Why I Loved My Terrible Vacation in Belize

Belize may be known as a scuba-diving mecca, with beaches worthy of a postcard. But to taste the real flavor of this Central American country, our writer went off the beaten path… and got a lot more than she bargained for.
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A Dock in Belize
This is the Belize of most people‚Äôs dreams.  (iStockphoto)

Although it’s only 4:30, it’s getting dark enough that I have to squint when Pedro opens the door to his home, introducing me to his wife, Victoriana. Her bright pink dress stands out from the dull interior, a single room flanked by a concrete floor and wooden boards that don’t quite match up for walls.

I’m here for what’s in the back left corner, a pair of stone slabs, one of which holds a large metal pot that’s slowly spitting steam into the air. The heat feels nice. As my eyes adjust, I see I’m not the only one who feels that way—a calico cat and her mouse-sized kitten are curled up under the pot for a warm late-afternoon nap. Making corn tortillas is the lesson for the afternoon in the Belizean Maya village of San Jose, population 1,000.

In this Central American country, it’s easy to have a luxury ecotourism experience that’s popular among adventurous yet convenience-craving travelers. Check into Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge and ride horses through the wilderness by day, order room service with the touch of a conch-shell-concealed button by night. Or dive along the Belize Barrier Reef and then lounge by your resort-style pool on Ambergris Caye. But it’s just as easy—or rather, just as possible—to have the kind of local, no-special-accommodations experience Belize became known for when redefining the concept of ecotourism a couple of decades ago. Today, that’s what I’ve chosen.

“You sit there,” Victoriana says authoritatively. I crouch down on the low wooden stool, fidgeting with how to arrange my legs. “No, wash your hands!” she barks, her angular jaw becoming more pronounced as she points toward the corner.

I dip my hands into a cold bucket of water and look for soap and a towel to dry off with, but neither is available. I shake my wrists a little and head back to my perch, a sheet of wax paper now waiting. Victoriana plops a blob of dough down, then gets to work on her own.

“How are you named?” Victoriana’s 16-year-old daughter asks, as she expertly swivels her dough, creating corn tortillas in the kind of perfect circles I could only accomplish with a cookie-cutter. I tell her: Haley.

“Your parents still alive?” It becomes the question most commonly asked of me while I’m in the village, always followed by: “How old are they?” My response is invariably taken in with a thoughtful look of contemplation on the questioner’s face, as if this has provided great insight into who I am and why I’m here.

“You married?” she continues. I tell her that I’m not. “You have a… friend?” she presses on. I smile and say no. “Do you?” I ask. She blushes and casts her eyes downward.

While picking up assorted facts—like that the word dessert doesn’t exist in this culture and that Victoriana’s daughter has dropped out of school, not uncommon here—I concentrate hard, reshaping the edges once I’ve pressed out all the dough in an effort to cheat my way to the desired spherical shape. The end result reminds me of the way a preschooler writes her name, with the “e” inevitably backward and letters scattered about the page—it may not be exactly right, but the point gets across. Each tortilla gets a little better. Victoriana goes to toss my latest masterpiece into the basket, where the cat has taken up residence on top of the tortillas. So much for washing my hands.

Published: 25 Jul 2012 | Last Updated: 26 Jul 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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