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April 18, 2009 (San Ignacio, Belize)

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Belize Trip #3:  Building a School with NYU

 

Map of Belize

 

Some of my friends probably feel differently, but I think I'm a pretty nice guy.  And along with being a nice guy, I don't usually get jealous -- except when it comes to travelling.  I hate to admit it, but I can get envious when my friends go traveling and I'm left behind.  I think it all goes back to a childhood incident when my parents went to a conference in Hawaii, leaving me behind in snowy Michigan with my older siblings.  But thankfully for you, I won't dwell on that now. 

 

Anyway, that's similar to what happened to me in March.  One day at work at Otak, I heard that some of my colleagues were going to Abu Dhabi for a week-long workshop.  They would be flying in First Class, staying in posh hotels and spending a week in the sunny and warm Middle East, while leaving me behind in cold and rainy Portland.  Yikes -- green monster alert! 

 

But I figured I had a few weeks of vacation saved up, so I decided if they could go to the Middle East, then I could go to Belize  I got on the Internet that night and within an hour, I'd booked my flight, a car rental, and my lodging.  Belize is a lot nicer than Abu Dhabi anyway, so there.  Phhhttt!  (That's the sound I make when I childishly stick my tongue out at someone, as I often do).

 

In all seriousness, I was glad my colleagues were going to Abu Dhabi for a week, because ever since I returned from Belize in January, I wanted to go back and this would be a great opportunity.  But even though I'd been to Belize twice in the past year doing service work, I hadn't seen very much of the country yet.  My travels had been limited mostly to the Western Highway corridor in central Belize between Belize City and San Ignacio, and also out to the keys in the Caribbean.  So this time instead of taking a bus, I decided to rent a car because I wanted to explore southern Belize, which I'd heard was a lot different from central Belize.

 

My work in Belize was with the service organization ProWorld, so before leaving Portland, I sent an e-mail to ProWorld's director in Belize, Adrian Bartley, and asked him if I could help out with any projects.  Adrian wrote back and said there was going to be a group of 20 college kids from New York University (NYU) doing construction work in San Ignacio that week and he said I'd be welcome to join them.  So the day after my colleagues flew to Abu Dhabi, I was on the 6:00 a.m. Continental flight bound for Belize.

 

After arriving at the Belize City airport on a Sunday afternoon, I picked up my rental car, a Suzuki 4WD Jimny, kind of like a small jeep and the perfect vehicle for me, though certainly not cheap at $400 for the week.  I hadn't driven a stick shift in many years and it felt good.  As I drove along the Western Highway, I thought about how seamless visiting Belize had become for me after three visits.  During my first visit, about a year earlier, I'd been completely awestruck by the cultural and economic differences between Belize and America and I felt like I was on a different planet.  But now I didn't think much about the differences because I knew what to expect and it was just nice to be back.  I drove into San Ignacio that afternoon and checked into what is becoming my favorite place to stay in Belize, the Log Cab-Inn resort with its individual cabins and, best of all, terrific meals cooked up by Ina, their phenomenal (though modest) chef.  By the way, I use the term "resort" loosely since most resorts in Belize are a few steps below what many Americans conjure up when they hear that term.  But still, it's a nice place to stay with friendly staff.

 

Early the next morning, I stopped at the ProBelize office in San Ignacio and found Michael, the construction manager I'd worked with during my two previous visits to Belize.  He was happy to see me again and introduced me to the NYU group, who had also arrived the previous day, and we set off.  We worked at three sites that week, all near the village of San Antonio.  At the village of Cristo Rey, we built a playground for the children, in San Antonio we added a room to the Roman Catholic school, and several miles outside of San Antonio in the jungle at a place called Seven Mile, we built a bus shelter.

 

    Suzuki Jimny    Canon D-30

Above left:  Arriving in Belize.  It's nice to be home.

Above center:  My first stop was at Jabiru rentals to pick up my car.  This is a 4WD Suzuki Jimny, my buddy for the next week.

Above right:  After reaching San Ignacio, I gave my old digital SLR camera to Stephen, a ProBelize staffer.  I shot almost every picture in this website with this Canon D-30, which I bought in 2001 just before my big trip.

 

 

NYU Group in Belize    Cristo Rey    NYU Group in Belize

Above left:  I worked with about 20 students from NYU.  They were great folks and a lot of fun.  The group leader, Todd, is on the right.  He's a real life saver -- literally.  Michelle the Pistol is in front, wearing purple.

Above center:  Michael (left, a ProBelize staffer), Todd from NYU, and Winsome, a villager at Cristo Rey.  Winsome's adoptive mother was the famous folk singer, Odetta, which blew me away.

Above right:  This was one of our three worksites, a place in the jungle called Seven Mile, where we built a bus shelter.  That's Adam, a ProWorld staffer, taking a swig of water.

 

 

NYU Group in Belize    San Antonio School Belize    Cristo Rey Belize

Above left:  Here's our second worksite.  Camillo (left) and Emily are having fun with the kids at the Roman Catholic school in San Antonio.

Above center:  We added a new room to the school.  After pouring the dirt, we tamped it down, getting ready for the rebar and concrete floor.

Above right:  And our third worksite was in the village of Cristo Rey.  Two Michelles and a Rachel are smoothing a bench at the new playground we were putting in there.

 

Todd Saves a Life

The NYU kids were great.  They were mostly sophomores who'd enrolled in an NYU outreach class, which included spending a week in Belize doing construction work.  They were staying at Clarissa Falls Resort (again, I use the term "resort" loosely), several miles from my place at Log Cab-Inn, but despite our age difference, I fit right in.  No one in their group had been to Belize before, so I gave them lots of pointers, including showing them how to mix concrete, and they wanted to see my pictures of Abu Dhabi, since NYU had recently opened a campus there.  We got along really well and I enjoyed working with them.  I became friends with one person in particular, a blonde-haired lass from Kansas named Michelle who was a real pistol and had a glint in her eye.  On Tuesday after work, Michelle invited me to their resort for dessert, so I joined the group that evening and we had a lot of fun.  I got back to Log Cab-Inn around 10 p.m. and sat outside on the dark patio, turned on my laptop computer, and worked on some e-mails while listening to Loreena McKennitt, one of my favorite artists, while enjoying the warm, Belize breeze. It was a very pleasant evening.

 

Not everything went smoothly, though.  Todd, the NYU group leader and a teacher there, told me about a pretty harrowing situation that occurred on Sunday, their first day in Belize.  After unpacking at their resort, the NYU kids played around in the nearby creek and Arnav, one of the students, suddenly collapsed and went underwater and lied at the bottom of the creek for several seconds.  Todd figured Arnav was joking and tapped him on the shoulder, but Arnav didn't respond so Todd realized it was serious.  Todd immediately pulled him out of the water but Arnav wasn't breathing, so Todd started doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  Arnav started breathing but was still unconscious, so they loaded him in the back of a pick-up truck and drove him into San Ignacio.  Arnav was transported down to Belize City and later life-flighted to Houston but as it turned out, he was all right and recovered fine, which was good news. 

 

Arnav apparently had epilepsy but hadn't told anyone and had suffered a seizure while wading in the creek.  The group was understandably shaken up, but they were relieved to learn a few days later that Arnav was going to be all right.  I was relieved, too, even though I didn't know him.  Todd was very unassuming about the whole thing, but in fact, he saved Arnav's life and so he's a real hero in my book and always will be.

 

Wednesday was my last day with the NYU group.  About 10 of us worked on the bus shelter in the jungle all day and were pretty tired and dirty and were going to head back into town, about an hour away.  First, though, Adam with ProBelize had arranged for tours of a nearby Mayan cave, so at about 4 p.m. we stopped at a rustic open-air bar with a thatched roof along a jungle road, so the kids could go caving nearby.  After they returned to the bar from their cave expedition, they ordered some nachos -- and that's when they saw the large bottles of rum.  Rum is made from sugar cane, which is common in Belize, so rum is pretty cheap here.  The kids bought a few large bottles, which was legal since the drinking age in Belize is 18, and started drinking from shot glasses.  But after a while, they dispensed with the glasses altogether and started taking big swigs from the bottles, especially the girls.  Meanwhile, I nursed a grape Fanta soda (really, that's all I was drinking) but I enjoyed watching the NYU students having fun.

 

After a while, things started getting a bit raucous, so Todd, their pragmatic group leader, wisely broke up their party and herded everyone into the van for the ride back to San Ignacio.  Michelle, however, asked if she could ride with me in my jeep for the drive back into town and I said, "Sure."  By now it was dark and the van led the way, bouncing along the rutted dirt road in the moonlight for an hour-long drive through the jungle, while Michelle and I followed a half-mile back and had a nice conversation, enjoying the warm evening with the windows rolled down.  About 40 minutes later, I approached the van, which was parked on the side of the road for some reason, so I pulled up behind it and Adam and Todd told me that they were having problems with the brakes.  I gave Adam a lift into San Ignacio, where he picked up another rental van -- this one hopefully with good brakes -- and we headed back out.  After everyone moved into the new van, I said goodbye to the group and left.

 

The NYU group was a lot of fun to work with, and between the construction projects, the situation with Arnav, the rum party, and the van breakdown, it had been an interesting few days.  Something interesting happens every time I go to Belize.  But, of course, that's one reason I keep going back!

 

Driving through Belize jungle    Belize kids playing soccer    ProBelize group getting water

Above left:  A self-portrait from my Jimny while cruising through the jungle.

Above center:  A soccer game between the kids at San Antonio and the NYU students.  Yep, the kids won!

Above right:  O.K., back to work.  The guys (and Emily) are in search of water, getting ready for the concrete pour the next day.

 

 

Building the San Antonio school    Students at San Antonio school    San Antonio store Belize

Above left:  During the concrete pour, a dog decided to be our first customer.

Above center:  My three amigos. These are kids at the San Antonio school.

Above right:  I stopped to get some cold drinks for the crew building the bus shelter at Seven Mile.

 

 

Mixing cement in Belize    Messy hands    Drinking Belikin Beer

Above left:  And here they are.  That's Riley and Emily mixing concrete at the bus shelter.  Man, that mixer was loud!  Got earplugs?

Above center:  Here's the other Emily (from Oregon) showing me her manicure, and this was AFTER washing her hands!  Umm... more soap, maybe?

Above right:  After getting covered with concrete, it was time for some Belikin beer -- followed by some rum.  The drinking age in Belize is only 18, so I'm sure this was everyone's very first beer.  

 

Southern Belize... Finally

On Thursday morning, I bought some groceries in San Ignacio and hit the road for southern Belize.  Although I'd been to Belize twice before, I'd never been to southern Belize, though I'd heard lots of good things about it.  Shortly after leaving town, I pulled over on the highway and bought some hot tamales at a roadside stand, ate them at a grassy park in Belmopan, the capital, and then continued south, pulling into the beautiful coastal village of Placencia that afternoon where I rented a beachside cottage for the night.  At $100, the cottage was pretty pricey, but it was wonderful to lie in the hammock that evening looking at the stars while listening to Jimmy Buffett extol the virtues of Margaritaville and nibbling on habanero peppers. 

