Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family.
Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.
–Jane Howard, 1935-1996
As we bumped along a stretch of road through a savannah that was once a shallow sea, Miguel pointed to Spanish Lookout in the distance. There, he told us, was a Mennonite farming community, in its 50thyear of providing Belizeans with beans, corn, chicken and eggs. This morsel of information was the first in a series of surprises Belize had in store for us.
We enjoyed Miguel’s narration on the scenery as we made the two-hour drive from Belize City Airport to Chaa Creek Lodge.
As we made our way inland from the Caribbean coast toward the country’s western border with Guatemala, Miguel told us that the Mennonites comprise 11 percent of Belize’s population and are responsible for producing more than half of the country’s agricultural needs. Skillfully navigating roads that ascended almost 4,000 feet to the foothills of the Maya Mountains, Miguel afforded us a whole different view of Belizean culture along with its countryside.
He told us that his homeland is very much a “melting pot,” a phrase that was to be echoed by others during our stay. Along with the Mennonites and the Maya, other cultures that call Belize home are Mestizo, descendents of the Maya and Spanish settlers; Garifuna, ancestors of African slaves who married Carib Indians; Creole, offspring of slaves and early European settlers; and East Indians, descendents of indentured laborers brought to work on the British sugar plantations here in the early 19th century. Belize also now counts among its citizens sizeable Arab and Chinese communities.
Miguel continued his tutorial several days later during an excursion from Chaa Creek to the nearby Maya ruin of Xunantunich. After crossing the Mopan River on a ferry operated by a hand-crank, we climbed a hill toward the site–just as the grounds came into view, the skies opened up and unleashed sheets of rain. We raced for cover under the roof of the visitors’ center, where we found ornately-engraved stelae displayed. These stone slabs extolled the exploits of important Maya rulers, and the characters depicted looked fierce.
As we waited out the rain, we asked Miguel about the bloody rituals in which the Maya are said to have engaged. The conversation turned to speculation that religious concepts brought here by the Spanish, such as drinking the blood of Christ, had made easier the conversion of many Maya to Catholicism. That observation made me think anew about how traditions long familiar to me might be perceived by others.
Tom and I had learned just days before departing for Belize that a friend’s brother was an archaeologist who had spent considerable time engaged in excavations here a couple of decades ago. Ever seeking connections that might lie beneath the surface, but without much conviction, I threw out the brother’s name to Miguel. I was startled and delighted when he became visibly excited by my mention of the archaeologist—it was clear his name commanded admiration and the shared association heightened our camaraderie.
When the deluge abated, we ventured out to cross the Plaza. Xunantunich means “Maiden of the Rock,” and it was one of the most powerful city states of its day–yet its center is a very compact 325 yards. We reached El Castillo, a 130-foot ceremonial temple, and one of the tallest structures in Belize, once the focal point of religious activity here.
Tom and Miguel climbed the steep heights of El Castillo, stepping through the thick mist that shrouded the ancient and imposing monument. I sat on a nearby picnic table alongside two young soldiers who were taking a relaxed approach to standing guard. From a distance, the sight of the men in uniforms, with machine guns at their side, had frightened me—my instinctive reaction to most things unknown. Approaching them to share a seat, I realized they were barely out of their teens and their shy smiles made me surrender my defenses.
In leaving the park, we passed an elevated compound that Miguel said had been a late addition to Xunantunich’s history, built as the civilization started its decline, and the outlying areas had already begun to be abandoned. Archaeologists believe this structure was designed to restrict public access to royalty and religious ceremonies; El Castillo, in contrast, was clearly intended to command attention. Tom remarked that human nature hasn’t changed much over the eons, calling to mind other civilizations whose leaders have isolated themselves from the masses as times got tough.
Returning to Chaa Creek, we drove down the long dirt road carved into the jungle that led to the Lodge. Looking out the window of the rolling jeep, I drew in my breath when I saw a herd of horses standing very still at the crest of a nearby hill. Their sleek shapes in shades of white, gray, tan and brown contrasted with the canopy of green, and the veil of rising mist lent an air of mystery to the scene. I was reminded that if the unexpected can sometimes be disconcerting, it can just as often be inspired and joyful.
As I write this, I’m also engaged in editing the text of the October Peer to Pier interview, with the division head of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage section, Cecile Duvelle. In one the many beautiful points she makes in the conversation, she says “To recognize our cultural diversity is to acknowledge our fraternity, to know how to recognize oneself in the Other.”
Travel was the portal that gave me my first glimpse of this reality. Today, I try—sometimes more successfully than others—to identify with others rather than make comparisons, wherever I am. I try to remember I have been the angry driver in a rush. It can occur to me that the person I perceive to have the ultimate career may in fact be unfulfilled. I can realize that at times I have not had to give what others have needed from me.
When I am able to access this view, it’s usually because of the insights of my inner circle of trusted friends, whose perspective help me embrace the bigger tribe to which we all belong.
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See Travel Photos for more images of Belize:
Read my interview with Chaa Creek co-owner Lucy Fleming.