Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tikal and Flores

Last weekend I opted to play a bit- which meant joining my housemates for a random jaunt down to Guatemala to visit Flores and Tikal.Somehow, I managed to be the person with both the best Spanish language skills and best sense of direction, which made for a slightly less restful trip than I would have liked.

While crossing the Guatemala border, I received a nasty bite on my right toe from a giant red leafcutter ant (not the scientific term). Yet another reason Chacos are wonderful....when my toe swelled up to nearly twice its original size, I simply could adjust my shoe.

We planned to take the 5AM shuttle to Tikal, in hopes of catching the animals out and about. A brilliant idea, except that as of 4AM there was an intense thunderstorm happening. One of my housemates wakes up, and we question the wisdom of heading off to see a (rather tall) Mayan ruin in the middle of a storm. Stumble to the hostel desk and try to explain to the clerk that we'd like to cancel our shuttle reservation, due to the storm. The clerk tells me this isn't possible, my housemate suggests we try to call the shuttle driver, which we do,but the phone line is dead. Now, this doesn't sound like a big deal, but I'm pretty incoherent when I first wake up, at 4AM is probably my absolute least favorite hour of the day. Trying to speak two languages at this point was more than a little taxing. The other housemates started waking up, and the storm is slowing a bit, so we decide to chance then venture anyway.

Onto the shuttle, and everyone goes back to sleep. About 5:30 the overenthusiastic tourguide starts yelling. He informs us that about to stop at the restaurant where we can get water and sandwiches, and we can take absolutely 15 minutes max. At 6, we get to the site, hordes of tourists descend, and swarm the restaurant in an attempt to get coffee and sandwiches, tourguide barking the entire time. We don't want a guide and do want some breakfast, so finally manage to discover that there's a restaurant across the street that serves real breakfast. I find myself explaining multiple times to my housemates that "mantequilla" is butter, and is not an actual meal. By perhaps a bit before or after 7 we made it into the actual park, and did see several monkeys.

Against my better judgement, I scrambled up a "staircase" more accurately resembling a ladder to the top of Temple V. Was very nearly sick. Manage to get myself down....later discovered (at the top of Temple IV ~230 feet) that it's not nearly so much heights that bother me as it is narrow ledges high up.

Once getting back to the hostel, we had lunch. The one meat-eater in the group complained multiple times to the 3 vegetarians that her burrito was missing the taste of meat (Los Amigos Hostel in Flores has a vegetarian restaurant). Slept much of the afternoon....

Saturday was spent wandering the market in nearby Santa Elena and then swimming in the lake. Between the two days activities, I picked up a moderate sunburn, and opted to spend Sunday in the shade, reading Alice Walker's "We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For." (Which I may write about at some point). Ironically, the housemates wound up more sunburned than me....

Trip back to Belize was uneventful. Upon arrival we discovered the door to the house unlocked. It seems someone on staff had been around doing laundry (and neglected to return the key to the laundry room). Rather disturbing. Nothing was missing, and appropriate action has been taken to limit weekend access to the house to people who actually live there.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When it all comes together

T. and J. were doing HIV outreach at the market on Saturday. Afterwards, J. was telling me about a young man, obviously gay, who approached them. She mentioned his false guilt- "I heard it started in the gay community" family stigma- "if my family found out I was gay, they'd run me out of town" and the vague "I don't really know you, but I had some rough stuff happen as a kid."

I growled about the fact that this community doesn't have many resources available for people like this man, and said "I'm sure he's seen some horrible stuff. Think about the numbers for domestic violence in this country (close to 50% of homes. Keep in mind that domestic violence is underreported, because it's a socially undesirable behavior). J. mentions the violent drawings produced by kids in summer camp, and I snarl for the women in my focus group who were bullied by their husbands and in-laws and for Friday's experience in the park and the fact that men here feel it's okay to treat a woman in that manner...and suddenly I'm shocked to find tears in my eyes.

It's impossible to separate the questions I'm asking or my experiences from a larger conversation that's not happening. One about gender and power,autonomy, family, fear...what happens to people too weak or terrified to speak up for themselves. It's something to be cried over.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Things that make you think twice.

