Saturday, July 3, 2010

My New Blog is Up!

Guess what I have been doing during my first week in Madagascar, apart from watching football?
I have put up my new blog ,'suprisingly' called Dutch in Madagascar.

Click on

Thanks to all of you who have supported my blog, with comments and positive reactions. Please keep doing so!

Merci and see you in Tana!


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

XXL Beer

To make time pass quicker I traveled to Hamburg last weekend where my husband's new employer is located. He had been there since one week. Soleine and I took the train and enjoyed the fact that you can actually walk around in a train and enjoy the landscape, as compared to taking a  plane. Apart from that, the trip from Holland to Germany took almost 8 hours, in the same time you can fly to Miami or further.

My first impression about Hamburg? What a surprisingly nice city and so huge - third city of Germany. The city center is built around a large lake, like in Geneva, and surrounded by lots of old buildings. There are plenty of smaller canals, such as in Amsterdam, aligned with old-style warehouses, while there are also many newly built, super modern areas, which made me think of Rotterdam. The new area called Hafencity (yes, English is also penetrating  Germany, despite the Germans' fierce linguistic nationalism) is worth a visit, located at the Elbe, Germany's largest port. The only problem I had with Hamburg was the weather, I had not realized it's located much more North, compared to Belgium, and temperatures drop at least 10 degrees. A very good reason to find a proper German restaurant and order a solid 'wintery' meal of sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, with of course...Hamburg's national food item, not hamburgers but... wurst. Sausage in all colors, size and shapes can be bought at each street corner.
On our last night Germany happened to play against Australia for the World Cup. Of course we went to watch in the Kneipe, where everyone was wearing the national colors, cheering and drinking beers.
Whereas in the US I'm always amazed about t-shirt sizes, with small or medium being XXL to European standards, the same can be said for German beer sizes: half a liter is the smallest size, the normal size is one liter, I can't even imagine what XL or XXL must look (and feel) like. Heavy!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Art of Waiting

Can you imagine, after the rush of packing, selling, throwing and giving away all our stuff in Belize, canceling all contracts and contacts, saying goodbye to all our wonderful friends, all in ONE BLOODY week, we are now still waiting to  depart! Our new job was supposed to start June first.
It's the 11th of June now, and we're still in Belgium/Holland. Sigh again. We are 'preparing' ourselves for the stay in our new country....Madagascar. Happy as we are with our new posting, the 'preparation' time is way too long. Normally we just hop on the plane, as there usually is no time to sign contracts, no time to read about the history of whereabouts of the new country. This time we have more than 4 weeks to 'prepare'. Sigh. But what can you do to prepare? I've checked Google Earth to spot interesting neighborhoods in Antananarivo (I will take that house with that little blue spot!), I have watched Madagascar the movie several times, listened to a 2-hour lecture from a professor in Tropical Medicine about malaria and the risk of being bitten by a mad dog, or -Godforbid - a lemur!!, had my upper arms injected stiff with all kinds of tropical vaccines, I've sent my stool sample by mail (!-  discretion guaranteed, unless the mailman knows what Biological Materials Category 2 are), have checked the United-Nations-in-Madagascar website and e-mailed the American School of Antananarivo. What else can I do? I am done with waiting, I want to take the plane and get settled. Find a house, purchase appliances, buy a car, make new friends, start a new hash and a new blog. I don't want to be here, I want to be there!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

To Pack or Not to Pack?

We have come to my least favorite part of our stay in Belize: packing up. I have done this already many times in my life so it's no big deal but still.
Packing means taking some really tough decisions and therefore I have one rule: if I have not used it during two years, I am not taking it. But this is so hard. Am I going to be able to wear that business suit which I have never worn in Belmopan, or not? Is our daughter ever going to make that puzzle again. I am going to use my onion chopper which has remained in its box for our whole stay here? I don't think so. I believe that there are two kinds of people in this world: the keepers and the throwers. The keepers keep everything...because they think 'you never know', and probably end up dead one day with their children having to take out 60 years of kept stuff. I am not a keeper. I am thrower, which mostly means giving away. There is always someone who can use it...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bye Bye Belize...

All good things come to an end. All not-so-good things too - I believe, but that's not what I wanted to talk about. It is true, our stint here in Belmopan has come to an end. We are leaving by the end of this week. So let me take some time to summarize our one-and-a-half year stay in this beautiful country.

What I will miss:

1. Our great fun friends, Belizeans as well as expatriates, with whom we have shared countless great moments: island trips, beach barbecues, theme parties ranging from 'Middle East' to 'Abba' at Belmopan Party Central, organized by Margarita Mena the number 1 party queen of Belmopan, beautiful hashes in the jungle, swimming at night etc. Unforgettable moments...

