Imagine my surprise when I found out that I still have a pension, and a six-figure one at that. And a 401K/IRA, albeit a much punier bastard sibling.
I hadn’t looked closely at the books since Wall Street took our economy down. I just didn’t have the stomach. And besides I was still working full-time as a reporter, still loving the work I was doing and still thinking that I had a real future in my profession.
I won’t get into the indignities of being made a “part-time” employee after 27 years and consequently stripped of all benefits, including medical. I had a great run, after all, and will forever be grateful for the opportunities that came my way, whether I made good use of them or not.
The fact is, my world changed. But good – no, wonderful – things came with the bad. I’d gotten married to the most incredible woman, Rose Alcantara, and we were in the midst of a dance about how we were to merge her Northern California life and mine in San Diego.
Sometimes fate intercedes, when there is no clear path.
I quit the San Diego Union-Tribune and took a temporary, full-time communications job with a terrific public agency, San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). And when that assignment was up I jettisoned most of my possessions (as I have done before in my life) and moved to Northern California to be with Rose.
Why didn’t Rose move to San Diego? Many good reasons: She had an infirm mother in her 90’s to care for; she had a lovely teen daughter, Caira (to whom I’d promised very early on that she would graduate high school with her friends); she had a hard-earned and thriving business in her own Pilates studio. Rose also had a large and beautiful home with an underwater mortgage that was an anchor tied to her dreams.
I pretty quickly realized that after nearly 40 years as a full-time newspaper and newsweb writer and editor whose every job was a gift of providence, I was ill-equipped to reinvent myself. (Can you imagine? I have a box of business cards on which I define myself as a “Content Evangelist.”)
I tried. I sent out scores of resumes into an eerie void of silence; I attended various classes on job searching and resume building; I was even a member of networking groups in two towns, both called Job Club – Napa on Mondays and Fairfield on Thursdays. There were some really smart and talented people in those groups and some who you could just tell would never seriously work again. There were broken spirits and also highly motivated souls determined to create their own next breaks.
I slowly came to the conclusion that as much as I love to write, I don’t think I could do it for anyone else any more. What’s the alternative when writing is all you have done for 40 years?
Well, there is retirement.
That’s when I blew the cobwebs off the links to my pension and 401K and opened the lids. (Cue that creepy screeching noise of rusty hinges.)
Oh. My. God. I’m not broke. Well, not completely.
The bad news is our “nest egg” is pretty modest. We could never move back to San Diego, for example, unless we wanted to live in some dry-toast rural East County trailer park. Our other dream, of moving into San Francisco, is tragi-comically inaccessible. We could continue living in Fairfield but Rose was now filling her every waking hour with clients to meet her mortgage and other bills. My pension would help, but what then?
Some things began to happen. Caira graduated from high school and started college in Arizona. Last November, I got quite sick and required surgery (which wasn’t possible until April when I got enrolled in an early version of God-Bless-You-Obamacare). Both of my parents died and Rose’s mom passed away. And most recently, it appears that Rose’s house has risen above water, giving us the option of a debt-free life. Somewhere.
For reasons I have discussed before, we have opted to move to a foreign country. That would be Belize. For now, it appears that we can live comfortably, with financial room to spare, on my pension and Social Security alone. If Rose or I decide to supplement retirement with work – and we both suspect that we will – we have that option, too. We also have the option of traveling on our “surplus” income, developing a business of our own, house swapping, surfing, kayaking, reading, living…
It sort of comes down to this: Whereas before we faced an endless series of compromises and struggles living in the United States, we now face endless potential in a foreign country.
Will the reality prove us right or are we just a couple of dreamers who drank the promotional ex-pat Kool-Aid?
Well, finding out is just part of the adventure. Isn’t it?
Dear friends, family and readers of Bound for Belize,
We are so excited to be presenting to you this exclusive interview with Rose Alcantara which we nailed down over lunch at the Athenian Grill in Suisun, California.
Rose Alcantara is such a busy person. On this day she had already conducted Pilates sessions in her studio with nine clients between 6 a.m. and noon. So, you can see, getting her to sit for a series of questions was a real coup.
As we explained to her, there has been a growing clamor for answers to the big question: “Why Belize?” The subtext being, “My god, there are scores of places in which ex-pats are living happy lives in retirement, repose or regeneration.”
Her husband, Robert J. Hawkins, was available – he’s always available. Some call it retirement. But we wanted a fresh perspective to this very important question. So, over lunch, we put the screws to her thumbs and these are the incisive answers that came forth from Rose Alcantara. (Full disclosure: She paid for lunch. And we did go home with her after the interview … if you catch my drift.)
