I met Ruth and her husband Ray at one of my favorite spots, Hickatee Cottages in Punta Gorda, Belize. Every Wednesday night, the owners of the cottages, Ian and Kate, invite Ray to teach traditional Garifuna drumming to the guests.
I was a little bit scared. My lack of rhythm borders on sad and this guy is quite famous…one of the very best in the country. But Ray is amazingly talented as well as very easy going. He actually makes the truly clueless feel like they are getting it.
Not an easy thing to do.
Here is his wife Ruth’s story visiting Belize and then moving to Punta Gorda and starting the Warasa Drum School.
I came to Belize for four months. That was seventy-eight months ago. So what happened in the interim? I met this Garifuna drummer…
had this lovely seaside wedding at home in PG…
built this house…
and started this business:
That is of course the short story!
I came here as a short-term health promotion volunteer, originally based with a small grassroots NGO called Cornerstone Foundation based in San Ignacio, where I met some fabulous people, locals and visitors.
(Cornerstone Foundation crew at the start of the Torch Run for 16 Days of Activitism against Gender-based Violence)
Much though I enjoyed my four months there, at that time I honestly couldn’t imagine living in Belize long-term, and especially not marrying a local!
But then, being a small country, I made some links with other NGOs, and ended up volunteering with and living above BCVI (Belize Council for the Visually Impaired) on Main Street, Punta Gorda. BCVI are a wonderful national eye-care and rehabilitation NGO, who truly deserve a shout-out – free primary eye care clinics in PG, Dangriga, Belize City, Belmopan and Orange Walk, very affordable prescription glasses, and all the money they make from glasses goes to supporting their rehab program for visually impaired children like Rowan Garel – one of their most amazing clients. Check out how Rowan raised money and dove the Blue Hole. Amazing.
I immediately loved Punta Gorda – I lived 20 yards from the Caribbean sea, felt safe walking home at 1am, people were friendly, and I got to go explore the remote villages with my new job, including going on two hour hikes to Machakilha, bush fires and all.
(bush fire next to path on walk back from Machakilha village to Dolores village)
A few months in, one of my friends from London came to visit me for the 2008 Cacao Fest (now Chocolate Festival of Belize), and we went to the local hotspot, where there were some Garifuna drummers playing.
And so I met Ray (full name Ronald Raymond McDonald – I asked to see his Social Security card to verify that one!).
I stayed with BCVI for two years, living the simple (read cheap) life, buying the local fruits and veg at the market, going on occasional trips to the villages like Blue Creek, or out-district to Placencia.
I also took Ray on a visit to the UK – he lost some of his colour while he was there…
And then brought the family here for our wedding
But eventually a “real” job called, and I spent two years taking the bus to Independence and back every day to work in the “banana belt” villages on a primary teacher training project.
Then got a job working at Ministry of Health back in PG – lots more trips out to the villages, and again to Machakilha, but this time it was water not fire on the two hour walk:
Somewhere in the middle of that, Ray told me his dream of having his own Garifuna drum school where he could teach locals and visitors about his culture. So I painted a sign
And then another one
And we did lessons on his dad’s drums in our spare bedroom
Then he made some more drums
Then we got a grant and built this beautiful thatch, made even more drums, and now have a lovely little business next to our house on the edge of PG town where Ray and family teach drumming, dancing, drum-making, cooking and do performances
I’m the resident amateur artist and marketing manager
Over the past six years, I have seen PG slowly change, but it is still a small friendly town, and still has FAR more dirt streets than paved, and not many amenities, and not much variety in the stores. In other words – if you want to eat all the things you used to eat before you moved to Belize, and have all the same creature comforts, then either be prepared to spend two or three times as much getting them, or live elsewhere.
Punta Gorda, and Toledo as a whole is about living with and loving the locals – there is no big expat scene and life is simple. You need to love or at least accept that you will hear lots of Garifuna drumming and local punta rock bands, and that you will often be asked if you want to buy a basket…
(N.B. if you visit the Living Maya Experience, then as Rebecca has said elsewhere, you will realize how seriously under-priced these are!).
You also need to love or accept the dramatic lightning storms in rainy season. But despite the heavy rains at night, and Toledo being the “wettest” district, most daytimes are beautiful blue skies.
I am proud to say that PG, Toledo is my home, and look forward to it slowly developing but hope its character stays the same.
From San Pedro Scoop: FOR ALL THE INFORMATION about this AMAZING drumming school (I am telling you that learning or even trying to play these beats is something that you won’t soon forget), check out the Warasa Drumming School website.
And THANK YOU RUTH!
And I would love to get expat stories from all over Belize. Retired? Bought a business? Living off the land? Please send me a note, I would love to hear from you.