I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Placencia to Danriga learning about the Garifuna

Another wonderful day with a lovely start... Lucy treated me like family, feeding me porridge and tea in the morning and sending me off on the road with foil wrapped sandwiches, and early enough that it was cool cool weather...I felt like I was knocking out the miles other than when I was pedalling against the occasional headwind (which got me instantly thinking of hurricanes and tropical storms after the recent warnings), again all on the flat and loving the pumped up tires. She had told me that Belize apparently only has about 300,000 inhabitants and I've certainly noticed with the two days on the road here that there are long stretches of nothingness in terms of settlements... the flip side of which is a-lot-ness in terms of greenery, pretty going through banana and citrus plantations over a lot of rivers and past forest and nature reserves. All it means is I've had to think about carrying more water, as having gotten used to the roadsides being lined with small villages in Guatemala I'm used to their always being little tiendas with at least water or juice, even if without electricity for fridges, so it is strange to being going for miles without even seeing one house. One good thing is that tap water here is drinkable for the first time since Nicaragua, bonus!

Started off the day cycling north up the peninsula that Placencia tips, so was passing palm trees and sea views and swarms of large dragonflies, which seem to be a feature of Belize. Yesterday I saw my first frigate bird with its split double tail, and have noticed a fair few humming birds which I might not have identified if it wasn't for noticing all the businesses named after it, and bearing in mind I'm headed towards the Hummingbird Highway tomorrow, which I've heard is gorgeous, 'the cycling highlight of Belize' apparently.

I stopped off a fair few times, and got a chance to practice my arleady rustifying Spanish, as I seemed to meet a lot of immigrants. The couple selling hot-dogs and icy cold drinks at and isolated stand at the junction of the Placencia turnoff from the Southern Highway were a Salvodorena from La Libertad and a Guatemalteco. Just after visiting the Maya centre craft gift shop where I got all excited by the intricate work on the pipes, I met a Guatemalteca selling rice and beans who was from Peten Guatemala and looked too young to have the 5 children she was telling me about. I met a few other Spanish speaking folk along the way, all very friendly and curious to know what I was up to. I find the language situation here fascinating... one older man told me he spoke four languages, Kek'chi, English, Spanish and a second Mayan language.

Interestingly with language ponderings in my brain as I headed into Dangriga I came across the Gulisi Garifuna museum where I was warmly welcomed by the lovely Peter and dodged the heavy rainfall of the next few hours absorbed in learning about the Garifuna language and the Garinagu people. I feel like it was really good timing to come across this concentration of information after passing through Livingston and chatting to a lot of the Garinagu there but getting mixed or unclear histories, and then spending the time in Punta Gorda within the Creole community.

The 'soundbyte' you usually hear about the Garinagu people is that they are descended from shipwrecked African slaves, but like most of history it is more complicated than that. From my understanding after todays visit their history goes all the way back to 200 AD when the Arawak and Carib communities began to interact in the Orinoco Basin of South America. The Arawak began to migrate northwards to the Carribbean islands, followed later and so pushed further north by the Caribs. Trade routes started to pass from Africa to the Carribean before Colombus' 'discovery', and then after it the European traders arrived, stomped their way onto the islands and began to fight amongst themselves and against the local populations over land ownership. During this time some of the African slaves escaped captivity, and others arrived free men after surviving shipwreck. These people began to mix with the local Carib communities and this mix became the Garinagu people.

The struggle between the British and French was particularly fierce, and after Britain gained control of St. Vincent the French fought alongside locals, led at one point by 'Paramount Chief' Chatoyer (and British deserters) in guerrilla warfare against the Limeys, who had separated local populations geographically into Red Caribs and Black Caribs. The fighting of the 1700's led to a final massacre by the Brits and the deportation of 5000 Garinagus from St. Vincent in 1797, of which only 2000 made it to the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras. From here the Garingu re-settled in communities in Nicaragua, Honduras and what was then called British Honduras, now Belize. They found work as wage laborours, traded, fought as mercenaries and intermixed with the Ladino and Miskito communities. In Belize they had to struggle against the prejudice of the British, who feared them, imposing a 6pm curfew and kept their Black African slaves frightened of them by saying the Garinagu were cannibals and vicious people. However they were needed for eonomic reasons, and after slavery was abolished in 1807, worked alongside the Creoles, living in villages that relied on fishing and wage labour in mahogany camps (men's responsibility) and agriculture (tradirtionally women's responsibility).

The Garifuna language itself, according to ethnographer Nancie Gonzalez' research, is of the South American Arawak family, using many words from South American Carib, borrowing heavily from French, English and Spanish, but with no more than 5 possible but unconfirmed loan words from African languages. Apparently as the Arawaks migrated northwards the following Caribs really liked their women, killing the Arawak me and taking the women for their wives. As the women traditionally taught language to the children, this became the dominant language, so that contemporary Garifuna has gender differences in that some Carib origin phrases can only be used by men. For years the language has continued orally without any written record, but as concerns over the Garifuna culture disappearing efforts have been made from within the community to preserve the language and customs, and a publication the People's Garifuna dictionary was printed in October 1993.

In Livingston I was hearing Garifuna being spoken in the streets and was told that the kids grow up speaking Garifuna at home and only learn Spanish when they go to school. However here in Belize according to Peter the language was close to dying out after years of repression, as he explained the Catholic nuns who taught in the schools would whip children for speaking Garifuna, and in the communities they faced prejudice as the supposedly 'inferior' race, so in oder to assimilate and prevent similar treatment for their children, the Garinagu started speaking Creole and the younger generations grew up without their language. The recent efforts at revival include introducing the language into the curriculum, the school that sits next to this museum teaches the language both orally and written, with textbooks bought with Unesco funds. Part of the process of revival is regaining the pride in the Garifuna culture. These efforts have been helped massively by musicians, such as Andy Palacio who brought Garifuna music to the world stage and Pen Cayetano. Garifuna culture has strong music and dance traditions, with different songs and dances being specific to different events, chores, or the very important Dugu celebration.

The Dugu is a ceremony offering to the ancestors, whose planning can take up to 2 years building a temple and organising the food, dancers and musicians, for a 2 to 3 days celebration involving dance, song and food offerings. The dugu is ordered by the ancestors through the sickness of a living relative and the planning and organisation is led by a buyei, or spiritual leader and healer. As well as the Garifuna language, these celebrations were also supressede by the Catholic missionaries, who saw it as devil worship, so the ceremonies were practices in secret. It is only in recent years that the Catholic church has accepted these rituals as compatible with Christian teaching, and there are Garinagu Catholic priests.

An important character in the growing pride in Garifuna culture in Belize is Thomas Vincent Ramos whose concerns over health care and proper burials led him to found the Caribbean Development and Sick Aid Society (CDS) amongst other foundations to help the Garifuna communities throughout Belize. He was also responsible for the official recogniction of the nationwide Garifuna Settlement Day, celebrated on 19th November.

One of the positive side effects of recognizing the Garifuna communities within Belize has apparently been a growing awareness of heritage amongst other ethnic groups in the country, such as the Mayan. I certainly know for myself that having looked at these issues of language, cultue and roots, and the culmination of months of traveling and bieng asked about where I come from and what language I speak, i feel like the most fake Scottish person ever, and am determined that one of the things I would like to do when I go back home is to look into learning Scotish Gaelic. I feel like it is shameful that I dont even know one work in it. The only Gaelic work I would know is 'slancher' (no idea of the proper spelling) and that's Irish. I do remember pretending as a kid when my English cousins would come to stay that I understood what they were saying on this really over-the-top-acted kids progam that was aired in GAelic, and I have vague memories of seeing signs in Gaelic on the Isle of Skye, and having looked at a teach-yourself-book in the languge department of Waterstones at one point, but now I think I would really be interested in at least learning to understand its roots.

When I get back I also want to upgrade from poy to poy-with-ribbon to fire spinning, learn airbrushing for big mural painting, possibly build myself a pair of stilts, visit Mum's homeland of Wexford Ireland, experiment with my stones and metal jewelry work.. hmm and have a nice cold pint of cider. Ha!

Another reflection that came form the documentary I watched at the museum came when the interviewee was talking about the Garifuna culture being focused in community, as compared to the individualtistic Western culture and that got me to thinking how often we solo travelers are seen as unusual, and are asked many questions about our families, because it must seem like, and perhaps is, the most individualistic, selfish endevour. With that in mind I am definitely ready to go home and see my friends and family. I think that in the UK our custom of moving away from our hometowns and familes to study and work, and the fact that in the many transitory communities of London resulting from shifting migrant and student populations it is common not to know your neighbors, makes it very hard to feel a strong sense of community, and I think to a certain extent cultures like those over here in Central America are so appealing to many travelers because we are drawn to the family feel in the streets amongst family extended family and friends, like that I have seen again and again out here. But however tenuous the web, because of its geographical stretching, I definitely have my community back home and I will be delighted to come back home to it. And I hope that by sharing my experiences and stories my traveling has not been entirely selfish, although of course it has been a hugely relaxing journey of world discovery and self discovery...

..and I do still have a cople of weeks left which really is a long time, there are still many connections to make. Arriving into Dangriga tonight I ended up chatting to a few different locals, who were very friendly... before I'd even reached the Dara's Backpackers hostel (the first of its kind I've come across here in Belize) I'd been taken off on a brief tandem ride by Mike from the bike shop while his mates John and Head looked on. Span poy on the beach front at dusk with the hush-brush of the gentle waves and the hum of cicadas in my ears, then sat and ate some deep fried fishy street food (so far I haven't come across the cassava bread that is the staple food of the Garifuna community but these were a new experience for me) until the sand flies drove me into the hostel.

Big love from Danriga

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