Gary Hunt is in search of a musician (or two) with a yen for an extraordinary international working vacation.
It features towering palm trees on broad, sandy beaches; a charming and funky hotel in a small, end-of-the-road Central American fishing village; a town whose “Main Street” is an almost mile-long sidewalk dotted with one-story buildings painted in a panoply of pastels.
There’s an overriding humanitarian and environmental purpose: You’ll help deliver to impoverished, grateful students school supplies that otherwise would end up in Roanoke’s landfill. You’ll be treated to lunch at the home of a poet laureate.
When you arrive in Placencia, Belize, it will be lobster season. The crustaceans are featured at affordable prices on the menus at just about every restaurant.
Did I mention that there’s a swinging, beachfront bar that’s barely a 150-foot walk down the sand? Or that you’ll have the opportunity to swim in a beachside pool owned by Francis Ford Coppola? Or that half-gallons of quality rum sell for about $9 in the local grocery stores?
On top of all that, you’ll get to know Hunt, a young-at-heart senior citizen whose first pet was Adolf Hitler’s dog (that’s a long and odd story; more on that below).
If you’re interested, read on and I’ll tell you all about Bookbag Santa’s upcoming trip in July and August.
Hunt is the president and founder of that Roanoke-based nonprofit. It collects gently used school supplies discarded each spring by students at Roanoke Valley schools. Volunteers cull through that stuff at weeknight potluck work parties.
Then they pack it into 50-pound boxes and take those as luggage on a vacation to Belize, where the supplies are distributed to four or five different schools. Belize has a rudimentary public education system (it’s free through eighth grade; students pay to attend high school).
The government there gives each child one pencil and one notebook per school year.
My wife, Donna, and I went on this group vacation last summer and it was loads of fun. The ages of the travelers ranged from 18 to about 80. All of our volunteer work was the sorting and packaging we did here in Roanoke before we left. Everyone had a great time.
Usually, the group includes a musician or two for whom Hunt arranges gigs in Placencia restaurants. Right now, he lacks the musicians. (He also has unfilled slots for five or six other travelers).
At each gig, the musicians are paid with dinner plus a T-shirt, plus $50. That sum is more than enough to cover a one-night stay at the waterfront Seaspray Hotel, Bookbag Santa’s Placencia headquarters.
Woody and Marcia McKenzie of Salem were the musicians-in-residence last year. Woody McKenzie called Placencia “a tropical paradise,” and that’s not far off the mark.
“The whole trip was wonderful,” he told me Friday. “From the scuba diving to visiting Mayan ruins, I could miss all kinds of things about it.”
He and Marcia had the most fun during a group visit to an elementary school in Dangriga, Belize (which is about a 90-minute bus ride from Placencia). They played old-time Appalachian music while a few young students there beat out African poly-rhythms on large drums. Soon the entire class was dancing.
“The huge point for us is how we got to interact with people of other cultures,” McKenzie said.
Like every other Bookbag Santa traveler, the musicians on the trip pay their own airfare. That runs about $1,000 per person, roundtrip, including the hour-long flight from Belize City to Placencia in a 12-seat puddle jumper. It’s kind of like flying in a 15-passanger van that has wings.
But the musicians have a bit of a financial advantage, because they’re earning some money while they’re down there.
Economy rooms at the Seaspray Hotel start at around $20 per night, but I would recommend paying $45 or so for nicer beachfront digs that capture Placencia’s stiff and ever-present breeze.
The temperatures there average about 85 in the summer, though it tends to be much more humid than Roanoke. Most of the rooms at the Seaspray aren’t air conditioned. But you don’t need that in a room that catches the wind — I was skeptical about that, but it’s true.
Some travelers stay a week, others stay two. Because the major expense is airfare, the second week is a bargain.
“I have gigs set up for July 24, 25, 26 and 28, with Wednesday and Friday open and available. You play from 6-ish to about 7 or so. It won’t even be dark, when you’re done,” Hunt told me. “A second week is about $250, or free, if you do some gigs then, too.”
Of course, there’s no shortage of opportunities to spend more money on adventure day trips (which run $60 to $125, depending on the trip) or beer or souvenirs.
Now, about Hitler’s dog. This is a story Hunt told me one night last summer at Placencia’s Barefoot Beach Bar, where you can get an enormous lobster-and-grilled-cheese sandwich for $10 brought to your table in the sand.
Hunt’s father was career Army and fought in Europe in World War II. He was one of the soldiers who captured Hitler’s summer home in the German Alps outside Berchtesgaden, where the Nazi dictator long had vacationed.
Hitler was already dead by this point, and the Nazi guards at the home fled as Allied forces moved in, Hunt told me.
But, “there were trained guard dogs surrounding the house,” Hunt said, “and, of course, the soldiers shot them. But then inside the house, there were three or four pets who were scared and cowering behind furniture.
“The soldiers started to shoot those, too, but my dad took one aside and said, ‘Don’t shoot him; he’s mine.’ ”
Hunt’s dad brought the German Shepherd back to the base he ended up stationed at in postwar Germany. Hunt was born there in 1949.
“The dog’s name was Erich,” Hunt said. “But that was the name we gave him. We have no idea what Hitler called him.”
The Hunt family moved back to the U.S. in the mid-1950s, when Gary Hunt was 7. But it was without Erich, who by then was 9 or 10.
“We gave him to a neighbor,” Hunt told me.