Saturday, November 23, 2013

Garifuna Settlement Day in Punta Gorda

Last weekend we traveled to Punta Gorda, in the far south of Belize, for the Garifuna Settlement Day celebration. Punta Gorda is literally at the end of the road--to continue south into Guatemala you either have to hike through the jungle or take a boat.

Garifuna Settlement Day is a national holiday celebrating the arrival of the Garifuna people in Belize. The Garifuna are a distinct ethnic minority in Belize, with additional substantial populations in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They came in to existence when a slave ship crashed on the island of St Vincent in the 1600s, and the Africans intermarried with the native Arawak and Carib peoples. They were forced from island to island, until they settled along the coast of Central America in the early 1800s.
The mural at our hotel reflects the ethnic and racial diversity in Punta Gorda

The clock tower in the central park in Punta Gorda

 Punta Gorda is still undeveloped relative to the rest of Belize, and they're still sorting out how to cater to tourists. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, in that visitors can enjoy a lot of authentic cultural experiences, but it can be difficult to figure out when and where they are occurring. For example, we knew there would be many events during the four-day weekend we were in town, but we could not find any information about them--what, when, where, how much, etc. So on our taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, I asked the driver if there was anything we should check out. She recommended we attend the Battle of the Drums on Saturday night. Apparently this is a world famous competition, with drumming teams from Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala participating. Tickets were available at a particular market in town, and we purchased them as quickly as possible.

But that left all day Saturday open, so we tried to schedule a last-minute snorkeling trip. In San Pedro, that would have been a snap--we would have called around until we found someone with an open full-day or half-day trip, and then we'd be off to the races. So I started calling the local guides listed in our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, only to find the numbers disconnected, phones turned off, voicemail, etc. Eventually I got in touch with Kate at Blue Belize, and she said it was normally very difficult to schedule anything at the last minute, but she'd try calling her guide. She phoned back with good news--her guide Dan was available, and would pick us up at the dock in front of our hotel in 45 minutes.

When Dan arrived, the boys immediately noticed the name of the boat--Xavi, the same as one of their classmates. We noted the coincidence, but didn't think much of it. During our ride out to the islands in the Gulf of Honduras, we talked with him about his guiding business, and he explained that he does snorkeling trips, fishing trips, and does conservation work with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Our friend Rachel Graham works for the WCS and runs the Caribbean shark and ray program out of San Pedro, so I asked, "Do you work with Dr. Graham?" Dan laughed and said "Yes, she's my ex." It turns out Dan is the father of Xavi and Gabe, the boys' classmates at Island Academy! We were all surprised by the coincidence.
Heading out to the islands on a glassy sea

Henry explains how the reserve works
View from the tower

We arrived at the ranger station for the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, where we met Henry. He gave us an overview of the reserve, explained the different management designations, and let us climb up to the top of the observation tower to have a look around.

We left the ranger station and arrived on the beach at West Snake Caye. There are three 'Snake Cayes' in the reserve, so named because they are all literally crawling with boa constrictors. The boys interest was definitely piqued, and after we got off on the island, Dan said "you guys hang out on the beach, I'll be back in a bit." About 15 minutes later, he emerged from the forest with a 4.5' boa constrictor! The boys were so excited, and they each got to hold it.
Liam and boa constrictor

Lochlan, Dan, and boa constrictor
Lochlan enjoying a coconut that Dan cut open for him
After putting the boa back into his habitat, we went to the first snorkeling spot, just to leeward of the caye. Because of all the torrential rain over the previous two weeks, there was a thin lens of freshwater on top of the ocean, which had the effect of making the coral and fish below a bit blurry. However, by diving down just a few feet, the water became much clearer, and we were amazed by the colorful corals, abundant (and large!) fish, and overall variety of all the sea life. Both boys did amazingly well diving down below the freshwater lens. We saw queen angelfish, spadefish, a spotted moray eel, and most impressively, an enormous goliath grouper. Aside from the nurse sharks and rays, this was the largest sea creature we've seen in Belize. Dan was a fantastic guide, and pointed out many fish and coral for us while we were in the water.

We had a nice lunch at anchor, and then visited a second snorkeling spot (with equally impressive sea life) before motoring back to Punta Gorda. Unfortunately our waterproof camera bit the dust a few weeks back and we have not yet received our replacement, so I was not able to take any underwater shots. However, I did find a few pictures taken by others in the same area that illustrate the types of corals and fish we saw.

Queen Angel fish
Goliath Grouper
Spotted moray
The Battle of the Drums took place at the Multipurpose Center, a giant shed covered with palm thatch near the airport. The competition was scheduled to begin at 7:30 and we were instructed to arrive by 7:00 if we wanted a seat. This proved to be good advice, the place was standing room only by 7:30. Around 8:15 the introductions began, and they took FOREVER. I'm sure many people worked very hard to put the event together, but I've never heard an announcer thank so many people. The groups participating in the competition were also introduced, and not only did the announcer name every one in each group, but the groups also played their drums and sang and marched up and down the aisle in the audience, before taking the stage, playing a bit more, then retreating back stage so the next group could repeat the process. We were sitting on the aisle, so we had a pretty good view during the introductions.  By the time the actual competition started, it was quite late, and after the first two groups finished their performances, the poor boys were falling asleep in their chairs, so we left. What we did see was very impressive--the music was energetic, the costumes were colorful, and the enthusiasm of the competitors was contagious.

