Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

What I Learned from the People of Belize

garifuna dancers

In my mind, a vacation that consists of tramping from site to site with a bunch of people just like me isn’t worth the effort and cost of a trip outside the U.S.A. I’m a people person, so the first aspect of a new place that I look for is the character of the people who live there. When we recently traveled to Belize in Central America, I learned plenty from the Belizeans.

Belize is a small, poor country that was British Honduras until the mid 1980’s. It lies between Mexico in the north, the Caribbean ocean on the east, and Guatemala in the west and south just before Honduras. The land is known for superb diving (it lies behind the second largest barrier reef in the world), archeological sites (it boasts many ruins left by the Maya), and soft white sand beaches.

The location of Belize ensures that visitors will find people of Mexican, Guatemalan, Mayan, and African heritage–among others–living there. The Africans, now identified as the Garifuna, were forced to come to the area. Some stories say they were left to die. They now occupy a central section of the country directly on the coast. When the gill fishing that was the life work of the men was banned, the men stayed home while the women went to work wherever they could.

One American in our party commented that she was impressed by the apparent lack of prejudice between the many ethnic origins of Belizeans. On the evening when we went to witness Garifuna drumming accompanied by dancing, the crowd consisted of many types of locals–including Mayans–as well as an array of tourists who all joined in the fun at specific invitations by the dancers and were graciously accepted. Our cab driver told us the residents of southern Belize nearly all speak at least four languages: Creole, Mayan, Spanish, and English.

On the Placencia peninsula where we spent the majority of our time, the Mayan presence is strong. I had always been intimidated by the images of ancient Mayans performing human sacrifices, but I understood better when I heard the story from a Mayan as we visited ancient ruins. His eyes shone as he described the belief the ancient Mayans held in reincarnation. It was a privilege, he explained, to be the winner of the ball games and, therefore, sacrificed to begin a fresh, honorable life. He, himself, seemed to be a highly principled, responsible young father.

The Mayans work to preserve their culture and language. Some still practice the religion and/or herbalism of the ancestors. They are often the ones responsible for authentic Mayan chocolate creations from regional cacao trees. If they’re treated with respect, they are more than willing to help outsiders understand their proud culture.

The British controlled Belize before its peaceful independence–hence the prevalence of English in a Spanish-speaking portion of the world. American dollars are accepted everywhere and the citizens of several countries including the U.S. and Britain can visit without a visa. We didn’t spend time in the lively northern part of the country, but evidence of British presence is easy to spot. For example, Guinness beer, which I certainly don’t associate with Central America, is happily brewed in Belize. Those who know better than I assured me the taste was nearly identical with the taste of the brews from Ireland.

The locals we met had little that was flattering to say about their time under Britain. The Brits collected quantities of Belizean resources–such as their majestic mahogany trees–that will be difficult if not impossible to replace. The locals felt badly used. “We were treated like slaves,” said one resident. The single huge debt of thanks the Belizeans will grant to Britain was the willingness of Britain and the U.S. to send troops when Guatemala decided Belize should be a part of their domain. (I was told Guatemala doesn’t even draw Belize as a separate country on their maps.) Foreign troops discouraged the plan–at least for the time being.

The greatest lesson I learned from the Belizeans was one of resilience. In addition to the years of what the locals consider subjugation by the British, Belizeans have also been forced to endure harsh treatment by the weather. Belize has been devastated by hurricanes more than once in the recent past. One cab driver told us of losing his home a few years ago and being forced to live in a tent with his family until a new structure could be built. Another told us that in Belize, lawsuits are rare. No one has the money to pursue grievances; hence, there are very few attorneys. When someone suffers a wrong, the person copes as best he or she can, shakes off the resentment, and continues forward. He told us of one man who was wrongfully imprisoned for two years, but as long as he was given his old job back when he was released, he shrugged off the mistake.

I’ve read stories of robberies that are most common in Belize City in the north and close to the border with Guatemala in the west. When a lot of relatively rich foreigners flash their good fortune in front of people who live in what looked to me like plywood homes with thatched roofs and no window glass or doors in their doorways, robberies seem like a logical balance of nature. We stayed in a resort and never worried about our possessions.

Belizeans seem to be tough, good-humored, open, and philosophical about life. (I don’t know if I would have the same impressions if I lived amongst them over time, but I felt immensely comfortable with them as a tourist.) They don’t relish the crowds of foreigners buying up their country and building resorts in which they are merely workers, but they accept the inevitability. They endure. Like disadvantaged people everywhere, they understand that money is the great persuader. Theirs is a new country and they expect their leaders to make mistakes. When we returned from Belize to the cities of the U.S., I couldn’t help but wonder if I was coming to or leaving better civilization.

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