I was tooling along Princess Margaret Drive in Belize City recently when I heard a repeated scraping sound as my little Nissan surmounted speed bump after speed bump.
Following the policy of “ignore it and it will stop,” I kept driving. Just as I passed the entrance to Marion Jones Stadium I heard a clanging, and glimpsed my muffler rolling to a stop on the road side.
Allow me to explain how you can handle this situation if it happens to you:
1. Get out of your car and retrieve said muffler when there is a break in traffic. Stow it in the trunk.
2. Drive to your mechanic George who, with a good-natured chuckle says, “You need a new muffler.”
3. Get referred by George to a “bally ‘pon Cran Street,” who does mufflers.
1. Buying a car. There are few dealerships of the kind you’ll find in the U.S. and other bigger countries. However, the streets of Belize City can be considered one giant used car lot. Just look for vehicles with large white dollar sign and phone number decals on their rear windows. Call the number for a quote and test drive!
Or, you can go to the Facebook Group “Belize Buy & Sell,” where you will find a number of posts showing photos of cars along with prices and contact information for the sellers. (You can also find clothes, cell phones, jewelry, and just about anything else you can think of).
I opted to buy a used car from a broker-dealer named Brian who has a mostly empty lot along the highway and a great website, where I spotted my intended. His office is a tent, or the driver’s seat of a car he’s trying to sell.
I paid cash for something called a Nissan Platina, made in Mexico. Someone said to me later, “Oh, that’s a Third World car.” I took this to mean it was hardy and could handle the rigors of dust, iffy fuel and rough roads. Fingers crossed on that one.
Anyway, Brian defines full service! He drove me to the Traffic Division to meet the person who hired him to sell the car so we could transfer the title. The seller was a nun named Sister Rose. The car, I should say, is more than 10 years old and has only about 50,000 miles on it. It’s not fancy, but it runs and doesn’t guzzle gas. Sister Rose took great care of it.
Next, Brian drove me to the insurance company of my choice, where he waited with me until I was duly insured. Finally, he recommended a mechanic he trusts.
2. Servicing your car. You can take your car to one of the major dealers and wait a day or more for an oil change. Or, you can get a referral for a good mechanic who works out of his yard. The guy Brian recommended to me is named George, and it turns out he is the first cousin of my first cousin’s wife. And he lives around the corner from me.
When I called to make my appointment, George advised me to buy my oil and filter, as well as steering fluid (my wheel was stiff and making ominous sounds) and bring these items to his yard. I made my purchases at Westrac, a place—let it be said—that is an automotive paradise: You go in and sit at a kind of bar to share your vehicular woes with a sort of bartender/car expert who pulls the items you need. My filter had to be brought in from another store, but—no worries—they’ll get it in the same day. George serviced my car in less than an hour and drove it around the corner to my place.
3. Parking. There are a number of actual parking lots around downtown Belize City, which is a relatively new development. Parking there will cost about two Belize dollars per hour. Still, you will find yourself parking on the narrow city streets much of the time. In this regard it is helpful to have a Platina, which is about the size of a Toyota Tercel! Parking can sometimes be precarious, as many streets are lined with open drains and a few inches here or there can land you in their murky waters.
Thankfully, whether in a parking lot or not, there is usually someone to help. On the street this will be a random guy who appears out of nowhere and provides expert advise via hand movements, shouts, and thumps on the side of your car. He will be genial and quite pleased to help you. It’s not so different in a parking lot, although the guy helping you is an actual employee.
4. Getting a carwash. Once you have parked your car in the lot across from Brodie’s rear entrance on Regent Street, a shirtless man bearing a bucket will offer to wash your car while you go about your business. There is no set price, but I try to be generous.
There is a guy who combines parking and washing services in the area of the Bliss Center for the Performing Arts nearby. He must have a sixth sense about when I will be in the area, because he materializes out of nowhere–guaranteed.
