"Watch out for snakes!"

Elderly Ex-Pats Call Belizean Jungle Home

  GALES POINT, Belize – On the day after his 72nd birthday - April 12 – Bruce Minnick waded bare-bottomed into chilly Quamina Creek. We had just trekked several miles over rugged terrain, deep into the jungle in eastern Belize, to visit his longtime friend, Dorthea Shaw, who was living on his property.

  The water made for good drinking and was clear enough to observe

schools of minnow-like fish called billum nibbling at his lean, weathered body. The billum were a minor nuisance to Bruce. After all, he'd been bathing in the Quamina for 20 years, ever since a messy divorce brought him to this tiny Central American nation from his home in Gulfport, Miss.

  "As a boy I had always wanted to live in the bush," said Bruce, as he worked up a lather with his bar soap. "When I moved here, I decided

to see if I was man enough to make a living under primitive conditions. "

  A friend told him about Belize, then known as British Honduras. It was English-speaking. It had jungle. And it was only a two-hour flight from home.

  “In case my wife wanted me back," Bruce said.

  His wife never called. In Gulfport, Bruce an Amherst College and Columbia Law School graduate — had been a successful insurance agent.  In Belize, he has achieved notoriety of another sort — a keen ability to thrive in the jungle. Villagers hereabouts refer to Minnick as "that white man in the bush."

  It had been that description that led me to Bruce that morning.

I traveled to Belize the previous week for five days of scuba diving and spearfishing on a remote eastern atoll, Glover’s Reef. Afterwards, I decided to see if I could find my way to Livingston, Guatemala, which initially required me hitchhiking southward on a couple of supply boats on the Northern and then Southern Lagoon. On the second boat a local mentioned he heard there was an American living in the jungle near Gales Point, the boat’s destination.

  In a fishing and farming village of several hundred residents, it didn’t take long to find Bruce.

  After a quick hello – he was shocked by my sudden appearance – he said that although he had a home in the village he owned property in the jungle where his friend, Dorthea, lived.

  “You want to tag along?” Bruce asked. “I think she’ll enjoy meeting you.”

New Age Tarzan and Jane

  He finished his bath and clambered up the creek bank. Dorthea was there holding a thirst-quenching juice, made from limes, she had scrounged off the ground,

  "You forgot the coffee," she said.

  "Sorry," Bruce said.

  They sat on a pair of mahogany chests in the open-sided, thatched-roof hut Bruce built many years before. Several hundred yards away was another shelter. In it was a hammock — which Minnick also made— several hundred musty books and a seven-band short wave radio , all belonging to Dorthea.

  She was weary. The previous day she sprained her knee while searching for one of her nine cats. Other irritating ailments persist. Her left shoulder slumps from an untreated injury suffered several years earlier. She has a chronic cough — she's a heavy smoker - and failing eyesight: She just replaced the glasses she broke 17 years earlier. Dorthea was 73, only one year older than Bruce, but it was clear her best years were behind.

  As they rested and we grew comfortable with one another, it was time for me to ask Dorthea the obvious question: How in the world did you end up here? She was happy to oblige:

  Born in England, she was raised in Belize, where her father served

as a minister in the Anglican church. The Shaws returned to England when Dorthea was a teenager, but she was never happy there and

left for Belize at 28. A failed engagement sent her to Toronto a

short time later. She remained 24 years.

  Although she had a good job with the Canadian Education Association, city living never suited Dorthea. In 1968, she briefly returned to Belize on a sabbatical to research a historical novel. A chance meeting

with Bruce led to a two-year correspondence. Finally, when he told her he was buying some land in the bush Dorthea quickly replied, "Count me in."

  At the time, Bruce was teaching high school math in Belize City. A colleague told him about an eccentric American named Dick Jacobs who owned 17,000 acres of bush and farm land about 50 miles south. Bruce, an outgoing, confident man, introduced himself.

  "I told him I would offer my services as a lawyer if he would sell

me some of his land," he said.

  Jacobs consented. Bruce selected 17 acres, bisected by the

creek in which he just finished bathing. He paid $500.

Establishing a base

  The lime drink finished, Dorthea fished a bottle of rum out

of one of the trunks and poured a couple of hefty shots for her and Bruce. These were the same trunks Bruce built to haul his belongings down river to Gales Point in the fall of 1970. It was there that he established his base. He built a cabin of pine and palmetto — mostly to store supplies — and began working on his property. Dorthea arrived in January 1971.

