I’ve been wanting to interview Greg and Wanda Stakutis for ages! They’ve put down strong roots on the peninsula and I’ve admired them from the moment I met them. They always seem to have their hand in something deserving and worthwhile; if it’s a worthy cause, you’d better believe they’re supporting it in one way or another. They’re my role models! Inspiring me to get busy doing any thing other than just warming a bar stool (which is an all too easy habit to fall in to as a new expat). I also knew they’d done the Qualified Retirement Program and I wanted to ask them about that too. I hope you enjoy this his-and-hers interview as much as I did; Greg’s answers in blue, Wanda’s in pink.
When and why did you come to Belize?
First trip was to Ambergris in 2000, we moved here in 2007. Wanda will explain what prompted the first trip, second trip was in 2002 to Placencia based upon the recommendation of a bartender at Ramon’s Village (always befriend the bartenders, lol), who said ” if you like it here, check out Placencia, they’re really laid back there “
First time over 20 years ago. Saw the movie Mosquito Coast and thought Belize would be a cool place to visit. We went to AC first and loved the place and the country. We went to Costa Rica and Panama as well, looking for potential retirement homes but don’t speak Spanish and did not want to live be in an expat enclave. My dream was to retire early and doing so in the US would have cost too much money, especially with the cost of health insurance.
A couple of years later we went to Placencia and really loved everything about the Peninsula, especially the diversity of the population. A few months after returning to the US I had bad day at work so I went real estate hunting…found a beach lot near where we’d stayed at Millers Landing, got in touch with Annie Miller to find the owner and next thing I knew I had made an offer on a water front piece of land. Then I had to tell Greg.
Why did you choose the QRP (qualified retiree’s program) and how has your experience been with it?
We chose QRP because of the ability to bring in our vehicle and household goods duty free and because we had no desire to become employed. Our experience with QRP has been positive with the only real issue being getting our cards in a timely manner
It seemed a much easier process than trying to get residency and it offered the ability to bring in household goods duty free, buy a new car or boat or plane every 3 years duty free, and no going to immigration every month for potentially years. Since we knew we did not want to work and wanted to volunteer and QRP encourages volunteering this seemed like a good fit and overall our experience has been pretty good, have saved a ton of money including over US$20,000 3 years ago on a new car (no duty!!). The renewal process each year is pretty straight forward. The only complaint is BTB/immigration are not always prompt with renewal cards which can cause a bit of an issue if traveling before the new cards are in hand
How is your life different here than where you moved from?
One of the biggest differences for us is that we now are shivering when the temperature drops into the low 70’s, where we came from there was snow, ice and subfreezing temperatures (including one month that never got above zero). We moved here a few months after we retired with the intention of getting involved in the community with the time we now had and the energy (mine now long gone, Wanda still going strong) we had (I was 53 and Wanda was 49). We’ve been involved in Rotary (both of us are past presidents of the Rotary Club of Placencia), tutoring and library in the schools (Wanda), Peninsula Volunteer Fire Dept. (me), scholarships for students (both of us through Rotary and privately), Seine Bight Running Club (started by Wanda and two other ladies, I joined a year or so in to help coach), and various other things that come up that we try to help with (e.g. Battle Cancer)
Our life here is dramatically different. In the US we worked, commuted, ate and slept. With our schedules we had no time to volunteer and quite frankly where we lived there were not very many opportunities. We knew from our visits here there are a ton of needs in terms of volunteering. There were very few veterinarians in the country and none on the Peninsula so the first thing I became involved with was volunteering at the monthly vet clinic. The clinic way back 15 years ago used to be held in the Community Center and was quite the experience. I saw numerous surgeries assisting the vet including watching my own dog be spayed. (As an aside, male neutering is kind of disgusting here as the leave the sac and sort of squeeze the testicles out). I met a person who was volunteering at the St. John’s children’s library that asked me to help her so I starting helping one day a week at the library. From there I met someone that said St. Alphonsus in Seine Bight needed help tutoring children in reading so I started to do that as well. Meanwhile, 2 months after our wooden house was finished there was a HUGE brush fire on the land next to us that was threatening our house. The newly formed Peninsula Volunteer Fire Department (there was no national fire service on the Peninsula at this time) came out and with minimal equipment but lots of hard back breaking work, got the fire put out. We wanted to make a donation so fire Chief Kathy Angling invited us to a Rotary meeting (they were instrumental in the start up of the PVFD). At the Rotary meeting we heard about a bunch of stuff that Rotary was working on in the community that sounded interesting to us so we joined Rotary. Greg became the Rotary rep on the Fire Board shortly after joining Rotary. Rotary was starting to get involved with scholarships and education is one of my focuses so we started working on the scholarship committee which led us to being involved with the End Of The World Marathon. From there I got involved with the girls in Seine Bight and thought starting a running club for girls would be fun, not much money involved, and give the girls some sport to do as there were only boys sports at that time. Since then it has grown to include boys and young adults as well. It has certainly been a learning experience, with all the different volunteering I have done I have learned how to raise money, navigate the world of working with non paid people (who can’t be fired), learning to say no, and the pleasure of doing something not for myself. I feel that volunteering and working with the people from this country has helped us integrate into both the Placencia and Seine Bight communities. We did not want to move here and live with only expats behind a security fence, but to become part of this country. It gives me great pleasure to know I have friends from all walks of life. I had spent my career traveling and really love meeting people from all over the world.
