Thursday, March 29, 2007

That Bad Taste in the Mouth

The past couple of days have been enlightening for a couple of gringos in Belize. We’ve had our first bad taste of what many bitter expats seem to like to portray as Belize and its people. However, we’re considering this a couple of bad bites in what has otherwise been a delicious first course, and we hope we’ve learned enough not to get in this position again.

The first bad bite was with our neighbor, Bol. He, among other people, has stressed the importance of clearing our boundary lines both to define our property and prevent squatters and trespassers, and to provide a fire break when the dry season hits. Bol has four sons – Selwyn is the eldest – and he’s always looking for work for all of them, so he had his next eldest son, Gilroy, take a look at our property line and come up with an estimate for clearing it. The estimate seemed reasonable – about two working weeks for four machete wielding young men to clear a ten foot swatch through a half mile of jungle. Bol said they’d work on a contract basis, so he and Gilroy came up with a number based on four guys for two weeks, and then discounted it by a few hundred bucks because he said they always work faster when they’re on a contract. We thought this sounded fair, so we agreed to it. However, it didn’t take the four guys two weeks to clear the boundary line, it took them three days. This meant that four high school and college aged guys earned about $100 a day for the days they worked instead of the $30 that’s typical for that type of work. Granted, they worked incredibly quickly, and did a really good job, but it just seems improbable to us that Gilroy and Bol’s estimate was that far off, so we felt like we’d been taken, and taken by someone we were starting to trust, which made it worse.

Tom asked Gilroy if they would have done it that quickly if they’d done it by a daily rate rather than on a contract, and he perfectly honestly said no, it would have then taken them two weeks. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit too well with Tom, so he and Bol had a heart-to-heart, and Tom explained that while we may be white and we may have been able to buy property in Belize, we’re not made of money, and if the locals think we’re going to go through our money at that rate, knowing we don’t have to, then we’re better off not doing business with the locals. Bol apologized and explained that sometimes the contractor wins on a contract and sometimes he loses – doh – and Tom responded that he understands that, having worked on a contract basis himself, but he doesn’t usually mis-estimate that badly. They agreed that in the future Bol and his crews would work on a day-by-day basis, and Tom would only hire them when he’s able to go out and work with the crew as supervisor to make sure they’re really working. And, Tom and I agreed afterwards, we’re likely to hire Guatemalans or Belizeans from other areas rather than the local crews, who apparently have already decided that we’re easily separated from our money.

The second incident was far more disturbing, because it involved blatant stealing. When Tom had to replace the fuel filter on the truck a few weeks ago, he took it in to be checked by the only diesel mechanic in San Antonio, who seemed competent and nice enough to let him take care of our truck. After the fuel filter check, Tom took the truck back for an oil/lube/filter change, and then to have the belts replaced after he noticed the alternator belt wear last week. Because the mechanic has welding equipment, Tom also arranged to drop the truck off this week to have angle iron welded to the rails of the truck bed because the auxiliary diesel tank was tearing off the bed where it was bolted. Early last week, after one of the truck’s visits to the mechanic, I had driven it into San Antonio. It died in the middle of the street, acting just like it acted when the fuel filter clogged. So, I trotted over to the mechanic and asked him to take a look at it. He listened while I tried to start it, and then asked if it was possible that it was out of gas and wanted to know if the fuel gauge works. Well, the fuel gauge doesn’t work too well on these bumpy roads, so I told him that. What I didn’t tell him was that Tom and I keep a pretty close eye on the odometer so we know roughly when we need to get fuel, plus we always have the auxiliary tank which we can use to fill the front tank on the truck. I was embarrassed – the dumb blonde gringo doesn’t even know when her truck is out of gas – but I was also a little confused because we didn’t have that many miles on the truck, and both truck tanks were empty. I talked to Tom when I got home, and we determined that it was possible he hadn’t set the odometer when he last filled up so it may have tripped over 1000 and started over, and that it’s possible that our miles per gallon number may be way lower than we think because we don’t go far, but the truck spends a fair amount of time running as we creep along the rutted roads. Next time we went out, we filled both tanks and made a point of resetting the odometer, and vowed to use the auxiliary tank only for hauling diesel home for the generator so we could get a better idea of our mileage.