Question: Why become an ex-pat?
Rose Alcantara: I think it is time for an adventure, the newness of it all. With expectations for a less-stressful life, a less-expensive life and to get out of my sameness. You know, change it up a little.
Q: Interesting phrase “get out of my sameness.” What does it mean to you?
Alcantara: Instead of my day-to-day schedule driven by the demands of work and paying bills, a little freedom to choose what I want to do. To be able to open up my eyes, my taste buds, my sense of smell. To change my perspective on what living is, or is supposed to be.
Q: Why not just take a nice long vacation?
Alcantara: A vacation is just too short a time to step out of your comfort zone. Usually when you return from a vacation you are looking forward to sleeping in your own bed and getting back on schedule. I don’t want that. I want to bring out a different side of me and that can only be done by stepping out of your day-to-day routine for good.
Q: What makes you suited to being an ex-pat in what is decidedly a Third World country?
Alcantara: When I left university I got my first professional job as a dancer traveling in Middle Eastern Europe. That was followed by living for two years in Western Africa, in Gambia. I believe the time spent there prepared me for any drastic changes to my life today.
Q: You have a reputation for being something of a globetrotter. Can you list some of …
Alcantara: Sure! Egypt, Spain, France, Switzerland, England, Scotland, Wales, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, New Zealand, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, Virgin Islands, St,. Lucia, Andorra, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy … does Hawaii count?
Q: Ok, ok. We get it. Thanks.
Q: And how about your husband?
Alcantara: Yes, he’s moving to Belize with me.
Q: No, no. We meant, how do you think he will manage in a Third World country. Has he been around much?
Alcantara (with a patient smile): He’s been to England, Mexico and St. Lucia … did we decide whether Hawaii counted? But seriously, he’s been keenly in favor of this move from the beginning. As for adaptability, he grew up in a family of eight boys and a sister and spent two years in a – to hear him tell it – hellishly Dickensian seminary. He can adapt and put up with a lot. Besides, just this morning he said to me, “Rose, I can live anywhere as long as you are there beside me.”
Q: Quite the romantic.
Alcantara: Would I marry a man who was anything less? I think not. Beside, being a romantic is helpful when you are moving from a way of life that you have embraced since you were born.
Q: Ok, so, why Belize?
Alcantara: It is consistently listed as one of the top 10 places to which ex-pats retire. The country’s official language is English. It is close to the U.S., less than two hours from Houston by air. It offers a variety of environments from coastal living to jungle. There is a multitude of cultures, Mayan ruins.
This is not to say the Belize is the definitive place to move for us. We’ll give it a good six months try and then see if it is a good fit.
Q: We understood you took a quiz in the magazine International Living which purportedly told you which ex-pat-friendly country best suited you.
Alcantara: You are good. Yes, you did your homework. We did take the quiz.
Q: And …
Alcantara: Well, my husband’s results pointed to Belize. Mine said Uruguay. But that is way far away if we have to come back for a family emergency.
Q: Does the proximity to the U.S, mean you are expecting visitors?
Alcantara: Oh, we’re counting on it. Part of our criteria is to find a place with a spare bedroom for guests. It will be very sad to say goodbye to so many friends. My children, I’m less worried about. They are well-traveled and I know we’ll be seeing them in our new home.
Q: Can you draw us a picture of the life you imagine in Belize?
Alcantara: Ideally I’ll be able to work as a Pilates or yoga instructor, something in health and fitness, but perhaps for just a half of the day. Or we could create our own business in the hospitality area, maybe manage a residential project with my husband, or buy a larger fixer-upper that we can turn into a Bed & Breakfast.
Q: When did the idea of becoming an ex-pat first arise in you, during your wedding in Mexico last year, perhaps?
Alcantara: Really it was while following my son’s travels in Nicaragua, during the time that my mom died. Jon and his partner, Quinn, briefly managed a beautiful resort/hostel on a lake in Nicaragua. They were covering temporarily while the owner looked for a permanent manager.
Well, we immediately thought, “We could do that!” but we weren’t in a position to drop everything and fly to Nicaragua. But it got us thinking. My son also gave us a subscription to International Living, a magazine/enterprise devoted to convincing people to retire abroad. Also, my husband was so onboard with the whole idea.
Q: Don’t you see Belize as just a tropical extension of the American lifestyle?
Alcantara: Not really. We’re more interested in immersing ourselves in the local culture (of which ex-pats are a part). I want to experience the diversity of other cultures that make up Belize and live together in harmony.
Q: What will you most miss about your life in America?
Alcantara: Friends. (Long pause.) Friends. And family.
