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Reflections on a Belizean breakfast

The young couple hesitate nervously on the threshold, uncertain as to whether etiquette requires them to take a seat or place their order at the counter.  A whispered consultation results in them sitting at a table outside on the sand with an undisturbed view to the Caribbean.  Five minutes pass, and no sign of a waitress leads to another hushed discussion and an anxious glance towards the door to the kitchen.  I sit smugly in a corner of the restaurant.  I have accomplished mission objective number one: I have a menu.

Breakfast in Belize is not a meal to be rushed; not something to do if you have an appointment to keep, or a bus to catch, or just an odd quarter of an hour to spare.  It is a good introduction to the concept of Belizean Time – where the clocks move a little slower, the pace of life is a little calmer, and an order for bacon and eggs takes about an hour and a half.

The kitchen door swings open and all eyes turn expectantly.  A huge woman, her hair in curlers, her T-shirt stained with chip fat (I hope), emerges, and presents a cadaverous backpacker with a vast plate of omelette and refried beans.  His look of smugness surpasses all previous: mission accomplished.  He attacks his bounty with an enthusiasm born of the desperation of hours.  I am so engrossed in watching him that I almost miss the opportunity of garbling a hurried order for scrambled egg, bacon, fried jacks, and coffee, before the woman disappears beyond the hallowed portal once more.

The young couple look more relaxed: they are studying a menu.

Now I have time on my hands.  The first morning I had visited this restaurant I had sat and I had fumed.  I had watched the seconds change to minutes and the minutes turn to lots and lots of minutes.  I had waited and I had waited – but I was waiting with a mind still governed by London Time, where time is money, and waiting is just a means to an end.  Now this was my sixth morning and my body clock had made the subtle conversion to Belize Time.  And, frankly, I was feeling pretty chilled.

There are plenty of interesting things to do while you are waiting.  I watch the backpacker’s food mountain diminish to the size of a small hummock with an attentiveness bordering on rudeness.  An American I guess.  Why do Americans only eat with their right hand?  And yet still manage to eat so quickly?  I pick up my menu again and try to find some nuances of it that I haven’t noticed before.  The young couple appear to be doing the same thing.  I think the woman is testing the chap on his memory of the list of items – I can’t understand the language they are speaking but I can imagine her saying “third item up from the bottom under hors d’oeuvres?”

A small parade of local children, not one older than seven, march through the restaurant and unhesitatingly through the kitchen door.  A trail of wet sand marks their passage.  They had been silent and looked grim, like a deputation petitioning Downing Street.  A brief moment and they reappear, still in line, now all sucking ice lollies.  Six days ago I might have weighed up my chances of waylaying the smallest one and making off with his candy.  Today I just smile like a simpleton at the scene and watch with pleasure their receding figures.

The interior decor of the restaurant is uninspiring.  A simple wooden building, it is raised slightly above ground level on stilts, and is entered directly from the sand by means of two low steps.  Pictures of Bob Marley hang on three walls – very, very tiny pictures, giving them a certain strange reverence displayed against such a wide blank space. The fourth wall comprises a massive sound system – thankfully a dormant beast this early in the morning.  Looking out through the wooden shutters, though, the view is spectacular.  The Caribbean is a perfect turquoise blue; today not even disrupted by a breaking white wave.  Gently lapping upon the white sand, everything is very still.  And very quiet.  And very hot.  Immediately outside the restaurant is a brilliant blaze of red bougainvillea.  I watch, engrossed, for several minutes, as a iridescent green hummingbird hovers energetically amongst the flowers.  Or is it several hours?

A lazy tan dog strolls along the sands, before succumbing to the effects of gravity and collapsing in a slumbering huddle.  I am reminded of typing tests – now where is the quick brown fox?

I could tell the backpacker had completed his repast because the flies that had deserted my vicinity in droves at the sight of nutrition had returned in the expectation that my meal was soon to arrive.  I felt rather less optimistic about that than the flies.

Almost having exhausted my resources for self-entertainment, and weighing up the pros and cons of looking at the menu again over a speedy death, the kitchen door is once again swung open and salvation is at hand.  The backpacker tries to interrupt the smooth passage of food to my table by trying to pay his bill, but the waitress ignores him and acknowledges my gushing gratitude with a quiet “You’re welcome.”

The breakfast is excellent.  Only in Belize can I get scrambled egg made the way that I cook them back home – fluffy and yellow, not white and swimming in a sea of water.  The bacon is crispy.  The fried jacks are inspirational.  These deep fried triangles of dough are wonderful either sweet or savory, and serve in the place of everything from fried bread, to muffins, to waffles.  There is even milk today – evaporated, of course.  I take a sip of coffee, spread butter on one of my jacks, and bask in the admiring gaze of my audience.  I feel like bowing to the young couple and showing off my meal – “This too can one day be yours.”

Suddenly I am aware of a commotion at the counter.  The backpacker has paid and is making to leave when the waitress comes dashing out from the kitchen again, holding a small package.

“Man,” she says, “this is yours.  I forgot to put it in your omelette.”
She hands him the object.

The backpacker unwraps a quarter pound of cheese and with a bemused shake of his head leaves.

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