1 August 2016

Robert J. Hawkins - Expat in Belize

Robert J. Hawkins - Expat in Belize

We’ve had the chance to talk to Robert J. Hawkins, 64, an American expat in California who has moved to Belize with his wife. In search of a lifestyle change, they settled in to the island of Ambergris Caye, where it is carefree and affordable.

Meeting welcoming locals, Mr. Hawkins has made many new life-long friends through pub events, yoga classes and more. He embraces the Belizean culture fully, and celebrates their national festivals. While work permits and residency are difficult to obtain, there is a good public healthcare system and it is easy to navigate around Belize on a bicycle. Being away from the mainland, there can be shortages of certain produce at times and products are often sold at “touristy” prices. Mr. Hawkins, who enjoys breath-taking views of the Caribbean Sea from his house, said those are just minor trade-offs and recommended lots of places to hang out at.

However, he said, “you do not escape real world issues of poverty, ignorance, crime, pollution and violence when you move to a tropical island.” He now volunteers at a school and documents his adventures in Belize in a blog in his free time. Read more about Mr. Hawkins’ experiences as an expat in Belize, in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you originally from?

A: California, after nearly 30 years in San Diego and two in the Bay Area.


Q: What inspired you to move out of California?

A: We love the US and it will always be home. We will always be proud citizens. I say this because we sometimes meet expats who are running away from something they dislike – a government, an economy, a culture.

Between us, we have five grown children who have lead adventurous global lives, travelling to foreign countries, sometimes living in them. One son was even featured on an episode of “Househunters International” in Nicaragua! For a time, we lived vicariously through their adventures as we sat in a large house, paying a large mortgage, large taxes and large insurance premiums. Over and over and over.

We added up my pension and social security, subtracted all the expenses we would enjoy with a lifestyle change, and were pleasantly surprised to find that we could live a pretty exciting and exotic life – within our means.


Q: Where are you living now?

A: On the 24-mile long island of Ambergris Caye in the tiny Central American country, Belize.


Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: We were looking for something affordable, not too far from home, our children and grandson, and a place where we could reasonably fit into a community. We wanted a place that was outside our comfort zone but not alien.

One 18-day trip to Belize last year sealed the deal. We met people then who are still our friends and neighbours today. We saw incomparable beauty and inexplicable blight, and challenging contradictions of poverty and wealth. We saw native Belizeans and expats who are extremely comfortable in each other’s company. We saw a new country struggling to find its identity and place in the wider world.

In short, we wanted to be a part of all that.


Q: How long have you been living in Belize?

A: Eight months.


Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had when you were new in Belize?

A: Reconciling the fact that you do not escape real world issues of poverty, ignorance, crime, pollution and violence when you move to a tropical island. They are as much a part of the environment as the postcard-perfect views of the Caribbean, generous nature of fellow expats and locals, and excellent weather.


Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance were particularly difficult in Belize? What was your experience with these?

A: The work permit process can be convoluted and frustrating for a non-resident. Belize is quite understandably concerned with foreigners coming in and snapping up jobs that can be done by residents. It is a very poor country with very high unemployment. You can gain residency (also not an easy thing to do) and work any job you wish without a permit. That said, there are lawyers who can expedite the process but you will pay accordingly. We know many people who work jobs in the US or Canada remotely from Belize.

We have rolled the dice on health insurance for now, as I have less than six months until I reach Medicare eligibility. However, local 24-hour public healthcare is free and staffed with good doctors and nurses, albeit medical equipment that is badly in need of replacement. There is actually a donation box in the reception room which I stuff generously. I have gone to an excellent private cardiologist in Belize City twice and his 1-2 hour consultations cost me $50 BZ ($25 US) each. I can live with that. Prescriptions, except for some brand names, are incredibly cheap.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: My wife of three years, Rose Alcantara, is at my side.


Q: If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: Rose is a lifelong world traveller, including living some years in Gambia before having a son and daughter. As such, she slipped into the expat life with incredible ease and enthusiasm. In fact, Rose was the one who first saw the potential in an expat life for us. We set about this change as a team and we live each day here side-by-side. It would be unimaginable without her.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Belize? How did you manage to find a social circle there?

A: Making friends in a foreign country is incredibly easy. Losing them – those who only live there part-time or who decide to repatriate – is very hard.

Before we came to Belize, I contacted a local blogger, an Englishman who was building a home in San Pedro, here on Ambergris Caye. We met John and his wife for breakfast one day and have been good friends since. They even put us up as guests for a few days when we first arrived as we looked for a home. Meeting people on the island is like anywhere – your neighbours, your friends at the local pub, and people who share common interests – in our case, yoga, standup paddling and Pilates.

Now, particular to Ambergris Caye, are the facts that it is a small and narrow island – San Pedro is four streets at its widest – with a fairly small population. You tend to run into the people you have met, over and over. Especially important here, the people you run into have the time to stop, chat, catch up, exchange news and cement relationships. I call it the Mayberry Formula: time and opportunity equal friendships.

Everyone has a favourite local bar or two where you might find darts night, trivia night, cribbage night or potluck dinner night. For wine lovers, Friday night at Wine de Vine is a great meeting place for expats and locals. Through daily yoga and/or Pilates classes, Rose and I have made some of our closest friends.

Friends, especially seasoned expats, become generous and invaluable resources too. All you have to do is ask for a recommendation for a doctor, a mechanic, a plumber, a good breakfast place and suggestions pour in. I welcome the day when I can be as helpful to the next guy coming along.

Additionally, Belizeans love to celebrate almost everything. Independence is a month-long celebration in September. Lobster Festival includes a week-long run-up of great dining, music and dancing. Mardi Gras is so festive that Lent lands with relief. Halloween is huge. We just had the Christmas boat parade. There are football (soccer) tournaments, a semi-pro basketball team, kayak endurance races, and on and on. These are embraced by locals and expats alike, side-by-side, arm-in-arm.

You can find alienation, isolation and even resentment from expats but personally, it is easier to embrace the whole community. It embraces you back.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: We mostly use bicycles to get around but cycling north along the shore to a distant resort for a leisurely afternoon at poolside with lunch is fun. So is gathering together a boat full of friends for a day of snorkeling on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, just offshore, followed by some “resort-hopping” on the way home.  A visit to even smaller nearby Caye Caulker for a day (by private boat or water taxi) is like a vacation within a vacation. For us, the longer we stay, we find it easier to make visits to the mainland to explore Mayan ruins and ancient caves, see other towns, shop in Belize City – especially when visitors arrive.

Mostly though, we enjoy quiet nights at home, dinners with friends, a few drinks with friends at a beachside bar, an occasional movie night out. Rose takes painting classes once a week and is part of a book club/women’s group that meets weekly. There is no amateur theatre group or music ensemble but there is a great rock jam night on Tuesdays at a roadhouse called Legends.


Q: How does the cost of living in Belize compare to your home?

A: Costs are in some ways comparable to the US and in others so much cheaper. The general rule is that everything is cheaper on the mainland. We live on a tourism-oriented island so, you can hang out in touristy places and pay touristy prices.  You can eat and drink “local” and pay much less. Many stores and produce stands offer a local rate (often 10 percent less) if they know you live here. Still, all food and merchandise are shipped to the island and that builds a cost into prices.

That goes for power, telecommunications and other utilities too. Our electric bill last month (with visitors) was about $150 US. Usually, it is much less because we never use air conditioning.) Wifi is $75 US. Cable TV and water is included in our rent, which is $1,100 US/month for a two bedroom, fully and very nicely furnished condo with sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea and Barrier Reef.

We mostly cycle everywhere, so transportation costs zero. Many people drive golf carts and that can send your costs soaring – repairs, gas, bridge tolls, registration.

  • How much is a cup of coffee?

A pound of local roasted and ground Guatemalan bean is $10-12 US. A cup in a local cafe can run $2-4 US.

  • How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A very filling meal of stewed chicken, rice, beans and coleslaw can cost around $6 US. On weekends, street corner BBQ’s pop up everywhere and you can get a full meal for $5-6 US.

  • How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A resort town, remember? You can’t get out of the best restaurants in town for under $65-75 US per person. Add more when you add wine.

  • How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

Wine is very expensive. A modestly priced bottle of US wine will cost three and four times as much here. Same for Chilean wines. Many foreign products carry heavy duties. However, local beers and rums are very inexpensive. Honestly, I don’t know about cigarettes.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: There is almost nothing “local” about Belizeans – they are a rich mixture of Mayans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, West Indians, Garifunans (African-Caribbeans), Lebanese, Asians, German-Dutch Mennonites and English colonialists. On this island, many Belizeans migrate here from other parts of the country to make a living and some return home when the tourism season ends.

In general, they are very friendly, gracious, trusting and generous. They will tell you things about their life that you would never hear from your own family. If you befriend a Belizean, you will have a friend in return.  Expats come and go, however, and I am sure Belizeans must have developed a protective shell.

I volunteer two mornings a week in a reading program at an elementary school that serves the poorest kids on the island. Many live in homes with no running water or electricity. They are unfailingly polite, inquisitive and grateful for the help, even if they’re not sure what it is I’m trying to accomplish.

Belize is no different than any other country. It has bad people as well as good. Theft is a big problem and no one should be surprised when you have such a wide disparity between haves and have-nots. One night my wallet fell out of my pocket while I was riding in the back of a friend’s golf cart. Not that I even noticed. The cart behind us stopped, picked it up and raced to catch up and return it to me. The Belizean family in the cart didn’t hesitate for a moment. These are the people that I see and embrace every day.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Belize?

A: Positives: Time to do everything you never had time for back in the States. Beautiful country with beautiful people. Affordability. Limitless pot