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Monday, April 30, 2012

Black Roots of Colombia's Vallenato Music

A griot from Senegal, West Africa

For a long time, I was very curious after stopping in a black bar for a beer in Cartagena, Colombia and listening to the music. Like every country in the world, Colombian music is diverse, and the popularity of these genres of music depends on the region. Before my short trip to Colombia, I knew salsa music was popular because I'm a fan of a group that every salsa music lover knows as Grupo Niche. What most salsa music lovers don't know is that Grupo Niche was originally started by two Afro-Columbians in the city of Cali, Colombia's salsa music capital. Then there is cumbia music, which began as a courtship dance of African slaves, and over a period of time meshed with Spanish and indigenous musical styles and instrumentation. But I heard very little about Vallenato music, and was so surprised to hear only vallenato music in that black bar, and not cumbia or salsa.  

Juglares travel and tell stories through music

From my research ignited by my curiosity that overcame me in that black Colombian bar, I learned that Vallenato started out as black popular music on the Caribbean coast in the tradition of West African story tellers known as griots. There were also farmers near a valley called Valledupar, which kept the tradition of Spanish minstrels known as Juglares (pronounced who-glah-rez),  mixing their style with the blacks, traveled throughout the region with their cattle for greener pastures or to sell their cattle at fairs. These farmers served as newsbearers because communication about what was going on was extremely slow, specifically for family members outside their towns or villages. Thus, vallenato became very popular.

Vallenato literally means "born in the valley"particularly in the city of Valledupar (Valley of Upar) where this genre of music began. Like African-American blues, vallenato was a rural genre of African music combined with its environment to give that strong rhythm of African influence.  Vallenato has always been popular in the countryside, but it gained urban popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  In 2006 Vallenato and cumbia were added as a category in the Latin Grammy Awards.

One of the most popular vallenato songs of all time: 
Un Camino de la Vida
 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Latin America & the Gringo Tax


It was 11:00 on Friday evening when my plane landed at the Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Perú. I was tired and sleepy after 16 hours of flying and changing planes in Atlanta and Mexico City. I still had another three-hour bus ride to Chincha, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture where the family of the late-great maestro, Amador Ballumrosio, the Godfather of Afro-Peruvian music and dance was expecting me.

First, I had to get to the bus terminal, which was another 30 minute cab ride from the airport. Maribel, Amador Ballumbrosio's daughter, told me over the phone before my trip that the cab fare is $25 nueva soles, which at that time was equal to $7.58 in Peruvian currency. There were hordes of cab drivers in the waiting area of the airport, and several flocked over to me, this lone black guy wearing a Luther Vandross t-shirt, which was a dead give-away that I'm an American with a pocket full of U.S. dollars. The words newbie, fresh fish, and mark were written all over my face.

The words fresh fish, newbie, and mark
were written all over my face

One cab driver came across as being very sincere as he showed me his badge emphasizing, in impressive English, that I would be in good hands if I chose his taxi service over the rest. Because I wanted to use this trip, like I do with all of my Latin American trips, to practice my Spanish, I answered him in Spanish hinting that, if he wants my business, our conversation will be Spanish only. He got the message as I negotiated the fare of 25 nueva soles like Maribel suggested.

The cabbie then escorted me to what was supposed to be a taxi stand, but there was no taxi. How strange, I thought, as his buddy ran to get my driver's cab. When he returned, he leaped from the cab, got in my face with his hand stuck out, and demanded five dollars for running and picking up my driver's cab, I got confused and thought that this might be a custom that I missed reading about in my travel plans. I didn't want to give him $5.00, but I do remember reading that I need to bargain hard when dealing with Peruvian cab drivers, especially in Lima. So I handed over a one-dollar bill, and he left me alone.


As my cab driver raced and maneuvered his way through the dark, hard, fast-paced streets of Lima, he himself became aggressive and relentless in trying to hustle me out of a fare four times greater than what we agreed upon before I got into his cab. It just so happened that before my trip, besides reading travel guides, I downloaded and studied some Peruvian slang and curse words, which surprised and disappointed the cab driver as he lighten up a bit with his hustle. Today, after traveling to Perú five or six times already, I'm just sorry that I didn't use any of those words to the man who demanded the five dollars as well.

What those cab drivers attempted to do, as they presumably do with other visitors, was charge me the gringo tax. What is the gringo tax? It's when you are being overcharged by shopkeepers and taxi drivers with what they can get away with because you are a gringo. What is a gringo? It basically means foreigner, but in Perú, for example, if you are not from the South American continent, you are considered a gringo, and they don't care if you are from Mexico or East L.A, Puerto Rico or Spanish Harlem, Cuba or Little Havana. When I was in Havana, Cuba , there was a famous ice cream parlor called La Coppellia where they have a government sponsored gringo tax; a pint of ice cream costs a Cuban one peso, but for visitors (the gringos), it was 20 pesos, which at that time was equivalent to an American dollar.

