A New Life in Belize

BOB, TASIS '76, used to be a partner in a company, Data Entry Products, which made switches for cellular phones. What makes someone change from VP of Operations to "jungle guide"? He and his wife, Camille, before they left their more conventional life in Virginia, wrote a "Mission Statement" to use as a blueprint for their life together: "Team together to avoid negative influences and create a life of challenge and fulfillment by following our hearts." Read their joint recounting of where their hearts led them.

What makes an educated pair of successful wage earners from the United States quit their jobs, sell their home, leave the country and move to Belize? In our case, it was a quest for a different perspective. We had looked at the world through a consumerist haze for 20 years and it was time to shake up our value system. Bob's family had trotted him off to Africa as a child and Camille was fascinated by his stories of a totally different culture. Like everyone else in the States, we had been hearing about the plight in the rain forests. We were eager to experience life in this beautiful country and learn more about the ecotourism industry. We decided it was time to step off the treadmill and venture forth.

To accomplish this goal, Bob gave his resignation at work and Camille gave notice to the horse owners who were boarding their animals at "Trout's Farm" in Williamsburg, Virginia. For the next three months, we got together for bi-weekly Strategic Planning Meetings. We listed the things we wanted more of in our lives, like togetherness, fresh air, animals and good food. Then we listed the things we wanted less of such as pollution, crowds, winter and commuting. We chose a few scenarios and pursued our favorite with a letter to the owners of a Belizean jungle lodge specializing in horseback riding tours. "Hello," we wrote, "we have lots of experience in business, restaurants and horses. Would you be willing to give us room and board for a year in exchange for our help?"

We received an enthusiastic reply and flew down to meet the owners of the lodge. The owners had decided to trade places with us. We would move into their home and manage the lodge and they would move back to the states. The following nine days were spent immersing ourselves in all aspects of the business. They planned to have already left by the time we returned a month later. Before we knew it, we had sold our little farm in Virginia and stepped into our new life of facilitating other people's holidays.

Our life in Belize is good and the pace of life is refreshingly slow. The people here are friendly, mind their own business and have very few expectations. We rarely hear anyone blame someone or something else for their position in life. Since nobody owns very much, there is nothing to insure or buy alarm systems for. People spend a fair amount of time working with and talking with their families. Most Belizeans don't work outside the home. They have a simple, easily maintained lifestyle - with lots of time to enjoy family, friends and nature. Homes are built from material available in the forest. No one has a mortgage. Few Belizeans own vehicles, which eliminates the need for car payments, insurance and gasoline. Family milpas (gardens) are common and therefore the grocery bills are low.

Life in a developing country can be a challenge, but in a good way. Every day brings it's own agenda. We are not always able to impose our will upon our environment. Things that work one day, mysteriously refuse to the next, and then return to their former condition without intervention. We jokingly blame our technical failures on the "duende," that mischievous elf of the rain forest. It is sobering to realize that we are not in control; yet that knowledge liberates us from the burden of responsibility. There's little reason for anger or despair because tomorrow will bring a totally different set of circumstances. Getting through the day is cause for celebration, which we do with coconut rum and mango juice on our verandah looking out over the rainforest hills and pastures. After sunset, we go to bed, pleased with our efforts and slip into a long and peaceful sleep.

We wake to the cacophony of birdcalls celebrating another dawn. Every day brings us more to enjoy in the form of beautiful plants, animals and the good people we share this earth with. Rain is a joy shared by us all. One of our greatest pleasures is going for a walk with a plastic bag and coming back with it full of food. Under every producing tree lie custom-made sticks, called "seven sticks" because of their shape. They have a hook at one end perfect for grabbing the branches above and shaking loose the avocados, breadfruit, mangos or citrus. We grow oranges, grapefruit, tangerines. Lemons and limes without insecticides or fertilizers. Breadfruit is indescribably delicious and great when fried and served topped with eggs and cheese for breakfast. Its flavor reminds us of fresh bread or baked potatoes. It is of no surprise that the crew of the Bounty resented the fact that they were not treated with the same respect as the captain's breadfruit seedlings.

The area we live in is classified as broadleaf rainforest - the canopy is between 30 and 70 feet tall. The jungle is thick with vines, palms and various epiphytes (orchids and "airplanes') and bromeliads. We have not yet seen any of the large cats that are known to be in our area - ocelot, jaguarondi, margay, jaguar and mountain lion. We have seen their tracks and smelled their scent.

About a mile away, there is a beautiful jungle valley leased by the lodge called the Vega. It has a small Mayan ruin, a crystal clear stream and a dry cave that is quite impressive with its stalactites, Mayan pottery and bats. The Vega is home to tapirs, mountain lion, ocelots and many species of birds and butterflies. When they are not working, the horses grow fat on the Vega's lush grasses. We rotate the herd each week between the lodge and the Vega so that we can be sure to provide our guests with happy, rested mounts.

Many of the trees and other plants can be used for medicinal purposes. When we feel ill, we hack up a vine and boil it for a healing, bitter tea. Headaches respond to a cold poultice of the "sandpaper vine" and allspice tea soothes a sore throat. Our Mayan guides are happy to share their rich knowledge of the rain forest medicines with us.

At the end of the day, we often have time to watch the sunset from the verandah outside our bedroom. We have been busily deciphering the southern sky on clear nights. The heavens are stunningly bright because there is no pollution. Bob gives most of our guests a "star tour" after dinner. Another evening activity is called a "night walk" in which we take flashlights and walk down the Allspice Trail through the bush in search of wildlife. Two-thirds of the wildlife is nocturnal.

We take great pleasure in tending this piece of earth with time left over to sit and appreciate our work. A machete is the best trimming tool and the locals begin learning how to use it when they are about 5 years old. Everyone has a file for keeping their machete sharp while they work. We keep the file sharp by soaking it in limejuice. Keeping back the jungle is a constant chore. Our co-workers make their double- edged blades sing as they cut through the bush. Most men have a machete scar with a story behind it. These tales get better with the telling and help pass the time it takes to sharpen those blades.

One of Bob's greatest strengths is the ability to create a team. It is wonderful to see how well everyone works together under his supervision. The team consists of three families who live on the property and one woman from a nearby village. With only 8 people, we are able to maintain the grounds, pastures; riding trails, and rooms; as well as provide meals, tours and transportation for our guests. But this move wouldn't have been possible without Camille's willingness to live with less in the way of creature comforts and the material things most wives come to expect. She happily added her skills as ground crew to make a comfortable life for us and kept us connected to our family and friends through her diligent correspondence.

We have received the unexpected bonus of seeing how well our skills complement each other. This good balance of work and play in a beautiful setting has given us time to sit back and realign our values. We have found great satisfaction in pooling our observations and building new theories about life. We can see that the really important things in life are the simplest. Fresh air, clean water, a dry roof, good food, hard work and time to relax are what we intend to strive for from now on.

The Horses