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How I Met Santa in Belize: A Story

Even though I didn't want to...

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Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

Francis Pharcellus Church in an editorial for The (New York) Sun, September 21, 1897 The story of Virginia...

...but he's not what you think.

Jay Travels
Blog author: How I met Santa in Belize

My First Meeting with Santa

I knew him only briefly, but a few years later, his story still haunts me.

“Just call me Santa”, he says, “everyone does.” But personally, I preferred not to. Lacking another name to call him, I just didn’t use one. Later, I knew his real name was Alvin, but I still secretly thought of him as “the last mutineer”.

I first saw Santa in the Super Market which is just a small store though certainly larger than when I had shopped there seven years ago. Being so small, I could not help but hear everything he said at the counter while I was wandering the aisles. I perversely tended not to interact with gringo types that didn’t speak Spanish, so I essentially put him out of my mind.

Where am I and what am I doing here?

A small Spanish-speaking village, Sartenejo, Belize had previously resisted the invasion of snowbirds, ex-pats, and thrill-seeking young tourists– though unfortunately not the fundamentalist missionaries– that the rest of Belize had not. Last time I had been here, I’d only seen three gringos and each one had been a missionary. As I would soon find out, things had changed since my last visit.

I had just arrived by boat– the charmingly named Thunderbolt– that morning. I was headed to Caye Caulker, but my first stop in Belize was nearby Corozal where I could catch a boat to my destination. However, the Thunderbolt now made regular stops in Sarteneja so I decided to stop there to see how it was holding up under the increasing tourism to this Central American country.
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The tentative plan…

Just one night in Sarteneja to take note of the changes and then with two more boat rides, I’d be in Caye Caulker the next day. There, I would look for a place to live for the next three months. I wanted sun, solitude and the slow island pace while I processed the two-year round-the-world (RTW) trip I had just completed. I needed time to adjust and wanted to do some writing to help the process. Last of all, the arm I had broken in Tanzania was still weak– a daily swim would be good therapy.

I also needed to come up with a plan for what to do now that my RTW had been completed. Yeah, I really needed an epiphany. It just hadn’t happened yet.

First, I need a place to stay…

After I took a walk around Sarteneja village, the cool morning air was gone and it was uncomfortable walking around with a backpack on. I had planned to check out a new backpackers camp just outside town, but halfway there I stood in the middle of a dirt road surrounded by tropical jungle feeling the sweat run down my face and the small of my back. I decided I didn’t want to stay in what more than one review described as a mosquito infested place.

In addition, I didn’t like the idea of partying travelers telling drinking stories in the evening while getting drunk in order to have more stories to tell. I was reluctant to continue on. I traveled on a budget by choice, not necessity. With only one night here, I decided I wanted to stay in the village and have access to food and locals. So I’d spring for the more costly hotel.

While still standing in the middle of the dirt road, I called Fernando’s (the only hotel in Sarteneja at one time) to see if he had an opening for one of the four rooms. He did. So I headed back to civilization. Fernando agreed to knock the tax off the room price, but I still thought I was paying too much. Well, that was one thing that hadn’t changed…

Time for food and drink…

After a quick shower and a change of clothes, I headed out to stock up on water and get some food. That’s why I was in the Super Market when Santa came in to confirm his two cases of beer and bags of ice would be delivered in the afternoon. I enjoy a drink, but my experiences with ex-pats is that their activities often revolve around alcohol. Even more reason not to pay him any notice though his full white beard below his red sunburned face is an attention-grabber in tropical Belize. I winced at how hot a beard must be in the hundred degree heat.

I buy some water and then head to just about the only lunch place in town– Liz’s Fast Food. Ten minutes later, I had a double order of salbutes in front of me. One order of four cost $1 Belizean dollar which means a double order was just one American dollar. I was about to bite into my first fried masa round with shredded chicken and cabbage and a smidgen of chopped tomato for color when someone loomed over me. It was the bearded guy from the store.
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Santa introduces himself…

“Do you mind if I join you?”

Yeah, I did. I have a rule about not speaking English in Spanish speaking areas…and I preferred hanging out with locals over yakking with other foreigners. But I didn’t want to be rude.

“Sure, have a seat.”

“Everyone calls me Santa, what’s your name?”

“Jay”

“Jane?”

“No, it’s Jay. J-A-Y.”

And then without my asking he starts telling me about his name. He works as a Santa Claus back in the States during the holidays, so that’s what people call him. I look at his sweaty red face, a large bumpy nose suggesting age and too much alcohol and try to imagine a child sitting on this lap.

