The week before last, on Friday 18th November to be precise, I celebrated my 1-year anniversary in Belize.
I spent the weekend doing pretty much exactly what I’d done the previous year – heading down south to the Stann Creek district to celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day. I won’t go into the details of the Garifuna and their celebration, as I’ve already written a post about it. But suffice to say it was another enjoyable Belizean weekend – filling food, heavy drinking, loud music, and late nights. And unlike last year, I hadn’t just got off a three-plane, overnight, 8000 km air trip from the UK, so I was a little more awake than before.
Fortunately, the bus company that runs to the south has laid on extra buses, so actually getting there is now possible (with the number of people on the move trying to fit into the normal number of buses it would’ve been futile to even attempt the journey). Even so, actually getting on a bus is an exercise in Darwinian survival – just getting passed the other passengers and into the vehicle is like running the gauntlet in the TV series Gladiators. Pushing, shouting and swearing; frayed tempers and sweat-soaked clothes – no one is spared, as we surge desperately en masse towards the bus like Titanic passengers towards the lifeboats.
Instead of staying in Dangriga (the Garifuna capital and Stann Creek’s main town), this time I headed to Hopkins, a village south of Dangriga. If anything, it’s got a higher percentage of Garifuna people, and with a population of around 1000, it’s about one-tenth the size of ‘Griga.
Hopkins is about six kilometres off the southern highway, and connected to it by a bus that runs twice a day, so it’s not the most convenient place to get to and from (a certain amount of hitch-hiking and taxi-riding is often required). But if that keeps the tourist hordes away, so much the better – unlike the other beach resorts in Belize, the main part of the village seems untouched by mass tourism, and it still feels like a small Caribbean village (although north and south of it there are a number of large, top-end resorts). Palm trees sway lazily in the breeze, dogs (in varying degrees of mangy-ness) nap in the shade, uniformed children cycle to school, women hang their washing out, old men relax on their porches, none of the buildings are more than three storeys high, and everyone says hello to you on the streets (both of them, there’s only two main roads in the entire place [I had to qualify that statement in case you thought there were only two people in the village]).
Although heavy drinking and late nights are par for the course here, this weekend the loud music wasn’t due to the latest bass-heavy releases from Pitbull or Nicky Minaj, or whatever you young people are listening to, it was down to the percussive and rhythmic sounds of Garifuna drummers. Having had a one-hour drumming lesson from my ex-colleague Ruth’s husband in PG (at the Warasa Drum School), I can tell you it’s not as easy as it looks, so fair play to the drummers who managed to keep time for several hours, and have multiple conversations, without losing the beat.
And for once, the filling food wasn’t rice and beans – it was the Garifuna staples of Darasa and Hudut. Garifuna cuisine makes extensive use of bananas, cassava and plantain. Darasa is dish of meat or fish, served with mashed and steamed bananas. And Hudut is fish cooked in coconut milk, served with a portion of mashed plaintain that’s the size of my head. If this is the food that the Garifuna ate before their long sea voyages around the Caribbean, it’s amazing they made it all, I’m surprised the boats didn’t sink as soon as the people got in them. I had Darasa (the smaller dish of the two, if smaller is the right word), and after eating it I had to lay in a hammock for several hours – it’s no wonder they eat their main meal in the day here, if you ate it at night you wouldn’t have digested it until just after breakfast the following morning.
(If you’d like to see some photos of Garifuna Settlement Day 2011 in Hopkins [and much better photos than I could take at that], check out my friend Holger’s blog post at http://www.sinnvollereise.de/2011/12/garifuna-settlement-day-2011-in-hopkins-belize/).
The other thing I did to celebrate my first anniversary is take a holiday. Apart from the national holidays (of which there are twelve, compared to eight in the UK), I haven’t taken any time off. And, apart from one awful day where I had something that felt and smelt like giardiasis, I haven’t had any time off sick either. And finally, having been working at the BCVI for a year, I’m now entitled to a week off. So after bidding farewell to my fellow Brits Mark and James (who have to go back to Belize City to work – suckers!), I stayed in ‘Griga on the Sunday night, then travelled to Tobacco Caye on Monday for the week.
Tobacco Caye must be one of the smallest inhabited islands in Belize (it’s certainly one of the smallest islands I’ve ever stayed on), with a permanent population of about twenty. It’s got six places to stay, two bars, and you can walk round the island in five minutes and across it in two.
Unlike my last fleeting visit in June, where I caught up with my friends Steve and Caia over a weekend, this time I had the whole week to kill. And this time I managed to get across from Dangriga without any seafaring incidents.
There are no roads and no vehicles and, even more mercifully, no dogs! And apart from the occasional activity (no more than two per day, I didn’t want to over-exert myself), all I did was eat, drink, sleep and lie in a hammock. But mostly the last two. I swam, sunbathed and snorkelled every day (the caye is right on the Belize Barrier Reef, so you don’t have to take any boat tours, you can snorkel right off the dock), scuba-dived on one day (where I was so unfit and breathing so hard that I managed to consume an entire tank of air while still on the sea bed), fished (unsuccessfully) on another day and, during one particularly active episode, caught my own lobster (which the chef at the guesthouse kindly cooked for me), and then opened a fallen coconut using my Swiss Army Knife and a rock. I had to take a nap after that (although my diurnal lassitude might have something to do with the fact that I filled the opened coconut with rum and then drank it).
The island is so small that there simply isn’t enough room to have separate hotels and restaurants, so you eat at your accommodation – at 8 am, 12 pm and 6 pm, one of the staff at each guesthouse rings a bell to signal the arrival of food. The tinkling (or clattering, depending on how old and knackered your particular bell is) sounds waft across the island, along with the smell of whatever everyone’s having for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Even though you’re forced to eat where you stay, the food seems to be very good everywhere (at least it’s been good at the two places I’ve stayed), and consists of plenty of freshly-caught fish and seafood, plus tropical fruit (and some chicken with rice and beans!).
Eating communally also means you get to meet your fellow guests. Say what you want about foreign travel in general (or backpacking/hostelling in particular), but the more I travel the more I realise that the human race consists of a very wide variety of people. And you simply wouldn’t meet some of them at home, you have to travel just to come into contact with them. Some of them even make me look normal. In the five days I was there I met a gay Canadian student couple, a woman from the Czech Republic who believed she was psychic (despite all evidence to the contrary), two American lesbians, and an octogenarian Italian man who started each morning with a glass of rum and a joint (and who constantly got lost on his way from the dining room to his cabana [I never worked out whether it was due to the age or the drugs, or a combination of the two]).
And after a week of doing not very much, batteries recharged, and with a tan that finally makes me look like I’ve spent the last year in a tropical country (as opposed to a year in a tiny airless office surrounded by broken computers), it’s back to reality and back to work this week.
The one final thing I’ve done is put up a selection of photos from the last year on my Facebook page – I’m not much of a photographer (in terms of quantity and quality), but hopefully they give an idea of what I’ve been doing and where I’ve been doing it (most people who read this blog are already my Facebook friends [and so are probably already aware of the pictures], so this information is for those of you who aren’t). The photos can be found here.