Hard-Work and Hammocks: Belize Work Culture

Some visitors to Belize may leave with the illusion that many of its residents are, shall we say, under-worked.  Stores that close for two-hour lunch breaks, people lounging around in hammocks in the middle of the day, people that extend even the Belizean definition of “right now” to seemingly endless stretches of time.  Belize work culture is different, but that doesn’t mean people don’t work hard. People work around the heat – they get up and start work early.  Just as you wouldn’t judge the overall productivity of Spain by observing their lunchtime siesta, or assume they never eat dinner just because none of the restaurants have opened by the time you go to bed at 10pm, take a pause for thought before you judge a country without knowing or understanding the culture and economic realities.

Most Belizeans I know get out of bed at 5am (or earlier!) every day and by 7am they have already been to the market, sold their morning supply of crafts/baked goods/snacks, cooked and/or eaten breakfast, and started making lunch, preparing their next round of wares to sell, or gone to their “proper” job.

My mother-in-law has built her whole house and put 7 children through school almost entirely on the proceeds from cooking and selling conch fritters.  But if you catch her around the hottest part of the day, you may indeed find her snoozing in a hammock or sitting at her sister’s house having a chat.  When you consider that she’s already been up and working for eight hours, you might think it sounds like a rather good idea.

Belize Work Culture

My mother-in-law, Ms Dami, almost finished cooking the morning batch of conch fritters by the time I drag myself out of bed at 6am

Many families live entirely on informal trade, not documented in the employment figures or any other official reports.  When I visit the Maya villages, mothers tell me they want to send a daughter to high school, so they start baking bread on the fire-hearth to sell.  That same daughter will have to catch a bus at 4am every school day to get to school for a 7am start, and won’t get home until 5pm.  Almost everyone I know, even those with a regular salaried job, has a back-up, as political, seasonal, or other unpredictable firings from such jobs are common.  The x-ray technician also makes glass windows.  The government driver also cuts grass and fixes lawnmowers and weed-eaters.  The road worker also welds burglar bars.  The nutrition coordinator also promotes a drum school and writes a riveting blog and the security guard also teaches and plays Garifuna drums to locals and tourists.

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Our house with windows made by the local X-Ray technician, and burglar bars made by a local road construction worker.

Office jobs, or indeed any job where you get to work inside all or most of the day, are considered a pretty sweet deal.  Compared to working in a sugar cane, banana, orange or shrimp farm, or doing construction work or security work for $15USD a day, it certainly is.  Living costs in Belize are high.  My utility bills here are triple what they were living in London, food is also more expensive, and unlike back in Scotland, there is none of the security of free quality health care, free primary and secondary education or unemployment benefit.  Instead, people have their families.

The young woman who found a day job saved up money to finish her high school education at evening classes.  Now she has graduated high school, she is using whatever money she can spare to put her younger sister through university.  Older brothers quit high school before graduating so that they can work and save money to make sure their younger sisters graduate high school.  Mothers put food on the table by getting up at 5am every day to make snacks to sell by walking or cycling around in the hot sun all day.  Fathers get up at 5am to go work on the construction site in the blazing sun till 5pm.  Children are sent out after school to sell bread and buns to help make ends meet.  Mayan farmers work the land around their village to grow enough corn and beans to feed their families.

Life in Belize is tenuous.  You never know when you or a family member will get sick or have an accident, and if they do, how you will pay for treatment.  Almost every week there is a radio appeal for donations to help the family get treatment for the mother who has been diagnosed with cancer or the family whose uninsured house burnt down, or for the family who want corrective surgery or a wheelchair for a disabled child.

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This week’s appeal for help

Like any country, there are those who don’t pull their weight.  And since the weather is good, there is a good chance you will see them as they hang about outside, instead of in cooler countries where they might be hidden inside their house, bar or gambling shop.  But next time you see the mother relaxing in her chair at 2pm, or the shop owner reopening 15 minutes later than advertised, or the office worker seemingly doing nothing, count how many hours it is since 5am, ask yourself how many children or younger siblings or nieces or nephews they may be supporting, consider how low their income is, wonder how many other jobs they may have, and re-evaluate.

So bear with your drum school instructor and promoter as we juggle our day jobs and our budding business – if we don’t get back to your message right away, be patient, or give us a call.

Warasa Garifuna Drum School

Now excuse me as I go lay in my hammock before preparing for another early village journey tomorrow.

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Observations from A Belizean Bus

I spend four hours a day, five days a week sitting on a Belizean bus on the commute between my home town of Punta Gorda and the “banana belt” villages where I work.  If it wasn’t for my finely honed ability to sleep anywhere, anytime, I’m not sure I could handle it.

Those who have never ventured south of Texas on the American continent may wonder what happens to retired US school buses.  Those who have ventured south know all too well: they are pimped up and forced down every kind of road imaginable, packed full of every variety of person and produce under the sun.

A Panamanian Chicken Bus

A Panamanian Chicken Bus

Belizean buses don’t get decorated as creatively as some of their Central American counterparts, but they are everywhere, and carry every kind of character.  I am sitting on the bus as I write, surrounded by:

Two Garifuna & 3 Mayan women breastfeeding; 3 other babies of various ages and hair arrangements; a smiling old “Spanish” man in a hat, who I took to the eye clinic 2 years ago for cataract surgery, two traditional very blonde Mennonite families in blue and green dresses and overalls; a young Mestizo man selling “golden plum look nice taste nice with salt an peppa”; tens of young Mayan men returning from a week’s work at the banana or shrimp farms; Paul Mahung, a reporter for national TV and radio and the man who conducted our wedding ceremony; some local NGO workers; a nurse; some Belize Defense Force soldiers; various other children, young men and women; plus one backpacker who looks like he is losing the will to live as he adjusts his too-long legs that are jammed in to the seat meant for school children.

Inside a Belizean Chicken Bus

The view outside is a panorama of tropical jungle dotted with Mayan villages with the Mayan mountains and setting sun behind them, and the Caribbean sea visible in the distance in the other direction.  I am given a few seconds extra to enjoy and replay the view as the bus reverses for 30 metres in order to pick up a passenger the conductor just noticed running out of a small thatch house as we thundered past.

The view to the Mayan villages from the southern highway to PG

Indeed, they may not be comfortable, or timely, but for customer service, Belizean buses, or at least good old James bus line of southern Belize, excel.  They drop you outside your front door, carry your bags inside, wait for you if you forgot something in your house, and ensure all needy people get a seat: “come now man I know yu tired afta yu di pick banana all week, but yu cyahn expect her to stand with a lee baby deh”.  And they are cheap, especially for a country where petrol is $6USD a gallon, they are for most people, the only affordable way to travel.

Belize bus

My James Bus home to PG

And so, my four hours of daily chicken bus commuting will continue, until someone invents and donates a 60mpg supercar.   All donations welcome.

I will leave you with a link to a rather lovely poem all about James busline of Belize (below the timetable!), and of course the Warasa Garifuna Drum School

www.hickatee.com/belize_bus_times.html

www.warasadrumschool.com

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Better step back cos I might pee on you!

So concludes the sign in front of one of the tapirs at Belize Zoo…

 

Scotty the Tapir

I recommend everyone that comes to Belize visits the Zoo, because it’s great fun, the animals are all in their natural habitat, there is no cement or perspex (so your paws are your own responsibility!), and it’s the only guaranteed way to see a jaguar, toucan, and all the other animals of Belize.

My first physical encounter with animals in Belize was even less pleasant than being peed on by a tapir.  Six days after arrival, two pit bull dogs took objection to me walking down the street, broke off their chains and feasted on my ankles.  I could hardly walk for two weeks, and the scars will never disappear, but while I am now far more wary of unknown dogs, my friendship with the animal kingdom was soon repaired.

Not too long after the dog incident, a fellow volunteer, Jess, came across some children about to throw a kitten down a slide, while a hungry dog waited at the bottom.  Jess yelled at them to stop, scooped up the kitten and brought it home.  Orchid, as we named her, was less than a month old, had a stripe of blue spray paint down her back, and looked generally dishevelled.

