Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Belize blog: Travel adventures: the big guy in a tiny place

I read an article full of lies about  glorious Haiti, and  I thought, that rather than just gloss over the flaws of a Caribbean country, I would share with you the actual experiences of my favorite one: Belize, it's an awesome place to go, well worth getting there.
Some statistics: the country is 70 miles wide and 200 miles long, it's tiny, not much bigger than Cypress County in southern Alberta.  Just like  Cypress County, you need a sense of humor to be in  Belize.
Belize doesn't like the metric system, the money is dollars  and the exchange is pegged 2-1 to the US dollar, no  rip off, make up the exchange rate on the fly stuff like the Mexico Peso. Belizeans are English speaking, though Spanish and Garfuna are common.

Getting there: Is there any place worse than the Cancun bus depot? I'll just leave that out there.

Belize Money: Unless someone tells you it's USD, pay Belize. The conversation is 2-1 but this is a poor country so if someone says its $10.00 and you give an American ten, expect no change. Paying in Belize is better than arguing because you shouldn't be a dick on holidays, If you really want to be a dick, take a cruise instead.

Drug dealers and the police: If you want a bad day in Belize get arrested. The two quickest ways for you to be put in jail are public drunkeness or buying something from one of the local drug dealers. Now, unless you are blind or dumb, it's pretty easy to spot the drug dealers, if they don't just tell you, it's groups of young men standing on street corners. You get arrested because they are well known to the locals who will tell the cop on the other corner that buddy just sold you some weed. It's much more profitable for the Belizean cops to arrest rich Gringos than poor locals. Remember your role in Belize is to support the economy, however you choose to do that. I cannot imagine a prison down here features much in the way of spa treatments, so stay out of them by not doing anything  stupid. 

Everyone is a guide:  expect that when you ask someone for directions, your first rookie mistake, they will guide you and you will give them two bucks Bze when you get there, even if you can see it from where you started.

Rental cars: I like Crystal Car Rental and in particular a white 2008 f150 regular cab pick up that I have rented two years in a row. The logic behind my choice is tires. Roads, which I will talk about in a bit, are rough, the HI ways are good, but off the pavement, roads are unmaintained and since Belize is really just a pile of limestone, they can be spectacularly bumpy. Rental cars and SUVs like rentals everywhere, have the cheapest tires they can buy and they blow out a lot. Pick ups on the other hand are the Belizeans work horse and tend to come equipped with actual truck tires. I have driven just about every road in Belize and have never had a flat, a miracle in its own right. 

Funny traffic laws: Belize has one unique traffic rule,  to turn left, pull off to the right and let  all the traffic behind you pass before turning. This rule is obeyed by exactly no one. 
Traffic Lights: they are both in Belize City and you will probably never see one unless you are touring the south side of town which is not recommended.

Speed is controlled by elevated crosswalks called "sleeping policemen", these speed bumps on steroids WILL slow you down right after you crash land.  I guarantee you will only ever hit one at speed. Just to be interesting, they aren't well marked, but expect them at every bus stop or near schools on village entrances. The way to cross them is to slow to nothing, proceed even slower and thank me for including this warning. It's far more effective than Edmonton's photo radar cash grab, but generates no cash for the government, unlike Edmonton's photo radar, which generates way too much and  also features its share of sleeping policemen, only in Edmonton they are real and get paid.

Belizean authority figures: T
he cops in Belize are great, they have to buy their own bullets, gringos (that's you btw)  will get tickets for not wearing seat belts, but only if you look like you can afford a Bze $50.00 fine. Do NOT under any circumstance offer a Belizean police officer a bribe, it's not a question of them not needing the money. They are very proud of their roles and corruption is dealt with harshly as you should avoid finding out. The  rule of law is the same as in Canada or Australia but delivery is different. At least here they won't shoot you for  grabbing a stapler  at the airport, this is probably because they have to buy their own bullets.  

Hours of justice: In case you are hell bent on dealing with the Belizean criminal justice system please be aware that Magistrates only work 08:00 to 16:30 Monday to Friday, if you are arrested outside these hours you will sit in jail and not be fed until the Magistrate returns to work Monday morning. They also take leisurely lunches.

