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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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Yurumein: The story of the Garifuna

Every year on 19th November, Ray, his family, and pretty much every Garifuna person in Belize (plus lots of other interested Belizeans and visitors) will attend their local “Yurumein” on the national holiday known as Garifuna Settlement Day, the anniversary of when the largest group of Garifuna people arrived on the shores of Belize.

 

Yurumein is the Garifuna name for St. Vincent, the island where several Spanish slave ships were wrecked in the 17th century, allowing their occupants to escape slavery and mix with the local indigenous Arawak and Carib Indians living on the island, creating the Garifuna culture, language and ethnicity.  But the word “Yurumein” now also refers to the annual re-enactment of when the Garifuna arrived in their new homelands in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua after being expelled from St Vincent by the new British colonialists in the 19th century.

In PG, this re-enactment involves two or three boatloads of Garifuna people paddling towards the main dock, carrying essential crops such as banana, plantain, cassava and coconut to plant wherever they land.  The also carry their flag, and also come playing drums to announce their arrival.  Unlike the original arrival, in the Yurumein re-enactment, hundreds of local Garifuna people line the shore and the dock waiting to greet their brethren, wearing traditional clothes and also carrying flags, drums, and crops, and singing and dancing in greeting.  Local British/Zimbabwean/Belizean Jack Nightingale, who is a portly middle-aged white man with blonde/white hair and an English accent, takes on the role of the British Governor General, and thus when the first boat requests permission to settle in Belize (British Honduras way back then), he refuses the request.

 

 

He refuses two or three more times, and the lead boat paddles back to discuss the next move with the other boats, but persistence pays off, and eventually the Garifuna boats are granted permission to land and settle the uninhabited coast in the south of Belize.  The new arrivals land their boats, and join in with the singing, dancing and drumming, and parade town to much celebration, before going to church for a brief ceremony.

Last year, 2010, 19th November was a rainy day, but although rain stops many Belizeans going out under normal circumstances, the Yurumein still went ahead, and had even more poignancy, as made you ponder what it must have been like to travel across the sea for weeks looking for a new homeland, only to be refused entry.  I would have persisted also!

And so the coastal Garifuna towns and villages Dangriga, Punta Gorda, Hopkins, Barranco and Seine Bight were formed.  The other Garifuna village in Belize, Georgetown, is inland, but was only founded after some families from Seine Bight relocated following a bad hurricane.  While Garifuna people make up less than 10% of the population of Belize, their influence is widespread, especially in the areas music and education, with the majority of Belizean musicians and a large percentage of Belizean teachers being of Garifuna heritage.

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He-He-Hey! Sucking Teeth & Pointing Lips

I’ve lived in a few different countries in my life, and in each one, I have learned the specific cultural gestures and sounds that are used to communicate on a daily basis. In South Korea, people would make a “hol” honking like sound when surprised or shocked, and would beckon people with their arms held out full stretch, palms down, frantically flapping their fingers (doing it palm-up is highly insulting, as that is how you beckon a dog).

In Belize, Garifuna people have the Garifuna laugh, which phonetically goes something like “he-he-he-ey!” – the final “he-ey” being louder and higher pitched than the rest. They also have a habit of pointing at people with a slight upwards nod of the head and sticking out their lower lip. Sucking your teeth to make a squelchy kind of reversed hiss is the Belizean sound of annoyance or impatience. I try and think of what some typically Scottish non-verbal communications are, but I guess they are so deeply ingrained in me that I can’t identify them – feel free to enlighten me!

