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Belize Trip #3:
Building a School With NYU

Like Sophomore Year

Three months after returning from my trip to the Middle East (and Belize), I began musing about heading off to Belize once again.  Some of my colleagues at Otak, my engineering company in Portland, were going to Abu Dhabi for a week-long workshop there in March.  I didn't need to go on this particular trip and they'd be out of the office for a week, so it seemed like a good opportunity to take some vacation time and head down to Belize once again. 


I'd been to Belize twice in the past year to do volunteer service work but I hadn't seen much of the country yet.  My travels had been confined mostly to central Belize, between Belize City and San Ignacio along a corridor known as the Western Highway.  I'd also traveled out to the keys in the Caribbean.  But other than that, much of Belize was still a mystery to me, so this time, instead of taking a bus or taxi around central Belize like I'd done during my earlier visits, I thought about renting a car and exploring southern Belize.  During my previous trips some of my Belizean friends told me that southern Belize was like a different world compared to the areas I'd already seen, and they said I should check it out if I ever had the chance.


My volunteer work in Belize had been with the service organization, ProWorld, and its Belize affiliate, known as ProBelize.  So one night in early March, I sent an e-mail to ProBelize's director, Adrian Bartley, and asked him if he needed help with any projects during the last week of March.  Adrian promptly wrote back and told me there was going to be a group of 20 college students from New York University (NYU) doing construction work in San Ignacio that week and that I'd be more than welcome to join them.  That clinched it.  I immediately got on the Internet and booked a flight, my lodging and a car rental.  Two weeks later, the day after my Otak colleagues flew off to Abu Dhabi, I was on a 6:00 a.m. Continental flight out of Portland International Airport bound for Central America.


Above:  Arriving in Belize.  It was nice to be "home."

I arrived at the International airport in Belize City on Sunday afternoon, then I picked up my rental car, a Suzuki 4WD Jimny.  No, not a "Jimmy," but rather a "Jimny."  It was like a small jeep and was the perfect vehicle for me though certainly not cheap at $400 a week.  I hadn't driven a vehicle with manual transmission in many years, since the days of my beloved and long-gone 1985 Toyota pickup truck, but it felt good to use a stick shift again.  I just had to remember to shift (doh!) and press down on the clutch pedal whenever I stopped (DOH!)


I drove down the Western Highway bound for San Ignacio and thought about how seamless visiting Belize had become for me after only two visits.  During my first visit to the country a year earlier, I was totally awestruck by the cultural and economic differences between Belize and the U.S., seeing real poverty for the first time.  I remember during that trip, in February 2008, how I felt like I was on a different planet here, and that's no exaggeration.  I was still very sensitive to the stark poverty in Belize, of course.  But now I didn't think much about the transition, probably because I knew what to expect.  It's like someone starting their second year of college after a jaw-dropping experience during their freshman year.


Above:  My first stop was at Jabiru rentals to pick up my 4WD Suzuki Jimny, my companion for the next week.

I drove into San Ignacio that sunny Sunday afternoon and checked into what is becoming my favorite place to stay in Belize, the Log Cab-Inn.  It's a modest resort on the west side of town with individual cabins and, best of all, terrific meals cooked by Ina, their phenomenal (and humble) chef.  I use the term "resort" loosely, though, since most resorts in Belize are several steps below what many Americans conjure up when they hear that term.  So even though Log Cab-Inn isn't the type of resort that most Americans imagine, it's still a great place to stay, with comfortable rooms and friendly staff.  I highly recommend it.


Early the next morning, I drove into San Ignacio and stopped at the ProBelize office, where I found Michael, the American construction manager who I'd worked with during my two previous visits to Belize.  He was happy to see me again and gave me a big hug.  After a few minutes of catching up, we got in our vehicles and drove out to the Clarissa Falls Resort (again, I use the term "resort" loosely), a few miles west of town, where the NYU group was staying.  They had, like me, arrived in Belize the day before. 


