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...