I’m going to give you a couple of real-life situations in Belize, and I’d like you to consider how you might respond in similar situations.
In the first, you are at an administrative office to get your tourist visa renewed for another month. The sign on the wall clearly states that the one-month renewal is 50 USD. But while the clerk leaves the stamp hovering over your visa, he looks you in the eye and says, “Today, the price is 70 USD.” This happened to one of my friends in my hostel. What would you do?
In the second, you witness a table of six men harassing a local unaccompanied woman as she walks by on the sidewalk, demanding sex and calling her a fat pig, among other verbal attacks. She has no tears, but she is clearly upset as she passes you. I witnessed this myself. What would you do?
In the first case, my friend payed the 70 USD because his visa would have run out that day and he needed to stay.
In the second case, I did absolutely nothing. And I can’t explain exactly why. Perhaps I feel that I am merely an observer, unable to interfere, like with the Prime Directive on Star Trek. The abuse and disrespect of men toward women in the country is rampant, and perhaps I thought that if I interfered, I might make it worse for the victim next time or possibly even escalate the event into physical violence.
One of the young Canadian women in our hostel had her crotch grabbed by a local man. She didn’t do anything immediately, but then a minute later, she walked up to him and punched him in the face. It was a risky retaliation decision, but he cowered away from her heroic move, hopefully to reconsider similar actions in the future. I wonder, though, if a local woman had retaliated in a similar way, if she would have faired as well as the Canadian tourist.
With regard to the landscape of this country, my first impressions are quite favourable. It has pristine beaches, a fascinating diversity of ecosystems, and rugged, undeveloped jungle habitats that appeal to my adventurous nature. I could spend a lifetime in this landscape and climate and never be unhappy.
My first impressions of the people, however, are mixed. Most are extremely friendly, helpful, and honest. But I wouldn’t trust a man to be respectful to a woman, and I wouldn’t trust a government employee to be honest.
Corruption is part of daily life here, and you either play the game, or you’ll lose out. For example, a group of my hostel friends rented a van to visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal Caves, a popular Mayan burial site in the Cayo region of west Belize. Together, they pitched in for a bottle of rum and a box of cigarettes in order to bribe the park official, since they were arriving late in the day and without a tour guide. Otherwise, they expected that they would be turned back.
You can have anything here if you’re willing to pay the price. And likewise, if you’re unwilling to pay, you will get bogged down in so much red tape that it will leave your head reeling.
My new friend, Param, says that corruption is everywhere in the world, it’s just that it’s low-level and overt in Belize, whereas it’s hidden at the corporate and higher government levels in more prosperous countries.
In my short visit to Belize City, I wandered off the tourist path into town. I saw street people with obvious untreated mental illness sprawled on the sidewalk, with Christmas shoppers stepping over them. Stray dogs were everywhere, many just skin and bones with barely enough energy left to bring themselves to their feet. Even in San Ignacio, on an early morning walk before the town woke up, I saw about fifty stray dogs digging through garbage looking for a meal.
Back in Belize City, I chatted with a young man who seemed like a real gentleman. But then when a young unaccompanied woman walked by, he said, “Hey Baby”, and grabbed his crotch. Sheesh.
My overarching impression of Belize is probably a universal truth. And that is, happiness is abundant, but human dignity is not.
The people here laugh easily, enjoy close relationships with family and friends, and the children run around screaming with playful delight. It’s a joy to just sit in the market and watch the locals carry on with their day-to-day activities.
But there’s a dark side to this country and you’d have to be thick-skinned if you wanted to settle here.
Yesterday, when my friends were off to tourist destinations, I wandered down to the Macal River to look for some of the plentiful white egrets in the area. Family cars were parked along the river’s edge and locals were swimming in the river. So I joined them. They were kind, accommodating, and playful. Family means everything to them.
Beautiful people in a beautiful landscape.
And that is the final impression I am left with about Belize.