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Sunday:  Orientation

Running on a flat tire, our school bus limped into the Chiclero Camp lodge on the outskirts of San Ignacio late Saturday evening.  We were all tired from our long journey but also excited about our upcoming adventure.  After we unloaded our gear, I paired up with my new roommate, Bernie, an affable fellow 72 years young who had recently retired from a career in the gaming industry. 


I didn’t tell Bernie that many years ago, back in the 1980s, I spent several months teaching myself how to beat the casinos at blackjack (yes, it is possible) and during that time, pit bosses like him became my nemesis.  My system worked pretty well and I did o.k. at the tables in Reno, but I also learned that playing blackjack is a really tough way to make a living, so I decided to get a "real job" instead. 


Bernie was a great roommate, though.  He had done a lot of volunteer work in Portland, he told me.  But I especially liked him since he called me “kid.”  At my age, anyone who calls me “kid” is an instant pal.


On Sunday morning, our group of 23 ate breakfast at Chiclero and started orientation promptly 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.  Hopefully 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, which is the country’s largest city.  Belize was an English colony called British Honduras until 1981 when it became independent.  Due to its British connection though, 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.  However, Spanish, Mayan, and a Caribbean language called Creole are also spoken widely in Belize. 


My Belize trip updates include:

The country is a cultural melting pot but everyone apparently 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.  And most importantly, the national beer of Belize, called Belikin, is really good – especially after a hard day’s work, as we would 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 over to the Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech, located in the jungle next to Chiclero Camp.  From around 2,000 B.C. to 1,000 A.D., the Mayans thrived in Central America and developed an extensive culture with a complex written language and a thorough understanding of math and astronomy. 


Above:  The Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech National Park.  Abandoned around 800 A.D., they were discovered in the 1950's and are stunning.

The Mayans established several large communities from southern Mexico to Nicaragua, including the one at Cahal Pech.  When Jonny told us about the jungle Mayan 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 limited court skills, I probably 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 after our five-hour orientation and tour of the Cahal Pech ruins, we 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 had been in a long time.  I knew I was going to enjoy my week in Belize.



Above left:  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:  Sunday was Orientation Day for our group at Chiclero.



Left:  Bruce and Gary are getting a lesson on Belize from Alexis, a Belmopan high school teacher.





Above left:  The medical and hygiene donations we brought from the U.S. filled the back seat.

Above center:  After orientation several of us went next door to the Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech.

Above right:  The Cahal Pech Visitor Center.



Above left:  We learned about the Mayan Indians from the helpful guide at the Visitor Center.

Above right:  This is an illustration of what Cahal Pech may have looked like a thousand years ago.



Left:  Cecelia, Michele and Coleen checking out the ruins at Cahal Pech.

Monday:  The Succotz Library

I woke up Monday morning to the sound of screeching parrots in the nearby trees.  After a shower, I went upstairs at 7 a.m. and ate breakfast with our group.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had worn shorts and a t-shirt on a February morning but I liked the concept.  This was something I could definitely get used to.


Above:  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.

ProBelize, our sponsoring agency,  had lined up two separate and very different work sites for us that week.  In the village of San Jose de Succotz, a half-hour from San Ignacio and near the Guatemalan border, we needed to lay the foundation for a library that would double as the town's hurricane shelter.  And in the remote village of San Antonio, about 10 miles south of San Ignacio, we needed to shore up the walls and build a sidewalk at an elementary school. 


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 worked at Succotz on Monday and Tuesday and at San Antonio on Wednesday and Thursday.  On Friday, we were planning to 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 great pancake breakfast on Monday morning, 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, partly because 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 from what the ProBelize staff told us.



Here's Yes, We Have No Bananas from the play, "Bullets Over Broadway."


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.



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 on 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. 


The Succotz work sounded 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, on Thursday.  Not a big deal, right?  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 humid air.  In fact, after an hour of tamping my fingers were going numb from repeatedly 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. 


Above:  Here's a short video about the week we spent in Belize.  One of my co-volunteers, Gary Martel, created the base video and I added the titles and did some minor editing.  The music is by Belizean legend Andy Palacio who, ironically (and sadly), died a few weeks before we arrived.


I filled-and-tamped all morning 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 when she was 14 years old.  It was an interesting bunch and despite the hot and sweaty work, everyone had a good attitude and a great time.



Our theme song at Succotz was Back on the Chain Gang by the Pretenders.


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. 


As we were wrapping up lunch, one of our team members, Mary, told us she was having trouble with her vision.  It had started shortly after we arrived at Succotz in the morning, she said, and by now she had lost all the vision in her eye.  Of course, we were all concerned and a nurse in our group, Doris, took Mary to the hospital in San Ignacio that afternoon.  Apparently Mary had a detached retina, so she decided to fly back to the U.S. the next day for surgery.  We were all saddened to say goodbye to her, especially considering the effort she had made to travel to Belize.  But we learned later that her operation was a success and that she's doing much better now.



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

Above right:  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.



Left:  Jonny giving us directions at Succotz. 

Our goal for the week was to fill the library's foundation, then pour a concrete floor.





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:  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.

Above right:  Carolyn, Cecelia and Forrest shoveling and tamping to their heart's content. 



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

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



Above left:  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 center:  Michele rounding up the kindergartners for a photo.

Above right:  Carolyn joking around.  She won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome with the U.S. swimming relay team when she was 14.  Now she travels around the world and does volunteer work.



Above left:  A Forrest in search of dirt.

Above center:  Carlos (right) is tamping 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.

Above right:  Jonny's dog, Ollie, gave us lots of moral support.



Above left:  Here's Michael, an American who's now a barefoot contractor with ProBelize.  He's brusque, down-to-earth, politically incorrect and a total crack-up. 

Above center:  Cecelia trying to cool down after work with a shower from the ice cooler.

Above right:  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 left:  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.

Above right:  The political commentary was interesting.  The extreme partisanship was at times a bit humorous.  Just like in the U.S., they have "red" and "blue" parties (in this case, the UDP and PUP).

The Chain Gang, Part Dos

The library was next to the Succotz 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, quite primitive.  A school is typically a long, concrete building with simple 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 was starting to understand why he was always so committed to this area.


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

We quit our work on the foundation 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 other group, who had worked all day at the school San Antonio. 


A young Mayan boy came by as we were talking, 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 every 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 and that everyone got along.


Later that afternoon I walked alone into San Ignacio, a bustling city of about 20,000, and took lots of photos before dinner, something I would do every afternoon that week.  Being one of the few Caucasians in town, I got a lot of curious stares but also some handshakes and many smiles.  I was amazed at the poverty in San Ignacio, conditions that I'd never seen before, but it's a vibrant city, the people were friendly and I felt very much at home.


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 nearly 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. 



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

Above right:  Cute kids, huh?



Left:  The Queen looks more enthused about her new role than the King.




Above left:  For the camera I shoveled a FULL scoop.

Above right:  Michael showing us how to use a water level as we continue to fill the foundation.



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.



Above left:  Every day after work I walked through San Ignacio (also known as "Cayo").

Above right:  Colorful buildings in San Ignacio.



Above left:  I bumped into my fellow co-workers, Laurie and Coleen.

Above center: Sad to say that Belize has one of the highest rates of AIDS in Latin America.  This is a sign in San Ignacio.

Above right:  The poverty in some parts of San Ignacio was stunning.



Above left:  Local guys played basketball on the town's public courts every evening.

Above center:  Cecelia giving an impromptu speech at our dinner on Tuesday evening, praising our work so far.

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 probably tell, after just a few days in Belize we had all become good friends.



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