69th Post: 2nd BELIZE – Bad Reviews and Crocodiles

Goff’s Caye, Belize

BELIZE: May 2003

2003 May: Saturday

As I had a couple of days spare, I decided to visit one of the offshore islands (known as cayes) that fringed the Belizean coast. Caye Caulker was the closest to Belize City and travelling on the high speed motor launch service, was about an hour’s voyage distant. On the way, we passed a tiny atoll of about 100 yards radius, framed by blue sky and white sand, with only one wooden shack and two palm trees to signal habitation.

This set the mood for Caye Caulker which turned out to be a larger version of the atoll. It was a coral island about five miles long and less than a mile wide. If Belize City had problems with hurricanes, Caye Caulker was right in the firing line. As the highest point was only eight feet, storm surges could and had inundated the entire caye. Three years earlier in 2000, Hurricane Keith had swept over it and carved a gap through the coral, turning the island into two islands. The resulting channel had been named appropriately ‘The Split’.

Around Caye Caulker, Belize

However, any sign of the watery carnage had now disappeared, and Caye Caulker bathed in a Caribbean idyll of palm trees, thatched roof cabins, sun drenched balconies, and flower decked patios. I strolled through a small village of sandy lanes where the only traffic consisted of beach buggies, and the main occupation seemed to be drinking mango daiquiris.

Lying on the beach, I watched a row of white-capped waves breaking over the crest of the Belizean coral reef a few hundred yards out to sea. Stretching for 200 miles from north to south, it was second only to the Australian Great Barrier Reef in size. Its calming protection meant that the lagoon waves lapped the beach like a sleepy puppy. The slight sea breeze soothed the heat of the sun.

Decided to stay on for a bit.

A beach on Cate Caulker

Looking for lunch, I walked along the sand to the Split; the north island lay about one hundred yards away across the sea channel. A large sign was affixed to a palm tree: ‘Visit Miss Claudette’s for Traditional Belizean Meals. Enjoy Luxury Restaurant Atmosphere. Directions: Swim across Split’.

Swimming to lunch on Caye Caulker

2003 May: Monday

Having returned from Elysium, I settled down for the second show. After recording a fairly upbeat interview with Belize TV, I was slightly discomforted when Yasser said that a theatre reviewer was coming tonight.

“I’m sorry, but I think you will get a bad review.”

“What? But he hasn’t seen it yet!”

Yasser shook his head and muttered: “Politics, politics.”

I wondered whether the reason might be that I was so publicly involved with the government that it might be an opposition party hit job? Whatever, it didn’t help my mood.

This was followed by a frustrating couple of hours teaching Tyrone how to work the lights. At the Mexican place, he’d been assisted by a real technician: here, he was on his own.

But far and away the biggest problem was the heat. As the show time approached, the temperature inside the hall hit 93F, with humidity in close attendance. I was wearing full white tie evening dress and a fur coat.

The time reached 7 30pm and the hall was full to bursting with Belizean high society. Yasser set up a camera on a tripod for what I assumed would be still shots. I signalled to Tyrone and the show began.

It was not a dreadful performance but somehow it never clicked – the laughs were few and the atmosphere was flat. A baby started crying after twenty minutes and refused to stop. It was all a far cry from the triumph at the Mexican Cultural Institute. By the half way stage, the air had become so stifling that even the native Belizeans began to fan themselves. As muffled protests filtered the auditorium, Yasser took the executive decision to turn on the air-conditioning. Immediately I was drowned out by a metallic uproar over my head. Already, my clothes were soaking in perspiration and make up was dripping on to my suit. Now I had to shout the rest of the show over the top of the rhythmic clanking above me. I lurched offstage at the end and headed for the nearest alcohol. It had been a bad night.

Belize Times review

2003 May: Tuesday

If the previous night had been depressing, the following morning dived even further. I picked up a copy of the Belize Times to find a review of the show. As Yasser had predicted, it was a stinker. Amongst other things, the critic had taken strong exception to the fact that I was not Marlon Brando:

‘Titley’s acting style glories in pristine, theatrical artifice, while Brando’s acting style glories in gritty, sweaty realism.’

He continued:

 ‘Titley’s interpreta­tion harks back to a very formal type of performance that is oceans, and cultures apart from life in Belize’,

before allowing me some rope:

‘His pseudo-Shakespearian performing style was interesting in a kind of historical artifact sort of way. If video-taped, a copy would be well suited for a time-capsule, to be dug up sometime in the future, for cultural anthropologists to view the refined, formal exactitude of Titley’s elocution.’

