On our first morning here back in November we were excited by bird call from a host of tropical flyers. Squeaking Kiskadees, trilling hummingbirds, clucking kingfishers, warbling warblers, jabbering Grackles, boo hooing White Wing Doves, oddly quiet mockingbirds and the most provocative were the parrots. The common parrot here on Ambergris Caye is the Olive Throat Parrot and they travel in flocks occasionally numbering a hundred plus. They squabble and squawk as they burst into your neighborhood briefly settling into the treetops only to rush off, en masse, sixty seconds later. They prefer the tops of the almond, mangrove, sea grape, and coco plum trees as their colors are so closely matched. On many days, camera and long lens in hand, we’ve listened to several dozen parrots alight, watched the treetops shimmy from their numbers yet struggled to pick out a single bird for that close up. Perhaps when we venture to the national zoo in Belmopan, we will learn more about these chattering characters?
This past week I had my hair cut. While travelling on the water taxi to the small island of Caye Caulker I met a young man with a barber’s pole tattoo on his forearm. And as I would eventually need a haircut this gentleman seemed like a proper candidate to do the job. Isariel (pronounced: Izrael) had impeccable hair even on the fast-moving water taxi and like any good hospitality professional, he was very engaging. I broke the ice by asking him how does a native Belizian decide which language to use with a friend, Spanish, or English. When he finished chuckling, he responded he never thought about it before, it was something natural, like stirring sugar into his coffee. On our return trip to Ambergris on the water taxi, Isariel was once again my travelling companion and we shared favorite photographs, exchanged Instagram profiles, and made plans for a haircut.
DFC. It’s the working-class neighborhood of the island and just a bit south of here. It’s not a tourist destination, it is home to the homes of the front-line staff of the tourism industry. Years ago, the Development Finance Corporation was set up to provide micro loans to Belizians and this neighborhood is named for its fiscal beginnings. That’s where Isariel’s barbershop is and that’s where we spent the better part of three hours recently. Amy dropped me off at the shop, it’s just big enough for Isariel and his barber chair, a small couch and a TV featuring scenes of the Caribbean coast. He’s placed several wooden pallets in the street so if the water hasn’t gone down, his customers can keep their feet dry. Standing water is occasionally a challenge on this island and to hear the local government prattle on and on about their big plans of paving streets is akin to listening to Cliff Clavin spout his erroneous theories of American history.
Isariel is self-taught. It was something he desired to learn after watching a movie and now he’s a sought-after personal barber in the morning and sees the majority of his customers at his shop most afternoons. We both agreed the key to a healthy life is to keep learning, look for a new skill then develop it.
“YouTube can be like free college, don’t you think?”
Isariel agreed and he often looks at other barber’s channels for the best techniques. As our time was winding down, I offered up one of my favorite theoretical questions: If you could be in charge for a day, what would you change?
“Easy. The government.”
“That’s a big change, Isariel.”
“But it has to happen. We just went through an election and we were so sick of the corruption from the previous party, we voted in the same corrupt party that’s been out of power for twelve years. Yeah, I’d change the government in one day.”
That question had offered him the invitation to roll his eyes at our government and I prepared myself for the onslaught that never came. This was the day after the ugliness on Capitol Hill and to his credit, he didn’t go there. Perhaps he wanted to. His government and our government have nothing to brag about right now.
While I was in his company Amy was casually driving through DFC looking for fresh tortillas. She received some directions from the owner of a small café but to no avail. After picking me up, saying my goodbyes to Isariel, it was lunch time and she suggested we head back to that one small café, Kenia’s.
Restaurants here can be very small, and Kenia’s is a great example. Her kitchen is equipped with a few home appliances housed in a tight wooden framework. Her menu is limited to a half dozen local classics plus milkshakes and a few aqua frescas, which are fruit juices cut with fresh water. Amy and I each had a chicken and rice dish, one braised with ginger rice, the other fried with (red) beans and rice. Kenia makes her own drinks and her son, Jorge, sold us on a tamarind soda and horchata made with peanuts.
“Peanuts? Instead of almonds?”
“Yes. It is very delicious.” Replied Jorge.
And was it ever. Horchata is made with cooked rice, water, almonds, cinnamon, and sugar or honey. This one used the peanuts instead of the almonds and wow, I’m hooked. I’m a fan of that meaty minerality inherit in a peanut’s flavor and I prefer smooth over chunky butter. Almonds have a more delicate flavor, no surprise there as peanuts are legumes, cousins of black and red beans and not even in the same botanical family as almonds. Using legumes to make a drink sounds counter intuitive to everything we Southerners know of peanuts. Perhaps the closest we’ve come to drinking peanuts is when we drop them into a six-ounce bottle of Coca Cola. Yeah, I know that’s supposed to be some sort of religious experience like taking communion from the Archbishop on your birthday, your humble writer thinks it’s dumb. Horchata made with peanuts instead of almonds is insanely delicious. It was about this time my wife spied a young Olive Throat Parrot bouncing around in the mangrove behind Kenia’s. Once again, she was flummoxed by one of these parrots. She saw the leaves fidgeting where its voice was originating, yet couldn’t exactly see it. She stood up to try and snare a photo and Jorge asks her if she likes parrots.
And at that Jorge left, returning a few minutes later with Jorgito, his very friendly, very curious, very beautiful Yellow-Headed Parrot. In a few minutes Jorgito the parrot was crawling all over us, exploring his new friends and chattering to the dogs, leashed up at a safe distance. After Jorgito became comfortable with us Jorge brought out his female, Paquita.
Yellow Headed Parrots are endangered, and Jorge’s are legally owned, banded by the Belize version of our DNR. As his parrots crawled around us, he offered up some parrot knowledge on their habits and shared stories of their parrot youth while Jorgito and Paquita chuckled their approval.
Yellow Headed Parrots can be quite talkative, and many have been known to emulate human conversation. These two offered up the occasional “hello” and Jorge assured us they’re very talkative at the end of the day.
Eventually we had to part ways and as we were putt putting our way back to the main road, we discussed our luck at finding someone to share such intimate knowledge of his home.
Back in the US, we Americans tend to be very proud and protective of our dogs and to share them at our home to a visitor signifies our respect and trust of said visitor. Am I correct? Jorge was only too happy to share his “puppies” with us. We had spent the better part of the morning in the working-class neighborhood of the least visited (by tourists) area of this island and enjoyed a professional haircut, a remarkable drink that will stay with me for a lifetime and got up close and personal with two parrots whose kissing cousins had spent months defying our attempts to snap one decent photograph. On our travels, in the US or abroad, we’ve learned the most memorable experiences aren’t scripted, and our best meals are rarely found on the avenue.
You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, (former) tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.