The holiday spirit thrives all year round in Belize, but from September to January it get a bit more… well, spirited… The exuberance of Independence Day never quite wears off as the party train keeps chugging towards New Years, and the first stop along the way is on October 12, Columbus Day in Belize.
Now, we know that there is a certain amount of controversy about Columbus Day, especially in the Caribbean region where his earliest explorations of the Americas began. Indeed, we’re the first to point out the irony that most school children know more about the voyages of Columbus, an Italian who sailed for the Spanish crown, than they do about the rich civilisations such as the Maya who flourished in the Americas long before the intrepid sailor’s ancestors even thought of floating across the Mediterranean, let alone navigating the Atlantic.
There is also a good argument for calling Columbus’ landing more of an invasion than a discovery, especially if, like a vast number of Belizeans, you have Maya ancestry. Then again, if you’re of Italian or Spanish heritage, the voyages of Columbus can be viewed as one of history’s greatest feats of discovery and derring-do.
Spare a thought for the Mestizos, who make up almost half the population of Belize. One side of your ancestors are Spanish, the other Maya.
Who do you root for?
But we’re not here to interpret history or debate the pros and cons of Chris’s epic sail. In fact, here in multicultural Belize, where Columbus Day, or Pan American day as it is also called, is an official holiday, the emphasis is more on enjoying a day off than looking too deeply into days gone by.
Columbus didn’t even get near our shores until his fourth voyage in 1502, having already called into San Salvador Island, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and other locales before arriving in the Bay of Honduras. Like it or not, history was changed forever.
What is worth celebrating is how the Spanish, native indigenous, African and other European cultures merged to create such diverse, colourful societies all through the Americas, and this heady blend is nowhere as rich as in tiny Belize, the undisputed melting pot of Central America.
For example, enjoy a walk though San Ignacio Town on a Friday or Saturday night and try the street food, or just listen to music or people speaking. You’re experiencing a very harmonious mix of influences from all over the world, and it all kicked into gear after Columbus landed in what he thought was India.
And of course, if he landed in Belize today he’d be able to find Indians and Indian food, as well as Chinese.
On October 12, all those people descended from all those cultures will have one more thing in common as they share a day off and take advantage of the various festivities popping up in villages, towns and Belize City and the Cayes that day.
Columbus Day in Belize City features regatta racing in the beautiful Caribbean waters Columbus so loved, in bicycle-mad Cayo District there will be competitive races, up north in Corazal and Orange Walk with their strong Spanish flavours fiestas with beauty contests and dances will go into the night.
But no matter where you are in Belize, Columbus Day is a bank holiday, and everyone will be enjoying a day off in the usual Belizean ways – socialising, barbequing, spending time with families and friends and generally pursuing that great national pastime – enjoying life.
Here at Chaa Creek, where English, Spanish and Mayan are all spoken – sometimes in the same conversation – we’ll be tipping our hats, and the odd glass to the spirit of discovery in general while taking time to appreciate that, regardless of how it came about, we are fortunate indeed to live in a country where people from Maya, African, European, Asian and other heritages have all worked together to build a just and tolerant society that we can be proud of.
And that is something to celebrate.
Happy Pan American day to everyone from those of us at Chaa Creek!