Lifts: Another unique Belizean thing is that pick up trucks are a kind of public transport called lifts, people stand at the sleeping policemen and wave for rides; men always in the back, women generally in the cab, especially if they look like they are going or coming from work. Every Belizian woman is someone's mom, respect her like you do your own, or like you should.  One really good thing about lifts is if you are stopped at a police check point with no seat belt and an open beer, they will turn a blind eye because you are nice to the locals.  It's great to go to a country where people aren't all weird "axe murderer" about hitchhiking.
Uber:  Taxis are everywhere, any four door sedan or old Toyota van with a green license plate is for hire. No meters, kind of like Uber, you negotiate the fare when you get in,  but without all the text messaging. or debates in City Council.
Sex tourism and death: if you come here to get something you can't get at home, get on the next plane out because you will be caught and likely experience some  unexpected sexual adventures in the Belize jail. People get murdered here for two reasons: drug deals or screwing someone in a bizarre sex triangle. Even famous female American journalists fall prey to that one and get killed as a result.  Belize isn't dangerous, it just makes stupid people pay for their behavior. 

Class system: You are richer than the average Belizean,  you are in someone's home so be respectful. If your life in Winnipeg in January was so perfect you'd never leave it to come here, most people here don't have a choice but they do just fine. Most importantly  do not flash your wealth, leave your jewelry  at home, an ill tempered broke guy with a machete will make fast work of your finger.

Roads and garbage: Belizians have low expectations of government so they aren't disappointed. This shows up in two ways; bad roads and lots of garbage:  eco friendly take out food wrappers have not found their way here, white plastic containers, and bottles are endemic.   It's messy, not Calcutta messy, but if your aesthetic preferences are for pristine views you can't hang out in populated places. Mind you, in Canada, we have a First Nations reserve system that's dirtier and way more expensive than anything here. You should not throw stones or trash.
The roads are narrow, poorly marked and unless paved are kidney rattling rough. The back road from Spanish Lookout to San Ignacio is very pretty and is on par with any motocross track in Canada. The country suffers from a lack of funds to buy road graders and since the gravel is at a minimum fist size and pointy, cars die quick and painful deaths. This is why I prefer a truck. Belizians like trucks too, unless they are 1989 Toyota Corolla sedans in which case they are taxis cabs. The Chinese sell a lot of vehicles here, mostly broken motorcycles Called Meiula and an odd truck called the Great Wall Wingle, which looks like what a Chinese guy who has never seen a pick up thinks one should look like. The big trucks, like the buses, are forcibly retired American units, long haul trucking is not an industry here. There are no long hauls, the fact every truck has a sleeper has more to do with pace than distance. You will find the odd Bedford army truck used to haul sugar cane and if you can see it through the cloud of exhaust smoke pass quickly before it snaps in half and buries you, more likely though, being a Bedford, it's broken down already. 

Internet and cellphones: only two conditions exist: they work great or not at all. If you are relying on Internet, you can probably borrow Wi-Fi anywhere,   I expect that Belize will continue to invest in this area, things are getting better.

Idiots with their own islands: Leonardo deCaprio owns an island that he's making into a very posh resort for self absorbed douche bags like him. I suspect this will be ok because an island is kind of a  quarantine and being such should save the rest of us from them.    Leo's retreat burns 40 gallons of diesel and hour to keep the imported strawberries chilled, but the diesels are hidden next to the staff tenement and don't bother the paying guests. He plans to burn biodiesel made from used deep fryer oil in the generators, this must be barged in from Houston Texas by a tug boat that does not burn biodiesel. The staff quarters will, however, smell pleasantly like French fries. 

Places to stay that are not owned by idiots: There are lots of Eco places and beach places and many just nice places. I have never stayed in a place that wasn't clean. I've stayed a few that had no hot water and others that wobbled, but houses build on tall sticks without cross bracing will do that. AC is optional everywhere and hardly necessary, fans however are very important.  Airbnb, trip advisor etc will tell you where to stay;  in Placencia I love the Sea Spray Hotel. That is my only recommendation, nicest economy hotel on the beach you will find anywhere.  

