Exiting Your Comfort Zone: Things I Took For Granted (and I Didn’t Even Know It) Until I Moved to Belize
I’ve read LOTS of articles about expat life – many of them written by people who either haven’t moved abroad JUST yet…or those who have just arrived (let’s call that the “honeymoon phase” and the following = “the expat fairytale”). They talk of the freedom of shedding material things for a simpler life…and the joy and sense of wonder in embracing their new country. Always an open heart and mind…never ever comparing to what they used to have.
They will shed their old resentments as easily as they leave behind the winter coats and snow boats. Life in Belize will buff out your flaws and your new life will be simple, easy, better.
They touch down in Belize and declare: “I will never again focus on a few ugly trees…I will now ONLY see the big beautiful Belize forest!”
Here’s the thing…it is pretty much guaranteed that you are about to turn off the auto-pilot that you’ve been running on since birth. And it’s going to be uncomfortable. Not all day, every day. But it’s going to be hard.
In ways you never expected…didn’t even know to expect. Just because things in your new life might be simpler, it doesn’t mean they are going to be easy. And sometimes it’s the little things that we can get mired down in.
Let me give you my story as an example.
I grew up in suburban NJ…less than an hour outside of New York City where there were so many conveniences and benefits and opportunities (even if I only took advantage of .00001% of them)…
Was my growing up perfect? No, not at all. But I had access to a great public school system, I lived in a very safe community, access to medical care, an expectation…an assumption that I would go to college AND I had parents/grandparents who could pay for it. I mean…in the big picture? That’s a HUGE cosmic lottery win.
If anyone asked me what the luckiest thing that ever happened to me in my life it would definitely be where I was born. A blessing for which I had zero responsibility.
And because I made some choices – good and bad – and burned out early from the “rat-race” that I just knew was NOT meant for me, I found myself in a position to move to Belize at the age of 33. Moving to a place I fell in love with in during a one-week long vacation. And a bit of running away from “real life”. I was going out on an unsteady limb. And I’ve learned…I mean, good lord, I’ve learned so much.
There comes a time when your expat life is no longer being “on vacation”. Trust me, I know that if you are moving down here, you know it’s not “for vacation”. But it takes a while for the adjustment to really hit home…to make sense…so that you can say “aHA…I really had no clue!” To realize that you didn’t even know what you didn’t even know.
It took me over a year or two. Actually, I’m still working through it 14 years later. It’s a process!
Here are some things that I took for granted until I moved to Belize
Power is always on and if it is not, it’s a BIG F-ING DEAL
I can remember a few times in my 33 years in the States when the power went off. When I was small after Hurricane David and in NYC during the 2003 Northeast Blackout. Both so significant, they have their own Wikipedia pages and I still remember them today.
Here in Belize, the power may go out for 2 minutes or 20 hours (though that is relatively rare) – it can be scheduled by the power company to do tinkering or upgrades or it just might be that “Mexico has cut the power to Belize”. This sort of thing happens a few times a month. Brownouts and power surges can and do fry your electronics. That’s just the way it is.
Water is unlimited
Turn on the faucet, water comes out. That’s just how it is…how it always was. Well…not where I live in Belize. We collect water from our rooftop into our cistern and that is the water we use during the year. Most of the water is collected during the rainy season (July to December)…the cistern overflowing during the rainiest of the nights and then in the spring? The rain stops. And by summer, the cistern empties and you may be forced to BUY water. (Not just the small monthly fee I was used to paying for my NY apartment) 500 gallons delivered to your home on a flatbed truck and pumped into the cistern for hundreds of dollars! We then try to limit showering and all water use. Water is not something to take for granted.
Gas Just Comes Out of Your Stove
It’s doesn’t – in Belize, you buy (or refill) heavy tanks of butane in town and lug them home. A good back and a large wrench is involved in the installation. There is no magical pipe that runs into each household supplying gas to your stove. (This one was a big shock to me…and I’m not sure why…I just never even thought about it!)
