Belize Zoo

Our trip this past weekend was to take a local bus to the Zoo. Belize Zoo is world renowned apparently, for its policy for nurturing local endangered species. It came highly recommended by a number of folk. So we made our way past the infamous market to the bus terminal, and caught a bus destined to Dangrida. Belize City is a nipple of land about one third of the way down the coast line, which is predominantly swampy mangroves and salt marsh and a haven for wild life. There are 3 roads out – Northern Highway towards Orange Walk and Mexico; Western Highway towards Belmopan – the official capital city – and Guatemala; and a branch off Western Highway to the south, to Dangrida and Honduras. Each stop is called Mile 1, 7 etc. The zoo is Mile 28. The fare for both of us was BZ$4 one way, £1, cheaper than my bus fare into central Edinburgh from the flat!

Once again, we rediscovered in a multitude of ways the openheartedness we experienced on first arriving. It is so easy to get caught up in the issues surrounding us in a very small part of the city, and loose contact with the bigger picture. Inner cities are inner cities, wherever you live. This part of the Western Highway passes through land that is predominantly the same as around Belize City….scrub land, swamps, occasional fields, some agricultural merchandise and machinery, very few villages but more often clusters of houses. Some of these are on stilts, some free standing. Apparently you need the stilts in swampy land cos it stops your house from tilting if the stilts are sunk deep enough. Otherwise the ground level shifts too much with the dry periods or the rains.

Gradually we approached the lumpy limestone outcrops we had seen in the distance, covered in dense green foliage, and the conductor told us we were there. Once more the heat hit us as we got out of the bus and began to walk up the track into the zoo. We had all our gear – sun hats, sun cream, mozzie guard, water – and once more lamented the one thing we left behind. Some years ago Steve and Fi gave us an insulated holder for water (actually it’s a posh thing for wine on picnics, but we have used it for water in a number of places – Mexico, Greece, Malta) and found it a wonderful accompaniment to a walk. I left it in a bag on a hook in the back pantry, and that bag must be about the only thing in our house that did not get moved in our preparations to leave the house in spick and span order for holiday rentals. Bother.
So, we also had warm water with us!

The zoo is set within the jungle. It is large, spacious and created in such a way that apart from obvious fences etc., it blends into the canopy. This bit of jungle isn’t dense, but rather a sun-speckled medley of foliage – large trees, shorter ones, mixed deciduous and evergreen, all interspersed with the variegated orange, white, green and red leaves we associate with house plants in the UK. There are occasional lilies breaking through the ground, morning glory, and vines trailing from one tree to another. There is also a thick carpet of crunchy dried leaves…

….As I write the evening intense stickiness has broken and the rains have come. Such an atmospheric relief. The same happened yesterday evening and overnight – the sound of a bucket of water being dropped onto your roof, and then abruptly stopping…

The zoo. The paths are stony – and much better kept than Albert Street – and each animal has its name, photo and a few details clearly marked. Actually, each animal had 3 names: Latin, English and Creole. Thus the tapir is also known as the mountain cow. The zoo has a fun style of writing a short poem about each animal, geared predominantly for kids, explaining how each is an essential part of the Belizean heritage, and how they need to be carefully looked after and husbanded back into the wild.

There were fabulous creatures there – animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, those that inhabit the trees, 2 and 4 legged land creatures, and then the watery types – crocs, turtles, and beautiful storks. I forget its name and it’s not in my bird book, but something like Jashira.

Over and over again we became entranced. The spider monkeys, so called because of the way they use their very long tail so that they appear to have 5 limbs, and can just hang from any. One seemed to love to perform for us. He would bend in two, patting his chest as if taking a bow, before playing with some ropes and branches checking to watch us watching him. Another walked passed like a little old man on an evening stroll before climbing into the trees and immediately becoming infinitely more agile.

A beautiful mountain lion lay under the shade of a bush, yet like any cat would become alert the moment a gecko made its soft-shoe-scuttle somewhere in its vicinity. They had a fabulous collection of cats, including the mountain cat or ocelot, big leopards, black jaguars and spotted ones. The black jaguar looked just like a larger version of our big, black, sleek, handsome boy cat. (Now I understand why Jaguar cars were called Jaguar!)

