On Being a Regular
Ten years ago today (we think), I married Hal in Belize. To celebrate our anniversary, here’s a little bit about how we came to fall in love with the place, and with each other. Beware: mushiness ahead
The moment of clarity comes at midnight. My watch at the helm is done, and I’m curled up in a sleeping bag on the deck of a fifty-foot catamaran named “Next Wave,” sandwiched between a moonless, overcast sky and an equally dark but placid Gulf of Honduras. The lights of Placencia, Belize, have vanished behind the horizon. My friend Michelle McDougall takes the wheel, while her husband Rory shines a flashlight up the sails to satisfy himself that the wind is doing whatever it is supposed to do. The McDougall brood (Josh, 8, and Sophie, 7) and my husband Hal lie strewn about the deck in indistinct piles of bedding and sleeping humanity.
This, I thought, is why we keep coming back to Belize.
It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d had that notion, but this time the epiphany seemed so much, well, clearer. Maybe it was the rare absence of rum in my bloodstream, or perhaps it was the quiet, or the zenlike, rhythmic slapping of bows against waves. Whatever the reason, it was at this moment that it dawned on me that investing lots of time in one place over a period of years has its rewards.
Hal and I have a good thing going in this relationship of ours—meaning our obsessive fixation on Placencia, a small village of 750 or so inhabitants on the coast of Southern Belize. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. We weren’t immediately sure what to make of the chaotic jumble of ramshackle wood-and-pole houses, strutting roosters, and starved cur dogs that greeted us on our first trip here. To us, the place was a mere pin on a map of Central America, chosen based on advice from a guy named Bubba, whom we’d met at a Nashville coffeehouse where we’re longtime regulars. The 10-day, play-it-by-ear romp that followed delivered a compelling series of misadventures: a broken-down bus miles from nowhere, a sailboat adrift on a windless sea until the wee hours, and a heated dominoes tournament at a West-African style wake, all won us over in a way a postcard-perfect resort vacation never could.
The next year, we eloped to Belize, a ritual that seemed to bind us to the place nearly as solidly as to each other. Since then, we’ve spent an increasing number of weeks in Placencia every year, witnessing and writing about the village’s evolution, from the 2001 catastrophe of Hurricane Iris to a more recent building boom.
“What’s so special about Belize?” people ask us after they recover from the initial shock of learning that we’ve spent the better part of two months there. (“Seven weeks?!?” they marvel, then eye our tans with that Some people have JOBS look.) I dunno, what’s so special about “Mirror,” the neighborhood bar and restaurant back in Nashville where you’ll likely find us about four nights a week? Nothing, and everything, I suppose—for all I know, they’re no better than any other place, but they just happen to be our restaurant, and our village…and after a few years, you just sort of stop judging them and move on to the blind loyalty phase of the relationship. Or as my friend Amy (who’s also a Mirror regular) says, “Why should we go to some other joint where the bartender might fail to appreciate our worth?”
I don’t want to insinuate that Hal and I actually conspired to befriend Placencia (or Mirror) and the folks therein so as to receive the kind of VIP treatment we feel we so richly deserve. I, for one, am not clever enough to be that premeditated. The truth is, our whole approach to eating and drinking and traveling and doing business stems from Hal’s “Don’t Be Just Another Customer” philosophy, which I wholeheartedly embrace, although he is the true genius in this practice. (I happily ride his coattails.)
I’ve been observing his technique at close range for ten years, and I’ve come to understand that it’s 99% sincerity and 1% calculation. It’s not that Hal throws around his ample charm and does nice things for people just so he’ll get the Special Friends Discount. He genuinely likes people, and he has a gift for showering that affection on them in a way that disarms even the highly cynical.
Here’s where that one percent calculation steps in: if, like Hal, you happen to have the gift of charm and friendship, use it to your advantage. “Everybody has something special to offer,” he explained once. “If you’re willing to give that special thing that’s yours, then others will likely be willing to offer their special thing to you.”
What we have to give is time, and lots of it. And that, it turns out, is the tie that binds—especially with the McDougalls, a family of sailors who are perfectly comfortable with getting nowhere fast. These are folks who know the journey’s the thing, people who can revel in a stretch of time shared. And, it turns out, one thing they have to offer is a sailboat.
We spend a glorious span of days with them aboard “Next Wave,” making our way southward to Livingston, Guatemala and up the Rio Dulce—the “Sweet River.” Although we do a bit of sightseeing at our destination, near the town of Fronteras, most of the four-day trip is all about water slowly passing under the hulls and two families quietly coexisting. My favorite moment of the voyage is during the outbound river cruise: young Sophie puts her head in my lap, under a sparkling morning sun, and we take turns singing silly songs to each other. All the while, sheer rock cliffs, men fishing in cayucos, multitudes of white egrets, and an unbroken tangle of green slip languidly by. Rory plays Connect Four with Josh, and Michelle steers us seaward and homeward. And for these few weeks at least, “home” for Hal and me means Placencia.
How many times have we strolled that curving stretch of seaweedy beach along the Gulf of Honduras, boated past the maze of mangrove coves on the peninsula’s lagoon side, and walked the mile-long sidewalk that serves as the village’s main drag? The candy-colored clapboard homes, guesthouses, and shops that line Placencia’s narrow “Main Street” have become nearly as familiar to us as the four-block walk from home to Mirror.
Maybe it’s kind of absurd to travel back to the same place over and over for nearly a decade just so it’ll feel like home. Maybe we do it because we’re afraid, because we hate the feeling of being anonymous. We’ve traded the excitement of discovery for the gentler pleasures of familiarity—of knowing that our friends Bubba and Sonny will meet us at the airport with two cold beers at the ready and that the Dial sisters, who run the Barefoot Beach Bar, will mix our favorite rum drinks before we ever place an order. Sometimes we get to go sailing with the McDougalls. But no matter what, we know that somebody in Placencia knows us and will (I hope) be happy to see us.
Is being a nameless traveler in a strange place really so bad? It’s the unknown, after all, that makes a journey the thrilling roller coaster ride that it is, fraught with its bipolar delights and disappointments—kind of like dating, come to think of it. Alas, it turns out I am the marrying type, a monogamist when it comes to people and places. I don’t need to play the field to know that there is no better companion for me than Hal. Our attachment to this little village in Central America is the same. We prefer to keep coming back year after year, so that we get to know it well, faults and all. And, as with each other, it turns out that we love the place all the more for its imperfections.
This story first appeared in Hemispheres, the United Airlines inflight magazine, in December, 2008.