The 10 Commandments

Having insisted that they would have the road surface completed by the September celebrations, the new government did a hasty repair job last weekend. They put a layer of liquid tar down on Albert St, and hand covered it with quarry dust. The result on Monday and Tuesday was dreadful – literally a dust cloud over the length of the street, and our apartment looked as if it was covered in a layer of volcanic dust. On Monday morning I was working at the computer when I realised I felt quite headache-y and ill. I paid more attention to myself, and noticed that the air con unit right above my head was drawing in the tar fumes from the street outside. We turned off the unit, turned on fans and opened the doors. Later in the day, Conor’s rhinitis set in, which has been very much better over here than in the UK. Don’t know how anyone with asthma would have been faring.

(Fortunately it rained heavily for an hour or so in the night, so Wednesday’s Independence Day parade was visible after all! But I am jumping ahead of myself.)

About 5.30pm on Tuesday Conor and I made our usual stroll over to the sea wall, sitting and chatting, enjoying the evening breeze coming in off the sea, the colours of the sky and the lowering of the temperature. As the light was going, we saw a familiar figure approaching us complete with sketching surface in hand – an empty pizza box this time. We haven’t seen Ernesto for some weeks, apart from a glimpse in the bus terminal a few weeks ago, and then passing him on the canal by the market one day. He always greets us with a wave on those occasions on the street, and it was nice to see him approach with his familiar, slow pace and twinkly eyes. The sea wall has a very quiet street in front of it and some large old colonial properties on the other side. Various occupants have come to recognise us, and the dog walker greets us cheerily, and we have struck up a conversation with a man of Scottish origin who attended a prep school just outside of Edinburgh but was evacuated back to Belize, his home, when war broke out in 1939. Anyway, it is a quiet street, and apart from the odd car making its way homewards and a few passers-by, we had the area to ourselves.

Ernesto is always interesting to chat to, as he is such an intriguing combination of education, insight and street-wise wit. He has never tried to draw us again since our first portraits; he just knows us and knows we like him. He makes us laugh, but when we question his philosophy on occasions, he is not too happy. Definitely a king in his own kingdom!

We got round to talking about the shootings and grenade at the carnival on Saturday, and he told us how he saw the violence before the violence. (We refrained from saying we did too!) He told us that he thought that there were about 18 gangs in Belize, which was far fewer than Mexico, but then Belize was much smaller than Mexico. When we asked him if he had ever been caught up in any violence, and he said he often witnesses it, sleeping in the little park but he keeps out of the way. He asked us if we knew the 10 commandments for living on the streets. Each was delivered with a little homily, explaining why it is so important, and that great gift for a raconteur, timing!

1. If you cannot trust yourself, place no trust in anyone else.
2. Never bite the hand that feeds you.
3. See no evil
4. Hear no evil
5. Speak no evil
6. We can’t remember!
7. We can’t remember!
8. If someone has a gun, don’t stick your head out to see what’s going on, get down as fast as you can and stay down. (He did a lovely parody of someone peering out to locate the gun!)
9. After a great pause, he said “And number 9 is never tell them what number 10 is because then you always remain the teacher”!

All of this is accompanied by his twinkly gaze and broad smile, making sure that you have appreciated his point. He was just chatting, and never gave any indication that he was after anything, but we gave him a few dollars, and nipped back to the flat to fill up a plastic bag with bread and cheese, some salad stuff and fruit while he waited on the sea wall. Funny old world.

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.


Belize has been preparing for carnival for the last few weeks. It is much as for Christmas at home in Edinburgh – bunting is across Albert Street, and the Belizean flag adorns cars and windows. Small, sorry palm trees have been tied to the (new!) electricity poles much as the lights adorn Princes Street and the Christmas trees take up our parking places on George Street! Throughout most of Thursday night, huge road rollers tried to improve the still unfinished surface prior to the week of parades. It meant that the whole building shook from top to bottom – and the rickety old Women’s Department opposite was still standing this morning! As fold say, these clapboard houses are very strong.

The rubbish – trash – which has been accumulating for what seems like weeks was cleared on Friday, leaving everything temporarily spic and span. Rubbish is something I have mused over a lot here. It is a complex issue. Like Mexico and most Central American countries, Belizeans eat a lot of food, cooked and uncooked, from little roadside stalls they call canteens. These are small independent businesses, so that a few women may get together to make cakes, people from the country deep fry plantain sliced into chips, pack up bags of peanuts which are salted in their shells, or slice up a few wedges of ‘pine’, papaya, or water melon into plastic bags. Whole fruits and vegs are on some stalls, and one man comes on the street about 3.30pm each day, selling the nicest bread we have tasted here. The hot food tends to be tamales – chicken in a corn-based pastry, wrapped in a palm leaf, covered in tin foil and baked – or the ever-popular chicken, rice and beans. This is still called ‘dallah rice’ but costs about BZ$3.50. All of these things invariably come in a quantity of plastic, but the dallah rice is in a polystyrene tray. Everyone eats from them and they can be seen everywhere – storm drains, road sides, sea fronts, gardens, threaded through wire fencing, half chewed by the huge number of dogs, strewn across parks and open spaces. No one seems to use shopping bags either, and the supermarkets are hugely liberal with the black plastic bags. On top of that, we all go around with plastic bottles of water, Coke, Sprite etc. Those of us with access to the gallon water bottles refill and refrigerate them, or use the water coolers in our workplaces.  And there are no litter bins.

Soon after arriving I was reminded of a Radio 4 programme I heard while still in the UK, in which a man described how somewhere near the North Pole, where all the seas circulating in the North Atlantic come into a swirl together, is the hugest collection of plastic detritus you can imagine, complete with all the wildlife that has been caught up in it and dragged along.  There was another programme in which a man talked about walking the entire coastline of Britain, and what struck him even more than the glory of the views was the never ending trail of plastic. With all of this in mind, I was constantly astonished at how un-orientated to recycling the country seems to be. Even in our cottage in Crooked Tree, there were hardly any plates and bowls, and a huge quantity of disposable ones. And then I got to thinking: everyone has to pay extra for water and electricity here, which would be needed for washing up. The rubbish is already paid for out of taxes. The very poor or very resourceful scour rubbish to collect and return Coke and Sprite bottles for a few cents each. It is an economic decision based on financial resources. It is definitely short – sighted from a global perspective, yet many of these people cannot afford to see beyond the cost of the next meal.

Anyway, back to the preparations! Every Tuesday evening we have both heard and watched as about 20 young people, the boys/men drumming different types of drums, the girls/ women twiddling their batons and doing complex steps, practising their marching. When waiting on Friday evenings for the bus to Crooked Tree, we have seen tinies – 5 -10 year old girls, shaking a hip here, an arm there, turning around and starting again, all to some jolly tunes. Up near the drummers, we applauded as 10 young men took turns to run and turn 1 – 2 – 2 ½ or even 3 summersaults through the air! And the atmosphere is different – a feeling of expectancy, a frisson of anticipation, even excitement. The official parade is tomorrow afternoon, but there is an unofficial parade (reminiscent of Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival!) which starts at 4a.m tomorrow morning, in eight hours’ time. Living on Albert Street, I suspect we are going to hear this whether we want to be involved or not! At least we should have a good view, and it will be cool for the revellers!

So, the next instalment will be all about tomorrow’s festivities. Wish us a good night’s sleep!

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