2. The astonishingly beautiful nature and blue skies every day.

3. The opportunity to get to know so many different cultures: the Maya culture, the Mennonites, especially those who live like in the middle ages with their horses and carriages, their beards and their traditional dresses. I find them so very fascinating but never had (or took?) the chance to get to know them better. The Garifuna's are also very interesting and colorful.

4. The easy-peasy character of Belmopan. Driving to school: 2 minutes, buying veggies at the market: 10 minutes, weekly groceries: 20 minutes, paying utility bills: 15 minutes. No traffic jams, no parking problems, just imagine how much quality time we had left to do other things.

What I will not miss:

1. Sandflies or fleas or whatever they are. We have had our share of itch here, though I must also say that when my sister was here for 10 days just this month, we did not experience any. You can just never tell when and where they'll pop up.

2. The Happy Clappy Jesus Loves You school (BCA). Again, I must say that Soleine had a good time there and she has learned a lot, probably much more than when she'd gone to pre-school in Europe. But why everything has to be with the bible and Jesus, I mean every song, every exercise, even maths, science, language...that is simply beyond me.

3. The Chinese supermarkets. I admit, without the Chinese supermarkets our kitchen cabinets would probably be empty, but I just dread to go into the filthy, dusty shops, with rats and what-not, having to pay your groceries to a totally disinterested and often lunch-eating cashier, and then begging NOT to have any plastic bags. They're good to buy plastic slippers, but perishables???

4. The weekly death toll in Belize. Literally every week we hear about someone being shot or killed in a traffic accident. The murder rate in Belize is 10 times higher than in the USA. The shootings most often happen in Belize city, but it affects our Belmopan community too, as it's always somebody's cousin's neighbor's (ex)wife. Just last week the son of the mayor, our neighbor, got shot in Belize city. He was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Very very sad.

5. Sundays in Belmopan. Yesterday was our last one...

My favorite places - in random order. Oh my, that is really difficult, there are too many!

Pooks Hill Lodge situated at the primary rain forest, I just love the jungle with its immensely high palm trees. I always felt like being on another planet.

Under water in the shark and sting ray alley and the Hol Chan Marine reserve, easy to reach either from Caye Caulker of San Pedro. Tumbling in the turquoise lukewarm water surrounded by the cutest little Nemo fish as well as real sharks and graceful rays is totally fantastic!

Under ground in the ATM or Actun Tunishil Muknal, cave. This is one of the best kept secrets of Belize It is so special that I am not sure if it will still exist in a few years, maybe they will close it off from the public. I hope not because it is the most adventurous 'attraction' I have ever done, both in terms of physical exercise- swimming, climbing - and in terms of beauty. The cave itself is extremely beautiful with its stalactites and stalagmites and the centuries-old artifacts are simply amazing. I can really recommend our guide: Carlos Panti - mobile 669 5552.

Tik'al National Park and Maya City, okay it is not in Belize but it's close enough. You will find a stunning combination of nature and culture. My tip: stay overnight in the park and do an Early Morning Bird trip, climb up the Maya heaven and watch, and listen, the jungle come to life.

That's it folks. I really enjoyed writing this blog, and I am grateful for the many comments I received which encouraged me to keep writing. A big thank you to Jack for helping me out with my English spelling.
I will start a new blog in my new country, so keep checking!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Star Treatment

Hey, what is happening to our poor car? Well, no need to feel bad for it (or like the French say: for 'her' - a car is female). She is actually getting a star treatment!
It's one of those things that I never knew existed. I never had to know. Here in Belize many of the roads are unpaved, and on gravel road the wind screen of your car can easily be damaged by a pebble or a small stone. If you don't fix these small cracks or stars in the windscreen, they can become bigger and bigger and eventually the entire windscreen can burst, which is obviously a dangerous and costly affair. In Belize city there is a small repair shop that does these star treatments. They drill a tiny hole into the windshield, then put liquid glass in it and fill it it up through vacuum pressure. How clever is that? Our car enjoyed her star treatment!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rainforest Remedies

A few weeks ago I went to a meeting of the Belmopan International Women's Group. There was a guest lecturer by the name of Rosita Arvigo, an American doctor of naprapathy (yes, we learn something new every day), which is form of chiropractic, those doctors who crack bones or something.I was not very keen as I am not a big fan of alternative medicine, but Rosita immediately caught my interest. Rosita has worked for ten years with an 86-year old Mayan traditional healer who was reknowned for his ability to cure hopelessly ill patients. She has produced a book 'Sastun - My Apprenticeship with a Mayan Healer' about her experiences with this very wise, witty and womanizing man, It's a must-read, thoroughly amusing and highly interesting. Did you know that 80% of the plants and trees in the Belizean tropical forest can be used for something? Ranging from mosquito repellent to easing stomach cramps and high blood pressure, from calming frantically crying babies to contraception. It's amazing what nature gives us, though only a few people seem to know about it and use it. Why would that be? Perhaps it's is quite hard work to collect the leaves, roots, and branches, chop them, dry them, conserve them; it's easier to mass produce pills. It's quicker to buy a can of chemical mosquito spray than to dry Jackass leaves, brew tea and rub yourself with it. Being a skeptic by nature and not suffering from any ailments that I know of, I decided to explore this bush thing anyhow. Together with my friend Linda I went to the Belmopan market. There we found Ms Janice Bain a true bush lady, behind her stall full of weird looking stuff. We bought the following: 

