CONDUCT AND CUSTOMS
Concept of Time
Like many other Central American and Caribbean cultures, the Belizean clock is not quite as rigidly precise as it is in other parts of the world. "Nine o'clock a.m." is not necessarily a moment in time that occurs once a morning, as it is in the United States or Europe; rather, it is a general guideline that could extend an hour or two in either direction (usually later). The Creoles say "Time longa den da roop" ("time is longer than the rope"), which means the same as the Spanish, "Hay mas tiempo que vida" ("there is more time than there is life")-both of which boil down to the unofficial motto of Caye Caulker: "Go slow!"
A great deal of patience is required of the traveler who wishes to adapt to this looser concept of time. Buses generally leave when they are scheduled, but may stop for frustratingly long breaks during the journey. Don't use Belize Time as an excuse to be late for your tour bus pickup, but don't get angry when your taxi driver stops to briefly chat and laugh with a friend.
In 2003, the Government of Belize created the National Institute for Culture and History (NICH, www.nichbelize.org), to bring together diverse government departments which had historically worked to preserve and promote different aspects of Belizean culture, from painting and music to archaeology. It falls under Belize's Ministry of Culture and Tourism and encompasses The Institute for the Creative Arts (ICA), which is responsible for the promotion of the performing, plastic, and visual arts. The ICA is headquartered at the newly renovated Bliss Center for the Creative Arts and is headed by musical artist Andy Palacio.
You'll always have a wide selection of Belizean and Guatemalan crafts to choose from when visiting any archaeological site, as vendors typically set up rows of stalls with similar gifts, crafts, textiles, and basket work. See the travel chapters for more local information about where to shop for Belizean crafts. A few things you'll find are described as follows.
Maya and Belizean motifs set out in slate have become very popular and, in some cases, costly. Among the leading artists are The Garcia Sisters, Lesley Glaspie, and the Magana family. Their work can be found in several Cayo shops as well as elsewhere in the country (especially Aurora's shop near the entrance to Cockscomb). The Garcia sisters helped revive the slate craze, and their quality has always been high. Slate carvings require a lot of time to create. Now more artists produce them and wise shopping will net a treasured piece without draining your personal treasury.
Mennonite furniture is becoming increasingly popular as a take-home item. Cleverly executed chairs and small tables in mahogany and other tropical woods are the mainstays. In San Ignacio you can have them conveniently boxed and ready for baggage check at the airport.
The music of Belize has been heavily influenced by the rhythmic, exotic syncopations of Africa. If you manage to get to Belize during one of the festivals such as the Battle of St. George's Caye, National Independence Day, or Settlement Day, you'll have an introduction to the raucous, happy music of a jump up (a street dance); punta rock (a spin-off from the original punta, a traditional rhythm of the Garinagu settlers in the Stann Creek District); reggae (Bob Marley is King in Belize); soka (a livelier interpretation of reggae); and brukdown. Brukdown began in the timber camps of the 1800s, when the workers, isolated from civilization for months at a time, would let off steam with a full bottle of rum and begin the beat on the bottle-or the jawbone of an ass, a coconut shell, a wooden block-anything that made a sound. Add to that a harmonica, guitar, and banjo, and you've got brukdown.
In the southern part of Belize, in Toledo District, you'll likely hear the strains of ancient Maya melodies played on homemade wooden instruments designed before memory: Q'eqchi' harps, violins, and guitars. In Cayo District in the west, listen for the resonant sounds of marimbas and wooden xylophones-from the Spanish influence across the Guatemala border. In Corozal and Orange Walk Districts in the north, the infatuations of old Mexico are popularized with romantic lyrics and the strum of a guitar.
Stonetree Records (www.stonetreerecords.com) has the most complete catalogue of truly Belizean music, including Aziatic, Griga Boyz, Titiman Flores, Mohobub, and of course, Andy Palacio and Paul Nabor. They also offer several collections such as Garifuna Women Voices and The Creole Experience.
