Two Months

Two Months

13682554_606482239532046_749095496_oIt’s been two months since I left Belize.

Two months. Two full moons. Two cell phone bills. It seems like a decade ago.

Here in New England the leaves are changing. There is a bite in the air each morning. The ocean looks grey, no longer warm and inviting.

In Belize, however, it’s still summer, or at least some version of it. It’s that season where shoes and shirts are optional. The salt air along the coast hangs thick and fans are mandatory for sleeping. It’s always that season in Belize, a perpetual Caribbean waltz where “Go slow” is more than a suggestion. It’s a way of life.

In the Cayo District 100 students are cracking their books. They have names like Chris and Karen and Joshua. They are wearing uniforms, pouring over worksheets, sitting at attention while the teacher talks and then goofing behind her back each time she turns. They are laughing, smiling, passing notes, switching from English to Spanish to Creol as comfortable as dancers, a veritable language cacophony.

And if you listen close each time they switch to English you might notice something: their mastery has grown. They use the language with a slice more confidence than last year, something over the summer made it build, thicken. They are learning to wield it rather than be driven by it. They don’t just know English, they are becoming English speakers.

What happened?

Us. We happened. Me and 30 other volunteers ages 14 to 40 spent two weeks sweating through the Belizean summer to get these 100 Belizean students talking that way. For that two weeks they were sitting at attention for us, and then of course goofing behind our backs. They learned our language and our names, played our games and sang our songs. They made us laugh, and when we left made us cry.

That was two months ago. Today sitting with my cup of hot apple cider in my kitchen watching the autumn wind pull leaves across the lawn it seems much further away than that. It seems like another lifetime, another world, a distant past.

But.

But there is always next summer. There is always another classroom, another 100 students. There is always a roomful of kids excited to sing songs and play. But next time they won’t be strangers. They won’t be students or kids. Next time I will call them friends.


This piece appeared on the blog of Global Service Partnerships, a Boise, Idaho-based nonprofit that runs English literacy programs in Belize.

CDS Column: Reflections Abroad

CDS Column: Reflections Abroad

Belize-1050964“Where are you from?” He was wearing a collared shirt, long pants with suspenders and a wide-brimmed woven hat. I sat next to him, sweating through shorts and a tee shirt in the Belizean heat.

“The U.S.,” I said. “New Hampshire.”

“Where is that? Higher than Pennsylvania?”

“Yes, above Pennsylvania. Near Boston.”

“Does it touch Canada?”

“Yes.”

“Huh,” he said. “Is it cold there?”

He spoke with precision, like he was reading off a script. He addressed me directly, never breaking eye contact. His name was Elias. He was a Mennonite, a Christian sect similar to the Amish common to Belize. We were riding south out of Belmopan, the capital city, in a retired school bus with brown vinyl bench seats and windows that only slid halfway down. I was headed to the Caribbean coast. He was going home.

“It is cold,” I said. “It even snows. But not right now, only in winter.”

“I’ve never seen snow,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it.”

He smiled. He was 24, a farmer and one of 10 children. He lived with his family in central Belize, but he’d visited the United States a handful of times and had dual citizenship. His father left their church in Pennsylvania decades ago in a return to his core beliefs. His American community was using tractors and driving cars, Elias said, slipping towards modernity, so his father and a selection of others moved south, way south. They now farm tomatoes and peppers and corn, he said, in a community of 15 families.

“Did you go to Belizean school?” I asked.

“We have our own schools,” Mennonite academies separate from the national system, he said. “But we only study until eighth grade.” After that, Mennonite children become farmers.

“Do you ever feel like you are missing out? Ever think maybe technology and education and everything might be better?”

His answer was unhurried. “No,” he said. “I’d like to know more geography, to understand the layout of things better, but that’s about it. I don’t follow the world, really. And the pieces I hear about don’t make me want to take greater notice.”

“Explain that,” I said.

“You have an election coming up, right?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, suddenly sullen.

“I don’t know much about it,” he said, “but it seems a mess. I don’t think I want a bigger part of that world.”

The bus lurched. I sat quiet. He had a point.

That’s why I love travel: It’s a mirror, a necessary step back for reflection. Only from a distance can you get a full view of yourself.

As a country, it’s no different — without adequate space it can be impossible to formulate an accurate view of your policy, your politics. Only in leaving can you see more clearly.
Another glimpse came from Karina, a Belizean mother of three. Every morning she sat outside the school. Inside, American high school students ran a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary kids. Karina’s daughter was in the youngest class, made up of kindergarten and first graders. She would bawl inconsolably if Karina wasn’t nearby, so each day Karina sat at the picnic table outside the classroom.

Karina was black. She had grown up in central Belize not far from the school, and for the last two years she’d attended college in America.

“What was it like,” I asked her, “going to the U.S.?”

