CHill-i-pedia 5. Less Sauce, more Relish!

More about the floods.

Here are a couple of transcripts of the local TV news which came out last week. The second is an extract from the parliament.

Recovery from the big flood of 08 continues in Cayo, the Belize River Valley, and parts of the Orange Walk District. And new figures released from the National Emergency Management Organization show that the recovery will be lengthy and costly. More than sixteen thousand persons from one-hundred and thirteen villages were affected. 9,200 of them have received two weeks of food supplies while two- hundred and sixteen remain in shelters. Eight thousand, two-hundred persons have received medical attention for flood related illnesses. That has so far cost $1 million.

And while that’s the human toll, the flood wiped out one thousand head of cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry amounting to a million dollars. Forty-six miles of road were damaged and it’s going to cost 10 million dollars to fix them. Eight thousand six hundred acres of crop valued at twelve point nine million dollars were also wiped out.

We note that the entire village of Douglas in the Orange Walk District is still quarantined while the Crooked Tree Causeway is still underwater.

“They have no home to go back to. We are talking about 1,110 homes went under water. Some of these homes are still under water. Whatever is in those homes will never be of any value to them people and I need to reiterate here Mr. Speaker that we need to grasp the enormity of it because no hurricane has ever in our living memory, because I was around for Hattie also, has impacted on the lives and the homes of so many people. We’re telling you, we’re informing this nation and this Honourable House that 1,110 homes went under water, suffered serious water damages. And what we are doing right now Mr. Speaker, before I continue with the rest of the information, what we have done and are doing, we have a team that has gone to every single village in the Cayo District, went to every household under water, we have photographed every single household, we have spoken to the members, we have gotten their names, we have itemized every single item that has been lost in their homes, we have identified whatever physical structure damage has been done to their homes, and each and every one of them as I will say categorically here will be assisted, those who got hurt in the disaster.”


The other day Conor and I were walking past the car park beside the Courthouse when we heard someone hailing us. Our ‘first-day-Belikin’ man was striding towards us, carrying his car washing buckets in one hand and reaching into his pocket with the other.

“Here” he said, “I owe you this”. He handed Conor a couple of dollars.

You may recall that a few weeks ago he asked us straight one day if we could spare him a bit as it had been a bad day. It was in the middle of the heavy rains, when there were zilch tourists about for him to earn his wages as street performer cum tour guide, and the rains remove the terrible dust so few cars needed washing.

He must have seen the expression on our faces because he added “I always pay back my debts. There is a shopkeeper I ask when I need to, and he always says I don’t have to repay him, but I do. Then I can always ask again.”

We had no choice but to graciously receive. It was a special moment.

It was also an example of what I will call personal power. So many of us fall into a victim mentality, of being somehow less than others, and that often comes with a ‘you owe me’ attitude. There has never been any sense of diminishment with this man, from the first day we met him. He ‘earns’ his handouts – and once he openly begged.  Not cap in hand, but a genuine expression of need, a favour from one human to another, not a handout from a ‘have’ to a ‘have not’. That sense of inner worth is everyone’s birthright, and whether or not you have it shows, whether king or pauper. Some kings wear power as a mantle – and empty vessels make most noise. Some nobles live on the streets.

Mental health and homelessness.

I discovered the other day that because of an incident a few years ago when someone in a psychotic episode attacked someone in one of the homes for the homeless, it is rare for anyone with mental health issues to be given a bed. There are sound reasons for this – lack of in-house medical care, need for medication, protection of other residents, etc. It is also relatively rare for someone in psychosis to be that violent, but invariably makes the headlines, whatever the country. Such episodes merely serve to enforce the sane’s fear of extreme and altered state. The policy explains why such a huge proportion of the people on the streets appear to have mental health issues here.

One man – at least 50 years old – who looks ahead as if blind, sits on a patch of grass beside the river and swing bridge, knees up in the air, feet on the ground, pulling constantly at the grass on either side of him with his hands. He seems to do this for hours at a time, which makes me wonder if he is on the autistic spectrum, too. Let’s hope that the debate with the school children a few weeks ago will bring on a generation who are less in awe of such processes; and that the revenue from the newly discovered oil in Belize (once the Mexicans have taken their toll for transporting it through Mexico, and the oil giants their penny-worth for processing it) will finance a new era for Belizeans.

