Monday, January 09, 2012

Listening to Ex-Pats

Having explored the town thoroughly yesterday afternoon, there wasn’t much to do today, but plan our time to prevent going stir-crazy. Finding our way to Flavya’s Café for breakfast, I had the opportunity to observe other ex-pats in their new natural setting. Feeling like a cultural anthropologist or like Jane Goodall, I eavesdropped for as long as possible collecting data before I plunged in. Holding back allowed the populace to feel comfortable with my presence, getting a sense of their territory having been invaded, allowing them to relax again since I didn’t make any sudden moves or noises.

Note, we are all sitting outside because Belize has banned smoking indoors in public places. General observations: One man age guessed to be about 60 years old from conversation heard, but looks like he is around 70 years old. He stands and sits hunched over, skin is sagging and wrinkled, and he is chain smoking for the hour he is observed. He is Canadian and has not returned home for the ten years he has lived here. There was nothing said to intimate that he had family or significant others sharing his life here.

Woman one: She was from Oregon. From what I overheard, it seems that she is a relatively new here, having been here for just over a year. She mentioned to the others that she had returned to the US to bring her granddaughter back to stay with her and kept her for six months. Questions in my mind were 1.) if this child was of school age, how did she stay away for 6 months or 2.) if she were not school age, how could parents allow their child to be gone for 6 months? Fearful of scaring off the herd, I just observed and listened without any interference. She said that when she brought the child back home, all of grandma’s family was surprised that she intended to return to Belize. Estimated age 68 -75 years old based on physical appearance only.

Woman two:  Also a US transplant, but from which state was uncertain. I guesstimated her age to be around 50 years old. She actually acknowledged my presence, so conversation began. She has been here a couple of years and “loves it”. When I said she is obviously too young to be retired, she stated she is not. She repairs vehicle windshields for a living. When a vehicle gets a chip, scratch or crack, she repairs it so it doesn’t need replacing. When I asked if this is what she did in the US, she laughed and said she was a marketing consultant, but had to learn a new vocation when she moved here. She pointed to the man and said “He roasts coffee. We all scramble with multiple jobs to make a living.” When I asked if it was worth it, she said “Of course, this is paradise.” Yet the response was not convincing and certainly San Ignacio is would fall way low on just about anyone’s Paradise Scale. My impression was that this was all of the paradise they could afford, so they were willing to settle for what was available to them, but alternatively they had to support their decision as being a valid one.

That evening, we went to Serendib Restaurant where as it turns out, the new owners are young couple from Washington State. Sam was willing to speak with me about being an ex-pat, but honestly, his responses left me wanting, not unlike the dinner I had afterward while there. Sam has owned this restaurant for 6 months, though the restaurant itself was opened by a Sri Lankan couple in 1993. When I asked Sam why buy a Sri Lankan restaurant, he responded with the curiosity fulfilling response “Why not?” Seeing that I wasn’t dealing with a critical thinker here, I pursued with “But why a Sri Lankan restaurant in San Ignacio, Belize?” This elicited a little meatier chunk of information. Sam: “When I was here on vacation, this was the only restaurant I ate at. I loved the food. The owners were willing to leave their name, all of their recipes, and even all of the staff stayed on from the chef to the waiters.” The part of the comment that raised red flags for me was when he said this was the only place he ate when here on vacation. Is this limited thinking or some fear of decision making? He was still hanging around, so I took another chance. I asked him why he felt he wanted to be an ex-pat? Sam confessed that he was tired of the keeping up with the neighbors’ mentality, a bigger house, a better car and just wanted an easier lifestyle. The simple solution to this is to keep from buying into it. If you don’t want to keep up with the neighbors any longer, don’t do it. No one is strong-arming you to mortgage your life away to climb that status scale. Sam didn’t have anything to say that was convincing that this was a smart move.

Another area that left me dangling was when I asked what he did for culture? Sam asked me "Like what?" Well, I responded with theater for starters to which he responded he did not consider theater culture, but entertainment. For entertainment, he claims he has friends and they get together for socials. Had I had finished, I would have continued with museums, art galleries, movies, concerts, and all of those cultural outlets that enrich one's life. 

Ron asked him how the medical care was here to which Sam sarcastically responded "I don't know. I haven't been sick."

The tourism season runs from December to the end of March. The rest of the time is the rainy season and Sam’s restaurant is right on the flood zone. I questioned how he could survive during the off season, which is the majority of the year. This is where he became visibly uncomfortable and stated “You budget your money. Every business has down times and they budget to get through it.” This is a true statement, but most businesses don’t have 8-9 months of down time where they have to depend on local business in a 3rd world economy to support themselves. From what we have noticed, most of the ex-pat population that we have confirmed are ex-pats by asking around, are not ordering meals when they sit in these restaurants. They order a beer and sit for hours. As many Budapest restaurants know, this does not pay the bills. I am sure they wouldn’t in Washington State either.    

What seems to be a contradictory statement for many ex-pats about a simpler life is that there are an equal number of new SUVs, trucks, and other expensive style cars as most American cities.

A striking and potentially relevant piece of data had I had a larger pool was the fact although I identified us as ex-pats also, not one person asked us where we lived or anything at all regarding our experiences. I volunteered that we lived in Budapest, Hungary, but this still did not elicit any counter inquiry. 

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