Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

This past week we had our fist All Volunteer Conference. All volunteers, first years and second years, arrived in Belmopan this past Monday. It was great to see everyone again after spending more time in each of our sites. Everyone had stories to share about their housing struggles and daily challenges in their sites. We spent Tuesday in a workshop talking about Behavior Change and how that applies to our work in Belize. We discussed pertinent examples like picking up trash, using condoms, not beating your wife and children, attending meetings, etc. It was a very interesting and productive, yet long, day in class. We celebrated Thanksgiving on Wednesday because we had to head back to sites on Thursday. Each district in Belize was assigned a certain part of Thanksgiving to prepare. Stann Creek district, where I live, was assigned Salads. We all pooled our money and set out to make the ultimate green salad and fruit salad. It is possible to get delicious things like fresh green lettuce and spinach, olives, starfruit, plums, grapes,- but they are all super expensive so we don’t purchase them on the day to day. But on Wednesday, we went all out. We bought everything we had been eyeing in the best grocery store in Belmopan to make our salads. When everyone came together in the afternoon with their various dishes, it looked just like any Thanksgiving I would have attended back home. We had Turkey, ham, green bean casserole, 4 kinds of stuffing, mashed potatoes, salads, veggies, pumpkin pies and much much more! Everyone splurged and spent the 28 BZE for the cheapest wine in Belize to share with the meal. It was great to have all volunteers and staff in one room to share this day with. People stood up and gave thanks before we ate. It was a nice day filled with much love and thanks. There was so much food left over that we packed some up to bring back to the hotel for later and sent the rest to a children’s home in Belmopan. I finally received a package from my Mom that I had been waiting on for over a month this past week. It was complete with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas decorations. Halloween was long gone, but the Thanksgiving decorations were perfect! We used the turkey napkins as centerpieces with the fresh flowers a staff member picked in the morning. And the paper turkey centerpiece sat on the podium. Everyone loved the decorations. Thanks Mom!

Up next- I am FINALLY moving in to my house on December first. After much confusion about where to live, I have settled on the first cement house that I found, despite how crazy the landlady may be. She is finishing bringing a water pipe to the back porch so I can wash and cleaning it up. I am excited to live on my own but extremely sad to leave my current host family. I really feel as though my host mom, Creidy, who is actually 1 week younger that I am is a sister to me. It is crazy the different lifes we live, yet we are the same age. I will miss living there, but am happy to have my own place for a little more of that American freedom I am wired to desire. Creidy can't understand why I want to move out so bad and I feel sad that she thinks it is because I don’t want to live with her and her family any more… But I think she understands now. I plan to still return for some meals each week and will have to see how to work that out.

Garifuna Settlement Day

November 19th is Garifuna Settlement Day in Dangriga. The Garifuna Culture is comprised of exslaves from Africa that landed in Dangriga and eventually settled there. They have a rich African roots culture filled with colorful dancing, drumming and unique food. I had been looking forward to this day for a while as I am thoroughly intrigued by this rich culture because it is slowly dying out here in Belize. In fact, we have two PCVs that are assigned to the preservation of this culture. They have a school in Dangriga that teaches the children about the history and traditions of the Garifuna. They learn the language and wear the traditional clothing as their school uniforms. I met some other volunteers that came up from PG in the morning upon arriving in Dangriga on the 18th. Everyone stays up dancing, drumming and eating in the streets to ring in November 19th. At 6 in the morning, they have a reenactment of when the Garifuna Settlers arrived in Dangriga. A famous Garifuna dish is called Hudut. It is coconut milk, Ocra, and Fish served with a dollop of mashed and boiled plantains. It is really nice but hard on the stomach due to the rich coconut milk. We partied in the streets all night, meeting tons of people, learning about the culture, listening to the drumming and music, dancing and eating. It was a lot of fun and a very interesting night.

Caye Caulker

I decided to head to Caye Caulker with a couple other volunteers for the weekend. I had never been to Belize City yet, and desperately wanted to experience the “Vacation Belize” that most people think of when they hear about Belize. I hoped a bus to Belize City on Friday with my friend Erika who had come up from PG to have lunch in my village with me. The bus to Belize city is only about 2.5 hours. Adam, a PCV in Belize City met us at the station. He walked us to his house where we left our bags. All volunteers talk about this place called the Tavern in Belize City that is like an American Sports bar. It has the only beer in Belize, Beliken Beer, on tap and your classic American food- all for a price of course. Everything about the Tavern felt like we were in America. We noshed on burgers and onion rings, drank beer on tap and watched BBall on flat screen TVs. It was crazy, but felt so great to escape for a few hours from rice and beans, little electricity, and creek water.

