“Belize’s spectacular Barrier Reef, with its dazzling variety of underwater life and string of exquisite islands—known as cayes (pronounced “keys”) is…one of the richest marine ecosystems on Earth, it’s a paradise for scuba divers and snorkellers, the incredible coral formations teeming with hundreds of species of brilliantly colored fish.”
“Caye Caulker—Go barefoot on the beach, eat delicious, inexpensive meals and snorkel the Barrier Reef offshore; this relaxed island has everything for a perfect Caribbean vacation…Life on the cayes is supremely relaxing, tempting you to take it easy in a hammock, feast on seafood and sip rum punch as the sun sets.” --Excerpts from “The Rough Guide to Belize”
Although I can attest to the truth of these descriptions about Caye Caulker, clearly the authors have never visited the island with 31 Belizean kids in tow. For one week in July, 4-H conquered the Caulker with our first ever National 4-H Environmental Camp. Myself and 3 other Peace Corps Volunteers (official title: 4-H Youth Agents), Micah, Jerry and Jamie, began working on this camp last December. With the help of 3 other PCVs, the Belize Red Cross, a grant from an environmental NGO, generous donations and support from the 4-H Headquarters in Belize, EZ Boy Tours and many other individuals, we were able to provide a unique experience for the kids in our 4-H Clubs. Although Belize is only about the size of Connecticut, many kids have never left their region. This trip to Caye Caulker was the first time to a caye for most of the children. We exposed the kids to one of the most beautiful aspects of their country, and taught them about the importance of environmental conservation to protect that beauty, as well as basic First Aid, kayaking and snorkeling.
So much happened that I can’t even begin to summarize it in an article short enough to keep your interest.
- Snorkeling on Belize’s Barrier Reef—the kids’ enthusiasm was contagious and it really was an once-in-a-lifetime experience for some.
- Watching the kids from Progreso freak out about the sea water’s saltiness, which is vastly different than Progreso Lagoon’s brackish water.
- Listening to 10 year olds rap about saving the environment.
Things I learned:
- If the water smells like rotten eggs, don’t drink it. Mixing it with watermelon juice isn’t a good idea either.
- Boys left unattended during night hours can wreak a lot of havoc with just one tube of Colgate toothpaste.
- Any changes to T-shirt designs by the T-shirt printing company should be proofread to prevent mistakes like “Envirmental Camp.
This camp was one of the most rewarding and successful events of my first year in Belize. And I slept for 15 hours straight when I got home. Can’t wait till next summer!
As the school year wound down in June, kids’ energy levels seemed to rise by the day. What better way to release some of that energy than a field trip?! Since field trips were designated for Fridays, and I didn’t have to teach on Fridays, I was available to help chaperone, and I was lucky enough to be invited to go on 2 trips.
The first trip was with the Infant II and Standard I classes (age 5-7). Our itinerary took us first to the Belize Zoo, then to the airport, and lastly to the Maya Ruins of Altun Ha, and our transportation was a chartered bus (read: old dilapidated school bus). In sharp contrast to most field trips in the States, almost every single kid had a parent/guardian come along. We were somewhere around 36 kids and 32 moms, dads, aunts, sisters, cousins, and next door neighbors. The 3 teachers, myself included, were assigned to watch one of the remaining kids whose parent couldn’t attend. My little charge for the day was a kid I taught in reading—Leroy. Although I had been to all three places before, it was a fun and new experience to see it thru the eyes of these kids. I mean, the last time I was at the airport, I was bawling my eyes out at the sight of Nick’s plane leaving. These kids’ eyes were larger than baseballs at the sight of planes coming and leaving, accompanied by exclamations of “Bwai!!!” Thankfully Leroy was extremely well behaved, even if he did make me climb up all the Maya Ruins, and some twice.
The real cultural difference for me came at lunch time. Everyone was told to bring their own lunch. So the day before, I went to town and bought all the necessities for a great bag lunch—pita bread, ham, cheese, chips, apples and cookies. When we stopped at a park to eat, I noticed that everyone else seemed to have brought immensely larger amounts of food than myself. As people began unloading their coolers, I saw that they had all brought rice and beans, stew chicken or fried chicken, and they pulled out their coleslaw or potato salad. This was no brown bag lunch. Several parents offered me some of theirs, unbelieving that I could be satisfied with a sandwich. One wise crack mom shamed me because of my “gringa food.” I admit that I was slightly embarrassed that I had committed a cultural faux pas.
Fast forward to the very next week—Field Trip #2 with the Standard 5 and 6 classes (ages 11-13) to Mountain Pine Ridge. In the days leading up to the trip, the Std 5 teacher, Blanca, told me that she wanted one of the moms to make tamales for the teachers to take for lunch. A day later, one of the students said her mom was indeed going to make tamales for us—how many did I want? I gratefully accepted two, thinking this was my chance to socially redeem myself. I would not be brought down by an American sandwich again. We loaded the bus at 6am, stopped first at the museum in Belize City, then headed west to Mountain Pine Ridge. After our first stop at Rio Frio Cave, the idea of lunch was thrown around. I began looking for a suitable picnicking spot. But as I climbed on the bus to get my food, I saw that everyone had begun eating on the bus already—and what did most of them have?! None other than sandwiches and chips!! Everyone was eager to get to our next destination, Five Sisters Falls, and were content with eating as we drove. And why not? Sandwiches are great finger food. Tamales however, are eaten with a fork and knife, and can be quite messy. So here I was, surrounded by clean sandwich eaters, trying not to spill my plate of tamales all over as we drive down steep, unpaved roads in a chartered bus (again read: old dilapidated school bus—maybe even the one you rode as a kid). The only redeeming part was that Blanca had to eat tamales that way too. Next time, I think I’ll take two lunches, just in case.
