People who move to Belize and stay there year after year, making friends and becoming part of their community, usually have very good social skills. The most important are: acknowledge that you’re in a foreign country, and respect that country’s laws and customs instead of trying to superimpose your own values on existing laws and customs.
If you move to Belize for the purpose of doing something specific—to open a restaurant, become a professional photographer, or begin a small business that caters to the tourist trade—you need money (to support yourself until you can complete the red tape necessary to go to work), and time (everything bureaucratic in Belize takes time). Be patient and polite. Even if you want to work for free, as a volunteer—you need to fill out paperwork. The logic behind a work permit is obvious. The government doesn’t want expatriates coming in and taking jobs from native-born Belizeans. The logic behind needing a permit in order to volunteer is less obvious—many organizations, especially nonprofits, need all the help they can get, and usually aren’t picky about where it comes from. Let your conscience—and your community—be your guide.
Sometimes it’s not easy to suspend judgment about local customs. Most low-income Belizeans are indifferent to dogs, and resent it when they see foreigners—and until you’ve lived there a few years and have gained credibility as a member of the community, you’ll be a foreigner—who feed their dogs better than they can afford to feed their children. There are various anti-cruelty programs in place to teach people—children, in particular—that animals can feel pain and suffering too. But you can do your part by not smooching your pooch in public and feeding him tidbits for good behavior if you take him for a walk. In some areas it’s not a good idea to take him for a walk, period, while in others, especially beach communities where a lot of tourists live, you’ll see dogs off-leash happily romping in the surf. Even if nobody tells you to, pick up your dog’s droppings. People poisoning other people’s dogs is unfortunately fairly common in Belize.
Wife beating and/or child beating is different in that it usually takes place in the home, not in public. But domestic violence exists throughout Belize. There’s more of it in poor areas, and in all areas where drugs or alcohol abuse are common. Unless you’re moving to Belize with the specific intent of helping abused women and children, you’ve probably already identified those areas where domestic violence is most common and decided to move elsewhere. But what do you do if you decided you like a specific town and build a house there, only to find you’ve moved next door to a family where incest and child-beating are taking place? There are laws in Belize to protect children and wives or domestic partners from abuse, but all the internet sites I visited in order to write this article stress there are “limited financial and human resources” to enforce these laws. You must also ask yourself if you’re really helping, for example, the battered common-law wife of the man next door by complaining to the authorities, especially given the “limited resources” I just mentioned. People—even white expatriates—get killed for meddling in other people’s business. As I said earlier: let your conscience and your community guide your decision.
You must also face the fact that you’ll have more money than most Belizeans, and what you regard as lack of morality may simply be poverty. On the shuttle boat between Belize City and San Pedro in Ambergris Caye, I saw a young Maya woman with a baby in her arms. When the baby started fussing, the woman unobtrusively slid the top of her dress down over one shoulder and offered the baby her breast. (The other passengers were oblivious.) But there was another white woman about my age on board—I’m ashamed to say she looked American—who did notice. She shot agitated, threatening looks at the young woman, whose head was bent over her baby’s. A few times the woman seemed on the verge of saying something, and I knew that if she did, I’d say something to her—to remind her that she was guest in Belize, and that breastfeeding an infant, particularly among people who can’t afford to buy baby formula, is not criminal or immoral.
But she prudently kept her mouth shut. Maybe she had recently moved to Ambergris Caye and had just realized that local customs would take a lot of getting used to. For her sake, I hope so.