Every year, in April or May, Belize’s Ministry of Agriculture holds the National Agriculture and Trade Show in the capital Belmopan. What started out decades ago as a small, simple show about farming has become one of the country’s biggest weekends, with thousands of people visiting to eat, drink, and socialise. Despite being here for long enough to go to two of these shows, I never have, that is until the third one came round this year – the idea of going all the way from Belize City to Belmopan by bus with several thousand other people, spending the day wandering round a few food and drink stalls, and then returning by bus with the same several thousand (now inebriated) people (and all their shopping), and all at the hottest time of the year, never filled me with what you might call an overwhelming sense of desire.
But 2013 is different – for the first time, my employer the BCVI has a stall at the ‘Ag Show’ – although the show is mostly about selling stuff, several non-profit organisations have booths there, from the Red Cross to the British High Commission.
Our presence there is the brainchild of David, who, along with his partner Gillian, is the latest addition to the BCVI’s roster of foreign volunteers. Aided by several of the regular staff who were kind enough to donate their time (or didn’t have anything better to do, or were too slow to think of an excuse). And me (I like to think I fall into all three of the above categories). And at least I don’t have the pain of travelling there and back by superheated metal rustbucket along with hundreds of people stuffed full of chicken and beer – instead I get to travel by air-conditioned car. But that’s because I’m driving. So no spending the day drinking cheap alcohol and sleeping on the way home for me ;-(.
The BCVI’s booth is small, but we have wall-to-wall posters informing the public of our services (which are read by a few people), plus a Brailler used by our blind employee Victor to demonstrate how to type your name in Braille (which quite a number of people are interested in), and a sale of T-Shirts and sunglasses (which proves to be very popular – selling shades at just $2 a pair at one of the sunniest times of the year is such a good idea that we sell out by lunchtime on both days). We also stuff flyers and cards into any passing person’s hands. All in all, a successful two days.
Along with our booth, there are stalls set up by the British High Commission (who give me a fancy pen and a very nice lapel pin), BATSUB (the British Army Training Support Unit Belize, who have a selection of armoured vehicles on display, which the local children get a chance to ‘drive’), and the BDF (Belize Defence Force [the Belizean Army], who have several tables laden with firearms. The locals, many of whom probably have guns at home, peruse the selection of weapons like restaurant critics contemplating an à la carte menu – I overhear one guy complimenting the weight of a Glock 17 to his friend, then turn to find a teenage girl pointing a tripod-mounted Browning machine gun at me!). There are also booths for the various NGOs that operate here, including the Red Cross (who are handing out information on disaster preparedness and disease prevention), and PASMO, a sexual health charity who have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of condoms (I’m even given a femidom by one of their enthusiastic staff, and while I can’t see the use as a prophylactic raincoat, it is large enough to go hot-air ballooning in, if you fancy a day of non-sexy activities).
But most of the stalls at the Ag Show are selling stuff – mainly food, drink, and phones. There’s Belizean beer being sold from Belikin tents (including the very nice chocolate stout, made with Belizean cacao). Plus there’s the ubiquitous Heineken tent. There are oodles of food stalls selling everything from rice & beans to barbecue chicken to tacos to pizza – but I spend my lunchtimes at the Running W meat stall, sampling their Italian sausages and steak (that’s right – real steak, in Belize!) fajitas. And there are seemingly tens of stalls and hundreds of people offering phone credit top-ups – as my friend and erstwhile Belizean volunteer Kerstin pointed out on her blog last year, if you haven’t stood in a queue for hours in the hot sun to top up your phone, then you haven’t been to the Ag Show! Everyone else seems to be selling random products, including chilli sauce, home-made jewellery, and (bizarrely) toilet paper…
There’s also the fairground, which consists of the usual rides, all in the stages of dilapidation that you’d expect, and all staffed by suspicious-looking young men who look like they’ve had no health and safety training whatsoever (so pretty much like every funfair you’ve ever been to). Plus a petting zoo for the children and a music stage for the adults. And there’s even some shell games and confidence tricks being played on the unsuspecting rubes from the sticks – under a camouflage tarpaulin near our booth, there are various thimble-riggers taking people’s money using the old ‘ball and cups’ game. The fact that it’s at the Ag Show (and in the presence of the police) makes me guess that it must be legit (even though these kinds of games are illegal virtually everywhere). But I’m sure I can see the man hiding the ball in the cup so that there’s no winner. The tropical heat, the yelling sweating men, the money furiously changing hands – it’s all very reminiscent of the final Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter (I almost expect to hear the gunshot as Christopher Walken blows his brains out!).
And then there’s the Ag part of the Ag Show – vendors selling fertiliser and seeds, farmers proudly showing off their cattle and horses, a horticultural display, some shiny tractors and various cleaned and polished farm equipment – for people who work in this important sector of Belize’s economy, it’s probably an enjoyable and educational day (and maybe the main reason they’re here). But they’re in the minority, as most regular Belizeans are too busy eating, drinking, shopping, and topping up their phones to get to this part of the show. This area is popular with Mennonites, the traditional conservative sect of Protestants who arrived in Belize in the 1950s after a 300-year trip from Europe via North America. They’re immediately obvious from their white skin, blond hair, and traditional clothes, the women in bonnets and long dresses, and the men in cowboy hats, boots, and plenty of denim. Belizean Mennonites are heavily involved in the production of everything from dairy products to furniture to vehicle parts, and one of their largest and most prosperous communities is just down the road at Spanish Lookout. The Ag Show gives me a rare chance to have a good look at (and occasionally actually speak to) the people who look and sound so foreign, but contribute so much to the country.
On Sunday (the second day of the show), the rodeo is the big draw. There’s bull-riding (it’s not really riding, more like staying on for as long as you can), plus horse-riding, and an extreme form of cow-milking, where the participants have to lasso the cow, secure it (by having two men grab hold of its horns), and then milk it (by having another guy go round the back, avoiding the cow’s kicking legs). The chap who wins the bull-riding (who, I must confess, is the first black cowboy I’ve seen since Blazing Saddles) manages to stay on for more than the maximum eight seconds, and walks away happy but somewhat bow-legged. And finally there’s the dog show – but in unique Belizean style, it’s the only dog show that I’ve ever heard of that features prizes for oldest dog and ugliest dog!
All in all, my trip to the Ag Show was hard work but educational, two long but interesting and rewarding days, which will hopefully generate some more awareness of (and money for) the BCVI and its services. And I managed to buy my cheap beer in the end :-).