Central America

Awakening in Belize

By Miranda Hodgson Weed, Agnes Scott College class of 2025
Posted May 3, 2022

According to the World Tourism Organization (UNTWO), there were a record 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals to foreign countries in 2018. Of this number, how many are ethical travelers? When American citizens travel to Belize, for instance, how likely are they to research the history of Belize? How likely are they to learn about the indigenous people and their cultures? How likely are they to immerse themselves in local life?

I am grateful to have traveled for the very first time outside of the country with Agnes Scott College. I was, thankfully, required to talk about ethical traveling before flying out of the country, and I was required to engage in the ethics of travel throughout my whole trip. When we arrived in Belize, my class continued to be engaged and hands-on with the Garifuna people, partaking in their culture and always keeping an open mind when learning about their history from Garifuna activist Uwahnie Martinez. Speaking of hands-on, we worked for our lunch, learning how to husk and grate coconut and prepare Hudutu fish stew (see below).

coconut grating
Grating coconut for Hudutu at the Palmento Center, March 9 2022 (photo by James Diedrick)

Another group of people we learned from were the indigenous Mayans. I am so grateful that both groups allowed us to engage and participate in both their history and culture, whether through the process of cassava bread making with the Garifuna family that operates Sabal’s Cassava Farm, walking through the “medicine cabinet” jungle with Mayan healer Aurora Garcia Saqui, or simply eating the food of both groups. We also immersed ourselves in the everyday life of Belizeans as best we could, walking and talking with them and dining at Belizean-owned restaurants. 

Another important aspect of traveling ethically is understanding the fact that tourists can try to do everything right and perform actions as respectfully as possible, while still partaking in an experience that harms the environment and country. Case in point: during our time in country we rode in a large, air conditioned tour bus that had a large carbon footprint.

These thoughts might make a lot of travelers wonder: do the pros outweigh these cons? Traveling helps individuals better understand their own identities and opens their minds to new perspectives and possibilities–especially when an immigrant individual that lives in America travels back to their home country. 

Belize is the closest I have ever been to my home country, Nicaragua, and I loved imagining myself eating the same stew chicken, rice, beans and plantain there as I did in Belize. While immersed in Belizean culture, I found myself reflecting on what life would be like in Nicaragua as well since the countries are close neighbors–so close that I could almost see it while standing atop the grand Maya temple at Xunantunich. I realized that much of what we were learning, eating, and experiencing with all of our senses were things I remember my grandmother in Nicaragua telling me about. 

She told me that life in Central America is very different from America (less affluent and consumerist) and how although it might not seem like much to us, the people have everything they need and are for the most part happy. I could see that this was true just by the way the Garifuna in Belize dance–how they sway their hips to the rhythm of the drums and how their feet glide across sand like it is silk. 

I also recall my grandmother telling me about the Garifuna people and how smart they are–how they have mastered multiple languages and also have distinct ways of communicating with each other (males use one dialect, females another). It was not until I actually met Garifuna people that I understood the extent of their language mastery. 

Through this Journeys class I had hoped to learn more about myself and understand the importance of ancestry and where you come from–this is a lesson I will now never forget about as long as I live. Being away from America, being in Central America, was like taking in a breath of fresh air. I felt far away from the smog of Atlanta, far away from traditional classrooms, far away from a life of always go-go-go. That is not to say Belize does not have their problems–they are still dealing with neocolonialism, still dealing with the legacy of British occupation, and they face serious economic challenges. 

Despite this, Belize sings a different song than America ever has. I can not wait to take another journey back to Belize. And now more than ever I cannot wait to finally travel to Nicaragua too.