If you ever stop by to visit us at our home in Northern California, you may notice we have a rather unusual style of home décor. One might call it “early hippie meets Jimmy Buffett at an island garage sale of bohemian rustic junk.”
In other words, our home is filled with
crap treasures we’ve collected from years of travel.
Some gems stick around for only a short time before being relegated to the basement and then to the Goodwill box. The neon-colored “limited edition” Margaritaville parrot-shaped plastic cups we couldn’t live without are a perfect example.
Other mementos forever remain on display. There’s a motorized dancing hula girl lamp from Hawaii; the rather explicit “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem” sign that hung over our bar in Mexico; a golden coconut from a Zulu Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans; and countless other weird little keepsakes from around the world.
But probably my favorite of all these strange pieces from our life on the Margarita Road is a squat, carved wooden chest with its corners long ago chewed by a much-loved bulldog named Bodhi.
Painted on all sides with scenes of beautiful jungle goddesses, angels, and mermaids, this memory-soaked souvenir has quite a story behind it…a story that travels from California, through Mexico, down into Central America, out into the Caribbean Sea, and back again.
The Journey Begins
It all started some twenty-plus years ago when Cheri and I were living in San Francisco. Whenever we could, we’d head south to spend some time in our favorite little slice of paradise, Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
On one particular trip, we decided to take a few extra days and visit the islands off the coast of Belize.
Our side journey began with driving a rental car two hundred miles south from Playa down a pot-holed road cut through the jungle along the coast of the Caribbean Sea. We were on our way to the Mexican city-port of Chetumal, which sat on the border with Belize.
The rental car company took the rather limited view that we shouldn’t drive their car across international borders (spoil-sports). So once in Chetumal, we were forced to leave the tiny car in the only secure parking lot we could find.
We then walked into Belize.
Yes, that’s right…we walked into Belize.
Along with a steady flow of locals, we ambled across an aged concrete bridge that stretches over the Hondo River separating Mexico from Belize. No armed guards, no barbed wire, no concrete walls. Just a nice little bridge open to the world at both ends.
Once on the Belize side, we strolled into a tiny cement hut of a building marked Immigration.
It was nothing but a dimly lit, fly-infested single room. In it sat the official charged with the important task of deciding whether we would be granted admission to his country–the “Chief Immigration Officer,” or so the sign said.
The sweaty, overweight man was leaning back in his chair, his feet up on the desk, his cap pulled over his eyes, and his head down.
As we approached him, we heard a quiet snore. We coughed discreetly, then a bit louder, and finally reached over to gently shake him awake. He seemed a bit peeved that we had disturbed his siesta and with a sigh removed his feet from their perch and sat up.
Without a word, he stamped our passports, raised a hand in welcome, and promptly resumed his prior position of relaxation. He was snoring again before we reached the door.
Outside we grabbed a taxi to the local airport, where we would catch a short flight to the island of Ambergris Caye.
“Airport” may be a bit grand to describe the facility in the nearby town of Caracol, Belize. Located in an isolated patch of land surrounded by tropical foliage, the airport consisted of a half-mile runway of hard-packed earth, a Quonset hut for buying tickets, and a small open-air stand selling Belikan beer.
The only beer available in Belize was locally brewed Belikan. (“You come to our country, you’ll drink our beer.”)
We were told the next plane would be at 2:00 pm or whenever the pilot showed up. Reasonable.
At about 2:15, a twelve-seater propeller plane dropped sharply out of the overhead clouds. It bounced a couple of times along the dirt runway before coming to a jerking stop in front of the hut where we and others waited for our flight.
As the current occupants of the plane exited, the pilot climbed out of the cockpit, stopped in front of the bench where we waited, and announced, “Ten minutes to take off,” before heading inside.
I turned to Cheri. “How old does he look to you?” I asked.
“I dunno, maybe fifteen. But I am sure he’s older,” she replied hopefully.
A few moments later, we were airborne under the capable hands of our youthful pilot. Our fellow passengers appeared to be islanders who had traveled over to the mainland for a little shopping. Instead of backpacks and suitcases, they carried grocery bags, a sheet cake decorated for someone’s birthday, and a live chicken in a large cage. Dinner perhaps?
On the Streets of San Pedro
It took about twenty minutes for Captain Teenager to reach Ambergris Caye, a fun, friendly, and funky coral rock sticking out of the Caribbean Sea. On the island we found ourselves deposited in San Pedro, a lovely little town of dirt roads and quaint wooden cottages.