Orchid shortly after being saved

But after a few weeks she was a healthy, affectionate fur-ball who liked to sleep on top of my mosquito net.  Most Belizeans do not like cats, and don’t know what a pet cat is like.  One day, a Belizean friend came to the house, and Orchid promptly jumped on his lap and made herself comfortable.  She was tolerated at first, that is, until she started to purr.  Never having heard a cat purr before, the poor guy freaked out, said the cat was going to explode, and threw Orchid off his knee in a mad panic to everyone else’s laughter.

In Punta Gorda, howler monkeys and toucans live just minutes away from our rented house in town.  Once at 4pm, I was leaving work, and I heard howler monkeys nearby.  I took a 30 second walk across the cemetery, and found three howler monkeys at the top of a tree looking down suspiciously at the white girl being eaten by mosquitoes.

The land where we are building our new house has a fig tree in the garden where a group of over 20 parrots like to gossip over an all-you-can-eat fig buffet.  A toucan perches on a nearby tree every day; iguanas chill out on various tree limbs and lizards dance around the grass.  All only a 15 minute walk from the middle of town.  As my father-in-law says, “you got your own zoo back deh for free”.  I just need to work on some Kriol rhymes for it now.

www.warasadrumschool.com

 

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What’s in a name?

Considering the name of my husband, I feel an entry on the general inventiveness of Belizean names is apt.  There is no McDonald’s restaurant in Belize (in fact there are no chains at all), and so Ray has not suffered too much as a result of his name, but there is a reason he introduces himself as Ray to all non-Belizeans.

My personal favourite name that I’ve come across in Belize is Al Gore Bo, a name belonging to a 7 year old Mayan boy I discovered while conducting vision screenings in the tiny village of Machaquilha,  a 3 hour drive + 40 minute walk away from PG, with no phone service or electricity.  If only I spoke Kekchi I would have asked the boy’s parents about that one.

Al Gore....Bo?

I think the parents of my former workmate Disraeli Socorro Bol, and her 10 brothers and sisters who all have the same initials (Diora, Davina, Delana, Diego, Descartes, Desiderius and 4 more that I can never remember) should get some kind of prize for inventiveness.  Some parents choose to combine their names to christen their dearest with, giving wonderful combinations like Rayanna (Raymond + Joanna), Darlisa (Darius + Lisa) and so on.

In addition, certain surnames are associated with certain trades, occupations or prestige.  If you have the same surname as somebody (other than through marriage), then it is highly unlikely that you are NOT related in a country where I would guess that there are no more than three degrees of separation between any two people.  I feel the need to be friendly to pretty much everyone in PG not only because I’m a friendly person, but also because I figure there is at least a 20% chance they are related to Ray in some way.

When I first came here, and people found out I was from Scotland, they would ask (perhaps thinking that the above logic could be applied equally effectively outside Belize) if I knew Kirsty that worked at Red Cross in Belize City, as she was also from Scotland.  Now you might think that I would have to point out that being a country of 5 million people, no I did not know Kirsty at the Red Cross.  Funny thing is, I did.  She was in the year below me at Balfron High School, and we both ended up in Belize completely independently of each other, and only find out about each other once we were both here.

www.warasadrumschool.com

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Shilling Chips and Sweets

Being a former British colony and a current close neighbour to the USA seems to have caused some interesting idiosyncrasies in Belize. For several months when I arrived, I wondered whether Belize used British or American spelling. I would see “tires” for sale, but people of many different “colours”. It all became clear when listening to the annual Coca Cola National Spelling Bee (a very American event) on the national radio station. The judges announced that both British and American English spellings were acceptable. Belize has officially decided not to decide.

The same seems to apply to weights and measures. Locally bottled water is sold in 500ml, 1 litre, 1 gallon, and 5 gallon bottles. Speed limits are given in miles and kilometres. People ask for a pound of onions at the market, but the nurses at the hospitals record your weight in kilograms. Sweets are called sweets and a 25 cent coin is called a “shilling”.

