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...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gettin' My Nerd On

Even in Belize I can't get away from computers. I came down here with no real expectations for my work here, except that I hoped to do something, anything, that got me away from sitting in front of a computer all day. But alas, it was not to be. I've spent more time working on computers than anything else.

Actually, it hasn't been that bad. I am fascinated by computers and the way we interact with them. Computers are used for such a vast array of human experiences- working, playing, finding love, committing crimes, shopping, studying, communicating, goofing off, keeping secrets, confessing secrets, etcetera, etcetera. As a "computer scientist" and expert computer user, I am one of a blessed few who have the skills and knowledge to help others get the most out of their interactions with computers. And there is no shortage of opportunities for that in Belize.

Computers are more prevalent here than I imagined. Cornerstone itself has about a dozen computers for use between the staff and volunteers. When I first arrived here I was impressed with the amount of equipment we have to use, but it was being used poorly. So much of my first few weeks here was spent studying the usage patterns of the staff and volunteers and customizing the configuration of each machine and the network so we can get the most out of the resources we have available. Plus, with anywhere from ten to thirty people using the computers each day, there has been no shortage of little IT tasks and "hey Karl, how do I?" or "Karl, the ______ stopped working again!"

In addition, I pooled together some of our older machines to create a makeshift "computer lab" in the office. I have been using it to teach computer classes to adult women. So far the classes have been quite a hit, and it has been a fun and enlightening experience for me. Most of the women do not have even the most basic computer skills so it is a real challenge to find ways to teach them a sustainable skill set in the limited time I have available. But it is worth it- few adults possess simple computer skills in Belize. If these ladies leave my class with the ability to type, use a mouse, and understand the basics of running programs and manipulating files, they will have a whole new realm of opportunities opened up to them and their children.

It takes an enormous amount of work to create valuable educational and business opportunities in Belize. Equipment is not readily available and is often secondhand. Technical expertise is in even shorter supply. Computers that cease functioning because of viruses, hardware failure or accidental or malicious misuse often become more of a liability than an asset. But the struggle to deliver high-quality human-computer interactions here is a worthy one. I am honored to play my small part in it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


Yesterday Betsy and I joined up with a group of volunteers to visit the ruins of the Mayan city of Xunantunich. The area was first settled as a simple village around 600 AD, then quickly developed into a thriving and important city over the next two hundred years. Then, seemingly just as quickly, Xunantunich began to regress along with the rest of Mayan civilization until it was abandoned completely around 1000 AD.

It is pretty amazing to visit an ancient city, and to climb to the top of its tallest temple and look around. To us it is merely a curiosity rising up majestically out of the jungle; and yet, to the people who inhabited this land 1,200 years ago the stone buildings and court yards that so many gringo tourists pay money to see were the center of civilization. If they could have known what would become of their great cities in the future, would they have chosen to live as they did?

The most astounding things about Mayan civilization weren't so much their successes as their failures. They once had a thriving, sophisticated culture which included many of the modern concepts of statehood: heads of state, bureaucrats, division of labor, large-scale agriculture, markets, writing, a calendar, art, language, public buildings, etc. And yet it all disintegrated in a shockingly short period of time. By the time the Europeans showed up to rape and pillage what was left of Mayan culture, cities like Xunantunich had already been consumed by the jungle, only to be rediscovered by foreign archaeologists hundreds of years later.

Friday, June 6, 2008

In The Garden...

I'll let Betsy take care of the well-written and thought-provoking posting of the day. All I want to share is some pictures of this cool lizard I saw hanging out in the Cornerstone garden today...

The best laid plans...

... almost always fall through in Belize. A long term volunteer told me today that if you accomplish one thing per day in Belize, you are doing great. I am extra frustrated this morning because I had intended to go speak to a preschool classroom in the Cayo District about disabilities awareness. However, the Ministry of Education announced that school is canceled on Friday for the hell of it last minute. Are you kidding? Welcome to Belize.