After the ProBelize staff introduced me to the group and vice-versa, they held a two-hour orientation session there for the students.  After that we set off to our various work sites.  We worked at three locations that week, all near the village of San Antonio, where I'd worked during my two previous visits to Belize:

  • At the village of Cristo Rey, we built a community playground. 

  • In San Antonio, we built a concrete floor for a new room in the Roman Catholic elementary school. 

  • And several miles outside of San Antonio in the jungle, at a site called Seven Mile, we built a concrete floor for a new bus shelter.



Above left:  On the Western Highway heading to San Ignacio on Sunday afternoon.

Above center:  I gave my digital SLR camera to Stephen, a ProBelize staffer.  I shot almost every picture in this website with this Canon D-30, which I bought in 2001 just before my trip around America, New Zealand and Australia.  I bought a new Canon SLR for this trip to Belize so I figured that Stephen, a photo buff, would like my old one.

Above right:  Our first work site was at the village of Cristo Rey where we built a playground for the children.



Above left:  This is Michael (left, the ProBelize Construction Manager), Todd (NYU's group leader), and Winsome, a villager at Cristo Rey.  I was stunned when Winsome told me that her adoptive mother was the famous 1960s folk singer, Odetta.  That blew me away.

Above right:   Two Michelles and a Rachel smoothing a bench they'd just built at the new playground in Cristo Rey.



Above left:  Our second worksite was in the jungle at a location called Seven Mile.  We built a concrete floor for a new bus shelter here.  Adam, a ProWorld staffer (in the blue shirt), was the work manager at this site.

Above center:  Adam and the crew taking a break at Seven Mile.  It was between 80 and 85 degrees every day, pretty typical for March.

Above right:  Our third worksite was at the Roman Catholic elementary school in San Antonio, where we built a concrete floor for a new schoolroom.  Michael and Molly were the ProBelize construction managers here.



Above left:  After pouring dirt for the floor, we tamped it down, getting it ready for rebar.

Above right:  Camillo (left) and Emily having fun with the kids at the Roman Catholic school in San Antonio.



Above left:  A curious onlooker.

Above center:  A self-portrait from my Jeep while cruising through the jungle.

Above right:  By Tuesday morning, at Seven Mile, they had dug the footing for the bus shelter floor.  They were almost ready to pour concrete.

Todd Saves a Life

The NYU college students were great.  They were mostly sophomores and had enrolled in an NYU outreach class, which included spending a week in Belize doing construction work during the semester.  Despite our age difference, I fit right in or at least, I felt like I did.  No one in their group had been to Belize before, so I gave them some pointers, including showing them how to mix concrete ("Don't breathe in the dust, folks.  It's caustic.").  They also wanted to see my pictures of Abu Dhabi, since NYU had recently opened a campus there.  We got along really well and I loved working with them. 


Above:  The students from NYU were great and I had a lot of fun with them.  Michelle is front, right and the group leader, Todd, is on the far right.  He's a real life saver.

I became friends with one person in particular, an outgoing lass from Kansas named Michelle, who was a bit of a pistol.  On Tuesday after work, she invited me to their resort for dessert, so I joined the group that evening and we had lots of fun.  I got back to Log Cab-Inn around 10 p.m. and sat outside on the dark patio, pulled out my laptop, and worked on some e-mails while enjoying the warm, Belize breeze and the strains of Loreena McKennit playing from my computer.  It was great to be back.


Not everything went smoothly that week, though.  Todd, the NYU group leader (and a teacher there), told me about a harrowing situation that had occurred on Sunday, their first day in Belize, and about the time I was landing at the International airport.  After unpacking at Clarissa Falls, the NYU students were playing around in the nearby creek when Arnav, one of the students, suddenly collapsed.  He went underwater and lied at the bottom of the creek for several seconds.  Todd figured that Arnav was joking around, so he tapped him on the shoulder.  But Arnav didn't respond, so Todd realized it was serious. 