The questions begin…

Then the usual conversation follows. Where are you from? What are you doing here? How long are you staying here?

I have been traveling for two years and still don’t have a home– just my brother’s address in Oregon that I use for a mailing address and for travel insurance purposes– I find myself struggling for answers until I give in and briefly tell him my a bit of my story. When I finish my plate of salbutes, I am ready to get going. I need to find a place to live.

I decide to stay in Sarteneja…

Since checking into Fernando’s, I had been mulling over the idea of staying in Sarteneja instead of Caye Caulker– it would be quieter and cheaper. And maybe best of all, I could swim in the ocean everyday. Though an island, I knew I wouldn’t be able to easily find a place to swim on Caye Caulker. A daily swim would definitely speed up being able to fully use my right arm again. So, l wanted to use the rest of my time to find out about the rental options before heading to Caye Caulker. If I could find something in Sarteneja, I’d stay. And it would be nice to avoid another pricey night at Fernando’s. I’d need to make a decision before the Thunderbolt made its early morning stop the next day.

“I know a place you might like. My wife and I stayed there for a few months before I started building my house in the jungle.”

So far, I’d seen two places that I didn’t like at all, so I agreed to go with him and take a look. When we arrived, M. (the landlord) obviously didn’t understand anything Santa was saying. So I took over in Spanish- properly greeting her, introducing myself and explaining I was interested in renting. M. gave Santa a sharp look and a wave of her hand letting him know he needed to leave so she could negotiate a price with me. I barely noticed when he drifted off as I was already anticipating a good haggle.

Settling in…

For a week, I didn’t see Santa again. After his departure, M. and I had agreed on a the monthly rent. I transferred my bag from the hotel to my new digs and immediately caught the afternoon boat back to Corozal with a list of items to buy that were not available in Sarteneja. Mainly, a small stove and some kitchen basics– a pot, pan, flatware, bowls, etc.
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When I finally saw Santa again, I was fully settled into my place on the edge of the village. Each day in the morning, I wrote. Then I would swim just before sunset followed by a stroll around the village as it cooled. Since I was cooking for myself, I didn’t usually go into the village during daylight.

On my way home from my evening walk, I had just left the few village lights behind me. Due to the darkness, I concentrated on the barely visible unpaved road to avoid tripping on potholes and rocks. Almost home, I heard someone call out from the side of the road. I squinted my eyes to see who it was and to decide if they were talking to me.

Ah, it was Santa.

Santa says ‘goodbye’…

Santa said he was glad to run into me. He was leaving for the US in the morning. We chatted a bit and he tells me more of his story. He told me that in the summer, he worked for a building supply store as a consultant. He advised people with their remodeling and construction projects. Knowledgeable about laws, permits, codes and materials, he enjoyed the variety. Best of all was being Santa Claus for two months around December.

“At one time”, he said, “I worked in a historic lighthouse and wore a uniform of the time period”. He would show people around, explain how things worked and tell stories of the past. He knew I was trying to decide what to do next and was trying to inspire me to find work that was meaningful and would give me joy. Because his jobs gave him time off to come to Sarteneja for months at a time, he was able to work on the house he was building. Since he was still living in a tent and keeping his food in a cooler– I thought his progress on the house must be pretty slow.

Something in common…?

Once again, our 1970’s anti-war politics came up in the conversation. I was telling him some of my more unusual jobs– archaeologist, bat researcher, ESL teacher, social worker, trainer and job counselor for migrant workers and political activist. He asked me more about my political work and I briefly told him of working with Vietnam vets on the agent orange lawsuit. There was also gathering health data on “atomic vets”, those exposed to atomic fallout in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and from the atomic testing in the South Pacific atolls and the Nevada desert areas. Related to all this was my anti-draft work, doing public speaking in tandem with Vietnam veterans.

Santa made a joke about his political activities that I didn’t quite get- but apparently, he had spent some time in jail for them. But it was late and time for me to go. He said that he thought I was a person he would like to keep in contact with and asked for my email. He told me his email address and I sent him an email right then from my android so that he would have mine. So now, I knew his real name was Alvin; He said he was infamous and would learn more if I Googled his name.

Four years later…

That was over four years ago. I have never heard from Santa. Each Christmas, I think of him wearing his red suit and being a professional Santa. I briefly think I should email him a “Merry Christmas”, but I never do.

