Leaving Belize

Part Nine // Final Days

The sun returns

The following days unfolded to the fury of a Category 4 hurricane. We managed well enough with our accommodations despite being moved several times to different rooms at the Great House due to invading water and high winds. Eventually we are moved by Steve to The Radisson Fort George across the street for safety reasons. We spent a total of four unplanned nights in Belize City, but although this hurricane had scared the wits out of us, we were well taken care of by others in various kind ways. The Radisson offered us half price meals as well as lodging while we stayed with them. They ran a backup generator from the time we lost electrical power until 6 days after Hurricane Keith had lost most of his steam. Dining by candle light is very romantic during a hurricane, we laughed. We enjoyed a great 4 piece band from Guatemala who happened to be performing that week at the hotel and like us, did not escape the storms path, so they performed each night in the dining room playing beautiful pan flute and guitar music. It crazily brought to mind the sinking of the Titanic …… music before all is lost. Our families went five days with no news from us, but thankfully they never fully realized the danger we were in.

Eventually we made our way to Houston, rented a very small U-Haul truck, picked up our Belizean wood crates and pointed ourselves North to no where in particular after flipping a coin. It felt different being back on native soil, yet somewhere in our hearts Belize remained.

It was many months later that word reached us that the Yachter’s were both arrested by the FBI late one dark and sultry night as they slept on their yacht the “Emerald Isle”. The story played out they were tracked down and charged with crimes of extortion, fraud, conspiracy and money laundering, to a sum of over $160 million dollars. Jim was sentenced to 40 years in a Federal prison and Marni was handed a 3 year visit to a womens prison somewhere in Tennessee. We never received notice to appear before the FBI or anyone else. But we know our names are on paper somewhere, someplace. I got a call one day from a reporter with the St. Louis Dispatcher asking us for a phone interview. Somehow along the way he found our names. He was very willing to share information with us, having written all the newspaper stories on these two convicts from the beginning of their history nearly 10 years before we met them. It always rang in the back of my mind of the comment Marni had said to me, that they were from Maine. But where was the Eastern accent, I always wondered. It turned out they were from St. Louis, Missiouri, just a few hundred miles from our launch pad in Kansas.

It was ironic how our paths crossed and what tied us together at the end. The two parcels of land we had sold to the now convicted felons, were eventually sold and a lovely island home was built. I was glad to know the house was never given the name of Sea Joy. So there you have it Readers. A near thrilling ending of what began as a dream but was never caught; in a way, for both us as well as Jim and Marni. It’s possible this story holds all the right ingredients for a best seller …. danger, crime, money and greed. So remember dear Readers, always ….  Be Careful What You Wish For.


A few Hurricane Keith statistics

September 28 – October 6, 2000

Catagory 4 Hurricane

137 mph winds

Extensive damage to Mexico and Belize (including costal islands of Belize)

68 fatalities

$135 million in damages

Leaving Belize

Part Eight // A Safe Haven

The Great House

Our taxi driver Collette has assured us this is a good place to stay despite being in the older part of the city. It is by now early afternoon yet the sun is so dim that it feels like early evening. There is light rain beginning as well. We pull up to the front of the hotel and see this is a large and well maintained British Colonial era home, turned Inn. As we climb the winged stair steps I can sense Collette didn’t plan to be our porter as well, but he’s a trooper and off he goes with luggage. He stays with us to make sure we have a room and all is well for us. We pay our fare to him and tip him generously for his help and guidance. He has a well worn business card that he hands us and says to call him when the hurricane passes and we need a ride.

We are given the key to room #5 which is down the hall a short ways. The floor boards look original to this lovely home and they creak and squeak with age as we walk to our room. It’s a beautiful room decorated in British Belizean fashion. We are drained, defeated and exhausted with all that’s taken place in the past hours. But we are safe. There are doors opened to the outside verenda of our room and the view has a real WOW factor. We can see the water, the park and it’s still working lighthouse from the outdoor seating. Waves are crashing over the seawall from the angry ocean while sea birds flap about in search of food despite windy conditions. The tall palm tree fronds rustle loudly.