Todd pulled him out of the water, but Arnav wasn't breathing so Todd immediately started doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  Arnav finally started breathing but was still unconscious, so they loaded him into the back of a pickup truck and drove him into San Ignacio.  Arnav was transported down to Belize City and later was life-flighted back to Houston.  Fortunately, as it turned out, he was all right and recovered just fine, which was great news for everyone (especially Arnav).


Above:  A soccer game between the children at San Antonio and the NYU students.  The children won.

He apparently had epilepsy but hadn't told anyone about it, and he'd suffered a seizure while he was wading in the creek.  The group was understandably quite shaken, but they were greatly relieved to learn a few days later that Arnav was going to be all right.  I was relieved, too, even though I didn't know him.  Todd was very modest and unassuming about the whole thing, but in fact, he had saved Arnav's life, so he's a real hero in my book.


I spent Monday and Tuesday working with the NYU students at the three sites, mostly driving from site to site, delivering refreshments and giving them advice about their construction projects.  That's what you do when you get older:  instead of working, you "supervise." 


On Wednesday, my last day with group, about 10 of us worked on the bus shelter in the jungle and, by quitting time, around 4 p.m., we were all pretty tired and dirty.  Adam, who was the construction manager for that site, had arranged for tours of a nearby Mayan cave after work, so after cleaning up, we drove further into the jungle on a dirt road.  We stopped near the cave entrance at a rustic open-air bar called Misty Mountain, which had a thatched roof and was run by an American fellow.  "What a great place to have a bar!" I thought to myself, here in the middle of the jungle.


Above:  The Pentecostal elementary school in San Antonio, with the sidewalk we built in February 2008 and the wall map we painted in December 2008.

The kids headed off to explore the cave while I walked around the jungle and shot some photos.  After they returned from their spelunking expedition, they ordered some nachos at the bar and that's when things got interesting.  The students spotted several large bottles of rum sitting on the shelf behind the bar. 


Rum is made from sugar cane, which is common in Belize, so it's very cheap here.  The kids bought a few large bottles, which was legal since the drinking age in Belize is only 18, and started drinking from shot glasses.  But after a while, they dispensed with the glasses altogether and started taking big swigs straight from the bottles.  The women in the group were especially thirsty, it seemed.  Meanwhile, I nursed my grape Fanta soda (really, that's all I drank!)  But I enjoyed watching the NYU students having fun and starting to making fools of themselves.  Then I started laughing at their increasing raucous behavior.


Above:  After we poured concrete for the floor in the Roman Catholic elementary school, a dog became our very first customer.

Shortly after sunset, things started getting a little out of hand and so Todd, their pragmatic (and sober) group leader wisely broke up their party and herded everyone back into the van for the long ride back to San Ignacio.  Michelle, however, asked if she could ride with me in my Jeep for the drive back into town and I obliged.  The van led the way, bouncing along the rutted dirt road in the moonlight for an hour-long drive through the jungle, while Michelle and I followed.  We stayed a good half-mile back from the van so we wouldn't have to breathe in the road dust that the van was constantly kicking up.  She and I had a nice conversation while enjoying the warm evening with the windows rolled down. 


About 40 minutes later, however, I saw the van parked up ahead, off to the side of the road and at the bottom of the small hill that I was descending.  Puzzled, I pulled up behind it, got out of my jeep, and asked Adam, who was standing outside the van, what was going on.  "What's up, Adam?"  His face was ashen and he was visibly shaken. 


"Del," he said, "the brakes failed coming down that hill.  I couldn't stop the van."  Somehow though, and with 10 college students in the van, he'd finally managed to bring it to a halt.  I gave Adam a lift into San Ignacio, where he picked up another rental van (this one apparently with functional brakes) and we headed back out.  After everyone moved into the new van, I said goodbye to the NYU group and drove back to Log Cab-Inn.  Jeez, never a dull moment, huh?