The next morning, we woke up and headed to the Water Taxi stand. Caye Caulker is only a 45 minute water taxi ride off of Belize City. San Pedro is a little bit further and more expensive and ritzy. Caye Caulker is known for being cheaper and laid back as it has long been a part of the backpackers belt down Central America. As soon as we hit the water and sped away from the city, the water began to get clearer and sparkled with more azul colors than I have ever seen before. You could see clear through to the bottom all the way out to the Cayes. We had heard of stilted Cabanas on the water for 30 BZE a night for the entire cabana, complete with a private bathroom and shower. It was perfect and the cheapest place to stay on the island. We spent the rest of the day swimming and hanging by the water. The water was so warm and clear. It felt like bath water- but it was super salty!!! That night we ate lobster tails- and they were amazing. I really wanted to go snorkeling out on the reefs. So we signed up for an all day sailing and snorkeling trip for the next day. It was the best decision I have made since arriving in country!!!! The started out overcast, and we were unsure what we were getting ourselves into, as it was 80 BZE for the entire day. This included Snorkeling gear, lunch, 3 stops to snorkel and all the rum-punch you can drink on the way home served with fresh Ceviche. Ceviche is like a salsa casera made with chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic, lime and fresh peeled shrimp or conk. You serve it with corn chips. It is absolutely delicious! The day was perfect. There were about 19 of us on this sail boat- all travelers from all over the world. Three rasta guys ran the boat, called Ragga Queen! Haha. They were great and really knowledgeable about the ocean and all the fish we saw! We swam with nurse sharks, stingrays, turtles, eels and tons of fish.

Caye Caulker is the exact opposite of how we live further inland Belize. It really is the tourist Belize that people were thinking of when I told them I would serve in the Peace Corps in Belize. It was a nice get away and comforting to know that it is so close and affordable when the village life wears on me.

Cleft Pallet

It has been about a month since I last wrote a blog entry. So much has happened that I want to share with you. I helped a boy get a life changing surgery, vacationed on Caye Caulker, I danced and drummed in Dangriga and celebrated Thanksgiving with all the volunteers and staff of Peace Corps Belize.

About two weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow volunteer in Toledo district. She described how she met a team of doctors in Punta Gorda at a craft collective where one Volunteer worked. When she struck up a conversation with them, they explained how they had arrived in Belize prepared to complete over 50 Cleft Pallet and Cleft Lip surgeries but somebody on the Belize end of things dropped the ball and did not gather the patients. So this team of top plastic surgeons spent their own money and time to carry down all the supplies needed to perform such surgeries and now had no one to operate on. I can imagine their frustration, but on the Belizean side of things, I am not surprised that this happened. Anyways, this was a last ditch effort to gather patients that could be in PG to have this surgery the following day. I received this email at 8 PM. I almost disregarded it as I had not seen anyone in the village with a cleft lip and it seemed like a long shot chance to get down there, a 5 hour bus ride. But I did casually ask my friend in the internet café if she knew of anyone with such a “ big cut right so.” She said, ah ha, she knew of a boy that grew up here with that but now lives in Armenia, a village 15 miles down the road towards Belmopan. I asked if she knew how to contact him. She asked a neighbor and relative of the boy for the phone number at which he is staying in Armenia. With that in hand, we now had the challenge of making a phone call. We walked to the store to get a phone card to use the community phone. We then walked on the other end of town to use the phone. I first called the volunteer that sent the email to receive more info. We then called the number where the boy was living. Cosy, my counterpart’s daughter talked to the person who answered and told them about this team of doctors in PG that could fix his lip for free. The boy agreed that he was interested and said he could be in Mile 25 the next morning by 8 AM. At this point I was not sure if I would have to take the boy down there myself or what.

So then, Cosy lead us to his Mother’s house in our village where he grew up. It was pushing 9 PM by this point and she lives in a thatched with no electricity. We had one little light as we approached and I never even saw her face during the whole interaction. Again, we explained this opportunity and asked the mother if she would be willing to go down to PG with her son who was arriving in the morning for this opportunity. She agreed to go with him but said that she had never been to PG before and was scared. So I told her to meet me at 8 pm at the bus stop and I would carry them both down there on the bus.

I could hardly sleep that night, as I was so excited and worried at the same time about what I was getting myself into. Excited to play a role in this once in a lifetime opportunity for this young boy to lead a better life and worried that we could actually pull this off as we never got a hold of the team of doctors that the Volunteer had met. I worried that I would lead these people all the way down, a 5 hour bus ride, to PG to find out that we were mistaken and they were no longer doing surgeries or something to that extent. I woke up early and again called another volunteer in PG to ask her to track down these doctors and tell them that I am bringing a kid for the surgery. Meanwhile, I would have to get on the bus and head that way without ever knowing if this would actually happen. I figured it was a chance worth taking.