The harpy eagle was marvellous! Huge, and almost extinct, it has a grey head with tufty eyebrows standing upright like a kingly crown, darker grey back, and sturdy legs like a Sumo wrestler. It has thighs big enough to feed a family barbecue, and thick yellow talons as big as a bear’s paw. The underside of the wings and the thighs are white speckled with dark grey- black, which gives the sense of ermine; again reinforcing the nobility of this largest member of the eagle kingdom. Its wing span is over six feet, and we discovered that if we jiggled the green water hose passing through its cage it held it down with its massive talons and spread its wings – quite magnificent!

There were so many more – smelly old Belizean version of boar; grey mountain fox; some relation to the otter that I had never heard of, with eyes on the side of its flat face a bit like a frog. They also have a rehabilitation programme. Because the jaguars’ natural prey are hunted almost to extinction, they are beginning to prey upon domestic animals or even people, which makes folk want to kill them. So now the ‘nuisance jaguars’ are brought to the zoo and rehabilitated so they only attack the ‘right’ things. It is apparently working very well.

We made our way around and out to our bus back. We had been recommended to stop off at Old Belize – 7 miles outside of the city – to see the marina, false beach area with water shoots and other water play, plus a good restaurant. The marina was full of very posh ‘gin palaces’ as Dad would say, as well as the tourist ferry boats, all docked for this rainy/hurricane season. We asked one of the men looking after the boats what they did with them in hurricane warnings. He said that the marina was at Latitude 17.5, so if the warning was coming in at 17.4 or 17.6, he left them there. If 17.5, a bevy of lads took them 90 miles south as quick as they could! The sea was a little clearer there than at Belize City, though the sediment from the Belize River (or worse) still seemed apparent to me and put me off a swim. We had a surprisingly good pizza, and enjoyed seeing all the local families eating together, or children frolicking in the water. It was good to remember the rest of the world outside of the few inner city streets.

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!

Caye Caulker – Day 3

Had a gorgeous day! Awoke at 5.30am again, got up and read some of the short stories by the Belizean women. So fascinating, touching, sad, and informative. Excited by it. Also hugely aware that Britain is about 50-60 years behind this country in its understanding and practice of multi-ethnicity. It feels almost a non issue here.  No doubt it is, and the signals are subtle and there will be a hierarchy ..

Caught the 8am water taxi to Caye Caulker. Took about an hour, through a sea which gradually became less contaminated by the river and sewage, a deep blue with splashes of kingfisher blue and turquoise. We passed myriads of islands, atolls, small clumps of trees emerging out of the sea, isolated, extraordinary….and all surrounded by surf on the horizons, as the sea passed over the barrier reef.

Stepping off the boat, we entered the Belize of our imagination, of Hemingway, an idyll. The tiny narrow island, about the size of Papa Westray in Orkney, is just lovely. Palm trees fringe the shore line – much like the Scots pines around a loch, but oh so different, and the spirit of the sea breeze revealed itself through a constant tic tic tic in the palms. Conch shells adorn the sand as if they belong there, and occasional spines protrude through the sandy bed of the sea. Lanes criss-cross the island like a chequer board, each revealing more shops, bars, restaurants, B&Bs, houses for rent….some new with shiny multicoloured frontages, others on stilts, weathered and wooden, in varying stages of repair or decay. Wandering down one we spied a large, magnificent tree, large palmate clusters of leaves with huge fruits dangling like monster Christmas baubles. The skin was rough as if it had a monster dose of goose pimples. We asked a man nearby, who had lifeguard written on his tee shirt, what it was – bread fruit.

Like in the City, every possible ethnic combination seems to live together without noticing. As we sat drinking our coffee and eating delicious hot banana bread – my first bread like food since arriving – we watched others arriving off boats, carrying their rucksacks, and sporting the same expressions of wonder that we felt. Somehow this place has become a tourist island, a Belizean Blackpool, yet managed to retain most of its charm. We wondered if we would be able to find other places without all the tourist paraphernalia once we know Belize better – but no doubt others will be looking for that too.

 Looking pleased!

