Mostly I remember the ocean’s sharp blue phosphorescence. Looking like a patch of water that Jesus might walk on, it stretched with hardly a ripple from the beach out to a wall of frothing surf just off the coast. That’s where one of the finest coral reefs in the world lay submerged below the surface, a diver’s magic kingdom beckoning.
This memory comes from my first trip to Ambergris Caye, in 1987, back when few outsiders knew about this idyll off the Belizean coast. Those who did stayed mainly in palm-thatched huts with few frills. The sole town, San Pedro, had a small airport, a few open-front bars, and two sandy, unpaved streets. There was at least one luxury hotel on the far north end of the skinny, 26-mile-long island, near the Mexican border, and a handful of American and British expats had erected bungalows near San Pedro. Mostly, though, Ambergris attracted hardcore divers ogling the reefs and fly-fishermen pulling in a profusion of tarpon and bonefish.
Now, 26 years later, I was back, about to tumble backward off a dive boat into those same weirdly glowing waters. I had returned to spend some time with my 18-year-old son, Alex, before he left for college—and, I suppose, to revisit memories logged by my twentysomething self.
Mostly, though, I was back to revisit the scene of my crime.
No, I didn’t murder a neighbor on Ambergris, as John McAfee has been charged with doing in a recent wrongful-death lawsuit. He’s the eccentric technology mogul who abandoned Silicon Valley for the island a few years back, then fled Belize after authorities sought to question him in the shooting of another expat. According to sordid news reports, McAfee had dyed his hair blond, surrounded himself with young women, and shot the man after an argument over McAfee’s dogs. (He denies it.) Nor did my offense involve drugs or some other contraband.
My misdeed involved a betrayal of the place itself—of the secret of its existence. Not to a few friends, but to hundreds of thousands of people in an article I wrote for Condé Nast Traveler. Published a few months after my visit, it was one of those travelogue staples that whisper seductively about some veiled Shangri-La known to only a few clued-in people—which, of course, can forever alter a place, often unhappily, by inspiring the hordes to follow. As if I could learn squat about an island (or a nation of 175,000, the population of Belize back then) in a few days. Such is the conundrum of travel writing.
Not long after my Traveler article was published, other magazines followed with their own reports on Belize. And just like that, the secret was out. Airlines added direct flights to Belize City, and discount-travel companies ran ads for getaway packages. Then came the cruise ships delivering scuba divers to the reefs. The throngs scooped up the conch shells piled high on the bottom and mistreated the delicate living corals. Fishermen came, too, some with spin reels (horrors!), and hauled in boatloads of sport fish. Hotels both cheap and luxurious sprang up in San Pedro, along with discotheques and, I was told, a whore-house or two. More expats moved in, with most managing to avoid getting shot by neighbors.
Back in the U.S., I felt pangs of remorse. Had I helped produce a nether-world of boorish tourism in Belize? I had seen it happen before in places like Patpong, Thailand, which was a quiet suburb of Bangkok before descending into a seedy labyrinth of neon, night-clubs, weird sex acts, and human trafficking.
Not that I could claim full credit for what had happened in Belize. It would have been discovered eventually. But, as I told Alex during our flight from San Francisco to Belize City, “Words can be powerful—even stupid words in a travel magazine.”
He turned to me with his disarmingly wise eyes, as if to say, Duh. I know this. My dad is a writer. Which may be one reason that he plans to major in biology.
We landed at the newish international airport outside Belize City. This spares travelers from going through the old downtown airport and spending a night in the capital of the former British Honduras. Guidebooks have long recommended avoiding the city, which is supposedly rife with petty thievery. In 1987, when I came here with my then wife—Alex’s mother—we stayed at a Radisson near the old airport. Security guards warned us not to explore the streets at night, which from the parking lot did look run-down, dark, and dangerous.
Alex and I caught a connection to Ambergris on a Tropic Air 14-seat single-engine prop plane that wasn’t much different than those I flew on in 1987—frayed seats and safety cards that had been handled so many times the lamination was wearing off. I found the ramshackle effect charming, though I wondered why, in a country that now hosts nearly a million tourists a year who spend $321 million, Tropic Air couldn’t afford a new plane—or at least new safety cards.
“This might be the very plane your mother and I took,” I said to Alex.
“Are you going to do this the whole trip?” he asked.
“Talk about what it was like in the old days?”
“Yes, I am,” I said.
Alex shrugged and looked out the window. Possibly because he’s my third (and final) child, Alex has learned to be scarily calm and to smile and occasionally laugh endearingly at a family not known for its serenity. Like his older brother and sister, he loves to scuba-dive, which is why I wanted him to see the same fluorescent waters I had when I was just a bit older than he is now. He also confessed to wanting to visit a place where his mother and father had visited when we were young. We divorced when Alex was five, so he has no memories of a time when his mom and dad were in love.
The plane rose in an arc and cleared the shore, leveling off at 5,000 feet. It’s the perfect height for a travel writer: low enough for strong impressions, too far removed for details. The perch left me feeling momentarily relieved that the coastal islands of Belize, at least, looked the same from the air, with mangrove-covered atolls splattering blobs of dark green against a blue so intense it looked radioactive.
Fifteen minutes later we were angling downward over San Pedro, and here I saw an enormous change. The once tiny town now had many paved streets sprawling across the island’s narrow middle. On the beach stood a nearly unbroken progression of white bungalows and hotels.
