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:

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 or 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!