobs.

“When you come to Amigo’s as a free man, like me, Phil, I’ll buy you a Belikin.” That’ll be the best beer ever.

Sue, the proprietress of Amigo’s, came to Belize in the early 1980s. She was dating a guy at the time who had decided to check out the opportunities in Costa Rica. He and his dad were at the Miami airport waiting for the flight.

After several drinks, they realized they’d missed their plane. So they went to the ticket counter and told the agent to book them on the next flight headed south. A couple of hours later they were in Belize. Shortly after that, Sue was starting her first business in her new country (a sand, gravel, and concrete company). She has been an independent businesswoman ever since. After the concrete business, she ventured into agriculture, then into the restaurant/hotel supply business, then, in 2004, with Pete’s help, she built Amigo’s.

Another friend in this country, Macarena Rose, moved to Belize in 2004 with her 15-year-old daughter, five dogs, and five cats. As an ordained minister, Macarena is a spiritual person and was fascinated by Belize’s Mayan history. While living in Florida, she worked with the Mayan Studies program and became a Mayan Priestess so she could understand and be able to perform Shamanistic healing. While healing is a great passion of hers, Macarena is also a professional businesswoman who runs a successful real estate company called Rainforest Realty, in San Ignacio.

With the energy that only a single mother of two who also raised six adopted children can have, Macarena stays involved in the community, performs weddings, and hosts a weekly biography show on Belize TV. Macarena was instrumental in attracting the National Association of Realtors (NAR) to Belize and is the immediate past president of the association. She describes coming to Belize from Florida as “a lateral move.” As a fellow Floridian, I feel the same way. With its English language, common law tradition, private property rights, and abundant natural attractions, it’s easy to see why people from the United States, Canada, and the UK feel so at home here.

As a British Commonwealth country, Belize has always attracted expats from the UK. One such adventurous soul is Mick Fleming, the owner of Chaa Creek, which is a spectacular rainforest resort on the banks of the Macal River in the Cayo District. Mick and his wife Lucy were two eco-travelers who met picking apples in the UK On Feb. 11, 1977, well before eco-tourism was trendy. The couple arrived in Belize with the clothes on their backs and US$600. In Belize City, they hitched a ride in an old beat-up Land Rover out to the Cayo District, home of the Maya Mountains, rainforests, and fertile farmland. Mick and Lucy fell in love with the area and rented a place in San Ignacio. The money they’d brought with them ran out, so they went to work at a farm picking beans for US$40 a week.

Then they met an Englishman who had retired from the R.A.F. and owned 137 acres on the outskirts of Cayo. They made a deal with the fellow Brit to rent the land with an option to buy it. They backpacked miles into the jungle and finally found the property, which had a little wooden cabin but otherwise was completely overgrown. Undeterred, they unloaded all of their worldly belongings, including a foam mattress, a cooker, a saddle, a rake, and a shovel. They cleared an area for a small farm and began growing vegetables that they transported to town by canoe via the Macal River. Mick remembers feeling like a rich man one day when he sold a load of squash pumpkins for US$90.

In 1981, they purchased the land they’d been leasing, and, suddenly, visitors began arriving. Mick and Lucy’s produce business made about US$30 per week, and, as more and more travelers passed through this part of the country, they realized they could earn more money by providing backpacker accommodation. They built a cabana with a thatched roof, tasiste walls (palm trunks), and a dirt floor.

That was the beginning of Chaa Creek Lodge, which, today, includes a dozen luxury cabanas, a restaurant/bar, a spa, a cascading pool, an equestrian center, a campground, and organized activities. The day I went to talk to Mick about this article, he had just come from his farm. He greeted me with a big smile and a handshake that made me realize he is still that same adventurous soul who arrived in Belize in 1977 with US$600 in his pocket.

Phil Hahn

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