It is about 4 am. My wife is still asleep. Our toddler, too. I am awakened in the second-story bedroom we all three share.
The DJ-directed music—-mostly a rhythmic-centered “punta rock” indigenous to Bellze’s pop culture—still permeates the wood siding and glass-louvered windows of our house. It started about 9 pm the night before from beneath a canopy on the shore of the Caribbean Sea and about 40 yards from our house. It was the second time I had awakened from the rancor, the first being around 1 am. This time, however, the din of a hundred or more huddled bystanders and listeners had diminished to a gaggle of perhaps nine or ten. It was unfortunate for me that the decibels from the sound system were not commensurately adjusted downward.
I hear the shatter of a booze bottle, a holler or two between the remaining revelers, some of whom will be seen a few hours later walking the village road as if they had an eight-hour sleep already and were looking for the party’s next phase.
Only the morning before this one, I was the delegated parent to attend to our
two-year-old who decided that 3:15 am was the time to wake up in what was a relatively quiet night, but for the fairly common barking of dogs—stragglers regularly referred to as “potlickers”—that form cantankerous packs and course the main road of the village.
So, this is not as easy a disturbance for me to shrug off as most “death parties” go. I call them death parties only because I must inject a sense of humor to what is so uncommon to my own Americanized traditions around the death of a loved one. When a person dies in Belize, there is more often than not a “wake.” This occurs within a few days of the person’s passing. But the term, wake, is a bit of a misnomer, especially if one is accustomed to the act of mourning as an overriding component.
These wakes are more like community festivals, open to all. Women in the village will prepare food, usually soups along with rice and beans or stewed beans, for those who are to arrive on the particular evening. Beer will be sold or made available as will wine at times. People are free to bring their own beverages as well, and these are usually the ones still partying into the wee hours while sharing their wealth of alcohol to those who have already exhausted their supply or the change to buy a drink. Needless to say, because of a wake’s festive accouterments, many in the village who may not otherwise attend a person’s wake come for the food and beverage, if not to indeed tie one on, as we Americans say.
Music is always a key ingredient to these wakes. Loud, penetrating music that can often be heard from hundreds and hundreds of yards away in the otherwise docile Belizean darkness, mitigated only by the soft soughing of palms along the shoreline on less eventful nights.
Within a year of the particular person’s demise and exclusive to the wake, something ingrained in the Garifuna culture here takes place. It is called a Nine Night. As far as my research has led me, I deduce that its origins were woven together from Africa to the islands off of Belize where the Garifuna culture’s embryo began to take form hundreds of years ago during the slave-trade days across the Atlantic.
And, again, there is music, drink, clamor and resulting unruliness from what is usually just a small though noticeable few. Usually, the volume of Nine Night foot traffic and sound decrescendos with each progressive evening. The Nine Nights, as well as the wakes, are most often held where the deceased had lived, thus the proximity of the wake below our house on this particular evening in early March.
As is often the case, I cannot simply go back to sleep, even when our child finally returns to his slumber on these occasional premature mornings of his. I toss in the bed as the music blasts on. I curse to myself in more than a whisper. Fortunately my wife and child are heavy sleepers. They are predisposed from my angst and my inability to fall back to sleep.
At about 6:30 or 7 am—when our boy normally awakes—it dons on me that the music probably won’t end until the church bell rings for the deceased’s formal services—usually about 8 am. I therefore surrender to calling it an elongated morning and rise from the bed, amble to the kitchen where I pour my traditional morning beverage, a cup of hot yerba mate. If everyone in the house remains asleep as of 8 o’clock, I can wait for the four rings of the church bell to expire and drink my tea in temporary solitude on our deck.
I am partly okay now.