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Belize Trip #2:
Working in the Villages

Coming Home to Belize

They say that you can't go home again.  But this year I decided to return to Belize, a country I had visited for the first time a year earlier and a place that felt more like home than anywhere I've been in a long time. 


As I described in my February 16, 2008 update, I went to Belize last year with a group of folks from Portland Community College (PCC) to do volunteer work in the rural villages there through an outfit called ProWorld, which is something like a privately-run Peace Corps.  ProWorld's division in Belize, called ProBelize, has five full-time staffers who work with college students, mostly from America who come down to Belize for a week or two.


I had an amazing experience in Belize last year with PCC and the trip made a huge impact on my view of the world, so I decided to sign up for the trip again this year.  Our PCC group leader last year was Cecelia, who was in charge of the PCC Travel Program, but she had moved on to greener pastures (we still see each other occasionally, though, and remain good friends).  So our leader this year was an affable PCC instructor named Spencer.  We had a group of 18 folks, but I was the only one who had been to Belize.  Therefore, within the first day I sort of took over things and became the group's unofficial leader, which Spencer was totally fine with.


About half of our group members met at the Portland International Airport early in the morning on Saturday for the 6:00 a.m. Continental Airlines flight to Houston, then we flew on to Belize City, the largest city in Belize and the only city in the country with an international airport.  Others in our group had flown down to Belize a day or two earlier and were planning to join us at the Belize airport later that day. 


Above:  The Portland Community College / ProBelize Group, version 2009.  Jonny, the ProBelize director, is standing on the right.

The flight went well and we arrived in Belize City late in the afternoon, where we joined the rest of the group.  Outside the airport, I met up with Michael, the ProBelize construction manager, who was there to meet our group and escort us to San Ignacio, where we would be staying for the next week.  Michael, an American who'd been living in Belize for several years, was happy to see me again and gave me a big hug.  Then he told me that some of our group had taken a connecting flight through Dallas, which had been delayed for several hours, so we had some time to kill. 


As I led our group on board the school bus, I saw a young woman sitting on the empty bus who extended her hand and cheerfully greeted me.  "Hi, I'm Kelsey," she said with a smile.  Kelsey was a college student in upstate New York and was going to join us 30-to-60 year-olds during the next week.  She had called ProBelize a few weeks earlier and asked if she could do volunteer work during her winter break, and ProBelize told her that she could join a group from Portland Community College that would be there at that time.  The term "Community College" of course conjures up images of 20-year olds, so it was probably a shock for Kelsey to learn that almost everyone in our group was over 35 – and some nearing 70.  


Above:  High above the Caribbean, flying to Belize.

We killed a few hours in downtown Belize City waiting for the delayed plane from Dallas to arrive, then around 8 p.m. we hopped back on the school bus and returned to the airport  The plane had just arrived, so we picked up the last folks in our group, got on the Western Highway and took off for San Ignacio, a city of about 15,000 in western Belize that would be our base for the next week. 


It was a lively group and we had a pleasant evening drive on the highway through the jungles and villages.  With all the windows down it was pretty noisy and breezy in the bus, but we chatted and got to know each other a bit.  Finally around 11 p.m., we pulled into a modest resort called the Log Cab-Inn, a few miles outside of San Ignacio, where they had prepared a delicious meal for us, the first of many during our stay. 


The next day, Sunday, was orientation day.  Jonny, the Belize country director for ProWorld who I'd worked with the previous year, drove out to the Log Cab-Inn resort and spent all morning telling us about Belize, along with Adrian, his Belizean assistant.  In the afternoon after lunch, I took the group into San Ignacio, hiking about a mile along the highway and into town, where we visited the Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech.  Later in the afternoon, while everyone else hiked back to Log Cab-Inn, I walked for several more miles around San Ignacio and watched a spirited soccer game at the stadium for an hour, then I stopped at the farmer's market to get some fruit.  It was nice to be back in San Ignacio.


Above:  Arriving in San Ignacio on our first evening.  It was great to be back.

Monday was our first work day and during breakfast at Log Cab-Inn, I split the group into two work parties.  My group spent the day working at a small village called Selena, where we fixed up the restroom for the Iguana Creek elementary school and repaired the school's fence.  I met a wonderful teacher there, a bright woman named Jackie, who was about 25 and full of energy wanting to help her students.


