A man who spent four months there in 1973 offers some plain advice if you're thinking about moving to Belize.
Back last fall—when MOTHER EARTH NEWS still had a sister publication—LIFESTYLE! magazine published two articles on homesteading in the new Central American nation of Belize (formerly British Honduras). One result was the following comments by Roger Smith, which we're passing on for the information of anyone who's thinking of emigration to that little-known country.
I read with interest the articles about Belize. I myself spent four months in that country's Stann Creek District early in 1973, and thought I'd pass on a few additional points for anyone who's interested in moving to Belize.
You should know, first of all, that the Belizean government is still very young and is plagued by political adolescence and lack of funds. With precedents now being set, the nation's leaders are hesitant about making concrete decisions especially positive decisions. "No" is more easily defensible in their minds than "yes".
This newness and uncertainty also makes the authorities highly sensitive to hostile comments. Persons—especially tourists hoping to establish permanent-resident status—who criticize the government in public or to strangers are very apt to be shown the border in whatever they happen to be wearing at the time.
Before you condemn this policy (or any others you find inconvenient), remember that Americans and Canadians have incurred mistrust by misusing their southern neighbor's hospitality in many ways. The worst abuses were economic, and the result is that Belize is getting extremely tightfisted about duty and concessions therefrom. Autos are the hardest-hit import items: The duty is 100% of the appraised value, and the appraisers are generous toward the government. Local arts, trades, professions and products are likewise carefully guarded by customs restrictions. The customs officers themselves are meticulous, unflappable, endlessly patient, and incorruptible.
As Roger Gee mentioned in his article, the immigration authorities are extremely interested in the financial solvency of people who expect to remain in Belize. Work permits are difficult to obtain, and—if you stay in the country for any length of time—you must obtain clearance from the income tax officials before you'll be allowed to leave.
Incidentally—since the opening of the new capital in Belmopan—few high-level government officials will even accept telephone calls from foreigners while in Belize City; you may find you have to go to Belmopan to do business. Be prepared to spend at least one night, and take a sleeping bag, a packed lunch and plenty of insect spray. When I was last in that city there were no motels, no eating places, no accommodations at all.
You may also find it handy to know that cabinet ministers generally operate through their assistant permanent secretaries, who bear the burden of the government's daily workings. Like most civil servants the world over, these officials have much responsibility and little power and carry out their many duties carefully.
Remember, amid any frustrations you encounter, that the majority of Belizean authorities are working to overcome their country's problems. You'll find them and most of their fellow citizens friendly, highly intelligent, and scrupulously honest in their professional dealings.
A note on law enforcement: Belizean policemen are all very young, very handsome, very military, and very, very serious. Their job is primarily to help people and they'll be courteous and cooperative as long as you are. They do mean business, however: One "oink" or "pig" and you'll be in jail for a long, long time. And they're cracking down on narcotics use, among their own countrymen as well as among visitors.
If the police are tough, it's not because Belize is a violent place. Mugging, gunfights, armed robbery, rape, etc., are very rare, and the punishment for such crimes is swift and irrevocable. This is one country where human rights, life, and property are taken seriously.
The same attitude extends to smaller matters. It's wise to respect the inhabitants' personal dignity, not only by observing good manners but by keeping one's hands to oneself in bars, hotels and stores, and on the streets. Most Belizeans—although rather earthy folks—are nonetheless curiously Victorian in some ways and easily offended in the more basic proprieties. Public vulgarity, especially on the part of visitors, is frowned upon.
Patience, trust, and keeping your own counsel are the keys to getting along and being liked in Belize. Yes, there ore some locals who will rob you blind, but they are few and you'll most likely be warned about them since most of the inhabitants will be taking a friendly interest in you. When you walk down the street in Belize City, people you've never seen before will know your name and all about you (will have known, in fact, ever since you walked off the plane or crossed the border into Corozal or Punta Gorda).
In contrast, the Mennonites you meet away from their settlements won't speak to you or even really look at you. They work hard, keep their mouths shut, and grow practically every scrap of produce available in the entire country with the exception of oranges, mangoes, and plantains. They, and the country's other people, are Belize's only natural resource of any consequence.
