Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The ‘Tribes’ of Belize

This country is one of the least densely populated in the Americas, with  only about 310,000 people on land about the size of Massachusetts.  It’s practically empty! But such a variety of people and such a complex mix of races, languages and backgrounds!

Belize Belmopan center of government


The capital, Belmopan, is barely a town of 12,000-15,000. Here’s the center of government as built by the British about 40 years ago, well inland, after yet another hurricane wreaked havoc on Belize City. But although the official seat of government moved, a lot of people prefer the funkier character of the coast. The British engineers were more interested in sturdy construction and good drains.

 Belize American embassy


And here’s the American Embassy, only a couple years old, built for $80 million dollars, including two stories underground. There’s more around back. Even sturdier construction and better drains, I’d say. Also a sign forbidding photographs.

Wanting to go inland, we took the water taxi and public buses (BlueBird school buses) to Belmopan via the lovely Hummingbird Highway, one of four major paved roads in the country, then asked a taxi driver to show us the sights. These were: half a dozen embassies, the Chinese supermarkets, and the home of the richest man, whose fortune was based on telephone poles. We had lunch at the market across from the bus station and came back home.P1020268P1020418






The biggest groups are  Creole (“English”), descendants of slaves imported to work in the mahogany forests, ,  Mestizo (“Spanish” mixed Hispanic and Amerindian) ,  and Mayan, these days often refugees from Guatemala.  Unlike many former colonies, this one, ex-British Honduras, never had a large European population during colonial times.belize-flag-400

Finally found our Belize courtesy flag, whose coat of arms bears symbols of the mahogany industry which was the economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. It's reminiscent of Maryland's seal only instead of 'strong deeds, soft words' the Belize inscription means: In the shade, we thrive. The men are holding axes and saws, not fish and shovels. The picture is supposed to get bigger if you click on it.
We used to sew and paint our own courtesy flags, but this one, like Maryland, should be bought.

The Garifuna were originally from St. Vincent, descendants of African slaves with some intermarriage with Caribs, Arawaks and Europeans. As the Eastern Caribbean was exchanged between the British and French, they were in the way, and were shipped to Belize during the early 1800s. To this day, they have maintained their own cultural identity and account for about 7% of the population, and all the Rastas.

Belize Mennonite woodworkers

A small but distinct group are the Mennonites, who came en masse from Mexico in the late 1950s. “Mennonite farmers and businessmen are responsible for a major part of Belize food production. They produce a good portion of the country’s beef supply and most of the chicken, eggs, pasteurized milk and other dairy products. Mennonite farms also produce soybean for animal feed, red kidney beans, rice fruits and vegetables.” As they do elsewhere, they build furniture. They have been granted a certain autonomy in their communities, cannot vote and do not serve in the military. The same straw hats (not local!), the same black bonnets and overalls that they wear in Ohio, it appears.

You can read more here :

Then there are East Indians, Arabs, and Chinese, who have come in greater numbers lately from Hong Kong and Taiwan and settled into a mercantile niche, particularly groceries and restaurants .

I feel like I’m writing a school report, but probably, on the subject of Belize, many people draw a blank. I continue because I was surprised at how different the feel of this ex-British Caribbean colony is from those of the Eastern Caribbean. There don’t seem to be such extremes of wealth, or the antipathies between groups that you sometimes see.  Although the rhetoric for recent local elections was hot enough!

A good thing about this small population is the reduced pressure to deforest – Belize is trying hard to be an eco-tourist destination, and has apparently retained an impressive number of  the larger jungle animals like jaguar and tapir, and birds. This NY Times article is old but I thought interesting on the subject of sustainable forestry.  Belize Mahogany trunk  The gist of it is: Rainforest Action says       “Boycott Mahogany” but others say that if the forests aren’t valuable, there will be no reason to keep them. Belize is still covered with tropical forests and half of it is in preservation, so here’s an opportunity to provide economic incentive not to turn diverse forests into citrus groves.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Only This Place

We knew where we were as we sailed parallel to the outer reef near Tobacco Cay. We were smack dab in the middle, just south of the course for entering the pass. The sketch chart sounds showed 9 to 12 feet and the proper chart (150,000:1!) showed 2 meters in the vicinity.

So it happened that we were blowing downwind under the genoa 'admiring' the patches of turtle grass and shadow in the nice green water. We always watch the sounder - it's like a sick fascination with those single digit numbers, but I was almost inured when: THUMP. Then:, thump, thump, THUMP. And we settled over to port, water lapping at the rubbing strake, hard aground, being set on, and not sure what we had hit, beyond the turtle grass we could clearly see all around us

Funny how you can just STOP like that. There's a moment of silence, almost peace, while you're taking in your situation. It was rapidly clear, though, that wait and see wasn't our best option. So we unreefed and hoisted the main, sheeted and eased all sails in all combination, tried the Westerbeke fast and slow, with different rudders, for a good hour. All this moved us a little but not in a good way. Suddenly I understood what those weird bright white patches in the grass were – other keels have blazed this shoal before us.

The inflatable dinghy was collapsed and the kedge anchor buried deep in a locker, but we were getting them out when rescue appeared in the form of a local fishing boat (sistership shown below) and its crew of seven men and boys in Speedos, back from a morning of diving for conch.
We were a little dubious about what they could accomplish with a 40 hp outboard and a lightly built boat of wood and bamboo, but the captain seemed a careful boat handler and we had nothing to lose. "Where exactly is the deep water?" we asked. He waved everywhere. "Only this place."

