Our group of 23 volunteers from Portland Community College (PCC), ranging in age from 39 to 72, had arrived in Belize
on Saturday. We spent the next week working with a humanitarian organization, ProBelize, doing construction work at two sites in western
Belize. In the village of Succotz we were building the foundation for the town's new library and in San Antonio we were fixing up an
Each day our PCC leader, Cecelia, split us into two groups with each group working at one of the sites. She rotated the mix
each day so that we worked with different PCC folks and to ensure that each of us visited both sites during the week.
* * * * * * *
I had spent Monday and Tuesday building the foundation for the new library in Succotz and was scheduled to spend Wednesday and Thursday working in
San Antonio, a 40-minute drive from San Ignacio down a bumpy, dirt road. Like Succotz, San Antonio is a rural village with a few thousand people,
though with a stronger Mayan influence.
The San Antonio Pentecostal Elementary School has nine teachers and
230 children, and our goals there were to: 1. Build a sidewalk 2. Stabilize the
shaky wooden partitions that separated the classrooms 3. Put hinges on the walls so they could be
swung open for large assemblies, and 4. Install
sheetrock above the partitions to reduce classroom noise.
Our group had a lot to do, certainly, but the PCC folks who worked there on Monday and Tuesday had made good progress.
Our work at San Antonio was a lot easier than at Succotz because we worked mostly in the shade
and, even better, there was no tamping involved (hurray).
The best part about working at San Antonio, though, was that we got to meet and work with lots of local villagers. Ramon,
a cheerful pastor, helped us each day and he and I became good friends. The school's superintendent, Apollonio, also pitched in as
did the principal and several teachers. And Michael, the ProBelize construction manager, showed me how to use a air-compressor
nail gun. I enjoyed using it so much that I spent the entire morning nailing everything that needed it – and several things
that probably didn’t. I'm always gleefully dangerous when I have new toys, especially power tools.
The hardest task at San Antonio, by far, was mixing concrete for the new sidewalk. Mixing
concrete, as I learned, is something of an art and each village in Belize apparently has their own particular method. But
basically you open bags of sand and cement on the ground, mix it into a pile and
crater it, then pour water into the crater. After the water soaks in for a
few minutes, you mix it fast and have about 15 minutes to pour it before it
starts to set. And by the way, don't breathe in the cement dust because
it's extremely corrosive, as I learned the hard way. Cough, cough...
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.
Things went well on Wednesday morning, though, and we got a lot done. At lunch, our happy but tired group pulled up seats used by the
students – who were out of session that week on spring break – and sat outside on the veranda to eat, all feeling like kindergarteners sitting
in our tiny chairs.
Above: The elementary school in San Antonio, my work site for two days. Simple
plywood partitions separate the classrooms for grades K-6. The school is hot, crowded, and noisy but the dedicated
teachers here do an outstanding job.
After lunch I saw Jean talking to a couple of teenage boys who had stopped by to watch us work,
curious about all the activity and the white gringos who were buzzing in and out of the classrooms.
They looked Hispanic so I was excited to finally use my high school Spanish (after 30 years) and
blurted out, “Hola, coma estas? Me llamo Del. Como se llama?” But all
they gave me was a blank stare. That's when Jean said, “Del, they don’t
speak Spanish. They speak English.” I laughed and felt kind of
stupid, but in Belize you can never tell what a person’s first (and maybe only)
The boys were shy and soft-spoken and we talked for a while. They were brothers named
Roberto and Bernardo and spoke Mayan at home but also knew English. The
boys were in their early teens and had graduated from the elementary school the
previous year, but their family couldn’t afford to send them to high school.
I enjoyed getting to know them but was saddened to think that, even though they
wanted to learn, they had received all the education they likely ever would.
I was also saddened to see that Roberto had a severely malformed foot that was
twisted completely back under itself, forcing him to limp painfully.
