This list of questions was submitted to me by a website called http://www.expatfinder.com/ which is positioning itself as a go-to site for information on services and products that every would-be ex-pat needs to make the big move. The information is tailored to the specifics for scores of countries on topics like banking, health, shipping, real estate, education, and jobs.
They may or may not use these answers. Which is fine. Their idea of compensation is a promise to maybe promote the link to my blog. I didn’t have the heart to tell the woman that I don’t make a living from my blog and so promoting it means little. Nor did I tell her that if you want good writers, pay them good money. Doing stuff for free for money-making internet enterprises is so 2009.
But that’s OK. I enjoyed the challenge and coming up with honest answers was helpful for me too! Win-win. And if you like it, triple win!
— Bob Hawkins
Expatfinder Interview Questions
1) Where are you originally from?
California, nearly 30 years in San Diego and two in the Bay Area. Rose is a native San Franciscan.
- What made you move out of your home country?
A better question is, What inspired us to move out of our home country. We love the US and it will always be home and we will always be proud citizens. I say this because we sometimes meet expats who are running away from something they dislike — a government, an economy, a culture, themselves. People running away from something won’t find the answer here.
Between us we have five grown children who have lead adventurous, global lives, traveling to foreign countries, sometimes living in them. One son was even featured on an episode of “Househunters International” from Nicaragua! For a time we lived vicariously through their adventures as we sat in a large house, paying a large mortgage, large taxes and large insurance premiums. Over and over and over.
We added up my pension and social security, subtracted all the expenses we would eliminate with a lifestyle change, and were pleasantly surprised to find that we could live a pretty exciting and exotic life in some foreign countries — and live within our means.
2) Where are you living now?
On the 24-mile long island of Ambergris Caye in the tiny Central American/Caribbean country, Belize.
- How did you come to choose this new country of residence?
We were looking for something affordable, not too far from home and our children and grandson, and a place where we could reasonably fit into a community. We wanted some place that was outside our comfort zone but not alien. Being an English speaking country also had its appeal.
One 18-day trip to Belize last year sealed the deal. We met people then who are still our friends and neighbors today. We saw incomparable beauty and inexplicable blight, and challenging contradictions of poverty and wealth. We saw native Belizeans and ex-pats who are extremely comfortable in each other’s company. We saw a relatively new country (since 1981) struggling to find its identity and place in the wider world.
In short, we wanted to be a part of all that.
3) How long have you been living in your host country?
- What has been the most difficult experience you’ve had when you were new in your host country?
Reconciling the fact that you do not escape real-world issues of poverty, ignorance, crime, pollution and violence when you move to a tropical island. They are as much a part of the environment as the postcard perfect views of the Caribbean, generous nature of fellow ex-pats and locals and excellent weather.
4) Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance was particularly difficult in your host country? What was your experience with these?
The work permit process can be convoluted and frustrating for a non-resident. Belize is quite understandably concerned with foreigners coming in and snapping up jobs that can be done by residents. It is a very poor country with very high unemployment. You can gain residency (also not an easy thing to do) and work any job you wish without a permit. That said, there are lawyers who can expedite the process but you will pay accordingly. We know many people who work jobs in the US or Canada remotely from Belize.
I bicycle around town on a single morning and pay utility bills once a month. Also once a month we visit Immigration and pay a $50 BZ ($25 US) visa stamp fee.
We have rolled the dice on health insurance for now, as I have less than six months until I reach Medicare eligibility. However, local government-funded 24-hour public healthcare is free and staffed with good doctors and nurses, albeit medical equipment that is badly in need of replacement. There is actually a donation box in the reception room which I stuff generously. I have gone to an excellent private cardiologist in Belize City twice and his 1-2 hour consultations cost me $50 BZ ($25 US) each. I can live with that. Prescriptions, except for some brand names, are incredibly cheap.
5) Are you living alone or with your family?
My wife of three years, Rose Alcantara, is at my side.
- a) If yes: How are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?
Rose is a lifelong world traveler, including living some years in Gambia before having a son and daughter. As such, she slipped into the ex-pat life with incredible ease and enthusiasm. In fact, Rose was the one who first saw the potential in an ex-pat life for us.
We didn’t have to convince one or the other that this would be a great idea. We set about making this change as a team and we live each day here side-by-side. It would be unimaginable without her.
6) Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialize with other expats in your host country? How did you manage to find a social circle in your host country?
Making friends in a foreign country is incredibly easy. Losing them — those who only live there part-time or who decide to repatriate — is very hard.