Q: Thank you, Rose Alcantara.
Alcantara: Anytime. Are you gonna finish that souvlaki or can I have it?
OK, so I lied (sort of).
I did (sort of) promise that the next post would begin to answer the question “Why Belize?” and I will get to that more directly in the next post, when I publish an exclusive interview with Rose Alcantara that I conducted today during lunch at the Athenian Grill in Suisun, California.
Meantime, here are some little bits that indirectly answer the big “why” question.
Seven more reasons to fall in love with Belize:
- The tallest building in all of Belize is an ancient Mayan structure
- There are more than 900 Mayan sites in a country barely the size of Massachusetts. That’s more Mayan sites than Starbucks in Los Angeles.
- Belmopan, is the smallest capital city in the world.
- The country’s entire population fits somewhere in size between that of Riverside, California and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
- There are around 450 islands off the coast of Belize. Can you imagine how long it would take to explore each one — allowing time in between for fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving? (One island is currently for sale for $450,000 and includes boats, a scientific research center and a dock. It is .86 of an acre and is 8 miles from shore. You should check it out. It is called Wee Wee Caye.
- Nowhere in Belize will you find McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King or Starbucks. You will find small cafes and lots of open markets with fresh food.
- It seems like there is a festival almost every day in Belize celebrating something, somewhere.
Primary Source: ReefCI
Stand by for the exclusive interview with Rose Alcantara!
Deciding to move to a foreign country was a lot easier a decision to make than either Rose or I had imagined.
It began sort of like this.
Rose: “Life shouldn’t be this hard. Let’s move somewhere that we can live well and not struggle to meet all these bills.”
Mind you, some sort of decision has been in the works for some time.
It probably started in February 2012 when Rose and I got married in the Baja coastal village Los Barriles, which has its own growing ex-pat community. We have good friends who live there in a fabulously beautiful stone, glass and open air aerie atop a small mountain.
They’re happy. They’re part of a community of people who have time for each other. They do the sort of things we talk about. They live life on their own terms and don’t seem to be missing much.
Their life is more about “Guess what I did today!” and less about “Guess what I bought today!”
We could do this, we said, before turning back to the demanding business of being newly married and combining our separate lives into one.
But, one by one, lines that tethered us to this land fell away. Both my parents died in recent years. My career as a newspaper editor/writer died, too. Rose’s mom died. My three grown sons were out on their own, all with excellent jobs and two married. Rose’s daughter had begun college in Arizona.
Then Rose’s son, Jon, and his partner, Quinn, moved to Nicaragua to start a socially conscious business called Life Out of the Box. One night they showed up on cable channel HGTV’s “House Hunters International” which followed them around the coastal town of San Juan Del Sur as they hunted for a cheap place to live while starting their business.
Everyone who has watched the show has gone away shaking their heads in disbelief. Jon and Quinn were shown three properties, as is the show’s inflexible format, and asked to decide on one. The first was a very inexpensive but sketchy apartment downtown with no hot water and a kitchen/common area shared with … whomever happened to be in the other bedrooms. The second was a brand new, but tiny, efficiency with a swimming pool.
And the third one. Ah, yes, the third one. A little bit out of town, it was a spacious two-bedroom cottage with all-wood cathedral ceilings, fully furnished, a huge kitchen. Landscaping that just screamed “Welcome to Paradise!” All utilities and WiFi included.
The cost? A comfortably close to budget $700 a month.
Did I mention that it was a five minute walk to the beach?
Well, it was so obvious which one Jon and Quinn would choose. (Cue the tension driven “decision music” – Dunh … da da … dunh … da da … dunh dunh.) Apartment Number one.
What? No. Wait. Jon? Quinn? What about No. 3 with the WiFi and hot water???? And CHEAP?
Well, they had their reasons.
But it occurred to us that with my pension and Social Security alone — if I chose to retire — we could afford way more than $700 a month, even though that dreamy Nicaraguan house was way more than adequate.
So, we started thinking … and looking.
Next: Yeah, but why Belize?
I woke up at 5 a.m. and started putting together a quiz on our future homeland, Belize. I have no idea why. It just sort of came to me and I went with it, sort of like the idea of moving to Belize.
So let’s go with it. No prizes. (Heck, I can’t even guarantee that the answers are correct. ) But in the end i think you’ll agree that for such a tiny place, Belize is an amazing country.
