Friday, August 15, 2008

A Postal Challenge

“Ms Birdie!” exclaimed Dan, a 13 year-old student who greeted me as if we hadn’t seen each other in decades, but actually we see each other almost every day. And everyday he puts the same amount of excitement into his greeting. Dan’s going to town to get a new football with the money his uncle gave him. I’m going to town to mail a letter.

Mail in Belize remains a mystery to me. The person in my village who collects and receives mail – otherwise known as the postman, except that he doesn’t distribute mail – is amazing. He’s also the PTA president and manager of a small grocery store. He is authorized to perform marriages and willingly gives out advice and information to anyone who asks. Often, he’s also hard to find. Most weeks he goes to town on Thursday to deliver mail to the “Post Office” so last Wednesday I went to his store to ask him to initiate the process of mailing a letter for me. He wasn’t there. His assistant told me to come back at 5 that day. I did. He still wasn’t there. The next morning I was happy to see him at the store. We exchanged greetings in Garifuna (he’s also helping me practice speaking Garifuna). “Buiti binafi. Ida biangi, Ms Birdie?” the post man says cheerfully.

“Magadietina, angi buguyu?" I reply, trying as hard as I can to be understood. It comes out something like “My gad, a teen. On gay ba goo ya?” Expectantly I wait for assurance that he, too, has no complaints. “May I give you a letter to mail?” I asked.

“I am not going to town this week. I am busy with the Garifuna festival. Next week will be soon enough for your letter?” Only a hint of question was in his voice. I knew that “next week” was acceptable for most village business, but my letter had a Virginia destination along with a sense of urgency. If I wanted my letter to have any chance of reaching Virginia this month, I needed to take action. That’s when I decided I would take the bus to town the next day to hand my letter to the town Post Master.

I set the alarm for 5:30. The sun normally wakes me around 6, but this morning I wanted to be sure I’d be waiting at the bus stop by 6:50 given the imaginative bus schedule that adds to the village allure. Today the bus came at 7:05. Dan and I had just greeted each other when we saw coming down the road the big yellow school bus converted to “Mr. Choco’s Bus.”

Dan and I are lucky: we live near the starting point for the bus run so we have our choice of seats. But by the time the bus traverses the main road of the village and heads out to the Southern Highway, there are usually a few people standing in the aisle. And before we arrive in town even more riders will be standing because the bus driver will pick up anyone along the way who waves at him. This morning Dan heads for the back of the bus and I take a seat behind the bus driver. In about forty-five minutes, Dan will be shopping for his football and I’ll be walking from the bus stop to the Post Office. I may stop at Val’s Hostel, Ice Cream Parlor and Internet Store where I’ll get a cup of coffee and check my email – after I mail my letter.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

First Year Results

In June 2007 when I arrived here, there was no library – no school library or community library. Now we have a library that serves both groups! It took 11 months and a lot of luck. Mostly, though, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Pam C. who got the ball rolling with six boxes of books from her own bookshelves and those of her neighbors. That one gesture opened the door to many more books and opportunities; it set in motion a chain reaction that energized the whole community; and it gave us all the courage to believe that a library was possible.

When I came to Belize I settled in a seaside village with one primary school (equivalent to grades K – 8 in the United States). In September 2007, I began working with 14 teachers and almost 300 students. In lieu of physical room to call a library, I began a “mobile” library system. With an armload full of books, I’d visit each class once a week, give out library cards, and display the books at the front of the room. Each student would choose a book, fill out a library card, and then keep the book for a week until my next visit. It was a workable, but clumsy, system.

Then in February, Pam’s boxes of books arrived. And right away, I incorporated the new old books into my mobile book cart. And soon there was a group of girls who were writing poetry, another group of remedial students who were reading the Come Dick Come books and yet others who were doing reports with the help of the great reference books. My favorite was a group who got interested the 1990s Adventure magazines!

About the same time that the books arrived, the principal of the school told me that the pre-school classes would be moving into a new building and that there was a possibility that their old building could be converted into a library. Everyday I rode my bike past the old pre-school and everyday I’d peer in through the windows and imagine a room full of books. But months went by without any more news. Then in early June, the last month of the school year, the pre-schoolers moved into their new digs and work on the library began! In one afternoon the older school boys moved the pre-school furniture out and the library shelves in. That was on a Friday. On Saturday a group of us scrubbed the one-room building inside and out, painted the floor, and fixed some of the leaks in the roof. As soon as we had confidence that the books wouldn’t get wet in the next rain storm we moved boxes and boxes of books – starting with the six from Pam. We found others which had been stashed in classroom closets and still others which were donated by people who heard by word of mounth about the library. In all, we now have over 1500 books. And they all stayed dry in last month’s terrible flood (see previous blog).