I watched them as they left and thought about their futures. You can’t help
but be moved by seeing things like that. And in Belize, you see things like that
Above left: Task #1 at the San Antonio school was to build a sidewalk. The
Monday/Tuesday crew had laid down rebar and put up the wooden forms. Our job was to mix and pour the cement.
Above right: Task #2 at San Antonio was to stabilize the walls.
Kate, Bruce, Roger, Tom and Joy are working on a partition frame.
Left: We also installed hinges on the walls so the rooms could be
opened for school assemblies. That's Bruce taking measurements.
The elementary schools in Belize are very primitive compared to schools in America.
Thin partitions separate the classrooms and the rudimentary desks date back to the 1950s.
Above left: The daily schedule for the second grade class.
Above right: Villagers on horseback checking out our work.
Above left: Brothers Roberto and Bernardo stopped by to talk.
Roberto had a severely clubbed foot and was unable to walk normally.
Getting to know kids like this had a tremendous impact on me, and I can only
wonder what their futures will hold.
Above right: The school superintendent, Apollonio, showed us how to mix concrete
for the sidewalk. Every village apparently has a different method. Mixing cement in the hot Belizean sun,
as I learned, is awfully hard work.
Left: Tom, Jean, and Apollonio pouring
cement for the sidewalk.
Above left: Our sidewalk's first visitor was, um, a dog (note paw print). Joy is smoothing things over.
Above right: Ramon Cantos, a cheerful
pastor in the village who gave us a hand. As the diminutive Ramon introduced himself, he joked and said, "I'm Ramon, the tallest
man in Belize." Ramon and I still keep in touch.
Left: Bruce and Roger installed sheetrock above the wooden
partitions to deaden the noise between the classrooms.
Above left: Have nail gun will travel. Using a nail gun is a lot
faster than pounding in nails by hand – and as I learned, it's more fun, too.
Above center: After getting back to Chiclero Camp Wednesday evening, I strolled into San Ignacio. This is Victoria Street
near the ProBelize office.
Above right: I bumped into my buddies, Coleen and Laurie, during my evening walk around town. Coleen's a nurse in Iowa and
Laurie teaches deaf kids in New Mexico. Coleen is a real crack-up and a good pen-pal, too.
American Idol – in Belize?
Our group got a lot done at the San Antonio school on Wednesday and we returned to Chiclero Camp late in the afternoon "tired by happy," as they
say. After grabbing a quick shower, I went up to the veranda and met a fellow there in dreadlocks who was setting up an impressive array of video
equipment. He introduced himself, saying his name was Kent Pandy. Kent told me that he lived in San Ignacio and for many years has run the
one-person “Pandy Show,” a call-in karaoke television show broadcast live from Chiclero Camp every Wednesday night. I learned later that
The Pandy Show, which is something like "American Idol," is one of the most popular television shows in Belize.
Since Kent does everything himself – lighting, sound, cameras – I greatly admired him, perhaps
because many years ago I ran my own small video production company. That was
between my careers of playing blackjack in Reno (see News: January 9, 2006) and
working as a ranger in Colorado (see News: July 4, 2002). We talked for
several minutes and I told Kent that I was heading into San Ignacio for a while.
“Be back by 6:30, Del, because that’s when I start my show,” he told me in his
Caribbean Creole accent.
Above: Kent Pandy at Chiclero Camp broadcasting his live karaoke show, one of the most
popular TV shows in Belize. I admired his drive and ingenuity.
I walked around bustling San Ignacio for an hour and shot a hundred pictures, then headed back
to Chiclero, arriving there after dark and just as Kent was starting The Pandy Show. As I
approached the veranda, Kent saw me and said to his TV audience, “Here’s my friend from North
America. Let’s see if he'll come over.” Although I love taking
pictures, I'm pretty camera shy so I beat a hasty retreat into the restaurant
because there was no way I was ever going on television. I said to our group,
who was eating dinner there, “Boy, that guy out on the veranda tried to get me
on live TV.”
