Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas in Belize

While most Americans and Europeans are rushing to the stores and supermarkets to do their Christmas shopping, it is quiet in Belize. Here we don’t get stressed out over what to buy for our children - who already have boxes full of Barbies, video games, and Lego building bricks. Brodies supermarket has stocked its freezer with a dozen turkeys and has put five new games on the shelves. At the Chinese supermarket you can actually buy a dusty plastic Christmas tree that even comes with a string of lights. The Chinese, I feel, are in it for the money, not for the Christmas cheer. My mailbox is empty, as usual. The restaurants don’t seem to care about decorations, not counting those that are still there from last year. Love FM is playing some Christmas songs on the radio but not frequently.

Personally, I don't mind at all. I am not a big fan of Christmas, and I hate the overemphasis on food and gifts. I have put up a small tree for our daughter and we are enjoying the efforts some Belmopan residents have made to light up their houses and yards. The whole idea of Christmas shopping in Belmopan is actually funny, unless you want to ask Santa for a bottle of gas, or a mattress...

So I had kind of given up on the idea of Christmas in Belize, until I went to the Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM cave, a 40,000-year old Maya cave. Wow, what a special place, better than any archeological museum you can ever imagine. After two hours of swimming, climbing and crawling through narrow cracks in the pitch dark with Carlos our guide, we arrived at 'the cathedral', a sacred place where thousands of years ago Mayan priests did their rituals and human sacrifices. There, deep down in the Mayan underground, I saw the most beautiful Christmas scene ever. Doesn't it look like a nativity group? Amazing hey!

If you forget for a minute that there are also the 1400-year old remains of a teenage sacrifice victim who is believed to be clubbed and left for dead, you can actually feel the peace in that cave.

And on that note I wish you all a peaceful Christmas and an Amazing 2010!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wednesday Wobble

Every Wednesday at 6 pm we gather at the Wing Stop Bar, which has the coldest beer and best lemon-pepper wings in town. That's the best I can say about this bar, because their toilets without doors, scruffy picnic tables and 'stick-your-hand-in-the tank-to-make-it-flush-' toilets are not really an add on.
We gather there to run, walk or wobble around the Belmopan ring road, about 3 miles or 4,5 km. I usually run -which makes me feel so good that I have really earned my beer and wings. Last week however, I walked, together with the British High Commissioner Pat Ashworth. Belize is the only constituent nation of the Commonwealth of Nations in the region, they obviously have a High Commission.

Pat speaks a little Dutch from his time in The Hague, and he makes it sound all funny and freaky. Perhaps it really does. We spoke about what people eat in Belize for Christmas. 'Turkey and ham', he said and I reminded him of the Dutch word for turkey: Kalkoen (Kalkoon). That sounds like Cancun, so we thought how to call a kalkoen in Cancun. He then asked me if I knew how a turkey is called in Turkey. Hmmm, interesting question. Türkey? I suggested. He said it's 'hindi'. So we wondered what a turkey in Hindi is. We did not know, but in Portuguese - a language we both speak - it's Peru, where did that come from? But before we could think about turkeys in Peru we were back at the Wing Stop Bar.

There we noticed the construction of a new building, in the heart of Belmopan's "shopping area" next to the two most popular Chinese supermarkets. We could not help wondering what it would become. We thought of (hoped for) the following:

1) a Drive Inn Movie Theater
2) a MacDonald's
3) a Kentucky Fried Turkey

What? We can't dream? It's Christmas season after all...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Rovers, Cocaobeans and Smelly Toilets

For my work reviewing projects supported by the United Nations (UN) I went to Toledo, a district in the south of Belize. I went with my friend Carmen from New York and Barbara, the wife of the new American ambassador. Toledo is the least developed district of Belize, a bit like 'the slow kid in class'. For example only 1 out of 4 households has access to a sewer system, against more than half country-wide; adult literacy is 62% (77% country-wide) and the under 5 mortality rate is 1.5 times higher than the national average. Toledo is covered with pristine tropical rain forests and its population is largely made up of Mopan and Kekchi Mayas living in over 30 villages. This combination of lush green vegetation and Mayan houses makes it absolutely a front page picture of National Geographic.

The UN supports the district in many ways; UNICEF assists with early-childhood development activities and upgrades of school toilets, UNDP has agricultural and environmental protection programs and PAHO/WHO supports the local hospitals with outreach programs on nutrition, child measurements and promotion of breast-feeding.

We left the district with mixed feelings; impressed by a program named Roving Caregivers, where young Maya women are trained to become informal caregivers or rovers to young children who do not have access to daycare. The rover goes to the homes of the Maya mothers to play with the children and teach the parents about parenting and child development. We were equally impressed by Ya'axche Conservation Trust, which manages large areas of protected nature reserve and assists farmers with sustainable livelihood such as organic cacao and coffee beans. The least impressed we were by the WASH project; for water, sanitation and hygiene in schools. Though highly relevant, the project started but was not complete, leaving many school principals frustrated about their sanitary facilities and more importantly, leaving entire classes with smelly toilets, unused washing buildings and broken water fountains.

Why are these results so mixed? There a plenty factors contributing to both failure and success. Poor planning, lack of ownership of projects, political instability and staff turn-over within UN agencies, are definitely spoilers. Proper monitoring and selection of intervention partners are enablers. My conclusion is that implementing social projects in developing countries is a bit like life win some, you lose some.

