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.
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.
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.
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.
Now excuse me as I go lay in my hammock before preparing for another early village journey tomorrow.
Since moving to Belize, if I need something done urgently, and someone tells me they’ll do it “right now”, I get an uncanny sinking feeling in my stomach. In Belize time, “right now” can be roughly translated as meaning “at some indefinite, potentially distant time in the future”. It certainly doesn’t mean “now”.
The time in Belize is -6 hours GMT. But “Belize time” is a far more subjective and fuzzy concept. Work begins on time (unless it is raining, in which case if you don’t have a car, then it is perfectly acceptable at many workplaces to not show up until the rain stops). Meetings begin 15-30 minutes late. Parades, weddings and other big events start one or two hours after the “official” start time.
My own wedding had an “official” written start time of 3pm. So, at 2.55pm, my dad arrived at our house to drive me to the wedding venue. I was wrapped in a towel, with wet hair, in the middle of sticking on my false nails. I’d forgotten to tell my dad about Belize time.
While the official start time ticked on by, Ray’s extended family whisked around frantically finalising the wedding arrangements. Dresses were being sewed, hair braided and beaded, lamb stewed, chicken barbequed, tortillas baked and drum skins tightened.
But by 4.30pm, spot on for Belize time, everything was ready, and down the aisle we walked to the beat of drums, shake of shakas, and the sound of Ray’s dad singing.
Organising things here is as different as imaginable from the micro-managed, minute-by-minute “story-boarded” events that I used to be involved in when I worked in London. But the amazing thing is, it always works out in the end, albeit to Belize time.
I have been a very busy bee recently, and for that reason, my next blog entry will be along right now….
A few months ago, Ray and I were at his uncle’s house watching (me) and helping (Ray) make a drum. I was perched on the edge of another future drum. Ray’s dad Mario was also there. Everyone was taking a few minutes rest from the hot Belizean sun. A little boy came running into the yard, and then stopped in his tracks when he saw me. He looked at me suspiciously, then hovered in the corner for a minute or two. He then plucked up some courage, and said
“Uncle, I wahn ask you somting”.
Ray responded “Well ask me den”.
“It’s a secret”.
“Well come tell me in my ear den”. The little boy whispered in Ray’s ear.
Ray roared out “Who dat white gyal? She da me wife, she yo auntie, hear?!”.
The little boy looked mortified at having his secret question blurted out, but recovered, and then looked confused while he continued to look sidelong at me: “She cahn be my auntie”.
Ray: “Oh really? Why cahn she be yo auntie?”.
“Cos she white”
At which point, Ray’s dad jumped in and said,
“Boy! Even if she green, she still yo auntie, hear!”