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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Golden Times

I’m not sure if I told you, dear reader, that Hubby’s goal during his recovery from heart surgery was to go on the paid-for, no-refund cruise that we had arranged for our 50th anniversary. We got married on February 8, 1966 -- and yes, I was a child bride. The ground was covered with snow for our tiny little wedding in suburban Washington. The Army had transferred Hubby there from Massachusetts, and I dropped out of graduate school at Brandeis University to go with him.

His older brother, now deceased, was living there at the time, and my older sister, who had worked for the Navy in Washington in her youth, flew up from North Carolina. The photographer, hostess, and sole guest was a DC woman who had served as an unconscious mentor for a young me: she worked for the National Academy of Sciences and ran a boardinghouse where I babysat my nephew one summer. She later retired to Sun City, and all of them, plus a hundred more, were present in 1991 when we held a big celebration for our 25th anniversary at the Rusty Pelican. It’s still a lovely restaurant, and we thought about going there again for our Golden, but decided we didn’t need the stress. We made that decision before the heart problems, and it turned out to be a very good thing.

Instead we went to the Caribbean on the Norwegian Star. We were a party of eight, more than were at our wedding. I’m especially happy that Sis, at age 82, didn’t hesitate about joining us, nor did her husband. He’s a retired Army man who took up scuba diving at age 75, so I wasn’t surprised that he drove them down from Georgia in their RV to catch the ship in Tampa. Their oldest child, the one I babysat, and his wife flew in from Virginia, as did our daughter and son-in-law. We had a wonderful seven days together.

Travelers, not Tourists

Hubby and I generally are travelers, not tourists. We read up on a destination’s history before we go, and then rent a car to get as far away as possible from the port or airport. We like to find out what the farmers are growing; we like to walk around rural cemeteries and peer into village churches. We go to museums instead of bars, and to botanical gardens instead of shopping. This time, though, his health wasn’t up to strenuous shore trips, so we contented ourselves with less.

Norwegian Cruise Lines is very clever in charting this four-stop voyage. It goes all the way south to Central America and begins at a port that passengers would find disappointing if it were last instead of first. After sailing for most of two days, people were eager to get off at Roatan, an island on the coast of Honduras. Among its previous names was Rattan, which tells you a little something. It is a small island known for snorkeling, and its newly developed port isn’t much more than a tourist trap. A few hours there was enough for me, but others of our group enjoyed glass-bottomed boats and seeing cameos carved out of coral. Daughter and son-in-law luxuriated in a newly renovated spa/guesthouse where they were the only customers. Both it and the other islands we visited had amazingly azure waters, and I’m pleased that environmentalism has outpaced industrialism.

Two of my siblings have spent extensive time in Belize, and Belize City was what I enjoyed most. We planned to hire a cabbie to take us around the town of some 60,000, and I got lucky by happening to inquire at a coffee shop where the cashier had a boyfriend who specialized in this. He was knowledgeable in history and government, so we felt fortunate. The first thing I asked him was about the accuracy of the ship’s bulletin for that day, which said that Belize had “belonged” (their quote marks) to Spain. I was sure that it had been British Honduras back when we memorized nations as kids. He said I was right and immediately took us to a monument that commemorated its independence from Britain -- in 1981. Maybe Norwegian Cruise Lines needs to hire a new writer.

Believing Belize

We told the taxi driver that we wanted to see churches, cemeteries, schools and governmental buildings, and he did an excellent job of taking us. Churches especially abound – and unlike other Latin American countries, we didn’t see one prominent Catholic church. We did see repeated instances of Protestant diversity, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Secondary schools often are Catholic, as Belize’s public education system ends at the 6th grade. From then on, students are expected to pay about $3,000 in annual tuition. Whether secular or religious, the schools are close together in an oceanfront area. Some are divided by gender; all feature distinctive uniforms. The cabbie could tell us which school young people were attending by the color of their uniform.

Car licenses also are color-coded: white was a private car, green were taxis, and a blue plate indicated a government employee. All government employees, even in jobs that are not uniformed elsewhere, wore blue, with women in skirts, not pants. Someone, though, is making an effort at feminist education, as I saw a couple of signs about empowering women and girls. They also are very proud of Olympic medallist Marion Jones, and a new stadium is named for her – even though she was born in Los Angeles and only her mother was from Belize. A sign said the government of Taiwan paid for the stadium. No, I have no idea why.

