Letter 5 from Belize: Birds, beasts & buildings
October 27th 2008
My work here involves a variety of activities: lots of driving, helping with administration, producing a new parish hymnal, dealing with enquiries (especially from the Spanish speakers), translating documents into Spanish, and many other incidentals. There is seldom a quiet moment, but I do build into the routine regular dawn bike rides,
walking the dogs, going for a wander along the beach or the occasional slouch in the hammock. Time, in other words, to take in some of the surroundings.
In the UK, you get so used to sparrows, starlings and blackbirds visiting your garden,that you stop taking notice of
them. You can imagine the shock I had when I looked out of my bedroom here and saw several black vultures! Who or what was going to be their next meal? Then on one of my bike rides, my eye caught this striking little bird perched in an orange tree. When I saw it the next day, I could have sworn it hadn’t moved! I’ve learned since that the vermilion flycatcher is very
territorial. Being so close to the sea, there is an array of seabirds and waders. The ever present pelican, whose dive-bombing
fishing technique is devastatingly accurate, contrasts sharply with the Frigatebird (Man-o-war) that fishes in flight without ever entering the water. The most majestic of the water birds has to be the great egret, which stands motionless for hours waiting to pounce on its prey. But the most entertaining egret to watch is
This herd of horses roams around the town at will. They will invariably occupy ground where there’s grazing, but one morning shortly after dawn, I spied them down on the beach! Having an early morning swim?
When out driving one day this little pig was wandering the ditches along the highway. As there was no obvious owner within sight, I wondered if someone might take their chance and bag their next meal. On another journey we saw a dark mound on the road, and wondered what it was. The answer came very quickly when the appalling smell of skunk invaded the car, and stayed with us for several miles. And I thought a pit latrine was bad! And finally I must tell you about the gibnut. This is a rodent, in other words a ‘rat’. Well, our gracious Queen, who is the Head of State here, visited Belize in 1994, and at the banquet they served her gibnut! I’m not sure they told her that she was eating rat, but ever since, the Belizean gibnut has been re-named the ‘royal rat’! I wonder if the Queen is aware of this accolade.
The house dogs
For a small nation, Belize has a disproportionate number of light-fingered inhabitants. So much so, that the Claretians
have had several burglaries. So they ring-fenced their property, and Fr Dominic bought three puppies which, as you can see, have grown into big puppies.
Argus (in Greek mythology has 100 eyes guarding the island) is a hound mix, and is by far the fastest runner of the three.
Mafia (in Garifuna means a ‘bad spirit’) is a mixture of labrador, hound and German shepherd
Pantü (in Garifuna means a ‘ghost’) is a mixture of rottweiller, German shepherd and pit-bull terrier.
You might think Pantü would be the most aggressive, but he is the biggest coward. When he’s attacked by another dog, he just rolls over on his back! When I ‘walk them’, I let them chase me on the bike. Dogs running loose are the norm here. But these three have decided they are going to murder every cat and chicken in town! However, when they meet their canine match, they are quick to seek refuge behind my back wheel.
The one common feature shared by most houses near the coast is their elevation above the ground. They are generally built on stilts, to fend off rising flood water, and to minimize mosquito invasion. However, a feature that few of them share is their ability to stand up to a hurricane. Many of them are flimsy wooden structures, about the size of a big shed, where entire families will live. Outside of town, their water supply could be run-off from the roof, and the pit-latrine will be located several metres from the house, for obvious reasons. Bad luck if nature calls in the night! Some of these shacks are, in fact, no more than hovels. When you think one might be abandoned, on closer inspection you might see washing on a line, or a bicycle parked underneath.
Out in the bush, housing is very different. There the palm-thatched cottage is standard, with their compacted earthen floors, partitions to separate off rooms, and hammocks, which prove to be the ultimate in fold-away beds. From the outside, there is something pleasingly rustic about their appearance, but on the inside, the living is extremely basic. I am told that the thatches have to be fumigated periodically, to chase out snakes and scorpions that might be lodging up above. By the way, have you checked your loft recently? However, every nation has its moneyed elite, and occasionally you’ll come across a property like this. But not many.