Sunday, May 18, 2008

This is Belize

Lately, Tom and I have found ourselves hearing and saying those three words frequently for all sorts of different reasons.

The first time we noticed those words coming out of our mouths was a couple of weeks ago when Tom attended a 7 Miles town meeting. In February, the People’s United Party (PUP) was voted out, and the United Democratic Party (UDP) was voted in for most district and national offices. Coming from the US where the President can be Republican but all sorts of different offices under the President can be held by Democrats or Republicans depending on how the constituents vote, we just sort of assumed that it didn’t really matter if the more minor offices, like town chairmen, were held by PUP or UDP. That was a bad assumption, because it seems to really matter, and the purpose of the 7 Miles town meeting that day was to force the mostly-PUP water board in that town to turn over their records to UDP officials, regardless of the fact that the water board had been voted in and their terms were not due to expire until 2010, and regardless of the fact that most consumers of the water were very happy with the job the PUP water board was doing. Tom talked about this meeting – which was attended not only by a lot of townspeople but also by armed police and Belize Defense Force (BDF) soldiers – with the chairman of Georgeville, who just happens to be UDP, and the only explanation the Georgeville chairman offered was that this is Belize, and that’s how it’s done.

We’re now waiting to see what happens with the water system because a pipe broke up in the Pine Ridge near the water source and we, along with the entire town of 7 Miles and all the water users, have been without water for four days. We’re not sure if the new water board knows how to fix it, or if they can get together a crew to do the job. But, this is Belize, and if nobody can get water from the public water supply, people will just figure out another way to supply their families with water.

Another very distressing thing happened with that village and the change of leadership this week. In January and February, the side of the road was chopped and electric poles were delivered so that 7 Miles could get electricity. After the election all activity on the project stopped, and the town chairman told Tom that they were waiting for wire, which was supposed to arrive in June. However, Tom was driving into 7 Miles the other day, and he saw a truck picking up any pole that had not yet been set in the ground. Making it clear he was asking just out of curiosity, he asked what was happening. The guys in the truck told him that they’d been instructed to pick up all the loose poles and take them back to Belize City. Tom asked if that meant 7 Miles wasn’t getting electricity, and the guys said that it looked that way. When Tom asked if they were going to dig up the already set poles, the only reply was “not yet.” Up until now, the picking up of poles had been sort of a joke, because in the last election, 7 Miles had also been promised electricity, and had even had poles delivered, although not set. After the election, a truck came and picked up all the poles and nothing more was done about getting electricity to the town until this most recent election. Before this election, most residents thought that they were good to go because so many poles had already been set prior to the election. But, now it looks like it was just another election ploy, although the powers-that-be had to take the additional step of setting the poles so it looked like they really meant it. When we talk to people around here who watched this in the election five years ago, and then saw it again in this year’s election, all they say is “This is Belize.”

We’re one step closer now to our permanent residency here, and that’s also happening Belize style. At our interviews with the immigration officer in Belmopan two weeks ago, we were told to wait a couple of weeks and then contact the police in San Ignacio about our police interviews. The immigration officer told us that our paperwork should have reached the San Ignacio police barracks by then. On Wednesday of last week, which was exactly two weeks from our interviews in Belmopan, Tom stopped at the police barracks to inquire. He was told that they didn’t yet have our file, but that the police officer who does the interviews would be glad to talk to us, and then he could just fill out the paperwork and send it back to Belmopan as soon as he got it. The police officer asked Tom a few questions, and then told him to come back with me at 9:00 the next morning. We got there on the dot of nine, and waited just a few minutes until the officer showed up with his bag of breakfast and a cup of coffee. He took us in the office, looked at our passports, and told Tom he already had the information he needed from him, even though Tom hadn’t been aware that he was being interviewed the day before. He then proceeded to ask me a few questions. One of the questions was whether or not I have a job. I said no, and he looked at me with one eyebrow raised and said, “So, should I put “domestic” on this form?” I think he expected an American feminist rant, which he’s probably heard before when he’s “accused” American women of being, gasp, housewives. I just smiled and said, “That sounds good. I seem to do a lot of sweeping,” whereupon Tom had to turn his head and cough/laugh into his hand, because it’s a joke around here that I’m never far from my car, aka my broom, and I’m always complaining about how much I have to sweep here between the dog hair, the dust from the road, many men in and out of the house with their boots all day, and the simple fact that everything here seems to somehow end up on the floor. Tom regained control of himself, and I smiled at the police officer, who seemed to know my answer wasn’t as straight as it seemed, even though it was said very nicely. He then asked if I’ve ever been arrested, and when I said no, he gave me the one eyebrow up look again. I smiled, he smiled, and he put my answer on the form. And that was the end of that interview. We walked out and Tom said he couldn’t believe the police officer and I were pulling each other’s chains like that at what was supposed to be a serious interview, and I just said, “This is Belize. If he wants to call me domestic, he can call me domestic.”

