The former British colony is much more than beaches and blue skies. Sameer
Rahim visits a Mennonite community which has shunned contemporary living.
Meeting the Mennonites: horse-drawn carts remains the first choice of transportation
Arriving in Belize, the last thing I expected was that I would soon be sitting
down to rice cakes and prune pudding with a family dressed as though they
had escaped from Little House on the Prairie. Nor did I expect to be
brushing off my schoolboy German to chat to them. It turned out, however,
that my meeting with the Belizean Mennonites was more fascinating than the
beautiful beaches and snorkelling trips for which this land is better known.
The Central American country once known as British Honduras is home to an
unusual number of races and cultures. Creoles descended from Scottish
buccaneers and African slaves make up a quarter of the population. Around a
third of the people are Mestizos: a combination of Spanish and native Maya
who generally live farther inland. Then there are the varieties of pure
Maya, about 10 per cent, who have survived defeat by Spanish invaders and
numerous attempts to wipe them out over the past 500 years. All this is
overlaid with a British colonial structure (the country only gained its
independence in 1981) that means the judges wear woollen wigs, the Queen is
on the currency and everyone speaks English.
The most recent arrivals in Belize are the Mennonites. They make up only four
per cent of the population, but their financial muscle and peculiar
practices have made them the most talked-about group in the country. They
live in a closed religious community, which originated in Russia and moved
to Belize in 1959 to escape persecution. They take their name from the Dutch
Reformation Anabaptist Menno Simons, whose theology emphasised asceticism
and self-denial; they officially reject all forms of modern technology and
live according to a strict interpretation of the Bible. Often compared to
the Amish, they are excellent farmers who have built a reputation among
Belizeans for honesty and thrift.
While I was staying at a lodge near the Mayan ruins at Lamanai in northern
Belize, my guide asked if I would like to have lunch in a nearby Mennonite
town. For a long time the Mennonites had been resistant to outsiders
visiting them, but in recent years they have opened up to tourists. I was
getting slightly tired of nature-watching and jumped at the chance of
observing this intriguing community in its natural habitat.
My guide dropped me off with my Mennonite host, Abraham: a large man with fair
skin burned scarlet by the sun, who wore dark-blue dungarees and a cowboy
hat. He took me through Mennonite land in a horse-drawn buggy. Abraham's
first language was a dialect of German with Dutch influences; he also spoke
Spanish and some English in a Caribbean accent.
Our conversation was awkward at first. I introduced myself by saying I was
from England, though my parents were from India. He seemed to know little
about either country. His geography was restricted to his own land and
places such as Canada and the Congo where the other 1.5 million Mennonites
live. (The only communication from the outside world I saw on my visit was
the Mennonite newspaper.) Abraham was curious about my religious loyalties.
Did I believe in Jesus? I said that Muslims believe that Jesus was a Prophet
but not the son of God. "Not a Jew, then? Jews don't believe in Jesus.
That's funny – no?" His tone was not malevolent; he was genuinely
I changed the subject to farming. Most of Belize is either swampy jungle or
lush forest. The Mennonites have cleared the landscape and planted rows and
rows of pulses and vegetables. How, I asked Abraham, did they manage to farm
so efficiently with only horse-drawn ploughs? "We don't punish the
horses like that," he said. It turned out that the Belizean Mennonites
have bent their own laws and now use mechanical tractors. Abraham explained
that modern technology was allowed for work but not leisure. To prevent any
blurring of lines they forbade the use of rubber tyres on the tractors, so
that riding them was not too comfortable.
As we approached his house, Abraham spotted a man driving a tractor with
rubber tyres. He clicked his tongue and said he would be raising the matter
The Mennonites enforce their rules with a church panel. At its most extreme,
punishment can involve excommunication and expulsion from the Mennonite
Then we passed some lively schoolboys, mini-Abrahams dressed in dungarees and
cowboy hats. The schoolgirls I saw, in long flowery dresses with ribbons
tied in their hats, were more shy but still unafraid of staring. Mennonite
education is based on the Bible (it is the only book Abraham owns) and ends
at 13 for both sexes. Boys start working on the family farm and girls train
as housewives, or perhaps work in a grocers.
We stopped off at one of these stores – a dingy place that sold an assortment
of tinned goods staffed by a woman who looked pinched and bored. In the
corner of the shop was an electric fan that, despite the sweltering weather,
was switched off. By this time I got the sense that the Mennonites were not
as strict as they liked to present themselves.
I heard laughter from the back of the shop and poked my head around. It was a
Creole lady who had come with her husband to deliver some goods.
At Abraham's house I met the family: his wife, two unmarried daughters and a
son-in-law sweating from working the field. The family clearly indulged at
meal times. At weddings, I was told, where there is no drinking, dancing or
free mixing of the sexes, food is their only pleasure. I asked whether they
practised arranged marriages.
"No," said Abraham, "we let the boy and girl decide for
themselves." Once a couple has matched up there is a trial engagement – "the
honeymoon before the wedding", said Abraham – which usually means the
couple staying for a week at another family's home. But they are not allowed
to sleep together, so if they decide not to marry both are still virgins.
