Belize is a beautiful country and home to a great many peculiarities. It is the anomaly of Central America, an English speaking territory amid an expanse of Spanish. Jerk chicken and seafood replace the tortillas and refried beans of its neighbours. Perhaps most noticeably, the exquisitely manicured Mexican hairstyles, glistening with hair gel, are uprooted in favour of full and unkempt dreadlocks. Throughout history Belize has changed hands, transitioning from a part of the Mayan civilisation to an independent state, via the roundabout route of a Spanish colony and a 120-year stint as British Honduras. The border dispute with Guatemala remains unresolved, adding a hint of spice to this Caribbean cocktail.
Of course, all of this has come together to create a rather interesting cultural mix. In some parts of the country, the Caribbean influence wins out and the streets bounce to the sound of Garifuna beats. An influx of Chinese food has added another dimension to the country’s cuisine. The official language may be English, but in fact a variety of languages are spoken: Spanish, the Mayan language of Q’eqchi’, German, Chinese and, of course, Belizean Creole.
Belizean Creole offers the perfect insight into the Belizean psyche. The language removes the complex grammar and spelling rules of English in favour of facilitating communication. There is a kind of ‘say what you see’ and ‘write what you hear’ philosophy at the heart of it. It relates to the hallmark of Belizean traits: being relaxed and not giving a monkey’s. The language is as chilled out as the people who speak it. Despite my being unable to understand everything, it is a language that seems to exude calmness and inspire happiness. A quite remarkable achievement for a language.
The political landscape is not quite so calm, but the successive victories of the United Democratic Party (UDP) have brought stability, and according to some people, gradual improvements and a vague crackdown on corruption. Guatemala continues to dispute Belize’s territory, either by failing to recognise Belize on maps, or by labelling it as Guatemala’s 23rd department. Portions of the population presumably have sympathy for Guatemala’s claim, but the majority choose to ignore it. Some locals spoke proudly of their country’s place as a part of the British Empire. The Queen’s head still dominates the Belizean Dollar bills.
Despite all this historical, cultural and political confusion, Belize has adopted a sensible approach to maintaining its biodiversity. Since gaining independence in 1981, numerous conservation laws have come into effect, such that over a quarter of the country’s land and sea is preserved, for which the country must be applauded. It is this dedication and perseverance that allows tourists to see manatees, jaguars and vast expanses of untouched forest.
Despite its high homicide rate, Belize feels like a safe place to travel. Buses can be unreliable, but once you’re on board, friendly locals will share amusing stories and join you in a rendition of R. Kelly’s The World’s Greatest if you’re lucky. In a short journey you can travel from the bustling streets of Belize City to the perpetually laid back beach town of Hopkins or over to the fun-filled island of Caye Caulker. Belize may be small and often forgotten by the rest of the world, but it is well worth squeezing in a visit.