Sunny and I arrived in Belize amazed to find that everyone had left. Unlike nearby countries like Guatemala or Honduras, which swarm with humanity, Belize, with it’s relatively high cost of living, was practically empty. For a change I’d wanted to try something new for New Years, a tropical island getaway: camping out on Glover’s Atol, a 9 acre coral outcropping in the middle of the second largest barrier reef in the world. A boat would leave for Glover’s on Sunday and return on Saturday, in between we would live in palm-thatched cabins, without electricity, running water, or modern conveniences of any kind. It was strongly suggested that we bring our own supplies. I stocked up on beer and rum.
The night we arrived at the jumping off point we were warned about bedbugs. Thankfully they didn’t appear, although a tarantula the size of my fist guarded the entrance to the outdoor toilet for most of the night. Early the next morning, the island’s owner, a solemn Frenchman exploring the far end of his seventh decade, arrived. He ordered us to load the boat and we set sail across the still waters of the Belizean coast.
Somewhere in the midst of this, the diving instructor ran off with Breeze’s married brother and the two were not heard from again.
We arrived on the tiny island about five hours later. It was literally crawling with conch shells. Hermit crabs had taken over the emptied remains and they scuttled from place to place whenever we weren’t looking at them, lending a nervous, edgy quality to the island, as if it were constantly rearranging itself. The cabins were two-storied and loosely nailed together, their fluffy thatched roofs occasionally permitting glimpses of the sky. This was worrisome as it almost immediately began to rain.
Luckily Belize is close enough to the equator that even at the height of the four-day storm that descended upon us, it was never really cold. We quickly found a rhythm in the rain that followed, waking late to the whistling of the wind, running to the shelter of the dockhouse for a quick breakfast (purchased separately), and then back to our cabin for drinks. I would scramble to the nearest coconut, which was never far away, hack it open with my penknife, and then pour in various combinations of canned soda and local, unappetizing rum. The days were dark and rain-swept, the nights were moist and haunted with the feverous moaning of the wind.
We quickly introduced ourselves to our neighbors, who were better stocked with food, and as we sat together in the makeshift kitchen underneath one of the cabins we learned the true interest of any exiled island adventure: gossip.
When you are stranded on a tropical island there is nothing more enjoyable than learning about other people’s problems.
First there was Sandy, a blond Canadian girl with a variable attention span and a history of falling in love with troublesome men. Her first husband, a Bombay MTV VeeJay, introduced her to the wonders of Indian wealth. She had travelled across the subcontinent with the biggest stars of Indian cinema. But her husband had a secret gambling addiction, and although his upper caste family refused to admit it, calling her a liar, he managed to destroy the marriage shortly after their return to America.
Sandy’s brother, Graham, a gawky self-made millionaire, was a man in his late twenties, who’d made his fortune in the shipping industry. Graham had left his dutiful Canadian wife to chase after the daughter of a Finnish shipping magnate, a man who we were told had over a billion dollars at his disposal. Marita, his paramour, seemed to be in her early twenties and had the thin and delicate beauty manifested by the kind of dogs that wealthy men breed in order to lend a sense of refinement to a living room. Somehow she was always annoyed, and Graham was always trying to placate her.
Then of course there was the well-tanned gentleman from Santa Cruz, who had come to trade massage and ‘body work’ for a cabin by the beach. He was now living in a tent in the woods surrounded by hermit crabs. And since he had blatantly tried to pick up on my girlfriend during the boat ride over, I was constantly amused to see the tattered nylon fabric of his home for the week fluttering madly in the wind as I ran for the cover of the outdoor toilets.
Then there was the New York couple who were always complaining, the man who’d brought his nine-year old son and who seemed desperate for adult human contact, and the sexless family of five, whose parents slept in separate beds. The ostensible wife of this group was a strict disciplinarian with a monkish haircut, who would inevitably be found yelling fruitlessly against the wind at one of her earnest, porcine children.
But these were the inmates of the asylum that Glover’s Atol had become. They had nothing on our administrators, who had their own long-running soap opera that quickly became the primary topic of discussion.
The senescent Frenchman who owned the island had already returned to the mainland. His wife, a woman who seemed to have spent the last fifty years in the sun, was suffering from an age-related mental illness and would wander ghostlike from place to place in an ill-fitting string bikini. The day-to-day management of Glovers had fallen to their daughter, a tough no-nonsense blond of indeterminate age, who would have seemed at home coaching the San Diego State women’s volleyball team. She was not one to take guff from a soul, and although the maintenance of the island was at times a herculean task, she was fully up to the job.
Her husband, a laconic creole man named Breeze, however, was not.
Or at least not interested. Sandy, the Canadian girl with a taste for dangerous men, was immediately smitten by this easy-going fisherman and the rest of us would tease her by singing songs with Breeze in the title every time he’d bring us our conch burgers, our conch steaks, or our deep-fried sweet and sour conch. Luckily for Sandy, Breeze and his wife were no longer an item, as was readily apparent every time our proprietress would loudly continue a private argument in the dining room of the dockhouse.
Breeze would take off in the early morning, under a verbal onslaught relating to his laziness and lack of initiative, and then return to cook our evening meal just in time to play with his two children, a blond boy and girl who had to all appearances returned to nature, attending no school that we could see and having no education other than that learned from passing tourists on their weeklong adventures on the island.
The battle between Breeze and his wife escalated with the rising storm, as did the problems between Graham the millionaire and Marita, the billionaire’s daughter. Somewhere in the midst of this, the diving instructor ran off with Breeze’s married brother and the two of them were not heard from again.
Finally, as December 31 came rolling to a dark and stormy climax, we gathered our friends and ran for the dockhouse, blocking the wind and rain with our plastic slickers. Tonight’s meal would be lobster —sea bugs the size of a small dog that were steamed and laid out on our plate like giant red plastic toys.
Graham and his girlfriend never arrived, as she was angry about something that he’d done, or that he hadn’t done but should have. Breeze had disappeared with the breeze, and his children were asleep in a hammock hanging from the dockhouse roof. The rest of us cracked open the lobsters as the wind howled through holes in the plastic sheeting they’d wrapped around the dockhouse to protect us.
And we raised our glasses to the coming new year, candles sputtering in the wind. For interest is where you find it, and when any group of aimless travellers are trapped in a tiny space for a full week, there will always be stories to tell.