CHill-i-pedia 4 – Even more CHilli Sauce

Conor and I have been running some workshops and the venue is the Belize Institute of Management. A pair of iguanas lives under the concrete pathway surrounding the buildings, the male twice the size of the female. Providing you don’t move too fast, they are quite comfortable with the people around and about. They bask in the sun, and will happily accept scraps of food thrown in their direction. Occasionally the male will go further afield, ambling slowly but surely in his wide-based gait across the perimeter of the grounds. They are part and parcel of the venue.

As we finished up last Friday afternoon, with just one participant left as we cleared away, I looked up and to my amazement saw a racoon with her three cubs. This is a venue in the city, surrounded by buildings, and a most unexpected visitor to our eyes. She had the typical superb ‘mask’ on her face, and everything about her appeared sharp: her nose, her coal black shiny eyes, her prominent teeth and her claws. She was definitely foraging, and was coming towards us but very wary at the same time. She was super alert, and if you stamped your foot would no doubt have attacked rather than run. She seemed truly wild, and both awe-inspiring and a bit intimidating at the same time. Her cubs were like all small creatures, both sweet and entertaining as they bumbled and frolicked – but definitely wild. We discovered that the night-watchman feeds them so they approach humans, and that the building was erected on their habitat, the mangrove swamp. They were quite a treat. (There are some photos of them to come.)

The female was about the size of a medium sized fox but with more of a cat’s shape, and with a bear quality, running on flat feet with a humped spine. Her long pointed tail was banded with grey and black, and the overall effect is very striking. It would be good to see her again when we next use the venue, but they only come when there is hardly anyone about.

According to Wikipedia, they are part of the Procyonidae family, and closely related to bears. Other members of this group of mammals are the coatis that we saw from the canoe in Crooked Tree, and the kinkajou that walked in front of us in Tikal. Very much creatures of the Americas.

Sea temperature
The sea is very much colder after all the rains throughout October. We had a swim in the sea last weekend, and were totally surprised by the difference. It had been almost unpleasantly warm in late September, and this time you had to give yourself a little nudge to get under. Once in, it was delightful, and still totally different to the North Sea!

Culture Vultures
With the advent of Garifuna Settlement Day, on November 19 (Conor’s birthday), there have been lots of activities and events over the last two weeks. The Garifuna are the people who were expelled from St Vincent (one of the eastern Caribbean islands). Originally, people from South America, called Kalipuna or Kwaib, subdued the local Arawak Indians on St. Vincent. Their descendants were intermingled with African blood when two slave ships were wrecked off the coast in 1635. Initially very hostile to each other, they eventually formed the Black Caribs. Throughout the eighteenth century, they were constantly squabbling with the British who could not countenance free blacks alongside the slave-owning settlers. Around 1796 they were deported to islands off Honduras, where they were almost decimated by disease. By the early 1800s they had established themselves in Stann Creek (now called Dangriga) and refused to be pushed out by the British. Garifuna people can be found throughout the coast line between Belize and Nicaragua, but they are nevertheless well established as a fundamental part of Belizean society. They received their settlement in 1941, and this is what will be celebrated on Wednesday.

Meanwhile lots of interesting things have been happening. Last Thursday we went to an exhibition opening at the Institute of Mexico (keen on promoting the arts here) of ‘Pen’ Cayetano, a Garifuna artist married to a German woman and living in Germany. We arrived early, but were hugely entertained by the drummers and dancers as we waited for the official opening. The Turtle Shell Band was the original band that Pen had been part of a few decades ago. Since then he has been receiving international acclaim and also promoting the Garifuna culture. The opening was free, and had free eats and booze too, as well as fabulous music and dance – and even so one felt that it was only the cognoscenti who were present. Such a shame. The exhibition was fabulous. There were a number of paintings that we thought that we could live with, but in spite of all sorts of people placing little green dots on a number of paintings, the best we could come up with was a few very nice postcards! Pen didn’t look like the sort of person that I could swap a few hours of therapy with, the way that I have managed to acquire my best art works yet!

The following day we went to the Bliss Centre to see a film called Punta Soul, about the whole musical movement which has arisen from the Garifuna people. There is a ‘low’ and ‘high’ art form – my words – the low being the dance floor and super sexy type movements between two people; the ‘high’ is more an expression of drumming, vocals and guitar of peoples and their culture over the last few centuries. The film described the development of both, and of how the late Andy Palacio had been so influential in its development.