I walked towards the bus stop, realizing that I had no idea who I was looking for. To my knowledge, I had never met mother before the previous night where I never even saw her face. I figured I would know if the boy was there or not. The bus stop was filled with students and people awaiting the arrival of bus. I smiled at one women sitting in the bus stop and wondered if that was Ipifanya, the mother of the boy, but I did not see a boy with her. Then I noticed a boy with long hair, looking to the ground in the corner of the shed. He looked up quickly to see me and then I realized that he was the boy I was looking for-Peter. I greeted him and asked when he arrived this morning. He told me that he had awoken at 4 am to ride his single speed, beach cruiser bike 15 miles from Armenia to mile 25, reaching here at 6 am. Say what?! I can only imagine what had been going through his head as he made that ride. We boarded the bus to PG, a 5 hour trip. I paid the 15$ for each of them to ride the bus down there has they already told me they could not afford the bus passage.

I was immediately relieved upon reaching Dangriga and cell phone service because my friend Erika texted me from PG saying everything was a go and that the Doctors were ready for him. The trip was quick as we all sat in silence. Still not knowing what could go wrong between now and PG, or if this would really happen. Erika greeted us at the bus stop in PG and walked us to the Clinic. I could tell that Peter was nervous and overwhelmed, and I was equally tense. The doctors met us and were immediately friendly and excited. They were happy to see a patient. They asked Peter a ton of questions very fast and in English about his health and medical history. Mind you, this kid had probably never set foot inside of a clinic his entire life and does not speak much English. But he answered all of the questions well and the doctors were pleased and deemed him ready for Surgery. I felt an intense sigh of relief and rush of excitement that this was actually going to happen for him! He was so nervous and shy though. At one point while preparing for surgery, he disappeared to sit in the stairwell and I thought he ran for it. But he was just quiet and always looked down because he was embarrassed of his deformation. One by one, different doctors and nurses greeted Peter and us as they gathered for surgery. I was so overwhelmed that I can’t even imagine how Peter felt. Then before we could even say goodbye, they whisked him away into surgery.

I am convinced that he couldn’t even wrap his brain around what was going to happen to him despite explaining that they would put him to sleep and such. He must have been really scared. The surgery went great and he was done in 2 hours. By this time, 3 other PG volunteers had joined us at the hospital as they heard I brought Peter down from Mile 25 for the surgery. We were all there when he awoke from surgery. His lip looked really good but was very swollen and bloody. He finally recognized me and gave me a wave. I couldn’t believe I just met this kid mere hours prior as I felt so connected and responsible for him during the moments leading up to surgery and after he came out of it. It was like he was someone I had known for years, yet I didn’t know a single thing about him. Come to find out, he had left home at age 14 because his family mistreated him. He moved to Armenia to live with an aunt and had not been back since. He was now 19. This means that his mother agreed to accompany him down to PG without having seen her son much for the past 5 years. Growing up with such a prominent deformation on your face must have dictated how others treated him and how he walked through this world himself. After returning from PG the next day, he stayed in mile 25 for 4 days recovering. I said goodbye to him, wondering if I would ever see him again, but fully prepared to track him down in Armenia months to come. By this time, his lip looked amazing and he was warming up to me and talking a bit more. But we still didn’t have much to say to one another. Then, to my pleasant surprise, word spread that Peter had moved back to Mile 25 and brought his girlfriend with him! He had left only 5 days prior. I was thrilled to know he was moving back and living with his mother and family after learning that he had been gone for so long. And I was even more excited to find out that he had a girlfriend that he brought back with him! I can only hope that he now has a fresh start on life and this will hopefully change how people treat Peter, including his very own family.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Harvest time

