Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Weekend in Belize

From Good Friday to Easter Monday everything in Belize slows down or shuts down.  Few, if any buses run, and most people either go out to the beaches for a 4-day holiday, or stay at home.  This past Friday Diana, Jay T and I relaxed and did virtually nothing all day.  We were following the Belizean tradition for Good Friday of sitting quietly and meditatively until the late afternoon.  That is a very difficult thing for a 6-year-old boy to do.  As you might imagine, he wasn’t very happy about that.  But he managed to make it till the evening, when we had conch for dinner and relaxed some more. 

Holy Saturday is the day for a huge cycling race.  The race begins early in the morning in the eastern end of the country in Belize City and snakes across relatively flat terrain along with Western Highway to the far western end of Belize in San Ignacio, where the racers turn around and traverse the country back again to Belize City.  The length of the race is 140 miles, and all along the highway crowds of people come out to cheer on the cyclists.  We sat along the road in front of Diana’s parents’ house, with cousins, aunts and siblings.  I must explain that this “highway” is the width of two lanes, has no lines painted to indicate lanes, has no stop signs or stoplights.  The racers passed us around 8:30 and we shouted “keep gwain, bwai!” to bolster them.  We sat along the side of the highway till the racers made it out to San Ignacio, turned around, and passed us by again.  The rest of the race was experienced sitting beside the radio as the announcer narrated every inch of the race.  I was immersed in Kriol, and was understanding about 75% of what I was hearing, but could gather from the shouting and excited or disappointed faces what was happening.  Our celebration was enhanced with fresh coconut water just harvested from the trees beside Diana’s parents’ house, cut open with Vince’s machete.  Oh, and the coconut water tasted fantastic sweetened with Belize’s Caribbean Rum.  Lunch was a huge barbequed red snapper, cut and served on fresh, handmade corn tortillas, spiced with ripe tomato salsa.  

Unfortunately for Belize, this year’s cycling race winner was a Guatemalan, followed in second place by an American.  A native Belizean has not won this race for the last 6 years.  Diana tells me that the Belizeans do not have sponsors but work full-time jobs and thus do not have time to train as much as some of the other racers from other countries.  Nevertheless, Belizeans love cycling and this race is an important tradition for the Easter holiday.

In the late afternoon we took a short ride over to Spanish Lookout, a farming community mostly populated by Mennonites, where we went to enjoy an ice cream cone.  The Mennonites have the only diaries in the country.  We stayed to observe an auction that the Mennonite church had arranged as a fund raiser for one of their community who was diagnosed with cancer and needed to raise $75,000 BZ (or about $37,500 American).  There was a car wash, food (including Diana’s favorite, pirogues), and the auction.  Diana’s mother had her heart set on a little Holstein calf, but someone else out bid her.  

On Sunday Jay T was put on the bus to go to church with his little cousins.  They looked so cute all dressed up for Easter!  When Jay T returned we went to search for some plastic Easter eggs with jellybeans that I had hidden.  Then Diana’s aunt took us all to the river to swim and escape from the heat.  Swimming in the Belize River is a beautiful and refreshing experience.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Weekend Tourist Adventures

April 17, 2011

I had the opportunity to be a tourist this weekend.  Several of us Peace Corps Trainees got together and traveled to two different places.  Fortunately for us, this country is very small, and buses are easily accessed and cheap.  On Saturday six of us met at the bus terminal in Belmopan and hopped on a bus to the Blue Hole where we met up with four others.  The photos here don’t really give this remarkable place justice.  It is a national park with hiking trails and a swimming hole that is fed by a natural spring, trickling into a limestone sinkhole.  The color is a brilliant turquoise, and the water feels so refreshing in this 90 degree plus heat.  We hiked for about a mile on a well-marked trail through the jungle, and relaxed while eating our picnic lunches.  It was a beautiful day!
On Sunday, a few more of us made our way by bus out on the Western Highway past the relatively large town of San Ignacio, to a quaint little village called Succotz.  From there we took a ferry across the Mopan River and hiked about a mile to the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich (pronounced “shoo-nahn-too-neech”).  This archeological gem is from the Mayan Classic period (300-900 AD).  It has a ceremonial center, with large plazas ringed with pyramids. The tallest is the 130 foot "El Castillo," which is large by Mayan standards and is only exceeded by the Caana pyramid at Caracol, which I also hope to visit one day. The site was occupied until around 900 A.D. and was likely abandoned after an earthquake, the evidence of which was discovered by archaeologists in the mid-1900's.  After climbing to the top of El Castillo and taking these photos, we hiked back down while listening to the howler monkeys in the trees.  These monkeys (referred to by the Belizeans as “baboons”) are large and produce a loud “howl” or growl.   Howler monkeys are widely considered to be the loudest land animal. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, their vocalizations can be heard clearly for 3 miles (4.8 km).  The males use their howls to warn other males to stay away from their territory.  Unfortunately, my photos of the howler monkeys do not show them very well, so I didn’t include those pictures.  They hide themselves well in the tall trees.