As a rule, I avoid tourist areas as much as possible, especially in a Spanish-speaking country.

For the most part, government sponsored gringo taxes are minimal and can be avoided as they are only applied in certain places, like major tourist attractions. However, it's usually in those areas where there are a lot of tourists where you will most likely be charged gringo taxes by merchants and cab drivers. As a rule, I avoid tourist areas as much as possible, especially in a Spanish-speaking country because my primary purpose for being there is to be totally immersed in the language and the culture. Furthermore, making friends with local citizens and even asking hotel staff or other members of the community for appropriate prices for items and taxi fares puts you in a better position to bargain for acceptable prices. In addition, when shopping, I like to carry a calculator to convert their prices into American dollars and vice versa. Merchants tend to take tourists more seriously and respectfully when they bargain using a calculator.
In terms of tours, I've gotten a much better deal hiring a struggling, hardworking citizen who can use some extra cash.

It's also a good idea to carry small bills. In the nine Latin American countries that I've visited so far, I notice that merchants and cab drivers do not carry a lot of change. If you hand over a big bill, that can compromise your bargaining power. Therefore, I often go to a bank to change my money into small bills and loose change. In terms of tours, I've gotten a much better deal hiring a struggling, hardworking citizen who can use some extra cash. Of course, it is necessary to be able to speak some Spanish.

Before any of my Latin American trips, I try to network on line. For example, in the Spring of 2009, I opened a separate Spanish-speaking Facebook account making more than 200 friends throughout Latin America, and put the word out that I'm a sentimental fan of Ecuador's International Soccer team (I really am!), and that I wanted to visit the all-black town that produced their soccer all-star Augustin Delgado (the Magic Johnson of Ecuador). Within a couple of days, I got a response from an Afro-Ecuadorian woman living in Germany with her husband. After months of Facebook communication, she introduced me to her mother who lives in Quito, Ecuador's capital. Her mother showed me around, gave me plenty of advice, and sheltered me from the notorious gringo tax.







Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Argentina's Black Population


In 2001, a black Argentine woman attempted to board a plane to Panamá when immigration officials denied her boarding because they did not believe her passport was real. These officers, her own countrymen, told her that her Argentine passport couldn't be hers because she is black. They are not alone. Many Argentines have been quoted as saying, no hay negros en Argentina (there are no blacks in Argentina). I, like so many others, not only believed this to be true, but was clueless to the fact that the famous Argentine Tango music and dance had its beginnings in Afro-Argentine barrios (ghettos).

It has been well over a century since Argentina reflected the African racial ancestry in its census count, but according to the organization Africa Vive (Africa Lives), it's been calculated that there are about 1,000,000 African descendents in Argentina. The 2010 census introduced the African ancestry survey.

Soccer star Arturo Tissone

As in other Latin American countries, the Spanish attempted to enslave the indigenous population during their initial invasion. So many indigenous people died from overwork and disease that the Spanish decided to bring African slaves from territories now known as Angola, Gambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Guinea to replace the dying native population. These Africans entered mainly through the port of Buenos Aires and were forced to work in agriculture, livestock, households, and to a lesser extent, crafts. In urban areas, many slaves made handicrafts for sale whose revenues went to their masters.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Argentina's black population comprised of up to 50% in some provinces and had a deep impact on national culture. The Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Telmo and Montserrat housed a large quantity of slaves, although most of the black slaves were sent to interior provinces. Slavery was officially abolished in 1813.

Guitarist and Tango composer Enrique Maciel

In the 19th century, the African population began its sharp decline for the following reasons:
  1. Heavy casualties caused by the constant civil wars, war for independence, and other foreign wars of which blacks made up a disproportionate part of the Argentine army. Also, like the Bufffalo Soldiers in the U.S., Afro Argentine soldiers fought against the native population whom the white Argentines despised as well as the blacks. It has been said that the government has purposely sent many blacks into dangerous front line battles.

  2. Yellow fever epidemic of 1871.

  3. Migration from Argentina to Uruguay and Brazil, where there were more blacks and a more favorable political climate.
    Massive immigration of Europeans between 1880 and 1950 when European immigrants were heavily welcomed and while non-Europeans unwelcome.

  4. By the late 19th century, black women, not having enough available black men, married European immigrants and white Argentines producing racially mixed children who also married non-black mates upon coming of age. 
 

Revolutionary War Hero Antonio Ruiz
Today, the Afro-Argentine community is beginning to emerge from the shadows of Argentine society. There have been black organizations such as Grupo Cultural Afro (Afro Cultural Group), SOS Racismo (SOS Racism), and perhaps the most important group, Africa Vive (Africa Lives), that help to rekindle interest into the African heritage of Argentina. There are also Afro-Uruguayan and Afro-Brazilian migrants who have helped to expand African culture. The Afro-Uruguayan migrants have brought their candombe, an African derived rhythm that has been an important part of Uruguayan culture for over two hundred years to Argentina, while the Afro-Brazilians teach capoeira, orisha, and other African derived secular dances.

