Don’t stop de Carnival!

…..Well, the 4am walkabout didn’t pass our door – whew! One of the CWW volunteers accompanied some of her colleagues, despite having been warned that you are covered from head to toe in Paint! We met up with her about noon when we wandered round to the house where she and two other volunteers live, having just emerged from a few hours’ sleep and a shower. I was glad I stayed in my bed!

The volunteers stay in a large Spanish speaking household, run by a capable woman who keeps a motherly eye on all her charges. She is involved in the Lions Club, a version of the Rotary as far as I can gather, raising funds for various good causes. I mentioned her very early on in our stay – she cooks for about 15 people, including the volunteers and 3 generations of her family, every day. Mrs. L. had asked the group of volunteers involved with either CWW or the Women’s Department if we would like to partake of the Lions Club Barbecue. The clubhouse is right on the Princess Margaret Boulevard and the Carnival Parade due to pass by. So we were all congregating before walking the ten minutes up to just beyond the hospital. We could tell when we were close because of the aromas and smoke coming from 4 or 5 barbecues. There were all under a red awning up against the back wall of the parking area in front of the clubhouse– needed for either sun or rain, though this was a blisteringly hot day – and smelled good! There is a standard style of barbecue that you see everywhere here, on street corners, in gardens, on verandahs, or by the market. They are a metal cylinder about 3 ½ feet long, cut in two, hinged, so that the top opens up and closes down as you wish. They stand on 4 legs at waist height, and people use a mix of paraffin and coals. I felt sorry for the men doing the cooking though!

The clubhouse was like any other concrete building the world over! Entrance area, stairs up, doors through into the function room with large kitchen hatch off, loo and office. Some tables were lined up in the middle, with neat rows of polystyrene lidded trays with some baked beans and cole slaw in each of the smaller pouches. Large bags of plastic forks and paper napkins lay nearby. Mrs. L greeted us, and we sat at a couple of tables as close to the air con as we could get! The barbecued chicken was added to each tray, and we all tucked in, washed down by water or some Belikin beer – the local brew – available from a stall under another awning right on the edge of the parking area, next to the pavement. It was one of those days when everyone had rivulets of sweat running down their faces and damp patches appearing over all your clothes the moment you made any contact with a chair, table or part of yourself. Mrs. L. reminded us that there was another stall with pastries beside the beer, so we wandered outside. By now people were beginning to gather along the roadside. We knew the parade started at 1.30pm, but we were not sure what time they would get to us. It was not unlike the misinformation for the folk waiting for their $5 on Fridays – in half an hour, in an hour and a half, about 4pm. It turned out to be the last, so we had a long wait. The woman in charge of the Lions Club kindly said we could take some of their white plastic chairs to the curb side, so we sat there with our sunhats on and our umbrella up, roasting! Fortunately one of our party nipped back to Mrs. L.’s house to pick up his brolly (they are used as parasols here as well as for the rain) and came back with some sun protection. Good man – my feet were really beginning to burn, protruding as they were from underneath the chair. He told us that he saw the parade on the telly, and that it looked good fun!

The time went by remarkably quickly, watching with fascination the crowd growing, the groups of families here, friends there. One gaggle of gorgeous teenage girls were posing in the back of a pickup truck – the far side of the boulevard was lined with parked cars and trucks – with a group of younger lads gazing hopelessly at them from a few feet down the road! The beer stall between us and the Lions Club was doing a roaring trade, only surpassed by the roar coming from the speakers beside the DJ entertaining the crowd as we waited. Slowly the pavements filled up, as the people from BC and beyond came to enjoy their carnival. Every now and then, one of the stalls on wheels you see everywhere in Belize would trundle past, each bearing different goodies. The stalls are sometimes hand pushed, and sometimes on the front of a bicycle, but basically a metal cage with shelves at different heights for holding various things. Large insulated blue and white boxes, 2 ½ feet by 1 ½ feet by 1 ½ feet, are used all the time, too. Sometimes they are full of ice and fresh fish for sale, sometimes freshly cooked tamales keeping warm. At the carnival, many were full of slush ice which was put into a cup with a squirt of green, red or yellow flavoured juice on top. Others had icy water full of fresh coconuts. When you bought one, the vendor sliced off the head with his machete and stuck a straw in – coconut juice on the rocks! There was a typical ice cream van doing a non-stop trade, which had exactly the same dreadful tune that the van had in CT one Sunday a few weeks ago. The writing on the sides looked similar too.