5. Getting gas. Filling your tank in Belize will cost you about twice as much as in the U.S. One thing that might ease the pain at the pump is the fact that gas stations are full service. Young men in neat uniforms (and baseball caps) will do the honors and clean your windshield and rear window while you wait. They will also put air in your tires.
What must it be like to be a beauty pageant contestant in Belize in the age of social media? When I was pageant-ing in 1986, there was no way for members of the public to instantly criticize me and share that criticism with hundreds–even thousands of other people. I heard very few negative comments; I suppose my friends and family shielded me. The few I did hear were baffling as well as dismaying.
So, I salute the ten contestants in this year’s Miss Belize Universe Pageant, whose pageant month was full of public appearances and opportunities to be scrutinized.
If I were to provide advice to young women about whether to enter a beauty pageant in Belize, here are a few items I would ask potential contestants to consider.
Do you know what it feels like to lose? I suspect young women who know what this feels like will be able to face what’s coming. So, if you have competed before (e.g. in sports, academically, in other kinds of contests) and survived defeat with your ego intact, that is a point in favor of entering a pageant.
Do you know how it feels to win? This is important because the minute you triumph you will become a magnet for people who want to be in your life, for better and worse. Being a gracious and humble winner can go a long way in keeping your ego intact.
Is your support system strong and absolutely on board? Any ambivalence in the people closest to you can lead to self-doubt. Your friends and family love you, but they may not see entering a pageant as something they want you to do. Also, a ride-or-die crew will make sure you have the resources you need: They’ll help you find sponsors, be your cheering section, and remind you that you’re awesome no matter what happens.
Are you confident? Confidence is not the same as courage. In my mind, courage gets you through something you may not believe you can actually survive. Confidence means that no matter what happens in the pageant, you’ll be fine. Maybe you’ll shed a few disappointed tears, but you won’t be shattered.
What happens next? Do you have a plan to get on with your life, win or lose?
Would I do it again? Yes. I won a college scholarship (as did the 2016 winner, Rebecca Rath). I traveled to Singapore, Europe and all around Belize. I was probably too young; at age 17, my ego was fragile and the Miss Universe experience was overwhelming. Still, no regrets.
A foodie visitor to Belize might observe that the country has a vibrant “street food” scene. In Belize, we just call it food, comida, and dinna (dinner). There are small vendors everywhere. On a recent five-minute car ride from my neighborhood to the grocery store I counted at least ten pop-up, semi-permanent and permanent purveyors of food: meat pies, tamales, panades, barbecue, johnny cakes, rice and beans with stewed chicken–you name it!
For a poor country, there is a lot of food around. Grocery stores are plentiful and well-stocked. Upscale eateries and casual eateries abound in the tourist areas (there are not as many in Belize City). Portions, whether on the street or in a hotel dining room, tend to be generous. Prices range, depending on where you are (in the districts versus a tourist destination, for example), but a few Belize dollars can fill your belly.
And yet, children go hungry.
Recent years have seen the rise of school feeding programs for children who may not get a nutritious meal on any given day.
It’s hard to find information on the exact numbers or reasons for hunger in Belize. I did find the World Food Programme Hunger Map, which calls the “prevalence of undernourishment” among Belizean children “relatively low;” about 9 percent of kids ages five to 14 don’t get enough to eat. That seems rather high, in a country where food (literally) grows on trees and in the sea. Are adults simply hogging all the food for ourselves?
The second largest population group consists of children 0-14 years: 34.87% (male 61,822/female 59,312)
Children under the age of 5 years underweight: 6.2%
An informal economy
Back to the food vendors. Are their families eating the food they prepare?
I also wonder whether the official economic statistics include these entrepreneurs. Then I think of the people who have day jobs and do other things on the side to make ends meet, to feed their children.
They do nails or hair in their parlours (living rooms); sell clothes out of their bedrooms (using Facebook to advertise); cook in their own kitchens and deliver to customers. There are car dealers without car lots (they park their vehicles on the streets and post contact phone numbers in the windows). There website designers, domestic workers and childcare providers.
Can a person claim a place, or does place always trump the person?