Iguana Creek is a rural area about 20 miles from San Ignacio and Jackie had brought her students into San Ignacio the previous year on a field trip to show them what life is like in a city – after dealing with the concerns and objections of parents, who finally relented and allowed the visit.  As Jackie told me, "I wanted to show my students what a city is, what a parade is, and who Santa Claus is."  I really admired Jackie for her spirit and aspirations for her young charges, and meeting people like her is one reason I enjoy working in Belize so much.


Above:  Orientation on Sunday morning at the Log Cab-Inn outside of San Ignacio.

After repairing the fence around the school and fixing up the school's restroom, our group rode back to San Ignacio that evening and had a nice dinner on the patio at Log Cab-Inn, enjoying the unofficial national dish of Belize:  barbecue chicken, rice and beans, plus some delicious watermelon juice to wash it down. 


If you ever eat in Belize, you should stick to chicken (or seafood if you're on the coast) and stay away from beef, which is usually tough and lean.  That's because the cows here are, well, tough and lean – at least compared to American cows, which are grain-fed and nicely fattened.  And never drink the tap water in Belize or anything with ice in it.  Only drink bottled water, as I learned first-hand on this trip, an oversight that would lead to a funny encounter the following week in an Abu Dhabi pharmacy in the Middle East.  I'll describe that situation in my next update.


Most of the PCC folks retreated to their cabins after dinner, but I stayed on the patio until midnight, creating the work plan for the next day, a typical routine for me that week.  I finally ambled back to my cabin, which I was sharing with Spencer, got some good sleep, and awoke the next morning at 5 a.m. to the cacophonous sound of squawking parrots.  They tell me that parrots are the unofficial (yet ubiquitous) alarm clock of Belize and I certainly believe it.



Left:  With a population of about 15,000, San Ignacio is one of the largest cities in Belize. 

With its sister city of Santa Elena next door, this area is collectively known as "Cayo."




Above left:  Barbara showing off a newly-bought souvenir.

Above right:  Locals taking a cool trip down the Macal River.



Above left:  The Farmer's Market in San Ignacio is a great place to stock up on fresh goodies.

Above center:  Burns Street is the tourist hub of downtown San Ignacio.

Above right:  Belize, unfortunately, has one of the highest rates of AIDS in Central America.  AIDS awareness is a big issue here.



Above left:  That tarantula lurking below my hand may explain my nervous grin.

Above right:  Breakfast on Monday morning at the Log Cab-Inn resort before splitting up and going to our various work sites.



Above left:  Curious villagers at Iguana Creek on Monday morning checking us out.

Above center:  My group worked on various projects at the Iguana Creek school at Selena village on Monday.

Above right:  The inspiring teacher Jackie (left), talking to Marlynn.



Above left:  A classroom wall at the Iguana Creek elementary school.

Above right:  One of our tasks at the Iguana School was to build a concrete landing for the school restrooms.  With the form created, we tied rebar together and then filled in the form with rocks.



Above left:  Then we mixed a large batch of concrete and poured it in.  The final touch was smoothing it over, which a skilled villager handled.

Above right:  Working with Alyssa, Kelsey and some villagers on the Iguana Creek elementary school, scooping up the last of the concrete.  We got a lot done and had a lot of fun, too.  The little boy, Santiago, was a real kick.



Left:  Alyssa, Angie and Kelsey at Iguana Creek taking a coconut break – the Belizean version of a coffee break. 

One of the villagers climbed up a tree and got these coconuts for us.

Returning to Succotz

During our outdoor breakfast on Tuesday morning I split the group up into two crews again and we worked at two sites that day.  My group worked at the Esperanza orphanage, a few miles east of San Ignacio, where we installed a railing on the second floor balcony.  As an American, I'd never seen an orphanage because the American system uses foster care, so it was interesting to see how it ran.  About a dozen of us worked there that day, we made a lot of progress and the caretakers, Luis and Maria, were extremely grateful for our help.


This is Belizean singer Andy Palacio singing Lidan Aban.


That evening after our group dinner at Log Cab-Inn, Marlynn, Alyssa, Kelsey and I took a taxi into San Ignacio, first stopping at an Internet café to catch up on our e-mail.  They headed out afterwards to walk around town, but I had a lot of e-mail to return, so I caught up with them on the street an hour later and we took a taxi back to Log Cab-Inn.  Even at night, San Ignacio is pretty safe (as long as you stay in a group).  And it's much safer than Belize City, parts of which I won't walk through even during the day if I'm alone.


