Sunday, September 29, 2013

You Better Belize It

Belize is an odd country. In pretty much every way imaginable it is different from its Central American neighbours. Geographically firmly ensconced in the Central American region, but culturally much more Caribbean. Surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries yet anglophone. It remained a colony until 1981 whilst the rest of the region gained their independence 160 years earlier. Though partly thanks to that it has been a haven of stability whilst all around there has been turmoil and strife. It's a midget in terms of population, with fewer inhabitants than the Bahamas and fully an order of magnitude less than its neighbours. But what's it really like?

Although I missed Belize's independence celebrations by a day the bunting was still up during the length of my stay (do they ever take it down?). Here you can see that there is still fondness and attachment towards its ex colonial master.

I arrived in Belize by boat from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala's Caribbean port. As soon as I arrived things were different. Not just that the officials spoke English, but that they were official too. All very proper, searched my bag, only the second time that's happened in the Americas (the other being when crossing from Colombia to Panama, though there's it's understandable due to drug trafficking), and had my two bananas that I had been saving up for lunch confiscated (apparently fruit flies can only get from Guatemala to Belize via boat and not by flying across their shared land border). Punto Gorda, the port on the Belizean side, was comatose. It was a Sunday and the day before had been Independence Day, so I was willing to overlook the fact. I was struck, though, by how much neater and tidier the place was than similar towns in the region.Aged wooden houses, but set within individual, well-tended gardens and little litter. Obviously the British rather than the Spanish influence at work there.

Since nothing much was happening in PG (as it is known in Belize) I got on a bus heading north. Everywhere in Belize you can pay either in US dollars or local Belizean dollars, which are pegged to a handy 2:1 ratio. It was somehow comforting to see Liz on a banknote again. I stopped off at the Mayan ruins of Nim Li Punit (not only does the name sound fun and friendly, but even more so when you learn that it means "Big Headdress"after a carved stele found at the site of a king with what looks like the world's biggest afro). To be honest the ruins were rather underwhelming, but the jungle setting, with uninterrupted birdsong and no other visitors (there had been about a dozen that whole week) made it a tranquil place. A perfect place, I thought, to spend the night in my tent (not at the ruins themselves, as that would be rude, but by the little visitor centre). I'd done it a few times before and never had any problems. So I asked the caretaker, a young Mayan guy from the village by the main road, if it'd be OK to pitch my tent there. He seemed rather uncomfortable and worried he might get into trouble and instead suggested I head down the road to a farm where I might be able to stay. A little disappointed I agreed (I certainly wouldn't want to get someone into trouble) and set off. I hadn't got far when a little kid came running up behind me to tell me that I could pitch my tent in their front yard.

The houses of the poor Maya community may be basic, but they are meticulously tended and looked after.

Not one for walking any further than I need to I gladly accepted and set up my tent between the chicken coop and the dog kennel as the children watched on fascinated by my strange contraption. The people in the village were all Kekchi Maya and so it was strange for me to speak to them in English when throughout my travels to date I had been addressing all similarly indigenous looking people in Spanish. Equally odd for me were the kids' names: Kevin, Ian and Harry. Time to scratch another stereotype. It was fascinating talking to them and hearing their stories over the dinner of tortillas and soup that they offered me. The head of the household had, like so many other of the Mayan population, that comprise a tenth of the country's population, come over from Guatemala as a child to flee the genocide perpetrated against the Mayans by the military dictatorship. And although they didn't have electricity in the village (admittedly a rarity in Belize) they were content with their lives and positive about their prospects and those of their children. The central message was undoubtedly that they were happy to be living in Belize rather than Guatemala.

The next day I packed up my bags and continued on to Belmopan, Belize's capital since 1970, after hurricane Hattie convinced the country's leaders that a coastal capital in a hurricane zone was not a great idea. Although the government and ministries have moved, many people are still reluctant to leave the bright city lights (and the term is used in a purely relative way here) of Belize City, giving the place a small, suburban feel. Not a great suburbanite myself I soon joined the action (such as it is) in Belize. It will never be one of the world's metropolises, but there was a little buzz and a greater Creole presence, whereas in other parts of the country mestizos have become the majority group and Spanish is as prevalent as English. (Creoles used to form a majority in the country, but over the past 30 years there has been an influx of mestizos from neighbouring countries whilst Creoles have emigrated, mainly to the US. Mestizos are now the majority, but it seemed to me that there is a good deal of harmony between the different ethnic groups.) I partook of the national dish of rice and beans (pronounced as a single word riceahnbeens), which is basically identical to Nicaragua and Costa Rica's gallo pinto ("spotted rooster", even though it contains no poultry), only here the name actually allows you to guess what the ingredients might actually be, before embarking to see the country's only substantial site: the barrier reef.

"You work, I'll watch." Taking it easy is a national philosophy in Belize.

Belize's barrier reef is acknowledged to be the second largest in the world and the largest reef system in the northern hemisphere by a considerable margin. It is famous for its tropical paradise cayes and atolls. The former are reached by public water taxis and have small communities as well as hotels, whereas the latter are further out, accessible only by chartered boat, and home to exclusive boutique hotels. It didn't take me long to make my choice, and in fact I even managed to find, amongst the beachside hotels, pizza joints, bars and tour operators, a cat shelter in Caye Caulker that allowed camping for a meagre fee. A bargain I thought until I experienced the persistent sand flies, so small that they could flit through the mesh of my tent inner forcing me to decamp to the end of a jetty where I only had a few adventurous mosquitoes to deal with. And although the cats left me alone one of them peed on my flysheet before I left.

But I was here for the reef and not to worry about terrestrial pests. The reef's iconic image is the Great Blue Hole, made famous by old Jacques Cousteau, where one can dive down to 40m along its sheer walls. Unfortunately there were no tours heading out there during my stay (but fortunately for my wallet, as a trip costs upwards of $200 per person) so I had to make do with snorkelling some nearer reefs that, although not as spectacular, were still rich in marine life such as rays, green turtles, barracuda and schools of placid nurse sharks. It would also be my last opportunity to bask in a tropical sea, marvel at colourful corals, and get sunburnt before heading north to cooler climes.

Nurse sharks swarming round our boat to get fish scraps. Although some of them were twice as large as me they are docile and (almost) totally harmless.

*I find countries where the capital has the same name as the country, such as Panama, Guatemala and Belize, confusing as it's not always clear whether someone is talking about the city or the country.

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