1. The Wash Out: a combination of ginger root, pissabed flowers and bukut leaf, to be boiled in half a gallon of water. It is supposed to cleanse the body. It washes out acids, plaques, fats and what not. Janice warned us about the color and smell of stool, but I was 'brave' enough to try it out for you my dear blog readers. The tea tasted surprisingly good and was very refreshing. I did have to go to the bath room but was not in a hurry or anything. I won't go into too much detail about the odors and colors...but I will say that there were certain changes which could very well be the acids and the plaques. I did not check it...

2. Billy Web Energy and Immune Boost. Little small pieces of brown root, looking like wood. It is supposed to work as an energy drink, to be taken when feeling tired or sluggish. I brewed the tea and drank it half warm, as I fail to see how hot tea can give you a boost when it's 40 degrees Celsius. It tastes awful, bitter and 'woody', maybe I made it too strong. I waited for some effects and I must say: I did feel something running through my veins, and I  felt a distinct energy peak, like drinking a Red Bull. The only  thing is that you'll have to wash away the aftertaste with a glass of wine.

3. Jack Ass Bitter. So bitter that you must be a dumb fool to drink it. Hence the name. It can be used to prevent and soothe mosquito bites, simply by rubbing the leaves or by brewing it and rubbing your skin with the lotion. I tried it by rubbing leaves on my daughter's mosquito bites but she scratched as hard as always.

4. The Hormone Check: last but not least, I bought a bottle of very dodgy looking stuff that is supposed to be a female Viagra, or a 'panty wetter' (not my words). It has wild yam and Chicoloco in it, whatever that maybe, and contains estrogen and progesterone. You can brew tea by soaking the pieces, up to five times. Needless to say that I am dying to try this one out! I did the first soak today... as my husband will be back tomorrow after two weeks of separation.. Curious as to its effects? Me too. More later.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Best of Both Worlds

We're back in Belize. That is, me and my daughter only, because Michel and his son Antoine are stuck in Miami since last Friday as a result of this ´phantom´ash cloud; who could ever have thought of a scenario like that? They were scheduled to fly back to Europe last week, Antoine had to start school again after Easter break, and Michel had to go back to see his mom and have business meetings that will determine our future. After five extra days in five different hotels in Miami Beach, suddenly South Beach is not so attractive anymore, very expensive. Guess who has to pay for it? We do!

As for Soleine and me, we are back in Belmopan, after five weeks . It's good to be back. Nothing has changed here in Belize since our departure, though it strikes me just how hot it is - always need a few days to adjust- and how dirty the road sides are. We are actually going to help clean up the Belize - Belmopan highway this Saturday, for Earth Day, so more on that later.

For the past five weeks we were in Europe and in the States, and this allowed me to compare these two continents. As usual while traveling I like to collect things. This time I collected 'things' that are, in my opinion, better in the US, and things that are better in Europe. Here's my list. Feel free to comment and add.

Things that are better in the States
  • The size of the roads and parking spaces. In Belgium I have to call Michel to come down three floors to park our car reversely in impossibly small parking spots while traffic is racing by.

  • Space shuttles. We went to the Kennedy Space Centre and were impressed by the US space program, seeing the shuttle that went to the moon 41 years way we would have pulled that off in Europe. 
  • Free refills for coffee and soft drinks. Wish they'd do beers too. Also, the quality of coffee in the States has improved tremendously over the years (or has my taste deteriorated?).
  • People cleaning up their dogs' shit. We can all follow that good example.

Things that are better in Europe

  • Food and sizes of food portions. I find most food in the US rather terrible and the portions are insane, leading to incredible amounts of food being wasted and shocking numbers of fat people. Many are so huge that they  do Disney World in rented scooters because they can't walk.
  • Inclusive pricing. If the menu reads that a meal costs 20 Euro, then you pay 20 Euro. The same goes for hotel rooms, rental cars and flights. In Europe the waiters do not add 18% (!!) to your bill for throwing your plastic food on your plastic table. I could not help but feel cheated all the time because of the hidden resort charges, parking fees, insurance costs, sales taxes and service costs.
  • Castles. True, Disney's castle is cute but need I say more?
  • Real smiles. Okay, people may not smile as much as in the States, maybe due to long hard winters and the fact that teeth-bleaching is uncommon, but when they smile, it's a real smile. Not the Time-Share Sales Guy Have a Great Day-smile (so fake).

