November 19, 2008

Mindful Travel, Belize, and the Food of the Gods, by Joshua Berman [photo slideshow]

Kate Morton is cradling a glass of red wine in her hand, comfortably slouched in a chair on the wooden deck of her lodge. We are surrounded by thick, steamy jungle in a remote corner of Central America and Kate is perfectly at ease in the humidity. I, however, am soaked to the bone and swatting mosquitoes that don’t seem to notice my host. In between smacks to my own neck and face, I drink Belikin stout from a cold, black bottle which is sweating as profusely as me. This is Hickatee Cottages, an über-tranquil four-room affair that Kate and her husband, Ian, built in southern Belize in 2004. The property is pressed against the forest, about two miles outside of Punta Gorda, the largest settlement in the region.

“What,” I ask, “is responsible tourism?

Kate thinks and takes a sip. A hummingbird buzzes past. The cottage cat, Oscar, opens his eyes to a squint to peer at us from the depths of his nap. My question is short, simple, and loaded. Every year since opening, Kate and Ian’s little bed and breakfast has been nominated for the Responsible Tourism Awards (given by a group of organizations that includes The Royal Geographical Society). Hickatee Cottages (named for an endangered species of Belizean river turtle) implements Rainforest Alliance’s “Best Management Practices” in the management of their hotel; Kate and Ian collect rain for some of their water use, get most of their energy from solar panels, support a village school, distribute vitamins to local children, and—you get the picture—the place is green. However, in this day and age of eco-washing, I’m trying to pinpoint what it all means.

“It’s about meaningful interaction,” she finally says. “It’s about using public transport and speaking the language; or taking the village bus to [the ruins at] Lubantuun instead of hiring a private car or tour operator. You take time and chat with people on the bus.”

It is July, one of the rainiest months in one of the wettest years on record. My wife and daughter are with Ian visiting a butterfly farm. Kate and I are surrounded by native trees, flowers, and orchids and all the birds, butterflies, and bees they attract. An afternoon drizzle makes things even steamier. Last night it poured, rain drumming on the roof, drowning the normal noises of frogs and crickets and pre-dawn howler monkeys.

Until it gained independence in 1981, Belize was a backwater Central American colony known as British Honduras; today, it remains a member of the Commonwealth. Kate and Ian are British expats who have been coming to Belize since 1992. They met in Mexico on a six-week Green Tortoise bus tour and fell in love—with each other and with this part of the world. “We came to Belize to make a life not a living,” Ian told me years ago, in defense of the small nature of their business.

Belize’s tourism industry is—like the country—small. It is young too, developing and defining itself as the world begins to take notice. The sheer acreage of Belize’s protected area (over sixty percent of the country is forested) attracts visitors more interested in rough, activity-based tourism rather than refined, all-inclusive, corporate experiences. George Price, the country’s founding father, rejected tourism when he was in power, saying it would make Belizeans indentured servants to rich foreigners. But Price’s comments came during a time when Belize was struggling for independence (which it received only in 1981). Today, notwithstanding Price’s warnings, one in every four Belizeans works in tourism.

Despite tourism’s rise in Belize over the last decade, there are fewer visitors than normal this year. In fact, with the skyrocketing prices of food and fuel, things are slow throughout the country, especially in the southern Toledo District which most tourists still completely ignore. Even though it is only a 45-minute plane ride from Belize City (or a five-hour bus ride), Punta Gorda and Toledo are still considered too far and out of the way—or just plain too unknown—for most tourists.

This is changing though. There are caves, cayes, reefs, and rivers in Toledo, there is a fascinating cultural mélange, there is a slowly increasing selection of comfortable, creative, and responsible accommodations—and there is chocolate. The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao or “food of the Gods”) has gained renewed importance in the culture and economy of Mayans living in southern Belize. Thousands of years ago, Maya kings and priests worshipped the cacao bean, using it as currency and drinking it in a sacred, spicy beverage. Now, tourists travel the “cacao trail.”

Kate and Ian are huge supporters of Belize’s cacao comeback. They sell local handmade chocolate in their tiny shop and assist guests who want to visit fair-trade cacao plantations or make chocolate with Maya families. In 2007, Kate helped establish the Toledo Cacao Festival, which occurs at the end of each May, a celebration to promote cacao production and artisan chocolate-making. One reason for starting the Cacao Fest, she tells me, in addition to attracting visitors in the low season, was to promote all the local cottage industries associated with tourism. “It’s a chance for these businesses to come together as a community,” she says, “to realize how much support we can give each other.”

In fact, local purchasing and community-building may just be the most “responsible” things Kate and Ian do. “We estimate about 95 percent of [the goods and services] we buy are local.”

I watch as Kate’s short break comes to an end. She gets up, grabs her empty glass, and offers one last idea: Responsible tourists, she says, “read their guidebooks before they come down. And they don’t expect Belize to be like home.”

Unless, of course, Belize is your home. Kate disappears into the Hickatee Cottages kitchen, leaving me with the birds, the rain, and Oscar, the sleeping cat.

* * *

[galleria thumb_w=120 thumb_h=90 thumbnail=”bottom” navigation=’none’ ]

—JOSHUA BERMAN, author of Moon Handbooks Belize (Avalon Travel Publishing), is a freelance writer, trip leader, and teacher based in Boulder, Colorado. His blog, The Tranquilo Traveler, celebrates “slow tourism and other interesting ways to see the world.” More articles, images, and reports on Belize: http://blog.joshuaberman.net/jb/belize/

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