Of all of Belize’s ethnic groups, the Maya are the most indigenous of the lot – they were in Central America long before the arrival of the first white men, and some of their ruined cities are over two thousand years old. Nowadays, the Mestizos and the Creoles make up the country’s main ethnicities, and the Maya (who now comprise about 10% of the population) are spread round the country’s hinterland, near the borders with Mexico and Guatemala. One of the areas where they’re most concentrated is Toledo district, in the far south of Belize. With over 60% of Toledo’s population being Maya, and with them living in over 30 villages, it’s one of the best places to spend some time with the descendants of the original inhabitants of the area. And I finally get my opportunity to go there by working for a few days in Punta Gorda, the very last town on the Southern Highway.
Punta Gorda (or PG as everyone calls it) is at the end of the highway – there’s nothing beyond here except dirt roads, jungle, small villages and a vague border with Guatemala. And even the highway wasn’t finally paved until a few years ago. Despite Belize’s small size it still takes over four hours to drive here from Belize City, which is only about 120 km away as the crow flies – although both places are on the coast, the road that links them winds its way inland through mostly empty forest before ending abruptly at PG and the sea. The BCVI (my employer) has a clinic here, and after spending a few days working, I arrange a stay in one of the villages for the weekend. The village trips are arranged through an organisation called TEA (Toledo Ecotourism Association), which is run by an expat in PG. He tells me about the programme, the villages and asks what kind of activities I want to do – after realising that I have no real interests other than vague ones of meeting some locals and doing some hiking, he recommends the village of San Jose and tells me how to get there. He also assures me that I’ll be the only foreigner in the village, as everyone who visits goes through him. I naively suggest emailing or phoning ahead to make a reservation, or at least to tell someone in the village to expect me. But, with no phones, no email, no computers, no electricity(!), and no mobile reception, that seems a bit of a non-starter.
So, on Saturday at noon, I find the bus to San Jose and jump aboard. The buses to the villages are packed with locals going back home after spending the morning in PG at the market, selling their wares and stocking up on provisions, which seem to feature lard and sugar quite prominently. Men load up the backs of the buses with the shopping, the women exchange some last-minute inter-village gossip, and the children finish off their chocolate bars and ice cream, treats from the ‘big city’. The men are dressed in Western-style clothes but the women have some traditional garb on, wearing embroidered blouses and woven cotton skirts with striped patterns of red and blue. Some of them are wearing jewellery so golden and chunky they wouldn’t look out of place in an Essex nightclub. After trawling round town for a while picking the last few stragglers, we head along the coast for a few miles, then turn inland, and, at the charmingly-named village of Dump, we leave the smooth paved road for a bumpy dirt one and disappear into the jungle. The bus takes two hours to get to San Jose, dropping off (and occasionally picking up) people at various villages along the way. Some of the villages are by the side of the road, but others are hidden in the forest, connected to the road by an almost invisible path, and on several occasions the bus will stop, a family will get out, pick up their bags and disappear into the undergrowth.
When we get to San Jose, the first thing I notice the number of churches there are – I count two on the way in to the village, a Pentecostal Church of God and regular Anglican Church. For a village of 700 people that seems a lot. There’s also a school, a health centre and a general store. After finding the TEA guesthouse and the owner’s wife (she doesn’t seem too surprised to see me, and goes off to find her husband), I also find another tourist, Michaela, an American, who turned up at the village the day before. She didn’t go through the TEA programme, hence my surprise to see another white person here. While Michaela learns how to weave a basket (she’ll be there forever unless she down-sizes it and makes a coaster instead), I wait for the owner and check out the village. The people may not be rich, but they certainly are house-proud – the village is very well-kept, with all the thatch-roofed wooden houses well-made and sturdy-looking, the few concrete buildings clean and painted, and the garden lawns neat and clipped. On the outskirts of the village are the inhabitants’ farms, with rows of corn and bean plants, banana and pineapple trees. It’s the prettiest village I’ve ever visited, so pretty it could be a film set, like Hobbiton from The Lord of The Rings. There’s also the obligatory naked child running around, and plenty of clucking chickens.