But back to churches. Our cabbie stopped a long while at the Anglican cathedral, where a priest was greeting individual communicants for Ash Wednesday. (The week, oddly enough, began with the Super Bowl and also included Marti Gras, as well as the Chinese New Year; it ended on Valentine’s Day.) This turned out to be the oldest Anglican church in Latin America, built in 1812 in the Romanesque style of architecture. It functioned for me much like a cemetery, as many British families had placed plaques to memorialize their loved ones who died far from home. Most were young men, many of whom drowned with no body recovered.

Across the street from the church and facing the sea was the Government House, where the cabbie was proud to tell us that Queen Elizabeth had stayed. It and all older houses were two or three story wooden structures, with lots of windows and lattices to catch sea breezes. Logs of the mahogany tree were floated down from the mountains to the sea, and the hard, durable wood was Belize’s biggest product -- until its rainforests were almost entirely cut down. Downtown Belize City still is full of canals that used to carry timber.

British lumber companies had employed natives to do this work since the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, which was a global agreement that ended the American Revolution and redistributed land and trading rights throughout the world. But strong though mahogany is, the old capitol building could not resist Hurricane Hattie, which destroyed most of Belize City in 1961. The capital was moved inland to Belmopan, a planned community that still is developing, and most of Belize City’s houses now are concrete, not wood.

Most residents appear to be native Mayans in their ethnicity, but it was not until 2008 that the first non-white became prime minister. That, of course, was the same year that Barack Obama campaigned to be president of the United States. When I mentioned this comparability and said that we would be supporting Hillary Clinton for president, the cabbie questioned Hubby for confirmation of my view. Still not quite there, are we?

Mayans, Mounds, and Other Things

You probably know that the word “Caribbean” comes from “Carib,” the name of island natives from Puerto Rico to Mexico. Costa Maya, the third stop on this cruise, translates to the “coast of the Mayans.” Mayan culture and religion, which included human sacrifice, reached its height about a thousand years ago and was in decline when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Although much less grand, Mayan ruins from Mexico through Honduras were akin to the pyramids of Egypt, which flourished a millennium prior to that.

Mayans also were akin to the Mound Builders who lived in what became the United States. These less sophisticated societies still were ongoing when Europeans arrived, and they left evidence of themselves along coasts from Florida to the Mississippi River and north as far as Illinois. Early American settlers had no appreciation for them and destroyed most; in Central America, populations remained smaller and jungles simply overtook the manmade architecture. Except for Mayans who wanted to remain isolated, no one knew of these ancient structures until airplanes made them visible.

One of the pioneers of Mayan archeology and anthropology was the half-sister of Tampa’s Lula Joughin Dovi. At 93, Lu still sometimes writes for LaGaceta. Because of family divisions, she never met her father’s other daughter, but that woman, called Bobbie, owned a ranch outside of San Cristobal, Mexico, which became the headquarters of Harvard’s Chiapas Project, the first anthropological study of prehistoric Mexico. Prior to her sudden death in 1962, Bobbie adopted a Mayan girl, and Lu has met this woman, who now lives in Cuba. Thus I was especially pleased to see at the Costa Maya port three vehicles from those exploratory days of a half-century ago. Two were study trucks, but one was a futuristic RV, outfitted with a sink, icebox, and other amenities for finding evidence of ancient peoples in remote places. I wondered if Bobbie might have used them.

Hubby and I visited the very rural and neglected Mayan ruins of Cozumel when we were there in 2009, so we didn’t go deep into that island, which was the last stop on this cruise. I recommend Cozumel, though: you can rent a car and drive the length of the island in a day. I also recommend that while onboard, you stay out of the deafening nightclubs and smoky casinos to take advantage of the winter skyline. I truly saw the Milky Way for the first time on our last trip, but clouds prevented a good view this time. But I did see fantastic things on the last two nights.

The “green flash” that I previously thought existed only in sailors’ tall tales was clearly visible both evenings. While the rest of the sky was pink with sunset, I saw a green patch that lasted at least a full minute. No, it wasn’t just a reflection in my eyes from staring at the sun: I moved my eyes across the horizon, along our balcony, and into the cabin, but the green flash only appeared directly above the point where the sun had sunk into the sea. The other unforgettable moment was the last night. The moon set about midnight, and it was the deepest shade of orange that I’ve ever seen. It looked like a big slice of candied tangerine eaten by the ocean’s waves.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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