Yesterday, I celebrated my 23rd Birthday here in Belize. I had no idea what to expect, has I had yet to experience any birthday in Belize. Would I expect that my new friends, of a mere 3 weeks, would throw me a birthday bash?! I decided to fill my day with errands so as to not have time in my schedule to feel homesick. Success indeed. In the morning, I hopped the bus into Dangriga with my Counterpart. We did the usual walking around and bitching about how hot it is to walk with the damn sun dripping all over our every breath. My Counterpart, Vero, knows everyone everywhere we go. Which is pretty common I have discovered as I continue to befriend more and more Belizeans. The country really is small and everyone knows everyone’s business… all 299,999 of them!!! While stopping to chat to the Garifuna women sitting in the shade behind a large cooler selling some sort of delicious street food, one women begins pulling out clothes from a small plastic bag. She maybe had about 7 items of clothing in said bag that she was selling. Vero told her I was interested in buying a Garifuna outfit to wear to Garifuna Settlement day in Dangriga on Nov 18th-19th. The tranquil seaside town transforms into a massive street party for the days leading up to November 19th. Everyone dawns their traditional garb, drink and eat up, dance the punta, and bash to the beats of drumming for three days straight. At 5 am on Nov 19th, there is a reenactment of the arrival of the Garifuna settlers from Africa to the shores of Belize, in Dangriga. Well, this lady pulled out a garifuna outfit, exactly my size, and exactly what I wanted. Funny how that happens. I forked over my 30 bucks and continued to shuffle in the noon time heat along the bustling market streets.

Vero and I hopped the bus back to Mile 25 at 1ish. I got off the bus a mile before home because I wanted to stop by the Middlesex school to support their BBQ sale day for Harvest Celebrations. I bought a plate of BBQ, hung with the kids and Cosi. Cosi is my counterpart’s daughter who is about a year older than me and is a teacher at the school. I spend a lot of time with Cosi, whether it is every night at the Internet café, which she single handedly runs, or running errands on the weekend together. I then hopped a passing James line bus ( the route from PG, via Dangriga, to Belmopan and onto Belize City) towards Belmopan. I decided to head on in that direction to go to the bank as I had no money and was planning to buy some more paint so I can paint my house this weekend. While in line at the bank in Belmopan, I received a phone call from my counterpart’s son, Suki, saying that a fellow PCV was at his house looking for me! My friend Zan, who lives in a town about 20 miles down the road from me had come to see me on my birthday! I told her to sit tight and that I would retun in about an hour on the bus. I grabbed my money and legged it to the bus station. Just as I turned the corner to enter the station, my bus pulled out. So I waved and Hailed the bus on its way out. It was so nice of Zan to come visit, not knowing if I would be there or not and never having ever been to Mile 25 before! We bought a round of Cokes and sat at Guerra Family Store chatting for a few hours. It was nice to share how one another was doing in our respective sites and with our projects. After she caught the last bus towards her village of Armenia, I walked to Vero’s house. She wanted to make Tamales for my birthday. Tamales are usually only made for Birthdays or at Christmas time because they are a lot of work to make! All afternoon she had worked to make Tamales with her daughter in law for me. I must say, that I really have not like tamales since arriving in Belize. I find that are filled with too much corn and only a little sauce and meat. They are often cold by the time you buy them from a street vendor or the girl carrying a bucket of tamales around town. But these tamales, fresh off the fire, were amazing!!!! Muy Rico!!!!!! My day ended and I went home at about 9 pm. I reflected on my first Belizean birthday and was pleasantly surprised by an enjoyable day. I realized that the only difference that made me a bit homesick was that no one sang happy birthday to me. Clearly, it just isn’t something that is done here… why do we do it then? It is a stupid song anyways. Since when did a simple happy birthday from a friend or loved one not suffice and we had to create a jingle to look forward to each year. It is awkward and weird when it happens anyways…right? So why was I longing for someone to sing me this silly song while I sit there awkwardly and enjoy such poor singing by friends and family…. I think I will do away with this silly tradition in my life unless someone can make a strong argument for the Happy Birthday Song. Hmmm.

Parties are really strange here in Mile 25. I have attended two parties since arriving in the village. One was a baby shower for a woman in the women’s group on the second day I arrived in the village and the other was a birthday party for one of Vero’s Grandsons. Both times… people came together, played games, chatted, helped prepare food and then just when the party is getting going, people are loosening up, and the food is being served… Everyone wraps their plate of food in tinfoil provided by the party hosts, thanks them for the great time, and takes their food, cake and juice home. The party immediately ends. It is so strange… Right when I think we are about to sit around, eat, drink and be merry…..I experience the Belizean culture whip and my entire existence of parties has forever been turned upside down. To me, the entire essence of a party is good food and good drinks, accompanied by good company and great conversation around the dinner table. Why even go through all the effort of making a great meal to share with friends, if they just pack it up and enjoy it at home alone? It blows my mind… I have fully committed to further research on the topic of Belizean gatherings in Mile 25. Is it unique to small communities? What drives such behavior? Are people embarrassed to eat in front of friends? Do they go home to share the food with their hungry families? Me no know ( I don’t know in Kriol- one of my favorite Kriol phrases here!). ME NO KNOW!!!!

Next up- I plan to paint my house tomorrow or Friday... November marks heavy rain and thus my painting schedule has stalled. But we will see what tomorrow brings.