Friday, November 27, 2009

La Isla Bonita

"Last night I dreamt of San all seemed like yesterday not far away...
Tropical the island breeze, all of nature wild and free, this is where I long to be, la isla bonita..."

Who doesn't know this 1987 Madonna song ? Last weekend we finally went to San Pedro, on the largest and most touristy island on the Belize coast. I was told that Madonna's song was based on San Pedro here in Belize, and the island makes good use of world-famous song..."Come to San Pedro, la Isla Bonita" can hear it and see it in advertisements and on sign boards all over the place.

I stayed at a beautiful resort Porto Fino, owned by Jan and Sandra. He is Dutch, she is Belgian, a well-known combination to us! They have a daughter the same age as Soleine. Captain Jan picked me up with his boat and Sandra welcomed me with a rum punch decorated with red hibiscus flowers. It is a picture perfect place, green sea, white sand, wavy palm trees.

Later on I read that Madonna had actually never heard of San Pedro Belize when she wrote that song. In an interview she said: " "I don't know where San Pedro is, at that point I was not a person who went on vacation to beautiful islands".

Well, that is tough luck for Madonna. I assume that by now she is 'that kind of person', and I really recommend that she go to San Pedro and Porto Fino!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Blackman Eddy

For my work as a consultant for the UNDP I visited some villages in Belize to talk about Village Council governance, elections and challenges in managing a small village in Belize. There are 193 rural villages in Belize and their population represents 49% of the total, which amounts to approximately 160,000 people; same as a mid-size town in the US. Some places however, only have a population of 25 families. I can write about the difficulties of village governance in Belize; for example that they have little income except from the liquor license money they can collect, usually not more than a couple of thousand dollars per year. This is barely enough to pay for cleaning of some of the public properties, such as cemeteries and sports fields.
Other villages have no bar hence, no income. Village council work is unpaid, only the chairperson receives a 50Bz$ stipend per month (25 USD). It's not easy for a benevolent council to achieve something for their community. But I was most struck by the names of some of the villages. I reckon that each country has its share of funny village names. In Holland we have 'Boerenhol' which can be translated as Farmer's Ass, and Sexbierum, which makes me think of something with beer and sex.

In Belize we have Blackman Eddy, Doublehead Cabbage, More Tomorrow, Duck Run, Tea Kettle, Fire Burn, Silk Grass, Trial Farm, Indian Church, and Crique Jute. I will leave it to your imagination to think about the origin of these names. I just like the idea of getting in my car in the morning and saying to my husband: Bye honey, I am off to Blackman Eddy...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How expensive is Belize?

Is Belize an expensive country for an expatriate? That question obviously does not have a singular answer. It depends on a number of factors, and with the risk of sounding like a Belizean politician who never gives a straight answer I will try to shed some light on the issue of the cost of living for expatriates in Belize (all prices in US$). In no particular order, I would say it depends on the following factors:
  • Where you live: On the islands like San Pedro and Caye Caulker all prices are at least 20% higher than on the mainland.
  • Your life style and budget: Being an American diplomat working for Uncle Sam who is willing to pay $5,000 for your monthly house rental is not the same as being a retired couple with a modest pension. A decent mid-sized house can be rented for one tenth this amount, between $500 and $1,000. If you leave your air-conditioning on day and night you’ll have a bill of over $1,000 at the end of the month. We pay around $125 per month for electricity, using mainly fans and one hour max of AC per day.
  • The countries to which you’re comparing The Belize dollar is linked to the US dollar 2:1 and with the high-valued Euro, Europeans find it cheaper than most Americans. For sure Belize is more expensive than its neighboring countries, Mexico and Guatemala.
But let me tell you about the prices I am paying here and you can reach your own conclusion. Tuesdays and Fridays are market days here in Belmopan city. Defying the heat, I take my big shopping bag, load it with the fruits and vegetables available - which usually means oranges, grapefruit, pineapples, papayas, water melons, carrots, cucumbers, spinach and tomatoes, and I pay around $12 - no hassle, no cheating, no bargaining like in some other countries where prices double as soon as they see gringos. Then I go on to the bakery to buy two loaves of brown bread, $2.25 each, followed by a visit to the meat shop: chicken breast and ground beef for $3.50 per package. From there I proceed to the supermarket. There are two types of supermarkets: Belizean-owned shops like Brodies, and Chinese supermarkets. I found that Brodies is usually somewhat more expensive though not on all products, but it is clean and air-conditioned. This cannot be said about the Chinese supermarkets, where I witnessed two school girls stepping on a rat’s tail last week. I don’t know who squealed louder, the girls or the rat. The Chinese seemed unimpressed.

There are rumors that Chinese shopkeepers shut down their freezers at night to save on electricity, which is obviously a disaster for frozen food. I don’t know if that is true; we have not been sick here at all, but I do know that they sell medium-sized Head & Shoulders shampoo which has been diluted with water for $6.25. That said, Chinese supermarkets are indispensable in Belize because they are always open, have a good variety of goods and a high turnover, but cleanliness is definitely not their forte. I shop at both Brodies and the Chinese stores because by now I know what to buy where. Depending on my mood and my wallet, I pay between $50 and $100 for my weekly groceries for my family of three, although I usually have to pop in a couple of additional times during the week because I always forget to buy stuff.

