On September 21, Belize celebrated the 35th anniversary of its independence. All month, the country has been decked out in red, white, and blue as part of the September Celebrations. The celebrations start on the 10th, the anniversary of the Battle of St. George’s Caye, and stretch to the 21st. The biggest Independence Day celebration in the country is in the city of Orange Walk in northern Belize…so obviously, that’s where we went.
One of my coworkers is originally from a village outside of Orange Walk, so we stayed with his family while we were there. We set out at 5 AM on the 20th to start the nine-hour journey to the north. By 3 PM, we were nestled in their couch eating sour plums with chili salt and watching local Belizean programming.
Even though the geographic distance is quite small, the cultural difference between northern and southern Belize is tremendous. The northern half, especially Orange Walk district, has a much more noticeable hispanic influence. Signs and advertisements were suddenly in Spanish, rice and beans gave way to tacos and pupusas, and the reassurance that products and dishes were “authentic Mayan” became “100% Mexicano.”
We headed out that night to the celebration in Orange Walk, which comprised a street festival the breadth and organization of which far surpassed anything I have seen so far in Belize. It stretched several blocks in every direction from a central square in the middle of town. Every block or two there was a beer tent, pouring out cups of Belikin for $2.50 BZ. Dozens of street food vendors lined every block, serving up cheap tacos, kebabs, hot dogs, and more. Each wing of the festival ended in a stage, where we were assured live bands would play until the wee hours of the morning. At one end, there was a full carnival, complete with sketchy rides, cotton candy, and rigged games.
There were already thousands of people there when we arrived around 11 pm. The celebrations kicked off in earnest shortly thereafter, when a few speakers introduced the festival and lit a torch in front of town hall. The stroke of midnight rang in Belize’s birthday and brought with it the most absurd fireworks show I have ever witnessed. It started with a long row of fireworks pointed downwards from the roof of town hall, showering the speakers onstage with a waterfall of white sparks. After those ran out, a more traditional skyward show began right over our heads.
We were perhaps 25 feet from the building and we were far from the closest people to the show. This was the closest I have ever been to a fireworks display: safety, as is so often true in Belize, was nobody’s concern. For forty minutes, we watched the lights burst above our heads while the ash and bits of debris floated down around us. When I finally showered the next morning, the water swirling down the drain was half ash.
After the fireworks, we decided to get some rum from a tent near one of the stages. This decision was an unexpected cultural experience. The rum tent was complete and utter chaos–there were no rules whatsoever. Inside were a dozen plastic card tables littered with what resembled the contents of a trashed frat house: bottles of soda, juice cartons, open cans of condensed milk, coconut milk, regular milk, dirty blenders, melting ice, mysterious spills, empty bottles, various trash, and gallon upon gallon of Belizean rum. The ‘bartenders’ were paying the bare minimum attention and didn’t care the slightest who got what or in what order. We waved our hands and yelled for about twenty minutes before we caught somebody’s attention enough to just say “FOUR PLEASE!”. He poured us four heavy-handed rum and cokes and I handed him a twenty in return.
“Don’t you have any smaller change?” he asked. Confused, I gave him three fives instead — maybe they were $4 a piece instead of $5? But no: he handed me back $11.00 in change.
That’s right, each of those cups of rum cost us 50 U.S. cents. No wonder it was a complete madhouse.
Then it was on to the music. Our favorite was a group called “Technoband”, who arrived in a school bus painted pure white and played fun hispanic and soca dance covers. Soca is a kind of soul/dance/Caribbean calypso hybrid genre of music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s very popular in Belize. It’s accompanied by a specific, suggestive dance where the upper body is kept almost completely still but the butt is shaken and gyrated and generally moved in ways I’ve never seen butts move before. Once you become accustomed to it it’s quite amazing, but at first it’s a little shocking to see everyone from ten and eleven year old girls to grandmothers dancing so suggestively.
We went home at around 2 AM, though the party raged on until 5 or 6. On the way out of town, my coworker stopped to let some kids on the side of the road climb into the back of the pickup truck. This method of word-free hitchhiking is apparently very common between villages–after that, we stopped to carry somebody every time we drove into or out of town.
The next morning we got up to hunt down the signature Orange Walk tacos for breakfast. These tacos are made with tiny soft corn tortillas and filled with spiced chicken and onion. They’re made at dozens of different roadside stands where you order the amount you want in dollars — “1 dollar” means three tacos, whereas “5 dollars” means 15 tacos.
That afternoon, we headed back into town for the main event: the parade. The number of people milling about town blew my mind — it must have been close to 10% of the entire population of Belize. The parade itself was a complete sensory overload, a cacophony of ear-splitting dance music, colorful carnival costumes, free beer and candy, floats hauled by tractor trailers, steel drums, marching bands, and booty shaking.
All in all, the brutal 3 AM bus ride home the next morning felt entirely worth it. It was amazing.