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Belize, day one May 17, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Travel.

[I’m in Belize on a medical mission with Project Hope Belize, a facility that provides the only prosthetics and orthotics care in the entire country. I’m here to pitch in as needed (given I’m not exactly a medical professional) and learn more about the operation in hopes of securing grant funding to support their work.]

Monday morning, 9 am, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport Concourse E

It’s been a while since I’ve flown out of the country, and I always get a thrill just walking down the international concourse. I like how the clothing and skin tones change, and I realize how little I know about the world. There was a flight leaving for Liberia. It did not specify a city name. Is there only one international airport in the whole country, or is there also a city named Liberia? See? Much to learn.

I had my typical short wait at my gate before boarding. There was a small family in front of me – mom, dad, and teenaged daughter. Just before presenting her passport, she whispered, seemingly out of character, “I’m so excited! Thanks, dad.” There’s surely a great story there.

The nonstop flight to Belize City is less than three hours from Atlanta, but still crazy expensive, so I don’t blame myself for knowing so little about this particular country. I was catching up on some back issues of Rolling Stone but stayed distracted by the college group behind me. They were from somewhere in Indiana, on their way to a 12-day diving and snorkeling trip. Several were reading a book about ecosystems and the tropics, which makes me think they were getting credit for the trip. Nice. I could have done without the very loud group effort at solving the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine, but their exuberance amused me.

Another thrill: spotting the first offshore island through the window, descending through the cloud cover to see verdant forest, and realizing how far I’d come in so short a time. Wild vegetation we just don’t get in Georgia was occasionally split by swaths of brightly colored houses. I always relish the opportunity to drop out of the sky into a land that looks so different than mine. The accumulation of so many small details that are natural here but unnatural for me creates this feel, and I got it in the first few seconds of that aerial view. It’s wonderful.

No jetway here, so I descended the staircase-on-wheels to set foot in my 17th country. Customs in Belize was easy. The official language is English (who knew?), so I was able to answer the questions reasonably. I was surprised by one question. I had explained what I would be doing in the country, and a customs agent asked, “Did you bring anything?” I thought for a moment that of course I brought stuff. I’m carrying a suitcase, aren’t I? Then I grinned a little and said, “Nope.” And she said, “Okay,” and stamped my form. Good thing I didn’t bring anything on this trip.

This is my second official work trip to a developing country, and so it became my second time looking for a sign with my name on it, and my second time getting into a taxi by myself in a foreign land to hurtle off into the unknown, trusting my life to a complete stranger. Well, I suppose Foxy was not a complete stranger. That’s right, I said “Foxy”. At least that’s who Rob, the organizer of the trip, said would be picking me up. When he introduced himself, he didn’t seem to say his name was Foxy, so I didn’t call him anything. But I think if I ever need a pseudonym, “Foxy” just might work. Foxy led me towards a parking lot with minibuses and cabs and eventually toward a shiny black Mercedes. But that wasn’t his. Foxy’s car was a beat-up old Ford with a big crack in the windshield and what certainly looked like a bullet hole, though I can’t be sure. Still, I was grateful for the ride, which he provides at a huge discount as his personal way of supporting the work at Project Hope.

Foxy has a thick accent, so though his English was fine, I did struggle a bit to understand him. We spoke a bit about each town we passed, and he told of a certain spot where the cashews grow in abundance and can be eaten for free. As we traveled north for about 30-some miles I got a feel for the landscape and the country. The majority of the structures we passed looked abandoned, but I soon realized they’re not. For many it was difficult to tell if there was an addition being built or part of the building falling down. Many had rusting old cars in the yard, surrounded by weeds suggesting they’d been there for years. Some even had complete abandoned school buses, right there in their front yard. And we passed at least two junk yards. I don’t know where all these old vehicles come from. There were also lots of churches, many in what appeared to be disrepair but with clearly painted signs revealing a long list of service times. I wish I could be here for one.

Strangely, the drive reminded me a bit of the route we used to take to the beach from Raleigh, passing through rural North Carolina. Maybe it was the sandy soil and long, straight, two-lane roads. Or the people standing by the roadside, not at a bus stop waiting – just standing, passing the time. So, Belize is a bit like eastern North Carolina. Except for the dozens of roadside mango stands, and the palm trees loaded with coconuts, and the sugar cane fields, and the wild mahogany trees, and the Caribbean rum distillery.

We arrived at Project Hope just as a visiting group of Occupational Therapy students was leaving. I served as photographer for their group picture, then hastily met the team before we all loaded up in an extended cab pickup and went straight to dinner at the house of a patient. Many of the patients are extravagantly generous in their means of showing thanks to the group for the care they receive. There were three bags of mangoes at the facility, all from the gardens of patients. And one particular family had invited the whole group to a home-cooked meal at their home. Now that’s what I call a proper welcome to a new country!

Eleven people live in this home, though I’m not sure where. There was no indoor plumbing and no indoor kitchen. They do their cooking over a sizeable outdoor brick hearth covered by a corrugated metal roof. We ate right there, outside, next to the hearth on plastic chairs. Oh, they had cooked and cooked for us! I feasted on rice that had been cooked in coconut milk and something called black chicken soup. The fresh papaya was fabulous, and the horchata was wildly sweet. The family did not eat; they only served us and stood by attentively, desperate for us to enjoy ourselves.

A plate of roasted habanero pepper was passed. The family grows their own peppers – cayenne, jalapeno, and habanero – so this was as close from the garden to the plate as it gets. Tyler, affectionately known as “Mongo”, is one of the students on the trip (actually, I think he’s a recent graduate) from Georgia Tech. He tried a bit of a pepper, and his reaction was hysterical. I couldn’t resist, so I cut off a chunk and popped it in my mouth. I’ve had my share of spicy food, but this was easily the hottest thing I’ve ever tasted. I was amazed at how the fire stayed in my mouth for a good five minutes after I’d swallowed the little devil, even after I ate mouthfuls of rice and swirled the horchata in my cheeks, hoping it might act like a fire extinguisher. Remarkable.

Back at Project Hope, the group took to the afternoon’s work with vigor. They’re an affable and energetic bunch, and it’s readily apparent that they all have incredibly giving spirits. I worked on unloading boxes of donated pediatric ankle-foot orthoses, sorting them, and finding shelf space for them. It wasn’t much, but I think it’s the sort of work that the practitioners rarely get time to do since they’re occupied with patients and fittings, so it was apparently much appreciated.

Though the afternoon was reserved for work on components for the patients who had been seen that morning, one patient did wander in, and he gave me a glimpse of what I will see in the coming days. He lost his left leg some time ago, and was hopping down a set of stairs on his right leg when he fell, suffering serious trauma that went untreated. He now has lost sensation and muscle activity in the intact limb and needs an orthosis for it. When he came to see us, {this is really gross) he could not wear a normal shoe during his fitting because his foot was bandaged. Turns out he woke one morning to find a rat chewing onh his toes. He could not feel is due to the neuropathy. The team took care of him and sent him on his way. He stood quietly in front of the facility for probably an hour or more, waiting for a ride, I suppose.

That’s the sort of work the folks do here, and I already feel privileged to be a part of it.

Four more days yet to come!



1. amy geil - May 17, 2011

Cashews grow on trees???

2. Tina McIntosh - May 18, 2011

I’m more surprised the cashews are free! Mac drinks the horchata when he’s in Cancun and claims it’s great although when I went I prefered the lemonade. Thank you for the posts – I love living vicariously through the travels adventures of friends 🙂

3. Michelle - May 19, 2011

Wow! Trips to places like those are so fun and exciting. I agree with Tina, I love traveling to far off places through the stories of friends. Can’t wait to read about the rest of your trip!

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