MAVERICK LIFE: TRAVEL

Digital Nomad: Poker players of the Caribbean

By Caspar Greeff 13 February 2020

Image by Pixabay

Aiming to spend a year as a digital nomad in Central and South America, a Daily Maverick subeditor gets into the biggest game in town.

La vida loca baby. The crazy life.

Here on Caye Caulker, the little island off Belize where I’m living. (My intended stay of two days has stretched into three weeks. It’s hard to leave paradise.)

Wake up at 6.30. Have a smoke on the balcony and check out the tequila sunrise splotching the sky. There’s always a lone great white egret standing – Masai-like – on one leg in the sea. It hangs around the same spot all day, and I wonder what its story is.

Waiting for its long-lost mate? Scrounging fish from the nearby boats? Nothing better to do and nowhere better to go?

Whatever the story, I guess it lives with no egrets. (Ahem…)

Then I walk down to Beans and Ice and order a “large dark with milk”. Gaze at the Caribbean Sea, flick glances at the young women swaying in hammocks attached to palm trees, finish my cup of jolt and walk through the mangrove swamps to South Pointe at the far end of town.

Photo: Good Morning Caye Caulker, By Jennifer Stahn via Flickr

Turn around at the end of the dirt track and head back to Lena’s, the ramshackle clapboard turquoise structure that I call home.

By now it’s 9am and time to work. Subediting for Daily Maverick, which involves wrestling with issues of great import.

Is our style SONA or Sona? Should this “which” not be a “that”? Square brackets or curved? eSwatini or Eswatini? Subeditor or sub-editor?

Interestingly, the authorities are divided on the last question, with the Oxford Dictionary and Collins Dictionary favouring subeditor, and the Cambridge Dictionary sub-editor. The Guardian and Observer Style Guide has it as subeditor, and in the section under that heading notes:

WP Crozier said of CP Scott: “As a subeditor he got rid of the redundant and the turgid with the conscientiousness of a machine that presses the superfluous moisture out of yarn. The man who passed ‘seaward journey to the great metropolis’, and when the copy came back to him found written in firm blue pencil ‘voyage to London’, knew what sort of English ‘CP’ liked”.

At 3pm (11pm South African time) work’s over, and it’s time to head to the Barrier Reef Sports Bar for lunch and a beer. Or two. Happily, it’s Happy Hour (3pm-6pm) and a draught Belikin beer costs only four Belizean dollars – about R30.

There’s always a colourful crowd of regulars at the bar, many of them Canadian swallows who come here during the brutal northern winter. “It’s minus 30 degrees Celsius at home today,” they’ll gleefully tell you, beads of sweat rolling down their face and globules of condensation sliding down their beer glass.

There’s a couple of women knocking back tequila shots, they stagger or wend their wobbly way home on bicycles at four in the afternoon; there’s Mandingo, a giant dreadlocked man who wears knee-length striped socks, shorts and an Ancient Greek-looking helmet made of palm fronds. They say Mandingo is the village shaman, and for sure, he has the otherworldly look of a man who communes with the spirits. Or smokes heaps of ganja.

Boozers, losers, assholes, angels, rogues, renegades, seekers, speakers, thinkers, doers, jokers, smokers, wannabes and has-beens… everyone here has a story, they’re all interesting for at least five minutes. Some for a lot longer than that, and I’ve made a couple of friends at this bar.

One of them, former Rifleman Gary Rifle of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, introduced me to the poker game that’s played here. It’s Texas Hold-’Em, tournament-style, with a 50 Belizean dollar buy-in. Tournament-style means that the blinds – the compulsory bets posted by the two players to the left of the dealer – go up every half hour, so that if you haven’t amassed a sizeable stack of chips midway through the game, you can no longer afford to play and have to take outrageous risks in a last-ditch bid to remain.

A lot like life, come to think of it.

Unlike life though, in poker you are expected to dissemble, to misrepresent, to beguile, bamboozle and deceive, to hoodwink, dupe, delude, mislead and entrap. In other words, you gotta get real.

However, it’s also expected that you win graciously and lose gracefully. There’s no place at the table for blowhards and sulkers, but you can get away with a short-lived grin of triumph or a brief moment of petulance. If you really must.

The players at the game on Caye Caulker are a mixture of Canadians, Americans, and locals: Tommy, who deals in real estate and is one of the island’s renowned musicians, singing his heart and lungs out at jam sessions and Karaoke Evening. Angie, his wife, blonde and buxom. Chris with the corkscrew curls and impish sense of humour. Dirty, a loud American, who seems to bluster his way through the game and then traps you with a move straight out of David Slansky’s Hold ’Em Poker for Advanced Players .

The locals, most of them young and lean: Baby, Daniel, Major, Norman. Then there’s Harry, an old guy who plays an unorthodox but strangely effective game that seems to rely on intuition and precognition. The young men call him Mr Harold.

We play upstairs at Tappers Sports Bar… there’s a wall camera focused on the table, and they can watch us in the bar downstairs. When one of us wants a fresh drink he waves his glass or bottle at the camera, and pretty soon a fresh libation arrives… a bottle of Belikin beer with a slice of lemon squeezed in its neck, rum punch, Cuba Libre, mojito, whatever…

Someone once said, “The man who invented poker was smart, but whoever invented chips was a genius.” He was right. Our chips are weapons that conduct exploratory feints, instruments of war that frighten and pulverise; they are questions that demand answers; swaggering braggarts that kick sand in your face.

And the story with chips is, you gotta speculate to accumulate. You don’t play, you can’t win.

The game itself, as the late, great Norman Best – an old warrior and former diplomat I played poker with back in Cape Town – once said, “is a microcosm of the macrocosm”. He meant that it mirrors life, with its highs and lows, its waves of fortune and ill-fortune, the feelings of joy and despair that it engenders.

They play poker just about every day and most nights on Caye Caulker, and soon the days took on a well-defined shape. Sunrise, coffee, walk, work, lunch, beer(s), swim, nap, poker.

At some stage, I realised that I was down a few hundred dollars in the game, and that it was time to leave paradise.

Former Rifleman Gary Rifle hired a 4×4, and we headed for San Ignacio, a little town in the jungle. It’s famed for its weekly farmers’ market and as the gateway to a number of natural attractions.

Next morning we drove for a couple of hours along jungle dirt roads and headed for the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Where the film director Francis Ford Coppola has an upmarket lodge, and we stopped there for a couple of beers.

The place was reminiscent of a movie set, and we could have been actors in a Coppola film, but, alas, not the leading men. Perhaps two renegades, battle-crazed and war-weary, styling it up in some south-east Asian jungle lodged appropriated from a heroin-addled Frenchman. Or a couple of old Mafia consiglieres hiding from the young capos who wanted to make us swim with the fishes….

Then we headed for Rio On, a place of little waterfalls and beautiful river pools. There were many young women there, basking in their bathing costumes, laughing, flicking their long hair, sirens if ever there were.

I knew they were sirens when they called me, their beautiful voices floating on the wind like wisps of smoke:

“Sugar Daddy… Sugar Daddy… Sugar Daddy,” they said.

I gave a wry grin, and advanced no further. I knew from reading the Odyssey and watching the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? what would happen if I did:

“Them si-reens will kill you, boy.” ML

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