Belize’s Chaa Creek wishes you a
Many people are surprised to discover that Halloween is celebrated in Belize, but given the Anglo-Celtic makeup of some of the country’s post-Maya inhabitants, it should really come as no surprise. Ireland, with her ancient Samhain festival, is widely considered to be the birthplace of today’s annual spooky celebrations, and with Belize’s long established Irish community, combined with a growing number of expats from the US and Europe, Halloween is well and truly alive in this multicultural haven.
And there are enough local spooky characters to keep any child – or adult, for that matter – occasionally checking under the bed and questioning those strange sounds we hear at night. Scary enough to make even Caspar turn a whiter shade of pale.
For the initiated, here’s a quick primer of Belize’s homegrown goblins..
The Tata Duende
With “Tata” coming from the Mayan for old man or grandfather, and “Duende” Spanish for a sort of elf, the Tata Duende is a true Belizean imp.
Perhaps the most well-known of all regional hobgoblins, this gnarly little man with the back-to-front feet, red hat and mischievous smile has been terrorising children for generations. Think of an animated, evil, forest dwelling garden gnome. However, since he can also take other forms, such as a child, small animal or even family member or friend, you need to be extra vigilant.
But generally, keep an eye out for a little man in a red hat with backwards feet and no thumbs. And if he asks you to show him your hands – run! The Tata Duende will steal your thumbs. Also, if you hear a strange whistle when bushwalking, be careful. If the eerie whistle sounds close, that’s okay; the dangerous dwarf is far away. But if the whistle sounds distant, that means he’s close. Remember – all things Tata Duende are backwards.
However, the Tata Duende does have a good side. If you can show him and then hide your thumbs before he steals them, you’ve earned his respect and he’ll entertain with a tune on his silver guitar and teach you to play a musical instrument of your choice. Garifuna folklore has it that, if you bring him a white rooster with a white sheet to offer it upon, he’ll show you a treasure.
Other strategies for appeasing the Tata Duende involve giving offering of food to this perpetually starving spook, and never hurting small animals or jungle plants, which he protects the forest with a passion.
So except for the lack of thumbs, backwards feet and evil intentions, the Tata Duende is just like some of the folks at Chaa Creek, most of whom are devoted to protecting Belize’s wildlife and environment. Some even wear red caps.
The Sisimito is Belize’s answer to Bigfoot, the Yeti, and other hirsute forest dwellers with generous sized feet. Thought to live in caves, the males have a troublesome habit of stealing women and forcing them to live with them and have their children, and since anyone can remember, women and girls have been keeping a watchful eye over their shoulder as they do their laundry down at the riverbanks – a very common pastime until recently in Belize.
While the Sisimito may be attracted to human women, they also like men – as a snack. Known to dine on the flesh of unfortunate chicleros, hunters and others who venture into the jungles, even those who escape will die within a month of looking a Sisimito in the eye.
However, on the plus side, Sisimitos are terrified of dogs and water, which is another good reason why people often have dogs accompany them into the forest. So if you do see a Sisimito, avert your gaze and run hell-for-leather to the nearest river or body of water.
This slinky forest seductress has featured in the dreams and nightmares of many a Belizean adolescent or grown man. She’s also the star of Belize’s first feature length Creole language motion picture, “Di Kurse a di Xtabai” directed by Matthiew Klinck.
Imagine coming across the most stunning, gorgeous young lady imaginable, and having her beckon you to follow and make passionate love to her at her ceiba tree home.
But remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Once the Xtabai has you in her embrace, she can turn into a snake or, in other accounts, a prickly tree, sending her thorns into her hapless prey until they die or, if lucky, just swoon, only to awaken the next day weak, drained and dispirited. If not administered to by a healer, they can wither and die.
Skeptics are told the more recent story about a fifteen year old from the village of Ranchito, in Belize’s north, who, returning home from a night in Corozal, came across a beautiful woman combing her hair by the side of the road. Even though he’d been warned by his mother, he followed the girl into the forest, but when she turned and hugged him, she turned into a prickly tree whose thorns shot through him. He awoke the next day and made it back to the road sick and confused, where a passerby took him to an old traditional healer who bathed him in herbs and nursed him back to health over the course of a week.
Xtabai? Or just way too much One Barrel rum or cashew wine? We like to keep an open mind about these things…
La Lloronaor “crying woman” in Spanish, is another one-woman Siren act, and if you come across a beautiful, tall, statuesque woman with hair down to her waist while in the forest, beware.
Her pitiful sobs and striking appearance attracts people, but woe to the hapless wanderer who ever sees La Llorona’s face, for he will never been seen again, or die on the spot, or return home a babbling wreck, often taking to bed with an incurable illness.
Men making their ways home from the bar after a night of revelry are particularly susceptible to La Llorona. She’s known to charm them into following her flowing locks and alluring figure into the forest before turning around to show them a hideous, horrible face and emitting a blood curdling shriek, causing them to drop dead on the spot or return home a sickened shell of their former selves.
Or imagine those lonely hunters, loggers or chicleros, men spending long weeks out in the jungles tapping trees for the sap to make chewing gum, suddenly coming across this lovely long haired lass… talk about temptation…
Of course, like all great fictional characters, La Llorona has motivation. As the tale goes, she began as a normal woman who then lost her children near a river, sending her round the twist, as they say, and causing her to prey on other children and men as some sort of retribution. They obviously didn’t have grief counselling back in the day…
As can be seen, most of Belize’s spooks have an instructive message. Tata Duende, as the self-appointed protector of the forest and its wildlife, teaches children to respect and not harm nature. Sisimito encourages vigilance and sticking together when doing the laundry, and those murderous knockouts La Llorona and Xtabai give men one more reason to stay sober and faithful.
In a rich cultural melting pot like Belize there are many other spirits, elves, trolls, ghosts and other otherworldly types filling the imagination, and this is the time of year to celebrate them.
And, with the rise in popularity of Halloween trick or treating, don’t be surprised if odd looking creatures show up at your door on the night of October 31st. By all means, give them a treat – just don’t show them your thumbs or follow them into the woods… especially if a ceiba tree or cave is the destination…