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…

Chetumal, Mexico (October 11-13)

Last weekend was another long weekend, celebrating Independence Day, and the feeling of obligation to ‘use it well’ came up. But being near the end of our 6 months we are pretty strapped dosh-wise so wondered what to do as cheaply as possible. A friend had told us how easy it was to catch the bus north to Chetumal, just over the Mexican border, so last Saturday found us on an express bus, comfy seats and air con, for the princely sum of £3.50 each. It was surprisingly uncomplicated to pass through the customs and immigration, and quite extraordinary to witness the volume of traffic moving back and forth all the time. There is a large ‘no man’s land’ between the borders, full of local businesses and merchandise, and people from both countries apparently flock there to pick up clothing and cheap electrical goods.

We immediately noticed a big difference to Belize – the roads were tarmaced, and there was an obviously developed infrastructure of masts and cables, road ‘furniture’, plus lots of the other trappings of twenty first century life. The cars were more modern and in good condition, and a lot more of them. This neck of Mexico is part of Maya Caribbean, and obviously much more developed than some of the other regions of Mexico, such as we had witnessed surrounding San Miguel Allende a couple of summers ago.

The town of Chetumal is 20 minutes down the road from the border, the most south-easterly corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. Cancun, now a big tourist attraction, is due north for 382 km (217 miles) to the top of the peninsula. It was fun to be in a Spanish speaking country again, though we foolishly left our dictionary and phrase book in BC. The bus terminates at ‘el Mercado Nuevo’, and we caught a taxi to ‘el Mercado Viejo’, where the museo and other more touristy bits are. The second hotel we found was cheap, clean and comfortable (relatively!) and had friendly staff. We relished the different style of what we had become accustomed to in BC. Everything seemed hugely modern – we wondered how it would compare with the UK; would that be different again when we return?  The streets were wide, paved, clean, with no Albert St. dust coating all the produce.  The walk down to the ‘esplanada’ was spacious and felt safe. The coastline was much the same as Belize – cayes and reefs breaking the horizon, and a sticky mud coating the sea bottom after numerous hurricanes, making most of it unavailable for swimming from the mainland. Our hospitable hosts advised us that after the museo – which was both informative and well laid out – we could catch a sort of mix between bus and communal taxi out to Bacalar.

The next day found us waiting patiently in a very hot vehicle for the necessary 4 passengers before the driver was willing to take us on the 40 minute ride. Bacalar is situated on the edge of the Laguna de los Siete Colores (Lagoon of Seven Colors) in the state of Quintana Roo, and according to the guide books “provides a wealth of history and magic. This town cultivates the memories of its ancestors: fishermen, merchants, warriors and poets.”  We were set down in a small but charming plaza, next to the wide and as we were rightly told, variegated colours of the Laguna. As we walked towards an old fortress and some cabanas beside the water just beyond, we were very politely approached by a guide. His manner was so courteous (“Yes, the beach is down there; and when you return maybe I can show you around the fortress? I am a very knowledgeable guide, and I have educated myself in order to be able to inform others well.”) that we almost succumbed. He was obviously not getting much business at this time of year – but it was not on our agenda. We wanted a swim!

A dirt road led to a track down to a small area with a long wooden jetty going into the lagoon. We had to pay a few pesos to walk down it. It had a bar and restaurant area – all in gaily painted concrete – and was fringed by about 10 round concrete tables and ‘stools’ covered by a thick palm thatch.  We found an empty one, and whilst currently in warm sunshine we could see large clouds on the horizon so determined to get on with the business just in case… A few wriggles and pulls later (changing never seems to get any easier) we submerged ourselves into the warm, clear turquoise blue water. Gorgeous. Sometimes we have found the sea almost uncomfortably warm, but this was just right! It was an interesting texture too, salt free of course, and slightly chalky. The texture of the bottom was a peculiar mix of chalk and clay – or at least that is what it felt like.

We eventually made our way back to our table, only to be accosted again by the man on the track. I protested that we had paid, but he pointed to the thatch and said ‘Más pesos.’ More pesos for use of the table and shade, but not too astronomical. The dark clouds were coming closer and quite a squall was building up on the water, small white horses dotted across the surface. On the far shore we had a spectacular show of lightening amidst the falling rain. More wriggles and squirms got us out of wet cossies, ready to run for shelter when necessary. An archetypal young art student came round with a jointed wooden display board with some very pretty earrings, not a million miles from the style of some that Gemma used to make. Being in Mexico they were so much cheaper than anything in Belize, so to her delight we bought some. By this time the clouds had by-passed us, but we decided to grab a little lunch at the café we had noticed between the track and the fortress.

As we entered the small café right on the water’s edge, there were only two other rather unsavoury looking men drinking beer at a nearby table. After a bit they got up and left, and a young and very dour waiter came over to see what we wanted. We decided to share a small creviche, a salad made with prawns, and having made the order wondered if we had made a silly mistake. An empty restaurant? Shell fish? Hmmm. After a bit a fishy smell wafted across our noses, and I turned to see an elderly lady standing with a small cooking pot and shelling a huge pile of fresh prawns. Shortly these ended up on our table in a very good salad indeed!

Trying to avoid disappointing the guide, we decided to walk into the centre of the village by a different route. A long dirt track took us up the small hill, and past a typical assortment of wooden and concrete houses of various sizes, shapes and states of being, only with a Mexican rather than Belizean flavour to them. We came out to the main road leading to the plaza, only to be hailed warmly from behind by our tour guide approaching from the other side of the village. He cheerily informed us that he had just had his lunch, and was now going back to his post, being an excellent tour guide, and that he would see us later no doubt. All said in almost perfect English in a gentle and respectful way. Oh dear!

We sat gratefully on a bench in the plaza, awaiting a communal taxi which we had been reassured would be about 3pm. Half an hour later there was still no sign of a taxi  – in fact almost no sign of any traffic at all. We managed to communicate our concerns to a shop keeper, who informed us that the taxis were around the corner. They turned out to be regular taxis, so we were mightily surprised that the cost was the same as the other taxi-bus. Then one driver said for an extra 10 pesos he would take us on to where our hotel was. We agreed, sat in, and then noticed the roars of laughter from the gaggle of drivers congregated on the pavement under the shade of a large tree. We felt it had something to do with us but were not sure what. After a while of nothing happening we began to stare questioningly at the driver, who came over and held up 4 fingers. Quatro persona. We realised that the price was the same because this was the same – a communal taxi. Two more folk came along surprisingly quickly, and he sped us speedily and safely down the – excellent – highway into Chetumal. He dropped the 2 other people off, got out quickly to talk to the taxi drivers at his ‘depot’, and then started the car up to take us to our hotel. Within a minute I saw what the joke was….he drove us round the block! The cool of the evening found us having another long walk around the esplanada feeling quite safe amongst the parents and children strolling along too. A very pleasant and cheap weekend in Mexico.