Copyright 2007 by Angela Baerg
The sky was somber, as if it had just finished reading Great Expectations and was now too demoralized to shed its sweats and greet us properly. The wet, sandy road looked like an old man’s birthday cake after all of the candles have been plucked out and licked clean. As we bounced along in the rain-slickened golf cart, we used our arms as bungee cords to keep our suitcases from popping off into the mud. I stared at my surroundings in disbelief, trying to figure out how I had gotten suckered into going on my mother’s honeymoon in Belize.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The trip that I had agreed to go on was picturesque and glamorous, a five-day, all-expense-paid stay at a luxury resort. When my mom had first proposed the idea back home, my mind had swirled with sophisticated thoughts like Travel makes me feel gross-I hate foreign food-Time changes are a pain-Scuba sounds boring-Certification takes time-I hate getting burned-I know I’m gonna get burned. But somehow, what came out of my mouth was, "Sure. Where's Belize?"
I had agreed to go to Belize out of pity for my mother. After eleven years as a divorcée, her fondest fantasy was having her two daughters by her side as bridesmaids at her wedding on the beach. Any beach. Belize itself, and more specifically the Blue Tang Inn, had sprung from the genius of Jack, my stepfather-to-be. According to him, the small island of San Pedro, off the coast of Belize, had something for everyone. For my mother, the high-maintenance, romantic landlubber, it was arrayed with white sand and splendid quarters. For Jack, the active, scuba-diving fanatic, it was bedecked with clear water and coral reefs. For my sister, Stephanie, the sunscreen boycotter, it radiated Equatorial sunbeams that could alleviate her pasty woes. And for me, the aspiring bilinguist, its buzz of Spanish chatter would be more than enough. San Pedro sounded perfect, and the tickets were booked: two for them, two for us.
But when unreasonable paperwork barred the way to a marriage on San Pedro’s sandy shoes, pragmatism dictated that the happy couple get hitched on the cheaply carpeted floor of the Catoosa County Courthouse in Ringgold, Georgia. It was at this juncture that nonrefundable reservations began to lose their appeal. Although my sister and I were no longer needed as Belizian bridesmaids, there were still four empty seats reserved on the flight to paradise. I grimaced at the thought of explaining to everyone why I had been in Belize. Saying I had been there for my mother’s wedding sounded half-way normal. Saying that I had been there for her honeymoon did not. To make it worse, we discovered that the honeymoon would bleed over into the first two days of our college’s academic year, which was both my sister’s first semester and my most difficult one. But, in my agitation, I was consoled by the thought that we were going to a luxury resort. If I had to be in this bizarrely inconvenient situation, at least I would feel awkward in style.
Even this comfort, however, was soon to be snatched away. We were almost there. As the sky continued to wring out its waterlogged tissues, our golfcart slodged its way up to the celebrated Blue Tang Inn. But what met our travel-worn eyes was not a sprawling, opulent five-star resort. It was a three-story . . . house. The only privacy it proffered for sunbathers were two lone palm trees, looking noble but awkward, like deer who had been napping when the rest of the herd decided to move on. The Olympic-sized swimming facility we had imagined was a cloudy, kidney bean-shaped, seven-foot kiddie pool. The hotel’s tiled floors were scribbled on with sand from the recent storm, and its pock-marked walls were battled-scarred from years of combat with the salty air.
I exchanged an uneasy glance with Stephanie, and in unison we both broke out in enthusiastic accolades. I felt transparent and wondered if Jack could tell. My mom was quiet, and I was afraid to meet her eyes. "See, Deb!" Jack exclaimed, obviously encouraged by our praise. "Isn't this place amazing?" But I knew that, for my mother, unbelievable would have been the more appropriate adjective.
Other disappointments also spat in the face of our expectations. The week’s forecast of steady showers made Jack worry that the only underwater scenes he would behold would be beneath his showerhead. Stephanie was irritated because it looked like her paleness would prevail. And I was frustrated because we had flown six hours in order to arrive in another country whose primary language was not Spanish but English. We were all vexed and grumpy.