A Brief History of the Black Roots of Argentine Tango

















Sunday, April 8, 2012

Diasporic Diversions: Adventures into Belize’s Afro-Caribbean Garifuna Festival



By Elaine Lee, world traveler and author/editor of 
 
“Am I in Africa or the Americas?” It was a question I asked myself often during the African heritage pride festivals that I attended in Belize, Central America. Commonly known as the Settlement Day Festivals, the Garifuna (gah-REE-foo-nah) people of Belize commemorate their arrival on the southern Caribbean shores of Belize every November 19th.

The celebration starts at dawn with a ritual re-enactment of their ancestors’ arrival from the Honduras in 1823. Dozens of Garifuna people come to designated shores in canoes loaded with drums, utensils and samplings of cassava and banana, much like their ancestors did 181 years ago. This event is followed by a drumming procession, program, feast, parade and a massive bacchanal.

So how did the Garifuna people get to Honduras, what was the significance of their journey and why such big celebrations? It’s a story shrouded in myth, legend and conflicting historical facts. The general consensus seems to be that in 1665, two slave ships filled with primarily Nigerian captives, shipwrecked off the coast of the British colonial Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Some say that the shipwreck was the result of a mutiny by the Africans. They swam to freedom and rapidly became an integral part of the Arawakan Indian society. The merging of races, cultures and languages resulted in a new population of black Caribs, known today as the Garifuna people. By the mid 1700’s the Garifunas were thriving in their new home, as evidenced by their increasing population and wealth.

Witnessing their success, the British tried to obtain by trick, persuasion or purchase, the fertile lands belonging to the Garifunas, which they planned to use for the harvesting of sugar cane. The Garifunas refused to give up their land, so in 1763 the British launched a war against them that lasted for 33 years. The British ultimately won in 1796 and proceeded to destroy the homes, canoes and crops of the Garifuna. The remaining 4,300 Garifuna were shipped to a neighboring island, Balliceaux, where half of them died of yellow fever. In 1797, the surviving Caribs were shipped to Roatan Island off the coast of Honduras. Many of the Garifuna people found the Honduras to be inhospitable and decided to migrate to Belize. On November 19th, 1823, the first large group of Garifuna from Roatan Island landed at the mouth of the North Stann Creek, located in the town of Dangriga. The date of this mass landing has been celebrated every year since 1941, when entrepreneur and civil rights activist, Thomas Vincent Ramos, launched the commemoration.

As the largest group of people in the African Diaspora that was never enslaved, the Garifuna have retained much of their African heritage. One of the most striking examples of the retention of the culture is evidenced in their language. Their language a mixture of Indian and African words and idioms that evolved during the time they lived on St. Vincent amongst the Arawak people. Unlike any other group in the African Diaspora, their language is completely devoid of European words. Listening to it for the first time almost startled me. The cadence, the tone and the lilt were distinctly West African and I found myself thinking again, “Am I in Africa or the Americas?” Most Belizean Garifuna people speak their native tongue as well as English, Belize’s official language. There are also communities of Garifuna people in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua that speak the traditional language as well. (Their current Central American population is estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000).



When I told a fellow travel writer friend of mine that I was interested in traveling to Central America, she enthusiastically encouraged me to time my visit to coincide with the Belizean Settlement Day festivities. Following her advice, on November 17, 2003, I made my way via plane, bus and taxi to Hopkins Village, one of the rural hubs of Belizean Garifuna society. On route I encountered numerous Garifuna, Afro-Belizeans as well as European tourists embarking on the same migration. Part homecoming, part ceremonial ritual, and part frivolity, the Settlement festivities give family, friend, communities and visitors the opportunity to delve into the rich authentic cultural experience of the world according to Garifuna.

On Tuesday night, November 18th, I joined in the village’s opening ceremonies, which were held under and around a large thatched roof open-air pavilion located on a sandy beach just south of the main road that leads to the village. When I arrived, community members were schlepping ice for the makeshift beverage and snack bar and bustling chairs from the nearby church and school, while the staff from the regional radio station was busily dragging cables and speakers to set up their sound system. They were eager to broadcast the part of the event that would feature the participation of Paranda musical legend and traditional religious leader, Paul Nabor, 80, who was on route from the neighboring coastal village of Punta Gorda. Paranda is a genre of Garifuna music, which combines traditional African drumming styles interlaced with a touch of Latin/Spanish rhythms. Its instrumentation is totally acoustic, primarily consisting of wooden drums, shakers, scrapers, turtle shell percussion and guitar.