Things that are better in Belize
  • The jungle! We went on a jungle trail in the Everglades. Ha ha, what a joke.An asphalted jungle trail? With garbage bins and warning signs?

  • Scenery. Likewise we crossed the Big Cypress park on 'one of America's most scenic highways', well...I can tell you that the highway from the Airport to Belmopan is more scenic, even despite the rubbish. 

  • The Keys (Cayes). We drove all the way down the US 1 Highway to Key West. I reckon that must have been one of the most expensive highways in the States but it felt like being on any other hardly notice the keys. It's much more exciting to take a water taxi and explore Caye Caulker or Tobacco Caye.

Agree? Don't agree? Anything to add anyone? Of course the real morale of my story is that we are just lucky devils to be able to experience the best of both worlds, and even more!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Funky Town

I remember my first time like it was yesterday. It was actually a few years ago, at the time I was living in Trinidad, and it was love at first sight. My first stay at South Beach, or SoBe, impressed me enough to mark the start of a life time long love relation with this fast, funky and fiery place. With its beautiful clean, white and wide beaches, its fancy Art Deco hotels and of course, its Show Off Boulevard better known as Ocean Drive. It’s the most “C&TBCn” kind of road I’ve ever seen, funkier than the Champs Elysees in Paris or Orchard Road in Singapore. Ocean Drive is one hundred percent about See and To Be Seen. But... you’ve got to have wheels. Preferably with fancy tire covers on a convertible sports car; Porches, Ferraris and Lotuses are plenty, but you can be equally cool on a bike, skate board or a pair of shiny roller skates.

It’s what I like most about South Beach: its relaxed yet energetic atmosphere. Everywhere you go you see active people. They follow Yoga classes on the beach, take their baby out jogging in its stroller, master the waves from underneath a mega kite or simply throw a Frisbee. We’re here for three days only, but we're all in for the game. When in Miami do as the Miamians, right? But by lack of wheels or a fancy kite we're taking the easy way out. We're running along Ocean Drive's walking path and the kids jump on the beach around their sand castle.Low tech but not 'low fun'. SoBe it. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spoke Wound

Some words are simply untranslatable. Is that even a word? Untranslatable because the original word is so embedded in a certain context or culture that a literal translation would completely lose its meaning. The Dutch word 'spaakwond' is one of those, and to be honest, I'd never heard of it myself until 5 days ago. Literally it would be 'spoke wound'. Does that mean anything to you native English speakers?

A few days ago I went to visit my mom and dad in my home town Dongen in the south of Holland. Leaving our rental car in Belgium so my husband could easily go to the hospital every day, I took the train with my all-excited daughter Soleine. The total distance  of 165 km, or just over 100 miles took me almost as long as the flight from Belize to Germany, but anyhow, after eight hours I was happy to see my brother at the train station.
He lends me a bicycle to get around in Dongen. It's an 'Omafiets' (literally: Granny bike), in English also referred to as a European City Bike, designed for mothers to take at least two children and three bags full of groceries. Like all children in Holland I grew up riding a bicycle daily, and although I have not biked in years, I get back my pedaling rhythm immediately. Soleine can not yet ride, which is actually a bit shameful for a 5-year old Dutch girl. The awful state of the roads in Belmopan is my only excuse for not teaching her properly.

Last Friday she hopped on the back of my bike and off we went. We've done it before, as have millions of mothers before me. But that bloody Friday it all went wrong. Soleine's left foot gets stuck in the back wheel, and it takes me a few seconds to realize what's going on when she starts squealing. Blood seeps through her sock and as I take a peek I nearly puke. Something white and rubbery is sticking out of her heel, and I realize  it's serious. I feel terrible. Luckily, we are just near my mothers retirement home which has a Family Practice right next to it. The doctor can see us immediately. 'A spoke wound', he says (or spoke - ha ha), 'very common', and he knows exactly what to do. He checks the Achilles tendon, which turns out to be damaged but not ripped, and we have x-rays to ensure that the calcanues, or heel bone, has no fractures. He sews the wound with five big black stitches, prescribes some prophylactic antibiotics and reassures me that this happens very often in the Netherlands and that it's not my fault (...). Well, it doesn't  feel that way but I know what to do now. As soon as she can walk again I will have to teach her how to ride a bike, for safety reasons and to keep her healthy. Because bicycling makes my country one of the most healthy ones in the world.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

And Suddenly...

...we're in the cold. It's hard to believe but we just traveled 20 hours to be plummeted back from 32 to 2°C. Two days ago we were swimming in the Macal River, it was at the same spot where just a week before more than 80 canoes passed on for La Ruta Maya River Challenge, the four-days, 175-miles long grueling paddling event for which Belize is famous.