I wanted to share a little more about San Ignacio Hospital in this posting. SIH is a small public hospital located on a small hill just outside of the center of town in San Ignacio. There are two other decent sized private hospitals in the San Ignacio and Santa Elena areas, but most lower income residence (meaning the majority) receive their care primarily through SIH. The hosptial has an inpatient ward, an outpatient center, a small pharmacy, and about half a dozen full-time physicians. Most of the MDs are trained in Cuba because there are no medical schools in Belize. The Cayo area lacks many full-time specialists, such as an OB/GYN, mostly due to a lack of funding to pay physicians a decent salary. It is more profitable to work in Belize City.

As far as therapists, from what I have heard there are only two Belizean full-time trained physical therapists in the country. There are several foreign therapist who work in Belize, but they are not Belizean citizens. Again, there are no universities in Belize to train physical therapists; the two mentioned most likely received their training in Guatemala or Mexico. The therapist who works at SIH on Fridays rotates to various area hospitals, probably spreading himself thin. Those who are disabled from birth or recent injury (stroke, motor vehicle accident) will either receive no therapy or over-pay for some untrained individual who might have a medical aide background.

SIH is a decent hospital and now that I am accustomed to my surroundings it really does its job. However, my first impressions were of awe. The buildings are run down with chipping paint, only 3 rooms (the pharmacy, small ED, and administrator's office) are air conditioned, they have none of the typical medical technologies (xray, CT, ultrasound), there is no blood bank, and curiously the majority of meds are given via injections vs oral prescription (due to financial reasons?). The lowest trained nurses perform some involved procedures including dressing changes, injections, and stitches.

This following medical example is for my fellow dorky medical professionals. I apologize in advance to everyone else. One of my frequent patients is a 17 year old boy who does distance biking throughout Belize. He was hit by a car while riding one day, breaking both his left humerus (upper arm) and right clavicle (collar bone). The ED physician sent the boy to another local hospital to receive an xray to identify the breaks. There are no orthopedic surgeons in Cayo and typically this type of break would require surgery to realign the humerus with pins & a plate. However, this is not a cost-worthy procedure for a kid living in the Cayo district. Instead, the MD decided to manually traction the arm and cast it. If the bone did not heal properly, then they would need to re-break the site of the fracture and have the pinning procedure. Fortunately everything healed properly, but this kid has a huge bony callous like I have never seen before. It may take months to resolve.

Needless to say medicine in Belize astounds and inspires me. To the left is a picture of the area I use within the hospital to do my PT thang.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!

It's been a long, bumpy road, but in the end we're getting what we want: Celtics vs. Lakers in the NBA Finals!

It could have been a disastrous summer for me, leaving Boston for an underdeveloped Central American country while the Celtics are making a run for Banner #17. But thankfully, Belize is a basketball-crazed nation, and I have had little trouble finding a place to watch the game or knowledgeable local fans to exchange banter and trash talk with.

Of course I'm excited to see my boys back in the finals for the first time in over twenty years. And I'm excited for all my friends and former neighbors back in Boston who are watching another local team playing for a championship. But I'm happiest of all for Paul Pierce. I've watched Pierce play his entire career for mostly terrible Celtics teams. There are few professional athletes who play with as much intensity, emotion, and passion as Pierce. He has his flaws: he loses focus when things don't go his way, he doesn't carry himself like a true leader, and sometimes he'll drive you nuts by trying to be the hero instead of a good teammate. But he is a tremendous basketball player nonetheless, and all he's ever wanted to do is win a title as a Celtic. You could see it in his face after Game 6 in Detroit. In the days of the millionaire mercenary pro athletes, Pierce's candid passion for his sport is refreshing and inspiring. Let's hope he can lead the Green back to another title!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Parade Day

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of participating in my first Belizean parade. This parade was sponsored by the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) to raise awareness of the coming hurricane season. Since the entire country lies within 100 miles of the coast line, and a large chunk of the land here is no more than a few feet above sea level, hurricanes are a big deal here. A big storm could potentially put thousands of lives in serious danger and put thousands more out of their homes and property. And since people here don't all speak the same language and most are illiterate anyway, the best way to get an important message out to a large group of people is to create the biggest singing, dancing, marching, honking, and traffic-diverting commotion possible.