Most food items are imported, and for international brands we pay through the nose: Yoplait yoghurt, Loreal shampoo, Tide washing detergent, Lay’s chips, Ziplock bags are expensive, but you can also opt for Mennonite yoghurt, White Rain Shampoo, Blanca Nieves washing powder, Marie Sharp’s chips and No-Brand bags, and spend half or less. I reckon that around 95% of consumer goods are imported, yet good-value local products include citrus, pineapple, coconut, vegetables, dairy such as ice cream, white cheese and (slightly sour) yoghurt, chicken, sausages, ground beef, and tortillas. You can also get good basic wooden furniture like my beautiful multi-colored mahogany dining table that I got for 125 bucks in the market. In fact I bought most of my furniture and kitchen appliances in Belize, new or second hand, and succeeded pretty well in creating a home in which I feel comfortable. The only challenge was to find a good sofa; most are bulky and ugly with horrible big flower patterns from Courts furniture shop. I ended up having one made right here in Belmopan. I downloaded a picture from, bought some fabric and 5 days later we were sitting on a pretty good couch for $420. All in all our move-in has cost us around $4,500 including all electrical appliances because all those we had were 220 volt and with different plugs, thus not worth bringing over. Americans will not have that problem because Belize uses 110 volts 60 Hz, as they do in the U.S., so your appliances will work fine here.

Some other interesting prices are: Repairing and changing a tire: $8, color and highlight my hair with a hair cut and a blow dry all together for $50, a pedicure $12, ‘high-speed’ internet (quotation marks intended) costs us $55 per month, school fee at the semi-international pre-school is $185 per month and a yard mowing and cleaning is around $17. I recently had a crown replaced by a renowned dentist in Belize city and paid $175. For more detailed prices you may want to go to

Very importantly, for a beer in a bar we pay $1.75 D. It’s only $1.50 at happy hour or when ordering ten or more, something we have personally introduced here in Belmopan, which we call the Bucket concept. I am talking about Belikin beer, the Belizean beer that comes in sturdy 10 oz. dark brown bottles, so heavy that it is impossible to feel if they’re full or empty. I did not like its taste in the beginning but I have acquired it by now. So, beer drinkers can easily survive here. Wine lovers will have to dig deep into their pockets, as a simple bottle of wine will easily cost $15, and I am not even talking about a good bottle of wine. Rum, on the other hand, is cheap, the same price as a bottle of wine but for an XXL size bottle of One Barrel, the local rum which has won several awards. What can I say, when in Rome do as the Romans, right?

All in all, I personally find the cost of living here in Belmopan, Belize quite reasonable, but I must say that, while we live well by Belize standards, we still have to watch our spending. I never use my credit card here, the main reason being that our cards have been copied several times here. I only found this out when my bank statements suddenly showed purchases of Apple computers and Nike shoes from Los Angeles and New York which I am sure I never bought. Luckily my bank noticed the suspicious purchases and I was able to recuperate the amounts. I do not recommend credit card use here in Belize and there are ATMs across the country so you may as well use your debit card.

The other reason my credit card stays in my purse is basically that there’s not that much opportunity to really spend. I have not bought any clothes, shoes, toys, hand bags, CDs, books, jewelry, movie tickets, make-up or electronic gadgets since I arrived here.

In that respect Belize is savers paradise. No shops, no malls; no temptations. How’s that for saving on the cost of living!?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rhythm of the Rain

Imagine the sound of pouring rice in a cup. Zzzzsshhhh, a little bit of rice first, then more. Then it's as if someone slowly turns up the volume knob, the sound becomes louder. I am talking about rain. Sometimes it rains so hard here that you can't hear the TV anymore and subtitles come in handy. That would be volume 7 on the rain knob, but it gets louder, to 8 and 9. Now we can't hear each other anymore, even if we're shouting. And just as you think that the volume knob is turned on max...there is still an extra notch 11, even 12. The sound is literally deafening, until suddenly it stops. In less than 3 seconds the volume is turned back from 12 to 0. Complete silence. It's very interesting to listen to, I wonder if the Cascades were inspired by Belizean rain when they wrote their famous song Rhythm of the rain...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Three times Three

I made an interesting discovery last night. Ask a general random person to put up three fingers and you will most likely see the three middle fingers. But ask a German and you will see the thumb, index and middle finger. And when you ask a Belizean lady you 'll get the pinky, the ring and middle finger. Can anyone explain this? And why is the middle finger the lucky one?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cultural Confusion

It was Soleine’s birthday this weekend. She had three birthday celebrations, not bad for a 5-year old, hey? The first one was at school; Soleine going around in class with home-made cupcakes with green icing on them, resulting in 17 kids collectively going home with green noses. Then there was a flower party at our home, with eight of her best friends dressed in pretty flowers (strictly girls…), looking for hidden flowers in the field, in honor of Queen Dahlia Sunflower. And finally, we had a mini-party at the hash, with 12 hash kids banging on a piñata. Pardon?