There was a man wandering around with a large television camera on his shoulder, and after a bit he was joined by another with a sound system, and a third with a large red and white padded microphone. They were approaching various people, and then somewhat to my horror they came up to me! Explaining that they were from Mexican TV, the man with the mike – obviously Belizean – assumed I was a tourist and asked me whether I was enjoying Belize and looking forward to the carnival. They moved on, to the 2 pretty young Canadian volunteers behind me! Later, I saw the camera man having a long chat with one of them ….

And then, at last, we could see things making their way up the boulevard. The now dense crowd breathed in to give more room for the floats and marchers to pass. By now, the parade had been going for nearly 3 hours, and the first to pass us were a very weary group of 5-8 year old girls who had lost most of the twirl in their batons and spring in their steps. One could only feel sorry for them – I had been sitting all the time they were walking, and the sun was HOT! What they lost in vigour, they made up for in their costumes. In fact, all the costumes were quite stunning. Loads of plumes and feathers, masks and head-dresses, sequins and beads. I was particularly struck by the unusual and very striking colour combinations. Conor’s comment was that the Belizeans were even more colourful than their birds! Edinburgh College of Art would have been hard pushed to have chosen the best in their costume design section, or their theatrical wear. I look forward to reading who won the prize in the local paper (There are 3 which come out on the same day twice a week, with a similar format, story lines and probably the same printer too).

The parade was a mix of walking bands and majorettes, mainly from schools, dancing women with a few men, representing local businesses, floats on lorries, and a couple of good steel bands. They were a relief from the rather boring monotonous regular thud thud thud that all the rest of the entrants had chosen to accompany them. Usually each group of dancers would have one main exhibit, with a woman or man pulling along an effigy or display on wheels. Occasionally folk would swap around as the pulling was hard work! Some men and women walked alongside squirting water over the dancers and players from time to time to help keep them hydrated. I was heartened by the way that the dancing women were all shapes and sizes; no one was too this or not enough that, all seemed to be welcomed to join in the celebrations. It makes me wonder if that is another positive side effect of the glorious melting pot called ‘Belizean’? The Mayans, for example, tend to be very small, slight people, whilst some of the people of African descent have large, strong frames. So with all the intermingling over the years, there is such a rich variety of shapes and sizes. Maybe the racial tolerance one perceives has by default included much more tolerance of a difference in appearance that includes shape and size than exists in the UK.

My most favourite of all turned out to be the tumblers that we had seen practising weeks earlier in our evening stroll to the sea wall. Wearing special gloves to protect their hands from the road surface, two or three at a time would move forward, and make their spectacular series of somersaults, walking on their hands covering some distances, and some achieving complete body rotation as they somersaulted. Then they would move to the back of their group as others came forward. They were just great, and I applauded them loudly. It was striking how with such a flamboyant thing as the carnival, there was relatively little ooohing and aaahing from the crowd – quite a silent audience, over all. A few young men near us had begun to make their presence felt over a period of about 2 hours. Too loud here, too pushy there. We saw one minor altercation between a couple of the protagonists, but the police quietly moved between them and some of their crowd separated them too. It quietened down, but just as the parade was ending and the crowd joining in behind, they picked up again. Conor and I had decided to return home at this point anyway, but he said to me that they were spoiling for a fight. The other younger volunteers were deciding whether or not to join the revellers at the end of the parade as we left.

When I went into the Women’s Department this morning, I learned that they had in fact gone home after us, and that about ten minutes after they left, a gun was fired between the young men. Mrs. L was there helping to clear up and witnessed the event. No doubt we will read the details in the paper. My Belizean colleagues were sad today, saying that carnival is usually such a good natured family event even if folk have had a beer or two. I could feel their distress and concern – Wednesday is a public holiday celebrating Independence Day, with more marches etc., and there was anticipation of more trouble in their voices.

Adding this a day later: as Conor and I were leaving the parade, before the shooting started, the police were cordoning off one side of the boulevard a hundred meters from where we had been standing. Today we have discovered that a military scatter hand grenade had been thrown but did not go off as it was in a black plastic bag. The pin had been pulled out but the tight bag meant that the trigger could not be released. Shocking. And thank goodness – the glass in the hospital and bank nearby would have exacerbated the fatalities and injuries.

If anyone wants to read about it, see Belize Channel 5 News.