Our Failed Attempt to Interview the Mennonites in Belize

Mennonites in Belize

It’s not often we’d write a post about our failure, but we thought we’d share this funny story with you. As travel bloggers we’re always on the look out to report about the unreported, but on this occasion it just didn’t work out. At the time we were frustrated, but now we look back on it and laugh. Humid days chasing down a ghostlike community, sleeping in a dirty sex motel and surviving off only bread and mustard. This story has it all.

 

We were leaving the Caribbean coast of Belize and heading inland, making our way slowly up to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Ever since first entering Belize a few weeks before we kept bumping into this oddly placed sub-culture that was arousing our curiosity; the Mennonites.

The Mennonites are an agricultural Christian community originating from Northern Europe in the 16th Century. They moved around throughout the centuries to avoid persecution and eventually a bunch of them settled in Belize in the 1950s. To this day they still live with a lot of their 16th Century traditions, choosing to reject modern technologies.

The Mennonite communities of Belize live under varying degrees of radicalism, but across the board many possess similar features. They speak an old Germanic language that dates back to their roots; they’re mostly fair skinned, they shun modern technology and they kind of dress like pilgrims.

What makes them even more peculiar is that they stick out among the Belizean population like a sore thumb. We’d be walking down a busy street filled with everyday black and Hispanic looking families dressed in modern clothing. Then suddenly we hear the clip clop of a horse and turn around to see this white dude in farmer’s overalls, with a massive beard, riding a horse and cart through the streets.

 

Mennonites in Belize

 

Now we can’t generalise too much because we didn’t get to find out as much as we’d wanted, but we can’t say we didn’t try. We travelled up north to the town of Orange Walk, a great jumping off point for tucked away Mennonite communities. When we arrived in town we realised very quickly that it wasn’t set up for us budget backpackers. There was only one budget option in town and it really made you work for your savings.

I mean really work for it. Apart from the fact that it was guarded by feral street dogs out the front, it was also obviously used for scandalous love affairs when not occupied by cheap backpackers. While we were waiting to drop off our bags we saw a cleaner busily sweeping away condoms from the room we were headed into. Not a good sign.

After a restless nights sleep, and some bread and mustard for dinner (we didn’t want to brave the street dog back at night so stayed in and ate our rations) we survived until the morning. We’d mapped out a couple of communities to explore, however recent flood damage to the roads was making it difficult to get there. We decided to walk over to the market and find the buses that take the Mennonites from town into their communities.

I wasn’t sure how we were going to approach them, so I decided to just throw myself in there. I climbed onto one of their buses, as a row of heads turned in my direction, and asked a Mennonite couple in English where the bus was going. Nothing but blank looks. Ok, so I tried in Spanish, and the looks were even blanker. Umm what to do now. I jumped off the bus and looked at Christine puzzled. We tracked down another Mennonite kid in the street selling peanuts, who just stared at us behind his glasses, blinking. We then tried a woman selling apples, but she just grunted and frowned.

 

Mennonites in Belize

 

We knew they spoke their own language, but surely they knew some Spanish or English as well. They had integrated with the Belizean community to sell their agricultural products, so they must have some multilingual skills.

At this stage we were at a bit of a loss. We were nearing the end of our Belize trip and we were desperate to get back to some delicious Mexican food and cheap beer. We wanted to get this story, but the border was in sight only a few hours away and we really didn’t want to go back to the dirty sex motel. In the end we simply said, “screw it”, grabbed our bags and hopped on a bus. It wasn’t meant to be!

19 Comments

  • David Ryan says:

    Awww. That’s too bad. But it’s still a fun trip, yes?

  • I did not even know that this culture existed in Belize! What a strange thing to stumble upon. We would be curious too to find out more information! Too bad it did not work out but at least you will have the story.

    • Yeah it was a bit of a shock to us as well. We probably could have tried harder, but we just weren’t feeling the vibe, and sometimes you need to go with your gut. Plus it gives us a reason to go back again haha.

  • I love the Menonites! Here in Mexico you can find them in some cities, such as Acapulco, selling this amazing cheese!

  • Erin says:

    You’ve taught me something new today. How strange they they wouldn’t even speak to you! And I smiled every time you referred to that hotel as the dirty sex motel…lol!

  • Well, you tried ;)! And you were still able to write a post about them :)! Never heard about the Mennomites, but seems like a very interesting culture/community!

  • That is actually really interesting – I had no idea there were Mennonites in Belize! Would have been very cool to interview them indeed

    • The Mennonites are scattered throughout Mexico and Central America in random little communities that buck current trends. Fascinating to think about how they’re choosing to live. Maybe we’ll get them next time. Better brush up on our German.

  • I didn’t know there were some in Belize too, or in Mexico. They are a fascinating community, to bad you were not able to communicate with them!

  • Julie K. says:

    Aren´t they sort of religious cousins of the Amish? I think these two groups can be easily confused..And your experience only confirms their detachment from mainstream culture, which strongly reminds me of the Amish communities..Very interesting they settled in Belize though — they must REALLY stand out among the others!

  • David S.P. says:

    I have never been there nor has my wife even though she has lost relatives there, If I had been there I’m sure I could have gotten them to talk to you; I do know their language and culture and can immerse myself if need be.

    • That’s awesome! I wish we had you when we were there! We would have loved to explore their culture but they seemed pretty guarded so thought it best not to push. You and your wife should go visit!

  • Ajat says:

    Lately my girlfriend and I talked to Mennonites, and even visited them. We were on a bus full of Belizean folks, and there were no extra seats. Then entered a woman with two kids and a man. No one of the folks even blinked an eye to let them sit down, but for me it was no problem so I offered her a seat, especially taking into account that she had two kids with her of quite a younger age. They turned to be a very nice couple, spoke perfect English. I think their first language is English, and nothing else. In the family they speak English, and limited Spanish. The man was a little cautious about us, and the woman was more open. She said that she grew up in Canada, and then converted to being a mennonite. Then we talked for a while and they went off the bus. In the meantime they invited us to visit their small village in the middle of the jungle in Belize. We hesitated for some time, but then decided to go there hitchhiking from San Ignacio. There used to be a special camping point somewhere in the jungle, which later was closed because the place was bought by an American couple (half American though). Initially we headed there, but since it was closed, we decided to pay a visit to our new fellows. We found their house, but unfortunately they were not staying there, so we went across the field to their neighbours (all mennonites of course). They were somewhat surprised and also cautious, but talked nicely and said that the couple we are looking for must be in a different house. They still remember some words in German and Russian because their ancestors migrated from Russia and Germany. We talked about that and went to the house they pointed to, and found the guys we knew. There they showed us the Bible and we talked about the news, the world and the religion. They gave us papers where they explain why they do not favour electricity, and also we talked about what’s going on in the world because I recon such strangers as us are a good source of information since apparently they do not watch any TV or internet. Then we left. I only hesitated that I was a little surprised by how it all worked out and did not buy anything from them although it would be super nice to buy cheese and milk.

    Hey, why I came to your page was because I know one person now who I guess could benefit from going to mennonites and living this kind of life. I think this is quite possible, but maybe there are some local Belizean regulations, which can make it a little difficult. I know that mennonites as anyone else need to comply with such regulations, i.e. obtain visas to move from one country to another, etc. Hope my story worked well for you.

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