Little did we realize that these irritating inconveniences would force us to unite as a family in a way that our planned vacation could not have done. It was for the best that I was unable to spend most of my time practicing Spanish. Because of this shortcoming and our hotel’s scanty entertainment (the kidney bean’s charms could only captivate us for so long), I was forced to quench my boredom with my sister’s company. Ever since Stephanie and I had gotten our driver’s licenses, we had been steadily growing apart. At home, only occasional carpooling was permitted by despotic time constraints and our own bull-headedly independent natures. But here, we did not feel safe taking the golf cart out for a spin alone. For the first time in many years, we needed each other. As we tooled around the island, we reconnected as we sifted through Belize-blazened souvenirs and examined the neat rows of $8 Wheat Thins and $10 Captain Crunch on the shelves of the local supermarket. Together we gawked at prices, unsuccessfully haggled, and discovered that truthful fruit venders do exist. For one week, we minimized sibling irritation levels and rekindled our old comradery.
Other intimate experiences involved less conversation. Since the hotel provided only breakfast, the four of us had to scrounge for food for the other two meals. Together, we bounced around the island in our golf cart, sampling overpriced imitation American cuisine. On one dining misadventure, we scoured the island searching for Papi’s, a diner that advertised unbeatable prices and the world’s best lobster.
As usual, what we found was not what we had had in mind. Our fine dining destination turned out to be a rickety shack that was about fifteen feet in diameter, fifteen degrees hotter than it was outside, and fifteen fans short of being sufficiently ventilated. Its sole method of cooling was one ailing electric fan in the corner, in front of which the establishment’s proud owner stationed his considerable girth in order to most economically perfume the sweltering room with his body odor.
It was a daunting spectacle. But, because we had driven halfway across the island to uncover this jewel, we were determined to chow down. My mother and Jack feasted on the acclaimed lobster, while my sister and I indulged on wilted sprigs of iceberg lettuce and grimy French fries. Conversation during this meal was minimal, but together we endured. Although, when we made our getaway, we all felt about as attractive and energetic as microwaved Jello, this disaster was fortuitous because we had a breakthrough. Yes, we were all mortified. But we were mortified as a family.
Our most intense bonding experience transcended words. Although the disastrous downpour on our first day had boded poorly for the week’s weather, every subsequent day rained down only steady sunbeams. This pleasant surprise meant that Jack and Stephanie could go diving after all. My mom and I, the party poopers, planned to remain onboard; she would tan while I would try not to burn. Ordinarily there would be large groups of unacquainted strangers on dive boat outings. But, because we had gone in the off-season, the four of us were able to go out on the boat alone with the best dive instructor on the island.
Billy, our charismatic instructor, was astonished that I displayed no interest in diving. Jack was a veteran diver, and my mother and sister had attended a month-long course (that my mother had failed) to become certified just for the occasion. I, however, had insisted that snorkeling would be enough for me. Although I protested that I was unprepared because I had not attended the intensive training, Billy decided that that was nonsense, gave me a 10-minute onboard tutorial, and threw me overboard.
While my mother stayed on board and helped our teenage boat captain untangle his matted love life, Billy led Jack, Stephanie, and me into the only part of San Pedro that is not a manmade tourist trap: its barrier reef. Together we glided into another world, a colossal labyrinth of starched coral softened by an entourage of sea foliage, swaying gently yet resolutely with unfurled appendages, like a crowd of die-hard rock fans caught up in an emotional song. We snuck up on gentle sharks, elusive eels, and tiny fish that scooted over to make room for us in places with exotic names like the Love Tunnels and Tacklebox. Together we infiltrated a foreign realm, and its friendly inhabitants hailed us cheerfully. After that experience, not only did we have a link to Jack through our mother, but we felt a personal connection. In that underwater wonderland, our family ties were made complete.
At the week’s end, I boarded the plane with a sigh, glancing affectionately at the street that had escorted us to the Blue Tang. By now the blazing sun that had warmed the depths for our dives had also transformed the road that had led us there. It was no longer a doughy quagmire. Its gaping cavities had vanished now, looking as though they had been filled with gooey caramel that had quickly hardened. I couldn’t help but notice that the road’s unbroken unity bore an uncanny resemblance to the happy state of my newly forged family. What had begun as a honeymoon gone bad had been recast as a five-star family vacation, made memorable not by the facility but by the fellowship.
“So,” my mom grinned at me as she buckled
her safety belt. “Next year, Aruba?”
in the subject line of the message.)
Another Story by Angela, Maul in the Family