Sunday, August 16, 2009

This week: San Pedro, Belize

It didn’t take long before we ran into Richard again. A man like him is easy to find, especially when he tells you his hangout. He was exactly where he said he would be, at Fido’s bar laughing it up with the Rasta men playing dice. He’s the type of guy you like instantly with his easy smile and handy pieces of advice. Richard proved more valuable than any guidebook on Belize I could have bought.

We first met Richard Melito on the turbo-prop from Belize City to San Pedro. Because our flight from Dallas had been delayed, we arrived on the Belize mainland after dark. Other travelers on our flight were scrambling for hotel rooms because at the islands and towns they were going to, the airports didn’t have lights for a night landing. In a panic, my husband and I made a mad dash to Tropic Air to ask about our flight to the island of Ambergris Caye. Standing in line ahead of us was Richard.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “San Pedro is the only airport outside of Belize City with lights.”

With our fears relieved, we boarded the eight-seater plane with the Richard and his wife and a few other travelers. Yelling over the roar of the plane’s engines, Richard told us about how wonderful the island of Ambergris was. He talked about how if you take the plane during the day, you can see the beautiful cayes and reefs in the Caribbean Sea and sometimes you can see pods of dolphins swimming below.

“From the sky you can see all the different colors of blue ,” he told us. “It’s absolutely amazing.”

Richard then began telling us about his favorite hang out, Fido’s.

“It’s pronounced Fee-doos. Don’t say Fi-doos ‘cuz you’ll get laughed at. I have lunch there and play a few games of dice. You ever play dice?” We said no. “Well, stop by in the afternoon and I’ll show you. Do you guys snorkel?” We said yes. “Well, you have to go to Hol-Chan, that’s the best place to snorkel…Oh, I have to tell you about the bugs on this island. Certain times of year they can be bad; it depends on which way the wind is blowing. If the wind is blowing in toward the island, the bugs stay here and bite the heck out of you. If the wind is blowing away from the island, it takes the bugs with it. No matter what, the bugs are at their worst around dusk so we always keep a bottle of bug spray near the front door. Then before we go out to dinner, we spray a little on and they don’t bother us at all.”

In less than 20 minutes we arrived at the tiny airstrip that was the San Pedro Airport. Because of the late American Airlines flight, Tropic Air was kind enough to hold all their airplanes going to San Pedro and every 10 minutes they shipped a few more people. Of course in all the havoc, everyone’s luggage got mixed up. Richard’s was on the flight before ours while our own luggage arrived on the flight after. As the travelers waiting at the baggage claim grabbed the luggage from our plane, I overheard Richard telling some young women where their hotel was.

“You’re staying at the Sea Breeze? Well, see that pink building over there,” he pointed in a northly direction. “That’s your hotel. Our place is on the next block so we’ll walk you over there.” He and his wife took their luggage and said good night to us, but we hoped to meet them again. And that bug spray thing…I planned to try that out.

The next day we did see Richard again, sort of. We were walking around the town of San Pedro (our resort was a mile to the south). We wanted to find some interesting restaurants and to see what kind of night life the place had to offer. As we walked along the beach, the main walking path on the island, we passed right in front of Fido’s. Remembering what Richard said, we stopped in for a burger and beer. Sure enough just as we were leaving out the back, Richard came in from the front and began a loud ruckus of conversation and laughter with the locals at the far end of the bar. We decided not to bother him and went on with our day.

It wasn’t until two days later that we ran into Richard at Fido’s again. This time he was reading a newspaper at the bar by himself so we walked up and said hello. He remembered us by name and greeted us like we had been friends for years, inviting us to sit at the bar and then ordered us some Belikin beers. Richard gave us the mini-version of his life story: He owned a restaurant back in Richmond, VA, called Melito’s. He was even wearing his restaurant T-shirt. He opened the restaurant back in 1981 and it had been very successful, so successful he was able to spend one week, three times a year, in San Pedro. He had been visiting Ambergris Caye around 10 years and finally bought his own condo three years ago (three doors down from Fido’s, of course). He told us that in all his travels San Pedro was the best place on earth. It had everything a person needed: good beer, good beach, and good people. His routine was pretty simple, coffee and a newspaper from the cafe by his condo in the morning, lunch and dice at Fido's in the afternoon, then dinner with his wife in the evening. Throw in a day of fishing and it was, to him, the perfect vacation.

He asked about where we were from and what we did. While talking he told us that living in a college town like Richmond, the population kept getting younger while he was getting older. He said most of those young people moved away after graduation so there were few people his age to hang around with. That was until he met his wife. I believe he said she was an interior designer. She was currently at the town’s fitness center and would be joining him later. He said until he met her, he thought he was meant to go through life alone and then suddenly she appeared. It was such a sweet story, I will never forget it.

