Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bellize Top 10

Discover here the top 10 reasons why Karl and I love Belize.

10. Exchange Rate - $1 US = $2 Belize making a pretty nice deal.

9. Marie Sharp's Habanero Hot Sauce - Good on every including your morning bagel!

8. Cultural Diversity - Where can you find Garafuna, Menonite, Creol, Chinese, Mayan, Mestizo, and American/European Volunteers in one country?

Karl with his graduating computer class.

7. Markets - Fresh local produce for an incredibly cheap price. This I will truly miss.

6. Natural Healing - The breath of knowledge of the local growing plants is incredible and luckily nature has a remedy for everything.

Ixchel, goddess of midwifery and medicine in the Ancient Mayan culture

5. Cayes - The islands are gorgeous with white sand and crystal blue waters. What's not to like?

4. Mayan Ruins - We've done our fair share of ruining and are still amazed at their existence.

3. The Jungle - Wicked cool bugs, gigantic trees, natural rememdies around every corner, and a beautiful diversity of birds. And man those leaf cutter ants!

2. Relaxin' - There has been an endless amount of time to read, journal, play cards, and just plain old chill.

Drum roll please...

1. The Volunteers - Not to toot our own horns, but we have been working with an amazing group of hard-working, spirited, and intelligent people from all over the world working together to make this country an even better place.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In My Experience

Karl and I are soon wrapping up our time here in Belize. I figured I would use this opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings about volunteering over the last 3 months before I am ready to move on to the next stage of our lives. Overall I feel that my time here has been successful and rewarding. Partly this is just the nature of my profession, but I am also fortunate to have found many supportive people in the Cayo district.

My first few weeks here were a little disorganized which made it difficult to create a schedule. I felt overwhelmed with where to start and how to maximize my potential impact on the community. Of course things only really started falling into place when I was halfway through my time here. I think most volunteers would agree that each day you run into frustrations that could easily strip you of your energy and passion for being here. Despite these frustrations I really feel like I accomplished what I came here for. Over the last three months I have overcome fears (such as riding a one speed bike with no suspension on unpaved roads without a helmet available), improved my Spanish speaking skills (I can now speak fluently with at least a 7 year old!), gained an amazing perspective on health care in a developing country, and was able to work with dozens of community members using just my hands & knowledge to improve their quality of life. Looking back the frustrations are forgotten and I will only remember the positives.

The other day I spent my last day volunteering at a senior center located in San Ignacio. They run an exercise clinic 3 days weekly. Nurse Dorothy (a volunteer registered nurse from Europe) is the only full-time staff leading the exercise department on top of various other nursing duties. I was only able to spend 4 days at the clinic due to my busy schedule, but she was beyond grateful for this. The entire staff and all the patients were always so warm and welcoming. After my final day Nurse Dorothy gave me a goodbye gift along with a letter to show her appreciation. This was beyond necessary of course, but it points out that the thought really does count. It provided me with the culminating moment of why I chose this profession and why I came all this way to volunteer in Belize. After all, it truly means more to me to be able to help out at Octavia Waight than it does for any of the staff or patients.

Great thanks goes to my husband for allowing us to uproot our lives to make this adventure happen. It has been a long term goal of mine to just make it here and fortunately our time has been very worthwhile. Thanks to everyone at home for your love and support.

Stay tuned for the Belize Top 10 - our way of improving tourism in this beautiful, yet hot country.


Monday, July 7, 2008

Actun Tunichil Muknal

Yesterday Betsy, Dave, Jen, and I took a tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal. It is one of the most unforgettable places I've ever seen.

ATM is a cave emerging inconspicuously from the jungle about ten miles south of the tiny, impoverished village of Teakettle. To get there we rode a minibus out the Western Highway to Teakettle, then followed a series of progressively worsening dirt roads before arriving at a trailhead at the edge of the forest. We hiked at a brisk pace over a muddy trail featuring three shallower river fordings before reaching the mouth of the cave. There we ate a small lunch, donned plastic helmets with headlamps, and transformed into amateur spelunkers.

