When we arrived in the village the bus driver stopped and set a plastic bag containing flour outside one of the thatched roof homes. A young Mayan girl burst out her front door with excitement, face planted in the ground, cradled the bag in her arms and brought it inside. I was dropped off at the village coordinator Luis's house to get my family assignment. When I entered their home I was very surprised to find a young girl eating a tortilla and watching Land of the Lost on a small television in the corner. His wife escorted me down the rocky dirt road to a small hut toward the outskirts of the village. There I was introduced to the Ack family, the family who I would be staying with for the next five days.
Mariano (25) and Rutilia (22) have three children ages three, two, and six months: Oliver, Serena, and Melva. The family had no idea I was coming, but as members of the homestay program they were told to be ready for visitors at any time. Mariano and Rutilia's faces lit up when they saw me walking toward their hut with my backpack. They showed me around their home, which was one room with a dirt floor about 30 by 15 feet. They explained that the small area enclosed by slabs of scrap material that had a small bed and was for me. I noticed there were five of them, three hammocks, and no other beds. Confused, I asked, "wait...then where are you going to sleep?" Mariano laughed and replied, "well actually, we like the hammock." Oliver and Serena stood outside the opening of my new little room and stared at me while I set up my stuff. I talked with the parents for a bit, then decided to play with the kids so that they would warm up to me. They were both very shy at first and I quickly relized that none of the children spoke English. Rutilia explained that English isn't taught until the chilren are sent to primary school at age five. I brought the children outside and tried to use hand gestures to get them to play with me. I started throwing around a broken clothespin I found in the grass and soon enough Serena, Oliver and I were rolling in the grass laughing. I laid on my back and put Serena on my feet like she was flying through the air. She was repeatedly squealing something in her language that I couldn't understand, but I assumed it meant "again". She was laughing so hard she was nearly in tears. We played airplane and clothespin catch until they were exhausted.
I have a lot to share about my experience with the Ack family. First, I will start with what I learned about their family and the village. The villlage of Aguacate has about 45 families, one school, and five churches. They recently acquired electricity which means that all families have one or two light bulbs in their homes, some have a radio, a few have a television, and two have a stove. The creek is used to do laundry as well as bathe. All villagers are free to use the materials and land to build and grow whatever they want. For food each family has their own farm. They grow things like corn, mango, pineapple, oranges, bananas, beans, and other vegetables I've never heard of. For meat they raise chickens, fish in the creek, and hunt animals like iguanas, armadillos, and sometimes even monkeys in the bush. A medicine van comes to the village once every two weeks and delivers any kind of medicince to the villagers free of charge. As far as schooling, children are required to be in school from the age of 5 until 14. If the children choose to further their education, they take a bus an hour and a half each way every day into town to attend high school. Since most parents cannot afford to purchase the uniforms or the books for their children to attend high school, their opportunity to learn ends at 14. As anticipated, this is a huge problem. The only way for the villagers to make money to buy things like clothes, soap, and other necessities is to sell something that they've made or find a job for a short while in town. Right now there are no jobs in town for the villagers, and the jobs that are available require higher education which the villagers dont' have. Their lives depend on their crops, and they wait to purchase needed items until they can sell something they've grown or made. Soon after 14, it is common to move in with someone in the village and start having kids. Many of the families in the village are huge, consisting of 10+ children.
Mariano's grandfather lives on one side of him, and his parents are raising their other 12 children (all living in one room) on the other side of him. Rutilia's entire family lives about five houses away down the road.