 

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Drums of the ancestors

Dugu – Painting by Belizean artist Benjamin Nicholas

Listening to many Garifuna songs, they are very up-tempo.  My Scottish indie-rock loving music tastes assumed that they must therefore be quite cheerful – maybe about catching lots of tasty fish a particular day.  But that’s not how Garifuna music works – there is a particularly up-tempo Garifuna punta song that is all about when Hurricane Hattie almost completely destroyed many towns and cities in Belize:

Wa ba bumalali, Sili, lanarime dan
(You’ve raised your voice, Syl, how terrible the storm).
Wa ba bumalali, nirüa
(You’ve raised your voice, my child.)
Nabugu yali ubüu
(The earth has been brought low)
Wa wama ferudun, wonweguü yebe
(Let us beg forgiveness, we nearly died)

Larugan aningira hüruha ubüu
(At dawn the earth lay in sadness)
Laramaüahandügü wagüa, giüngiuüahündügü wagüa
(We could only stand around, just sucking our teeth).
Higüu waban? Barüla Hati
(Where is our house? Hattie has taken it)

Garifuna people believe in ancestral spirits, and that their ancestors continue to talk to them and guide them after death.  For this reason, death is not considered such a sad time, and the wake of a well-known Garifuna person in PG is one of the biggest parties to be found in any given year, with all night drumming, dancing and singing (plus a little gambling to round things off).

The most important cultural ceremony that the Garifuna conduct is the Dugu, a large ceremony that takes place in the local Garifuna temple that can last over a week – I was honoured enough to attend 24 hours at one of Ray’s family’s dugu.  A Dugu is held whenever there is some kind of trouble in the family, and the ancestors ask for a Dugu through the Buyei – the spiritual leader of the Garifuna temple., in order to heal the illness or seal the family rift that has occurred.  The entire extended family is expected to attend, no matter what country they live in.  The drumming during Dugu is especially important, with the sacred Dugu rhythm being played on large segunda drums only, which have been blessed and should never leave the temple.  Daily offerings of food are prepared, with each ancestor’s favourite food being specially prepared.  Once the appropriate drumming, singing and blessings have taken place, and the ancestors have had their fill, the living family can eat, with any left over food being ceremonially buried.  Drumming, singing and dancing goes on through the night, with the drummers only sleeping for one or two hours here and there.  Incense such as copal (termite nests!) burns throughout the Dugu.  At certain stages some family members may be possessed by the spirit of an ancestor and either start dancing in the same style as the ancestor, or may pass on some oral advice or message.

Ray told me that when he went to a family Dugu after our trip to Scotland, his grandfather told him (through the Buyei) that he had followed us, and described in detail some of the places we had visited.  Sometimes evil spirits make an appearance during a Dugu, and they most be exorcised by even more spiritual drumming, dancing, singing and blessings.  While I may be a sceptic when it comes to anything supernatural, I totally respect Ray’s spiritual beliefs, and have certainly witnessed for myself the healing effect it has on a family during troubling times.

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Belizean Blue Crab Syndrome

Coming out for the annual rain dance

I will most probably always be considered an outsider in Belize, but I think that is the case in almost any country you emigrate to where you stick out either due to your accent, skin colour, background or otherwise. And there are definitely many things that I still don’t know about or don’t understand about Belizean culture. One of them is something known as Blue Crab Syndrome.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Belizean wildlife, at the start of every rainy season, thousands of giant (up to 10 inches including claw span) blue crabs emerge from the mud of the jungle/ditch/back yard to do a celebratory rain dance before the rains dry and they go into hibernation again. Of course, many Belizeans like a good crab soup, and so crabs are often caught and stuck in a bucket ready for the stew pot.

Blue crabs ready for the stew pot

Not surprisingly, the crabs don’t care too much for buckets or stew pots, and try to climb out, but none of them make it, as they all step and stumble over each other and pull each other back down. I don’t know if it is due to colonialism’s divide & conquer phenomenon, or a side-effect of being such a small country, but sadly, it is all too common for Belizeans to hamper and sometimes actively sabotage their neighbours’ attempts to better themselves. Sometimes it even goes as far as burning down houses or businesses, but more commonly involves spreading malicious rumours and the like. Thankfully Ray is generally well liked in PG, so we haven’t suffered anything too detrimental as yet, but I am always disappointed when Belizean owned local businesses fail to support what we are trying to do. We haven’t asked anyone for money, just for a good word and general advice, but it’s not always as forthcoming as we’d like. Ironically, it is the expat-owned businesses that support the venture more. Of course there are many locals that totally support what we are trying to do, and I hope that continues and spreads so that Warasa isn’t another victim of Blue Crab Syndrome.

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