English is the official language, although Belize Creole English (or Kriol) serves as the main spoken tongue among and between groups. The Belize Kriol Project (tel. 501/225-3320, www.kriol.org.bz) would like to see Kriol established as a literary language as well, and they have produced dictionaries and phrasebooks, and promoted Kriol literature to that effect. There is an increasing number of Spanish speakers in Belize as Central American immigrants continue to arrive. Spanish is the primary language of many native Belizean families as well-descendants of Yucatecan immigrants who inhabit the Northern Cayes, as well as Orange Walk and Corozal Districts. The Garinagu people speak Garifuna, and the various Mennonite communities speak different dialects of Old German. Then there are Mopan, Yucateca, and Qeq'chi Mayan tongues.
ENTERTAINMENT AND EVENTS
When a public holiday falls on Sunday, it is celebrated on the following Monday. If you plan to visit during holiday time, make advance hotel reservations-especially if you plan to spend time in Dangriga during Settlement Day on November 19 (the area has limited accommodations).
Note: On Sundays and a few holidays (Easter and Christmas), most businesses close for the day, and some close the day after Christmas, which is Boxing Day; on Good Friday most of the buses do not run. Check ahead of time.
St. George's Caye Day
On September 10, 1798, at St. George's Caye off the coast of Belize, the British buccaneers fought and defeated the Spaniards over the territory of Belize. The tradition of celebrating this victory is still carried on each year, followed by a weeklong calendar of events from religious services to carnivals. During this week, Belize City (especially) feels like a carnival with parties everywhere. On the morning of September 10, the whole city parades through the streets and enjoys local cooking, spirits, and music with an upbeat atmosphere that continues well into the beginning of Independence Day on September 21.
National Independence Day
On September 21, 1981, Belize gained independence from Great Britain. Each year, Belizeans celebrate with carnivals on the main streets of downtown Belize City and district towns. Like giant county fairs, they include displays of local arts, crafts, and cultural activities, while happy Belizeans dance to a variety of exotic rhythms from punta rock to soka to reggae. Again, don't miss the chance to sample local dishes from every ethnic group in the country. With this holiday back to back with the celebration of the Battle of St. George's Caye, Belize enjoys two weeks of riotous, cacophonous partying.
Baron Bliss Day
On March 9, this holiday is celebrated with various activities, mostly water sports. English sportsman Baron Henry Edward Ernest Victor Bliss, who remembered Belize with a generous legacy when he died, designated a day of sailing and fishing in his will. A formal ceremony is held at his tomb below the lighthouse in the Belize Harbor, where he died on his boat. Fishing and sailing regattas begin after the ceremony.
Ambergris Caye Celebration
If you're wandering around Belize near June 26-29, hop a boat or plane to San Pedro and join the locals in a festival they have celebrated for decades, El Dia de San Pedro, in honor of the town's namesake, St. Peter. This is good fun; reservations are suggested. Carnaval, one week before Lent, is another popular holiday on the island. The locals walk in a procession through the streets to the church, celebrating the last hurrah (for devout Catholics) before Easter. There are lots of good dance competitions.
Garinagu (Garifuna) Settlement Day
On November 19, Belize recognizes the 1823 arrival and settlement of the first Garinagu (also called Garifuna) to the southern districts of Belize. Belizeans from all over the country gather in Dangriga, Hopkins, Punta Gorda, and Belize City to celebrate with the Garinagu. The day begins with the reenactment of the arrival of the settlers and continues with all-night dancing to the local Garinagu drums and live punta rock bands. Traditional food-and copious amounts of rum, beer, and bitters-is available at street stands and local cafés.
If traveling in the latter part of September in San Antonio Village in the Toledo District, you have a good chance of seeing the deer dance performed by the Q'eqchi' Maya villagers. Dancing and celebrating begins around the middle of August, but the biggest celebration begins with a novena, nine days before the feast day of San Luis.
Actually, this festival was only recently revived. The costumes were burned in an accidental fire some years back at a time when (coincidentally) the locals had begun to lose interest in the ancient traditions. Thanks to the formation of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, the Maya once again are realizing the importance of recapturing their past.