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Fyllis: Belize
Belize: A Central American Country that Doubles as a Caribbean Island
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block

he large thatched-roof, sand-carpeted temple was barren except for the obviously ill child curled up in the single cot by the wall. An old woman could be heard chanting from within her sacred chamber, candlelight flickering around the corners of the sheet separating her from the long hall. Her healing incantations, I later discovered, were addressed to the spirits who may have had reasons of their own to inflict the child.

Garifuna healer praying at the alter in her temple

Belize, an increasingly popular U.S. travel destination that is part Central American country, part Caribbean island, is home to a fairly large Garifuna population. Garifuna, you say? Never heard of them. Part of the melting pot civilization which comprises Belize, the Garifuna share the land with Creole, Mayan, Spanish, Mennonite, Chinese and other neighbors but their language, customs, foods and religion are unique.

An amalgam of the Carib and Arawak Indians who first migrated to the Caribbean and later intermarried with West African slaves who escaped to St. Vincent in the 1600s, the Garifuna have a colorful history combating the British before settling in Honduras and British Honduras (now Belize) in 1832.

Although there are about 7000 Garifuna currently in the country, the spiritual population is a lot larger. “Our ancestors are all about us,” explains Lawrence Casimiro, our guide through the village of Hopkins. “Just as we must eat and drink to live, so must they be nourished as well.” This is something the ancestors take very seriously.

If they perceive they are being neglected, the dead return, most often through dreams, to remind the living that they are in need of nourishment. If this message goes unheeded, the spirit may get angry and make a family member sick –- often with an illness that defies modern medicine. The ancestors do not take kindly to being forgotten.

In the town of Seine Bight, the task of healing falls to 78-year-old Erdangela Polonio, the chanting woman behind the curtain. As the village Buyei, or healer, she has been appointed by the spirits to carry forth the practices and ceremonies that hopefully will appease the ancestors and restore health to the afflicted. This is no simple task. The ancestors are not easily appeased.

Garifuna healer in her sacred chamber, Belize

The Buyei knows whether the illness is of the spirit world or the modern one, and if caused by an ancestor, what he or she wants. This knowledge comes at a price but not a high one. When I asked what happens if the ailing can’t afford the costs of healing, she replies that any kind of offering would do. She illustrates by holding up a candle, a plantain, and finally a bottle of light-colored liquid: “The spirits love rum,” she declares, with no hint of irony in her smile.

In any case, a Dugu must be held, and that takes some advanced planning. Before this ceremony, which will last several days and bring together an extended family from miles around, much must be done. The family brings more offerings to the temple, such as chicken, coconuts and cassava bread, staples of the Garifuna diet.

restaurant menu offering traditional Garifuna dishes

The Buyei organizes the gifts, administers healing herb baths to the sick, and prays over candles to chase away evil. Fishing trips are made to provide the spirits with their favorite catch; pigs are raised to supply the meat served during the celebration and special foods consumed by the deceased over his lifetime are prepared.

But the Dugu is where it all happens. This is where the ancestors will accept or reject the many attempts to appease them. Food and drink, always appealing to guests of whatever world, are in abundance. There is non-stop singing, drumming and dancing –- all of which, including the specially made drums, are uniquely Garifuna. The music is so emotionally driven, so physically pervasive, so demanding of appreciation that if I were a dead ancestor, I would not be able to resist making an appearance.

Garifuna drum maker

And it is not unusual for the spirits to do so, often through the body of one of the guests. Call it “possessed,” “speaking in tongues,” or just an expression of vivid imagination, the “chosen” person is thus revealed, to then be approached by other relatives asking questions of the “visitor” -- and apparently often receiving answers.

There is a strong emphasis on having fun, entertaining the spirits -– as well as imbibing them -- and promoting peace and harmony among the family members. The ancestors, who are very social, don’t take kindly to dissension.

Santos Gonzales, a Hopkins resident, told me how skeptical he had been of such primitive beliefs -– until his 10-year-old son contracted a serious skin condition that defied modern remedies. His sister-in-law talked him into calling for a Dugu on the premise of what he described as “what-have-you-got-to-lose logic.” His son was cured, and now 24, hasn’t been sick since. He became a believer.

