As I prepared to leave Belize, I thought extensively about how to synthesize my thoughts on the country I had called home for the past six months. It was a fascinating half year. I learned an unbelievable amount about Belize, the world, and myself during my time there.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Belize. Six months is a relatively short time to understand a culture, and my experiences were largely limited to the southernmost part of the country. Still, it is an incredibly unique place and I feel compelled to express as best as possible what I learned about the country during my time volunteering in Punta Gorda.
1. Belize is Small
No conversation about Belize can be had without mentioning its size. It’s a tiny country with an even smaller population: it’s one of the least densely populated countries in the world. At first, I was wary about pointing out the diminutive size to Belizeans. Coming from such a large country myself, it seemed somehow belittling to draw attention to its smallness. I could not have been more wrong: Belizeans are proud of their tiny country and the fact that it’s tiny. It permeates every part of their culture.
Everywhere I went in Belize, somebody had a brother, cousin, or roommate’s-dentist’s-mother from Punta Gorda. In fact, they often had at least a vague connection to Ya’axche Conservation Trust, the small NGO where I was volunteering. Everybody knows everybody in Belize.
2. Belize is Young
What’s more, Belize isn’t just small: it’s young. It was a British colony until 1981—I witnessed the celebrations for Belize’s 35th birthday last September.
The youth of the country plays out in Belizean culture in the form of enthusiasm. The country and its culture retains the idealism, energy, and loyalty of a child; Belize is OUR tiny country and it is AMAZING. It reminds me in some ways of American patriotism, in that an integral part of the culture is fierce national pride. There’s an importance different, though: unlike Americans, Belizeans’ nationalism is not tinged with superiority. Belizeans will tell you over and over again what makes their culture great, but they’d never claim it was the best in the world.
3. Belize is Self-Aware
Despite (or perhaps due to) it’s youth, Belizean culture is incredibly self-aware. I have never heard the words “our culture” spoken as much as they are in this country. The tourism industry is saturated in “cultural excursions and activities”; the food is rarely experimental because every chef takes pride in their cultural traditions; and every chatty taxi driver has a speech about Belizean culture prepared for the occasional gringo passenger.
Belizeans are constantly defining and outlining what it means to be Belizean. This tendency is contagious; here I am, caught up in the hype, stretching my vocabulary in an attempt to nail down the fascinating culture of Belize.
4. Belize is Diverse
This self-awareness is intensified by the fact that there are so many cultures in Belize. It is an incredibly diverse country. There are significant populations of Mayans, Garifunas, Creoles, Mestizos, Mennonites, Chinese, East Indians, and more. Each person associates with both an individual culture and the Belizean culture as a whole, and they are fiercely aware, proud, and vocal about this fact.
5. Belize is Green
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Belizean culture is the pride and respect for the country’s natural resources. Environmentalism is baked into the very definition of being Belizean. Even though the country doesn’t have the infrastructure for some of the big ticket indicators of environmentalism that we use in Western countries – recycling, for example – there is something deep in the core of the Belizean mindset that is cognizant of the importance of preserving their environment.
All over the country you can spot signs encouraging citizens not to pollute or litter, to conserve water, to use sustainable agriculture techniques, and to be respectful of wildlife. These signs are not political. They are not written off by non-believers as liberal propaganda. They are merely indicators of a widespread governmental and societal effort to educate Belizeans on the importance of being environmentally conscious.
The beauty of Belize is an important piece of being proud of Belize. The currency is decorated with tapirs, toucans, angelfish, jaguars, and other native wildlife. Belizeans believe that their natural resources are part of their uniqueness as a country, and therefore they should not be sacrificed for anything.
And they’re not wrong! Belize is incredibly rich in natural wonders, in wildlife and vistas, in waterfalls and hills and old growth forests. Even though I moved there for the purpose of working in conservation, I was still not prepared for the beauty I encountered. The six hour bus ride to Belize City from Punta Gorda was always less miserable than expected because of the incredible mix of landscapes that we passed along the way.
What’s more, it is all remarkably clean. Having been to India and Morocco and cringed at the sight of mountains of trash strewn across incredible landscapes, I deeply appreciate this pride and foresight in a developing nation. This entrenched respect for the earth we inhabit is exactly what is flagrantly missing from most of the rest of the world.
6. Belize is NOT Poor
Not that I would compare Belize to India. Belizeans absolutely balk at being called a “developing”, “third world”, or “poor” country. How could Belize be considered poor? Belizeans are surrounded by the most bountiful and productive landscapes you could imagine. They are rich in land and agriculture and resources; they do not need an impressive GDP.
This translates into a deep-seated, genuine contentedness. Despite the external appearance of poverty, Belizeans on the whole are happy. They are proud of the lives they have built for themselves and they love to explain that to foreigners.
7. Belize is not Perfect
Of course, it’s not all peaceful race relations, environmentalism, and contentedness. According to the CIA World Factbook, Belizean GDP per capita is about $8,200, clocking in at number 148 out of 230 countries. A corrupt government and limited domestic industries prevent the country from making significant economic progress.
The limited domestic production has another impact, as well. The current tax system makes all products not produced in Belize extremely expensive by Central American standards. This means that rice, beans, chicken, and bananas constitute the vast majority of the nations’ diets. Your response to that might be, “Yeah, just like everywhere in Central America,” but it’s not. Even dairy and beef – staples of many other Central American diets – are expensive and difficult to find in Belize.
Almost 1 in 6 Belizeans live outside of the country, as job hunting in the country is far from lucrative. Unemployment is high, and many of those who are employed are working in the tourism industry. Though this isn’t necessarily a problem, it does leave the Belizean economy extremely vulnerable to changes in the U.S. and Canadian economies. When people from the States don’t have extra money to spend on tropical vacations, Belizeans suffer.
Belize is also unfortunately not immune to the violent nature of the drug trade in Central America. Although the vast geographic majority of the country is incredibly safe and welcoming, by all accounts Belize City is crime-ridden and dangerous. Considering that roughly 25% of the population lives in Belize City, this is a significant problem for Belizeans.
8. All in All, Belize is Amazing
Still, these problems do not outweigh the incredible beauty in the country and people of Belize. The country is growing in a very exciting and promising way. The pride in the culture and the environment means that preservation is on the brain before the real danger has really hit.
This is an incredible and important distinction to make: cultural and environmental preservation in the Western world is primarily a reaction to threats of extinction or permanent damage. Belize has somehow managed to organize itself—not just in law but in social and cultural custom—to be proactively protective of the resources that make it unique. This makes me extremely hopeful for the outlook of the tiny, unique country.
Learning and observing this young, enthusiastic, and promising country has allowed me to deeply reconsider my understanding of my own American identity. At times in my experience in Belize I was proud to be American, and at times ashamed. At times I was shocked by how unimportant American media and politics seem to be in Belize, and at times appalled by their omnipresence. By observing from the standpoint of this small, optimistic country, I have seen America and the rest of the world in an entirely new light, and I am better for it.
I believe this kind of personal growth is possible for anybody who experiences this tiny, diverse, and beautiful country. Whether you go for six months or six days, Belize will have an impact on you.
Want to read more about my experiences in Belize? Use The Big Map to find my other posts about Belize!