The e-mail said, we have a few questions about living an expat life that we would like you to answer. And it shouldn’t take more than five minutes . . . that’s when I knew the e-mail was from an editor. No writing should take anyone more than five minutes to complete, according to every editor for which I’ve ever worked. That’s how editors think. That’s their job.
So, three hours later, this is what I came up with.
I’ve said it before, I like these questionnaires. They are lazy work for the person who sends them out, but they can prove enlightening for the person who must reach down inside and come up with some answers — about 24 of them in this case.
So, here’s the deal. I’ve been living on a tropical island for nearly four years now. It is probably about time I ask myself “Why?” Will I be here for the rest of my life? Am I slowly going insane from all the rampant beauty that surrounds me? Where can I find a cheap meal? Am I getting enough exercise? Am I drinking too much local rum? Does anyone out there know or care where I am? Hello? Hello? Knock, knock . .
Which brings me to an anecdote on island life:
On a recent morning, while waiting for the water taxi to Chetumal, Mexico, a young backpacker with man bun, Raybans and pajama pants moved in on the quiet young woman sitting next to me. His opening line was a dazzler: “So, you are from Caye Caulker? How long have you lived there?”
She looked up at him through impenetrable sunglasses, expressionless.
What seemed like hours later she said in a slightly edgy voice, “Is that the best you can do? Come up with some more interesting questions and then maybe we can have a conversation.”
I guess the point is, interesting questions elicit interesting answers. I confess these are pretty conventional questions, standard for Expat 101. I tried to inject my usual smartassery in some spots and be actually helpful in others. Overall, this was helpful for me after nearly four years because I do really believe the unexamined life is not worth living. And the unasked question is still worth answering.
I hope you find some answers here, future expatters.
The real bottom line for anyone thinking of taking the leap is, do your own research and do your own thinking. You know who you are and you’ll know it when you have enough facts to pull the ripcord.
You don’t know the person answering your questions. Good example: There is a woman on a Belize expat Facebook group who has been diligently answering questions about living in Belize for years. The thing is, she hasn’t lived in Belize for years. And yet, her confidence in her own opinions is unshakable.
So, study up, ask around, research, research, research. Then ask interesting questions.
Meanwhile, here are some answers to your most basic questions . . .
Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I was born in New York and lived in most every state in the Northeast, to which I also append Tennessee, Ohio, Washington DC, and Virginia. I spent nearly 40 years working as a newspaper journalist and online editor, mostly in San Diego. My last years in the States were spent just outside of San Francisco.
Q: What made you move out of your home country?
A: Between my wife, Rose Alcantara, and myself we have five children. There came a point where both of us lost all our parents in a two-year span. All five children were out of the home and flourishing. My stepson Jon and his partner, Quinn, had formed a company called Life Out of the Box and moved to Nicaragua. We avidly followed their exploits. With a touch of envy, I might add.
At some point the traditional American burden of over-extended debt, mortgages, HOA fees, cars, homes, insurance and the rest of it began to make no sense at all. Instead of supporting banks and insurance companies, why not simplify our lives, jettison this lifestyle, and find a foreign base to use as a launchpad to see the world?
Never a fan of the American consumer lifestyle, there just had to be a better, happier, way to live within our means. (I also discovered a pension that I had assumed went belly up after the 2008 crash was actually alive and flourishing. So there was that.)
Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?
A: We live on an island off the coast of Belize, called Ambergris Caye. It is the largest of more than 200 islands between the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and the mainland. Belize is a great entry point for the expat life. The national language is English. The currency is fixed at 2 for 1 against the US dollar. It is a complex nation with a diverse population and multitude of cultures and it is an ecological fantasyland. It has a decent size expat population, as well.
Q: How long have you been living in your host country?
A: Nearly four years.
Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?
A: I share this life with my wife, Rose Alcantara. She is a widely traveled woman and once lived in The Gambia for a couple of years. I would say she could be comfortable anywhere in the world. Just yesterday she returned from a backpacking adventure in Ecuador with her daughter.
Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?
A: I love the United States. It is and will always be my home. I do not miss it, nor do I think I ever will. Besides, there is always Facebook to remind me of how divisive the nation has become.