Progressive idiocy: a lot of people, myself included want to fix things, actually I like fixing stuff so I can always find something to do. As for overhauling society or imposing some  nanny state rules on people, it's not going to happen here. There are two political parties PUP or People's United Party and the UDP or United Democratic Party.  I don't know who's in power, or what they stand for but the obvious thing is Belizians are at least as passionate about politics as Americans and yet do so in a system the same as Canadians. It's a Westminster commonwealth country, just like Australia and Canada and have only recently freed themselves of the colonial shackles of control, exploitation and slavery. They are 35 years independent and are still .pretty giddy about it.

Colonial British idiots: The Brits ran British Honduras (Belize) like any other remote colony and took everything they could as cheaply  and as fast as possible, they left behind a few overseers like the dole banana company but even this is changing.  A railroad, established to haul the hardwoods they raped from the mountains is long gone, the project failed, not because they didn't try, but because the second longest reef In the world prevented the Brits from building a deep water port:  thank you Mother Nature. An interesting side note that used to make me proud but now kind of makes me feel kind of ashamed; is the legislature building in Edmonton features a lot of Belizean hardwood, the main door to the Assembly  Chamber were a gift from the Brits when the building was built. Belize doesn't want them back, but I think we should at least promise not to take any more of their stuff without asking.

The lack of a  deep water port also keeps the floating buffet tables at sea. Cruise lines can't bring their bigger, uglier ships near here so less people get to take shore excursions, again, thank you Mother Nature.

Belize has a total population of about 300,000 people. A land mass smaller than Vancouver island and no tax base. Taxation here is all consumption based, income tax is basically zero, GST is 12.5% and import duty are astronomical. 
Belize has 700 kinds of hardwood, fantastic lime stone quarries and more preserved land than any European Eco state. They also use, but do not mandate,  biodegradable shopping bags that melt in humidity, which essentially means everyone is a jogger.

Stuff they don't have: They are short on Robertson wood screws and sharp saws, spackle is less expensive than Home Depot. If you keep your expectations in line, it's a thrift haven. Recently, we bought 3 gallons of paint, plus all the tools for installation including spackle and a pair of Chinese needle nose pliers for $180 Bze. You can hire a guy to paint your house for $5.00 Bze an hour. The key to local labor however is to remember: "the crab he move too slow, get fat. The crab he move too fast lose de claw". This accurately describes pace. Few people here are at risk of losing a claw, but stuff gets done. 

The sun, legal drugs and condoms: it's lobster burning bright and intense. SPF 90 is the order of the day. As I now realize and should have used.   You can buy Viagra, (it's generic, goes by the brand name "much pleasing of wife") without a prescription from any pharmacy, same with Vicodin, "many happiness thought" brand. Condoms have to be bought at the pharmacy and by and large they are Chinese manufactured "safety wang" brand that may not work that well for men who aren't Chinese. 

AIDS is a problem, only Canadians with their socialized nanny state health care will not face a hefty bill getting cured of this one. Because, as everyone knows, in Canada no matter how dumb you are, the state will fix you as long as you don't die waiting.

Health things:  doctors, dentists, hair cuts and Thai massage are very good. I like the barber in Placencia, the guy is a whiz with a straight razor. A lot of the medical people in Belize are expats from other commonwealth countries who prefer the climate over, say, Aberdeen Scotland. or Winnipeg.

Local booze: Vicodin seems completely unnecessary in a country where you can buy a 26 oz. bottle  of local rum for $12.00 Bze. You can buy better stuff, I like three barrels that sells for $22.00 Bze, but thrift kicks in and the cheap stuff is just fine. Belikin beer is sold in cold singles for about $2.50 Bze.  It's drinkable
, it's fine. If your goal is to get pissed, drink the rum. 