1.Belize is a country
A. In Coastal West Africa.
B. Near the Philippines.
C. In Central America, bordered by Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea.
D. Conceived in the imagination of Florida-centric author Carl Hiaasen.
2. The Blue Hole is
A. Form of depression that usually hits career professionals in their Thirties.
B. A Willie Nelson song.
C. One of the eight natural wonders of the world.
D. A popular regional beer.
3. Jamaica is to Belize as Red Stripe is to Belikin. True or False?
4. Which of these animals are found in Belize?
C. Howler Monkey
G. All of the above.
5. A Garifuna is
A. A taller and busier species of Hobbit.
B. A geological depression in a valley.
C. A descendant of Caribbean natives and West African slaves.
D. A recently discovered planet in a nearby solar system.
6. Which of these cultures can be found in Belize?
B. German-speaking Mennonites
D. Descendants of Confederate Civil War veterans
E. East Indians
G. All of the above, and many more.
7. A “caye” is
A. Spice used in preparing barbecue sauce.
B. Tool used in boat building.
C. Creole for “All is cool, mon.”
D. An island. And it is pronounced “key.”
8. In Belize a “highway” can contain
A. Bumper to bumper traffic jams during rush hour.
B. European sports cars on Autobahn-like roadways.
C. Dirt surfaces with many ruts, bumps and washed out areas.
D. Adequate signage.
9. Before 1973, the one-time British colony of Belize was known as
A. West Indian Honduras
B. British Honduras
C. South Beach, Miami
D. Captain Morgan’s Retreat
10. To finance the national football team’s first-ever entry into the prestigious CONCAF Gold Cup tournament, Belizians
A. Held a barbecue fundraiser.
B. Took out a rather large loan from a British bank.
C. Collected quarters from school children all over the country.
D. Conspired with gamblers to fix their first game in return for a one-time payment.
11. To surface a road recently, a government contractor
A. Dredged gravel from the bottom of the Blue Hole.
B. Recycled roadside trash into a synthetic form of asphalt.
C. Ground up a big chunk of an ancient Mayan temple.
D. Collected and ground us seashells from coastal beaches.
12. Concerned Belizians say the greatest threat to the natural beauty of this country is
A. Oil drilling in the world’s second largest barrier reef.
B. Illegal clear-cutting of jungle trees for agriculture and lumber
C. Construction of a cruise ship island/terminal in largely pristine southern Belize.
D. All of the above.
13. In 2006, Belize musicians were nominated for a World music Grammy principally for their
C. Broadway-style musicals
D. Conch shell renditions of classical music.
And the answers are
1.C (Just south of the Yucatan Peninsula. Can’t miss it, though it is only the size of Massachusetts.)
3. True: Belikin is the national beer of Belize.
4. G. There is an incredible diversity of animals in Belize, including more than 500 species of birds.
8. C. Yes, the term highway is used rather loosely.
9. B. The English still retain a small contingent of soldiers in the country to train the Belize Defence Force which protects the country from a long anticipated invasion from Guatemala.
10. A. Incredible as it sounds, the team wasn’t sure it was playing until the day they left Belize. Several players reported being approached by a game fixer with a monetary offer which they refused. On the other hand, Belize last all three games in its bracket and went home without scoring a single goal.
11. C. Archeologists seeking a silver lining noted that they now had a “cutaway” look at the inside of a Mayan structure.
12. D. Amazing that a country with so much natural beauty can be under siege from so many directions at once.
13. A. Garifuna drumming is a source of national pride.
So, yes, Belize is where we have chosen to live out our lives.
This blog, “Bound for Belize,” is where the process for migrating to another country will take place. It is where our dreams, our plans, our discoveries, our disappointments, our decisions, our doubts, our delusions, our conversations, etc. will be documented.
All we have at the moment is a “mission statement” – Rose and I will be moving to the Latin American country of Belize some time in early 2014.
How are we going to do it? Where will we live in Belize? Will we rent or buy? Will we bring possessions or liquidate everything before we go? Will we ever come back? What will we live on? What will it cost to live there? There are no answers yet. Well, not concrete answers.
We know some things about Belize. (And, OK, some are first impressions, rather than cold facts.) These were actually compiled in mid-July. New information has been added to our plate. I’ll get to that stuff later. Meanwhile, some first impressions:
1. Belize is the size of Massachusetts. With fewer people — just more than 300,000, not counting troops from the occasional military incursion from Guatemala.
2. Belize is closer to San Francisco than a cross-country flight in the U.S. to Boston
3. Belize has many nationalities – Creole, Hispanic, Anglo, Mayan, Garifuna, Africans, German Mennonites, Indians, among them. English is the official language but most natives speak Spanish and Creole.
4. Northern Belize is the most developed and populated region. This is where tourism and wealthy ex-pats are clustered. There is also some touristy development as you head south but it grows less-developed and more agriculture-oriented. Moving west from the coastal areas you encounter either expanses of farmland or dense jungle.