The parade started out as a pretty good time- there were a number of marching bands from the local schools who were pretty talented, a steel drum band, and the usual parade staples such as a fire truck and police escorts. And considering just about every school in the area had the day off so the kids could march in the parade, there were more people actually participating than were watching.

After about an hour, though, the parade devolved into a slow, grim death march. The parade had to pass through the most important streets in San Ignacio and Santa Elena, and apparently it needed to proceed at an ungodly slow pace so we could spend the maximum amount of time baking in the sun. The marching bands went through their whole repertoire, and started to repeat their songs, only much more out of key than the first edition. After about two hours, we returned to the starting spot with sunburns and the beginning stages of heat stroke. We all survived... but I'm not sure we learned a damned thing about hurricane preparedness.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Home, Sweet Home

It's only quarter to four now, but I've already had my fill of work today so I called it quitting time and retreated back to our little Belizean house. We've only been here two days after moving from our temporary apartment. Already it is beginning to feel like home.

It is a very typical house for these parts: thick concrete exterior walls, a single floor built on a concrete slab, thin interior walls of plywood or particle board, and a high exposed ceiling under a corrugated tin roof. The windows have neither glass nor screens, just wooden shutters which can be rotated to let in as much or as little breeze as you desire. There are two small bedrooms, with beds and wooden shelves the only furniture; a bathroom with a shower that drains directly outside (don't worry, the toilet does drain to a septic tank); and a connected living room and kitchen with enough room to cook a meal, eat it, and lounge around and relax afterward. A small refrigerator, an iron, three fans, and a single burner electric stove are the only appliances we have. There is a little yard with a coconut tree and a mango tree, though it seems like the neighborhood kids will get to all the good fruit long before we will.

I like it here a lot. It is quiet, safe, and peaceful. We are surrounded by families, and I've already met some of the kids from being involved in the schools. There are shops just a short walk away. People are polite and always say "hello" on the street. For as much as such a thing is possible, I feel like we're part of the community. For now, it feels like home.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Frisbee Man

Check out Kyle's site at: http://kyleinbelize.blogspot.com/

He's been here for a while now, and he's pretty established in the community and in the schools. One day, when Ultimate Frisbee is an Olympic Sport and Belize shocks the world by winning a medal, they'll have this guy to thank...

And oh yeah, if you have any interest in donating some sports equipment (i.e. frisbees, basketballs, soccer balls, pennies, cones, pumps, etc.) I can assure you that it will not go to waste here! There are ball fields everywhere, and since about 40% of the population of Belize is comprised of kids, there can never be enough sports activities to keep all the kids happy (and out of trouble). These kids love to play!

Lunch Time

Similarly to when I'm home in the U.S., lunch time is probably my favorite time of day here. Somewhere between 11:30 and noon, pretty much all of San Ignacio shuts down and everyone goes out or goes home for lunch. "Home" for us means the Cornerstone kitchen, where Miss Nellie toils each weekday to provide a delicious homestyle Belizean meal for the volunteers and about a dozen children who either live too far away to go home for lunch or won't get lunch even if they do go home.

The meal always includes white rice, and almost always red beans. Because the rice and beans come from relatively local farms and don't go through any preservative or mass distribution process, they taste a heck of a lot better than the rice and beans we used to buy at Shaw's back in Boston. On top of the staple rice and beans, Nellie cooks up a main course like vegetable stew, fried chicken, curried chicken, scrambled eggs, or chili ground beef. All the food is heavy on the flavor- they never skimp on the spices here. And if you have the stomach for it (as I do) you can top off anything with habanero hot sauce. Maria Sharp's and Hot Mama's are the two big brands here, and you can find the stuff anywhere. People like their food HOT here!

