Holding Court on Caye Caulker

Author's note: The men quoted in this piece are not official sources of information and should not be taken as such. Their opinions are their own. 

"Belize is fucked." Steve has a frustrated scowl on his face.

The dark-skinned native Belizean has his toes in the sand under the narrow bench he's planted on, the Caribbean Sea 20 yards behind him. A head of massive dreadlocks is covered loosely by a knit cap. It's got to be hot as hell under all that. I'm dripping with sweat in the salty, humid air, but he looks fresh as a daisy.

Steve and his friend Alfred scan the dusty, packed-sand main drag that Alfred's hut sits on where he sells art to tourists. People on bicycles trail through, and the sporadic golf-cart. There are no cars on the island.

"We're losing all our youth to other countries. All our young labor and talent," Alfred adds, shaking his head. "They all go to America. No one wants to stay here."

I've read the stats; some estimate that there are as many Belizeans living outside Belize as there are in the country, and it only has a total population of around 300,000. "How are we going to live? How are we going to survive, if all the people leave," Alfred asks.

I was on my way up Front Street in Caye Caulker, heading north to The Split to meet a few other people for drinks. I've been filming on Caulker for two days now, which means with only 1,300 or so people living on the minute islet 45 minutes off the point of Belize City, everyone in the mile-long village knows I'm the girl with the camera. Steve and Alfred stopped me to see what I was filming.

Right now the camera is in the ever-present backpack slung over my shoulder. This is precisely when I want to break it out, and exactly when I can't. The spontaneity and naturalness of these two would vanish. I know, I've tried it before. They didn't ask to be filmed and they would clam up. So although the producer in me is screaming "Do it, do it now!" I bite back the urge to bust it out and stick it in their faces.

And they keep talking. Sometimes over one another, but with a unified message. They tell me of the government's corruption; the brain-drain that their tiny country is experiencing.

Just a few days before, I was in Belize City staring at the not even half-completed Marion Jones Sports Complex. The track superstar gave the government of Belize $2 million to renovate the National Stadium years ago. The previous government squandered most of it instead. Basic needs in the city, things as simple as garbage bins on street corners are not provided because there is no money.

"Nobody cares," Steve says. Alfred echoes Steve's statement. They hold court from their beach bench and wonder aloud why there aren't more Belizeans who give a shit. Both men are in their 50s, I'm guessing. They lived through the peaceful break from British rule in 1981, and watched British Honduras become Belize. Alfred is lighter than Steve, a Creole of mixed British and African descent. If you listen to the official message coming from Belmopan, the nation's capitol, they are all enormously proud of their mixed-race ancestry.

But to hear Steve tell it, there is still a great deal of tension between ethnic groups, namely the Creoles and Mestizos - people of Native American and Spanish blood. Creoles sometimes bristle at Mestizos when they refuse to speak English, the official national language. Each group largely keeps its own company.

Then there are the tourists. "We thought the tourism would be good. We thought before the cruise ships came, they would be good," Steve says. The country's biggest industry is tourism. I mention that I've heard there's a plan to build a Four Seasons hotel on the island. Caulker is the last of the Northern Cayes that has famously kept large-scale development out as a matter of lifestyle choice.

"We don't want that here," Steve says. The problem is not tourism as a whole industry. It's that when large multinational corporations come in, they set up their tours and land excursions with a select few operators, and do their best to make sure they scare the travelers out of using other companies. "We can tell when they're scared of us. You can see it. So none of the money gets to us, it stays with the big operators."

It's true that on the mainland Belize City has a high crime rate, and parts are definitely dangerous, but the serious crime doesn't normally affect tourists, and a sharp-minded traveler will avoid the pickpockets, anyway. Every Belize guidebook has a section warning travelers of the imminent danger, and people disembarking at Belize City from large ships are told not to leave the "tourist village," an adult playpen that forces the less intrepid to stay inside a fenced area with taxi checkpoints on either side.

"We need to get together and talk about these things," says Alfred. "We have to sit down fix this, but how? No one cares. There aren't enough people to do it." I tell them they seem to care and suggest they start a group on Caye Caulker. They admit that they should, instead of just sitting on a bench talking about it. I seem to be in the group too.

"You care, you've listened to us. You can tell people too," Steve says. Then he tells me to come back tomorrow to film his sailboat.


Allie said…
YOU HAVE SOME THINGS WRONG,Alfred is the owner of the art gallery not steve. There is 2500 people living on Caulker at least. The Four Seasons will be built on the Caye south of Caulker not on it, The racial tension exists between everyone including whites, creoles blacks , spanish, chinese, mayan and mestizo which by the way is spanish and mayan. The only the you got correct is that we don't like our photos being taken without permission.
Rachel Parsons said…
Thanks Allie!
Guide books like Lonely Planet, the one I was using while in Belize, also love getting more accurate info, as in the population, which they listed as around 1,300. So you might drop them an email sometime. It's useful information.

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