Belize - Off the Beaten Path With Alia and Brandon

Mary and I had the pleasure to dive with Alia Statham and Brandon Hill on the Sun Dancer II in Belize.  As we boarded the flight home Alia and Brandon were heading off on another adventure in a remote village in southern Belize.  Called a "home stay" you live for a few days with a family, eating their meals, sleeping in their house and learning about each other.

Brandon wrote me an e-mail of their experience that is both funny and informative so I asked Brandon if I could share it on my site.   These are the experiences that separate a traveler from a tourist.  Mary and I are enriched by meeting folks like Alia and Brandon and we hope you enjoy the story of their Belize "home stay" experience.

Hi Tim and Mary!

I have been instructed by my boss that I am to write an e-mail to you about our home stay experience. She actually asked me a few days ago but I decided to let my thoughts ferment for a bit to allow for a better e-mail. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it. This e-mail ended up becoming more akin to a novel than a letter, so you'd better make sure your comfortable. Yes, I know it's "you're", but Alia wants to be copied on this e-mail and it really annoys her when people mix up there "you're"s and their "there"s.

Our story begins when Alia and I went to pick up our rental car and discovered that our automatic Daihatsu Terios had transformed into a Nissan Extera with manual transmission and bald tires. Presuming that the Daihatsu would have had bald tires as well, this was an upgrade, the downside to which being that Alia has no experience diving manual and my total accumulated experience consists of about 4 hours of lessons roughly 4 years ago. Looking on the bright side I figured that if I was going to learn to drive standard it's probably best to do so in a rental car anyway. Judging by the condition of the clutch it seems that a lot of other people thought this too.

After a few bumpy starts we were on our way to Na Luum Ca, Mopan Mayan for "Mother Earth" in the Toledo district, roughly a four and a half hour drive away. We made it there fairly easily, hampered only by a distinct lack of road signs and the Belizean inability to give directions with any degree of specificity. About 14 miles out of Punta Gorda, the southern most town in Belize we turned off the paved road and onto a rough dirt road that got progressively rougher and less road like until eventually it just became a grassy field occupied by a few huts, a donkey and several chickens. The people who live in the huts call the grassy field Na Luum Ca; there are only 13 families that live there giving it a total population of around 80 people. There is no electricity and no running water.

Upon arriving in Na Luum Ca and being directed to the appropriate house we went to introduce ourselves to our hosts. It was precisely at this time that we discovered that our hut did not have doors or even walls on all sides. You don't quite realize how much you rely on a door as a social tool until you don't have one to knock on. Unfazed by the absence of this staple of western culture we marched in and were greeted by two girls with quizzical looks on their faces; our exchange went something like this:
Girl: *quizzical look*
Me: Hello
Girl: Hello
Me: Is this Emeterio's house?
Girl: Yes, this is his house
Me: I'm Brandon and this is Alia, we're here for the home stay program
Girl: Oh
Me: You didn't know we were coming did you?
Girl: No
Me: ah...

So we were off to a bit of a rocky start or it seemed, but as it turns out this is was fairly normal. Alia and I sat around making small talk with the girls while we waited for their mother Matilda to get back from washing dishes in the creek and their Father Emeterio to get back from the farm. That night we dined on beans and rice and, with the exception Alia, on a nice piece of deer spine that had been shot not so long ago. Yum. Alia and I were a bit unsure of how we were supposed to behave so, being the Canadians that we are and not wanting to make a bad impression we spent the first night feeling very tense. This was not helped by Emeterio telling us about how he and his brothers are now the only people to do home stays as other families have quit due to having too many badly behaved guests. Most destructive to our sense of peace, however, was the curious Mayan cultural trait of saying "no" with a slight shake of the head where a westerner would say something like "yea, sure" or "no problem". When basic requests like "May I have a glass of water" are met with a blunt "no" you tend to feel a little confused and affronted. Fortunately we sorted this out pretty quickly. After dinner they kindly provided us with a bed, which we guess is where Emeterio and Matilda usually sleep. Before bed we went outside to have a look at the stars.

