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Belize Trip #4:
An Orphanage for Jaime and Nancy

How I Got Involved with Belize

They say that when you help others, you often receive much more than you give.  That's been true regarding my volunteer service trips to Belize and is the main reason I keep going back there. 


Sometimes when I tell people about my service work in Belize, they ask me how I got involved with it.  Believe it or not, it all started with two hitchhikers who I met in a grocery store parking lot.


Late one afternoon in the summer of 2007, I drove to the Fred Meyer grocery store in Tualatin, Oregon, near Portland, like I do every week to buy groceries.  As I was driving into the parking lot, I noticed a woman in her late 20's wearing an old t-shirt and torn jeans talking to a motorist who was leaving the parking lot.  It just looked odd but I let it pass.  I parked my van and started walking into the store when she approached me and said,  "Excuse me, sir.  Are you heading south on Interstate 5?"  I replied, "No, I'm going into the store."  She was polite and said, "Oh, I'm sorry to bother you," and moved on.


I came out of the store 45 minutes later and she approached me again and asked me the same question, then recognized me and said, "Oh, I'm sorry.  I already asked you that," and started walking away.  But then she turned around and came back.  "I'm sorry, but it's getting dark and we really need a ride down to the Interstate Rest Area in Wilsonville so we can catch a ride to California."  She explained that she and her boyfriend had been in the parking lot all day trying to hitch a ride but with no luck.  It was starting to get dark and I was concerned about them, so I said, "Sure, I'll give you a ride."  It was 10 miles in the opposite direction from where I was going, but I drove them down I-5 and dropped them off at the Rest Area, and they were appreciative.  I don't know what happened to them after that, but I hope they made it to California and are doing all right.


Above:  Gregg and Kate, my PCC compatriots, enjoying another tasty meal at Log Cab-Inn.  Gregg has a great sense of humor and Kate is a terrific singer.

After getting home that evening, I picked up my mail and saw a course catalog from Portland Community College (PCC).  I flipped through it and noticed a travel class called, "Build a School in Belize" sponsored by a service organization called ProWorld.  The class sounded interesting but I turned the page, finished browsing through the catalog, and threw it into my recycle pile. 


But then a few minutes later, I picked up the catalog again and re-read the description of the Belize class.  I had felt good about giving that down-on-their-luck couple a ride down the Interstate, so I pondered the Belize class, thinking about how good I might feel if I volunteered for service work for an entire week.  Then I thought about the work my father had done helping to build schools in Central America in the 1970s and all the uplifting stories he had told me about his work there, and that sealed the deal.


I signed up for the PCC class and went to Belize in February 2008, one of 20 participants.  Then ten months later, in December 2008, I led an 18-person PCC group to Belize, and I went again to Belize in the spring of 2009 by myself to work on several projects.  In December 2009, I went down to Belize for the fourth time in two years, this time leading a group of three participants from Portland Community College:  a jovial guy named Gregg and his girlfriend Kate, and a fellow named Charlie.  We were joined in Belize that week by a group of 18 American college students who had each signed up independently for a ProWorld program called "Winter Break in Belize."  None of the kids knew us PCC folks or each other, and none had been to Belize before.


Above:  Jaime and Nancy have a dream of starting an orphanage.  They're a warm and generous couple.

We were met at the Belize City airport on Sunday afternoon by a fellow from ProWorld and we all hopped on a school bus, which we rode for two hours to San Ignacio in western Belize, our home for the next week.  As we drove along the jungle highway with all the windows down, I played tour guide and pointed out the scenic highlights, like the Hattieville prison, one of the most notorious prisons in Central America.  As I told the group with a wink, "You don't want to spend your vacation in Hattieville."


The next morning at orientation, Adrian Bartley, the ProBelize country director, told us about our project that week.  A Belizean couple, Jaime and Nancy Marin, wanted to build an orphanage on land they owned outside of San Ignacio.  They were going to call their new orphanage Barzakh Falah and our goal was to build the first structure, the caretaker's house.  We were going to employ a new construction technique using bags of compressed dirt instead of timber, building something like an igloo.  The building would be much sturdier than the wood-frame construction that's so common in Belize and would be able to endure hurricanes, an important factor in this area. 


