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Friday:  Time to Play


Can You Say "Xunantunich"?

Our 23-person group from Portland Community College had spent the past four days, from Monday through Thursday, toiling in the hot Belize sun while fixing up the elementary school in San Antonio and laying the foundation for the new library in Succotz.  As a reward for our hard work, ProBelize treated us to a “Play Day” on Friday before we disbanded and headed back to North America.  In the morning, we were going to visit the spectacular Mayan ruins at Xunantunich (pronounced “Shoe-NAN-too-nitch”) near Succotz and in the afternoon, we planned to canoe through a river cave near San Antonio.


We gathered in the Chiclero lodge dining hall at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast, then our cheery bunch piled into two vans and headed west towards Succotz.  But rather than drive into the village, as we had done every morning this past week to work on the library, we pulled off the highway by the Mopan River just short of Succotz and drove, very slowly, onto a small ferry that was waiting there.


Now, I’ve ridden on some pretty small car ferries but this was the smallest I had ever seen.  It was barely large enough for a single vehicle, but even more interesting was the method of propulsion:  a hand-crank.  The Mopan River here is about 50 yards wide and two thick cables, anchored on either side of the river, guided the ferry while a smiling operator hand-cranked the ferry back and forth across the river all day.  This was something I’d never seen before so I took a turn at cranking us across the Mopan River, as did several other folks in the group.  The hand-cranked ferry, like so many other things I had seen in Belize this past week, was simple, effective and quite ingenious.


My Belize trip updates include:

With all of us safely across the river, we got back into the vans and rode a half-mile up the jungle road to the Xunantunich Visitor Center, where we met Jose, a cheerful and informative local guide.  Jose briefly showed us around the museum and then spent the next few hours leading us around the impressive ruins as he described to us this once-expansive Mayan site. 


The ancient Mayan culture emerged in Central America around 2,000 B.C. and peaked around 500 A.D. in most areas – though here at Xunantunich, a bit later than that.  The Mayans had a highly-developed civilization, Jose told us, with a strong knowledge of art, mathematics and astronomy, and they had a sophisticated written language that used symbols instead of letters.  "Maya" is a modern term used to describe the various peoples who inhabited this region, from southern Mexico to Honduras.  They didn't call themselves Maya and didn't have a sense of common identity or political unity.


Here's another song from Belizean singer, Andy Palacio.  This is Weyu Larigi Weyu.


During their reign, the Mayans developed numerous civic and cultural centers throughout southern Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Guatemala, including the small site at Cahal Pech near present-day San Ignacio, which we had visited on Sunday, and this much larger settlement at Xunantunich.  Larger and even more impressive ancient settlements are located several miles south of here at Caracol and, just across the Guatemalan border, at Tikal.  This part of Belize was among the last areas the Mayans settled, towards the end of their civilization.  Activity at Xunantunich peaked around 800 A.D. when thousands of Mayans lived in the surrounding area, then the settlement began to deteriorate and was totally abandoned, probably by around 1200 A.D.


Above:  Eating breakfast on Friday morning at Chiclero, at the start of our long and memorable play day.

Ancient Mayan settlements such as Xunantunich and Cahal Pech are scattered across the jungles of Central America and some archaeologists have estimated that most – perhaps as much as 90% – of them have yet to be discovered.  Over six million distant ancestors of the Mayans live today throughout this area of Central America and speak a derivative of the ancient Mayan language.  Indeed, I had worked with several Mayans in San Antonio this week who spoke both English (in town) and Mayan (at home).


In the late 1800s, British explorers (Belize was a British colony until 1981) discovered the Xunantunich ruins, long-since abandoned, partially destroyed and covered with thick jungle vegetation, and excavations and explorations are still ongoing.  The ancient Mayan name for this site is unknown. “Xunantunich” is a modern Mayan name that means “Stone Lady,” referring to the ghost of an ancient Mayan woman dressed in full regalia who was allegedly seen here by a Succotz villager in the late 1800s.


Above:  Entrance to the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich (that's easy for you to say).

Xunantunich is located near the Guatemalan border and occasionally Guatemalan bandits creep across the border to rob tourists here.  To protect the tourists, several well-armed Belizean guards patrol the site while carrying loaded rifles.  That made me feel safer – I think.  The most impressive structure here is called El Castillo which, at 130 feet high, is the second-tallest structure in Belize (only the ancient Mayan ruins at Caracol are higher).  And sure enough, two well-armed guards were on duty at the summit of El Castillo keeping an eye on everything.


I was blown away by the massive structures here and to learn how sophisticated the Mayan culture was.  Their understanding of mathematics and of the calendar surpassed their contemporaries in Europe at the time and they created a sophisticated written language, using pictures, that has only recently been deciphered.  I climbed to the summit of El Castillo temple with the rest of our group and from the top we soaked in a spectacular view of Guatemala, which lay just a few hundred yards to the west.  Carolyn was bit by a scorpion as she sat down here (it felt like a bee sting, she said), but despite that, we all had a great time exploring Xunantunich and learning about the Mayan heritage.


Despite the occasional armed guard (they’re all friendly, I assure you), the semi-occasional scorpion and a name that's impossible to pronounce, Xunantunich is an impressive site and one that I highly recommend visiting if you ever come to Belize.



Left:  "All aboard!" 

This is the small hand-cranked ferry that crosses the Mopan River near Xunantunich.




Above left:  Laurie and Cecelia laughed when they spotted a wheelbarrow and shovel at the ruins – after spending the entire past week using a wheelbarrow and shovel.  Just like old times!

Above right:  Tamera liked the armed guard.  I think it was the uniform.



Above left:  A Mayan temple at one end of the main plaza.  That's our guide, Jose (in the blue shirt), giving us a great tour.

Above right:  Looking across the plaza to the main temple, which today is called "El Castillo."  We don't know what the ancient Mayans called this temple (or this site, which today is known as Xunantunich).



Above left:  The ancient ball court.  It's believed that the Mayans played a game similar to basketball on these courts, which are commonly found at ancient Mayan settlements like Xunantunich and Cahal Pech.  The captain of the losing – and sometimes winning – team was occasionally killed/sacrificed after the game.  Talk about high stakes.

Above right:  Climbing under the frieze at the El Castillo temple.



Above left:  Here's a close-up of the frieze.  It's a modern replica of the actual glyphs that were carved into the rock by ancient Mayans over a thousand years ago.  Translated into English, I believe this one says, "McDonalds, next exit."

Above center:  The impressive view from the second-highest structure in Belize, at the top of El Castillo.

Above right:  That's the Belizean border town of Benque Viejo with Guatemala just beyond it.



Above left:  On top of the temple we were greeted by more armed guards.  You can see Guatemala in the background and occasionally bandits have tried to sneak across the border and rob tourists here.  But with all the guards around I felt totally safe.  Just keep your finger off the trigger, please.

Above center:  Riding the ferry back across the Mopan River after our fascinating tour.

Above right:  Sheila enjoyed cranking her way across the river, as did just about everyone else in our group.

Living the Pirate's Life at Barton Creek

We said goodbye to our guide Jose around 11:30 and headed back down to the Mopan River, which we recrossed on the hand-cranked ferry.  Once again, several of our crew enjoyed cranking their way across the river – so much that I wondered if the ferry operator here ever did any work himself, seeing that so many tourists got a kick out of using the hand crank.  Once back inside the vans on the other side, we rode back to the Chiclero lodge outside of San Ignacio and had lunch there, then around 1 p.m., we piled back into the two vans and headed out once again, this time traveling south on the dirt road to San Antonio.


Above:  We stopped in San Antonio on our way to Barton Creek and checked out the work we had done during the past week.  The villager kids gave our new sidewalk a "thumbs up."  It seems to work.

We reached San Antonio forty minutes later and parked at the elementary school, which was still closed for spring break, so that everyone in our crew, including the group that had worked at Succotz the last few days, could see the work we had done there this past week.  I was especially impressed with the concrete sidewalk our group had built.  Members of my group had poured the concrete for the new sidewalk just two days earlier and it was now fully set and was being used by villager kids.


After a brief visit to a small grocery store for snacks, we all piled back into the vans for a dusty ride several miles down the dirt road to a place called Barton Creek, a small tourist establishment consisting of an outdoor bar with a thatched roof, a few houses, and an outdoor zoo.  The zoo had parrots flying about and a frisky male spider monkey who was immediately and, let’s say, “visibly” attracted to some of our group’s female members, much to their embarrassment.


Barton Creek, which is more like a pond in this area, emerges from a limestone cave that lies at the base of a steep hillside here and enough water slowly flows from the cave that you can paddle a canoe deep inside it.  During our brief stop in San Antonio, we had picked up two school teachers, including Carlos Cisneros, who had worked with us that week at the elementary school.  They would be our guides in the cave and told us that ancient Mayans used to travel deep inside the cave, using it for ceremonial purposes over a span of hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years.  This was a sacred place.  The Mayans had used torches to illuminate their way as they traveled deep into the cave with log rafts, or they simply swam.


