Letter 2 from Belize: Digging deeper
October 4th 2008
Every nation has its own special patriotic symbolism, in the form of flags, national anthem and, sometimes, natural phenomena. When I drove Fabian, the Assistant Schools Manager, to the village of Bladen for a PTA meeting in a Q’eqchi Mayan community, I never imagined the meeting would be prefaced with a full rendering of the national anthem! And yes, everybody seemed to know all the words, even the Q’eqchi Mayans who had a very limited grasp of English.
Belize is a tiny country rich in natural phenomena, which are celebrated by four selected national symbols:
My first Belizean snake
Belize does have a fair number of snakes, but none more poisonous than the Fer de Lance, locally known as a “tommygoff”. This morning, as I came back to town from my dawn cycle-ride, I passed one that had been squashed by traffic on the road, measuring about 2 metres. I began to wonder how it had come to be so close to town, only to discover later that the heavy rains of the last few weeks have been driving the snakes out of the forests and plantations. As scary as they seem, the “tommygoff” does an admirable job of consuming vermin, but surprisingly, even it has its own predators amongst the snake and bird world.
Because we are still in the rainy season, the start and end of each day is usually heavy with cloud covering on the horizons, but occasionally the clouds reveal the sun. My room overlooks the Caribbean, so I can watch the sun rising as I get up. Being close to the equator, the sun tracks a course almost directly overhead, so little shade is cast by trees and buildings, which can be a problem in the middle of the day! Out on the jetty at about 5.30pm, you can get a perfect view of the sun setting over the Maya Mountains in the west, and with billowing clouds, it can cast a dramatic light.
The PTA meeting
The school I visited with Fabian in Bladen has been named in his honour, and financed almost entirely with money from the UK. The PTA meeting we attended was unlike any PTA meeting you or I would be familiar with. This one was conducted in a curious mixture of English and Q’eqchi, sitting in a small wooden classroom. When I asked to use the loo before the meeting started, I discovered the shocking reality of a pit latrine!
Being the first meeting of the year, the staff formally introduced themselves, said an opening prayer, and then proceeded to sing the national anthem, which occupied several minutes of the agenda! I believe in some schools the anthem is sung twice a day by the children. I wonder how many Brits know their own anthem in its entirety.
Because of the meeting, the children stayed at home and enjoyed some free time. Every time I emerged from the meeting, I was besieged by several of them, all tugging at my sleeves, wanting their photos taken.
A Belizean funeral
I have been reading a book on the Garifuna traditions surrounding death, fascinated at how some of their ancient practices are grafted onto current religious customs. Unfortunately, funerals are a very common occurrence here, and I witnessed one such exiting the Sacred Heart Church across the road. Everybody was smartly turned out, all wearing some combination of black and white. The coffin (in this case of an 83 year old gentleman) was lifted onto the back of a truck, and the procession solemnly walked to the cemetery, preceded by a van with loudspeakers playing prayers and hymns. I understand that just before being committed to the ground, the coffin is opened once again for a last look at the deceased. This usually encourages a final outburst of emotion as the coffin is then lowered to its final resting place, and the grave is sealed with cement as the mourners look on.
The jetty, only 200 metres from the house, has a community life all of its own. From before sunrise to well after sunset, there is a mobile population of visitors, some fishing for their next meal, others chatting idly in groups, yet others just gazing into the distance. I have found it a magnet, especially just before nightfall. I’ve met a fascinating cross-section of the local population, both young and old, easily falling into conversation as shoals of fish leap out of the water pursued by a predator, and pelicans observe lazily from their driftwood perches.