Monday, December 4, 2023

Time Has Stood Still on This Belize Island. How Wonderful.

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When we’re not snorkeling among parrotfish, octopus, and honeycomb trunkfish, or paddling the rolling swells around the east side of the island, I’m making a list in my head: things that are the same, things that are different. The former far outweigh the latter. The island was hit by a hurricane several years ago, and the kitchen, a simple clapboard structure painted bright blue, had to be rebuilt a few hundred feet away. A small, off-the-grid dive operation now occupies the island’s south end, just beyond the dock. By far, though, the biggest upgrade is offshore: a cell tower five miles away on South Caye that on most days sends a signal that’s strong enough, sadly, to let the outside world in.

Other than that, the island seems utterly unchanged. Has anyone cleaned the toilet tanks since 1997? Debatable. And yet Slickrock’s surreal time warp is wildly charming. The cabanas catch the breeze, unlimited Belikin beers are free for the taking. Neri Chi, a guide who was there back in 1997, is here for our trip, still teaching windsurfing. The coral reefs, which see a fraction of the snorkelers that reefs closer to the mainland do, are still healthy and alive. The bonefish are suitably elusive but biting.

The main thing that’s missing: guests.


When I came to Slickrock in 1997, Cully was a gregarious visionary with infectious energy for the island and the guiding life. But in 2018, in the midst of a cancer scare, he sold it to Phil, a soft-spoken, instantly sympathetic character in his mid-thirties whose first words upon meeting us were: “I’m sorry. I mumble too much.” If there’s an anti-Cully, it’s Phil—and yet there’s something strangely endearing about him. How did he end up on this spit of sand in the far-western Caribbean, and how will he ever make a go of it?

One night after dinner we get the full story, delivered by Phil in his signature murmur. He dropped out of high school in England at 16. Then, at 19, he opened a mobile zoo out of his van. Later, he worked for a leopard sanctuary featured on the UK version of Animal Planet, and was bitten by a python. In 2012, when he was on the verge of buying Slickrock, he got hit by a car and broke his back; the medical bills nearly sank him. He lost the investors he’d lined up and had to start from scratch, pitching a modest Slickrock revamp to the Belize ministry of economics, only to run into delays and red tape. It would take him another six years to scrounge up enough to buy Long Caye, in 2018. Then the pandemic hit. Visitors have returned to Belize, but as Phil tells us, business has been slow to recover at Slickrock.

This is one of the most rousing stories of tenacity I’ve ever heard, but when I turn to the kids to make sure they’re listening, their chins have collapsed into their hands. Around the room spirits are sagging, heads bobbing, the audience wearied equally by Phil’s chronic misfortunes and the late hour. Night falls hard in the tropics. Later I drift off to the rush of waves and wind, feeling simultaneously better about Phil and a tiny bit worse.

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