“It was wonderful,” she said, “but hard.” She wasn’t ready for the racism, she said. As a Belizean she hadn’t developed the thick skin required of a black woman in America. Her culture is multiracial, but it lacks the divisions she encountered in the U.S. Encountering the stinging blows of prejudice as a young adult shocked her. She was unprepared for it. She would cry a lot, she said, and was hurt easily.

“I didn’t expect that,” she said. “I was happy to go to an American university, but it’s really nice to be back.”

These moments give pause. They are brief glimpses into the mirror of ourselves, of the country we have built: A Mennonite man with a middle school education who sees our politics clearly enough to know he wants no part in them. A young mother whose experience with American racism left her in tears. These versions of America grow fuzzy to those of us who live them every day. They seem impossibly entrenched and complex up close. But from abroad they look different. With the benefit of distance they seem both larger, more intertwined in the American fabric, and also smaller, more isolatable, more feasible to face head on.

At home, issues of race and politics seem too overwhelming to be changeable, too thickly American. But from 1,000-mile shores they become remote enough to appear moveable. They seem again to be in our hands, something within American control, within the control of the citizens who make up this country. They are ours to manipulate and eradicate if we chose. Racism is not part and parcel to this nation. The politics of money, fear and limited choice is not an inexorable American parasite that cannot be purged without risking the host. These are momentary glimpses of our country at this moment, they are not what define it.

But to change them, first we have to look in the mirror. First we have to decide if we like what we see.


 

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Belize’s Tired Tourism

Belize’s Tired Tourism

Belize-1050971Storms roll in each morning just after sunrise. The thunderclouds sweep the ocean and crawl up the beach, prolonging the night and laying soak rain across the sand, palm trees, patios and walkways. But it never lasts, the Caribbean sun quickly burns through and turns the air into steam. Placencia summers are sticky and dense.

The town juts out like a thumb, surrounded on three sides by water. It’s a town of sand and ocean breeze and falling coconuts, a Belizean paradise. Pink and yellow cabañas dot the beachfront. A quiet walkway parallels the sea. Shops selling conch shell jewelry abut seafood stands. Placencia is the real thing, the kind of sleepy backwater escape first-worlders dream of.

And so they’ve come. Tucked among the shops and stands and bungalows are restaurants advertising happy hour drink specials, pizzas and ocean views. ReMax realty signs dot empty lots proclaiming the ideal locations for vacation homes. Tour operators bark snorkel excursion and scuba trip information in the streets. Everywhere the signs of a bustling tourist economy call.

But if that bustle marks opportunity, it is growth that leaves Belizeans behind. The realtors are expatriates, as are most restaurant owners, tour operators and even many shop and stand owners. The face in the window may be Belizean, but usually the owner behind them is not.

“They want to own everything,” one Belizean food stand owner told me, “and to tell us what to do.”

Belizeans smile and don’t let on about the tension, but if you ask they’ll tell you: the best of their country feels taken from them. Expatriates are the new colonialism. They own the resorts and restaurants and tourist businesses. They buy the land for cheap, developed it in ways no local could afford and then hire on the former owner at sharecropper wages. They sell to tourists and export the profits, leaving Belizeans marginalized, pushed aside in their own country and unable to afford a home in the towns they grew up in.

But no one will tell you that. Everyone is too friendly, too polite. You have to ask.

It’s not a dissimilar story to thousands of other tourism destinations, the skyrocketing real estate prices and the foreign investors/developers. But in Belize for some reason it feels different. The expatriate-owned properties are billed as ecoresorts, a term that conjures images of local cooperatives, not exploitive practices. That such sustainability-focused businesses are environmentally conscious but socially bereft (or worse, intentionally abusive) seemingly runs counter to their mission. The idea of an expatriate-owned business helping elevate overall economic standards seems an empty one.

Without the infrastructure built by such investment, however, there wouldn’t be much in Placencia. The tourism economy was founded by those expatriates, even as they changed it. The economic prosperity of the peninsula is intricately tied to those foreign-owned shops, restaurants and hotels.

How do you balance growth with economic prosperity? How do you ensure locals have access to the kinds of jobs that feed a future? Is it a business owner’s responsibility? Government?

Owners, it appears, aren’t doing it, but at the suggestion of government Belizeans laugh. “They’re as bad as the foreigners,” they say. Politicians in Belize are notoriously corrupt, and everyday Belizeans know better than to look to them for relief. If a big house on the beach isn’t owned by an expatriate it’s owned by a government official. The path out of poverty, it seems, lies elsewhere.

Perhaps it is in education, notoriously underfunded in Belize but a possible path to something other than displacement and servitude. The cost of high school, however, is borne by families, to say nothing of college. In a country of 300,000 it’s hard to spread the cost of public necessities. College is not in everyone’s future.

