Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Boldly Colored Beginning

Life goes on in Belize the morning after the general election. On Euphrates Street, students are emptying out from school for lunch in their uniforms, though red flags wave through the streets as cars hired by the UDP drive by every once and a while.

At about one am last night when the last ballots were being rounded up, the television stations began to announce a resounding victory by the UDP over the incumbent PUP. Despite reports of election fraud by one incumbent and the presence of camera cell phones inside polling stations despite a recent ban, the election was peaceful.

I was a bit surprised to see that the signs of partisan politics that run deep into the core of Belizean life were so visible on the actual day of the election. The city donned its colors, from Collet and Lake Independence where Cordel Hyde's blue-clad election army swarmed Partridge Street, to Mesopotamia which bled the red signs and T-shirts of the UDP, the city donned its political colors. Voters walked with their political paraphanalia into the voting stations, with no restrictions. I wondered how we could be so lax about our standards protecting voting rights and voter independence. Later that evening, when a Belize City candidate won against an incumbent by only 16 votes, I began to understand the situation a little better.

I camped out at the television station for most of the evening, taking calls from news correspondents who were out reporting in the various districts. In the afternoon, a reporter asked Orange Walk candidate Gasper Vega why he thought voters were so much bolder than in past election years about flaunting their party colors. Vega's impression was that the voters were enthusiastic about the political process. The fact that voters were proud, rather than intimidated, about being identified with party, was an encouraging sign of democracy. Another take on the matter, I guess. But when a first-time voter goes to the polls afraid to dip her finger in the ink twice for fear that her staunch PUP parents will know that she had voted in favor of a referendum that could benefit the UDP, I have my doubts about how far the political party has come. It is another boldly-colored new beginning, a new start with a lot of excitement and almost as much fanfare.

Meanwhile, tragedies in Belize City. The night after the election, I visited a popular bar called Putt Putt, steps away from the Princess Hotel and its casino. Two hours after I left, gunshots broke out at Putt Putt, and a bartender there was killed. In an incident that shocked the nation, the killer then pursued their target through the streets of Belize City, killing two more victims, one of them a 17-year-old girl.

Yes, violence is everywhere, and everywhere politicians feed their people pipe dreams. But something seems seriously wrong if a government can't police young, small-time criminals who, disillusioned by the hopelessness around them, turn to means only slightly less rational than their leaders'.

Next time I'm back in Belize, I'm looking forward to seeing more Belizeans move past talk of politics and even talk about the formal education system to a real the conversation about the PRESENT conditions in which our young people - from Brooklyn to Belize City - are growing up.

Monday, February 04, 2008

J'ouvert Morning

It's the Monday after j'ouvert Sunday and my first pilgrimage to Trini Carnival. There is one proud, persistent stripe of yellow paint still stuck to my left calf, and I am wondering, will people think I haven't bathed since Saturday? Will I maybe even get some brownie points for my filthiness? In this insane party atmosphere, who knows. Tomorrow, I'll be staying on the sidelines, not buying a costume to "play mas'" on the main parade day. Still, I'm feeling like a convert, my mind already racing to next year, imagining myself playing j'ouvert covered not in yellow paint, but plain ol' mud, brown like the skin I'm flaunting.

There is something about Carnival that allows the sheer hypeness of the bacchanal, of soca music, to coexist with the laid-back social vibe that you can find everywhere in the Caribbean. I spent the first day and a half of my trip here laying in wait, looking for a good "lime." I drive past the mosque and temple of a neighborhood called St. James with my host to check out the scene. We went to a bar called Smokey and Bunty's where we found pre-carnivalites back-to-back, grooving, treating their two square feet of dance floor like they owned it, like it was their own private backyard.

It is an awesome thing to witness for the first time, this egalitarian Carnival experience, this celebration that is collective and an expression of each one's most free and intimate self. I feel this environment seeping deep into my pores and cleansing all the worry, doubt, and judgment from my mind.

Next day, I walk the streets, ending up at Arapeta Avenue, the downtown heartbeat of Port of Spain Carnival. By now, music is blasting from every truck and car, so I'm involuntarily learning the lyrics to all the hottest club songs, from Machel's sensuous hits to pounding tracks heavy on the digital, like "My pressure bad, bad, bad. My pressure bad, bad, bad" ...repeat, repeat, ok, you get the picture. I am a stranger to everyone, but we all feel like we get on bad to the music, same way.

I'm not saying that in Trinidad the race and class issues were not apparent. They are blatantly apparent, though hard for an outsider to decipher. Driving around the city, you can see the hills that birthed the first steel bands players in the 1930's and 40's. In those days, I'm told, pan players were treated like second-class citizens, and I recall the familiar story of Trenchtown. I pass through a neighborhood perched on a gorgeous cliff overlooking Port of Spain and the skyscrapers built by oil money (I'm incredulous to see skyscrapers in the Caribbean). On a shoulder to the left of the road, tourists and lovers pull their cars over to watch the nighttime skyline. To the right, my host points toward the shantytowns beyond the trees.

But Carnival seems to equalize. You just let yourself go, no matter who you are. It's about your own body and your own spirit, not just the wining up on some other body to get your kicks on. And on Carnival Tuesday it seemed, every masquerader who had managed to scrounge together the 300 bucks for a costume was a celebrity for the day, sparkling and beaming, stopping for photo opps with friends and strangers.

I did wonder what the non-masqueraders, the St. James folk, were doing far from Arapeta Avenue. Maybe they had no time for the costume judging. So what was it that drove their lime, turned it into a full-blown fete? The rum? The music? The smell of roti bread being cooked on streetside grills? The sexy women? The company of friends? All I know is that night I ran into a friend from New York on Arapeta and as the Tribe band's truck snaked by for a good two hours, the D.J. spinning the hottest tracks, I got a real good wine on, the wine that I needed. I got a not too subtle reminder that we are born and die naked, barefoot, and covered in sweat and dirt.