By Noelle Allen, Agnes Scott College class of 2025
Posted May 3, 2022
While visiting Belize I found that there were words I had no idea how to pronounce, problems I could barely comprehend, and cultural practices I wasn’t completely familiar with. But I learned. I continued learning. And I’m still learning today.
Our visit to the Green Iguana Conservation Center in San Ignacio got me to thinking about how we impose our own cultural assumptions on other countries and cultures. There are so many people around the world that have no idea about how this species of iguana is endangered, and the brutality that these creatures face when being killed for food. And I assumed that if a popular animal advocacy organization got wind of the work that this Iguana Center was doing, it would be trending on social media and the killing would stop. But later I realized that I was thinking like an American within a country that follows different cultural practices. I understood that I had no right to judge the events taking place in a country where I had no residency.
These countries are able to handle their own problems without the judgeful eyes of the rest of the world. In fact, it’s even more frustrating when you include the context of imperialist powers (first Spain, then Britain) inhabiting and destabilizing developing countries like Belize, only to leave the citizens to pick up the pieces after westerners have milked all of the resources from them. Which makes the fierce pride of minority cultures like the Garifuna and Maya all the more impressive.
This brings me to reflect on the multiple identities and cultures of Belize during peak week. I loved being immersed in the culture of Belize, and especially through trying the different foods that the country had to offer (none of us ate iguana!). It was so disheartening to hear that Aurora Saqui, a traditional healer who lives in the village of Maya Center, is often wary of sharing traditional Mayan foods with tourists and travelers because she is not confident that they will like the food. This was especially saddening because the food is wonderful.
Something I found interesting was the way that the Garifuna and Mayan communities in Belize are intertwined, and how different their attitudes are from citizens of western countries. Uwahnie Martinez of the Palmento Grove Garifuna Eco Cultural Center And Fishing Lodge and Ms. Saqui placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that even if you have no money in Belize you aren’t necessarily poor because you have your community to support you. Within Garifuna culture this includes having many aunties and uncles who aren’t technically related to you, but have just as much authority over you as your parents. Within the Mayan culture, it includes having a community to support you and help you build a house. This is in sharp contrast to the American ethos of radical individualism. One of Uwahnie Martinez’s explanations of the Garifuna communal spirit that stood out to me in this regard: “I for you, and you for me.”
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We were so fortunate to travel this spring. Our trips did not get canceled because of Covid and I ended up having an amazing time. We visited intricate cave systems, dined on the beach almost every night, and swam in a beautiful water hole (St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park). During much of the trip I was in disbelief that I actually made it to Belize, but after looking up at the stars on the beach and seeing them shine brighter than they ever do in the polluted cities of America, I felt at peace. One of the best aspects of the trip was dancing on the beach with everyone in my class while Garifuna drummers played punta music (and often joined in the dancing). It was a breathtaking six-day adventure and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
The icing on the cake was traveling with an amazing group of people who were just as interested as I am in learning about different cultures around the world. This made the adventure all the better.