I can't not talk about Friday morning...
Having spent a couple mornings at the park by the police station, I decided to try my luck at the park across from the market. I got there, and found a parkbench, and started scoping the place out. Pulled out my journal, jotted a few notes. Random guy on a bike comes by, says "I don't mean no disrespect, but I think you're incredibly gorgeous. Just wanted to make your day." Okay...whatever, I can deal with that. He comes by a second time, and says something else...I decide if I have random people approaching me, I need to ask them to do a survey (seems reasonable, I've had decent success with this tactic dealing with tour guides downtown) Well...I start my survey, and I get to the question on marital status, and he asks if I want to marry him. I....remain as professional as possible, smile, and inform him that my boyfriend would have some issues with that. I keep going, and get to the question about "do you intend to have any more children?" he tells me "write that it depends on you." He leans towards me, jabbing a finger at the paper, and I get a whiff of the contents of his metal cup he's holding. Rum. Oh shit- not a good situation.
I finish the survey, get rid of him as nicely and professionally as I possibly can (did I mention that it came up that he'd been deported from the US, and used to sell weed in Los Angeles?)
He then proceeds to send his buddies over to talk to me (not bad data-wise, I got about 4 surveys total, I think). One was a former Navy guy from the US (went to school in Atlanta, on disability now)...a few weren't terribly savory characters. I did about 3 surveys, then the whole thing dissolved into a complete mess (not that it wasn't one beforehand). One fellow is questioning me about religion, asking whether I believe we're still subject to "the moral law." Another guy, smelling of rum and urine kept lurking around. He gave me a pen, told me he loved me, showed me the form he got at the drs office with his name on it, gave me his phone number, asked for my address (I wrote down a garbled mess roughly resembling an SC address with a TN zip code) and then proceeded to take a grubby ring off his finger and informs me that it's for me, "white gold and diamonds, because you're my queen." Meanwhile, the other guy is giving me a lecture about God and Moses and Jesus, while I'm trying to come up with an adequate response to the Mayan gentleman who just told me that his wife died after they'd been married a short time, and now he's 80 and alone in the world except for a sister who lives with him.
Finally I say something about leaving for lunch (yes, this all took place in broad daylight, in a park, between 10 and 11:30 AM) and retreat to Cornerstone.
Don't think I'll be going back to that park.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Another day, another scramble for data

Lately it seems I have more stories than time for blogging.
So...yesterday, I went back to stalking the OB-GYN.
It seems we had a miscommunication. I assumed that because I called him on his office phone to set an appointment, we were meeting between 8-9 at his office. He assumed that I knew he'd be at the hospital, and was meeting him there.
Regardless, I caught him yesterday morning, on his way to the hospital. He asked me if I wanted to come along with him, and I agreed. Hopped in the car, and started the interview....we arrived at the hospital, and I stopped the recorder, as he gave me a tour...emergency room, labor and recovery, and then the maternal and child health hall, where his office is. People lined up literally up and down the hallway. He shows me into his office, where we're suddenly joined by a medical student from the UK who's shadowing/assisting for the day.
I continue my interview, he's rather unhurried, despite the throngs of patients sitting just outside the door.
Student expresses interest in my project and gives me her contact information.
And I hike the 1.5 miles or so back into town.
This is where I get points for:
1) wearing my chacos everywhere
2) being adaptable
3) working in a country where it's safe for young white women to walk around alone.

Made it back to Cornerstone to find warm chocolate cake (with gooey green icing vaguely reminiscent of marshmallow cream) ready. Very exciting.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The focus group that almost wasn't.

So....I pitched my project to the women's group last week. In two languages, with a cutesy handout. N. made reminder phone calls today, telling women that group starts at 4:15. We wandered down about 4:30 (this is Belize). I'm braced to lead a bilingual focus group, if need be.The women's computer class is finishing up, and suddenly, a woman we'll call Miss Faith (not her real name) wanders in. And her intentions are mutinous. She informs N. that she's not coming, not this week, and not next week, because she's not interested in the group topics. She doesn't care about poetry or abortion (?! N and I are still confused as to why she thought group was about abortion). And family planning is good for young women to talk about, but she's already done with that, and they need to learn about cooking and how to make money. Miss Faith continues with hardly a breath - the group needs to decide what to talk about, Nora shouldn't be calling people about meetings, that's the president's job, the group needs to be more organized, what happened to the money from the bake sale?! She's a part of a group at the library and other groups in town and they all work and this group doesn't and she knows how groups work and people help each other out and....

The tirade lasted a good half hour. After a while she turned away from N. and addressed her comments to the two other women there, who were sympathetic. At this point, N. and I are both really concerned that tonight's meeting is going to be shoved for organizational details, but finally, Miss Faith runs out of steam and informs N. that when the meeting is held, she will pay what she owes the group (for earrings at the bake sale).

