From Costa Rica and beyond

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Belize without photos

Author's note:  The first part of this is a slightly redacted journal entry from October 1

It's my first day in this little, mostly anglophone (but also Spanish and Creole) country.  The border crossing with the (bike) insurance purchase and disinfection spray (again for the bike, not me!) was neither cheap nor speedy, but neither was it expensive and onerous.  It was wet however.  It poured on me as I pulled into Corozal, the nearest border town..  I would later learn that my camera did not enjoy the drenching. Neither did I really, but still took the time, soaking wet, to find a bank and then an Indian-owned furniture store to exchange my pesos.

Between that town and Orange Walk, the sky cleared.  No longer focused on the sky or slippery road, I examined the country-side.  It was flat and green.  Houses were small, square and usually colorful.  Some homes had neat lawns.  Some houses were on stilts.  The scenery reminded me of what parts of the rural US may have looked like in the 30s when life was poorer but simpler too.

In the fields grow papayas and sugar cane.  The latter grows more densely than corn and doesn't look all that cane-like (yet?).  At first, I thought it might be tall stalks of pineapple.

Elsewhere it was just open. Cattle wee grazing.  Wetlands are aplenty and home to what one would expect, including crocodiles.

I left the road to Belize City for a quick look at Orange Walk.  Not much there.  The biggest building that I saw was a 3 story school built by Presbyterians (still open?).  Smoke qualmed from a grill packed with chicken and pork chops.  Lunchtime!  For $4 US, a BBQ'd pork chop, cole slaw, and a savory crepe.  The Hispanic owners were friendly and talkative.  I bought a Coke from the next door store where I was helped by an adorable Chinese girl (12?) while mom packed shelves and dad squatted watching Chinese TV.  The meat was salty, but delicious.  And finally, I was drying out.

Belize is pretty diverse.  In addition to Blacks, Latinos, Creoles, and the unique Garifuna culture, there are many Chinese.  Belize maintains relations with Taiwan, whose embassy proudly shows the flag.  Indians are even more abundant. Both of these groups own stores, restaurants, and hotels.  There is even a prominent Hindu temple in town.

Religious institutions abound.  Along the road were Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, and 7th Day Adventist churches.  Per capita, there are less religious institutions in Belize City.  Mennonites are also present.  Across from my guesthouse, Mennonites had their razor-wire enclosed store open for business.  Their furniture is beautifully crafted.  The tall, slender, straw-hat-sporting gentleman I spoke to said they speak a German close to Flat German (Plattdeutsch).  He prefers to speak English even with Germans.  Douglas, the caretaker at the guesthouse, said some of Belizes recently discovered oil reserves sit under Mennonite land. It'll be interesting to see how Mennonites handle that situation.

An undercurrent of very slight ethnic tension seems to exist.  The Hispanic food stand owner had nothing good to say about Belize City, which is mostly black.  She also noted (responding to my questions) that Indians and Chinese have big families and may some day outnumber the others.  By and large though, it appears people get along.  The Chinese don't shy from giving their businesses Chinese names and the Indians seem pretty carefree.

Belize City is kind of quaint in a run-down sort of way.  Two and three story buildings with businesses below.  Mazes of power lines and cables overhead.  Busy sidewalks.  The famous "Slide Bridge" built in England and swiveling on a center cog, so boats may pass on either side of it (like the RR bridge in Grand Haven, MI). And a nice view over the water looking east to the Cayes (islands).

People are friendly.  Women will smile and return a greeting.  Guys at stores are readily helpful.  Even some beggars will introduce themselves and insist on a handshake.

There are many beggars and homeless.  Requests for a dollar are commonplace...even from kids swimming at a pier who look not to be so badly off (what do I know?).  Such requests, the sheer number of intinerant, and the ubiquitous barred doors and windows and security guards, do not make one feel safe.

Gotta record this:  Just spent time here at the guesthouse talking with John Speer, the proprietor's brother.  This guesthouse was his mother's residence.  His mother was the last British Colonial Governor General of Belize, except that she was never given that title because of her gender. That last name intrigued me, so I asked.  Sure enough, John's father was closely related to Albert Speer, the chief architect of Nazi Germany.  John and I started conversing when he shared with me that he usually lives in Montreal. When we discovered we're nearly neighbors, he offered me a glass of rum.  I do not like rum, so I declined.  He came back with a glass all the same.  I had no idea how tasty and smooth rum can be - a delightful local creation.

I should note that I have been unable to verify John's stories (except the one about the rum).  If they're all true, he has quite a storied family history and he certainly knows how to tell it!  If not, it made for a fun evening's conversation.

I am now in San Ignacio, Belize.  This is a far cry from dirty Belize City.  It is green and lush.  The locals are more likely to be Hispanic and many are proudly Mayan.  There are many ruins around here.  This town thrives on tourism, agriculture, and the Mennonites who are based here or not far from here.

Belize is going to be my country without photos.  I purchased a replacement camera in Belize City yesterday and after charging the batter here in San Ignacio found that this new one was already defective.  Couriers are returning it to the store and I am to get a new one this afternoon.  What a shame to not see this lovely country in more than prose.

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