Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Holding Court on Caye Caulker

Author's note: The men quoted in this piece are not official sources of information and should not be taken as such. Their opinions are their own. 

"Belize is fucked." Steve has a frustrated scowl on his face.

The dark-skinned native Belizean has his toes in the sand under the narrow bench he's planted on, the Caribbean Sea 20 yards behind him. A head of massive dreadlocks is covered loosely by a knit cap. It's got to be hot as hell under all that. I'm dripping with sweat in the salty, humid air, but he looks fresh as a daisy.

Steve and his friend Alfred scan the dusty, packed-sand main drag that Alfred's hut sits on where he sells art to tourists. People on bicycles trail through, and the sporadic golf-cart. There are no cars on the island.

"We're losing all our youth to other countries. All our young labor and talent," Alfred adds, shaking his head. "They all go to America. No one wants to stay here."

I've read the stats; some estimate that there are as many Belizeans living outside Belize as there are in the country, and it only has a total population of around 300,000. "How are we going to live? How are we going to survive, if all the people leave," Alfred asks.

I was on my way up Front Street in Caye Caulker, heading north to The Split to meet a few other people for drinks. I've been filming on Caulker for two days now, which means with only 1,300 or so people living on the minute islet 45 minutes off the point of Belize City, everyone in the mile-long village knows I'm the girl with the camera. Steve and Alfred stopped me to see what I was filming.

Right now the camera is in the ever-present backpack slung over my shoulder. This is precisely when I want to break it out, and exactly when I can't. The spontaneity and naturalness of these two would vanish. I know, I've tried it before. They didn't ask to be filmed and they would clam up. So although the producer in me is screaming "Do it, do it now!" I bite back the urge to bust it out and stick it in their faces.

And they keep talking. Sometimes over one another, but with a unified message. They tell me of the government's corruption; the brain-drain that their tiny country is experiencing.

Just a few days before, I was in Belize City staring at the not even half-completed Marion Jones Sports Complex. The track superstar gave the government of Belize $2 million to renovate the National Stadium years ago. The previous government squandered most of it instead. Basic needs in the city, things as simple as garbage bins on street corners are not provided because there is no money.

"Nobody cares," Steve says. Alfred echoes Steve's statement. They hold court from their beach bench and wonder aloud why there aren't more Belizeans who give a shit. Both men are in their 50s, I'm guessing. They lived through the peaceful break from British rule in 1981, and watched British Honduras become Belize. Alfred is lighter than Steve, a Creole of mixed British and African descent. If you listen to the official message coming from Belmopan, the nation's capitol, they are all enormously proud of their mixed-race ancestry.

But to hear Steve tell it, there is still a great deal of tension between ethnic groups, namely the Creoles and Mestizos - people of Native American and Spanish blood. Creoles sometimes bristle at Mestizos when they refuse to speak English, the official national language. Each group largely keeps its own company.

Then there are the tourists. "We thought the tourism would be good. We thought before the cruise ships came, they would be good," Steve says. The country's biggest industry is tourism. I mention that I've heard there's a plan to build a Four Seasons hotel on the island. Caulker is the last of the Northern Cayes that has famously kept large-scale development out as a matter of lifestyle choice.

"We don't want that here," Steve says. The problem is not tourism as a whole industry. It's that when large multinational corporations come in, they set up their tours and land excursions with a select few operators, and do their best to make sure they scare the travelers out of using other companies. "We can tell when they're scared of us. You can see it. So none of the money gets to us, it stays with the big operators."

It's true that on the mainland Belize City has a high crime rate, and parts are definitely dangerous, but the serious crime doesn't normally affect tourists, and a sharp-minded traveler will avoid the pickpockets, anyway. Every Belize guidebook has a section warning travelers of the imminent danger, and people disembarking at Belize City from large ships are told not to leave the "tourist village," an adult playpen that forces the less intrepid to stay inside a fenced area with taxi checkpoints on either side.

