Sweet Escape

This past Friday, the 12th, I took a trip to San Ignacio after a successful work meeting in Belmopan (the capital city) with my new placement partner. I arrived into town by 4pm and took some time to wander around and collect information for my desired trip to the Mayan archeological site of Xunantunich (the name means Stone Woman). The hostel, Bella’s backpackers,  I stayed at was a groovy spot which  was recommended by a friend because of its unconventional atmosphere. The design of the place is very artistic with a mix of nature and a vintage look along with a vibrant patio for guests to chill.

I tossed down my bag down, grabbed my wallet and head back out for a lovely dinner to Fuego, sort of my pre-birthday dinner! Across in the town center, families were out for the local Christmas celebration that had musicians performing and the mayor staging the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. Afterwards, I dashed back to the hostel and thought I would get in on an early sleep, but that totally did not happen. Instead, my night consisted of retreating with strangers sitting around and talking about their travels and epiphanies.

I must say, some guests went into deep philosophies on what makes a person sane or insane (I can admit that alcohol and hemp was being passed around). There were  a pair of musicians playing the guitar and harmonica, singing soulful music, that brought a cool and hip camping ambience. I met two fellow female Canadian travelers and one of them was a previous Cuso volunteer. Even more surprising, she now lives in Belize City – what are the odds right? Definitely a SMALL world. The night ended with somebody buying the entire group a few pounds of garnaches (round tortilla chip topped with beans, cheese and salsa) which I couldn’t resist.

I was too anxious to sleep so I was up by 5am packing and getting ready to start the day – may have woken someone up on my way out (oooopppss). I walked over to the farmer’s market, grabbed breakfast and a sizeable cup of coffee and caught my bus ride out to Xunantanich. I thought it would have been difficult to get there, but the bus dropped me off at a big fat sign with the words “Xunantunich 1 mile” by the river ferry. After crossing the river, I continued my hike and reached the entrance around 8am.  Basically, my day consisted of picnicking at a beautiful Mayan city site – built between the years of 600-670 AD – and enjoying my snacks I bought from the market (my garbage properly disposed, duh). I frequently listened in on tours as the guides shared historical, cultural and political facts on Mayan civilization.

Standing on top of  El Castillo pyramid, I had a 360 degree view of the surrounding jungle and villages. It was a spectacular panorama! On the East side was the landscape of Belize while on the West, just a kilometer away was the border of Guatemala with its’ villages stretching out into the horizon.  Gazing from the top of El Castillo, there was a sense of wonder and astonishment that could make anyone feel like “the king or queen of the world”.

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You can see how massive the grounds of Xunantunich really are. I asked a few random tourists to take photos of me to compare human size versus structure size.

After 3 hours just hanging around, I was enjoying my solo getaway it was hard to leave. Truly a peaceful experience  to wander around the remains of an ancient civilization.

Facts and history of Xunantunich:

  • The first modern explorations of the site were conducted by Thomas Gann in the mid-1890s.
  • “Stone Woman” refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site, beginning in 1892.
  • The core of the city Xunantunich occupies about one square mile (2.6 km²), consisting of a series of six plazas surrounded by more than 26 temples and palaces.
  • A time period when most of Mayan civilizations were crumbling, Xunantunich was managing to expand its city and its power over other areas within the valley.
  • It lasted a century longer than most of the sites within the region.
  • El Castillo is the second tallest structure in Belize (after the temple at Caracol), at some 130 feet (40 m) tall. El Castillo is the “axis mundi” of the site, or the intersection of the two cardinal lines.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xunantunich

1 step back and 2 steps forward

It’s almost the middle of December and my placement has taken a turn. Currently I am waiting for a change in work with the Ministry of Education in Belize. It didn’t work out with my previous placement, so now I am staying hopeful and patient for a better experience. The past month was challenging and leaving that placement was a necessary decision. I finally understand international development at work.

Nothing is ever certain with placements (especially for students) and we can try our hardest to stay positive and goal oriented, but I have also learned that some projects weren’t meant to continue. Not that the objectives of a project were bad or flawed, but there are so many small things that need to come into place for it to be successful. And if it means to end with a project from my part, it’s not a failure – it’s a new understanding of social, cultural and economic barriers.

It came to a point that I was mentally and physically exhausted with the job and so many obstacles at work were preventing me to push forward – in fact it was going backwards. I was in an environment that a volunteer could not continue. However, I have made few good Belizean friends during my time there.

From now until Christmas, I will be assisting other Cuso volunteers with their projects as well as volunteering my own time for a Catholic youth group. This month may go fast and with Christmas coming up, I am looking forward to reunite with my parents in Mexico!

