By Joe Bageant
Because so many people have inquired as to my safety during Hurricane Dean, here are some notes from my journal written during that time. And yes, I am quite well and safe.
HOPKINS VILLAGE, BELIZE -- Two gecko lizards are staring at one another on the wall above my laptop, as the small TV in my cabana blares an update on approaching Hurricane Dean. But the rain hammers the tin roof so loudly it's impossible to hear what is being said, even with the sound turned all the way up. So I watch the hot blonde, the satellite pics and blurry shots of storm-tortured palms and hope for the best.
Thanks to Hurricane Dean, for the next few days this Garifuna household of six, the Castillos, are sleeping several to a bed with the Rubio family, including this old gringo, who is most grateful to have drawn an older boy, not a little one still pissing on the sheets. The Rubios are a fishing family, evacuees from the black "bakkatown" (back of town) shacks out on the reefs, which usually get in such storms, even when not struck by the 'cane itself.
Every plastic jug, pot and pan is filled with fresh water and we cook the hell out of tortillas, beans, rice and everything else in an already near barren cupboard, stretching food between us and waiting for the power to go out -- which also shuts down our meager trickle of a water system -- a certainty given that it happens a couple times a week anyway, without the help of a storm. So far, there is not a trace of panic. Between the hammering squalls, the sun cracks open brightly, the guy across the road goes back to work on his roof, and the lady of our house, Marzlyn, stands under the mango tree mashing plantains with a four-foot wooden mortar and pestle. And Hurricane Dean just blew through Jamaica and past the Cayman Islands at 150 miles per hour. Look out Cancun.
By the second day it's beginning to look like we're far enough south to miss the eye of Dean, if not some torrential rains and high winds. With luck we will not get enough rain to blow out the four mile dirt road to the main highway (three-foot deep stretches forty feet across are not uncommon this time of year) and high winds will not strip our mango, lime, plantain, soursop and breadfruit trees -- important staples -- of their not yet ripe fruits. At the same time we may get nothing more than a severe rain storm, severe here being in a whole other league than in the US. Picture eight inches in an hour.
Such is middle class life in the hundreds of Caribbean villages you never see on American TV, even when they are wiped off the map by hurricanes, places with names like Seine Bight and Monkey River Town. Places that provide the groundskeepers and table wipers for the destination resorts such as Caye Chapel island golf course (US$200 and up to tee off) where the likes of Bill Gates fly in to enjoy round the clock concierge, what has got to be the most challenging windage factor in all of golfdom, and disciplined black or Hispanic attendance to their every whim, in a country where the minimum wage is US$1.50 an hour for those lucky enough to find employment that actually pays it.
Among the Rubios staying with us until Dean passes is their 12-year-old adopted child, Julian. Through my high kitchen window I can see him joyfully helping his mom remove billowing bedsheets from the clothes line. And when he is not doing that he is running to help his dad with every task. His adoptive father, Labon, is a stern one, hard as nails by American standards, quick to laughter and affection with his family. But what drives Julian's eager cooperation is his deep admiration for his adopted father, as his model for a strong manhood. Boys think about becoming men here, the same as everywhere else I suppose, but much more so. I've spent time with the Rubios on a solitary atoll out in the reefs and watching the interplay of Julian and his adopted parents. Normal as it is to them, it remains one of the most beautiful human family experiences I've ever witnessed.
Nor is it particularly unique. His cousin in our household, Kirky, does the same. To Kirky, his smiling, hard laboring father, Luke, who admonishes me for buying the kids such things as soccer balls, "Spoil the pickney, spoil de man." (Pickney is not a derogatory term here among the Garifuna, who were never enslaved.) Luke represents for Kirky, as Labon does for Julian, all the dignity any man can ever hope to possess. Being allowed to sit among his father and other grown men late into the evenings is an achievement, proof of one more small step toward manhood. During the day when Kirky is not riding herd on the toddlers for his mom, Marzlyn, he voluntarily rakes the sandy yard clean, flat and white because it needs to be done every day and because it will save his dad an hour of doing the same when he returns home from his job at the resort. And because it is what a grown man does -- works, serves and honors family blood.
Blood is thick here. When Julian showed up with his family to wait out Hurricane Dean, both boys were movingly overjoyed to see each other because, "He mi iduhei!" (cousin). And from what I can hear through the floorboards of my cabana as they linger in the shade below, they share the secrets of young boys' souls. Then go running off to shoot marbles in the wet hot sand. Neither has ever played an electronic game or has any notion of what a Gameboy or an Xbox might be (though I'm sure there must be a few here among those villagers who've returned from working in the States). Tradition, community and clan, though rapidly declining, is the animating force of what's left of the old Garifuna culture that still exists along this coast, mostly in the villages. It's stubborn stuff. Right now I can hear the drumming of a Dugu (the traditional ancestor based African religion of the Garifuna) coming from the long grass temple on the beach, not because there is a 'cane approaching but despite that there is one coming. Luke says they already had a ceremony planned and a little thing like a hurricane threat would never stop them. "The old ones, dey are stubborn!" he laughs. Stubborn or not, all of us feel how the drumming animates this night with the traditional Garifuna spirit.
This little village in this little country is not paradise, not even close. This is the land of the agonizing sand flea, the scorpion and the swarming sting rays of the night tides. It is a place where no wallet can be opened in a store without a dozen covetous eyes locking onto its contents and where dogs fight brutally in the yards. Last month our dog Hero killed a neighbor's dog in front of the whole family. And amid the screaming and crying, not even the powerful bodied Luke, could break Hero's death grip on the intruding dog's throat, brutally demonstrating the truth of planetary flesh from Palestine, to the Sudan, and even in America for the several millions in the unseen ghettos of the national machinery.
This is also a place where sooner or later, with no small help from global warming, the village's tiny houses will be blown off their stilts and tumble into a hurricane's deep "surge waters," rolling over once, maybe twice, before becoming a pile of splintered boards, while the palm frond houses of the poorer families are atomized into grassy shreds amid the airborne cooking pots, baby clothing and cheap Taiwanese boom boxes. It also is where hypodermic needles turn up on the beach (hopefully illegally dumped medical waste drifted down from Mexico), where cocaine is dirt cheap for the minority who use it, and where at least a couple of crackheads dwell and several more drift back and forth between here and Dangriga, 35 miles up the only paved road on this side of the country.
Yet the village is still a place where matrons bake coconut birthday cakes, kids shoot hoops by the sparse streetlight and adolescent couples walk bashfully holding hands under swaying palms and a silver pie pan moon.
Since I started this Dean has become a cat five 'cane. So the whole family has packed for that evacuation mountain that won't be here because it is stuck in already traffic-jammed road to hurricane-proof Belmopan. Generously, the brawny resort guard, who lives in a concrete house next door, has taken our family in for the night.
Like I said, it ain't paradise. Just a spot on the planet where a man has time to think and peck at a keyboard and pour bedtime orange juice for sleepy well scrubbed kids just before the moon comes up. Dean will come and go. But some things are eternal.
The Day After
Hurricane Dean spared the village of Hopkins entirely, and miracle of miracles, even the power and water were back on by noon next day. It may be simply my writer's imagination, but I could swear there was a knowing twinkle in the eye of the old Dugu drummer down at the vegetable stand this morning.