Apr 24, 2013

Belize It!

A different kind of culture shock.
Belize is just a few hours south of here. It is a small country in an area initially dismissed by the Spanish for lack of resources, and became for a while a haven for English pirates. It was British Honduras before independence, 1964 and now is the only English speaking country in Latin America. But it feels most unfamiliar.

Having crossed over from Canada to the US and then the US into Mexico many times over our years, we became familiar with elements of culture shock at the borders.
I contend that many visitor’s first impression of Mexico by crossing the northern border with the US miss-represents the country we came to know and love.
Coming in from California, Arizona or Texas into Mexico, you do notice quite a difference. However, the border towns and cities are our least favorite areas of Mexico. They are jumbles of population that are there to work in the cheap labour factories of US corporations. The people there are mostly immigrants, displaced from their home communities and families, and economically forced to live in the war-zone of drug trafficking pipeline to the US. The rest of Mexico is mostly stable, organized, and especially friendly and welcoming.

Crossing into Belize was a stark contrast to what we have become accustomed to here in the Yucatan. It felt like stepping into a real third world. We didn’t tour the whole country, but did cover several hundred miles through the interior. These may be offhand impressions, but we saw a lot of basic survival poverty. Most of houses along the road and in the towns were small and run-down. What traffic there was on the narrow hiways was a mix of mostly old jalopies, trucks and buses. Being used to “topes” it was interesting to see signs that said “Bump”

Our observation was that Belize has a wide racial and cultural mix. My research tells me that like Mexico, the majority of the population is Mestizo (mixture of Spanish and Maya), much of the population are from african descendants of the slave owners and slaves. There are large populations of orientals and many Mennonites, as well.
Unique to Belize is the Kriol language and culture. Kriol language originated with the slaves and is based on English with strong African influences, similar to what we heard in Barbados years ago. A majority of Belize speaks Kriol and you have to be patient to understand even a little of it. The local radio stations play a lot of regge.

We based ourselves in the small city Orange Walk for three days, and took in some sites around the area.  Our hotel sat on the river bank where we caught a boat cruise two hours up river to a magnificent Mayan heritage site,  Lamanai.
Along the way our boat captain/guide paused to point out many animals and birds. At one spot along the river bank, Susan “touched a monkey” as this graceful spider monkey took a piece of cookie out of her hand.

Our guide reported that Lamanai has been populated since 16th century BC. Its prominent time was in the “pre-classical” period of the ancient Mayans from the 4th century BC to the 1st Century CE. Located on a large river, it survived through the arrival of the Spanish who were ejected, and with smaller indigenous populations nearby until the present time.

Another day we drove on to see the Belize Zoo. Very nice! Filled with native animals in carefully planned natural environments. Hard to beat the friendly Keel Billed Toucans. Also the Tapir, Belize’s national animal. We also saw several monkeys, other birds, including a huge stork, as well as the ocelot and the magnificent jaguar.

Returning to Mexico was a pleasant relief, back to the familiar bustling vibrant country. Roads were good and wide with clean, painted houses and shops along the way. Our 3 hour drive north from Chetumal brought us back to our winter home, a welcome sight.

Trippin’ up the Mountains

Having our comfy Dodge Caravan as our transport now, we took a couple of jaunts to see other parts “down south” that we haven’t yet been to in our 12 years in Mexico.

The southern highlands of the State of Chiapas have oft been recommended so we headed out to spend a week in San Cristobal de las Casas. This is about a day and a half drive each way but was worth it to see a region so different from our home here on the coast.

The area was settled by the Spanish in 1528 with the first Catholic church built that year. As San Cristobal grew and became the centre of a diocese, its main cathedral was built in 1721, one of hundreds of mostly Catholic churches in the city today. It is interesting to me as a non-Catholic, that when we these old Mexican cities, we see so many cathedrals, sometimes very near-by to each other. As an outsider, I had thought the Roman Catholics were a homogeneous bunch, all directly connected to the lineage of the one Pope in Rome. However, I have been informed, that through the centuries, religious advocates found ways to form their own interpretations, their own “brands” of what the real, right way to be a good Catholic was. This was quite evident on our tour of San Christobal and some nearby villages and their churches.

These village visits are quite a regular part of the tourist industry there, but it comes with some rules -- there is a toll booth going into the villages, and there were strict prohibitions agains taking photographs inside the churches.

We first visited the small dirt-floored factories where they produced their unique Chiapas textiles. The amazingly bright, hand-woven fabrics from this area are renowned. The native Chiapas women and many men dress in bright floral shawls. We bought a couple of small pieces.

Back to the particular uniqueness of this Catholic church -- imagine a large stone cathedral, with all the statuary, the gold gilt, the coloured windows but with no pews. Instead the whole floor is covered with a thin layer of fresh pine needles, and every day, dozens of people kneeling in prayer. Each supplicant is accompanied by a professional chanter kneeling next to them, who, upon clearing a patch on the floor, places rows of small candles, lights them, and drinking some soda-pop (usually Coke) proceed with their ritualized sing-song chant.
As our guide explained, these religious observances were amazing and bewildering. The soda drink was to encourage burping which encouraged negative spirits to leave you. All this and no pictures, please.

San Cristobal is at 2200 meters (7200 ft) so has a thin dry air, and we were lucky to have been there when the days were all sunny and warm, as it can get cool up there. We did a lot of walking around the various markets, museums and other buildings around the zocalo (city square). Everywhere we walked we were met by vendors, usually women and young girls, usually loaded down with armloads of blankets, clothing, or smaller hand-made items. A polite “no, gracias” and they kept moving on. One afternoon I got to talking with an old man on a break from driving his small tour bus. He had never been to “el Norte” but taught himself good English. He was “new” to San Cristobal, having lived there only 10 years, and thought it was the best place ever. He told me that the people of Chiapas are very self-reliant and several attempts to start factories have failed, because very few are willing to work on assembly lines. The farming around there are almost all small acreages, and the small fabric makers and vendors are happiest as small entrepeneurs.
It did not seem to me that those mountain communities were wealthy by any means, but the people seemed to be busy with purpose and lots of children in good spirits.