Above:  On Tuesday, my group worked at the Esperanza orphanage near San Ignacio, installing a railing on the top floor.  For some reason, power tools always make me smile.

On Wednesday morning, we split up into two groups again and my group went to the village of Succotz near the Guatemalan border, where I had worked the previous year building their new library / storm shelter.  It was great to see my amigo, Carlos, again who I'd worked with during the previous year in Succotz, and I was happy with the progress the villagers had made on the library over the past 11 months.


Before I left Succotz a year earlier, I'd given Carlos my business card and was happy to receive an e-mail from him shortly afterwards:  "Hello, Mr. Del.  This is my very first e-mail," it read.  There's very little work in Succotz, or in most Belizean villages, so Carlos volunteers with the police department in Succotz and hopes to join the force there someday as a paid officer.  He's a great guy, very quiet and shy, and it was nice to see him again.


Our group worked on the Succotz library until about 4 p.m., when we hopped on a passing bus and headed back to San Ignacio, had dinner, and got ready for our big night out.  It was New Year's Eve that evening, so all of us PCC folks piled into a van – somehow cramming 14 people in one van – and went into San Ignacio, where ProBelize was hosting a New Year's Eve party on their building's roof.  Jonny, Michael, Adrian and the whole ProBelize crew put on a lively event for us and at midnight the fireworks went off, ringing in 2009. 


Jonny, the ProBelize director, is a great guy and came to ProBelize shortly after graduating from college in Connecticut, but he told us he was soon moving to Peru, where he was going to be the country director for ProPeru.  I was sorry to hear that because, for several years he had been the heart and soul of ProBelize.  But I'm sure they'll be fine.



Left:  Maria and Luis, the caretakers of the Esperanza orphanage.





Above left:  Spencer, Elaine and Michael working on the new railing at the Esperanza Orphanage.

Above right:  Justice, an orphan at Esperanza, helped us out.  He's an American and wants to move back to the U.S. when he turns 18 to "be Obama's chef."  He's a great kid.



Above left:  We installed the railing on the second floor balcony of the Esperanza orphanage so it's now safe to walk there.  Mission accomplished!

Above right:  Steff and Alyssa packed in the back of the car after a long day's work, ready to head home.



Above left:  There's a large Mennonite community in Belize.  Mennonites, like the Amish in the U.S., shun many modern conveniences, including cars.

Above right:  Dinner on the patio at Log Cab-Inn.  On the right in red, that's Jonny, the director of ProBelize.  He's now working with ProPeru.



Left:  On Wednesday we went to the village of Succotz, where I'd worked the previous year

It was great to see Carlos, a villager, again.  We met last year and keep in touch, and he helped us all day.




Above left:  Jonny, the director of ProBelize, with a pal in Succotz.

Above center:  Here's the new Succotz library that I had worked on in 2008.  But now it has walls!

Above right:  Power saws always make me smile.



Above left:  During lunch at Succotz, Carlos showed me his family photos, some of which are decades old.  I was very  touched.  Carlos, quiet and shy, is a great guy.

Above right:  That night was New Year's Eve and 14 of us squished into a Honda van for a ride into town.  That's Spencer on the right.  Kelsey and Alyssa had to sit on laps.  Shortly after I took this picture, I sat in my seat and David inadvertently slammed the front door on my hand and locked the door.  Ouch, that hurt! 



Above left:  The PCC group looking for fun on New Year's Eve.

Above right:  And we found it in a bar.  From left to right, that's Elaine, David, Spencer, Kelsey, Alyssa, and yours truly waiting for our nachos. 



Left:  Then we had a party on the ProBelize roof. 

At midnight Jonny handed out sparklers to celebrate the New Year, which Susan is doing with great gusto.

A Truck for Ramon

Being "older folks," we didn't party too hard on New Year's Eve, so we were fresh the next morning and again I split our crew again into two work groups.  That day my group headed off to San Antonio, a beautiful village nestled in a lush and gentle valley located about 20 miles from San Ignacio.  I had worked in San Antonio the previous year and was looking forward to seeing the village again, as well as the many friends I had made there.