Now we are in gray Belgium where the trees are not yet showing even a speck of green, where everyone is wearing long, dark coats and matching facial expressions. We're back to scarves, staticky hair, sniffles and lots of lip balm. We had to travel unexpectedly for family reasons, my mother-in-law is seriously ill.

My mother used to say that man travels by horse but the soul only follows on foot. It's true. Our spirits are still in Belize, which does not have anything in common with Belgium, apart from its first three letters.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Women's Month

I have lived in quite a few countries but in none before is International Women’s day, on March 8, receiving so much attention as here in Belize. Not only do we celebrate on Women’s Day, the entire month of March is dedicated to women. There are activities ranging from free self-defense training to forums on Crime and Violence; from a 15% discount for women at the hardware store to Women in Art exhibitions.

The women’s month kicked off with the first-ever US Embassy Belize Women of the Year 2010 award ceremony. When political officer Kelly McCarthy received a request last year to nominate a Belizean for the US International Women of Courage award, she quickly realized that her embassy had no process for identifying outstanding women in Belize. One evening, after watching CNN’s heroes, she thought: hey why don’t we start something with nominations from the public. And so it began.

I recently attended the ceremony. I dressed up for the occasion as it felt a bit like going to the Oscars, and well, any occasion in Belmopan to dress up should be taken, because they are few…

And the nominees were - just to name some:

  • Jewel Quallo, for her work to promote sexual reproductive health and family planning as basic human rights
  • Beverly Swasey, as president of the cancer society in Belmopan
  • Carolyn Trench, the first and youngest women ever to head a governmental department
  • Kimberly Vasquez: the only screen writer and film producer in Belize, who often volunteers to teach creative writing to children
  • Phyllis Cayetano from Dangriga, always at the fore front to preserve Garifuna cultural customs and values
  • Margaret Bradley, a retired nurse but still tirelessly involved in voluntary counseling and testing of HIV positive people
  • Sonia Lenares: a retired teacher and principal who became the head of YWCA, protagonist to help out-of-school and at-risk girls
  • Phillipa who started the Emmanuel scholarship fund for deprivileged children, which she regularly complements with her own salary
  • Judy Krieg, better known as nurse Judy from Hopkins, who opened the House of Equity where she tirelessly provides health care 24 hours per day 7 days per week.
And the award went to:
Sonia Lenares. Her daughter had flown over from Miami for the occasion, lucky her. I remember when my mom received an honorable award from our Queen (!!) I was unable to fly over from Zimbabwe. Anyway, Sonia Lenares accepted the award with grace, in her brand new suit judging by the little plastic tag thing that was still on her sleeve (sorry – I’m a women, I can’t help noticing these things). .About her 18 year working with young women she said: "It's not a job, it's an honor". That truly deserves an award if you ask me. Hats off to all strong Belizean women who are examples to others!

And to Kathryn Bigelow, the first women director to win a real Oscar. Why did that have to take 82 years?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Green Costa Rica

Costa Rica has been on my wish list for a long time. It just sounds so lovely, especially if your roll the R a little extra.

Two weeks ago we traveled to this amazing country for an 8-day holiday from Belize, with nothing more than a borrowed Lonely Planet guide book. Two easy one-hour TACA airline flights later (Wow, talk about service – TACA can teach a thing or two to American Airlines), we landed at Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose. There we rented a small 4x4 car with a child seat and a GPS – the latter turned out to be worth every one of its 12 dollars a day – followed the perfect directions of the English-speaking GPS ‘turn right, keep left and go straight’, and arrived safely at a small hotel for the first night. Easy as ABC.

Driving around in Costa Rica is fairly uncomplicated, especially with a GPS, although the roads are not great -very narrow, curvy and there are lots and lots of over-sized trucks. Mix these three ingredients and what do you get? Traffic jams… not those we get back home but endless files of buses, trucks and cars stuck on small mountain roads, unable to move an inch forward or backward. Once we were stuck for five hours, in the dark and we feared that our Daihatsu Bego was going to be our hotel room for the night.

What’s really superb about driving in Costa Rica however is that you really get to experience the amazing micro-climates in this country. We drove for hours through the jungly rain forest in the mist – we could only guess where the famous Arenal volcano was– then suddenly took one turn and were driving through a dry, desert-type landscape with cactus and cattle ranches. In 20 seconds the landscape and climate conditions changed drastically.              

