Belize CityBELIZE – MAY 2003
The trip into Central America was perhaps the most official and best protected of all the Wilde tours abroad. Firstly, my son Sean came along as minder and morale booster (at least for some of the time), and secondly, the Belize Government actually welcomed our presence. This unusual state of affairs was due entirely to the fact that back in the 1960s I had been a university pal of two people destined to become the present Belizean Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister. Useful. The old college scarf network had finally synapsed into action and we were booked to perform three shows in Belize City.
2003 May: Monday
After a convoluted journey, involving a flight from London via Mexico City, I met Sean in the resort of Cancun on the Yucatan coast. In 1970, Cancun had consisted of three resident caretakers who looked after a small coconut plantation. It was now a sprawling city of stately pleasure domes hugging the Caribbean.
After a drunken night at the house of Sean’s friend Kerry, who had landed herself a job in the booming tourist trade, we boarded a modern coach for the journey south past the even newer resorts of Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
The countryside consisted of light tropical jungle, which made the choice of film on the coach video a bit disorientating. It was ‘Last Orders’, a Michael Caine movie about four Cockneys travelling from Lambeth in London to Margate in Kent.
As we alighted in the border town of Chetumal, leaving the luxury of the coach air conditioning behind us, the full furnace blast of summer in Southern Mexico struck home. It was hot. Damned hot. After clearing customs, we boarded a Belizean coach for the rest of the journey. These coaches were in fact very elderly American school buses that had somehow ended up in Belize. The air-conditioning here consisted of the vehicle having no glass in the windows.
The first surprise about Belize was the sheer rapidity of the change from Spanish-Mexican culture to black Caribbean. It was the only country in Central America to use English as its official language, although Spanish had a subsidiary role. Almost the first shop we saw was named ‘Casa Debbie’. Although in the Mayan period, 500 years previously, the area was reckoned to have had a population of over 400,000, this had shrunk to 300,000 leaving Belize the most sparsely inhabited patch of Central America. The country was flat and the road bordered by occasional thatched cabins. Sitting in the back of the bus we bounced our way south through the afternoon.
Belize City, although the main metropolis, had an odd air of impermanence. This, I presumed, had something to do with the series of hurricanes that had hit the city over the years. These had caused so much damage that the official capital had been shifted inland to Belmopan. Most of the buildings had a temporary tin-shack look about them, as if nervous of investing too much architectural expertise in something that could experience a ‘Wizard of Oz’-style debacle at any time. “We’re not in Belize anymore, Toto”.
Although our contact at the lodgings was missing, there was a message awaiting us that, on arrival, we should come immediately to the Princess Hotel. Dumping the luggage, we hailed a taxi. The moment we entered the hotel, our situation underwent a massive shift.
From sweltering in the back of a semi-derelict bus, we were suddenly launched into the cream of Caribbean politics. At the far end of the main hall, I spotted my two alumni friends Assad and Said, now respectively the roving Ambassador (to the UN, Britain, the EU, and Cuba) and the Prime Minister, standing to attention as the National Anthem rang out through the lobby.
Beside them on the dais, were another two Caribbean stars, Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, and Emory King. Sir Sonny Ramphal was a renowned politician and diplomat who had spent 15 years as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth during the dramatic period leading to the end of South African apartheid. Emory King was a well-known writer and historian. Although born in Florida, in 1953 he had been aboard a yacht that was shipwrecked off the coast of Belize. Having survived, King decided to stay on to become a mainstay of Belizean cultural life.
It turned out that the reason for this gathering was the National Awards Ceremony, an evening dedicated to honouring friends of Belize. I was amazed to see yet another old university comrade, the scholar and historian Nigel Boland, appear on stage to receive his accolade. The last time I had seen him had been thirty five years previously when we had set fire to a college hall of residence piano after imbibing three bottles of rum.
That memory rather set the pattern of the reception later that evening. Standing beside the hotel swimming pool and listening to the insistent rhythms of a steel band, I chatted to these highly respected pillars of the international community, now loaded with honours and achievements – the Right Honourable Prime Minister, His Excellency the High Commissioner, and the professorial sage of the Ivy League universities. And all I could see were Said, Sid and Nigel, three fellow reprobates and companions of a dozen mad escapades best left unreported.
Sean and I left by taxi at 11pm and headed back to the building that was to be the base for the whole trip. The Prime Minister’s son Yasser ran an arts centre called the Image Factory, soon to be one of my venues, and he had lent us the attached flat for the duration. The downside of this arrangement was that the Image Factory was situated on a street known locally as ‘Murder Mile’. The murder rate in Belize is around 45 to every 100,000 inhabitants, making it the sixth most dangerous country in the world. Many of these homicides took place within a radius of about two miles of our new residence.
Bearing this in mind we waved off the taxi as it disappeared down the deserted street. Then we tried to open the front door. Unfortunately, Yasser had given us a bunch of unidentified keys and the lock was decidedly stiff. Frantically, I tested each one as Sean peered worriedly into the darkness around us. Time passed as I swore and discarded key after key. Every sound increased the paranoia. The sudden bark of a dog had us whipping round into defence mode. After twenty minutes, the lock creaked and the door opened. We were home.
2003 May: Tuesday
It was hot and humid when we strolled out next morning. The Image Factory was situated on the shore of Haulover Creek, the main, if narrow, waterway of Belize City. It was only one hundred yards from the Swing Bridge, the central crossing point over the water, and about two hundred yards to where the river widened out to the sea. Small craft lined the banks, while the occasional fishing boat chugged its way back to moor in the creek. A tall policeman, armed with a whistle, stood on the bridge, directing the trickle of traffic from north to south. The slightest hold up on his part was greeted by a chorus of indignant car horns. It reminded me of one of Assad’s stories of his Belizean childhood – the local cinema commissionaire used to keep the queues in order with a bullwhip.
An elderly beggar sat near the corner of the bridge: he used a technique that I hadn’t encountered before. After ascertaining that we came from Britain, he launched into a list of ‘Ten Things That Britain Has Given The World’; Shakespeare, the language, the Beatles, etc. It was a beguiling method of extracting donations. On the return journey, we overheard him with another tourist giving his list of ‘Ten Things That Costa Rica Has Given The World’. Tricky, but he made it.
We collected a large drum of drinking water and some food from the ‘Mall’, a functional building housing small retail units, pungent with the smell of Caribbean fruit and vegetables, then retired to the flat for rehearsal.
Back at the Princess Hotel that evening, we were accosted in the seafront bar by a small black man wearing large spectacles and a straw hat. He introduced himself as ‘Leroy! The Grandmaster!’ Leroy was interesting. As a result of an earlier career of stealing cars and drug dealing, he had done time in the city prison (known as the ‘Rasta Ramada’). Now a reformed character and a follower of the Rasta faith, he had become a dub poet with an arts programme on the local radio. He showed me some of his work, particularly a poem on the nature of time: ‘Time don’t have time for time’, etc. Through the drifting marijuana haze that pervaded the beach front, it seemed to make a lot of sense.
Later we drank with a male psychiatric nurse now based in Los Angeles and part of the numerous Belizean diaspora that depended upon jobs in the USA. While we listened to the background karaoke music, he related some stories about his psychiatric patients, one of whom had poisoned an entire dinner party, and another who had micro-waved a baby to death.
“It’s a crazee job in a crazee town in a crazee country, man.”
2003 May: Wednesday
By noon, I had lost my two main back-ups. Assad called in to tell me that he had to leave for Cuba where, in his role of roving Foreign Minister, he was due to have talks with Fidel Castro. As one does.
Then Sean set off for Guatemala to continue his trek through Central America.
