During my time volunteering at the Warasa Garifuna Drum School, I was lucky enough to have landed myself in Punta Gorda during the weekend of the Annual Cacao Festival! Among the plethora of crops grown in the rich soils of Belize, the cacao produced is something to be celebrated. As I write this, I’m even taking a moment now to pause and remember how absolutely incredible the chocolate of Belize tastes! The importance of cacao in Latin America has been evident for hundreds of years, as in fact, the Mayan people had cultivated and used it for sustenance, trade and even currency. At this festival, various artisans, chocolatiers, food vendors and businesses in the realm of tourism come to set up their information booths and to sell their products, similar to any other festival. Frankly, my enthusiasm for the chocolate tasting and chocolate wine was entirely more than enough to get me excited…little did I know how much more this festival would really blow my mind!
Friday evening marked the opening night for the festival downtown at the marina after dusk. Various tents were set up with wine tasting and chocolate tasting. A very large band of probably about ten musicians were there to entertain everyone because naturally, after a few glasses of wine and a chocolate binge, it’s time to party! The tents were decorated with gorgeous tropical floral arrangements (Hello wedding planning inspiration!) and chocolates were carefully strewn across tables by each cacao farm or chocolate maker. On that night, it was time to let loose and enjoy good music, decadent tastes of Belize, and good company- this time, lucky for me, not referring to scorpions, land crabs, mosquitos or any reptilian friends…. time to enjoy the finer things in life! Some women were wearing makeup, many were wearing fancy costume jewelry- the kind your or I might wear in a wedding…I was just trying not to have sweat rolling down my face in the heat of the jungle- cheers to the Belizean ladies for having the finesse of remaining elegant in such suffocating heat and humidity!
Saturday was a day of major revelation, where I came to see the immense beauty of Belize as a country, and Punta Gorda as a village. A gathering of locals, near and far, as well as a sprinkling of tourists, made for an invaluable experience. After almost a week of culture shock and trying to grasp what exactly was going on around me, it really all came together Saturday, where I had the privilege to witness and fall in love with the incredible diversity and beauty of the Belizean people. The majority of the locals come from cultures that I had no interaction with before- Garifuna, Creole and Mayan people. While Punta Gorda is one of the poorest places I have ever been economically, it is hands down, one of the richest places in culture and life that I have ever been to. The Garifuna and Creole cultures are indeed centered in their heritage and they connect with and stay grounded to their roots through drumming. After hundreds of years, these people have maintained and preserved their cultures through music, despite the constant whirlwind of change around them as time moves forward. A plethora of creative handicrafts at vendor stands were on display to be admired and for sale. Crowds gathered to the stage to watch the Creole and Garifuna drum shows, as well as unforgettable (and comical) watermelon eating and Belizean stout chugging contests. The happiness and tenacity in the spirit of the Belizean people was palpable on this day.
On a crowded chicken bus to a neighboring town for the final leg of the festival, I was packed like a sardine carrying one of Ray’s drums ready for one last hoorah. After a little more shopping, I enjoyed some more Garifuna drumming performed by the family of Ray, the man who I had been living with all this time. There was also traditional Mayan music played by elders and children with instruments made of wood such as the violin, flute, marimba and drum. Traditional dances were performed by a group of high school students, impressively all on stilts (long pieces of wood and duct tape) with homemade costumes depicting the animals and figures sacred to the Mayans. It was beautiful to see the culture being passed on and preserved, across generations.
While I spent my first few days in Belize shocked by what I had gotten myself into, with living accommodations I was not prepared for, it became clear that I had been stripped of everything but what was in my backpack for a reason. With the Belizeans as my role models, it became readily evident that happiness, a fulfilling life and even comfort, were all possible without a “house”, wi-fi, electricity, or cushy beds and pillows. These people never once showed a sadness towards what they did not have, no, that was never even insinuated. Rather, there was a constant sense of pride and gratefulness towards everything God had blessed them with. The joy in the hearts of these people demonstrated daily, and especially during this festival where dancing, singing, eating, socializing and celebrating culture and life were taking place non-stop for three days was so spiritually empowering and uplifting that I had no other option but to completely fall in love with Belize.
This humbling experience brought me to an entirely new version of myself and I will forever be indebted to the gracious, hospitable, loving people of Belize and their beautiful country.