Monday, August 3, 2009

My final entry

I am now officially a Returned Peace Corps volunteer ("RPCV"), having officially ended my service on July 22, 2009. I have returned to the Chicago area and have begun taking steps to resume my life here in the USA. I am temporarily staying with my daughter and 2 grandsons who live in a suburb west of Chicago as my home is rented until September 1, 2009. I move back in with all of my belongings, which are now storage, on September 2, 2009. This final post will complete my periodic accounts of life in Belize.

As I checked the date of my last entry in preparation for creating this post, I realized that I had promised to provide more frequent updates. I obviously am a bit delinquent in this effort. My excuse, which I intend to hold to, is that the last months in Belize were quite active and generally positive.

In my prior update, I mentioned the inauguration of the new NAVCO office and the decentralization program as upcoming events in my work with NAVCO. These items and related activities dominated the remaining months of my service in Belize. During the several months prior to leaving for my Christmas vacation in Chicago, serious construction began on the long awaited new NAVCO building (ground was first broken around the end of 2007 but construction was halted at a relatively early stage due to objections raised on several fronts questioning rather NAVCO would be granted use of the land or be given an alternative site for its building) and was completed very shortly after my return to Belize. The managing director of NAVCO decided that the physical office (i.e., desk, chairs, computers, etc.) would not be moved until after the inauguration of the new building, which took place in mid February 2009. Thus, upon return to Belize, considerable energy and time were directed toward the planning of the inauguration festivities and the physical move following the inauguration.

The inauguration was a success - there was a good turnout which included the Minister of Labour, Local Government & Rural Development and other dignitaries. Speeches were given, the building was blessed and then lunch was served. I socialized primarily with the village council member attendees who were served lunch outside under the tent, but spent a short stint inside chatting with a few of the dignitaries and board members and sharing in a round of drinks. A nicely aged single malt scotch was being served and, yes, I partook of the scotch - after all I was living on a beer budget as a volunteer in Belize and not very fond of beer. In the course of my inside socializing, I joined a conversation in progress with the Minister of Labour and gathered a little better understanding of the sugar cane farmer's strike which had recently occurred, during the course of my dialogue with the Minister. When he learned that I was a lawyer by trade, a couple of the board members began teasing me in spanish (all in good fun) that lawyer equals "liar." Fortunately, despite my very limited spanish vocabulary, I do know the spanish words for "lawyer" and "liar" and could properly defend myself and my profession.

The moving of the office after the inauguration was quite a chore. The managing director took off for a 3-week vacation immediately following the inauguration and a much of the moving decisions had to be made by the board member and I who handled the move. It was certainly work worth doing however because the new office is a significant upgrade over the offices that we vacated. For example, in the new office, the floors are decently tiled, there are no holes in the walls (except those which had to made to run conduit), one can see the outside world through windows at several vantage points inside of the building, it is clean and freshly painted and it has no rats. (Anyone who may have read my prior entries, may recall that I was visited by a very large rat one night at the old office.) In additional to moving the office, my assistance was solicited in putting together a set of draft office procedures, personnel policies and a protocol defining the role, responsibilities and authority of the manging director. I also was enlisted to be part of the interviewing team meeting with candidates for the position of training officer at NAVCO.

During the months that followed, I was kept quite busy working up a final draft of a set of regulations to govern the collection of liquor license fees, and amendments to the Village Council Act and two sets of regulations which govern respectively NAVCO and the District Association of Village Councils ("DAVCO"). I also facilitated a full day retreat for the board members at which time a review of a number of the existing laws and regulations was undertaken and discussions held about needed reformation of those laws and regulations. Finally, I began working with a lawyer from the Solicitor General's office to assist her in addressing a lawsuit which had been filed against the Minister of Labour, Local Government & Rural Development ("Minister" or "Ministry") and against NAVCO. In the midst of these several projects, the CEO of the Ministry proposed that NAVCO and the Ministry hold a 2-day retreat to jointly address a review of the two organization's respective roles and responsibilities and to effectively establish a strong working relationship. I participated in the workshop and was designated as one of the NAVCO members of the Task Force, created as a result of the workshop, to spear head design and implementation of changes discussed during the retreat. Not too long after this 2-day retreat, the working group which had been set up to develop a national decentralization plan for local government completed its draft plan and held a series of meetings/consultations with NAVCO. I also was enlisted to participate in these events and facilitated soliciting and passing along feedback from the board following the events. The national plan was finalized before I left and is due to be submitted to the Ministry and the Cabinet for consideration and adoption. The plan, if adopted by central government, will expand significantly the role of local government in Belize.

The comments offered above attempt to offer a flavor of the changes that are taking place in Belize. It was an interesting time to be working with NAVCO and I felt honored as well to have been given the opportunity to interface directly with the Ministry as well. I felt like I was able to provide more concrete assistance to NAVCO in the last six months, than in the entire 1 1/2 prior years that I worked with the organization.

Rest assured that I did manage to work in some play time during this final period in Belize. I spent just over a week in Guatemala at several villages bordering Lake Atitlan during the Easter holiday. My older daughter and her son met me in Guatemala City and we traveled together to Lake Atitlan. Our first stop was the small town of Santiago. We stayed at a charming resort just outside of the town of Santiago which overlooked the Lake. The grounds of the resort and the surrounding countryside were lovely and the Easter season was a fascinating time to spend in that area. Lake Atitlan is relatively large and several villages/towns are located on its shores. The surrounding land is quite mountainous; the lake is encircled by volcanoes. The local Easter celebrations are picturesque and give insight into the local culture. Prior to Easter, the inhabitants of Santiago initiate a long followed ritual for preparing engaged couples for married life. The young men are instructed by older men and the young women by the older women. The couples are required to perform various tasks over a several month period under the guidance of the older married inhabitants. The rituals include processions and ceremonies, and the participants all dress in the traditional clothing, which is quite colorful. Many of the fabrics are hand woven and the blouses worn by the women and the pants worn by the men beautifully embroidered. In addition to this ritual, there are various religious events/processions related directly to celebration of Easter which intertwine indigenous religious practices and beliefs with Christian practices. For example, a "god" known as Maximon plays an important role in the Easter rituals. He is a folk "god" or revered figure who is housed each year for one entire year with a specific family The family housing Maximon sets up a location for him within their house for him - he is made visible via a wooden mask for a face and a body composed of undetermined materials on which the householders drape articles of clothing. The area in which he is kept in the family home also contains statues of Christian saints such as John the Baptist. Clothes are donated by the inhabitants which the family uses to dress Maximon and the statues. The people of the village come to pay homage to Maximon throughout the year and ask for his help in curing illnesses and combating other problems. The visitors leave gifts for him, generally money, tobacco and alcohol. Before Easter, all of the clothes which Maximon has worn over the past year are carried via an evening procession to the lake to be washed by candlelight. After Easter he is moved to a new "home" with a new family.

For the Easter celebration, square arches are erected along the main streets and draped with branches and flowers. Also, the residents dye sand and collect pine needles and flowers which are used to create lovely street murals. I left the area on Good Friday and was able to take a few pictures of these murals which I will post on the blog.

After staying at the resort in Santiago for a few days (the resort could not accomodate for the entire vacation period), we moved to another resort across the lake at a small village called Santa Cruz. The resort was interesting, not quite as well appointed as the first resort, but pleasant. It served dinner every night family style which gave us the opportunity to meet and talk with a several other guests at the resort. The first night we chatted with a couple living in Honduras, both teachers by trade, and teaching at a village school as volunteers. The second night we interfaced with another couple also volunteering in Honduras. The second couple lived in a different part of Honduras, the wife was teaching and the husband (who designed computer games at his job in the states) was studying Spanish and doing ad hoc volunteering as the opportunity arose. It was very interesting to compare their Honduras experiences with my Belize experience and to also compare and contrast these two countries with Guatemala. It was a relaxing vacation and we also had time to admire the crafts in the market and make some purchases. The Guatemalans are wonderful artisans; in particular, I am partial to their weaving and their embroidery. I must add that the cost of the vacation was nice as well. Guatemala is far cheaper than Belize.

