Jerome Shea       December 14, 2008      Weekend Wonk

I’ve got a real jones for Belize.

Of course, there are a lot of places I would like to visit, or revisit, someday. Australia has always been near the top of the list. Ever since our first visit, in 2007 (see the “A Grouch Abroad” series of wonks), I have had a soft spot for Florence—and Fiesole and whatever else of Tuscany we can manage. I would love to go back to Sitka, Alaska, and hike up Mt. Verstovia in the fog once again. And as a Shea/Driscoll, I should certainly go to Ireland someday and make obeisance to the ancestral haunts before I shuffle off the coil.

But Belize was a surprise. The tropics have an Edenic appeal, certainly, but Belize never jumped out at me, and it was only when I got the details of a trip from one couple we know, and added those to an email recounting of a spring break trip from another couple we know, that the idea got its hooks into my head. Before the week was out I had bought myself a travel guide.* It immediately became my bathroom book (not to be confused with my bus book). We may never get there in the flesh—I’m told that the airfare, for one thing, has gone through the roof—but whenever I am closeted in the loo I can pretend, in short increments, that I am there. Because imagination is often more powerful than reality (a child is supposed to have said, back in the 1950s, that she liked radio better than that new thing, television, because “the pictures were better”), I hope I am not disappointed if and when I am actually snorkeling in the warm waters off Ambergris Cay or exploring a Mayan ruin at Altun Ha. Somehow I don’t think I will be.

If you haven’t checked an atlas lately, let me get you up to speed. Belize is a sovereign democracy in Central America. You will find it on the Caribbean coast, wedged in between Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west. El Salvador beats it to the distinction of smallest country in the region, but only by a hair. If you know your states, it’s a smidgen smaller than Vermont, and roughly the same shape and orientation. Belize was formerly known as British Honduras, which accounts for the fact that Belizeans speak English for the most part rather than Spanish, certainly an attraction for monolingual Yankees. Another profound attraction is that it is fairly stable and safe politically: Vermont with palm trees.

The whole area that encompasses Belize, the Yucatan peninsula, and eastern Guatemala is known as “La Ruta Maya.” The Maya, who succeeded the Olmecs, thrived in the first millennia C.E., after which the culture mysteriously died out. It was this golden age of their civilization that gave us the cities and the religious centers—all that Indiana Jones stuff—that the jungle has had more than a thousand years to swallow up and that only now archeologists are working to unearth. (Perhaps the most spectacular temple complex of all is Tikal—“The Place of Voices”—just across the border in Guatemala.) My first choice to visit would be these jungle-girt ruins. My friend Joe, a Conrad scholar, says that traveling to some of these ruins—El Posito, Lamanai—on a New River motor launch is, yes, very much like chugging up the Congo into the Heart of Darkness. That’s for me!

The more modern history of Belize is hardly straightforward, and often colorful. The Spanish and the British fought over it. Pirates and buccaneers were involved early on, as were escaped slaves who eventually settled the Dangriga district on the south coast. These are the Garifuna, with their own distinct creole and customs. Finally the British got the upper hand. In 1862 it became the colony of British Honduras and in 1981 it gained full independence, reverting to “Belize,” the name it had originally. The biggest settlement by far is Belize City, although the population is only seventy thousand (everything about Belize seems miniaturized). It was the capital until 1961, when Hurricane Hattie came ashore and destroyed half of the city. So, like Brazil with Brasilia, they built a brand new capital, Belmopan, safely in the center of the country. But that’s only fifty miles inland and many government workers commute daily from Belize City. I told you it was miniaturized.

There is much much more, of course. The snorkeling and fishing, or just beach lazing. The national parks and game preserves. The mountain hiking and waterfalls. The food and drink.** The jaguars, butterflies, and howler monkeys.

Anyway, as Emily Dickinson famously said, “There is no frigate like a book.” I hope you have enjoyed sailing away with me.

*The book is called simply Belize, by Joshua Berman. It represents just one of the countries covered in the Moon Series, published by Avalon Travel Publishing. Much of the information in this wonk I owe to this exhaustive little book, which I recommend.

** Joe also reports that the only beer to be had is the quasi-national brew, Belikan. “Tasty enough,” he says, with palpable relief.

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