The next day we had reservations for the boys to be "Rangers for a Day" at Ya'axche Conservation Trust. Unfortunately all of their trails were literally under water due to the aforementioned heavy rains, so we improvised and rented some bikes in town from PG Bike. We rode out of town to Hickatee Cottages, a beautiful spot with some short trails through second growth jungle. We saw several beautiful butterflies, but (surprisingly) not a lot of birds or other wildlife.
Pedaling to Hickatee Cottages

ENORMOUS owl butterfly
That afternoon we pedaled out to Warasa, where the boys had a drum lesson with Garifuna drummer Ronald Raymod MacDonald (he goes by Ray). The boys were a bit intimidated by Ray, but he was such a patient and kind teacher that eventually they warmed up to him and really started getting in to the lesson. It was fun watching them get the feel of the sometimes tricky rhythms that characterize Garifuna drumming.
The boys learning some rhythms from Ray

There was more drumming scheduled for that evening at a spot called Walucas, but again, it didn't start until after the boys bedtime, so we decided to skip it in order to catch up on sleep.

The next morning we arose early, had yet another delicious breakfast at Grace's, then caught the 8:00 am James Line bus out of town to meet Juan for our tour of Nim Li Punit and the Ix'cacao chocolate farm/factory. 

There were some communication difficulties between Amy and Juan in determining where exactly we were supposed to get off the bus. We passed a sign for Ix'cacao, but Juan had told us to take the bus all the way to Lim Ni Punit. I was starting to feel a bit nervous that we were way past our intended drop-off, so I called Juan, and he said "Where are you?" I looked out the windows of the old American school bus, and saw...jungle. Some thatched roof huts. A few chickens. I said "Ah, I don't really know. Let me hand the phone to the bus steward." So I handed the phone over to the guy who collects the money from the passengers, and after a rapid fire exchange with Juan in kriol and Spanish, he whistled to the driver to stop the bus. He handed me the phone, said "you guys get off here", handed us $6 BZE, we got off the bus, and they drove away. We looked around, and realized we had no idea where we were, or what we were supposed to do. There was no cell service. I laughed, looked at Amy, and said "well, you wanted an adventure!"

We started walking south along the highway. We saw more thatched roof huts, jungle, chickens. A few parrots flew overhead. After about 15 minutes, Juan pulled up in his van, rolled down the window, and said "AMY! I FOUND YOU!" We got in the van, and headed off to Nim Li Punit.

Nim Li Punit is a very cool Mayan site. It is not the biggest, oldest, or most architecturally significant, but they do have several Stela that are quite large and very impressive. Juan described the Mayan system of writing numbers, and walked us through the messages on a couple of the Stela before giving us a tour of the balance of the site. It was very interesting, but the boys were champing at the bit for the main event, and after an hour, we got back in the van and headed towards one of Juan's farms.
Juan explaining the Stela

In front of the pillar of the sun

We walked through the cacao plantation, and the boys each got to pick a cacao pod. The orchard is intermixed with enormous trees that provide shade to the cacao trees, and there are coffee, banana, and plaintain trees intermixed. It was a very diverse orchard, and Liam managed to catch several lizards and frogs as we walked through it.
Lochlan and cacao pods

Liam harvesting a pod

We headed up a hill at the edge of the forest, where we saw the tracks of some sort of cat, most likely ocelot or margay, as well as gibnut and armadillo. We hiked by several lines of leaf-cutter ants, and saw a very impressive line of army ants motoring across the trail in perfect formation.
Cool track!
Harvesting sugar cane

Pressing the cane

Eventually we made it to the top of the hill, which is covered with sugarcane. Juan harvested a few stalks, busted them open, and handed them around to us. We sucked on the cane, and not surprisingly, it was very sweet! We walked through the cane until we came to a press set up in a clearing with an amazing view of the Toledo district. The boys helped Juan press cane to extract the juice (the farm grows all of the sugar they use to make their chocolate), then we headed down the hill, where he showed us all of the various edible plants along the way. One of these is called Jippy Jappa, a type of palm, and the heart of new leaves can be eaten. It tastes a bit like artichoke. We got back in the van, and drove to the Ix'cacao 'factory'.

Juan's wife had prepared an amazing Mayan buffet for us (including sauteed Jippy Jappa!) which we shared with Juan and Giovanni, an American of Jamaican descent who runs a catering business in New York. After lunch, Juan showed us how to make chocolate.
Delicious Mayan food
He began by cutting open a pod and showing us the seeds (sometimes called 'beans') inside. They are covered with a white, slimy, sweet fruit, that must be removed before the beans are dried and roasted. Juan provided us with some dry roasted beans, which we shelled, and then he taught us how to grind them with a stone metate. After the beans had been ground by everyone in the group, we added some unrefined sugar, mixed it all together, popped it into a mold, and placed it in the freezer.
Believe it or not, this is where chocolate comes from!
Learning the process
Yours truly, grinding away
Juan gave us a tour of the rest of the factory and showed us several machines he's invented to help process the beans into chocolate. During the course of the tour we learned that Ix'cacao is one of the suppliers to Theo Chocolate, the chocolate factory located in our neighborhood in Seattle! We bought a bunch of chocolate, then all piled into the van for the drive back to Punta Gorda.

One of the events we had most been looking forward to is the re-enactment of the landing of the Garifuna. They use traditional canoes, wear their traditional clothing, and load the canoes with the crops they brought to the coast of Central America. Unfortunately, the landing happened at FIVE IN THE MORNING. We did not wake the boys for this, and perhaps we should have, but we didn't want to have two exhausted kiddos on our hands for the trip back to San Pedro. I think this was the most frustrating aspect of our otherwise wonderful trip to Punta Gorda--all of the settlement day activities were either late in the evening or super early in the morning, so we missed most of them. I understand that the events are for the Garifuna, and not for us, but it sure would be nice if some of the events were better publicized and perhaps scheduled in a way that would make it easier for families with youngish kids to attend.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Punta Gorda for a visit, but be prepared for an adventure!

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