Saturday, 26 February 2011

Going Slow In The Creole Utopia

IF THE WORLD was more like Caye Caulker, it would be a happy place with no wars, prejudices or hatred. There may be an undercurrent a traveller passing through this microcosm can miss, but this is how the place feels to me. Stepping from the boat onto the rickety wooden jetty, Ambergris Caye was forgotten. The first thing that hit me was the silence. A solitary black man crouched disinterestedly in the sand at the shore, half-heartedly swatting flies. I asked which way the cheaper accomodation was and he smiled and pointed South. We headed down the narrow strip of beach, as fishermen mended nets in the shade and laughing kids rode by on bicycles way too big for them. I quickly found a place to stay, with a Canadian couple who'd bought a run-down resort (and I'm using the term looser than Grandad's bowels) to renovate as a retirement project. Very nice people, even if Colin does have the loudest voice this side of the Atlantic. Our hut had seen better days, likely in the 80s, but it was cheap and secure.

You can walk across the island in less than 5 minutes, and there are three streets...Front, Middle and Back. No chance that even Speckled Jim could get lost here. But then again. From our end of the island it was a 15 minute walk to the other tip, where a hurricane tore away tonnes of sand and created a break. The locals decided that this made a great shortcut, so widened and deepend it; someone built the Lazy Lizard bar, a ramshackle pile of timber and corrugated iron. And so The Split became the place to hang out, drink and swim. Not all at the same time, of course...soggy joints are rubbish.

The main thing I love about it here is the mix of colour: everyone is a different ethnicity. The population of Belize is a mix of Mayan, European and African (usually escaped slaves or those who survived shipwrecks). As a result you get people with black features but white skin and blue eyes, latinos with afros as well as whites and the blackest Garifunas you can imagine. Accents vary from British-sounding, to American, to creole, the patois language of the black Caribbean. It's a shock after Mexico...you hardly hear Spanish in Belize.

There are plenty of Guatemalans working here. Indeed, if you look at a Guatemalan map of this continent, Belize doesn't exist. The British nicked it, renamed it British Honduras, took all the mahogany and gave them some English lessons in return. Sounds fair enough to me. We promised the Guatemalans a road from their capital to the Caribe coast in return for land rights in 1859. We still haven't built it. Mañana, mañana chicos. What's the hurry? The Belizeans love the English, which surprised me. But they pointed out that the gift of our language has been massive, as millions of American dollars pour in every year from the US visitors alone. A man I met in a bar said Belize was the best country in the world. I told him it was second, behind England. When he enquired why so, I told him it was because they hadn't won the World Cup as many times as us. He liked that.

Go Slow the hand-painted signs everywhere say. You do as you're told; you can't help it. Caulker moves at a pace and to a rhythym all of its own. You walk slower, think slower, drink faster. A lazy walk through the dusty town is interespersed with friendly locals shouting you over for a chat, asking where you're from; teeneagers knocking knuckles with you, kids shouting at you from the windows of their houses. It's a special place, alright.

Caulker isn't a stunning island: it's all about the people. A fellow Divemaster named Ronnie cuts hair in a yard off Middle Street. He shaved Kneehead's cranium in five minutes and we had a chat as he set to work on mine. He told me he alternates between cutting hair and guiding divers on the surrounding reefs for his uncle's shop. When asked which he'd prefer to do, he said he couldn't choose, as he loves both trades. A New Yorker with a salon had been so impressed with his skills with the scissors, that he'd offered him a chair there. "But why would I want to go an' live in all that madness, man?" I simply smiled in acknowledgement.

We ate most evenings at Wish Willy (the Belizean nickname for a gecko), an open-air place up towards The Split run by a large dredd named Maurice. He has a nice way about him, and we hit it off straight away when we first tried his cooking out after a dive one day. The restaurant is simple, and fish and lobster is always on the menu. As usual, I asked for something spicy. He had the spiciest sauce on the island, he said. As I tucked into my shrimps and noodles, he hovered for my verdict. I shrugged and kept wolfing it down, grinning. "Just you wait there, I gon' get sometin' special for you..." He came back with a mix of chillies and pulped oranges, it was delicious. Watching m piling it onto the shrimps, he looked surprised...a few of the others had dipped a fork in it and declared it too hot. Red rag to a bull...I took a teaspoon and put a full load in my mouth, smacking my lips appreciatively at the citrus-tinted burn. "Maurice, my man...you're right...that really is special." He shook his head and laughed. "Man, you come back tomorrow...I gonna cook you something be having you screamin' my name in the morning." I shook my head in return and winked at him.

The Bognors, Kneehead and myself swore to try other places out. But we always ended up back at Willy's. It wasn't just the food, but Maurice and his staff. He'd walk over when we'd finished and drop a fistful of pungent, sweet grass on our table and order us to go round the back and roll a joint. So we'd sit in the dark on battered old sofas beneath the stars, smoking and laughing with the fishermen who hung round there. Bliss. He looked after us, and we looked after his staff...always generous with the tips. If you ever visit, his place is a must.

Another character was Greg. A Guatemalan whose mother was pure Mayan, he is a tiny, wiry and wild-eyed fellow. Sporting a few days' growth and a bandanna, he'd probably give you a fright in a dark alley in Guatemala City. And he talks like Cheech Marin. I'd had a great day diving with him and, like me, he didn't suffer fools. We were on the surface waiting to submerge, when an American joined us. Greg told him that he was with the other group. "But they've gone and left me?" he whined. He was told to look beneath him and across at the reef, and to descend and join them there. When the American said he'd struggle to catch them up, Greg told him that if he descended at an angle, he would catch them in 30 seconds. As he went under, Greg turned to us, wide-eyed, and said "Blockhead!" Being Mayan, he has plenty of thories about 2012, and what the end of the Mayan calendar means for the world as we know it. His English is perfect, and he's very intelligent. I complimented on his use of lesser-used words such as expounding when he discussed theories. He told me he loves to read, and is a self-labelled Freak. "I live for diving, weed and mushrooms, man." I pointed out that he'd missed out women from the list. "No, man...I know where I am with weed, shrooms and water." As we discussed 2012, I said that it was a lot to think about "Pretty mental..." He stopped. "Mental?" he cackled. "Mental! I love it...this is gonna be my new word, man. Fucking mental. This beer, it is mental. I'm smoking some mental weed. Mental. Everyone is mental. I'm gonna use this a lot, man. Mental." happy as Larry, he wandered off to get another drink.

I'd come to Belize solely to dive the Blue Hole (a disapointing dive). As a country, it hadn't really interested me, being more Caribbean than latino. The primary goals of this year are improving the Spanish and attaining Instructor status with my diving. But Caulker had surprised me. Whether it was just chatting in the street, eating and smoking at Willy's, people-watching in the sun at the split, or listening to thunderous dub reggae at the I-and-I Bar, Caulker has the ability to hold you up. A frenchman told Kneehead that the place hasn't changed in 14 years of him visiting. I hope that continues. Go Slow...

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