By Nick Foster
Edited by Naturalight Productions Ltd.
NB: Remember to click on the links in the article to see all the images.
A middle-aged, relatively affluent American couple walks the main street corridor of the seaside village of Seine Bight. With raised eyebrows, the woman says: "Look, they live in shacks."
Most of the homes in Seine Bight do resemble shacks. Many are crudely constructed out of salvaged lumber and rusty, corrugated zinc. Out of these small houses, children appear everywhere, seemingly overflowing from the cracks in the makeshift siding. The woman's eyebrows rise higher at the sight of the youth, and the corners of her mouth widen into a smile. "Hi!" she waves, responding to the barefoot toddlers who pause from running around a sandlot to wave first.
The woman's smile sticks. The man also grins.
The tourists' opinion of this small community on the Placencia Peninsula of Southern Belize changes during their walk through the heart of town. Their first reaction is sorrow - pity for what they call the "poor" people of the village. But a few minutes and half a mile later, they agree that "poor" is a relative word, purely subjective. "They've really got all they need," the woman says.
"I could live here," the man says, nodding his head in agreement.
A cool breeze blows from the Caribbean Sea across the village to the lagoon on the other side of the peninsula. The village is little more than a mile long and is less than a mile wide with water flanking both east and west. Fewer than 1,000 people live there. It's too cool this December day for any of them to be swimming. For many Belizeans, a temperature below 75 degrees is "sweater weather." The adults must be huddled inside their board houses, because not many are out and about. Perhaps they are outside, out to sea or in the lagoon, fishing from dories, as their ancestors have done since they first settled in Seine Bight 1869.
Seine Bight is a Garifuna community, one of just a handful of communities found nowhere else in the world but the Caribbean shores of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The Garifuna are descendants of St. Vincent Island, where indigenous Carib Indians from South America mixed with African slaves who escaped a sinking ship around 1635. These two races merged, blending language and culture into something entirely new - Garifuna. As the Garinagu (plural of Garifuna) continued to resist British imperialism, they were eventually exiled from St. Vincent, and the first Garinagu arrived in Belize in 1802. The early Garinagu of Seine Bight were fishermen who named their village after their favorite tackle, a large fishing net called a "seine." "Bight" is a word used for a depression in the coastline.
It must be a good day for fishing, for the village remains deserted except for the numerous groups of barefoot children playing games. A cluster of squealing young boys and girls chase a football on a rough patch of concrete. Two even younger girls with braided hair stop and stare at the uncommon sight of white people walking in their village. (On the contrary, it is common to see white people/tourists in air conditioned vans, taxis, and tour buses just passing through on their way to the more upscale resorts of Placencia Village to the south.) The couple continues to observe the sights, smiles unwavering. The man decides he wants to buy some candy to share with the children. He goes into the only well-marked grocery store and buys Starburst candy.
The couple reaches the south end of town just past the overgrown grass of the municipal football field and turns around. The man chews a piece of candy while he holds out the tubular wrapper, thumbing individual candies to the eager, outstretched arms of the youth. Their smiles are even wider the second time around, flashing teeth at the sight of the sweets. The man is clearly enjoying himself with this uncommon tourist experience away from the typical glitz, glamour and gift shops.
"They are so happy," the woman says. "Just look at them."
The couple walks back to the Nautical Inn, one of the few accommodations in Seine Bight. That evening they are treated to a show of traditional Garifuna drumming and dance. After the music, the couple again talks about their day. They admit they were in fact surprised to see such happy faces in a place that lacked so much - of what they were accustomed to. Instead of seeing people happy or proud of their perfectly manicured lawns or modern architecture, they saw people who were simply happy to be alive.
If the smiles of Seine Bight are not manifestations of happiness, it must be pride. In 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed the Garifuna language, dance and music as one of the "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." The 2001 proclamation was the first of several in years to come to be rewarded to peoples worldwide who "express intangible cultural heritage," according to UNESCO. "This heritage is made up of many and varied complex forms of living manifestations in constant evolution including oral traditions, performing arts, music, festive events, rituals, social practices and knowledge and practices concerning nature."
The Garifuna culture indeed meets the criteria for such an honor. Their "knowledge and practices concerning nature" is wrapped tightly in their fishing nets. Also, the vibrant language, rituals and traditions are uniquely their own. One such ritual practiced by the Garinagu is the dŁgŁ which summons ancestral spirits to bring peace and prosperity to their communities. At the time, the couple was not aware that Seine Bight is one of very few places in the world where traditional music and dance can be experienced. Only six communities in Belize are of Garifuna majority, there are fewer than forty in Honduras, just one in Guatemala, and three in Nicaragua.
The couple stood along with the other resort guests and applauded the Garifuna dancers. They resumed their conversation of how good life must be in a small village by the sea.
"Just look at that," the man said, pointing a finger past a coconut palm at the view of the sea. "It doesn't get much better than that. This is the life."
"This is the life." The man's statement is testament to why millions of people vacation in Belize: to reach a state of comfort they deem the life. They come to see something new, to "get away from it all."
"Get away from it all" - another popular rationalization for vacation. People come to the beaches of Belize to relax, to live a simple life, even if only for a couple of days. The people of Seine Bight differ from popular American or European culture in that they relax and live the simple life every day. Comparatively, it's like they're on a permanent vacation. How could there be any wonder why everyone seems so happy?
Earlier in the day, the aforementioned couple concluded that "poor" is a relative word that does not so much pertain to Seine Bight. At the end of their day, rather, they found the opposite word more applicable to the fishing village - "rich." UNESCO also used the word "rich" to describe the Garinagu. But their proclamation of the Garifuna culture as a "Masterpiece," is also justified by the fact that their richness is at risk.
Schools opt to teach the colonial language, history and traditions, rather than Garifuna. Also, developers see richness, but most evidently in the monetary value of the coastal property of the Garifuna villages. This is particularly true in Seine Bight, where new resorts are popping up quickly on the peninsula, north and south of the village.
The man and woman in this story knew from the first sight of Seine Bight that they were not going to have a routine vacation. It would be unique. But the possibility for future vacationers to have a similarly out-of-the-ordinary experience depends on the people of the Placencia Peninsula who will most likely decide which richness is more valuable: money or cultural heritage.
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography