I rather like the title <Belize Belleza> although it does not really mean anything in any real translation … but I found Belize, Central America, a delightful and beautiful place, although one with occasional challenges.
- You better BELIZE it!
… or so the local T-shirts proclaimed.
As I also came across a few iguanas while I was there, other T-shirts were just as emotive:
- Iguana Belize [I’m gonna love Belize]
OK – there were also T-shirts telling me to get HIGH (but only one street tout offered me any ganga … along with a boat trip to the islands … and perhaps an afternoon with his mother’s sister’s aunt) … Other shirts proclaimed the great scuba diving possibilities in this tiny former British colony.
Arrival and departure from Belize City is easy. The day I flew in I was able to ignore the many taxi drivers and found my man, holding a small sign with my name on it, and then followed him to his battered 1995 Toyota – no interior door panels, no seat belts and no hope for survival in case of a crash.
The driver – Stephan – was delighted to find that his name and my middle name were the same, and he gave me the usual totally unbiased taxi-driver’s version of local politics, the reasons behind the potholed roads and behind the smell of the crushed crabs that had died trying to do what Chicken Little had done – although she had done it rather more successfully, it seems. He was fun and I booked and used him for my departure as well.
I did not have time to visit the new capital – Belmopan – or any of the fabulous Mayan ruins, but I was in Belize when streets and shops and houses were draped with miles of red, white and blue bunting, banners and Belizean flags for the street parades, festivals and other celebrations that marked the defeat of the Spanish by the British at the 1798 Battle of Caye St George, and the more recent thirty-seven years of independence from Britain. Occasionally I surprised locals by wishing them
- Happy birthday!
- Thank you brother!
The relaxed atmosphere was marred by the number of men sleeping rough in the streets: ragged, wretched people who apparently had fallen through the cracks of society, and almost totally ignored by passers-by. Occasionally one would ask for money or food. Almost always it was a white-faced foreigner who was the target, and locals looked on with a complete lack of interest in the plight of the beggar – although on one occasion a shopkeeper yelled at the beggar to go away.
There are very few European or Caucasian visitors to Belize City. In three days or so I saw only five or six white faces, although, later, on the magnificent Caye Caulker there were many more. Perhaps Belize City is not everyone’s cup of tea … but I loved it.
With Independence Day just around the corner, there were street parades, neighbourhood parties, lots and lots of Beer Belikin – the beer of Belize – and quite a lot of One Barrel rum and of course lots of food – rice and beans, the National staple.
Size need never be a deterrent to a good time, and many of the women marching in the various parades were shimmying and shaking their tail feathers, dressed in fishnet tights, skimpy bras and even briefer shorts.
The marchers were sent on their way by blasts from party hooters, and trucks laden with massive speakers belting out reggae tunes. Every second person seemed to have a whistle for blasting random tweets and toots and twistles. The atmosphere was electric and fun and frantic and friendly.
I was frequently greeted politely or not so politely:
- Good afternoon sir
- How’s it goin’ brother?
- Wotz’up mon?
Formerly British Honduras and now an independent nation of just thirty-seven years, Queen Elizabeth is still featured on the local Belizean dollar notes. Belize is part of the British Commonwealth and English is the official language in this tiny Anglophone enclave surrounded by Hispanic neighbours, not all of whom are so friendly. Guatemala, for example, repeatedly lays claim to the whole of Belize as being rightly part of that country. Perhaps that is why – fearing a Guatemalan invasion during the festival – that the marchers were escorted by terribly terribly British looking constables, while a little further afield were clusters of soldiers and paratroopers armed with shotguns, automatic weapons and other goodies.
The gun culture in Belize is apparently a growing problem – not so much with gangstas – as with street kids.
It is a terribly poor country (although, ironically enough, one of the most expensive countries in Central America). Its main sources of income are sugarcane and its by-products such as molasses and rum, and tourism. It has crumbling unpainted houses and commercial properties, huge unemployment, with kids dropping out of school before they reach their teens, and with armed street gangs of kids apparently ruling the city after twilight. I was repeatedly told that I could walk just about anywhere in the daytime, but always to take a taxi if going out at night.