Let me explain. Although Belize is an English-speaking country and a former British colony, the Latin influences are obvious, considering that it is surrounded by Latin American countries. One Latin American tradition is the birthday piñata. A piñata is a paper maché kind of figurine, prettily decorated, that you hang from the ceiling. It can be a cute pink doll, or a truck, or a rabbit or Dora the Explorer (very popular here). I had bought a yellow chicklet with blue flowers in her hair which Soleine immediately baptized ‘Chika’. That’s cute, you may think, but that’s only one part of the piñata. The second part is a stick, in our case the stick of a broom which had conveniently ‘died’ the same week. So what are the kids going to do with the stick and Chika?

Well, they are actually going to beat the crap out of her. Try to chop of her beak, hit a hole in her head, poke the stick between her eyes, slash of the cute little chicken legs. Who thought that a birthday surprise could turn so vicious? But the kids -boys and girls alike - actually love it. Each child gets a go with the stick, and they beat, and beat and beat, until… all the sweets fall out. Because that’s the trick, it’s basically a candy machine but with more fun than just putting a coin in it. Twelve kids beating the hell out of Chika, until…until…until…nothing. Some 85 hits later, one of the mothers carefully asks me if I had not forgotten to put any sweets in it. What??? I had to put the candy in it myself?? Oh my God, I did not know, I thought I had bought the thing ready-made…filled with sweets. As it turns out there is a little hole in the piñata’s head where you have to put the candies yourself. You should have seen the kids faces when they finally realized that Chika was empty! Oops, silly Europeans. Well, I better hide for a little while. That’s why I am now on my way to Paris.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Meeting Indy

When I was young my family used to play a board game called Wildlife Adventure. Players would go on global expeditions on the board to locate rare and endangered species of animals. To rescue them you could buy them, like monopoly but with animals. Each continent had its own amazing creatures. In North-America you could locate the Californian condor, in Africa the ring-tailed lemur, in Australia the hairy-nosed wombat, Asia had the Arabian oryx and in Latin America there was the mountain tapir.

I reckon that while playing this game sometime in the eighties I first heard the word 'Belize'. Because that's where the mountain tapir was located and it was one of the most valuable beasts on the board! As a child I was fascinated by its picture on the game card... I could not imagine that a creature like that really exists.

But it does! His name is Indy and he lives at the Belize Zoo. He is a handsome little tapir. In Belize they also call them ‘mountain cows’, but to me he looks more like a cross between a pig and an elephant (sorry Indy!). My daughter Soleine got to feed him his cool is that.

The zoo in Belize is a gem. It was set up and is run by Sharon, an American lady who came to Belize some years ago to shoot a wildlife documentary. Something happened and the project had to be canceled, leaving her with a troop of rescued, semi-tame animals. What to do? Set up a zoo. Sharon is now the proud 'mother' of about twenty different species, all endemic to Belize.

We met Indy the Tapir, Brutus the Crocodile, Junior Buddy the Jaguar, the only jaguar in the world who can do somersaults, Panama the Harpy Eagle who likes to fly up close o you just to say hi (and scare the shit out of you), Polly the speaking Parrot who says in his squeaky voice: 'I am a parrot, my girlfriend works in a bar’ (seriously!!!) and many more.

They have all been rescued from the illegal pet trade or captivity as this zoo has never taken any animal from the wild. It is an impressive conservation achievement and a great educational opportunity to meet Indy and his friends. It’s like killing two birds with one stone…but that would not be an appropriate expression in this animal-friendly story, would it now?

Monday, September 28, 2009

How to become Ambassador

The advantage of living in 'the smallest capital in the world' is that we quickly got to know people connected to the inner circles of Belmopan. Sometimes we receive an official envelope with a pretty golden seal: an invitation to a diplomatic party. We are not diplomats (never aspired to be) but we do kind of represent the European Union. That is how we got invited to a reception to welcome the new American ambassador to Belize: Mr Thummalapally. Surprising name? Not an Anglophone name in any case. Indeed, he is not like the usual Ambassador-type: white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-aged. The new US Ambassador in Belize is the first Indian-American ambassador ever! How did that happen? Vinai Thummalapally is a university friend and former room-mate of President Obama. He and his wife were major fund-raisers in Obama's campaign. And good friends get to be rewarded; with a nice job in a cute country like Belize. Although he has no diplomatic experience, which he graciously acknowledged during his speech at the reception, he promised to learn quickly. Frankly, I don't think it is that difficult!

We spoke for a while to Barbara Thummalapally at the reception, and found her extremely friendly and engaging. She told us she could hardly believe her ears when they received a phone call from the president in April this year. After a long process of vetting and checking whether there were perhaps any secret stock accounts or arrests warrants in India (or whatever the secret service is checking when you become ambassador) they were appointed. Mum and Dad flew to Belmopan from Hyderabad, they're very proud of course. Not everyone in India feels the same as some of the internet fora show, but that is mostly jealousy and tribal pettiness.

Personally, it got me things can happen. Perhaps one of my former school friends will one day be Prime Minister. Not likely but not impossible...who knows? Would I accept a nomination as Dutch ambassador to some country? Why not?
What about you?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Parade Party Time

On this blog I already commented on the similarities and the differences between Belgium and Belize. The two countries do not have much in common, yet they are virtual neighbors in any country drop-down list. What does Belize have in common with Holland? They share their colors: - red, white and blue, as well a tradition of carnival and parades.