The other thing that's cool about lunch is hanging out with the schoolchildren in the Food Program. They're all in the range of about 8-13 years old, and somehow they are the only people in Belize who don't wilt from the midday heat. They finish up their lunches and then start bouncing off the walls! They're always looking for someone to play games with them. Lately we've been hooked on hangman, although I'm hoping Betsy and the other girls can come up with something new and creative to do because I'm getting sick of that game!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Perspectives on Health Care in Belize

At this point I have my main programs underway including working in an outpatient facility in San Ignacio Hospital, a community-based public hospital, and providing home visits for various children with disabilities in the San Ignacio and Santa Elena region. My work at the hospital is fairly organized with a 2 hour afternoon clinic 5 days a week where I treat mostly older patients with orthopedic overuse injuries. There is a local therapist who is only available for Friday afternoons, so it is pretty rewarding to make myself available for free services to reach more patients on a regular basis which in-turn means more effective therapy.

This past week I started working for CARE Belize which is an organization providing home services to disabled children ages 0-6 years in many districts throughout Belize. Most of my clients are actually children who have been discharged from the program recently either due to a lack of resources or limited progress. I have met with several of the families at this point to learn of their needs and to schedule weekly visits. So far this has been the most difficult to manage personally due to the severe lack of resources. Belize does not have the health care system or infrastructure to support those with disabilities.

I recently met a single mother with twin 10 year old boys diagnosed with cerebral palsy. In order for them to get a proper education their mother has to wheel them both in an over-sized wheelchair over dirt roads and carry them up a flight of stairs just to reach the classroom. She has to attend to them throughout the school day because the teachers do not have the time or education to assist with their learning. She must then wheel them home from school so they can use the restroom and have lunch, then return for afternoon classes. Just from my brief visit with this family, I know one of her sons could be ambulatory with the proper surgery, bracing, and durable medical equipment. In the very least they could both use power wheelchairs for independent mobility, but then of course there are many barriers to this option.

Coming from the United States where there is strong advocacy for disabled populations as well as a multi-disciplinary team to meet their many medical needs, this is a difficult and frustrating process. I am not sure where to start and what impact my skills may have. At the very least I will hopefully be able to share some knowledge and have fun with the children I meet. I have to say, these are some of the strongest individuals I have met in my life. What an experience.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Computer Classes

The last couple days I shadowed Kyle at Saint Andrew's Primary School while he taught computer classes to Standard 4 & 5 students (Belize's equivalent of 5th and 6th grade). It was a pretty enlightening experience, and I had a little fun with some of the kids. For the most part, they have adapted well to the technology even though computers are nowhere near as available to Belizean children as they are to Americans. A few of the more savvy (and mischievous) students "secretly" goof off on hi5.com or youtube.com while they're supposed to do their work. Of course, they don't know that the tricks they think they're getting away with are the same that I tried when I was a kid.

So I'm sort of optimistic about the level of computer skills the children have here, but there still is a huge gap to overcome if they are to start using the machines in a really meaningful way. A large proportion of the Standard 4 students don't grasp the concepts of a "web site" or "web page" and they have great difficulty processing the vast amount of information presented on the internet. For example, I saw a number of students typing search terms into the first text field they saw, regardless of whether it was a search field or not. And it is impossible to explain why sometimes a website takes a long time to respond. It is just magic to them!

Regardless of the difficulties, it is great to see these kids get a chance to use computers and the internet. Used properly, a computer is a gateway to a vast wealth of information. It exposes people to knowledge and opportunities that we in the First World take for granted, but previously were not accessible to people here. And even the social networking sites have their value, even though snotty elitist American ivory tower dwellers like this dork can't see it. The Belizean boys and girls using Hi5 or Myspace are unwittingly plugging themselves into the global human social and economic network in a novel way. They are truly digital pioneers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Getting Stuff Done

We've been at Cornerstone for a week now, and today was the first day I felt like I actually got some things accomplished. I am working with a local soccer coach (Bernard) and a Peace Corps volunteer (Kyle) to help organize a summer youth sports camp for early July. This morning Kyle and I biked around Santa Elena and San Ignacio to visit schools and spread the word about the camp. It is sort of a strange feeling to ride up to a school in the middle of a school day and disrupt a teacher or principal at work, but the people here are accustomed to being approached by humanitarian volunteers and usually welcome the interaction.

News of the camp was well-received, although I'm a little concerned that we might end up with more interested children than we can handle. I am looking forward to coaching and teaching soccer to eager youngsters, but I cringe when I think of the potential of handling 100 rambunctious kids speaking an incomprehensible mix of Creole and Spanish on a steamy hot afternoon.

This afternoon I took to sprucing up the Cornerstone garden along with some help from of the folks hanging around the office. I picked up trash and cleared away twigs and dead leaves with a rake, while Nellie, our staff chef, hacked away at weeds with a machete and another volunteer, Jim, churned up the earth with a hoe. Three young girls, all daughters of staff members, pitched in by lining the vegetable beds with rocks. We also built a new pen for composting. It was a little unnerving getting down and dirty in a garden with plant and animal species I've never seen before, but I got over that pretty quickly. I saw about a dozen lizards, an underground burrow dug out by a bunch of fat toads, and a tarantula- but nothing scary or poisonous. And the coolest thing of all was learning about the plants in the garden. Nellie has a wealth of knowledge of natural healing and organic cooking, and I learned quite a bit in one afternoon. Maybe she can show me something that will take care of the sunburn I picked up today!

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Land of Paradoxes

Every day I am here, my head spins, and it is not just because of the heat. Being immersed in a foreign culture- and expecting to find some way to be productive within it- is a challenge unlike any other I've experienced. It is my nature to try to understand everything I encounter. But there is a lot that just makes no sense to me.

I have heard stories of unconscionable violence in and around the community here. Some people I know here have been affected by it. And the kinds of things that happen, fairly regularly, are nasty enough to make your stomach churn just thinking about them.

And yet, it is not really a violent place. San Ignacio is a peaceful, almost sleepy town. The people we encounter on an everyday basis are some of the friendliest folks I've ever met. There are a lot of very intelligent, industrious people here. I have only been here a week but I have seen nothing that makes me fear for my safety or believe that I could not have a happy stay here.

Needless to say, there is a lot I don't understand.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A few pictures of Belize...

One of Cornerstone's key messages.

View of San Ignacio from across the Hawksworth Bridge.

"At the car wash"

Betsy and her new friends.

The only way to beat the heat in San Ignacio.

The sun setting over the Belize River in Belize City.

Friday, May 9, 2008

So Much to Do, So Little Resources

Greetings from Belize. Karl has been hogging the blog space. It is my turn to share what I have been up to the past couple days.

Cornerstone has the internet set-up as of today. Yeah! That means more accessibility for both the volunteers and students. So far my days have involved getting oriented to the community and the Cornerstone facility. There are so many areas that I am needed between a poster project for a school health fair next Wednesday, researching to prepare a health & disabilities pamphlet, making a house visit to meet a disabled girl in a rural area of Belize, and preparing to begin work as a physical therapist at the public hospital here in San Ignacio. The only problem is I'm already feeling myself spreading thin and the lack of resources really places a strain on what is available to work with. Hopefully my creativity and patience will kick in to make this experience both rewarding and positive for those I work with.

Well it is 5 pm and that truly means the end of the work day here. Hopefully we will post some good pictures soon.


Computers and Sports

Still getting oriented here to San Ignacio and Cornerstone. It looks like I'll be splitting my time here between working on computer issues in the office (there are a lot), teaching computer classes, coaching soccer at a day camp, and working to see how we can acquire some more computing resources for Cornerstone and the community.

Does anyone out there know of any organizations that donate recycled computers to non-profit organizations? Or do you have any ideas on how we can start something? American businesses often change their entire inventory of computers every couple years or so. Where do they all go?

