Belize Trip #2: Two Schools and an
They say you can't
go home again, but this year I decided to return to Belize, a country I'd
visited for the first time a year earlier and a place that felt more like home
than anywhere I've been in a long time. As I described in my
February 16, 2008 update, I went to Belize last
year with a group of folks from Portland Community College (PCC) to do volunteer
service work in the rural villages there with the agency ProWorld, which is
something like a privately-run peace corps. ProWorld's affiliate in
Belize, called ProBelize, has five full-time staff who work with college
students, mostly from America who come down to Belize for a week or two.
The week I spent in
Belize last year was an amazing experience and made a huge impact on my
perceptions of the world, so I decided
to sign up for the trip again this year. Last year, Cecelia was our group
leader from Portland but she had moved on to greener pastures, though we still
see each other occasionally and remain good friends. So instead, this year our leader was an amiable PCC
instructor named Spencer. We had a group of 18 folks but I was the only one who'd been to Belize, so within the first day, I became the group's unofficial
leader, which Spencer was fine with.
Like last year,
some of our group members met at the Portland airport early in the morning for
our 6:00 a.m. Continental flight to Houston, then we flew on to Belize City, the
largest city in Belize and the only city in the country with an international
airport. Meanwhile, others in our group had flown down earlier and were
planning to join us at the airport later that day. The flight went well
and we arrived in Belize City late in the afternoon where we joined the rest of
the group. Outside the airport, I saw Michael, the ProBelize construction
manager, who was there to meet our group and escort us on our school bus to San
Ignacio, where we'd be staying for the next week. Michael was glad to see
me again and gave me a big hug, but he told me that some of our group had taken a
connecting flight through Dallas, which was delayed for several hours, so we had
some time to kill.
As I led our group
on board the school bus, I saw a young woman sitting on the empty bus who
extended her hand and cheerfully greeted me. "Hi, I'm Kelsey," she said with a
smile. Kelsey was a college student in upstate New York and was going to
join us 30-to-60 year-olds during the next week. She had called ProWorld a few
weeks earlier and asked if she could do volunteer work during her winter break
and ProWorld told her that she could join a group from Portland Community
College that would be there at that time. The term "Community College" of
course conjures up images of 20-year olds, so it was probably a shock for
Kelsey to learn that almost everyone in our group was over 35.
After killing a few
hours in downtown Belize City waiting for the delayed plane from Dallas to
arrive, we all hopped back on the school bus and rode back to the airport around
8 p.m. The plane had just arrived, so we picked up the last folks in our group
and the school bus headed along the Western Highway to San Ignacio, a city of
about 15,000 in western Belize that would be our base for the next week. It was
a lively group and it was a pleasant evening drive on the highway through the
jungles and villages, and with all the windows down it was pretty noisy and
breezy in the bus, but we chatted and got to know each other a bit. Finally
around 11 p.m., we pulled into a modest resort called the Log Cab-Inn, a few
miles outside of San Ignacio, where they had prepared a delicious meal for us,
the first of many during our stay.
The next day,
Sunday, was orientation day. Jonny, the Belize country director for ProWorld who I'd
worked with the previous year, drove out to the Log Cab-Inn resort and spent all morning
telling us about Belize, along with Adrian, his Belizean assistant. In the
afternoon after lunch, I led the group as we hiked along the highway and into San
Ignacio, where we visited the Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech. While everyone else
hiked back to Log Cab-Inn, I walked for several more miles around San Ignacio
and watched a spirited soccer game at the stadium for an hour, then stopped at the farmer's
market to get some fruit. Yep, it was nice to be back in San Ignacio.
Monday was our
first work day and during breakfast at Log Cab-Inn, I split the group into two
work parties. My group spent the day at a small village called Iguana Creek,
where we worked on a restroom for the elementary school and repaired the
school's fence. I met a wonderful teacher there, a bright woman named
Jackie, who was about 25 and full of energy wanting to help her students.