To my family, friends, Cuso volunteers and wonderful people I had gone for support, I am thanking you with all my heart! These types of experiences are lessons with transitions that are all part of a greater and more important course in life.

Small Country with Big Imports

 I walk a distance of  4km to work and back almost every day. I decided to count how many soda drink ads I’d see going in one direction. I pass by 12 ads of Coca-Cola and 2 Sprite. These ads are either car size mural paintings, big white and red wording on small shops, or the image on a sign of a coca cola bottle falling to its side and spilling magically as it hangs to indicate a corner store.

Many tourists or volunteers I’ve met in Belize have repeatedly commented on Belize “it’s like America”. The culture shock you imagine to get in a country, here in Belize City, you are shocked because it’s an American fast food culture (but with no fast food franchises).  The concept of food in Belize is quantity with little quality of the food it consumes. Now you can argue that this is prevalent in many countries, and how can it not with the impact of our globalized food system. But for a small country of less than 400,000 people, it is flooded with imports and very dependent on them. As a small market, there is little control it can have on the quality it receives from their foreign producers.

I have met only one Belizean vegetarian, and it will be a while before I speak to another one. I asked his reason for choosing a vegetarian lifestyle, and his response was to the point. At first is was because of God and faith he made the change, but after some searching, he became aware of what is put in the food from farmers in Belize. The food imported isn’t any healthier, but Belizeans will eat it because they don’t explore other foods. Everyone has the right to choose what they eat (for those who can make that economic choice), but I do agree with the comment that exploring alternatives is key to Belize.

Belize has a window of opportunity to take hold of their food economy and re-orient their agriculture itself to be a country that can comfortably survive with less trade, less technology, and less distance (Wilk, 2006). And interestingly, there is a new market that is pushing for organic and healthy local food in rural areas. Communities are sharing ideas and are thinking of new ways to rely less on foreign products (including pesticides and chemicals). Living in the city, it is hard to see this sometimes, and one can be pessimistic to see these changes, however initiatives are slowly occurring. But are they too slow?

Reference: Fast Food/ Slow Food. (2006). The culture economy of the global food system. England, Lanham; Wilk Richard.

Glass half empty or half full?!

It has been a while since my last posting and I do regret my absence from my blog. It has been hectic this past month scrambling to find a thesis topic and write a proposal while working on a research that involves evaluating the Youth Apprenticeship Program in Belize. So as of lately I now have two researches and at least two cups of coffee a day (skimmed down on the sugar and found some organic beans!).

I have past my half way mark for my placement in Belize and I have gone through a spectrum of emotions. The opportunity to have practical experience  my undergraduate studies is a chance that many university students would definitely want – which makes me grateful- but it’s not always a peachy paradise. The first few months are exciting and everything is new, but when you fall into a daily routine that is the moment when I became nostalgic of my home.

As a single female in Belize, living simply (as in not practicing western consumerism) is brilliant! But other comforts, like being able to walk down the street without being daily objectified, is something I would appreciate more than ever. It’s not that walking around the City is miserable, but I cannot recall a time here in Belize City where street harassment has not occurred.

But as for my good experiences, I’ve had more of those than negative ones. Until now I’ve made a few good local friends; met very intellectual and bright young Belizeans; got soaked in tropical rainstorms walking home; discovered the real taste of fresh fruits, and my favorite one is sapodilla; shared much of my food with stray animals – also with Belizeans who beg for money from me (instead I offer to buy them something to eat) and last but not least, travelled the country north, south, east and west!

Now that I have returned to blogging after a short break, I will be sharing more of my stories that were not yet told and new ones to happen!

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Don’t Worry, Be A Tourist!

Living in Belize City for almost 3 month, my positionality to make a few observatory comments I believe is permitted and holds some adequacy. I would like to start off by sharing my remark on the tourist village in the city. A section of the city entirely cut off from local Belizeans (unless they work there) but all access granted to foreigners (congratulations to me). Oh yes, I had no problem slipping into the cold sore of Western consumerism that sits on the brink of a developing country, staring into the mouth of poverty. Through better words to describe what I mean, the village looks out onto the canal as it connects with the sea. A pictorial scene of the South side buildings – about 100 meters – sit parallel from it (great view by the way).

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The village is filled with cruise ship tourists and only operates when there is a scheduled ship (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in this season). They come in on grand polished ferries which dock and allow the tourists to waddle down the bridge into the village. Why do I sound like this village is the gateway of utter despair? Because that is how I felt! I was curious of what was in this secluded part of the city and I regret it.