A Belizean "Shilling"

But crisps are called chips and chips are called fries and they say “tomayto” instead of tomato. And so children here, instead of asking for a 20p mixture or a 10p bag of crisps, will ask for a “shilling chips”, or ask “how much sweet I cud get fu shilling”. A biscuit is a biscuit, not a scone like thing drenched in gravy.

The sense of humour is far more similar to British than American, in that you can take the piss out of your best friend and they know that that means you are good friends and you will all be laughing about it rather than getting offended. Since there are not that many British people in PG, the little similarities in language and humour to back home are my saviour many times. It is funny how little things can make you feel at home. My first Easter in Belize I spent in Hopkins with a fellow Scot, Kirsty. I bought a bag of shilling chips from the local ‘Chiney’. On sampling them, I declared that they looked like Wotsits, but tasted like Quavers, and was overjoyed to have someone with me who knew exactly what I was talking about.

www.warasadrumschool.com

 

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Royal Rat – A Vexing Meal? Kriol, the language of Belize

While English maybe the official language, Kriol, the language of Belize, is the real language. Based on English, but with its own grammar system, and lots of other words thrown in, on first coming here, you will probably understand 50-70% of what people say on the streets.

Some proper English words that I think I almost never used at home are used all the time here. Examples include variations of the verb “to vex”, which is used all the time instead of annoyed, angry, pissed off etc, e.g.: “Wha’ yu di geh vex wid me for?” ‘What are you getting angry with me for?”.

My father-in-law, who’s first languages are actually Garifuna and Spanish, broke the news to me that “di crab done condemn some of di okra” that he planted (although happily not all, and as the surviving okra plants are now 12 foot high, they are out of reach of even the largest of blue crabs). Even now, sometimes Ray will say things that have me simply replying “huh?” in confusion. Some call Kriol simplified English, but to me, there is nothing simple about it, and like with all languages, there are some things that only make sense when they are said in Kriol.

I will leave you with January’s recipe from this year’s Kriol Kalinda for stewed gibnut, a huge rabbit-like rodent, which can indeed be made with rabbit if anyone feels like being chef.

It’s alternative name, Royal Rat, comes from the fact that it was fed to Queen Elizabeth during her last visit. I’m not sure whether she found eating an over-sized rodent vexing or not, but I’m sure she’s been fed many strange things in her time.

 

 

 

Schoo Raiyal Rat

Kriol, the language of Belize

The Royal Rat -Picture and Recipe courtesy of the Kriol Council of Belize (http://www.nationalkriolcouncil.org/) and their fantastic annual Kriol Calendar.

  • ¼ or ½ a wan gibnat (bowt 3 pong)
  • 1/8 kop vineega er di joos a 2 laim
  • 1 teespoon seezn saal
  • 3 plog gyaalik, chap op; er 2 teespoon jrai gyaalik
  • ½ teespoon blak pepa
  • ½ teespoon taim
  • 1 tayblspoon saiz rikaado
  • 1 tayblspoon Lea ‘n’ Perrins saas
  • 1 meedyon oanyan, slais op
  • 2 kop vejitablz
  • kuknat ail

How fu mek itWash meet wid vineega er laim.  Kot op di meet eena di saiz porshan weh yu waahn.  Jrayn di meet gud gud.  Miks op aal di seeznin dehn lang wid di saas sotay yu ga wahn wet amonk.  Rob dat op gud-wan pahn di meet.  Den set di meet wan said fu soak dong wahn lee owa self; oavanait eena frij gud tu (di langa di beta).  Heet ail eena yu pan.  Ad di meet.  Ton dong heet tu meedyom.  Brayz fu 30-40 minits; ad 1/3 kop waata evri now ahn den wen di meet jrai owt, sotay ih tenda.  Kova di pat meentaim if yu waahn ih moa tenda.  Yu ku ad di vejitablz fahn di taim yu staat to brayz if yu waahn dehn saafi  saafi, er wayt sotay now fu ad di vejitablz if you waahn dehn moa ferm.  Ad lee moa waata ahn kuk dong tu ail.  Serv wid blak-aiy peez ahn rais, bayk plaantin ahn pitayta salad.