The last couple of months in Belize were very satisfying. Not only was the work interesting, but the people that I worked and played with were so very hospitable, friendly and appreciative of the work that I was doing. During the last few weeks, I had quite a busy social calendar as different groups had me for dinner, had going away get togethers for me and had me attend events in their Districts. During this final period, I was also working on selling off all of my household goods in anticipation of vacating the house which I occupied in Belmopan. Housing units in Belize often do not come furnished which then requires acquisition of not only a bed, a chair, kitchen equipment and the like but also a stove, refrigerator, gas tank to fuel the stove, and a washing machine. Fortunately, it was not difficult to find buyers and one of my Belizean friends was kind enough to let me stay with her and her son for the last week or so until I left Belize. This saved me from sitting in a nearly empty house for a few days without ability to cook or store food until I left or, in the alternative, trying to orchestrate the picking up of most of the essential living items the evening before I flew out.

Just a few weeks before I left Belize, one of the NAVCO Board members (who is also the President of DAVCO in the Orange Walk District and the Village Chairperson of San Estevan Village invited me to come up for a weekend in his area both to attend the Orange Walk DAVCO's Annual General Meeting and to stay the weekend with his family in San Estevan. I had stayed at his house once before, meeting his wife, his two sons and his in-laws. This time I met his relatively new baby daughter Anjeli for the first time. What a wonderful weekend it was. At the AGM, this gentleman surprised me by delivering a tribute to me and the work that I had done for Orange Walk DAVCO and NAVCO over the course of two years. He then called me up to offer some parting words to the attendees. I came a bit close to choking up. The weekend that followed was so very much fun. Fidelmar and his wife introduced to many of the villagers during a pleasant walk around the village on Friday night. On Saturday, following the Annual General Meeting, a number of the Board Members and representatives from the Ministry gathered for conversation and beers, and then Fidelmar and his family, accompanied by one other board member took me to Progresso (a village in Belize) for an evening swim in the lagoon. The next day, Sunday, we took off for a trip to Chetumal, Mexico, which included a little shopping at the mall, swimming in the Caribbean and a movie that night. We finished up the night eating tortas from a vendor in Chetumal and didn't get back to San Estevan until about 1 in the morning.

The Cayo DAVCO had me give a presentation at their Annual General Meeting and then several of the NAVCO board members and staff members took me out for a party at a local restuarant that afternoon following the meeting. NAVCO also gave me a collection of wonderful presents by which to remember Belize, including a Belize map, t-shirts, a wooden coat rack containing a carving of the Toucan, and an embroidered beach bag.

In sum, I made many wonderful friends in Belize who may me feel like family and who were a pleasure to work with. I hope that some of them may visit me in the United States one of these days.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I'm Back!

Hope that all who may read this update had a wonderful holiday. I must say that I had a spectacular trip back to Chicago. What a great city and what a wonderful time to return (save for a spot of frigid weather during my stay). The trek to and from Chicago was a bit long and tiresome but well worth the effort.

My travel itinerary was not exactly direct. I opted to fly out of Cancun which entailed experiencing a series of buses, cabs and shuttles which slowly transported me from Belize to Cancun. A short synopsis of the route will illustrate the process. First, one climbs onto a bus in Belmopan for an hour and a half ride to Belize City. I may have described the buses before, but let me recap. Most Belize buses appear to be about 30 or more years old. They are like school buses from an earlier era in the US. Often the seats or torn, the aisles are narrow, typically there is no overhead space and two or three of the center seats have a large bump on the floor where the engine (or some mechanism) sits higher than floor height. Luggage is taken to the back of the bus and piled up in a heap behind the last row of seats.

So, to return to my itinerary, after arriving in Belize, I next boarded a bus to Chetumal, Mexico. This ride takes about 5 hours. When arriving at the Belize/Mexico border, all passengers are required to alight from the bus and go through immigration. At that point Belize collects from US and other foreigners an exit tax of $37.50 Belize (or thereabouts). I was the only non-Belizean on the bus and had to explain to the person in immigration that I was a US citizen, but living in Belize for 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer. This seemed to confuse the individual for a moment, but I did get cleared, albeit a little later than the Belizeans who were in a separate line and who sailed through the process.

Next, everyone reboards the bus and the bus makes its away across a bridge and enters Mexico. On the Mexican side of the border, all passengers must again alight, but this time with all luggage/ packages/belongings. (This actually turned out to be a good thing, as I explain.) The Belizeans go to one side of the little border house and Americans go to the other side. Again, I was the only non-Belizean and of course my forms took longer to complete and were in Spanish. Also, the Mexican official decided to leave his post while I was completing the form and did not come back right away. As a result, the bus left me behind as it had to maintain its schedule. Fortunately, I was traveling with two Belizean friends who had kindly waited for me at the window while I was dealing with forms. We grabbed a taxicab, which fortunately accepted Belizean currency, and traveled into Chetumal, about a 15-20 minute cab ride.

It was quite amazing to see paved boulevards and shopping malls, a sight not experienced for a year and a half. Since I began my travels the day before my flight from Cancun to Chicago and had opted to take an overnight bus from Chetumal to Cancun, I stored my bags at the bus station and hung out with my friends at the mall. This mall even had a movie theatre with features in English with Spanish sub-titles! After my friends left to return to Belize, I took in a movie (Red de Meintras i.e. Body of Lies) before making my way back to the ADO bus station, the transit to Cancun. I boarded the bus at 10:30 pm, a real "luxury" coach bus with padded, recliner seats and a toilet, etc. This bus trek took 6 hours and landed me in Cancun at 4:30 a.m. The only complaint - the bus was like a refrigerator. The air-conditioning was turned so high I was shivering throughout the trip despite wearing a short-sleeved top, two long sleeved light pullovers and a light fleece hooded jacket. Need I say, that I got little sleep. The remainder of the trip was relatively routine. The trip to the airport was short, but the check in counter at the airport did not open for several hours and my flight did not leave until about 2:30 in the afternoon. However, I saved over $400 by flying for Cancun rather than from Belize.

It was so exciting to arrive in Chicago, about 9:30 that night. The weather was rather cold but there no wind and there was light snow on the ground. My lovely daughter had arranged it so that all I needed to do, once I found out the exit door where the car was waiting, was to make a quick dash to the vehicle and jump into warmth. We sorted out coats and winter clothes for me to wear after I arrived at her house as I have no winter duds in Belize. My house is rented and my winter clothes etc. are all in a storage area.

I had a great experience in Chicago. I visited family, saw friends, went to movies, went to a great wine bar which was featuring live music, a ska reggae band that night, hung out a bit in Long Grove (which is north of Chicago and has lots of quaint houses, antiques and great food and other specialty shops), cooked and baked, went grocery shopping at Trader Joes and Whole Foods (my two favorite grocery stores), when to the Art Institute and saw a great antique Tapestry exhibit, etc. I could bore you with a recounting of each and every excursion, but you get the idea. The weather was perfect for Christmas - a bit snowy but not too frigid. Christmas eve was at my daughter's in-laws house, a lovely 2 story condo on Astor street, and Christmas we spent at my ex-husband's house in a town on the Rock River, about 90 miles west of Chicago. I cooked Christmas dinner and my older grandson helped me with making the pecan and apple pies.

There were only a couple of days that were truly frigid, but we stayed inside for the most part on those days. My daughter was off from work during most of the time and my grandsons were out of school, so we had lots of freedom to get out and about. I also took care of important errands like getting my eyes examined in order to renew my contact lens prescription.