"We need to get together and talk about these things," says Alfred. "We have to sit down fix this, but how? No one cares. There aren't enough people to do it." I tell them they seem to care and suggest they start a group on Caye Caulker. They admit that they should, instead of just sitting on a bench talking about it. I seem to be in the group too.

"You care, you've listened to us. You can tell people too," Steve says. Then he tells me to come back tomorrow to film his sailboat.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Mexico Border Test: Passed

It's a bit of Mexican travel knowledge that has passed into infamy. At the Mexico/Belize border crossing, the Mexican Government charges a MX $200 departure tax, averaging out to U.S. $20, give or take. It's been standard practice for many moons, and hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists pay it each year.

Except it's got nothing to with the government and you don't have to pay a thing. But only if you know what to say.

The ADO bus - a clean, large, and modern coach - that runs from Cancun to Belize City makes the run overnight, smacking anyone on it with a rude awakening at about 4:30 a.m. when it arrives at the crossing. A genteel old Mexican official invites everyone off the bus and over to a window where a not-so-genteel stoic man asks for your passport and the exit half of the immigration document you receive upon arrival in Mexico.

I'm leaning against a wall behind five other people, sleeping with one ear open when I hear confused European accents at the window. The couple didn't know the "tax" existed and aren't sure they still have 400 pesos. They step aside worried and confused to talk while a trio of Brits gives it a go.  I can hear the immigration officer's voice demand the MX $240 each. The fee's gone up since the last blog I read about the scam was written. I was expecting this. No one else knew about it.

The more vocal of the three British argues with the man: they paid the tax to the travel agent when they bought their flights into Mexico, she's sure of it. She thinks the fee is legitimate; just that Mexico is trying to double up on it.

After some heated words, the stoic officer gives the woman her passport back, but without a stamp, and she didn't know if she was supposed to get the immigration document back or not. The three also step back from the window to powwow.

I approach them and tell them that, so far as my research took me, there is no such tax either on the federal or local level in Mexico and that what the officer is demanding is time-honored extortion. Open corruption that bullies busloads of people into coughing up $20-$25 dollars on a routine basis for fear that they will not get back into Mexico. I'm casual in tone, but within earshot of the stoic man's window.

I hand him my passport and document. He asks me if I'm returning to Mexico? I say no, then the magic words "I'm in transit" with a smile. The British pack's jaws hit the ground when he stamps my passport, nearly cracks some sort of smile and hands it back to me. No word of a departure tax whatever.

I thank him kindly en español, grin at the English, and wander back to the bus. So remember the magic words: "No, I'm in transit." If your final destination is outside Mexico and you don't let them know if you plan to come back across the border, you keep your Piña Colada money. And in Belize, that's a lot of rum. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Hopes for an Overnight Success in Four Years

Four years ago this week, I walked out of my comfortable office on Sunset Boulevard for the last time. A month before, I'd given my boss 30 days' notice, making the conscious decision to leave a well-paying job that would've led to a very successful, lucrative career in film marketing. I'd already bought a round-the-world airline ticket and a video camera.

As I left the sleek, brown glass and steel headquarters of the Directors Guild of America, with its windows that didn't open, and circulated air that made me and nearly everyone else in my office sneeze, I felt the enormous weight of uncertainty bearing down on me. But I also felt relief. I didn't have to help sell films I didn't care anything about simply for the sake of a paycheck and health benefits.

The distribution company that I worked for is a good company; it continues to do very well. Everybody there - including the bosses - are still friends. But I was bored. I worked in the TV and film business for most of my career, but had never known what it was to commute to a desk with a computer on it every day and do the same tasks day-in and day-out until my late 20s. There were some perks, for sure, but none worth the nerve-dulling, monotonous boredom.

I had no idea what I was going to do with the camera. I had a loose daydream that I would use it to film a hosting reel during my travels. I wanted to work in the kind of television I liked to watch and that inspired me: documentary series, a la Discovery Channel-style programming. I'd make a reel, maybe a short web series, and try to find an agent and weasel my way into hosting a real travel show someday. Or become the female Mike Rowe. Blend some of my favorite things, namely, educational TV that's also entertaining, and experiencing new parts of the globe and different cultures.

