Monday, July 16, 2007

From Belize, Part III: San Antonio.

We teach in a school on the side of a jungle valley. It's misty in the morning, it's smoky and hot in the middle of the day, and, in the afternoons, the valley is taken up with the sound of the bus as it honks its way to town.

The school we teach at is San Luis Rey R.C. Primary School. (R.C. means it's Roman Catholic, like most of the schools--and, thereby, school teachers--in Belize.) We started today. We teach three classes: two small ones with small children who sit happily in our very small desks. They are going into Standard Five (which would be like sixth grade, except they're so little, it's like teaching 10-year-olds). We teach one class of Standard Six, and they are bigger--but still little--and they are a little more willing to talk. A little. They are all Mayan. The girls' names are Myra, Maria, Sharla, Juana, Francelia, Ardelina, Everista, Apolinaria, and Amy. The boys' names: Santos, Silvio, Diego, Jeremih (he says there's no A), Macario. They speak quietly--all of them--and the girls wear shiny, satiny dresses or 90s florals, and the boys have slicked down hair.

For lunch we walk to the home of the principal, Mr. Honorario Rash. Mr. Rash is a small man (of course, he's Mayan), with smoky spots on the skin around his nose and eyes. His hair is almost buzzed like a boy's in the summertime, and he wants us to sign in each day in his teacher's register. He is very kind. He arranged for his wife to cook us lunch everyday: $5 BZ per person per day. (That's $2.50 US.) I paid him for all of us for the next two weeks with one $100 bill (they have been hard to use), and I was grateful to get the $20 BZ change back. For lunch we had rice and beans and fried spam and one slice of avocado ("pear") each. And to drink, a super cold and beautiful tang-like drink that was, for sure, made with water right out of the tap; I drank it anyway. We never saw his wife.

We have two periods before lunch, one period after, and we have half an hour between school and the 2:00 bus, which takes us the 45-minute dusty, bumpy, jungle ride back into town. After school today, we hit the creek. There's a creek at the bottom of the San Antonio Valley that widens and pools just under a low-branching tree. There were four boys in shorts swimming there today. Two Saturdays ago, when we went, there were grown men. Annette and I waded in, and Peter walked the tree but declined to backflip into the water as the boys were doing for show. Tomorrow we're bringing our suits. We'll shutter our classrooms, change in the dark, and head to the creek. IcannotsayhowexcitedIam. Today, I happily sat the bus ride home with a wet skirt.

In short, in short, we're done with school in PG. My students wrote their last letters. They read the ones you sent (those of you who so kindly sent them--I'll try to get you the pictures we took; the kids were quietly, delightedly starstruck) and, finally (after an assembly, a cake, and some gifts to us) they went. Mr. Nolberto, the principal, invited us over to his house on Saturday, where we made an authentic Garifuna meal: mashed plaintains with fish-and-coconut milk gravy. We made fresh lime juice and drank the coconut water from coconuts he cut down from the trees in his backyard. It was, all by itself, an email, a chapter, a book. (Mr. Nolberto is a Catholic, but he's active with his Garifuna religion, which means he dreams dreams and sees visions and sings during the animal sacrifices--which he doesn't like--at the nearby Garifuna temples.)

On Sunday, we got up at 4 to take a 3.5 hour bus ride to church in Dangriga. We found the church and went. "You enjoying the weather?" a boy on a bike asked as we walked in the half-rain. We took a 3.5 hour bus ride home and spent the afternoon/evening hiding our heads in Gilmore Girls (except Peter, who's very conscientiously reading the Bible). And we were delighted to find out that, despite the misinformation today, from here on out we can take the 6 o'clock bus to the junction and not the 5 o'clock bus, which either means one more hour of sleep or one more episode of the Gilmore Girls, depending on which of us you're asking and how reckless we're reeling it in. Or out.

It's a good life. A good living. There are people in the jungle, and they read and write and spell and say things like "I am thanking you that you come to our village. I am so happy to be in school of the year." And, who knew?, they kick trash at unscrambling the word "football": OTFOBLLA. (Among other things.)

I'm thankful for the goodness in my life and am happy (and hopeful) re the goodness in yours.

