Belize is a country of differences, culture, and deep-rooted beliefs that astound even the faintest believers. Arriving in Belize, I was a skeptic on many of the traditions practiced and found myself curious yet non-committal. Our first day consisted of visiting the Belize Zoo, which was an entity in of itself. The animals aren’t given cages that Americans are used to seeing but rather wire wrapped into small squares that encircle their given space. The animals seemed to have all the behaviors recognized in zoo boredom but oddly enough, when viewing them, I seemed to think they were happier than some animals I have seen at American zoos.
I paid money to get the opportunity to feed a jaguar, which was such an extravagant experience but one that I was a little heartbroken about. The jaguar was so tame that it knew how to somersault and would allow multiple humans to pet it. In my opinion, wild animals should be just that, wild and free to roam. We finished our animal experiences at the zoo and headed for our home for the next five days, Crystal Paradise. I was taken aback by the setting in which we were surrounded; the lush landscape, the selfless family, the river that seemed to wander in its glory, and the leaf cutter ants in abundance. I situated myself in my room, one with a loft, and explored the grounds with a wild curiosity that seemingly came out of nowhere. As a group, we made our way down to the river to cool off after a day of traveling and it was an experience that brought everyone together. We bonded as a group and tentatively asked the questions we were dying to know about each other.
The next few days seem to blur together, not because they were boring or not filled with enough activities to make any particular one memorable, but rather because there was so much done in those few days that it literally runs together in my mind. I have to say with brutal honesty that one of my favorite experiences on the trip was the Offering Cave. I’ve never done anything remotely close to that in any way, shape or form. But what truly astounded me in the social psychology aspect was the way in which the group bonded and helped each other through even the hardest moments. We became a unit and acted as such, helping people rappel, carrying someone across a ledge, pushing someone to go even further when they thought they couldn’t give anymore.
Aside from how we acted, the cave itself was something of mysterious wonder. As we reached the sacrifice stone, the presence of those who had passed was almost palpable. We all turned off our headlamps and completely immersed ourselves in darkness. Nothing can truly compare to the silence and calm that ensued, the darkness seemed to lovingly embrace you in the way that only family can do and the quiet was beckoning you to listen closely, as if it had something to say. We all seemed to be completely content in the pit of that cave, as if we had all belonged there. Even as we pushed further into the darkness, we became comfortable with turning our lights off at random just to feel what was so readily available.
We visited many bodies of water such as the Rio Frio Pools, the Five Lady Falls, the Macal River, and the other side of the Gulf of Mexico. What I didn’t expect to happen was the ease in which we were able to navigate through the waters, the way we all wanted to try new things and push ourselves even further out of our comfort zone. We jumped off of 2 story tall cliffs, we scooted down little waterfalls, we climbed higher and higher looking for that new adventure that seemed to greet us at every turn.
What was truly unexpected though was the way in which the culture embraced us. We were tourists, but we were welcome, we were accepted, and we were asked questions. The best example I can give is the home stay. I stayed with the Tzib family that consisted of 11 people in the main house and 5 in the smaller house. What made the experience something I will honestly never forget was they way they conducted their lives, the way they treated me like royalty while maintaining their pride and dignity. What I consider poverty would be a lavish lifestyle for them but they were truly happy in their culture and their town. They chose to live like that because anything more would be wasted.
I know I’ve talked consistently about the family and the experience I had with them but I speak of them so feverishly because I don’t ever want to forget their faces, their characteristics, their family and their absolute kindness in the rawest form. I see them as something of a novelty, a family submerged in a culture that values men, subjugates women, and thrives off of the land but they navigate their lives to accommodate every person’s need, no matter how small.
The matriarch, Christina, was something out of fiction. She truly cared for everyone but herself; watching all of the children while everyone else went away to work, slaving over the kitchen, washing the children, making beds, and laughing at even the most terrible jokes I made. She asked me about my travels and when I returned to ask her, the furthest she had traveled was to the next town over, but she seemed to be completely content with that. I told her about the magic of Ireland, the mystique of Scotland and the beaches in Florida but nothing seemed to impress her. She was impressed by my thoughts about her land, though. She wanted to listen for hours about the way I talked about the ruins and the jungle and all things Belize.
Looking back on the experience, I am thankful. Not only for all of the things I am able to come home to, but also the people I met along the way in this journey called life. I took away so much from the trip as a whole but mostly from little moments along the way that truly made the trip worthwhile; looking out over Guatemala on top of an ancient temple surrounded by howler monkeys, night hikes where I could distinctly see the Milky Way, and the people who participated in this trip with me.
I will always remember my time in Belize to be something of a distant memory, a fast and furious two weeks filled with laughter, bumpy roads, and the most incredible people in a land that knows no bounds. Belize will always be close to my heart forever on.