Rikaado, or “recado” is a Belizean seasoning made from the annatto plant (the same plant used to colour orange cheese).  You can use paprika instead. 

www.warasadrumschool.com

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Black man lay the pipe: Belize race relations

“Spanish man build the house, Chiney man cook the food, White man pay the bills, Black man lay de pipe!”

Immortal words from a song of Belizean punta rock super star, Supa G.

“Hey, Blondie!”

I keep walking, aware of my long dark brunette hair.

“Hey, White gyal!”

Ah.  They’re talking to me.   Welcome to Belize race relations, where your ethnicity and skin colour is not something people whisper about behind a veil of political correctness.

Belize has about 310,000 people, in a land area roughly the size of Wales.  But it is a melting pot like any large British city.  The main ethnic groups in Belize are: Creole, Mestizo, Maya (Mopan, Kekchi and Yucatec), Garifuna, East Indian (‘Coolie’ or ‘Hindu’), Mennonite, Chinese (‘Chiney/Chino/China’), Middle Eastern (‘Lebanese’), other Central American (‘Spanish’), Nigerian, and various Caucasians (‘white gal/bwai/man/’oman’).

It takes a while to get used to being identified solely by your skin colour, but you can’t legitimately get offended once you realise that it’s not much different from shouting “hey you in the red shirt and blue shorts!”: it’s mostly just one of many defining physical characteristics, and everyone does it to everyone else.

But as Supa G’s song outlines, stereotypes do abound. When people yell “white gal”, there is often a silent “rich” in there.  My shabby clothes are all just a cunning disguise.  Mennonites smell bad; Garifuna people are lazy; the Chinese are stealing all the business opportunities, the Spanish are stealing all the jobs and so on.  The usual vastly generalized assumptions that are the foundations of many cultures.

It is mostly superficial, and I have never personally witnessed any vicious verbal or physical racism, but while it may all seem hunky dory, you could easily argue that you just have to look at where the power lies in the country and at the poverty and crime statistics to see that not all is fair and equal between the various ethnic groups.  Belize, a country where approximately half of the population is black (historically closer to three quarters) elected its first black prime minister only three years ago.  Poverty rates are consistently higher in Maya and Garifuna households.  Crime rates are out of control in the Creole southside of Belize City.  Child labour is most likely in Spanish immigrant families.  And so on.

But as a whole, I would say many so called “developed” countries have a lot to learn from Belize in terms of race relations.  My own brother was beaten up in Scotland when he was a child for having an English accent.  I really wish I hadn’t heard people at home using phrases like “Paki scum” and the like, but I have, sometimes from people I had considered friends.  I honestly can’t imagine anything like that happening in Belize, or at least certainly not in Punta Gorda, and I truly hope that Ray is never on the receiving end of anything like that in the UK or elsewhere.

www.warasadrumschool.com

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From Brixton ‘Bananas’ to PG Plantain

Fyffes Belize through the ages

The first time I ate a plantain was when I lived in Brixton, London, five minutes’ walk away from Electric Avenue market. I had bought a large banana, but it didn’t want to peel properly, and it was a weird shade of yellow inside, and it tasted unripe and made my tongue feel funny even though it was a deep yellow on the outside. I had wondered for a while why so many market vendors in Brixton sold giant mouldy black bananas, but never really investigated.  Of course, I now know that I had actually bought a plantain, the banana’s starchier cousin.  Unfortunately I realised this after I had already subjected my friend Harriet to the same ‘banana’ eating experience.

Yellow and green plantain for sale on Electric Avenue, Brixton

These days, I am a plantain and banana expert – I even work in the so-called “banana belt” villages of Belize (helping the local teachers get trained). Thanks to Ray’s dad Mario, I know how to cook green bananas (you grate them and make them into burger shaped savoury “banana fritters” to eat with fish), yellow bananas (ok so they’re still best eaten straight out of their skin, but taste oh so much better when they’ve ripened on the tree!); over-ripe black-skinned plantain (chopped into slices lengthways and fried into unhealthy deliciousness); ripe plantain mixed with green plantain (boiled then pounded into submission ready to eat with hudut, a delicious Garifuna fish and coconut stew) and everything in between.  When I say I know how to cook all these things, I mean I watch Mario do it regularly – I leave all the actual cooking up to him!