Before we first came to Belize I contacted a local blogger, an Englishman who was building a home in San Pedro, here on Ambergris Caye. We met John and his wife Rose for breakfast one day and have been good friends since. They even put us up as guests for a few days when we first arrived as we looked for a home.
Meeting people on the island is like anywhere — your neighbors, your friends at the local pub, and people who share common interests — in our case yoga, stand-up paddling, snorkeling and Pilates.
Now, particular to Ambergris Caye are the facts that it is a small and narrow island — San Pedro is four streets at its widest — with a fairly small population. You tend to run into the people you have met, over and over. Especially important here, the people you run into have the time to stop, chat, catch up, exchange news and cement relationships. I call it the Mayberry Formula: time and opportunity equal friendships.
Everyone has a favorite local bar or two where you might find darts night, trivia night, cribbage night or potluck dinner night. For wine lovers, Friday night at Wine de Vine is a great meeting place for ex-pats and locals. Through daily yoga and/or Pilates classes, Rose and I have made some of our closest friends.
Friends, especially seasoned ex-pats, are generous and invaluable resources too. All you have to do is ask for a recommendation for a doctor, a mechanic, a plumber, a good breakfast place and suggestions will pour in. I welcome the day when I can be as helpful to the next guy coming along.
Additionally, Belizeans love to celebrate almost everything. Independence is a monthlong celebration in September. Lobster Festival includes a weeklong runup of great dining, music and dancing. Mardi Gras is so festive that Lent lands with relief. Halloween is huge. We just had the Christmas boat parade. The are football (soccer) tournaments, a semi-pro basketball team, kayak endurance races, and on and on. These are embraced by locals and ex-pats alike, side-by-side, arm-in-arm.
You can find alienation and isolation and even resentment for ex-pats but personally it is easier to embrace the whole community. It embraces you back.
7) What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?
We mostly use bicycles to get around but cycling north along the shore to a distant resort for a leisurely afternoon at poolside with lunch is fun. So is gathering together a boat full of friends for a day of snorkeling on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, just offshore, followed by some “resort-hopping” on the way home. A visit to even smaller nearby Caye Caulker for a day (by private boat or water taxi) is like a vacation within a vacation.
For us, the longer we stay, we find it easier to make visits to the mainland to explore Mayan ruins and ancient caves, see other towns, and shop in Belize City — especially when visitors arrive.
Mostly though, we enjoy quiet nights at home, dinners with friends, a few drinks with friends at a beachside bar, an occasional movie night out. Rose takes painting classes once a week and is part of a book club/women’s group that meets weekly. There is no amateur theatre group or music ensemble but there is a great rock jam night on Tuesdays at a roadhouse called Legends.
8) How does the cost of living in your host country compared to your home?
Costs are in some ways comparable to the US and in others so much cheaper. The general rule is that everything is cheaper on the mainland. We live on a tourism-oriented island so, you can hang out in touristy places and pay touristy prices. You can eat and drink “local” and pay much less. Many stores and produce stands offer a local rate (often 10 percent less) if they know you live here. Still, all food and merchandise are shipped to the island and that builds a cost into prices.
That goes for power, telecommunications and other utilities too. Our electric bill last month (with visitors) was about $150 US. Usually it is much less because we never use air conditioning.) Wifi is $75 US. Cable TV and water is included in our rent, which is $1,100 US/month for a two bedroom, fully — and very nicely — furnished condo with sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea and Barrier Reef.
We mostly bicycle everywhere, so transportation costs zero. Many people drive golf carts and that can send your costs soaring — repairs, gas, bridge tolls, registration.
a/ how much is a cup of coffee?
A pound of local roasted and ground Guatemalan bean is $10-12 US. A cup in a local cafe can run $2-4 US.
b/ how much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?
A very filling meal of stewed chicken, rice, beans and coleslaw can cost around $6 US. On weekends, street corner BBQ’s pop up everywhere and you can get a full meal for $5-6 US.
c/ how much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?
A resort town, remember? You can’t get out of the best restaurants in town for under $65-75 US per person. Add more when you add wine.
d/ how much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?
Wine is very expensive. A modestly priced bottle of US wine will cost three and four times as much here. Same for Chilean wines. Many foreign products carry heavy duties. However, local beers and rums are very inexpensive. Honestly don’t know about cigarettes.
9) What do you think about the locals?