Above:  Spencer, Susan, Don and the rest of the crew at breakfast at Log Cab-Inn on Thursday morning before we broke up and headed out to our various work sites.

I love San Antonio and it was wonderful to be back.  Within a few minutes I met up with my buddy Ramon, a pastor in San Antonio who I'd worked with the previous year.  Some Belizeans like Ramon have a distorted view of Americans and think we're incredibly wealthy with money to burn.  That afternoon, Ramon told me that he enjoyed carpentry and wondered if I could send him a router after I got back to America.  "Umm… I'll see if I can do that," to which Ramon replied, "That would be wonderful.  And could you also send me several power drills?"  I told him that I'd have to see.


And then I joked with him, "Hey Ramon, how about if I send you a truck?  Would you like that?"  Not realizing that I was joking, he got excited and his eyes lit up, "Oh yes, a truck would be wonderful.  Please send me a Toyota truck!"  He thought I was serious but I hope he understood I was only joking.  If not, I think he understands it by now.  I'm not making fun of him but mention this story because it illustrates the misperceptions that many people in developing countries have about Americans.  Ramon is a wonderful person and very generous, and I always enjoy seeing him.


Above:  I worked in the San Antonio School on Thursday, where I had worked the previous year.  I love this little village.

I spent much of that day working with Kelsey, the college student from upstate New York.  Though still in college, Kelsey is mature beyond her years.  She had taken the previous year off to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile journey from Georgia to Maine. 


Kelsey and I repainted the large map on the wall of the Pentecostal school in San Antonio, which I enjoyed since I make maps for a living.  We chatted for a while and then Kelsey said, "Del, you remind me so much of my older brother."  I joked with her, "Oh, he must be a real jerk, huh?" and she replied, "No, he's wonderful.  And he's my best friend."  Awww... shucks.  Kelsey was a gem and warmed the hearts of everyone in our group. 


I really enjoyed working at San Antonio again and seeing my old friends there.  That includes Bryant, the elementary school principal, who taught me a few words of Mayan.  He was having some problems with his computer, the school's only computer, so I took a look at it but, alas, the solution was far beyond my expertise.  It amazed me to think that this school, with over 200 students, has but one computer – and an antiquated one at that.  This is, unfortunately, what you call a "digital divide" and it got me to thinking about, maybe, someday, doing something to help bridge that divide.  We'll see.


Above:  Stephen helping with the tarp as Kelsey, Judy and Spencer paint a whole new world.

Our group returned to Log Cab-Inn late that afternoon and, after a quick clean-up, everyone got together on the patio and swapped stories about their experiences that day over cold Belikin beers.  Then we enjoyed another delicious dinner, courtesy of Ina, the fabulous cook at Log Cab-Inn.  Afterwards, folks drifted back to their cabins, but Alyssa stayed with me out on the patio and we talked until about 11 p.m. 


Alyssa and her mother, Marlynn, had joined the PCC group because they both liked to travel and they were having a good time in Belize.  Alyssa is a senior in high school in Portland and plays the trumpet in her band, and she's a very sweet girl.  And surprisingly enough and despite our age difference, we had a lot to talk about, mostly involving travel.  I told her a few times, "You don't have to sit here with me talking.  You can go to bed if you want."  But she just wanted to talk, which I thought was nice. 


After Alyssa went to bed, I stayed on the patio alone and in the darkness for another hour, looking up at the stars and savoring the sounds of the jungle nearby.



Above left:  The ever-cheerful Kelsey, the master cartographer (no wait, that's my job).  This was the most enjoyable day I've had in months and it was great to be back in San Antonio.

Above right:  That's my buddy, Ramon the pastor.  It was good to see him again.  He likes Toyota trucks, by the way.



Above left:  The teachers served us a delicious lunch.  It was simple but very memorable and I was humbled by their hospitality.  And boy, that cheese dip was awesome!

Above right:  This is the seventh grade classroom in San Antonio School.  In 2008 we built the white drywall extension on top of the partition, to reduce the noise between the classrooms.



Left:  The master artist Kelsey mixing paint, with an assist from Steven's daughter.




Above left:  Chalkboard in the seventh grade classroom.

Above right:  Ramon, the pastor, and Bryant, the principal of the San Antonio elementary school.  So long, guys.  See you again!



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