Yesterday during independence day in Belmopan we went to see the parade. The parade was nice enough, with about 30 floats and lots of happy people. For an hour or so I felt as if I were in Dongen, my home town. Only the sun reminded me of the fact that I was actually standing on the other side of the globe.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tossed Salad

September is a festive month for Belize. It is hot as hell, but that does not seem to keep most Belizeans from parties and parades. This year, Belize celebrates 28 years of independence. That is not that long (or well, it reminds me how old I am). In the sixties, when colonialism was on the retreat throughout the world, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago became the first Caribbean countries to gain independence. Actually, Belize had gained self-government from the British government in '61, but still had to wait 20 years because of a land claim from neighboring Guatemala. It threatened to use force against Belize if it did not settle the claim first. What this claim was exactly about and how it was solved is a too long story for this blog, but anyone who has a look at the long, straight border between Guatemala and Belize will understand that this is not a natural border.
What I like a lot about Belize is its motto, which is celebrated everywhere in September: "Diverse Origins, Common Aspirations". And it is true, Belize's population is as diverse as the fish in its ocean, with many colours, languages and cultures represented. In Soleine's class the kids are making a collage...they're cutting pictures of men, women, and children of all colours: African origin Garifuna, Maya and Hispanics, Chinese and Taiwanese, the Mennonites and other whites, the Indians and settlers from the Middle-East. When I was studying anthropology in the early nineties this was referred to as a melting pot, as if all these cultures and traditions were melted into one big pot. Now we know better...the cultures live side by side, but are definitely not mixed into one dish. Rather, they co-exist while keeping their own culture, values, and traditions. Someone had therefore invented the term 'tossed salad' rather than melting pot. Imagine leaves of Iceberg, Lolla rossa, Rocket, Romaine and Butterhead mixed in one bowl but without losing their colour and distinct taste. However, one quick look on Wikepedia also taught me that tossed salad is now slang for some kind of gay sex. Hmmm I guess someone will have to invent a new term to replace melting pot. Mixed salad maybe? Any takers?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Back to Belize, Back to Work

Six weeks in Europe have gone by in a flash. Caught up with 17 brothers and sisters (including those in-law), 22 nephews and nieces, 4 parents and more than 100 friends in five countries (Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, France and Germany). I also gained at least 4 kilos, drank 12 different kinds of beer in over 30 bars and ate in more than 20 restaurants. Shopped in even more shops; buying 120 kilo of stuff packed over 5 suitcases. In short: had a great time but now I’m a little tired…

It is good to be back in Belize. With an 8-hour jet-lag and a need to readjust to the heat, it will take me a few days to get back into normal life rhythm. Not for Soleine, she has started school today. She is now in K-5; the second year of Kindergarten. She is happy to find her ‘old’ friends again. Michel has gone back to the everlasting fight to get things done in his EU project to support the sugar-sector. I am updating my blog and my inbox, taking it easy today because today is my last ‘lazy’ day…On the first of September I am starting to work. Yea!

I have found this perfect consultancy assignment, right up my alley. I am going to do an MTR for UNDAF as well as the M&E for the UNDP CPAP and AWP. Ha! Can you still follow me? In normal (non-UN) language: I am going to facilitate a mid-term review of a common program implemented by four United Nations agencies here in Belize. And I am going to measure the progress of the UNDP country program for Belize. The UNDP together with the government of Belize has set out to achieve certain goals such as to reduce poverty and to stop the spread of HIV/Aids. I am going to help them to find out how successful they are. I will be developing a system to collect the right information, quantitative (for example the current percentage of mother-to-child HIV/Aids transmission) but also qualitative (for example how micro-credits have improved the lives of women entrepreneurs). I will have to work with various ministries and organizations such as the Statistical Institute of Belize, NGOs working in development and all kinds of others. I will get to know a lot of people. It is a four-month job and the best thing is I can do it from home and with flexible hours. What more could I want?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Home sweet Home

My 'To Do in Holland' list was getting longer and longer in the past few weeks. Buy 'drop' (salty liquorice, which we Dutch consider a delicacy while the rest of the world finds it gross), renew my insurance, buy Dutch-language books for Soleine, get a new bank card, go for medical checks, buy souvenirs for housekeeper and my neighbors. I am counting down the days. Three more nights and we're flying...home! For six weeks, wow, that is the longest home leave we have ever had.

Only now Soleine realizes that the Netherlands is actually another country, far away. The country where Opa and Oma are living, where little children ride bicycles, where people walk on sidewalks and where Sinterklaas (sort of cousin of Santa Claus) arrives. For me it is the country where my family and friends live. And where I enjoy the luxury of having choice: the countless restaurants, book shops, toy shops, shops where you can buy leather shoes in stead of plastic sandals and good yet cheap wine in any supermarket! But most of all I look forward to seeing my parents, my brothers and sisters and friends. As the youngest of six, I get along with all of them, and although I only see them about once a year, I am probably the one who has the most contact with all of them. Everyone is always busy busy busy...

For Soleine I find it very important that she stays in touch with her Dutch and French speaking cousins and that she can be with Papy and Mamy. She still confounds Belgium and Holland but she is as excited as I am. Yet, although we have a nice apartment in Belgium, I do not really consider it home. And to be honest, after a few weeks I am usually ready to go back, because it does feel like being a visitor. In English they say Home is where the heart is. For me, it is more Home is where my life is.