There is almost nothing “local” about Belizeans — they are a rich mixture of Mayans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, West Indians, Garifunans (African-Caribbeans), Lebanese, Asians, German-Dutch Mennonites and English colonialists. On this island, many Belizeans migrate here from other parts of the country to make a living and some return home when the tourism season ends.
In general, they are very friendly, gracious, trusting and generous. They will tell you things about their life that you would never hear from your own family. If you befriend a Belizean you will have a friend in return. Ex-pats come and go, however, and I am sure Belizeans must develop a protective shell.
I volunteer two mornings a week in a reading program at an elementary school that serves the poorest kids on the island. Many live in homes with no running water or electricity. They are unfailingly polite, inquisitive and grateful for the help, even if they’re not sure what it is I’m trying to accomplish.
Belize is no different than any other country. It has bad people as well as good. Theft is a big problem and no one should be surprised when you have such a wide disparity between haves and have-nots. One night my wallet fell out of my pocket while I was riding in the back of a friend’s golf cart. Not that I even noticed. The cart behind us stopped, picked it up and raced to catch up and return it to me. The Belizean family in the cart didn’t hesitate for a moment. These are the people that I see and embrace every day.
10) What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in your host country?
Positives: Time to do everything you never had time for back in the States. Beautiful country with beautiful people. Affordability. Limitless potential.
Negatives: Can be pricey. Island “fever” (solved by a water taxi ride to the mainland!) Sometimes there can be inexplicable shortages (butter just before Thanksgiving, limes for nearly a month, bananas for a week or two, etc.). Saying is, “If you see something you might want later, buy it now.”
11) Do you miss home and family sometimes?
All the time. We have five children, two daughters-in-law and one grandson in the States. And we miss them all. Rose, especially, has grown adept at Facetime, Skype, live chats and I’m learning. We follow each other on Facebook and I write e-mails. One of my sons and Roses’s daughter have both visited us. The rest will follow!
Friends have visited, as well. My wider family of seven brothers and a sister and I share a “family” website where we keep each other up to date.
How do you cope with homesickness?
Homesickness isn’t fatal. What is to be missed, beyond friends and family? (Begin soapbox.) Not the malls, not the traffic, not the pollution, not the divisive politics nor the institutionalized abuse of the poor and middle class by the banks and politicians. I love America and I will always be a proud citizen. Being some distance away does not mean I won’t be part of the process. The future of our children and grandchildren depends on us remaining involved. (End of soapbox.)
12) Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?
This is home, as long as Belize will have us. We are working toward residency right now (different from citizenship). We may move to the mainland, a small western city called San Ignacio, but that is something for another day. We have friends who live here for six months and back in the States for six. Some drop in and out every couple of months. Some have several houses or condos around the world and rotate from one to the next. Works for them! We hope that the proximity of Belize to the U.S. will make visits home easier to do — especially now that the low-budget Southwest Airlines plans on flying to Belize. Where Southwest goes, prices tend to tumble.
13) What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
I must confess that this has not been hard at all. We have been blessed with wonderful new friends and live in a home with a billion dollar view of palm trees, beach and the sea. We are surrounded by island beauty and have virtually everything we need (which is surprisingly little). I am filled with gratitude.
14) What tips can you give other expats living in that country?
My first tip for newcomers would be leave your Western, First World values behind, don’t be judgmental and don’t assume anything. I have seen ex-pats tearing their hair out when they see locals taking unconventional approaches to a job. It always gets done, on island time.
Don’t come here looking for everything to be just like home. If that was your reason for coming, why come at all.
Make friends with locals. Don’t spend all your time with ex-pats, as comforting as that might be. And listen closely to the stories of the locals. They are rich, filled with sometimes harrowing experiences and deep insights into thinking like a local.
Smile and do good deeds when you can. Some day it will come to you in surprisingly good ways.
15) Do you have favourite websites or blogs about your host country?
Two that are mostly about life in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize:
Belize – Building a New Life: https://abelizehomeforus.wordpress.com/
John and Rose East moved here from London and built a beautiful home. John documented the whole process and still documents his days, often quite humorously.
San Pedro Scoop: http://www.sanpedroscoop.com/
Rebecca Coutant’s blog is part news, part gossip, part review and full-on entertainment. Great place to find out about a new restaurant, resort or shop. Mostly San Pedro-focused but Rebecca is more and more frequently covering the whole country.
Bound for Belize: https://robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com/
Wait! That’s mine. I started this when we first got the idea of moving to Belize. I keep it going because that, as an incurably curious person, I will always be bound for Belize.