When one lives in the middle a very large country, in a fairly large city, it’s easy to exist in a relatively passive and insulated sort of way. Privacy is pretty much guaranteed; people don’t just drop by unannounced. Running errands is not likely to put one in contact with anyone one knows. Co-workers may become friends, but they just as easily may not.
This kind of existence means you can opt into community life or not. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found this less appealing than I once did. The effort required for a single professional woman with no local ties to make friends is daunting. Endeavors–at least for me–often ended in a sort of disappointing neutrality. The outing or activity was fine, the people were perfectly fine, but no real connection was made.
“It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean.” ― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
I have no idea how this will turn out, but I recently made the decision to move back to Belize, finding the pull of my native land suddenly extremely strong.Over the years, I have made a point to visit at least once a year–sometimes I’ve managed more than once a year. Although I didn’t grow up in Belize in terms of actual years, Belize is the place where many of my formative experiences took place. It’s where I have a large circle of extended family, friends and acquaintances. For better or worse, people know a great deal about me–warts and all. There is both comfort and trepidation in this!
Having moved around my entire life, Belize City is the closest thing I have to a hometown. So here I am: Day Four. Here we go….
On Sunday, Aug. 9, voters from around the Stann Creek District converged on the village of Independence to cast their ballots at a United Democratic Party (UDP) convention. It was a three-way race to represent the Stann Creek West electoral division as standard bearer in the next General Election (date as yet to be determined).
We boarded a boat for Independence on the lagoon side of Placencia at 10 a.m. on Sunday. It was one of several flying a United Democratic Party flag bearing the name, “Walter.” Of the dozen or so people on board, about half wore red t-shirts emblazoned with UDP slogans or pro-Walter wording in white lettering.
All three candidates used boats and buses to bring their supporters to the polls. Upon arrival at Independence Primary School, voters navigated a genial gauntlet of die-hard boosters at the school yard gate who encouraged undecideds to pick their candidates. I had the feeling there were not very many undecideds.
In addition to bringing people to the polls, each candidate provided supporters with a full rice-and-beans meal at midday.
There are two electoral divisions in the Stann Creek District: The principal town of Dangriga and the rest of the district, known as Stann Creek West. MORE
The three candidates:
Walter Garbutt, retired teacher
Nathan Young, UDP constituency chairperson
Ivan Williams, Labour Commissioner of Belize
According to Belizebreakingnews.com, UDP party chairman “Alberto August described Sunday’s turnout as the biggest convention held by the United Democratic Party (UDP) in the division of Stann Creek West.” Walter Garbutt won with about 50 percent of the 3,100 votes cast.
I am not registered to vote in Belize (although, as a citizen and homeowner, I think I could be), so I attended the convention as an observer.
Independence Primary School’s ground floor classrooms each served as polling places, based on alphabetical order. One room was reserved for the party Secretariat: UDP Secretary General Pearl Stuart and a team of party workers collected the paper ballots here, ensured their validity and stowed them away in a series of plastic bags. There were UDP staffers on hand to answer questions from voters about the process, but not about the candidates.
My aunt remembers a time when verifying voter eligibility was based on facial recognition: If a poll worker recognized you as living in the precinct where you said you lived, you could vote. Now, voters must be properly registered ahead of time and bring their photo IDs to the polls. Workers then check their list of registered voters to ensure you are eligible.
In Belize, where ballots are counted by hand, each voter dips an index finger into red ink to show he or she has already cast a ballot. Afterward, many people lingered in the school yard chatting with friends, meeting the candidates themselves or simply taking in the scene.
Hon. Anthony “Boots” Martinez, Minister of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation, mingled among the voters–shaking hands and thanking people for turning out.
Also on hand, the man whose departure from the party precipitated the convention: Melvin Hulse, former division standard bearer, came out to cast his ballot. In June, Hulse stepped down after a scandal involving tape recordings–recordings on which he reportedly slammed his party leader, Prime Minister Dean Barrow. Despite being in disgrace with party leadership, Hulse seems to remain popular with many voters, who greeted him with familiarity and affection. No doubt, Hulse voted for Nathan Young, whom he endorsed upon resigning from the party and his government post.
