Earlier this month, the BCVI went on a work retreat (my first), to Laguna Bacalar, just across the border in Mexico.
The lagoon and its main town (also called Bacalar) are in the Southern Caribbean Coast region of Mexico, an area called the Costa Maya (perhaps as a way of distinguishing it from the Riviera Maya, the heavily-touristed corridor of beaches that runs north and ends in the mega-hotel-metropolis of Cancun). The Costa Maya is nowhere near as developed as its northern counterpart, but that’s probably only temporary, as tiny coastal towns slowly get bigger and more well-known, roads improve, and cruise ship docks and souvenir shops pop up. In the meantime, it’s still the quietest part of the Mexican Caribbean.
Originally, I had decided not to go – Belize is packed full of beautiful natural places, so to go to another country for one day to see a lake seems pointless to me. Especially as most of the local places are no more than a couple of hours from Belize City, and Bacalar is four hours away. And none of Belize’s attractions require you to cross an international border and change money. And then there’s the principle – as the Belize Council for the Visually Impaired (an organisation which exists only in Belize, serves Belizeans, and employs mostly Belizeans), I believe we should’ve stayed in Belize for our retreat. However, I was clearly in the minority, as every single other person voted for Bacalar. Perhaps they weren’t swayed by the other choices of cave-tubing and visiting a small caye (although I don’t blame them for not wanting to go cave-tubing – who wants to spend their day off in a dark, cold cave with their arse in freezing water? And the caye, while beautiful, is deserted – so no resorts, restaurants, or bars; just a small patch of sand and some palm trees). So maybe my colleagues picked Bacalar as the best of the bunch. Or maybe they were sold at the idea of going to Mexico, as it would mean a trip to the border town of Chetumal.
Belizeans love Chetumal. And they go mostly for the shopping. To understand why, you have to realise that its popularity has very little to do with how good its shopping is, and everything to do with how bad Belize’s shopping is. Don’t get me wrong, I love Belize – its Maya ruins are spectacular and historical, its jungles thick and tropical, its cayes palm-fringed and sandy, and its beautiful seas full of life. But for shopping, it’s terrible.
There are a great many things that you simply can’t get here. And almost everything else is unfathomably expensive. Sure, if you only eat local food and don’t buy anything else, you can live very cheaply. But as soon as it comes to anything from outside the country, you’re hampered by a combination of little choice and high prices. I’m no economist, but I suppose Belize’s small population means that there simply isn’t a big market for many things. The fact that over a quarter of the country is (by international measurements) living in poverty means that there’s an even smaller market for non-essential items (and a tiny market for luxury items). So, where there are vendors with what you want, it automatically becomes a sellers’ market. For instance, when the BCVI has to buy new computers or office equipment (which we’ve been doing recently), we have a choice of about three stores in Belize City, all of which offer a choice of about five different laptops, and all of them more expensive than I’ve seen in any other country. Items that are frivolously cheap in the US or the UK, like flash drives (memory sticks / USB sticks / whatever you want to call them) are over twice the price here, and as a result are like gold dust. And don’t get me started on the price of printer ink. And if you think that you don’t have to buy from bricks-and-mortar shops because of the Web, think again – Amazon doesn’t deliver to Belize (and many Belizeans don’t have credit cards, even the ones with bank accounts). So shopping for anything online and getting it delivered in days, which I (and many others around the world) have got so used to that we take it for granted, remains a dream to most Belizeans. (For the BCVI’s purchases, we had to find someone with a credit card, order and pay online, get it delivered to an address in the States, and then get a courier to ship it to Belize; but the cost savings meant that it was still worth all that extra work).
Certain ‘luxury’ items are understandably expensive – wine (foreign wine that is, not Belizean wine made from local fruits) is twice the price that it is in the UK (and I’m sure much of that cost is in the form of tax). Not that it bothers me, as I’m happy to drink local beer and local rum. But the sellers’ market means that almost anything can be pricey. If it’s made by a small number of vendors, or sold to a small number of customers, or comes from abroad, you pay dearly for it.