School is closed for the summer, but the library remains open. I really didn’t expect to see such tangible results this first year, especially because I got a late start out of the gate. But there it is – the proof is in the pictures attached.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Rainy Season

Friday, May 30th: Yesterday we welcomed the first rains of this year’s rainy season which officially began May 15th. The weather station said we were getting the back side of the Pacific tropical storm which jumped the gun on the official hurricane season which isn’t scheduled to arrive until June 1st Whether related to the rains or not, I don’t know, but we were without electricity for 8 hours on Wednesday and four hours on Thursday. And piped water’s been out for two days. That means there’s no water flowing from the village water tank to the pipes in people’s yards. The lack of pipe water is a common occurrence so most villagers have rain water collection systems. Electricity blackouts are also common. For most of us, having water is more important than having power. But for the handful of small restaurant owners, the lack of refrigeration is a huge blow. We are also noticing shortages in food staples like rice and flour. A friend who runs a nature preserve on one of the small islands called to say they were low on rice and couldn’t find any in nearby coastal towns. Water, power, food – for right now there’s a shortage of all these things in Belize. And I suppose in many other parts of the world, too. If this current plague of scarcities is weather-related, maybe the coming of the rainy season will heal our hurts.

Friday, June 6: One week after I wrote the above entry, my area of Belize experienced terrific flooding – a backlash of Atlantic tropical storm Arthur. Moderate rains fell all day Saturday and they increased to heavy downpours on Sunday. By Monday morning the nearby Sittee River was completely out of its banks and was soon to flood several villages and threaten others.

Early Monday afternoon a neighbor child came to my door to tell me that the other side of our village was flooding. We ran down to the Police Station where many of the villagers had gathered. That’s when we learned that the road connecting our village to the only highway in southern Belize was inundated (which incidentally meant that even those who had cars had no access out of our area). And sure enough, as we stood there trying to comprehend the severity of the situation, we watched the waters not rushing, but definitely rising along the main road and in the fields. By 6 pm that evening water surrounded all our homes and invaded those homes not on stilts (probably a third of the 600+ structures).

The clean up goes on. School never opened Monday or Tuesday. By Wednesday we tried to conduct classes with about half the student body and half of the teachers (7 of the 15 teachers commute from nearby villages and they had no access into our village). The first thing the older boys did on Wednesday was to dig out drainage canals so that the water standing in front of the school would have someplace to go. I spent my time mopping up the library – the one that we opened only two weeks ago. (More about the library next time: It’s great – thanks to my friend Pam Causer, who sent me six boxes of books, all of which are still dry and in good condition!)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Approaching One Year

As I look back on the one-year minus one month anniversary of my arrival in Belize, I’m amazed at how many of my old ways I’ve forgotten and how many new habits I’ve adopted. Things that once seemed routine to me now seem out of the ordinary – like riding in a car, not to mention driving one! If all countries had the car density of Belize, our pollution – and oil – ills would be over! While I no longer depend on cars, I now take my bicycle for granted and use it everyday. Only one spill in a year, I think I’m doing ok. I was trying to balance a gallon jug of water on one side with a pint of milk on the other – while keeping both hands on the handle bars. I tilted too far to the water side and couldn’t recover in time to prevent a fall, albeit a graceful fall, I like to think. The children watching thought so, too, as they laughed gently with me. Routine as it may be for the other villagers, I still look on in awe at some of the things they carry on their bikes: A small college-size refrigerator. A wheelbarrow. A ladder. Or friends and family! I’ve seen little 9-year olds carrying three of their friends – one on the handle bars, one on the middle bar and one on the driver’s knee! My neighbor’s two young boys – ages 4 and 5 – ride everywhere together. Both can steer and peddle equally well. I have never seen them fall.

I see a lot more of my neighbors here than I did back in Virginia. For one thing we all live outside a lot more. My neighbor cooks outside, washes her clothes and dishes, bathes the children and even takes an afternoon nap outside. And when someone has a party, it takes place on the beach or in the shared space between our homes. While we refer to our yards, in practice, the boundaries between properties is vague and even when it is defined by a hedge or marker, still common practice is that anyone has the right to walk through anyone else’s yard at any time. And at party time, the guests always spill over into neighbors’ yards.

