From the swamps to the hills and back!

Cross Country Belize Clive Tucker & Jeffrey O'Brien 1979 National Stadium

(Following is the editorial in the Wednesday, April 9, 2003 edition of Amandala)

This newspaper is 34 years old, and over the years we have written many editorials about the Cross Country race, the Holy Saturday cycling race which is so much a part of our collective Belizean psyche.

Next Saturday’s race will be the 75th race in the history of British Honduras/Belize, and things have changed. Nowadays it is the norm that foreign riders win the race. On Holy Saturday 2003, if there are 10 riders coming back through Hattieville, 7 or 8 will be foreigners; and if there are 5 riders coming back, 3 or 4 will be non-Belizeans; if there are 3 riders coming back, 2 will be from outside. This has become the pattern.

The Mexicans had been coming, from Chetumal and Cancún and Ciudad del Carmen, from as far back as we can remember, from the 1950’s, and only one ever won – Pablo Calderon in 1971. And though Pablo was a threat again in 1972, a threat turned back in 1972 by Anthony “The Tank” Hutchinson in his thunderous ride through the Cayo hills, it was the “team concept” which really began foreign domination in the late 1980’s.

Belize Cross Country Cycling Classic

MCC Grounds

Belizean teams began bringing foreign riders, predominantly Americans, to help them win, and the teams and their sponsors celebrated the victories of their foreign riders. But the masses of Belizeans have mourned many Holy Saturdays since then, because there was no other day in the year when we were so nationalistic as Holy Saturday. On that day we loved Belize, our heritage, our history and our land; we loved, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, “with a love that was more than love.” On Holy Saturdays, we loved Belize to death, and the team concept betrayed our love. Today most of us have made the adjustment; our hearts are still broken on Holy Saturday, but the healing is quicker.

We “non-team” Belizeans knew that there was really no way a foreign rider could know what Holy Saturday was all about, no frigging way. The Americans were captured by the mystique of Belize’s Cross Country, and they marveled at the Holy Saturday fervor of the fans along the highway, in the swamp and in the hills, and yet there was no way the foreigners could ever know what Holy Saturday was all about.

Primitive peoples, before the advent of monotheism and the spiritual God Almighty, worshipped the sun and the moon and the stars and rivers and the sea and the earth. They created elaborate rituals and fertility rites, because spirituality and religion back then were about celebrating life, while at the same time trying to understand, trying to accept death.

The Cross Country is three Belizean generations old. The Battle of St. George’s Caye is only eight Belizean generations old, and if you go back ten, twelve, fifteen generations, then most of our slave ancestors were alive. When the Cross Country began in 1928, and for all the generations before that, life in this land was about going to Cayo and coming back. The route of the race was the route of life in Belize – to Cayo and back.

Belize is a land hidden and protected by the largest Barrier Reef in the Western Hemisphere. The most important break (the Spanish people call it a quebrado) in the Barrier Reef is where English Caye and Goff’s Caye sit on the reef 12 miles southeast of Belize City. Outside of the Barrier Reef the water was more than a hundred fathoms deep, but inside, the greatest depth of the water was 10 or 12 fathoms – 60 or 70 feet. And inside the Barrier Reef there were shoals and reefs which were treacherous.

When you came through the English Caye quebrado, you turned your ship north towards Water Caye, and then went west along the channel, towards Robinson Point. You travelled between reefs until you turned northwest at the Spanish Caye marker, and then you headed towards Belize City, or east/northeast towards Stake Bank, if that was your destination.

Centuries ago, pirates who prowled the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, came inside the Barrier Reef to hide, and where Belize City is, where the river meets the sea, is where they began camping. Belize City was mangrove swamp then – the key thing was the river, a source of fresh water.

Some of the pirates began going up the Belize Old River aways, where they found logwood trees. These were valuable in England and Europe as a source of dyes for cloth. The pirates cut down the logwood trees near the banks of the river and floated them down to the sea, to the swamp of Belize City. The logs were loaded on ships and transported to Europe. As time went on, the tree of value became the mahogany tree, and now the pirates were woodcutters. They bought slaves from Jamaica and they were going farther and farther up the Belize Old River now, farther and farther in search of mahogany – the king of woods. Development then was really mere exploitation, and the foraging woodcutters passed Burrell Boom, Bermudian Landing, Willows Bank, and all those Belize River villages, and then they were reaching all the way to Beaver Dam, Rock Donda, More Tomorrow, and Never Delay. When they reached Roaring Creek, then for sure they were in Cayo, and now it was to Cayo and back.

First it was the sea, then it became the river. When you leave Belize City on the way to Roaring Creek and the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena farther west in the hills, there is a river running on your left east to the sea. This is the great Sibun River. From Burdon’s Canal to Rockville. But as you drive on the Western Highway, there is also a mighty river running on your right east to the sea – the historic Belize Old River. When you meet the Sibun between Burdon’s Canal and Rockville, you lose the Old River, and when you lose the Sibun in the 30 series, you meet the Old River at Beaver Dam. Slaves ran away to hide in the Sibun River bush. The woodcutting magnates ended up as far as Cayo – San Ignacio/Santa Elena. What we are saying to you is that the history of this country is the ride from the swamps to the hills, and back – from the sea to the hills along the riverbank. To Cayo and back on Holy Saturday. It is like the Way of the Cross – first pain and crucifixion, later resurrection. Crosscountry is a religion – Belize’s one day religion. And the foreigners are heathens.

Oh, next Saturday on the Western Highway, the foreign riders will discipline and intimidate the entire Belizean nation. They are going to hold our national pride to ransom for hours. But after it’s over, and we leave for the cayes and countryside to unite with our families and discuss The Race until late into the Holy Saturday night, then the Crosscountry will become for us what the Italians call their organization – cosa nostra, which means in English, “our thing.”

Crosscountry is cosa nostra, because it is the only bicycle race on planet earth which is a religion, a one day religion, mind you, but still a religion. In the darkness of Holy Saturday morning, all the ghosts of our ancestors come alive. They ride from the swamp, where the river meets the sea, they go the hills of Cayo, then they come back. One by one after the race, some more unwilling than others, they return to their rest. That is why on Holy Saturday afternoon and evening, we feel so lost. The ghosts of our ancestors are returning to their rest. In the name of the fathers and the sons, the mothers and the daughters, in the name of love and life, God bless Belize …


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


Live Chat Software