I could list so many things (over and above family and friends) that I miss and experienced during that two and a half weeks. To name just a few: hot baths, hot water from the sinks in the bathroom and kitchen, a car to travel in. driving a car, movie theatres, sushi, thai food; mesclun mix salad greens with avocado, grape tomatoes, and home-made viniagrette dressing; fresh toasted bakery bagels with flavored cream cheese, good crisp french bread dipped in high grade olive oil and herbs, good wine and a Bombay Sapphire martini with a bleu cheese olive. I had to think long and hard about the treats that I would pack to savor here and which would help me through the next 8 months of service. Top on my list was granola from Whole Foods and trail mix from Trader Joes, plus sewing projects, jigsaw puzzles and a new NYT Times Sunday Crossword puzzle book. I still have a great stash of books, which were shipped to me fairly early on during my stint here. I also collected some of my favorite CDs which I packed in one of those CD cases. Unfortunately, the CDs never made it back to Belize. They seem to have been lifted from my back pack during the trip back. All in all, I was lucky, because the loss would have been much greater had my entire backpack been stolen.

The trek from Cancun to Belmopan was again long but relatively uneventful. Because my flight arrived in Cancun in the afternoon, it was not possible to get back to Belmopan in one day. Realizing this in advance, I did have the forsight to arrange to stay at a small hostel in Chetumal overnight. The hostel was very accommodating in emailing me a map and an estimate of the cab fare from the ADO bus station. This was quite helpful, as I arrived in Chetumal at about 11 p.m at night. I had no problem picking up a cab at the bus station, which has a taxi stand. However, before I had the opportunity to reach a firm agreement with the cab driver about the fare, the attendant at the taxi stand had wisked my luggage into the trunk and the cab driver took off. I had to haggle with the cab driver to turn on his light so that I could check the address of the hostel and negotiate a fare and also ultimately had to forcefully insist upon him stopping the cab to accomplish this. He had managed to go about 2 blocks or so before we were able to have the discussion about fare. Once I gave him the addiress, he insisted that he would only take me to the hostel for $12 US whereas the hostel had clearly stated the fare should run around 12 pesos. He was adamant, but I was more so and he wound up taking my bag out of the trunk and leaving me along side the roadway. Fortunately there were other cabs in the vicinity one of whom stopped for me and took me to my distination for a price only slightly more than what the hostel had quoted.

I arrived back in Belmopan around 1:00 in the afternoon the next day and went directly to the shower, dumped the duds that I had lived in for 2 days, washed off the travel grime and put on fresh clothes. It felt wonderful to be moving around rather than sitting for hours. I hopped on my bike and rode over to NAVCO since my day back was Monday, a work day. I arrived at NAVCO to learn that there had been a break in there over the weekend. Some things were taken, including a laptop and a camera, but the loss was not too awful. However, all the locks had to be changed.

I am now back into the routine in Belize and life has been fairly busy. I went to Dangriga and to Seine Bight a couple of weekends ago, on Saturday to Dangriga to attend a District Assn. Board meeting which was postponed at the last minute, and a little later that day to Seine Bight to spend the remainder of the day and overnight wtih a couple of Peace Corps friends.

At NAVCO, there are lots of meetings and preparation for inauguration of a new building which NAVCO will move into on February 13. Also, the Decentralization Project (described in prior posts) in Belize continues to move forward which will involve meetings, etc.
I suspect that the remaining months here in Belize will go by quite quickly.

I will try to be more diligent in updating my blog in the remaining months. Also, I promise to post a few pictures in the next few days which give a bit of a view of Christmas in Chicago. Finally, I hope all of you who read this update are managing to ride through the financial turmoil which is impacting much of the world.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

An Update Before I Celebrate the Holidays

I appreciate friends who have noted the lack of updates since August and asked "what's happening?" The short answer is quite a bit has happened over the last few months in Belize and the following gives a recap.

I believe that last update I ended my recounting my "flying adventure", the trip on the small local plane to Placencia followed by a weekend visit to Hopkins Village to visit my friend and fellow Peace Corps colleague. Just a few short weeks following that visit a received a strange phone call followed by news that my friend had died. The death of someone you care about is always upsetting, but it was a exacerbated by a series of circumstances. I received a telephone call on my cell phone on a Monday, while at NAVCO. My friend's number was saved in my phone and her name popped up when the phone rang. However, the voice that responded when I said "Hi Bertie" was male. I ultimately extracted from the caller that he had found the phone on the beach in Hopkins and I urged him to return the phone to the school where my friend volunteered. The next day, around noon, I received a call from another volunteer at around noon advising that she had been instructed by the Peace Corps to call all of the volunteers in the Cayo District to notify them that a Peace Corps volunteer had died and that there had been some reports on the news. When I asked her for details, she said that she had none (not even what exactly might have been broadcast on the radio) but the Peace Corps was instructing us not to talk with anyone. A couple of hours later, I received a call from a Peace Corps staff member advising me that the volunteer who had died was in fact my friend Bertie, that the nurse and security officer at Peace Corps had gone to Hopkins to investigate and had preliminarily determined that the death was natural causes and that the Peace Corps had picked up another friend/volunteer from the nearby village of Seine Bight who was being driven to Belmopan and had asked to stay at my house. I was not able to get any further details from Peace Corps at that time. My friend from Seine Bight arrived a bit later. She had heard from a call from one of her acquaintances in her village that the radio reported that a Peace Corps volunteer in Hopkins had been found dead that morning in her house possibly sexually assaulted and murdered. The Peace Corps had provided her with no further information other than they believed she had died of natural causes but an autopsy would be performed on Wednesday. They had also advised her that it was believed that Bertie had died on Friday night or Saturday morning, but her body had not been discovered until Tuesday morning when the school reported that she had not arrived for work. Needless to say my friend Mary and I agonized until Friday, when the Peace Corps scheduled a meeting to disclose the results of the autopsy. We imagined all manner of horrible scenarios and the limited facts that we had about the scene - only that the police had to break down her door and that she was found partially clothed. We were very saddened but relieved finally on Friday to receive an account of the autopsy results along with impressions and evidence collected at the scene that reinforced the autopsy conclusion that death was due to natural causes, possibly an aneurysm or stroke. There was a lovely Memorial Service held in Hopkins weeks after the death in which the library which Bertie had worked to establish was renamed in her honor. Bertie's daughter has indicated that she may visit Belize around April of next year and I am hopeful that I will get the opportunity to meet her. Bertie talked quite a bit about her daughter and was close to her.

The last few months have not been consumed by bad news. My sister from Mississippi came for a short visit during this period and we had a great time. I had been a little concerned because my sister is not one to like "roughing it". She is a travel agent by trade and has visited many parts of the world. Pat was a trouper. She stayed at my little house and slept on a mattress on the floor. We had some great talks because we had not seen each other in quite a while. We had a fun dinner with one of my friends in San Ignacio. And, we went zip-lining. For the uninitiated, zip lining is an activity where you climb up onto a platform built around a tree in the bush/jungle. The platform is one of several placed at intervals in the jungle with each platform connected by cable wires. You are strapped into a light harness and "zip" from platform to platform along the cable wires. It is a bit like playing monkey in the tree tops and it was great fun. At the end, the operators lower you down via a pulley system.

The zip-lining is the only adventure to report during this time period. In terms of weather, Belize has had quite a bit of rain over this period. The bad news is that the rain caused more flooding in several areas which has caused bridge outages, livestock and crop damage and homes partially or nearly totally under water in a few areas. I went out one day with a couple of the board members to look over some of the damage. We drove up to a point in the roadway where the water had covered the roadway and canoed a short way out to a Belize coast guard boat (along with several people from government agencies). We climbed aboard the boat via a ladder propped in the water and did a tour of some areas in which only a few roof tops and tree tops were visible and stopped to walk thru a village on higher ground that was running out of food and water because it was cut off due to the surrounding water. The waters have receded and the rain has abated somewhat. The good news is that the weather has gotten cooler than I have ever before experienced in Belize over the last 3-4 weeks, I actually sleep under a blanket sometimes (rather than giving thought to whether I will run the fan). It is often cool in the morning until about 10 (often requiring a long sleeve shirt and sometimes even a light sweater) and tends to cool off again around 5 or so when the sun starts setting. The days frequently warm back up to the 80s (better than the 90s and low 100s that were were experiencing) and there have been a vew wonderful days where it is has stayed somewhat cool all day long.