The NYU group was a lot of fun to work with, though, and between the construction projects, Arnav's near death, the rum party, and the van's brakes failure, it had been an "interesting" few days.  It seems that something "interesting" happens every time I visit Belize.  But, of course, that's one reason I keep going back!



Above left:  My old friend, Ramon the pastor, in San Antonio (see my previous visits here in February 2008 and December 2008).  That's his son.  I brought him several pairs of work gloves from the U.S.

Above center:  Three amigos at the elementary school in San Antonio.

Above right:  Mixing concrete for the new school room floor.  Mixing concrete builds muscles fast.



Above left:  And doing the pour, one wheelbarrow at a time.

Above right:  Back at Cristo Rey, they were building some new playground equipment.



Above left:  Todd was doing a pour out at Seven Mile, too.  This is for the new bus shelter.

Above center:  Riley and Emily are mixing concrete at the bus shelter.  Boy, was that mixer ever loud! 

Above right:  Riley carved Arnav's name into the floor.  Their thoughts were with their comrade back in the States.



Above left:  Here's another Emily (this one from Oregon) showing off her manicure.  This was AFTER she washed her hands.  Umm... use more soap, maybe?

Above right:  After getting covered with concrete, it was time for Belikin beer followed by some rum.  The drinking age in Belize is only 18, so I'm sure this was everyone's very first beer.  Yeah, right.

Perky Peppers in Placencia

I packed up my things at Log Cab-Inn on Thursday morning, checked out, and said goodbye to the friendly staff, then I drove a few miles into San Ignacio.  I bought some groceries there, including another five-gallon jug of drinking water (a must-have if you ever visit Belize), then I got back in the Jeep and hit the road bound for southern Belize.  Although I'd visited Belize twice before, this would be my first trip to southern Belize.  Nicole, a ProBelize staffer, had told me, "It's a totally different world down there," so I wanted to check it out.


Above:  My high school Spanish finally paid off at this roadside stand.

About five miles outside of San Ignacio, I pulled off the highway at a roadside stand, where I bought some hot and greasy (and delicious) homemade chicken tamales.  The woman running the stand didn't speak any English, so I had to dust off my high school Spanish ("Dos tamales con pollo, por favor, y seis bananas").  I hopped back into the jeep and continued on to Belmopan, the low-key, non-descript and frankly quite plain capital of Belize, when I devoured the tasty tamales at a grassy park.  What a great lunch, I thought to myself!


There's really not much to do in Belmopan other than eat hot and greasy (and delicious) chicken tamales.  But there are embassies here, so after finishing the tamales and wiping off my fingers, I drove over to the U.S. Embassy building out of curiosity.  And, just like everything else I see, as you've probably guessed by now, I snapped a few pictures of it.  That prompted an American guard to briskly leave his kiosk and walk over to me.  He asked me to please not do that, for security reasons.  Busted in Belize, I guess!  I thought about posting the pictures here but I don't want to be scolded by the guard again, so I can't show you what it looks like.


Above:  Habaneros are among the hottest peppers in the world, over 100 times hotter than jalapenos.  And the green ones, as I learned, are the hottest.  My tongue is still burning.

I turned my Jeep south at Belmopan and, still feeling a bit abashed about the friendly reprimand, drove along what is known as the Hummingbird Highway.  What a delightful name, I thought.  About fifteen minutes later, I stopped at Blue Hole National Park, which features a natural limestone swimming hole about 50 yards across and is surrounded on all sides by steep jungle cliffs.  It's something like a very small (and very blue) version of Crater Lake.  The water here is an iridescent shade of, yes, you guessed it, blue.