to be continued....the internet cafe is closing :)
The yellow, green, and red striped renovated school bus was more empty than usual, which allowed for me to have my own seat. I threw my backpack up on the rack and watch the others board the bus. I tried to secure the $2 headphones I purchased from a Chinese store in my ears, but I couldn't get them to stay. I removed my headphones and embraced the experience of the four hour bus ride ahead of me from Dangriga to Punta Gorda. The public transportation system in Belize is obviously very different from that in the US. The bus will pick up anyone standing on the side of the road along the way, and will stop whenever someone stands up. I tapped my feet to the upbeat reggae music blasting through the speakers as I watched Mayan families from various villages enter and exit the bus. Interestingly, even though there were plenty of open seats, many families chose to sit three or four to a seat. I couldn't help but notice the genuine smile on the villager's faces as they waved goodbye to their loved ones. Somehow the smiles drew my attention away from the unsettling scenery of the 8x8 deteriorating houses made of sticks behind them. Thoughts flooded my mind regarding the lifestyle of these village families. Not a toy in sight, I wondered if the kids played with anything other than sticks and dirt. I then remembered that it was Father's Day. A father sporting a New York Yankees hat shared a diet Coke with his son in the seat in front of me. The son repeatedly turned around, smiled, waited for me to smile back, and turned to face the front again with a smirk on his face. Kids enjoy messing with me since I stick out like a sore thumb. During our ten minute break, a young Mayan boy paced the aisle selling warm peanut fudge squares for 50 cents a piece. I gave him $1, told him to keep the change, and wondered how many hours the young boy spent per day earning money for his family. I also wondered if he went to school. The bus continued on through the impressive scenery surrounding the Southern Highway. Miles of palm trees were in the foreground of massive beautiful rolling hills, which being from Minnesota, were the equivalent of mountains.
I was dumped off in the middle of Punta Gorda where I stumbled upon a sports bar. I stopped by for an hour or so to catch the end of a soccer game. The owner of the bar struck up a conversation with me. Originally from California, he moved to Belize to escape his materialistic lifestyle. He reminded me that many Americans are unappreciative of their opportunities as well as ignorant of other cultures. He was happy to hear about my experiences and said he'd stop by my art booth at Lobsterfest next week.
I pulled out my map and found Nature's Way, a backpacker's lodge. There I met a guest named AJ. I told AJ I was here to participate in the Mayan Village Homestay program. He excused himself for a moment and returned with a stapled packet of papers. The packet contained 20 years of work still in progress in the form of written letters to the Belizean Prime Minister asking for support to help implement a genius plan to help get small communities in southern Belize out of poverty. The mastermind of this plan was a middle aged man named Chet, who was actually sitting on the patio right outside the lodge. After reading the packet, I gained insight into the history of what I was about to participate in. In the past three decades, $60 million in aid was spent to help these villages with little positive change. More than 2/3 of the village population is still poor, and 1/2 are extremely poor. The population of Toledo represents the world - India, Africa, Latin America, and the indigenous world of the Maya come together in a peaceful blend. The basic idea of the plan is to build resiliency and self-sufficiency in local economies by "reskilling" residents to meet their own needs. It is called the Toledo Ecotourism Plan: Hope for Toledo, Hope for the World. The plan has been recognized internationally and won awards from National Geographic. The purpose is to solve problems not only in the 60 communities of the Toledo District, but to also serve as a model to help small communities in developing countries around the world. The plan entails developing a center in the communities where they can go to watch educational videos to implement new sustainable ways of living healthier. Then, tourism will be promoted to these various villages in the form of homestay and guesthouse programs. Trails would be established from village to village so tourists can travel to them by foot or kayak. In exchange for money, families will teach tourists about their culture as well as have the opportunity to learn from the tourists. Villages would rotate so that all villagers would benefit equally, and the flow of tourists would remain relatively low so that villagers can maintain their lifestyle. Villagers would be taught how to replant deforested areas while harvesting tropical woods for the manufacture of high-quality foods for export and for sale to tourists. All of this would be coordinated by villagers themselves, so they can retain their traditional lifestyle instead of migrating to the cities. The plan has not been openly accepted by the Belizean government. The government does not want to help the villagers out of poverty because a higher contribution to the economy means more power for the villagers. We will see what happens in the future. For now, I have had an excellent introduction to what I will be a part of. They say the opportunity to live with a traditional Mayan family is very rare, and the program is one of a kind. My bus for the village of Aguacate leaves in two hours.
Above: Rosa's hotel in San Ignacio where we stayed.
