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An enthusiastic expat in Belize

  • Expat family in Belize
    © Kristin Harling
Interview
Published last week

Kristin (also known as the Solar Super Mama) is an American expat in Belize — a country that she fell in love with at first sight, back in her college days. Kristin speaks to Expat.com about expat life with four kids in the picturesque Belize village of Monkey River and her wide range of passions — from nature and food to entrepreneurship, alternative ways of educating your children, and positive attitude towards life!

Please introduce yourself. Where are you from, and what were you doing before you moved to Belize?

My name is Kristin Harling. I grew up mostly in South Carolina, though I've also lived in Indiana, Colorado, and North Carolina. I've done many different things such as elder care, freelance writing and editing, and I also helped start a democratic school. Before moving here, I owned a cloth diaper service in South Carolina.

I moved to Belize in 2015. I spent a semester in Belize when I was in college, and it was a wonderful experience in every way. I always wanted to move here, but it never worked out until I finally decided to make it work. I live with my family in the small village of Monkey River Town. We plan to start at least one business after getting permanent residency. Work permits are difficult to obtain and expensive, so I work online instead. I do some writing and editing, and I run a solar business helping people in the US, Canada, and Australia switch to solar panels.

What is the process to move to Belize?

You need a visa to come from some countries, but in most cases, you can just come in on a 30-day tourist visa. Different people go different routes — some drive with all their household and others arrive with almost nothing. We flew down with very little but had some things shipped down in a cargo ship. The customs process is a hassle, and import duties are high. Every 30 days we have to go to immigration to get stamped. It's USD 25 for the first six months and USD 50 for every month after that. Once you get residency, you don't have to pay that anymore but the process takes between three to four years.

What is your favourite thing and least favourite thing about Belize?

I love the wide variety of ecosystems — we have mountains, pine forest, tropical forest, mangroves, rivers, ocean, islands, and coral reef. I also love the laid-back culture. There are few worries and few hurries. Everyone just accepts that things happen when they happen.

My least favourite is the trash here which is atrocious. People throw trash out the window, and it drives me insane. It's getting better, but it's not anywhere close to where I'd like to see it. The other bothersome issue is homophobia. There's still very strong anti-LGBTQP sentiment. Laws are changing, and hearts are changing too, but there's still that machismo thing, which combined with a hefty evangelical presence from the US is causing problems.

What has surprised you the most about Belize?

What has surprised me is that it has been so hard. I talk about this a lot on my blog — I fell in love with Belize many years ago, and I thought moving here would be a panacea but it's not. I still love Belize, but it isn't always easy. Challenges happen wherever you live.

What are the features of today’s expat job market in Belize?

It's almost impossible to work here. Unemployment is high, so to get a job, an employer has to essentially prove a Belizean cannot do the job and pay USD 1000 for a work permit. As an expat, you can start a business or work online. Once you have permanent residency, you can work just like anyone else.

How easy or difficult it is to find accommodation in Belize, and what type of accommodation is available for expats?

This is a tourist country, so there is plenty of housing. Most expats can find houses with modern facilities, such as AC, etc.. Many choose to build because land is pretty cheap here, as is labor. Belizeans live in simple, clapboard houses, and some expats also choose to live in one or two-room houses.

What are the year’s biggest holidays in Belize? What is some essential etiquette in Belize?

September is essentially a-month-long-holiday. Independence Day is on the 19th, and the battle of St. George's Caye is on the 10th, but the celebration goes all month. Christmas is a big celebration, but it's different from the US. It's more about food, family, and partying, and less about presents or kids. Easter is a similar party of food, drinks, and boat races. Garifuna Settlement Day is another big holiday to celebrate the arrival of the Garifuna people to Belize. 

How do you find the lifestyle in Belize? What is your everyday life like?

Life here is so mellow. We work from home and unschool our kids, so our life is flexible. We get up when it seems like a good time and have a solid daily routine that balances work, time with kids, home cooked meals, and cleaning. We live in a tiny village, so we go to town once a week for groceries, etc.. We live at the mouth of the monkey river, so we have river and ocean right here. There's also jungle when we want to hike. People are very laid back, and everything happens on "Belize time." I love a slow pace, so it works for me. 

How is the transportation system in Belize?