In September, NAVCO where I generally spend 3-4 days a week, had its Annual General Meeting and elected a new Board President. The government of Belize has initiated a Decentralization Program whereby it is conducting studies and holding workshops to address to addres "strenghthening" local government. Basically, the focus is to look at what governmental powers can be shared with local governments. The Caribbean organization of countries is also addressing decentralization. The good news is these initiatives fit in rather well with the review and potential updating of laws which I have been helping the Board undertake. I am continuing to talk to various people about organizational structures, laws and regulations and I was allowed to participate in a 2 day Decentralization Workshop that was held in Belize City at the end of November.

Now, I am getting ready to make a trip back to Chicago for the holidays. This will be my first trip back to the States since arriving in Belize in June of 2007 and I am very excited to see my home town again. It is also exciting going back to the hometown of our President elect who will hopefully help to lead us through these tough economic times. Finally, I am even looking forward to cold weather and perhaps a bit of snow. So, I am signing off for now. Warm holiday wishes to all who read this blog. More updates in the New Year.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Labels for photos

I confess that I managed to mess up the photo posting process and erased the labels that I had placed on the first four pictures that I uploaded. The lowest picture is a view in Corazon Creek of the local store and house. Most of the houses have thatched roofs similar to what you see in the picture. The second picture shows a few of the resident animals in Corazon Creek Village. The third picture is the thatched roof covered area on the side of the school where the chess club camp was held. The group is working on the flag that the members made for the Chess club. The fourth picture shows the entrance to Barton Creek cave, which one can canoe through. I didn't get to explore the cave during the brief visit there, but maybe next time.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Update Since Vacation

I have no adventures, in the conventional sense, to report since my family returned to the states. I have traveled around the country a bit, but primarily in connection with my site activities.

Having now spent in excess of a year here, I can affirm that there is truly a rainy season here which typically lasts from around May or June through November. I was fooled last summer because the rains were not heavy over the summer and, in Armenia, where I stayed for several weeks, they actually experienced a drought. That was the period of time during which, as some of you may recall, the family hauled water from the river for baths, etc. and we washed clothes in the river. Well around the first part of June of this year the rainy season hit. During the first heavy onset, I believe that it rained for about 7 or 8 days straight, almost constantly and often a soaking downfall. The country has also experienced flooding a few times during this period, the most serious bout washed out a bridge on the highway south of Dangriga. For about a week, there was no road traffic beyond the bridge going down to the Toledo area and similarly no road traffic going north. A temporary bridge was put in place which eased the situation. That bridge was put out of commission during a subsequent rain fall but was quickly restored to working order. A few of the Peace Corps volunteers living in the South who happened to be in Belmopan during the bridge wash away were ultimately flown back to their area. More rain has come and continues intermittently. Fortunately at this point, much of the rainfall in this area happens at night. I very much appreciate that because riding a bike in heavy rain or immediately following substantial rain is not particularly fun. One tends to get very wet and muddy even with a rain jacket as it is impossible to avoid puddles of water. Thus one experiences healthy splashes of muddy water during the ride and needs to dry out slowly and clean up after arriving at one's destination.

The Southern part of Belize, I have come to learn is much more affected by the rains then the Belmopan area, as I will explain when I move on to talk about some of my trips. Before leaving the subject of weather, let me just tell you that it is hot here, hot almost all of the time, day and night. Thank goodness for my little fan as I use it every night. The rain often only serves to exacerbate the heat. If it rains during the day and the sun comes out following it, the earth becomes like a giant steam bath. I am reconciled to bad hair days everyday for awhile.

On to what I have been up to over the last 3 months or so. With respect to NAVCO, I am still working on researching and drafting amendments to statutes and regulations. It is a slow process and entails Legal Advisory Committee meetings and Board meetings as everyone weighs in and another round of revisions are needed. The activity in this regard should soon become more intense because there are currently Decentralization Projects happening, one sponsored by the Government of Belize and one by CALGA which is a Caribbean Assn. of Local Governments. You might ask what is "decentralization". It is an examination of governmental structures to give consideration to what authority and responsibility can be passed down to local government authorities and how those governmental entities can be strengthened. It entails in the process reviewing existing laws and regulations and considering changes or new provisions. There are many groups and constituencies involved in these projects. Thus far, I have only had the opportunity to read some of the reports, but with a little luck I am hoping to attend (as an observer) some of the meetings.

The activity thus far has come in ebbs and flows and, in the interim, I have tagged only with the Training officer at NAVCO to assist in some basic bookkeeping training with groups of village council members. I have found it pretty cool to meet and talk with village councils and hear about life in their villages and some of their economic and other hurdles which they confront. Travel is quite challenging here, especially to a number of the more remote villages that do not have direct access to paved roads. In the process of this training, I have spent a little time in all of the 6 districts, mostly at community centers where the trainings were held. The people that I have met have been very friendly and very appreciative of the training. Fortunately for me, language has not been too much of a barrier. Many of the attendees spoke some English even if they had some difficulty reading and writing in English. Even when language was a bit of a barrier, often others in attendance could help interpret. The sessions were all conducted in English, which is the official language in Belize.

I also continue to spend time regularly at the Institute of Archaeology. The Institute held its annual Symposium this summer in Belize City and I was able to attend one of the sessions. The Symposium draws attendees from other countries and had an impressive group of archaeologists who gave presentations on their activities and papers. Belize is quite a hub for Mayan archaeological research. Having spent time reading about excavation of caves and findings as part of my work at the Institute (coupled with a little reading of my own on the side), I actually could appreciate some of the presentations. Recently, I have moved on to studying antique bottles. The Institute has a collection of a little over 100 bottles that have been recovered in various areas in the country. Some of the bottles, as confirmed by my readings, appear to be quite old, as in earlier than the 19th century. I've actually found the history of glass making to be fascinating and feel pleased to have some clue of what I am seeing while looking for lines created by molds (which have been used for quite a long time as compared to free form blown glass) and "pontil" marks, etc. Anyway, I am still reading up on the subject as there are a number of web sites on the topic, in addition to the books at the Institute. I have started sorting bottles by size, color and characteristics, and measuring and cataloguing the bottles. Lest you think that I have spent all of my time at the Institute buried in books and artifacts, I did undertake a day road trip with one of the staff at the Institute recently. Several of the staff regularly visit the sites to check out conditions, interface with the workers who safeguard and maintain the sites, etc. I tailed along with Wayne one Friday and got to rather quickly see Barton Creek (a stream and cave site), El Pilar (a Mayan excavation), and a couple of other sites that I had already visited. We also stopped at Caracol, a very large Mayan site that had warred with, and at one point, conquered Tikal during the first century AD. Unfortunately, I was only able to quickly walk around and climb around 2 of the 5 plazas at Caracol because the day was quite busy for Wayne. However, he has said that I can plan to go back to Caracol one Friday, stay the weekend with the rangers who are stationed there, and he will retrieve me when he returns to the site the following Monday. How exciting is that! I can explore Caracol at my leisure over a whole weekend.

