Imagine a handkerchief of a country, barely 350.000 souls strong, where any of the following could happen:
-A Latino speaks with a thick Caribbean accent: “Hi, my brotha! Wassup?!”
-A Maya bar owner turns on Bob Marley’s Greatest Hits, but switches after a couple of songs to old-fashioned Spanish music.
-With a backdrop of Cohune palms and banana trees, two white men with woolly beards work the field with an ox.
-In a small town shop, a young Chinese boy translates a customer’s English into Chinese for his mum, the shopkeeper.
-A black guy leans out of a bright blue church bus and shouts: “God bless you! Welcome to Belize!”
Yes, that’s Belize, the only English-speaking territory in Central America. A country where border officers have dreadlocks and where the inhabitants trust Mayan shamans more than doctors. Belize doesn’t have a proper ethnic or cultural majority. Yet, everybody loves rice and beans and lives peacefully together. Or at least more or less.
There are Mestizo’s, Creoles, Maya, Garifuna, Mennonites, both traditional and progressive, Chinese and white expats. And let’s not fall into the trap of calling it – warning: cliché incoming – a melting pot. A banner in San Ignacio’s visitor centre spoke instead of a salad with different ingredients that all add something to the mix.
In other words: it’s one hell of an ethnically diverse country. Time for an introduction! I’ll skip the Mestizo’s, as we’ll be running into them a-plenty in the upcoming countries.
Here, the Creoles are dominant. Elderly Rastafari’s ride by on bicycles and curse like cowboys. Their grey dreadlocks could fill a bucket. Their hair reaches until under their asses. Black guys in bare torsos or in dirty (once white, now an undefinable shade of grey) undershirts grill meat and fish on black barrel barbecues. Fat Caribbean mommas show off their skin folds in pink costumes – with pride, not shame.
Their language sounds familiar. Kriol tickles the listener: you think you understand – it must be English – until you give it a closer listen. In fact, the Kriol spoken in Belize is a mix of English with a bunch of African languages.
Because that’s where the Creole came from – Africa.
Belize City, build on rum bottles
But before we get to know how and when: let’s meet the Baymen, a rowdy crowd of English and Scottish pirates and freebooters. The Baymen terrorised the Caribbean Sea in the 17th century, plundering Spanish ships and intent on stealing as much silver and logwood as they could carry. Until they realised that their mommies wouldn’t be proud of them and that they’d better get a proper job. Everybody does at some point, right? The pirates became loggers. And thus effectively founded Belize. But a leopard doesn’t change its spots. The Baymen remained a brutal bunch, rude and drunk most of the time. According to the legend, the foundations of Belize City are made of emptied rum bottles and woodchips.
Logging the wood themselves was as lucrative as entering boats, and it was a lot safer. But also a lot more tiring. Enter African slaves, which the Baymen imported from Jamaica and Bermuda. In the process of Creolisation, different African cultures mixed with each other and with those of their European slave masters, ditto their blood, creating a new Creole culture. Nowadays, anyone with (some) roots in Africa who is not Garifuna (see later), is considered Creole. And one thing is for sure: they still like the Belizean rum. Blame the pirates.
As I’ve amply described before: we’ve spent five weeks working on the Stardust Sanctuary Farm near the village of San Antonio. One day, when hoeing a newly-ploughed field and preparing it for corn and peanuts, we kept digging up shards of pottery. Yes, we were probably gardening in the middle of an ancient Maya kitchen.
It’s not that we were very lucky. Plant a spade in the soil almost anywhere around our temporary home and you’re likely to dig up ancient grain, jade, ruins from a temple, human bones – anything old. We visited an archaeological site just a mile away from our farm and witnessed the live excavation of a skeleton of a girl, more than a thousand years old. The American researcher told us that they’d analyse some samples and soon would be able to tell if the girl was local (based on genetic material), if she had any wounds (from the skeletal fragments) and what her last supper had been (from the plaque on her teeth).
As a matter of fact, the whole region is an archaeologist’s wet dream. There are far more potential sites than local experts and funding can ever process. And it should be no surprise. An area that now hosts 2 million people – Belize, part of Guatemala and the Mexican Yucatan region – was once home to 10 million Maya. Even Belize City, by far the most populous city of modern-day Belize, has nowadays barely a third of the former population of Caracol, once the most populated city in that same area.
What many Europeans don’t realise, however, is that the Maya civilisation never truly disappeared. True, by the time Columbus took a wrong turn on his way to India, the once powerful Maya cities were already dwindling. But the Maya people stuck around. As late as 1847, the Maya almost managed to drive the Spanish oppressors off their ancient lands. They rebelled against their treatment as third-rate citizens and chased the Spanish all but out. Only two walled cities in the Yucatan – Campeche and Mérida – remained the last bastion of the paella-eating colonisers.