Same road
20 seconds later

Another interesting observation we made about Costa Rica, apart from the fact that it has no army, is its ‘greenness’ - its landscape as well as its efforts to promote sustainable and environmental-friendly tourism.
The highlight of our trip was a visit to the EARTH University. An amazing place in Guacímo, a small town in the middle of nowhere. With a grand entry of majestic bamboos that reminds of a five star resort, this private university provides full academic education to 400 students from 20 countries around the world, especially those from poor communities who, once selected, receive full scholarships. We were guided by Professor B.K. Singh, whom we had met before in Belize. The university is pretty self-sufficient; it has several income generating agri-businesses, such as banana plantations, a banana-waste paper factory (never knew you can make paper out of a banana stem), a dairy factory, a biogas project to generate their own energy and an export business for non chemical fertilizers and compost. A second source of income is a long list of private donors and sponsors.

Another unique feature of this university is that it combines agricultural academics with entrepreneurship. From day one the new students have to develop feasible business ideas that generate profits. This can be marketing organic cappuccino or making crafts from recycled materials. They can get a loan of up to 3,000 USD from the University bank to make their business ideas a reality. Students also have to do community service and international internships. As such they are very well prepared to become the envisaged ‘leaders and agents of change guided by the values of tolerance, respect and equality’.

At EARTH they also plant trees to offset your carbon footprints. Of course they recycle glass and paper and there is not a shred of plastic or Styrofoam in the gift shop or the canteen. To me it’s (ecological) heaven on EARTH!

See more on or Or watch my slide show with our private tour!!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Set Up a Restaurant in Three Weeks (and Five Easy Steps)

Question: What would you do if you were a foreigner living in Belize and you were working as the Food and Beverage Manager at a resort in a touristy place that is not doing very well, because - you know –, economic crisis and all that. Imagine you haven’t received your wages for months, the resort manager turns out to be a crook, and Christmas season is around the corner. You have a family and you really DO NOT want to leave the country. Well, what would you do?

It is the first of December 2009 and my Dutch friends Rob and Corrie, based in Hopkins, are checking their bank balance. With one quick mutual look they decide that if they want to survive, they will have to start their own place. But it has to be open by Christmas, because that is the peak of the high season. Is it possible to start a restaurant from scratch, in three weeks, in Belize?

It is.
Here's how they did it

Step 1: Find a suitable building.
Now there happens to be a huge sports bar building in Hopkins which has been empty since a few years. It is owned by some rich American fellow who apparently does not need any more money. The sales price he asks is no less than 1.2 million American dollars. Ha ha. Quickly my friends understood that the best way to find suitable venue in Hopkins is to obtain it themselves. They check out prefab wooden buildings from the Mennonites in Spanish Lookout, but they’re above their budget. Then they hear about two empty wooden cabins in Hopkins which were used as canteens for construction workers. They purchase them, cut them in two parts to fit on a trailer, plant them in front of their house, and glue them back together.

Step 2. Hire an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter...
and fire them almost immediately thereafter because there’s no way they’ll able to complete the work on time. My friends understand that they will have to get their hands dirty. With a little help from good friends and neighbors, and working non-stop from 6 am to 10 pm for fifteen straight days, they’re totally refurbishing the place. At the same time, they have to get their licenses in order. They’re submitting applications for the trade and liquor license at the village council and jump in their car to pick up a guy from the fire inspection office and a lady health inspector. Normally these inspection visits can take up to twenty days or more so you just have to help the system a little by providing transport. On the way, in the car, you can then dazzle them with your charm and talk about your good reputation.

Step 3. Traverse the country and hunt for restaurant furniture and equipment
My friends went to surplus stores, yard sales in San Ignacio, bought outdated stuff from US Import in Belize city, raided store rooms of friends and neighbors, and found curtains at the hardly-ever looked at bottom shelves at the Chinese stores. For decorations, it helps if you are a ‘hamster’ type who likes to keep old stuff. Sea glass bottles, rusty mugs and the side of a vintage vehicle can make great decorations.

Step 4. Involve your kid in the project
Rob and Corrie have an adopted son, TJ. They gave him the exclusive right to run a small gift shop at the restaurant. They drove to Guatemala to buy some arts and crafts, talked to local artists to display some of their work, printed TJ's business cards, and baptized the store Jeremia’s Giftshop.

Step 5. Buy ingredients
Arrange with Bowen and Bowen for delivery of beer and soft drinks, with Western Dairy to deliver fresh products, get wine from Premium Wines, talk to local fishermen for delivery of their fresh catch, and last but not least, develop a menu. Change the menu daily, based on what’s in the market and put together a 4-course menu for 49 Bz$. Serve meals like chicken sate with peanut sauce, Wiener schnitzel, coconut soup and freshly baked bread.

