Features — 07 October 2017 — by Neri O. Briceño
Belize up front

After a five-week break from writing, it’s great to be back. The reason for the partial break is because of my mini vacation in Belize, which ended up being an extended one. Eight days into my arrival at home, I had the unfortunate experience of getting my backpack stolen. It was by far the most important piece of luggage I had since it contained all my cash, travel documents, my work ID, various other ID that I need for work, my laptop with all my information that I have accumulated from the days of working in the oil & gas industry and every newspaper article I have written. The sad part, that of all the places I expected this to happen, Belize City being the top of the list, PG was the last place I expected it to happen. This is the place I was born, grew up, I know everyone and believe most people know me. But I guess that the PG I knew is no longer the PG that is. I reached out to social media, radio and TV offering a handsome return for its recovery with no questions asked, but to now it has still not surfaced. Because of the importance of the stuff on my laptop, the reward still stands, providing the information is still on it. If found, please contact Wil Maheia, whom I am sure most Belizeans know.

The loss of one’s documents when travelling is one of the most terrible things that can befall someone. The ordeal is rough and completely changed my entire trip. However, it opened my eyes as to what Belizeans go through on a daily basis and what they have to put up with when dealing with government agencies. Once I realize that finding the bag was slim, I decided to try and get temporary travel documents to head back to the US since I just had a few more days of staying in Belize. The process would take a full two weeks plus extra.

The first step was to report the loss to the Police since a Police Report would be key to getting back a passport and US travel documents. I was told that a Police Report takes at least a week at best to get. Now for those who are not familiar, a Police Report is nothing complicated. It’s pretty much a piece of paper that says what happened and it’s signed by the Officer in charge of the precinct where you make the report. Sounds uncomplicated, right? NOT! Because I was told that a report took three weeks to get, I called a friend with connections to the PG Police Department and I was able to it in a day. From there I found out the process to get a new passport or what I would find out would be a temporary passport. I was told that because the passport was stolen, it would take a full six weeks to get a replacement, but that a temporary one could be issued.

Now you would think that in 2017, and not to mention the age of technology, that on the strength of a Police Report, it would be sufficient to get a replacement passport, but that’s not the case in Belize. I would think that the Immigration and Nationality Department could easily look up my information and issue a new passport. NOT! Then I quickly realize that Immigration would be like pulling teeth, especially since I am neither white nor Asian.

I decided to go to the Immigration Office in PG, get the forms and fill them out since now it has the added element that for example a teacher needs to sign it. PG being where am from, I figured it would be no problem to find a teacher and a JP. It took me another day of running around to do this and then headed to Belmopan.

When I got to Immigration in Belmopan, I could immediately see that this place was at best organized chaos. I presented the documents and was told that I have to get a birth paper. Now on the application for a replacement passport, nowhere on it said that a birth paper was needed, but regardless of that I still had to get one. I asked what it was needed for and I was told to prove that I am Belizean. Yes, you heard that right, to prove that I was Belizean. Me, Neri O. Briceño, whose navel string is still in PG and who had held three other prior Belizean passports now had to prove that I was Belizean. It blew my mind! How could the Immigration and Nationality Department who were the ones who issued me a passport since 1983 have no record on me? My protest was useless and so I had to now go to Belize City to apply for a birth paper.

Vital Statistics Unit, or what in my days we called Registry, is a mess. After a very long wait in a line where everyone I assumed connected just walked past the line, I finally got to the front to be attended. I asked for the express service and was told that they were not doing it today. Why? Because they had backlogged work from the holidays. I asked when was this decision made and why wasn’t a sign posted? There was no answer and the clerk explained that the earliest I could get it was a week. I explained to her my situation and that if I had to wait a week I would not have a job when I got back to the States. She explained that the best she could do was for the next day and that the person in charge was the only one who could authorize it for the same day. I told her I would wait, but after waiting half hour and the person in charge still did not show, I decided to take the next day service. So that itself required yet another return trip to Belize City.

The following day, I returned to the City in the afternoon since that is the time allotted to pick up documents. I was told 1:00 p.m., so I figured I would pick up the document and head back to Belmopan to start the passport process. WRONG! It took two hours for the documents to start coming out.

After getting the document, I returned to Belmopan so I could go to Immigration first thing the following morning. I was told to go very early since they have a numbering system, as early as 5:00 a.m. I went at 4:45 a.m. and to my amazement, they were already five persons there. I was shocked. I got a number and returned at 7:45 and the place was like a weekend market. I presented the documents to a checking clerk who verified that all my documents were there. Essentially I was applying for two passports, one temporary to travel with and the other a permanent one to replace the one that was stolen. The permanent one would be shipped to me to the closest Belizean Consulate or Embassy where I reside. It was either that or go back to Belize and pick it up since the temporary passport has to be turned in before I can get the permanent one. Therefore, I had two application forms filled out.

Part of the paperwork is what is called a Lost Declaration Form. It’s pretty much a form in which you fill out the circumstances how the passport got lost and it has to be signed by a Justice of the Peace. I had only filled out one but was told I had to fill out two so one can be attached to each application. I told the clerk that the document would be the same; so why can’t she now just photocopy it? “Photocopy” it seems has become a bad word at the Immigration and Nationality Department. Nope! Can’t happen. So I had to fill out the form and find a JP in Belmopan to sign it. Fortunately, I found one who knew me and I rushed back to Immigration to continue the process. When I presented the filled out document, I was told that it wouldn’t work since it had to be filled out by the same JP who signed the other form. I was shocked. I explained to the lady that I was pretty much working on borrowed time since I had a set appointment with the US Embassy to get replacement travel documents and that the JP who signed the other form was in PG. She would not budge. Fortunately the lady sitting just next to her heard my plight and spoke to an Immigration Officer who granted the exception.

From there they started processing the replacement passport. However, I had to prove that I needed it urgently and could not wait in country for 6 weeks to get the permanent one. They wanted my flight itinerary. I explained that it was difficult for me to set a return date when I had not gotten a passport in the first place and still had an appointment with the US Embassy. I could not possibly book a tentative date with the airlines. The answer NO! So I had to call the airlines, book a date and then print the itinerary and take it back to Immigration and finally got a temporary passport. The appointment with the US Embassy was organized, efficient and quick. They understood that I was in distress and so they did everything to help.

The experience that I went through was an eye opener for the mere fact that I hold almost no Belizean documents. My driver’s license was the last thing I used to renew but have now long let it expire. Most of my trips to Belize are vacation, so I have never had to deal with a lot of the inconveniences that people face every day. I found public officers to be unmotivated, mostly unhelpful and not caring. It pained me to think that my people go through this, like the Mennonite farmer from Shipyard who said that he has been going to Vital Statistics for the past 4 months and still hasn’t found a resolution to his issue. Or the man at Immigration who almost got into a fistfight with the security because somehow two numbers were issued to the same person. This situation though tragic, was an eye-opener as to the state of the nation.

But don’t get me wrong, along the way I found public officers who were helpful, caring and willing to guide you in the right direction, so this is by no means a condemnation of the entire public service. But when I compare the efficiency of how we do business and how the US or their embassy does business, it’s night and day.

It’s all about the people!!!

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