The problem with developing nations is keeping them from becoming over-developed and just as Belize is dealing with that as a country, so are the Garifuna struggling to preserve their customs and lifestyle. Their culture, like all unique cultures worldwide, is being eroded by westernization in the form of media bombardment, inter-marriage and yes, supermarkets which discourage the labor-intensive preparation of native foods. There are efforts underway to preserve their dances, music and spirituality as well as retrieve what’s lost. The language, existing only in spoken form up until recently, is now being recorded into dictionaries and books.

“We welcome visitors with an open heart,” assures Lawrence, “but don’t try to change us. Our music, language, beliefs –- we don’t want to lose them to an encroaching world.”

Still, he does recognize some of the drawbacks of living within such a close-knit community. Caught walking hand-in-hand with a new girlfriend, he was admonished by his mother to stop dating her. “She’s your cousin,” she explained. When the same scenario occurred again, he lamented, “Everyone’s my cousin!”

Which becomes even truer every November 19th when many in Belize become Garifuna for a day during the weekend-long celebration of Settlement Day, a re-creation of the arrival of these unique people to Belize in 1832. They have survived and thrived since –- a tribute to their enduring customs and culture little known beyond the borders of Central America. For more information call the Belize Tourism Board at (800) 624-0686 or log onto

Related Articles:
Amazon Tour, Ecuador; Amazon Jungle ; Costa Rica Adventure; Dominica; Playa del Carmen; Aruba; Cozumel, Mexico

(Posted 11-10-2011)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

Ed Boitano's travel blog/review
Three Musical Pilgrimages: Mozart, Grieg and Hendrix

Troldhaugen Villa in Bergen, Norway
Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) could read and compose music, plus play the violin and piano, when he was five years old. Born into a musical family in Salzburg, Austria (then the Holy Roman Empire), he had a unique ability for imitating music, which first became evident when he recited a musical piece by simply observing his father conducting a lesson to his older sister. This led to a childhood on the road, where the young prodigy performed before many of the royal courts of Europe.

Go There

Tom Weber's travel blog/review
Treasures of Ireland: The Irish Goodbye (Dispatch #20)

Irish sunset

The Palladian Traveler brings to a close his 20-part series on the Emerald Isle from an upscale restaurant in downtown Dublin where he files his final dispatch and then quietly slips away.

Go There

John Clayton's travel blog/review
Two "MUST SEE" Truly Spectacular Places in Europe. Here's Why.

Culzean Castle, Scotland
The Han Grotto and Culzean Castle. As the name of my Traveling Boy feature is "Travel With a Difference," it's important to me to always bring you offbeat and unusual tourist places around the world you may not know about. These two fit that category to a T, and they're absolutely worth a visit. One's in Scotland and one's in Belgium. Culzean (pronounced CULLANE) Castle is located near Maybole, Carrick, on the Ayrshire coast of Scotland.

go there

Ringo Boitano's travel blog/review
Highway 49 Revisited: Exploring California's Gold Country

aurora borealis lights up the night sky near Fairbanks
In the 1840s, the population of California was only 14,000, but by 1850 more than 100,000 settlers and adventurers had arrived from all over the world – and they came for one reason: gold. James Marshall had discovered the first gold nugget at Sutter’s Mill in El Dorado County, creating the largest gold rush in history.

go there

Eric Anderson's travel blog/review
Lake Charles’ Family-Size Low-Key Mardi Gras

dressed-up for the Mardi Gras
The Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras in Lake Charles, the second largest in Louisiana, does not need parents there to avert their children’s eyes. This is family entertainment and children are very much part of it. The main office of the Lake Charles CVB has costumes from last year’s Mardi Gras but it also has figures to fascinate little ones from country boys fishing for their dinner to alligators who have already fed and are rubbing their stomachs.

go there

Fyllis Hockman's travel blog/review
Puerto Vallarta: Magic and Mayhem on the Malecon

Cedar Hill, Washington DC
So I heard that you could spend from dawn to dusk on the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and never get bored and I thought, "Okay, I'm up for that challenge." Well, maybe not the dawn part – I'm not a morning person – so I had no problem leaving those early hours to the joggers and those seeking an early start to catch their red snapper for dinner.

Go There

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