In exchange, Yasser arrived with a new assistant called Tyrone. Tyrone was a tall, gangly fifteen-year-old boy who seemed to be constantly on the verge of exploding with enthusiasm. Although his knowledge of theatre and stage work proved to be absolutely zero, he was greatly valuable as my minder. He had been brought up on the streets of the city, knew all the cut-throats and gangs, and had enough clout with them to gain safe passage. Several times I noticed shifty looking characters and small groups stiffen into alertness on spotting my obviously foreign appearance, then relaxing back after a shout or wave from Tyrone. Over the next few days, he probably saved my life.
Tyrone looked classically black Caribbean. This was only unusual because of the extraordinary racial mix of Belize. There had been so much sexual integration in the country that ‘race’ had ceased to have much meaning. Mayans, Spaniards, Africans, British, Arabs, Chinese, – all had contributed to the gene pool. Amongst other anomalies, in the south of the country, the settlement of Scots close to African ex-slaves had produced people with African features but red hair.
I decided to hold an afternoon rehearsal. With an almost continuous heavy rainstorm assaulting the tin roof, I began the laborious task of teaching Tyrone to be a lighting expert, a sound engineer, a stage manager, a box office cashier, and a front of house factotum within the space of an afternoon – as his mother was expecting him home for tea at 6pm. Despite the rain it remained incredibly hot and the only relief came from a large air conditioner suspended above the stage. This did work but when activated the noise was thunderous.
As I gesticulated my way through one Wilde speech, I noticed that outside on the windowsill seven parrots were standing in a row, listening and watching me intently. A sudden thought struck me – suppose these parrots picked up on some of the Wilde quotes and flew off with their newly learned phrases. Would the Belize jungle soon reverberate to squawks of “A handbag!!”
I retired to the flat for the evening and flipped on the TV. The national Belize Channel turned out to consist of a series of still photos with Christmas cracker jokes written on them – this continued for hours. The heat and humidity gathered like a cloud around me. I positioned the two available fans, one directly on my chair, and one beside the kitchen kettle, but still spent the evening miserably oozing sweat. It had not been a good day.
2003 May: Thursday
At 6pm, Yasser drove me to his parents’ house in the north of the city. The Prime Minister and his charming English born wife Joan invited me in for a cup of tea. We sat in their comfortably furnished bungalow and reminisced about old university times. Said also told me some of the stories about the birth of the new country.
One of their jobs had involved the choice of new symbols for the nation. After much consultation, they decided that the ‘National Flower’ should be the exceedingly rare black orchid (found only in the furthest reaches of the jungle), and for the ‘National Animal’ they picked the tapir. On hearing this, a critic commented that they had managed to choose a flower that nobody could find, and, outside of the cockroach, the ugliest animal in the world.
Our meeting was short as I was due to give the first performance at 8 30pm. This was at the Mexican Cultural Institute, a smart modern venue with mercifully efficient air conditioning. The audience was about fifty strong and mainly Mexican; luckily they seemed to have an excellent grasp of English. The performance was reasonably OK, bar a few memory lapses. But the effect on the audience was electric – three curtain calls and a standing ovation. It was genuinely amazing. As I came offstage, the Mexican Ambassador, grinning broadly, strode up to shake my hand. Others joined him, showering compliments.
Then Tyrone, who’d weathered his baptism of theatrical fire with only about fourteen mistakes, bounded up. He was visibly pulsing with adrenaline due to his association with a hit. He announced loudly to the group: “Soon we will be touring Mexico! Cancun first, then we will go to Vera Cruz, then Tijuana, then Mexico City! We will go everywhere! Everywhere!!”
What the hell? I eyed my assistant warily. It seemed that Tyrone had decided to appoint himself as my manager and agent as well as all his other duties. The Ambassador in particular seemed puzzled as to why a fifteen-year-old street kid should be in charge of operations. I tried to squash expectations as best I could.
Later, having dispatched Tyrone back to his mum, I returned alone to the flat on Murder Mile – another paranoid fifteen minutes trying to get the bloody door unlocked.