Water, Belize has a lot of water, most of it where it should be. Like power which only goes off during dinner, water goes off every time someone forgets to turn the village pump on. Generally it's ok to drink, but nobody does. 

Food: there is lots, roadside corn in a bag, is great. the sleeping policeman speed bumps on the highway mean instant markets, for all the stopped traffic, bananas, barbecue meat or fish, all good and all better eaten without asking for details. 

Eco friendly dietary choices for Vegans: For the organic purists among us, Belize generally does not use toxins  in their production systems. Oranges, for example are pulped for concentrate, not gassed for transport and consumption, bananas are fungus proofed with giant plastic bags that cover the fruit bunch. You can literally see acres upon acres of banana trees with blue plastic bags hanging from them in season, it's quite a sight. The corn that's grown here is native, from seed stock, not GMO. The sugar cane is harvested after they burn the cane field to chase the snakes out. This is  virtually the only deliberate safety thing I am aware of, although the evacuating snakes do get squashed by traffic making  the highways quite slippery.  Chickens are free range, eggs are brown and the cattle look bored just like at home. They have a lot of goats but I haven't knowingly eaten one.

Some people eat iguanas, and I'm told stewed monkey tastes like it sounds.

A real treat are Fry Jacks with banana jam,  the Fry Jack is as close as Belize gets to having its own perogy and as every culture has some variation of the boiled or fried stuffed dough thing, it's universal good eating.

Religion: this place is Christian. The big holiday is Easter and on Good Friday the bars are closed. Only day of the year this happens and it's considered an issue. There are  Muslims and Buddhists but  they blend in. Christmas isn't all commercial like North America, nobody has the money for it and Belizeans are too smart to let their kids sit on the laps of sweaty fat guys dressed in red.

Schools: see religion, pretty much all Catholic, if you are going to raise a hissy fit about your kids wearing nice uniforms, singing national anthems or saying the Lord's Prayer, stay in Morinville, Alberta. (This being a local reference of some suburban mother who didn't want her kid to pray and thereby caused a new school to be opened for kids who don't need discipline or structure)

Charities: Belize is an awesome place for missionary work, playground construction and used computers, in particular Rotary International does fantastic work doing the right stuff without the "sing for your supper" approach popular among missionary churches. I'm not a Rotarian, but as an impartial third party I rank their work as awesome, especially if you are sick or need a fire truck.

Smoking: of course, though not as many toddlers smoking as in India.

Gasoline: about 1.25 cdn a litre.

Rampant consumerism and impulse control: There are no giant American shopping carts of any kind, btw if your four year old weights 70 pounds make him walk, don't bitch because the basket seat is too small for his fat ass. Little kids here are cute as heck, and generally very little, they also don't beg, but if you do give one of the bare foot urchins a dollar to buy candy and tell him he has to share it with his baby sister, he will.  It's also fun to ask them math questions to show they pay attention in school.

Polite kids:  This is a purely editorial opinion, but kids in Belize are way politer and better behaved than kids in a lot of other places. Their school uniforms are the same colors are their schools.
LGTBQWXYZ stuff:  Since the pride flag is largely made up of Caribbean colours, I'm sure you could safely wear one here and only hear people say "nice shirt"

Beach peddlers: not many, and the few here aren't selling Chinese knock off Wolex watches but humble hand made Mayan laundry baskets and face size stone masks. I do wish some NGO  would help these people learn to market more effectively; a huge basket or a five pound chunk of stone shaped like a Mayan God are hard to fit in your luggage. More emphasis needs to be placed on flatter, lighter things like key chains and bottle openers.

Weird stuff:  All pop and beer comes in bottles, to sit on the beach and drink a few you need a bottle opener, just saying...maybe with funny stuff printed on them like "we sat on the beach and had a few. Got so sunburned it hurt to .......".  
Dogs have balls, few are fixed, that's probably the weirdest thing actually, there are lots of humane society folks and not as many dogs as their unfixed nature would suggest, maybe they are too sunburned,  I don't know.   Also, be aware that there are no house numbers, anywhere.

