My latest post was a bit of a rant. Perhaps I should describe the events that led to my latest screed.
My season ended on the 11th of May. I had just finished a very special trip with a group of students from various Ontario universities, taking a Field Biology course from Graeme Taylor, of the University of Western Ontario. My plan was to return to Belize City on the boat, and then catch the bus to Chetumal. I had already bought a flight to Mexico City the morning of the 12th, where I would be reunited with my beloved Lorena.
The Ocean Beauty arrived a bit late at Half Moon Caye. We could see something was wrong, as the boat lingered in the lagoon about a mile off, for half an hour before it reached the dock. When we tried to depart, the boat would head out a hundred metres or so, the return to the dock. Then a crewman would go down into the engine compartment for a while, and they would make another attempt to leave. We discovered that there was a problem with one of the rudders. After about an hour, they got it fixed and we were underway.
The ride in was as normal, except the boat stopped, briefly, a couple of times on the way in. When we got past the barrier reef, the boat stopped again, and this time the engines were shut down. No explanation was forthcoming for quite a while, but eventually the captain came down and told us that another boat was coming to take us off. We were only a few miles from Belize City at that time.
It was a lovely evening, with a light breeze blowing and only a slight chop. The sun hung low, colouring a partly cloudy sky; a perfect evening for a cruise. After we waited an hour, the second boat showed up. It was tied tightly alongside, but instead of transferring people and luggage, we sat tight as we were driven in.
As I watched the time go ticking past, I came to realise that there was no way that I was going to make the last bus to Chetumal. So I resolved to remain overnight at the Biltmore Hotel, along with our departing guests. I got a room and enjoyed a proper shower and joined the group at the Sahara, a Lebanese restaurant across the street.
That night I re-booked my flight for the following morning, at triple the cost of my first flight purchase. Then I got a good night’s sleep in a fancy bed.
The next morning, I joined my friends for breakfast and bade them farewell. About mid-day, I caught the bus for Chetumal. When I got to the border, I went in to Immigration, to pay my exit fee and get my passport stamped. The officer behind the counter looked at my passport and declared, “You’re a day late. That’s a thousand dollar fine!”
My first thought was “Why should she care? I am leaving the country anyway. It is not like I am trying to live here illegally.”
My next thought was, “How dare you treat visitors so shabbily! Don’t you know how dependent you are on the money we spend down here? Would you even have a job if it weren’t for all the visitors?”
What I said, however, was something a little calmer and more reasonable. “Look,” I began, “I tried, in good faith, to leave on time. In fact I had a flight from Chetumal booked and paid for, which left without me this morning. I had to buy a new ticket, and stayed an extra night in a hotel. So please, don’t make this any worse.”
The officer frowned and stamped my passport. I sighed deeply and left, to get back on my bus.
The rest of my trip was pleasant and without incident. Many people are afraid to travel in Mexico. There may be dangerous places, but at least the officials you meet are polite, professional and reasonable.
i will repeat myself: Belize is a wonderful place to visit, to explore, to just spend time in. But the Immigration Department really needs a readjustment of its priorities. It is possible to protect the country from unwanted immigration while making legitimate visitors feel warmly welcomed, the way the rest of the population does so well.
Thank you Prof. Graeme Taylor, for buying me my meals and adding a little something to offset my extra costs. And thanks also, for bringing your students to our little camp at Half Moon Caye. I enjoyed working with you, and especially with Susan, your TA. You both made my job easier and fun
Ah Belize..waves crashing on the beach..soft trade winds cooling your skin.
Ahh Belize…The tropical sun nourishing body and soul.
Ahhh Belize…where everyone smiles and says welcome. Except the first person you meet and the last: Immigration.
Tourism is the lifeblood of the Belizian economy. More people come to Belize to visit than live here. And it is not surprising to anyone who has been here. For such a small country it is packed with things to do and see. You can hang with the crowds in San Pedro and Placencia, or visit places where you are the only one around. The people are warm and friendly, and eager to share their unique knowledge of their beloved homeland.
In a country that relies so heavily on tourism, you would expect that the people who greet you would make you feel welcome, not eye you suspiciously like they suspect you are smuggling drugs or t-shirts.
One month, less a day: that is how long you are welcome in Belize. As a tourist, you can renew your visa up to five times, losing a day each month, for a maximum stay of 5 moths, three weeks. That is, of you renew on the exact day your visa ends. If it ends on a weekend, you can go in Monday, but they will back-date it so you get no advantage. If you go in a couple of days early, because you might be busy touring around, or on some island where there is no immigration office, you will get one month, less a day, from the day you renew. In other words you lose a couple of days. By the way, each time you renew, you pay $50bz.
When your lovely trip is over, and I do mean lovely – Belize is a wonderful place to visit – you had better get out before your visa expires. If you are one day late, they just might threaten you with a little jail time until you can see a magistrate and pay a $1000bz fine and be deported. Because that is why we travel: to be treated like criminals by petty bureaucrats.
Thank you Belize. Thank you for being such a great place to visit. Thank you for protecting your natural areas. Thank you for your people, who are friendly and caring. But to the Government of Belize, I beg you: get your shit together and train your immigration officers to be welcoming to the visitors who come and support your economy. And please train them to distinguish between a tardy traveller and an illegal immigrant.