For the next few days, we went scuba diving, ate conch fritters, and joined in the nightly street party that erupted when electricity was shut off each night exactly at 10:00 pm. Our hotel manager mentioned something about the island not paying its electric bill. No one seemed to mind.
“T’is no problem, mon.”
Near the end of our stay, Cheri and I came across a crowded, dusty little store filled with local artwork–the kind of place we love. We split off, exploring the different rooms on our own. A few minutes later, I heard her squeal. She bounded up to me, grabbed my arm, and dragged me around a corner.
“Omigod. You have to see this,” she said.
Half-hidden under a blanket of dust behind a pile of paintings was a chest carved from dark tropical wood and painted on every side with a single theme…a beautiful blonde woman.
I loved everything about it.
The lid of the chest was adorned with a voluptuous, large-eyed mermaid swimming in a turquoise sea, her long golden hair swirling about her. This artwork alone would have been striking enough to make me desire the piece.
But it got better. A nude jungle nymph snuggling up against a wild Jaguar adorned the front. It was the same woman who had posed for the mermaid, with the same wide-open eyes and the same wild blonde hair.
The ends of the bench were each painted with this same mysterious lady, now with wings attached so that she might fly through a peach-colored heaven. Someone had clearly been in love with this girl.
We soon learned from the proprietress of the gallery that the chest had been carved and painted by a local artisan to the specifications of a man visiting the island. He provided photos of the model and paid for the work before promising to return for his bench in the not-too-distant future.
He never came back. The chest had been sitting in her back room unclaimed for over two years.
The lost stranger obviously invested his heart and money in this treasure. It’s clear he was obsessed with the woman whose portrait was repeated four times on the chest’s surface. So why had he never come back?
Had he been lost at sea during a mad dash from pirates? Was he sitting in some South American jail, the results of a drug deal gone bad? Had the lovely model for the paintings broken his heart? Did she run away with a handsome spy, leaving her admirer in such despair as to abandon this tribute to her charms? Had his heart been stolen by another?
We would never know.
What I did know was that this carved, weirdly-painted chest spoke to me of life in the tropics: crude, bright, outrageous, and timelessly lovely.
And the beautiful goddess with the wild, blonde mane was a perfect reflection of a certain woman who had captured my own heart long before.
It was meant to be. I had to have it.
Haggling began, and we eventually agreed on a price, which I gladly paid. (What the store owner didn’t know is that I had no intention of leaving without that chest!)
We told her we would be flying our treasure back to the border, driving it up to Playa del Carmen, and then flying it back to the States, so it was important that she wrap it securely, which she promised to do.
Little did we know then how long the trip would ultimately take.
Back to California
A day or two later, we hauled the now crudely-wrapped chest onto the small inter-island plane to hop back to the mainland. The same adolescent pilot was behind the controls.
From there we took a taxi across the bridge back into Mexico (the chest hidden in the taxi’s trunk as it was illegal to bring anything from Belize into Mexico without paying a heavy import tax). Then it was back up the coast to Playa del Carmen.
When our vacation was over, we took the chest to the airport in Cancun and processed it through immigration. We picked it up in Dallas, where we and the chest switched planes and finally…finally…headed home to San Francisco with our lovely piece of art.
And there it stayed…at least for a while.
To Mexico, Again
Fast forward a few years. Cheri and I are now moving to Mexico where we will run the Luna Blue Hotel and Bar. We are driving 4,000 miles to our new home in a large van. We are loading everything we think we’ll need for our new life south of the border. There are clothes and computers, a couple of sea kayaks, three cats and a bulldog, Christmas ornaments, and an artificial tree. And the chest from Belize!
How could we leave it behind?
So the chest went into the van to be carried across the southwest United States, down through central Mexico, up the Yucatan Peninsula, and finally to our new home on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. Once again, the mermaid-jungle-maiden chest came to rest in our home, only now in the tropics.
Home to the States
But wait! The story isn’t done yet.
Let’s take another bump in time, another ten years down the road. Cheri and I are returning to California in the same van we originally drove into Mexico. And inside was…you guessed it…the mermaid/goddess chest.
Once again we and the chest traveled thousands of miles across the continental United States to eventually cross the Golden Gate Bridge and on to our new home where it now graces our living room (and offers a place to nap for our five Mexican street cats).
Is this the last journey…for the chest…for us? Perhaps Cheri and I are finally settled down in one place. Or is it possible other adventures may someday beckon?
I do know that wherever we are, that chest will be part of our home. It has too many great memories stored in it to ever let it go.