September is party time in Belize. Several important historical events are celebrated in this month, and the country takes the opportunity to celebrate everything else they can think of too – there are festivals for everything, from major countrywide events like Independence to small local parades in every provincial town. Plus cultural events, regattas, fireworks, beauty pageants. And a children’s talent show.
Even when there’s no event going on, the country feels festive in September – people’s homes and cars have Belizean flags waving from them, everything from shops to streetlamps has bunting fluttering from it, and every store and business seems to be doing special deals or having holiday sales.
The festivities kick off in earnest on September 10th with St. George’s Caye Day – this commemorates the Battle of St. George’s Caye, one of history’s shortest military engagements. From 3rd to 10th September 1798, the Spanish (invading from Mexico) fought British loggers (and their slaves) and, after the final battle, the Spaniards withdrew, the British declared themselves the winners, and the island (and ultimately the rest of the territory) was on its way to becoming a crown colony of the British Empire, then a self-governing colony (both called British Honduras), and finally, the independent nation of Belize.
Today, St. George’s Caye is a small, quiet island with a few holiday homes and a permanent population of about 20 people. BATSUB (British Army Training Support Unit Belize) used to maintain a base there, but now that they’ve left Belize (due to UK government defence cuts) they won’t be using it again, so unless the BDF (Belize Defence Force, the country’s military) take it over it’ll be even quieter on the island, if that’s possible (the British Army have been in Belize in one form or another since the late 1940s, but this year they left, much to the chagrin of the government and the locals – BATSUB added several million dollars to the country’s economy and employed over 150 Belizeans; taxi drivers and bar owners have been deprived of a much-needed source of income; now there’s just the BDF to protect Belize from the territorial ambitions of neighbouring Guatemala, who’ve been laying claims to the all or part of country on and off for decades; plus, much to the disappointment of myself and several of my Belizean friends, now there’s no more BFBS [British Forces Broadcasting Service] on the radio!).
Apart from the September 10th celebrations, St. George’s Caye is quiet (when I visited over Christmas 2010, the only living creature I saw there was a dog!), and strolling along the deserted beaches it’s difficult to realise that what happened in one week on this tiny island hundreds of years ago changed the history of the entire country and made it the culturally unique place it is today – Belize is now the only English-speaking country in Central America and the only one to have a British colonial history. And with a coastline on the Caribbean Sea and a history of slavery from Africa and the Caribbean islands, it has a distinctly West Indian flavour to it as well.
Some people I’ve spoken to don’t like to celebrate the battle – they think that the white loggers and their black slaves didn’t fight as equals, and they feel that, as the combatants in the battle were the ancestors of modern Belize’s two most prominent ethnic groups (Creoles [the white masters and black slaves] and Mestizos [the Spanish Mexicans]), glorifying one group alienates the other. But most locals are proud to be Belizean (whatever their ethnicity), most of them accept that it happened centuries ago and much has changed since then, and like most people all over the world, it’s less about what you’re celebrating and more about the fact that you’ve got a day off work!
Even though the 10th is the first public holiday, the festive spirit gets going a week earlier with the opening of the September celebrations on the 3rd. In Belize City this takes the form of a carnival. Due to the recent global financial problems, the event’s been getting smaller every year for the last few years, but it’s still very impressive, and one of the biggest events I’ve attended here (Belize City’s on a peninsula that can’t be more than 5 km across at its widest point, but the carnival seems to snake across most of it, and takes several hours to slide its way past my lookout spot). And it’s a fine way to kick off the celebratory month – hot sunny weather all day, a lunch of barbecue chicken (from the multitude of food stalls), a never-ending supply of cold beer (from the beer stall that I’ve located myself directly next to), and an ever-changing view of the passing floats, colourful costumes and scantily-clad dancers bouncing, jiggling and grinding themselves to the pumping music (Belizeans, like many Caribbeans, dance in a very, ahem, sexual manner – when women are dancing on their own, it’s basically what you’d expect to see a stripper do in a pole-dancing club. Often with the same amount of clothes. And when a couple get together, it’s less like dancing and more like clothed sex). There’s a variety of couples on the floats ‘dancing’ together, in other words, they’re essentially dry-humping each other – one couple are hanging off the back of their float going at it like a pair of mating monkeys up a tree, and on another float there’s a large black lady who appears to be having intercourse with a speaker.
Despite all this adult jitterbugging, it’s a family event, with dancers ranging from five to fifty, and spectators ranging from crying infants to doddering geriatrics. The floats are sponsored by (and advertising) everything from the national brewing company to a hardware store chain to the local high school. And, despite the flowing alcohol and large numbers of young people (and Belize City’s not-undeserved reputation for gang violence), there’s no major trouble (unlike 2008, when one of BATSUB’s stolen grenades [a case of them was stolen from the base in 2004!] was lobbed into the crowd watching the parade [thankfully it didn’t explode]).
The other important historical event (and public holiday), along with St. George’s Caye Day, is Independence Day. At midnight on September 21st 1981, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time outside the Governor-General’s residence in Belize City (I’m sniffing and wiping away tears as I write this!) and replaced with the Belizean flag, to the strains of the new national anthem. This year’s celebrations are bigger than normal, as it’s Belize’s 30th birthday (making it the youngest country in the Americas and a place where over half the population are older than their country). Watching the live coverage of the event makes me glad I’m not there in person – it seems to consist mostly of speeches from people I’ve never heard of. But the fireworks at midnight are pretty. The only thing that dampens the mood is the recent death of George Cadle Price, Belize’s first Prime Minister, and the man who oversaw independence and who is regarded as the ‘Father of the Country’. But on the plus side, his state funeral on the 26th is another day off!
The only other September event I participate in is the Belize Expo, which is completely unlike any expo you’ve ever been to – unlike an international expo (where countries have pavilions aimed at generating business and tourist income) or a trade fair (where companies showcase their latest products), Belize’s expo is much more low-key. It seems to consist of a few stalls selling clothes and sundries, stands for the country’s telecoms companies (both of them!), and a bank ‘ATM’ that consists of what looks like a burger van with a man inside taking people’s cards and then giving them money. There’s also food and drink stalls and some live music. Judging from the stalls’ activity and the customers’ purchases, most people seem to be either topping up their mobile phone or buying industrial-sized quantities of toilet paper. I eschew both in favour of food, drink and watching the band (but to give the place an ‘international expo’ feel, I eat a hot dog and drink Heineken!).
And that’s September in Belize. The next major celebration will be Garifuna Settlement Day on November 19th (this also marks my 1 year Belizean anniversary!). But this year it falls on a Saturday (and the holiday is given only on the day, it isn’t carried over to the following Monday if it falls on a weekend). So no more days off until Christmas ;-(.