The proprietor comes to our open door and shares the news of hurricane predictions for the entirety of Belize as well as neighboring Central America countries. He loans us a small radio that he tunes for us to NEMO to hear the latest. All US citizens are asked to report to the US Embassy to register their names; and the Steve, the proprietor, says this is standard protocol. He agrees to drive Jerry to the Embassy not far away and then to stop at a small grocery for provisions if wanted. There is an outdoor restaurant that is part of The Great House and it will be opening soon if the weather holds.

Later in the evening and after a fine meal of Caribbean stew fish we head to our room for the night. Steve and his help are busily boarding up windows and setting out kerosene lanterns on the veranda in front. He states the power will fail in the coming hours and if we need to make calls anywhere we should do it now. I am able to reach family in the States and they are so relived to hear my voice . I don’t talk long other than to state the current situation and what may be happening in the coming days. I will try to call again if it’s possible. We say our goodbyes tearfully, not knowing what we’ll encounter before our next call. From our room veranda we can see the Baron Bliss Lighthouses’ blinking beacon, guiding any boats who remain on the waters, to safety.

Leaving Belize

Part Seven // Finding Shelter

The Eye of Keith is Near

We’ve spoken with an airport porter who tells us the storm has quickly advanced and it will be hurricane status by the end of the day. The airport will be shutting down within the hour with doors locked and everyone gone. We were fortunate to get off the island as we were the one of two flights that were able to depart. His suggestion is to quickly find a taxi and seek shelter for the coming days to wait out the hurricane. We hail a taxi which just pulled in and explain our need to find a hotel, if possible. Everyone is scattering in other taxi’s and we know there will be competition for lodging. Our drivers lapel tag reads Collette and I’m not certain if it’s his first or last name. Being British settled, Belize has an oddity of first and last names and many hold the female suggestion. Like Pat or Pat. Who is what? Mix in some Garifuna, Mennonite and Mayan culture names, and we all get a surprise. He’s a cautious driver yet understands the urgency at hand. We try first the Biltmore Hotel, just a mile or two from the airport. Do not let the name fool you, it’s not the Biltmore in the US. The clerk at the desk tells us they are full and knows of no other nearby places. Really? We rush back out the door to shout for Collette to STOP! He hears as well as see’s our flagging arms and stops and gets out. “Yes, Mon?”, he asks. We quickly tell him our dilemma and ask if he can take us to another hotel. There are many hotels to try he says but he favors one especially, as he knows the proprietor.

It’s nearby the Caribbean waters edge right at Kings Park and it’s named The Great House .…. and indeed it’s a Great House.

Leaving Belize

Part Six // An Attempted Departure

We are up early this morning in anticipation for the short flight hop to Belize City. It feels eerie outdoors when we step outside, with darkening skies and gusts of wind. Waves are crashing out over the reef so we know the water is very rough for this to happen. The shore birds are gone as well. It’s a rather sad way to say goodbye to San Pedro. We board a Cessna Grand Caravan and Jerry is thrilled to sit right seat with the pilot, as he himself is a private pilot. My seat mate is a chatter box and he begins giving me the weather report of a strong tropical depression bearing down on Belize in the coming days. The word hurricane is mentioned but at the moment my attention is focused on a sudden lurching of our aircraft and we are off and running. We jump into the sky swaying back and forth with the gusting air. I’m in awe of the waves crashing over the reef and how the view below us looks from my lofty seat. We are half way to the International airport when we fly into dark and rough clouds and our ride becomes a rodeo. The windshield wipers are slapping lickety-split and my seatmate has finally grown quiet. Within seconds our pilot drops us lower and curves more to the south and I realize our destination is no longer the International airport. I look downward out the window and we are about 40 ft above the water and my heart is racing. I know where we are going but not why. We will land on the little strip of asphalt that parallel’s the sea at Belize City Municipal airport. I tighten my seat belt as we touch down smoothly and race to the end of the short runway. I’m glad to be down and my seatmate is as well; he looks pale.

The winds are buffetting the plane as we climb out and run to the small ticket office. We are told weather conditions were not good for our flight into International with this smaller aircraft. We can taxi out to the bigger airport as it’s a 30 minute drive. I’m grateful our flight doesn’t depart to Houston for a few hours yet. Surprisingly the closer we get to the airport it becomes sunny and the winds calm. Pockets of good and bad. The airport terminal is crowded and noisey with so many people wanting to depart. We are told by the ticket agent the storm will probably be upgraded to hurricane status in the coming hours and the airport will shut down. They are trying to get a few flights on their way and our Houston bound flight is one of them. Our flight is called and we make no hesitation to get moving outside and up the steps to the aircraft.