It's a mixed bag. The buses are reliable, timely, and regular, and often overcrowded and uncomfortable. The roads are in pretty bad shape with a few exceptions. Taxis are in bad condition, though not terribly expensive in most cases. There are several small airstrips served by reliable, local puddle jumpers. There are also boat taxis that go out to the cayes. Those are also pretty decent, though they're not super careful with luggage, and some of them aren't concerned if you get soaked. 

Have you been able to adapt to Belize and the society?

I think we're mostly adapted. I'm certainly more adapted to Belize than anywhere else. We went back to the US in December, and it was really hard. We'll probably always be sort of outsiders, as we do some things that are different to the Belizean culture, but no one seems too upset. I love heat and humidity, and I'm immune to most of the bugs now.

What do you do in your free time? Are there activities for people who enjoy nightlife?

We have young kids, so we mostly play outside. Belize is an outdoor wonderland with reef, beaches, rivers, waterfalls, mountains, caves, and ancient ruins. We do that stuff some, but mostly we swim in the river or the sea.

There is nightlife here, but many Belizeans go to bed early, so stuff winds down around 11 pm. Sometimes in the touristy places, it may go a little later, but that's rare.

What new habits have you developed and what old habits have you quit in Belize?

We eat way healthier. There's no chain fast food here — we may be the only country in the world without McDonald's. Almost all the food is local. It's a bummer to not have avocados when they're not in season, but it's nice to know all your food came from close by.

I also stress less. In the US it's go, go, go every day. Here my days are more mellow and slow.

What is your opinion on the cost of living in Belize?

If you're willing to live local, it's cheap. Not as cheap as neighbouring countries, but cheap. If you want to live exactly as you did in the US, Canada, or Europe, you're going to spend at least as much as you did where you came from.

What is something that you would like to do in Belize but haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?

I still haven't been to the ATM cave which is totally ridiculous. I need to go. I also haven't dived here yet, even though I'm certified. I've snorkelled plenty though. Are we too poor? (Funny, not funny.)

Share your most memorable experience in Belize.

The first thought that jumps to my head is when we hiked to the top of 1000 Foot Falls to see the sunrise on my first trip here. Lots of good memories, but that is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

If you could do the move to Belize over, what would you do differently?

I would have location independent work settled and steady. I think it's the most important thing to consider before expatriating. Don't ever assume you'll be able to get a job or start a business.

What do you think of the local cuisine? What are your favourite dishes?

I love the food here. Garnaches are wonderful for any meal or snack. My kids could live on them. Stew chicken is also delicious; fry jacks and eggs and refried beans is one of the best breakfasts in the world. The pigtail dish is the thing that surprised me the most. I'd never had it before coming here, but it's amazing.

What do you miss the most about your home country?

My parents and my son mostly. Also fast internet. That's about it.

Have you had a moment that you almost felt like leaving Belize? How did you overcome that? What kept you there?

Oh, so many. We had a business idea before moving here along with a full business plan. We made an offer which included USD 17,000 in escrow money (10% in escrow is the common practice here). Our funding to complete the purchase did not come through, so we lost all that money. It was totally devastating, but I'm pretty good at moving on. We've had other ideas we couldn't fund either. It's been frustrating, but I'd rather be frustrated here than anywhere else.

What motivated you to create your blog 'Solar Super Mom'?

Well, it's a combination of things. I help homeowners in the US, Canada, and Australia switch to solar, so exposure for my business was part of it. Then I realized that what I really wanted to talk about was moving abroad with kids and share common mistakes and pitfalls so others don't have to go through the same mistakes we did.

Give us some useful tips that expats-to-be in Belize will benefit from.

Have the money bit handled before you move.

Don't even think about buying land until you've been here for at least a year. 

Really take time to understand the implications of cultural differences before moving. 

Please don't try to turn Belize into wherever you came from.

Understand things move slowly here. Be patient.

Appreciate the culture and the language. It's not "bad English." It's Kriol. Try to learn.

Connect with locals for business ideas. People here know what's needed.

Coconut oil really is good for everything.

What is one thing that you will take with you from Belize?

Well, I don't see myself ever leaving permanently, so I guess I'll take Belize to my grave. Now everywhere I go I take my laid-back and relaxed attitude toward life. Move slow, breathe slow, eat slow.

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