As expected, things went smoothly on our six a.m. flight out of New Orleans to Belize City. We flew for two hours over the Gulf of Mexico and the Yucatan jungles, and then the pilot skillfully slipped us down between towering clouds of cumulonimbus and painted the plane on the strip at Belize City. We looked out on a low-profile countryside of dark swamps and black water canals and thick, green vegetation. Inside a small steamy building that could have been mistaken for a sauna a jovial black customs inspector spotted my typewriter and smiled broadly when he learned I was a writer. "Welcome!" he said. "More than welcome! We are so hoppy to see writers. Please tell about us. We're the country that nobody knows."
"Count your blessings," I said.
A BBC producer came to Belize (pronounced Ba-LEEZ) in 1954 and dubbed it "the empty land," and Doubleday's Encyclopedia of World Travel described it as "distinguished by two things: emptiness and forests." Emptiness, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly there are no Broadway Joe force-feeding shops in the slowly emerging nation of Belize, nor are there Wimpy joints or neoned used-car lots or air pollution or drive-ins. But there are some 8,800 square miles of jungles and savannas and forests and bays and rivers, and they are brimming with tarpon and jaguars and howler monkeys and vermilion flycatchers and wild orchids and all sorts of things that go bump in the night. If you believe the natives, there are also man-sized creatures called sesemis that roam the jungle backward on one foot, beautiful topless women called lloronas (criers) who sit by the riverside and entice concupiscent males to their deaths and three-foot-high forest leprechauns called duendes that jump atop horses and ride away through walls and over rivers, like Clark Kent and Papillon. It is said that if you are captured by a duende two things happen: you go bananas and you achieve instant mastery of the musical instrument of your choice.
"Duendes are no joke, sir," says Philip Andrewin, a Belize City businessman and master angler. "I know a victim in my hometown of Gales Point. He has been a little strange ever since the duendes took him away as a child. But can he play guitar!" There are also spooks called Jackie Lanterns who steer seamen onto the rocks and ghosts called Ashi di Pompy, spirits that live in the ashes of burned houses, not to mention clay Mayan statues that steal back to their mounds in the jungles if you have the temerity to take one home. And there is an equally bizarre national treasure called Jackie Vasquez, a 47-year-old mixed-breed hunting guide and jungle genius and father of 22 or 43 children, depending on who is telling the story. "Jackie's been up for murder three times, and his white horse has come through the walls and saved him each time," a taxi driver says with awe. "He's in league with the devil, but he's a good fellow all the same. You must meet him. But—don't look into his eyes or he will steal your soul."
The Spanish discoverers of Central America were terrified by the forbidding Belizean interior and took little interest in the place. The British were only too glad to take over the sweltering country, rich in mahogany and logwood, in 1862. They sent magistrates and soldiers and engineers, who laid out Belize City's odorous system of sewage disposal ("open drains openly arrived at," as Sidney Joseph Perelman described a similar system). No matter what unkind remarks are made about the British in Belize City these days, it cannot be denied that they brought the city law and ordure.
There are 140,000 citizens of Belize, almost all of them black, brown or caf� an lait, descendants of slaves and Indians, living in places like Baking Pot, Gallon Jug, Orange Walk, Crooked Tree, Monkey River Town, Boom and Double Head Cabbage. Income is low; the average Belizean makes $300 to $400 a year, mostly from primitive forms of agriculture like slash and burn. Morality, by strict puritanical standards, is relaxed, and so are race relations. "We're very slow to criticize our fellow citizens," says Chief Information Officer Rudolph Castillo, "and we almost never curse each other, for a very simple reason: you may be cursing your brother. Or your father. Who knows? You can never be sure."
The Belizeans are especially fond of Americans, whom they hope to embrace more openly (and financially) when the country achieves full independence sometime in the next few years. "Our only remaining ties with Britain are constitutional," a government official explains, almost apologetically, "and the British have always been in the unfortunate position of being our masters and reading us the riot act from time to time." Of all the British colonies, past and present, Belize is the least Britannic to the naked eye. Dress styles are wildly informal, ranging from miniskirts and African robes to the loose white sportshirt usually worn by Premier George Price on his daily trips about the country in a mud-spattered Land Rover. The British custodial officials have long since become accustomed to the sight of local political delegations in open-throated shirts and khaki shorts and sandals. "We just don't have time to dress in the stiff British manner," says a Belizean politician. "There's too much to do. We can't spend our time tying bloody bow ties, can we?"
"Bloody" is one of the few Anglicisms one hears. The national language is not British English, as one might suppose, but a working tongue called Creole, which represents the superimposition of clipped African speech rhythms and expressions of conventional English. "Guddeh!" the Belizean says when he means "Go there." Trucks and buses are named phonetically, as in "Big Birta," and the highest compliment one can pay a woman is to say, "You are only hard," pronounced "you on'y hod," a compliment which has caused several Peace Corpswomen to slap a few puzzled faces.
The natives cherish Creole solecisms that date back hundreds of years and sum up whole philosophies. "It take you educated people three hours to say what we say in a few Creole words," says a Stann Creek fisherman in his peculiarly clipped English. He rattles out an old saying in Creole and then translates: "Same place pelican want go, sea breeze blow 'm," nine words that effectively sum up Kant's arguments for free will and Spinoza's arguments against. The fisherman recites, "When fish come from rivuh buttom and tell you alligatuh got 'm bellyache, you believe 'm!" an allegory on behalf of paying attention to experts. "Well," he says, giving us a final handshake, "as full belly tell empty belly, 'Take heart, brudda!' "
One hesitates to hang the label "carefree" on such people, both because it has become an easy clich� about impoverished populations, and thus a way of ignoring their problems, and also because some Belizeans are anything but carefree. Many are terribly poor, still suffering from the effects of hurricanes that periodically lay the country waste (Hurricane Hattie took 262 lives in 1961), and many are ridden with gastroenteritis, a national scourge that remains long after yellow fever and malaria and smallpox have been wiped out. The typical Belizean lives in a frail stilted shack roofed with galvanized metal or palm fronds and overcrowded with relatives, babies, pets, rats and lizards. But there persists a carefree, easygoing, almost rambunctious attitude toward life in Belize despite the lack of creature comforts.