Fast forward to Tuesday morning, when Tom took the truck in for the welding work. He noticed that we were leaving the truck in town with almost exactly 100 miles on the odometer, and remarked on it because 100 is such a round number and because we think it’s funny that after each of us frequently driving 100 miles a day or more in NY, we now barely cover 100 miles in a week. We worked on the property all day on Tuesday, and that evening a Belizean friend from town stopped by and asked to see what we were doing with all the lumber he’d seen coming through town in our truck that day. Tom showed him what we were doing, and corrected him – the lumber had come through town on Monday, not Tuesday, and Tom had had it delivered in the lumberyard truck because we’re trying to save wear and tear on Tinkerbell. Our friend looked at Tom like he was a little feeble-minded and explained that he had, in fact, seen our truck – with the horns on the front – going through town loaded with lumber that day.

Tom and I were a little suspicious, and decided that on Wednesday Tom would talk to Bol about the line clearing contract, and I would get the job of riding the bike into town to talk to the mechanic and tell him we’d heard this rumor. It was raining Wednesday morning, so I didn’t go until after lunch. I talked to the mechanic, and he said that whoever told us that must have been mixed up because the truck had been in his driveway since we left it there Tuesday morning. I also went in the truck to get out the cell phone charger – my “reason” for the surprise visit to town – and checked the odometer, which had 193 miles on it. I didn’t push it with the mechanic since he swore the truck hadn’t moved, but went home and double checked with Tom that he hadn’t misread the mileage when he left the truck. That evening, somebody else stopped by and asked if we had given the mechanic permission to use our truck. We rolled our eyes and said no, but we’d already been told that the truck had collected a load of lumber on Tuesday. This lead to another “oh you poor naïve gringos” look, and this person told us that the truck had also taken the mechanic and his wife to San Ignacio on Wednesday morning, prior to my surprise Wednesday afternoon visit – which explained how the truck could get an extra 93 miles on it, since part of my rationale for questioning Tom’s odometer reading was that it takes us a week to put 100 miles on the truck, so we didn’t see how the mechanic could do it in a day – but it was two days of use, not one.

So, Tom wound himself up and pedaled into town first thing Thursday morning, not expecting to find the truck gone since the mechanic knew at that point that there were people in town who would talk to us, but planning at least to have it out with the mechanic. The mechanic again swore up and down that he hadn’t used the truck – he’s a church going man, after all – but Tom insisted that because he was already there with the bike, he wanted the mechanic to finish the welding so Tom could drive the truck home. With this the mechanic explained to Tom that in addition to what Tom had asked to be done, the auxiliary tank seemed to have a leak where the bottom drain pipe meets the tank. Tom took a look, and said the fuel was dripping out at a pretty steady rate – steady enough that if the leak had been there when he left the truck on Tuesday, there wouldn’t be any fuel in the tank by Thursday morning. Tom bit his tongue, got to work with the mechanic – getting a nasty sunburn on his arms and neck in the process – and finally, after multiple interruptions, they finished around 1:00, since Tom found that very little had been done to the truck in the two days it had been at the shop.

As I was making dinner, Tom was cleaning out the truck so he’d have room for Selwyn and his family, who were getting a ride to Spanish Lookout with Tom on Friday. As he was digging through the console, he found an empty chip bag. This isn’t significant unless you know us, but if you know us you know that we rarely, if ever, eat chips. He also found a few of the rings off the top of soda bottles on the floor of the truck, and we don’t buy and drink soda much more than we eat chips. You also know, if you know Tom, that he keeps his vehicles very clean, despite me and the dogs and our Pigpen-like tendencies, so he knew the chip bag and soda top rings hadn’t been in the truck when he dropped it off. At this point we were stewing over the fact that we’d been lied to multiple times, knowing the truck had been used without our permission, and we were aggravated that our fuel had essentially been stolen, first through the use of the truck, and then through what dripped out of the broken pipe – which had been broken either intentionally to hide the fuel loss from use, or because the truck had been driven without the tank properly secured in the bed of the truck and the pipe broke from the bouncing.

It then occurred to me that I’d left my expensive Oakley sunglasses in the truck, so I mentioned this to Tom. He then remembered that he’d also left his in the truck, so he went out to make sure they were still there. Well, mine were still there, in their case in the glove box of the truck. Tom’s case was in the door of the truck, but the sunglasses were gone. If it was my glasses missing instead of Tom’s, we might have done some hard thinking about where else the sunglasses could be. But, because it was Tom’s missing, we’re sure they were stolen. Tom is very careful about spending money, and because Oakley sunglasses are expensive, he takes very good care of them because he doesn’t want to replace them. And, because Tom spent about 25 years of his life depending on glasses to see, he’s especially careful with expensive glasses. If his Oakleys aren’t on his face, they’re in they’re case, period, without exception. Tom resolved to take care of the problem immediately, and headed for the truck to drive into town. I turned off the stove and stowed dinner in dog proof places, and jumped in the truck to go with him, hoping that having a woman around would lessen the male aggression a bit.

