A Very Creole Christmas

This vacation started Sunday night in Miami: we had different family obligations. Ray had flown to Oregon for a Christmas dinner with his cousins, and I’d gone to Kansas for a funeral. We met in Fort Lauderdale, and left for Belize the next morning from Miami.

We stayed at a very cute place, Villa Boscardi, just north of downtown Belize City. Belize is actually kind of expensive: we were met at the airport by someone who took us to the hotel for $25 US. Belize dollars seem fixed at 2 to a US dollar, and seem invariably to be used for minor purchases, while major ones are always quoted in US dollars. After we checked in, we took a taxi downtown for a more reasonable $10 US, bought stamps at the post office, established that the Museum of Belize was closed on Mondays, and set out in search of TripAdvisor’s favorite Belize City restaurant, an Indian place. It turned out that while its open hours were all day, it was also closed on Monday. So we went to the next place that TripAdvisor said was authentically Belizean. At Nerie’s 1 the proprietor told us the food had run out, so we should go to Nerie’s 2, because it had the same food. So we went over there. It was humble and homelike and good. Ray had some chicken soup with cassava and vegetables, with coconut rice on the side, and I had a different chicken soup, chimole, which was black in color and seemed to have things in common with Mexican mole. It was also spicy — seemed like black peppers instead of chilis. The stock might have been based on a Maggi cube but this is an ex-British colony after all.

The next morning we checked out, had a taxi drop our bags off at the municipal airport, and drop us off at the museum. It had several cute exhibits, including information about the history of Belizean independence, an air-conditioned room full of Belizean stamps, a large area showing Mayan artifacts, and a small room with Belizean insects. There is a great incentive to hang out in the rooms that are air conditioned. We walked back to the airport, and got in a twin-engine Cessna which flew us and two other people to Dangriga. There we met the boat that took us to Pelican Beach Resort South Water Caye, where we spent the next several days.

The island we were on in South Water Caye had about five small properties, of which Pelican Beach Resort was by far the most popular. The number of guests ranged from five to twenty over the nights we were there. It is minimal. There were four things for sale in the souvenir case: aprons, stuffed cloth dolls, key rings, and Tampax. Dinner was made from whatever they caught that day. Lobsters the first two nights; conch for a couple of nights, fish always.

We were approached at dinner one night by a woman who recognized us. She had come up to look at the apartment in 1999. She now teaches at Deep Springs College.

There was easy snorkeling off the beach the first couple of days. The seabed looked like the Arizona desert underwater: soft corals like ocotillos waving in the water. There were many species of cute reef fish hanging around, many hiding amongst the soft coral, or in front of color-matched brain coral. The most spectacular water creature we saw was an eagle ray, swimming near the dock around sunset. There were dozens of frigate birds, and dozens of pelicans which continuously dove into the shallow water and scooped up little fish.

It was somewhat uncharacteristic of us to just go to one place and stay there for several days basically doing nothing. In my case, I spent quite a few hours of that nothing-time adding a feature to Pro Tools. On the third and fourth day the wind came up, making snorkeling not so much fun, but providing plenty of time to read as well as work and sleep.

We took a slightly bigger boat across a much bumpier sea back to Dangriga, and took a taxi which had been arranged for us up to our next destination, Manatee Lodge at Gales Point. We had seen Gales Point from the plane on the way down, a spit of land fifty meters wide and two miles long sticking into the southern end of the Southern Lagoon: the lodge was located out at the very tip. Once again, we were staying for a long time (four nights) with basically nothing to do. We took a little manatee boat trip and saw several emergences of manatee nostrils near a buoy which marked an undersea hot springs they enjoy warming up at. It was not really that different from watching a meteor shower. We never saw anything like an entire manatee, but we heard lots of descriptions of how big they were. The boat went back out with a 13-year-old trying fishing for the first time, and he came back with a jack that the cook expertly prepared, perfectly crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.

Manatee Lodge is owned by Nancy, a woman who left Michigan 12 years ago and her Belizean husband. After the first night we were the only tourists staying there, but all the other rooms were occupied by her in-laws who were there for Christmas. Her mother was staying there as well. On our first full day there, we walked the two miles through the village down to the police station, and met various members of the community, including a retiree from Las Vegas whose Social Security checks presumably go much further than they would back home, and an artist who offered to sell us some ganja. Belize, and especially this village, has a Creole culture like many Caribbean islands. The residents could understand us as well as anyone, but it was often difficult to understand their language, even peppered as it was with generally recognizable English words. It was always interesting hearing Nancy speak Creole with a Michigan accent with her husband and her staff. We went on a birdwatching tour that was really a boat ride, pointing out various large water birds as we went, egrets, herons, ibises, and some roseate spoonbills. It included zipping through a winding channel up to the Northern Lagoon and to Bird Caye, an island inhabited by hundreds of ibises, and zipping back in time to arrive around dark.

After the first day we were the only people in the dining room, except when Nancy decided to eat with her mother. I asked Nancy why she didn’t serve the whole family in there. She said that Creole family values do not include taking meals together. One of the most common things to decry in the failing American family is that people don’t eat together like the Cleavers. Nancy said, that she had tried to get everyone to take meals together here but they just don’t do it. The way in that culture is that a plate is prepared in the kitchen, and each person comes to take his plate, and goes off and eats it somewhere. And don’t try to ask for less food. Nancy also described an exchange between her cook and a guest who said there was just too much beans and rice. The cook said, “Send it back, then. I’m sorry, I just can’t give you any less.”

The next day was Christmas, and the day after that was Boxing Day. Gales Point is a ghost town; but Christmas is All Souls Day. People who have moved away come back for dancing and drumming. On each of those days, it is the tradition of the village and its alumni to go “brammin'”. Officially, the idea is that you “sing for your supper”: the entire village starts at one end, a bunch of drumming starts up at one of the host houses, a bunch of call-and-response singing happens atop the drumming, and the hosting houses serve bits of food and plenty of drinks to anyone who wants any. The entire procession goes down the road, ending up at the other end well after dark. The next day, the whole thing happens again in the opposite direction. We walked along with the group and took pictures. Everybody knew everybody. A lot of them were wearing their new Christmas clothes with the price tags still on. is this a style just now? It’s a logical progression from having Yves Saint Laurent’s monogram on your clothes if you’re not named Yves Saint Laurent. On Boxing Day, being part of the mob meant that we got some free wine from “Gentle’s Cool Spot” (the other remaining lodging in Gales Point) made out of island fruits, in our case pineapple, and berry.

The following morning, the price tags were part of the litter on the road. Why do poor neighborhoods have so much more litter than rich ones? There’s nothing special about money that keeps you from dropping your candy wrappers on the ground, is there?

The best quote for a taxi ride to the Guatemalan border came not from anyone in the village, but from the guy who took us from Dangriga a few days earlier. His son (and one of the son’s cousins) picked us up and we made the three-hour-or-so drive across Belize, on dirt and paved roads. Their taxi company is the most famous in Dangriga. He gets to carry the government officials. The cars come from the U.S. It’s a 24 hour drive from Belize to Texas. I have an unfortunate engram from arriving at the North Prague train station in 1999 and finding no taxis or buses or anything. We had to walk toward downtown until somebody picked us up, don’t remember who. Always I worry when we get to a transportation intersection, there will be nobody there who can tell us how to go to the next place. (That experience was an outlier. The almost universal experience is that before you have even alighted from your arriving conveyance, there will be three guys there telling you exactly how to do what you wanted to do next, before you even tell them your plans.)