  Neither of them had much money. After Bruce built the shelters, they cleared some of the bush and planted pumpkin, corn, beans, rad-

ishes and sweet potatoes. They also bought chickens, intending to sell

their eggs. Bruce worked as a tutor to earn extra cash. Dorthea

chipped in with her monthly pension.

  Everything went fine until the day in 1972 when Dorthea hiked to Gales Point with one of her dogs.  A villager pitched a stone at the mutt. When Dorthea scolded him, the villager thwacked her on the rear with a coconut broom, sending her back to the bush in a huff. Rarely has she returned.

  "Getting her to come down is damn near impossible," Bruce told me during our walk up from the village.

  Initially, Bruce thought Dorthea would spend most of her time in the village and he in the bush. But after thieves broke into the Gales Point cabin on several occasions, Bruce decided to live there. Twice weekly he hauls supplies up to Dorthea and returns to the village the following day.

Life in the bush

  As the afternoon light dwindled, the jungle came alive. So did Dorthea. Noisy herons darted about, and woodpeckers began their early

evening shift. Hawks glided above while kingfishers dive-bombed into

the creek, seeking dinner.

  "This is why I'm here," Dorthea said, lifting her arms upward as if to bless her surroundings. "Sometimes I'll just sit for hours and watch."

  Barely five feet tall, she wore a soot-covered black skirt and

a tattered plaid blouse. She was shoeless. It appeared it had been

some time since she'd bathed in the Quamina. Despite her age, her auburn hair had yet to turn grey. She talked of observing mountain cows and armadillos, scores of species of migratory birds, and even the occasional jaguar.

  As one might expect, there have been moments of peril. Dorthea’s eyes sparkled as she told of the time an 8-foot Tommy Goff - a lethal snake -

snatched one of her chickens.

  "I bashed him with tree limb," she said, proudly.

  More consistently taxing are the mosquitos and midges (no-see-ums)

that seem unfazed by even the most potent bug spray, and the chilling

winter rains that confine her to her hammock for days.

  "It's horrible," she said, her British accent still prominent, "You

simply get accustomed to being wet."

  Fortunately, Dorthea has her books — astrology is her favorite subject — and her radio, which keeps her current. Other than Bruce, she rarely has guests. The locals think she's a kook, she admitted, but she doesn't much care what anyone thinks.

  Dorthea does care that her isolated world is quickly changing. A

Grand Rapids, Mich., company, White Ridge Farms, bought Dick

Jacobs' land several years ago and much of the jungle surrounding Bruce’s property has been cleared for citrus and produce crops. The result has been diminished wildlife and vegetation.

  "The bill-birds and hummingbirds are mostly gone,” Dorthea said, “and the bird migration is not nearly so rich. We used to have papaya but it, too, is gone."

  Also missing are the garden and her beloved chickens. Her advancing age and diminished strength have reduced the stamina she needs to tackle such chores.

  Bruce told Dorthea he'd like to get home before dark. Fine, she

said. Then as direct as only old friends could be: “Don't forget the coffee next time. "

  Dorthea walked with us to the first clearing, waved good-bye and quickly disappeared into the bush.

Future plans

  The long hike back to Gales Point would have tired most people his age, but not Bruce. He promptly went to work making supper for us in his new cabin, which he built last year. It measures 15 by 20 feet.

  Bruce is as fastidious as Dorthea is not. His pots and pans hang

from a cord in a regimented order, as do his tools. Even the piles of

spare parts and other junk — "you never throw away anything here" —

are neatly stacked in a corner of the cabin.

  Bruce is industrious, as well. In addition to the cabin and the jungle dwellings, he has built two boats, and makes many of his own tools and clothing. Currently, he's building a 50-gallon, mahogany water vat that will save him $700, though money is not the concern it once was. His problem vanished 10 years ago, when he began collecting Social Security. "$430 a month goes a long way in these parts," he said.

  Bruce has a son and a daughter living in Massachusetts. His son,

who spent time with Bruce in Belize while in his teens, has asked his father to move to Massachusetts, an idea Bruce has considered.

  "Sometimes I think I ought to just pack my toothbrush and go," he

said, noting that his 50th class reunion is at Amherst next year.

But just as quickly his thoughts turn to Dorthea.

  "You know," he said, "we've had our share of arguments. But when I first moved up here and I didn’t have any money, she really helped me out. Now she depends almost totally on me. If I left, she’d never make it.”

  As it is, Bruce has one great fear: "I'm always worried when go up into the bush that I'll find silence."

Editor’s note: This story was reported in April, 1989. A version of this article appeared in The Anniston [Ala.] Star on Oct. 6, 1991.