I know that to grow a banana or plantain tree you just get a piece of banana tree stalk, stick it in the ground, and you’ll have bananas less then a year later. I know that good banana cultivation requires the merciless hacking down of all runt banana trees that sprout out of the bottom of the mother banana tree, leaving only the strongest daughter to rule once the mother has borne her bananas and is also mercilessly slaughtered.

Bananas freshly picked from Belize's banana belt for export

Yes I now have utmost respect for the humble banana family – and next time you see a Fyffes Belize banana at your local supermarket in the UK or Ireland, just think, I might have driven past that banana while it was still on its tree while visiting a school in a Mayan village just a few weeks previously.

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

 

 

 

 

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Mundian to Bach Ke (Ronald McDonald vs. Punjabi MC)

The face off

I have a terrible singing voice. I love to sing, but only in private when (I think) nobody is listening. Ray has a good overall singing voice and a great Garifuna singing voice: Garifuna songs don’t require you to be in perfect tune or for you to sing like a bird, but they do require character and confidence, both of which Ray has when he sings. He sings all the time, and regularly puts a smile on my face by randomly running up to me and singing in my ear.

Sometimes, he tries to get me to sing along to a well-known Garifuna song. For whatever reason, even though we’ve been married almost one year and together almost 4, I get stupidly shy at such requests and refuse: I hate being put on the spot. My usual excuse is I can’t because it’s in Garifuna and I don’t know the words. Ray always tells me that doesn’t matter I just need to listen.

Once, when I was with him at his mum’s house, he was saying this to me again when his 12-year old niece Kathlyn was there. Kathlyn only started living with Ray’s family recently, as previously she was living with her Creole mother in Belize City, so she has only been learning about her Garifuna side the past 2 years. Kathlyn is a lovely girl, and agreed with me that it was hard to sing a song when you didn’t understand the language. (All credit to her though, she was at least willing to try!)

Ray however again claimed he had no such difficulties or inhibitions. So, I searched through my phone for a song I could test him with, and found the song Mundian to Bach Ke by Punjabi MC. I played it full volume through Ray’s amp and speakers, and challenged Ray to sing along. It has to be said that the performance of Mundian to Bach Ke – possibly the first time a Garifuna musician has sung in Punjabi – was hilariously funny but also quite impressive, and I thus completely failed to prove my point.

 

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

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How to shake your arse (Belize style)

Go to any bar with live music at night in Belize, and you will witness the dominant form of Belizean dancing, which like the dominant form of Belizean music (Punta rock), originates from traditional Garifuna culture.  That is, it involves shaking your arse.   Visitors to Belize often marvel at how Belizean women especially are able to “move their ass completely independently of the rest of their body”, and think that they have developed special arse muscles that allow such frenetic yet well-controlled booty manoeuvres.

I have a secret to share: no special arse muscles are involved.  In fact, I would venture that you don’t really use your arse muscles at all.  Or even your waist muscles (not at beginners’ level punta/punta rock dancing anyway).  The key is all in the feet and legs.  If you stand still, feet shoulder width apart, bend your knees slightly, and then bend one knee more than the other, you will find your other knee straightens.  Then you switch and bend your other knee forward more.  Keep doing this, and you will find a funny thing happens: your arse moves side to side.  No special arse muscles required.

Of course, to look professional, you have to do it in time to the music, and be able to move around side-to-side, forwards, backwards, in a circle, and a few other little fancier movements here and there, but that is the basic secret.  So stop focussing on your arse, shift your knees, and be prepared to look like an idiot.

Ray likes to take credit for the fact that I can now dance punta (and paranda, and to a certain extent hungu-hungu), and while he did give me two or three lessons (where even though it was just me and him in the house I still felt like a complete idiot!), I think most of it just came from getting bored sitting down watching everyone else having a good time, and finally thinking “ach stuff it who cares” to all those that wanted to laugh at the white gal who (couldn’t) dance.

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

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