Myself, Shane, Adrianne, and Jacky were transported to San Ignacio to do some work on a new gym being built in town. A couple running a nearby hotel decided to renovate a bar and turn it into San Ignacio's one and only gym. The gym is on the second story open to the air with a beautiful view of San Ignacio. It has tile floors surrounded by funky colored pillars. Essentially one can lift weights while overlooking the jungle... what an awesome combination. If only that could somehow exist in Minnesota. We jammed out to the new Jack Johnson album, Kid Rock, techno, and country while working for a good five hour or so draining the rain water, cleaning the floors, putting together gym equipment, setting up the frame for the mirror wall, and polishing free weights. Adrianne and I mopped...mopped again...mopped again...and mopped again. We were endless mopping machines. By the afternoon our work was done and the gym was ready to open. I booked it to the supermarket and inhaled a bag of chips and salsa.
After, we had some time to wander San Ignacio while we were waiting to pick up more campers. Word on the street was that there was a massage place in a doctor's office offering hour long massages for $15. Naturally, I went on a mission to find it. I came to a bright yellow building down the street from our hotel. When I went in I wrote my name down, what I wanted, and was escorted to the room. A relaxing massage sounded like heaven at the moment. The woman giving me the massage had moved from Texas with her husband in search of a cheaper cost of living. She used potent Mayan coconut oil and I zoned out for then entire hour. Very tempting to go back. We all met at the pizza place in town and picked up two new campers and a new volunteer, Ben, from California. The seven of us piled in the back of the pickup and drove about 45 minutes down the endless gravel road of potholes back to the outpost. The ride is equivalent to sitting through a minor 45 minute earthquake. All in good fun though...I always look forward to rides in the back of the pickup.
On our drive to the outpost we pass through several villages and Mennonite communities. Groups of German Mennonites fled to Belize in 1958 in search of an area where they could live off the land free of persecution and military participation. They are "plain people" who dress conservatively, promote peace, and don't use modern technology. The Mennonites make up about 4% of the Belizean population and produce about 75% of the goods. Allowing the Mennonite communities to live as they wish also benefits Belize, so the exchange works out quite well on both ends. We wave to all of the Mennonites as we pass by and see them working on the farms in their overalls and long sleeve shirts. Although it isn't proper to take pictures, they are very friendly when approached. When walking through their property they ask that we be respectful and dress conservatively. Just the other day I was heading out for a run, and I wasn't allowed to run left down the road because I was wearing shorts and a tank top.
Tonight, a group of 12 Dutch girls will be arriving at the outpost and staying for four days. The other morning was spent organizing and putting up their tents. I can proudly say that I am now capable of putting up a tent (wooohoo!). We bought a blender and stocked up on some locally made coconut rum, Kahlua, and Bailey's from Misty Mountain to prepare for the fun nights ahead. The seven of us volunteers will help prepare and clean up every meal, and have the night to hang out. Should be a great time!
I have been at the outpost for almost a week now. The outpost is a beautiful place in the jungle on Barton Creek where backpackers can relax and enjoy the scenery. The basic idea of the outpost is to appreciate what nature has to offer. Showers and laundry are done in the creek. Water is also pumped from the creek for toilet and kitchen water. Electricity is only available when the generator is on for a few hours each day. All scraps of food are either fed to the dogs or put in the compost. I fall asleep in my open air loft to the sound of rushing creek water, and wake up when the sun rises. We eat fresh herbs and fruits picked from the jungle. Dinner is eaten by lantern light, and we often cook with head lamps in the kitchen. There are two rope swings that entertain us daily. After a hard work day in the jungle I climb the rocks, grip the rope, swing out as far as I can, and plunge into the refreshing creek water.