So, now I get to introduce my project and try to lead a focus group- with three participants. My demographic/background questionnaire and the invitation letter took about a half hour. The president informed me that they knew how this worked, they'd had a group to talk about domestic violence and had helped a volunteer with her study before.

I start with my questions, and it's a little awkward the first ten minutes or so. I'm jotting a few responses on the chart paper, verifying answers with the group....
and then suddenly, something happened, and the three women weren't talking in terms of generalities anymore, but about their stories, their husbands, parents, in-laws.
N. diligently takes notes for me, as I move around the room, trying to keep eye contact with the woman speaking, moving my tiny digital recorder next to the speaker, trying to get the best recording possible with fans and traffic in the background. We both thank them, sincerely for sharing their time and stories, and N. tells them she's learned so much in this conversation. The tape recorder is off, and they keep talking to N. and I individually for another 10 minutes or so...about their experiences, why it's important for teens and parents to talk etc. It's a peaceful, quiet, intimate atmosphere. Someone realizes they've been at women's group for an hour and a half, and the group disperses. N. and I retreat upstairs, bewildered and frustrated at the beginning of the evening and awed at its conclusion.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


You'll be happy to know that the plumbing is working.
And that today I was able to turn two solicitations from tour guides into surveys (without booking a tour).
It's funny....I was concerned about the fact that I wasn't offering incentives for this project, and how that would affect participation. (Being a young woman traveling alone, it just struck me as rather unwise to offer incentives. Kind of like an invitation for a mugging, y'know?) But for the most part, all I have to say is "hi, I'm a student from the US trying to learn about your community, do you have a couple minutes to answer a few questions?" People often volunteer more information than I ask, and expect me to sit around and listen to stories...about their son in Chicago, their brother's custody hearing, plans for a spouse's education...and they're full of advice.

Some serious excitement over the world cup here. Neighbors blasted music into the early hours of the morning for two consecutive nights. Between the three fans in our room we managed to drown most of it out. And- just because it's too weird for words, I'm writing from the balcony of a combination tacky lingerie store and coffee shop.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tales of Belizean plumbing

You knew it couldn't be that easy, right?
The plumber came, about noon on Friday. He left us a bathroom covered in raw sewage. T. cleaned the bathroom....and a couple hours later we discovered the toilet is still not working. Then SA went to take a shower in the bathroom with the working toilet. And the shower wont't catch- it insists on coming out as bath water. We don't even have a bathtub stopper here. J. attempts to resurrect the shower, no luck. It is 8pm on friday night, and we are down to one working toilet (in a bathroom with a broken shower and half-draining sink) and one working sink (in a bathroom with a half-draining shower and a broken toilet). For eight people. Attempted to go to the store to put credit on the volunteer cellphone, and Cost Less Mart was closed. This morning....well, Cost Less insisted that they don't sell phone credit. Phone credit was purchased elsewhere, the director was phoned, and she very casually said that she'd let the landlord know. Not anticipating a change in circumstances any time soon.

I can't possibly describe how much I love Belize, or how crazy it makes me. Whatever nutcase called the US a "melting pot" has obviously never been here. I'm a native English speaker and conversational in Spanish, so one would think I could manage....but frankly, speaking someone's 3rd or 4th language is less than ideal. Why does the US act as if it's normal to only speak one language?

The languages of Belize are Maya, German, Creole, German, Spanish, English, Lebanese, Hindi, and even more I'm sure....
Belize is Maya and Mennonite, Creole and Garifuna, British Colonialism, retired expats and college kids from around the world. In setting appointments I'm honestly not sure when people expect me to show up- it depends on how Western they are! And I can't tell by looking at anyone whether or not we'll be able to understand each other.

The adventure of a lifetime-with the mosquito bites thrown in for free!

Friday, July 9, 2010


I was supposed to do my first interview yesterday, which didn't quite turn out to be a complete bust. The interview subject had no real experience with my topic,but gave me a referral that might pan out. Also, I took a wrong turn and in wandering around spotted a women's health doc who may be worth talking to.

That was about 3PM- while I was out T(the one male volunteer presently in the house) managed to stop up one of the toilets. He ran up the hill to the store to get a plunger, which quickly inverted, proving useless. Supposedly Cornerstone called a plumber who was supposed to come yesterday evening....but this is Belize. So it's 9AM and we're still down to one toilet for 8 people in the volunteer house. Still have two showers though, thankfully. The one fully functional bathroom requires a treck through my current bedroom- which has four girls sharing bunkbeds and little space (I should post pictures). We've spread out, because getting dressed, showering, teeth brushing, etc. requires being able to access your stuff relatively quickly. So trying to pass through our room is potentially dangerous, particularly if the lights are off.