We moved on to a swim in the sea…the nearest to a beach is at the top of the island – most of the shore line is a sea grass bed, with boat moorings. Shallows were protected by an old sea wall, which had a bright orange star fish patiently creeping up its side only to be knocked down from the top by a passing wave. The sea over the wall was deeper in places, then shallow again – Conor stood up saying he had suddenly become taller! A narrow channel separated Caulker from its small neighbour, and the tide that morning was racing through the deep channel, sending strange patterns of water scouring along stretches of the sea bed where we were swimming. Oh, and it was warm! Gloriously warm. Later in the day, after the tide had turned, the strange eddies had calmed. We noticed that the local kids and dogs began diving and jumping into the deep channel and swimming to the other island and back, virtual water babies, and obviously very certain about when to avoid that channel, and when to play.

As well as father’s day, the first time that Belize had ever played against Mexico in football, it was also the first day of the lobster season. We shared a freshly barbecued one for lunch, for the sum of BZ 25 – about £6! Fresh watermelon and pineapple juice to accompany it…

We wandered down to the far end of the island, much better preserved, less touristy less inhabited, before returning in the water taxi to Belize City. It seemed such a far cry from the idyll! Unfortunately we discovered that the washing machine is not plumbed in. Lots of things to address tomorrow – my first day!

Belize City!

We woke at 4 .30am thinking it was 5.30! It feels good to be able to have time together after such a busy period, to be having this adventure together. Relationship is up – we were looking at the lovely card of a couple of kids walking up the lane that Gemma and Eddie gave us.

Between us we thoroughly cleaned the fridge. Felt much healthier. Not sure if it’s cold enough…We went back to Brodies again and exchanged the posh “UK standard” expensive mop for a swishy-swashy local one that will keep the dust down. Came back and mopped the floor and felt ready to go and explore.

The swing bridge was our first stop….manually revolved at least once a day to allow marine access up and down the river to the sea. It also marks the distinction between the commercial – where we are – and posh sides of town. On the northern side, huge wooden colonial places abound – some immaculate, some falling to pieces. Roads that are metalled, not just a broken concrete dust bath. And always the sea. A ghost town of a ‘tourist village’, and moorings awaiting their winter visitors. Now is the rainy season, and not fit for cruise liners.

We rounded the corner, noting the water taxi place for Caye Caulker – we planned to have time at the sea tomorrow, and there’s no way you will go into the sea here round Belize City. Passed the Image Place – a local initiative, with some interesting books by local folk and a few art works. I picked one up. I have the feeling we will get to know them, and that Conor’s new book about Belize will be sold there…

Suddenly we saw some interesting birds and as we did the ‘what are they?’ whilst staring intently, this Creole guy wandered up saying “What are you seeing that we Belizeans don’t see any more?” And thus we got talking to a fascinating man. Trickster, performer, fleecer of tourists…but nevertheless an informed and informing human who loves his country and his heritage. They were frigate birds, by the way!

He told us a tale – or spun us a yarn – about the origins of the word Belize. He also in passing told us that Belizeans have never had a war on their soil – apart from the British fighting the Spanish about its sovereignty. He told us that there is a huge tolerance for cultural difference. And he also told us the mythology that moved him to tears, and later made us realise that it is a land myth, and cultural myth, that will help when approaching the issues around violence between folk that we will be meeting.

Belkini is a Mayan goddess from the pre-classical period. She was an extremely beautiful woman, and the local folk wanted to honour her. Their land was called Belitza and they changed it to Belkini. She told them that when the man saw the woman in the morning, and praised her beauty, he would have fifty years of life, with bread on his plate and some left over to give to others.

(This is a myth for the relationship between men and women and also about human beings’ relationship to mother earth. When adored and appreciated she is abundant.)

Belikin – the local beer – and Belakin and Belkini are the same root word for Belize.

In central Mexico and the NE Yucatan, lived the Olmec Mayans. Some of them were black skinned too. The word – phonetically – ‘kin-iiii-oh-oh’ meant wonderful woman, beautiful woman, or wonderful baby. ‘Kiniohoh’ was shortened to ‘Kini’. The French used their word for beautiful ‘belle’ and added it to Kini. Thus, it was an amplification of the original – beautiful beautiful…woman…land…. Belkini – Belize.

Our new friend also told us about the Shieba tree which was magical and mythical to the Mayans. It has deep wide roots, a strong trunk and up-spreading branches. The roots go down to the underworld, and the branches reach to the heavens. When ???? dies, he goes down to face nine devils in the underworld, and if he survives he emerges on earth as a jaguar, before climbing the upturned branches to the heavens.