I have done a few other things over this period, just for fun. For one, I went down to the Toledo area to help one of the Peace Corps volunteers living in Corazon Creek (a little Maya village of about 165 people) conduct a chess club for some of the children in the village. Chess is very big in Belize. Many of the students are learning chess and tournaments are often held. The trip was an adventure. I left very early on a Friday morning by bus from Belmopan. Fortunately, I caught an express bus which left around 6:45 or 7 a.m and arrived in Punta Gorda around 11:15 or a bit later. I then had to locate my friend Rob at the Snack Shop in PG and go with him to catch a bus to his village which left at 12. We met up, gathered all of the supplies which he had purchased for the weekend, and wandered over to the bus, for another projected 2 1/2 hour ride. Before continuing let me take just a moment to describe the typical bus here. It is an old school bus, most of them date back to the 1980s or so, with torn vinyl seats, windows that open from the top down and no air conditioning or fans. Often the buses are crowded, because this is the primary mode of transportation for a majority of people in the country. So getting back to the bus ride, we moved along quite well until we reached Blue Creek (yes, an actual Creek, or perhaps stream would be more accurate). I was sitting next to a very interesting lady who works as a nurse in Corazon Creek village. At Blue Creek we stopped (along with several other buses) because the water had covered the roadway and it was too high for the bus to pass. There were a few houses on our side of the Creek and the village of Blue Creek on the other side.

We spent maybe 1 1/2 hours or more killing time waiting for the water to recede a bit, which it did. One of the houses was kind enough to let people like me use the toilet facilities, an outhouse. Then, when the water got to a level that would not encroach on the engine area, the buses reloaded and started their journey across. I am told that the person in the front of the bus can make out the lines of the roadway and thus stay on the bridge while traveling through the water. This must be true as the buses made the trek across without incident and we were traveling toward our destination once again. We arrived in Corazon Creek sometime after 4 that afternoon. It is a lovely village and the people were delightful. Rob lives in a little one room house made of concrete blocks, a structure which had been started and which he finished constructing himself with help. He has a stove top with a couple of burners powered by butane which he cooks on, a hammock, a wooden single bed frame with a foam mattress and a desk. For light he uses an oil lantern and one of the battery powered head lamps, and candles. The village has no electricity except some of the houses have solar panels which run a few electrical things, primarily radios, a few TVs with DVD players. There are no television signals in the village nor are there cell phone signals. The one small store has a generator which provides refrigeration for a few items that it sells. No of the households have refrigeration. The village has one community phone. Many of the houses have thatched roofs.

The chess camp was great fun, but humbling. I have never played chess with any degree of regularity and have played only a few times with my grandsons in the last 5 years or so. Some of the kids were quite good, and I had to work hard to be able to end the game in a stalemate. I learned a few words of Kekchi as well and they appreciated my efforts and laughed at some of my pronunciations. It was a little daunting the one night that I needed to get up during the middle of the night to use the facilities, which were located across the road and a grassy area and at the back of the school. Fortunately, I had the headlamp to help guide the way, but it was really dark. As I was crossing the road, I spied a couple of very shiny eyes looking my way and realized soon that it was one of the horses that lives in the village.

The plan was that I was to leave the village on Monday morning. The one bus that services the village comes at 3:30 am on Mondays, Wednedays, Fridays and Saturdays. The weather had other plans for me. The rains started around 5 pm on Sunday and continued to pelt the area until early the next morning. As a result, no buses could operate because, the rivers and creeks had swelled again making the road impassable for the buses. Thus, I got an extended stay until Wednesday and notified the Peace Corps and NAVCO that I was safe but stranded. The added days gave me the opportunity to once more experience clothes washing (and bathing) in the river. Washing in the river is a way of life in this village. Fortunately, the river (Creek) by this village does not have a rocky bottom and I managed to maintain my footing while toting the clothes to and from the rocks that we used for washing. I did get a rather nasty sun burn on my back in the process, but it healed in a few days. And, I made the trek back to Belmopan with no glitches on Wednesday. I will be posting a few pictures of the village.

I have had two additional fun excursions to report. My friend Jan from San Ignacio stopped by one Sunday and we went for a hike in Guanacaste Park, a wooded area only about 3 miles from my house. She had her car, so we did not have to bike ride or bus it to the Park. The mosquitos were out in force, due of course to all of the rain, but the bug spray seemed to keep them at bay. The paths were reasonably dry. It was a lovely park and a lovely 2 hour hike. The Guanacaste Tree is a very large and quite impressive tree. A major part of the oldest one had unfortunately fallen but a younger version will hopefully grow to the same heights eventually and there was other interesting flora and fauna to look at along the hike as well as a body of water.

Just 2 weeks ago, I went to Placencia for a 2 day workshop put on by an environmental group, Friends of Nature. NAVCO decided they wanted a representative there and I got to be the rep. The best part of the trip was the travel to Placencia on a little 6 seater air plane. Two airlines operate the small planes which fly on short intra-country hops. I adore flying in small airplanes and the view of the coast from the plane was spectacular. I got to sit directly behind the pilot and watch the dials. It was a short 35 minute flight. From Placencia, I went to Hopkins to visit another Peace Corp volunteer. I totally lucked out and got a ride from Placencia to Hopkins rather than having to ride a bus. A very interesting gentleman, an Argentinian who lives and works in Belize and is an electrical engineer, stopped an offered me a ride as he was traveling to Hopkins as part of his job. Not only was the ride more comfortable, but the conversation was good as well.

Hopkins is an interesting little village of about 700 along the seacoast. Much of the population is Garifuna and there is a place where they make drums in the village. Another Peace Corps volunteer who works in San Pedro also came for the visit and we spent quite a bit of time just walking around eating, talking and drinking a little beer and wine. Wine tends to be rather expensive with very little selection, but Hopkins has a few more foreigners than many of the villages and few resorts, so the selection was a little better and we splurged a bit.

Other than the activities and outings described above, I manage to keep myself busy when at home with reading, sewing projects and jig saw puzzles. I am quite proud of myself in reviving some of my little practiced knitting skills. I have almost finished a knitted Christmas stocking, my fist time ever knitting in the round with 3 needles. I got a little help in figuring out how to shape the heel from friends. I also started a second knitting project, a open weave beach coverup. As for reading, it is so great to have a good selection of books which were shipped to me from Chicago, and to have the time to focus. I alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Three of the last several books which I have read that I am currently avidly promoting are: (1) The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan which recounts the true story of a friendship that developed between a Palestinian and an Israeli. The Palestinian first meets the Israeli just after the 1967 war when he returns to his town to try to visit the home which he and his family occupied up to 1948. He meets the daughter of the family occupying the house and the meeting blossoms into a friendship between the families. The story gives an amazing account of the events from 1947 as well as the Palestinian and Israeli prospective regarding key events. (2) Vol. II of the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by Blanche Wiesen Cook. I became slightly exhausted just reading about all of Eleanor Roosevelt's causes and activities during Franklin Roosevelt's first term in office and thru his first re-election. I have now adopted Eleanor's term "Griselda" moods, by which she described her crabby frustrated periods, as a short hand for my own down times. (3) Zorro by Isabel Allende. A fun, well written adventure story.

This brings you up to date. This fall may be interesting as a whole new group of Peace Corps trainees/volunteers arrive August 20. I have served as a pen pal to 3 of them. Until next time.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Tobacco Caye

One of the fun things about Tobacco Caye is the bird watching and snorkeling that can be done right there. The pictures include a shot of the Reefs End Lodge "club house" , where meals are served, the bar is located and tables for playing cards, games etc in between meals. The deck is a great place for watching birds and sea life. Also, is a snapshot of one of the "cabanas" that we occupied while there. The last shows a couple of pelicans who came around every night. Unfortunately the picture is dark and does not do justice to them; but, the sea birds were magnificent to watch as were the four giant sting rays that visited every evening.

