First, some background (and pictures) from Lonely Planet (italics), then our own experience.
With around 10,800 members, Mennonites make up only 3.4% of the population in Belize. But it is impossible to miss the Mennonites, who stand out with their blond hair and blue eyes, the men in plaid shirts and overalls and women in dark dresses with bonnets, reminiscent of Pennsylvania’s Amish population.
Like the Amish, the Mennonites are Anabaptist, with strict religion-based values that keep them isolated in agricultural communities. Speaking mostly Plattdeutsch (Low German), they run their own schools, banks and churches.
Mennonites are devout pacifists and reject most of society’s political ideologies, including paying taxes. This has meant a long history of moving about the world trying to find a place to live in peace. Most of the Belizean Mennonite groups migrated from Mexico after they were faced with the prospect of joining the national social security system in 1958.
The Mennonites have benefited from the tolerant society and laissez-faire policies in Belize, while Belize has benefited from their industriousness and agricultural expertise.
Located on the eastern shore of the Progresso Lagoon, Little Belize is an Old Order Mennonite community of about 2,000 residents. It is an idyllic setting of tidy homesteads and well-maintained farms. This community is among the more traditional Mennonite groups in Belize, rejecting almost all forms of mechanization or technology in an attempt to protect and preserve the community from modernization. Tractors are used for farming, but the machines’ steel wheels ensure that they cannot be used for transportation — a job that is strictly reserved for horses and carriages.
Like most Mennonite villages, Little Belize is an industrious place, its economy thriving on farming and commerce. Other bustling businesses include wood and metal workshops and a poultry farm.
Okay, so that explains the weird dialect we heard in the Immigration office, for starters. And yes, the Mennonites we’ve seen so far – in either Corozal or Orange Walk – have definitely been noticeable in the population – in their styles of dress, and also because they are typically very tan, so their blond hair and blue eyes are even more striking than they’d be anyway in this population.
We’re just around the corner now from Little Belize, so we thought we’d drive over there one day and have a look around. Well, that was an interesting social experiment.
For starters, we went with the mistaken idea that Little Belize would have a town center with shops. In fact, that’s why the Mennonites come to Corozal and Orange Walk – to get their own goods, same as we do (also to sell their goods – notably eggs and cheese).
So we spent quite a while driving through large acreages of farmland (which we saw as we flew over on the way home from San Pedro), expecting to stumble onto “town” eventually, and being frankly stared at by Mennonites in every horse and buggy that passed us on the way. And there were a lot of them – especially women, so maybe they were all coming home from a quilting bee or something?
Anyway, the men were slightly friendly, you could usually get at least a nod or maybe even a wave from them. The women – who I later learned are not supposed to look any man they don’t know in the eye – gave us oblique sideways glances or didn’t look at us at all, with mouths often set in firmly disapproving lines. And the kids – well, you figure any kid you smile at is going to smile back, right? Not these kids – they just stared at us with these fierce little faces – I mean, they just seemed mean.
I felt a little better when Donna relayed her story to us yesterday – that she and Enrique had stopped once to wave at a bunch of Mennonite kids and in response they had all stuck out their tongues at them. She said she was so shocked all she could do was laugh. Okay – now I don’t feel so bad.
But anyway, we definitely felt like ducks out of water, but we figured well, we’ll keep driving, we’ll find town – mostly because we didn’t want to turn around and look like dumb asses to all the wagons we’d have to go pass again.
Eventually we gave up on the idea of finding town though and turned back toward home. And we did have one funny experience on the way back.
Back at home in the States, we used to hang with a group at the Cocoa Beach Pier and always enjoyed that we’d come along after others had been there for a while and frequently someone would notice Ray first and a call of “Hey Ray!” would go up. Like, who are you, Jackie? (which I thought was funny, and we used to joke about privately).
So first of all, we’re stopped at the ferry one day and someone calls out “Hey Ray!” from the New River Stop (it turned out to be Ed Moore, who we went and chatted with). But I’m rolling my eyes and looking at him like, seriously – in Belize too?!
So we’re heading back out of Little Belize – slowly, because the roads are as rutted here as they are everywhere else – and as we’re bracing to meet yet another wagon of unfriendly Mennonites on the opposite side, we hear – you guessed it – “Hey Ray!” And I’m like, no way – in fricking Little Belize?!
Turned out to be a Belizean named Michael that we’d met one day out at the beach house in the wagon with a Mennonite acquaintance – he’d come over to get a boat part for someone else, and recognized Ray.
Yes, Ray, who was insufferably smug about it all the way home. Whatever.