In other news, you can find pretty decent tea in San Ignacio (the lemon jasmine green tea I thought I'd packed in....could be anywhere. Between the whirlwind trip to TN before leaving, the 13 hours traveling and the chaos when I got here, I have no idea.) Cost Less Mart has an assortment of organic tea from Sri Lanka, and I snagged a box of green jasmine tea yesterday.

I have a couple interviews scheduled for next week, a focus group scheduled, and some phone calls to make. Progress? Baby steps.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Right now I'm sitting at Flayva's (which used to be Eva's, if you happen to be checking a Belize tour guide). Just polished off an awesome lime juice, and am making my way through a plate of nachos. Ah well...I'll burn those calories in the hike up the hill.

I was supposed to run a focus group today. It's M's (the program coordinator here) birthday. And she was supposed to be leading women's group. So N (the main volunteer working with the women's group) and I thought we'd give her the evening off. Women's group was supposed to meet at 4:30, and, this being Latin America, no one showed up until 5. And in comes M, with a folder. She does a lesson on self esteem, self confidence, public speaking and poetry reading (involving US pop songs, of all things) and doesn't finish up until 6:30. I laugh, and introduce myself and my project to the four women there. One of whom only speaks Spanish. And- even though M is a native Belizean, who grew up in Benque and San Ignacio, my Spanish is better than hers. Yep...even though it's been three years since I've spoken it. The women seemed interested, and we'll see how it goes.

Of course, this is after several hours today spent trying to create a readable information sheet (in English...) and translating my focus group questions into Spanish (Dr. Pascucci, if you happen to be reading, I love you).

And it's okay. This is a perfect case of why Spanish has subjunctive verbs- sometimes things don't work, or you're just not sure. I've taken to laughing to myself and just saying "ojala." Which is the greatest word ever. It's a holdover from the Moorish invasion of Spain. "If Allah wills it." Ojala, I will do a focus group next week. Ojala, when I talk to M. tomorrow, she will have gotten in touch with a couple of the health care providers on our list. Ojala, tomorrow I will print off surveys and start doing those around town (Flayva's, Mr. Greedy's, Cayo Twist?).

And if not? There's another word for that here. MaƱana.

It's 8pm here, and it's been dark for a while. Probably time to hike back up the hill to Cornerstone (and that's one steep hill!!) The catcalls have been a lot less present this year (gloria a Dios) but even without that reminder....I'm trying to be aware that I'm a young woman alone in a foreign country.

Though San Ignacio is becoming so familiar...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


And have arrived.
Cornerstone's relocated, to a much nicer facility. I'm almost in shock at how nice it is. No AC and no hot water, but otherwise, pretty much comparable to my apartment. Well, minus the sharing it with 7 other people part.

Right now I'm running through previous women's program projects, trying to get familiar with what other Cornerstone volunteers have done.Orientations to the town, staff, culture to come.

I've established a pretty good rapport with the office staff here. Showing up with craft supplies and condoms helped with generating goodwill. Thankfully, their schedule for me looks about like what I had envisioned- a week of getting my feet on the ground+prep work, and then roughly 3 weeks to do everything I want to.

And so it begins.

Monday, July 5, 2010

And we're off....

Blogging from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, with the help of wi-fi (that's a little pricier than my Scotch genes like) and the tech support of my significant other. Flight to Belize leaves at 12:30 Central time, so I've got a couple minutes.

And so far, so good.
Granted, any day that starts with kissing your best friend and the partner in the majority of your life's adventures goodbye is less than great.

Made it to the Columbia Airport in time to check in for my 6AM flight. This was also well before the security checkpoint opened (someone explain that to me....) so I had some quiet, slow moments. If you've ever been around me in the early morning, you'll be as grateful for this as I was.

Once in security, they confiscated my jar of peanut butter. Seriously- airport personnel were not sympathetic to my complaints about how expensive it is in Belize. They offered me the option of checking my bag, which I was not about to do on an international flight. (And yes, I am living out of a carryon and a backpack for a month. I /should/ have laundry facilities available...if not, there's going to be some interesting improvisation). Security guy then proceeded to scan several innocuous items - my medicine bag, audio recorder, flashlight and safety pins. He then left me to repack my bag and head on my way....

