Entering a new culture, you often wonder: is it safe? If you don’t know what to expect, you expect the worst. The first week in my cute little student town in Tartu I walked around with a pocket knife in my palm. Just because I didn’t know the place and the people. Once it was dark outside, my brain started to emit fear.
I’m not walking around with a knife anymore, but strange places still scare me from time to time.
Living in Estonia, you don’t really hear about violent crime in your neighbourhood that much. Unless you work for a newspaper and learn about missing people and cold-blooded murders just after your morning coffee.
I didn’t know what to expect about the safety in Belize. I’d read that Belize City is dangerous. So, I assumed that the rest would be fine. Villagers are friendly, there’s no visible violence or theft on the streets. Nobody stares at your belongings. You take a deep breath and relax. You walk on.
A 45-minute walk from the nearest village lies our little paradise. 52 acres of fields, gardens, houses and grass. There is a minimum of nine people on the property every day, locals and foreigners. Birds are singing, roosters are crowing, and a little breeze moves the banana leaves.
What can go wrong? The answer is: everything.
Rain of bullets
One day we are eating lunch with a local lady when she gets a phone call. She speaks English but switches to a dialect as soon as she’s talking to other locals. I don’t know if it’s English Creole, a language derived from English, or just a dialect. Either way, I don’t understand much until I recognise one word: “Police”.
All of a sudden, the phone conversation is so much more interesting than the forkful of fried rice on the way to my mouth.
She puts the phone on the table without saying a word.
“Police?” I repeat clumsily.
She gives me a hard penetrating look: “Did you hear the conversation?”
“No, I just heard the word police.”
She sighs and seems happy that I’ve asked. With a string of words, she explains how her father was guarding a property not far from the farm where we are volunteering. Her father, a man in his seventies, was on the farm all alone. In the night time, he noticed that, in fact, he wasn’t there alone at all. He saw men with guns. He started to run, and the men shot at him. Fortunately, he survived the rain of bullets and managed to get away. The old man hid for hours until it felt safe enough to come out.
Suddenly, the peace of paradise is disrupted. I cannot imagine that there is violent crime in this tiny green country.
I have goosebumps. None of my relatives or friends has been shot. But I know the feeling of worry, the sense of helplessness.
“And the police?”
The lady just shakes her head.
Later, we learn that the local police doesn’t have a vehicle. The officers lost it when trying to calm down a bunch of rowdy teenagers. The youngsters started throwing stones, and the police simply abandoned the car.
Our neighbourhood, from the tiny village of San Antonio until the nature reserve Mountain Pine Ridge, is full of foreigners. The enormous properties behind the fancy fences are all owned by white people. Our neighbour is American and just down the street, behind a large gate decorated with a maple leaf, live Canadians. Brits inhabit Eden Farm, across the street. Locals don’t have the money to buy such huge properties.
Another time, we are driving to go see the Mennonites and buy a tree from them. You can cut the leaves of this tree and fry them in a pan and, supposedly, it’s delicious.
But who are the Mennonites, you may ask? Well, if you’re familiar with the Amish people in the USA, then you pretty much get the picture. The Mennonites are white people from Canada who’ve arrived in Belize just after World War II. They don’t use modern technology, at least not the ones in the village we visited, and dress like time has stopped somewhere in the late 19th century.
Learn more about the Mennonites in our story about ethnicity in Belize.
Driving up to their village, I can’t help but think about a scene from an upcoming Estonian blockbuster called Tõde ya õigus. The first thing we see is a couple of guys ploughing the field with oxen. The next thing we see is a horse carriage climbing up the hill, a man smiles broadly and lifts his white fedora. He has the same beard as Andres, a character from the same Estonian movie, a blue shirt, black trousers, and suspenders. On the back of his carriage, three little blond Swedish-looking boys stare curiously at us. I’m blinking my eyes to make sure I’m not hallucinating, but it’s real.
Anyway, after we figure out there are no edible trees for sale today, we turn our Toyota Tundra around and head back to our place. Pauline, our hostess, introduces us to different places and tell us who lived behind which gate. It seems like she really knows everyone down the street.
It is during that relaxed car trip that we learn about the foreign beekeepers, an older couple who had spent two hours tied up in their own house. Bad things happen to good people.
Hearing these two stories, I think people here must be absolutely crazy to live here. Nobody I have known has ever been tied up. Why should anyone live in a place that could potentially end your life? But then again, the mind is a flexible thing. We haven’t heard about anything dangerous since, so all is a-okay.