Beautiful and Corrupt

A couple of weeks ago I went to a retirement party for a friend of mine.  The woman who sat next to me was friendly and funny, and the conversation immediately turned into, what do you do for a living?   I told her that I’m a writer and mentioned How to Cook a Tapir:  A Memoir of Belize.   “I’d like to go there,” she said, “but I keep hearing how corrupt it is.  Is that right?”

What remains of the temple at Nohmul: nothing except the top of an archway.  (Photo by CNN)

What remains of the temple at Nohmul: nothing except the top of an archway. (Photo by CNN)

She was a nice woman, so I gave her a truthful answer.  “Yes, it’s corrupt,” I said.  “Beautiful but corrupt.”

I was thinking about the deliberate destruction of the ancient Maya city of Noh Mul in Orange Walk District, located in northern Belize.

The story broke last year, on May 13, 2013 in the Huffington Post:  “A construction company has essentially destroyed one of Belize’s largest Mayan pyramids with backhoes and bulldozers to extract crushed rock for a road-building project, authorities announced on Monday.”

A day or two later, CNN ran an account on-line:  “A Mayan pyramid that has stood for 2,300 years in Belize has been reduced to rubble, apparently to make fill for roads.”  The article quoted Jaime Awe, director of the Institute of Archaeology in Belize, who called the destruction ‘“one of the worse set of blows I have felt philosophically and professionally.’”

News.nationalgeographic.com also ran the story:  “A construction company in Belize has been scooping stone out of the major pyramid at the site of Nohmul (meaning Big Mound), one of only 15 ancient Maya sites important enough to be noted on the National Geographic World Atlas.”

The BBC on-line ran the story too:  “Head of the Belizean Institute of Archaeology Jaime Awe said the Noh Mul temple was levelled [sic] by a road-building company seeking gravel for road filler.”  The author of the article noted that “The Maya complex lies on private land but under Belizean law, any pre-Hispanic ruins come under government protection.”

Dr. John Morris, also of the Institute of Archaeology, stated that the perpetrators had to have been aware of what they were doing.  “It is incredible that someone would actually have the gall to destroy this building out here,” he told local TV Channel News 7.  “There is absolutely no way that they would not know that these are Maya mounds.”  Added Morris, “This is one of the worst [examples of destruction] that I have seen in my entire 25 years of archaeology in Belize. We can’t salvage what has happened out here—it is an incredible display of ignorance.”

Believe it or not, it gets worse.  According to the same BBC account, the destruction of “irreplaceable Maya sites has happened before.”  American archaeologist Professor Normand Hammond noted that ‘“Bulldozing Maya mounds for road fill is an endemic problem in Belize.”’  According to CNN, the pyramid “stood about 65 feet tall and was built around 250 B.C. with hand-cut limestone bricks.”  The limestone is “quality material” that is “prized by contractors,” and for that reason is often “used to upgrade local roads,” charged local opposition legislator John Briceno on CTV3 News in Belize.

When the archaeologists were interviewed, they said they planned to “ask police to take action against both the landowner and contractor.”  The deliberate destruction of ancient Maya cites carries a ten-year prison term or a $10,000 fine.

On May 15, CNN ran another story about the site.  Reporter Brad Lendon noted that “the local chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association alleged in a statement that local government officials have been complicit in the destruction of ancient sites like Noh Mul.  ‘“Noh Mul had been one of the ancient monuments with the greatest tourism development potential in northern Belize,’ the Association said. ‘Unfortunately, such progress has been severely hampered due to the ignorance and greed of certain individuals.’”  Other sources were not shy about identifying those individuals—politicians who hold office under the current Prime Minister, Dean Barrow.  Even though the country has three Maya-speaking ethnic groups, Yucatec, Kekchi, and Mopan, the Maya are not, and never have been, represented in the Belizean government.  But they have their defenders.  ‘“More sites have been destroyed in Orange Walk by the Ministry of Works and others for road fill material than in any other part of the country,’ the Belize Tourism Industry Association said it was told by an unnamed senior government official.”

Has the construction company responsible been identified?  Yes.  The foreman and three of the workers operating heavy equipment that day have all been publicly identified, as was the owner of the property.  Has anyone been charged?  No.  And that’s as of right now—almost a year after the pyramid was destroyed.  No one in Dean Barrow’s government, including the Ministry of Works or anyone who works for him—has been charged.  Is that how the Belize government “protects” the country’s irreplaceable ancient Maya ruins?  If you would like to tell the Prime Minister that this is a tragedy of international proportions (he doesn’t seem to realize that), e-mail or phone Dean Barrow and tell him so:  PrimeMinister@belize.gov.bz 501-822-2886.