On a recent trip to California, I was sent out for a dozen eggs and stood paralyzed in front of a glass cabinet holding 28 different varieties. Twenty-eight! Here in Belize, I select 12 eggs from a flat and put them in a container. They are excellent eggs. I do not know their history, nor the first name of the person who lovingly raised the chickens. I do know they are fresh and delicious.
Visits to places like Wal-mart and Costco, when home, can be extraordinarily discouraging. On the other hand, a $30 pair of Saucony running shoes? Thank you, Costco.
Family is another story. I recently became a grandfather for the second time and with all probability there are more grandkids on the way. We miss all five of our children very deeply and the addition of grandsons adds fresh layers of longing.
It is clear some day that we will have to figure out a way to increase the frequency of our visits and yet retain our expat life. I do dream of “kidnapping” the grandchildren for a summer, taking away their shoes, and turning them loose on the beach.
Q: What do you think about the locals?
A: I think they are amazing. I can not generalize as the population of Belize is extremely complex. Like anywhere, there are bad actors and extraordinarily good people and all sorts in between.
When I first arrived I heard how “lazy” locals were and how irresponsible. That is such a slander. They will walk miles to a job that pays next-to-nothing and work hard and steady for 9-10 hours a day, then walk home covered in dirt and concrete dust.
Jose rises with the sun and climbs trees barefoot to harvest coconuts while it is still cool out. With his machete whacking away he fills gallon jugs with fresh coconut water. When he has about 20 filled, he mounts the jugs on his handlebars and pedals through town, selling his water for about $10 a gallon. He repeats until the sun begins to set. Next morning he gets up and starts all over.
That is hard work.
Belizeans do have a better grasp of leisure and quality of life. They can turn a holiday into a month-long celebration. There are very many holidays on the official calendar and Belizeans are better for it. They are family oriented and there are big extended families here on the island.
Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in your host country? How did you manage to find a social circle there?
A: We actually made friends during an exploratory visit to Belize, and they remain friends today. My wife is a Pilates/yoga instructor and I write a fairly popular blog about living here. Through both we have met many good people. There are endless opportunities to socialize with expat, virtually all of them involving drinking alcohol. (The one downside to living here.) Expats and locals mingle easily in many of these settings but mostly they are middle class or upper middle class Belizeans. Through volunteer work — tutoring and trash cleanup campaigns — and as a board member of a non-profit education scholarship foundation I have worked side-by-side with wonderful Belizeans.
I know a great many locals in the service industry — baristas, shop owners, laborers, house cleaners, electricians, restaurateurs, dive shop owners, resort staff. But to know them by name and like them is not the same as calling them friends, something I would dearly like to do more.
We are a heavily tourist-oriented island and that affects the nature of relationships. I was once told locals and expats mingle more easily on the mainland because they are more likely to be neighbors and not caught up in transactional relationships.
An expat friend here who lives in the heart of a Belizean neighborhood here on the island has a harsher assessment of we coastal gringos. She may be right. Our worlds have far less overlap than they should.
Q: How does the cost of living in your host country compare to your home?
A: Living on a tropical island is a cool fantasy but the financial realities are pretty harsh. EVERYTHING is more expensive than on the mainland, of course. Five bananas are one Belizean dollar here. You can get 12 to 20 for the same price on the mainland.
I pay $1,100 USD a month for a two-bedroom condo but it sits 40 yards from the Caribbean Sea and I look out to the barrier reef through palm and coconut trees.
You can live as expensively as you want here. Tourist-popular restaurants and bars charge tourist prices. Resorts are stupidly expensive. Street vendors and food shacks sell delicious food and at cheap prices. When you get to know your local produce stand and market owners they will give you the 10-20 percent locals discount.
An influx of high-end real estate shops from the US have hijacked the coastal property market and jacked everything up over six figures. Some won’t list anything under a million dollars. It is all smoke and fantasy but they’ve created the perception of a ultralux, high-end market. We’ll see if nothing sells.
- Q: How much is a cup of coffee?
A: A basic cup of coffee is around $2.50 BZD. An Americano is $4 BZD. I can buy a pound of fresh-ground Guatemalan coffee for $14.75 BZD but most pound bags of coffee sell for twice as much.
- Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant
A: You can buy a styrofoam takeout container stuffed with rice & beans, slaw and jerk chicken for $8 BZD ($4 USD). Sit-down places may run $12-20 BZD.
- Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?
A: With drinks, wine and dessert and pricey spot could run you $75-120 USD per person.
- Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?
A: I just bought a bottle of La Crema for my wife’s return from Ecuador. It was $75 BZD. We can get good Chilean wines for $28-33 BZD a bottle. The government has a high tariff on wines and most foreign goods.
Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in your host country?
A: Be patient and don’t offend easily. Banks want stuff you wouldn’t believe — a copy of your wedding license, a letter from your US bank certifying you are a good customer — and it can take months for approval. Partially this is due to the US and its war on tax cheats and drug dealers. US influence is remarkable.
There is one bank that deals strictly in US dollars (Atlantic International) and a number that truck in Belizean dollars. Banks only give $1.95 BZD for every US dollar, despite the national 2-1 rate. That can add up. There are shops that will buy your US dollars for a straight 2 for 1 exchange — better deal than the banks. Some bars will exchange your Belize dollars for US dollars at the 2-1 rate, if they know you.
Transferring money from the US to a Belize bank is almost impossible right now.
I have an account with a US bank that pays back any ATM fees when I am out of the country, so I simply withdraw cash as needed from a local ATM.
Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?
A: Horrible. Belize the public image says they want you here and want your business. The truth is, the people on the front lines write their own rules. Scandals have all but shut down the applications for residency and citizenship. Some people say they have been waiting as many as four years for residency. Business license and work permits are subject to lost applications, indifferent staff, lax processing and outright obstruction.
Hiring an expediter for thousands of dollars can help send your paperwork through in a twinkle.
Rightfully so, the country will not issue you a work permit for any job that a Belizean citizen can readily do.
Visas must be renewed monthly (a 3-month visa is new on the deck) in person at the local office. The process is quick here on the island, although you never know if you are going to be met with open hostility or open arms. On the mainland the long lines and pay-for-place schemes are soul sucking.
Q: Would you say that health care in your host country is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?
A: Belize has free medical care for all at the local Polyclinic. They are good, hard-working professional people working in limited facilities with often broken or outmoded equipment. For basic care, they are fine. Just leave a lot of bucks in the wooden donation box at the front.
For more complex needs there are private hospitals and clinics on the mainland. Pricing is far better than in the US but not cheap. I had a stent inserted in a blocked artery two years ago. I think it was $14,000 total.
Many people now travel to Merida, a city on the Yucatan Peninsula where 99 clinics and hospitals operate under the dome of Medical Tourism. Medical care there can be an incredible bargain if you have someone to show you the way. (And I do.) Others prefer Guatemala City where many doctors are US, Canada or Europe trained.
Q: Did you secure a health insurance in your home or host country? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?
A: I have none. My wife carries a $200/month policy which she has never had to use. Of the two of us, she is obviously the smarter one. International health insurance is a good idea if you have no prior conditions. Some include evacuation coverage.
Last week a woman suffered severe head trauma when she fell out of a golf cart (main mode of transportation here). She was flown to a private clinic on the mainland where they asked for $60,000 BZD up front to operate on her. Angels stepped in and she is recovering slowly. I don’t know what might have happened otherwise. Another angel paid for the plane and ambulance.
You simply can not count on angels. Protect yourself.
One more critical point, expats tend to wait until their conditions reach intolerable before seeking medical help. By then, it can be too late.
A new expat told me today that the first thing he did after moving here was establish contact with one of the expat medical centers in Belize City. All his data and his family’s are on file there. Should something happen, he will not be a stranger to them. That is very smart and costs nothing. Be proactive.
Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to your host country? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?
A: We basically sold off everything but the house, which is now breaking even as a rental property. We have 18 plastic tubs in storage but I can’t for the life of me recall what is in them.
The process was worse for my wife because she had a lifetime of memories wrapped up in her house and possessions. It is both painful and liberating. Most of my stuff was old newspaper clips, notebooks, writings, small bits of memorabilia, ticket stubs, pictures. I think two of the tubs are mine. I’m comfortable with letting go of the past.
