Thursday, March 31, 2011

On my way to Belize

March 31, 2011
Nineteen months after submitting my application to the Peace Corps I am finally here in Belize.  As the plane ascended above American soil last Thursday I asked one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers to pinch me.  A week after landing in Belize I still find it difficult to believe I’m finally here.

Getting acquainted with my fellow volunteers while completing our staging in Dallas on the first day was a marvelous experience.   There were ice-breakers and thought-provoking sessions on Peace Corps objectives and expectations.  We were guided in formulating our goals and aspirations with the aim of giving us a focus and foundation for our entire 27 months of service.  We also had a few hours to get to know our future colleagues while we enjoyed our last American meal together.  I am honored to be included in this group of 38 talented, highly motivated people.  I am simultaneously impressed and intimidated by the breadth of knowledge of these remarkably gifted people.  We have among us experienced teachers, including one retired principal, a surgeon, engineers, economists, MBAs, artists and even four volunteers who are serving in the Peace Corps for a second time.  Our youngest member is just out of college, and our oldest is 66.  One third of us are over 50 years of age.  Most have advanced degrees, and one is working on her Masters while here in Belize.   Nearly everyone has already lived and worked in many other countries.  It’s been fascinating getting to know the members of Peace Corps Belize 2011.

Our plane touched down in Belize City on Thursday afternoon, and after dragging our over-stuffed luggage through customs and immigration we were greeted by a cheering throng outside of the airport, complete with a banner welcoming us to Belize.  We boarded a bus and rode for an hour to Belmopan, the capital, where we had our first Belizean meal of chicken with beans and rice, and then were dropped off at the Garden City Hotel. 

Friday we began intense training at the Peace Corps office, a short walk from our hotel.  The training consists of sessions on Peace Corps policies, procedures, expectations, goals, as well as training in cultural sensitivity, development work, and language instruction in Kriol, the lingua franca of Belize.  We also learn about safety and security and how to keep healthy.    As those of you who know me can imagine, the linguistic training is my favorite. 

The weekend brought us a whirlwind of cultural immersion.  On Saturday our entire group piled into a dilapidated old school bus and headed down the Hummingbird Highway to Dangriga, on the Caribbean coast.  Our goal for the day was to learn as much as possible about the Garifuna culture, one of many ethnic groups in this small country of only 300,000 people.  The Garifuna have a distinct language and culture, and they are the descendents of a mixture of Arawak and Carib Indian and West African people.  They were exiled by the British from their island of St. Vincent in the early 1800’s, but have maintained their language and customs in villages of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. 

In Dangriga we visited the Garifuna museum, and enjoyed a lecture on Garifuna spirituality and herbal medicine.  We witnessed an incredibly complex cassava bread baking demonstration at the home of a Garifuna woman.  She dug up the cassava root, peeled it, grated it, squeezed out the poisonous juice, dried it, sifted it, and finally spread it out over a large hot plate (called a “comal”) heated over a wood fire.  We were finally treated to a taste of this traditional Garifuna staple food.  Then we drove to the art gallery of Pen Cayetano, a local artist of some renown, whose paintings colorfully depict the history and culture of his people.   This field trip also included a demonstration of drum making on Why Not Island, and we enjoyed a performance of Garifuna and Wanaragua dancing.  We were even given the opportunity to dance the punta, a widely popular dance form in Belize.  We stopped on our way back to Belmopan at an ice cream stand run by Mennonites.  I loved Culture Day!

We were free on Sunday to do as we pleased, so a few of us had breakfast at the open air market and then caught a bus to the Belize Zoo.  We were given the honor of going inside a cage within the jaguar enclosure with one of the zoo keepers to help feed Junior, a male jaguar whose mother had been rescued by the zoo after some Mennonite farmers called to report that she was killing their sheep.  Junior was huge, gorgeous, and very soft.  He climbed on top of our protective cage and we had the opportunity to see his underside and his huge paws.  We put our foreheads toward the top of the cage and he eagerly licked us—a genuine jaguar kiss!  I fed him some chicken legs.  His keeper then coaxed him back into the indoor housing so that we could leave his enclosure before the keeper released him once again.  It was an amazing experience. 

All the animals in this one-of-a-kind zoo are rescued animals native to Belize, many of which are endangered.  The most beautiful was the scarlet macaw, a huge red, blue and yellow parrot.  We also saw the national animal of Belize, the tapir, a homely distant relative of the horse and rhino.  I held a boa constrictor while it wrapped itself around my shoulders.  But by far, my favorite animal there was the ocelot.  I will always be a cat lover.

On our way back to Belmopan we stopped at Guanacaste National Park, which is run by the Audubon Society.  We hiked some trails and swam in the river while listening to and watching the howler monkeys.  From there we returned to our hotel in Belmopan.  We were able to flag down buses along the Western Highway to make our way back.  Standing in the aisle of a crowded Belizean bus is a fascinating way to experience the many cultures of this country.  You can hear Kriol, Maya languages and Spanish spoken by the passengers, although most people speak English as well, and they are more than happy to help you find your stop.  

This week was filled intense training in the Peace Corps office in Belmopan in general subjects related to the Peace Corps’ approach to development.  We also learned about security and keeping ourselves safe, trained in using effective interviewing skills, explored cross-cultural communication, and enjoyed an entire hour’s lecture on treating and preventing diarrhea.   But we have been spoiled all week by the air conditioning in the office.  Outside it’s around 86 degrees with 70% humidity.   Tomorrow when we take off for our Community Based Training sites and our host family homes for the next 8 weeks, we will have the real experience of living in Belize. 

Tomorrow afternoon I will go to a town called Blackman Eddy to live with a family and continue training.  My language training will focus on Kriol and I will be working with other Peace Corps trainees in that town learning about education in Belize and what we will do when we are given our final placement sites in June.  I’m excited to at last meet and really get to know a Belizean family.  I’ll post again after I’ve been in my training site for a while and write about what we’re doing there.  For now, I wish all good things to my family and friends who are reading this.  I’ll send you my new address and phone number by personal email.  Please write!