Note: I am not surprised that they can unscramble FOOTBALL. They love football (meaning soccer); this is why I chose it as a word for them to unscramble. What I am surprised at is the relative swiftness of their unscrambling of it. I wrote it on the board and, whammo, multiple kids called out "FOOTBALL!" (which is kind of amazing because they're Mayan, and they don't do much calling out at all).

Saturday, July 07, 2007

From Belize, a Web Special: Mom asks, Sarah answers.

Mom sent Peter and me an email today, asking us a series of questions. These are my answers (I'll let Peter answer for himself). I figure that if Mom is wondering these things, then maybe the whole world is wondering. (Maybe.) Also, I'm trying to be more public and more regular about both (a) my travel and (b) my writing. La. Here we are.

Does everyone speak English or English and Spanish?
Everyone speaks English, and some speak Spanish. Peter is getting to use his Spanish just a little bit, but I think he would like to be able to use it more. More people speak Creole and English (There's a Creole sign for a chicken place we pass every day to and from school: Dis da fi wi chickin! We're not sure what it means.), and we have to ask our students to repeat themselves until they drop the Creole and speak in English. There are a surprising number of Chinese here, too. Our classes actually look very Valley Stream-esque, without the Europeans, of course. And no Middle Easterners.

How many children are in your classes?
We have three classes, each with between 15-20, depending on how many kids come and when and whether or not the kids who are doing the soccer camp across the street and our classes decide to go to soccer or, for instance, reading. (You can guess which one they usually choose.)

What is the teaching the last week in another place?
We'll be teaching exactly what we're teaching now for two weeks (M-Th, then M-F) in San Antonio, a village of 3,000 people scattered across a little jungle hillside about an hour's bus ride from PG, where we're staying. We went in today to see if we could find the principal and make arrangements for our transportation (buses in the morning only go 2/3s of the way there, to the junction ("the Junction," they call it) where the highway turns). So, we hopped an old, green and yellow painted school bus, paid our $1.50 per person, and jumped and stopped and sped there. It was beautiful. Idyllic, almost. And so cool. Now we have one week left teaching here in PG (it feels like forever and also like three seconds) and then we'll have 9 teaching days of 5 am morning buses (5 am), and then we'll teach from 8-11:30, 12:00-1:30, and we'll take the 2 pm bus home. Shorter teaching day, longer day. But I'm hoping to do some swimming, maybe just after school, in this milky, shady river/creek that's at the bottom of the hill San Antonio's set on. There's a tree that reaches out low and over the water, and today on our way back, we saw 20-something-aged men diving from the tree and treading in the water. It was great.

What are you eating and drinking? (Can you drink water and eat fresh food or not?)
We spend a lot of our time negotiating food, as you can imagine. Peter is usually the one who spearheads this effort, asking right after we've eaten one meal, what we're planning to do for dinner. We buy bottled water and drink that. (There are a lot of little groceries around.) Annette brought a cool water purifying system, and we purify water through that and use that to mix with Kool-Aid (Drinki, it's called) or juice concentrate or powdered milk. We eat out once a day, usually for lunch, and we eat at any of the little shack-type restaurants that line our street. We just had fry jack and black beans and banana shakes. Fry jack is just deep-fried puffy dough, we dipped in this black bean paste (like really smooth refried beans but made of black beans) that we find in a lot of dishes (burritos, for instance). We love the black beans. We made french toast for dinner last night, splurging on margarine we used to grease the bottom of a pot (we have a little gas stove/oven). Peter bought this great brown sugar for cheap, which he used to make syrup Mom-style. It was so tasty--thick and brown and sugary. This morning, while we lounged, Peter went to the market and came back with a giant bag full of fruit we're excited to eat--fresh stuff. Bananas, papaya, mangos, watermelon, limes. But we will, likely, keep eating a lot of canned beans and canned tomatoes and canned corn, etc. But we've been eating well--very simply--and enjoying it.

What is the Church situation?
We're trying to figure out church right now. The nearest church is not, as we thought, close by. Apparently, it's across the water in Guatemala. A 45-minute, $30ish roundtrip boat ride. The problem is, the boat only leaves at 9:15 and returns at 2. There is a church in Belize, which is Dangriga, but that's a 2-hour bus ride. Also, we don't know where that is or at what time. This is our goal for the evening. We'll see what tomorrow brings, but part of me is excited either way. Traveling here feels so easy--just sit back and look at the beauty and newness and strangeness and miles we're passing. It all makes me feel more loving and older and wider-eyed.