Richard asked us how our vacation was going and we told him we had just snorkeled Hol-Chan that morning.

“Did you see any sharks [at Shark-Ray Alley],” he asked. Surprised he even asked, we told him no, we didn’t. Our tour guides had said this was the sharks’ mating season and they 'went somewhere else to mate.' Richard shook his head and began to tell us a story he had heard from a bartender - some Belizeans from the mainland came through with a drag net and captured all the sharks with the intent to sell them as meat to Mexico. Because the docile sharks around the caye are so used to boats coming around, they didn’t even know they were about to get captured. The poachers were later caught by the government, but by then all the sharks were dead. The worst part was that netting nurse sharks wasn’t illegal; there was nothing anyone could do. We were stunned.

“It’s so sad,” Richard said. “Their own people were poaching their own waters. That’s why there were no sharks to see.” (The next day I bought a local paper and the story Richard told us was confirmed. A tour guide from Caye Caulker had a run in with three boats, 1 Belizean, 2 Mexican, with filleted sharks on board)

Richard asked what else we had done and we told him we rented some bikes to ride around and that we had a sunset cruise planned at the end of week. He said he was glad to see we were “enjoying the island.”

“It has a lot to offer,” he said. I told him we had been using his bug spray advice and that we hadn’t been bit yet. We also told him we were headed to Elvie’s for dinner.

“Good choice!” he said gleefully. Meanwhile, he was off to play dice at the end of the bar.

Since we were leaving Saturday morning, we decided to live it up on Thursday night. That meant a nice dinner at the Blue Moon Restaurant where we met five vacationers that were also out for a night on the town. We decided to hang out together and all went over to Fido’s for some beers. We enjoyed several drinks with our new friends before they all decided to head back to their resort. They were getting up for a fishing trip the next day and needed to turn in early. Left alone, we debated whether or not to stay when we saw a familiar T-shirt and ball cap at the bar; it was Richard.

“How’s it going?” he asked as he ordered us more Belikins. “Would you like to learn how to play dice?”

My husband said, “Sure!” The bartender handed Richard some dice and he taught my husband how to play, wagers and all. After a few more rounds of dice and beer Richard announced he needed to get back to his sweetie and left the bar, but that he'd be back again tomorrow night.

Friday night was our last on Ambergris Caye. We couldn’t have asked for a better vacation. We went snorkeling around the beautiful reefs, rode bikes on the beach, played volleyball and relaxed on the shore of our fantastic resort. Since we had to get on a plane early the next morning, we didn’t want to do anything too crazy, but had to go back to San Pedro and Fido’s one more time. After dinner we settled down at the bar, ordered some Belikins and listened to the band as they tuned their instruments in preparation for the evening's entertainment. Fido’s was starting to fill up with the weekend crowd, a mix of locals and tourists. We had just ordered our second beer when we saw Richard approaching with his wife. Without his Melito’s t-shirt and baseball cap we almost didn’t recognize him. We were formally introduced to his wife and I must say what a little hottie she was! Slim and fit, blonde and foxy. Both were still dressed up from their sunset cruise, she in a halter dress and he in a tasteful Tommy Bahama-esque shirt. His wife began telling us about the wonderful sunset cruise they had just been on. Richard showed us the photos of the sunset he had on his digital camera. He asked us how our sunset cruise went. Disappointingly we had to tell him we didn’t go. We had run out of money.

“Well, that’s too bad. You’ll just have to do that one next time you come,” he said. Next time? “You’ll be back, I know it,” he nodded.

Suddenly, the patrons of the bar began to file out the front entrance and into the street.

“The street parade is starting. Let’s go outside and watch,” Richard said. We followed everyone to the front steps. Belize held its national elections the previous Wednesday and Richard told us San Pedro was having a parade for its re-elected mayor. Golf carts and construction trucks drove past Fido’s filled with balloons, streamers and people all in red and white, the winning political party’s colors.

“Isn’t this amazing?” Richard asked no one in particular. The whole crowd was in support of the winning party as they cheered and held up 1980’s boom boxes blaring island rap music and hollering. I took a few photos as the vehicles went by.

“What an island,” Richard sighed. It was nearing 10 o-clock and we needed to get back to our resort to pack. We waved goodbye to Richard and his wife.