After I get back to the guesthouse, Felipe the owner arrives and checks me in. He then goes off with Michaela on some other tourist activity they’ve arranged and, as he leaves, three smiling, sweet-looking women enter the hut (it’s well-made and has four walls, two doors, windows, a roof, and separate rooms, but it’s still a hut). One of them cheerfully tells me that they’re here to welcome me to the village, and it’s then that I spy the Bible in her hands. Oh no. And in the hands of one of the other women is a copy of The Watchtower. Oh very no. It’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And this time there’s no hiding behind the curtains or lying on the carpet to get out of opening the door to them. These women may be sweet and gentle, but they are as persistent as a woodpecker and as unstoppable as a Terminator. And, after spending thirty-odd minutes in their company, I realized why I never enjoyed going to church or reading the Bible – not because I have a problem with God, but because I have a problem with religion and religious people. And ironically, the more devout they are, the worse they seem to be. Personally, I don’t think God does exist (that belief is based on the total lack of evidence for his existence and the plentifully available evidence to the contrary; although my scientific mindset dictates that, just because there’s no evidence for something’s existence, it doesn’t mean that that thing doesn’t exist; so, until we know absolutely everything about the universe and have answered every question, I can’t say with total 100% confidence that God doesn’t exist; but you could apply the same thinking to the existence of Father Christmas or The Tooth Fairy and come up with the same conclusion, and most people don’t believe in them. I guess that makes me an agnostic atheist [although I prefer the term Secular Humanist!]). But my point is, if God does exist, he’s not the one I have issues with, it’s his followers. People have done some pretty awful things in the name of religion, and while bending someone’s ear for a few minutes isn’t as bad as the Spanish Inquisition, it still highlights the fundamental problem with so many religious people – intolerance. They’re so filled with their own sense of righteousness that they just can’t understand that there are other people that don’t believe what they do, and they just can’t leave those other people to their own beliefs (or lack of beliefs). The other problem with groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses is their proselytising nature – they have to go out and evangelise, converting people to their faith. Even Michaela, who met the women the day before and is a Christian, had a hard time getting rid of them. And for a Godless secularist like me, it’s damn-near impossible. Every single rebuttal of their arguments is carefully and gently thrown back at me with the appropriate passage from the good book, and it’s no good talking about personal opinions or individual interpretations, because they believe everything in the Bible exactly as it’s written – if Eve was given an apple by a talking snake, then that’s exactly what happened. And when I finally have enough and tell them that I don’t believe any of what they do, they look at me with a mixture of pity and disgust, tell me that they’re leaving (finally) and then ask for a donation! (And why wouldn’t they? After all, they’re doing me the ‘courtesy’ of telling me ‘the truth’?). After not getting any money, it takes another five minutes of negotiation as they try to leave me with a copy of The Watchtower, then they eventually relent and instead give me a copy of another publication called Awake! Magazine – these two publications are the most widely-circulated magazines in the world, with a worldwide printing of over 82 million copies per month!
