As we drove through the beachfront resort community, our guide pointed out all the homes of famous people. These were second (and third) residences that belonged to people who lived elsewhere most of the time. Gesturing to one of them, he told us a little about the famous movie director who owned it. I asked if the local people interacted at all with the owners and he answered, “Oh yes, I used to work for him. A lot of local people work in these homes.”
Each home sat on a manicured lawn; each had a stretch of beach behind it. The neighborhood looked like a scaled down version of any upscale American beachfront community, the parade of homes only briefly interrupted by a shabby but charming little town and a ramshackle “artists’ village.”
From there we took a boat across the bay to the mouth of a little river where we encountered a second village, much smaller than the first. Here, also, the lawns were neatly trimmed, though we got the impression from the fresh clippings that clung to our shoes that this had been done in anticipation of our visit. The local people came out to greet us and spread their handcrafts on tables in hopes of tempting us to buy. Their homes were on stilts, with laundry drying on lines and children running about underneath. Each was brightly painted in a way that might be considered garish in developed communities but was actually quite charming.
The first village had everything it needed, and we passed through unnoticed. This one needed anything we could offer, and so we were welcomed with open arms. I learned that the lady selling conch jewelry and wood carvings was our guide’s first cousin. He didn’t mind telling me that he was related to the whole village. Because these jungle villages had so little access to outside income, many people in the tourist industry were, like him, working to bring money (and sometimes a little business, too) back to these isolated communities.
He was concerned, of course, about his country’s future. Many people, even those living in the tourist towns, had lost any savings they had when Coronavirus shuttered the tourist industry in 2020, and that income has been slow to return. Women were walking for miles to attempt to sell their handcrafts on empty beaches. Tour guides were left with no tourists. Workers across the industry were furloughed with no pay. Guest houses were shut down, and even now only the most well-established had been allowed to reopen.
While ex-pats from wealthier countries had brought an influx in technology and growth to the more upscale resort towns, my guide was concerned that the children in the villages, who struggle already to get an education, would be left behind because they have no access to technology to learn the skills of a changing world. He told me how the children of his village lack books and backpacks; tablet computers were out of the question. He wanted a better education for his children than he had had, but he was not convinced it would be possible.
I do not claim to have answers to the poverty and isolation I witnessed. But those answers are not even mine to give—they will arise from within this community of creative, warm, intelligent, and hard-working people. What is mine is the ability to step outside my comfort zone and recognize the real poverty in which the majority of people in the world still live. What is mine is the strange peace that comes from knowing that all of us are vulnerable human beings together, whether or not we are wealthy enough to polish our frailty until it is barely visible. All of us have hopes and dreams and endure painful obstacles, and we all need one another to help overcome our individual limitations.
A friend texted me while I was traveling and asked, “Do you like Belize?” I replied, “I’m not sure like is the right word, but I appreciate it.” My friend told me I was being cryptic, but that was not my intent. There is little to like when you step off the resort property and see crushing poverty around you, but there is a great deal to appreciate in a people who stand tall, day in and day out, in the face of it. There is little to like about visible desperation, and there is everything to appreciate about a warm, resilient people, who know their roots and pass their community’s story on to their children and grandchildren.
There was construction everywhere we looked, and, God willing, ten years from now the face of Belize will be more developed and stable. Export business is growing, and investment from abroad is evident. Tourism will return. Technology will develop. Belize will take her place among the nations of the world. Nonetheless, while it is dangerously easy to romanticize the poor villages of the jungles, I am thankful for this snapshot in time. I hope the people of the villages never succumb to manicured lawns and high-speed roadways, where it is all too easy to pass through and never stop.