Finding home in, leaving, Corozal

A month ago, I rolled into Corozal, a stranger.

Something compelled me to come, though no one had offered a recommendation; though the town wasn’t known for anything in particular; though I knew nothing of what to expect.

I booked a week in an apartment. I wondered if it was too long.

Then I stepped off the bus from Belize City and almost instantly had a feeling. A feeling I would stay longer than planned. A feeling that something special was in the air.

Four weeks later, as I snaked through the sea grape trees at the water’s edge, mentally preparing to finally move on, I understood that instinct.

I was meant to arrive in Corozal. It was a place that slowed my anxiety and calmed my soul. A place where, though I didn’t know it yet, my community was waiting.

The first person I met, on my first night in town, was Francis — a Canadian expat who had lived in Corozal just three months but already seemed to know half of the bar at the local watering hole, Scotty’s Crocodile Cove.

Everyone else who walked in, it seemed, took ten minutes to sit down thanks to all the necessary hellos.

I struck up a conversation with Eber, the bartender, who would ultimately appear on a video I would make, and briefly met Paul, an 81-year-old Vietnam veteran who, though I didn’t know it yet, would soon be my weekly karaoke partner for what will forever be our song: Johnny and June Cash’s “Jackson.”

The next day, at the marketplace, I sat down at a lunch stall, and would wind up in long conversation with its Belizean owners — Norma and Nehru — who by the end of the hour would invite me to their house the following week for their son’s graduation barbecue.

If I was still in town, of course.

I had to stay.

Francis introduced me to Erika, a Chicago native and fellow writer/entrepreneur who had recently moved to Corozal from her adopted home in Mexico. As soon as we met, there was hardly a moment of silence between us, meeting up to picnic in the park, to climb on the sea grape trees and sit over the water, to laugh way too loudly, way too late, on the roof of her apartment.

I met the owner of my little apartment, Nesi, and her incredibly sharp 17-year-old daughter, Naomi. A video interview turned into dinner at their home, with Nesi plying me with Caribbean rum and cranberry juice and teaching me to press and griddle traditional Belizean flour tortillas.

And then there was Mel. We met a few days after I arrived, and less than a week later, I felt we’d known each other for years. Quickly, she integrated me into her tightly knit circle — introducing me to Nancy, an Oregon native who made Corozal her home more than a decade ago, to Christine, who grew up and still lives less than a block away from Mel’s home, and to Jeneli, who was visiting from her current home in California but has kept her childhood home across the street.

She invited me to the birthday party of Miss Chanky, who was turning 80-something and welcoming gifts of whiskey and rum. There, I ate my first relleno negro, or “black dinner,” a Belizean soup made with the pitch black recado spice. When I tried to leave, Mel goaded me to stay longer by fixing me the perfect chelada — beer with lime, salt and ice.

Christine was there, and Francis, and Nancy (Jeneli would come into town a week later), and I met another friend, Stephanie. Suddenly, I felt part of something.

I had to stay longer.

For the next month, we danced and karaoke-d and happy hour-ed. We checked in on each other’s days. Did errands. Ate late-night Chinese food. Started group chats. When I was sick, Mel made me soup and brought it over with Gatorade. When our drinks were empty, we refilled them for each other.

We shared inside jokes, hangovers, plates of tostadas, lip gloss; gave each other gifts and advice and moral support on the karaoke floor. We cooked; we molested innocent poles; we cried and argued and hugged. We held each other’s purses; we held each other’s stresses.

Our phones filled up with selfies. Our hearts filled up with memories.

I stayed longer still.

Soon, I was one of those people walking into the bar and taking ten minutes to sit down because of all the hellos.

Two nights before I left town, I walked by the water, the fist in my chest clenching and remembered something Mel’s brother had asked me two nights before.

“Don’t you ever get lonely, traveling by yourself?” he asked.

I answered as I always do — “nope.”

But if I was honest, that truth had slightly changed. The real answer was “not until now.”

It felt like I was leaving home all over again.

Because though I rolled in a stranger, I was leaving Corozal, family.

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