We get seated and belted in and the plane is loaded within 10 minutes yet we’ve not heard the engines running. Security personel are in and out of the pilots cabin and I begin to feel uneasy as to what the delay is. It’s announced that the aircraft is having problems and they “must correct the problem” before we can depart. Yes, yes, please correct the problem pronto, I say under my breath. After 30 minutes we are told the flight is cancelled. Either due to the sliver of time limit to get gone or there was technical problems they could not address.

We are ushered off the plane and back into the airport lobby, passing through the same doors we walked out an hour ago. It is announced that ALL flights are cancelled and the airport will be closing down due to the coming hurricane which now has a name, Keith. He’s here, and he’s knocking on Belizes’ door.

Leaving Belize

Part Five // The Winds are Changing

The transaction is completed. Our US bank has notified us of the funds being deposited into our account. Arrangements are made for remaining large items to sold by good friends here. They will retain 40% of whatever they can sell and mail us the remainder. We trust them fully. I’ve made a hotel reservation at the Sun Breeze across from Tropic Air for our next morning 7 a.m. departure to Goldson International. I’ve cleaned the apartment the best I can and have returned the key to our landlord upstairs. He is sad to see us go and I will miss his beautiful baritone voice singing at all hours of the day, as well as the fresh bread he would bake and share with us. He mentions casually there is a storm brewing about 100 miles out to sea and to be watchful. We’ve been so preoccupied with last minute things that we’ve paid little heed to the weather or the news. This is prime hurricane season still. But for now, the sun is shining and the trade winds still blow. We take one more look around and say farewell to our little abode and once again it’s the Clampett routine but this time we are booking down Coconut Drive.

We plan to have dinner with our friends who will be tending to selling are large belongings which we can’t take with us. We reminisce about our time here, both the good and the bad and things we will never forget about this experience. There is small talk about pending bad weather not too far away but they both seem unconcerned about anything. We say our goodbyes after a memorable meal and turn the golf cart over to them. We are once again homeless and but now without a vehicle. We turn in early; it’s very breezy and humid but typical for evening weather. Tomorrow will be a long day for us. But what we don’t realize is that a tropical depression has developed over the Caribbean and is moving at a fast clip towards this little plot of sand.

Leaving Belize

Part Four // Sea Joy

We are getting very close to finalizing the land sale and the papers are ready for signing with the next phone call. These papers consist of the agreement to sell, the transfere of land certificate, the research of land certificate, a title search, a title to the water line, a transfer of land holding and a land stamp. Believe me, everything gets a stamp on it whether it’s an ink stamp or a for real postage stamp with a hand stamp over it. And they all do it with a hard flourish. The buyers as well have their own attorney and probably similar pages to be signed.

I had a call this morning from Marni. To begin the conversation she told me they were to be gone for a brief time to France. They needed to “get away for awhile” for some R&R. It was hard to suppress a laugh. She then moves on to asking me if we had named our property. It is common practice on the island to name your home and not necessarily by a house number although the road name remains the same. For example our land sat on Coconut Drive, so our address would be —— of Coconut Drive. I tell her yes, it was named Sea Joy. I had taken the words from a poem that Jacqueline Boviar Kennedy had written in her youth. Marni thinks it’s the perfect name and asks if she can take it for her use. I feel a little sting to my heart for what was once ours and she seems to sense it and doesn’t push the subject further. She wishes us luck in our move and we say our goodbyes, knowing it’s probable we will never see nor speak to one another again.

