The move: Chicago to San Pedro

Up until the moment we hit the runway in Belize City, I was certain something could go wrong and derail the entire plan. We learned in the middle of September that Belize would open the airport on October 1, 2020. I purchased tickets for October 5th, and the marathon began. In order to get the dogs in cabin with us, they became Emotional Support Animals. Rick is not able to walk long distances at a fast pace, so he needed wheelchair assistance. Rick is not able to lift anything over 40 pounds, so that left me running behind him and dragging the carry ons through all 3 airports.

Organizing every portion of an international move AND dealing with the COVID restrictions was similar in planning to launching the space shuttle. Everything needed perfect timing. The dogs had to be USDA certified within 14 days of the flight. The airline had to have all the documentation from the doctor who prescribed them as ESA support within 48 hours of the flight. We had to be tested and receive our COVID tests within 72 hours of landing. In the middle of this, Belize was adding more rules for entering that were not very clear. At one point, I decided they were not going to deport us so we might as well land and see what we need. I had 6 envelopes, one stuffed with all documentation depending on what they requested.

Once we arrived at O’Hare, the changes in travel during COVID were apparent. To begin with, there were so few people moving through the terminals I was certain I was in the wrong place. There were also very few vendors and restaurants open to grab a drink or snack.

Upon boarding the plane, you are given a baggie with a small bottle of water, cookies, and hand wipes.

You are given a baggie as you board. This is the entirety of in-flight service.

The dogs did better than expected on the planes, mostly due to the tranquilizers prescribed by our vet. They also had more legroom than any human on the plane

Finally, we hit the ground the the PGIA airport in Belize City!!! We were fortunate to be assigned the world’s greatest wheelchair porter, and made it through that airport in record time. He whisked Rick away, past the socially distanced lines outside, straight to the first check in station where we presented our negative COVID tests. Those results give you a “green card” to pass you through quickly. The Ministry of Health still pulls random travelers for an additional test, and they were standing outside the testing room trying to grab us for a random screening. Our porter was not having that, he just starts yelling back in his delightful mixture of English, Spanish, etc. : ” NO NO NO…green, green!!” He whips Rick around the corner, I stand there momentarily frozen wondering what I should do. I pull on the leashes and whip the dogs around the corner with me. Nobody chased after, so we cleared that hurdle. Next station, we presented our Belize health app code and provided the address of our condo. We cleared immigration in no time, and were waiting at the baggage claim before the suitcases were even starting to come out. Another COVID delay: they spray every piece of luggage with a disinfectant before unloading.

There we were, with the best porter in the world, waiting for luggage, and he’s telling me to go to the duty free store and get some cheap import liquor (import=anything from the states. Otherwise Captain Morgan’s will cost a small fortune). I try telling him we already have 7 bags, but he doesn’t care; he just grabs another luggage cart!

Then it is on to customs, where he is calling over “his guy” to prevent too much of an inspection that may result in paying some duty on what’s brought in. We get through customs with: 2 guitars, 5 large cases, a bag of diving gear, 2 backpacks, a carry on and a bag of liquor. Don’t forget the 2 dogs. Next stop: BAHA- Belize Agricultural Health Authority. I have previously had them approved for import, and now we stop to meet with the veterinarian for a check and to pay the fee. The man looks at me and says: that’s $35 BZ or each dog and $10 BZ for the vet check. He proceeds to lean over the counter, point down at each dog, count off ” ONE.TWO. Twenty dollars.” As I wait for the official import documentation, there goes Rick’s porter, with Rick and the dogs, exclaiming: ” we’re taking the dogs out to pee pee.”

In the middle of all this, I learn that the small planes to the island are only allowing 2 pieces of luggage per passenger. Don’t worry, the porter has a plan!

Rick and the life, and time, saving porter!

I had already booked a private, charter flight to the island. I knew they would charge extra for the dogs and would make me pay to cargo the oversized luggage. I also knew less planes were flying and people had been left to wait hours. Although it ended up costing double what a regular flight would be, the convenience was worth it. We show up at the small plane: Rick in a wheelchair, dogs spinning at the end of their leashes like tasmanian devils, a ton of luggage, sweating behind our masks; and I slap the CHARTER flight receipt on the counter. Everyone springs into action like we are rock stars or royalty. I had already been told that our porter spoke to an employee who was going to take all our luggage and load it, so the deal was to tip him a few bucks. Remember they have not worked in MONTHS, so tips talk. We are whisked back through security to enter the airport, run up to the exit to the small planes and are told our plane is waiting. Everyone sitting in chairs just stares at us with their jaws hanging open.

Our final plane in the distance!

Out to the plane we go, where the pilot is already waiting as well as a three person ground crew who load Rick in one seat, me in another, the dogs in their very own seat with a view. Then we’re off!

If you have made it this far, here is where the exhaustion sets in and I no longer care what happens. I am happily taking the gratuitous photos you just HAVE to take every time you board your small plane to the island, when I look back and see Dexter nudging a brown nut-looking ball with his nose. Remember: I am completely drained from travel and not thinking as clearly as usual; so I flick it off the seat with my finger. Then, I think to myself, ” That doesn’t feel hard like a nut. Was that a turd?” I can’t twist around, so I hold the camera behind my back, pointed down into the crack between the seat and snap a shot.

Is it a turd, or a nut??? Nobody really knows for sure!

Sure enough, it appears to be a turd. Tired and beat up from travel, I lean forward to Rick and say, ” I think Dexter just left a turd on the plane, should I tell the captain when we land.” Rick contemplates it for a second and shakes his head NO.

The pandemic, the planning, the chaos

There we were in March, at the beginning of the shut-downs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, happily and mindlessly planning our future life. I quit my teaching job of 20 years, bought plane tickets, rented a condo through a video chat, and started tearing apart my home of 29 years. Sure, the International airport in Belize was closed, the number of COVID cases were rising, but still we went ahead with our plans.

