The Rules Are Different in Belize.

Boy, Are They Different!



If you're looking for a place to live or to retire that's just like back home, only better, for the United States on the cheap, for Florida with ruins, reef and rum, you may get a rude awakening when you move to Belize.

Because Belize just isn't like the U.S.A. Or Canada. It does have cheap rum, awe-inspiring ruins, beautiful Caribbean seas, and much more.

But the rules are different. The people who make and enforce the rules are different. Sometimes there are no rules. Sometimes there is a set of rules for you, and a different one for everyone else. In a letter to the editor of The Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Belize City, a U.S. citizen, John Zelenih, who bought land in Corozal, does 700 words on the trials and tribulations he faced trying to build a house. Zelenih writes about the delays, bribes, and political shenanigans of daily life in Belize. He and his wife, Zelenih says, spent 13 months in a "living hell instead of the paradise we thought it would be." Zelenih came to the country "to retire and live our lives in peace because we thought it was a beautiful and laid back place. We have since found out it's not what it looks like on the surface."

Zelenih continues: "We've since sold our house and belongings at a great loss and are going back to the States. The last straw that broke the camel's back was last month, when 20 armed men made a gun & drug raid on our home. Nothing was found, but my wife could not sleep since it happened."

While the experiences of John Zelenih may not be typical, just about every expat resident of Belize has some story to tell about problems he or she faced in adjusting to life in Belize - or, in not adjusting. Let's look at some of the differences, and what they mean to you as a potential resident or retiree.


Population of a Small City

First, Belize is a country with a population hardly bigger than a small city in the U.S. Even including recent illegal and uncounted immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the population of the entire country is hardly more than 265,000. My home town of Asheville, North Carolina, is about that size, with a county population of almost 240,000. The metro area population, at more than 375,000, is considerably higher than Belize.

Imagine the difficulties my home town, or yours, would have if it suddenly became a country. Belize has to maintain embassies, establish social, educational and medical systems, raise a little army, conduct affairs of state and international diplomacy, all with the resources of a small city.

You can see the difficulties Belize faces in just getting by in a world of megastates. It lacks the people resources, not to mention the tax base and financial resources, to get things done in the way North Americans expect. If you're a snap-to-it, get-it-done-right kind of person, you're going to wrestle with a lot of crocodiles in Belize.

Best advice: Go with the flow. Don't worry. Don't sweat the small stuff, or the big stuff, either.


Angst of Powerlessness

Most people seeking retirement or residency in Belize are white middle-class North Americans, from a society still run by white middle-class North Americans.

Belize, on the other hand, is a truly multi-cultural society, with Creoles, Mestizos, Maya, Garifuna, Asians, and what in the rest of Latin America would be called gringos, living together in complex and changing relationships, living together in probably more harmony than anyone has a right to expect. In several areas, Creoles dominate; increasingly, in other areas Spanish-speaking Belizeans and immigrants dominate.

One thing is for certain, though: In this mix, North Americans, Europeans and Asians have very limited power.

Money talks in Belize, of course, as it does everywhere. Most of Belize's tourism industry is owned by North American interests. Much of its industry and agriculture is controlled by U.S. multinational companies. Politically, however, the typical North American resident of Belize is powerless. He or she has no vote and is truly outside the political process.

That's the fate of expats everywhere, but some who come to Belize, seeing a country that is superficially much like back home, are shocked that they no longer have a power base and are, in a political sense at least, truly powerless.

The North American or European is not so much at the bottom rung of Belizean society, as off the ladder completely. If you like to pick up the phone and give your congressional representative a piece of your mind, you're going to miss this opportunity in Belize.

Best advice: Put your energies in charity or volunteer work where you can make a real difference.


Culture Shock Is Real

Culture shock is what happens when everything looks about 20 degrees off kilter, when all the ways you learned were the right ways to deal with people turn out to be wrong. It is a state, someone said, of temporary madness.

Usually it happens after about six months in a new situation. At first, you're excited and thrilled by the new things you're seeing. Then, one day, you just can't stand one more dish of stew chicken. In Belize, culture shock is sometimes masked by the surface familiarity. Most Belizeans speak English, albeit a different English. They watch - such a shame - American television. They drive big, old Buicks and Chevrolets. They even accept U.S. currency.

