On January 6th I flew into Cancun, as one does because it’s one of the cheaper airports to reach typically (See Also: Liberia Costa Rica, and Mexico City). I then immediately got the hell out of Cancun, as one does because eff that place, and went to Tulum. This is a road commonly travelled by myself and many others. A major vein on the Gringo Trail.
The last time I was in Tulum was 7 years ago and I have now reached that old age point where I can tell you how its not like it used to be! In 2016 I got off the bus at dusk to meet a lady (See “Fancy Island” on the Picante Album). The main drag was gravel, and there was one restaurant still open that late at night. My gal was the only other person on the street. Flash forward to ’23 and Dios Mio! 4 lanes, all paved, constant traffic, and a nightlife that never ends. I realized then and there, that it’s neat to return to places (not just see new ones). As you change, everything around you changes as well. So I spent 2 nights and then got the hell out. The Yucatan Peninsula is thriving, they didn’t need my business!
From there it was direct to Belize, on the topic of revisiting places. Since I was last there (2018) so much has happened. I basically founded my music career, survived covid, and learned from afar that my beloved 2nd home called Punta Gorda Belize lost a solid community member, a mentor, a living legend. Oscar Burke. What I didn’t know yet was just how tragic it was.
So I caught the bus down to Chetumal, crossed the border by foot into Belize and began to hitchhike. Back in a land that I know so well It felt like a homecoming, as I walked down the 2 lane highway with my 80lb bag and guitar (I packed way too much, I’m honestly disappointed in myself. Take note, a backpack will do! You don’t need all that stuff you think you do. But never forget the cowboy boots and the speedo [I forgot the speedo]).
Coincidentally the first ride to accept my hitchhiking request was the bus. The chicken Bus. In Belize they’ll pull over for anybody anywhere any time unless they’re full (or chartered). And for $10USD they took me all the way to Belize City. Only problem was all the other connecting busses out of Belize City were finished by the time I arrived.
Now let me tell you, I have rolled into Guatemala City at 2am, witnessed a hobo orgy, and found somebody who could get me a hotel. I have drunkenly stumbled from jungle town to jungle town in the middle of Honduras looking for cigarettes, and taking rides from anybody in the dark of night. Maybe It was because It had been 5 years since my last real Central American Romp, but as I landed in Belize City at night, with no connections, and no one along for the ride, I was a little uneasy.
Of all the years I’ve been coming here, I’ve been to Belize City many times but rarely for pleasure. More of a hub. Good Shopping. Access to the Caye’s. Other than that, it’s a Dangerous little town… There was one time I was there, watching over a friends airbnb. That was back when I had a motorbike. It was New Years Eve 2016. Me and a gal (see Mexico City, Picante Album) decided to ride the bike through the streets of BZE City at night… and in a nut shell, we were basically chased out of neighborhoods. Like rabid Barking Dogs, if they could have got their hands on us it would have been game over. That’s Belize City. Bring a motorbike.
So there I was. The bus rolled in. The station was closed. Everyone else on the bus dispersed immediately, and I stood there not entirely sure what to do. An Older woman walked up and stared at me. Didn’t say nothing. She was barefoot. She walked over to the other side of me, never stopped staring. I smoked a cigarette.
“Do you know where I might find a taxi?” I asked the staring woman.
She nodded but said nothing..
“Ok thank you”
Needless to say everything worked out fine. I walked in gratefully the right direction. Asked a group of thugs where a taxi was, to which they directed me, and then was immediately met by a police officer who noticed me interacting with thugs. Just to make sure I was ok. We’re well taken care of down here we gringos (See: Hitchhiking in El Salvador).
I got a ride to what I was told was the oldest guest house in Belize City. (But only 40 odd years old, must have something to do with that hurricane in the 60’s that reformed the country). It was nice, full of locals renting by the month. I hung out with a dude who was trying to get his life back in order. He worked as the Chef and got me my weed. He let me touch the bullet that was still lodged in his arm. He was a convicted Murderer. I wish I could remember his name.
Next day I hitchhiked & Bussed further south on my way to PG. Made it as far as Placensia. The beautiful Caribbean beach town with the uncomfortable sounding name. I stayed at Pandora’s. (Anda di Haws [Under the House]). I’ve known Pandora for 7 years now and it was a real treat to see her again. She runs the best hostel in Belize hands down. Possibly the best in Central America. And she smokes as much as I do.
The next day I finally made it to Punta Gorda.
I walked from the bus stop up the old familiar front street. Everything looked more or less the same but I knew the hub of front street was not to be the case.
“You lookin’ for Burke?”
A guy always riding his bike, recognized me from 7-5 years ago. Don’t remember his name either.
“I’m lookin’ for wherever they put him”
“He’s in the cemetery by the hospital”
We both carried on in opposite direction.
“All those guys are gone, man” He said almost amusedly. Like a mild hysteria.
That was not what I had hoped to hear. I rounded the corner into the hub of front street and Alas, everything had changed. The porch of the Central Club where so much music was made on so many nights now sat empty. The bar was still there, but it no longer spilled into the street. There was a door, and inside it was empty.
