Belize – ‘The Jewel’
Arrival and Settling In
In the previous part I ended referring to my first meeting with Kay Menzies the Chairman of the Ports Authority when I arrived at Belize’s airport and the strange introduction.
That was the start of a friendship that lasts to this day. We walked across to the car park where her white Nissan car sat I, a little lost for words and her struggling to find some. What was interesting was that this young lady exuded such an air of confidence that my usual cautious approach to being in a strange country for the first time vanished immediately. In the car beside her I for the first time, looked around the perimeter of the airport at the surrounding landscape, this time from ground level, a totally different experience from the aerial view when approaching landing. The vegetation was lush and fluorescent green, dense too. Strange sounds of screeching birds drifted through the open window as we left the car park and turned into the narrow exit road that led to the main road to Belize City, the Northern Highway. The airport is located within an area called Ladyville where the British Military have a training base at Price Barracks. BATSUB (British Army Training Section Unit Belize), as it was known was the base where British soldiers were sent to take part in jungle training exercises..
The day was beautiful with a cloudless blue sky as we turned right from the airport road on to the main road to Belize City. That journey is now a little vague in my memory but I remember when the road ran alongside the regal Mopan River that was flanked on both banks by high palms and mangroves, thinking that I had entered a kind of dreamland; such was the calm atmosphere with only the occasional building or two flashing past. As we passed a fairly large place situated on a bend called The Rose Garden, I asked Kay what it was; the answer I got was non-committal, it was a bar and a nightclub. Fine!
As we approached Haulover Bridge that crossed the Mopan River on the outskirts of the City the Caribbean Sea stretched out before me with Mojo Caye prominent on the headland. When I say prominent, that must be put into context. The whole coast of Belize is low lying so anything that breaks the monotony stands out; Mojo Caye stands out, a small sandy island with a hotel and high palm trees, a lovely peaceful place away from the bustle of the city only accessible by boat and only about five minutes from the mainland.
Across the bridge the road widened and now buildings appeared to the right and left; buildings that were a mix of the old, the new and the very new. There was money about since some of the places looked very grand indeed, contrasting with the corrugated iron roofed shacks on stilts. Like all such countries, the gap between the rich and poor is very evident. The so-called middle class balances precariously between the two, preferring to look down rather than up. The road was busier with many vehicles that had long since passed their sell-by date mingling with aged very large American cars; rickety trucks belching black smoke; brand new saloon cars that flew past in either direction, a status symbol with which to impress those who had less perhaps.
Kay had told me during our journey from the airport that she had arranged that I should stay in an apartment in Marina Towers to which we were headed we were headed. The Northern Highway neared a large roundabout that Kay said was called the Belcan Roundabout, probably because of its near vicinity to the Belcan Bridge. The traffic now was a bit chaotic but Kay deftly entered the junction and went round it 270º before turning into the dual carriage Princess Margaret Drive. I tried to take in all I was seeing, private houses with brightly coloured paintwork, some with walled gardens and metal gates; the further we drove along the road the more prosperous the housing became on the right side. What struck me was the condition of the road surface; it was excellent, not what I had expected at all. What had I expected? After all this was a third world country and conditions were not supposed to be like this. Turning a long lazy bend Princess Margaret Drive became Barracks Road a two way street running parallel to the sea and there on the left, right close to the seafront stood Marina Towers, a modern, white, well designed building standing in its own grounds with walls and iron railings all around. A security guard came to the main gate, spoke to Kay, opened the gate and in we drove. Now I was confused. This was not what I had prepared for, having my luggage carried to the lift then being escorted by Kay to my first floor apartment. A lounge and kitchenette combined, adequately furnished, a bathroom and two bedrooms. What more did I need – a little disappointed that I had no sea view but, hey, Bob’s Bar and restaurant was right across the street!
It appeared that all my immediate needs to survive had been provided with food in the cupboards, cups, plates, a kettle, pot, fridge, hotplate, eating utensils, a television set, a telephone and air conditioning. The Chairmen of the Authority went even further to make sure my introduction to Belize should continue. After looking around the apartment she suggested that I probably would like to settle in and unpack the belongings I had brought, then, in the evening she would pick me up and introduce me to some of her friends, Earnesto and Mala Vasquez, who would like to meet and who had offered some drinks and supper. She left and I just sat down trying to take in my new surroundings. Here I was in a tropical country of which I had no real knowledge, sun shining outside illuminating the red and white blossomed Acacia trees and the occasional noise of a car driving past. It was almost unreal.
I poured myself a whisky and set about getting my belongings stored where I thought they should be; then I needed to shower and to change into something more comfortable. The heat was not overpowering and the air conditioner was there if I needed, all in all I felt relaxed. I had gathered that the ground floor of the building was mainly office spaces, the second floor to the north was the same and to the south, apartments like mine. I set out to look around and took the elevator to the ground floor where the security guard sat behind his desk at the far end away from the lift but at the main entrance. As I approached we looked at each other, he with a broad smile referred to me as ‘Captain Watson’, Kay as usual had left no stone unturned. Walking around the building I could feel that it was rather on the ‘upmarket’ side and I offered myself a wry smile, wondering what was to come. Looking out over the sea was breath-taking; it was the most beautiful shade of azure blue only broken up by low lying palm capped green islands on the horizon and not a ship in site. I was soon to learn that although one usually takes it for granted that the sea is deep, here it was barely two meters deep as far as the eye could see. The garden was quite large and in the process of being developed with a few roses planted here and there. Looking back up at the front of the building, each apartment had a balcony with a sea view; never mind, I had Bob’s Bar!
Kay arrived a little after dark and off we went to meet her friends. We arrived at a neat bungalow type dwelling, flowers grow in abundance in Belize and the garden of this place was lovely. Earnesto and Mala were very welcoming and soon we were conversing, feeling each other out probably, a few attempts at humour by me, more to help me relax than my hosts who were totally relaxed and friendly. Most importantly the beer started to flow. They insisted I had to sample the local brew ‘Belican Beer’. At the first sip from the bottle, that’s the local way to drink beer – straight out the bottle – I nodded my approval. The night went fast after that, lovely food and Belgian beer offered by mine host, quite an early honour. Kay’s tipple was Heineken, of course it had to be since I was to learn that Karl Menzies and Co., her father’s company, were the importers so it was natural that she supported her own business. I began to long for a cigarette and excused myself and went out to the garden. It was very dark, even with the street lights on the sky was a wondrous sight, it was like sitting in the planetarium in London, such was the clarity. With little or no air pollution Belize is the ideal place to star gaze. Looking up there at the sky took me back to my times when I was third officer with Ellerman Lines of London when alone on the bridge of the ship, late at night, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean en route to New Zealand from the USA, the clarity of the stars reduced me to feeling like a small ant looking up at the gigantic sky.
It had been a long day and soon it was time to bid my hosts good night. It had been a lovely evening, just the way to get me really looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead. Kate dropped me off at the entrance to my abode after arranging to pick me up in the morning shortly after nine o’clock. ‘Good night Albert’, I said familiarly to the security guard and walked a little light headed to the lift. Once in my apartment I wasted no time in preparing my breakfast things for the morning before undressing to lie down in my bed with a book. Not before I had set my alarm. What an embarrassment if I were to be late on my first full day. Rocking was not necessary that night and I fell quickly into a dreamless sleep.
© Captain John J Watson OBE November 2012 Fethiye