Let's be frank: if you are into shopping, arts and nightlife entertainment, Belize is not for you. You won't find big shopping malls, theaters or art galleries. In fact, franchises of global corporations, like Wal-Mart, McDonalds or Starbucks, are not present in Belize.
However, if you are an outdoor lover, you'll find many Belize attractions to explore: snorkeling and diving along the largest reef in the Western Hemisphere or in the famous 'Blue Hole', boating and fishing, mountain hiking and canoeing, and - of course - experiencing the mystery of the ancient Mayan ruins.
First though, let's look at the country's heart and soul… its people.
When you read about the various groups that make up the population of Belize and their contribution to the melting pot society of the country, it always surprises me that the contribution of the British is constantly omitted.
It’s like an overlay on the whole of the country and perhaps so widely accepted that it goes unnoticed.
There’s a few telltale signs though, like the national language is English. The government functions as a democracy, with Ministries and not Departments. The school system is modeled after the British system, with forms and levels.
Proper address is expected when greeting people, depending on their place in society. Sadly, the pecking order of the British class system also exists, with the poor and black at the bottom and the lighter skinned at the top.
There’s lots of groups of people though...
Kriols are Belizean Creoles, which are descended from African slaves and Scottish and English log cutters, known as Baymen. Add to that pot indentured East Indians, Jamaicans and other West Indians, Miskitos from Nicaragua and Mestizos.
Mestizos is a universal term used for the descendents of Spanish and Native American peoples. In Belize these Native peoples would primarily be Mayans, but there were other groups as well.
Mayan people are indigenous to Southern Mexico and much of Central America and represent the remnants of an ancient and powerful society originating in the second century BC.
Archaeologists estimate that about 1 to 2 million people lived in the Belize region during the peak of the Mayan empire - compared to a mere 300,000 inhabitants today! There are three tribes found on the Corozal-Orange Walk-Toledo area: the Mopan, Yucatek and Kekchi peoples.
Garifuna are a mixed race which descended from West and Central Africans, Island Carib and Arawak people. This group of people originated in the Caribbean Islands as slaves brought in to work in the sugar plantations intermarried with the local native population.
The largest groups are found in the Honduras coast but smaller groups live in Belize. Garifuna have their own language and customs and are a distinct group of people.
Mennonites are people of a religious belief system and its followers are “back to the land” people who’s old order often live without electricity or machinery.
New order Mennonites will have automobiles for example, but they will be conservative. The Mennonites of Belize are found in the highland areas of the west and originate in Germany.
Expats are generally white skinned and are from the USA, Canada, Great Britain and Europe. This group often has more wealth and education than other groups due to their inheritance from their home countries. This consists of knowhow and experience as well as capital.
Add to this smaller groups of people from Lebanon to China, and you have that melting pot of ethnics and races that makes Belize special.
One common characteristic though is the friendliness, tolerance and laid back lifestyle of the Belize people.
I categorize organized religion as structured folklore and what’s left as unstructured folklore but I’m sure each of us have our own definitions. Each is based on a belief system, some carried down in stories and songs, and some in text (written stories).
One of the major influences introduced by the Spanish conquest of the Americas was and is the Roman Catholic Church. As is often the case, the church continues long after the politics have changed.
Belize is no different; the Roman Catholic Church has dominated the Belize culture and society by controlling much of the school system. The goal? To temper the natural disbelief of doctrine which occurs to an educated mind.
Luckily Belize is a democracy and allows other organized religions to function, so there are Jewish people, Hindus, Islamists and Buddhists in Belize, to name a few.
There is also the belief and practice of Obeah, brought to Belize by Africans via the Caribbean Islands. This can involve curses, shamen and other native religious practices, which many Belizeans carry in their hearts right alongside their organized folklore beliefs.
One of the cornerstones of many organized religions is the act of marriage, where two people, generally of opposite gender, join in matrimony and seek the blessing of the church representing the god of that religion.
However, in Belize, as is true in many other places, this practice has fallen by the wayside in favor of single-parent families, often with the assistance of grandparents to care for the children while the working parent earns money.
All may live together in the same home and often offspring 20 years and above will live in that home and contribute to the maintenance of the family.
Breakfast in Belize is called “drinking tea” even if there’s no tea involved. It may consist of bread, wheat flour tortillas, johnny cakes (Creole) or fry jacks.
Often the Belize people eat this with cheese, refried beans and eggs or cereals. The later is sweetened usually with condensed milk. Wash it all down with orange juice, milk, coffee, Ovaltine, cocoa or (gasp) tea! This is the meal to start the day and is taken in quantity.
Lunchtime can feature a lighter meal, like beans and rice (the universal gallo pinto) with soups such as onion, cabbage, or black soup.
It can also get heavier and fancier, with all sorts of unique (to Westerners) foods, depending on what part of the country you’re in.
Midday meals are considered social occasions and some businesses close for lunch. Belizeans are a very social people and will often stop on the street and engage in conversation for several minutes, sometimes with complete strangers. There is an air of bonami and joviality everywhere you go.
Dinners will feature many interesting dishes, again specific to the part of the country you’re in. For example you could have ceviche, a marinated fish dish, if you were on the coast.
Most Mayan food is corn based, so you might enjoy stewed chicken and garnaches like tortillas stuffed with beans and rice. One thing's for sure; you won’t leave the table hungry!
Like everything in Belize, music and dance styles are regional and have been brought to the country by various groups of people who have settled in different areas.
Here’s a sampling (in words, sorry) of styles...
Punta is Garefino music, primarily featuring drum and guitar, and very lively. In fact it is virtually impossible to listen to without moving parts of your body to the beat. I had to go back to staid jazz to continue to type here.
Considering the music comes from Africa via the Carib it’s no surprise that it’s lively. There’s a lot more to the story, including shipwrecks off St. Vincent, exile by the British, dances where people dress up as slave masters... but I’ll leave you to explore all and that.
Punta Rock is much like the above but recklessly modern and faster paced. If dancing to Punta involves keeping arms to your side while shaking body parts, then Punta Rock is even more vigorous and definitely sexually oriented.
This may go international like reggae, calypso and merengue. Punta Rock has taken Belize by storm.
Paranda is a slower and more melodic variation of Punta, still from the Garefino community, primarily Paul Nabor from Punta Gorda.
Brukdown is another popular form of music, originating from the country's logging communities. The version I watched and listened to on YouTube featured an accordion, several guitars, lots of singers and small percussion instruments like castanets and tambourines. This music is related to calypso.
Drama and acting have become a very important part of Belizean culture, and often feature music and dance. There are regular presentations at the George Price Center in Belmopan and the Bliss Center in Belize City.
There’s more! There’s all sorts of other music styles you can look forward to when your retire in Belize. Standing at your computer is a good idea when researching. :-)
The most popular sports by far are soccer and basketball; there are now leagues in the country playing in-city, intercity and internationally. Other sports include volleyball, cycling and even ice hockey played by the Mennonites in the highlands!
Recreation often centers around water activities, especially diving or snorkeling at the Belize Barrier Reef. There’s also ample opportunity for canoeing, cross country cycling or track and field contests. Enough to keep you fit and healthy during your Belize retirement!
That’s it for our review of the Belizean culture. There’s lots to see and do, some amazing history and countryside to explore, good food to eat and people to meet.