As for moving to Belize, people who ship down their entire US life are kind of missing the point, in my opinion. The idea of moving to a foreign country is about change, growth, new experiences. Plus, that leather sofa you love? It will rot in no time in the tropic humidity.
Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?
A: The loss of friends. The expat life can be difficult for many reasons, even on a tropical island. Lots of people come with eyes wide open and just don’t make it. Or maybe they only planned on staying a while before moving on. For whatever reason, you make friends today and they are gone tomorrow.
That is hard.
The challenge is to not close off your heart to new people. Stay open and interested and engaged. Enjoy the time you have together. As good Buddhists say “Stay in the moment, stay mindful. Let go of the past. Let the future unravel only in the now.”
Stay open to the magical. Good things happen when you are open to them. I stopped into a new coffee shop today and the man at the next table was a Mennonite, readily apparent from his clothing. There are thousands of Mennonites in Belize, virtually all on the mainland as farmers and homebuilders.
I was surprised when he engaged me in conversation, as I’d heard they were not unfriendly but an insular society. It was an incredible wide-ranging discussion covering the history and nature of the different Mennonite groups, the art of self-sufficiency, medical care, seawalls and more. He is a lifelong Belizean and now a friend.
And I was only thinking of coffee!
Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in your host country?
A: I think I’ve listed most in the answers above. The good news is there is no negative here that is insurmountable. The positives of the expat life win by a furlong!
Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?
A: The best thing you can do is engage socially. Early and often. There are regular social gatherings and places where expats hang out more than others. Repress the urge to tell your life story to everyone you meet. Show an interest in other people and listen. As a journalist I was a professional listener but, frankly, I have always found other people far more interesting than myself. I WANT to hear their stories. That makes making friends pretty easy.
It helps, too, that my wife is an amazing and caring person who attracts a large number of friends. I am socially awkward by comparison. I benefit from the association. One local bar/restaurant that I have been going to from the day we arrived still puts “Rose’s husband” at the top of the check. I sometimes introduce myself as Mr. Rose. And that works just fine.
Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?
A: Sure. Paradise is rarely forever. Mexico is a possibility some day, to be closer to family and good medical treatment. I’d like to live out my life with dignity as an expat. I could easily live it out right here. Let’s just put the answer down as “You never know.”
Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?
A: Keep an open mind. Leave your perceptions and prejudices at home. Don’t judge people here by the standards you left behind. Hell, don’t judge. Ask questions and learn.
A friend who has lived here more than 30 years has a mantra when life here goes sideways: “This is Belize.” Then exhale and smile.
Don’t expect a move to another country to change you as a human being. If you were a jerk in Texas, you’ll end up being a jerk here. You have to try and change yourself from within. Sunshine and coconut trees won’t give you a personality makeover.
If you are running away from something, that, too, will catch up with you here. Save yourself the trouble and work on your problems at home, learn how to love and respect yourself — then move to a foreign country. You will like the experience a whole lot better.
Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about your host country?
A: Ha! Ha! “Bound for Belize” is amazing. I hear the guy who writes it is a total nut case but sometimes insightful — but not nearly as funny as he thinks he is.
Definitely “San Pedro Scoop” by Rebecca Coutant. She is a blog warrior who writes nearly every day and has expanded her scope to include all of Belize, parts of Mexico and Guatemala, both with which we share borders.
For local news, the Ambergris Caye forum, San Pedro Sun newspaper online and Ambergris Today online. Blogs, like expats, come and go. There are others but I haven’t seen enough to comment.
Through Google, I have set up news searches for keywords “San Pedro” “Ambergris Caye” “Belize” and every day I get a nice selection of news items from around the country.
A word of caution, there are Facebook groups set up to offer newcomers “real” information about Belize. And they do. But there are a few folks on these sites who seem to take pleasure in crushing the dreams of others. I don’t know, maybe their dreams were crushed over time. I don’t know how to sort the good folks from the bad. Just keep a thick skin about you. Ignore people who judge you unfit for life here in Belize. You deserve your shot at Paradise as much as the next one. Go for it.