I’ve just finished my first week at work, and my first full week in the country. And on the basis of that week, things are looking good for seeing the country. And things are going to be ‘interesting’ at work. Good for seeing the country, because the job I’m going to be doing will take me to different BCVI clinics all over Belize, so I’ll have the chance to see the place from Punta Gorda in the south to Orange Walk in the north. I’ll also have to do some of those journeys in the company vehicle, an enormous SUV-type behemoth of a car with left-hand-drive (AND I’ll be driving on the right-hand-side of the road AND I’ll have to go around roundabouts the wrong way!). So that’ll be interesting.
Another interesting aspect is the amount of responsibility I’ve got – the project I’ve got to do is going to be my task, I’m responsible for completing it, and I’ve got a fair amount of flexibility as to how and when and where all the parts of it are done. And the Belizean working culture seems to be one of telling people what their job is, giving them a bit of training, and then leaving them to do it. This contrasts with the professional culture I come from, where you’re trained, coached, supported (or babysat and nannied, depending on your point of view), then monitored by your various team leaders and managers. Here, they let you off the leash almost immediately. Perhaps it’s a lack of qualified staff available to do HR/people management work. Or perhaps they just don’t have a culture of holding your hand for ages before they let it go. You can leave school at 14, and many people start work while they’re still teenagers and then get married and start families while they’re still quite young, so maybe everyone just grows up faster here. Or maybe the organisation is happy for me to get cracking immediately because they assume that, as a foreigner who’s in possession of extensive qualifications from the British education system and work experience in a developed country, I’m someone who already knows more than they do and will help to turn around their organisation like some high-powered consultant. I’m still not sure how locals view foreign workers – do they think we’re in their country taking their jobs and their money and preventing them from developing on their own, or do they think we’re in their country ‘forcing’ them to develop in our way at our speed? Or do they look up to us with our ‘western’ work ethics and foreign qualifications and fancy job titles and think that we’ll be the answer to all their problems? And that’s another thing about here, the job titles seem straightforward and relatively explanatory – at the BCVI we have optometrists, optometrist’s assistants, lab staff, admin staff, IT staff and a director. If you work for a big organisation in the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that all the staff were team leaders, project directors, solutions designers, operations managers, facilitators – everyone has to have a fancy corporate job title that describes (but mainly obscures) what they actually do. I once worked with someone whose job title was ‘Programme Facilitator’, and I still have no idea what she actually did!
As far as sight-seeing in Belize goes, I’ve now seen the whole of Belize City. Several times. It’s not the biggest metropolis I’ve ever been to, and as I work in the centre of town, I can see most of it in my lunch hour every day! The Fort George district where I work is the most historical part of the city, full of handsome, if sometimes faded and occasionally ramshackle, colonial buildings and winding streets. A stroll over the world’s only remaining working, manually operated swing bridge, with views of the boats bobbing about in the mouth of the creek, takes you into the downtown shopping area, whose vendors I’ve now visited exhaustively in my search for a shirt and two pairs of trousers for work. There’s not much you can buy in Belize, and what isn’t locally made is surprisingly expensive. I thought I scored a bargain by purchasing a pair of trousers for 30 Belizean Dollars (about 15 US$, or £10), but before the end of the week the zip broke, so I now have to yank the trousers up so the bottom of my shirt covers the gaping hole where my fly should be.
Outside of Fort George, where I work, and the north of town (where I live), there are several areas which are best described as ‘dodgy’ – local’s descriptions of them bring to mind images of grungy slums, malodourous canals and random gun crime. And, to be fair, every few days the TV news reports another robbery or murder in the south side of town. I’m sure it’s not as bad as the locals say, and I don’t trust the media anywhere anymore to report the unbiased facts, and every country has its problem areas, but I don’t think I’ll be wandering around there at night anytime soon.
Back in the more salubrious surroundings of town, the Museum of Belize, St. John’s Cathedral and the Government House are all beautiful old buildings, but all seem closed the Saturday that I visit. So it’s back to shops for another pair of trousers. Maybe I’ll spend 40$ this time…