Central America, 1956
The Heron H gently swayed against the jetty. I peered out of the porthole and surveyed the scene before me. Mangrove swamp, unpainted wooden shacks, scrap iron and offensive-smelling inky-black water surrounded me on all sides.
So, this was Belize, the capital of British Honduras. The past few weeks, I had trekked through the northern deserts and tropical banana lands of vibrant Mexico and sleepy Guatemala, always travelling third class in primitive and painfully slow trains. My heart thumped and I became excited, for once again I was entering a new land. I mentally prepared myself for new adventures and whatever lay ahead.
Dawn had broken as I struggled with carrying my backpack down the potholed North Front Street. Tall grass grew in profusion along the sides of the road. Shiny American automobiles were parked bumper to bumper all about. It must be a prosperous town, I thought.
I crossed the Swing Bridge, a very modern bridge, operated by hand, which let mahogany-laden barges, towed by tiny ‘puff-puff’ boats struggle their way to waiting large freighters in the harbour.
Until I stopped an old man on East Canal Street and queried the whereabouts of the public toilets, the canals had made me think of Venice.
The old man pointed to an evil-looking corrugated iron shed, overhanging the canal, beneath which shoals of ugly-looking fish were making a deafening roar as they thrashed about, savaging whatever presented itself. Never in all my travels had I seen such a system of sewerage that was so primitive and inadequate, especially in a British territory.
I found the Belizians shy and difficult to approach at first. I think this was due to the long British influence. However, once I overcame this, I was overwhelmed with their friendliness. The pretty girls of Belize were always ready to cast a smile, or to stop and talk to a stranger in their midst. Most of the girls were very smartly dressed. I thought they must go without many meals in order to do this, judging by their low wages.
Strolling into the well-conducted, if dirty, market one day during the week. I got into conversation with a stall proprietor and, as everywhere in Belize, he talked politics. I asked him what was the solution to the chronic unemployment problem in the colony.
“Throw out the English! We need independence! And then let the Americans pour money in here to start industry.”
This answer was typical of many persons I asked the same question..
I attended a political meeting. The speaker was very clear, sharp and hard-hitting, but he appeared to use Goebel’s tactics: tell a lie often and long enough to the masses, and in time they will believe it. The speaker seemed to cause division among the audience and parties represented, and thus weaken their cause.
In British Honduras, it had not been recognised that it is no use bickering and quarrelling amongst yourselves. They had much to learn!
Nearly everybody I came across wants to travel or migrate to the United States. Some do go, entering through the ‘backdoor’ and return wealthy. Others get caught, are deported back to Belize and sit around, spinning stories of their experiences and magical lifestyle, and dream of the day they will return.
Another friendly inhabitant of Belize is the determined housefly. They were so popular that I fear unscrupulous persons breed them in some dark vault in order to drive out the English.
Not so numerous as the housefly and scattered like needles in a haystack are the English people – not the ones born here, but the ones from ‘home’. Like vultures in the sky, they perch in beautiful homes, only concerned with pounds, shillings and pence, patiently waiting, and always ready to seize and plunder should the opportunity occur, and forever dreaming of returning ‘home’, with all their loot! “Settle and become Hondurans? No, sir! This is only a colony, for the natives, you know!”
I wondered if the English will ever stop their dreaming. It will have to be soon, for the rest of the world’s peoples are exchanging their dreaming for independence, planning and progress.
The way most businessmen in Belize had started their businesses with only ten dollars caused my utter admiration. In this poverty-stricken country, everybody ekes out an existence, meagre though it be, on the basis of credit. The worker gets credit from the shopkeeper who, in turn, obtains credit from the wholesaler. The strange thing about this system is that it works, even though some poor people never repay the credit.
One night, I entered a saloon I will call for want of a better name ‘The Mexican Bar’. Girls of all colors and nationalities immediately sought my company. I struck up conversation with a couple and gathered that business was bad, but I think they make a better living than most. I advised one beauty to migrate to foreign parts where trade is swifter and more profitable.