The entrance to the cave is at once inviting and foreboding. I could imagine myself stumbling across it while walking through the woods, carefully considering it from a distance, then making my way up to the entrance to peer inside. If it was the right time of day, say early morning, and the sunlight bathed the cave in soothing tones of reddish-orange and lit up the crystal clear water enough to consider what might be lurking within, I'd probably be motivated to enter the cave and explore a little bit. If, on the other hand, it was later in the day when the sun would be higher and harsher and the cave would have appeared like a yawning black wormhole to the netherworld, the place would have scared the shit out of me. I imagine that the ancient Mayans who started coming to this place some time around 250 AD must have felt the same way.

Fortunately, we were being escorted by a friendly and knowledgeable local tour guide named Ben, so there was nothing to be afraid of. Unless my headlamp went out. Or something mysterious and scaly brushed past my leg in the dark water...

The only way to enter the cave is by swimming through a twenty-foot wide pool of water. I dove in and was immediately engulfed in the first sensation of chilly that I've experienced in Belize. By the time we were back standing on solid ground it was dark enough to switch the headlamps on. Ben gave us a quick lecture on safety, communication, and not disturbing the contents of the cave. Then we started deeper in to the darkness.

Traveling through the cave requires considerable amounts of strength, agility, and concentration. My first thought was that there is no way we would be allowed to do something like this back home in the States without five levels of certification and a dossier of liability release forms. The first time some arrogant yuppie lawyer from New York City assumes he knows more than the guide, wanders off on his own, and slips into a hidden crevice and breaks his ankle, that would be the end of that. Of course, this isn't the land of multimillion dollar lawsuits, this is Belize. You'd be lucky to get a free ride to the hospital here.

Anyway, as we waded through chest-deep water, climbed over boulders, snuggled through form-fitting crevices, and splashed through puddles, the beauty of the cave emerged. At some points we were surrounded on all sides by eons-old geological formations: stalagmites, stalactites, limestone flows, iron deposits, bat caves, and other chaotically beautiful natural sculptures beyond description. I was subconsciously astounded by the incongruity of the time dimension of the life of a geological entity. Aside from the water level and the occasional collapsed boulder, the cave I was seeing is nearly identical to the one those first Mayans would have seen while exploring by torchlight all those centuries ago.

And the more we saw, the easier it became to understand how the Maya came to see this place as a powerful spiritual enclave. At one point we hoisted ourselves onto and elevated ledge serving as the entryway to an enormous cavern nicknamed "The Cathedral". At that point we were asked to remove our shoes before entering, primarily to preserve the artifacts and cave formations contained within, but also as a sign of respect. Modern Mayans still identify strongly with the traditions of their ancient ancestors.

Inside The Cathedral we were exposed to other things that would be strictly forbidden back home in the land of handrails, velvet ropes, and bullet-proof glass. We tread lightly and consciously through a maze of pottery shards, firepits, and decapitated skeletons of human sacrifices left virtually untouched since the Mayans abandoned this holy place. And to stand in the center of The Cathedral and ponder the amplified echo of our voices and become immersed in the perfect darkness and stillness of the underground world is to truly understand for a fleeting instant how the Mayans could have believed this place to be a holy crossroads at the junction of life and death. My dad mentioned that parts of Barton Creek Cave reminded him of the enormous cathedrals of Europe. I have to agree I felt the same about ATM.

The tour lasted a few hours, and after we viewed the penultimate exhibit of the cave, a complete female skeleton hidden so well in a high, deep recess of The Cathedral that we have to assume (even if only for our own gratification) that she must have been a person of great ceremonial importance, we were ready to return to natural sunlight and dry clothing. We left the cave deeply satisfied, knowing that for the same cost as an SUV's tank of gas we were privileged to visit a place as unique as any on this planet.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

More photos...

My camera was stolen, so these aren't new, but they're still pretty cool... enjoy.