Another Trip to Lamanai

The first two pictures are of the High Temple, with the second giving a bit of perspective regarding the height. We all climbed up to the top. My younger grandson made it about 3/4s of the way the first day, but decided he was going all the way the next day. As a result, I got to make 2 trips up to the top during this last visit. A great workout! The last picture is of a dead snake found by the boys. Rest assured that you would not be seeing this picture if the snake had still been alive, as I would never have gotten this close to a live snake.

More Xunantunich and Spanish Lookout

The top picture is an overview of Xunantunich which I visited again with my family. The second picture show Rudolfo, our guide during horse backing riding to and from Xunantunich and at the site. He was knowledgeable and generally great to chat with. The next shot is a picture of the horses that we rode. The bottom picture is a car and pedestrian ferry used at Spanish Lookout ( a Mennonite community near St Ignacio) which is similar to the ferry used at Xunantunich - totally manually driven. The operator only allowed the driver in the car during the ride and all passengers had to exit and walk on, ride and walk off the ferry.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My current house

Here are views of the bedroom, living room and kitchen of the house which I rent. It is not nearly as pretty or plush as the house on Sosa, but it is nice to have my own dedicated cooking and leisure space. Life is always a series of trade offs. I am getting quite proficient at cooking with an oven that has no temperature gauge, which I use to feed my Belizean friends' sweet tooths with cookies and breads.

The bedroom I used at my host family home in Belmopan

The house on Sosa Street where I lived until February of this year was quite a lovely house as evidenced by the two pictures from the bedroom, on the second floor, which I occupied.

Belize Zoo at Christmas Time

Picture 1 shows the tapir which is the national animal. The second shows spider monkeys hanging out in the trees. The third photo offers you an example of the hand-written informational signs posted at the various areas throughout the zoo. Fourth you can see Junior, the newest jaguar in the zoo. On a good day, one can spot most of the jaguars that reside at the zoo but they are often up in a tree or otherwise partially hidden and hard to adequately capture in a picture. The last picture shows some of the beautiful macaws.

School trip to Xunantunich

Picture 1 shows the ferry that one rides across the river to access Xunantunich. The second picture shows some of the glyphs (Mayan writing) on the side of the main temple at the site. The third picture is one of the smaller buildings at the site shaded by a bit of foliage.

Garifuna Settlement Day in Dangriga

Picture 1 shows musicians in Garifuna dress. Pitcure 2 shows the decorated boats traveling from the sea down the river. The annual celebration includes a re-enactment of the Garifuna's first arrival in Dangriga by boat. The occupants of the boats are wearing traditional dress.


Picture 1 shows the beach front at Placencia, and picture 2 some of the foliage in the area.

A friend in Belize

This is Sandra, who lives in Santa Marta, where I studied Spanish last summer, with her relative. She had some of us over to her house a number of times while I was living in her village and, on one occasion, made tamales and escabeche. Sandra and her relative came to Belmopan for a Peace Corps workshop in April of this year.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

One important correction to Latest Update

I made one incorrect statement about the Belize House of Representatives. For the record, there are 31 members (not 35) in the House of Representatives. Pictures coming soon. Liz

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A New Update At Last

Apologies for the lag time between my last post on December 30, 2007 and now. My latest four months can be briefly recapped as periods of frustration while waiting for things to happen, things starting to move forward (not always as quickly as I would hope) and a recent fantabulous vacation made possible through visits from my two special daughters and their sons, my three extra-special grandsons.

My last blog update ended with a recounting of Christmas in Belize. It was very quiet over the holiday and I took the opportunity to make a second leisurely visit to the Belize Zoo. If you ever come to Belize, it is not to be missed. Albeit small, it is a fun experience. The setting is tree filled and the animals feel very close and in a natural setting. This time I found all of the jaguars, who can be elusive, and thoroughly enjoyed the holler and spider monkeys. As you may have guessed those are my two favorite type animals at the zoo.

New Year's Eve in Belize was pleasant and sedate. I spent the evening with my host family, Carolyn and Marlon, Miss Jane (Carolyn's mom), Anne and Shay. They all offer excellent company. Marlon had purchased fireworks, as do many people in Belize, and the evening was spent enjoying food, music, good conversation, a bit of New Year's cheer and fireworks. At midnight the fireworks at our house were part of the Sosa Street display of fireworks with contributions by the Sosa Street neighbors. The City of Belmopan set off a few fireworks as well to contribute to the display. When the fireworks subsided, there was visiting with the other neighbors to exchange New Year's good wishes, hugs included.

Following the holidays normalcy (or more accurately routine) briefly resumed at NAVCO. A board meeting was scheduled to take place in January, the first meeting following NAVCO's election of a new President, which had taken place in December. However, the board meeting never happened because around January 7, the Prime Minister of Belize scheduled national elections. This announcement had been expected as the 5-year term for the Prime Minister and the National Assembly was ending. Belize has a Parliamentary form of government similar to the system in Great Britain whereby the people vote for representatives from their respect districts for the seats in the House of Representatives (a total of 35 seats) and the party obtaining the majority of the seats establishes the government. The Leader of the winning party becomes the Prime Minister and he and his party appoint the various Government Ministers and some of the members of the Senate (which is an all appointed body). The Opposition Party also gets to appoint 3 members to the Senate. At any rate, unlike the U.S. which allows campaigning to go on forever, the campaign lasted 30 days and the election was held Thursday, February 7.

During this period, NAVCO was very quiet. The Managing Director took a leave of absence and ran as a candidate for area representative in Benque, which is in the Cayo District of Belize. She ran as part of a slate of candidates offered by one of the independent parties. The two major parties in Belize are the PUP, the government in power when the elections were called, and the UDP, the opposition party. Also, a number of the NAVCO directors were involved in campaigning for their parties of choice and/or their favored representatives. Their campaigning was done in their individual capacities as NAVCO maintains neutrality given its quasi governmental role in representing the rural villages throughout Belize. The campaigning was active, but did not seem as pervasive and consuming as in the U.S. The local newspaper carried a lot of articles and posters were put up around the towns and villages. Also, the parties held rallies and candidates went door to door to meet people and convince them to vote. Radio carried a lot of candidate news, but Belize TV is limited primarily to nightly news programs on two channels. TV is predominately American channels that are part of the cable programming here. The Peace Corps got very nervous about safety, probably influenced by the riots in Kenya and the fact that the rhetoric was a bit heated regarding widespread corruption allegations. Just before the election, the Peace Corps instituted a emergency action plan whereby many of the volunteers were required to travel to Belmopan and all volunteers were ordered to standfast (specifically, to remain indoors beginning the day before the election until notified otherwise by the Peace Corps). The election proceeded without incident and the UDP won 31 of the 35 seats and thereby became the party in power. It was rather interesting to learn Belize's voting method. Voting is by paper ballot, but the safeguards implemented to prevent fraud are pretty extensive. The Carter Center sent election observers and found no evidence of fraud during the voting process. Paper balloting is feasible here because the population of Belize is quite small, about 300,000 residents. The election results were announced the same day, at about 11 p.m. election night.

The day after the election, I finally was able to move into a place of my own (well not quite my own, the house is owned by the Peace Corps and rented to me). That day was a long time in coming, longer than for the vast majority of the Peace Corps volunteers in my group. One of the difficulties in Belmopan is that rents tend to be high and housing is hard to find. The Peace Corps owns several houses and duplex units and I had to wait until one opened up. Originally, I had been led to believe by the Country Director in place last year, that a house would be available around mid December, but upon talking with the Peace Corp volunteer occupying the house, I learned this was not accurate. He advised that he was not leaving the country until January 15. I subsequently got a call from the departing volunteer who apologetically reported that the paperwork in Washington had mistakenly listed him as leaving service at the end of January and he and the Peace Corps officers here had decided that it would be too much trouble to try to correct the date. Hence, he stayed until the end of January. Next, I was advised that the Peace Corps would need a few days to do some cleaning a repair work before I could take possession. This process was slowed down by the influx of new Peace Corps Belize Officers - a new Country Director, Assistant Country Director and Training Officer came in or were going to be coming in during this time. Also, the elections were going on. Due to all of these events, I wasn't able to move until the day after the election, Feb. 8. Fortunately, Carolyn and Marlon were in no hurry to have me move out and have remained friends that I regularly visit since the move.