Amaya’s Inn which affectionately had been referred to as “back stage” was repainted, and remodelled for long term residency. The spot where Oscar’s chair sat with a little opening between buildings for a view of the sea was just a concrete slab now. As I caught up with friends I came to learn more about Oscar’s passing. More devastating than I had imagined. It was a hard fought battle against an establishment set out to kill the human spirit. Yessir! Oscar did not die of Covid. But Covid did kill Oscar.
Back in January ’21, Peak Covid. Post first wave, Pre Vax mandates, right around the time they were threatening to put travellers in Covid camps at their own expense upon return, I tried to get to Belize.
Now I’ll tip my cap to Mexico again. Playa Zipolite was a beautiful place to exist for a month, where social distancing didn’t exist, and the whole covid thing was just irrelevant. I was trying to get to Belize, but they had different protocol. Quarantine! Multiple tests! GOLD STANDARD HOTELS! There was no reasonable way to enter Belize except through the back roads (Which I knew of, but were still 2 countries away). I never did make it to Belize on that trip. Had I known my pal Oscar Burke was struggling so much with it all I maybe would have tried a little harder.
You see Oscar ran the Central Club on front Street. A bar that had live music as much as humanly possible. I used to stay at Amaya’s Inn next door, and by 10am every morning I could hear the band “Mincho Vibes” getting the live music started. It was all Oscar. Even when there was no party at all, there was Oscar alone with his guitar. And from there, it almost always grew into something greater. But it all started with Oscar.
I owe my entire music career so far to Mr. Burke, who taught because he wanted to teach, and he listened, and he jammed. Oscar Burke lived for the music and taught me how to do the same. He had an illustrious career as a Punta Session Musician and travelled across the Caribbean playing music throughout his time. And He loved Bob Marley. And his wife. And his granddaughter. People would naturally gravitate to the Central Club on Front street because Oscar was there, and I was no exception.
So as I caught up with the friends who remained in Punta Gorda. I heard the tragic Covid Tale of Oscar. In a nutshell, he drank himself to death, because he was denied community, and depressed from it. Friends tell me, as soon as the public gathering restrictions came in, Oscar continued to have jam nights. He blocked everything off from public. It was inside his bar. He would occasionally get caught by the police. (By the sounds of it Belize was a particularly strict place to be during covid). He would get caught, and then fined. But technically his wife Myra owned the bar, and would be left with the bill. After multiple occasions of this happening, Oscar having Jam parties and getting fined, he had to move out of the bar/home because he refused to stop having community, and therefore kept getting fined. He moved in to Rosewood Studio. It was his dream to see this studio of his come to completion, and he wasn’t far off until he converted it into his living space. Just across front street on his mothers hotel property.
It was there that Oscar drank himself into a stupor. With his loving wife Myra making sure he was fed, Oscar just sunk lower and lower into the bottle. This is a guy who had live music and community most every single night in his life, and he was stripped of it all.
As I talked to my dearest Belizean pal Allen, he said Oscar was teaching him guitar. And three days before his passing, Oscar was at Allens house, teaching him new chords. This was a beautiful thing to hear as through the years of knowing both of them they’ve had their butting-head moments no doubt. But both Rasta’s. Both spiritually enlightened and searching for the greater good. I knew they’d come around.
I’m not sure if Oscar died in Rosewood Studio, or in the Hospital, but I did hear that he was scheduled to play his first gig since before covid on the day that he died. The poor bastard almost made it.
I stayed at Oscar’s mom’s place for three nights. Oscar used to let me stay there for free. I was on the very steps of which he spent his final days. And I bawled uncontrollably. Stupidly enough I thought he’d live forever. I was pretty sure the dude was immortal and that I’d still have more time with him. We were supposed to make a record together at Rosewood Studio, God Damnit.
And there’s no real happy ending yet. Other than to think that he’s looking down on me and knows how much I miss him. But Front street was effected drastically. Along with Oscar, another Glue-guy of the street, Braddock, also passed. He had a large old time building next door that was essentially a homeless shelter, and seemingly where all the cool old local guys hung out. Oscar frequented there often, as did I. Braddock died and by the time I got back to PG his building was demolished.
An entire Era, wiped out by Covid. Now that part of front street operates just like any other street in Belize. Business as usual. The spark is gone, and I pray for an uplifting momentum shift because baby, Punta Gorda had it all.
I was unable to see Oscars wife Myra while I was there, though I so desperately wanted to give her a hug. She was visiting family in El Salvador. She always spoke Spanish to me. She always spoke Spanish period.
I used to sit quietly and listen to Oscar and Myra communicate. She spoke Spanish, he spoke Kriol, but they both understood what each other said, and there was a lot of “baby” in there. It was so beautiful.
To this day I still shed tears over the passing of Oscar. And I’m currently quite drunk and crying. I dunno. Was this a sufficient epilogue for such a man?
I’m not much for endings of posts, but the next one should be a bit happier. I went back to Pandora’s. Spent a good week there which I had always wanted to do. Linked up with an MMA Fighter and a gorgeous American gal and took off to Honduras. Currently in south Nicaragua!
But that’ll conclude this’un. Rest Easy Oscar. Gone way too fuckin soon.