However, that was a brief respite before the coup de grace:

‘For this proletariat critic Titley’s per­formance went the short distance from haughtiness to arrogance to snobbism without touching the pathos. It was stuck in a rut of the supercil­ious, and too hoity-toity.’

He ended with what I presume was intended as a lifebelt of mercy:

‘That said, even though the play lacked bling-bling, it was still miles ahead of anything currently show­ing on our 62 channels of cable TV.’

Having channel surfed quite a lot of the aforesaid 62, believe me, that was not a compliment. To be honest, this was a bit of a shock. I had not had a bad review since the very beginning of the tour, 24 years previously. I had become so accustomed to praise, that I’d forgotten what a bucket of cold water felt like.

I sat and chewed a morose breakfast, while listening to the local radio news. The latest murder had taken place last night only about 200 yards from the flat. It says something about the self-absorption of actors that I was more rattled by the review than the fact that there were killers loose outside the front door.

Haulover Creek, Belize City

At least, I was until I went out to collect groceries. Suddenly a shout went up from behind and I turned to see a large black man running towards me. My heart pumped with paranoia. He stopped and gave a wide grin.

“Hey, man, I saw you on the TV last night. Yeah! Hey, that’s really cool!”

After shaking my hand, he turned to a couple of fruit sellers and pointed at me.

“He’s on TV. He’s the man!”

I smiled and walked on.

What the hell was that all about? I hadn’t been on TV last night. Then I thought again. Yasser and his camera. He must have been transmitting the show directly to cable TV! Bloody hell – I had been broadcasting live to the nation and hadn’t even realised it!

Museum of Belize – the third venue

However, despite dreadful reviews and inadvertent TV appearances, I still had to prepare for the afternoon show. This was to be held at the Museum of Belize, which until ten years earlier had been the old British colonial jail. It was a long two-storey building, now housing various Mayan and imperial exhibits where the cells used to stand. Tyrone gave me a guided tour.

I noticed one account of what seemed to be the pivotal event of Belizean history. In the 19th century a small army of locals and their black slaves had fought and repelled a Spanish fleet in an engagement known as the Battle of St George’s Caye. It was remarkable, and rather heartening, in that there had not been a single casualty on either side.

We set up the theatre in what was usually a conference room but which, Tyrone told me, formerly had been the execution cell. At least it was air-conditioned.

Museum of Belize – stage area – previously the execution cell

Around 3pm the audience filed in; mostly they seemed to be school children in their late teens and, under the eye of their teachers, weirdly well-behaved. As the show progressed I was cheered by the fact that they appeared to be enjoying it. There was laughter at some quite sophisticated jokes – presumably they were not readers of the Belize Times. I reached the climactic sequence when Wilde recounts his tragic experiences in prison. Possibly mindful of their present surroundings, the audience were hushed and attentive.

Abruptly the door opened and an entourage of people entered the auditorium. In the sudden shaft of light, I recognised Said, his secretaries, bodyguards, chauffeurs, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. The audience swivelled round as one and a flutter of excited voices rose: “It’s the Prime Minister!” After that it was hopeless. It was a charming and gracious act for the PM to attend the show but, in so doing, he’d blown it. I continued to the end, but I’d lost them.

Afterwards, Tyrone took our photograph. Oscar Wilde and the Belizean Prime Minister standing together in a prison execution cell. An echo of the Ballad!

NJT and Rt Hon Said Musa, PM of Belize

2003 May: Thursday

“It’s about time you met the ancestors.”

Yasser had invited me to join his TV production team on a photo shoot at the Mayan ruins at Lamonai in the interior of Belize. We left town in his smart pick-up truck loaded with four assistants and a pile of cameras and drove out west through the flat coast country. After an hour the undergrowth along the roadside thickened until we were deep in the middle of jungle. Parking the truck in a clearing by a river, we loaded the equipment on board a motor launch.

River boat – Belize jungle

As the boat moved upstream the riverbanks grew denser with tangled vegetation. However, there were still plenty of signs of activity. White egrets stood like sentries staring at the water, before raising their eyes in annoyance as the launch’s bow wave disturbed their fishing. We passed one man sitting in a canoe, his line dangling over the prow; his deeply lined brown face resembled a Mayan mask. He touched his straw hat in greeting as we passed.

Fishing on the river

Around another bend in the river, we came upon something I had really not been expecting. A group of four boys were climbing on over-hanging trees and diving into the river. They had very white skin and blond hair. Further back on the bank stood a horse attached to a 19th century buggy, with a woman in a bonnet and ankle length dress standing beside it. It turned out that they belonged to a community of Mennonites, a religious group akin to the Amish.