 

I kept heading south the next day.  This part of Belize is very different from the areas farther north that I was familiar with, and it was much more rural down here and the Mayan culture was more prevalent.  I pulled into Punta Gorda, commonly called PG, that afternoon, got a room in a funky hotel and walked around town that evening, then enjoyed two orange Fanta sodas and a huge plate of Chinese food for dinner.  Yes, I said Chinese food.  There are a lot of Taiwanese in Belize because it's a stepping stone for immigrating to America, and so you see Chinese grocery stores and restaurants all over the country.  It's strange to see "Wong's Superstore" right next to "Pedro's Auto Parts" but everyone in Belize gets along.  There are some Chinese in Punta Gorda too, but PG is very Mayan and the next day, Saturday, the Mayan women were out in force at Farmer's Market, dressed in their colorful garments. 

 

Punta Gorda was really hopping on Saturday with the market and a live band playing in the town square, but I wanted to visit the Mayan ruins at Lubaantun, so I headed out at mid-day and after driving around for a while, I found the impressive ruins.  Interestingly, the only other tourists there were two young women from the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater.  They were nursing students doing a six-week volunteer stint at the hospital in PG and were having a good time in Belize.  In the warm, steady rain, we talked about Badgers and such for a while, then parted ways. 

 

I continued on to the coastal village of Hopkins that afternoon, where I spent the night in a modest (and I mean very modest) beachside cabin for $50.  Hopkins is unlike any other place I've been to in Belize.  It has a large population of black Garifuna Indians, descendents of Caribbean natives and African slaves who were shipwrecked in the 1600's and it's quite different from Punta Gorda, with its heavy Mayan influence, or San Ignacio, with its strong Hispanic influence.  But that's one thing that makes Belize great:  it's an incredible cultural melting pot, yet everyone gets along well.  I got up before sunrise the next day, returned to the airport, hopped on a Continental jet, and after a transfer in Houston, returned to Portland late that night. 

 

It was a great trip and I enjoyed seeing southern Belize and working with the NYU kids.  And as it turned out, I had a much better time in Belize than my colleagues had in Abu Dhabi, despite flying in luxurious First Class and staying in their posh hotels.  And you know what?  Knowing that made my trip to Belize all the more enjoyable.  But of course, I won't tell them that...

 

Habanero peppers    Roadside tamales    Beach at Placencia Belize

Above left:  The next morning, I left the NYU group to explore southern Belize.  But not before having a habanero pepper, one of the hottest peppers in the world.  The green ones are the hottest and my tongue is still burning.

Above center:  On my way to Belmopan, I got lunch at a roadside stand.  "Dos tamales caliente con pollo y seis bananas, por favor."  Yep, my high school Spanish finally paid off!

Above right:  I reached Placencia on the central coast that afternoon and rented this beachside cabin, complete with hammock.

 

 

 Placencia Belize    Market at Punta Gorda    Looking for Lubaantun

Above left:  Here's where I lolled for several hours while listening to Jimmy Buffett on my laptop and eating habanero peppers.  Well, trying to eat them anyway (note the empty water jug).

Above center:  Farther south, this is the lively Farmer's Market in Punta Gorda.  The Mayan women dress up in their colorful outfits for this event, the social highlight of the week.

Above right:  In search of Mayan ruins, I had to ask for directions.  Not many white folks get up into this part of Belize and I got lots of curious looks.  Southern Belize is a world of difference from northern Belize, much more rural, for one thing.

 

 

Lubaantun ruins    Hopkins Belize    Belize airport

Above left:  But I finally found the ruins.  This is Lubaantun, a major Mayan settlement 1,500 years ago.  But now, only the stones are left. 

Above center:  The next morning, a sunrise in Hopkins on the coast.

Above right:  And later that morning back at the airport in Belize City, where my journey began.  Back to Portland!

 

 

Next News

July 29, 2009: A Wedding in Tucson and a Road Trip to Montana

 

Previous News

January 24, 2009:  Abu Dhabi and a Road Trip in Oman

January 5, 2009:  Belize Trip #2 (Two Schools and an Orphanage)

July 6, 2008:  Around the World in Eight Days (Part 2: Abu Dhabi to Portland)

July 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, 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, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)