Moving to a small island off the coast of Belize to work as a vet also comes with its share of adjustments. At work I knew that I would have to learn to rely mostly on a thorough history, physical exam, and a decade of experience. In every day life though, you can’t really know what the differences will be until you are in it! This is a tiny country of 300,000 people in Central America. The culture is different, accessibility is different. I had to learn to adjust.
My first challenge was finding locations. I live about 1.5 miles from town. The island is thin and long so luckily getting lost is not really possible. Addresses though? We don’t use them. There are some streets with names, a few streets with signs, no building numbers to speak of, and nobody uses any of it. In town there is Front St, Middle St, and Back St (not their real names). There is the Road up North (not it’s real name), and what I call the Main Rd (I’m sure it has a proper name too). So to find anything you need a frame of reference, problem is, when you’re new……you see the problem. Is it near the airport? The cable building? Just down from the traffic circle, or by the fire station? Let me guess, it is green with a white window and really close to that restaurant with the flashy sign. After almost 6 months here I can find almost anything based on what store or business it’s close to, in the beginning I wasn’t “lost” per se, I just sent a while looking for where I was supposed to be!
I also had to leave behind some of my previous creature comforts. This included my beloved car. I started driving at age 16, I’m not revealing exact numbers, but that was a while ago! Many people in San Pedro get around by golf cart. When you are the vet for a non profit shelter, you have to stay in budget. This is the first time in my life that I have not had regular access to a motorized vehicle. In fact, I went 5 months without driving a car here. Having no car though means lots more exercise and far less cost. Imagine no more car payment, monthly insurance bills, or gas station visits! I ride my trusty borrowed bicycle most everywhere, whether it’s hot or cold, OK there’s no cold, it’s just hot, really hot. Having lived almost a decade in Florida I was partially prepared for the heat. But I had this thing there, it was called A/C. I had it almost everywhere. It’s gone. I am lucky enough to have a/c in my actual clinic room and in my bedroom to sleep. Otherwise, I’m just sweaty, all the time, it’s normal. Running? Sweaty. Gym? Sweaty. Shopping? Sweaty. Watching TV at 9 pm…you get it. I think back to the total panic I had in the past when my air conditioner died, I no longer have those worries. I do have a fan, that was a great living room addition. I see it at other people’s houses too, you see with island living, we all have the same version of most items.
The Lasko Fan, a Belizean Classic
Last night I was standing at the sink, sweating as usual, washing dishes with warm water and I thought to myself, remember that dishwasher thing? Sigh. That thing was awesome. At least there’s no fighting over who has to empty it!
I also remember when I lived in the Eastern time zone and the occasional show I liked came on at the “normal” time. It is good for watching late night TV at 9 pm. Now I find myself watching every old SVU rerun on my computer, even though the cable company here forces me to have TV service if I want my internet.
Speaking of the cable company, there are bills to be paid, electric, water, phone, etc. I live a cash based life here. That means like many Belizeans, I pay each bill each month in person. That means hours of biking around and often lining up, being told that someone will get to you “right now” is the Belize term for in a few minutes – maybe. Take into account that lunch break is a serious thing here, myself included. If you remember back to above where I explained that we don’t have addresses, you can see how the mail system would not be ideal for bill delivery. These mostly come tucked into the gate, like this…
If you are in need of extra cash, you’d better plan ahead. There are three main bank machines on the island. Never are all three either working or full of money on any given day. On a particularly busy tourist day or holiday or Monday, it is likely that all of them will be down or empty. This is not unusual.
I do though successfully receive mail, even though we all have the same address – San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye, Belize. I just have to remember to drop by the post office and ask the nice man to look through the letters (sorted alphabetically by last name) to see if there are any for me! I usually stop in monthly. All packages are opened along with the customs agent, so he can decide on the import taxes that must be paid. This lets my family off the hook when it comes to sending expensive gifts!
The most interesting change is shopping. Whether it’s for food or household items it’s always an adventure. I know that this is slightly less challenging on the mainland, but just know that there is not a single indoor mall in Belize. Got a craving for fast food? You’d better start driving to Mexico. So, I will liken shopping to a treasure hunt. Only you make your own list. If you want a good price, you’ll have to hit up multiple places. With some experience you may have an idea of where these items are hiding. You may also know where it costs up to 50% less for that same item. Import fees here are high, so much of what I buy is from Belize or another country close by. I save money on clothes because I don’t buy any. I like to get things like eggs (you bring your own cartons) close by (remember, the bicycle issue). I get a good price on dry goods on the weekends at one store, but I can find rare treats like diet orange soda and a skor chocolate bar at another. Looking for brand name peanut butter? That is one of my splurges and I often have to seek it out somewhere else. Meat? That’s a whole different trip to two locations. I have a favorite fruit/veggie stand and another that is closest to home. I have nicknames for many of the unnamed stores. For days last week I searched for an elusive avocado. I got some not so anonymous tips here and there. I would stop at many stores as I passed. My craving increased with each episode of defeat. Finally, one day biking home for lunch I needed bananas. This is one of my staples here, readily available, but they ripen very quickly. I stopped near my house at what I refer to as the “Banana Store”. All produce is imported from the mainland weekly, so depending on the day, certain items may be looking good, or more like an older lady that has spent too many years worshiping the sun. I pulled in, and low and behold, AVOCADOS! A whole 5 of them. A big smile came across my face, especially when she quoted only $3 BZ each. I grabbed a few. I then turned around and surveyed the area. Hmmm, I looked at the woman behind the table, I said to her in spanish, “Where are the bananas?”. She looked at me and shook her head slightly, “No bananas” she answered.
The Banana Store on a Great Day
Of course not I thought, of course not. Why would there be bananas at the Banana Store?
So, I enjoy living in Belize a lot. I even enjoy most of the quirks and differences from my previous home. Sometimes though, I have to ask myself, “Where have all the bananas gone?”