Jaime and Nancy supervised and directed our work effort that week.  Jaime (pronounced "Hi-mee") was an architect and engineer with the Belize government in Belmopan and had recently learned about this technique.  His wife, Nancy, a former Miss Belize Tourism, had always dreamed of running an orphanage.  They were a charming couple who I got to know well during the next week and they warmed my heart.  They were both dedicated to their cause and had already adopted several children, so I was going to do everything I could to help them realize their dream.



Above left:  Arriving in Belize on Sunday afternoon after a three-hour flight from Houston.

Above center:  Our group walking through San Ignacio on Monday.

Above right:  Adrian Bartley, the country director for ProBelize.



Above left:  The orientation session in San Ignacio on Monday morning for 18 American college kids and four of us "older kids" from Portland Community College.  That's Adrian Bartley leading the talk.

Above right:  After orientation on Monday, we took a dip in the Mopan River near Succotz.



Above left:  Here's the library in the village of Succotz, which I'd worked on during my previous visits to Belize in February and December of 2008.  It's looking good and is starting to take shape.

Above right:  And here's another old friend, the Pentecostal School in San Antonio, where I had also worked in February and December of 2008.

Good Progress, and a Visit From an Old Friend

After orientation on Monday, we started working at the orphanage on Tuesday morning and the four of us PCC folks and 18 college kids made steady progress, with Jaime leading the way and showing us what to do.  It started raining the next day, though, and by Thursday we were working in a mud bath, but we still made good progress.  Ben, one of the college guys, got us a large canopy to keep the rain off the structure, which helped a lot.  He had to buy several cases of beer from the owner to get it, but the canopy proved invaluable and we had 10 cases of beer, to boot, which the kids made quick work of on Thursday night, New Year's Eve.


Above:  That's me in front of our muddy group.  By Friday, our work site had turned into a morass, but we'd gotten a lot done.

The process itself was pretty simple.  First we filled a sturdy nylon-fiber bag with dirt, sealed it shut, and put it in a circle on top of an existing bag, staggering the overlap.  Then we pounded the whole layer of bags flat and laid down a string of barbed wire to reduce slippage between layers, then we started a new layer.  When a layer of bags was finished, we plastered the outside to keep the rain from getting in.  The roof would gradually taper inward like an igloo and the building would have a living area below with a sleeping loft above. 


Jaime estimated that the whole structure could be built for less than $1,000 in materials and it would be very sturdy and able to withstand strong hurricanes.  It was a great concept and as we finished each layer, it seemed to be working.


I was working at the orphanage on Thursday afternoon when I glanced over at the field and saw a familiar face.  It was Carlos Jimenez, my friend from Succotz village who'd I met two years earlier during my first visit to Belize when I helped build a library in Succotz.  I saw him again last year on Belize trip #2 when I worked with a group of PCC folks in Succotz, but I was really surprised to see him here at the orphanage, many miles from his village.  He walked over and with a shy smile said, "Hello, Mr. Del," (Carlos is very formal), then gave me a hug (and sometimes he's not).  He heard I was coming back to Belize, so he had taken a bus from Succotz to the ProBelize office in San Ignacio and asked about me.  They told him I was working on an orphanage near Georgeville, so he took another bus and found the worksite. 



Here's the Belizean / Garifuna singer, Andy Palacio.  This is Amunegu.


I was touched that he had gone to all that trouble just to see me.  But I wasn't surprised, because that's how many Belizeans are.  I'd given Carlos my business card on my first visit in 2008 and shortly after I returned to Portland, I got an e-mail from him saying, "Hello, Mr. Del.  This is my very first e-mail," which made me smile.  As you can probably tell from my stories about Belize, there's a greater emphasis on personal relationships here than in America and less emphasis on money or possessions, which is one reason I always enjoy coming back.  Things are just different here, and in a good way.


Above:  Jaime tamping down the second layer of bags for his Earth Home / orphanage.