My then-boyfriend, a brilliant television editor, volunteered to edit the footage I brought back, which was exceedingly kind of him since I left him behind for two months and traveled around the world on my own. (Dodging come-ons from men in every country I visited.)

The footage that he saved (since I had no idea how to film anything), turned into The Peregrine Dame, a small web series that got mediocre views, and didn't even bring me an agent. My boyfriend and I, and then just I, worked on it for another three years off-and-on around other jobs in TV, then around going to school to study journalism.

In 2011, I edited the third season of the series, and washed my hands of it. I put some money into advertising and then let it go, just looking to monetize the existing work. It would live on, and I was proud of it, but few people were watching and I had only made a few dollars back. I decided to learn to write so I could travel and sell articles rather than videos. It's just a hell of a lot less work that way. And I don't have to put makeup on every morning I'm out there.

Just as I made the decision to leave it alone indefinitely, I got an email from a woman in acquisitions at a tiny start-up travel and adventure network called The Venture Channel.

A year-and-a-half after resolving to stop working on TPD, The Venture Channel is about to launch in four countries, with another half-dozen in the works. China is coming online any day now, and India will go up October 1st, if all goes according to plan. The Peregrine Dame looks to be one of Venture's anchor shows, and the CEO of the network and I have grand plans.

In two days, I leave home one more time to Latin America for seven weeks in order to film and deliver five more episodes of TPD, rounding out 10 half-hour shows for the first of what I hope is many seasons of TPD on The Venture Channel.

When I stop fretting for a moment about the details, logistics, story ideas, permission to film in other countries, visas, booking travel, having the right wardrobe, equipment, cameras, power adapters, enough tape stock, budgets, and whatever else bashes around in my brain nonstop in the lead-up to shooting, I look back on the past four years and get emotional.

I started out just wanting to host a travel show and be like those guys on Discovery. Instead, I ended up producing and editing one too. I've had wonderful experiences during my travels, met people I will forever call friends, and have been very fortunate to see a huge chunk of this beautiful, inspiring, frustrating, calming, maddening, exciting world. I've also had moments of deep self-doubt, insecurity, and pain going through the steeper-than-Everest learning curve trying to absorb all the new knowledge that the scope of work I've taken on has forced upon me. My relentless, unapologetic work ethic strained my relationship with that brilliant TV editor, who saw me in sobbing hysterics more than once when it looked like the project would never go anywhere. I've seen who my real friends are after I disappeared for months on end to edit around school and other work, and they'd still be there for me when I came out the other side. Some days I don't know whether to feel extraordinarily grateful or scared shitless. Most of the time I feel both, simultaneously.

It's difficult to tell exactly what will happen until the network gets its legs in each new market, but I can say that for the rest of this year, at least, I get to do what I daydreamed about when I left my real job behind years ago. I still don't have an agent. No one but me has ever pitched this show, and no production company in Los Angeles would look twice at it. I owe a life-long debt of gratitude to my now ex-boyfriend - who has become a genuine friend - for the work he did and for believing in me, my ability, and potential.

The angle of the show has changed from its beginnings as a short format series. Originally, I traveled without a crew because I couldn't afford one. Every time I told someone about the project and mentioned traveling alone internationally, 70 percent of men and 99 percent of women would immediately ask if it was scary or dangerous. First question. I found my angle from those conversations.

The message of the TV series now is to encourage people - especially women - to break out of their fearful mindsets and have experiences that they've always wanted to have, regardless of whether someone can go with them. I've been welcomed into homes and to tables in restaurants full of strangers because they found out I was on my own. People reach out to me in amazing ways, and look out for me at the same time. The statement "I don't have anyone to go with" is not an excuse to not do something you've always wanted to do. The world isn't going to wait for you.

Like I say in the new main title sequence of the show, it's about learning that going solo isn't so scary and that being alone doesn't mean you're lonely. See you on the other side of Latin America.