A breeze in Belize – Part 1
By Rupert Parker – Part 1 of a series
Belize wasn’t top of my list of countries to visit but I had to get out of Cancun, an ersatz Vegas on Sea without the gambling. So I decided to hop on the bus and find out what it was like. If fact it takes a couple of buses, the first, modern and air conditioned, hurtles down the freeway to Chetumal in about 5 hours. Then it’s all change to a Belize “chicken bus”, which, in a former life used to ferry US kids to school. Now it transports the locals over the border and rattles over the potholes on its way to Belize City.
This tiny country, not much bigger than Wales, is unique in South and Central America, because it’s the only place where English is the official language. In fact, the day I arrived they were celebrating their Independence from Britain, grudgingly granted in 1981. Nevertheless they seemed quite glad to see me, or that’s what I thought when they kept offering me swigs of the local rum.
Fear in the Capital
You know you’re not far from the West Indies as you wander around Belize City and it isn’t just the way they speak their Creole. Stoned Rastas amble up to you, hustling for beer, cigarettes and money and the thump-thump of reggae is the urban soundtrack. At first it feels like a threatening place since there most shops dispense their goods through small armour plated openings. But, after a while, you realize that, certainly in daylight and in the centre, it’s fairly safe.
In fact the only trouble I had was after I’d bought a bottle of beer from a Chinese liquor store. They refused to open it so I approached a likely looking Rasta, and he nonchalantly ripped off the cap with his teeth. So far so good, I thought, but then an armed policeman tapped me on the shoulder and told me it was illegal to drink openly on the street, but ok if I had a paper bag.
If you’ve ever seen the Notting Hill Carnival you get the general idea. A line of floats, blaring the local Punta music, a sort of reggae on speed, leads troupes of dancing girls shaking their collective booties. The home made costumes are dazzling in the sunlight and even a sudden tropical downpour doesn’t dampen the party spirit. What it does instead is flood the roads, since the drainage system has long given up the ghost, and I have wade back to my hotel, up to my knees in grimy water.
Creole, Mestivo and Garifuna Ethnic Mix
There’s no doubting the energy of this city, even though the ramshackle wooden structures that serve as houses seem to be on the verge of perpetual collapse. Its 75,000 inhabitants represent a remarkable ethnic mix, a living cultural map of Belize’s colonial history. The majority are Creole descendants of former slaves followed by Mestivos, a mix of Mayan Indian and early Spanish settlers and even East Indians, brought over by the British as indentured workers. Most unique are the Garifuna, descended from the union of shipwrecked slaves and the original Carib natives, who have their own language and culture.
Most people spend little time in Belize City, put off by its state of chronic deprivation and air of violence yet it’s worth spending a few days here. An easy going Caribbean atmosphere makes exploring on foot particularly worthwhile, not forgetting the once-in-a-lifetime experience of shooting the breeze with its more colourful inhabitants. And the beer is cheap…
The Great House (223-3400). A restored Colonial wooden building located in the Fort George Area, expensive but very comfortable.
Radisson Fort George Hotel (223-3333). Great sea views and best hotel in Belize City.
Hotel Mopan (227-7351), Basic wood-fronted building but clean and reasonably priced.
Chateau Caribbean (223-3888). Excellent Chinese food and sea views.
Di Faiyah Haat (223-2865) 64 Newtown Barracks. Belizean country dishes and arts and entertainment.