is the first of several entries describing my recent 11-day visit to Belize, a
country in Central America about as big as Massachusetts but without the funny
accents. I worked in Belize in mid-February with a group of 24 volunteers
via Portland Community College (PCC) and
ProWorld, an organization that performs
community service work in third-world nations. We worked in western Belize and
helped build a library in one village and fixed up an elementary school in
another. We also sweated like pigs (but not flying pigs), took several amazing
side-trips, and sang some "unforgettable" karaoke on a live television show, our group’s 15 minutes of Belizean fame.
I’ve traveled quite
a bit, but my trip to Belize was among the most fulfilling, memorable, and
humbling experiences of my life. It was my first community service trip
overseas but definitely won’t be my last and, as I write this, I’m already
planning my next service trip. In retrospect, I realize now that many of my
previous trips, while enjoyable, have also been a bit hollow and
self-indulgent. My experience in
Belize was a lot of toil and sweat and pain but I gained much more than I gave
and, without a doubt, it’s altered the direction of my life’s journey. Service
work gets in your blood and I want to do it again. Belize also gets in your
blood and I definitely want to go back someday.
What made the trip
especially enjoyable was the chemistry of our terrific group. We were a
“mature” group (as our young ProBelize leader politely put it) and had diverse
backgrounds, but everyone got along exceptionally well and we did impressive
work, if I do say so myself. I enjoyed getting to know each person and
learning why they decided to volunteer for a week in the steamy jungles of
Belize instead of lolling on a sunny beach somewhere sipping Margaritas.
Of course, we all had a common goal: to help the people of Belize and give
something back, so that cemented our bond. Uh… I didn’t mean to say
“cement” because after mixing cement for two days in the hot sun, I’ve had my
fill of it for a while!
Belize, as I
quickly learned, is a fascinating country. It certainly has problems,
including a high unemployment rate, abject poverty, lack of educational
opportunity, a high crime rate due to a growing drug
problem, rampant corruption, and one of the highest rates of AIDS in Latin
America. But the people are warm and generous, the politics are
captivating, the culture is amazingly diverse, the beer is good, and considering
the language and the currency, it’s the most accessible country in Latin America
for Americans. It’s also stunningly beautiful and has a trove of Mayan
archaeological sites, many of which, like an Indiana Jones movie, have yet to be
Why I Went to Belize
I decided to go to Belize
mainly because of my father, who was a great inspiration to
me even after his death in 2002. He was an educator for 50 years and,
during his intrepid career, helped plan schools in almost every Latin
American country. He was also adventurous and visited all seven
continents, including Antarctica. Last September, I noticed a course in the PCC catalog called “Build a School in Belize"
and after reading the
description, I decided that as a tribute to my father and his work in
Central America, I wanted to experience what he had, so I
immediately signed up. This would be unlike anything I’d ever done before but I
had no hesitation: it was what I was supposed to do.
Over the next few
months, PCC held three orientation sessions and after the final class, in
January, the group had gotten to know each other a bit and I was stoked and
ready to go. Our group included 16 women and 8 guys ranging in age from
39 to 72 and our leader was a terrific PCC instructor named Cecelia who had led
several community service trips to Latin America during the previous 22 years
but never to Belize. No one in our group, in fact, had been to Belize and none
of us knew quite what to expect.
We would work with
ProWorld, a service organization something like a privately-run Peace
Corps. ProWorld was founded in Peru in 1998 and has since opened affiliates in
Mexico, Belize, India and Thailand, each with a small full-time staff. Unlike the Peace Corps, ProWorld is
self-funded from the tuitions received by volunteers and receives virtually no
donations, grants, or government aid. In addition to paying my airfare, I paid
$900 to ProWorld to cover my food and lodging, staff salaries, and the building supplies for our
projects. Yep, you have to pay to volunteer but all the
money goes to a worthy cause.
Why did I go to
Belize? In addition to paying tribute to my father, I wanted to help
others and give something back, considering that I’ve been incredibly blessed
with good health, a stable and supportive family, and the privilege of living in
the world’s richest country. I also wanted to see Latin America, never
having been south of the border. Well, o.k., once when I was camping in
southern Texas I swam across the Rio Grande into Mexico just to say I've been
there -- that was during my
cross-country trip to see Carole in Atlanta (see photo above). But this
time I wanted to see Latin America, uh, legally. Also, I’ve always been a pretty solitary person and wanted to
see if I could live and work with a large group of total strangers. On
that count, I think I did all right.
Back in 2001, I
quit my steady job to go traveling for a few years. After working at the
same job for 10 years, I was drained and hoped that by traveling alone overseas
I'd gain some unique insight into the universe and find more meaning in my life.
While I certainly enjoyed my travels, that dramatic revelation never happened --
but it did after my work in Belize. After working there for a week, I
realized that what brings me the greatest sense of accomplishment and happiness
is not taking long trips or visiting distant places, but rather helping people.
That's what I'm meant to do and it's a lesson I won't ever forget. My experience in
Belize was utterly amazing and I hope to convey in my writings even a small
fraction of my sense of awe, humility and personal fulfillment.
The three folks who made the Belize experience what
it was for me. This is my Dad in 1999, a lifelong educator and adventurer,
and the inspiration for me taking this trip.
Jonny, the affable leader of ProBelize.
Above right: And
Cecelia, our wonderful PCC group leader. A big "thanks" to all of you!
Day 1 (Saturday, February 16): Heading to Belize
began for me in Portland at 2:45 a.m. with the sound of a blaring clock radio.
I had gotten only two hours of sleep that night but was excited about the trip
and quickly stumbled out of bed. After showering, I did some last-minute
packing, then hopped in my van and drove down a deserted Interstate 205 to the airport to catch my 6 a.m. flight. I checked in at the Continental ticket
counter and as I stepped away, I saw Cecelia, who greeted me with a smile which
I tried to reciprocate but, frankly, it was 4:30 in the morning. We walked
and talked to the security line, where we bumped into Michele, a friend of
Cecelia’s and a veteran of many of her south-of-the-border adventures. Miscue
#1 for me: I forgot about the ban on liquids, so TSA snared my pint-sized
Nalgene filled with water. Doh! I really liked that bottle, too.
The morning flight
to Houston was memorable. I always try to book a window seat when I fly and
usually press my face against the glass for the entire trip, staring at the
beautiful landscapes below (sorry, it’s the geographer in me). If I can get a window
seat and look outside, flying is a treat, but if not, I dread it and feel
like a caged rat. Having taken numerous cross-country drives (see
My Previous Roadtrips), I
like to gaze at the landscapes below when I fly and figure out where I am, then
think about my former roadtrips there. Sometimes I even take a Rand
McNally road atlas
with me and follow the highways from 35,000 feet above. This gives you an
idea of why I’m still single -- along with the issue I have with women's shoes
described above. And I suppose drinking wine from a box doesn't help, either.
We were blessed
with sunny skies on this flight. We crossed the snowy Rockies and as I
looked below, I mused, “Hmmm, that little town looks like where I used to live.”
Then I sat up straight because I realized it WAS where I used to live. We were
crossing directly over Lake City, Colorado, population 392, my home for six
years when I was the head BLM ranger and firefighter there (see
News: July 4, 2002), This was the first
time I’d seen my 100-square mile patrol area from the air and I snapped about 30
pictures in a half-minute, then watched it fade behind me as I craned my neck to
get a final glimpse. Yep, this was a good omen, I said to myself.
Getting on the plane, bleary-eyed, for the 6:00 a.m.
flight to Houston. But I had a window seat so I was happy.
"Gee, that place looks familiar..." This is Lake
City, a small town in the Colorado Rockies where I worked for six years as the
head BLM ranger and firefighter. Lake City is still like home to me.
Above right: And here's
my 100-square mile patrol area, including several 14,000-foot peaks. I
loved working here but it was only seasonal work, so I moved on. But I
still miss Lake City (and being a ranger).
35,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico.
And arriving at the Belize International Airport
Belize City has the only International airport in Belize. It has about
five or six flights a day from the U.S. but the rest of the time, it's pretty
A Different World
We changed planes
in Houston and a few hours later, after crossing over the jungles of the Yucatan, we
touched down at Belize International Airport. The first building I saw in
Belize was the Belikin Beer Brewery next to the airport which, I decided, was
another good omen.
