A Travellerspoint blog

Return to Belize, and how we met the Guv'nor

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Garifuna Settlement Day celebrates the day that the Garifuna people arrived by boat to settle in Belize, having been exiled from the Grenadines by the British Army, who did not want to tolerate a free black community on the doorstep of their plantations. The Garifuna people are the descendants of Africans who intermarried with Amerindians in Central America, following the wrecking of a slave ship off the coast of the islands. It is now a Belizean national holiday (don't let Jim tell you its all about a bloke called Gareth Funa...) And they really know how to throw a party!

We were staying in Placencia, a quiet town on Belize's southern Caribbean coast, but we went to nearby Dangriga on the morning of Garifuna Day (19th Nov) to see the beginnings of the street party. The photos above are of some girls who had taken part in the 'reenactment' (more on that below), and a group holding the Garifuna flag.

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We ask a lot of people to take photos of them, but this is the first time anyone's asked to have their photo taken with me!

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In the afternoon, we headed back to Placencia to see the 'reenactment', followed by a big party at one of the beach bars. A boat full of Garifuna people in traditional dress arrives on the shore, and is symbolically turned away three times by someone acting as the British Governor (the owner of the bar, a Cuban, who also had his birthday that day), who then eventually agrees that they can land. There is then a lot of singing and dancing, and the 'Governor' is presented with gifts by the settlers (look how chuffed he is with his pineapple).
(Look, there's Gareth Funa in the small boat right there!)

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The rest of the time we spent hanging out on the beach and watching the wildlife. We did make a mission to the Marie Sharpe's hot sauce factory - though we didn't pick the best time to go because they weren't doing a production run, and we weren't permitted to take pictures. However Jim did manage to corner the guy who quality controls and helps to design the sauces and quizzed him on his work. Look out for Marie Sharp's ghost chili sauce which is currently in development.

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Belize is a fantastic country to visit, certainly one of our favourites. We always felt safe and welcomed there. The Caribbean-style beach life is a lot of fun, and the interior of the country has stunning wildlife (see our previous zoo post). (And the buses, on which we are now experts born of necessity, are some of the most entertaining - after hurling yourself and your luggage in through the back door, you can just sit down and people-watch,, there's always reggae playing and a lot of chatter - when you want the bus to stop, you just whistle as loud as you can over it all!)

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Posted by gadgetex 13:00 Archived in Belize Comments (0)

The Roundhouse on the Rio Dulce

...basically, there were a lot of boats

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After a short stay in Antigua on our way back from San Pedro we went north towards Livingston. In our search for a place to stay there we found a place called 'The Roundhouse' which is in the jungle on the edge of the river which is the main route to Livingston. We had to get a boat up the river and get dropped off at their little dock.

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We spent lots of our time there reading, relaxing and having beers with the owners Chris and Dani. It felt a lot like being guests in their house to the point that everyone sat down in the evening and shared a home cooked meal made by the volunteers working there.

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The only way to get to Livingston was by boat and we were lucky enough to be able to catch a lift one morning with a Dutch couple on their restored sail boat with their extremely chilled out dog.
Then we caught a lift back with Dani and a couple of new guests on the motor boat for a speedier return.

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Continuing the boat theme we took a kayak out on the river on the sunniest day and paddled our way up the river to visit some hot springs.

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The Roundhouse is a bit of an eco-project - solar-powered, and it even boasts a pedal-powered blender!

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Posted by gadgetex 17:33 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

'Jesús es el señor de San Pedro!'

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After some time relaxing in Antigua, we headed west to San Pedro la Laguna, on the shores of the stunning volcanic crater lake Atitlan. It was formed when the volcano erupted 84,000 years ago, and is surrounded by other volcanoes.

We took a further week of Spanish classes with the San Pedro Spanish School, and with each class found that the world around us was starting to make a bit more sense. At last we were able to hear some stories direct from Guatemalans we met, and discuss more interesting things than our latest travel plans.

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With our teacher Rosario at the school – the classrooms are open-air and dotted around beautiful gardens adjoining the lake. The Tutzhil gardener who took this picture had never used a camera before but was clearly a natural - this was his first shot!

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We had decided that our Spanish might be just about up to staying with a host family this time, and were assigned to a couple of local teachers, Clemente and Marina, and their three kids. We discovered that they were evangelical Christians (about 80% of San Pedro is now evangelical, the remainder Catholic - religious murals are everywhere e.g. at the end of a sign advertising TV repairs, it will say oh, and by the way, ' the only way to God is through Jesus Christ', or similar). The family lived by strict religious principles pared with a modern outlook on the world. It was a surprising combination – they did not drink or smoke and their teenage son’s idea of a fun night was bringing his friends round to sing hymns with his granddad. We thought they would think us drunken fornicating heathens, but they were relaxed their approach to different lifestyles - we later discovered that they had recently hosted a couple of gay travellers, the kids loved American cartoons and Clemente seemed to be devoted in equal parts to Jesus and football. The couple hope to travel when the kids have grown up, in particular to see Israel and visit the places which feature in the Bible. They were very welcoming and interesting people, and we really enjoyed our stay.

