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

1 comment:

  1. This is beautiful, Ava! So nice to see how God has taken you on an amazing journey in which your best giftings will be known to the people in this section of the world. I am so inspired! Take care and know that it was a blessing to have known you back in our TDR days, and hope to someday cross paths again. Love and prayers, Lisa