And yes, I can watch the NBA playoffs down here (thank God!), although I unfortunately missed last night's Celts game because I still can't figure out exactly what time zone I'm in! Hopefully I'll be able to catch the next game, and hopefully the C's will figure out how to win on the road...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

First Impressions of Belize

Here are a couple entries from my personal journal I'd like to share here:

May 7th
It's about 5:30 PM in San Ignacio. This is the time of day to be outside. The oppressive heat is gone for the day; now the sun hangs at a low angle and a gentle breeze blows. Betsy and I are lounging on the grassy banks of the Macal River reflecting on our day.

Today we received our initial orientation to the people and resources of the Cornerstone Foundation. We visited several area schools and had the opportunity to pose a few questions to their principals about areas in which volunteers may be able to contribute to a positive cause. Later we ate a Belizean lunch of white rice, beans, and a delicious stew consisting of an assortment of vegetables, noodles, and unrecognizable parts of chickens that I'm pretty sure we don't eat back home. After lunch we met some local schoolchildren and Betsy made friends with a six year old boy named Aaron (Eron? Arron?) who apparently is a big fan of basketball. We spent a little more time familiarizing ourselves with the Cornerstone office, then succumbed to the heat for a siesta.

It has only been two and a half days, but so far I love Belize. The weather is beautiful, the food is fresh, delicious, and inexpensive, natural beauty abounds, and the people are quite friendly. Of course, I know next to nothing about this place now, nor have I gotten sick yet. Let's hope it stays that way and my impressions stay positive.

May 5th
Betsy and I are relaxing on the top balcony of the Belcove Hotel in Belize City. Below us, three men in a long wooden motorboat pass through the canal towards Belize's famous hand-operated swing bridge. The men in the boat proceed cautiously, as it is night time and the boat lacks lights. Near the bridge a couple men are fishing by casting a large white net into the dark water and slowly retrieving it. There are dogs barking everywhere, but the people are quiet.

The air here is heavy with humidity. The temperature is perfect for lounging in shorts and a t-shirt. A light breeze carries the smell of the sea down the canal. I am sleepy from a long day of traveling, a hearty Belizean meal, and three bottles of Belize's local beer, Belikin. It has been a good first night in Belize.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

So Cal

Over the past few days Karl and I parted ways. I spent two more nights in San Diego and Karl returned to L.A. to hang out with his buddies. During my last few days in So Cal I visited beautiful Coronado beach in SD, La Jolla in SD (which means "the jewel" - I like that), Tijuana just across the boarder into Mexico, and Palm Springs. San Diego is my kind of place with sunny days, cool nights (at least currently), great beaches, chilled-out personalities, and beautiful parks. I went on this terrific hike along the cliffs in La Jolla with my friend LC just before sunset. Super views of southern La Jolla and cliff walls at the water's edge which remind me of the Great Ocean Road in Australia. Palm Springs has both a unique geography and climate, at least for someone from the Northeast. Cloudless skies, 94 degrees, endless desert, and mountains. A group of us spent the day at our friend Kristin's house lounging near the pool and eating some awesome BBQ (thank you Lean!).

I realize I am using a ton of superlatives, but that is just how great the past few days have been. Best of all I was able to catch up with my college friends. So Cal is certainly the place to be, especially if you graduated from BU in 2004. What am I waiting for?? As for Karl, he will have to share his own adventures.

Two more days until Belize! ~Betsy~

Saturday, May 3, 2008

L.A. Redemption

I guess I sort of owe L.A. an apology. I talked a lot of shit about the city earlier in the week, but after a few great days of chilling with my friends and soaking up the sun I've actually come to like it quite a bit. Yes, the air quality sucks. Yes, you will spend 45% of your time here stuck in traffic. And yes, the laid back approach to things like customer service or driving can make a New Englander's blood boil. But it is a very unique, interesting, and fun place with so much to offer a curious traveler. I'm glad I've had a chance to spend some quality time here.