This could have been sound advice – were it not for one taxi driver I had.
- Oh mon – there be a traffic accident up ahead – we will have to detour. People drinking too much today during the parade. Me? I only drink a little.
Here the driver – a man of mature years, with a nose like a potato gone to seed, a man with long grey dreadlocks and a mouth full of teeth tossed in by an unhappy ogre – here my driver paused in his condemnation of drunks … and bent to the floor of the cab to raise his glass of rum and coke for another refreshing sip … as I frantically searched for a seatbelt and a first aid kit.
Shopping for a first aid kit – or anything – is a bit of a challenge in Belize City.
Many shops are of the “hole in the wall” variety – with heavy steel grilles over the front, and just a small opening through which food or other goods can be passed. Some places called themselves mini-marts or even supermarkets but only the incomparable Brodie’s Emporium near the lovely old 1920s manually-operated Swing Bridge can come close to being a westerner’s idea of a supermarket.
At Brodie’s there is a small deli where a woman whips up six-inch or twelve-inch “subs” topped with just about any sort of topping imaginable – meat or vegetable – and then offers four or five different sauces – tomato, chilli, mustard, mayo – to be sprayed on top of the whole train wreck of a sandwich. The man served before me took ALL the sauces … and then asked for his sub to be toasted … although it took three strong men and one hefty fisherwoman to apply enough pressure by standing in a Soviet-style gymnastic display on the griller to close it and to toast that monumental “sub”.
- OK – I exaggerate just a little … but the mental image was worth it.
Brodie’s also offers fresh fruit and veg – surprisingly pretty rare things in Belize – as well as a good line of groceries, booze, plastic buckets, shower curtains and light bulbs.
Home at the Bellcove
As my hotel – the delightful Bellcove Hotel (www.belcove.com) on the pretty Haulover Creek – offered great morning coffee but nothing else, I became a regular visitor to Brodie’s to buy breakfast supplies or other goodies. There are supposed to be some good restaurants in the city – but two of the better-known ones I visited were not much to write home about, and certainly not as good as the great BZ$5.00 (about US$2.50) hamburgers I found being cooked and sold from a small street cart in a vacant allotment near my hotel.
The street in front of my hotel – Regent Street – was another attraction of dubious merit. One Sunday morning my alarm did not work … but it mattered not at all … as a forty-piece brass band struck up outside my bedroom window at 8.00 in the morning.
- Welcome to a new week, Hall! That will teach you not to have too many G&Ts at bedtime!
I tossed on some clothes (nudity is rather frowned on in Belize, although the brevity of some of the festival costumes would have otherwise) and raced down to the street to be greeted by a very tall, a very gaunt man carrying a sword.
- I name thee Excalibur!
He was followed by others with swords and lances – and the brass band, of course – and men carrying a banner proclaiming them to be brethren of Alpha Lodge No 2 of the Independent United Order of Mechanics, which I gather is a Masonic order or some sort judging by the paraphernalia, aprons and gold chains of office.
They were certainly a noisy little band of brothers and sisters: no gender segregation in these Mechanics!
If the morning brass band call was not enough, when it was time for Vespers, the skies were rent once again – this time on the other side of the creek, but the parade of fire engines, ambulances, emergency vehicles and police buses did their best with their sirens, horns and hooters to put the Masons to shame.
- I don’t think Belize has any noise pollution statutes
- I don’t think it has any birth control or dentists either
Young girls had babies in their arms, older women seemed to be surrounded by clouds of tiny children – all beautifully dressed – and while many people just had bad teeth, some were walking gold mines with a gold incisor here and there, a tooth completely circled in gold there … and tattoos just about everywhere. What you lack in dental care you can make up with an artist’s ink and needle.
The Image Factory – also near the Swing Bridge – has a collection of artists’ work from all over this tiny nation: watercolours, oils, sculptures and woven baskets. I particularly liked a sculpture using a bit of mangrove wood as an undersea coral reef, with tiny wooden scuba divers exploring its nooks and crannies.