The evening’s festivities were launched by a cadre of drummers pulsing out their powerful rhythms from their crudely constructed drums. The pulse, momentum and intensity of the music steadily heightened as people readied themselves to welcome and honor their Garifuna royalty. A group of 8 elder women join in a circle dance, the tempo and sinuous undulation of which had distinctive African origins. The dancers, as well as most of the other women present, wore traditional style African garb made of printed cotton material, long skirts, short sleeved hip length tops with a cinched waist, accompanied by cloth head wraps.

When the car drove up carrying Paul Nabor, the crowd erupted in jubilation. Surprisingly, there was no speech, no introductions, nor an official welcome. He walked through the circled crowd of about 100, as if parting the Red Sea, sat down amidst the drummers and began playing his guitar and singing. I could see the pride, pleasure and reverence in the eyes of the spirited onlookers. Most of the locals enthusiastically and loudly joined him in song and vigorous rhythmic hand clapping, relying heavily on traditional African call and response patterns. Witnessing this kaleidoscope of colors, movement and rhythms was completely captivating, so foreign, and yet so familiar. Flashing back to memories of similar scenes in rural parts of Africa, the Caribbean and Mississippi, I found myself thinking again, “Am I in Africa or the Americas?”
I was startled from my reverie by a gracious young woman who discreetly handed me one of the evening’s programs. I noticed that she and the other young women distributors were dressed in yellow, white and black, the colors of the Garifuna flags, which were planted and hoisted around the pavilion. The evening’s program had 13 entries, foretelling of an evening of storytelling, a beauty pageant, a state of the village address, a speech on the history of Settlement Day, political campaigning and much much more. By the look of things, I figured the event would probably last until the wee hours.

 

It was becoming increasingly difficult to tear myself away, but I knew I would have to leave within the hour if I going to meet up with John Rodriguez, the proprietor of the guesthouse where I was staying. He had offered to let me tag along with him to attend the Punta music and dance festival in the neighboring city of Dangriga. I hated to miss out on the remainder of the Hopkins village extravaganza, but I couldn’t dare pass up the opportunity to see how the city folks launched their Settlement Day festivities.

Only 16 miles away but worlds apart, the Dangriga event was a massive open-air festival that was held in a fenced field/stadium, nestled between the town’s farmer’s market and the Stann Creek River. There was a huge stage, sound system, stage lights, food booths, music vendors and bleachers. The $10.00 entry fee seemed somewhat steep for the average Dangrian, but nonetheless there were at least a 1,000 people there. The scene actually reminded me of dozens of outdoor concerts I had attended around the United States…that was until the music, singing and dancing started. It was at that moment I knew, “I was not in Kansas anymore”. Punta music, Belize’s national music, is said to be a mixture of Garifuna percussion, pop, salsa, calypso and reggae blended into a highly danceable idiom. Stylistically, it reminded me of a fusion of merengue, calypso and Caribbean zouk. It was the most engaging and unique mixture of African, Latin and Caribbean music I have ever heard.

I was soon blessed with the opportunity of seeing a performance by Honduran singer/songwriter/dancer Aurelio Martinez, who I suspect from the crowd’s spirited response, to be the reigning Punta king. His astonishing dancing prowess, his remarkably strong, textured and melodious voice, his radiant smile and his amazing stamina were unparalleled. He sang with such joyous exuberance and danced with such speed and precision that he had every eye in the place locked on him in blissful mesmerism. For entire length of his 90 minute set, he showed no signs of windedness or fatigue. It was truly mind-boggling. Punta style of dancing is amazingly erotic. It embodies the simulation of sexual seduction without the crassness you see in music video popular among American teens. It is a primordial celebration of life, where gyrating hips move in circular motions in such a deep connection with the highly poly-rhythmic drumbeats that the dancer actually appears to be forcefully entwined and propelled by them. With Aurelio and other skilled dancers I saw, their movements were so silken and sharp that it was as if they had ball bearing in their hips.

Toward the end of his performance, Aurelio was joined on stage by the late Andy Palacio, Belize’s most popular Punta rock musician and performing artist for a dynamic display of authentic Neo Garifuna culture. Andy Palacio recently died in 2008 at the age of 47. In addition to being accomplished performers, Martinez is and Palacio was the leading cultural activists with a deep commitment to preserving the values of his Garifuna culture. They traveled extensively throughout Garifuna communities, recording the music and stories of elder Paranda masters.

After leaving the concert, Mr. Rodriguez and I visited several neighborhood street parties, each of which was replete with live drumming, dancing and drunken celebrants. He referred to almost everybody that he introduced me to, as his cousin. I was welcomed warmly. Most people assumed that I was a Belizean visiting from the United States.

Making our way back to Hopkins Village, I sat in the car joyfully savoring the reverberations of the rich cultural smorgasbord of experiences I had indulged in that evening. That was until we hit our first of many big potholes on the last stretch of the dirt road leading to Hopkins Village. The suddenness of it jerked me out of my exhaustion laced stupor and back to the reality of my next big challenge, how I was going to get myself up in only 3 hours to witness and hopefully participate in the Settlement Day festivities, which were scheduled to begin at 6:00 a.m.

 

Luckily, at the appointed hour, the sounds of the other guests stirring, combined with my muffled travel alarm and the nearby ocean waves, corralled me to wakefulness. I caught up with several tourists from Austria who had gathered behind the guesthouse as we staggered blurry eyed along the beach to return to the place of last night festivities, where we were told we would see the ceremonial reenactment of the arrival of the Garifuna people to Belize almost 200 years ago. Watching the sunrise, we basked in the pride of having dragged ourselves there on time. Squeezing ourselves into the small school desk/chair combinations that were strewn about the pavilion, we started our vigil. One hour passed, then another, as I fiddled with my new digital camera between nods. Slowly but surely the townspeople began to gather. It became clear that everybody in the village except the tourists and a few clueless locals knew the event would start on “cp” (colored people’s) time, i.e., that 6. a.m. really meant 8 a.m.

At last, a crowd of about 60 people collected themselves near the shore, surrounding the drummers who began pounding out their rhythms. The singing and chanting started shortly thereafter. About ½ hour later, three boats came to shore, its occupants wrapped in huge ivy leaves and vines. They waved palm fronds and banana leaves to symbolize the cassava that sustained their ancestors during the boat trips from St. Vincent to Honduras as well as Honduras to Belize. As they docked the boats, the drummers and flag bearers led the “settlers” in a lively procession, singing and dancing their way from the beach to a nearby Catholic church. Many of the celebrants attended mass, others gathered under the in the open air pavilion and a large group of women scurried off to a nearby hut to complete the preparation of the free village feast that would be provided after the church service.

I approached a fellow, who displayed a modicum of leadership behavior, to get help figuring out more about what was going on. In addition to explaining to me about the historical underpinnings of the event, he pointed out some of the key players as well as he took me to the place where the food was being prepared. The large structure appeared to be an abandoned or partially constructed house. There were no doors at the entryways or screens on the windows. Several women were making charcoal and wood fires on the cement floor, on which they would heat the food and grill the fish. Others were working on makeshift tables to prepare and serve Dani (cassava root grated, boiled and sweetened and wrapped plantain leaf), beans cooked in coconut milk, Falmoa (a dish made with boiled vegetables, tubers, fish and coconut milk), green banana fritters, Sere (Fish Soup) and Hudut (mashed plantains). On the other side of the “house” they were organizing the coffee, bush tea, cakes, puddings and tableta (a dessert made of coconut, ginger, and brown sugar). We were given a sampling of the Dani, grilled fish and fritters, which we ate, with our fingers. My newfound guide, Chris, explained in detail about ingredients and preparation of the foods we were eating, which of course looked and tasted completely West African.

Hearing loud singing coming the church, I noticed a long line of church attendees emerging from the doorway singing, swaying and marching around the pavilion. Many of the people wore clothes that were the traditional Garifuna colors of white, black and yellow.

The marchers joined in with other community people for a community forum where many of the attendees discussed the history, present conditions and future plans for the Garifuna people of Hopkins village, greater Belize and neighboring countries. Afterwards, the celebrants peacefully lined up in front of the makeshift kitchen and received copious plates of food. All of the food and there was no charge. People clustered under the pavilion, on the steps of the nearby abandoned schoolhouse and on the beach to enjoy their meals. After second helpings and deserts, the crowd slowly dispersed without fanfare to ready themselves for the afternoon parade.

 

Unfortunately the parade was a major letdown, due to the threat of rain and mechanical problems with the lead truck’s sound system. The parade was several hours late getting started and the crowd dwindled in size from about 150 people to about 20 adults and 30 children. They marched, sang and danced behind the big sound truck throughout the village of 1,000 inhabitants. There were no costumes, floats or pageantry of any kind, making me wish I had jumped ship again and fled to Dangriga where the festivities were supposedly on a much grander scale, better organized and well attended. I thought that the rural setting of Hopkins Village would lend itself to a more authentic and traditional celebration, which it did in some respects, but the infrastructure and organization was sorely lacking. In retrospect I think I should have divided my time more evenly.

Later that evening, I met a Garifuna couple at the guesthouse that had recently arrived completely exhausted from the Dangriga festivities. They told me that they were heading to the island of Caye Caulker the next morning in order to get back to work. I later learned that the Austrian tourists were heading there also. I had been torn about whether my next stop should be Ambergris Caye, the larger, more beautiful and upscale island or Caye Caulker; the more laid back, backpacker and party scene. I decided to ride the horse in the direction it was going and joined the caravan to Caye Caulker. We were up again at 6:00 a.m. readying ourselves to walk to the center of the village to catch the 7:00 a.m. bus to Dangriga, the 8:00 a.m. express bus to Belize City and the noon water taxi to Caye Caulker. It turned out that everybody else had the same idea, so the 7:00 a.m. bus was full. There we sat in front of the pool hall-cum-bus stop, in a collective stupor, propped up against our backpacks dreaming of steaming hot coffee and the next bus.

We made it to Caye Caulker a bit behind schedule but no worse for the wear. Caye Caulker is a tiny, quaint island only four miles long and less than a mile wide. It has no cars or paved roads; the main means of transportation are bicycles and an occasional golf cart. Its main drag is a waterfront promenade lined with lovely restaurants, outdoor adventure outfitters, gift shops and all manner of lodging. Being a long distance swimmer, I opted for a motel on what the guidebooks and fellow travelers called, the “beach side” of the island. After settling in, I decided that laying on a sandy beach, snorkeling and swimming would be the perfect antidote for a half-day of traveling and two back-to-back days of Settlement Day festivities. As I sauntered to land’s end, what a rude awakening awaited me…I saw sun seekers sprawled out on their towels atop broken cement piers that jetted up from the shoreline. Not my idea of a beach! I saw a small patch of sand next to a bar and wondered why no one was sitting on it. As I started to squat down, I soon learned why it had been abandoned by humans…it was fully inhabited by nipping little sand flies, as were most of the beaches I visited in Belize. The sea floor of the shallow area was covered with sea grass, which I hate. I managed to swim out past it only to find that the current was too strong for me, so I sulked back to my room, unpacked and moved on to Plan B; exploring the island.

As I walked along the main drag, in the distance I noticed a brown Belizean man grilling over a half steel drum. As I drew closer, I could see a dozen or so lobsters sizzling away over the coals. After greeting him, I asked him how much they were and he said, “Free”. I asked him again and he said, “free” again…so I asked him how I could go about getting one, and he told me to go across the street to inquire inside the club. Peering into its cavernous interior, I did not spot anyone, so I decided he was just joking with me. I proceeded to go to a nearby Internet café to check my email, but I couldn’t get the lobster off of my mind. About an hour later, I made my way back to the lobster fest, and it turned out that all but ½ of one was left and that they really were free. The owner of the club was in one of his regular generous moods and was simply sharing his bounty with the community. He offered me a free drink to enjoy with my piece of lobster, potatoes and veggies.

Later that evening, he confided in me that he was making a lot of money in real estate in Arizona and enjoyed sharing his good fortune, particularly with solo travelers. He was a gregarious, friendly young man who never charged me for another drink for the remainder of my 3 days in Caye Caulker. Within hours, I was an honorary member of the Oceanview Bar and Grill family. I was behind the bar helping serve drinks and popcorn and schmoozing with the locals and tourists. It turned out that the Oceanview was the liveliest spot in town, which is no surprise considering their brand of hospitality and penchant for creating instant communities. During that evening, I met the island’s mayor, several local business owners as well as people I had met in Hopkins Village. My days were filled with sea adventures in and around Belize’s huge barrier reef (the second largest in the world). We swam with stingrays and sharks, snorkeled, visited neighboring islands as well as a manatee reserve. My evenings were filled with majestic sunsets, dancing, partying, karaoke, bar hopping and helping out at the Oceanside Bar and Grill.

Whenever I travel I always corral fellow travelers and locals into helping me plan the next leg of my journey. I informally tally the polls and make my plans. The consensus in this case was that my next stop needed to be the Cayo District of the western mountain region of Belize. It was there, I was assured, that I would see a wide array of Mayan ruins, jungles and rivers. Additionally, I was also advised to visit the Tikkal ruins in Guatemala, the largest uncovered Mayan city in Central America, which was only an hour’s drive from San Ignacio, the capital of the Cayo District.

 
 
After taking the water taxi to the mainland, I traversed 72 miles across the small country of Belize by bus in search of San Ignacio. We had a mid-way rest stop in the town of Belmopan and I coyly followed a couple of locals to a group of food vendors peddling their products on the side of the road. I followed suit and bought some lusciously moist and custardy tamales that were stuffed with chicken, onions and green peppers. An hour or so later, as we approached the city limits of San Ignacio, a young schoolboy, about 8 years old, ventured back to my seat and asked me if I needed help finding a place to stay and I said yes. He offered to help me. Upon disembarking the bus, a friendly rotund gentleman approached me to ask if I needed help finding a place to stay and the young boy looked at me and nodded. Interpreting his gesture as a green light, I said yes. After a couple of stall outs, he whisked me away in his raggedy circa 1975 Toyota station wagon to E & J guesthouse, whose proprietors, John and Helen Lamb, warmly and eagerly greeted me.

After shuttling my things into my room and feeding me a snack, John whipped out a stack of brochures, spread them on the table and enthusiastically proceeded to tell me, in his challenged English, the “must do” adventures to experience during my stay in San Ignacio. He said that the favorite spots for most of his guests were Actun Tunichil Muknal, Tikkal and Xunantunich. Other than Tikkal, I had never heard of the places before, so I got the name and prices and decided to do a bit of research on my own. I grabbed my day pack and my faithful guidebook and made my way to Eva’s, which was supposedly THE adventurers’ hub. Chocked full of hardy travelers and local travel info, I read up on dozens of excursions Eva had mapped out on her walls as well as talked to other travelers, including several guys I had met in Caye Caulker. Afterwards I came to the conclusion that Mr. Lamb had the best suggestions and the best deals. After wandering around the uneventful town, I headed back to the guesthouse to make my excursion arrangements.

The next morning at 7:00 a.m., I was on route to Actun Tunichil Muknal, i.e., the Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher, a sacred cave that the ancient Mayans used for human and food sacrifices to the gods of the underworld from 900-1200 A.D. The Lonely Planet guidebook described it as “the most adventurous and incredible tour you can take in Belize.” I found it to be one of the most exhilarating, fascinating and physically demanding adventures of my life.

After a 90-minute drive on the freeway, down dirt roads, through a factory farm and over a corn field, (i.e., no road), we arrived at the edge of the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve to park the truck, drenched ourselves in bug spray and launched our journey. I was a guest of Pacz Tours, one of only two companies allowed by the government to take people into the cave. The cave was rediscovered in the 1970’s but not fully explored until Belizean archeologist, Jaime Awe, led an expedition there in the early 90’s. Actun has only been open to tourists since 1998 and I wonder how much longer it will remain that way, considering the fragile nature of the artifacts in the caves as well as the arduous and potentially dangerous journey required to access its inner recesses.

The 45-minute hike to the cave’s entrance took our motley crew of 8 through jungle trails and three thigh-high creeks. After arriving at “boot camp” we had our lunch, were given an informational lecture and were fitted for our head-lamped hard hats. Much to my surprise, we had to swim through a 25-foot pool of water to get to the actual entrance of the cave. It was an ideal precursor of the unusual events that were to unfold. It turns out that the 2-mile “hike” to the sacred chambers was a trek through an intricate labyrinth of trails, pools and streams. On several occasions we had to climb up narrow passageways, pretzel our bodies through remarkably small openings and scurry over yards of broken boulders. This trip was not for the faint of heart or weak of body. To add to the drama our guide, Ramon, instructed us at one point to turn off our headlamps and he guided us hand in hand for 20 yards in the pitch-blackness through one of the few flat-bottomed creeks.

Through much of our inner earth journey, we were surrounded by enormous shimmering rock formations jutting up from the ground and hanging from the ceiling. The magnificent stalactites and stalagmites ranged in length from 1- 20 feet. The most spectacular display was located in a huge, circular, cathedral-like area right below the entrance to the hallowed chambers.

After climbing up a long narrow metal ladder to the upper ledges, we were instructed to remove our shoes. Slowly we proceeded along an extremely narrow rocky path behind Ramon. We came into a huge open flat area strewn with dozens of broken ceramic pots. We had to be careful not to step on them because many were right next to the path. Further ahead we saw what appeared to be skeletons. One of our group members stated in a rebellious voice, “I will go no further – this is holy ground, not designed for gawking tourists.” I suggested that we stop and say a prayer for the people whose lives were sacrificed here. Ramon led us in a quick acknowledgement (he had obviously encountered this before) and onward we proceeded on our journey. Our concerned comrade remained behind. I thought it probably wasn’t a coincidence that my camera stopped working at that point.


As we snaked our way around another corner, we came to another open area with more pots and even more skeletons. I counted 14, appearing to range from infants to adults, some with flattened foreheads and some with teeth filled with jade plugs; signs of Mayan beauty. There were remnants of hundreds of pots, mostly shards but many partial pots and a few whole ones. The researchers and tour operators had been very careful not to move or reposition things. It was like walking into a living museum.
Ramon told us of the mythology and rituals practiced in that exact spot over 800 years ago, opening a window into the lives and deaths of his ancestors. It was truly unforgettable experience to behold this slice of history. To preserve the memory, I hope to locate a copy of the 1993 National Geographic Explorer documentary film titled, "Journey through the Underworld,” about an expedition team that explored Actun Tunichil Muknal.

On day two in the Cayo District, Mr. Lamb made all the arrangements for me and 2 other guesthouse dwellers to take a day trip to Tikkal, Guatemala. While we were waiting for his son to take us to the border to meet the tour van driver, he instructed us to leave all of our jewelry and valuables with him due to the recent flurry of tour van hijackings. Guatemala’s stark poverty propelled many young men into a life of crime, finding tourists to be easy targets because most do not have guns and the vans are easy to overtake. The dirt road portion of the highway to Tikkal is full of enormous potholes, which require drivers to slow down to maneuver around them. When they slowed down the bandits could make their move.
So there I stood at the precipice of a major decision; do I leave my deceased parent’s wedding band and my personalized cartouche from Egypt with a virtual stranger or take the change of losing it possible thief? I had two minutes to decide. My fellow travelers and I turned our valuables over to Mr. Lamb and his son, Emil, carted us away.

When we got to the border, Emil pointed out our van driver, who was waiting for us on the Guatemalan side. Once we made eye contact and waved, Emil told us to meet him back here at 5 p.m. and he would drive us to the guesthouse. No sooner did Emil leave the parking lot than moneychangers swarmed us, pleading for us to change our American money for Guatemalan quetzals. . They were sorely disappointed to learn we only had Belizean dollars. Despite my noblest effort, neither my currency converter nor I could figure out the exchange rate from Belizean dollars to Guatemalan quetzals. I was so nervous and flabbergasted from the commotion, I couldn’t think straight and neither could my travel companions. So we finally gathered ourselves together and decided to exchange only a few Belizean dollars. We estimated the amount we would need to get through customs and figured we would worry about the rest later.

By the time we made our way through the interminable Belizean and Guatemalan customs lines, we felt completely overwrought and it was only 8:00 a.m. We looked with envy at the groups of well-heeled tourists who were being sheparded past us by their high-priced tour guides. We finally met up with our driver, who we discovered could not speak a lick of English and I, only a lick of Spanish. Somehow we managed to get our plans together and headed off for Tikkal. The road appeared to be recently paved and we felt relieved as we jetted down the highway. About an hour later the highway ran out and the infamous dirt road appeared. Even though Tikkal was only 90 miles away, it took us almost 3 hours to get there because the poor road conditions. Luckily we made it to the nearby city of Flores, robber-free to pick up a paved road again as well as our tour guide who was waiting at a bus stop with his young daughter. Mario was short, thin, wiry Belizean of African and Indian descent who spoke impeccable English at a remarkably fast clip. My brain could barely keep up with the non-stop flurry of words. He was so full of facts and figures that within an hour we all had a glazed looks on our faces from being on overload. He said a short day trip was not enough time to fully appreciate Tikkal, so he had to talk and move fast in order for us to get the basics.

The scooplet on Tikkal is that it is an ancient Mayan city, built and inhabited from 700 B.C. until 900 A.D. and stretched over 2 ½ million acres. During its heyday, in the 6th century, it had over 100,000 inhabitants. We actually visited Tikkal National Park, which encompasses 222 square miles of the city and is home to its most striking palaces, temples and pyramids; the tallest of which is over 144 feet high. Most of the structures are adorned with steps, making it easy to access them. The massive abandoned city is nestled in a rainforest, replete with not only hordes of tourists but also with wildlife such as, howler monkeys, wild turkeys (which had glorious iridescent feathers), parrots and toucans. It was a truly remarkable experience and well worth the inconvenience of getting there. As agreed, Emil was there waiting for us when we traipsed across the border and happily Mr. Lamb graciously returned our treasured valuables when we returned to the guest house.

My last day in the Cayo Region was less of a blockbuster adventure than my previous two days but most interesting nonetheless. I got a chance to hike to the Xunantunich, the Stone Maiden, one of Belize’s most impressive Mayan sites. It is home to 25 temples and palaces, including the second tallest Mayan structure in Belize, the pyramid El Castillo, which measures 130 feet high. I was struck by the intricacy and cubism of the carvings, many of which were clearly telling a story. During its zenith period from 600 to 1,000 A.D., Xunantunich had over 10,000 residents. It is located 8 miles outside the city limits of San Ignacio.
After visiting there, Mr. Lamb took me into the mountains to visit a gallery and workshop of a friend of his who makes traditional clay Mayan jewelry, plates and pots. I particularly liked his merchandise because so many of the patterns he used reminded me of African art. I bought lots of necklaces for my friends.
Afterwards, I picked up lunch, jumped on the bus and headed back across the country to Belize City’s Airport for my flight to El Salvador and Costa Rica.

During my 10 amazing days in Belize, I managed to manifest one of the most culturally rich, exciting, affordable and action-packed escapades I’d ever created. Belize provides the traveler with a wide array of choices from cultural immersion, history, nature, adventure, photography and volunteerism to just being a party animal or lounge lizard.

If you would like more information about travel to Belize, contact the Belize Tourist board (www.travelbelize.org), www.Belizefirst.com, an informative website where the webmaster freely doles out prompt travel advice and/or Lonely Planet’s Belize Guidebook.
Written by Elaine Lee, Esq. (copyright 2004).

 
Elaine Lee