So will I be happy to go back to Belmopan after six weeks? I will let you know!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The American Way

I have named my blog Dutch in Belize but sometimes I feel I am the only Dutch person in Belize. I know this is not true, and tomorrow I am meeting with a guy called Joop, so he is definitely Dutch. Occasionally I get to speak my language (Dutch) with Paul, Michel’s Belgian colleague or with Elsie Alpuche who immigrated to Belize ten years ago, but I haven’t met any other Dutchies here, nor Germans or French for that matter. There are very few Europeans, apart from some Brits, but they don’t really consider themselves Europeans. While in Asia and Africa there’s a lot of European influence, here I can clearly feel the American impact. How?

Firstly there is the particular preference for all things large. Fridges, cars, behinds…if you can afford it… get a big one. Secondly, there is the accent. Soleine learned her first English in Sri Lanka, When she was thirsty she would ask for ‘wo-teh’ while now she says ‘wah-der’. She also says ‘awesome’ and ‘you guys’. Then there are miles, ounces, cups, yards, inches, feet, 110 volts and thin plugs with tiny pins.

Our house came with some convenient gadgets which I consider American:

  • a spacious walk-in closet (fantastic),
  • a Jacuzzi in the bathtub (nice but rarely used),
  • a dish washer (not used)
  • an ‘insinkerator ‘(a noisy but handy thing in the sink drain that grinds waste before it goes into the septic tank)
  • remote controls for fans and lights (really pointless unless you’re in wheelchair)
  • smoke alarms and panic buttons (we’re not using the alarm system).

Americans like gadgets and security stuff. You should see how
they live here. There is a humongous American embassy in Belmopan, amazing for such a small country as Belize, and the American staff live in a highly secured compound guarded by over 55 security guards, which is probably more than the number of residents. Once inside you feel like you are in a completely different world. Elegant houses, perfectly maintained lawns and sports facilities. When I first visited with Soleine she asked me if we could once stay at this hotel. The homes are dark and cool inside, with central a/c all day as if they don’t have to pay their own electricity bills, and everyone has gadgets. Giant gas barbecues, special beer coolers on wheels, espresso makers, yoghurt machines, ice cream makers, fitness equipment, fancy kids toys, 20-gear bicycles, computers and TVs in every room (always on). I can imagine that it is very tempting to stay there all the time.

When I moved to Zimbabwe from Mozambique in 1999, people remarked that living in Harare was Africa for beginners’ (how things have changed since!). I think the same can be said for living at an American compound: Living abroad for beginners… '

Monday, June 29, 2009


Some time ago I blogged that the sun was the main reason we enjoy living abroad. I was lying, I must admit. Probably the biggest enjoyment is the quality of our life here. To a great extent this is contributed to by Silvia. Silvia is our helper. Personally I despise the word ‘maid’ or, even worse, the French term ‘la bonne’ and coming from Holland, one of the flattest countries in the world (both geologically and hierarchically), I prefer the term helper.

I was born with a peculiar form of indolence. I would not call it outright laziness, more like a gift for avoiding unpleasant chores. Such as: cleaning, cooking, washing, ironing, in short all domestic tasks. I can confirm what my brother told me years ago: nothing in life gets you hooked so quickly as the absence of domestic tasks.

Back to Silvia. She went to the bank last week to fetch some money to make a deposit for a piece of land she had bought. She is walking to the deposit office, a bottle of coke in her hand, as suddenly two guys jump out of a tree and grab her purse. She doesn’t let go but one guy hits her in the face and brings a broken bottle near her throat. Then she remembers her own empty coke bottle; she quickly slams is against the wall and with all her strength whacks him on the head until blood spurts out.

A woman who has witnessed it has gone to the police station, 300 meters (imagine!) down the walk way. De police find Silvia with a cut on her nose and only the straps of her purse on her shoulder. But she is not yet defeated! She has recognized the guys from when she worked at the American Embassy. They once were waiters at a cocktail party. And because the one chap had to go to the hospital for sutures, the police are able to catch them quickly. The next day they are locked away in a bare cell with no toilet at the Belmopan police station. Good job…End of story?

Not in the least. It has just started. Silvia has lost her 250 US dollars, and she wants it back. The police want her to testify. If you have read my previous post - The Country Where Everyone Knows Everyone – you’ll understand that she is scared. She has filed an official statement, three copies on authorized paper with all the right stamps. She has paid a judge to hear her statement. He will now have to decide if there will be a public court case. If she has to testify I will go with her. Because she is so brave, she is my heroine. There is such a word as heroism but I could not find the female version so I will invent it today: heroine-ism.

Monday, June 22, 2009

My First Time Ever...

Today I did something for the very first time ever. I felt very shy about it, even though (or maybe especially as?) I was on my own. Afraid of being caught, I had closed the curtains and even locked the door. Despite my reluctance I did it anyway and boy, did I feel good afterward. Okay, I was tired and sweaty but the physical relaxation that flowed through my body was worth the embarrassment.