But, underneath the surface sameness, Belize is different, a collection of differences. Cases in point: The ancient Mayan view of time, cyclical and recurring, and even the Mayan view today, are grossly different from the linear way urban North Americans view time. The emerging Hispanic majority in Belize has social, religious and political views which are quite different from the views of the average North American, or, even of the typical Belizean Creole. A Belize Creole saying is "If crab no walk 'e get fat, if 'e walk too much 'e lose claw." Is that a cultural concept your community shares?

In many cases, family connections and relationships are more important in Belize than they are in the U.S. or Canada. Time is less important. Not wanting to disappoint, Belizeans may say "maybe" when "no" would be more accurate. Otherwise honest men may take money under the table for getting things moving. Values North Americans take for granted, such as "work hard and get ahead," may not apply in Belize in the same way. Physical labor, especially agricultural work and service work, because of the heritage of slavery and colonialism, is sometimes viewed as demeaning among some Belize groups. A Belizean may work long hours for himself - fishing or logging can be backbreaking labor - but be reluctant to do so for an employer.

Best advice: Prepare yourself for a truly different world view. If you have trouble adjusting, get away on mini-vacations whenever you can.


No Wal-Marts in Belize

Belize has no Wal-Marts. No K-Marts. No Home Depots. No Circuit Cities. No McDonalds. It has a Wendy's, but not the Wendy's you're thinking of.

While this lack of homogenization is in Belize's favor, it also means that you can't go down to your neighborhood hyperstore and select from 40 kinds of dish soap, or 18 brands of underwear. Rum may be US$7 a bottle, but Cheetos may be US$5 a bag. Every CD player, nearly every piece of plumbing and electrical equipment, every car and truck, every pair of scissors, every bottle of aspirin, is imported, and often transshipped thousands of miles from one port to another before it gets to the final destination in Belize. Then it's carried on a bus or under a Cessna seat somewhere else.

Some items simply aren't available in Belize, or supplies may be spotty. Bags of cement, for example, sometimes are in short supply. To get ordinary items such as building nails or a certain kind of auto part, you may have to call several different suppliers.

Belize's small population is spread out over a relatively large area, served by a network of bad roads, old planes and leaky boats. Although the government is shifting its focus from excise and import taxes more to income and consumption taxes, much of government revenue still comes from import taxes, so the prices you pay may reflect a tax of 60 or 80% or more.

In short, Belize is an inefficient market of low-paid consumers, a country of middlemen and mom 'n pop stores, few of which could last more than a month or two in a highly competitive marketplace like the U.S.

This is what gives Belize its unique flavor in an age of franchised sameness. But, you better Belize it, it also provides a lot of frustration and higher prices.

Best advice: Buy local products where possible, and make trips to Mexico or the U.S. for big-ticket purchases.


Costs of Living

Belize doesn't have a cost of living. It has several costs of living.

The traditional view is that Belize is the most expensive country in Central America, yet one of the least expensive in the Caribbean. While there's truth to that, especially as regards travel, it really doesn't take into account that the actual cost of living in Belize can vary from almost nothing to sky high.

You can live in a luxury four-bedroom house on Ambergris Caye, with air conditioning, telephones and faxes, a dishwasher, microwave and cable TV, U.S. food in your pantry and Jack Daniels in your glass, and you can spend thousands a month. Or you can live in a small house in Cayo, or around P.G., with no phone, eat beans and rice and rice and beans, with local rum to drink, maybe someone to help clean and cook, for US$400 a month. Some condos in Belize go for more than US$500,000, but I know one happy Belize resident who built and equipped his small house, using his own labor, with thatch from nature and timbers from a lagoon, for US$4,000, and that includes furniture and kitchen equipment.

After all, the per capita income in Belize is less than US$5,000 a year. A weekly wage of US$150 is considered pretty good. Tens of thousands of Belizeans live, and in many cases live comfortably, on a few thousand dollars a year. You can, too. Or you can compromise, forsaking those high-cost icons of civilization such as 80,000 BTU air conditioners, while keeping the Ford Explorer, boat or other toys which you enjoy. Live partly on the Belizean style, partly in the U.S. style, and enjoy the benefits of both, and you'll get more, for less.

Best advice: Live like a Belizean, at least some of the time.

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