It is the 23rd of December, Rob’s birthday and the planned opening night. The restaurant is still closed. With a one-day delay Chef Rob’s Gourmet Café proudly opens on Christmas eve. The thirty or so places are immediately booked, and this goes on every night until now. Already the restaurant is number one on Tripadvisor, with reviews such as: “This little building contains some of the most wonderful food in Belize”, “Superb Dining at Reasonable Price”, “Wonderful Staff and Owners…”

I couldn’t agree more.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Your Tax Dollars at Work

It's official now. Our street can no longer be called Mount Mossey. It has to re-baptized to Mount Messy. Or Mt Muddy. It is worse than ever. This morning, the garbage truck - the only one in Belmopan - got stuck in the mud right in front of our house. It sat down like a moody, fat elephant with its arse in the mud, not showing the slightest intention to get up. Sure enough, after 10 minutes a bowser truck came to its rescue, and got stuck too. Then a tractor arrives on scene. The tractor is now pulling out the bowser truck which is pulling out the garbage truck. Guess what. Yep, tractor stuck too. Another car from the city council arrives. I doubt whether there has even been so much entertainment in our street, but it fails to get a grip on the tractor.

Finally, a bulldozer arrives, lifts the rear of the garbage truck and pushes it out of the sticky mud. It also manages to pull out the tractor, which now pulls out the bowser truck. Can you still follow me? It does not matter, only that the entire operation took six hours, left a garbage stench in our house, damaged the neighbors driveway, and turned the end of our street into an inaccessible, slippery mud pool.

All this because the roads are not maintained here in Belmopan. I'd vote for some of those EU millions for the construction of roads in Belize to be relocated to our street. But the EU money, as we personally know very well, does not come with strings attached, but with ROPES - as one clever Belize politician once remarked. That's why we have to rely on the city council. Ha! At least 'your tax dollars' have entertained us for six hours...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bag Lady

Soon it will be exactly one year since I arrived in Belize- the 1st of February 2009.
I remember so well my arrival at the cute little Philip Goldson airport in the mid-day heat. I was exhausted after wrapping up my job in Sri Lanka, packing up the house, saying emotional good byes to friends and staff, and then making a 32-hour trip journey across the world.
Michel had already been here for a couple of months. He was renting an apartment as he did not dare to choose a house without the approval of his wife (very wise, darling).

Actually, he was not sure if I would want to live in Belmopan, being the small and rather boring town (oh sorry, city) it is. He thought that his cosmopolitan wife might prefer to live in Belize City. And so he drove me, straight from the airport, to Belize’s former capital for a sight seeing tour. It had just rained and the streets were clogged with water and dirt. I found Belize City a dump, even by developing country-standards.

The one-hour drive from Belize City to Belmopan was an enjoyable experience though, and upon arrival in Belmopan I was pleasantly surprised. It looked clean, with wide streets, and surrounded by green grass and parks. Okay, the three run-down buildings that make up the ‘down-town’ area did not impress me, but compared to Belize City (and to Sri Lanka) Belmopan felt like a haven of greenery, cleanliness, and peace.

This ‘clean feeling’ lasted until a couple of months ago. To be precise: until a lawn mowing tractor cut the grass besides the highway. Wow, was I mistaken! I tried to stop the tractor to get pictures of ‘before’ and ‘after’ trimming, but it was already on its way back, leaving all the rubbish, the Styrofoam boxes, and plastic bags exposed. Beauty dies where litter lies, I thought.

Solid waste management is an issue in Belize. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has recently approved an 11 million USD loan to strengthen the Solid Waste Management Authority. I hope it includes a component to educate people about littering. We’ll have to wait a few years to see the results.

In the meantime, I try to contribute to a clean environment by refusing to accept plastic bags, whether at the vegetable market or the Chinese supermarkets, where they try to put every piece of soap, loaf of bread, or tin of peeled tomatoes in a separate little bag.

I like to preach to the cashiers and clients, saying things like: ‘Did you know that it takes a hundred years before a bag like this disintegrates’? Mostly they stare at me as if I am from another planet.
Well, maybe I am. Maybe I am a strange white bag lady, the only one in Belmopan who brings her own shopping bags into the store. I don’t care. It is my mission. To be perfectly honest, I am proud to be a supermarket missionary. I just wish I was able to convert more souls


Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I met Kristine through my work with UNDP. Originally from Norway, she has lived all over the globe with her diplomat parents, and is now the assistant resident representative in Belize and thus the highest ranking UN employee in the country. With our European backgrounds and UN experiences in Asia and Africa we have quite a few things in common.

She cracks me up all the time as we share multi-cultural anecdotes. She’s brilliant at imitating accents and her stories make me laugh out loud, like the one about the Italian guy visiting Belize, asking for a Ristretto (rolling r) in a Belmopan café. ‘A what?’ the Belizean waitress asks, ‘A Ris-trrretto’, the Italian asks again, louder now, rolling his r a little longer. The waitress gives him a blank stare and looks to Kristine for an explanation. He repeats his order, louder yet, as he honestly can not imagine anyone on this planet not knowing what a Ristretto is.