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We began to pick up a little information about Guatemalan politics and social attitudes, using our shiny new Spanish skills! We won’t identify who said what (it’s a bit of a shame to divorce the people from their stories but we didn’t get their permission). This is the gist of it…

The most striking thing about Guatemalan politics seems to be the all-pervasive corruption. Politicians tend to attract loyal followings through handing out food parcels and throwing parties before elections - although the gifts, when they are opened and the photo opportunities are finished, rarely turn out to be as promised. The politicos rarely seem to stand for issues. Once in power, they use every opportunity to siphon off money for themselves. While in theory the press are free to write as they like, they are usually bribed to stay away from negative stories, stifling potential for change. Meanwhile, there is little money for books or facilities in the schools. Angry teachers often protest in Guatemala City because they feel that the future of the country lies in education but this is being ignored (nevertheless, school enrolment is better than it used to be). Public hospitals are seen as poor and private insurance expensive. Most of the spare money in middle income families goes into saving for emergencies. A little later we encountered a lot of expensive yachts on the Rio Dulce and tried to find out who owns them - apparently rich Guatemalans, but only those with considerable European roots traceable back to the conquistadors. It seems like they also own most of the farmland, industry, basically the government, and all of the large mansions on the Caribbean coast. Also, European-looking mestizo people are the only ones who ever seem to appear on TV or in adverts, even though 40% of the population is indigenous and most people have a lot of indigenous blood - its strange how little the media seems to represent the population.

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Some rural communities remain starkly divided along party lines as well as religious – if you identify with the red party, your children may go to the red party school even if it is on the other side of town. I was also interested in life for women in Guatemala – it seems like in rural areas, a very macho culture persists and is responsible for many women losing their friends, independence and opportunities when they marry. But with higher levels of education, things are beginning to change in this respect. All of the comments we heard came from people who had an education, and certainly can't be counted as representative of everyone, but all felt that getting access to a good education for everyone was crucial. We hope we haven't misrepresented their comments too drastically.

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We bought a picture from this local artist, whose work focuses on local Mayan culture and agriculture. The one we chose was of a woman using a traditional weaving loom (see previous post) - its the big gap on the wall behind, but we posted it home without taking a picture!

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Clemente works weekends as a tour guide, and we asked if he could take us to see some coffee farming in the hills above San Pedro. The organisation he took us to was in fact a co-operative which teaches local farmers techniques for farming organic coffee and collects the beans to sell in order to get a better price for its members. Alongside the coffee the farmers grow avocado which helps to keep insects under control. They also keep bees to pollinate the plants and so the farmers produce honey too. Nothing goes to waste and even the coffee husks are composted with the help of earthworms. it was great to see a business being run on such good principles and also producing very tasty coffee which we got to try at the end of the tour.

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Next we headed back towards the Caribbean and experienced life in a riverside jungle location, including hanging out on an old sailboat with an old dog...

Posted by gadgetex 16:52 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Getting all cultural in Antigua

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This is a short picture-heavy post about our stay in Antigua, a beautiful colonial city in the Highlands of Guatemala where we ended up doing lots of cultural stuff - ooooh!

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We visited the 'La Casa del Tejido' (House of Old Weaving), a centre where they show visitors traditional indigenous weaving techniques and sell woven handicrafts. There are lots of large stores in Antigua selling these handicrafts, bought from women who weave them in the surrounding villages, but La Casa del Tejido is the only place actually owned and run by indigenous people. The design of the traditional loom pre-dates the Spanish conquest.

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Most of the time we were in Antigua we stayed at the fantastic Villa Esthela hostel, but we did decide that we could do with a treat and stayed 2 nights in a posh hotel (we had to use our Spanish to talk our way in to the strange gated community where its situated!)

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The ruined monastery of San Francisco

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We also caught a free exhibition by a Chilean artist of pictures inspired by the book of Genesis. The idea behind the paintings is to present various aspects of creation from an observer's perspective by using 'frames' like windows and balconies. Like much of the art we saw around Guatemala the it was the vivid colours that drew is to this art. Below are our favorite paintings from the exhibition.

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The church of La Merced wears a giant rosary that lights up (from a distance it looks very grand, though from closer its more like a slightly tacky Christmas tree decoration!)

Sumpango, Sacatepéquez

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For Dia de los Muertes (Day of the Dead) we travelled to a nearby town to see the decorated graves and festival of enormous kites.