These are the quandaries hidden beneath white sand and rum drinks. They are the veiled problems of paradise. Belizeans know that Caribbean destinations are only desirable if they are warm, inviting, happy, and so they remain beneath the surface—to do otherwise would threaten the few economic scraps available. So any tourist with $40 U.S. can land a cabaña on the beach and stare at the stretching blue Caribbean, sip rum drinks near the lap of waves on sand.

But that is the tourist economy today—one of displacement and denial, an economic scramble that leaves behind more people than it elevates.

Welcome to Belize. Welcome to the world.

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Ended Hiatus

Ended Hiatus

13730801_1553661621326584_6611188446585815400_oOK. So I’ve been working in Belize for the last month, which has meant I’ve not been keeping up with my posting duties. Internet access was temperamental, time was limited, etc., etc. But I fly back to the U.S. in a few days (currently hanging out on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world), back to my car (parked just north of Seattle), and figure out whatever is next.

And honestly I don’t have any real idea what is next for me. I had thoughts of staying out west, but over the last month a number of things have been calling me back to New England. Not enough that I know I’m heading directly there, but I’m looking harder at a handful of opportunities near what has long been my home.

It feels good to have that pull. Belize has been amazing—working with American high school kids running a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary students focused on improving their literacy skills. It was a time out, time off from the road, from climbing and adventure, time for human contact and connection and cultural exchange.

Belize-3503And it was an ecological exploration. Belize is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, multiple ecosystem zones, caves, jungle, mountains and savannah. Iguanas crouch in the trees, tarantulas roam the forest floor, toucans haunt the air. I saw a manatee, two Harpy Eagles, a jaguar, held a boa constrictor, swam with sea turtles, pondered over leafcutter ants and got bitten by thousands of bugs. It was an awesome amazing trip, one I’ll be writing about more. But before that happens I wanted to share a video. My dance with sea turtles reminded me of it. At 2:25 is the job I think is probably most interesting in the world: sea turtle wrestler. Heck yeah! Lifetime aspirations! 🌊🐋

Flipping Sharks

Flipping Sharks

IMG_8391The Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to the mainland was the end of the trip. It’d been a day of chasing whales—an orca museum combined with Lime Kiln State Park, the best spot in the world to see whales from land. We did not, however, see any whales. Tim, Lev (Tim’s two-year-old son) and I had made a day of it, but now we were on our way back to Mount Vernon, Wash., and Tim’s farm.

Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “There will be a presentation on whales at the rear of the boat. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.”

Whales. I’d be there.

The naturalist presented to several rows of kids and families, but the kids quickly lost interest. I stayed, peppering her with questions about orcas. And she told me something peculiar. I was asking if changing ocean temperatures were causing more interactions between local orcas and great white sharks, and if so what was the outcome. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, “they are meeting, and they fight. And when they fight the orcas win.”

“The orcas are pack hunters,” she said. “The sharks are loners. The orcas have learned that if they can flip the sharks upside down they essentially can put them to sleep. Killer whales are smart enough to take advantage of that fact. They’re pairing up and using the technique to put the sharks to sleep. Then they drown them.”

Whale versus shark, the whale wins. Awesome. And what’s this about putting sharks to sleep?

Less than a week later I found myself in Belize, snorkeling “Shark Alley” on the second longest barrier reef in the world. The sharks there are nurse sharks, a tame cousin to the white shark. Our guide Carlos took the opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the naturalist 2,600 miles a way had explained—he swam directly over a 6-foot nurse shark, put one hand on its back, another on its belly, then rolled. Instantly the shark went limp. He carried it in his arms and swam it over to us, let us pet it and touch its skin.

I wanted to try. I could see them swimming just six feet below, brown arcing bodies in the reeds. I dove down several times before I could work up the nerve to touch them. But then I went after one, put my hand about where its shoulder blades would have ben if the man-sized shark were human. Its skin was course as sandpaper. I swam with it, tracing its path, one hand on its back, then kicked myself down close and slid the other hand under its belly. We were tight together then, the shark and I. I rolled.

The shark rolled with me, and as it flipped and its belly rose toward the surface it went limp. I held it close, kicked my way upward, cradling the ancient beast in my arms. It felt about like holding a worn out Rottweiler in my arms—things were fine, but how long would they stay that way? After a few kicks I rolled the shark back over. It flicked its tail and instantly resumed swimming. I released my arms. It carved away.

I did this three times. One of the group members caught it with a camera.

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It was amazing to be so close. I have since learned that what our guide was doing is frowned up, and that I shouldn’t have followed his example. I probably could have guessed that had I thought about it, but I didn’t. I looked to him for direction, and when I saw an opportunity to do something that scared me, something that seemed both amazing and stupid at the same time, I swam at it full steam. Literally. And so I got to carry a shark in my arms. Life is an experience and that was a unique one, even if it was foolish, illicit and perhaps damaging. Now I know. So don’t flip sharks. But it works. Orcas do it, and I have too.

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