Or maybe not.
After clearing immigration, I went to the carousel to get my duffel bags and
found one of them but waited for the other. And waited. And waited.
No luck, though, so obviously it had gone somewhere else. I’d brought a
stash of health supplies to donate to the villagers, including lots of maxi-pads
donated by Amanda, a co-worker with a heart of gold. The duffel bag
with the medical donations had arrived safely but the one with my clothes had
decided to take a different flight, so although I didn’t have many clothes with
me, at least I had plenty of maxi-pads!
During our final
orientation meeting in Portland, the group had agreed to meet at the Belize
airport that afternoon at 4:30 p.m. and, sure enough, everyone was there.
Folks had arrived from all directions: a few were on my flight, some had
arrived in Belize a few days earlier and had spent time on the keys, while
others had gone inland for bird-watching. We were all cheerfully greeted by Jonny, ProWorld’s head man in Belize, who directed us to a school bus that had seen better days,
and after throwing our gear
in the back of the bus, we boarded through the front and spread ourselves among
the empty seats. It was pretty hot and humid, so the windows dropped in quick
After a quick pep
talk by Cecelia and Jonny, our bus pulled out of the parking lot and headed west
to San Ignacio, about two hours away on Belize’s best highway, two lanes of
blacktop stretching for 80 miles to Guatemala. The bus
was soon a cacophony of scattered conversations with new-found friends,
though the roaring engine made it hard to hear anyone more than a seat away. I
sat in the back of the humid and breezy bus surrounded by several amiable women who introduced
themselves as Coleen, Laurie, Kate, Jean, and Tamera. I talked and listened,
but mostly listened, and it was a very pleasant and relaxing ride.
An hour into the
trip, though, and with the sun skimming the horizon, we heard a loud “Bang!
Whop, whop, whop, whop…” It was definitely a conversation-stopper and everyone
looked around in a collective daze. I was sure it was a flat tire, but the bus
was still traveling, though the driver had quickly slowed from 40 mph to about
25. I was trying to figure out what had happened and why we were still moving,
and after a few minutes, I realized that one of the two dual-tires on the rear
had exploded and we were limping along on the other. Another tire blowout on the
packed bus would’ve been bad news, so I kept my fingers crossed and just enjoyed
the ride, figuring that I couldn’t do anything about it. I don’t think the
women near me realized what had happened and there was no point in worrying
them, so I didn’t say anything about our precarious situation.
Other than the
flat, the evening bus ride was fascinating and I watched the landscapes slowly flow past.
With the field bonfires, adults languishing on their front porches, kids playing
on the road, barking dogs chasing the bus, and the stifling heat and humidity, I
felt like I was on another planet though I’d been in America just a few hours
Later that evening,
we approached the lights of civilization and the loud conversations died down as
folks peered out the bus windows in fascination. This was, I guessed, the city
of San Ignacio, our base for the next week. With the bus still limping along slowly, we passed several
small grocery stores with Chinese names, a hard-fought outdoor basketball game
under the lights, and a traffic accident with some bloodied victims staggering
about. After a few more turns, the bus struggled up a steep hill and pulled off
the road, then it stopped. Apparently we were home – and all in one piece
thanks to our great bus driver.
Welcome to Belize!
The airport from the other side...
... where our bus awaited us.
Above right: Amazingly
enough, our entire group of 24 was here. We were all strangers but got to
know each other quickly.
Cecelia and Jonny as we prepared for take off.
"In the event of a water landing, please use your seat cushion as a floatation
Above center: On our
way to San Ignacio that evening.
Above right: Arriving in
San Ignacio, we were happy to make it and were excited
about our upcoming adventure in Belize.
Other Updates Describing My Visits to Belize
February 17, 2008:
Belize Trip #1 (The Succotz Library)
February 20, 2008:
Belize Trip #1 (The San Antonio School)
January 5, 2009:
Belize Trip #2 (Two Schools and an Orphanage)
April 18, 2009:
Belize Trip #3 (Building a School with NYU)
January 7, 2010:
Belize Trip #4 (Building Jaime's Orphanage)