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Wednesday:  The San Antonio School


A brief recap:

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 elementary school.


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). 


My Belize trip updates include:

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) language is. 


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 quite often.



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.



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