In yesterday’s post I mentioned going on a photo shoot of the twin cities with NICH (the National institute of Culture and History). One of the stops on our tour of San Ignacio was the old hospital. This hospital was closed about 7 or 8 years ago, with a new hospital now operating on the outskirts of town. The old hospital now sits in disrepair, slowly disintegrating. Being a medically-minded person, I found this stop on the tour very interesting.
Despite the abundance of junk food, the children in Belize are very active and generally appear to be thriving. I joke that Belize is very much a country of free-range chickens (they’re everywhere) and free-range children (they’re everywhere too). You frequently see young children out playing on their own, babies and small children being cared for by siblings, and small kids walking home alone from school in their uniforms. They’re an active bunch (perhaps because few, if any, have home computers or smart phones?), and find opportunities to play everywhere. School yards are generally rather bare, but you’d often see kids playing with old tires and barrels. I’ll admit that I found their love of play mesmerizing and inspiring.
And now for something completely different…
Xunantunich- There are a number of Mayan Sites in Belize. Xunantunich (sounds like zoo-nan-tune-itch) is just across the river from my friends’ house. Not only did I visit to see the archeology, but the 1-mile trek up the hill to the entrance became a favorite walk when I had spare time.
There is a significant Belizian Defense Force (BDF) presence at Xunantunich. It is very close to the Guatemala border, and there have been problems with people illegally coming across, mugging tourists, and then running into the jungles. On one of my morning walks one of the guards used my scent to practice with his German Shepherd trained for tracking(!!), and you frequently saw soldiers with big guns patrolling the roads and ruins (though initially a bit intimidating with their big guns, a number of them were very chatty when they realized I was a frequent flier on their territory).
Belize’s wildlife and wonder.
My friends took me on a few cool road-trips while I was visiting.
Traffic rules (well, rules in general) are pretty lax in Belize. There’s no such thing as vehicle inspection, and most of the vehicles would not be deemed road-worthy in the US. I saw more cars without brake lights than I saw with. It’s not abnormal to see cars with a paucity of lug nuts. Shocks are a luxury, and carrying capacity is only limited by your imagination.
The per capita GDP of Belize is 1/5 of the US, and the standard of living is very low. People live in very crude houses- often just one or two rooms for a rather large family. While touring San Ignacio with Hector Silva (check out my last post for more on this interesting fellow) we stopped to chat with this woman… Check out the family’s living situation- you can see their feet from the outside (I suppose it makes sweeping easier), and their sink is outside their window, draining directly onto the ground below (warm running water is a rare luxury in Belize).
Despite the very basic way of life in Belize, people there seem genuinely happy. There certainly are hardships, but families seem strong and supportive, children well adjusted and happy, and life is generally good. Animals don’t get the care or attention that most of us have come to expect (I mentioned the dogs above, and horses are frequently very malnourished and scrawny), and I hope that with time and tourism there is greater respect for the environment.
I do hope to return to Belize again in the future. It is a nice treat to visit a warm and sunny place during the depths of winter, and there is a lot to learn and appreciate in Belize.
NB- playing in the jungle isn’t without risk. When I visited the Yucatan as a college student I discovered that I am acutely sensitive to Black Poisonwood, also known as Chechem. In Mexico I developed blisters on my legs when I unwittingly came in contact with the plant, and despite being very aware of the tree when I visited Belize 8 years ago I still somehow came in contact with some and again got blisters. On one of my morning walks up to Xunantunich I went off the beaten path and down an overgrown 4X4 trail. It seems that I again got in contact with Chechem, and developed a chemical burn on my neck (no, it’s not a hickey, I promise!). The traditional remedy for this is topical application of sap or tea made from the bark of the Gumbo Limbo tree. While I was in Belize I used this remedy, and it did seem to help, especially on my arms where I got a rash (I believe) from walking under a poisonwood tree while it was raining (as I said, I appear to be acutely sensitive).
There are other notable risks of visiting Belize. I saw a number of public notices touting that Belize has the highest rate of HIV in central America. I also saw public notices warning about the prevalence of Chagas disease. In some areas of Belize, the risk of Leishmaniasis is significant, and a friend of the friends I was staying with recently had a cutaneous lesion.
I was sorry to leave Belize (especially because a storm hitting the east coast delayed me in Houston overnight!), but I am excited to be getting ready for my next adventure. Tomorrow morning I head to Ecuador, and on Saturday I head to the Galapagos! For a Darwin enthusiast, this trip is an opportunity of a lifetime, and I will endeavor, while aboard the National Geographic Endeavor to experience the Galapagos to the fullest (and hopefully share my experience here).