Find us at the end of the arrow
Most importantly, a pool and garden I do not have to maintain

As much as I talk about positive thinking and following your gut instinct, those are not always easy feats to accomplish. While Rick has always been 100% confident and positive, I have had many sleepless nights, fits of tears, and nervous energy.

Not to feel sorry for myself (maybe a little bit), but I will note that Rick is limited as to what he can do, so the purge of the house is left mostly up to me. As I sell furniture and decor, I add metal storage shelves along the walls of the rooms and fill them with offerings for our moving sale. It looks like some wacky thrift store in my house right now. I walk among piles of junk we have managed to collect throughout the years. We are frantically transferring video movies of our kids to a digital format, as well as scanning and saving albums and albums of pictures. The most difficult thing for me is to toss pictures. I keep a few, and for the rest I close my eyes and dump them. Each kid is going to get a small box of their items, and then it is up to them to toss or keep their memories. Transitioning to this next chapter for us requires downsizing to a major degree. We try to keep in mind that the object is not the memory. Those memories cannot be taken away. On a side note: it is amazing how many things I pull out of the closet that are tossed onto the “junk” pile. I cannot believe everything I have held on to that is just worthless!

Two boxes containing the largest of our items deemed essential. They are heading to Florida now to be shipped to San Pedro. They will arrive by the end of July, but will we !?

It is now June 3rd, and Belize announced their decision to NOT open to travel on the originally proposed July 1st date. Our plane tickets are for July 18th. We are still holding out hope. We are also resigned to the fact that we cannot change the world crisis, so we are trying our best to move forward in faith and confidence.

For my next entry, you will learn how to get dogs into another country. Along with 6 more suitcases and the 4 guitars your husband cannot live without!

The catalyst

So now you know that we spent 9 years planning, hoping, and dreaming of the day we would retire. We still thought that retirement meant: working hard first; paying off all bills; saving enough money; working until that golden early retirement age of 55.

You know what they say about the best laid plans?

One month after Rick’s 54th birthday, he almost died.

13 long nights spent in ICU

Click the link below to read Rick’s entire story. https://www.aortichope.org/new-blog/2020/4/17/survivor-story-of-richard-tkach?fbclid=IwAR1imbWzjQ860HInXb_TWorrkT7gcbei3QN-n-jCEI2KDg4dAwhH8UrpIRI

We do not advocate going to these extremes to achieve your dream! What we do want everyone reading to realize though, is that it’s how you bounce back after adversity that matters. We were fortunate that Rick’s aortic dissection did not leave enough serious and lasting damage that he could not enjoy his life. Rick is left with slight paralysis in his right arm, a huge scar, an inability to do heavy lifting, occasional brain fog, and is trying to build his endurance back daily. As of now, he can walk one mile with only 2 or 3 breaks. He will never have his normal and active life back, but he values the life he does have.

He woke up in the ICU on January 11th, 2020. The first week was very touch and go. By the end of March, we were consulting with his surgeon and cardiologist about a move to Belize. The medical team considered all his needs, we will be carefully assembling trusted medical professionals on the island, and will be traveling back to Chicago for all of his follow up appointments every year. Other than ensuring we would follow all protocol for an aortic dissection survivor, we were given the green light. The quote from the surgeon was “Go live your life.”

How it began

Everyone has a dream. If you are like most people, you may think that your dream must be postponed indefinitely until you complete the difficult tasks in life. After all, many people are conditioned to believe that life is hard. What if I told you it was all an illusion? Life is only as difficult as you make it.

Let us introduce ourselves: My name is Robin. I have been married to Rick for 33 years, and for many years we did what we needed to do. We got married, bought a house, raised two wonderful kids, watched them go to college and turn into wonderful adults, and worked and worked and worked. Don’t get me wrong, work is wonderful when it fulfills you and you can honestly say you would do your job with no pay at all. I was fortunate to be a 5th grade teacher, and I absolutely loved almost all of that job. Rick, on the other hand, was our main provider. He worked so hard for so many years, and we believe his health was compromised because of it. More on that later.

For years, we would watch those shows where happy couples are moving to exotic locations all around the world. Of course that could never be us. We were an average family making an average income and working hard. Life is supposed to be hard, after all. Those happy couples had something we didn’t, we were sure of it. While we could watch their stories and celebrate them, we could never hope to be them.

Ten years ago, we scrimped and saved and went on our first “fancy tropical vacation.” Prior to this, our big tropical event was Florida! We landed on St. Thomas and something clicked. While St. Thomas did not hold the appeal for full time living, we were hooked. We knew that one day we would find our fit. Once home, I began searching for other islands in the Caribbean to test out. We still never believed we could make an island our permanent home, but we set that intention and kept working toward that goal even when it felt like we were lying to ourselves. The next stop was intended to be Aruba. We still have not made it to Aruba. One day Rick came home with an article about this great place to visit and retire, with a huge American ex-pat population: Belize. “Where the heck is Belize?” We had to consult a map. It wasn’t long before we started planning a vacation there with our then 17 year old daughter and her friend. We rented a private condo on the outskirts of town, walked everywhere, bought food from vendors on the street and on the beach. We hopped in and out of boats that would shuttle us up and down the coast of this small island nestled just inside the reef. We went to the mainland and climbed on 2000 year old ruins. We found the Belizeans to be welcoming and kind. We found the island of Ambergris Caye to be “just right.”

Fast forward 9 years, and we are preparing for a permanent move to the island. It has been suggested to me a few times that I document the journey in a blog, so here it is. My ultimate goal is to inspire and entertain my reading audience. Ideally, you will reflect on what your dream is, and you will persevere in making it a reality.