What did I do? Aerobics in my living room while watching Fit TV! Do you know Fit TV? It is a non-stop parade of fitness kings, yoga gurus and pumped up Pilates princesses in tight pants and pink mini-tops showing off their muscled tummies, screaming to the TV- audience as if they were a bunch of teenagers in a self-esteem workshop … “You’re doing great, keep going, feel your power, gr-r-r-r-reat job”.

There are no sports clubs in Belmopan, at least not that I am aware of. I went a couple of times to the En Croix Christian dance school run by Youth With A Mission (they abbreviate themselves as Y-WAM, how cool is that?) but they closed last week for a long summer holiday. There is aqua-gym for ladies but I feel I haven’t quite reached the stage where I have to do things in the water while I can still do them on the floor.

So, unless you want to work out in a non-air-conditioned gym club with a handful of big black bodybuilders where you can smell the wafts of sweat and testosterone even when driving by, there seems no other option than Fit TV.

Thus this morning I rolled up the Indian floor rug in my living room, rolled out my gym mat, put on my sweat pants and followed the warm up moves of Sharon Mann, four-time Canadian Aerobics Champion. Just as I get warmed up, there is a commercial break. Come on guys…you can’t do this. This is good for public health…why can’t this be on public TV without commercials? Anyway, Sharon, who is wearing her hair in two ‘cute’ little pigtails for the occasion, is so enthusiastic that I can’t let her down. I try to follow her but it is not easy. Just when I get the hang of one step, she goes onto the next one. And on and on and on. Anyway, it doesn’t matter if I don’t follow exactly, nobody is watching me. When it is time to stretch, I almost lose two fingers in my ceiling fan. But you know what, if I don’t have too many muscle aches, I think I might do it again tomorrow! Behind the closed curtains...

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Country where Everyone Knows Everyone

Antoine, Michel’s son, came to visit us for the first time in Belize over Easter. When we drove back the 80 kilometers from the airport to Belmopan, I was carefully studying his face to see his first reaction to our new country. He kept quiet during the first 40 kilometers, and next he asked: “Papa, where are the houses? Where are the people?”

It’s true and especially remarkable to us coming from crowded Sri Lanka that Belize has only 300,000 people and consists mainly of
jungle. With a meager 12 persons per square kilometer, Belize is among the countries with the lowest population density in the world (bottom of the list is Greenland with less than one person per km2 and on top is Macao with more than 18,000 people per km2). We all know the problems associated with overpopulation in poor countries: the poverty, the pollution, horrible traffic situations, overstretched use of resources, devastating natural disasters… but have you ever thought about the opposite? Countries like Belize with low population and low GDP have their own set of problems.

Evidently, the key problem lies in the use of resources. Take infrastructure. Belize has only two major roads (‘highways’) which are sufficient to connect all the cities and towns. The other roads are dirt tracks. Now there is money available from the EU to build new roads, but is it worthwhile to construct an expensive tarred road if only 20 cars are using it each day? In Belmopan, new cafés and restaurants open regularly but many disappear as quickly as they pop up for lack of clients. At Brodies, the only air-conditioned supermarket, I am often the sole customer; I don’t know how they survive. My friend Edna, a pediatrician at the Belmopan hospital, has an agonizing dilemma; should they purchase an expensive neonatal intensive care unit when they average only 30 babies delivered per month, most of whom are healthy? It is difficult to develop an underpopulated country, simply because there are too few people to utilize available resources.

But that is not the only challenge Belize as a low population country is facing. Recently, a twelve-year old boy accidentally witnessed a brutal assassination by a drug lord. Terrified, he did not want to testify. The Belize police came to his house over and over to pressure him into testifying. A few days later he was found murdered. Obviously, everyone saw the police at the boy’s house, but nobody could protect him. Witness protection, undercover police, officers in plain clothes; these concepts may have very well prevented this boy from being killed. But these things simply don’t work in a country where everyone knows each other.

The flip side of this is perhaps the consolation that it is practically impossible for prisoners to escape and disappear because everyone knows who they are...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sugar beats Banana in EU football

Last Saturday, our friend Tony organized the first ever EU football tournament on the occasion of EU day here in Belmopan. Yes, there is such a thing as EU day, it is called Schuman day named after some French guy who considers himself a founding father of the EU. It is normally celebrated on the 9th of May but because of the swine flu break out in nearby Mexico it had to be postponed. Anyway, EU day is probably only celebrated outside of Europe and I am pretty sure that 99% of Europeans have never heard of it, which can probably also be said for the European Anthem, Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
There are four EU-fun
ded programs here in Belize: one for the sugar sector (ours), one to support the banana sector, a rural development project, and a government support project. Each project formed a mixed football team, with the rule that at any time at least four women had to be on the pitch. I was ready to play but I am terribly bad and when I saw the five girls in our team, all working for the Sugarcane Farmers Association, I humbly gave up my place to let them play. The first match ended in penalties with a close victory for the Sugar team, which then had to face the dreaded Banana team in the final. And what a final it was! It had all the ingredients of a breathtaking, nerve-wracking, nail-biting grand finale: a send-off, a penalty, an 18-meter free kick and a last minute goal, scored by...Michel! My own little sugar daddy...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Weather Quiz