As a result of their extreme Reformist beliefs, the Mennonites had been forced into migration ever since their foundation in the 1600s. Firstly from Holland and then from Prussia, the refusal to pay taxes or support militarism had eventually led to their arrival in North America. Their insistence on avoiding any form of modern life had kept them from integrating into the New World also. Finally, when they found themselves expelled from Mexico in the late 1950s, they had found sanctuary in these outer reaches of the Belizean countryside. About 10,000 of them had settled and now lived by farming, while retaining their fair-skinned Teutonic appearance and unique life style. Another addition to Belize’s extraordinary racial smorgasbord.

The Mennonite buggy on the riverbank

After another half hour, we turned a further bend and the river suddenly broadened into a large lake. We steered over to the northern shore and disembarked. We had reached the ruins of Lamonai. Although now mostly buried under earth and foliage, Lamonai could trace its origins back to the 16th century BC, had once had a population of 100,000, and had only disappeared from history in the 17th century AD. The area had been re-discovered in the 1980s and excavations had uncovered some quite spectacular temples and ziggurats. Yasser and his crew set to work interviewing an English archaeologist from, of all places, University College, London – about two miles from my home. He explained that while some work had been done, there were probably dozens of square miles still to be uncovered.

High Temple at Lamonai, Belize

As the interview progressed, a security guard suddenly emerged from the bushes and self-importantly ordered Yasser to stop filming.

“You are not allowed cameras in this temple!”

Yasser gave him a cold stare, took out his cell phone, and rang the Chief of Police in Belmopan. Silently he handed over the phone to the guard. Obviously the guard got a real earful, as he stuttered apologies to Yasser and speedily slunk off back into the undergrowth. It helps to be the son of a Prime Minister.

As we strolled along the trails, someone mentioned that the temperature was now 107F. With the added sodden blanket of humidity, for me this was a real feat of endurance. In an effort to fend off the sun’s rays, I opened my umbrella. There was much hilarity at the sight of ‘the Englishman in the Jungle’ look, sporting a brolly.

NJT in the jungle at Lamonai, Belize

Quite apart from the Mayans, there was evidence of other civilisations at Lamonai. A ruined Catholic church showed that the Spanish invaders had made contact with the last embers of the Mayan city, while a 19th century sugar mill revealed British settlements around the site. Apart from its huge iron wheels, the whole mill was overgrown by trees whose roots cascaded down the sides of the walls. It looked like an art installation.

Belize sugar mill

But the most curious echo of the past came from another sugar mill. This had been erected by American Civil War Southern supporters fleeing from the collapse of the Confederacy in 1865. They had attempted to re-create the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, ‘New Richmond’, here in the Belizean jungle. Despite their attempt at sugar cane production, the whole project fizzled out amidst the heat and insects, and the last survivor of the ‘colony’ died in 1876.

However, while acknowledging that it is a very tenuous connection indeed, I did find one link to Oscar Wilde out here. One of the leaders of the Confederate settlers had been a Major Armand Beauregard. He was the brother of General Pierre Beauregard, the man who had befriended Oscar on his trip to New Orleans and who had showed him the city.

Return trip on the New River

On the return trip down river, the captain suddenly slowed his engine. The boat inched quietly toward the river bank and he pointed to a branch that had fallen into the water. On it, a tiny crocodile lay sleeping in the afternoon sun. Picking up the cameras we started taking shots. Suddenly there was a crunching noise on our right hand, the bushes on the bank started to sway and part, and the baby’s enormous mother stood glaring at us. The captain quickly pressed the starter and the engine roared back into full throttle. As he spun the steering wheel sharply away to the left, the whole boat seemed to stand on its stern and we were forced to hang on to the side railings – then we hurtled off along the river, leaving a high wave in our wake. The crocodile and the egrets watched us go.

The band at Fort George, Belize City

2003 May: Sunday

It was after a particularly heavy farewell night of rum bacardi with the Image Factory crowd that I got my last piece of Belizean star treatment. In the taxi cab on the way to the airport, the driver suddenly turned with a grin and said:

“I saw you on TV. Can I have your autograph?”

 Through the horrors of a rum hangover, I scribbled on his piece of paper. After I arrived in the terminal building and was sitting in the departure lounge, it dawned on me that I had absent-mindedly written ‘Oscar Wilde’ rather than my own name. So, sooner or later, some taxi passenger in Belize City is going to hear the immortal words:

“I had that Oscar Wilde in the back of my cab once.”

Goff’s Caye, Belize


Next week on Tuesday October 2 – Into Mexico – Spaghetti Westerns and Trotsky.

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