Monday, March 2, 2015

How Safe Is Belize City?

Belize is a nation of beauty and bounty. It’s also the most enigmatic country in Central America.  With Mexico on its northern border its more Central American than Mexican. Yet with Guatemala on its western border its more Caribbean than Central American.  Although solidly in Central America the bulk of its residents are dark-skinned descendants of African slaves rather than lighter-skinned descendants of Spanish conquistadors.  Its official language is the Queen’s English although the majority of Belizean’s speak Belizean creole that sounds more like Haitian creole than anything resembling English or French.  Despite half of the population of Belize identifying itself as mestizo or Hispanic only 30 percent of the nation speaks the any form of Spanish. 

The first people to develop Belize were the Maya around 1500 B.C.E. As shown in archeological records they established a number of settlements including Caracol, Lamanai and Lubaantun. The first European contact with Belize occurred in 1502 when Christopher Columbus reached the area's coast. In 1638, the first European settlement was established by England and for 150 years, many more English settlements were set up.

In 1840, Belize became the "Colony of British Honduras" and in 1862, it became a crown colony. For one hundred years after that, Belize was a representative government of England but in January 1964, full self-government with a ministerial system was granted. In 1973, the region's name was changed from British Honduras to Belize and on September 21, 1981 full independence was achieved.

Belize City with only 58,000 residents is the only real metropolitan area in the country. It sits putrefying in the tropical heat along the banks of Haulover Creek while just offshore lie hundreds of small islands and cays that remind you that although you that you are also in the Caribbean.  While standing among the open sewers and squalor of downtown Belize City, it’s difficult to fathom that only a few miles inland there are hundreds of miles of pristine tropical rainforest where, unlike many other areas of Central America, sighting a jaguar is not an unusual occurrence.

Recent discoveries and expanded analyses have led many archeologists and cultural anthropologists studying Maya history to conclude that the center of Maya civilization was Belize.  The Maya are credited with some of the most important advances in civilization in Mesoamerica and some of those advances continue to influence contemporary Belize.  The Maya used their knowledge of astronomy to produce an extremely accurate calendar. Their Maya Calendar computed length of the tropical year was 365.2420 which according to today’s calculations is actually 365.2422. The Maya’s advanced concepts of time and mathematics including the use of zero, led to the development of their elaborate calendar based on cycles that go beyond our weeks months and years. This knowledge was used to schedule optimum planting and harvesting times for their intensive agricultural system that made use of terracing, drainage canals, raised fields and tree cropping to feed huge populations.

Despite those ancient advances, today about 43 percent of the Belizean population lives below the poverty line.  Politicians debate the causes and they debate the solutions yet every year the poverty worsens and every year the crime rate in the country continues to rise.  Recently the US Department of State issued a travel warning for Americans contemplating travel there and accompanied that warning with this information:

Due to the extremely high murder rate per capita, Belize is the sixth most violent country in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with an average of over 40 homicides per 100,000 residents. Murders are a growing and continuing problem for Americans, Belizeans, and Belize law enforcement and security. In 2012, Belize recorded 145 murders, setting a new record for homicides in the country. The murder rate was nearly 15 percent higher than 2011. The majority of the homicides in 2012 occurred in Belize City, where gang violence is rampant, especially on the south side of the city. A “gang truce” that had been in place since September 2011 ended in the spring of 2012, following a peaceful re-election of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) in May 2012.

In 2012, homicides continued to rise throughout the country specifically in the western and northern districts. Homicides increased in the Cayo district in the west, which is home to the capital city, Belmopan, and the U.S. Embassy. Homicides in Belmopan nearly doubled over 2011 numbers. Homicides also rose in the northern district of Corozal, which borders Mexico.

Much of the violent crime in Belize occurs on the south side of Belize City, home to several street gangs. Belizean officials, in November 2012, in an attempt to control the security situation in these areas, invoked a “declaration of crime infested areas” under the Belizean law that allows for law enforcement and security forces to conduct warrantless searches of personnel and property in “crime ridden” areas.

Even typically soft-spoken Lonely Planet has begun scaring people who are considering a visit to Belize City.  Their most recent edition of the Belize travel guide says under the section “Dangers and Annoyances” “Not to put too fine a point on it, but Belize City isn’t exactly the relaxed place the rest of the country is.  Hotel windows are barred and front doors are often kept locked even during the day.  Street crime is common …. Most violent crime occurs in the southside district south of Haulover Creek and west of Southside Canal.  While much of it is violent crime between gang members, non-intergang crime (both petty and violent) is an increasing concern in Belize City.  Stay on the main roads or take a taxi when you’re going to or from the main bus station or other bus stops in the area.  Even in the middle of the day streets can have a threatening atmosphere.”

Before our ship arrived in Belize City my total experience with the country had been a brief stopover on a TACA Airlines flight from Miami to San Salvador, El Salvador in 1986.  On that trip I stood in the open hatch of the jet and looked out at the countryside near the airport for about 20 minutes until flight attendants closed the front door and made me retake my seat.  I learned nothing about Belize in those 20 minutes and in the ensuing years other travel priorities took me elsewhere in Central America and the Western Hemisphere and my knowledge and understanding of Belize remained extremely limited and limiting.

