Mary and her husband had planned a dream vacation to Belize. It was the top priority on their bucket list of places to enjoy together after retirement. Last March, after 40 years as a teacher in Stone Mountain, Georgia, she finally arrived in the country they both had hoped would be a shared paradise. But she had to come alone, after burying her life partner just two months before.
As she related her experience as we sat outside at a sunny Belizean bar and restaurant, there was no hint of what would have been understandable melancholy. She elected to sell most of their worldly possessions, including a five-bedroom house. She worked through the vehement skepticism expressed by her adult children that she could go it alone in Central America. But Mary has fallen in love again. Not with another man, but with a simplicity and vibrancy of life she hasn't felt since her childhood.
It's the eternal human quest to find contentment and happiness that lured my wife Lisa and me to Belize. It's a country of unmatched natural beauty and ethnic diversity — and equally visible abject poverty. With a government that's borrowed itself to the hilt, Belizeans exist without unemployment insurance, food stamps, and welfare programs. You could consider it a laid-back version of rugged individualism. Their motto is, "Take care of your needs first and your wants become secondary."
We met many American fellow travelers. It's safe to say that many of our countrymen have a tendency to flaunt their self-perceived superiority while abroad. Some of the American visitors were brash, loud-laughing, loud-talking masters of the universe. They consumed voluminous amounts of alcohol, not that there's anything wrong with that while on vacation, but the solitude and time for personal reflection Belize has to offer are lost on such people. I didn't really hold anything against the sometimes crude attitudes of my fellow Yankee Doodlers. The majority of Americans have been taught to believe that happiness can only be achieved through hard work, determination, and sheer will. Serenity is not top of mind.
Belize offers the exact antithesis of everything we've been taught to desire. Most Belizeans get around on bicycles or golf carts as primary transportation. Or they walk. The American dollar is worth twice as much as Belizean money. The average Belizean makes about $20 a day. Yet, in this melting pot of ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity, there appears to be no caste system. No one seems particularly jealous of anyone else's status as server, waiter, bartender, driver, security guard, or beach captain. Instead there was a shared universal zest for enjoying life's basic pleasures. They have a roof over their heads. They have an abundance of natural foods. They work hard for hourly wages. They love their heritage — and their children (who seem to love and respect their elders). For Belizeans there is no fee to enter into paradise, because they believe they are already living in it, every day they are here on earth. There is a serenity of body and spirit that can't be measured. It emanates from within.
On the next to last day of our stay, we caught up with Mary again. She just appeared from a side street in the bustling Placencia Village. It's a community noted for having the narrowest main street in the world. She had just emerged from a Thai-owned restaurant and massage parlor. I thought that sounded interesting, but Lisa insisted we had business to attend to first. Besides, Mary told us she was in a hurry to get to her apartment. She was going to get some rest and prepare herself for the "second half" of what had already been a very active day of walking, talking, visiting, and learning about the country she now calls home.
She was preparing, too, for a visit from her daughter, coming from Illinois. She hoped one day her son and his family would make the trip, as well. As we waved goodbye, I could not help but think how proud and happy her late husband would be if he knew how well his wife is fulfilling their bucket list.