Above:  The 2008 Portland Community College/ProBelize Group – minus a few folks (including me because I was taking the picture).

These days, however, most people use canoes to travel through Barton Creek Cave and the teachers helped us aboard.  Three people got into each canoe:  the person sitting in the back paddled while the person in front held a spotlight, which was powered by a car battery.  After everyone else got into their canoes and slowly paddled around the placid creek, I hopped into the last canoe with Carlos:  me up front holding a spotlight (and taking pictures) with Carlos in the stern paddling and telling us all about the cave.


With Carlos and I leading the way, our flotilla of six canoes entered the huge cave.  Carlos told us that since the cave had been used as a ceremonial site by the ancient Mayans, we should keep our eyes peeled for artifacts.  Sure enough, as we slowly paddled the still waters and traveled further back into the darkening cave, we began to see evidence of Mayans, including long-abandoned clay pottery perched on limestone platforms several feet above the water level.


The cave was wide enough in some places for two or even three canoes to paddle side-by-side.  After we paddled in the cave for a few minutes, it gradually became totally dark except for our spotlights.  Carlos hushed us and asked us to turn off our spotlights for a few moments and as we sat in our canoes in the total darkness, we heard absolute silence, save for an occasional drip from the ceiling into the still waters of the creek. 



From The Pirates of the Caribbean (or Barton Creek Cave), here's Yo Ho, A Pirate's Life for Me.


We turned our spotlights back on and continued paddling slowly for another half-hour, going farther and farther back into the abyss, illuminated only by our beams of light that danced across the walls and ceiling of the mysterious cave.  Perhaps it wasn't befitting of such a sacred and honored place, but as our boats traveled through the darkness in the cave's heavy and humid tropical air, the trip started reminding me of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland – but without the peg-legged pirates repeatedly singing, “Yo ho, a pirate’s life for me."  I loved it and was deeply humbled by the experience.


But alas, we finally reached a point where the cave ceiling descended to a point just a few inches above the water’s surface, making it impossible to proceed in our canoes even if we laid flat.  We swished our paddles, turned around and headed back.  Carlos told me that he had explored the cave well past that point using flashlights and that it extended for several hundred feet beyond.  Lacking a flashlight and swimming trunks, I decided to take his word for it.


We paddled back towards the entrance, still in total darkness, until I started seeing a subtle hint of light way up ahead.  After several more minutes I could make out the entrance to the cave and a few minutes later, we emerged back into the daylight.  After stepping ashore and removing our life vests, our group walked up to the outdoor bar, where we spent a half-hour enjoying warm conversation and, of course, cold Belikin beer. 


Our paddle into Barton Creek cave had been an incredible adventure and was something totally unique.  It was a magical and humbling experience that I would never forget.



Above left:  On the way to Barton Creek, we stopped at a little store in San Antonio to pick up some snacks. 

Above center:  Americans are always hungry.

Above right:  I laughed at all the political signs I saw around the country, including this one in San Antonio.   Just like in the U.S., there's a Blue Party and a Red Party in Belize.  The U.D.P. had won the country's presidential election just a week earlier.  Whew – what a "Relief"!



Above left:  Approaching Barton Creek cave.  In the center that's Carlos, our guide (and a teacher at San Antonio).

Above center:  An inquisitive parrot at the Barton Creek zoo.

Above right:  And a frisky male spider monkey.  This little fellow liked Adrian well enough, but he liked the women in our group even more.  And it showed.



Above left:  Carlos (right) telling us about the ancient Mayans who had used the cave for religious purposes for hundreds of years. 

Above right:  Carlos helped everyone into their canoes before we entered Barton Creek Cave.  That's the cave entrance in the background.



Above left:  Entering the cave.  Ooh, what fun!

Above right:  This is about a quarter-mile into the cave.  Ancient Mayan pottery sits on some of the ledges high above the water.  They used torches and ingenuity to get here; we used spotlights and a fiberglass canoe.



Above left:  Time to turn around.  Yo, ho, a pirate's life for me!

Above center:  After paddling for another 20 minutes we reached the entrance.  What an amazing experience.

Above right:  All that paddling builds up a thirst, so time for a Belikin.


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.

A Kind Farewell  (Part 2 - Succotz Style)

We returned to San Ignacio late in the afternoon and, after a brief stop at the Chiclero lodge, we piled back into the vans around sunset and headed west once again, back out to Succotz.  Our first stop there was at the current Succotz library, a small building stuffed to the rafters with books and magazines.  The new library we were building, which lay a few hundred yards away, will be about twice as large and will have a much stronger roof, allowing it to double as a hurricane shelter for the villagers.  The librarian, a cheerful Belizean woman in her 30s, was in the current library and greeted us with smiles.  Though very proud of her tiny library (which included the village’s only public computer), she was looking forward to moving into the larger and more secure building someday.