Six days later we were in the House of Culture – or rather, in the garden of the House of the Culture, under our fifth full moon in Belize – listening to Xalapa. They were fabulous! Serious musicians from Mexico, their creative novelty was a pleasure to behold. Six men performed various expressions of percussion: the spoons, which would have put most Cockneys to shame; two marimbas, which they played as if making love to a woman; followed by more traditional Cuban and African drumming. They were captivating!

And then on the Saturday, again as part of the build up to Garifuna Day, we had tickets to Umalali. Umalali is a collective of Garifuna artists from Belize and Honduras who have international acclaim now, particularly from festivals like WOMAD. I had read an article in the local paper referring to acapello singing by women so I personally was a bit disappointed that I did not hear that echo of more traditional culture that I was anticipating – much as one can hear in Ireland or on the West coast of Scotland. Nevertheless, we had good sense of the songs and style of the people, and the audience was very appreciative. Conor and I will make our way – by bus – down south to witness Garifuna Independence Day on Wednesday 19 November and will let you know what happens! After a dearth of artistic activity for 5 months it is suddenly every where! And very nice too…

CHill-i-pedia 3 – More Chilli Sauce!

When there is predominantly one climate all year round, with the occasional addition of rain, or a few less degrees of heat, the need to discriminate between a gust of wind, gentle breeze, ‘guy’ windy or blowing a gale diminishes. Equally, if there is either no rain or a blooming deluge, then such terms as a light drizzle, steady downpour or spitting cats and dogs are equally redundant.

Thus, I have been relishing what to my ear are delightful ways of describing things. At present, we are having ‘weather’, i.e. a tropical storm which is a series of thunder storms, complete with Technicolor sound and light show and full-on power shower rain dropping vertically from the sky. (Rain is an inadequate word to describe this.) When we don’t have ‘weather’, but the status quo sun, heat, humidity and trade wind, then any velocity of air is called ‘the breeze’. Hence, “The breeze is stronger today”. Wind it seems is either ‘the breeze’, or ‘weather’ when it combines with rain, and can be anything from a tropical storm to a degree of hurricane force. And such ‘weather’ pays a heavy toll on roads and bridges, whether urban or rural. School and work life goes in a stop-start manner, with temporary flooding and less temporary demolishing of bridges. As we were driving to the prison yesterday, between cloud bursts, Mr Juan pointed out the high water on either side of the road, and said that this bit often flooded. He lamented that such stretches need a pole with feet marked on them at the side of the road so that drivers can get an idea of the depth of the water before venturing through. I suggested he keep a few alongside a sledge hammer in the back of his pick-up, but he didn’t take to the idea. I don’t think he has got used to my sense of humour yet.

Another expression I like is “The air con is turned up too loud”.

Fi wi.
I have been puzzling for a few weeks about a slogan on the side of a van transporting chickens. Chickens are probably the next common staple to rice and beans in Belize, and typically accompany them on a plate. The slogan says: dah deh fi wi chickin. I could not work out what the ‘fi wi’ meant. Conor and I said it aloud to one another because that is usually a quick way of understanding Creole (Kriol).

If a car is not available, returning from one work place means a lift from one of the two taxis who do a shuttle to the bus stop.  The wait for a bus between 11.45 and 12.45 is usually interminable. Unlike any other time of day, when the buses pass about every half an hour, a full bus will sometimes pass after ¾ hour, so you then have to wait for the next one. The bus shelter (essential – from either sun or rain) is in front of a little roadside café, selling the usual selection of foodstuffs to go into one of the polystyrene trays: chicken rice and beans, stew chicken, tamales, etc. A couple of fridges have a plentiful supply of water and other liquids, and various types of crisps which can be recognised the world over. Over the weeks I have come to recognise the different people who saunter over for their lunches, and to watch with curiosity the people who traipse to and from the bus joining me in the bus shelter, and inevitably turning to the shop counter for a ‘dallah waTAH’ or some crisps when boredom or thirst set in.

This waiting time coincides with the delivery of a huge plastic bag full of chicken, and each week I puzzle over the slogan. Last Tuesday I could bear it no longer, and asked the woman sitting on the wooden bench beside me (everything in Belize is either lovely hard wood or concrete) what it meant. She opened her arms in a wide gesture and said with great dramatic emphasis “Fi WI” ..I got it! I had heard people saying “for she” (meaning her or hers) a lot, but it never occurred to me that that would be the way ‘for’ was spelt!

Last night, at a (delicious!) fund-raising dinner put on by the Mental Health Association, an American woman from Miami married to a Belizean man, both speakers of Spanish too, was saying how Kriol is the best language to express your emotions in. Having just had my “Fi WI” experience, I could see what she meant.

CHill-i-pedia Volume 2 AKA ‘CHilli Sauce’!!

Trade Wind
One of the reasons for the constant breeze coming in off the sea for at least a few yards, I have discovered, on even the hottest of days, is because of the old Trade Wind. Suddenly a term from sea-faring literature and from geography lessons takes on more meaning: winds from both hemispheres blow along the equator in an easterly direction. The term ‘trade’ comes from the old German meaning ‘path’ – the route that the ships took around the world. The trade wind also garners the hurricanes into an easterly direction. The place where the easterlies from the two hemispheres meet on the equator is ‘the doldrums’.

Apparently the surface winds flow towards the equator, and the higher altitudes flow towards the poles. About 50-60o N and S the higher altitude winds drop, and winds get pushed in a westerly direction, which we are very familiar with in the UK.

With the bulk of the hurricanes having moved through now, we are in a different weather phase. The extreme heat (high 90F, over 30C) and excessive humidity – which is the result of the hurricanes scooping up all the precipitation in an area – has passed since Ike moved away. The last 2 weeks have been up to 20F cooler, with the occasional rain shower. And yesterday it rained all day – the first time in 4 months. Today started showery, and actually felt cold at about 70F/24C, would you believe? But it has been more or less clear, and the temperature pleasant enough for us to have a five mile walk along the shoreline and back. Sometimes walking half a mile in the heat feels too much, so it was a nice treat.

I am not sure why, but I like the Trade Wind. I like the gentle – most of the time – warmth of it and I like all the stories from my childhood which have ridden on the back of the wind.

Swing Bridge
The swing bridge over the Belize River at the bottom of Albert St is one of the things written about in any literature about BC. It is turned manually to allow any large craft up or down river. We have only seen it being turned once in our 4 months, about 5.45pm so there was a lot of traffic and pedestrians around. We were walking back towards Albert St. by the Caye Caulker Water Taxi terminal, when we found a chain across the entrance to the bridge. Some men were right in the middle, and had some large metal poles attached to a crank. Slowly the old metal bridge began to slide to our right, gradually moving until only the end of the pedestrian path was buttressed up against the pavement and sides of the mainland approach to the bridge. And then it stopped! There was much heaving and pushing, and jovial comments about the men not being strong enough, but it was not budging! Someone went into the river, and discovered that an old bit of brick had got jammed in the mechanism, and that it would take a bit of time to repair. What to do?! Cars were already making their way round to one of the two other bridges over the water, but crowds of folk were waiting on either side. Whilst you could enter the pedestrian path at one end, it was hanging over the river at the other.

People became impatient, and adventurous: at first a few, with many of us watching,  then all of us at both ends began to enter the pedestrian paths, clamber over or round the buttress end of the ‘road’ area, and then climb over or squeeze round onto the pedestrian path on the other side, before safely stepping off the bridge! Sometimes a conveyor system was created, with someone standing and lifting over bike after bike, or helping elderly people, or managing the various loads that people carry about their daily business. It was quite fun!

The next time morning the bridge was back in its proper place, and we have never seen it on the move again.

Scorpions again!
Last weekend we caught the bus up to Belmopan to visit the brother of one of Niamh’s friends who has been living here for about 3 years. He lives with his delightful Hispanic girlfriend in a house on the edge of the town. It was such a joy to be in a private house, and to discuss such ordinary things as gardening. Apparently the leaf-cutter ants decimate seedlings in the same way slugs and snails may do overnight in the UK! They pointed out the holes in ground– tarantulas…..But they are shy and keep well out of your way, unlike their reputation in the movies. And so we moved on to other creepy-crawlies. Having told someone a few days before that he never shook out his trousers before putting them on, and that he thought it was a bit of a myth, a sudden sting as he moved downstairs one morning caught his immediate attention. Thinking it was an ant, he walloped it hard with his hand – at which point the scorpion really set to and stung him at least 4 more times! With everyone roaring with laughter as he took his trousers off rather fast, the offending creature made a hasty retreat. But the purpose of his tale was to reassure us that although painful, the stings swelled but were not deadly.

