We’ve been back in California for a week now and while we’re no closer to deciding exactly where we will make our home in Belize — either San Pedro or San Ignacio — there is one thing to which Rose and I are firmly committed: We will be living in Belize by the end of February 2014.
Rose has been quietly explaining our plans to each of her Pilates clients this week and the reaction falls somewhere between enthusiasm for our new adventure and tears.
I’ve been hearing other reactions, too, like, “Seriously? Belize Why not Panama? You should check out Panama.” Or “Didn’t you consider Costa Rica? You should really check out Costa Rica before you make the move.” Feel free to plug in the name of other Latin American countries. I think I’ve heard them all.
Behind these entreaties to rethink our plans are usually some really nice memories of vacations spent on a Costa Rican beach or in a Panama jungle or on the Mexican Riviera. At the very least, someone was inspired by a memorable episode of “House Hunters International.”
So, you can’t fault friends for expressing something that resonates positively within their frame of reference. That is just us being human. We’re making a big decision; friends just want to ensure we’re making the right one. They go with what they know.
The other day, I did get annoyed. “Don’t you have any idea how dangerous it is in Belize?” he asked when told of our plans. Like we hadn’t really thought this through. Not that he really knew. He’s read it. Somewhere.
The fact is, I have, too. On the flight over to Belize I spent time reading carefully the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s “Belize 2013 Crime and Safety Report.” It isn’t pretty. And it isn’t the kind of thing the Belize Tourism Bureau likes to see. It’s not the kind of thing I like to read either.
It minces no words. Take the opening sentence: “Belize is a high-crime country in Central America …”
Did you know that the State Department ranks Belize the “sixth most violent country in the world”? I do.
Oddly enough, the State Department got collaboration this past week from a notable expert on violence in Belize: former resident and one-time software mogul John McAfee who fled the country under cover as police investigated the murder of his next door neighbor.
“Belize is the murder capital of the world,” McAfee said this week. “It’s a very violent, very dangerous place.” This from the man whose two most recent videos included copious amounts of white powder being snorted, hookers, guns and lap dances – all in good fun mind you.
InvestmentNews magazine columnist Mary Beth Franklin this month managed to paint the whole country of Belize dangerous with a single anecdote of dubious origin. A real estate agent told a buyer that the driveway of one house was pothole-ridden “to discourage home invasions.” Ergo: Danger!
I wonder what conclusion this woman could draw from the incredible number of pot-holed streets in Belize?
So much for Paradise.
Or, maybe not.
In 2012, Belize did set a new record for murders, 145, but the majority of those took place in one area, the city of Belize and specifically on its south side. There are big problems on the gang-plagued south side. Stay out of the south side (and McAfee’s house) and you can avoid most of the drug and violent crimes reported in the country.
It really is almost that simple. Almost. Gang members kill gang members but nowhere in Belize has there been a Navy Shipyard or Aurora movie theater or Columbine high school massacre. (Oh, and McAfee’s house burned down mysteriously after he fled the country. So that’s no longer an issue.)
So let’s pause for some perspective: Last year 15 U.S. cities reported more than 100 murders. Nine of those cities reported more murders than occurred in all of Belize: Chicago (500 murders), New York (419), Detroit (386), Philadelphia (331), Los Angeles (299), Baltimore (219), Houston (217), New Orleans (193) and Dallas (154).
Would you tell someone to stay out of New York or Chicago or Los Angeles because lots of people are murdered and robbed there every year? Didn’t think so.
But we’re talking about Belize and there is no question that there are problems with crime. It is a small, poor country that counts on tourists with money for a lot of its livelihood. Belize is discovering a lesson that the U.S. will soon be learning as more citizens slip below the poverty line and the security nets are shredded: Where poverty, hopelessness and money rub shoulders, crime will exist.
There is a difference: In the U.S., Conservative/Republican forces are deliberately creating a permanent poverty class. In Belize, the government is trying to lift its citizens up from institutionalized colonial-era poverty.
All this month, as Belize celebrates its independence citizens have proclaimed the slogan “Belize in You, Belize in Me, Land of the Free.” Compare with the current GOP slogan: “I’ve got mine. Screw you.”
I need to be careful here. I should not speak for an entire nation, U.S. or Belize. No more than others should draw sweeping conclusions based on something they read once.
However, I can tell you what we did see and experience as we traveled around Belize. And it is complicated.
Poverty, for one, is everywhere. Welcome to the Third World. You can find it just off-camera from those incredibly beautiful beach and rainforest images found on tourism brochures. There are beautiful houses next door to stick hovels. There are sodden houses surrounded by stagnant rainwater and accessible only by boards placed precariously across the “moat.” And there are simple, neat houses that are the homes of proud people.
But you can’t always equate being poor with being dangerous. Now, being desperate and dangerous? That’s another matter. Take time to learn the difference between being poor and being desperate.
And take precautions. Pretty much everywhere you go, rich neighborhoods and poor, there are bars on the windows and doors. Either someone was one hell of a salesman or there is real concern about home robberies at all levels. Burglaries are pretty common, we were told. So you do what you can do to secure your home. But that is no different from the U.S. Nobody I know leaves the house unlocked when they go away. Not like when we were kids.
I was taken aback one night to see an armed guard standing sentry on the corner of a large beach property in San Pedro. I later learned the place belongs to members of the wealthiest family in Belize. I don’t know: Autograph seekers? Kidnappers? Drug lords? Paparazzi? They must fear somebody. Perhaps with good reason.
Continuing along the same beach that evening we were greeted by numerous strangers with a simple “Good night” and a smile. And quickly forgot about the man in black with the shotgun, standing sentry on a beach. I even felt a bit sorry for whoever was inside that house.
Belizeans are said to be among the friendliest people in the world. Such claims always make me skeptical but I can say now that I have rarely met nicer or kinder people, expats and natives alike. Part of it is the pace of life. People take time to talk with you because they usually have time. They also take time to smile and say hello and ask how you are today. And wait for an answer.
I must temper that last statement by saying there were actually people who did not smile at you and say “hello” and some who had honed tourist-directed conviviality to a slick art. They sounded like Disney ride guides. Some only smile when you smile first. Some have perfected the ability to look right through you, like entertainment industry people do in Los Angeles. They were the exceptions.
I guess the point is, Belizeans may only be 330,000 strong, but it takes all kinds to make up a country.
A blogger recently wrote that you can come to a country as an expat and cling to your First World ways while hanging out with other expats or you can come as an immigrant, eager to become part of the country and its people. The former ensures you will always be a stranger in a strange land. The later gives you the chance to become part of a community, a culture, a nation.
This something Rose and I are extremely aware of as we prepare to call Belize home. For all its problems – and I’ve only touched on some here – Belize offers enormous opportunity for us to recreate ourselves, find new communities and seek out the adventure that will be the next phase in our lives.
Belize is it.
- No! Not that trip to Belize (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Foot-dragging from village to village through Belize (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Waterproof camera for Belize? I’m on the case (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- John McAfee is Back, Not Being Idle (webpronews.com)
- Exclusive: Q and A on Why Belize? (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Hello, Belize, you beautiful, colorful, complicated thing you! (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)