Considerable earlier travel to all parts of the world had taught me that the US Department of State regularly gets way out of control in their warnings to the point of making almost everywhere other than the war zone that is the United States sound like a war zone.  More than once I put off trips to Colombia because of bombast flowing from State Department warnings.  However it wasn’t until I traveled to Colombia a second, third, fourth and fifth time that I realized what a nice country it is and how Colombians are among the kindest people on earth.  The same scenario held for South Africa which the US Department of State had painted as a place where it was almost a certainty that I would be shot, stabbed, robbed, and murdered simply by walking outside the airport terminal in Johannesburg.  I traveled to that wonderful country completely riddled with fear and after five weeks there in all parts of the country I did not want to leave there and return to the United States.  I felt that I was more a South African than an American and I told the State Department about that in an email.

Despite the dire concerns expressed by the US Department of State over travel to Colombia and South Africa and just about every other place on the planet I have never had a serious issue in any of the 114 countries I have visited.  In fact, I fear more for my safety driving through Orlando or even Omaha than I do in almost any country where I have spent time.

There was considerable excitement onboard the tender boat carrying us from the Carnival Pride to the tourist center in Belize City. Several of the cruisers were taking a day long excursion to the Altun Ha Mayan site complete with a boat ride on the River Wallace.  Others were going zip lining and some were on a trip to explore nearby caves.  Still others were spending the day on an “exclusive” offshore island (complete with lunch!) and my partner was going on a two-tank dive.  I noticed that not many people were interested in the combination Airboat and Belize City tour despite its description as “This combination tour provides the thrill of a high-speed airboat ride with a historical overview of the Central American jewel of Belize City.”   Apparently the organizers of excursions for Carnival Cruise Line never ventured out into the streets of Belize City or read any of the dire descriptions of the gang-riddled area south of Haulover Creek because if there is one thing Belize City isn’t it isn’t a “jewel” - of Central America or anywhere else.

Rather than donate $89 to Carnival and its excursion partner for 2 hours and 30 minutes in an airboat seeing the jewel of Central America I decided to see it myself, on foot, at my own pace, and for considerably less money. Walking among the open sewers and squalor of the city would tell me much more about it than any spit-polished tour ever could. 

Once the tender M.V. Alena deposited us at the pier I took off on foot armed only with a map and sought out what actually takes place in the smallest metropolitan area in Central America.  It turned out to be the best $89 I never spent.

The sky was brilliantly bright blue and humidity hung heavily in the air.  Soca and merengue music pulsed from nearby bars.  Finally finding one of the several prominent exits from the tourist center/ cruise center, I made my way to a security guard on Fort Street.  She asked if I needed help finding anything.  I smiled and said, “If I wanted to get mugged on the street south of the Swing Bridge which way would I go?”

She laughed and said, “Just follow to the left and you’ll find the bridge.  Turn left, cross over the bridge and then look out.  If you are going to get mugged that is the place it will happen.”

I moved slowly along Fort Street and marveled at how clean it was everywhere I looked.  Store fronts were immaculate in a raffish sort of way.  Open sewers that Lonely Planet warned me about were grated and covered and posed no health or safety threats.  City Hall was sanguine and unassuming.  Everything looked safe at the Image Factory, at the offices of S & L Travel, and just down the street at Sea Sports Belize.  Travelers exited taxis and lugged their baggage at the dock for the San Pedro Express Water Taxi.  All in all it seemed no different, and probably much safer, than downtown Tampa.

I crossed the Swing Bridge and continued south along Albert Street, then continued south to the Bird Isle Restaurant.  As I walked I was greeted by pleasant Belizeans who asked if I was enjoying my time in Belize.  One fellow who passed me was having a wild and vivid conversation with himself and whomever else was living inside his head with him.  Other than him and despite all of the warnings and admonitions, I felt no concern for my safety.  In fact I would worry more for my safety in Miami.

Brenda, a pretty twenty-something Belizean woman was working as a server at the Bird Isle Restaurant when I stopped there for lunch.  As I ordered coconut shrimp and a bottle of Belikin Beer, I asked her if she feared for her safety living and working in Belize City.

Belikin Beer, a fine Central American adult beverage that is even finer when its ice cold 

“I have lived here my entire life,” she said, “and the only thing that has ever scared me has been American tourists who don’t know the first thing about being outside of the United States.”

I could empathize.

“So where do all these warnings and alerts about travel in Belize City come from,” I asked.

“Like any place, we have our share of crazies.  We also have our share of gang bangers and drug dealers and criminals but I don’t know where all the bad news comes from.  Sometimes I think it’s the American press making something out of nothing so they can sell newspapers.”

Leaving the Bird Isle Restaurant I followed the street to the right at St. John’s Cathedral and walked north on Regent Street past the Coningsby Inn and the Caribbean Palms Inn and experienced much the same as I did on my stroll to the Bird Isle Restaurant. Belizeans regularly greeted me with a smile and wished me a good day.  At no time did I feel the least bit fearful for my safety.  Because of regular admonitions to avoid walking on side streets I purposefully followed South Street to East Canal Street on the Southside Canal.  Then I returned east on Bishops Street before resuming my walk along Regent Street to Albert Street.  Eventually I re-crossed the Swing Bridge and returned to the Tourist Village and Cruise Terminal and then to my ship.

Granted, six hours in the “bad” part of Belize City is not a large sample size however despite all of the warnings of grave danger, the only negative thing I experienced was sunburn.  The experience here was similar to my first trip to Bogota, Colombia, where I had been convinced I would be shot, dismembered, and left by the roadside at any moment.  It hasn’t happened in five times in Colombia and it didn’t happen today in Belize City.

The first mate on the tender that returned me to the ship gave everyone a pep talk about their time in Belize City and wanted to ensure that everyone had a great time while there.  When the group said in unison it had enjoyed Belize City, the first mate said “When you get home I want you to tell everyone that Belize City is safe.  OK?”

I think I will.