Our group worked on the orphanage all day on Thursday despite more rain, then we had a New Year's Eve bash on the roof of the ProBelize office in San Ignacio on Thursday night to ring in 2010, something I had also done when I was here in late December 2008 as we rang in 2009.  Us PCC folks stayed up until midnight to watch the fireworks and then promptly went back to Log Cab-Inn and went to bed (that's what happens when you get older), but some of the college kids stayed up until the wee hours drinking those 10 cases of beer, which they probably regretted the next day.  Some of the girls looked a little sick on Friday morning and had to make a few trips behind the shed, but they were in good spirits nonetheless and got a lot done. 


Friday was the PCC group's final day at the orphanage and after putting in another hard (and wet) day's work, we said goodbye to everyone.  I'd enjoyed working with all of the college students, and they with us, and there were lots of hugs.  The college kids were going to visit the Caribbean keys that weekend, then return the following week to continue working on the orphanage.  I was thinking about extending my stay in Belize an extra week so I could help them out, but my sister in the U.S. was having some health issues, so instead I returned to the U.S. after a quick trip down to the keys.


After we said our goodbyes, Gregg, Kate, Charlie and I returned to Log Cab-Inn and hosed each other off and I'm not kidding.  At the end of each day, we were so covered with mud that we literally sprayed each other with a garden hose to get it all off.  But despite the mud, it had been a productive week, we'd made a lot of progress, and Jaime and Nancy were well on their way to realizing their dream.



Left:   Making good  progress on our first day.  We've laid the first ring of bags for the caretaker's house. 

This was a new, environmentally-friendly and affordable way to build a house.  It was probably the first structure of its kind in Belize. 

Notice how clean we all are in this "before" picture.




Above left:  The caretaker's house is slowly taking shape.  It had rained a lot so things were starting to get muddy.

Above right:  Nancy from Belize, Nancy from Atlanta, Jenna, and Carla taking a break.



Above left:  Paul and Jenna laying barbed wire so the layers don't slip. 

Above right:  Glenn, Emily and Carla had fun, did some work and got muddy but not necessarily in that order.



Above left:  Pouring dirt into yet another earth bag.  The process was the same:  fill the bag with dirt, place it and tamp it down, then repeat the process until an entire layer of bags has been placed.

Above center:  Jaime and three of his kids.  What a cute family!

Above right:  I was covered with mud at the end of each day and had to wash myself off with a garden hose every evening.  But we were making good progress. 



Above left:  We had a party on the roof of the ProBelize building on New Year's Eve.  Adrian's sister from Belize City is cooking up some BBQ chicken. 

Above center:  Having fun on the roof.

Above right:  Celebrating the New Year, 2010.  After watching the fireworks, us PCC folks went to bed.  Most of the college kids stayed up all night drinking and many of them regretted it the next day!



Above left:  My friend, Carlos Jimenez, took two buses just to see me.  This picture was taken last year in his village of Succotz when I worked there on the library.

Above right:  By Friday, we had built a wall four feet high and added steps to the top floor (left).  This was my group's last day, but the college kids were going to work here for another week.

Caving with Carlos

Saturday was our "play day" in Belize, our reward for a long week of hard work.  In the morning, Gregg, Kate and I went to Barton Creek cave, about an hour's drive from Log Cab-Inn.  We had a great leader, an independent tour guide named John Chuc.  John picked us up in his van at 9 a.m. and we headed down the bumpy road bound for Barton Creek. 


Above:  Gregg enjoyed cranking the ferry across the Mopan River near Xunantunich.

It had been raining most of the week so the rivers were pretty high, making our drive to Barton Creek a challenge.  We approached a riverbank hoping to ford the river in the van and John stopped to scope it out.  The river looked awfully high to me and I would've turned back, but John wanted to drive through it, so I didn't object since I figured it was his van (and his transmission).  As we slowly drove through the river, water started pouring into the van and I lifted my feet so they'd stay dry, but we made the crossing intact without drifting down the river and out to the Caribbean. 


