[Editor’s Note: Megan Wood is the first writer-in-residence to participate in the Road Warrior program, a partnership between MatadorU and the Belize Tourism Board. Megan is spending the spring in Belize, documenting traditions of the country’s diverse cultural groups. Each week, she reports on her experiences for Matador, her personal blog, and for other outlets.]
I SIT IN A FOLDING CHAIR, bare feet folded underneath me.
The cement walls are still warm from the day’s heat. Children run in and out of the room, full of excited energy, but subdued, sensing that tonight is special. Four men are lined up behind a marimba, a traditional xylophone-like instrument made completely by hand out of resources from the rain forest. Three generations of musicians who have never read a musical note strike the keys without hesitation, playing each note in harmony.
Miss Jeni stands up and shyly begins to dance the dance she learned as a child. She lifts her long skirt, just slightly, so I can see her feet as they shuffle across the floor. Her face is smiling, but without turning up the corners of her mouth. Her husband joins her. His hands stay at his sides; they circle each other, not quickly, but smoothly. Their eight children settle in with their grandma to watch the couple dance and listen to the music of their ancestors.
I’m too lost in the scene in front of me to pick up my camera or my notebook. I simply immerse myself in the culture I knew nothing about before I arrived in the Kekchi village of San Antonio two days ago.
The Kekchi Mayans in this village came to Belize in the late 1800s to escape forced labor in Guatemala. They brought their lifestyle with them: the Kekchi language, marimba music, knowledge of natural medicine, and ancient myths and stories about creation, cacao, and family.
Today, as Mayan traditions, culture, and language fade with each generation, some elders are doing what they can to preserve it. Traditional oral stories intended to pass lessons from one generation to the next have been written down for the first time. Women are insisting their daughters learn the art of weaving jippy jappy baskets. And men are teaching their sons the tradition of marimba music.
The streets of San Antonio are quiet, few cars, mostly bikes. Early in the morning, men walk out to the bush, machetes in hand, rubber foots on their feet, to tend to their cacao orchards. Women stay home, wearing simple homemade dresses in bright colors. They grind corn to make tortillas and collect plants to weave baskets.
There is graffiti on some abandoned buildings, advertising The Crips. Miss Jeni advises me to never leave anything valuable in the guesthouse. When Miss Remalda shows me how to roast cacao beans, she complains that her daughters-in-law would rather buy instant coffee than do the work themselves.
Electricity has not reached parts of the village, and a single candle lights the dance floor. The sounds of marimba music fill the room and the street outside. I sit, mesmerized, when the front door swings open aggressively and a drunk man stumbles in, uninvited. The marimba players don’t miss a beat; Miss Jeni’s oldest son springs from his seat on the floor and escorts the intruder back outside. I hear a scuffle in the yard. The son returns.
Miss Jeni walks back onto the dance floor and continues her dance in the dark.