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Belize: A Tropical Mecca for Craftsmen and Serious Souvenir Hunters
I have a new mistress. She’s smooth, firm and sexy. Her name is Ziricote. I am speaking of the Belizean hardwood. Any woodworker can relate to that sentiment. It’s like the first time you finish a piece of cherry wood with its subtle grain, the incredibly rich, creamy smoothness it sands to; instantly, you’re hooked. That is how I now feel about ziricote. I cannot wait to get my hands on this stuff also known as zericote or its scientific name, Cordia Dodecandra.
This discovery was made on a recent trip to Belize. My intention was to spend a week there working on a few articles and scouting out a town I might retire to someday. But as I traveled down the east coast of Belize, I repeatedly encountered crafts employing this rich, often brainy-grained, brown and blonde wood. And when you ask about it the response isn’t, “yes, that would be ziricote”. It’s almost always, “Ah, yes! Ziricote! Yes. That is our wood!” Belizeans are justifiably proud of this natural resource. They are quite jealous of it too. It does not come cheap. In the US, a two inch thick, 5 inch wide, 6 feet long board can set you back up to $700. I’ll tell you why that might not be such a bad deal later.
The crafts in Belize are something you need to see. And the craftsmen are confident and happy to share the story behind every piece they make. Take the case of Edmond. He has a tent right next to the town clock in San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris Caye. I ran into him twice returning from the airport to the water taxi. I was pressed for time but risked missing my ride to look at his work. It was beautiful. Ranging from understated to ornate, he offers bowls, Mayan totems, walking sticks and more in a variety of species. No pine or red oak in the lot. I picked up an unfinished walking stick with a spiraling cove wrapping along the length of the stick. “How did you create this,” I asked.
“I do everything with the ‘mah-cheet’.”
It took me a moment to realize he meant "machete". He roughs out his work; rosewood, mahogany, poisonwood, ironwood - with a machete. This is followed by a rasp and file. Then the work is sanded.
“I have got to see this machete,” I told him. He informed me he doesn’t keep his good one here. He showed me a light machete with a blade that has been sharpened countless times. “Why not the good one?” I asked him. Edmond explained that he only works at home with his good tools. Otherwise, he tells me, his friends would steal his good mah-cheet. I looked at him incredulously. He shrugs and smiles a resigned smile. There is something about petty theft here. It seems a part of the culture. It isn’t even seen as more than a sleight. Well, it is a culture heavily influenced by pirates. It’s in the history books.
I continued to peruse his table. His bowls are shaped by a chainsaw, even the round ones. You can turn these against a micrometer and discover they are not actually round. But to the naked eye and in your hand, they are, and all roughed out with a chainsaw. “What is this bowl made from?” I wondered aloud. “Ah, (and there it is) that is Ziricote! That is our Belizean wood, my friend.”
I thank Edmund and tell him I’ll try to stop by before returning to the States. I hurry off to catch my boat.
One afternoon after a visit to San Pedro and I walked up the beach to Captain Morgan’s resort. A breeze from the water kept the sun from burning. Passing stands of coconut trees, villas and resorts, I happened across a traveling woodcarver. His name is Joe Daniels, and like other merchants on Ambergris Caye, he walks the beach from San Pedro to the north end resorts and back again carrying his work in a sack. He has bowls, totems and sailboats. His sailboats, using a clever design trick, break down for packing quite easily.
I have seen my share of street vendors and hustlers over the years. The worst may be Tangier, Morocco. They will try to sell anything. If shy of trinkets, they will simply put out their hand. They are obsequious or pushy and demanding. Why they are is not lost on me. They are desperately poor. While you’ll find your share of these types in Belize City, on the Cayes it is different. Joe and the Mayan ladies that sell their amazing fabrics are not overly solicitous nor are they pushy. They are business people. They offer their product, not much sales pitch needed. If you are interested, you make a deal with pleasant conversation and if you wish, the backstory of your piece. They’re fun to talk to.
Wonder the streets of San Pedro and you’ll find several shops with more incredibly beautiful pieces made from ironwood, poisonwood, rosewood, mahogany and of course, their very own ziricote. You will also find paintings and fabric work of endless variety. You can spend hours in these little shops if you have a love of crafts.
For the casual traveler, Belize, especially San Pedro, offers access to some very high quality souvenirs at extremely reasonable prices. A piece Joe might spend three days cutting, shaping, gauging, sanding and polishing will set you back $150 BZ or $75 US. And you will come home with a piece that will command a prominent place on your mantel or table. Somehow the word souvenir doesn’t quite fit these pieces. They are art. Period.
Craftsmen in the US who make creative use of the amazing Central American hardwoods can command a very dear price for their goods. If you consider that you could easily make $200 or more on a bowl, a boat or maybe some candle stands, the price of the wood discussed earlier becomes quite reasonable. But for the woodworker or carver, I must warn you, ideas of moving here and being a part of it all will tempt you at every turn.
If you want a chance to see some beautiful crafts and spend time in a very relaxed and friendly place, you should visit Belize. From the moment you arrive, something deep inside you changes. It would be simplistic to say that stress falls away. It would be more accurate to say that you are differently engaged. Perhaps it’s a combination of a new, tropical experience made easier to absorb by very friendly, English-speaking local people. As Joe Daniels put it, “Tell everyone to come. They will love my paradise.”
Tips for traveling to Belize:
-Decide ahead of time if you prefer a beach, jungle or mountain climate for your stay. If it is beach, go to Ambergris. You’ll find the resorts quite reasonable. For the jungle, try Placencia. The capital, Belmopan, is in the hills.
-Go in the off-season. It will be rainy, but only for broken periods during the day. I traveled the entire country in the rainy season. I carried a nylon slicker (I don’t recommend the ones that look like pink trash bags). I used it three times for short walks to the office from my cabana on the beach.
-From Belize City on the mainland, you can rent a car for about $40 US per day and drive to any of the major cities. The country is about the size of New Jersey. But the roads are not all super highway. If you travel to the extreme south, expect to stay overnight before making the drive back. You can fly just about anywhere on domestic airlines for just a few bucks more. I did a day trip to Punta Gorda by air. It ran $140 US and with no need to stay in a hotel. Search Mayan Air and Tropic Air for flights.
-Dining is almost always a good deal. Even the very expensive restaurants with fine food right on the beach provide dinner for two for about what you’d pay at a Lone Star Steakhouse; maybe less. Most eateries, even on Ambergris (an island), are much more reasonable.
-INSECT REPELLANT! It works. On the Cayes they think the sand fly is the national bird.