The Mennonites, of course, can't provide a total food supply for all of Belize, and groceries of any kind—except oranges—are outrageously expensive (even more so than at your local A & P or Piggly Wiggly). Part of this extra cost is duty, the rest, charges for transportation from Canada, Australia, Great Britain or the U.S. A one-pound tin of saltine crackers usually comes to over $1.00 BH, and one of the big economy-size jars of peanut butter sells for around $5.00 BH. Hardware, tools and implements of all kinds are also costly except for Collins machetes, made in Guatemala. These are the pocketknives of Central America, found everywhere, used for everything. Very little can be done without them.
Another economic problem that plagues Belize is lack of skilled workers. Anyone who is a good mechanic, a practical engineer, a first-class electrician, or something of the kind can find himself highly popular and much in demand. Many of the inhabitants are interested in these subjects and have taught themselves the rudiments. Unfortunately, the country has no trade schools for more advanced study, and such instruction abroad is prohibitively expensive. Also, U.S. Customs and Immigration officials have in the past made it difficult for Belizeans to live and work in the States. (The government of Belize is now returning the favor, and I, for one, don't blame them.)
In spite of their present difficulties, the Belizeans are independent, proud, ambitious, and economically aggressive. They don't like to hear how things are done elsewhere—especially in the U.S.—unless the comparison is favorable to Belize. And they have reason to be proud. For example, you won't find local kids diving for pennies (or any of that garbage), and the fishing co-ops are run honestly and for the benefit of the fishermen who own them. Conch divers and lobstermen earn $10,000-$12,000 a year if they own their own boats and work steadily through the seasons.
To indicate the tenacity of the Belizean people, I'll tell you about a man named Desmond Rogers who decided to build a road from Stann Creek, the main inland waterway, to the sea. The route ran across a swampy morass that eventually, some miles south, becomes Placencia Lagoon, and the project was said to be impossible.
Nevertheless, Desmond built his road. Canada, which has taken over much of the financial and technical aid to Belize, provided equipment—one front-end-loading earthmover, a gasoline water pump, a dump truck and a small tractor—and trained the men to run it. The work crew were Keche and Maya, Carib and black-Chinese ... common laborers with picks, shovels, machetes and palmetto staves. With these resources Rogers laid his roadway over the swamp—on a bed of fill, palmetto and sand—all by hand except for the fill. When I met him, his men were putting in the last short bridge, about a hundred yards from the Caribbean.
Any time you spend in Belize—if you keep an open mind and act friendly—will teach you a strange kind of respect for her people. If you go expecting to find lazy, thieving mixed bloods, that's what you'll find, but if you look for plain folks trying to make a living from poor earth and poorer resources, you'll meet them and like them. In Belize, only the Caribbean is rich—incredibly so. But Belize can make you rich in friends, in beauty, in work that's never finished.
Ah, yes, work! Forever and always, every day, you'll have the BH factor perching on your shoulder like a tired, slat-ribbed, and continually raucous and sarcastic monkey. The BH factor is, simply, Murphy's Law: If it can break, it will. If it should run, it won't. If the fuel should be pure, strain it anyway. Parts you need for imperative repairs will arrive only when the rest of the machine has rotted away, and the duty will be double what you expected.
All things considered, living in Belize is as agonizing as living in the American West of the mid-1800's (say, Arizona, only include in your picture the immediate rust of metal and rot of leather). But lordy, it can be fun: village dances and festivals and gallons of Belikin beer at 50¢ a bottle; white rum and water and bamboo chicken for Christmas dinner; endless, eternal, peppered red beans and rice; and scrawny chickens that taste twice as good as they do here.
You'll find your attitude toward life changing: You'll put off indefinitely anything that must be done immediately, and you'll learn the patience and long-suffering of Job. And when you see bright-faced new gringos coming to town, you'll nudge your local buddies and point at their funny clothes and the cameras that will rust in their hands and the shoes that will rot off their feet and the thick wads of BH dollars that will run as sand through their fingers. And you will be at home.