Leaving Belize

Part Three // Chickens and Crocodiles

The salt water lagoon

Nothing much is happening as we await completion of paperwork. Everything takes triple the time. Dredging of the sea bed continues and it’s sad to see eight large coconut trees removed from the beach that Marni and Jim own now. The area looks bare and gone is home to many birds and other flying critters. The weather has been hot and humid with still winds and makes for languid days. It becomes an exciting moment when big puffy clouds drift by and gives us an afternoon downpour. A common event nearly each afternoon. We walk out to the pier which is considered public use even though a homeowner with the house behind the pier has paid to have it built, and we enjoy a refreshing swim. The water has become murky and sand is swirled within it and makes for gritty swim wear removal. Lately our pier has become occupied with the six male workers of the dredging machine. They’ve taken to hanging out and leave food container trash when they return to work and it becomes up to us if we want to carry it home or let the ocean take it. I bring large trash bags with me now and clean up their messes. Most are not from here as they are very dark skinned, nearly black, and do not speak English, more of a pigeon English so perhaps they are from southern Belize where the Garifuna are from. They are nice enough but are loud and rough and I feel uncomfortable being around them. Eventually we stop going. We have arranged for a local furniture maker to construct for us eight wooden crates to be filled with household goods we want to take back with us. The wood of choice is heavy Mahogany and it pains me to realize this hardwood is being depleted quickly in Belize’s rainforest. There are no other choices he indicates. Each crate will have a hinged lid with a locking hasp and the sides are screwed together. They will weigh a ton I complain. He says it will take 3 weeks to construct. The crates will be filled and transported by water on the Caribbean Queen, a workhorse of a transport diesel boat. They get taken to Belize City and then transported by Sterling Freight Company over land to Houston where we will pick them up later. We have sold the vehicle we drove here, a Dodge mini-van, that has been housed in Belize City with a friend. We paid $100 BZ a month to him to park it in his back yard. Cheap enough and now he has a buyer for us. One less thing to tic off our list of things to do.

There is a lagoon not far from our apartment and early evenings several teenage Belizean boys can be found at this area teasing a salt water crocodile with live bait of chickens. This sad show is frowned upon by the local constable but because it’s a mile from the towns center, it’s rarely enforced. There is always a crowd of site se’ers along the swampy shoreline who are willing to pay the boys a few bucks to watch. We seldom stop if going by because neither one of us wish to see a mangled human body if Mr. Croc ever gets tired of the teasing of the chicken in front of him. They somehow secure the live chicken to a pole and encourage the crocodile to “jump” for his dinner. I think this has been going on so long that the crocodile knows the drill. He’s always floating a distance out on the water watching, and he knows the flapping sounds is the dinner bell. He’s an old croc the locals say; they think he’s about twenty years old. It’s perhaps all that good white meat that’s kept him healthy.

We have an aray of land critters at our apartment. Lots and lots of lizards and I’ve yet to learn what variety they are. It’s fun although a bit startling at times to see them. The males wrestle for domeninece and turf holdings but quickly flee if you advance on them. Lots of variety of color and patterns. Some sport a few missing tails. But perhaps the scariest of all critters was when one evening we returned after dark to our apartment. The outdoor light barely shed a glow to the area and certainly not to the ground. We pulled the golf cart into the yard and while Jerry went to secure the gates I approached and stepped up on the steps….and right onto a curled snake. He was black and he was big. With no doubt I scared him as much as he scared me. He was gone in a flash, much quicker than what it took my heart rate to return to normal! A lesson was learned that night, always use a flashlight in the dark of the night.

Leaving Belize

Part Two // The Die is Cast

The morning is sharp and cool and with it is the always present trade winds blowing across the sea glass colored surface of the water. We’ve obtained a figure of our asking price for our jungle covered land lots. There is no need to met with buyers; a phone call will suffice. An attorney will be needed to handle the transaction and legal paper work and searches. But everything will move at a snails pace. It is the Central American way. We make the call to The Yachters and after pleasantries we give them our sale price. No negotiating needs to be done as Jim says “deal” into the phone line, fast and hard; almost before the last word is spoken. We will meet again when the legal is ready for signing.

August and September are Holiday months for Belizean’s so it will be a slow grind to get even the first appointment completed. But surprisingly we have a date set for in two weeks. The God’s are with us so far. We begin the task of list making and time frames to achieve completion of all of this. We are hoping for early October but we will see. But until then we want to enjoy our remaining free time while here. I book a few fishing outings with our favorite guide, Severo, agreeing to fill his empty seats when he has space for us with other fishing folk. Along with the fun fishing he’ll fix us a shore lunch when we catch enough to fill the frying pan. Many times while he’s doing outdoor kitchen duty we will wade into the water and snorkel a ways out to follow the colorful tropical fish in sea grass beds. Yum, there is nothing finer then a shore lunch of freshly caught yellow tail snapper. He makes cleaning a fish look easy and he has his repripor down pat for assembling a small picnic area.