5. There is crime in Paradise. Lots of it. Burglary is a big problem. Belize City seems pretty rough, with US-styled gangs popping each other on the south side.
6. Belize has the worst Internet infrastructure and service in the Caribbean.
7. While Belize is part of Central America it feels aligned more with the Caribbean island nations… but they are working on it
8. The cost of living seems all over the map. Coastal areas that are rich in tourism and ex-pat developments are costly – some as expensive as living in the U.S. There are million dollar homes and condos. Less-dense areas have very nice housing for $600 to $1,000 a month with ocean views. You can “go native” and live for less than $300 a month, especially inland. Exchange rate: One U.S. dollar is worth two Belizian dollars.
9. The manatee population is actually increasing. Hooray, manatees!
10. There are carefully preserved Mayan ruins all through the country, and some not so carefully preserved.
11. Bicycling (competitive) is a national preoccupation. So, briefly, was the national soccer team when it played in the CONCAF Gold Cup. Sadly, its first game was against the U.S. Happily, it’s members refused to accept bribes. Sadly, the country could barely afford to send the team to the Cup competition.
12. There is no problem running into Americans or Canadians. Migrating to Belize has become quite popular. Too popular? That is one fear.
We are still thinking of Belize as our first choice for where we will live out our lives. Not the last. Not the only.
Belize is spectacular in many many ways. Nobody can argue with that. Not even me, although my perspective to date consists of the travel-brochure-level view. No feet on the ground. Not yet.
So there is that risk, that we will migrate to Belize and regret it.
To avoid buyer’s remorse, we will fly to Belize in September for several weeks on a recon mission. That should give us enough time to figure out where we want to live, if we want to live there and how we are going to accomplish it.
Among the decisions we need to make: Do we simply want to be Americans living abroad or will we integrate ourselves as closely as possible into the native culture? We’ve seen the come-ons for the American experience – “as if you never left the states.” Gated communities. American stores. Surrounded by Americans. Only a cheaper place to live. Ugh.
If that is all we are looking for then there are probably places in rural America that could fulfill the need. What is the point of migrating to a foreign country and then walling yourself off from its culture? Why travel 5,000 miles to insulate yourself from all that is different and strange and wondrous?
I think we want to be as much a part of our host nation and contribute to its society as much as we do living in Fairfield, California.
We still have a lot to learn.
We’re moving to Belize.
No, really. We’re moving to Belize.
This is no excerpt from a dialogue. This is a mobius-like interior monologue that has been rolling around in my head ever since Rose and I decided to pull the cord a couple of months ago.
We really are moving to Belize. Some time in the first quarter of 2014. Permanently.
Wait. What does that mean, “permanently”?
That my friends is still to be figured out. As are some of the other questions like, “What do we do with all this stuff?” “Are we renouncing our citizenship in the US?” (No.) “What will we do once we land there?” “Will we find Belize so full of ex-pats that you can’t find a native for all the Texans?” “Will ‘House Hunters International’ want to film our quest for a cheap six-month rental (to start)?” “How can we sift truth from all the hype?” What to call home – Jungle? Coastal? Island? Farmland? How do you really pronounce Ambergris? And Placencia? And “caye”? What does a Belikin beer taste like?
And again, “What will we do once we land there?”
Some answers are coming soon. Rose and I will put boots on the ground on Sept. 28 for a three-week exploratory vacation. Wait. “Boots on the ground”? Who am I, GI Joe? So, Rose and I put sandals on the ground Aug. 28.
Here’s a rough sketch of our itinerary as outlined for Bobbi at belizeparadise.net (She offers seven and nine day tours of the country for folks like us.):
As it is, looks like we’ll hit the Blue Tang in San Pedro for three days, then ferry over to Corozal for three days at Orchid Bay.After that we’ll be winging it all around Belize.On Sept. 4 we’ll grab a bus to Belize City and pick up a rental car. Is a four-wheel drive a must in Belize? I don’t think we’ll get any farther south than Placencia and Hopkins Town. We do want to visit Orange Walk Town, Belmopan, San Ignacio and Dangriga, too.I think we can do all that by staying on primary (ie. mostly paved) roads.I suspect that living on the fringe of a key tourist/ex-pat area will be essential as my wife is a yoga/pilates teacher with her own studio (here) who wants to keep working. I on the other hand am a former newspaper journalist and government communications specialist — all of which qualifies me for a role as bartender somewhere. As long as the drinks aren’t too complicated …. Or perhaps bicycle rental agent. I love cycling.