Student Adventures Around The World

Harvey, Belize

Map of Belize

Harvey is a senior at SMU who is majoring in anthropology. He is in Belize as part of a research project looking into the impact of traditional Mayan healing. So far, much of his time has been spent interviewing residents of San Ignacio, Belize.

August 12, 2006

Traditional healing: an emerging industry
We have now finished conducting interviews and have been busy thinking and writing about our findings. I have found that despite the need for structure in interviews, my informants disclosed the most information when they could speak freely about themselves. I have had some interesting experiences with traditional healers: one was able to identify my blood type (O+!) simply by touching points on my back. Another was able to identify that I have an irregular heartbeat condition without checking my pulse. Traditional healing and medicine is an emerging industry in Belize, an alternative health system, for both local and tourist consumption. This is evident in the variety of expression I encountered.

The Mayan pharmacology
I would say there is a widespread belief in the efficacy of a ‘traditional’ Maya pharmacology. Many people use indigenous plants before buying medicine or consulting a doctor. I found this inter-cultural phenomenon to be intriguing in such a culturally diverse setting. Everybody I spoke to expressed different reasoning and different potentials of the efficacy of traditional healing. Interestingly, the most prominent ideas expressed were beliefs that supernatural forces were the ultimate cause and effect of health and healing.

Black magic
Serious health problems were often understood to be caused by ‘black magic,’ constructed by a ‘brujo’ or sorcerer who acts on behalf of malicious or lethal intent. There was genuine fear expressed regarding this black magic. Supernatural healing was believed to be largely ineffective or more dangerous for the healer than the victim. Only certain healers who had lifetimes of experience expressed confidence in dealing with this type of illness, otherwise it was advised to appease, or destroy the source of malicious intent, possibly by finding a more powerful sorcerer. In terms of healing, the medicinal potentials of plants or medicinal techniques could be enhanced through rituals, dreams, or any method understood to mediate the assistance of supernatural forces. Failure to mediate such forces could result in detraction of healing potential. Such are examples of how highly specialized a practice health and healing could become beyond the knowledge of natural remedies that everybody could know and use.

Treading carefully
I feel I gained a good understanding of how traditional healing continued to exist and even compete against modern medicine in certain ways. Furthermore, I was able to formulate concrete reasons as to why it continues and why it operates the way it does. I was able to gain this understanding by talking extensively, but more so by applying theories I had learnt at SMU. These are materialistic theories, not abstract or idealist thoughts. Unfortunately, I encountered some deal of opposition in discussing these concrete theories to people - what would be known as scientific anthropology – not so much in opposition to what I was saying, I believe, but more toward what they were assuming was implied about non-scientific anthropology in my statements. Many people seem to deny that humanity can be understood scientifically at all, because they believe that it has the potential to override all other kinds of understanding. Anyhow, I found it better to deliberate and discuss by treading carefully, rather than being explicit about scientific anthropology.

July 25, 2006

A time for work . . .
   Have spent most my time traveling to a small town near San Ignacio interviewing Mayan healers. Conducting the interview itself is just one part of the arduous process of collecting ethnographic data. Most interviews I have conducted last more than an hour because the objective is to get informants to disclose as much as possible. There is then the long, long task of listening to the recording and transcribing it word for word! Prior to that, questions must be formulated from topical and thematic frameworks we have been building from our encounters in the field. We are encouraged to record all of our daily activities in a log, and be aware of everything going on in terms of both conversation and observation.

   I am certainly gaining a good deal of professional experience in conducting interviews. I must establish an immediate rapport with these people in order to gain their confidence to speak candidly. Furthermore I must construct everything that goes into these interviews. Our professor is there to make sure that we are getting qualitative data out of these interviews for later analysis.

   The mood of the class is usually highly confident. However, it has not been unusual for great concerns to emerge for people when they may wonder, “Am I asking the right questions?”

A time for play . . .
Leisure time is usually spent about the town after dinner in the bars or clubs. However, the low price of everything has had a heavy burden on my wallet.

   This weekend I managed to get across the border to Guatemala and hustle myself on a minivan to the island town of Flores. What a place! Guatemala is twice as cheap as Belize and much crazier and much more dangerous. There were 5 soldiers to every street corner ready to annihilate any form of criminal activity (or civilian uprising.) On the other hand, there are beautiful women speeding around on motorbikes everywhere.

   The contrasts are stunning, Flores being another example. This place is a cobble street town covering an entire island very much resembling some European spot. It is situated on a warm clear lake great for swimming. I reckon I spent about as much time in the water as I did out of it. This was probably because sobriety was of no concern to me this particular day. I spent the entire night roaming about town like a vagrant searching for ‘litro’ volumes of Gallo beer. I was of course accompanied by real vagrant companions on this carousing endeavor, of whom I found to be of exceptional character — and to whom I would serve highest recommendation as entertainers and tour guides.

July 14, 2006

I arrived in Belize on the afternoon of the 11th under heavy cloud. The lowlands of Belize City was saturated with water from tropical storms. I traveled to the highland town of San Ignacio by public bus, which seemed to be deftly operating on private commission. San Ignacio is a commercial center located on the western border of Guatemala in the middle of the country. Belize has a low population density but is extremely diverse ethnically. The country seems to be a haven for dispossessed peoples: Garifuna, Lebanese, Hindi, Chinese and people of African and European extraction occupy the towns and settlements.

By my experience so far, these urban communities are distinct by name only. There is great intermingling and marriage, the common tongue amongst everyone being Kriol. This could be described as a dialect of English, but its phonology and morphology distinguish it as another language. It sounds like a heavy version of Caribbean English, thus despite being in Central America the atmosphere feels more like the Caribbean than Latin America. The cultural landscape seems to be defined in equal parts by Creole, Mestizo and African diaspora cultures. The original inhabitants of the land: the Maya, seem to keep a low profile even though aspects of their culture have been the most heavily commercialized in Belize for tourism etc…

I am here with 10 anthropology students from the University of Houston. We are each addressing our own particular research projects although we collaborate often. We conduct long open ended interviews with informants, mostly in informal settings such as nightclubs, walking on the street, or riding a bus.

I am collaborating with another student and our instructor on research regarding the impacts of traditional Mayan healing. In particular I am researching how the popularization of Mayan culture (medicine in particular) beyond Central America is impacting things at the local level. We attempt to elicit information that is particular to revealing peoples’ behavior rather than simply collecting their opinions. Unfortunately, I can not be too much more specific because I am bound to agreements to protect anonymity and confidentiality.

So far we have engaged ourselves around San Ignacio and the surrounding villages. Usually we spend most the day in pursuit of informants & info, or corroborating on what we have gathered. We have had time to enjoy the nightlife & visit some areas of interest, including the ancient ruins of Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. However, whatever time we spend enjoying ourselves, at the moment seems detrimental to accomplishing a serious study with all the information we are dealing with!