| Hurricane Season, also known as the Rainy Season, started on June 1st. It came right on schedule this year--almost as if a switch had been flipped to start the rain. After many weeks of no rain, the downpours are quite welcome by all, not least myself and the 4-H kids who planted gardens and are now relieved from the twice daily task of watering. However rain is not the only thing that hurricane season brought. Bugs and critters seem to have moved in the area en mass. The worst of these is the doctor fly (tabano en Espanol). Doctor flies are a little bit bigger than a normal house fly with a yellow body. I imagine they are called doctor flies because when they bite you, that areas swells up, and if you didn't know what it was, you might be tempted to go to the doctor. These flies are relentless in their pursuit of me. About a week ago, I was taking a nap in the hammock, and one bit me on the thumb. Within 5 minutes my whole thumb swelled and I could hardly bend it. The next day, I laid down in the hammock again, and felt one land on my face. I swatted it away in time, then pulled the hammock over me to protect myself from another bite. But the tricky little fella found the part of my hand holding the hammock that was sticking out, and bit my ring finger right on the joint. I quickly took off my ring as I knew the swelling would start any minute, and the result was the same as the day before. Despite their seeming cleverness, they are actually kind of slow, so revenge is possible, and the kids and I killed 5 or 6 each day during class last week. Of course that's after I've been bit about 5 or 6 times a day on the leg during class.|
The other noticeable population increases are among the cockroaches (under the toilet seat) and frogs--but the frogs actually add a beautiful new sound to the evening chorus of nature.
The great part of rainy season is the start of some of my favorite fruits--mangoes, avocados, and best of all, kinep (or guaya en Espanol). Guaya has become my favorite food in Belize by far! It is like a grape, but it's about 75% seed and only 25% flesh. It has a green shell-like covering, which you split open, pop the orange fruit into your mouth, suck the fruit off the seed, and spit out the seed. I have spent hours eating guaya under a shady tree with my host family. It even makes up for the doctor flies.
Pedro, the smart-aleck friend of my host family, once asked me if I had seen the Belizean snow. I said no, and one day when I woke up and couldn’t see more than 50 feet because the fog was so thick, he later informed me that that was the Belizean snow. Maybe. But I think I have found the real Belizean snow, and if not Belizean snow, then Progresoan snow. We have entered the dry season here in Belize, and that means that the white lime (white mahl they call it here) road to Orange Walk that once enveloped vehicles in 3 feet of mud has turned to 3 feet of dust. Okay, so maybe I’ve taken up the Belizean tendency to exaggerate (3 feet of mud—not an exaggeration), but I can honestly say there are spots with a foot of dust. And as sugar cane trucks and busses tear thru it, they create a thick cloud of dust much like being in a snowstorm. As I was going to town on the bus the other day and looked ahead, I frighteningly realized that there could be a cane truck on the other side of that cloud, and we wouldn’t see it until it was practically on top of us. The dust-covered trees and sugar cane plants looked strikingly similar to snow-covered trees and what I imagine snow-covered sugar cane plants would look like. And those of us unlucky enough to be sitting in a seat with a window that is stuck down will arrive in town looking like we’ve aged 50 years because our hair has turned white. Who said there is no winter in the tropics?
|I have met a lot of people I admire here in Belize. The mother with eight children and another one on the way. My host mom who works untiringly to put her daughters thru school in a society that doesn’t yet value women’s education much. The 5 year old boy who can ride an adult-sized bike while carrying his 2 year old sister. But someone who I have come to hold in high regard is the bus conductor. All bus conductors really, but specifically the one on the bus I frequent from Progreso to Orange Walk Town. In Belize, the busses have drivers and conductors. The drivers…drive, and the conductors run the bus, a job that requires quite a bit of skill, I’ve come to realize. The conductor from Progreso, not over 18 years old, collects the money while the bus is in motion—an incredible talent to be able to do quick math without falling over while the bus maneuvers around and thru potholes the size of small cars. Because the bus doesn’t have assigned stops, other than the final destination point, the conductor is also in charge of keeping track of where everybody wants to get off. Admittedly, this isn’t so much a challenge between Progreso and Orange Walk, where there is only one village between, but from Orange Walk to Belize City, people can ask to get off at the green house just past Tan’s Grocery Store by mile 28 along the Northern Highway, and the conductor remembers dozens of vague requests like that. The challenge on the Progreso route comes on the return trip. The conductor knows where everybody lives and where they need to get off in the village. I’m lucky that the bus route goes on the same street as my house, so I get dropped off at my doorstep! The bus conductor also takes care of any luggage people have, from suitcases to sacks of coconuts to bicycles. The conductor delivers messages and goods for people in the village to people in town. On days that the bus is particularly crowded, he manages to fit people where you wouldn’t think there was room. And the most amazing thing about the conductor from Progreso is that he appears to do all these things without saying more than 3 words the whole time! He can get 5 standing passengers seated with a mere nod of his head. He really went above and beyond the call of duty though when my parents visited. The bus was late arriving at the market, the main pick up stop. Students and shoppers began to rush the bus as it pulled into spot to get a seat. The conductor, seeing my parents and I standing wide-eyed with lots of luggage, was quick to throw his own backpacks on a couple seats to save them for us. By the time he helped us get our bags on the back of the bus, someone had sat in each seat, but he politely asked one to move, and the three of us got a seat, making us much more fortunate than about 20 others who had to stand. Three cheers for Mikey the Progreso bus conductor!|