Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cruise Journal: 12/13/2007

Things I Learned about Belize

Our guide for the bus ride and Mayan ruins was named Ken. He was amazing. He talked the whole time about history and culture and current events, Belizean government, celebrities, just about tons of stuff.

Belize’s major exports were indigo wood for dye and mahogany. There aren’t many mahogany trees left in Belize. Today their biggest exports are citrus concentrate and… rum or sugar cane. I can’t remember which, but the Traders rum apparently won in some major taste test recently.

There are several theories for the origin of the country name. A Scottish pirate named Wallace founded a settlement on the river, and Belize may be a bastardization of the name Wallace. The Mayan word belix (pronounced bellish) means land of murky or muddy water. The Mayan words bel itsa means land of enchanted water. Belize has also been known as British Honduras and the Mosquito Coast.

Belize has actually set up a trust fund for environmental preservation. It’s called PACT. It’s pretty cool, actually. I’ve linked it, so you should check it out.

Cashews have an interesting story. They are a seed that grows on the outside of a fruit. The fruit is edible and they make it into wine. The seed is, of course, edible. The pod that holds the seed, however, contains a powerful irritant. It will burn your skin if touched, and when they roast the fruits to harvest the cashews, they wrap wet towels around their mouths to avoid the smoke, which is as bad as tear gas. The oil they extract from the pod is used to make paint thinner. They have a legend that the devil made the cashew to prove he was as good at making things as God. And he meant to use it to poison God, but he was in such haste to finish that he forgot to put the seed in its poisoned pod in the fruit.

The Mayans painted their buildings red on the east side. The east is where the sun rises, and red symbolizes birth and rebirth. They painted the west sides, where the sun set each day, black, the color for death. Green was a color symbolizing life, and the center or heart of the buildings were painted in green.

Stingray barbs have were used for a specific sacrificial ritual. The priest performing the sacrifice used the barbs as anesthetic, then let blood from his foreskin. The giving of blood from the source of life had a strong spiritual significance. The blood would be burned, and as the smoke spiraled up, it was said to become the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl.

The Mayans believed that the first race of people were made from clay. These people could not move, and could not speak, only jabber like animals. The second race was made from wood. They could move stiffly, like a robot, and speak. But they mistreated the animals and were destroyed by fire and flood. Now we’re in the third race. We’re made of corn.

The Kapok tree (I took a picture of one near the reservoir) connects the underworld, this world, and the heavens. The branches form a cross, called the foliated cross by Christian missionaries. Per an old custom, if the tree was covered in thorns, and you hung yourself from it, you’d go straight to heaven. I wonder if this made the crucifixion of Christ seem like a familiar tradition. Material from the trees is now used to make life jackets.

Children of the royal family underwent pretty serious cosmetic surgery throughout their lives. As babies boards were strapped to their heads in order to flatten the forehead. Red beads were fixed between their eyes so that their eyes would focus inward, weakening their muscles and making them cross-eyed. As adults, their teeth would be ground into fangs, and jade and hematite would be inlaid into the enamel. Porcupine quills would be inserted into the cheeks. Fangs and whiskers and flat forehead were all to make the royalty look like jaguars. Lucky folks.

The town names are fascinating. Here are a few with the stories behind them:

  • More Tomorrow – if there wasn’t enough today, there will be more tomorrow
  • Don’t Delay – if you do you’ll get caught in a flash flood
  • Young Gel Run – harks back to the days when European men would kidnap the Mayan women to take as wives, and according to our guide, there are no more young people living in the town, and they joke about changing the name to Old Gel Can’t Run

The first American television channel available in Belize was channel 9, out of Chicago. Incidentally, all the Belizeans are Cub fans.

So anyway, that’s what I learned today. But I didn’t feel so good on the ride back. Go figure, days and days on the boat with only a little motion sickness, then 2 hours in a bus and I feel like crap. The rocking of the tender boat at the pier was actually a welcome feeling. Now I’ve had a cookie and some ginger ale, and I feel a bit better. All in all, today was incredibly fun and educational!

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