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January 7, 2010 (San Ignacio, Belize)

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Belize Trip #4:  Building an Orphanage for Jaime and Nancy


Map of Belize


They say that when you help others, you get back more than you give.  Regarding my many service trips to Belize, that's been very true and it's one of the main reasons I keep going back to Belize. 


When I tell people about my service work in Belize, they sometimes ask me how I got involved with it.  Believe it or not, it all started with two hitchhikers.  Late one day 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.


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, which sounded intriguing, but I turned the page, finished browsing through the catalog, and threw it in my recycle pile.  A few minutes later, I picked up the catalog again and re-read the description of that Belize class.  I felt good about giving that couple a ride down the Interstate, so I pondered over the Belize class, thinking about how good I'd feel if I volunteered for service work.  Then I thought about the work my father had done helping to build schools in Central America in the 1970s and all the stories he told me about his work there, and that sealed the deal. 


I signed up for the PCC class and went to Belize in 2008 as a participant, then the next year I led the PCC group to Belize, and went again in the spring of 2009.  In December 2009, I went down for the fourth time in two years, this time leading a small group from PCC including a jovial guy named Gregg, his girlfriend Kate, and a fellow named Charlie.  We were joined in Belize by a group of 18 American college kids 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.   


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 wanted to build an orphanage called Barzakh Falah on their land outside of San Ignacio and our goal was to build the first structure at the orphanage, the caretaker's house.  We were going to employ a new construction technique using bags of compressed dirt instead of timber, and we'd build 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. 


The Belizean couple, Jaime and Nancy, were going to help us that week.  Jaime (pronounced "Hi-mee") was an architect and engineer with the Belize government in Belmopan and had recently learned about this technique, and his wife, Nancy, 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.


Belize City airport    ProBelize orientation    ProBelize group in San Ignacio

Above left:  Arriving in Belize on Sunday afternoon after a 3-hour flight from Houston.

Above center:  We had orientation in San Ignacio on Monday morning, 18 American college kids and four of us "older kids" from Portland Community College.  That's Adrian Bartley, the country director for ProWorld.

Above right:  Then at noon we walked to the nearby Cahal Pech Mayan ruins, on a hill above San Ignacio.



Succotz library   Adrian Bartley     ProBelize group at Mopan River

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

Above center:  Here's a better picture of Adrian with ProWorld.  He organized the whole project.

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


Jaime and Nancy in Belize    Building the orphanage in Belize    ProBelize group building an orphanage

Above left:  We started building the orphanage the next day.  This is Jaime and Nancy, who own the land.  Jaime is an architect and engineer with the Belize government and Nancy is a former Miss Belize Tourism, but more than that, a very sweet person.  They're both very warm and generous.

Above center:  Making 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 and was probably the first structure of its kind in Belize. 

Above right:  Jenna pouring dirt.  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.


Good Progress, and Visiting 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 New Year's Eve.


The process itself was pretty simple.  First we filled a 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, laid down a string of barbed wire to reduce slippage between layers, and 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 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 took a bus from Succotz to the ProBelize office in San Ignacio and asked about me and they told him I was working on the orphanage, so he took another bus and found the worksite. 


I was touched that he'd go to all that trouble just to see me, but not 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.


Our group worked on the orphanage all day Thursday despite more rain, then we had our annual New Year's Eve bash on the roof of the ProBelize office Thursday night.  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 were in good spirits nonetheless and got a lot done.  Friday was the PCC group's final day and after putting in another hard day's work, we said goodbye to everyone.  I'd enjoyed working with all of them, and they with us, and there were lots of hugs.  The college kids were going to visit the Carribean 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 to the keys.


After we said our goodbyes, Gregg, Kate 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.


   Orphanage in Belize    Building orphanage in Belize    Jaime with his kids

Above left:  Nancy, another Nancy, Jenna, and Carla taking a break.

Above center:  Here's Jaime tamping down the second layer.  After laying some barbed wire down to increase cohesion, we could begin laying the third layer.

