October 23 – November 4 2012
I had not seen my college friend Preston in 20 years, so when I heard he was between jobs and taking a break I knew I had to get there for a visit. So a few weeks later I made the 1200 mile drive to the Twin Cities with my friend Tammy and Leela the dog. We had a great visit, and he cooled me down on any aspirations I may have had to produce for Public Radio, and I tried to hint at the joys of long-term unemployment, provided one isn’t completely broke, and he invited me to Belize.
Belize? Belize is a Central American country that borders Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean Sea and I think , and across a bay from Honduras. It used to be called British Honduras. It’s not a big place but size is relative to the difficulty in crossing the distances. Ten miles of unpaved road in the wet season might as well be thousands: you are not getting there, unless you want to wade there. And you don’t. So it’s big enough that you are not likely to do everything there in one visit.
Belize is like the US in that it was once part of the British Empire, and aspects of US history make a bit more sense in the light of seeing another totally different place that was run by the same mentality. In the US we think it odd and interesting that there were all the different colonies founded in different ways for different reasons and how hard it was to weld them together into a country. Well, the British did that Everywhere: they moved populations around where it suited the Empire, just like they did crops and domestic animals, and when it suited the Empire to park these 5 or so different groups in one place, it was as much because they were unlikely to ever get along (and hence become a threat) than because they -would- get along. Most likely they got even more clever about propping groups against each other after the US revolt. Consider their putting Scots religious dissenters in Northern Ireland: there is a pairing that was clearly meant to leave both groups needing the Army to defend against the other forever.
The British Empire’s interest in Belize was embodied by the Buccaneers. This word came from local Maya or Creole speech and meant Manatee Eaters. (Note, Creole means ‘mixed.’ Creole in Belize mixes English and Spanish and Maya words and constructs and also shortens things and spins them around in ways I have begun to think of as West African, though Creole speakers there are reluctant to own any African influence on their language just as Southerners in the US are reluctant to own African cultural influences whether linguistic, musical, culinary, possibly even architectural, or whatever.) The Buccaneers were wood cutters, and their primary importance to the Empire was cutting the mahogany and teak demanded for the ships of the Navy. These woods were prized by the great Navies of the world for being rot resistant even in salt water, so when the Brits found a source of these woods, they wanted it.
Cutting and moving large trees with hand tools in the subtropics does not sound like fun, but there were two up-sides. One was, it was often too rainy to work and you could spend those days in a shelter on stilts drinking rum and quinine to keep down the malaria. And the other was you could go Pirating. Actually, you could call it fishing, or keeping an eye out for lost sailors, or whatever, but the barrier reef running up and down the Belize coast was a Great place to wreck ships, or even small yachts, or a great place to flee across in tiny local fishing vessels having attacked something big. Behind the reef the swamps go on like Louisiana did before the oil companies got there: LOTS of places to hide and set an ambush for pursuers. So at a time when British Naval activity consisted largely in piracy, the Belize coast was a great place to hang on to, in addition to the famous English Pirate Base at Port Royal, or New Orleans, founded by French Pirates.
So I wasn’t surprised to learn Guatemala still claims Belize as …. its own. The traditional antagonism between Hispanic and Anglo Empires, etc. But I was just a Little surprised to learn that long before any Europeans were there, all the way back into the mists of history, Empires based to the west and north have coveted the land that is now Belize, sent armies there, and found the land and the people of Belize way tougher than they bargained for.
The Maya that I spoke with are passionate that they never ‘collapsed.’ They are still there, living very nearly as they always have. For a time they had lived in cities with the stone temples, but then they found that didn’t work. Anyway, all that ‘civilization’ affected only a tiny minority of rulers and priests and their attendant bureaucrats. Most Maya were simple farmers using slash-and-burn agriculture then, and the slash and burn fills the sky with smoke today.
The Brits ran the place from the very early days till the 1980s and still maintain a token military force to train the Belizian military, but they are just another interloper that left a limited footprint in a place that is writing its own destiny.
My particular journey began with a train ride, then spending a night in Baltimore Airport, then flying to Miami, and then to Belize City. Cel Phone did not work, and nobody seemed there to meet me. The heat and humidity -assailed- my Autumn-adjusted Viking metabolism. I almost managed to leave my passport at Belize customs. Then a Very beat up old Dodge van appeared in the lot and people started asking for Matt. I got changed into shorts there in the van, and had my first of Ricky’s signature drink: Belizian Rum and Pink Grapefruit Drink, which I referred to as ‘The Pink Stuff’ and they apparently thought that was pretty funny.
So already I had confirmed 2 of the Universal Truths of Belize: technology doesn’t work as expected, or not for long in the climate, and nothing in Belize happens according to any schedule. Belize City is a place nobody much recommends including those who live there. It is about like the ghetto parts of DC were in the 80s, except the roads are monumentally bad, and every time you glimpse the Sea or the muddy river sloshing into it, the water level seems Alarmingly high.
There is no Wal Mart in Belize, and no Cineplex 27 movie theater, but pirated copies of all the new movies are available at every town market for a buck or two US. It’s like a ghetto economy in some ways, and the bars on all the windows add to the ghetto feel that some from the US find off-putting. US money is worth twice its face value in Belizian dollars, so your ten is a twenty, so to speak. Almost everyone there would rather have US currency than Belizian, but a 20 US may be too big a bill for them to change early in the day. You almost feel silly flashing them around. If there is such a thing as ‘charmingly 3rd world,’ you don’t find that in Belize either. The buses really are surplus school buses from the US. People refer to them as ‘chicken buses’ referring I guess to the buses in films like Romancing the Stone where the ‘Charmingly 3rd world’ carried actual live chickens on the old school bus through the Andes. Though these movies show the buses rounding hairpin turns in the Andes, they never show them hitting the kind of bumps they would hit on a -good- road in Belize, even the flat part. Reality is, live chickens, no. Smell of Vomit, yes.
Demography seems the Concept of the Year with the election in the US and all. Demography is Reality in Belize. Something over half the population is under 30, highly educated, and multilingual. They are denied meaningful opportunities elsewhere in the English-Speaking world. In the past few decades whole areas have gone from one paved road and no electricity to 3 or 4 paved roads and smart phones. What does that do to people? To go, in US terms, from about 1900 to 2010 in one jump, but still not have Wal Mart or Amazon.com, or Fed Ex or UPS, put the expectation that some people somewhere have all these things. It’s Strange all right. Puts me in mind of McLuhan.
Marshall McLuhan predicted the Internet in in 1964 in his seminal work Understanding the Media. He talked about the ‘Global Village.’ What this meant was that everything in the world would happen as if in a global village, where everyone would look out their front door and see what was happening -anywhere- as if it was happening in their own village. He was predicting some aspects of the world wide web and other global communications we enjoy(?) today. Some of his predictions are interesting because he was bam on, and others because he was wrong. One prediction was that text-based and literary culture would just fade in favor of oral or film versions of all literary content. Pre-literary cultures he thought would have a leg up on literate ones in the coming digital renaissance. Belize is kind of both, and in between. The people are educated but not what you’d call well-read, enough to disdain their own traditions from their grandparents, but not enough to take meaningful part in what passes for intellectual discussion surrounding books popular in New York.
There is a book store in every town, and it sells only Used Books. It’s open, in the sense that someone is there, when someone wants to be there. They sell something else. In the case of Fish Man Dave, in San Ignacio it is Fish. Selling books gives him something to read between customers for his fish. He has a couple of the better freezers in town, in a building smaller than a suburban kitchen.