She replied, “It’s difficult to leave Belize when one is married!”
Whilst sitting at the bar drinking a cold beer one day, a very attractive young Creole-Indian girl approached me and commenced chatting away. I was asked if I had any knowledge of building renovations. My answer was direct and swift, “I can use a hammer and nails.”
Immediately, she wanted to know if I would join her and journey to a house she owned in the densely timbered interior of British Honduras. Apparently, her home there was in urgent need of repair. Always ready for a new adventure I agreed at once to go with her.
That first evening, I spent the night in her tiny ‘business shack’. This was built on stilts over the sea where she entertained her customers. Wow!
Early next morning, I joined this bubbly and cheerful girl and climbed aboard a bus for a long trip into the interior. The bus stopped every ten minutes or so to collect waiting passengers and was soon packed to capacity. I was the only white person aboard and everybody wanted to know where I was going and what I was doing.
Luckily for me, this Indian girl supplied most of the answers.
It was after dark when we arrived at her home, which was situated in a completely isolated area, with tall trees blanketing the view in every direction. The first appearance was creepy with no lights to be seen anywhere.
I wondered what was I doing here. I was completely cut off from civilisation and nobody I knew had any idea where I was!
The news spread like wildfire that I had arrived! Before long, the house was full of young girls and men of all ages, all eager to meet and chat to me. No white man had ever stayed in this area before. There was no shower, or running water of any kind, and I was forced to have a bath in a giant round galvanised tub. This was in front of everybody, as apparently nobody worried about nudity. So there was I sitting naked in a bowl, whilst one girl after another came along with porcelain jugs of boiling water which they poured over me and into the bowl. These girls giggled and laughed at my predicament and thought it was extremely amusing. I tried to soap myself. This was not allowed, and all the girls took it in turn to lather my back and, after a while, I began to enjoy the situation and made the most of it.
I soon made myself at home and, before long, I was sitting down to a meal that consisted of green bananas boiled for hours on end, together with pieces of meat that looked like rat, but was some kind of flying fox.
The mozzies [mosquitos] hung around in clouds and, although I normally do not get bitten, I was soon scratching and feeling terribly itchy. Next day, my Indian girlfriend showed me how to use a knife to obtain a red sap from a particular variety of tree. Rubbing this onto my bites quickly made the itchiness disappear. There were no toilets of any kind, all calls of nature meant finding a suitable tree and executing one’s most urgent desires. Toilet paper was unknown and I learned to make use of suitable leaves.
I was shown what I was expected to do in the way of renovations. My Indian girlfriend then left me alone and, on my own in the house, and travelled back to the city of Belize.
Over the next few days, I created doors and walls with the barest and most primitive type of implements. Although it was very hot and steamy I toiled away and progress was soon under way.
My meals were prepared by young Indian girls who appeared, almost like clockwork, from the dense jungle, at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had not the faintest idea who, or where they came from. I suspected they were relatives and had been instructed to look after me.
In the evenings, I sat amongst a large number of these Indians as they sang in a very harmonious and melancholy way for hours on end.
Eventually, my girlfriend returned from Belize and was well pleased with my progress. I was taken aback when she threw her arms around my neck and demonstrated her pleasure, and was most affectionate. “Was there anything I needed?” I was asked over and over. To which I replied, “Let us wait and see.”
For me, the whole experience was a novelty, and a new adventure.
However, I finally decided I had better go back to Australia and New Guinea and earn some real money. We discussed things in great detail, and proposed to start a farm of sorts together. I planned on returning and spending my life with her in Central America.
When I was leaving, she cried her eyes out, and begged me to write to her and return. In fact I wrote to her weekly, and over the next few months I sent her many presents.
Not long afterwards, I returned to Belize, and was soon leaving for another central American country: Honduras en route to Panama!
Of course I never did return. The reason being that I had married! I felt very guilty for a long time afterwards and often wondered if I should have gone back to Central America.