Overall, the atmosphere was peaceful and even festive. The stream of voters throughout the morning was steady and orderly. Still, the atmosphere, however easy-going, carried with it an urgency: This is important; we can vote, and we will vote.
Growing up in a family that moved every two or three years, I could count on two places that changed very little and offered warm welcomes. These two places are on their own both “off the beaten path” and taken together present a rather unlikely pairing:
Menominee, Michigan (USA)–where my father grew up on the corner of 13th Avenue & 21st Street. On vacation trips and for longer periods in between my father’s overseas assignments, we lived here. I briefly attended elementary school and later high school in Menominee and made friends. (Shoutout! My dear high school BFFs: Kelly W., Kelley M., and Debbie S.)
Belize City, Belize–where my mother grew up on New Road. Similar to Menominee, I attended bits and pieces of school in Belize and spent vacations there. Later, I began my journalism career there. Along the way, I made friends.
Because my mother’s family is large and close-knit, the Belize connection emerged over the years as the stronger of the two. My American grandmother died in the late 1980s (my grandfather died shortly after I was born) and my father has no siblings. So, after we cleared out and sold the Menominee house, there was little reason to return. Located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the town is not exactly on the way to or from many places.
Enter Facebook! A yearbook photo posted on Friday by former classmate John Militello (who, like many Menominee folks, no longer lives there) was a fond reminder: It feels good to know that Menominee people, like Belize people, remember me. For all my traveling and career-ing, I am moved and comforted to know that there are memories that connect me to places in the heart.
On my most recent trip, I spent a few days conducting a communication training seminar for a group of non-profits in the human development sector. We passed a good part of one day talking about local journalism and how to engage reporters in Belize in a way that encourages them to cover some of the important work agencies and organizations do for people living in the margins.
Remember the “news values” many journalists learn about in college? Sharing this list with my group proved to be a great way to get the participants to see the world through the eyes of news hounds. There are no “j-schools” in Belize, so this list may be news to local journalists, although they understand and practice it intuitively. The idea of news values was definitely enlightening for the group I was teaching.
I would say that, in Belize, controversy and conflict tend to trump most of the other news values–with novelty and human interest making a strong showing. Here’s a look at some of the top stories when I was there in late September:
The advantage of focusing on conflict, controversy, human interest and novelty may seem to be that the inherent drama negates the need for context. Of course, this is not true. In Belize, journalists do try to provide context at times. The problem is, the writing and delivery often gets bogged down in officialese, redundancy and contradiction.
In other journalism news…
I came across several interesting items about journalism around the world.
Citizens Jain. I just read the full article in The New Yorker. It’s about how two brothers are making oodles of money in the thriving India news eco-sphere. They’ve introduced a few innovations that wouldn’t fly in the US, but could work for other countries.
It’s fitting that my five copies of The Caribbean Writerarrived in September. In it (pages 139-141) appears “Sea Change,” a short story based on the horrific hurricane that struck Belize Sept. 10, 1931.
A hurricane is bad enough today. Imagine a ferocious storm arriving with little warning, striking a small town where nothing of its kind had hit in living memory. Add the fact that most of the town’s residents were out and about celebrating a national holiday.
The hurricane struck Belize City and the north coast of British Honduras with winds up to 125 miles per hour
The storm surge swamped the sea-level town
An estimated 2,500 people died
Did the colonial authorities fail to warn the populace of the impending danger? Did people simply ignore the warnings, unable to conceive of the the potential devastation?
READ: A news report about the facts and myths surrounding what happened on Sept. 10, 1931
“Sea Change”is my imagining of that day, based on a story told in my family. As I understand the tale, my grandfather Clive Tucker and his younger brother Arthur Tucker–both children–were part of a celebratory seaside crowd when the first signs of the storm appeared. Granddad did not know exactly what was about to happen, but he had a sense of foreboding and headed home, Uncle Arthur in tow.