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


Building orphanage with ProBelize    Muddy orphanage in Belize    Girls at Barzakh Falah

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

Above center:  And here's proof.  At the end of each day, I was covered with mud and had to wash it all off with a garden hose.  But we were making good progress. 

Above right:  Glenn, Emily and Carla having fun and getting muddy, but not necessarily in that order.



Carlos in Succotz, Belize    Building orphanage with ProWorld Belize    ProBelize group at Barzakh Falah

Above left:  My friend, Carlos Jimenez, who 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 center:  Jenna's laying barbed wire so the layers don't slip. 

Above right:  By the end of the week, we'd made good progress.  This was the PCC group's last day, but the college kids were going to work here for another week.



Log Cab-Inn    ProBelize New Year's party    New Year's in San Ignacio

Above left:  Gregg and Kate, my PCC compatriots, enjoying another great meal at Log Cab-Inn.  Gregg has a great sense of humor and Kate is a good singer, as she proved during karaoke night.

Above center:  On New Year's Eve, we had a party on the roof of the ProBelize building in San Antonio.  Adrian's sister from Belize City is cooking up some BBQ chicken. 

Above right:  At midnight, we watched the fireworks from the roof, then us PCC folks went to bed.  Of course, the college kids stayed up all night drinking... and most of them regretted it the next day!


Time for Fun, and Caving with Carlos

Saturday is always 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, who I highly recommend (and I don't make recommendations in this website very often).  John picked us up in his van at 9 a.m. and we headed down the bumpy road bound for Barton Creek. 


It had been raining most of the week, so the rivers were pretty high making our journey 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 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. 


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, and he said he hadn't been able to check his e-mail for a while.  Gregg and Kate were laughing hard because all week, no matter where we were, I kept bumping into people I knew -- and now I bumped into my good friend Carlos in the middle of nowhere.  But that's Belize.


John, our guide, drove us back to Log Cab-Inn that afternoon, we ate lunch, and then headed off for Xunantunich (pronounced "shoe-NAN-too-nitch"), a group of spectacular Mayan ruins 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.


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 walking around the Caye and taking pictures.  I flew back to Belize City the next day, hopped on a Continental jet, transferred planes in Houston as I always do, and returned to Portland that night. 


It was a good trip, I bumped into a lot of old friends and made some new ones, we got a lot done, and Jaime and Nancy were very appreciative. Once again, though, I received so much more than I gave, and I know everyone in our group felt the same way.  And for me, it had all started with two hitchhikers in a parking lot.


Crossing stream in Belize    Crossing stream at Barton Creek cave    Barton Creek cave

Above left:  Assessing a river crossing on the way to Barton Creek cave.  Um... John, is this a good idea?

Above center:   We drove through it but this 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...

Above right:  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...

Carlos in Barton Creek cave    Xunantunich ferry    Xunantunich   

Above left:  A surprise encounter in the cave.  This is my friend Carlos Cisneros from San Antonio.  Carlos and I are like two ships passing in the night.  Oh no, that's right, we have headlamps.

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

Above right:  Walking through the Xunantunich ruins, outside of San Ignacio.  Mayan ruins are everywhere in Belize and this is one of the most impressive.  This temple is about 140 feet high and we climbed to the top.



Riding a bus in Belize    Riding a bus in Belize    Dock at Caye Caulker   

Above left:  Gregg and Kate had fun on the bus ride back to Log Cab-Inn that evening.

Above center:  And I enjoyed the bus ride to Belize City the next morning.  I'm burning DVDs of my photos for Gregg and Kate.

Above right:  After saying goodbye to them in Belize City, I hopped on a water taxi and went out to Caye Caulker.



Front Street in Caye Caulker    Caye Caulker airport    Belize City airport

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 center:  After a couple days in the keys, I hopped on a plane and flew back to the Belize City airport...

Above right:  ... where I got my ticket for Portland.  So long Belize, until next time!