Upon hearing this, Cecelia, who is not at all camera shy, jumped up, grabbed me by the shoulder and
dragged me out to the veranda, excitedly saying “C’mon, Del, we’ve gotta do
this! We’ve gotta do this!” Laughing and with a big grin, she
dragged me over to the camera and, upon seeing us, Kent also broke into a
smile. In his Creole accent, he said, “Here are my friends from North
America. Come over and tell me about yourselves!” So Cecelia and
I spent the next five minutes being interviewed on one of the most popular
television shows in Belize, telling most everyone in Belize about ourselves
and our work there. I later teased Cecelia that I would never forgive
her for doing that to me – but I have to admit that it was pretty fun (and pretty funny).
Here's the ProBelize Crew singing
You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman. I wonder what Simon Cowell would say?
A half-hour later, Cecelia, Coleen, Michele, Laurie, and Forrest decided to sing a karaoke song, so they walked out onto
the veranda. At Kent's invitation, they donned sunglasses and then, on live Belizean TV, they belted out the Aretha
Franklin hit, “Feel Like a Natural Woman.” I wisely declined their invitation to sing but I did make an audio recording
of it. And so to commemorate our five minutes of fame, I’ve posted here a recording of our unforgettable Belizean Idol debut.
Now I have to admit, being on the Pandy Show was one of the highlights of our trip to Belize and our
group talked and laughed about it for days afterwards. So thanks, Kent.
But next time, please ask Cecelia and not me!
Above left: Later, the Blues Sisters (and Forrest) belted out "Feel
Like a Natural Woman."
Above right: Coleen, Laurie and Michele having a laugh after their Pandy Show
singing debut. Next stop: American Idol?
Thursday: The San Antonio School
Thursday morning was warm and muggy, like every other morning that week, and after breakfast our
group piled into the ProBelize van and headed back to the school at San Antonio,
First, though, we stopped at a cafe in San Ignacio for some doughnuts. However, we
don't need to tell the other group – the ones that headed to Succotz for a hard
day of work in the hot sun – about that now, do we? After
our secretive doughnut stop, we bounced our way down the dusty dirt road for 45 minutes
and finally got to San Antonio, where I spent most of the day working with an
electric drill. That's because, as you know by now, I love power tools!
Above: San Antonio teachers and the ProBelize crew. L to R: Sylvia, Gary, Sheila, Tom, Laurie,
Michael, Coleen, Tamera, and yours truly.
I spent much of the day at San Antonio working with my friend, Ramon, the pastor, and enjoyed his constant cheerfulness.
I had brought an extra pair of work gloves from Portland and since this was our last day, I asked Ramon if he’d like them.
As I dug them out of my daypack, his eyes grew wide with appreciation and he was extremely grateful. To me, they were just
a pair of $10 gloves but Ramon treasured them, and I treasured his appreciation.
Experiences like that made me aware of how much I take for granted in the U.S. – like clean, running water at the turn of a tap,
electricity at the flip of a switch, and grocery stores stuffed with more food than most people in the world can ever imagine –
and how much a simple gift can mean. We also donated several books to the school that we had brought down from America, which the
teachers greatly appreciated. There's no better gift in the world, I think, than a book for someone who's eager to learn.
We finished the sidewalk later that morning and installed hinges on the classroom
walls so they could swing open for school assemblies. Also, Gary, Tom and others
installed sheetrock above the partitions to reduce the noise between classrooms. So
we completed all our work and were happy, the teachers were pleased, and all was
right with the world.
A Kind Farewell (Part 1 - San Antonio Style)
This was our last day at San Antonio and to show their appreciation, the teachers
cooked us a great lunch of tortilla chips, a cheesy and delicious salsa, mashed
potatoes, gravy, and watermelon juice. It was a simple
lunch but it meant a lot to us, just like simple gifts like gloves and books
meant a lot to them. As we ate lunch with the teachers in the school’s
cafeteria – a small, rustic screened building with a few benches and tables – I
enjoyed getting to know them, partly because my father had worked closely with
dedicated Latin American teachers such as these several decades earlier.
