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.