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I stood in the middle of the main boardwalk and just stared at a sign saying “Welcome to Belize” as white foreigners glued to it posing with coconut drinks sprouting frilly straws in their hands, capturing their moment of being in Belize. I took pictures of them taking pictures of themselves because it was a circus for free to me. Truth, they were not even standing on the grounds of Belize, they were still in the free zone.

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I got bored quickly. I realized that it was nothing more than a shopping trip.  You are on a cruise ship (where there are shopping malls) then, you get off of to do more shopping on land. Wow, mind blowing. But wait, it’s different BECAUSE you can meet working Belizeans. The village is a mini replica of Belize and they even tried to replicate “street food” and “street vendors”, that was it, I had to leave.

Good news? There are tour guides to the city and the tourists had free will to go about the city. This also included other tourist destinations like Mayan archeological sites or go cave tubing. Many Belizeans see this village as “money coming into their country”, but don’t hold your breath to believe it “helps” alleviate poverty.

But how can I get frustrated with good folks enjoying their vacation? Doesn’t everyone deserve some R and R. I exited the village and walked down the street, scratch that, I actually had to dash because the women working as hair braiders were fixated to cornrow my head – terrible idea I told them. I managed to finally catch a bus back home from Albert St (main downtown street).

Afterwards, I realized while waiting for the bus that I was approached for money, at least three times more that day compared to previous days. I have promised myself not to head downtown when there is a big pretty boat floating on the horizon. I am not one of those tourists I tell you, but I do look like one.

Score: Capitalism = 1, Monika = 0.

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Off to the Zoo

This past weekend I went to the zoo with a fellow Cuso volunteer. I understand that many opinions come up around the subject of animal captivity. Is it ethical? Shouldn’t the animals roam free in the wild? I would say absolutely! If many humans didn’t carry the mindset of destroying a species to define their own existence or add more zeros to the end of their bank balance. But what if the idea of zoo stepped away from captivity to rehabilitate? Instead of the idea that they are caged, we change the idea to orphanage. That is what the Zoo of Belize has done, and pretty well.

All the animals are native to the country and are taken to the zoo for rehabilitation or adoption due to an injury and unable to survive in the wild. It’s a beautiful and well established place with a lot of lush and shade – felt like going through a botanical garden at the same time.

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The zoo has included a creative touch to the place with animal descriptions written in first person and rhyming (sort of like Dr. Seuss) which is great for the children. But I have to admit, I enjoyed reading them too.

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One aspect of the zoo I did not expect were animals and reptiles that roamed around the zoo boundaries (nothing dangerous). Saw a few iguanas (again), snakes (not venomous), birds, too many red fire ants, and an Agouti. Other animals that are brought into the sanctuary are of the following: Black jaguar, Harpy Eagle, crocodiles, toucans, macaw parrots, ocelot, spider and howler monkeys, tapir, mountain lion, coatimundi,  king vulture, and jabiru (huge stork) – just to name a few.

The Belize zoo is also partnered with the tropical education center and together work to bring the people of Belize closer to the animals which are their natural heritage and feel proud of these special resources (source: http://www.belizezoo.org/index.php )

Happy Independence Day Belize!

This weekend was the 33rd year celebration of Independence Day in Belize. It was September 21st 1981 that Belize had gained their independence – before it was called British Honduras. A very young country with much potential for success in this globalized world. They welcomed the morning of the 21st with fireworks, concerts and lots of alcohol.

Both the prime minister and opposition leader gave speeches from the capital city, Belmopan, which was interesting to hear. Even during holidays and celebrations, politics don’t seem to give rest. Both speeches talked about the importance of patriotism while the other half of the speech included a lot of thrashing on Dean Barrow’s government from the opposition.

The most popular excitement that day however was the carnival in Orange Walk town – which I had the chance to go. This would be my 2nd carnival in Belize since I had already seen my first one in Belize City last weekend! I really enjoyed both in different ways. Belize City was probably a bigger parade with more steel drum performers while Orange Walk did more marching bands and you were able to stand next to the parade – almost being a part of it. In both carnivals I got my free beers since the trucks handed them out to anyone dancing.

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Belizeans love to party. As a single white female during this time of year I did not end up having any bad experiences. Crime rates did escalade – there were more shootings and murders, then in other months – and I was expecting it.

As my first celebration of carnival in the Caribbean and the Independence of Belize were a terrific one. Taking part of the celebration did give me a better sense of Belizean culture that now I feel a little bit more in tune living in the city and Belize.

Living in the heart of Belize. Monika moves to Belize City.