Monday, June 13, 2011

Spelunking and Swearing In

On Sunday, June 5, we Peace Corps Trainees were allowed a day off, and three of us decided to challenge ourselves with an adventure we had never attempted before:  spelunking.  We ventured out to ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal), the most physically challenging of the caves of Belize.  After hiking through the jungle to the mouth of the cave, our guide instructed us to swim into the abyss.  Two of us took the challenge, while one changed her mind and stayed back.  We left our packs behind, and swam in our clothes (and shoes!) into the cave to begin our three-hour trek through the cavern.  Our headlamps provided the sole light inside.  After finally touching dry land deep inside the cavern, our guide led us through one section with our lights turned off.  The dark enveloped us like a blanket as the guide narrated Mayan legends and intoned music by gently striking the stalactites with his fingers.  Once again we turned on our headlamps and climbed up through rocky passages, some so narrow that we had to squeeze through on hands and knees.  We were soon rewarded with the awe-inspiring vision of glittering quartz crystals covering the stalactites inside an enormous chamber.  Further along, we climbed a 30-foot ladder to another chamber filled with Mayan artifacts and calcified skeletons, some 1300 years old.   One of the human remains was of a young girl who had been sacrificed to the gods. She is known as the “Chrystal Maiden".  This was one of the most strenuous physical challenges I’ve accomplished in my life, and it gave me the confidence and courage to complete my last week of training.  

With only one more week of training sessions to go, we would finally be sworn in as full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers.  Currently serving Peace Corps Volunteers provided a two-day workshop on HIV-AIDS, because all of us, even those not specifically assigned to the health sector, are charged with promoting HIV and AIDS awareness.  Belize currently suffers the highest rate of HIV infection in Central America, and the UN, as well as President Obama, have committed to the goal of reducing the number of new HIV-positive cases in the country.  My colleagues chose me to be the one to demonstrate the proper application of a condom using a cucumber as the intended appendage.  Other training sessions included instructions on Peace Corps policies and bureaucratic procedures, and sessions to learn how to sharpen a machete, attach a propane tank to a cook stove, fix a flat bicycle tire, survive a hurricane, and some sessions on group team-building dynamics.  By the end of our training we had bonded with one another in solidarity, and have dedicated ourselves to supporting one another throughout our time here in Belize.  Our little group of five Dangriga Volunteers committed ourselves to meeting once a month for potlucks to commiserate and share successes.  Unfortunately, one of the original 38 of us was deemed unprepared to begin her 2-year commitment, and was sent home the day before our swearing in.  We were all shocked and saddened by her departure, but realize that in every training group there is usually at least one who does not go on to service.  

The day of our swearing in ceremony and subsequent celebration at the Ambassador’s residence was like Graduation and the Prom all rolled into one.  We dressed to the nines and were transported at 9:00 am by bus to the Governor General’s official residence.  The Governor General, Sir Colville Young, is the Queen’s representative here in Belize, an independent nation since 1981, but still a member of the British Commonwealth.    There were large tents set up outside to accommodate all the invited guests, including our host families, our Belizean work counterparts, the Peace Corps Country Director, and the American Charge d’Affaires.  My new host mom, Miss Cas, honored me with her presence as well.  We stood to sing both the Belizean and the American national anthems, and then swore to “defend the US Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, and to serve the Belizean people in friendship and in peace.”  It was an emotional and moving occasion and all 37 of us sensed that we were part of something greater than ourselves.  Currently serving Volunteers, the Peace Corps Country Director, the American Charge d’Affaires and the Deputy Chief Education Officer all delivered speeches.  Four of our group of Trainees gave speeches in Spanish, Kriol, Q’eqchi, and English. Tears were streaming down my face as I was called up to receive my diploma.  We ate lunch together, snapped photos and hugged our host families and each other.
In the afternoon, several of the currently serving Peace Corps Volunteers who arrived in 2010, met us at a soccer field in Belmopan for a friendly bit of competition and gesture of solidarity.  This year one of the Volunteers began a new initiative called Volunteers Supporting Volunteers (VSV) that seeks to provide support and practical assistance to Volunteers.  Those of us in the Belize 2011 group have felt encouraged and empowered by our more experienced colleagues.  By the way, Team 2011 won the soccer game.
 Miss Cas and me

In the evening we were transported by bus to the Ambassador’s residence, an elegant and stately home in the suburbs of Belmopan, near the American Embassy.  The Ambassador himself was out of the country, but his Charge d’Affaires, Jack Diffily and his wife welcomed us and provided a sumptuous feast.  We were treated to a slide show highlighting our most memorable moments of our 12 weeks of training.  These past weeks have been challenging, rewarding, and enlightening.  The Peace Corps training staff is very thorough and diligent in equipping us with skills and attitudes that have prepared us to begin our two years of service to the Belizean people.
 American Ambassador's Residence in Belmmopan

