Day 2: Orientation
We limped into Chiclero Camp in San Ignacio on a flat tire late Saturday evening and there I paired up with my
roommate, Bernie, an affable fellow 72 years young who’d retired from a career
in the gaming industry. I didn’t mention to Bernie that I’d once spent six
months learning how to beat the casinos at blackjack and during that time pit bosses
like him were my arch nemesis. My system worked and I did pretty well in Reno, but I
learned that playing blackjack is a tough way to make a living, so I decided to
get a real job instead. Bernie was
a great roommate, though. He did a lot of volunteer work in Portland and I especially liked him since he called me “kid.”
Anyone who calls me “kid” is an instant pal.
On Sunday morning,
our 23-person group ate breakfast at Chiclero and started orientation at 9 a.m. I
figured that we’d get maybe an hour of orientation. No, more like five. First
each of us introduced ourselves, then we got a thorough lesson in Belize’s
history and geography from Alexis, a teacher in a
high school near Belmopan, the country's capital. After a lunch break,
Jonny gave us two more hours of
orientation. As Jonny explained, ProWorld makes sure its participants are well-versed in
the country and its customs. Nope, no "ugly Americans" here!
So if you're
wondering about Belize, here’s a crash
course. Belize is about as big as Massachusetts and has around 250,000 people, a quarter of whom live in Belize
City, the country’s largest city. Belize was an English colony called British Honduras
until 1981 when it became independent. Due to its British
connection, it's the only country in Latin America with English as the official
language and most folks speak English or at least understand it, so it's easy for mono-linguistic
Americans to get around, but Spanish, Mayan, and a Caribbean language called
Creole are also spoken widely. The country is a cultural melting pot, but
everyone gets along pretty well and politically the country is stable.
The average family income is about $8,000 U.S., putting it in the middle of
Central American countries. The Belizean dollar is tied to the American
dollar at a fixed 2:1 ratio and you can use either or both currencies
in the stores, which is handy. And most importantly, the national beer of Belize,
called Belikin, is really good, especially after a hard day’s work as we'd soon
class ended in mid-afternoon and we had the rest of Sunday to relax. I
joined up with Bernie, Tamera, Doris and Urban and walked to the Mayan
ruins at Cahal Pech in the jungle next to Chiclero Camp. From around 2,000 B.C. to 1,000
A.D., the Mayans thrived in Central America, developing an extensive culture with a
complex written language and a thorough understanding of math and astronomy. The Mayans
established several large communities from southern Mexico to Nicaragua,
including the one at Cahal Pech. When Jonny told us about the jungle ruins earlier that day, I
figured they were a few small mounds. Nope. These ruins were
extensive and massive, covering several acres with intricate and lofty temples
over 75 feet high. I was especially intrigued with the ball court, where Mayans
played a form of basketball with the winning captain having the "honor" of being
sacrificed. Considering my court skills or lack thereof, I would've had a long
career in the Mayan NBA.
During my week in
Belize, I was struck by the pervasiveness of the Mayan heritage. There are
likely many sites such as Cahal Pech deep in the jungles of Belize that haven’t yet been
discovered and Mayan artifacts are everywhere. In fact, the next day while we
were the digging the library foundation at Succotz, we unearthed some Mayan
pottery shards. Taking artifacts out of the country is punishable by serious
jail time though, so we left them there.
On Sunday evening, we
all ate dinner at Chiclero, then a small group walked down the hill to an ice
cream store. As for me, I pulled up a chair, sat on the veranda, and watched the lights of San Ignacio twinkle in the distance
as the sun went down. It was a
warm and pleasant evening and though I was thousands of miles from Oregon, I
felt more at home than I'd been in a long time. Yep, I knew I was going
to enjoy my week in Belize.
Sunday was Orientation Day. Bruce and
Gary are getting a lesson on Belize from Alexis, a Belmopan high school teacher.
Above center: This was our home
for the week, Chiclero
Camp, on the outskirts of San Ignacio. The restaurant was upstairs and our
rooms were downstairs.
Above right: The Mayan
ruins at Cahal Pech
National Park were right next door. Abandoned around 800
A.D., they were discovered in the 1950's and are stunning.
Days 3 & 4: Working at Succotz
I woke Monday
morning to the sound of screeching parrots in the nearby trees, went upstairs at
7 a.m. and ate breakfast with our group. I couldn’t remember the last time
I wore shorts and a t-shirt on a February morning, but I liked the concept.
This was something I could definitely get used to.
sponsoring agency, had lined
up two work sites for us that week. In the village of San Jose de Succotz,
a half-hour away and near the Guatemalan border, we’d lay the foundation for a
library that would double as the town's storm shelter. And in the remote
village of San Antonio, we’d work on the elementary school by
shoring up the walls and building a sidewalk. There were 23 in our crew
and Cecelia split us up into different workgroups each day,
making sure each person visited both sites during the week. I’d work at
Succotz on Monday and Tuesday and at San Antonio on Wednesday and Thursday.
On Friday, we'd work in the morning and visit a Mayan temple in the afternoon,
our reward for a hard week’s work -- assuming we survived!
After a quick
pancake breakfast, my Succotz group bundled into a van driven by Adrian, an
amiable ProBelize staffer, and headed down the bumpy highway, briefly
stopping at a Taiwanese-run grocery store to pick up some
drinking water. Belize is a quirky country and a real ethnic melting pot.
One reason is that the Belizean government sells passports to Taiwanese
citizens. The Taiwanese get a chance to start a business, the Belizean
government makes a hefty bundle, and everyone’s happy. Well, except for some of
the locals, who resent the incursion of the Taiwanese. But in general,
everyone in Belize gets along pretty well.
Speaking of the
that evening Cecelia told me a funny story about her experience in a Chinese
grocery store that still cracks me up. She wanted to get some bananas for her work crews, so she walked
into a Chinese grocery store in San Ignacio Monday evening and asked if they had
bananas. Something like the old song, “Yes, we have no bananas,” the Chinese
woman at the checkout counter got upset at Cecelia and said, “Bananas? No, we
don’t have any bananas! This is a GROCERY store!” Um, O.K., so where are you
supposed to buy bananas in Belize, I wondered? I still laugh when I
think about it.
Above left: Belize's
currency is worth one-half of American currency. In the stores, you can use
either Belize dollars, American dollars or a mix. Yes, that's Queen
Elizabeth, a holdover from the British Honduras days.
Our rooms at Chiclero Camp were basic but comfortable.
We even had cable TV and, like a lot of the Belizeans, watched
CNN's coverage of the Wisconsin primary.
Bernie, used to deal blackjack in the Vegas
casinos and now does a lot of volunteer work. Bernie, you can be my
roommate any day!
Back on the Chain Gang
We reached the
village of Succotz
around 8:30 Monday morning and one of our team members, Urban, gave us a brief
talk. Having been a contractor in the U.S., Urban knew a lot about
construction and would oversee operations at Succotz all week, providing
As we quickly
learned, the Succotz work was pretty basic:
we just had to fill the foundation walls with dirt so we could pour a concrete
floor, and hopefully by our last day, Thursday. Oh, there was one catch: after we filled the concrete foundation with a few inches of dirt,
we had to pack it down using 15-pound tampers. Tamping was definitely the hard
part. Tamping dirt is a great way to take out your aggressions but, as I
learned, it also wipes you out fast in the hot sun and soggy air. In fact,
after an hour my fingers were going numb from lifting the heavy tamper and pounding
it down. In doing our various tasks -- digging, filling, tamping -- we were all
soon sweating like pigs. But we were happy pigs. Working
hard is a great way to bond and by noon our group felt like we’d all known each
other for years.
During the morning,
I filled-and-tamped with Tom, a substitute teacher in Portland, and his
girlfriend Sheila, also from Portland, while thinking of the Pretender's song, "Back on the Chain Gang." Then I
switched to wheel-barrowing with Kate, a manager at Safeway, and Forrest, an engineer. Later, I hit the dirt pile with Coleen, a nurse from Iowa, and her friend Michele from Alaska.
I also worked with Carolyn, who modestly mentioned that she’d won an Olympic gold medal in swimming
during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. It was an interesting bunch and despite the
hot and sweaty work, everyone had a good attitude and a great time.
At noon, we
all collapsed in the shade of the veranda at the elementary school, had lunch and
shared good conversation. I talked about some of my former
girlfriends and my stories about dating disasters cracked up the group -- and me
During lunch, however, one of our team members, Mary, said she was
having trouble with her vision. It had started after we arrived at Succotz
and by noon she'd lost all the vision in her eye. Of course, we were all
concerned and one of our group's nurses, Doris, took Mary to the hospital in San
Ignacio that afternoon. Apparently she had a detached retina and so
decided to fly back to the U.S. the next day for surgery. We were all
saddened to say goodbye to Mary, especially considering the effort
she'd made to travel to Belize. But we learned later that her operation was
a success and she's doing much better now.
The Breakfast Club, 7:00 a.m. Monday
morning at Chiclero Camp.