It took almost an hour but eventually we were freed. It cost us $25 (offered for gas), a bottle of rum (“we drink anything”), and mango squash (for the boys, I thought), my fresh-baked banana bread, and a strapless dive mask. They would have liked line they could use for a halyard, but we had nothing appropriate. It would be great thing to have aboard though, for just this eventuality.

The education? I’d like to say ‘priceless’. However I’m sure we’ll be a little sloppy again, and even more gun-shy in shallow water. One thing we did do that night was take apart the electric anchor windlass and test its manual operation for that day when kedging is the only way off.
Meantime, thanks again to the crew of the fishing vessel Rosa. Like I said, people are nice here. These guys spoke mainly Creole but we could see that they were careful and thoughtful, and we were grateful they'd take the time to help us.

Update:we're using the third edition of the Cruising Guide to Belize and Mexico's Caribbean Coast by Freya Rauscher. It turns out that the shoal we hit is very clearly marked, in the second edition, but was unaccountably left out of the third. That only makes me feel only slightly better though.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Out in the Islands

With business and maintenance finished, we headed out to the chain of islands that lies just inside the barrier reef. These islands are mostly mangrove – hard to tell if there’s any actual terra firma there unless there’s a fish camp built on it. There are a lot of fish camps, and a few lodges and small, low-key resorts, and some privately owned cays too.

Navigation is a challenge. The soundings change abruptly and not for any discernable reason. The charts aren’t much help either. The data is ancient, scale way big, graphics misleading . So it's strictly eyeball and dead reckoning and keeping track of nearly indistinguishable clumps of mangrove. But the good news is that the air and water are pleasant temperatures, and you can find a different new anchorage often less than an hour away. And if the weather is fine, clear and not too windy, you can see a lot from a perch in the spreaders.

Our first stop, the Robinson Cays, was a boat building spot in the 19th century but in the 21st, there’s a fish farming operation. It looks well-capitalized. Rumor has it a Swedish group is involved, and that the fry are flown in from there with an 18-hour re-splash window. The fish are cobia, which in my fish book are on the same page as remoras and sharksuckers. They eat pellets made from other fish, so exactly what benefit accrues where, if any, is unclear. Our local informant says the meat is mighty nice, but they're not allowed to take for themselves.

Our next stop featured a family of manatees feeding 150 feet from the boat, but when I went to visit them underwater I found it so churned up I had a hard time telling which way was up. It's not easy to photograph a manatee either.

The Fly Range had flies, and the Mosquito Range had mosquitoes (but not many), and Man of War Cay is famous in aviary circles as a refuge for frigate birds. These large and generally solitary birds are known for rarely if ever landing, but I don't think they can do the egg thing aloft. There are also Brown Boobies and White-Headed Pigeons using this island. How would you like to attend one of those parties!

A nearly universal rule of travel is: "This is very unusual weather for this time of year." The fronts that traverse the US often drag tails through the Western Caribbean - the front dumping snow on the US East recently at once point extended from Nova Scotia to Colombia. "They" say it's been very cool and rainy here this winter. I say it's been coolish and cloudy, sometimes windy, and not from normal directions.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The 'Big Smoke' Belize City

Before we went ashore in Belize City, we took a little dinghy cruise up Haulover Creek which runs through town before turning into the Belize River several miles on. It’s a great way to do preliminary reconnaissance before hitting the ground.
Here’s part of the fishing fleet.

Lobster season has just ended, at least officially.

Amsterdam or Venice or even Ft. Lauderdale it’s not. A local newspaper refers to it as “’Trash City’ roamed by rats and pests” and I can see how this would be true. Escaped plastic is the seaweed of this waterfront, and used tires are the bulkheads. Metal grates on windows and doors, block walls and chain link fences and even concertina wire also send a certain message. When we came ashore later, Doug was carrying his knob-headed wooden cane.

On land, the downtown area isn’t so bad, small and full of bustle especially when school lets out. Downtown the streets are clean, the shops decently supplied, and reminiscent of lots of towns in the eastern Caribbean. Our mission was to buy a Belize flag which nautical etiquette requires, and the seasickness remedy Stugeron. Both were available, but in the wrong size. You do notice that some shops keep their doors locked, and the others have door-minders or bouncers.
I was sent into the Bottom Dollar for groceries, which it had in good supply, and came out to find Doug lounging in the shade of Marlin's Cafe across the creek with an ice cold Belikin in hand.

Here’s the good news: people are really nice. And they speak English! So now I understand that plastic phone cards like you’d use to make a call from a pay phone are old technology, except in the US. In Belize, you can send money from one cell phone to another in about three seconds, and be talking to anywhere in four. Seems that having all that land-line infrastructure has slowed the US down in cell phone technology.

The same newspaper said that the price of red beans was $1.25 BZ a pound a year ago, $4.25 now. Lots of other staples have also gone up. The head of state says he’s looking for overseas loans but otherwise hasn’t a clue as to why prices are up. You’ve got to feel sorry for the vast percentage of good people who just want peace and security, and wireless internet!

A taxi driver took us past his wife’s lunch stand to wave at one of his sons. He explained his eight children by saying there was no television to fill the time. Now he’s got flat-screen, and the breeding has stopped. I asked him what he liked best about his country and he laughed and said expansively: I like EVERYTHING about my country.’ Then after a pause, ‘except maybe the government’.