And it doesn’t end there. After escaping to the village shop with Michaela later on, we meet some normal women working there and are having a pleasant, jokey chat with them about where we’re from and whether we’re married, when the owner of the shop appears. He’s the husband of one of the local women and the brother of the other one. He doesn’t waste any time getting to the point. After a brief introduction he asks me what my religion is. After seeing my increasing discomfort and unwillingness to talk about it, he goes for the jugular by asking about my previous conversation with his relatives (where I admit I was being characteristically flippant), and reminds me that ‘liars burn in hell’! Bloody Hell. I wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t come here for this, I just wanted a bottle of water and a Snickers bar. It’s lucky I didn’t go in the shop for some porn and a beer. The man turns to Michaela and asks if we’re in a relationship. She responds in the negative so quickly and enthusiastically I end up doing a triple-take between her, the man and his no-longer smiling relatives. After convincing the man she’ll have a proper talk with me later, Michaela puts her arm round me and gently escorts me, shell-shocked, from the store. As we leave, the owner’s still calling out to me, saying how I’m a lost sheep and how he fears for my mortal soul. I’m starting to wish I’d stayed with The Jehovah’s. Perhaps the rest of the village isn’t as bad as that, and some religions are certainly less ‘aggressive’ than others, and I’m sure there are many religious people around the world who are basically good, but the whole experience just serves to confirm my opinion that it’s not God I have problems believing in, it’s religious people I have problems dealing with. I don’t try to ram my opinions down other people’s throats, it’s a shame so many religious people can’t extend me the same courtesy. Maybe it would be better if God did exist, then he could come down on a cloud and show these people the error of their ways. Or at least smite them with a lightning bolt.
After that very shaky start, the weekend gets better. In the evening, Michaela and I are picked up by locals from different families and taken to their respective houses to eat. I spend the evening getting beaten at football by two small boys, then being served eggs, beans and a small tower of corn tortillas by an old lady with a lovely smile and several gold teeth. I eat separately from the family, but they sit and watch me from by the fire-hearth, occasionally asking me questions about my country and asking me if I want more tortillas. The weather’s cool and the food’s hot and fresh (everything apart from the tea bags came from the farm outside). Everyone in the village speaks excellent English, even the older people, so I have no trouble conversing with them, and even when there’s nothing being said, it’s still nice to just sit quietly, drink my tea, and stare at the flickering shadows from the fire.
The next day I go for a hike in the jungle to a sinkhole. With most of the bedrock in the country consisting of soft limestone, Belize has archetypal karst topography, full of caves, deep holes, underground rivers and cliffside waterfalls. Felipe my landlord is my guide, and he knows the jungle like a native, hacking through the bush with an alarmingly large machete, and stopping every now and then to tell me which plants are good for you, which plants will kill you, and which plants to use if you confuse the first with the second. There’s a vine you can slice into to drink the watery sap (not to be confused with the vine that grows in the same forest, looks identical and is highly poisonous!), a fungus that contains progesterone and is the original source of the chemical in the birth-control pill, a leaf containing quinine that prevents malaria, and some surprisingly tasty termites. After the hike I go for a stroll round the village before dinner. Judging from the lack of people around and the noise coming from the churches, most of the village is worshipping. But I do meet one guy, who takes me to his house, tells me about his family, and shows me his new barn that he’s building. The barn’s being made almost entirely with local materials, the only thing that has to come from outside the village is the concrete for the floor. The posts and beams are from local trees, the joints tied up with twine or fitted together with well-cut dovetail joints. And the roof’s made from leaves. After the barn-viewing he gives me a glass of his home-made wine. Like many of the things in the village, it’s made from corn – where would these people be without this humble cereal? Despite the suspicious appearance (it’s a dark red, frothy liquid in an old bucket, and if I look at it long enough I can see the bubbling fermentation), it’s surprisingly nice – I was expecting it to taste harsh, like raw alcohol, and it was actually quite sweet and almost fruity, like a young rosé! In the evening it’s off to another family’s house for dinner, where I have a soup made from every imaginable part of a chicken (I never realised chicken’s necks were so meaty!), plus another tower of tortillas, and then help the children with their homework – they have an old, fading children’s atlas and I amuse them by describing all the countries I’ve visited and pointing them out on the maps. They seem most amazed by the fact that I came all the way from the UK (on a plane!) and am now living in the country’s biggest city, ten times the size of PG and hundreds of times the size of the village. It’s another peaceful, family evening spent with some of the nicest people I’ve met so far. The kids and I also discuss various dangerous animals of the world, and there’s an imaginary three-way fight between an African Lion, an Indian Tiger and a Belizean Jaguar. Needless to say, we all agree the Jaguar would win.