There are generally three types of people that visit Belize City (who aren’t from Belize that is); people in the British Forces, Cruise ship tourists and sweaty backpackers passing to an alternative destination. If you ask the forces what they can remember about Belize City it will be the slightly scary bars and the ever so cheap One Barrel Rum and Belikin Beer, some of the men may even admit to having visited the notorious Rose Garden (now burnt to the ground) , which provided ‘company’ whilst you drank, for those with exotic tastes. After spending six weeks on Jungle training, being savaged by mosquitos and sweating litres of water a day, most are ready for a nice long drink and Belize City provides a hazy respite, although most cannot remember much the next day on their journey from the City to the Forces camp in Ladyville, just outside Belize City, to begin their next assignment.
Cruise Ship tourists will tell you about the way the sea turns from a beautiful turquoise to a sludgy brown on entering the port. In true colonial style the tourists are confined to the ‘tourist zone’ where a selection of suitable tacky bars decked with Mayan decor serve ‘traditional’ Belizean cuisine and a range of imported beers. The privileged ‘native’ Belizeans that are allowed to venture into the sacred ground where the tourists walk, make a meagre living selling their handcrafted shell earrings, traditional wood carvings and rasta coloured jewellery. In the tourist zone prices are in US dollars, the hassle of converting to the local currency too taxing for most (an easy 2 BZD to 1US), but this works out very well for the vendors in an economy where US dollars are considered superior and the exchange allows them to charge US prices therefore doubling their usual price. Hot, sticky people flock to buy a coconut with a straw in and of course the obligatory shot of cheap local rum. The top of the coconut is sliced off in front off them by a Kriol man with a short machete. The kriol man has a twinkle in his eye as each tourist pays 5US dollars for the ‘cocktail’. He knows, as they don’t, that the coconuts came free from his tree the day before and are sold to locals for $1BZD (50 cents USD) at the nearby market, where the idea of paying $10 BZD for a coconut is completely laughable. Yet the tourists suck up the sweet coconut water thirstily not realising his joy at such a high profit margin, after all the man thinks, they can afford it. At this point the tourists are either whisked off on an inland tour or go snorkelling at one of the local Cayes, before they want to start looking around the City hoping to get a picture of the ‘real’ Belize City. If they did see the ‘real’ Belize City, they would swim back to their luxury cruise ship quicker than a shark to blood.
Cruise ship tourism in Belize is a double edged sword. Each Cruise ship that enters Belize City has to pay a landing tax. This money however goes straight to the Government, and the benefits of it are rarely seen by the residents of the City itself. The passengers do however sustain jobs for local people that provide vital capital for families across the city and therefore they are a valued commodity. It is the unseen effects of the Cruise ships that show the negative side to tourism. Belize has the second largest Barrier Reef in the world, which is a big draw to tourists, however the water around the City is becoming so polluted that the coral is changing from a myriad of living colours to a bleached white mass. At the end of their 12 hours onland, the tourists can return to the comfort of their cabin and escape to their next destination.
Belize City is somewhere people escape from, transitting to other destinations. Tourists are driven from the airport away to other destinations and backpackers tend to be seen waiting in the green bus station for a ticket ‘outta here’. The bus station is a hub of activity. It faces onto the dark and dirty canal smelling of rotten fish and human excrement. Despite it’s rather nauseating smell a new paint job has brightened it up and its visible green, gold and red Rasta inspired décor is bright and cheerful. Children tout soft drinks and jonny cakes in wooden boxes strapped to their chest, incense sticks are offered ‘tree a dollar’ and plantain chips (ghetto pringles)are sold on in a roaring trade. My father in law can be heard calling ‘mawnin darlin, you looking gud sweetie, wahn a coffee’ from his little deli in the bus station entrance.
Ross Kemp’s documentary on Belize City portrayed it as a City swamped by violent gangsters and plagued by crime. It is true that Belize has a gang problem and Belize City does experience a high level of crime, but what city in the world doesn’t? The key to travelling in Belize City is to keep your wits about you. As a tourist it is not a good idea to walk around certain parts of the city, especially the South Side. In this part of the City you will be on gang territory. There is an increased presence of Gang Grafitti sprayed haphazardly on walls and on houses. Belize generally has two types of gang, Crips and Bloods, neighbourhoods will generally be affiliated with one or the other, identifiable by the colour of the spray paint used for the ‘tags’; red for bloods and blue for bloods. This is starting to change now and gangs are less concerned with ‘colours’ and more concerned with territory. It is easy to forget that many of these ‘gangsters’ are the product of extreme poverty and the ever increasing drug trade, as drugs flow through the city on their way to Mexico. Low employment rates, a corrupt government and judicial system and lack of hope all combine to provide a deadly cocktail of anger and rage that has resulted in a deadly gang culture.
My resounding memory of Belize City is of a day when I was walking alone, along one of the dusty streets on my way to the bus station. It was an extremely hot day and I was anxious to get out of the sun, when my shoe broke. This was quite a common occurance during my time in Belize, the ‘slippers’ from the local Hindu store were poorly made and lasted anywhere from one week to three months, no longer. However, well prepared for this eventuality I pulled out my mini tube of ‘krazy glue’ to fix them together. At this point, whilst I was balancing on one leg, a dishellevd looking man approached me. At this point I must admit my heart rate did start to race, or rather ‘sprint’. He walked up to me and said quite clearly ‘Yuh wahn some help gial?’. Option one was to run away in case he was just about to ‘jack’ me, but running with one shoe on and the other in my hand, throughout the dirty streets of Belize didn’t take my fancy, so I chanced it and said ‘yes thanks’. The man took my shoe and the glue and spent about five minutes fixing it, making sure it was properly fixed together, he even asked if my foot was alright. After the glue had dried and I was fixed up and ready to go I did the customary thing and offered him a couple of dollars. He refused them and said he was glad to help, and he hoped that I enjoyed my stay in his beautiful country, then he walked off. As with any city there are bad people, but there are plenty of good people to readdress the balance.It is easy to be swayed by the negative aspects of Belize City, however there are aspects of the City to love. Loud reggae and reggaeton play through speakers precariously balancing on each other in shop fronts. Neon, glittering, printed blouses hang from rails above shop entrances and racks of shoes with back to front ‘Nike ticks’ fill the space inside the doorways. Cars fill the one way streets, and beach cruiser bikes swerve between the traffic ridden by men with white undervests, baggy jeans and rags in their pockets. Children clasp onto their mothers hands fearful of the lashing that will occur should they wander. Chinese shopkeepers peer cautiously through the burglar bars guarding the shop windows, as they sell fried chicken and cigarettes. Belize City is a feast for the senses. Nerves are heightened and nowhere else makes me feel so alive. Some Belizean Customs