It was a very ugly scene in San Antonio. Tom went to the mechanic’s house and demanded to see him. He came out after a few minutes, and Tom told him that he knew he was lying, and that he wanted either his sunglasses, or money to replace them, and while he was at it he could give Tom back what he had paid to have the truck fixed, and reimburse him for fuel and use of the truck. The mechanic played the “I’m a church going man” card again, along with the “I’m a family man, look at my beautiful wife and children” card, and when Tom was loudly insistent, the mechanic’s brother came out and was even more offensive than the mechanic, yelling at Tom and telling him he’s typical of all gringos who just want to take advantage of Belizeans. We’re not sure how them using our things without our permission, stealing fuel and sunglasses, accepting payment for fixing things they broke, and then blatantly lying to us constitute us taking advantage of them, but in the end they started hollering about having Tom arrested for trespassing on their property, so I urged Tom into the truck and we left. No sunglasses, no money, but a hard and relatively expensive lesson learned, and some concern that the men involved might feel the need for retribution, which caused Tom to sit outside with Nock until about midnight, when he gave up the watch since the only things they were scaring off were neighbors’ dogs out scrounging for garbage.

We’re not quite sure yet how we feel about all of this. We were initially very uncomfortable even with the thought that a mechanic could be that dishonest. After all, we’ve had almost 20 years of Aaron’s care in Honeoye, and besides being probably the most competent mechanic alive, Aaron is scrupulously honest. We’ve tried to be vigilant here and avoid these types of problems, but we haven’t been conditioned to remove everything of value from our vehicles when we drop them off for service, and it just didn’t occur to us. We also hesitated to accuse the mechanic based on hearsay, but between the facts that we trust the people who told us the truck was being used, the extra 93 miles, and all the other circumstantial evidence, we can’t just write this off to oversights on our part, or town politics with people who don’t like the mechanic trying to get him in trouble. What’s gone is gone, and the only thing that makes us feel marginally better is the knowledge that even though he won’t know it, the mechanic will lose in a big way in the end since if he had been honest and dealt with us fairly, he would have made a lot of money over the years taking care of our vehicles.

We don’t want family and friends to worry about our well-being here. While we don’t like to make a scene, this was a scene that had to be made so that other less-than-honest town residents won’t see us as patsies just waiting for them to take advantage of us. In the eyes of many Belizeans, Americans a) aren’t very smart or wise to the ways of the world, b) have more money than they know what to do with, and c) deserve to be swindled out of their money and to have their things stolen by Belizeans because all Americans want to do is take advantage of Belizeans. We know this isn’t the case, and all these two Americans were intending to do was to pay honest people for their services. The locals now know that if we think something isn’t right, we’ll deal with it very directly. We will be very careful to lock up our belongings and not do things like leave the dogs unattended, but this is the kind of thing that will eventually blow over, and we suspect all that will remain is the knowledge that we’re not always nice if we’re wronged. Plus, we still feel that our neighbors are completely trustworthy and very good people (even though they’re church goers too ;-) ), so if we thought we were in any type of trouble on our property, a few good yells would bring a number of people running – and people in town know that.

We’re also going to be more than a little hesitant for a while about hiring people from town. We won’t know who’s trustworthy and who isn’t, and who might be asking for a job either with a plan for revenge for the mechanic or because they want to steal from us. And, anyone we hire will be very closely supervised no matter where we find them. Despite the bad taste in our mouths from Bol’s contract on our property line, we really like Selwyn and believe that he really likes working here, so that won’t change, even though he does live in San Antonio. We probably won’t enter into another contract with Bol for more line clearing, at least not until Tom is less intent on getting the cabins habitable and has time to go work with them. And, to be honest, the badly estimated contract may not have seemed like such a big deal if we hadn’t taken the hit on the truck and sunglasses at exactly the same time. Nonetheless, despite our impatience to get things done, we won’t be spending money too quickly, and we won’t hire any more people than we can directly supervise. So, we’ll see where we go from here. I imagine it will be like saving and backing up files on your computer; you do it diligently for a while, and when nothing happens for an extended time, you get lax, and then when your computer crashes you kick yourself for not being more vigilant. We’ll be vigilant with our things for a while, and when nothing happens, we’ll get careless until something else is stolen, and then we’ll be back on guard. And this doesn’t make us feel any differently about the Belizean people in general or about the country. There are dishonest people every where, and probably the really remarkable thing in this case is that it took us this long to find one considering the number of people we have met over the past couple of months.

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