by Mike Flannery
When I was flying over the Caribbean on my way to Punta Gorda, Belize, I expected my journey to include having to listen to some Celine Dion. Ya’ know – a normal amount. I did not know how endemic the French Canadian’s music would be in this Central American nation. From the decommissioned American school buses used to transport us, to the night clubs on the beach, I heard many different remixes of “My Heart Will Go On” and other songs I hoped would have stayed in The States. Belize really is a clash of cultures. Along with the curious amount of Celine Dion, I heard many other types of music coming out of radios and boom boxes during my stay. There was West African Creole drumming, Mexican Polka, traditional Mayan songs, lots of Bob Marley, and the occasional Rhianna or Nicki Minaj hit. Music was just one of the many places where I saw old mixing with new, traditional mixing with modern, and one culture blending among others. The next place was during our home stay.
Okay so it technically wasn’t a “home stay” home stay. It was a husband and wife with three boys who had constructed a small bunk house within their own home. There were four small rooms crammed with bunk beds and two full bathrooms for the eleven of us. All of our meals were prepared by Catalina, the wife, and Gustavo, the husband, made it very clear that we were part of his family for the week. We all ate together as a family every evening around the open fire hearth where all of our meals were cooked. If we wanted tea we just walked into the yard and gathered lemon grass or all spice leaves. After dinner we would talk, play, and joke around as a family. Most of the time Gustavo’s sister, Noami, and her three children would be there as well. One evening Gustavo took us all on a walk through his medicinal garden trail. Not only did he teach us about specific plant’s healing properties, but he also shared Mayan stories and beliefs connected with the plants. They were beliefs that he still holds dear and has impressed upon his sons. With very little western health service in the village, bush doctors and herbal treatments are still very much the norm.
That is not to say that they were without technology. We had running water and outlets to charge our digital cameras. Gustavo and Noami both had cell phones, and the three sons would play video games in the evenings. On our last night in the village, the oldest son brought out his Toshiba laptop and we watched Need for Speed while the other two sons played cards with other members of our group. I think that’s when it really hit me. Sitting under a thatched roof out in the open with cacao trees just twenty feet away, I was watching an American movie and talking with a young Mayan man about how he wants a Ford Mustang someday. It was the perfect example of the clash of cultures I had been feeling all week. The villagers all have modern ambition and intelligence while still wanting to preserve and live by traditional practices. High school children are now starting to date without parental guidance which would have been unheard of only a generation ago. And although many young people strive to have an education and employment, many are just as avidly learning how to farm according to ancient Mayan calendars and routines.
What direction will the country end up moving in? Will traditional values be able to keep pace with the ever quickening ambition of a proudly modern generation? I have faith that Belize will retain its Mayan routes while continuing modernize and advance itself within Central America. It’s a transformation that I feel privileged to have witnessed part of. I plan on returning to Belize within a few years to check back in on how the clash of cultures is progressing, and to see all the wonderful friends I made this spring break. However, I think I’ll rent my own car so I might be able to get away with listening to less Celine Dion.