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The kites are hand-crafted using paper and paint. Each is designed by a local group around a theme, and may include certain colours and designs to represent a village community (the same as the design local women's clothes). When the kites are flown, it is traditional for people to attach messages for their ancestors, because Dia de los Muertes is the day when the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead is blurred and communication is possible.

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An American lady on the bus we took out there had a TINY puppy - we soon had to part ways with her group because she had to stop every 30 seconds for children to pet the dog!

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There wasn't enough of a breeze to fly the largest kites, but some of the medium-sized ones flew.

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Back in Antigua the following day we caught a very grand Christian procession through town with about 60 people carrying a huge float including Jesus's casket on their SHOULDERS to the sounds of a marching band, which had apparently been happening for about 6 hours. Impressive!

Next we headed to San Pedro on Lake Atitlan, a spectacular volcanic lake in the Guatemalan highlands, where we experienced life with an evangelical Guatemalan family and Izzie started dreaming in Spanish...

Posted by gadgetex 13:29 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

¿Tienes que vender las cabras?

Do you HAVE to sell the goats?

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From our cabin at the zoo in Belize we caught a public bus to the border and onwards to Flores, a small town that occupies an island in the middle of a lake in the northern Peten district of Guatemala. This is the largest departemente (region) of the country but the least populated, being mostly jungle. Flores was quite a surprise though. All the houses are brightly painted in colonial style and it feels a lot like a Mediterranean village (reinforced by the food which was mostly pasta, pizza and fish). A small bridge takes you to Flores from Santa Elena, which is a much more bustley place with a modern shopping centre etc. On the cobbled streets of Flores, the tuk-tuk (three-wheeled miniature taxi) rules.

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We had decided to book a week of Spanish lessons to improve our ability to cope in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America (most of them!) We didn't have a lot of choice of language schools in Flores, I think we found the only one (Dos Mundos) and we were lucky that it was really good. We already had a basic level of the language thanks to our friend Tom who spent many patient hours teaching us via Skype before we left - this was really handy as we could build on this rather than starting right from the beginning. By the end of the week we were able to have fun chats with our teacher Wendy (especially enjoyed making up very useful phrases to practice our verbs '¿Tienes que vender las cabras?!' and trying to explain the concept of a mid-life crisis with the aid of a whiteboard as part of a discussion about cars!)

We stayed at cafe Yax-Ha which is run by the owners of the school - Eva, who also teaches there, and Dieter, who is an archaeologist (and possibly the only disorganised German there is). They were great hosts and made Flores and the school very welcoming.

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During our stay there was an anniversary at the Yax-Ha (pronounced ya-shah) archaeological site where Dieter has done much of his work. Izzie wasn't feeling well that day but I (Jim) went with Dieter and some of the other students for a tour of the site from Dieter and to see the annual football tournament there (complete with amazingly cheap and tasty food). Far less of the site has been excavated than at Tikal as leaving the buildings buried is the best way to preserve them but with Dieter's knowledge of the site and enough excavated buildings we got a good picture of the city and how it operated. Dieter told us plenty about the orientations of the buildings with the most common being an orientation to the summer and winter solstices. I especially liked the Mayan roads which are huge and designed to drain rainwater into a reservoir. Since the site is next to a lake it is assumed that the reservoir served as a private swimming pool for the noble class. I particularly enjoyed having had a lot of information about the buildings themselves as the tour of Tikal was much more focused on the Mayan culture. The tour also had the additional bonuses of being interrupted by howler monkeys, a sudden thunderstorm and watching the sun set over the lake from the tallest temple.

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Both of us made it to Tikal for an afternoon. Like Yax-Ha the site consists of trails and ruins spread through the jungle with plenty of wildlife around. Our guide wasn't quite as informative as the others we've had but gave a fun tour of the ruins. The ruins at Tikal are some of the most impressive in the Mayan world and many of the buildings are open for people to look around in/on. Sadly there is a lot of graffiti so it wouldn't be surprising if the buildings are fenced off soon as was necessary to preserve Chichen Itza. Since it was low season the site was fairly quiet and we only saw a couple of other tour groups in passing. Again the tour finished at the top of the highest temple to watch the sunset followed by a night walk back through the jungle. We'll let the photos of the site speak for themselves.

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I kept getting my feet bitten by ants at Yax-Ha so Izzie wore socks with her sandals to Tikal. Here she is looking very impressed about me commemorating this with a photo.

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We were planning to go on to Mexico next, but we were both feeling very worn down with travelling by this point having gone down with several minor illnesses between us. Our planned stop, Oaxaca was 20 hours away by bus and we regretfully decided it would be better to stay in Guatemala for a while and recuperate. We headed to Antigua next, which is the first place we have been which is a reasonable temperature for Brits... look our for our next, less sweaty post!

Posted by gadgetex 14:33 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

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