“Go ahead, Dad,” said Alex with a rueful smile. “Tell me what it was like back then. You know you want to.”
BACK IN 1987, my wife and I had stayed at a collection of thatch huts called Ramon’s Reef that sat on an uncrowded beach. The main lodge had served basic meals of fish and fruit, with the chef happily frying up whatever his guests brought in, including two groupers we’d caught between dives.
Alex and I walked to the same place, now called Ramon’s Village Resort. The huts had given way to luxurious air-conditioned bungalows. A swimming pool shaped like a stream wound its way Disneyland-like through a patch of landscaped tropical flora and past a gigantic modern stone head of a Maya man. A dozen sleek boats were moored to a pier.
That night, we watched a beauty pageant, Miss Costa Maya, on a runway that Ramon’s had created for the event. The pageant featured contestants from seven Central American countries. With Latin disco pulsing and spotlights blazing, they sashayed past us in swimsuits while Alex had his first legal drink (the minimum age in the country is 18), a local beer called Belikin. I was relieved to find that the label on Belize’s ubiquitous brew hadn’t changed much: a simple depiction of a Maya temple on a white background.
Holding a pageant on the rough-hewn beach that had been here 26 years earlier would have been unthinkable. Yet there was something purely Belizean about the spectacle. Whole families of locals were in attendance, with grandparents wearing bright island shirts and kids playing in the sand behind the folding chairs. I didn’t have to ask if they preferred this life to the “paradise” of palm trees and huts I’d described in 1987.
The next day, I leaned back on the side of one of those slick dive boats, holding my mask and regulator, and fell backward into the sea. I bobbed up to the surface and gave the OK sign to our dive master, -Turiano Vasquez. A 60-year-old Maya with a laugh that came from a rotund and deeply tanned belly, Vasquez had told me on the trip out to the reef that he was most likely my guide in 1987. “If you stayed at Ramon’s, I was the only guy there,” he said.
I asked him what had changed on Ambergris over the years. “I’m older,” he said playfully. He waved at the sweep of the nearby coastline and the string of hotels along the beach. “None of this was here,” he said. “It was a simple place. And people were poor.”
“And now?” I asked.
“Some rich, some poor,” he said, shrugging. “But mostly people are happy. There are jobs.”
Before we dove, Alex asked if I was OK. I nodded, though actually I was in extraordinary physical pain. A few months earlier, a mountain-bike crash had caused me to reinjure my lower spine, aggravating an old wound from my twenties. Now the swelling in my back was causing the sciatic nerve in my left leg to flare up—it felt like someone was stabbing my hip with a bowie knife. During our descent, I had to tuck my left leg up to my chest to avoid a sharp pain when I tried to straighten it out to kick.
By 40 feet down, Vasquez noticed and came over. He pointed at my leg and held up his hands in the universal gesture of “What’s up?” I shrugged. He pointed to the surface: Did I want to go back to the boat? I shook my head and gave him the OK sign. He looked at me sternly and then turned away to head over to a nearby reef. Alex watched with an inscrutable look. He then tucked his own leg up, teasing me. It was after this dive that he started referring to me as “my old man.”
I concentrated on the dive and saw a big difference in the reef from my last visit. There were virtually no conch shells left. “They were taken by divers,” Vasquez later admitted. There also seemed to be fewer fish, though, as I later learned, this was mostly due to commercial overfishing in the eighties and the more recent impact of climate change on the coral ecosystem. We saw a stingray, a small turtle, several groupers, squirrelfish, yellow-tail snappers, and angelfish. The colors of the reef were dazzling. Still, I felt guilty. Alex would never know what this reef looked like 26 years earlier.
Our last day on Ambergris, we hired a bone-fishing guide. This was Alex’s first time saltwater fly-fishing, so our guide, Manuel Acosta, a seventy-something (or eightysomething? or sixty-something?) native of Ambergris, spent much of the morning showing him how to cast among the mangrove tufts to the south of the island.
After a few hours, I asked Acosta what had changed on Ambergris. “When I was a boy, we lived in huts and ate fish and had no school,” he said. “It was a hard life. It’s better now.”
I wished I had more time to dig deeper into Belize, the way I have in countries where I spent months or years as a foreign correspondent. My quick impression was that the wonder remained. New roads, bars, and hotels hadn’t ruined the place, even if the conchs were gone. But, really, who am I to say? As we floated in the shallows, I was reminded of something Henry David Thoreau wrote: “He who is only a traveler learns things at second-hand and by the halves, and is poor authority.”
The same is true of travel writers. While watching Alex land his first (and only) triggerfish, I realized that my years of fretting about my role in “ruining” Belize had been as superficial as my descriptions of paradise all those years ago. I also realized that, for me, paradise was being here with Alex at this instant in time, just as it had been about being here with his mother in another time. The fisherman and Belize and even the incandescent water were part of this moment, but not as crucial as the moment itself.
With Acosta looking on, I kidded Alex about the size of his fish. It was smaller than his hand.
“Your mother caught a bigger one back in 1987,” I said.
“That’s only because the fish were bigger back then,” he said.
“And the sky was brighter,” I said.
“And you weren’t so old,” said Alex.
At this, Acosta cracked the slightest of smiles. And we shared across the boat, and across our differences, a moment, too—as men growing older, as -fathers, as fishermen. And I realized that I might only know this man and his country at second-hand, but in that instant it didn’t matter to either one of us.