-PHOTO-

  GALES POINT, Belize – On the day after his 72nd birthday - April 12 – Bruce Minnick waded bare-bottomed into chilly Quamina Creek. We had just trekked several miles over rugged terrain, deep into the jungle in eastern Belize, to visit his longtime friend, Dorthea Shaw, who was living on his property.

  The water made for good drinking and was clear enough to observe

schools of minnow-like fish called billum nibbling at his lean, weathered body. The billum were a minor nuisance to Bruce. After all, he'd been bathing in the Quamina for 20 years, ever since a messy divorce brought him to this tiny Central American nation from his home in Gulfport, Miss.

  "As a boy I had always wanted to live in the bush," said Bruce, as he worked up a lather with his bar soap. "When I moved here, I decided

to see if I was man enough to make a living under primitive conditions. "

  A friend told him about Belize, then known as British Honduras. It was English-speaking. It had jungle. And it was only a two-hour flight from home.

  “In case my wife wanted me back," Bruce said.

  His wife never called. In Gulfport, Bruce an Amherst College and Columbia Law School graduate — had been a successful insurance agent.  In Belize, he has achieved notoriety of another sort — a keen ability to thrive in the jungle. Villagers hereabouts refer to Minnick as "that white man in the bush."

  It had been that description that led me to Bruce that morning.

I traveled to Belize the previous week for five days of scuba diving and spearfishing on a remote eastern atoll, Glover’s Reef. Afterwards, I decided to see if I could find my way to Livingston, Guatemala, which initially required me hitchhiking southward on a couple of supply boats on the Northern and then Southern Lagoon. On the second boat a local mentioned he heard there was an American living in the jungle near Gales Point, the boat’s destination.

  In a fishing and farming village of several hundred residents, it didn’t take long to find Bruce.

  After a quick hello – he was shocked by my sudden appearance – he said that although he had a home in the village he owned property in the jungle where his friend, Dorthea, lived.

  “You want to tag along?” Bruce asked. “I think she’ll enjoy meeting you.”

New Age Tarzan and Jane

  He finished his bath and clambered up the creek bank. Dorthea was there holding a thirst-quenching juice, made from limes, she had scrounged off the ground,

  "You forgot the coffee," she said.

  "Sorry," Bruce said.

  They sat on a pair of mahogany chests in the open-sided, thatched-roof hut Bruce built many years before. Several hundred yards away was another shelter. In it was a hammock — which Minnick also made— several hundred musty books and a seven-band short wave radio , all belonging to Dorthea.

  She was weary. The previous day she sprained her knee while searching for one of her nine cats. Other irritating ailments persist. Her left shoulder slumps from an untreated injury suffered several years earlier. She has a chronic cough — she's a heavy smoker - and failing eyesight: She just replaced the glasses she broke 17 years earlier. Dorthea was 73, only one year older than Bruce, but it was clear her best years were behind.

  As they rested and we grew comfortable with one another, it was time for me to ask Dorthea the obvious question: How in the world did you end up here? She was happy to oblige:

  Born in England, she was raised in Belize, where her father served

as a minister in the Anglican church. The Shaws returned to England when Dorthea was a teenager, but she was never happy there and

left for Belize at 28. A failed engagement sent her to Toronto a

short time later. She remained 24 years.

  Although she had a good job with the Canadian Education Association, city living never suited Dorthea. In 1968, she briefly returned to Belize on a sabbatical to research a historical novel. A chance meeting

with Bruce led to a two-year correspondence. Finally, when he told her he was buying some land in the bush Dorthea quickly replied, "Count me in."

  At the time, Bruce was teaching high school math in Belize City. A colleague told him about an eccentric American named Dick Jacobs who owned 17,000 acres of bush and farm land about 50 miles south. Bruce, an outgoing, confident man, introduced himself.

  "I told him I would offer my services as a lawyer if he would sell

me some of his land," he said.

  Jacobs consented. Bruce selected 17 acres, bisected by the

creek in which he just finished bathing. He paid $500.

Establishing a base

  The lime drink finished, Dorthea fished a bottle of rum out

of one of the trunks and poured a couple of hefty shots for her and Bruce. These were the same trunks Bruce built to haul his belongings down river to Gales Point in the fall of 1970. It was there that he established his base. He built a cabin of pine and palmetto — mostly to store supplies — and began working on his property. Dorthea arrived in January 1971.

  Neither of them had much money. After Bruce built the shelters, they cleared some of the bush and planted pumpkin, corn, beans, rad-

ishes and sweet potatoes. They also bought chickens, intending to sell

their eggs. Bruce worked as a tutor to earn extra cash. Dorthea

chipped in with her monthly pension.