We meet with our attorney in Belize City a few weeks later. She is the daughter of the current Prime Minister of Belize. She will draft a sale agreement and there will be several more appointments yet ahead. When finished with our time with her, we wander the streets of Belize City while killing time until our return flight back to Ambergris Caye is ready. Frequent panhandlers approach us asking for money and telling us their down and out stories. We’ve learned to carry small change in our pockets and usually when given a coin or two they move along to someone new. Our aircraft is being loaded when we return to the smallish airport. The cargo hold is being filled with grocery items from vendors, bound for the smaller mom and pop tienda’s along the sandy streets of San Pedro. Even after all the seats are people filled, boxes are crammed down the narrow isle, getting as much in as possible. Weight and balance as well as center of gravity is always observed with these skilled pilots. Sardines is what we all look like, but it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the torquise waters below us as we fly along the Barrier Reef, back to island living.

Leaving Belize

Part One // The Offer

We have decided to return to the States. It’s been a painful decision and we’ve spent many hours talking about our options, all the while gazing out on this beautiful sea and reef in front of us. I have missed my family these past months and I’ve come to realize it may not be possible for them to visit as frequently as once thought. And island living is much different when being a resident opposed to being a vacationer. Word has gotten out that we are contemplating a move and we are approached by a wealthy couple who have moored their yacht close to town. We get invited one morning to their home on water for an evening cocktail and to “get acquainted”. Of course we have a good idea what this will be about. We’ve known through friends this couple are buying up beach front lots to build a condo complex and to dredge the seabed deeper for the mooring of deep draft boats such as smaller yachts and large boats. We are boated out to their yacht by their Captain in a small yellow skiff and are meet at the ladder at the side of the yacht by the Mr. and Mrs. Greetings and handshakes are exchanged and we are ushered into their opulent cabin room. They claim to hail from Maine yet I detect no upper Eastern accent in their conversation. A pleasant couple, perhaps in their late 50’s. She is very easy going while he is jittery and seems to be off course at times. He talks incessantly about currency, who the best money changer is besides Atlantic Bank and how much land they have been purchasing along the coast. He tells us their plans to build all along the beachfront, of “6 figure” condo’s. A gourmet restaurant with imported wines and cheeses, a tennis court and swimming pools. He touches briefly on the dredging of his waterfront and crows about how he paid the environmental commissioner to bypass the inspections for permission to dredge. He appears to have much horsepower behind him. And he wants us to know this upfront, regardless if there is truth to what he’s just now told us. He gets to the point promptly by offering to buy our two lots which would sit behind his beach front. We can see this would be a valuable transaction to him. He then states ….. name your price. We are having a hard time keeping up with his train of words strung together and we beg off from giving an answer right there. We need to talk this over between ourselves and put some figures together and will get back to them in a few days. As we prepare to leave the Mrs. presses my hand and says, “you can call us Marni and Jim”. We boat back to the pier in complete silence, knowing the door is now open, and all we have to do is step through it.

At Your Request

Stepping Back Through That Door

Many of this blog’s readers have inquired several times to me about reading “the rest of the story” about my husband and I’s leaving from Belize. It’s taken me awhile to find my journals of that event, reduce some of the paragraphs to readable and understandable sentences and then to get it processed to WordPress. Beginning tomorrow one of 8 (I think) installments will be published and seen here.

After reading my journal it gave me a clearer understanding of why we were not successful in being islanders. Probably today it’s far easier for those who share the same dream as we did 19 years ago, to make it happen. Infrastructure is now better (well, sort of. Power outages are still common), food availability is now more affordable and easier to get as well as the selection has quadrupled (well, sort of. It still all hinges on transport by sea or air) and accommodations are more modern (well, sort of. It depends on your cash power).

And yes, we have been back to the island post leave. Several times in fact and even house sat for 28 days for island friends who vacationed in the US. All visits reinforced to us why we left and how we saw things much different from the perspective of a vacationer vs. full time residency.

Do we regret the return? It’s always hard to accept defeat. The cost was high and the stress was incredible, but no; no regrets. We tried it and most don’t even get that much. We learned where we really belong and what mattered most to us.

I hope you enjoy the start of tomorrows read….put yourself in my shoes for awhile if you care to and enjoy the ride as they say.