No two English speaking Caribbean countries are the same. But those that are part of the Latin American mainland are intriguing because of the cultural and linguistic mixing with non-Anglo Saxons that has gone on for centuries and continues, while most of the islands do not have this phenomenon as a constant. Having met Belizeans decades ago in London and been fascinated that these people from central America spoke like Jamaicans, I was always intrigued by the possibility of visiting their country. I later learned that it was slaves from Jamaica who had been taken to work in logging for Britons some 200 years ago that formed the based of Belize's black population. Well, I got my chance to visit this small country at the weekend, as I followed the head of household to one of her periodic meetings with high ranking officials from the region.
Belize (formerly British Honduras) has a population just larger than Barbados, with some 300,000, but with a huge land mass of some 8,860 square miles--big, but about 1/10 the size of Guyana.
The country is regarded as poor, with GDP of about US$ 1.4billion and income per head of about US$ 4,250. But, on the ground, the place looks like better than many other Caribbean countries, though I did not go far into Belize City, and I heard that garbage is a constant problem. There are good roads that take you from the coast into the interior. But I was not on a big economic study tour. I was looking forward to seeing some the famed history and culture.
Starting out around 7am, we had the pleasure of a day tour of the New River lagoon and Mayan ruins at Lamanai (meaning 'submerged crocodile'), to the north of the country. The river ride was placid and dotted with sights that our guide and boatman skilfully pointed out to us. We saw howler monkeys, who loved to be fed bananas and were happy to jump into the boat. Iguanas basked in trees. Adult and baby crocodiles languished near the river banks--more or less submerged. "Jesus" birds walked across the water and lily pads. Cormorants just looked on from their perches. As possible, our boat turned into a sprinter as we scooted around bends: I've never before been in a boat that did a wheelie. But the boat ride was a prelude to a tour of a Mayan village.
The Mayans were the masters of the place nearly two thousand years ago. It's still amazing to see what their culture created, whether or not you think that they were really aliens. Their ordering or life and time are now coming to the fore as the year 2012 approaches: this is supposed to be the end date of the Mayan long calendar and portends various kinds of cataclysms or major physical and spiritual transformation. The Mayan population in Belize was reported to be some 3 million and the Mayans did things on a big scale, as evidenced by their temples. I have seen them before and visited Mexico's Teotihuacan site. Climbing that had been hard due to dealing with altitude. When I saw the smaller temple at Lamanai, I knew it would be hard too, as it had really steep steps. So it was, as my gazelle-like wife was leading the charge with one of her super fit Bajan women colleagues, whom I'd met in the gym in the morning doing her normal routine, so I knew she was in shape. I clung to the rope to help me up. We were all stunned by the views from on top. We were then all seized of the steepness of the descent we needed to make to get back down. Mummy! Some of the descendants had to take the hindmost way down and mud stains on the pants were no sign of shame.
We were glad to get back to our little picnic area and enjoy lunch provided by our guide's mother: rice and beans, stewed chicken, onions steeped in hot peppers; washed down by a few ice cold Belekins, the local beer.
The boat ride back to our bus was like a speed boat race as the two boats jockey for position as we negotiated the river bends. More than one Jones lost a hat, and at least one Jones was assaulted by a flying baseball cap.
The hour long bus ride back to the city was notable subdued: after eight hours of fresh air and food and fun it was understandable that people were tired. While some could pack their bags and think of sitting in airport lounges the next day, some of us had to be up bright and early to head off on the road again, elsewhere into the interior. That will be another story.
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