Dutch people like to talk a lot about the weather. When I was still studying anthropology in Amsterdam, I read a study by an Indian anthropologist researching a small village just off the Dutch coast. One of the things he found peculiar with the Dutch was their preoccupation with the weather. They can not stop talking about it. One of the easy explanations the Dutch people offered him was the fact that the weather is so unpredictable in Holland, and therefore you can talk about it all the time. But that would be the same for Germany or Denmark, and the anthropologist found that Germans and Danish would not constantly refer to the weather. So hmmm, what could be the reason for this Dutch obsession? After long and hard thinking, his final conclusion was that it had to do with control. Dutch people like to have control over things. They are well organized and tidy people, and they have a place for everything. Bread goes in the bread box, tools in a tool box, and dirty laundry in a basket. (Sometimes I wonder if I am really Dutch). Everything is done according to rules and regulations. And because we can not control the weather, we need to talk about it often... Here in Belize the weather is not very predictable either. Although it is hot most days, there are storms, rain, thunder, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, droughts you name it. Belizeans do not talk about the weather often, why should they? It is boring and you can't change it anyway.

(photo @ Belize Tropical Educational Centre)

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Woke up last night in the middle of the night because of some funny sounds in the bedroom. Our bed is dancing on its four legs, the windows are shaking and my dream-catcher is swinging frantically above my head. What is going on? Am I dreaming? Must be. I poke my husband who gets up to go to the bathroom. The shocks last, a few minutes but I still can not determine whether I am dreaming or not. Next morning, I ask my husband. He can not remember anything. Then I hear about the earthquake in Honduras and the tsunami alert for the Caribbean countries. Wow, so I was definitely NOT dreaming. A real earthquake in my bedroom. Truly shocking!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sweet Deal?

The reason why we are living here in Belize is a sweet one. Michel is working as a consultant for the European Union to support the Belize sugar sector. For many years, the EU and the so-called ACP-countries (African, Caribbean and Pacific countries) have had a mutually beneficial relationship established in the sugar protocol. This agreement, which dates back from the seventies, stipulated a guaranteed access to the European market of fixed quantities of sugar cane for a certain minimum price. Sugar accounts for 60% of Belize’s agricultural production so you’ll know how important it is for this small country.

You will also understand that this is a kind of protection measure and t
hat not everyone is happy with that. Other sugar-producing members of the World Trade Organization, such as Brazil and India, as well European sugar beet producing countries, saw their sugar prices decline and started to complain. This has lead to the ending of the EU-ACP sugar protocol in 2006. As a kind of compensation, the EU waived its magic wand, did a little hocus pocus and voila.., there was 48 million euros to upgrade the Belize sugar sector, which is known to have one of the lowest levels of efficiency in the world while the price per ton had been slashed by 36%.

It is Michel’s job to advise the Ministry of Agriculture on how best to spend that money. Part of it has to be invested in infrastructure (roads, equipment) and part for improving production methods and diversification. There are about 6,000 cane farmers in northern Belize, and as you can imagine, they don’t all have their nose in the same direction (as we say in Dutch). When I had just arrived here in February, the cane farmers were on strike and rioting against the police. One farmer even got shot dead! In this peaceful country?

The same can be said for the Ministry people, and other sugar stakeholders. They all have different ideas on how to spend the money. They all know what the other should do. Combine all of the above with a general Caribbean attitude of all talk and little action and you have a guy coming home in the evening answering my question ‘How was your day, honey?’ with the usual: useless. Not so sweet after all. But he does not give up easily so we’ll see what happens in a few months. To be continued.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Feather or Dot?

I have mentioned it a few times before; Belmopan is not exactly the centre of the world and there is not much excitement here. We don’t even have traffic lights. Not that those are exciting, it’s just to illustrate the scope of this capital. Anyway, in places like this you have to create your own fun and luckily for us, we are pretty good at that. We have revived the Belize Hash House Harriers (you can check it out at and Michael has set up a thing called ‘Belmopan Bravo’. It’s a weekly get-together TGIF idea, every Friday in a different place. In Sri Lanka we had Colombo Charlie, same idea, go for happy hour with a group of friends. This first time we proposed it here, a few weeks ago, we were five people, now there are twenty to thirty people weekly! A nice mixture of Belizeans, Europeans and Americans. It is supposed to be a 6 to 8 pm thing, but we never reach home before 11 pm and that is because we have to drop off our baby sitter.

Last weekend we had a party. It was hosted by Richard, a colleague, at our house. He had thought of a theme: Indian, and he had made a couple of curries with yellow rice. It was a costume party, which the British call a Fancy Dress but that only created confusion as the Americans thought they had to dress in an evening gown. For Micheal and me it was easy because coming from Sri Lanka I have a pretty sari and he has his Bollywood party costume. For other guests it was less obvious however, as people started to ask: what do you mean by Indian? American native Indian or Indian from India? In other words: do I wear feathers or a dot on my front? It did not matter, I just replied: come in whatever you look most sexy. And interestingly (and understandably), most Americans and Belizeans came with the feathers while the Europeans wore the dot. And that is how we ended up having a party with pretty girls in sari’s, sensual Zen masters, a cool-looking Indian casino worker, an American ambassador with feathers and finger paint on his cheeks and even Ghandi himself appeared in his self-made diaper made of white towels. Who says you need to go to bars and clubs to have fun?