What are your rooms like?
Our apartment is this little cabiny type suite at the third-floor of our hotel. It's very cute and clean. We have a front room, with small plastic table, fridge, microwave (which we haven't used), gas stove and oven we have to light with a lighter. Then we have two bedrooms off of that. Peter has one, with a double bed. The girls and I share the other; Michelle and I share a double, and Annette has a twin/full. Both rooms have air conditioning, but Peter's better than ours. I'm not complaining though; they're great. The fourth quadrant of the suite is a rather large bathroom, bigger than any we have at home. The toilet paper dispenser is a very cool, thick wooden fish. The bathroom is not scary at all. It is nice to go home. We live in apartment #3.

Is there anything we can do to help you?
We're doing great. I wished I'd brought an assistant for each class, so Michelle and I could have a Peter, too. We should come down here as a family. It's so easy, comparatively, and there's no reason the girls couldn't be helpful. In fact, they would be great helps to us, I think. It's a beautiful world, and it feels close to home--much closer--than Ghana in large part, I think, because we're on the same side of the same ocean. There's really only land between us and Dallas is just a few hours away.

Friday, July 06, 2007

From Belize, Part II: We go swimming.

After school today, as a little boy (age 12, but small) named Wilford closed the metal blinds on my windows, I asked Gwen Usher, the St. Peter Claver teacher who's come to be our heavy, where I could go swimming. "Where can I go swimming?" I asked her. Belize is known for its beautiful, clear water, its incomparable diving, its rainbow-glittery snorkeling, but not for its beaches. It's the kind of country you boat out from.

It's true live at a particularly non-beachy part of the country. The silt run-off from jungle rivers pours down into the Gulf of Honduras, on which we're located (my roommate Annette tells me), and makes the local waters muddy, brown, tumbly, and great for fishing. (I actually don't know if that makes them great for fishing, but they are, apparently, great for fishing.) Apart from the color of the waters nearby, everything else about our cute town is island, coastal-rific.

Ms. Usher said, thinking about my question, "Hm, a good bathe. Where are you staying?" I told her Charlton's Inn, at the end of Main Street, and she said people usually go to a good spot about a mile up the road that lines the coast. Go up from our hotel, make a left at Texaco, and head on until you hit beach.

So, after work, we did. We taught our first 7:30-3:15 day today (with two 15-minute breaks and an hour and a half for lunch, as is the norm here), and that third period (the last period) was hard. Our feet are sore from too many teacher hours in flip-flops and Chacos. My voice was tired from saying again and again and again (teaching--teaching is a career that centers on repeating the same sentence 900,000 times at day): "There are TWO correct ways to write a date: MONTH SPACE DATE COMMA SPACE YEAR ORRRrrr DATE ORDINAL SPACE MONTH SPACE YEAR." (This is a small teacherly fiction I picked up from our school's principal; in English, it's so nice to teach rules that are hard and fast that I find myself pharisaically holding onto them). And we were ready to leave our apartment to do something other than scour the local, dimly lit, and dusty shops for cans of something something, small plastic bowls, and something to eat--anything--that was fresh and appetizing (chocolate milk is the closest we've come so far, but a fermented orange juice was a disappointing second), that we all wrapped up in beach wear and headed off down the highway.

It was rush hour, it was a highway, there were no sidewalks, and we spent most of our time dodging locals on bikes, who'd pass by with children or Honey Bunches of Oats or, in one instance, an electronic keyboard leaning on, hanging from, or strandling the handlebars of their bikes. We briefly considered hitchhiking.

The water was choppy and brown, but we found a wharf and a coast of rocks and put our feet in. It was so warm, sometimes I couldn't feel the water. But Annette and I were hoping for more than foot baths. We left Peter and Michelle sitting on the wharf and walked down to a corner of the beach where the sand turned into the water, and there was a little boy in boxers doing cartwheels. (His mother was watching.) The water was a little more than a foot deep, and I could lie down in it and be rocked towards the shore with only a waveish now and then on my face. Salty, dirty, and so nice.