In the same vein, that waste is flushed down the toilet and it just disappears
You’ll see the signs in so many bathrooms in Belize. DO NOT flush toilet paper, put toilet paper in the bin. Or something along those lines.
Ewwww…put tp in a stinky bin sitting by the toilet? Yes. In most spots, waste is not just whisked away to be dealt with somewhere else. It moves into a septic system – that is on your property and trust me, you do NOT want to have problems with this system.
Rain. In the NE United States (I lived in NJ, Mass and NYC), you can expect rain. Not all the time…but every few weeks? And it’s just a minor annoyance. Don’t forget your umbrella.
What you CAN expect is that it gets REALLY hot and humid in the summer…as temperatures approach the mid-90s, everyone just expects that it will rain and “the heat will break”. Rain comes – generally in the form of a strong thunderstorm…temperatures “break” and it cools down.
Wrong. Here in Belize, there are months where we get ZERO rain (aka “the dry season”) – February thru May…sometimes June…no rain. Not a mist or a passover. Nothing. All things (including you) acquire a semi-permanent layer of dust.
And when it rains in Belize – it doesn’t get cooler. It gets HOTTER.
You should drink Milk with Every Meal
When I was a kid, it was a given that you would consume milk with every meal. Cow milk – that comes refrigerated at the supermarket OR…when I was little – brought to our house 2x a week by the MILKMAN. We had an aluminum box on our porch…and cartons of milk appeared a few times a week. (Apparently home milk delivery reached a peak in the ’60s…and has been on SHARP decline ever since. Fun fact from Wikipedia: In 1963, nearly 29.7 percent of consumers in the US had milk delivered. Fun clarification from me: I was NOT alive in the 1960s! Born in 1973)
Here in Belize – milk is seen very differently. Because dairy cows are not that well adapted to the heat of Belize – and because refrigerated shipping, while on the rise, is still a luxury.
in the 1960s and 70s and even now, canned milk is the norm. Carnation evaporated milk. You can now also buy Lala Boxed Milk – but it’s imported from Mexico.
Fresh milk, ice cream, sour cream…it’s all expensive, if available at all. Make sure to check expiration dates as well. Unlike milk in the USA, the demand/turnover is not high…so it’s best to check before you buy.
(Also, if you are looking for imported ice cream? Remember you paid for customs, duty and freezer cargo from the USA. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s can be $30bzd!)
Supermarkets have EVERYTHING On Your List, the Selection is HUGE
I could write pages on this…when I was on vacation in Belize, before moving here, it was not something I noticed. I ate in restaurants or purchased take-out food…and when I stopped in a market for snacks, the differences from what I was used to just seemed fun. Who needs a Diet Pepsi when you can drink a fun Orange Fanta in a glass bottle! I don’t need my favorite protein bars, I can eat local plantain chips.
It becomes a bit more challenging when you move here – fun-challenging most of the time to me but it can be frustrating. Life can’t be all Orange Fantas. I wouldn’t have any teeth.
For example, there is basically ONE type of diet soda that is always available (Diet Coke). It is a struggle/expensive to find many specialty items like whole-wheat flour or that 2% Greek yogurt with honey you love.
Here’s what you are not going to find: Pre-prepared foods – chopped bags of salad greens, in fact, most salad greens most/all of the time. You are not going to find many imported fruits and veggies (from strawberries to asparagus to peaches) And when you do find it, it’s either SUPER EXPENSIVE and…not in the best state. I mean…it traveled in a refrigerated container to Belize. You are not going to find a whole aisle of the supermarket labeled: Keto-Friendly or Vegan. Maybe one or two items but the selection is sporadic and expensive.
And just because you saw ripe mangos or bread or cookies in a store last week, doesn’t mean they have them this week. Inventories are restocked with much less frequency, if at all.