“We hope to see you again soon!” he shouted to us. We hope so too, Richard.
For more information: Fido's Bar

Saturday, August 1, 2009

This week: St. John, US Virgin Islands

Down Island Deal Breaker

I fear spiders with every fiber of my being. I know that without spiders, insects would take over the world, but that provides little comfort. Upon entering a room, I immediately search the corners for webs. In Colorado we have wolf spiders, gray and harmless, but freaking huge. In the spring when the wolf spiders can eat crickets unhindered for days, sometimes weeks, they get as large as my hand. My cats bat at them like badminton shuttlecocks while I run the other way. Now I think mice are cute and snakes are smooth to the touch. We have both in our backyard and they don’t bother me a bit, but spiders? No thank you.

* * *

On the Virgin Island of St. John, my husband and I were leaving our Westin villa to find some dinner in Cruz Bay. We had rented a scooter for the week and it was parked out the front door. We opened up the storage space under the seat to retrieve our helmets and put in my bag. As I was putting on my helmet, my husband hopped on the scooter to turn it around when suddenly he yelled, “Holy *!@&!” and pointed to the ground. When I saw what he was looking at I sucked in a huge amount of moist tropical air and for about ten seconds forgot to breathe it back out. In front of me stood a gigantic tarantula; a nature channel documentary come to life. It was parked on the brick driveway of our villa…just a few feet from our front door…black as asphalt. I took a step to my left to put the scooter between us.

My husband put the kickstand on the scooter back down and went to take a closer look. I politely asked if we could “get the hell outta here,” but the 8-year-old in him had surfaced and he wanted to check this thing out. Neither of us had seen a tarantula ‘in the wild’ before. He got within five feet when the tarantula turned to face him. More expletives from both of us followed.

“I can see its eyes!” my husband exclaimed, half excited, half nervous. My husband moved a few steps to his left. The spider rotated accordingly. Then he moved a few steps to his right; the spider rotated again.

“He has me in his sights! It’s like radar! Doo-do-do-doot-doo-do-do-doot!”

We debated whether to take a photo since no one we knew would believe it. Then I imaged myself going through the pictures after we got home and in the middle all those pleasant memories this…thing would pop out. I couldn’t handle that.

“Can’t we just go?” I asked. “It’s creeping me out.”

My husband hopped back on the scooter and started it up. Then I got on the back and none too soon because it made me nervous to stand on the same ground as that beast.

“Maybe it will get into our villa while we’re gone,” my husband said. I smacked him on the shoulder. Then I asked him if he was certain he locked the front door, as if the tarantula could open it. He thought that was funny, but I was irrationally serious.

The only way to leave the villa driveway was to go past the tarantula so my husband made a wide turn and nearly bumped up against the curb as we went around. This turn put me at my closest point with the creature. It was the size of two bricks, side by side. It was black and silky, like fine velvet. I imagined it would be soft to touch, before it sunk its fangs into me. It had a typical spider body with a head and thorax. On the head were two tiny blackberry orbs. It didn’t move as we left, but I was convinced it watched us intently.

Safely tucked away at a corner table in Woody’s Seafood Saloon with a beer in my hand, I asked my husband if he thought the tarantula would still be there when we got back.

“I hope not!” he laughed. “So…do you still want to move to St. John?”

“I don’t know. I have to think about it now.”

“So it’s a deal-breaker for ya.”

“It might be.”

“Something like that could eat our dog.”

“Maybe you can spray for those things,” I wondered.

“Yeah, I doubt that,” he replied.

When we returned after few hours, the tarantula was not in the driveway. That actually bothered me more because we didn’t know where it was. Did it crawl up and over the hill? Or was it behind the bush next to the front door waiting to pounce? Just then, one of the Westin cats came meowing from under a nearby car and brushed up against our legs.

“Maybe this little guy ate it,” my husband said as he gave the black cat some ear scratches. “Lookit the size of his belly!” If he was trying to make me feel better, it wasn’t working.

Talk about paradise spoiled.

* * *

As stated above, I was too scared to take any photos of the tarantula, however, I did include some nice scenic photos of St. John. Looks likes paradise, right? Well vacationers, St. John is loaded with all kinds of creepy crawlies, some that can even kill you. For example, the Manchioneel Tree is so deadly the native Caribs used them to poison the tips of their arrows. Its sap burns the skin and the fruit is poisonous if eaten. The site of a giant black millipede would freak anyone out and even though its toxins are not deadly to humans, it would still be unpleasant to get bit by one. Getting back to spiders, the golden orb spider likes to spin its web, often the size of a human torso, between two trees. Although not deadly, many a hiker has walked into these almost invisible webs on St. John trails or had the spiders drop down on their heads from above. Ew! Had enough? I haven’t even begun to list the creatures below the water, such as the sea urchin, which won’t kill you, but I was told by someone who stepped on one that the pain is so bad, you wish it would.

If all this has creeped you out, then my plan to keep the island to myself is working…
For more information: