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Belize it or Not

I recently returned to Portland after one of the most amazing trips I've ever taken and decided to post stories and photos about it.  This is the first of several entries describing my recent 11-day visit to Belize, a small country in Central America about as large as Massachusetts but without the funny accents.


I worked in Belize in mid-February with a group of 24 volunteers through a joint effort between Portland Community College (PCC) and ProWorld, an organization that performs community service work in developing nations.  We worked in western Belize and helped build a library in one village and we fixed up an elementary school in another.  We also sweated like pigs (but not the flying pigs mentioned in my last entry), 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, as you probably know if you've been reading my website.  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 the trip has changed the direction of my life’s journey – or at least altered it a bit.  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 30ish ProBelize leader euphemistically put it) and had diverse backgrounds, but everyone got along exceptionally well and 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 doing something more indulgent, such as lolling on a sunny beach somewhere while sipping Margaritas.  Of course, we all had a common goal:  to help the people of Belize and to give something back, so that cemented our bond.  Oh, I shouldn't have said “cement” because after mixing cement for two days in the hot Belizean sun, I’ve had my fill of it for a while.


Belize, as I learned during the 11 days I was there, is an utterly fascinating country.  It certainly has its share of 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 fascinating, the culture is amazingly diverse, the beer is refreshing, and considering the language (they mostly speak English) and the currency (they eagerly accept American dollars), 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 in an Indiana Jones movie, have yet to be discovered.

Why I Went to Belize

I decided to go to Belize mainly because of my father, who died in 2002 but still remains a great inspiration to me.  He was an educator for 50 years and, during his intrepid career, he helped plan schools in almost every Latin American country (including Belize).  He was also quite adventurous and visited all seven continents, including Antarctica when he was 73. 


Last September I was perusing the Portland Community College course catalog that's mailed to all Portland residents every quarter and I noticed an upcoming class called “Build a School in Belize."  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 for it.  This would be unlike anything I had ever done before but I had no hesitations:  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 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.


I had never done extensive service work before but I decided to sign up for the class because 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.  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 succeeded.


Back in 2001 I quit my steady job in Portland 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 really happened – but it did after my trip to Belize.  After working in Belize 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 forget.  My experience in Belize was incredibly amazing and I hope to convey in my writings here even a small fraction of my sense of awe, humility and personal fulfillment.



Above left:  The three people who made my Belize experience special.  This is my dad in 1999, a lifelong educator and adventurer, and the inspiration for me taking this trip.

Above center:  Jonny, the affable leader of ProBelize.

Above right:  And Cecelia, our wonderful PCC group leader.  A big "thanks" to all of you!

Day 1:  Heading to Belize

My Saturday began in Portland at 2:45 a.m. with the sound of a blaring clock radio in my apartment bedroom.  I had gotten only two hours of sleep that night but was excited about the trip and quickly got up and stumbled out of bed.  After a shower, I did some last-minute packing, then I 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.


My Belize trip updates include:

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 (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 flying and feel like a caged rat.  I like to gaze at the landscapes below when I fly and – having taken numerous cross-country drives – figure out where I am and think about the times I'd visited that area below.  Sometimes I even take a Rand McNally road atlas with me on the plane and follow the highways from 35,000 feet above.  This gives you an idea of why I’m still single.  I suppose drinking wine from a box doesn't help, either. 


We were blessed with sunny skies on this flight across the American west.  As we crossed the snowy Rockies, I looked below and 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 of it in a half-minute, then watched it fade behind me as I craned my neck to get a final glimpse.  This was a good omen, I said to myself.



Above left:  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.

Above right:  Waiting to taxi at PDX airport.



Left:  "Gee, that place looks familiar.  Hey, I used to live there!" 

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 left:  And here's my patrol area, about 100 square miles that included 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).

Above right:  After a few hours in Houston, we got on the plane to Belize City.



Above left:  35,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico.

Above right:  The headquarters of Belikin Beer, Belize's own brand and the most popular beer in the country, is next to the airport.  Hey, this trip is already off to a good start!



Above left:  Arriving at the Belize International Airport that afternoon. 

Above right:  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 quiet.

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 around 3:30 p.m.  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 pick up my two duffel bags.  I found one of them but waited for the other.  And waited.  And waited.  No luck, though, so obviously it had decided to travel somewhere else.  I had brought a large 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 apparently, so although I didn’t have many clothes with me, at least I had plenty of feminine protection handy.


Above:  The lights of San Ignacio, Belize after our long day's journey into night.

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 out  among the empty seats.  It was pretty hot and humid, so the windows dropped in quick succession. 


Cecelia and Jonny gave us a quick introduction/pep-talk, then 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.


Andy Palacio was a Belizean singer from the Garifuna culture, a group descended from former slaves.  He really put Belizean music on the map.  Sadly though, Andy died just a few weeks before we arrived in Belize, at age 47.  Here's his song Watina.


An hour into the trip, though, and with the sun skimming the horizon, we heard a very 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 just 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 one.  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 somewhat-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 of their shacks, kids playing on the road, barking dogs chasing the bus, and the stifling heat and humidity, I felt like I was on another planet even though I had been in America just a few hours earlier.


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, which would be our base for the next week.  With the bus still limping along slowly, we drove by several small grocery stores with – oddly enough – Chinese names, then we passed a hard-fought outdoor basketball game under the lights, and then 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 stopped.  Apparently we were home – and all in one piece thanks to our great bus driver. 


Welcome to Belize!



Above left:  The airport from the other side...

Above right:  ... where our bus awaited us.



Above left:  Amazingly enough, our entire group of 24 was here.  We were all strangers but got to know each other quickly.

Above center:  Load 'em up!

Above right:  Time to board the bus.  That's Michele, Forrest and Cecelia having a chat.



Above left:  Cecelia and Jonny giving us a short briefing as we prepared for take off.  "In the event of a water landing, please use your seat cushion as a floatation device..."

Above center:  On our way to San Ignacio that evening. 

Above right:  Arriving in San Ignacio, we were all excited about our upcoming adventure in Belize. 



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