Monday, June 21, 2010
Hope for Toledo, Hope for the World
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.