Boys throwing rocks at mangoes in our backyard

Sunset at Caye Caulker

Betsy and her friends in the Feeding Program.

Belize's national flower

Canoing on the Macal River

A little bit of home

Betsy and I have spent much of the past five days with my parents, who traveled down to Belize for the first time to visit us and vacation. It has been a great visit, and a nice diversion from the everyday routine of our lives here. Back home we take having an automobile for granted. Here we only have our feet and our bikes, and it's often ninety-plus degrees, so we don't wander far from home. Having my folks in town with an air-conditioned rental car gave us a chance to see Cayo District from a whole new perspective.

It was a little disorienting at first to spend time with my parents. After two months of gradual adjustments to life in Belize, I was surprised to notice how different our pace of lifestyle is from my parents'. We are accustomed to relaxed conversation, a casual sense of punctuality, and never being in a hurry to go anywhere. That naturally clashed with the objectives of a couple tourists focused on maximum enjoyment in a short time period.

After a day we adjusted to each other's internal schedules, and we took some cool side trips to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in Guatemala (I'll write more about that later) and the beautiful, isolated forest of Mountain Pine Ridge. It was great for Betsy and I to escape the mundane for a few days, and to spend some quality time with my family. And I think in spite of the bugs, the heat, and the third world-quality roads, Mom and Dad had an enjoyable time that they won't soon forget. All in all, it was great to share a little bit of our Belizean experience with some of our people from back home.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Stolen camera, and stolen youth

My camera was stolen last Friday morning, right before I left for two days of camping in the jungle. It was sort of my fault- I left my bag out unattended on Cornerstone's front porch for about five minutes. That's more than enough time for an opportunistic thief to run away with something as valuable as a gringo's camera.

The stomach punch of the whole situation is that we have a pretty good notion of who stole it. The guy has ties to Cornerstone- his wife receives free services from us. Apparently that's not enough to keep him from stealing from the people who are offering him charity.

Two months in Belize is not nearly enough time to understand the realities of the social problems here nor the complexity of their underlying causes. But the more we experience, the more we learn. Most people here are wonderful. They understand the value of such things as community, hard work, education, honesty, integrity, etc. We have been blessed to meet many of these people, especially through working with Cornerstone, and it is so inspiring to meet such enriching individuals in such an impoverished place.

On the other hand, there is a small but growing segment of the Belizean population that is deeply mired in a shady underworld of crime, sexual abuse, violence, and drugs. It is a small country consisting of small communities, so it is possible to view the struggle between positive and negative social forces pulling on the Belizean people on a daily basis.

I know a child here, a sweet young girl with one of the warmest smiles I have ever known, who was born into such a terrible household of poverty and addiction that her own mother tried to sell her for drug money. There are men here who are so twisted by crack and booze that they'll steal from their own brother, or rape a child, or beat a woman senseless for their own edification. A little girl told me yesterday, with the fiercest look in her big brown eyes, that she'll never let a man "knock" her. That wasn't a bland repetition of something she learned in school. That was a ten-year-old's conviction that the history she's grown up with in her own family will never be repeated in her own life.

You can almost begin to read a child's story from his face after a while. Any child anywhere in Belize will dazzle you with his sweetness, energy, cleverness, and creativity. But even to an eye as untrained to the signs of a child's welfare as mine, the differences between the children of "happy" homes versus "broken" homes are striking. Some kids are innocent, and boundlessly joyful. Others are guarded, distrustful, and fearful. The less fortunate kids are often rotten to each other, and to the adults who try to teach and discipline them. If you try to give them something they will snatch it away greedily as if they've never been given anything before and never will again. They possess a cynicism that no child that young should ever know. Today they are still young enough to lose their fears and worries in a round of play. But as they get older it will become more difficult to hide from the ugly cruelties of their lives, and less likely that they'll be able to prevent the cycle of abuse, neglect, and violence from spoiling the children of the next generation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Anything is possible!" -KG

I think you all knew this was coming...