From atop the pyramids of Xunantunich we were able to gaze out on Guatemala.  We returned to the village of Succotz and ate our lunch in a little outdoor restaurant called Benny’s and then caught a bus back home.  Now I’m relaxing on a Sunday evening, enjoying the cool evening breeze and getting ready for a busy week with lots of work in our technical and language training sessions.  I wish all my family and friends a wonderful Passover and Easter this next week.  Love,  Ava

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Belizean politics again

Once again I’ve been immersed in Belizean politics, local and national, all in one day, this past Friday.  Every Friday during our 8 weeks of training we are required to travel to Belmopan to the Peace Corps office for training with all 38 of us who are scattered in our separate villages.  During this training session, we were treated to a lively lecture on Belizean history and politics by Senator Hulse.  He has been involved one way or another in Belizean politics since the inception of this young country in 1981.  He regaled us with stories of the British loggers who first settled here with their African slaves in the 18th century, and explained the intricacies of the continuing conflicts with Guatemala over Belize’s western border.  We learned of the Garifuna and the Maya who continue to maintain their unique cultures in this polyglot nation.  He even brought us up to date on the conflicts between Chinese merchants in Belize City and the Creole gangs who recently murdered a Chinese immigrant.  Generally, though, all the various linguistic and cultural groups here in multicultural Belize tend to get along well, and the Senator emphasized that Belize has never been subjected to the brutal dictatorships and military coups that other Central American countries have suffered.  Belize has a strong, vibrant democracy, and if what I’ve experienced so far in the short time since I’ve arrived is indicative, the populace is actively involved in the governance of their villages, towns, cities and the nation.

The same day as my history/politics lesson with the Senator, I experienced firsthand the messy nature of direct democracy.  That evening Diana had called an emergency meeting in the village’s community center to address some rumors and complaints that had been circulating.  To my surprise, she asked me to come along for (what I thought was) the purpose of observing and getting to know some of the villagers.  Little did I know that a few seconds after 70  or so people arrived, she would involve me in her village’s disputes and conflicts that have been seething under the surface for generations.  She began the meeting and asked me if I would translate into Spanish for the 20 or so villagers who don’t understand English, and I eagerly agreed, not realizing that I would soon be translating the angry words of several who aired their long-standing grievances in odious tones. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, it is imperative that I remain neutral, so my role as translator was merely to restate in Spanish whatever each speaker was trying to convey, without emotion or editorial comment.  What a challenge that was!  I was never quite sure I completely understood the entire story behind the complaint the speaker was voicing, so I simply translated as many words as I could retain in my head while the speaker angrily spoke.  I was translating for the elderly Spanish-speaking people who were curious about each emotional outburst expressed by their English- and Kriol-speaking friends and neighbors.  Afterward they shook my hand and thanked me for helping them to understand, although I remained slightly unclear about the details of each of the conflicts.  As far as I could ascertain in the heat of the meeting itself, the disagreements involved who could sign off on checks from the community’s account, who had the authority to make the decision concerning the installment of electricity in the community center, and finally, and most hotly debated, who would decide the allocation of plots of land within the village.  Diana calmly explained each issue to the villagers, but I had to continually remind her to slow down so that I could translate.  I was exhausted after a couple of hours.   Many of the villagers apologized to me for having been subjected to such unseemly behavior, as they put it to me, but I reassured them that the process of working through conflicts is universally difficult and untidy.  I reiterated to them that I’m enjoying being in their beautiful country, and that I was merely witnessing their democracy in action.  I expressed confidence that all of their concerns would be resolved because of their passionate participation.   Later, in Diana’s home, we stayed awake until 1:00 am as she narrated in detail the history of the community discord, and especially the personalities involved in the long-standing disputes. 

I hope the rest of my encounters with the villagers will be on more neutral territory, and I especially hope that I can contribute something positive to the little elementary school that has been assigned to our Peace Corps group while we’re training here. 

I also hope that all my friends, family and former students back in the US are enjoying the emergence of spring.  Here in Belize we're suffering the sweltering heat of summer.  Lots of love, Ava

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Week 2 in Belize

On Friday, April 1 we Peace Corps Trainees were driven to our Community Based Training sites.  Four of us in the education sector will train in the village of Blackman Eddy for the next eight weeks.  The Peace Corps SUV pulled into my new little village and dropped me off at the home of my host family.  I was welcomed into the home of Diana and her son JT,  a rambunctious 6-year-old whirlwind of a boy whose smile brightens up the room when he enters.  Shortly after meeting JT, I brought out my deck of UNO cards and he quickly caught on to the rules of the game.  We’ve played about 50 games so far, although we have to alternate between sessions outside playing ball and swinging.  Spending time with him brings me back to my fondest moments with Michael when he was six.  He has the same energy and level of engagement with adults. 