Next News

February 27, 2011:  The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics


Previous News

July 29, 2009:  A Wedding in Tucson and a Road Trip to Montana

April 18, 2009:  Belize Trip #3 (Building a School with NYU)

January 24, 2009:  Abu Dhabi and a Road Trip in Oman

January 5, 2009:  Belize Trip #2 (Two Schools and an Orphanage)

July 6, 2008:  Around the World in Eight Days (Part 2: Abu Dhabi to Portland)

July 6, 2008:  Around the World in Eight Days (Part 1: Portland to Abu Dhabi)

February 20, 2008:  The San Antonio School  (San Ignacio, Belize)

February 17, 2008:  The Succotz Library  (San Ignacio, Belize)

February 16, 2008:  Old Friends / Belize it or Not  (San Ignacio, Belize)

May 28, 2007:  Oregon Bound  (Portland, Oregon)

August 7, 2005: Back To Work  (Redmond, Washington)

June 25, 2004: Life in Bellingham  (Bellingham, Washington)

December 7, 2003: The Greatest Generation  (Bellingham, Washington)

March 28, 2003: My Father  (Bellingham, Washington)

October 30, 2002  (Bellingham, Washington)

July 24, 2002  (Princess Louisa Inlet, British Columbia)

July 12, 2002  (Lake City, Colorado)

July 4, 2002: Life as a Ranger, Part 2  (Lake City, Colorado)

July 4, 2002: Life as a Ranger, Part 1  (Lake City, Colorado)

July 1, 2002  (Looking Glass Rock, Utah)

June 25, 2002  (Lassen Volcanic National Park, California)

June 18, 2002: Part 2  (Port Orford, Oregon)

June 18, 2002: Part 1  (Port Orford, Oregon)

May 22, 2002  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 7, 2002  (Sydney, Australia)

April 4, 2002  (Coffs Harbour, Australia)

April 1, 2002  (Hervey Bay, Australia)

March 28, 2002  (Airlie Beach, Australia)

March 25, 2002  (Port Douglas, Australia)

March 16, 2002  (Winton, Australia)

March 13, 2002  (Alice Springs, Australia)

March 11, 2002  (Ayers Rock, Australia)

March 8, 2002  (Coober Pedy, Australia)

March 5, 2002  (Port Augusta, Australia)

March 1, 2002: Part 2  (Robe, Australia)

March 1, 2002: Part 1  (Robe, Australia)

February 18, 2002  (Bega, Australia)

February 7, 2002  (Auckland, New Zealand)

February 2, 2002: Part 2  (Taupo, New Zealand)

February 2, 2002: Part 1  (Taupo, New Zealand)

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January 20, 2002  (Geraldine, New Zealand)

January 16, 2002  (Te Anau, New Zealand)

January 12, 2002: Part 2  (Dunedin, New Zealand)

January 12, 2002: Part 1  (Dunedin, New Zealand)

January 1, 2002: Part 2  (Christchurch, New Zealand)

January 1, 2002: Part 1  (Christchurch, New Zealand)

December 24, 2001  (Wellington, New Zealand)

December 20, 2001  (Auckland, New Zealand)

December 16, 2001  (Auckland, New Zealand)

December 14, 2001  (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)

December 10, 2001  (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)

December 3, 2001: Part 2  (Bellingham, Washington)

December 3, 2001: Part 1  (Bellingham, Washington)

October 18, 2001: Part 3  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001: Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001: Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 6, 2001  (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001: Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001: Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 15, 2001  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

August 30, 2001  (Webster, South Dakota)

August 18, 2001  (Watertown, South Dakota)

August 17, 2001  (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)

August 14, 2001  (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)

August 6, 2001  (Manlius, New York)

July 23, 2001  (Middleton, Massachusetts)

July 22, 2001  (Boston, Massachusetts)

July 20, 2001  (Pomfret, Connecticut)

July 18, 2001  (Denton, Maryland)

July 16, 2001  (Cumberland, Virginia)

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July 9, 2001  (Sevierville, Tennessee)

July 8, 2001  (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)

July 5, 2001  (Manchester, Tennessee)

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

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June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001: Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001: Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

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June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

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April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)