May 22, 2012
After a 5-hour van ride from Belize City airport, we arrived late last night at Sun Creek Lodge (outside the town of Punta Gorda) where we will be staying until next Monday. Our digs consist of open-air cabañas planted in the middle of what looks like pure jungle, complete with all of the bustle you would expect to come with one—little frogs, swarms of leaf-cutter ants, tarantulas and moths with wingspans bigger than your hand. Sean even had the opportunity to get intimate with a particular spider, making face contact with an impressively thick web that could easily rival any work of Charlotte’s.
Early this morning we set out for the village of Barranco, accessible only by a bumpy dirt road with puddles that splash up against the van as it rattles its way along. Our guide Bruno, a soft-spoken expat from Germany, handles the 1-hour drive with acclimated ease as we pass through thatch-roofed villages and slash-and-burnt fields. Nearing Barranco, Bruno points out a small, concrete structure with the words “Medic Post” and “U.S. Capital Energy” painted on the front in big black letters.
We finally stop in front of a one-story house made of wooden planks and topped by tin. The door opens and Alvin, our local guide, comes out to meet us. Alvin is a Garifuna local who was born in Barranco and, apart from extensive traveling (reflected in his eloquent manner and worldly perspective), has lived there his entire life. The Garinagu (plural for Garifuna) are descendents of Carib, Arawak, and West African peoples who converged on the island of St. Vincent in the 17th century and struggled repeatedly against colonization by the French and British. After Britain gained control of the island in 1763, many Garinagu sought refuge along the eastern coast of Central America. Barranco is one of the communities that formed on the coast of Belize, with a current population of 160.
Alvin walks us over to the small bluff next to the ocean that inspired Barranco’s original name, Red Cliff, though the distinctive red clay is now covered over by vegetation and the cliffs have significantly receded. The coast is experiencing heavy erosion, the effects of which are clearly visible even within Alvin’s lifetime. They try to keep it at bay by planting coconut trees and rubber tires; perfect rings of Goodyear moss whimsically dot the sandbar. Alvin also points out the mangroves that shield the coast from the full impact of hurricanes, and, as we head back into the village, the plants that provide their herbal remedies. These include the cola nut, which induces vomiting in case of food poisoning, and the piss-a-bed, which deals with urinary tract-related issues.
Continuing through Barranco we pass by an orange-and-white tower of monolithic proportions, easily the tallest structure for miles around. The cell phone tower, recently installed by U.S. Capital Energy, has enabled more efficient means of communication both within the village and with their relatives abroad. But this comes at a cost. U.S. Capital arrived in Barranco three years ago to begin seismic testing for oil extraction in the Sarstoon/Temash National Forest, which borders the village. They were given the okay by the Belizean government, who established the national park and controls all operations within it. When the park was first set up, there were strict rules banning fishing, planting, and harvesting. This came as a surprise to the Garinagu, who had depended on the area’s resources for hundreds of years. Now it was being offered up for the possibility of oil drilling.
Alvin’s views on development are ambivalent and I get the sense that he doesn’t want to discuss it further than acknowledging that “progress brings problems.” He speaks appreciatively of the cultural, intellectual, and economic exchange that modern development has made possible. He also cherishes Garinagu culture and is so clearly passionate about sharing and preserving it (he told us it was his calling). The two shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive. But in a hierarchical world of infinite competing interests, and especially a country as diverse as Belize, the people most affected by big decisions tend to be the last ones consulted.
We come upon a garbage dump at the southern edge of the village where the jungle starts to encroach and swallow up the trash. “We haven’t figured out the best way to deal with the garbage,” Alvin says. “Us either,” Dan tells him. After a visit to the Barranco cultural museum, which is a single room packed with photos, traditional clothing, Garifuna texts and handmade tools for processing cassava—a labor of love, according to Alvin—our tour concludes at the village’s spiritual house. Here he tells us about the spiritual healing ceremonies that occur something like every 1-2 years, events that must be precipitated by a spiritual calling from the ancestors (as in a dream or sign) and then attended by the entire extended family. It is a way to resolve spiritual illness as well as a reason for people who have left Barranco to come back and be reunited with their family and roots once again.
It’s refreshing to hear Alvin explain his understanding of spirituality and how it has served him and others in great ways. As a non-religious person by habit, I appreciate living affirmations that the worldview that I’m used to is not the only one that works. We found it interesting that the Roman Catholic institution in Belize, which had originally banned drumming and dancing in the churches as pagan worship, changed its mind after coming to the decision that the Garinagu were just using a different means to the same end. They are the only Christian denomination in Belize that allows it.
At the end of our trip, we got to dance with some of the drummers and singers, including Alvin’s aunt and “brother from another mother.” Awkwardly, at first—okay, it was mostly awkward, all of us trying to shake our hips to an impossibly fast beat—but you can’t deny the entertainment value there. As Alvin likes to say: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Michelle Lim is a rising senior from Queens, NY, currently double-majoring in Narrative Studies and Interdisciplinary Archaeology at USC. She is interested in the cultural systems, thoughts, and stories of the (near & distant) past, especially in the ways they inform and enrich our present. In the future, Michelle would like to pursue nonfiction writing on topics involving science, history and social commentary.