Above: On Thursday, our last day at San Antonio, the teachers gave us a great "thank
you" lunch. They made several speeches expressing their appreciation. It touched me deeply and I was humbled by it.
At lunch I sat between two teachers and we started discussing Belizean politics.
As in the U.S., Belize has two main political parties, called the PUP and UDP.
Unlike Americans, though, Belizeans wear their politics plainly on their sleeves and
are quite vocal about their affiliations. There had been a lively
presidential election in Belize just a week earlier and, by a landslide, the UDP
threw out the PUP after 10 years, so everyone was happy and there were victory
parties everywhere. In another 5 or 10 years, the UDP will be replaced by
the PUP and, once again, everyone will celebrate. So in that way, it's
also like the U.S.
We then started talking about the U.S. presidential primaries that were underway. Figuring that
the teachers didn’t know much about American politics, I explained the U.S. presidential
election system to them in simple terms. As I slowly told them, "There are
two main parties in the U.S., the Democrats and Republicans, and every four
years, there’s a presidential election.” The teachers politely listened to me prattle on
for a while, talking in easy-to-grasp terms but then one of them interrupted me and said, “Yes,
we know about that. Did you see the South Carolina primary on CNN the other night?
Boy, I thought the debate was great, especially when Obama talked about Social Security…”
Above: Tamera and Laurie with the books our group brought from America and donated to the
school. Michael and the teachers look on. I donated my favorite Dr. Seuss book, "Yertle the Turtle"
– and an atlas, because I love maps.
This teacher, Carlos, obviously knew a heck of a lot more about American politics
than I imagined – and probably a lot more than most Americans. I quietly laughed at
myself for underestimating their knowledge of America. During the week, though,
I discovered that many Belizeans pay a lot of attention to events in the U.S., mainly because
what happens in America has such a big impact on their lives.
Since this was our final day, Carlos and the school’s principal stood up and each
gave us a very kind speech, thanking us for coming down to Belize and helping to fix
up their school. In return, I stood up and told the staff how much we appreciated them for
inviting us into their village and sharing their hospitality. The words on
both sides were heartfelt and all of us – teachers, villagers, and the
ProBelize staff – felt a bond that transcended borders, languages and cultures.
During my week in Belize I received much more than I ever gave back, something that was
especially true during this last day at San Antonio. The teacher's words
touched me deeply, especially when Carlos asked us not to forget about them after we
returned to America. No, I wouldn’t forget about them nor my amazing
experience in Belize. Not ever.
Above left: Michael and Cecelia conferring on Thursday morning at Chiclero Camp,
our base in San Ignacio, before heading out to San Antonio.
Above center: That's me outside the ProBelize office in San Ignacio.
Above right: Thursday morning on our way to San Antonio we stopped for doughnuts and coffee. Our
other group, meanwhile, was slaving away in Succotz. Uh, maybe I shouldn't have said that...
Above left: Gary and Ramon working on a partition. Gary, a dentist in Portland, is one of the best
photographers I've ever met.
Above center: Our finished sidewalk, ready for use.
Above right: As Ramon shows, our hinges worked great, too. The middle panel comes out and the end
panels swing open, so the school can have an assembly.
Above left: The modest but well-used fifth grade library.
Above right: I spent all day Thursday drilling. The walls were
soaked in arsenic as a preservative, so I wore a dust mask. Thoughts of a
cold Belikin beer got me through.
Above left: Sylvia, Sheila and Coleen cleaning up the classroom.
Above right: Coleen, Cecelia and Laurie kicking back on the Chiclero veranda Thursday afternoon. We
worked hard that week but got a lot done.
Left: After getting back to Chiclero Thursday afternoon (and having a Belikin),
I took my daily walk through San Ignacio.
Above left: Belikin is the national beer of Belize and it tastes great after a hard day of work. Two
of them taste even better.
Above right: Sheila and Urban saying goodbye to our contractor, Michael (with Belikin in hand).
Michael enjoyed working with us as much as we did with him.