By Capt. Scott BuckleyIt is has been a while since posting and we are currently tied up at a marina in Guatemala on Rio Dulce near the town of Frontera. At last glance at the blog I see we had checked out of Mexico and were planning our trip down to check into Belize.
|Our Mexican Flag is terminal|
|The geography of Ambergris Cay|
|San Pedro Belize harbor and outer reef|
Our plan was to checking into the port called San Pedro at the tip of Ambergris Cay. By the way if you were wondering why some bodies of land surrounded by water are called islands and some are called cay (pronounced keees) it has to do with their elevation. Cays are low islands. Because they are low they get little in the way of rain. Island have elevation and can get daily rain fall in the higher elevations.
|San Pedro from the Anchorage|
When we finally found immigration (our first stop in the check in process) we presented our papers and passports. The agent immediately asked where the rest of the crew was. We explained that the guide instructed that only the captains go ashore to check in. The agent wanted to know what guide I was referring to. I told her the Bible (a little background the Capt Freya’s guide to the western Caribbean is considered be the Bible by sailors in this area of the world, it can be a bit of a mistake to go quoting the Bible to those land locked individuals that have a different literary work in mind when you go throwing the bible’s name around in vain. It can lead to stern looks and some reverse righteous indignation). The agent reviewed the documents and asked where was the stamped crew list also known of as the “zarpe”. I showed the agent our crew list however it did not meet the definition of a zarpe as it was not stamped by the authorities from our last country of departure. My crew list was still stamped by the USA but not Mexico. My companion buddy boats did not have any crew lists. I explained to the agent our challenges of checking out of Mexico in Xcalak but she was having none of it. We would not be able to check into Belize without a stamped Zarpe and we should leave immediately. Drats and double drats. As the discussion became a bit more animated it attracted the attention of some other agents that came over either for the entertainment value or curiosity. One of the agents (to whom I am forever grateful) looked at our paper work and pointed out to our agent that our passports were stamped correctly and that our Mexican customs paper work was in order and that the only thing missing was the zarpe. Our agent asked what could she do and the other agent suggested that she could have us create a crew list here and get it stamped into Belize. I was all for this. Our agent reluctantly produced some blank crew list forms to fill out.
By this time I was sweating so profusely that I quickly reduced the form to paper machete and had to ask her for another and to dispose of the wad of sweaty pulp. I actually think that the agent wanted to just get rid of us more than anything else. We finished with immigration paid about $75 USD (for which I paid $80 and received no change darn it) and we were sent to customs.
Oddly enough Belize Customs is run by 12 yr olds. At least that is how they looked to me. Well this 12 yr old starts lecturing me that I and my compadres had done the check-in procedure all wrong. I was to stay on the boat and they would come to me. This tiny infant of a person also explains that by coming ashore unchecked that I may have already distributed contraband or engaged in all sorts of illegal activities. When I explained that we had called for the port authority on the VHF marine radio for 1 and half hours prior to coming ashore we were further lectured on the purpose of the checking fees were to provide this (We come to your boat) service. When I explained we had called on the radio again we were told the marina where were tied up at would provide this service. I point out the marina had shallow draft and that we were all sailboats and had to anchor out in the deeper water and that sailboats rarely tie up at marinas (I so wanted to add “Punk” at the end of that explanation but held my tongue). Again the wee boy said we could just telephone them and began to lecture us and I lost a little patience and asked he hold the lecture for now. Things got very quiet and my request may have lacked the correct amount of decorum in this case but I pointed out we were arriving from another country and had not even entered Belize to procure a local telephone to call them. Besides what is wrong with calling them on the VHF radio like we do in every other country. Turns out they did not have a radio but had plans to get one in the future. Did I mention that these guys had guns?
The lectures from this particular 12 yr old stopped and we started filling out the customs paperwork. He did point out that this paperwork would be some of the paper that would have been handle during their “at our boat” visit. A stony glance seemed to stem that stream of conversation. Once we were finished with Customs and relieved of some additional cash we were passed to the health and agricultural department. This agent was a slightly older person of say 13 or 14 years of age and had not been privy to my level (or lack thereof) enjoyment of being on the receiving end of lectures from underage bureaucrats. So once again the lectures about us coming to shore before the “at our boat” visit started anew. I had even less patience for this additional instruction on what I should have done and the animation of the discussion attracted the attention of the afore mentioned customs agent that explained things to the new guy. Did I mention both of these guys had guns? I only mention it because I gave brief thought to grabbing one and putting it to my head. It was like one of their “at your boat” services that I was just now becoming aware of. They, not only, provide the motivation for ending oneself but also the means. How thoughtful.
It bothered me that there was no right solution for sailboats. The bureaucratic children did not have a radio and it seemed the only way to summon customs and immigration to the boat was to call or get a local agent to call them. Neither solution applied well to sailboats coming into Belize for the first time. Then I suggest that is the correct method to dinghy into a marina and get them to call customs out to your vessel. The young people seemed to like this solution but I cannot say if the marina would be agreeable. My guess is a little patronage would grease those wheels enough to make that happen and maybe the price of a Belikin Beer.
I am not saying the these children were corrupt but they had a certain carefree way of doing business that this adult found a little unsettling. I paid the various fees (such as the “customs” fee and the “you don’t like my lecturing” fee and the “you are look at my gun too intently” fee) with US dollars and the smallest denomination I had was a $20. If the fee was $25 then I would hand over $40 and expect some change. They did not have change and when asked where I could get change they would say they closed in 2 minutes….for the rest of the year and they were armed. I think I mentioned that. I received no receipt and the money was tucked into their pants pocket. I’m sure it is all above board but not what I am use to.
So we were checked in thru immigration, customs and health and had one final stop with the port captain or authority. We ran into the immigration agent (oddly she did not seemed overjoyed to see us) and I asked here where I might find the port Captain. She said we might find him down at the ferry terminal and that were should get a cab there so off we sped. We waited and we waited. I think we got there at 4PM and finally caught up with the port Captain around 6:15PM (the same day which is a win). The funny bit and there is this funny bit to this story, you would not believe who drove up to the ferry terminal. The immigration agent. The poor woman tried to gather her things from the golf cart and scramble inside but I was quicker and asked if she knew where the Port Captain was. She made a call and talked to someone (I don’t actually know who she talked to is could of been her sister) but she told us that he would be along soon. So we waited some more and eventually he showed up with a car load of band instruments in his car. Port Captaining may not be his main job. We paid more money which is always the highlight of international travel.
In Belize you pay the port authority the equivalent of $2.50/day while you are in Belize. The Port Captain asked us how many days we wanted to pay for. At this point I was hot, very thirsty and a wee bit fed up with all the fun and seriously thought answering; “just today thankyou” but instead opted for 2 weeks. We ended up staying much longer and enjoyed Belize so much that we intend on returning next season.