As a volunteer I start a list of chores at 7:30 am consisting of sweeping, taking out the compost, feeding the animals, wiping down tables, and cleaning bathrooms. Other work is assigned for late morning/early afternoon, and we also help prepare each meal. There are six volunteers at the moment. I'm fortuante to be accompanied by such a great group. Right now we have Jacky from canada, Alisha from Florida, Evan from Australia, and Adrianne and Shane from New Hampshire. Some projects we've been working on include digging up sand from the creek to make a nicer beach, planting tropical plants in the nursery, clearing hiking trails, using rocks from the creek for landscaping around the outpost, and tending to the needs of guests. The volunteers, kids of the outpost owners, and guests all eat dinner around the lantern lit table at night overlooking the creek. Here, stories are shared about where we've been, what we've learned, and where we're heading. I've met many great familes, couples, and solo travelers.
The list of things I've experienced at the outpost is far from complete. So far, I've toured natural spring pools, cliff jumped off the side of a 75 foot waterfall, saw a Mayan jail, used a machete, ate a termite, went canoeing down the creek, and learned how to start a generator. I've also enjoyed meals and conversation with the housekeeper, Eva, who is from a village of 600 and walks an hour and a half to work at the outpost four times a week. Whether relaxing in a hammock reading about rainforest medicine remedies, eating delicious home cooked meals, laughing with other volunteers, or eating fresh tropical fruit while watching toucans in the coconut trees...every bit has been beyond enjoyable.
I was just invited to sell art with Mega from Rasta Mesa at Lobsterfest in Placencia in a couple weeks. Lobsterfest is a huge celebration that Belizeans go crazy about every year. I'm ecstatic to be able to experience the festival, and of course, help out. Only great things to look forward to!!
Here is a poem titled You Must Give that was written by an elderly man living in San Pedro. He gave his poem collection to Nesta, a guest at the outpost.
Love is the magnificent positive. Love is the driver that makes you live. Each dawn you awake and you begin. A tangible life strength built within.
Love is produced within the soul. Expanding pressures go on a roll. Surplus quantities are wildly generated. These pressures must be ventilated.
Loving overcomes internal stress. Endowing the love nevertheless. The major gift is your intent. Courage is needed to give consent.
Love is an entity you must bestow. You purchase and secure the mistletoe. Tenderness of thought is affirmative. Love is something you must give.
I can only describe the three day sailing trip I just returned from as perfect. The 12 passengers and 3 captains on the trip all contributed to making it awesome. In our group there were 2 couples from Australia, 3 people from Germany, one from Ireland, and the rest were from around the US.
The first day we sailed to Rendezvous Key. On the way we stopped along the reef to snorkel a couple times or just to take a swim. I stood on the top of the sailboat staring into the rich aqua water thinking to myself that I am in paradise. We watched the captains do backflips into the water from the top of the sailboat. We were treated with delicious food all throughout the trip, awesome music, and great company. Rendezvous Key is a small patch of white sand with a few palm trees out in the Caribbean. When we sailed up the small sandy piece of paradise I couldn't help but thinking that it looked fake. I've never seen anything like it. One man lives on the island at all times and they rotate every 50 days. No electricity, no water, no bulidings...nothing. We all set up our tents, went for a night swim, and had a bonfire. I ate about 12 perfectly toasted marshmallows while playing the game Zumie Zumie with everyone. I remember thinking how awesome it was to see people from all around the world sitting together around a fire in the middle of nowhere laughing hysterically and having a great time. After dinner we brought our mats out to the dock, laid beneath the clear sky covered with stars, and counted shootings stars. The stars were so amazing, I felt like I was in a planetarium. I then fell asleep on top of the sailboat watching stars, listening to the palm trees blowing, and hearing the water rush up to shore.
I woke up way too early and remember wondering if I had even slept. We packed up our tents and were back on the sailboat cruising the Caribbean. I hung out in the back of the boat for a while and was fishing with Shannon. Only one fish had been caught so far with the lines behind the boat, so I wasn't too optimistic about catching anything. When I decided to hold my pole I immediately felt something tugging. I was confused because I was sure I didn't catch anything. I pulled the pole back hard just in case, and after Shannon helped me reel it in we saw that I caught a barracuda!!!! He took some great pics of me with my first ocean catch and the captains prepared it for dinner that night. During the day we stopped to swim a few times, and the captains also went spear fishing to catch food for dinner. Shane came back with 4 fish on his spear, and the others kept bringing them in as well. I've never seen anyone spear fish before so that was really neat. We finally reached Tobacco Key, another remote beautiful island with only 8 residents. I stepped off the sailboat and was floored by the scenery of palm trees surrounding all of the bright funky colored houses. The residents collect rain water for water and they have a generator for electricity. I got a room on stilts right on the reef with a back porch and my own hammock overlooking the ocean for only $20. Our group sat on the dock and played Zumie Zumie again and another game called Chinese whisper, better known as 'telephone'. The difficulty with understand accents, mainly the Germans, made these games loads of fun.