As an architect, he has witnessed many ventures start and fail here, and informed us of a local saying: to gain a small fortune in Belize, you need to start with a large one! Since there are currently no building restrictions, it has been a wonderful opportunity for an architect. And as he says, the country is littered with unfinished houses and hotels….


Welcome to CHill-i-pedia! There are all sorts of anecdotal things that I observe that don’t fit into any particular story, but which interest me. I thought of calling it ‘Odds and Sods’, ‘Anecdotes’, ‘Bits and pieces’ – but none of these felt right. It occurred to me that it is like Wikipedia – disjointed pieces of information that do not have to hang together! I will do a CHill-i-pedia every now and again.

Where I know it, I have added the Creole pronunciation, and the stress is almost always on the last syllable, with a rising intonation.
Most words have an ‘a’ as in an English RP ‘bad’ or ‘mad’ as the predominant vowel and mouth shape. Thus ‘dollar’ becomes ‘dahLAH’.
The voiced (as in ‘the’) and voiceless (as in ‘thief’) forms of ‘th’ are pronounced differently. The voiced ‘th’ is spoken as it might be in London, as a ‘v’ sound. So ‘the’ is written as ‘veh’ and sounds like the first bit of ‘ve -g’ with a breathy ending… ‘veH’. The voiceless form is spoken as in parts of Ireland, as ‘t’ – so, ‘tief’ or ‘tanks’.

Scorpions (SeecorpiYAN)
I have been reading up a bit after our introduction in Crooked Tree. They are arachnids, like spiders, with eight legs.

Our Trinidadian friend  Charleen, who we have been giving stories to about eating mangoes just to make her homesick in wet old Bristol, advised us that if stung, you need to dilute the poison as fast as possible, using juice, pee, spit – whatever may be handy.

The guide books assure us that although painful, scorpions in Belize are not fatal. The fatter the tail and thinner the claws means the more deadly.

Scorpions hold their prey with their claws, and puncture the prey with the sting on the end of the tail, spraying the poison into the wound at the same time. Ingenious.

A work colleague told us that August and September tend to be the mating season here, so scorpions are more active. She said that if there is one, there are probably two! And that she never puts on a pair of trousers without shaking them first, or checking her shoes. It is second nature, she just does it automatically. I was surprised, as I get the feeling that there are not many within the city – maybe I am being naive!

Hammocks (HamMAK)
I tried sleeping in the hammock we slung up for our friends to sleep in for our last night in Crooked Tree. It was surprisingly comfortable. I discovered that just as having the houses on stilts allows air to circulate all around them, and keeps them cooler; equally being in a hammock allows the air all around your body. I was lying with the front and back doors shut only with an insect screen, so there was a through draft. I had placed a sheet into the hammock to lie on and protect me from the strings a little, and wrapped it around me like a shroud. It was almost cold!

I started in a more upright position, bum and legs in the base, but when I awoke I realised I had found the optimum position in my sleep! My head and back were level in the base of the hammock, with my legs slightly higher (very good for both the circulation and the back).

So this ancient method of sleeping in the Tropics takes up little space, keeps you out of reach of creepy-crawlies, keeps one cool, looks after the back, and keeps the heart pumping well. Clever!

Air Con and the outside
A man remarked today, as he moved out of his air conditioned office for 5 minutes and returned with sweat dripping down his face, that you go outside to defrost!

I have lost hair and gained heather. It is so springy grouse could nest in it and not be spotted! Provided they kept quiet of course…The crisping and baking of the relentless sun – despite sun hats; the coarseness of the sea; the constant sweat: all has conspired to create a thatch thick enough and coarse enough to re-roof Aunty Lynda’s thatched cottage! My hair was cropped before I left Edinburgh by my much loved hairdresser, and she reassured me it could probably last the full 6 months. I wish! I have gone 3 ½ months, but it is now dire! Not because of the shape, but because it is nearly standing on end, having been fried and burnt to a crisp. I am hunting for a hair dresser! Or maybe hand my scissors to Conor!!!!

Lloyds Bank
Shortly after I arrived, I was asking someone where something could be found, and she said “Lloyds Bank”. “Oh”, says I, “Do you have a Lloyds Bank here? I didn’t realise.” She looked at me very strangely.

A week or two later, I realised that she was referring to a place, not a bank: Lord’s Bank!  Pronounced ‘Lards’……