Though Abraham refused to be drawn on my inquiries, I found out later that
some Mennonite men have left the community and married Belizean women. Some
can still visit their parents, but don't stay long. Most people, though,
stay close to their society and their families. Abraham explained, with
pride, that two of his sons had chosen to build their homes on plots next to
his. I could imagine the fear someone might have of leaving this small
ordered world for the unruly energies of, say, Belize City.
Yet even Abraham was not immune to temptation. When he first started inviting
tourists into his home, the guide he was dealing with offered him a mobile
phone – forbidden, naturally – so that he could set up visits more easily.
Abraham was too polite or too curious to refuse. He became nervous, though,
when his neighbours began to comment that he seemed to be meeting the guide
at a pre-arranged time, not waiting on the edge of town as was the usual
practice. He gave up the phone. Still, as I saw him proudly shoe his horse
before we rode out of Mennonite country, I noticed he had a twirling wind
turbine next to his barn that must have powered the freezer in his kitchen –
perhaps not counted a luxury in the Belizean heat.
I was disappointed by the Mennonites' little lapses. Usually when you visit a
supposedly untouched community abroad you are faced with a farrago of
inauthentic ceremonies and invented traditions – as with the African
villagers who dance for money before immediately changing back into their
jeans and T-shirts. The Mennonites appeared to be the real thing.
But more interesting, I realised, was observing their genuine struggles over
faith and identity. Every compromise they make with the modern world makes
their lives easier but erodes their uniqueness. And the technology entering
their lives, no matter what they tell themselves, is not neutral: it always
reflects the values of the society from which it came.
After leaving Abraham, I recalled a debate I once had with an environmental
campaigner. She was arguing that we should reject the modern world and go
back to tilling our portion of the Earth. Only then would we stop climate
change and food wastage.
The Mennonites should be her ideal community: they harm no one outside their
borders, and their carbon footprint is next to nothing. To create such a
society, though, requires a denial of individual freedom that few of us in
the West could handle. For all Abraham's kind hospitality, I breathed a
little easier as I left the buggy and returned to my air-conditioned taxi.
Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com)
flies from London Heathrow (via Madrid) to El Salvador, Costa Rica,
Guatemala and Panama, with connections to Belize available through its
Central American partner Taca (www.taca.com).
The total combined airfare from London to Belize costs from £1,080 in low
season and from £2,333 in peak season (July, Aug, Dec).
This includes a return with Iberia from London to San Jose, Costa Rica (from
£858 low season/£1,898 peak season) plus a return with Taca from San Jose to
Belize (from £222 low season/ £435 peak season).
For further information visit the Belize Tourism Board (www.travelbelize.org)
or see the Visit Centroamérica website (www.visitcentroamerica.com).
Top five places to visit in Belize
Hokeb Ha Cave at Blue Creek
About half-an-hour's ride from Punta Gorda (PG to the locals) lies a
magnificent cave called Hokeb Ha (in Maya "where the water meets the
Earth"). Inside you will be half-submerged in warm water and have to
negotiate slippery rocks, so a guide and helmet with lamp (and spare
batteries) are essential. Getting to the end takes about 45 minutes and is
recommended only for strong swimmers. When you do get there you will be
rewarded with a small waterfall. Claustrophobics beware: if your guide has
the same sense of humour as mine did, he will turn off the light and leave
you in pitch black.
Lamanai Outpost Lodge
Probably the best place to visit in Belize for the sheer variety of things to
do. The Lamanai Outpost Lodge (501 672 2000; www.lamanai.com)
has been around for 20 years and is excellent at looking after guests.
Outings include a boat ride to some impressive Mayan ruins, and night-time
wildlife tours. The lodge is not as luxurious as Machaca, but the guides are
very good and you don't have to go far to see animals: howler monkeys live
in the grounds and are easily photographed.
This is Belize's party town – a mini-Cancun made up of a beach front and three
narrow streets packed with restaurants and bars. The beachfront hotels range
from the touristy Ramon's (601 649 1990; www.ramons.com)
to the plush and private Victoria House (501 226 2067; www.victoria-house.com).
The reef snorkelling and diving are huge fun. Be sure your hotel gets you a
golf buggy, which is the standard way of getting around town. Look out for
Kate Corrigan, a British expat who runs a restaurant called Crave (501 226
and is always welcoming to travellers from home.
Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge
This lodge at Punta Gorda (0011 501 722 0050; www.machacahill.com)
makes a luxurious base for jungle exploration. The rooms are massive, and
the bathrooms – designed like steam rooms – have a large window overlooking
the jungle, so while showering you can pretend you are in a shampoo advert.
Mountain bikes are available, and from the tree-level restaurant you can
spot a wealth of wildlife at breakfast. Recommended for birdwatchers.
Though most tourists avoid the country's main city because of its reputation
for gang violence, if you have three hours spare it's worth taking a tour.
The neglected graveyard near the colonial-era English church has some
heartbreaking inscriptions (a young wife dying of yellow fever a month after
her arrival, for example). My guide, Lascelle Tillett, has been showing
visitors around for decades; ask, and he will show you the house of Lord
Ashcroft, the controversial billionaire donor to the Tory Party. Book
through S & L Travel and Tours (501 227 7593; www.sltravelbelize.com).