Annette and I left the water when she began to be nibbled (we're thinking crab?), and we picked up Peter and Michelle and walked back into town (past two more of these mysterious and ubiquitous hand-painted signs: "This way to Earth Runnings"), where we ducked back into a little shop and bought a small can of salsa, another can of black beans, a can of stewed tomatoes, and, for the others, a 50 cent package of chocolate-flavored chocolate cookies. At home, we had two pounds of fresh corn tortillas we'd bought at lunch hour from the tortilla factory across the street. These all would be dinner.

As I'm writing this, we're two hours post-dinner, three hours post-swimming, and I can still feel the wet of my suit through my shorts and sweatshirt. My ears have dirt in them, and I have swimming hair. It's time to read my scriptures, time to watch The Office, maybe time to plan a lesson.

It's lovely here.

P.S. I'm going to send another email that will have a number of pictures attached to it, as I'm not sure I have time for Picasa before the Dreamlight closes. But you can delete it or not open it, if that would be helpful. Also, it might not go through. We'll see.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

From Belize, Part I: In which I take four airplanes in three days and meet Brother John.

For archiving purposes, I thought I would post the email updates I'm sending to a smattering of recipients re my trip to Belize. No need to read if read you already have.

We're here. We're here in Belize, specifically in Punta Gorda, Toledo District, Belize. The sky: blue. The water: large and muddy and blue. The buildings: red-roofed, aqua or white painted, flat-fronted.

After a three to four-hour delay in Dallas yesterday, my two friends (Annette and Michelle) and I finally made a plane down to Belize City, where we met my brother Peter (who'd flown through Houston on another airline). He was waiting for us just inside immigration, reading Foreign Affairs, waiting for us to arrive and tell him where we were staying in Belize so they would officially let him into the country.

Our plane's delay had made us miss our connecting flight to PG (a 1-hr, 3-stop flight on the littlest plane--imagine flying inside of a fish), so we stayed in Belize City last night. We lucked out. We were choosing between two hotels--the Global Village Hotel, which was some indeterminate (but short) taxi ride away and the Embassy Hotel, which was "right across the parking lot" from the airport (or so said the guide). It was dark and humid and, total, we had eleven bags to roll, so we were feeling (and were, I'm sure) conspicuous. Belize City is not know for its safety. But we saw a building that seemed Embassy Hotelish, took off across a parking lot, and prayedprayedprayed.

Prayers answered.

What we found across the parking lot was the funniest--the funniest, nicest thing. It was a giant, multi-floored sort of ramshackle building. The Embassy Hotel is run by a man named John, whose humor centered on delivering obvious information in a deadpan fashion ("You can turn on the light with either hand, right or left, it doesn't matter.") and his wife. (John: "My wife is a concert pianist. She's also an ex-Dallas Cowgirl. She's just just a little bit prettier than I am but not much." His wife, from another room: "He has to say that because he knows I'm listening." She smiled.) They are Christians, and the sign in front of the hotel said "HAVE YOU READ YOUR BIBLE TODAY?" They're Americans, who live down in Belize, running what seem to be various hotels and service programs for church and college groups. ("I'm not retired; I'm just tired.") We got two rooms, with AC, showers, and free dinner and breakfast (John: "The cook is out, so the food is on the house." John's wife: "Not on the house, John. It's dark. They shouldn't be up on the roof. [To me] I have to give him his own humor back."), which was made for us by a middle-aged American Airlines mechanic named Bobby, who was talkative and lonely and happy to call us by name. I would love to see John and Grandpa Hoggard chat together. They'd be--I wouldn't know what to do with myself.

This morning we skipped like a stone across the surface of Belize, stopping for a moment in Dangriga (both g's are hard, I learned), in Placencia, and then, finally, in PG. The town is small. There really is only one main street. And everything is on it. We live at one end, the school we'll be at for this week and next is at the other. We met the principal, saw the classrooms, decided on an extended day (7:30-11:30, 1-3:30), and are gearing up for tomorrow.

This will be--such, such a delight.

The world is so accessible, it turns out. Saturday, DC. Sunday, DC, NY. Monday, NY, Texas, Belize. And here I am, zip zoop, on the edge of the ocean and a jungle.

Come visit. We have a couch you can sleep on.

With love,

P.S. Belize City is a 2-hour flight from Dallas. I'm just saying.