Thanks to the absence of light pollution and Belize's position on the globe the night sky was both amazing and alien. You can see billions of stars with fantastic clarity. In some parts of the sky they are so densely clustered that you understand why our galaxy is called the Milky Way. It is also very difficult to find any familiar constellations. Much of Na Luum Ca follows this trend: Familiar things are largely untouched by human development and seem largely unfamiliar or unexpected. The hut that we stayed in had a thatched roof and dirt floor, but there were no doors and all of the timbers were held together with vines instead of nails. Chickens and dogs ran around the hut freely and our meals were cooked on a wood burning stove made of rock and ash. Bananas were picked from the tree not 10 feet from the hut and tasted unlike any banana I have ever had. The food that we ate took on a different quality that we were used to as it was more or less fresh from the ground or plant or, in the case of the deer, from being shot. The solar panels providing electricity for the single light bulb and the telephone seemed quite out of place. It wasn't quite what Alia or I had expected.

The next morning we were awoken by our arch nemesis: The rooster. Alongside the many things we learned on our adventure was that the notion that roosters crow when the sun rises is a myth; they crow much earlier than that. In fact, this particular rooster would crow every hour on the hour starting at 11pm. When I found myself husking and shelling corn at 5:30 am I was not feeling particularly well rested. Once the sun had come up a bit and everybody had started going about their business Alia and I went with Emeterio to the farm to help him cover his baby cabbage plants with leaves of the Jippy Jappa plant so that they wouldn't get sun burnt. Interesting to note is that gender roles are quite pronounced in Mayan society. When it was time to go to the farm Emeterio simply assumed that I would be going with him and asked me with an uncertain quality in his voice whether or not Alia would be joining us. Similarly, when meals were being prepared or chores needed doing there was nothing to do if I asked, but if Alia asked there was rice to sort and dishes to be done.

The farm was about a 20-30 minute walk through mud, or in Alia's case a 20-30 minute Donkey ride. We helped Emeterio shade his cabbage and he showed us where he grows his beans and corn. We harvested some of the corn for lunch, dug up some tubers for dinner and headed back to the hut for breakfast which was more rice and beans. It was about 9am when we got there. After breakfast we had some down time before lunch and a surprise attendance of church. Being on vacation Alia and I were unaware it was Sunday and somehow after driving past several churches on the way in it hadn't occurred to me that our hosts might be religious. Not everybody gets to be a rocket scientist.

Church was an interesting experience. The service was held in the back area of Emeterio's house where I had previously been shelling corn and later enjoying a book in a hammock. Including ourselves there was a total of 16 people in the congregation, more if you count all of the chickens running around. The preacher, who had been traveling to different towns that day giving sermons spent a lot of time talking about Satan trying to tempt people and did his whole sermon in English instead of Mopan Mayan for Alia and myself's benefit. There was also a lot of singing which was rather unfortunate as I can't sing and it is very difficult to hide in a congregation of 16 people. After the sermon we fielded questions about Canada and discovered the challenges of describing ice, snow and bears to people who have no concept of ice, snow or bears.

Dinner that night was more rice, beans and deer with some cooked Jippy Jappa for Alia. We also had corn tortillas. Alia and I are not very good at making corn tortillas.

The next morning we were greeted by the rooster once more and fed a breakfast of fried corn tortillas. It's like having doughnuts for breakfast but healthier! Before we left Emeterio took me (Alia was feeling a bit ill) on a tour of some of the local flora, pointing out different plans that were used for medicines, food, crafts, coloring and even building their homes and marking property boundaries. The local knowledge and use of plant life is amazing. After the tour we packed up our car and made our way back down the bumpy and now muddy and slippery road towards Punta Gorda, where we would be spending the next two nights. I managed to avoid all of the children, dogs, chickens and donkeys that crowd the streets which were an added bonus to the trip as I'm pretty sure that flattening someone's kid probably would have put a dent in my vacation. It was a memorable two nights and is definitely something that I would recommend doing if you're an adventurous sort of person who happens to like being woken up before dawn by a loud and inconsiderate rooster.

Hope all is well.


Photos by Simon Marsh, Captain of Sun Dancer II, Belize

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