His mother, Diana, is equally energetic.  She’s a political and civic powerhouse in this little village, where she grew up and where most of her siblings, cousins, and her parents still reside.  She studied at the University of the West Indies in Belize City, and spent two years studying at a university in southern Illinois, and is now committed to working in her community to improve conditions and services for all.  She is the village chairperson, (a little like a mayor), and she is extremely active in her political party.  Many people of the village drop in to visit her throughout the day, and it seems she is a kind of village Solomon of sorts as well, and intercedes on behalf of families who need advice or assistance.   I had the privilege of traveling with her all afternoon on Saturday, April 2, observing as she met with leaders in various villages of her region in preparation for her party’s convention the next day.  On Friday evening and Saturday morning she conducted meetings with various women in her village and all took on jobs organizing, stapling, labeling, and dispensing materials for the convention, which determined the party’s candidate for Regional Representative in the next national election.   On Saturday evening we drove down to San Ignacio to pick up a large van that was used to transport voters to the convention, and we drove to the village of Roaring Creek so that Diana could pick up several hundred t-shirts in her party’s color (red) that prominently displayed the name of the candidate.  Diana, the tireless political activist, barely slept and then arose at 4:00 am to begin her day’s task of transporting and feeding as many of the registered voters as she could bring to the convention in Roaring Creek.  I guess that’s one way to guarantee a large voter turnout.  Diana said that 1/3 of the possible voters came out to vote.

Around 4 PM Diana’s brother picked me up and transported me to the convention so that I could witness democracy in action in Belize.  It took a while for me to locate Diana among the hundreds of voters and vociferous supporters of the 3 candidates.  Diana’s candidate had the largest number of supporters, and was by far the most vocal, booing when the rival candidates attempted to speak to the crowd, and almost coming to blows with supporters of the other candidates.  And this is all within one party.  I wonder how the behavior would be if they were in the same vicinity of the rival party.   While we were waiting for the votes to be tallied, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with the Attorney General of Belize.  He taught me a great deal in a couple of hours about the political system of Belize and its two major parties, which seem to be just as far apart from one another as our Democrats and Republicans, and treat each other with just as much animosity.

Our site training began in earnest on Monday, April 4.  We four trainees meet at the community center Monday through Thursday from 8-5, and travel to Belmopan to the Peace Corps office on Fridays.  Our wonderful Kriol language teacher, Shernadine, teaches us for half of the day, we walk home for lunch, then return for “tech” training to learn the specifics about doing community work and teacher training in the Peace Corps.  Training is incredibly intense and the work load is very heavy, but luckily I have plenty of time in the evenings at Diana’s house.  On two occasions we trainees went to the local primary school to meet with the principal and teachers.  We were each assigned to work with a classroom during the 8 weeks we are here in Blackman Eddy.  I’ll try to get some pictures of the school up soon.

We are required as trainees to work on a special project with the school, one that can be competed in our off hours or weekends.  Miguelina, one of the other trainees, a former principal and teacher from Upstate New York and I are planning to help get the school’s library in order.  At present there are a few piles of books in a little room that has already been decorated with paintings on the wall.  It seems that it just needs some organization.  The principal expressed a desire for help with this project.  I may soon be requesting children’s book donations from some of you.  This little rural school has a dearth of decent children’s literature.

On one of our school visiting days, I was assigned to observe a Standard 2 (3rd grade) classroom.  The teacher has 30 years of experience and she does wonders with very few materials.  The kids are crammed in a little space of a classroom, but they all eagerly raise their hands when the teacher asks them a question.  I followed the 17 smiling, curious 8- and 9-year-olds (and one 12-year-old) outside to observe them acting out a little folk tale they had read in their readers.  Little Brian got down on all fours to portray the donkey, while Tyrique stood with his arms out depicting a tree.  My favorite little one, Eva (for obvious reasons!) read the narrator’s part with great expression.  The kids all call me Miss Ava (sounds like Mees Ava), and are eager to show off to me.  About half of the class comes from Spanish-speaking families, but all speak Kriol and English.  On Monday the 11th I will return to the class and the teacher has asked me to read a story to them.  I searched on the small pile of torn and well-used books that she had for them to choose from, and found one possibility, but I also hope to get up to Belmopan this weekend to try to find a picture book to read to them and donate to the class.  When I think of all the gorgeous picture books we had in the schools I taught in the US, I wish I could give these Belizean kids even a tenth.  After the students finish their written work they eagerly search for any kind of reading material they can find and read voraciously on their own—without anyone even forcing them to do so.  They even read ahead in their boring, dull textbook readers just to have something to read.  Oh, and there’s no public library in the village.

I’m having great fun reading aloud to JT at home at night, and telling him stories.  He has some stuffed bears, so our first story was “The Three Bears”, which he asked me to tell him over and over again.  He is a very articulate and bright 6-year-old who is affectionate and engaging.  One night I completed my language homework by conducting an interview with him in Kriol, which he kindly pronounced as “very good.”  I found a Kriol version of “The Wheels on the Bus” and he now wants to sing it a thousand times. 

The greatest pleasure I have experienced here so far has been meeting, getting to know and spending time with the Belizean people.  The most challenging aspect of my work here so far is the amount of projects we’re expected to complete.  And the most physically challenging thing has been acclimatizing to the extreme heat we’re experiencing.  However, the temp today is a little milder than it has been, 86 degrees, and 66% humidity.  Maybe I’ll actually be able to sleep tonight!

I send love and hugs to my beloved friends, students and family.      Ava