With the size of Maryland but only half the population of Baltimore, Belize is mostly jungle. Only a couple of highways cut through the overgrown countryside: the north-south route along the coast, and the east-west route to the interior. I took the “chicken bus” along the Western Highway from Belize City.
Throughout the three-hour journey in a repurposed school bus, people got on and off while I watched the scenery go by. We passed places with names like La Democracia, Unitedville, and Valley of Peace – names that seemed to embody the welcoming and laid-back atmosphere I felt in Belize.
Despite its size and utopian village names, though, Belize is not a monoculture. From the bus window I noticed churches of every denomination, each with an adjacent schoolhouse (fun fact: Belizean schoolchildren have to provide their own desks!). There were taco shacks beside Chinese grocers, and a sign at one turnoff advertising a Taiwanese cultural center.
Though it was less visible from the bus, as we moved from one village to the next, the ethnicity and language of the people in the streets often changed completely. That’s what I find most fascinating about Belize. Despite its small size, there’s no particular culture or tradition that defines the country as a whole.
From its earliest days, Belize has been home to various indigenous peoples, including Maya. Over the centuries of British colonization, the area of Belize became home to pirates, to mestizos of Hispanic and indigenous descent, to Garifuna migrants of mixed African and indigenous descent, and to Maya refugees from Mexico.
Indentured servants from India introduced new influences to Belize in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century brought traditional Mennonites who speak sixteenth-century German and shun modern technology. Around the same time arrived entrepreneurial Chinese immigrants who now monopolize the grocery store industry. Now in the twenty-first century, Belize welcomes North American retirees, who come seeking an English-speaking tropical destination, and stay because of the simple immigration process.
I’m not surprised that I found the people in Belize to be friendly and easygoing. It’s not because they aren’t used to tourists – Belize is an established cruise ship port of call. Nor do people approach you with conspicuously false friendliness as in some places overrun with tourists. It seems to me that with so many distinct cultures within such a small, tight-knit population, Belizeans are just naturally welcoming.
In the taxi back to the airport at the end of my week in Belize, the driver was on the phone with his wife. I understood every third word he said, but the meaning of the conversation was lost on me. He was speaking Belize Kriol. This language hints at English roots, but weaves in strains of Spanish, Nigerian Igbo, the indigenous Miskito, and many other unrelated languages from around the world. Belize is officially considered an English-speaking country, and there’s no doubt that’s true. Kriol, though, is the real lingua franca – and perhaps a better reflection of Belize’s harmonious diversity.