Or the anecdote from some years ago about a French UN diplomat, her superior at the time, of whom she had asked a not-so-silly question, something like: How are we going to put this into practice? His answer: “Ben (pronounce Bah, French for well eh), use your brain!” Merci, so much for French diplomacy.

Another thing that expats like to share is freaky stories about snakes, bugs, and scorpions, so I related my experience about the freaky room in our house (see my blog post May 2009). She too has scorpions in her house, and a brave cat named Storm that defies them, or tries to at least.

She comes home from work one day and she sees something moving under the carpet in her living room, and the cat is meowing and making funny jumps at it. Wow, that is a big scorpion, she thinks, or perhaps a mouse, or, God forbid, a rat? From her bookshelf she takes (and I quote) ‘the only appropriate book for this kind of action, the fist-thick biography of Pol Pot’, and slams it on the bulge in the carpet. Disgusted, she carefully lifts the carpet to find…

...her mobile phone on vibrate.

Ha ha, good one Storm!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Winter in Belize

Okay, it is not exactly snowing here like back home, but it is frigging cold for Belize standards. The cold front that is pestering Europe and the US has decided to come and harass us for a little while. I am supposed to be 'used' to the cold, but after 12 years in tropical countries I am shivering too. Here's today's update from the Belize Meteorology Service. (
I can't really read that satellite picture where Belize is so small, but I am assuming that blue means 'cold' and red means 'hot' and I am not seeing any red in or near Belize. I also don't know why Belize is using Fahrenheit, being a British crown country, but all you have to do it subtract 32 from the Fahrenheit number, divide the answer by 9 and then multiply that answer by 5. So at the moment it is 68-32 = 36 /9 = 4 x 5 is 20. A child can do the laundry (as we say in Dutch), or a piece of cake...

Time..............................4 PM
Temperature......................68 F
Relative Humidity(%)...............77
Wind (kt)........................WS04
Pressure (hPa).................1022,0

The average late afternoon temperature in January is 79.2° F, so here we go again 79.2 - 32 = 47.2 / 9 is ehhh, long live on-line converters!

"What??", you may say. "SIXTY EIGHT whole degrees (or TWENTY), that is like summer where I am from. let me stop winging and show you this picture of Thomas, a friend's son. I can tell you that he has never in his life wore gloves nor a wooly. That's how cold it is here at the moment!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

All Inclusive Prison?

During the Christmas break we went to Mexico. Yes, we occasionally need to escape the smallness of Belmopan, to keep breathing, so to say. We drove to Chetumal just across the border and from there straight to Cancun; beach and party paradise! With between 2 and 4 million visitors per year – depending on the year and the guidebook you consult – Cancun is the first tourist destination of Mexico, just multiply this by an average of 1,000 USD expenditure per person and you can smell the bucks…

Situated on a small strip of land packed with 4 and 5-star resorts, it reminds one of Las Vegas but with turquoise beaches and no casinos. It was my first time in an all-inclusive, not counting the times I was conducting workshops hosted at beach hotels in St Lucia or Sri Lanka. The food was great and from all corners of the globe, (well, compared to Belmopan), the cocktails and wines flowed continuously, we played tennis and mini golf, swam in all of the five pools, including the ‘adults-only’ pool when Soleine was playing in the kid’s club, went to the movies and the gym. The only things not included were the on-demand porn movies and spa treatments. Fair enough.

With friendly staff, a la carte restaurants and a spacious room we had nothing to complain about. So why were we both oh-so-very happy to leave? Okay, firstly we felt as if we were staying on a different planet, like the fat people in Pixar’s Wall-E movie, and the ‘living in a golden cage’ image also pops up; but that was not it.

It was the relief of being away from all the other all-inclusive guests. With the risk of sounding snobby, I would advise that you not go to a 5-star all-inclusive place to meet nice people. The guests are loud, rude and complaining. They pile their plates with endless heaps of food that no one could finish in one sitting, order multiple drinks from the eight bars without finishing any; they don’t greet you nor do they thank the waiters, and these people are not even Russian! I met some Dutch people who were nice enough but I had to listen to a never ending list of complaints about mosquitoes, heat, and dust bunnies under the beds. After three nights I too felt irritable and intolerant. It seems this kind of hotel brings out the worst in people - the greedy and demanding beast that hides in all of us.

That summarizes our stay in the 5-star hotel in Cancun: you get the good stuff for a fair price, - good food, 24 hour(s) drinks, sports, and entertainment for the kids – but you have to live with the obnoxious people, including yourself. Truly All inclusive. "Grand Parnassus 5-star hotel or luxery prison"?

By the way, we did not ONLY go to Cancun, we also visited the old colonial cities of Merida, Izumal and Valladolid. See my slide show pictures below.