I returned to the jeep and resumed my southerly drive down the Hummingbird Highway, and a few hours later I pulled into Placencia (population 2,000), a beautiful coastal village that seemed to cater to American tourists who wear Tevas and stylish designer sunglasses.  Placencia, in fact, is probably the most Americanized coastal town in Belize other than San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.  And the prices here reflect it, because I rented a beachside cottage for $100 US, which is pretty pricey by Belize standards.  But it was wonderful to lie in a hammock that warm evening and stare up at the stars, while nibbling on a habanero pepper and listening to Jimmy Buffett sing about that other Placencia, also known as "Margaritaville."



After eating a habanero, I felt like Buster Poindexter singing Hot, Hot, Hot.


I love spicy food, and that's putting it mildly no pun intended.  Someday I'll tell you about my close encounter with a huge, fiery Chinese chili pepper that was sitting in my plate of Kung Pao chicken back in Portland (hint:  it didn't end well for the chili, or me).  Or you can check out the recipe for my world-famous "Three Alarm Chili" which includes four different types of chili powder plus a whole lot of cayenne.  But lying there in the hammock near the beach, I could make it only halfway through the habanero pepper before I had to give up.  It's a good thing I'd bought that five-gallon jug of drinking water, because this hot little habanero sounds like a girl I used to know was way too much for me.  And that sounds like another girl I used to know.


It was sunny the next morning and, with my tongue still buzzing from that habanero, I packed up and got back on the highway, then I continued my southward trek towards Punta Gorda.  This part of Belize is very different from the areas farther north that I was more familiar with.  It was much more rural down here and more "Central American" and less "Mexican," to put it one way.  The Mayan Indian culture is much more prevalent here and the area was what I envisioned Honduras and Guatemala to be like, compared to the more developed (and Hispanic) areas farther north. 


Above:  A tight fit on the Hummingbird Highway.

Around 4 p.m., and after driving south all day, I reached Punta Gorda (that means "Fat Point" in English), the southernmost town in Belize.  This largely-Mayan community is commonly called "PG" which I suppose is better than "Fat Point."  I got a room in a funky and colorful hotel on the outskirts of town, then I unpacked and walked into PG, where I found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and ordered a large Fanta orange soda and a huge plate of Chinese food.  Fanta, as you've probably guessed by now, is quite popular in Belize.


And yes, that's right:  Chinese food.  There are lots of folks from Taiwan in Belize, oddly enough, because apparently it's a popular stepping stone for Taiwanese who want to immigrate to America.  In fact, you'll see Chinese grocery stores and restaurants all over the country.  It's strange to see a "Wong's Superstore" next to a "Pedro's Auto Parts," but everyone in Belize seems to get along pretty well.  Although Punta Gorda is mostly Mayan, there are a few Chinese in PG.  And I'm guessing that all the movies shown in the local theatre here are, ahem, rated PG.



Above left:  This was my home at the Log Cab-Inn near San Ignacio.  It was very cozy and comfortable and even better than a log cabin!

Above right:  I reached Placencia, on the central coast of Belize, that afternoon



Left:  Here's the beachside cabin I rented in Placencia, complete with cushy hammock.




Above left:  I lolled in the hammock for several hours that evening while listening to Jimmy Buffett music and eating habanero peppers.  Well, TRYING to eat them (note the empty water jug).

Above right:  The next afternoon, heading to southern Belize.

Southern Belize:  A Different World

The Mayan women were out in force at Farmer's Market on Saturday morning, with their large families and wearing their incredibly colorful garments.  Punta Gorda was really hopping, both at the market and in the town square, where a marimba band was playing for dozens of folks, many of whom were dancing up front, close to the stage.  I drove into PG and parked on a busy street, then I got out to take some pictures.  Within a few moments, a young guy came up to me and said, "I'll watch your car for $10."  I thought to myself, "Was he really going to watch my car?  And what would he do to my car I DIDN'T pay him the $10?"  So I replied, "No thanks, I'm just here for a few minutes."


Above:  The lively Saturday Market in Punta Gorda.