Nearly at the gate I realize I have no clue where the keys to my luggage lock are. I race back to security, look around....start opening pockets in carryon and backpack and the keys are not there. I conclude that I've locked them in my suitcase, and mutter several choice words. At which point the airline security lady comes by to calm me down, and let me know that it's a good thing my stuff will be safe til I reach my destination, and then I can have the travel safety people cut the lock. So I sigh, and progress back down the moving sidewalk....I get to the end, and look!!!my keys are trapped there.

So, like any reasonable human being, I fish out an inkpen, and try to remove my keys from the grate (while the sidewalk is moving). Another random airport lady wandered over asking if she could help me, and decided this incident warranted stopping the sidewalk long enough for me to get the keys and move on.

And so I left Columbia- peanut butter-less, but happy that when I need to unlock my suitcase, I will be able to do so.

I'll arrive in Belize City at 2:20 Belize time- that's 4:20 for you Eastern Standard people. From there, I have a 1 1/2- 2 hour shuttle ride to San Ignacio. I gave the shuttle people the address to Cornerstone that I have (that's on the information packet they send volunteers) and the shutttle response was "That's the address we have on file, but we've heard that Cornerstone moved. Don't worry, we'll get you there one way or another." So here goes....

Thankfully, the security people left me my mug and tea bags and ibuprofen (and razor blades, even). I'll most definitely need tea when I arrive in San Ignacio. Hoping I won't need the ibuprofen yet :)

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I'm....leaving in the morning. In the insanely early hours of the morning. To Belize, for 30 days of doing research...interviews, surveys, a focus group....trying to find out a little more about what it's like to be human, to have a family in Belize.
I hesitate to write more than this for confidentiality purposes.
But I am hoping to be able to jot down some stories and general impressions here.
For now, though, I'm going to enjoy my last few hours with someone incredibly dear to me, who I can't wait to see on the other side of this month.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Abstinence-only Sex Education, Part 3

Continuing on....trying to write up a fair history of the high points of the religious abstinence-only movement. As seems to be typical (just a general observation, no stats to back this up) the Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics have been the big players in this movement.
Much of this is taken from the website of Lifeway, the Southern Baptist publishing company (

In 1987, the Christian sex education project began, led by Jimmy Hester. He and Richard Ross successfully pitched the True Love Waits project to the Southern Baptists in 1992. From a 1994 article in First Things it seems that the motivation behind True Love Waits was to increase teens' perceptions of peer support for abstinence. True Love Waits launched in 1993 in Nashville, TN. By 1993, 100,000 virginity pledge cards had been signed as part of True Love Waits. Personally, I tend to remember True Love Waits more for huge symbolic demonstrations ("Let's stack virginity pledge cards all the way across the Golden Gate Bridge!" "Let's pile pledge cards to the top of the Georgia Dome," etc.) than anything else. True Love Waits seems to have focused on providing churches and youth conferences with pledge cards and jewelry and left the actual teaching up to individual youth leaders and congregations, from my impressions at least. I haven't heard much from True Love Waits lately (though, no longer a teenager and no longer a Southern Baptist, I'd be out of the loop anyway.). I have heard "Silver Ring Thing" lately, so maybe it's the new Christian trend? Seems to be pretty similar.

I'm going to date the start of Roman Catholic sex education teaching and advocacy with 1968 and Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae . Not being Roman Catholic, this decision is a little arbitrary, and I haven't read the encyclical in its entirety. From my understanding, it affirms the goodness and holiness of sex within marriage and goes on to condemn all sorts of artificial birth control. (Brief aside here- Not really seeing any nuances in the Roman Church's position. Apparently, it's bad to use condoms if you're a married couple trying to prevent the transmission of herpes or HIV, or for a woman suffering from endometriosis or PCOS to take birth control pills. Someone correct me if I'm wrong here- really hope I am.)

Roman Catholic bishops approved Human Sexuality, A Catholic Perspective on Education and Lifelong Learning in 1990. This pastoral document provided guidelines for sex education in Catholic schools, however, there was a strong negative response from parents. The Roman church presently seems to emphasize the importance of "positive chastity education" by parents, and doesn't seem to have any sort of recommendations about health issues to be included. Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church aligned itself with the Southern Baptist Convention's True Love Waits campaign.

Apologies for this segment being a bit rushed/incomplete, but I have a number of pressing tasks. Margaret Whitehead has dealt with the Roman Catholic side of things far more thoroughly than I could ever hope to.