A couple of weeks ago, we took the truck to one of the mechanics in Spanish Lookout because the brakes were getting a little squishy. They took a look at them, said they didn’t have the parts to do them that day, but after a few phone calls to parts stores they said if Tom brought the truck back the next Monday, they’d have the parts and they could fix them. On Monday, Tom took the truck over to Spanish Lookout, and noticed as he drove into town that everything was very quiet and closed, including the mechanic’s shop. He ran into someone he knows, and asked why everything was closed, because Tom knew that Monday was not a Belize holiday. He was told that it was a Spanish Lookout religious holiday. Because this is Belize, it didn’t even seem that strange that the mechanics had forgotten about the holiday, and because this is Belize, we don’t have a phone so they couldn’t call us to change the appointment – not that the thought would have crossed their minds anyway, because everybody is so laid back none of it matters much. So, Tom ran a few errands in San Ignacio, got our new passports in Belmopan, and then headed home. He was busy on Tuesday, but on Wednesday he took the truck back to the mechanics to see if they had time to fix it that day. They had the time, but after they sent him to the auto parts shop for a part that Tom thought they already had, and after the auto parts shop said they didn’t have that part in stock, the repair couldn’t be done on Wednesday either. Oh well. This is Belize, and Tom will get the part within a week or two, and then the mechanic will fix Tinkerbell.

On the way home that afternoon, Tom came up the Georgeville Road and ran into a trucker who was under his truck trying to repair it. Tom stopped to see if he needed help, and he said that he needed a deep socket of a certain size, which Tom carries in Tinkerbell’s well stocked tool box. To make a long story short, Tom spent the rest of the afternoon helping the guy try to fix his truck, and when it started to get dark and they realized they weren’t going to get the truck running any time soon, Tom told the guy to get in Tinkerbell so he could come tell me that he was driving the guy back to Spanish Lookout where he lives, and then Tom would be home for dinner. Because, in Belize, that’s just what you do; if somebody needs help, you help them, and if you need help, someone will help you. On the way back through Georgeville the Georgeville chairman’s wife came out to stop Tom and tell him that the chairman wanted to talk to him. Tom talked to the chairman, and found out that he wanted a cash donation. The chairman had attempted to buy gifts for every mother in the town for Mothers’ Day, and had come up a few bucks short. So few taxes are collected here that the towns have very small budgets, and part of being the chairman of a town is being able to get either money or labor from the residents to do what needs to be done. While buying gifts for the mothers isn’t exactly a necessary expense, it’s a nice gesture, so Tom donated $30, which provided two or three gifts for two or three mothers.

After what turned into a pretty hectic week with more running around than we’d planned, we decided to take off yesterday and ride the horses to Sapodilla Falls. Tom rode Tony, and I rode Esmerelda, who seems to be over her latest witchiness. It was very warm and we wanted to see how long it would take to get to the Falls if we just walked, so we had a slow and pleasant two-and-a-half hour ride through the jungle and the Pine Ridge. When we got to the Falls, we parked the horses in the corral area and walked down to the foot of the Falls. Sapodilla Falls is about four miles from the nearest road, so the only way to get there is walking or on horseback, and as usual, we had the entire beautiful place to ourselves. As we were walking along the river to where we wanted to picnic, Tom spotted movement in a tree on the riverbank. At first we thought it was a coati, but as we got closer, we realized it was a tayra, which are seldom seen in the wild because they don’t like people and don’t live around civilization.

The tayra is about the size of a raccoon, but it’s in the weasel family, and looks like a very large weasel with a whitish head. You can read more about it here, where I found this picture. Because this waterfall gets so little human traffic, the tayra spent about ten minutes checking us out as we watched. He’d march out on a branch so he had a clear view, then bounce his head, and sometimes his whole body, trying to get a better look at us. Lucky for us, he let us get a pretty good look at him too before he had enough, dropped out of the tree, and wandered back into the bush.

We picked our rock at the base of the Falls, changed into our bathing suits, and ate lunch, which included a fresh mango. We only get mangoes when they’re in season here, but when they’re in season they’re plentiful, cheap, and oh-so-good. As we were biting the mango chunks off the skin, Tom said “This is Belize,” which is what got me thinking about the theme for this blog entry. After lunch, we swam in the pools and hiked all the way to the top of the Falls, which can only be done in the dry season. Tom had only been there when too much water was coming over the route to the top, so he’d never done it, although I had. We took in the view from the top, climbed back down, swam back to our clothes, got dressed, climbed back up the hill to the horses, and headed home. Later, as we sat on our front porch sipping cold drinks, pleasantly tired, sunburned, and muscle-sore, watching yet another Maxfield Parrish sunset and listening as bird song transitioned to cicada buzz, we looked at each other, smiled, and simultaneously said, “THIS is Belize.”

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