Now that I am thinking about moving back to Sarteneja, I consider contacting him. Unfortunately, I have a new android phone and he is missing from my contact list. So I Google him. I didn’t need to remember his last name because I knew his story from the last time I Googled him. At that time, I had found a picture of him modeling a historical uniform in front of a lighthouse. There were also dozens of newspaper articles, government reports and even a few books that told his surprising story. I knew I’d find him again by just Googling “last mutineer”

Once again, there were the same articles with a story that had lacked closure when I had looked him up the first time. However, this time I found there were some new articles…maybe one would have an answer to the remaining mystery.

Why Santa was infamous…

Alvin- AKA Santa- didn’t just spend some time in jail. Originally charged with 23 counts, his lawyer plea bargained for a reduction to just two at ten years each. In the end, the judged granted the two terms to be simultaneous for a total of ten years.

It was 1970 during the Vietnam War. He and a co-worker/friend were seamen on a merchant ship headed for Vietnam. The ship was loaded with 1,750 tons of torpedoes, rocket mortars, missiles, arms, bombs and napalm for the Vietnam war. It was all part of the plan.

Santa’s story…

Alvin was 20 years old and had a pregnant wife, so he needed work. While looking at jobs at the Seafarers International Union Hall, he met Clyde. He and Clyde were both against the war. In fact, Clyde was working on a plan for when he got a job on a ship that would fit the situation. He and Alvin became friends and eventually partners.

Alvin and Clyde met often to work on the plan. Finally they both had positions as crew on a ship going to Vietnam. Just a few months later, right when the SS Columbia Eagle was nearing the coast of Vietnam en route to Thailand, Clyde and Alvin took the captain hostage. They proceeded to hijack the US flagged merchant ship.

In addition to handguns, Alvin and Clyde claimed to have a live bombs hidden on board. The cargo included 3,500 500-pound bombs and 1,225 750-pound bombs, so the threat was believable Under Clyde’s order, the captain had 24 crew put into life boats and cast adrift.

Using the captain and the remaining 15 crew members, Alvin and Clyde successfully redirected the ship to Cambodia. U.S. Coast Guard destroyers pursued them, but after 36 hours the ship made it safely into Cambodian waters. Prince Norodom Sihanouk granted them sanctuary. Originally prepared for the possibility of death, they were now hoping to receive asylum and a hero’s welcome in the ‘neutral’ country of Cambodia. It was an exhilarating experience.

From hero to traitor…

Two days later, everything changed quickly when a military coup disposed Prince Sihanouk. The new Cambodian government threw the two mutineers in jail. in exile, Sihanouk claimed that Clyde and Alvin were CIA and had brought weapons for the coup, so the new government retained them. While on the prison ship, young Alvin had a breakdown. He was transferred to a mental hospital in Phnom Penh and then eventually sent back to the US for trial.

In the meantime, Clyde (with Alvin’s support) escaped with another prisoner, a U.S. military deserter. They disappeared. No one knew what happened to them. And that was the mystery. I knew where Santa was, but what about Clyde?

The mystery is solved…

But now as I review Alvin’s story again online, I find some new postings with additional information. His missing friend was finally found and brought home…for a belated funeral and memorial. The two missing prisoners had run into the jungle and joined the K.C. (which later became the Khmer Rouge) as Freedom Fighters thinking they would be fighting for the right side. Instead, after a short while they were executed by the Khmer and their bodies left in the jungle.

Based on some local stories, investigators working on a book of the mutiny were led to human remains buried under a tree. When questioned, locals remembered two foreigners that had been shot in the head and buried there. It might be Clyde and the other escapee.

Eventually, DNA testing confirmed one of the last mutineers had died in Cambodia. His family would finally have the answers to what had happened and could provide him a buriel. Closure on the mystery of Clyde...

Alvin barely got my attention when we met, but as my brother commented when I finished telling him about some of the people I had met while in Sarteneja– Santa had to be the most interesting.

Final Notes:

I have plans to return to Sarteneja soon, so I finally contacted Santa to see if he was still around. I felt I should tell him about this story and wanted to discuss it in person. He didn’t seem to remember me (but thought he’d like to continue the conversation) and due to various difficulties, he wasn’t sure yet if he would be able to make it to Belize this year. So, we may or may not have contact in the future. However, in creating links to this article, I found more recent information– a 2019 podcast by CouragetoResist.org of Al talking about his experience for the first time in nearly 50 years ago. To hear podcast, click here...Alvin participated in another podcast series by Working Class Crimes (crimes committed based on beliefs): .Listen to the series..

Posted by jaytravels 04:07 Archived in Belize Tagged belize last_mutineer

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