Barton Creek cave was spectacular, as always, and we canoed through it with our spotlights for a half hour, checking out the cave formations and the Mayan pottery that had been left here a thousand years ago.  As I've said before, Barton Creek cave is sort of like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland, except you get to paddle your own canoe. 


Above:  A surprise encounter in the cave.  This is my old friend, Carlos Cisneros, from San Antonio. 

As we paddled through the cave, I saw a spotlight up ahead indicating an approaching canoe and then I faintly heard a familiar voice.  As the canoe got closer, I could make out the guide in the back and recognized his voice.  "Carlos!", I shouted. "How's it going?"  It was my friend Carlos Cisneros, a teacher in the village of San Antonio, who I see every time I come to Belize.  I'd sent Carlos an e-mail a few weeks earlier from Portland saying that I was coming down to Belize but didn't hear back from him, and now here he was in a jungle cave 20 miles from the nearest village. 


Yep, it's a small world.  After our cave expeditions, he and I talked and it was great to see him again.  He told me that he hadn't been able to check his e-mail for a while.  Gregg and Kate laughed hard because all week, no matter where we were, I kept bumping into people I knew from my previous trips here and now I had bumped into my good friend Carlos in the middle of a cave.  But that's Belize.


John, our terrific tour guide, drove us back to Log Cab-Inn that afternoon and dropped us off.  Gregg, Kate and I ate lunch there and then headed off for Xunantunich (pronounced "shoe-NAN-too- nitch"), a group of spectacular Mayan ruins located about 10 miles from San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border.  Despite the drippy weather, Gregg and Kate had a good time exploring the ruins and learning about the Mayan culture.  The three of us made a good team and we had a lot of fun together all week, in fact.


Above:  On the bus back to Belize City.  I'm using my laptop to burn DVDs of my photos for Gregg and Kate.

The next day, Sunday, Gregg, Kate and I took the bus into Belize City and they flew back to the U.S. while I went on to Caye Caulker.  It was windy and rainy the next day, though, and all the dive boats had cancelled their dives, so I spent most of the day just walking around the Caye and taking pictures.  I flew back to Belize City the next day, hopped on a Continental jet bound for Houston, where I changed planes and then returned to Portland that night. 


It had been a good trip, I bumped into a lot of old friends and made some new ones, we got a lot of work done, and Jaime and Nancy were very appreciative for the work we had done in getting their orphanage off the "ground" (and into our clothes and shoes and everywhere else!)  Once again, though, I received so much more than I gave.  And I know everyone in our group felt the same way.


For me, it had all started with two hitchhikers in a grocery store parking lot in Portland two and a half years earlier.  The hitchhikers thought I was helping them but actually, as I realize now, they were helping me.  My simple act of kindness had opened up this whole, new world of volunteer service work to me, and has paid me back more times than I can ever count.



Above left:  Crossing a flooding river on the way to Barton Creek cave.  The water came up to the floorboards.  Um... John, is this a good idea?

Above right: We drove through it but the next river was too deep to ford, so we shimmied across the bridge.  That's our guide, John, helping Kate over the river one step at a time.



Left:  We finally made it to Barton Creek cave and paddled back into the cave for a half-hour. 

Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate's life for me.





Above left:  Later that day approaching the El Castillo temple at the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich.  At 140 feet high, it's the second highest structure in Belize.

Above center:  A cool dude at the top.

Above right:  Gregg and Kate enjoyed the bus ride back to San Ignacio.



Above left:  After five days in San Ignacio, I said goodbye to Gregg and Kate at the airport and headed down to Caye Caulker.  There are three streets on the caye.  This is Front Street.  Middle Street and Back Street are to the left.

Above right:  Enjoying a delicious dinner of conch fritters at an open-air restaurant over the water.



Left:  The friendly kitty at Picololo.




Above left:  It was too windy for snorkeling and no outfitters were going to the reef, so I walked around Caye Caulker and enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere.

Above right:  The air terminal at Caye Caulker, on my way back to Belize City.



Above left:  Belize City International Airport, filled with Americans like me heading back to the States.

Above right:  Hasta la vista, Belize.  Hope to see you again!



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