  Everything went fine until the day in 1972 when Dorthea hiked to Gales Point with one of her dogs.  A villager pitched a stone at the mutt. When Dorthea scolded him, the villager thwacked her on the rear with a coconut broom, sending her back to the bush in a huff. Rarely has she returned.

  "Getting her to come down is damn near impossible," Bruce told me during our walk up from the village.

  Initially, Bruce thought Dorthea would spend most of her time in the village and he in the bush. But after thieves broke into the Gales Point cabin on several occasions, Bruce decided to live there. Twice weekly he hauls supplies up to Dorthea and returns to the village the following day.

Life in the bush

  As the afternoon light dwindled, the jungle came alive. So did Dorthea. Noisy herons darted about, and woodpeckers began their early

evening shift. Hawks glided above while kingfishers dive-bombed into

the creek, seeking dinner.

  "This is why I'm here," Dorthea said, lifting her arms upward as if to bless her surroundings. "Sometimes I'll just sit for hours and watch."

  Barely five feet tall, she wore a soot-covered black skirt and

a tattered plaid blouse. She was shoeless. It appeared it had been

some time since she'd bathed in the Quamina. Despite her age, her auburn hair had yet to turn grey. She talked of observing mountain cows and armadillos, scores of species of migratory birds, and even the occasional jaguar.

  As one might expect, there have been moments of peril. Dorthea’s eyes sparkled as she told of the time an 8-foot Tommy Goff - a lethal snake -

snatched one of her chickens.

  "I bashed him with tree limb," she said, proudly.

  More consistently taxing are the mosquitos and midges (no-see-ums)

that seem unfazed by even the most potent bug spray, and the chilling

winter rains that confine her to her hammock for days.

  "It's horrible," she said, her British accent still prominent, "You

simply get accustomed to being wet."

  Fortunately, Dorthea has her books — astrology is her favorite subject — and her radio, which keeps her current. Other than Bruce, she rarely has guests. The locals think she's a kook, she admitted, but she doesn't much care what anyone thinks.

  Dorthea does care that her isolated world is quickly changing. A

Grand Rapids, Mich., company, White Ridge Farms, bought Dick

Jacobs' land several years ago and much of the jungle surrounding Bruce’s property has been cleared for citrus and produce crops. The result has been diminished wildlife and vegetation.

  "The bill-birds and hummingbirds are mostly gone,” Dorthea said, “and the bird migration is not nearly so rich. We used to have papaya but it, too, is gone."

  Also missing are the garden and her beloved chickens. Her advancing age and diminished strength have reduced the stamina she needs to tackle such chores.

  Bruce told Dorthea he'd like to get home before dark. Fine, she

said. Then as direct as only old friends could be: “Don't forget the coffee next time. "

  Dorthea walked with us to the first clearing, waved good-bye and quickly disappeared into the bush.

Future plans

  The long hike back to Gales Point would have tired most people his age, but not Bruce. He promptly went to work making supper for us in his new cabin, which he built last year. It measures 15 by 20 feet.

  Bruce is as fastidious as Dorthea is not. His pots and pans hang

from a cord in a regimented order, as do his tools. Even the piles of

spare parts and other junk — "you never throw away anything here" —

are neatly stacked in a corner of the cabin.

  Bruce is industrious, as well. In addition to the cabin and the jungle dwellings, he has built two boats, and makes many of his own tools and clothing. Currently, he's building a 50-gallon, mahogany water vat that will save him $700, though money is not the concern it once was. His problem vanished 10 years ago, when he began collecting Social Security. "$430 a month goes a long way in these parts," he said.

  Bruce has a son and a daughter living in Massachusetts. His son,

who spent time with Bruce in Belize while in his teens, has asked his father to move to Massachusetts, an idea Bruce has considered.

  "Sometimes I think I ought to just pack my toothbrush and go," he

said, noting that his 50th class reunion is at Amherst next year.

But just as quickly his thoughts turn to Dorthea.

  "You know," he said, "we've had our share of arguments. But when I first moved up here and I didn’t have any money, she really helped me out. Now she depends almost totally on me. If I left, she’d never make it.”

  As it is, Bruce has one great fear: "I'm always worried when go up into the bush that I'll find silence."

Editor’s note: This story was reported in April, 1989. A version of this article appeared in The Anniston [Ala.] Star on Oct. 6, 1991.

Cover Photo
Cover Photo

Bruce Minnick, circa 1930s

  Postscript: Bruce Minnick died July 26, 1999. He was 82. That news came from the Alumni office at Amherst College.

