Although it’s been nearly two decades since she left the jungle, Belize is still very much with Nancy Koerner. Inside her Golden Gate home, the walls and tables are loaded with reminders, particularly meaningful trinkets as well as the skull of at least one animal.
Hanging a few inches below her neck: a tooth from a jaguar. She’s very cryptic about how she came to possess the tooth.
“You’ll just have to read the book,” she says, referencing her recently self-published autobiographical novel, “Belize Survivor: The Darker Side of Paradise.”
She wrote it because of something else she brought back from Belize, the black memory of domestic violence.
When she got back to the United States in 1989, penniless and without her two children, she started writing about the journey that led her from her Ohio birthplace to the Florida Keys, to California, and eventually on the adventure that would shape and scar the rest of her life.
Writing was cathartic. But when she came back to the manuscript in the past year, it brought back the horrors she had faced.
“It was like living it all over again,” says Koerner, 55. “I realized now that I’d just suppressed the feelings, now I’m in therapy working on dealing with what happened.”
This is her story of abuse and adventure, in her own words.
The start of the journey
When I was 17 years old, I knew I would live a very interesting life.
As a child, I wanted to be an author, an artist, a sculptor and a cowgirl. I guess I’ve been all of those at some point or another.
I’ve pretty much lived my life in reverse. I retired at 21 and now I’m working hard at 55.
I’ve had some adventure in my life. I moved to Belize with a husband and a 9-month-old baby.
Back then, we were young and very much part of the counterculture. We wanted to raise our child in a clean environment with clean food. We were part of a group of expatriated Americans who went to Costa Rica, Belize or further south.
It was an idyllic sort of life. But, for me, it was sort of a paradox.
I was surrounded by resplendent natural beauty. But it was mixed with fear, deceit, brutality and the darker side of human nature.
(Belize) was a very primitive place back then. There were no road signs or anything letting you know where you were at. You couldn’t even get a map of Belize, then. I traced a drawing of the country from the World Book before we left. I’m glad I did. It helped us get around for a while.
Everyone there speaks Creole, but not the French Creole you think of. It’s an English-based Creole. It was strange when we went to Belize because we heard our own language but we couldn’t understand it.
Belize then was a real cultural mix. There were Lebanese, Canadian, ex-British soldiers and Mennonites. They were all Belizeans — well, except for the Mennonites. They were always just Mennonites.
There were a lot of things going on in the country. A lot of Americans, besides the ex-hippies. There were plenty of gringos running from something, mostly shifty types. A lot of drug trafficking. Belize was a stopover on the way from South America to Mexico or the United States. So it wasn’t all peace and love.
The river and the horses
When I was a child I had a dream of a long, green snake. I knew that it would have significance in my life.
When we first got to Belize, a very kind Swiss lady let us rent her son’s place on the Macal River. That was our first place. The first half of my time (in Belize) was spent along that river. I realized later that was the green snake I’d once dreamed of, the one I knew I was meant to find.
The second half of my time came after I founded Mountain Equestrian Trails, a horseback tour company. There are two places in Belize noted in the book, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” and one of them is Mountain Equestrian Trails.
I got hooked up with a financial backer and things just kind of came together. We bought horses and chopped the trails, which wasn’t really legal.
Back then you didn’t ask the government for permission. You could ask for permission and get rejected or just do it. It’s kind of like the saying: It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
So we chopped the trails first and then told them about it later.
You can’t go to Belize and get a job. You have to be able to provide jobs. And to succeed you have to provide good jobs, treat your the people well and be able to delegate.
We did that with Mountain Equestrian Trails and ended up creating a world-class facility. It’s still going strong.
The Rule of Thumb
Things were probably already a little dark (with my marriage) before we even headed to Belize. I ignored some of the warning signs. When you are in love with someone you tend to make excuses, or just ignore things. But within the first year in Belize, it became an extreme circumstance. The isolation allowed for the possibility of domestic violence. I had no family, no agencies and no police to turn to.
For a long time Belize was under British rule and they still followed a lot of the traditions. One of those is the Rule of Thumb — such a thing really exists. Under the Rule of Thumb, a man is allowed to beat his wife with a stick no bigger than his thumb once a week.
Things with him would build up and then I’d get beaten. After a while all you can think of is how do you get out.
I escaped several times, but it was hard to get away. My children where there. Only now am I starting to be able to forgive myself for things. There were things I did that I’m not proud of. If you’ve seen “Sophie’s Choice” then you’ll understand why. I lived it.
People think of survivors as heroes. But really they are people who did what they had to do and got lucky.
A better today
I let my kids read the book with a lot of trepidation. The last thing I wanted to do with them was to vilify their father. I was looking for vindication and I got it in some respects.
My daughter read a draft with certain parts crossed out.
I was most worried about my son reading it. But after he did he said, “Mom, it’s alright. You did what you had to do.”
I was worried he might be an abuser, too. But he’s a wonderful husband with a wonderful family.
I’ve been back to Belize once to see the birth of my first grandchild. Now I have three of them. We’re actually hoping to head back and visit again this year.
I have a wonderful marriage, something I never knew could really exist. I wasn’t really looking for it. I was looking for a kayaking buddy. Instead, I found this charming man who takes me and accepts me just as I am.
To purchase a copy of "Belize Survivor: Darker Side of Paradise" go to www.belizesurvivor.com, www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com, www.borders.com or www.lulu.com.
My Life So Far is an occasional feature in this section. Contact Jonathan Foerster at firstname.lastname@example.org.