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!