Scaffolding looks unsafe: Actually most construction techniques are pretty unique, but they work hard and labour is cheap. Safety people are completely unnecessary, although hard hats and high visibility vests are worn where they don't seem to be needed. Highway workers wear hard hats, construction workers wear safety vests, the intent is good but the delivery might be off a bit.  Steel toe boots have not been imported yet, Nikes are the carpenters shoe of choice. I added this because I know of a lot of safety people who will be shocked by this flagrant disregard for human life. But when you consider that British Colonization had  the worse safety record in history, followed closely by French canal builders and American rail road tunnellers, the Belizians are just fine.

Injury is not fun: but hospitals are quite good here, I'd go. Alberta Health Services could learn a lot about service delivery from the Belizians, but they won't.

Debts: the total debt of Belize is three billion dollars.
Bloated socialist government: Socialism does not work here because there aren't enough rich people to pay for it.

Fun stuff:
Cave tubing:   is what it sounds like! It's great to turn off your head light and sneak up on someone.

Spelunking:  a terrible hobby for a guy my size.

Diving, fishing, snorkeling:   On the mainland there is less tourist crap than out on the cayes and this is good indeed. It's particularly pleasing that a good film director chose to build on the mainland and a shitty actor chose the islands.  The tour operators do have some safety things, like cave bump caps and  life preservers if you really think you need them.  Bring your own water shoes.

TV and Radio: I wouldn't bother owning a TV, radio is glorious, lots of bad audio FM talk shows and an awesome station that plays classic rock called. Love FM.

Golf: one course, executive 9 hole near Belmopan. Not busy.

Bowling: why would you even ask? But yes there is a bowling alley in Placencia.

Jet ski rentals: stay in Mexico, please.

Golf cart rentals: yes and this is a business I think I'd like to get into. Golf carts are slow, unsafe, cheap and rent for as much as cars with way less capital investment. I did see one the other day pulling a trailer full of plywood. 

Motorcycle rentals: you can rent a Chinese motorcycle that will break down and you get to push back to the rental office for about $90 Bze a day.

Pizza delivery: you can get a Dominos deluxe delivered from Cancun to anyplace in Belize in under twenty four hours, guaranteed.

Souvenirs: Lots of made in China stuff typical of resorts, but also lots of real nice, and I mean real nice hand made goods, there are some fine artists here.  

What you will miss: No McDonald's, Walmart, Costco, Starbucks, Subway or Dominos,  in other words it's paradise. Actually Subway did try here, but to quell the plague of franchised awful food, the government prudently quadrupled the duty on the meat they use in their sandwiches.
Grocery shopping: Everything you can buy at home you can get here, but only one kind, one size. You can buy Froot Loops in a large box, you cannot buy Soy Milk,  nor can you buy Skim, 1%, 2%,  half and half,  in Belize it's all called "milk" and it all comes from cows who are grateful for the chance to be contribute to your breakfast.  Be forewarned, however, anything not locally produced is expensive.

Mennonites: Most of the produce, milk and meat comes from Mennonite farms in the Cayo district, these folks  don't seem to  like rubber tires, it is quaint to see a John Deere 9600 combine on steel wheels.  The Mennonites, are often, interestingly, expats from northern Alberta. They might not like rubber tires, but they do understand it's easier to farm when you have more climate choices than mud or frozen mud.

Mayan stuff:  No travelogue on Belize would be complete without reference to the Mayan civilization: there were a million Mayans here a millennium ago then the Spanish showed up and now there are about a dozen. The ruins of a million people, which is three times more people than live here now,  are often spectacular, profound and authentic, if you climb on the ruins expect that there will be no guard rails. Your best strategy is don't fall down. Belize does not have the money to install things like guard rails.  The Mayans were a fun loving people, they invented the soccer stadium and since beheading was common, presumably also hooliganism.

In closing: There is a reason Belize is called the Jewel of the Caribbean, it has an amazing culture, climate and demands you develop a sense of humor. Tourism is a big deal and there is very little oil. I love the place and have since  I first read about it in the Mother Earth News when I was about fourteen years old.


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