  Everything else was a mystery.

  Eventually, I found the obituary for his brother, John Minnick, who died in Houston in 2012 at 99. That led me to Lindy Minnick of Hemet, Calif., Bruce’s niece and the family historian. She shared some information and then connected me with Bruce’s son, Guy Minnick of Winthrop, Mass.

  Here’s what I learned:

  Bruce was good on his word: He did not leave Belize for any length of time while Dorthea was alive.

  She died sometime between my visit in 1989 and the following year, when he returned to Amherst for his 50th class reunion, as he said he might.

  In a letter Bruce wrote to his son Guy, he said Dorthea drowned. Guy doesn’t recall the specifics – the letter is buried in a box with scores of others - but speculated the same Quamina Creek in which Bruce bathed flooded Dorthea’s jungle home. [Deadly floods are common in Belize during tropical storms.]

  When Bruce left Gulfport for Belize in 1969 after his divorce, Guy chose to join him rather than stay with his mother, Adele, and sister, Molly. He was 11 at the time. [Molly was born with a heart defect and was a special needs child. She currently lives in Brookline, Mass., according to Guy.]

  “My father and I always had a rapport, and the adventure appealed to me,” Guy said.

  After two years living in Belize City, Guy was ready to return home, but not before helping his father build the initial structures on the bush property he bought around 1971.

  “Jungle insects destroyed them,” Guy recalled his father telling him.

  After attending his college reunion, Bruce returned to the U.S. the same year, 1990, for his nephew Don Minnick’s wedding in Fredericksburg, Va.

  Bruce didn’t stay long after the wedding, according to Lindy Minnick, his niece, who recalled that Bruce wore a self-made khaki outfit to the affair.

  “He said he didn’t want to embarrass anyone,” she said.

  In 1993, Bruce’s brother, John – Lindy and Don Minnick’s father - traveled to Belize to visit Bruce.

  One day the brothers took the Molly Luv II – the second of two sailboats Bruce built – out on the Southern Lagoon surrounding Gales Point, a peninsula village.  Late in the afternoon, as Bruce was maneuvering the boat to a new heading, an unexpected puff of wind hit the sail, capsizing the boat. Into the lagoon went Bruce, 76, and his 79-year-old brother. Neither were wearing life vests.

  However, both men grew up on the water and were excellent swimmers. John was a decorated World War II combat veteran. Bruce, an Army Signal Corps war veteran who spent time in Greenland, had honed his survival skills during his years in the bush.

  It took the brothers 17 hours, during which they never stopped moving their legs, to find their way to safety. They were thirsty and hungry but unscathed.

  No one who knew them and heard the story was surprised the Minnick brothers survived what would have killed most men their age.

  Bruce followed John back to Fredericksburg. The brothers lived together for around a year.

  Lindy Minnick said the experiment ended poorly.

  “It was a total disaster,” she said. “They didn’t get along as kids. I don’t know why they would as adults.”

  Most likely, 25 years of living independently in the bush made it difficult for Bruce to tolerate city living and shared decision-making.

  Bruce returned to Belize sometime in 1993 or 1994; he never saw any of his family again.

  As Bruce approached 80, sometime in the late 90s, he left Gales Point and moved south to a village in the Sand Creek District, according to Guy. There he moved in with a local woman, whose name is not known.   One day, in July, 1999, while out walking, Bruce was mugged by unknown assailants. He was transported to a hospital in Belize City where he died on July 26.

  What happened afterwards is unclear.

  Guy said he received a phone call from a former classmate in Belize City who had become a physician. He told him what happened to his father. Some time had passed and Guy was unable to travel to Belize.

  “My memory is vague,” he said, “but I think the family that he was living with in Stann Creek may have brought him back there for burial.”

  Reflecting on his father’s unique life, Guy, now 65, said: “He could have stayed in Belize City. He liked teaching. But once he decided he was going to be that white man in the bush, well, he had a strong sense of commitment and he was going to be that person.”

  The other, lesser known of Bruce’s talents was his writing ability. Guy had his box of letters. Lindy Minnick has two notebooks filled with her Uncle Bruce’s letters to his brother, John - her father.

  Said Guy: “He wanted to be a tropical Thoreau. He really wanted to work on changing social systems and penal codes.”

  Added Lindy, who is considering writing a memoir on Bruce: “He wrote about family, politics, the environment, relationships and much more.”

  Until this week, she had never heard any facts about her uncle’s death.

  “It was a very sad ending to an amazing life,” she said.