Additionally…you might find you have strange hankerings for foods that you didn’t even eat when you lived in the US – every once in a while I will have a primal urge to eat a steak or a Big Mac.
There are no fast food places in Belize.
You Can Find All Information on the Internet
Many businesses in Belize do not have websites and some have no social media at all. If they have either, they are not always meticulously updated. This may seem crazy if you are moving from the US but you can not just google “best tailor in San Pedro Belize” or “golf cart mechanic on Caye Caulker”. You can not always see a business’s hours online or find out if they carry the item you want….or click and buy.
So much information is word-of-mouth. You are going to have to make actual phone calls! It takes a while to get used to!
This also applies to the weather forecast! In the US, you can look up the hourly forecast in your zip code and get a very good sense of what to expect.
Here? Not so much. A summer day in Belize can be hot sun, dark clouds and rain showers all in one hour. Tropical weather is always unpredictable.
When You Call the Police and/Or The Fire Department, They Arrive Immediately
They might or…they might not have transportation to your house. Or not enough guys are on duty. Or the fire truck is having issues. They absolutely do the best job that they can…but things are not always 100%.
Most communities across the country do not have ambulance service or guaranteed 24-hour medical care. It’s all just something that even though I never needed it, I assumed was always there.
In that same vein…
Veterinary Care, Even 24-Hour Vet Care, is a Given
Many communities do not have full-time day vet care. There are times when our island, Ambergris Caye, does not have a veterinarian available. And if you have an emergency, you would have to fly/take a water taxi to Belize City during the day.
Cute picture of Frannie by our last camp guests.
One of the reasons that I felt SO comfortable moving to a new country by myself, without a job, at the age of 33 is because Belizeans are so warm and welcoming. I immediately felt at ease when I was in Belize.
And I still do. BUT…I’ve lived here for 14 years, full time, and I am not “a local”…and I’m not “a tourist”. My spot is…well…hard to describe.
I still feel American – I am taxed in the US and I vote in the US. I have strong opinions on US politics and issues…and a healthy sense of patriotism for the USA though I only visit for about two weeks a year (and I’m generally dying to get back home/to Belize after just a few days). But I also love Belize…so much. It is my home. When people ask me how long I plan to stay here…I’m momentarily confused. I LIVE here.
I am applying for citizenship here (it will be dual) But am I or will I be Belizean? No. Not really.
Despite the fact that we speak the same language and watch much of the same TV, movies, video games, music videos, I…will always be…different. There will be assumptions made about me and I will make assumptions. It’s human nature I guess.
Often, if I haven’t seen someone for a few months or even a few years, he will start the conversation with “Wow! I didn’t know you were still here!”
Because…most gringos that move down here DO leave. The majority of them do.
This is no one’s fault….if it is anyone’s fault, it is mine. I think… And, as you can read here, it is hard to put into words. It’s not a feeling that is with me every day, just sometimes…a sense of “otherness”.
I’m going to end it there…though I’m going to keep thinking about this topic…and maybe adding on. Trying to explain myself better. 🙂
I moved to Belize because I loved it. And I stayed because I love it. But it’s about trade-offs.
I swapped my subway commute for a bumpy 7-mile golf cart with no windshield. I swapped my heels and suits for cut-offs and flip-flops. I swapped dark cold winters for forever sunshine. I also swapped drycleaning and an automatic dryer for a somewhat manual washing machine and line-drying (it sounds more romantic than it is).
I swapped a sense of comfort for a sense of adventure. And it’s worked for me. So far, so great. These 14 years have been the best of my life.
I love my community, I love this island, I love the natural beauty of Belize, I love that all my days are different.
But it doesn’t work for everyone. So I hope these things give you something to think about…I didn’t even include Amazon Prime! And DVRs! And the Apple Store and Target!…especially if you are planning expat life.
Everyone thinks they have a good sense of humor. Everyone thinks they have common sense. And everyone thinks they are pretty flexible. You are about to test all three. Good luck!