Moving was a bit of a hassle. My possessions had expanded beyond the two suitcases that I had packed last June 2007. Also, I had to address furnishing my little house. Stove and refrigerator typically do not come with rental units, nor furniture. Fortunately, I was able to arrange to buy a number of these items from the departing Peace Corps volunteer, plus I found other sources for used goods, such as a bed and mattress, a coffee maker (I decided I couldn't leave without fresh brewed coffee), a blender some dishes, drinking utensils, flatware, etc. Since I like to cook and bake and intended to make most of my meals (it is far too expensive to eat out regularly on a Peace Corps stipend, plus there are few restaurant choices here), I bought a few small appliances and baking pans and utensils. At any rate, the items I had acquired, plus miscellaneous books and the like, all had to been transported to the new place. With lots of plastic and paper bags, a few boxes and the help of Carolyn's brother, all my goods were transported to the house that Friday. I also stopped off during the moving process to pick up some linoleum like floor covering for 2 of the rooms to cover up the hideous splotchy, pitted concrete floors in those two rooms.

The house is certainly a step down from my living arrangements at Carolyn's and Marlon's house, but it is nice to be in my own space and regularly do my own cooking. Pictures of my little abode will be posted on this site along with zoo and vacation pictures once I upload the pictures from the camera onto my memory stick or burn a CD. The stove is not exactly what one would call modern. It is powered by a propane gas tank (which ran out a day after I moved in and which I had to then refill). It has 4 burners, a compact oven with one shelf and a oven dial that simply lists notches 1 thru 5, no temperature settings in degree format, and no broiler. The refrigerator is about 3 ft high and the freezer section is about 6" high but only freezes items that sit no higher than half of the freezer height. It has to be defrosted about once every 3 weeks. I bought a washer, and it works fairly well, but is quite different from the automatic washer which I used at Carolyn's house. One has to push the unit into the bathroom, fill the left side of the washer from the shower, set the dial and let it wash, then use the hose to let the water drain into the shower, then refill it to rinse the clothes, and then move the clothes in two batches (because the spinner is compartment smaller than the washer compartment) to the spinner side and then hang the clothes on the line outside to dry. I have a whole new appreciation for the washing routines used in earlier times, but I also keep in mind that this is far easier than washing clothes in the river or scrubbing them by hand in a wash tub on a scrub board. I also keep in mind that I have an in-door toilet and a warm shower. In short, I have nothing to complain about. I also have a few unexpected luxuries for which I can thank Carolyn and Marlon and their niece Ann and my sweet sister-in-law in Connecticut. I have a TV and cable which is needed if you want to actually use your tv (cable runs only $27.50 Belize a month here). Ann had a TV which she had used in her bedroom that didn't work and offered to get it fixed since she had other TVs in her house which they primarily used. I took care of getting it fixed and fortunately it did not require major repairs and borrowing the set for the duration of my stay. My news junky self can now watch CNN (the only cable news channel besides Fox), John Stewart and Bill Maher and catch movies on HBO, Showtime and Starz. Marlon was kind enough to lend me speakers, because the speakers with I had bought from the former occupant of the house died, and my sister-in-law sent my a new replacement disc player when the disc player which I had bought used from the former house occupant also died. Thus, I now have music as well.

Thanks to my sweet daughter and an Belizean shipper living in Los Angeles, I also received two boxes of books which affords me lots of good reading material. I access the Washington Post on line for free and other news sites. And I have space to do jig saw puzzles and needle work to amuse myself when I want to huddle in my little house.

NAVCO and the Institute of Archaeology keep me busy most week days. The NAVCO Board has had a meeting since the election and the Legal Advisory Committee had its first meeting shortly before Easter. The seating of the new government gives lots of opportunity to address legislative and regulatory issues. I am doing a lot of research into how the legislative process works in Belize and have undertaken some preliminary drafting of amendments to existing legislation and regulation related to rural villages. At the Institute of Archaeology, I am helping gather information from their library regarding various caves that have been explored at different times and updating their data base with descriptions and findings in those caves. There are over 300 caves in Belize, many of them used by the Mayans during their history and I am learning a lot about early Mayan life and hope to learn more. I also get easier access to some of the Mayan sites here in Belize. I am helping the Institute a bit but really getting access to some fascinating studies. I also have been asked to study up on antique glass bottles and help them with cataloguing and describing some of the bottles in their collection. I've started preliminary readings on the topic.

The last bit of news to relate is a recounting of my wonderful vacation. My younger daughter Tonya and her boys arrived on Good Friday. I found out that everything shuts down here in Belize and Good Friday and it was quite an adventure making my way by bus to the airport. There were very few buses that day. We picked up a car at the airport and began our adventure on Easter Sunday after introducing them to Belmopan and my humble abode. First, we traveled to San Ignacio and our activities included a horse back riding trek to Xunantunich with a tour of the Mayan site and cave tubing in a series of caves used by the early Maya. Next we set off for Lamanai, another Mayan site, in Orange Walk and stayed at a lovely lodge nearby. We climbed the temples the first afternoon and went back the next morning and saw parrots, toucans and other birds and a set of monkeys that were frolicing in the trees. We also heard a group of wild pigs scurrying and two of them crossed the path ahead of us. Fortunately, they had no interest in us. From Orange Walk we returned to Belmopan and then picked up my older daughter Yvonne and her son from the airport, exchanged the car rental to a slightly bigger car, and took off for Dangriga. In Dangriga, which is south of Belize City we picked up a boat to Tobacca Caye where we spent 4 days and 3 nights. There was snorkeling, swimming and fishing and lots of bird sightings. The pelicans and split tails would come in and roost and feed every afternoon by the Lodge and our cabanas. We also made trips to the zoo and my older daughter, her son and I also went cave tubing on their last full day here. It was sad to see them go, but time for me to get back to work. It was also quite a luxury to have access to a car for a couple of weeks, but alas it is back to biking and riding the bus once again.

That's all for now folks. Hope everyone is doing well out there. Sorry that the winter throughout many parts of the country was very harsh this year, but I must admit I was not sorry to miss this Chicago winter. I will try to be more diligent in future in posting updates and I will post pictures soon. I promise!

Best wishes to all.
Liz in Belize

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas in Belize

Let me first begin by acknowledging that this posting is long overdue. It's hard to believe that I have now lived in Belize for 6 months. Rather than trying to pick up from my last update, I'll start with Christmas and work backwards.

Belize is clearly a year round tropical climate. I have been led to believe that I would experience "cool" weather beginning in December. That is not totally inaccurate, but the "cool" weather has been limited and more often than not accompanied by rain. I believe there has been more rain in December than in any of the prior months, despite the fact that the rainy season was to have ended in November. So, I have learned that cool means temperatures in the 60s which sometimes entails sleeping with a light blanket at night. Daytime generally the temperatures are in the mid to high 80s (as opposed to high 80s and 90s), with the exception of maybe 3 or 4 days, when I have needed to wear a light sweater or jacket during part or perhaps the entire day. I will report back on how "cool" is "cool" in Belize in January and February.