Is Belize corrupt?  Yes.  And, unfortunately, beautiful as well.

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Better Than Genocide

Here are a couple of stories about Belize City that aren’t in my book.

Chronologically, the country now known as Belize was “discovered” by Spanish explorers, settled by English pirates, loggers, and farmers.  But none of them were the country’s first inhabitants.  That honor goes to the indigenous people of Belize—the Maya, whose vast stone monuments dot the landscape like gold nuggets among the stones of a riverbed.

Better Than Genocide (Photo by Joan Fry)

Lubaantun, one of the many Maya ruins in Belize.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

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My Friend the Holy Father

When I lived in Rio Blanco, the Maya weren’t the only people of another culture I met.  While the country itself was a British colony, the entire educational system was run by American Jesuits from the Missouri Province in St. Louis.  Father John Paul Cull, the priest in Toledo District, was American—tall, lean, given to abrupt speech and movements, a man who seldom smiled.  He was also the only Roman Catholic priest I’ve ever made friends with.

The interior of the Catholic Church in San Antonio, Toledo District.  A church in St. Louis donated the stained glass.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

The interior of the Catholic Church in San Antonio, Toledo District. A church in St. Louis donated the stained glass. (Photo by Joan Fry)

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Culture Shock

Although my father was a mild-mannered accountant when I left for the colony of British Honduras (in those days, the capital was Belize—not Belize City, just Belize), he got into a lot of scrapes as a kid.  One of them involved an older half brother and a fishhook.  The particulars of what took place are fuzzy, but at the end, my father had a fishhook lodged in his ear.  He went through the rest of his life with a punctured eardrum.

You can see how narrow the road is--this one goes to Pueblo Viejo--and how close to it the rain forest is.  (Photo by A. Terry Rambo)

You can see how narrow the road is–this one goes from Santa Elena to Pueblo Viejo–and how close to it the rain forest is. (Photo by A. Terry Rambo)

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The “Other” People in the Rainforest

Although some people claim to find the jungle a calm and relaxing place, other people do not—not even when they live there.  Belizeans of all cultures and colors live in the bush, either one-one (by themselves) or in small, often isolated towns.  Like forest-dwellers everywhere, they have plenty of reasons to fear the rainforest.  I talked about your run-of-the-mill poisonous and otherwise disagreeable plants and animals last week, along with a woman the Kekchi Maya call ix tabi.  Since nobody has ever photographed one (what a surprise), I had to resort to a staged photo from the internet.  This time I’m resorting to a drawing.  (More about that in a minute.)  The ix tabi share the rainforest with other creatures, who have likewise never been photographed.

This "duende" looks as though his father might be a sisimito.  Why else would his feet point backwards?   And I have never heard of one that had white skin.  (Photo by www.belizeadventure.ca)

This “duende” looks as though his father might be a sisimito. Why else would his feet point backwards? And I have never heard of one that had white skin. (Photo by http://www.belizeadventure.ca)

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Retiring to Belize

Retirement-age Americans have been migrating south for decades.  If you had limited funds  you moved to Florida, but if you had money and a sense of adventure you might opt for south of the border— Mexico, Costa Rico, Panama, the island of Roatán north of Honduras, and, increasingly, Belize.  Land and houses are relatively still relatively cheap in all five countries.  (Considerably cheaper than Sarasota, FL for instances, although Sarasota now has so many medical facilities it’s become a very desirable place to spend your declining years—in stark contrast to Belize.)  Many Central American countries have well-established expatriate communities, so you have the advantage of neighbors who speak the same language you do.  Because the countries I mentioned are all third-world countries, if you want a little luxury in your life, many retired people can easily afford to hire a cook and a housekeeper (usually the same person) and a gardener.  But Belize has one advantage all the other countries lack:  your neighbors aren’t the only ones who speak English.

A bachelor's house in Toledo District.  He did the plumbing and electricity himself, but the washer and dryer, far left, come from Guatemala.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

A bachelor’s house in Toledo District. He did the plumbing and electricity himself, but the washer and dryer, far left, come from Guatemala. (Photo by Joan Fry)

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Making the Move to Belize

Three final tips about moving to Belize:  know where you’d like to live, be adaptable, and be a good neighbor.

The entrance to a Maya village in Toledo District.  Are you sure you want to retire to someplace that has no electricity or running water? (Photo by Joan Fry)

The entrance to a Maya village in Toledo District. Are you sure you want to live someplace that has no electricity or running water? (Photo by Joan Fry)

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