The next day we sailed all the way to southern Belize. There we dropped off a few passengers, and the rest of us sailed for 14 hours straight through the night back to northern Belize. I maybe slept for 3 hours or so, but laying in the boat staring up at the night sky was definitely worth the lack of sleep. Shane entertained us with his riddles and we also passed some time with the rubix cube.
Along with the bigger events there were also little things that made this trip memorable. Showering with basically a hose, wearing my swimsuit for 3 days straight, drying off with my towel that eventually started smelling like road kill, listening to my own music being played through the speakers on the sailboat while cruising the perfect blue water, watching the sunset and sunrise, learning Shane's cross-stick way of roasting marshmallows, watching Kevin show us how he ate crackers as a kid, and being told I look like a snake because I think I shed 5 layers of skin from peeling. Joking around with the captains and having conversations with others was a real highlight for me. It was incredible to be playing games with people from all around the world, who, aside from not knowing one another and having a difficult time understanding each other, could share in the commonality of thinking that messing up on your turn in the game was hilarious. It was a reminder of how similar we really are. In summary, my first overnight trip at sea was mind blowing (thanks to Lauren for convincing me to join her) and I have truly seen my little slice of paradise.
I just took the bus from Belize City to San Ignacio. Lauren came with me to the bus station, and I hopped on the old school bus. I listened to Matisyahu and Akon while sitting 2 to a bus seat and driving the 3 hour journey into what slowly started looking more like the jungle. I got dumped off at the bus station and then had to figure out where Greedy's Pizza was so I could see if the people I'm volunteering for were there. I was immediately approached by a man who started telling me he was going to sell his bike. He kept repeating himself, he didn't make any sense, and he continuously asked if I wanted to buy some property. I ignored him and booked it to an internet cafe, where I am right now. I also found the pizza place and I'm meeting Jim there in 20 minutes to take me to the jungle where I'll be volunteering for the next 2 weeks. I CAN'T WAIT TO GET THERE!
I have ten minutes before leaving on our sailing trip to update on the last couple days.
First, I went on an amaaaazing tour to the Lamanai ruins. I took the water taxi in, an hour minivan ride north, then a 2 hour riverboat ride to the ruins through the swampy crocodile infested river. While on the riverboat a spider money came down from the tree, into our boat and sat on my lap. I got an awesome picture, wish I could upload it!! In the jungle we saw every kind of tree and insect you can imagine. Key lime, all spice, guava, mango, papaya, and glue trees. Howler moneys, spider monkeys, frogs, crazy weird insects, and other creatures. We climbed to the top of the ruins and overlooked the top of the jungle and river. It was incredible.
Yesterday I spent all day with a girl I met from Ireland, Lauren. We swam in the crystal clear aqua water at the end of the island for nearly 6 hours. They have tables in the water where people hang out and listen to the great music playing. I met people from all over the world. A couple from the Netherlands showed me a video of them snorkeling with a whale shork...SO COOL!! We then watched the sunset, bummed around, and went to trivia with 5 others that we met. We sang along to Oasis and Kings of Leon with a group of people from England outside the sports bar. Everything has been amazing. Everyone I've met is so down to earth, up for doing whatever, and incredibly nice.
Wish I had more time to write. I'm leaving on a 3 day sailing trip with Lauren and 12 others. The crew is awesome. We'll be pitching tents on remote islands, snorkeling our faces off, fishing, eating amazing food and having a blast.