What have been your biggest challenges/ adjustments to life in Belize?
Biggest challenge was just getting used to the pace of things and the fact that instant gratification was no longer part of our lives. It was something of a challenge getting used to the food available and it’s preparation, but we love it now, especially since the change led to us losing 50 to 60 lbs each without dieting
Our biggest challenges have been adjusting to different but better, food, not having everything readily available, although that has changed dramatically in the last 15 years, being away from family (video chatting has changed that a lot as well), learning that Belizean English is NOT the same as American English (took.e10 years to realize “right now” actually really means “later, when I can get to it) and learning to slow down and not be type A. Also everything here takes longer to do, with not great roads and the heat and humidity slows things down. Belizeans respond to kindness, not demands, and America and are used to demanding so a lot of expats get angry when they treat Belizean people like they treated Americans and they don’t understand when they get a negative response. If you ask a Belizean once, then again later, they will slow down, not speed up
Is there anything that would make you move back (or move on from Belize)?
At this point, I believe that the only thing that would lead to us moving back to the US would be a chronic medical problem that required treatment there and we could use our Medicare
The only thing that would make us move back is health issues that could not be taken care of here.
Do you have advice for other retirees considering a similar move?
Check out where you want to live, Belize isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Arrive with patience and an open mind, and please don’t assume you have the right to criticize and change things to how you want them, get involved in your chosen community and find out what they want to accomplish and how you can help.
Come only if you want to live in a different place. Belize is not the US despite the fact they speak English. This is a totally different culture and you cannot change it, nor should you want to.
Treat Belizeans with respect. I see too many expats treating Belizeans as inferior or more like servants. Their culture is not less than the US, just different.
You WILL be in a minority here. Even in areas where people are predominantly white they are a different culture. If you are Black American your heritage is vastly different than a black or brown Belizean and you are still a gringo here. I have had several black friends that became very disenchanted because they thought the skin color would make assimilation easier.
Medical care is NOT as good as the US except for eye care. Not all medications are available and the public hospitals are beyond atrocious. The private hospitals are not bad but not US standards.
Only come if you want to enjoy the people here.
And yes, there are bugs. I frequently find tarantulas, scorpions, ants, (cockroaches in the beginning until I learned how to fight them), no seeums, mosquitoes, etc. And some of bugs are truly gross like coconut beetle larvae. There are snakes. And the boas are very creative at finding a way into your living space.
If you don’t like bugs, heat, humidity, cannot adjust to the life pace here, expect things to be just like home or think you can change them, best not to come.
If your plan is to change the people here instead of changing yourself do not come. Belizeans have been very happy being who they are and don’t want to become like Americans so as an outsider we should not be trying to change them, but learning how to grow ourselves.
Many years ago on a trip to mainland China when I was 27 I traveled with Chinese people, my business partners. Being an arrogant ill informed American, I said to one of the Chinese ladies ” I bet you can’t wait until you can move to the US”. Her response has stayed with me and help guide my interactions with all people who are not from where I am
” Why would I want to move to America? I am Chinese, proud of it,and China is my home”
Belize is home to Belizeans first who are proud of their country, don’t want to be Americans, and have lived nicely without us. If you respect them and their country you will fit in.