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February 17, 2008 (San Ignacio, Belize)

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The Succotz Library



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 learn.


Our orientation 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.


ProWorld orientation    Chiclero Camp    Cahal Pech

Above left:  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.


ProBelize, our 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 Taiwanese, 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.

Belize currency    Chiclero camp    Chiclero camp

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.

Above center:  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.

Above right:  My roommate, 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 invaluable guidance. 


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. 


Here's a great 14-minute video of our week in Belize created by Gary Martel, one of our team members.

  • Click here for Part 1  (10 minutes)

  • Click here for Part 2  (4 minutes)


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 too. 


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.


Chiclero camp in San Ignacio    Chiclero camp    Succotz library 

Above left:  The Breakfast Club, 7:00 a.m. Monday morning at Chiclero Camp.

Above center:  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.

Above right:  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.


ProWorld building library    ProWorld building    ProWorld group in Belize

Above left:  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. 

Above right:  The weary crew taking a break.  From left to right, that's Carolyn, Coleen, Cecelia, Michele, Forrest, Sheila, and Tom. 


Succotz school    Succotz school    Succotz library, Belize

Above left:  Our work site was next to the elementary school.  These are kindergartners at recess.

Above center:  I won the "Wet T-shirt Contest" at lunch.  It was over 80 degrees every day and very humid.  Are we having fun yet?  Actually... yes!

Above right:  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.


ProWorld building library    ProWorld building a library    Michael with ProBelize

Above left:  Forrest in search of dirt.

Above center:  Jonny's 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 this area.


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.


Later that afternoon, I 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 home there.


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. 


ProWorld PCC group    ProWorld PCC group in Belize    San Ignacio Belize

Above left:  Carolyn 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.        

Above center:  Forrest, 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 streets.


Students at Succotz school    School children in Belize    Building a library in Belize

Above left:  The school had a pageant Tuesday morning led by "Little Mr. King" and "Little Miss Queen."  Are they cute or what?

Above center:  The kindergarten teacher invited us into the class to hear the students count from one to ten in English.  Muy bien!

Above right:  I shoveled a FULL scoop for the camera.


Cell phone in Belize    Libary in Belize    Construction in Belize

Above left:  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.


Sign in Belize   Adrian with ProBelize    Group backrub 

Above left:  Belize has one of the highest rates of AIDS in Latin America.  This is a sign in San Ignacio.

Above center:  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.


Next News

February 20, 2008:  The San Antonio School  (San Ignacio, Belize)


Previous News

February 16, 2008:  Old Friends / Belize it or Not  (San Ignacio, Belize)

May 28, 2007:  Oregon Bound  (Portland, Oregon)

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