Tammy and I just returned from a one-week vacation in Belize. Belize is obviously a Caribbean type destination, but unique compared to the other destinations in that class to which we’ve traveled.
Two aspects of Belize set it apart from the other locations we’ve visited: We were not separated from the local population, and there was a significant American “ex-pat” community presence. Each of those distinctions contributed to it being an interesting week (while still very, very relaxing).
Although I suppose we could have found a resort-ish hotel that’s walled off from the general population, that’s not the norm in Belize. We stayed in Placencia, where the tourist lodging was mainly of the small hotel / casita type variety, and which is interspersed among restaurants, shops, other commercial venues, and local housing.
While the local population does not enjoy anything approaching American level affluence, they are able to frequent the restaurants, which, by the way, were great, if you like authentic local food, and incredibly affordable. Although the servers almost all were local, they were not servile, as you would find at a resort in the Dominican, for example. My sense was that we were treated the same as the locals at the next table, as well it should be. The most we paid for a dinner was $50, including tip, and, no, we’re not teetotalers.
Perhaps because of the relative affluence, two unenjoyable aspects of other Caribbean locations were noticeably missing. First, there was little concern about crime, at least violent crime. Second, there was no outright begging by children in the streets. I don’t consider either of those vacation killers for other locations. The begging isn’t harmful, and the crime generally can be avoided through wariness. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to experience the absence of those features. It’s easy enough to ask what streets are safe, but it’s more fun if you don’t have to ask.
There is some unsolicited selling of goods and services, but it’s not overwhelming. In that regard, many Belizeans are in the local tour business, which requires them to actively market their service, because of the intense competition.
We took one tour to see some Mayan ruins and go cave tubing. Our tour guide at first spoke very little, which is a bit disconcerting in that situation, simply because we’re conditioned to expect non-stop speech from tour guides. Then, completely inadvertently, I caused our tour guide to open up. There was one other American couple on the tour, with whom were yakking, and the subject of the “petulant wannabe plutocrat” from our flight in came up. When I relayed the line “the hordes are coming” our tour guide, who’d clearly been listening in, broke out laughing. That started a lengthy conversation (there was about 7 hours of driving on this tour, so we had plenty of time) about life in Belize. One interesting tidbit: I asked if Belize had any oil off the coast, or if that was only further North, off the Mexican coast. The response was that there was, but the people were resisting efforts to develop it, because of the negative effect it would have on them. Good on them for getting that right.
On to the ex-pat community, which seemed to fall into two categories: Old hippies and anti-taxers. But those two groups were not entirely distinct, as there was no separation of the categories when we encountered groups of ex-pats. Our hotel proprietors may have been alone in a third category: Americans who simply wanted to make a go of it in a unique location.
The old hippies were pretty much what you’d expect, but perhaps not entirely. One lived next door to our location and spent an hour or so in the water one day telling us about her life story, which was interesting. She’d spent her adult life in three locations: Key West, Guatemala, and Belize, in that order. She was what you’d expect in that she’d completely rejected the American lifestyle and our societal definition of “success.” But she also was pretty close to fearless in how she’d lived her life, which I really admired.
The anti-tax mentality was a bit of an eye-opener for me. I’d always thought the tax-driven decision to leave the country was about the avoidance of IRS tax collection efforts. This can be a rational decision, however you feel about US tax policy. I had a client years ago who was more or less on the same page as I politically. But he was past his income generating years and I’d been unable to work out a tolerable resolution for him. He did the math and concluded that his last decade or so of life would be far more comfortable in Costa Rica. So he thanked me for my efforts, and left.
The anti-tax mentality we encountered in Belize was entirely different. It was not about running from existing tax debt (even if there was some), but about not having to pay those onerous US taxes in the future. And that sentiment was not as much financially-based as it was based on resentment of US tax policy. It was tea-party-esque to the extreme, where extreme is a reference to the anger in which tea-partiers bathe on a regular basis. We heard several stories from a bar owner about friends of his who’d been “creamed” by the IRS. We met a guy about my age, perhaps a few years younger, who’d done really, really well when he sold his business, like owning a yacht well. In his mind, tax policy should be based on how hard one worked for the money he’d made. Because he had made sacrifices early on, as entrepreneurs generally do, he resented having to pay tax. So, even though he had enough left to live at a high level wherever he wanted, he was looking to move to Belize so he didn’t have to pay tax in the future. And, by the way, he had no children, so there was no need to conserve his wealth for future generations.
These anti-tax, tea-partiers to the extreme, ex-pats were a breed apart from the other Americans living in Belize. The old hippies, our hotel proprietors, and the folks running from IRS collection problems all were motivated by reason. But the folks living there simply because they hate having to pay tax? They left America out of anger, not because Belize suited them better than America did.
I suppose that’s their privilege, but it’s cautionary to anyone considering a move to Belize or a similar location. The thing about people consumed by anger is they’re not much fun to be around. When you see the anger dripping from the posters and tea-party rallies, regardless of whether you agree with the political sentiment, you generally don’t want to hang with that crowd. In America, it’s easy enough to avoid them. In ex-pat communities located in Belize and other middle-income countries, however, I’m not sure that’s true.
All that said, I could have used a few more days there. Vacations time is wonderful, but I find it addictive.