But then happened what happens every year around the first rain (as we can testify). The flying ants showed up, the sign for the Maya to plant their holy corn. They quitted their attack on Mérida en returned home. The result was predictable. The Spanish hit back extremely hard.
It does say something about the Maya psyche, about their loyalty to the land and their agrarian spirits.
Belize still houses large populations of three different Maya groups – Kekchi, Yucatec and Mopan. San Antonio is a Mopan village, where the local variant of Mayan is still widely spoken (even though the token elder complained that kids nowadays spoke nothing but English and Spanish). The locals look like they’ve escaped from the sculptures in European history museums. Shamanism and bush medicine is prevalent. Almost everybody can name at least a dozen plants, bushes and trees and their medicinal uses.
At the same time, most Maya have converted to a form of Christianity, whether it’s Catholicism, Evangelism, Pentecostalism or Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Everyone goes to church and follows different Christian religions”, said Maya First’s José, “Language is the only thing that connects them to the ancestors. Everything else got lost – all the traditions.” José tries to keep things alive by performing ceremonies, such as purifications and marriages, and by constructing his own Maya temple out of limestone. Since 1982, he’s been working on it with an axe and a pick.
Maya society is not only agrarian, it’s also traditional to the bone. In the appropriately named Maya Center in Stann Creek District, guest house owner Gregorio told us his family had to ask the village elder permission to move in. When a Creole had bought land in the village and relocated his whole kit and caboodle, he was told in no uncertain terms to hop it. The Chinese shop owner across the Southern Highway seems to be the only tolerated outsider. “His shop is on private land, it’s not village property”, sighed Gregorio when I asked about it, “there isn’t much we can do about him.”
(Yes, I remember I said that everybody lived peacefully together in this country. But I also said more or less. More about the Chinese soon.)
The first time, you think you must be suffering from a sunstroke, or it’s a Fata Morgana, anything to logically explain that weird apparition.
But no, the scene is real. White guys with blue long-sleeved shirts, black pants and suspenders, straw heads and woolly Lincoln beards are really working the field with an ox. This is the real battle with the land. Children with flax blond bowl cuts ride with their parents in a horse carriage. The women wear long dresses and bonnets. There’s no electricity in their village, which is tucked away in the Maya Mountains of western Belize, and the Mennonites’ sawmill is powered by bulls. The whole setting feels like a scene from a historical film about the American pioneers.
Yes, the Mennonites are quite a sight in Belize.
In the end, the Mennonites just want to be left alone – a life of live and let live. And that’s exactly the reason why they’re here, in Belize. Because, as they’re skin tint testifies, they’re a long, long way from home. Originally, the Mennonites lived in the Netherlands, where they were persecuted in the 16th century. They moved to Prussia, Russia and eventually Canada, but never for very long. The Mennonites want to live on their own, without political intervention. They don’t believe in the system, paying taxes and the whole rigmarole. So whenever a state wants to enrol their boys into the army, or register them for social security or – help us, god – to make them pay taxes, the Mennonites roll up their mats and get their move on. That’s how they’ve ended up in Belize, of all places.
Welcome to Iowa
The Belize government gave them a place to stay and the necessary privileges, and in exchange, the Mennonites work their asses off. They are the country’s biggest producer of dairy, poultry, meat and other farming produce. In a way, they remind me a little bit of Estonians, always working hard while the rest of the country is enjoying life.
Mind you, many of the most industrious Mennonites have left the traditional lifestyle behind. They are the progressive or mechanised Mennonites, aka the Moneynites. Once, we took a chicken bus from San Ignacio to Spanish Lookout, one of their prime strongholds. We rode over potholed dirt roads, through scruffy villages with names such as – I kid you not – Duck Run, Duck Run 2 and Duck Run 3 until… we were in Texas, or in Iowa. Or at least that’s how it felt.
We turned left on a smooth, broad road that looked like a runway and that led to downtown Spanish Lookout. There were huge shops of farm supplies and tractors and giant pickup trucks so brand new that they were still shiny (extremely rare in Belize!) There were tire depots with large tinted windows and the headquarters of Western Dairies and Quality Poultry Products, two of the biggest companies in this country. Guys in jeans and with cowboy hats drove by on motorbikes or quads. Surely, the lifestyle of these Mennonites was far removed from that of the ones we had seen in the mountains near San Antonio. Either way, it seems like both groups have created their own little Utopia in Belize. Then again, they have to slave hard to sustain it.