I've had a good couple days hanging out with my boys Matt and Pat. Highlights for me included golfing in the hills of Burbank, chilling at The Derby and Dresden (two bars featured in the movie Swingers), and crab enchiladas at a chic restaurant called The Lobster overlooking the gorgeous beach at Santa Monica. It hasn't hurt either that I signed and mailed my offer letter for my new job at Jive Software in Portland. It's been a good week.

Now we're at a hotel in Hermosa Beach, relaxing and preparing for the most significant part of our trip. We've got an early morning flight to Belize tomorrow. I am extremely excited, and anxious to begin our volunteering experience. I haven't formed a very clear expectation of what our lives will be like for the next three months; rather I'm just trying to keep an open mind and remain conscious of all that we will experience. I don't know if I would describe myself as nervous, but there are definitely butterflies!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Today Matty, Betsy and I checked out the San Diego Zoo. We've all heard of the zoo's terrific reputation, and it did not disappoint. Big points to the city and the zoo officials for delivering such a quality experience. We easily could have spent two days there without seeing everything. And so many of the animals seemed healthy, energetic, and relatively happy- a rarity for captive animals in my experience. Highlights included hippos, a frisky polar bear, a particularly well-hung zebra, the pacifying hummingbird habitat, and, of course, the zoo's famous giant pandas.

The only thing that wasn't great about today was the weather. I didn't come to San Diego for 55 and overcast! No worries though. At least I can breath in this place.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

City of Angels

L.A. sucks.

The LA Smog

Today we drove from LA to San Diego to continue our adventures in sunny California. The LA experience was fabulous for me. I was able to spend time with my friend Lindsey and see the beautiful sights of Marina del Rey and Venice Beach. The boys spent the evening in "the valley" where a layer of smog engulfs the region. The congestion of traffic and nasal passages made it difficult to manage. San Diego is more promising with brighter skies and cleaner air. I am excited for some quality Mexican food and good beach days.

Here we are off of Highway 5 just below Orange County near a military base. The coastline is gorgeous.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Belize Donations

I haven't gotten the chance to say this yet, but thanks so much to all of you who attended our going away party a couple weeks ago. We had an awesome time, and thanks to everyone's generosity we were able to ship nearly 40 pounds of clothing, school supplies, and medical supplies to the Cornerstone Foundation. We'll let you know in a few weeks how those donations are being put to use by people in San Ignacio!


Today it's a sunny day in Portland, OR. We're told that doesn't happen too often here in April, so we're going to take advantage of it with a hike out by Mt. Hood. Yesterday we visited Multnomah Falls and took a short hike up into the hills overlooking the Columbia River. Everything was gorgeous. Our host, Sue Ristau, has been so generous with her time, her home, and her knowledge of the area. It's been a great first visit to the Portland area.

And since my job interview on Thursday seemed to go so well, there's a real good chance Betsy and I will soon be Oregonians. I never thought I'd say that.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Off to a Land Far Far Away

I am sitting in our 99% emptied apartment prepared for the first leg of our adventure. We have packed up and stored our apartment in 2 oversized wooden crates that now rest out in front of 20 Bigelow Street. I am filled with feelings of nervousness and excitement for what lies ahead. It is an exhilarating experience to have come this far with our planning and preparation to move to a developing country for 3 months. In actuality I have been devoted to this idea from when I first started graduate school to become a physical therapist. I came across the Cornerstone Foundation on a web search for latin american countries looking for volunteer physical therapist. It seemed like an ideal fit and now here we are... off to San Ignacio, Belize. The following is a link to the organization my husband and I will be working for: http://www.peacecorner.org/cornerstone.htm

Here we will chronicle some of the good, bad, and interesting events that will occur over the next few months. Please enjoy our posts and photographs. Comments and questions are very welcomed. Thank you to all who have provided us with undying support, without you we wouldn't have come this far.

~ Betsy ~