Iguana Creek is a rural area about 20 miles from San Ignacio and Jackie had
brought her students into San Ignacio the previous year on a field trip to show them what life
is like in a city, though dealing with the concerns and objections of parents who finally relented and allowed the visit. As Jackie told me, "I
wanted to show my students what a city is, what a parade is, and who Santa Claus
is." I really admired Jackie for her spirit and aspirations for her young
charges, and meeting people like her is the main reason I enjoy working in
After repairing the
fence around the school and fixing up the school's restroom, our group headed
back to San Ignacio that evening and had a nice dinner on the patio at Log
Cab-Inn, enjoying the unofficial national dish of Belize: barbecue chicken, rice
and beans, plus some delicious watermelon juice to wash it down. If you
ever eat in Belize, you should stick to chicken (or seafood if you're on the
coast) and stay away from beef, which is usually tough because the cows here are
very lean, compared to in America where the cows are grain-fed and nicely
fattened. And never drink tap water in Belize or anything with ice in it.
Only drink bottled water, as I learned first-hand on this trip, an oversight
that would lead to a funny encounter the next week in an Abu Dhabi pharmacy in
the Middle East, which I'll describe in my next update.
Most of the
PCC folks retreated to their cabins after dinner, but I stayed on the patio until midnight, creating the work plan for the
next day, a typical routine for me. I finally ambled back to my cabin, which I
was sharing with Spencer, got some good sleep, and awoke the next morning at 5
a.m. to the sound of squawking parrots, which they tell me is the unofficial
ubiquitous) alarm clock of Belize.
The Portland Community College / ProBelize Group, 2009.
Jonny, the ProBelize director, is standing on the right, in red.
Above center: Arriving
in San Ignacio on our first evening. I was the only one in our group who
had been to Belize before. Yep, it was great to be back.
San Ignacio, with a population of about 15,000, is
one of the largest cities in Belize.
That's a tarantula below my hand. Note my nervous grin.
Above center: Curious
villagers at Iguana Creek on Monday morning checking us out.
Working with Alyssa, Kelsey and some villagers on the Iguana Creek elementary
school. We had a lot of fun and the little boy, Santiago, was a real kick.
Alyssa, Angie and Kelsey at Iguana Creek taking a coconut break -- the Belizean version of a coffee break. One of the villagers climbed up a tree and
coconuts for us.
Above center: On Tuesday,
we worked at the Esperanza orphanage near San Ignacio. We
installed that railing on the second floor.
For reasons I can't explain, nail guns always make me smile.
A Truck for Ramon
On Tuesday morning
at breakfast, I split the group up into two crews again and we worked at two sites.
My group worked at
the Esperanza orphanage outside of San Ignacio that day, where we installed a
railing on the second floor balcony. As an American, I'd never seen an
orphanage since the American system uses foster care, so it was interesting to
see how it ran. About a dozen of us worked there that day, we got a lot done
and the caretakers were really grateful for our help. That evening after our
group dinner at Log Cab-Inn, Marlynn, Alyssa, Kelsey and I took a taxi into San
Ignacio, first stopping at an Internet café to catch up on our e-mail. They
headed out afterwards to walk around town, but I had a lot of e-mail to return, so I caught
up with them on the street an hour later and we took a taxi back to Log Cab-Inn.
Even at night, San Ignacio is pretty safe as long as you stay in a group, and
it's a lot safer than Belize City, parts of which I won't walk through even
during the day if I'm alone.
On Wednesday, I
again split us up into two groups and my group went to the village of Succotz
near the Guatemalan border, where I'd worked the previous year on the library
and storm shelter. It was great to see my amigo, Carlos, again who I'd worked
with the previous year and I was happy with the progress the villagers had made
on the library. Before I left Succotz a year earlier, I'd given Carlos
my business card and was happy to receive an e-mail from him shortly afterwards:
"Hello, Mr. Del. This is my very first e-mail," it read. There's
very little work in Succotz, or in most Belizean villages, so Carlos volunteers
with the police department in Succotz and hopes to join the force there someday
as a paid officer. He's a great guy, very quiet and shy, and it was nice
to see him again.
We worked on the
Succotz library until about 4 p.m., when we hopped on a passing bus and headed
back to San Ignacio, had dinner, and got ready for our big night out. It was
New Year's Eve that evening, so all of us PCC folks piled into a van and went
into San Ignacio where ProBelize was hosting a New Year's Eve party on their
building's roof. Jonny, Michael, Adrian and the whole ProBelize crew put
on a lively event for us and at midnight the fireworks went off, ringing in
2009. Jonny, the ProBelize director, is a great guy and came to ProBelize
shortly after graduating from college in Connecticut, but he told us he
was soon moving to Peru where he was going to be the country director for
folks," we didn't party too hard on New Year's Eve, so we were fresh the next
morning and again I split our crew again into two work groups. That day my
group headed to San Antonio, a beautiful village about 20 miles from San Ignacio
where I'd worked the previous year. I was looking forward to seeing San
Antonio again because of all the friends I made there in 2008, and it was
wonderful to be back.
I saw my buddy Ramon again, a pastor
in San Antonio who I'd worked with
the previous year. Some Belizeans like Ramon have a distorted view of Americans
and think we're incredibly wealthy with money to burn. That afternoon, Ramon
told me that he enjoyed carpentry and wondered if I could send him a router
after I got back to America. "Umm… I'll see if I can do that," to which Ramon
replied, "That would be wonderful. And could you also send me several
power drills?" I told him that I'd have to see, and then I joked with him, "Hey
Ramon, how about if I send you a truck? Would you like that?" Not realizing I
was joking, he got excited and his eyes lit up, "Oh yes, a truck would be
wonderful. Please send me a Toyota truck!" He thought I was serious but I hope
he understood I was only joking. If not, I think he understands it by
now. Still, Ramon is a wonderful person and very generous, and I always enjoy
I spent much of
that day working with Kelsey, the college student from upstate New York.
Though still in college, Kelsey is mature beyond her years. She had taken
the previous year off to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile journey from
Georgia to Maine. Kelsey and I repainted the large map on the wall of the
Pentecostal school in San Antonio, which I enjoyed since I make maps for a
living. We chatted a lot and then Kelsey said, "Del, you remind me so much
of my older brother." I joked with her, "Oh, he must be a real jerk, huh?"
and she replied, "No, he's wonderful. And he's my best friend."
Awww... isn't that sweet?. Kelsey was a gem and warmed the hearts of
everyone in our group.
It had been a
wonderful day working at San Antonio again and seeing my old friends, including
Bryant, the elementary school principal who taught me a few words of Mayan.
That evening our group returned to Log Cab-Inn, and everyone got together and
swapped stories about their experiences that day over cold Belikin beers, then
we had another delicious dinner, courtesy of Ina, the fabulous cook at Log
Afterwards, folks drifted back to their cabins, but Alyssa stayed with
me out on the patio and we talked until about 11 p.m. Alyssa and her mother,
Marlynn, had joined the PCC group because they both liked to travel and they were
having a good time in Belize. Alyssa is a senior in high school in
Portland and plays the trumpet in
her band, and she's a very sweet girl. And surprisingly enough and despite
our age difference, we had a
lot to talk about, mostly involving travel. I told her a few times, "You don't
have to sit here with me talking, you can go to bed if you want," but she just
wanted to talk, which I thought was nice. After she went to bed, I stayed on
the patio in the darkness for another hour, looking up at the stars and savoring
the sounds of the jungle nearby.
Justice, an orphan at Esperanza, helped us out. He's
an American and wants to move back to the U.S. when he's 18 to "become Obama's
chef." He's a really nice kid.
Above center: Dinner on
the patio at
Log Cab-Inn. On the right in red, that's Jonny, the director of
ProBelize who's now with ProPeru.
On Wednesday, we went to the village of Succotz, where I'd
worked the previous year. It was great to see Carlos, a villager, again.
We met last year and keep in touch, and he helped us all day.
During lunch at Succotz, Carlos showed me his family photos, some of
which are decades old. I was touched. Carlos is quiet and shy, and
Above center: Power saws
also make me smile. We're working on the Succotz library that I worked on the
That night was New Year's Eve and 14 of us squished into a Honda
van for a ride into town. That's Spencer on the right. Kelsey and Alyssa had to sit on laps.
Shortly after I took this picture, I sat in my seat and David inadvertently slammed the front door on my hand and
locked the door. Ouch, that hurt!
The PCC group looking for trouble on New Year's Eve.
Above center: Having fun
before New Year's. From left to right, that's Elaine, David, Spencer, Kelsey,
Alyssa, and yours truly waiting for our nachos.
We had a party on the ProBelize roof and at midnight,
Jonny handed out sparklers to celebrate the New Year.
The next day, we worked at the San Antonio school, where
I'd worked the previous year. That's my buddy, Ramon the pastor. It
was good to see him again. He likes Toyota trucks.
Above center: The
teachers served us a delicious lunch. It was simple but very memorable and
I was humbled by their hospitality. And boy, that cheese dip was awesome!
The ever-cheerful Kelsey, the master cartographer
(no wait, that's my job). She's painting a map on the school. This was the most enjoyable day I've had in
months and it was great to be back in San Antonio.
Time to Play
Friday was our
"play day," our reward for a hard week's work, so in the morning after
breakfast, we went to Xunantunich (pronounced "shoe-NAN-too-nitch"), an
impressive Mayan ruin on the Guatemalan border, then headed back to Log
Cab-Inn. After lunch, several of us piled into the back of a pickup truck and
rode to Barton Creek cave, about 90 minutes away. It was a blast riding in the
back of the truck, though probably not the safest thing I've ever done,
especially when we started racing another truck that tried to pass us on a
narrow, rutted dirt road. But Barton Creek cave was a lot of fun. You
paddle into the cave, something like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at
Disneyland, and with spotlights you can explore the stalactites dropping from
the ceiling and the Mayan artifacts that were left behind a thousand years ago
when this cave was used for religious ceremonies. It's mighty impressive.
The next day,
Saturday, was our group's last day in Belize and in the morning we said goodbye
before scattering in different directions. After working with each other
all week, many of us formed bonds which I'm sure will last a lifetime. Several folks headed down to the airport in Belize City to fly
back to Portland, others went out to the keys in the Caribbean, while a few of
us more adventurous folks decided to explore the ATM (Actun Tunich Miknal) cave
near Belmopan. The cave was used by Mayans a thousand years ago and was only
recently discovered. You swim into the ATM cave and then, wearing a helmet and
headlamp, slosh and splash your way back into the cave for a half hour, then you
reach a trail above the creek where you can walk up to Mayan pottery that has
been left there for millennia. It's a singularly unique experience in the
world but unfortunately is becoming so popular and crowded that officials are
considering closing it to the public. I'd visited the ATM cave the year before
so I knew what to expect, but my companions, Kelsey, Judy and Barbara, were
I said goodbye to
my three amigas at the trailhead and, while they headed back up to San Ignacio,
I went down to Belize City, where I was going to catch a plane for Caye (pronounced "key")
Caulker, out in the Caribbean. In the ATM cave, Kelsey had given me her
underwater camera and asked me to take some pictures of her, which I was doing
but without looking where I was going. As I was taking a picture of her in
the river, I stumbled over a submerged rock and gashed up my leg pretty badly
but didn't realize it was still bleeding. As I sat in the small and crowded
Belize City air terminal waiting for my plane to Caye Caulker, an attractive young American
woman with tight jeans, make-up and high heels said to me, "I don't mean to pry,
but what happened to your leg?" That's when I looked down and saw a stream of
sticky blood from my shin down to my sock, staining my sock red. Sitting
there fresh from the ATM cave with my bleeding leg splotchy from all the bug
bites that week, wearing my wet swim trunks and hiking boots, and my wind-strewn
hair from the cab ride down to the airport, I didn't quite fit in with the
American princesses bound for the posh Caribbean resorts and I laughed to myself
when I realized how out-of-place I looked in the air terminal. But that's
Belize. My leg, by the way, continued to bleed for the next week while I
was in Abu Dhabi, but it finally healed.