Another attraction is the Museum of Belize, located in the former city jail. It has a nice collection of contemporary art, details of the timber felling that used to be Belize’s primary source of income and one of the original prison cells used in the days before slavery became illegal.
There was a very great risk of Belize becoming a Central American Venice while I was there, as an unusually high tide washed the harbour walls.
The many deep drainage ditches that line the city streets flood directly into the sea … so when the sea is higher than the street, the ocean rushes into the drains, back-flushing them and overflowing into gardens, the ground floor of my hotel, and the front lawn of a house where a woman in stylish brown Wellington boots was hanging out her washing as if this were an every day occurrence.
Perhaps it is.
High tide over on Caye Caulker (“key corker”), a small coral and sand atoll forty-five minutes north by speedboat, is also an issue, as the whole island is so low-lying and only a bit over a metre high at its highest point. The tides had also dragged in vast clumps of sargasso seaweed – officially the only “weed” allowed on the island despite the Rastafarian dreadlocked Bob Marley characters everywhere, and the unfortunate island mottos of
- Go slow
- Live healthy
I really want to return to CC – to introduce them to the strange and apparently foreign idea of adverbs.
Actually – I really DO want to return to Caye Caulker as it is such a slow, relaxed and healthy place. It has a population of about 2000 permanent residents (including 200 or so retirees escaping from Canada or the USA). Impossible splodges of colour besiege the eye at every turn, and reggae music seeps from every window frame.
There are three major roads, unofficially known as Front Road, Middle Road and … Back Road. Front Road is a sand path a few metres wide that stretches the length of the island. There are (officially) no cars or trucks on the island and golf carts, bicycles and feet are the main ways of getting around. Ah! Bliss!
Fishing and snorkelling and diving tours are staples of the island economy, as are the scores of restaurants and bars and hotels. However, it seems the Chinese are taking over much of the economy. I called into the pretty little Red Flower Gallery in China Town and found myself talking to the owner and resident artist, Paulette Salo, a native from Minnesota USA. Paulette relocated to the island several years ago.
- Do you know that twenty-one of the island’s twenty-two mini-marts are owned by the Chinese? And that most hotels are also operated by the Chinese?
A taxi driver I met echoed these thoughts saying that Belizeans were being marginalised by other nations
- Don’t go to The Split (a popular pub and swimming area at the north of the island). It is operated by a Mexican drug cartel to launder money.
I did go to the Split – for a meal and a beer and a swim.
Just fishin’ and smokin’
Because it was there, I swam across the channel (perhaps thirty or forty metres), to the Northern chunk of Caye Caulker, and chatted to a couple of fishermen who were building a shack by the beach amid the mangroves, where they spent time fishin’ and smokin’. I am not sure about the “smoking” reference – there were two small smoky fires burning and one of them had a pot of something on it, but it may have been a different sort of smoking – or just smoking.
Near The Split is a ruined pier: the planks have all disappeared leaving just the rotting pylons poking through the waves like a child’s game of pick-up-sticks. Perched upon every pylon was a bird of some sort. Pelicans swooped surprisingly gracefully, seagulls quarrelled noisily, and ugly angular frigate birds soared high above the ocean, keen eyes hunting for fresh fish, but looking like scraps of black plastic bags tossed idly into the sky.
Perhaps I could have used some scraps of black plastic to help me rob my hotel of a few essentials …
Many hotels list the price of in-room amenities – an ashtray is so many dollars, the TV remote control is a few dollars more. But at the very nice Caye Caulker Beach Hotel (just a hundred or so metres from the ferry pier) they go to unusual lengths and list the price of doors and towel racks as well.
A tissue box holder is a modest BZ$14.00, but the shower door is a staggering BZ$1500. A more modest item for pilfering is the room’s front door – a pinch at BZ$750.00. I can see myself, wrapping scraps of black plastic around my pilfered doors and scurrying down the front steps with assorted building materials tucked under my guilt-induced sweaty armpits.
The customs and immigration people at the airport looked curiously at the doors under my arms (the pilfered television set and the air conditioning unit were in my backpack) but said nothing except to wish me a safe flight.
Text and photos © Christopher Hall 2018
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship