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I'm A Belizer – Saturday's Child - Saturday 17, January-2004
by Tony Deyal
According to the psychiatrists, chronic smokers use cigarettes as a breast substitute. In their case, tobacco has a nipple effect. For its abusers, alcohol has a tipple effect. In economics, small changes in any economic variable cause a ripple effect. However, extreme changes cause a “Ripley” effect. In other words, you have a tendency to preface every observation with “Believe it or not.”

In my case, a major change of employers, or what in psychiatric terms would be described as moving from self- to other-directed, has precipitated a triple effect – new assignment, new temporary home, new stresses added to my permanent ones.

Instead of being Ripley, my path is slippery. The rainy day I was saving for is here with me in my new Central American residence and instead of believe it or not, the inevitable prologue and preamble is: “Belize it or not.”

Belize is not an anatomical expression. It is a great country and almost perfect. About 150 miles of barrier reef, unspoiled tropical rain forests, getting even rainier this past week, Mayan ruins, and a mix of people, languages and customs that continues to astonish, amuse, amaze and sometimes embarrass me.

For instance, the common “bellyful”, rock cake or Guyanese “bun” is known here as a “powder bun”, most likely from the sugar sprinkled on it. I did not know that when I first arrived. I went to a bakery and my eyes lit up when, among the various offerings, I saw one that I recognised.

“What do you call that?” I asked the dark-haired young lady behind the counter. She hesitated. I asked again, enunciating my words very clearly and speaking very slowly, adding the little bit of Spanish that I know apart from “no”.

“Que es este?”

“Eet ees a boulder bun,” she said.

Unfortunately, not realising that she had recently come from one of the bordering Spanish-speaking countries, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua, I took her word for gospel. It turned out that her English was worse than my Spanish and she had taken “boulder” and made it “powder”, something which up to now was the domain and major preoccupation of Mother Nature, geography teachers and quarry operators.

It is an interesting metamorphosis. The reverse happened to one of my English buddies, who believed that the verbal journey from English to Spanish consisted of adding “o” and “a” sounds.

Paying a visit to the home of one of his friends who had married a “Mestizo” or Spanish-descended Belizean, he was greeted at the door by his friend’s mother-in-law.

As is typical in the highlands where I now live, it can become very cold by Caribbean standards, reaching as low as 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter months.

Trying to be as cool as the weather, my buddy remarked to the rather plump lady: “Mucho coolo.” Her face immediately reddened in anger. She slammed the door in his face and started shouting shrilly in Spanish.

Confused, he again knocked on the door. His friend came out and demanded to know why he had insulted the lady. It turned out that he was right on the button with “mucho” which means “much”. However, the pronunciation of “coolo” is the same as the Spanish word for “rear end”.

It was not cool at all. It is like using the verb “embarazar” to mean “embarrassed” when it actually means “to be pregnant”. I committed a “groceria” when I used the word to mean “grocery” when it really means “gross”. It is something I “dozen” do again.

Sometimes the cultural mix leads to really interesting forms of humour. In Belize most people use gas stoves because the cost of electricity is extremely high.

Most of the stoves are made in Mexico and imported.

The most popular brand is spelt “Mabe” and should be pronounced “Mah-bay”. English-speaking Belizians call it a “Maybe” – maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. The Mexican-made detergent “Foca” receives similar linguistic treatment. Fortunately for me, my mother no longer does my washing.

I am a sea-food freak or, as my children would say – as an explanation for my burgeoning bulk – once I see food, I eat it.

Lobster, shrimp, conch and fresh fish are abundant and work out cheaper than in most of the other Caribbean Community countries. If this sounds like paradise, it is close. But there is a glitch, hitch, hiccup, call it what you will.

Something is missing, something so vital that it prevents Belize from being truly Caribbean. There is no salt fish. It is a cod-forsaken country.

Fresh fish, canned fish, frozen fish, stew fish, sweet-and-sour fish, but no salt fish, none – nada.

Sophisticates who know Spanish would think that perhaps the natives, being of a Spanish bent, might not know it as salt fish but by its Spanish name “bacalao”. Mucho coolo or coolie that I am, I still am smart enough, desperate enough and salt-fish lover enough to know that salt fish by any other name is just as sweet. No bacalao, nada, zilch, zero.

It makes me feel like Robinson Crusoe or Alexander Selkirk. I sit and stare at the ocean sighing and singing: “Nearer my cod to thee.” I dream of buljol without even wondering to what it owes its strange name.

For people of Indian descent like me, fried potatoes without salt fish is like Brian Lara without a bat, the West Indies Cricket Board without a blunder, or similarly, the Jamaica Labour Party without Edward Seaga.

Sparrow’s sage words echo thyme and again in my head: “When you want to eat, all salt fish sweet.”

• Tony Deyal was last seen wondering why such a wonderful and blessed country which has salt and fish in abundance does not have salt fish. It is a cod-darn shame.