A Week and a Day

Golly – been here for a week – beginning to get a sense of this city.

I want to start with impressions of Belize City. Where we are – the main street in the commercial area – is currently a dust bath. The government is intending to tarmac the road, so has asked all the services to do whatever they need to do prior to the resurfacing. At nearly every corner there is a hole, piles of different grades of stones and gravel, and dusty men with clear rivulets as the sweat pours off them. What should be the refreshing sea breeze coming in off the sea is in effect a minor sand storm – dust, sand and grit abound. In our flat (we have been denied access to the air con without a steep rise in the rent) we were so fed up with the constant dirt on the floor and all surfaces – we walk around in bare feet indoors, and they were getting filthy – that we shut the windows onto the main road (we are on the third floor) and just kept the fans going and door into the flat at the back open. A huge improvement, when accompanied with adopting the habit of a daily mop of the floors. Nevertheless, occasionally one gets stung by a piece of sand or grit catapulted in the jet stream from the fan! Ouch!

This is a very poor city. Homeless folk abound, who seem predominantly Creole, and include the typical smattering of drunks, addicts and those with more severe mental health problems. Very few appear to be women, though this morning we made our way along King St. (told very firmly not to deviate as it is not an area you want to bring attention to yourself in) to the fruit and vegetable market which is in front of the main bus terminal. The stalls were populated by local farmers who nearly all spoke Spanish and were therefore Mestizos or maybe Mayans. One or two folk were obviously Creole….

It maybe helpful here to describe the main cultural mix here. There are two black races – the Creoles and the Garifuna. The Garifuna are a mix of African and the original native Carib Indians. The Garifuna are about 6% of the population, and are mainly in the South. Creole folk – who are certainly the majority in Belize City – are a mix of African and the early white settlers. They make up a quarter of the population. The Mestizos are a mix of the indigenous Amerindians and the Spanish, and make up nearly 50% of the population. They tend to be settled more to the north.

The Maya are one of the original indigenous groups, making up 11% of the population. There are 3 branches of them, and they tend to be assimilated with the Mestizos, and are often farmers. Then there are the German-speaking Mennonites, who came over here between the 2 world wars, and despite being a very small group (4%) contribute hugely to the agricultural produce here. There is also a significant East Indian group who came over as indentured labourers in the middle of the nineteenth century. So, it is a complex mix of many races that have obviously lived together for a long time. It is not like in the UK, when waves of folk have arrived in different decades from the West Indies, or India, or China, or as currently from various parts of the EU. This is a relatively settled population which knows itself pretty well.

So, back to the market. We were walking around, examining the produce, when a woman came up to Conor, muttering. He smiled but didn’t give her much attention. He suspected she was high on something. She moved on. Then a cry from behind, the woman in a tussle with one of the female stall holders, probably lifting something. Others descended upon them, trying to separate them. The woman had her teeth sunken into the stall owner’s arm. Men began surrounding them from various stalls, trying to prise them apart. One Creole with Rasta locks called “Hey man” authoritatively as he approached them, but the tussle continued. We decided to move away, concerned that the fighting could spread and we were at a linguistic and cultural disadvantage. We went to other stalls, purchased our pineapple, papaya, pumpkins and returned to the way out. There was a police truck there but no sign of either woman.

We have discovered that the fishermen sell their wares every evening at one of the points where the sea and a canal meet. Again we were told go a particular way, avoiding certain streets – all of which creates a feeling of being a potential victim, and demands quite a lot of inner work in order not to feel too intimidated. But we found the stalls and beautiful large silver grey mackerel, red snappers and others I didn’t recognise.

Daliah, the main operational organiser in CWW, has been in Belize for 3 weeks of field work, and on Friday evening, just before returning to Edinburgh, she invited us to meet up with an ex-CWW volunteer called Mark who now works in Belize, and the family who host a huge number of overseas volunteers and students. It felt refreshing to move out of our dusty street with its beggars and vagabonds and into a more middle class area. The family were charming – Mestizos and Mayan origin, and Mrs. Neria usually feeds about 15 every evening! Neria is her fore name, but folk are quite formal and polite here. Mark has continued to work as the IT geek for the government department he originally volunteered for. Mark also told us about how to use the swimming pools in the big tourist hotels! We duly went along the next day – Saturday afternoon – only to find him there too! We liked it, and are seriously thinking of getting a proper membership. Living in this City is very challenging and we are aware of the need to look after ourselves too.

Between the market and the incident with the addict and the afternoon swim in the Radisson Fort George Hotel, we worked together on the feeling of intimidation in this area. When I supported the feeling of walking along watching, alert, hands ready, and took it further, I found my Tai Chi student, ready for anything. I realised I needed to walk through the streets like that more consciously, less of a mouse waiting for a cat to pounce! For Conor, it was about being not there, his ‘nothing’ state again.

The wild life is good in the city too! The non-human sort, I mean. The frigate birds are just outside our window, riding the sea breeze. (We are 2 blocks from the sea). They are stunning to watch. And there are both brown and white pelicans, dive bombing down into the sea to catch their tea. A dynasty of doves adorns the roof tops, and every now and again a large ‘common black hawk’ – according to our bird book – drops onto a neighbouring wall and intimidates them! Iguanas are also a common sight throughout. In the blocks beside the sea, the sandy soil is full of sand crabs, ranging in size from two- three inches to the size of a large fist. There are yellowy –orange in colour. Because of the heavy rains, there are open storm drains along the roads. These can become open sewers in places, and in others are an extension of the sea. So all sorts of things are in them from rubbish, algae, sea weed, the dreaded mosquito, crabs, rats and probably much more. There are surprisingly few cats, and whilst more dogs, not as many as we expected. May be eaten by the homeless or hungry? There are also some canals which link parts of the sea to the Belize River.

Some things are extraordinarily cheap – like 6 delicious bananas for BZ$1 which is 25p. One apple or pear is over BZ$1! Much of the fruit and vegetables in the market were between BZ$1 – 1.50 per pound. The cost of staples has trebled here in 3 years, and many things are not dissimilar to prices in the UK. I really don’t know how these folk manage.

The houses are a mix too – the majority downtown are wooden, on stilts, and most of those are in a pretty poor condition. Sometimes I think a home has been abandoned only to spot some people in them. When they are cared for, they are very handsome. Even when dilapidated there is mostly a charm to them. Other modern buildings are concrete, and often gaily painted. The two central commercial streets have the typical combination of shop fronts with flats above, interspersed with the old wooden buildings. Ours is a third floor flat, which means access to the sea breeze, no rats or flies, and facing east so not getting the sun all day. All big pluses!