In addition to sharing outside spaces with neighbors, I also share my inside space with gekkos. They’re my friends because they eat the mosquitoes. Yes, I’ve made a few changes in the past eleven months!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

During spring break (March 15- 30) I spent one day looking for the scarlet macaw. A group of us drove (in a car!!) from Hopkins Village to Red Bank Village, which is about 15 miles or one hour away. Red Bank is on the edge of the jungle and about 30 very bumpy minutes off the main highway. The dirt road appears to wash out frequently. But wait!! I want to tell you about the birds in Belize, not the roads. (Nonetheless I can’t get it out of my mind the state of the roads in Belize!)

From the staging point in Red Bank we hiked into the jungle for about 2 or 3 miles. These paths are considerably steeper and narrower than those in Cockscomb, but still they are perfectly maneuverable. On our way into the designated macaw-sighting spot, we met a couple of birders who had just seen a pair of the macaws playing in the trees along a river bank. We continued until we came to a beautiful opening in the jungle where the river cut a deep curve in its course and deposited a wealth of colorful rocks. The mighty riparian trees seemed to attract a community of butterflies, birds and dragon flies. The fish were plentiful, too. But alas, we didn’t see any scarlet macaws! We will go back, though. The beauty of the area is captivating.

It’s perhaps obvious to my readers that – for me – living in Belize means living closer to nature. Parrots populate the cashew and palm trees near my house. When I say near my house, I’m talking about right outside my door. I’m on the flight pattern from one of their favorite trees to the next. And I can set my clocks by the bird calls in the morning. Unlike the birding that I’m accustomed to in Virginia, birding here does not require a special event. There are, of course, birders who plan events and go in groups to specific areas to see specific bird species. But in general, birds – and a variety of species – hang out all over Belize, and are frequently observable.

Each of my two trips to Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve has yielded toucan entertainment. These colorful clowns love to play high up in the tall trees. They also will gladly pose long enough to be included in a photo. If you’re looking for good photo opportunities, I would suggest you won’t go wrong anywhere you end up in Belize. Even Belize City is known for its bird population.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Good Diving Spots

This blog entry is especially for Sam and all my SCUBA diving friends. Belize, having the second largest barrier reef in the world, is ideal for underwater observations. In my unscientific study I found that most tourists go to San Pedro, a small town on the Ambergris Caye, for diving or snorkeling. I haven’t been there yet, but I’ve heard great things about the island; it’s not far off shore from Belize City in the north central part of the country. If you google on San Pedro Belize, you’re sure to get lots of information about places to stay – in all price ranges – as well as guided tours to the many good diving locations. There are also diving schools in San Pedro where you can get certified to dive.

Another diving venue in Belize just happens to be in southern Belize, very close to my little village. Hamanasi , which means almond tree in Garifuna, is a full-service resort that caters to divers and explorers who also happen to want comfort. In addition to guided diving tours, the resort also offers tours to the Mayan ruins, the jungle and even to local artisans in nearby Hopkins village. And their vans will pick you up at the airport when you arrive. You won’t have the same atmosphere at Hamanasi as in San Pedro. For one thing San Pedro is a lively town that caters – and has catered for years – to divers, while Hamanasi is a resort. True, there are four other small resorts lined up along the seaside (Jaguar Reef Lodge, Belizean Dreams, Parrot Cove, and Beaches and Dreams), but the nearby village does not have the restaurants, bars or nightlife that San Pedro has.

February, March and April seem to be the prime months for visiting in Belize. These are the driest months, which doesn’t mean you won’t see rain because you probably will. Little – and sometimes big – rain showers are so typical here. When I first arrived I took my umbrella everywhere – partly to provide a little shade and partly to protect me from unexpected showers. But now as I ride my bike in the village I seldom carry an umbrella. Of course I’ve been soaked more than once. But so far, I’ve always dried out!! And besides, what do you care! You’re coming to Belize to get wet, right!

Friday, November 16, 2007

November News

About 75 rain showers have fallen since I last blogged...and a few thunderstorms have caused havoc. The boobybirds have come and gone. The dragonflies have successfully launched two short, but powerful, invasions on the village. Fishing is good again - barracuda, shark, and snapper (black and red) and likewise the dinner menus. On a personal note, Laura and Clint spent a super weekend with me in Belize, bringing lots of replenishment for both the body and soul. One morning we toured the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. What a treat! No jaguar spottings, unless you want to count jaguar footprints! Along our path!! We saw lots of other wildlife, including toucans, vultures, wood thrushes, several otters playing in a stream, a snake peering up at us from the edge of our path, and huge ant mounds where ants were busy moving leaves inside. We also spent time relaxing at one of the nearby resorts. (Check out the new pictures.) The best part of their visit was seeing them, but maybe the next best thing was the new Chinese-made bike they bought for me at the Chinese store in the more long walks in the hot sun for me!! Life is good.