After more than a year of living a structured lifestyle of routine – wake up, work, pass out, rinse and repeat – it’s funny to be travelling and to notice how your energy levels are shooting into all kinds of directions. Sometimes you sleep almost not at all (excitement, uncomfortable bed, loud neighbours or weird noises coming from outside, plans for a jungle hike early in the morning), sometimes a lot (hammocks, comfy beds, a couple of beers in the evening, breakfast served until 2 pm).
Bear with me – I’m taking the scenic route, but what I’m hinting at will be clear soon.
When we moved out of the Stardust Sanctuary Farm, we were excited to be on the road. We spent a little while in San Ignacio until the appeal of the warm Caribbean Sea pulled us towards the coast once again. We jumped on a chicken bus to Belmopan, on another one onwards, jumped off to explore a cave and to dive into – quite literally – a blue hole, jumped on another bus to Dangriga and finally got dropped off at the junction towards Hopkins, hitched a ride into town, walked from one side to the other in search of accommodation, and halfway back again, before we could finally put our big bags down onto the floor.
Damn, it exhausted me even just writing that bigass sentence.
No surprise I felt zonked. But my bed didn’t call me yet. No, the sounds from my stomach were overpowering everything. I couldn’t just eat a horse, I could eat a whole stable.
Bad news: Belizeans eat rather early.
Good news: there was lots of noise coming from a small wooden shack near our bungalow, a local Garifuna restaurant.
The lady said she could still cook us up some rice and beans, so we took a seat inside. Outside, the party was loud but not (yet) wild. Some Garifuna people were playing dominoes, others were drinking Belikin beer. Then, this song came on:
Drumming is one key element of the Garifuna culture. You see their instruments regularly along the South Belizean coast. So it’s no surprise the song is heavy on rhythm. Truth be told, it reminds me somewhat of old favourites of mine, such as Animal Collective and The Dodos. The song clicked straight away.
But we still didn’t know much about the Garifuna people and couldn’t really tell them and Creoles apart. That’s why we returned to Dangriga, a tattered coastal town 30 minutes from Hopkins where the Garifuna heartbeat beats the loudest. In the Gulisi Garifuna Museum, we learned more about these people. The Garifuna are the result of romantic meetings between native people from Caribbean islands, most notably St. Vincent, and black slaves brought to the region from different African countries.
With so many different cultures clashing, the language is interesting, to say the least. “There are many words for the same thing”, said the guide in the museum, “Luckily, you don’t need to know them all.” She also pointed out the influence of French, Spanish and English. Here are some examples she gave:
Monday = Leindi
Saturday = Samudi
Sunday = Dimasu
14 = catorusu
15 = keinci
16 = disisisi
Which makes me think that Anete and I are well on the way to creating a new language that will give linguists an exciting case study (and proper headaches). Our daily communication mixes English, Dutch, Estonian and Indonesian.
It’s easy to think that all these different ethnicities live on their own islands. It’s also wrong. Belizeans happily mingle and hang out together. The different communities keep their own culture alive, but there’s a sense of common identity, as immortalised by the words of Belizean musician Andy Palacio who said that punta rock, rice, beans and stew chicken, the English language and a fear of Guatemala unify Belize.
Dare I add a dislike – or even hatred – of Chinese shopkeepers. It’s a new form of racism, a form that seems to be prevalent in all the ethnicities.
“They’re mafia!” said our Creole friend William on Caye Caulker, the same guy who took us into a crocodile reserve through the back door, “All their businesses just operate to whitewash money.”
According to Gregorio, the Mayan guest house owner, “the Chinese are always working in the same way. They open a shop and quote the lowest prices in the village. Until all the competition is dead and they can raise all the prices again. There are no prices quoted on their products and they never do anything for the community.”
It’s true that most of the supermarkets in this country, and especially the big ones, are operated by Chinese. But it’s also true that their shops have the biggest selection, the largest stock and the longest opening hours. They get the job done. And their work ethics rival those of the Mennonites – they eat and sleep in their shop – which is why they rake in the big bucks.
Just like European grannies flee to the Spanish sun, Belize is a very popular retirement destination for Americans and Canadians. It’s easy to see why. Belize is the only English-speaking country in mainland Central America. And, as Guy, our American host in San Antonio, said: English is my second language. Which, let’s be honest, is probably the case for most Americans.
As far as I can tell, the expat community can be broken down into two groups. There are the beach bums, mainly hanging out in places such as Hopkins, Placencia or any of the cayes that dot the Belizean coastline. They can easily be recognised by their firm grip around an ice cold Belikin beer at 9 am. And then there are the jungle roamers who seem to be abundant in the Cayo district of western Belize. Expats own plenty of farms, large properties which are impressively fenced off (and for a good reason).
Note: I’d love to publish photos that show these people more explicitly, but alas, I’m shy to ask. I hope my descriptions paint a clear enough picture.