Above:  We stopped at the Succotz library before dinner and dropped off our donations.

Our group had carried with us from North America piles of donations for Belizeans, such as books and medical supplies, including a dozen large OB-GYN packs.  I'm not sure what the Customs officers at the airport thought about our strange collection, but after giving us some quizzical looks they waved us through.  The previous day we had given half of our trove to the villagers at San Antonio, and we unloaded the other half that evening and left them with the Succotz librarian, who promised to distribute them throughout the village.  Her face lit up when she saw all the useful goodies.


After handing over the donations, we got back into the vans once again and drove a short distance to the new library site where we had worked all week to fill in the foundation with dirt so a concrete floor could be poured.  I had worked with half of our group at San Antonio on the previous day, Thursday, but later I learned that our Succotz group had poured the concrete floor that day.  I got out of the van and saw the new floor, still a bit damp as it was curing but now solid enough to walk on.  It was impressive and gave each of us a tremendous sense of satisfaction, considering all the blood, sweat (and even a few tears) we had spent here during the past week.


But our evening wasn’t over yet.  We got back in the vans and drove a quarter-mile to an open-air café down by the highway, where we sat at the tables and shared laughter (and more cold Belikin, of course) with the villagers.  The locals were cooking a barbeque chicken dinner for our group as their way of saying “thank you,” just as the teachers in San Antonio had said “thank you” with their tour of Barton Creek Cave earlier that day and their farewell of kind speeches during our memorable lunch there on Thursday.  The chicken dinner that the Succotz villagers cooked for us was delicious, but even better was their warm and smiling company.


Above:  On Thursday, our group at Succotz had poured the concrete floor for the new library and a day later, it was dry enough to walk on.  This building will be twice as large as the current library.

They topped it off with a small award ceremony after dinner.  The town’s mayor stood up and gave a short but heartwarming speech, telling us how much he appreciated the work we had done.  And then, one at a time, he called each of us up to receive a personalized certificate of appreciation.  I was touched.  Our group leader, Cecelia, then stood up and gave an impromptu speech, telling the villagers how much all of us appreciated getting to know them and how much we enjoyed being able to help build their new library.


After her speech, Jonny, the ProBelize leader, stood up and told us how much he appreciated our volunteer effort, coming down from North America to help them out.  He admitted, though, that he initially had some doubts about our abilities.  “I usually work with American college students on these projects,” Jonny told us, “and over the years, I’ve worked with dozens of college groups.  So I have to admit that when I first heard about you folks and saw your ages – 47, 51, 72 – I became a little concerned.  Frankly, I didn’t think a ‘mature’ group like you,” (he grinned at that comment and we chuckled), “would get very much done this week.”


Jonny continued, “But you folks worked harder than just about any group of college students we’ve ever had here.  Unlike most of our college students, your group wanted to work instead of socialize, so you got more done than just about any group I’ve ever worked with.  I was really impressed with everything you accomplished this week and it was much more than we ever anticipated.  Heck, we weren’t planning to pour the library floor for another month or two but you folks did it in one week.  So from the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you.”


With that, our group from Portland gave Jonny and the Succotz villagers a hearty round of applause.  The feeling of appreciation was mutual because from our week's work in Belize, every person in our group, I believe, got back much more than we ever gave. 



Above left:  Jonny and Laurie bringing donations into the Succotz library.

Above center:  Jean and Jonny in the library.  Doris, a nurse in our group, had collected lots of blue OB-GYN packs in Portland and we had carried them down to Belize in our luggage.

Above right:  Enjoying our Friday night barbecue at Succotz.



Above left:  The Succotz mayor passed around architectural drawings of the new library.  Here's what it will look like when it's finished.

Above center:  Friendly (and I'm guessing, hungry) villager at Succotz.

Above right:  After dinner, the villagers at Succotz held a small ceremony for us and gave each of us a certificate of appreciation for all the hard work we had put in that week.  This is Urban, our group's project manager at the Succotz site, receiving his award.



Above left:  Cecelia got up afterwards and said a few words of gratitude.  The woman in the white shirt is the town's librarian.

Above right:  Jonny then spoke and told us how surprised he was by our group's accomplishments.  It was a "win-win" for everyone involved and a week that I'll never forget.



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