Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On the Road in Belize

Oh the adventure of owning and driving a car in Belize, specifically Corozal. Let's start with the process of getting your vehicle registered, which we did just today. 

Until recently, the Department of Transport (DOT) office was located in the bus terminal downtown. We had no idea they had changed locations until some fellow expats went to renew their car registration and found a note on the window of the bus terminal that said they moved. You learn lots of things here by word-of-mouth, especially as there are no daily newspapers and local Internet news is sporadic.

Now the DOT is located in the Ministry of Works building here in Ranchito:

Business hours can be a bit hit or miss. Sometimes the government offices are open as advertised; other times, not so much. We decided that going early in the day was our best bet and we lucked out. Upon our arrival, we greeted the gentleman who is in charge of vehicle registrations while he was ordering a breakfast tostada at the little stand in front of the Works building. We proceeded upstairs and found we were the only customers (YAY!). The vehicle registration guy showed up a short time later, tostada in hand, and proceeded to process our paperwork. 

You have the option to renew your registration for three, six, nine, or twelve months. We opted for nine to coincide with our insurance policy expiration date. While taking a look at our vehicle title and proof of insurance (this time David wasn't asked to show a valid driver's license), our registration guy proceeded to tell us just how bad the roads in Corozal have become. We kinda' knew that from our drives into town, but it was interesting to hear the DOT guy go on a rant.

Normally, there is a quasi-inspection of your car when you do the whole registration thing. They check to see if your headlights and tail lights work, along with your wipers. That's about it. No checking tires, emissions, or anything else. For whatever reason, today we didn't have an inspection. After our paperwork was completed, we paid our $150 BZD ($75 USD), got our new sticker, and were on our way. Nine months from now, it wouldn't surprise us in the least that the DOT office is located someplace else and the process will be completely different. Just go with the flow baby.

But let's circle back to the road conditions. Here in Corozal, we live and drive in the land of potholes. While the Northern Highway is paved, the majority of side roads aren't. Limestone, otherwise called "marl", is the surface material. When it rains, which happens more frequently than you might think, the roads becomes mires of mud and slick as all get out. To give you some idea, here is what the intersection to the road our friends Dave and Dianna live on looked like this morning:

This, my friends, is a vast improvement over what it used to look like. The ruts made from construction vehicles and buses were so deep, it was almost impassable. Then when it rained, it got even worse. What you see here is what it looks like after the road grader went to work.

The same grader was also busy trying to smooth out the road leading up to the intersection:

The streets in town aren't much better. There are stretches where you really, really need to go only a few miles an hour so you don't mess up whatever alignment your car does have. That's providing you remember where all the speed bumps are and haven't hit one of those going at any speed. Oh, and let's not forget about dodging other vehicles on the road, foot traffic, and bicycles. As our friend, Colleen, describes it, it's like driving in your very own video game. Bonus points if you don't cause bodily harm to yourself or others. It should come as no surprise that vehicle traffic diminishes dramatically once it gets dark, especially when you consider that there are only sporadic street lights on the main roads and virtually none on any side roads.

And if you think that all drivers here are cautious on the road due to all of the congestion and road conditions, think again. I think one of the best descriptions of what it's like to drive in Belize comes from the Pioneer Bookworm blog. Here's an excerpt of her experiences:

"In Belize, the possession of a license does not guarantee the person knows how to drive.  Not just in the US sense, where we yell about people who don’t know how to drive as they are going slow on a highway. In the US you at least need to take a written exam and drive around with some guy who makes sure you sort of know what you are doing.  Here, some people truly don’t know how to drive—and they buy their license instead of acquiring it legally.   A lady I know has had her driver’s license for 10 years.  She does not know how to drive a car in reverse.  This does not stop her from driving- she just makes sure she can always drive forward. 

Interestingly, knowing that some people really and truly do not know how to drive makes me less likely to have a nervous breakdown when driving here. I drive with an attitude of expectation:  whatever is the most illogical and stupid move should be anticipated and expected from fellow drivers.  When I am driving down the highway, will the car in front of me stop and park in the road? Could happen.  When I turn onto a street, will there be a car driving in reverse down the street in my lane? It’s likely.  When I am stuck behind a slow-moving bus, will the guy three cars behind me attempt to pass all of us and the bus on a blind curve? That’s pretty much guaranteed. All of these things have happened to me in the last month I’ve been driving."

But in case you think we don't have any rules of the road, here are some pointers from the transportation page from the city of Belmopan:
While driving in Belize here are some common road rules to follow:
  • Drive on the right-hand side of the road
  • Wear seatbelts - drivers and passengers
  • Observe speed limits: 55 mph on highways and 25 mph in cities and towns
  • You can make a CAUTIOUS right-hand turn on a red light
  • Left-hand turns on the highway, as per regulation, requires the driver to indicate a left-hand turn then pull on to the right-hand shoulder of the road until traffic is clear both ways in order to complete the left-hand turn. However, keep an eye out on these turns as most drivers in Belize tend to disregard the regulations.

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