Getting ready to head to work
Monday morning. We
split up the group each day; half went to Succotz and the other
half to San Antonio.
Sheila and Tom at the Succotz
library site Monday morning. We hoped to fill the foundation with dirt by
Thursday so we could pour the concrete floor. Fill, tamp, fill, tamp...
You get the idea.
Sheesh (a villager), Urban, and Jonny at Succotz. Urban, a
contractor in our crew, directed operations at Succotz each day. His
expertise and guidance was invaluable.
Above center: Carolyn,
Cecelia and Forrest shoveling and tamping to their heart's content.
The weary crew taking a break. From left to right, that's Carolyn, Coleen,
Cecelia, Michele, Forrest, Sheila, and Tom.
Our work site was next to the elementary school.
These are kindergartners at recess.
I won the
"Wet T-shirt Contest" at lunch. It was over 80 degrees every day and very humid. Are we having fun yet?
Carlos tamping down the dirt.
A quiet and kind villager, Carlos volunteers with the Succotz Police
Department. He was stabbed during a
drug bust a few months earlier and almost died. Against his doctor's advice, he worked with us
each day because, as he told me, he just wanted to help.
Above left: Forrest in search of
dog Ollie gave us lots of moral support.
Above right: Here's Michael, an American who's now a barefoot contractor with
ProBelize. He's direct, down-to-earth, politically incorrect, and a total crack-up.
Working with Michael was, alone, worth the cost of the trip.
The Chain Gang, Part Dos
The Succotz library
was next to the elementary school, and as we worked on the library foundation
Monday afternoon, the cute students in their sparkling
clean blue uniforms would occasionally peer out the windows, bewildered by the
crazy Americans slaving away in the hot sun. The schools in Belize are a lot
different than in America and are, by American standards, very primitive. A school is typically a
long, concrete building with wooden partitions to separate the different grade classrooms. The lighting is often dim, windows are
usually without glass or screens, and of
course, there’s no air-conditioning. Despite these conditions, every teacher
and student I met had a good attitude, was appreciative of what they had, and
greatly valued the importance of education. The main
reason I came to Belize was because of my father’s work with the schools in
Latin America years ago, and I could now understand why he was so committed to
We quit around 4
p.m. and after getting a cold soda at a small store ("Coca Cola muy frio, por
favor"), we piled into the van and rode back to Chiclero. After a quick
shower, I walked up to the veranda and shared stories with the San Antonio
group, which had just gotten back. A young Mayan boy came by selling tamales out
of a bucket for 50 cents each and I bought one and enjoyed it immensely, along
with my cold Belikin. He didn't have any more chicken tamales so I got a
beef tamale, but when I bit into it, it tasted a lot like chicken so I made the
old joke, "Hmm... these beef tamales taste like chicken." As I
discovered, it WAS chicken, and Bruce and Claire got a big laugh. Relaxing
on the veranda each afternoon would become a daily tradition and it was a great
way to wind down after a hard day, sharing funny stories with good company and
getting to know folks. Of course it helped that we had a terrific group.
walked alone into San Ignacio, a bustling city of about 20,000, and took lots of photos before dinner,
which I'd do every afternoon that week.
Being one of the few Caucasians in town, I got some stares but also some
handshakes and many curious smiles. I was amazed at
the poverty in San Ignacio, conditions that I'd never seen before, but San
Ignacio is a vibrant city, the people were friendly, and I felt very much at
The next day,
Tuesday, was more of the same at Succotz but with a different group. My body was
getting used to the hard labor and I wasn't as exhausted at the end of
the day. Instead of eating at Chiclero that evening, we all walked
across the road to a resort to have dinner, and everyone had a
great time talking and laughing on the outdoor patio. After walking back to Chiclero that evening, the regulars went
for ice cream while I sat on the veranda overlooking the twinkling city lights,
enjoying a few
hours of quiet solitude and thinking about this amazing country.
joking around after work. When Carolyn was 14, she won a
gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome with the U.S. swimming relay team.
Now she travels the world and volunteers.
Michele, and Coleen after a hard day. Michele and Coleen were college roommates in
the 1970s and have been good friends ever since.
Above right: Every afternoon after getting
back to Chiclero Camp, I walked into San Ignacio and gave my camera a workout. It's
a fascinating city but drivers there are pretty wild and you take your life into your own hands when walking the
Above left: The school had a pageant Tuesday morning led by "Little Mr. King" and
"Little Miss Queen." Are they cute or what?
The kindergarten teacher invited us into the class to
hear the students count from one to ten in English. Muy bien!
I shoveled a FULL scoop for the camera.