Christmas here in Belize does involve Christmas trees and Christmas decorations (most of the trees and garland are artificial) and gift giving. The traditional Christmas dinner consists of baked turkey, ham, stuffing (stuffing in some Belizean households is a bit like seasoned breadcrumbs with gravy but others serve a Stove Top style of dressing, more in line with US tradition), rice and beans (of course), and potato salad (a mixture of cubed boiled potatoes, canned peas and carrots, and mayonnaise or a light yellowish durkees salad type dressing). Dessert consists of white cake (a plain white cake with no frosting) and black cake (a bit like a fruit cake, but instead of candied fruits, dried fruits are used and the cake may be flavored with a bit of rum). Many businesses shut down throughout much of the holiday, except for grocery stores and hardware stores (which are mostly run by the Chinese). All of the schools closed on December 14 for the holiday and will reopen the first week in January. As in the US, it is a time that families get together. There is not the mass marketing and gift buying frenzy that takes place in the states.

I am continuing to live with a Belizean host family through the end of January. The holiday celebrations began on December 15. At NAVCO, the organization which I work with, all of the board members came into Belmopan for an election, to elect a new president of the board to replace Ms. Sandlin who died September 13. Following the election on Saturday morning, there was a board workshop followed by a Christmas party. A traditional Christmas dinner was served at the party followed by dancing where I received continuing lessons/practice in "punta-ing" - the local dance. It's great exercise. From there, the Peace Corps volunteers (myself and 2 others) went to a second party hosted by the Training Director in Belize who is relocating to a post in Mexico. We actually had wine and vodka, which is definitely a treat considering that Belikin beer and rum are typically the principal alcoholic drink options, at least the only affordable options for local Belizeans and Peace Corps volunteers.

NAVCO was open the week of December 16, but the office was relatively slow and I did not go into the office at all the following week. How decadent is that! Christmas eve I spent in San Ignacio at the home of Maria, who works at NAVCO as a monitoring and evaluation officer. It was a lovely gathering which included her boyfriend Oscar from Costa Rica and two of her friends who also live in Belize. Maria moved here from Spain about 10 years ago, coming first as a volunteer. Her friends, Jan and Stephen, both came to Belize from England through the British international volunteer program (VSO) and have also stayed on after their volunteer stint ended. Oscar worked in Belize for awhile and has returned to his native country, Costa Rica. The dinner was great! Lots of vegetables which are not widely eaten by many Belizeans. I contributed a homemade apple pie and Grandma Roses' Fudge nut cookies (a decadent cookie that I often made at Christmas and periodically for the office). Jan, who is a vegetarian and had heard that I wanted to try to grow herbs in Belize, presented me with cuttings of basil, mint and parsley from her porch garden. Hopefully, these cuttings will help me develop a green thumb and a thriving herb garden. Hope springs eternal. I am determined to demonstrate that I have a green thumb that simply was simply slow to emerge.

Christmas day was spent with my host family (Carolyn and Marlon) and lots of their extended family. Carolyn's sister and her two grandchildren are visiting from Houston and following Christmas dinner there was a steady stream of visitors. The following day was also a holiday, Boxing Day (a holiday which originated in England and is still celebrated there) and more family and friends visited Carolyn and Marlon throughout the day on Wednesday. The family has been so warm and generous. They actually gave me two Christmas presents (a set of cups and sauces and baking pans), things that will be useful in my little Peace Corps rented house, which I hope to move into by February 1.

I'm not yet sure how New Years will be celebrated here in Belmopan, but will soon find out.

I've had a chance to do a little traveling around Belize since my last update. At the end of October I visted Placencia with a couple of my Peace Corps friends. It is located on the coast in the Stann Creek district. We are on the Peace Corps budget and thus are always looking for "bargain" accommodations which we succeeded in finding in this tourist area. Fortunately many of the guest houses have rooms that sleep 3 or more people and we found a very comfortable clean room to share near the beach with three beds that fit our budget. It was nice simply to get away, see something new, walk along the beach, have a yummy dinner (fish and shrimp with fresh steamed vegetables) and breakfast (french toast and coffee) in outdoor restaurants near the water and relax. It was also a way to check out tourist activities such as fishing and sailing excursions, boat trips to some of the cayes to swim and snorkel and an overland excursion to Coxcomb, which reportedly offers a water fall, good hiking and great bird watching. Francis Ford Coppolla owns a resort on the peninsula by Placencia which is reportedly quite plush and beautiful. We didn't get to scope it out. It was not an area readily accessible by local transportation and so I can't offer any first hand experience.

I also went to Dangriga in November to witness the celebration of Garifuna Independence Day. The Garifuna are former slaves who came from the West Indies and settled in Bermuda. They have their own language and use drums and dance in their traditional ceremonies. The celebration included drumming and dancing at a couple of outdoor locations in Dangriga throughout the evening and far into the night followed by an early morning reenactment of the landing of their boats on the Belizean shores in the Dangriga area. A traditional church service was then held in the local Catholic Church near the water front a bit later in the morning with traditional prayers, hymns, more drumming and dancing. Finally, there was a parade in the afternoon (which I missed because I had to catch the bus back to Belmopan). The native Garifuna dress is quite colorful and the drumming was neat.

In the last 6 weeks, I have also visited two more Mayan ruins, Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. Both are near the San Ignacio area. I managed to make the trip by tagging along on a school field trip. Carolyn's (my host family) niece is a primary school teacher and asked if I wanted to help watch over her class. The school children, all around 11 and 12 years old, were well behaved and fun. Fortunately, I was assigned to oversee 4 venturesome boys who were ready willing and able to climb all of the temples and check for caves. I still like Lamenei the best thus far, but my goal is to check out all of the sites while I'm here.

The NAVCO experience is going well. The sudden death of Ms. Sandlin (the Board President) slowed things down a bit. As mentioned at the beginning, a new president was elected on December 15. Prior to that the board had a planning session and created several board committees including a legal advisory committee. As you may have guessed, that is the committee which I will be regularly working with. The board is quite excited that I practiced law in the states. I have made very clear to them that I am not a practicing lawyer at this point and have no training in Belizean law. With that caveat, I am reading lots of statutes and regulations, learning about how the government of Belize functions, undertaking research into activities of local water boards and lots committees. I will be assisting the board in developing a list of Belizean legal counsel and other persons who may be helpful in lobbying for new legislation or changes to existing legislation and regulation. This development has been a pleasant surprise as I had not expected to find that some of my legal education and experiences may be useful here.

Finally, on the cultural front, I am working on sharing food culture with Belize. I have been cooking a bit for my host family. The guys are a bit resistant to vegetables even though cooked fresh and flavored with herbs, but I don't give up easily. The easiest sell is cookies and pies. My honey wheat bread and homemade bagels were well received. I also cooking a bit for my fellow volunteers. I hosted a dinner for several of them borrowing one of my Peace Corps colleague's little kitchen. Peace Corps volunteers are always anxious for a little more variety in their diet. At an All-Volunteer conference held in early December (apparently an annual event), I conducted a cooking class for 22 volunteers - the themes being cooking with herbs and bread baking. We made honey wheat bread and lentil soup and I passed out recipes and herb guides.

That about brings you up to date with my life thus far. You may be asking - where are the photos to document my excursions. Sorry to report, no pictures for now, but I will post more as soon as I get a USB connector for my camera or have enough photos to get a disc made.

May everyone have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2008. Ciao for now.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

More Pictures from Belize

The pictures from bottom to top are: (1) my last host family home in Santa Marta; (2) Ms. Julia and her daughter Yareni (Riccardo wasn't available for a picture that day); (3) swearing in; (4) and (5) a float and marches in the Belize Independence Day Parade; and (6 and (7) Costumed participants in the Carnivale parade.

My Pictures from Belize

The pictures above are yours truly standing atop a building at Altun Ha, next a segment of the river trip to Lamanei, the highest temple at Lamanei (225 ft), and the view from the top of the temple.

Here are a few photos taken during my first two months in Belize. They include pictures of my host family from Armenia and their home and store, and Altun Hai, and Lamanei.

The two pictures on the right are living quarters in the house in Armenia and several family members at Blue Hole and the picture immediately above is the front of the store owned by the family in Armenia

Map of Belize

Map of Belize
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