So… armed with my diploma, my suitcase and a brand new umbrella, I boarded a bus bound for Dangriga.  To my delight, my first weekend in my new adopted town has been wonderful, because Miss Cas’ daughter, Bernadette, was here visiting from San Diego, where she has lived for the past 30 years.  She took me all around to visit the nearby village of Hopkins, and to explore parts of Dangriga that only a woman who grew up here would know about.  As we strolled along the beach and the streets of Dangriga, she introduced me to myriads of cousins, aunts, old school chums, and random villagers.  I hope you all enjoy the photos of my first days in my new home of Dangriga.
 Bernadette, Miss Cas' daughter
The Garifuna drummers in Dangriga
The mango tree outside my bedroom window
The seaside in Dangriga

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Heading into my last week of training

In Peace Corps parlance, CBT has concluded.  This means that Community Based Training, or the 8 weeks of living and working in our training sites with our first host families is completed.  Sadly,  Diana, Jay T and I said goodbye, and I moved back into the Garden City Hotel with my fellow 37 PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) in Belmopan for further training at the Peace Corps office before swearing in.  Although I will miss reading stories to that darling little boy, I feel certain that we will be able to visit one other during the two years that I am in Belize, because this is a tiny country, and it is relatively easy to travel by bus almost anywhere.  As I was leaving, Diana was preparing for a 10-day workshop in St. Lucia focusing on women in political leadership positions.   I am grateful for her generosity in hosting me and introducing me to Belize.
Diana & Jay T
Completing CBT meant that our permanent placements would finally be revealed.   After 8 weeks of nervous speculation and anxiety,  all 38 of us were uneasy the night before Placement Day, and when our sites were at last revealed, we hugged and cheered and were incredibly relieved.  To my surprise, I was not placed in a specifically designated Spanish-speaking community, but instead have been assigned the charming coastal town of Dangriga, a veritable cultural melting pot, with a sizeable Garifuna community, many Creoles, a few Maya and a smattering of Spanish-speakers who sell vegetables in the market.  Dangriga is known as the cultural center of Belize, and although not a popular tourist destination, it is known for the artists and musicians who make the town famous, such as Supa G, the punta rock superstar, and Pen Cayetano, founder of the Turtle Shell Band and a painter of some renown.  
Map of Belize indicating our placement sites

My new host “mom” is Alejandra Castillo (otherwise known in all of Dangriga as Miss Cas).  She sports a baseball cap that reads “Garifuna Mom”, and proudly wears her beautiful Garifuna dresses that she makes for herself.  She is 72 years old, has 4 grandchildren living with her, and 4 grown children in the States.  Her son’s Chicago restaurant, Garifuna Flava, was recently featured on the Food Network.  The grand kids are sweet, and love being read to as much as Jay T does.  We’ve also enjoyed playing hundreds of games of Go Fish and Uno.  
Now I have another language to try to master.  The first Garifuna expression I learned was “buiti binafi”, or good morning.  When I have used this one phrase while walking down the streets of Dangriga on my way to the Education Center, I have been met with big smiles from the elderly Garifuna women just returning from morning Mass.  Most younger people prefer to speak Kriol, but Miss Cass’ generation is doing its best to try to preserve the language and culture of the Garifuna people (for more information on this fascinating culture, refer to my March 31 blog entry).  My goal is to have weekly classes in Garifuna with Miss Cas.  The first night I spent in Dangriga, Miss Cas asked me to accompany her to a wake.  The women sang religious songs in Garifuna, and the drums beat long into the night.  I look forward to learning about this rich culture, their traditions and language.
We were sent to our new sites for only five days to meet our new host families and our Belizean counterparts, before we were expected to return to the capital to complete our training.  My counterpart is Dushinka Lopez, a woman who was a vice-principal at one of the Dangriga primary schools, but is now the coordinator of the Literacy Center in the District of Stann Creek, of which Dangriga is one town.  There are over 40 schools in the Stann Creek district, and eight in Dangriga itself.  Although it’s not clear to me yet what my specific role will be as her partner, my understanding is that I will help to train new or struggling teachers throughout the district, especially in Language Arts, or reading and writing.  It is now almost the end of the school year, so I will only be introduced to some of the schools and teachers, and then get started on workshops that will take place over the summer.  All teachers in Belize are required to spend the entire month of August in workshops and preparing for the school year.

The two days I spent with my counterpart were a special treat.  Instead of sitting in meetings discussing my job description, to my delight, we instead traveled with her boss, the head of the Education Center, to Belize City, 2 ½ hours away, to watch Stann Creek students participate in the annual National Festival of Arts.  On Monday we watched the opening ceremonies outside the House of Culture, sitting along the waterfront of Belize City.  We also took part in a parade through the streets of the city, while the students marched and danced to the beat of the  Garifuna drums.  Each of the six districts of Belize was represented by marching bands or other musicians in the parade.  On Tuesday we returned to Belize City for the second day of the festival to see our Stann Creek students sing, dance and act in short plays in the Bliss Performing Arts Center along the waterfront.  My counterpart and her boss came to see their own daughters perform on stage.  I felt so honored to be able to accompany them and witness the talents of the Belizean students.

After only five days in our new sites we returned to Belmopan for the remainder of our training.  As I write this, I am in the Peace Corps office, with one more week left of training.  On Friday, June 10, we will swear in at the Governor General’s residence, then attend a reception at the American Ambassador’s home.  On Saturday June 11 we will all be dispersed to our permanent sites to begin serving as Peace Corps Volunteers.