Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Great Belizean Rip-Off

In my final year At Cambridge I made the biggest mistake of my life: I elected to do the one special subject in Part II of the Tripos that did not require competency in a foreign language. And there is always a price to be paid for being a monoglottal nitwit, though at the time I was unaware of this. 

Here in the one Central American country where you can get away without having to brush up on the local lingo, the premium is also rather obvious. 

But what gives? I mean seriously, $699,000 for an ugly two bedroom property that will be half gone the next time a major hurricane passes this way? That's roughly twice the equivalent cost of a home in either South Beach, Miami or Playa Del Carmen, two cities that are cool and fashionable in ways that Placencia in Belize is simply never going to be. 

If this is a boom, it is long overdue a bust. The major development here occurred in the 90s and has more or less stagnated since. When I was last in Placencia for longer than a day back in 2008 there were signs that things might be about to really take off, but instead they have, if anything, gone backwards since then, and the timings are no coincidence. Belize is the only Central American country suffering a serious European style recession (and sovereign debt default) in part because it cannot thrive unless more affluent people come and spend their money here. And as fewer do  – because Belize goes after after the one segment of the tourist market that is notably more sensitive to global economic conditions than those that provide a regular sort of income to its neighbours – the locals jack up the prices to compensate resulting in a kind of downward spiral...or a race to the top that ends up being a race to the bottom. 

Maybe Belize and Guatemala could benefit by combining their efforts to service the needs of international visitors, but instead they chase entirely different sorts of people. At first glance you might conclude that while Guatemala pulls in the travellers, Belize gets the tourists, eco and otherwise – and a recent sociological study from the UK has concluded that the major difference between the two is that while travellers have more money than tourists, they tend to spend less of it when abroad. 

So this should work in Belize's favour, but the truth is that Belize is a mecca for an odd kind of traveller-tourist hybrid that is as gormless as your average tourist but has the price sensitivity of the traveller, f not the self-defeating obsession with the authentically exotic and pre-modern. (Indeed, Belize's Mayan heritage, surely just as 'authentic' as Guatemala's, has been consistently downplayed by this nation's tourism authorities.) 

"Bonkers" millionaire fugitive McAfree and the horde of moustachioed, bandana-wearing American retirees that reside here are case in point. They are perhaps more benign than their peers in the 'gringo gulch' of Costa Rica (what I tend to refer to as the three Ss: surfers, sports fishermen and sex tourists) but their presence has roughly the same inflationary effect on prices. 

Go out for a meal here in Placencia and you will be lucky to pay less than $15 for your main course. These are near developed world prices, but Belize is not the developed world. Unlike Guatemala or any other country in the region (with the possible exception of Nicaragua) where anybody with sufficient means can live as if they were living in the first world – personal security aside – I bet even Warren Buffet would find himself somewhat off the grid in this under-globalised land. Want to see the latest Bond movie at the Multiplex? Fancy some really fine French food? Want to buy a new iPad? No chance, no chance, no chance. 

It is frankly telling that there are so few Brits now amongst the permanent residents. And as Belize has shifted its longings away from Blighty towards not so kind old Uncle Sam, many of the things that made it such a fine little nation twenty or so years ago have gone to hell. The rate of intentional homicides has doubled since 2004 and is now relatively more pronounced than in Guatemala. 46% of the labour force is illiterate and only 12% have completed their education to secondary school level. This used to be a country where just about anybody one met in any semi-clerical role struck one as absurdly well educated and informed. Nowadays Belizeans are simply not as comfortably badly off as they used to be. 

Of course Belize fits a certain middle American image of paradise that Guatemala never could. There are actual honeymooners here. Who comes to Antigua Guatemala a few days after their nuptials aside from inbred Mexican A-listers? 

It takes just an hour to cross the Bay of Amatique from soggy and forsaken Puerto Barrios to Punta Gorda. Another couple of hours and one can reach Placencia, where last night I found myself in a tapas bar surrounded by loud, rich, gay, yacht-owning, pooch-carrying, English-speaking Americans. The culture shock was profound. Is it sustainable though? 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Savile probe update....

As part of the strand of Operation Gumtree termed 'others' British police have arrested several members of the Borgia family for alleged sexual offences dating back to the 1470s. 

Speaking outside Bow Street magistrates court, Rodrigo Borgia AKA Pope Alexander VI told reporters that "this has nothing to do with choirboys, all right? Or indeed dwarves, because that would be, like, evil" and added that his detention was entirely unconnected with 'that Savile bloke' whatever the much remarked similarities between the BBC and the Vatican. The former pontiff admitted that this was not the end of a witch hunt that he was used to being on...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pleased with themselves

The other day my neighbour told me about a group of ex-pats in Antigua, all of them ex-military and some of them formerly quite senior officers, who gather to chew the fat in the Parque Central. Other than the fact that entry is barred to him for not having once belonged to the Army, the Suck, the CIA etc, what really irks my neighbour about this little clique is their steadfast refusal to ever lower themselves to speak Spanish in Guatemala. 

This comes as no big surprise to me. I had only been living here for a few months when it occurred to me that the ex-pat community in Antigua was probably collectively the most self-satisfied group of individuals I had ever come across. I long ago gave up trying to have any regular contact with this group. 

Long-term browsers of this blog will remember Mark Francis of GuateLiving, now serving time back home in a Federal penitentiary. It used to surprise me how popular his brand of nonsense seemed to be with the wider ex-pat community, including those who appeared to regard themselves as secular or liberal. But then I realised that many could not help themselves but to identify with the gladsome arrogance of the man. 

Mark, like many foreigners residing down here, was on the run from something.    It's not always the long arm of the law. Many seem to be fleeing more stringent economies. Others might be said to be trying to distance themselves from their own mediocrity. How many terrible artists are there in Guatemala posing as great masters, how many small-time businessmen posing as great entrepreneurs?

Many possibly like to think of themselves as big fish in Antigua's small pond, even though they are probably never fully comfortable until they form part of a mutually-supporting school of likeminded fishies. 

Strangely enough perhaps, the one or two exceptions I can think of are also Americans. 

Most of the northern Europeans that one comes across are a reminder that the EU's present travails are as much a consequence of their stubbornness and lack of contextual awareness as any kind of lackadaisical culture on the shores of the Med.

The Germans often present the most absurd spectacle, with their dogmatic conviction that everyone has to do things their way. As you can well imagine, this is a land which will tends to test it to breaking point.