Cecelia and Jonny checking on our
fallen comrade, Mary, who suffered a detached retina Monday morning.
Sadly, Mary had to fly back to the U.S. on Tuesday but she's doing much better now.
Above center: By Tuesday
afternoon, we had "filled-and-tamped" our way almost to the top.
Above right: Urban guiding in another
load of dirt on Tuesday afternoon, but we were too tired to celebrate.
Above left: Belize has
one of the highest rates of AIDS in Latin America. This is a sign in San
Soft-spoken Adrian manages the ProBelize health program and is an all-around
great guy. He hopes to go to college in the U.S. someday. Knowing
Adrian, I'm sure he will.
Above right: Here's
Forrest, Michele, Coleen and (with head buried) Cecelia enjoying a group back
rub at dinner, with Sheryl on the right. As you can tell, after a few days in Belize we had all become good friends.
February 20, 2008: The
San Antonio School (San Ignacio, Belize)
February 16, 2008: Old Friends / Belize it or Not (San Ignacio, Belize)
May 28, 2007: Oregon
Bound (Portland, Oregon)
August 7, 2005: Back To
Work (Redmond, Washington)
June 25, 2004: Life
in Bellingham (Bellingham, Washington)
December 7, 2003: The Greatest Generation (Bellingham, Washington)
March 28, 2003: My Father (Bellingham, Washington)
October 30, 2002 (Bellingham, Washington)
July 24, 2002 (Princess Louisa Inlet, British Columbia)
July 12, 2002 (Lake City, Colorado)
July 4, 2002: Life as a Ranger, Part 2 (Lake City, Colorado)
July 4, 2002: Life as a Ranger, Part 1 (Lake City, Colorado)
July 1, 2002 (Looking Glass Rock, Utah)
June 25, 2002
(Lassen Volcanic National Park, California)
June 18, 2002: Part 2 (Port Orford, Oregon)
June 18, 2002: Part 1 (Port Orford, Oregon)
May 22, 2002 (Bellingham, Washington)
April 7, 2002 (Sydney, Australia)
April 4, 2002 (Coffs Harbour, Australia)
April 1, 2002 (Hervey Bay, Australia)
March 28, 2002 (Airlie Beach, Australia)
March 25, 2002 (Port Douglas, Australia)
March 16, 2002 (Winton, Australia)
March 13, 2002 (Alice Springs, Australia)
March 11, 2002 (Ayers Rock, Australia)
March 8, 2002 (Coober Pedy, Australia)
March 5, 2002 (Port Augusta, Australia)
March 1, 2002: Part 2 (Robe, Australia)
March 1, 2002: Part 1 (Robe, Australia)
February 18, 2002 (Bega, Australia)
February 7, 2002 (Auckland, New Zealand)
February 2, 2002: Part 2 (Taupo, New Zealand)
February 2, 2002: Part 1 (Taupo, New Zealand)
January 25, 2002 (Hokitika, New Zealand)
January 20, 2002 (Geraldine, New Zealand)
January 16, 2002 (Te Anau, New Zealand)
January 12, 2002: Part 2 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
January 12, 2002: Part 1 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
January 1, 2002: Part 2 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
January 1, 2002: Part 1 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
December 24, 2001 (Wellington, New Zealand)
December 20, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
December 16, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
December 14, 2001 (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)
December 10, 2001 (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)
December 3, 2001: Part 2 (Bellingham, Washington)
December 3, 2001: Part 1 (Bellingham, Washington)
October 18, 2001: Part 3 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
October 18, 2001: Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
October 18, 2001: Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
October 6, 2001 (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)
September 30, 2001: Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
September 30, 2001: Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
September 15, 2001 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
August 30, 2001 (Webster, South Dakota)
August 18, 2001 (Watertown, South Dakota)
August 17, 2001 (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)
August 14, 2001 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)
August 8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)
August 8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)
August 6, 2001 (Manlius, New York)
July 23, 2001 (Middleton, Massachusetts)
July 22, 2001 (Boston, Massachusetts)
July 20, 2001 (Pomfret, Connecticut)
July 18, 2001 (Denton, Maryland)
July 16, 2001 (Cumberland, Virginia)
July 14, 2001 (Roanoke, Virginia)
July 9, 2001 (Sevierville, Tennessee)
July 8, 2001 (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)
July 5, 2001 (Manchester, Tennessee)
June 30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
June 29, 2001 (Corinth, Mississippi)
June 27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
June 24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
June 20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
June 18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
June 15, 2001: Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
June 15, 2001: Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
June 14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
June 11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
June 2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
May 19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
April 30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
April 19, 2001 (Bellingham,
April 5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)