As a result, even everyday items are more expensive here than across the border. And so Belizeans go to Chetumal, in the same way that I would go to Tesco or the pound shop (if Tesco and the pound shop were in France). Plus, Belizeans get to make a weekend of it and turn a shopping trip into a mini-break (Chetumal has a proper cinema too, unlike Belize, so many Belizeans come here to watch a film!).
So, as we trundle down the northern highway towards Corozal and the border (having made our obligatory stop for tacos in Orange Walk – the nickname for the town is Sugar City, due to the surrounding cane fields and local rum distilleries, but it really should be called Taco Town), the unspoken fact is that we’ll be stopping in Chetumal, it’s just a matter of when. I’m hoping everyone will want to go shopping after we’ve been to Bacalar, as I’m staying there for the night, but it’s put to a vote, and the majority goes for shopping first. Bloody democracy.
Crossing the border consists of paying money to leave Belize (foreigners have to pay an exit fee, at least foreigners who can’t pass for Belizeans – my colleague from Nigeria sails through without paying a cent, but I’m not so lucky); waiting for the one person in our group who doesn’t have a passport to get a special pass for the day; driving past the ‘free zone’ (a run-down area of seedy-looking shops, expensive hotels, and big casinos that’s between Belize and Mexico, but still technically in Belize – I don’t understand it either); being greeted by the biggest flag atop the tallest flagpole (I guess the Mexicans really want everyone to know they’re in Mexico); and being confused by a body scanner at immigration (a lady in official uniform has to tell me three times to push the red button, and I have no idea what’s going on, even after I press it). The last time I crossed the border, they didn’t have the scanner, and instead they had us get off the bus, lay our bags on the ground, and stand against the wall, while the luggage was pawed over by the world’s most aggressive drug-sniffing dogs. The bewildered passengers ordered off the bus in the dead of night, the barking hounds straining at their leashes, the nervous tourists lined up against the wall, and the gun-toting guards made me think I was entering a war zone, not going on holiday. So on balance, I prefer the red button. We then have to wait for another of our colleagues, who’s decided to bring a month’s supply of aspirin with him for the day, packed loose in a plastic bag. Finally, after the authorities decide that it’s not ecstasy and he’s not the world’s worst drug dealer, we’re off. Straight to the garage to have the bus hosed down with chemicals. And then we really are off. To the shops. We’ve been travelling for over four hours and Bacalar still seems a long way away.
Fortunately, we don’t go right into Chetumal centre (so I still have that ‘pleasure’ to look forward to) – we stop at the Plaza las Americas mall on the outskirts of town. The Belizeans are excited to be shopping in air-conditioned comfort and eating in the food court (and that’s understandable – there’s no shopping mall in Belize, and the few large supermarkets that exist are too expensive for most Belizeans). But for foreigners like me, it’s just another shopping centre. While the Belizeans disperse into the various shops, I listlessly walk around the department store, check out the listings in the cinema and decide I don’t want to see any of the films, eat a McDonald’s ice cream, drink a coffee, and then go back to the bus and fall asleep.
I awake an hour later to find that my colleagues have brought most of the mall with them. People are carrying containers of detergent the size of oildrums. One person has bought about ten enormous bags of Doritos, each one the size of a small child. There are huge multipacks of biscuits (cookies), a massive bag of rice that wouldn’t look out of place being unloaded from a Hercules somewhere in Africa, enough kitchen towel to plug a hole in the Hoover Dam, and toilet paper for a billion bowel movements. No alcohol, no cigarettes, no perfume, just everyday items. That’s what I mean about shopping in Belize – it’s a country where the most quotidian goods are so expensive that it actually makes financial sense to buy them in bulk from Mexico.
Suitably refreshed and restocked, we finally get going and head north to Bacalar…