Letter 9 from Belize: Serendipities
I mentioned in a previous letter a trip to Belize City. At the Bishop’s Secretariat, I met Bishop Dorick Wright, Bishop of Belize, who was coming out of his office, and he informed me that my surname is very common in Belize. It probably goes back to the days of the British Baymen and the logging industry, when many Scots came over and settled. I asked him if he was aware that his school managers were in a meeting in his office, and he looked at me in surprise and said mischievously “If you want to be kept in the dark about anything and everything, just become a
bishop!” Sadly, his diabetes has caused him to go to the US to seek treatment for his eyesight.
Holy Redeemer Cathedral
The whole of Belize is one Catholic diocese, and Holy Redeemer is its Cathedral in Belize City. This year they are celebrating the Cathedral’s
sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary, but the first wooden structure lasted only a few years before it was destroyed by fire. The present church was built using bricks that had been used as ballast by incoming empty ships from Britain, and much of the interior was constructed with locally grown mahogany. The hurricanes of 1931 and 1961 did considerable damage to the fabric, especially the Byzantine domes and Gothic steeples, so the present structure is not entirely original.
Happenings at funerals
I have witnessed an unfathomable number of funerals in the last two months. Births and deaths happen in copious numbers here. A 65 year old lady, who was recently buried, had outlived 6 of her 11 children. Garífuna funerals have a special quality about them. They are invariably packed, with people spilling out of the doors, and the singing and wailing both happen with great abandon. At a funeral in Hopkins, two young lads got up and sang plaintive, impassioned dirges over their mother’s coffin, which prefaced the spilling out of a deep sense of family loss.
At another funeral in Seine Bight, I was just standing innocently by outside the church when, suddenly, I found myself enlisted to help carry the coffin! I wasn’t prepared for the crippling weight we had to carry. Six men struggled to carry it the 50 metres to the waiting truck, and struggled even more to lower it into the grave. I never thought to ask them for their risk assessment! But I do like the words on many tombstones that describe the dates of “sunrise” and “sunset” of the deceased. I don’t know why, but the use of such euphemisms reminded me irreverently of the Monty Python
Dead Parrot sketch, which seemed to exhaust all known English euphemisms about death.
Encounters of an interesting kind
With my work here, I have been privileged to meet people from all walks of life, and during some of my meanderings about town, it has been easy to fall into conversation with local people. I met Harry after a cycle ride while relaxing on the beach. He lives out on the Cayes, and was spending time in Dangriga doing some fibre glass work for a boat owner. Infants are the most photogenic of creatures, and many golden moments present themselves. Some are swaddled on the backs of their Mayan mothers, while others peer at you playfully over mother’s shoulder.
Outside a PTA meeting at Bella Vista, I met this lad with his pet raccoon ‘Luche’, and my perception of the domestication of animals was expanded yet again. I’ve already mentioned chickens and dogs wandering in and out of services. Well this dog simply settled under a pew and went to sleep! Our own three dogs once wandered across the road into the church while Fr Dominic was saying mass, and immediately picked a fight with another canine attendee. The resulting squabble apparently brought proceedings to a sudden halt!
Perhaps the least understood, although most conspicuous, community in Belize, the Mennonites hold fast to their culture and strict religious beliefs while continuing to dominate the commerce, carpentry, engineering, and agricultural industries of Belize. The Mennonites emerged during the Reformation of the 16th century in Northern Europe. Persecuted throughout the ages for their beliefs, particularly for their refusal to pay land taxes or support the military, this Anabaptist group migrated from Holland to Germany, through Prussia to Canada, to Mexico and then Belize, continuously fleeing from the attempts of each government to regulate their communities and to draft their men into the army. Their unique language, an archaic amalgamation of Dutch and German, has persisted the 400 years since this move and is still spoken in the Mennonite communities of Belize. The old order Mennonites will only use pre-20th century technology, so cars, telephones, television and modern media do not play a part in their lives. The modern Mennonites, however, avail themselves of the latest technology, and with their Germanic work ethic, are respected leaders in the Belizean world of commerce.
Chicle If you were ever a gum-chewing teenager, I wonder if you had ever pondered the origins of chewing gum. The sapodilla tree is endemic in Belize, and one of its by-products is latex gum, imported extensively by Wrigleys at the height of its chewing-gum production. Highly skilled ‘chicleros’ would climb the tall trees with a machete, and score the bark to extract the gum, that would be collected in bowls or pouches at the base of the trunk. It was a highly profitable but dangerous occupation, frequently beset by theft and murder.
“Mach de wint senne emma enn jϋn Rigje” (‘May the wind be ever at your back’ in garbled Mennonite German!)