After arriving in
Caye Caulker late that afternoon, I got my usual room at Picololo, a small duplex run by a Canadian
couple, and spent the next day snorkeling in the keys, then I hopped over to
Ambergris Caye for an afternoon. After returning to Caye Caulker that evening,
I had a lobster dinner on the wharf, something I'd looked forward to for many
months, and bumped into several women from my PCC group, who had followed my
advice and were visiting the keys. Caye Caulker is one of my favorite
places in Belize and is a world apart from the mountains and villages of western
Belize, where we had worked that week. The island's motto, "Go Slow," is
heartily embraced by everyone who visits. I took a small plane back to Belize
City the next day, hopped on the Continental jet at the airport and after a
stopover in Houston, returned to Portland late at night. It had been a great
trip, we got a lot done in the villages, it was nice to see my Belizean friends again, and I had a great time in the keys. Yep, Belize is a wonderful country.
But now I had to
get ready to visit another amazing country. One day after returning to
Portland, I flew 22 hours to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) where I spent the
next week working on our big mapping project, followed by a thousand-mile solo road trip around the neighboring country of Oman. Of course, you can read
about that in my next update!
Friday was our play day. Our first stop was the impressive Mayan ruins at Xunantunich
where we spent three hours.
Above center: An iguana
lazing in a tree. They tell me iguanas taste
like chicken (along with everything else).
After lunch, we hopped in a truck for a ride to Barton
Creek caves. Hard to believe, but the ride was even more fun than the cave
Barton Creek cave is awesome, sort of like Pirates of
the Caribbean. The cave was used by the Mayans for ceremonies a thousand
years ago and there are still Mayan artifacts in the cave, including a few
Above center: Nicole, a ProBelize staffer, with her daughter and her husband, Stephen.
Judy and David saying goodbye. After a week like
this, you form bonds that last a lifetime.
A few of us decided to visit the Actun Tunich Miknal (ATM)
cave. It was used by the Mayans a thousand years ago but was rediscovered
only a few years ago. Since then, it's become one of the most popular tourist
destinations in Belize.
Above center: First, you
put on your helmet and headlamp and swim into the cave.
Then you slosh and splash for a half hour as you
head back into the cave. Kelsey's having a good time.
After a while, you reach a dry trail in the cave and can see Mayan
pottery right where it was left, a thousand years ago.
Above center: My leg
took a beating that week. The splotches are from chiggers and the night
before, Jonny ran over my foot with his SUV because I had to jump out while
it was still moving (a long story). And I got the bloody gash in the ATM cave when I tripped
on a rock. It was still bleeding a week later in Abu Dhabi.
Saying goodbye to mi tres amigas, Kelsey, Judy and
Barbara. But now it's on the keys!
Caye Caulker, heading out to the reef for some
Above center: Kicking
the beach at Ambergris Caye, Margaritaville personified.
Yep, I could get used to this lifestyle.
Anthony, a master woodcarver, on Caye Caulker. I
bought the heart-shaped bowl in the foreground and have it in my kitchen.
Above center: Back on
the mainland, here's a toucan. Froot Loops, anyone?
After 10 days in the tropics, I flew back to Portland. So long, Belize
-- and on to Abu Dhabi!
January 24, 2009: Abu
Dhabi and a Road Trip in Oman
6, 2008: Around the World in Eight Days (Part 2: Abu
Dhabi to Portland)
6, 2008: Around the World in Eight Days (Part 1:
Portland to Abu Dhabi)
February 20, 2008: The
San Antonio School (San Ignacio, Belize)
February 17, 2008:
The Succotz Library (San Ignacio,
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)