Letter 10 from Belize: Birthdays & beachcruisers
Having lived the teaching timetable all my working life, by early November I was
wondering what had happened to my half-term break! So self-indulgently, and to have a little break for my birthday, I slipped off to one of the Cayes for two days. This entailed a 40 minute ride from Dangriga on a high speed open skiff to Tobacco Caye, a tiny tropical island of only 5 acres (2 football pitches) that takes less than 5 minutes to walk across. There are no shops, one beach bar, lots of palm trees and hammocks, and the optional activities stretch no
further than relaxing with a book, snorkelling and scuba diving by the Barrier Reef (which is less than 50 metres away), or taking some early
morning exercise by watching the sunrise from a hammock. The cabañas, though very basic inside, had verandas picturesquely overhanging the sea, under the shade of coconut palms. My sleep one night was rudely interrupted by a coconut falling on my roof. The crashing sound made me leap out of bed! The bad news for the island is that, with the current rate of coastal erosion, the island could disappear beneath the waves within a generation.
Back at the ‘coalface’, I drove Fr Gerry out to San Pablo, a remote Q’eqchi Maya village
out in the plantations. We gave a lift to a mestizo lady heading for work on one of the banana farms. She told me she spends 10 hours every day sorting and packing bananas, and is paid BZ$20 per day (£6), just above the minimum wage. Once into the village, I discovered that their water supply and electricity have still not been restored. I wandered down to the river and saw womenfolk doing their laundry and collecting water for their domestic needs. Elsewhere in the village, a team of men were building a palm-thatched family house. On enquiring about their progress, they told me they had started three hours before and expected to finish it by nightfall. I told them, at that rate, they could make a fortune building houses in my country. They looked at me quizzically for some reason! During the school mass, I noticed a boy wearing a Thomson tee-shirt, and remembered the holiday company had given us their discontinued promotional lines (pens, shirts, caps….) when they changed their company logo, and we had sent them out to Belize. I have also noticed lots of the pens still in regular use.
Martin Teul and family
On our way back, we stopped by the Teul family house, on the banks of the Kendal River.
They have been looking after our red truck on the south bank of the river so that, when the river is in flood and the causeway is impassable, the river can be crossed by skiff, and the truck used to reach the many schools and communities down in the south. Martin Teul has a small 50 acre farm, and he is of Mopan Maya descent, though he also speaks English, Q’eqchi and Spanish fluently (putting the rest of us to shame!). He and his grandchildren proudly took us on a tour of his land, introducing
us to many new and exotic fruits. We sampled Mali apples, apple bananas, giant mandarins and cacao (cocoa). We saw breadfruit trees and Golden Beauty bananas, and every time we went “oooh….aaah” the grandson would shin up a tree with his machete, and lop off a branch of mandarins or a hand of bananas. We struggled to carry the booty back to the truck. Before leaving, I caught my first glimpse of a Belizean hummingbird, hovering around nectar-laden flowers.
An unexpected call
We dropped by Bella Vista (a Spanish speaking community) to deliver some documents to the school but, on seeing a priest in town, Fr Gerry was asked to pay an unscheduled visit to a dying gentleman. We eventually picked up the man’s son to show us the way to his house and, when I enquired about his family’s background, he revealed they had fled from El Salvador during the 12 year civil war there. I asked if his mother was still alive and he told me the very sad story of his home being attacked by militia and his mother being murdered. Stories like these always leave me wondering about the grim reality of life for so many of these people.
You have probably been wondering when I would ever talk about one of my favourite
topics! As China used to be, Belize still is a country of limited car-ownership, but everyone seems to have a bike. There is, however, only one make and style of bike, and they are all made by the same Chinese manufacturer. I love them for their sheer simplicity. They are single-speed Hurricane beachcruisers with a back-pedalling braking mechanism. Their handlebars seem to be designed so that a passenger or heavy load can sit comfortably up front. I have seen parents carrying up to 3 children, and men transporting heavy sacks of fruit or even huge gas canisters or car wheels for repair. There is no limit. Marcela, a diminutive lady from Guatemala, cycles her 50 kilos of goods each day the 4 miles from Sarawee village into Dangriga, where she works as a street vendor. She told me that she had been attacked a few months before by knife-wielding youths, who stole all her day’s takings. She is a wiry, undaunted character who looks set to meet any challenge, but I couldn’t help but admire the strength in those cycling legs! She made my pedalling efforts pale into insignificance.
Then there are these ladies who walk everywhere and use this ingenious load-carrying technique, and there seems to be no limit as to how much they can carry.