After taking another picture or two (and staying close to my Jeep), I hopped back in, drove five blocks away to a quieter part of town, parked on the street, and walked back into downtown, where I listened to the marimba band for a half-hour.  I guess I stood out a bit a white guy with a new Jeep, taking pictures with a nice camera and I felt a bit out-of-place, too.  In fact, I didn't see one other Caucasian as I walked around crowded-and-lively PG that morning.  Nicole was right:  it was a different world down here.  But I think it's healthy to feel out-of-place and push yourself out of your comfort zone once in a while. 


Fully sated of marimba music, I left PG around 11 a.m. and drove out to the Mayan ruins at Lubaantun, which were located about 20 miles to the northwest, nestled in the misty mountains there.  The ruins aren't well-marked, so it took me a while and a few U-turns to find them.  I bought some souvenirs at the Visitor Center and talked for a while to the cheerful and informative park ranger, then I strolled through the ruins.  Interestingly though, the only other tourists at Lubaantun were two young women from, of all places, the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater.  They were nursing students doing a six-week volunteer stint at the hospital in PG and were having a good time in Belize.  In the warm, steady drizzle, we talked for about 10 minutes about State Street, Bascom Hall, the Terrace and other Badger-ish things, then I bade them good-bye and walked back to my Jeep. 



Andy Palacio was a Garifuna from Hopkins who I described in an earlier entry.  He sang this song, Miami, in the Garifuna language.


Here in the misty foothills, close to where Guatemala meets Honduras, was the most remote part of Belize that I'd visit during my week-long trip.  From here, I headed back north.  Late that afternoon I reached the coastal village of Hopkins, where I found a primitive beachside cabin for $50/night US again, expensive compared to lodging in the mountain towns of Belize, like San Ignacio. 


Hopkins is a unique community, even by Belizean standards.  It has a large population of black Garifuna Indians:  descendents of African slaves who were shipwrecked here in the 1600s and later intermixed with Caribbean natives.  With its black/Caribbean Garifuna culture, Hopkins is very different from Punta Gorda, which has a heavy Mayan influence or San Ignacio, with its strong Hispanic influence or Placencia, an American-oriented beach enclave with pricey-and-posh rentals and condos.  But that's one thing that makes Belize so interesting:  it's an incredible cultural melting pot.


I arose long before sunrise the next morning, strolled on the beach for a bit, then hopped in the Jeep and drove back to the International Airport in Belize City.  Back to civilization!  I dropped off the car there and boarded a Continental jet bound for America.  After a three-hour layover in Houston, I returned to Portland late that night. 


Despite a few minor "hiccups" -- oh, like a near-death and a brake failure that could've ended in catastrophe -- It had been a great trip.  I really enjoyed seeing southern Belize for the first time, as well as working with the NYU students.  I never could finish eating a whole habanero pepper, though.  But I figured maybe that's a good reason to come back to Belize someday.



Above left:  This is the Saturday Market in Punta Gorda.  The Mayan women dress up in their colorful outfits for this event, the social highlight of the week.

Above center:  Downtown Punta Gorda is lively on Saturday mornings.

Above right:  In search of Mayan ruins, I had to ask for directions.  Not many white folks visit this part of Belize and I got lots of curious looks.  Southern Belize is very different than central Belize.  It's much more rural and "Mayan" here but the Belikin beer signs are just the same.



Above left:  After several U-turns, I finally found the ruins.  This is Lubaantun, which had been a major Mayan settlement 1,500 years ago.  Now, though, only the stones are left. 

Above right:  Later that day, I reached Hopkins, the heart of Garifuna culture in Belize.



Above left:  My "rustic" (that's putting it kindly) beachfront cabin in Hopkins.

Above center:  The next morning, it's a beautiful sunrise on the coast.

Above right:  And later that morning back at the airport in Belize City, where my journey had begun a week earlier.  So long, Belize!



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