clare-hill.com The story of Clare Hill's voluntary work adventure in Belize

12/08/2008

Conor’s Day

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Conor — Clare Hill @ 07:14 pm

Well now, it started in the usual sort of way. I got up at 6.15am, showered and had my breakfast, ready for my client from the UK on Skype at 6.45am. While I am on the phone in our open-plan living kitchen, Conor does his ablutions in the bathroom and bedroom. It’s the hottest time of day in the living area as the sun is rising up a bit higher and shining straight in the windows, so I am usually sweat-soaked and ready for a second shower by the time I finish. We have 15 minutes to say hello, exchange dreams, and then I leave to cross the road to the department. (Incidentally, they have put hard core down on the road, in preparation for the tarmac, and the reduction in dust level in the flat is quite astounding. We take our shoes off at the door and walk on the tiles in bare feet, and they would be covered in a grimy, gritty layer before a couple of hours were up – no more. So much more pleasant.)

Anyway, I left Conor as usual this morning, and he prepared his breakfast ready for his day of clients starting at 9am. While I was in the department, I noticed a large cherry picker working with one of the electricity poles immediately outside. I didn’t give it much thought – same as they had been doing with all the other poles in the street. But, on the other side of the street, Conor was standing with his head phones on, starting to work with someone when he noticed that the men were going up the pole and that the cherry picker was very close to the cable which the local Broadband company brought from the pole into our flat, joining the medley of wires crossing from one side of Albert Street to the other. He warned the person he was working with that there may be some interference.  Forty five minutes later the connection was cut off. Conor looked out, and saw a man in the cherry picker look at him a bit sheepishly through the window. Conor looked further and could not see the wire! The men and the cherry pickers moved on to the next pole, at which point Conor saw half a wire dangling from the pole by my department building. He phoned the cable company, who said speak to the men. He went out and told them that what had happened.

“You’ve broken my cable”.

“Yes.”

“I’ll have to contact the cable company.”

“Yes.”

So he did! He confirmed that the cherry picker had broken it, and they said they would be there straight away – time being 10.45am. There was no way Conor could inform the client he was working with or the next ones on the list what was happening.

When I came across for my lunch hour, Conor was still waiting. I went back to the department, and around 3pm there was a rattling and calling on the wrought iron doors that the folk queue behind on Thursdays and Fridays. A member of the department went over to a man with a bicycle, who had an official white sheet of paper with stamps all over it and my name. He explained that it was for a parcel which had to be collected before 4pm. I explained that I was nipping over to give it to Conor to go and collect, and he warned that you would need to pay some money to the post office.

Conor was still waiting for the men to mend his cable and to resume his connections with his clients. He was concerned about leaving the flat because they would be bound to turn up, and in time-honoured style disappear again. In the end he decided to go, and told the woman in the shop downstairs that if they should turn up, to keep them there and that he would be back in 10 minutes. As he left, I reminded him he would probably need some ID as it was in my name. We have some copies of our passports, both his and mine on one sheet, which we have been warned is safer than carrying around the real thing, to be either lost or stolen. It seemed ideal as it identified both him and me.

I went back over the road, and Conor set off to the post office, opposite the Caye Caulker Water Taxi terminal. Conor had already picked up one parcel a few weeks before, so returned to that building, confident that he knew where to go straight away this time.

  • He was told that he had a white slip, not pink, so he had to go to another building.
  • He crossed the car park to another building, and presented his copy of the passports, only to be told he had to have the originals.
  • Back he trekked in the heat, collected the passports, and thankfully no sign of the repair men.
  • In the correct parcel office, the man wrote out all the details of both passports onto the white slip.
  • He handed the passports back to Conor, and went off to find the package.
  • As he approached the window, package in hand, Conor thought “Thank God hopefully I can get back now before the men arrive.” 
  • But the man veered off towards another member of staff at another window around the corner without indicating anything. He seemed to think that Conor knew what was going to happen next.
  • When he returned to the shelving area, Conor made a pointing gesture, questioning whether he went over to that window. He nodded.
  • Conor lined up at a window saying “Customs”.
  • The customs officer opened the package in front of Conor with a sharp knife, pulled out the contents, and rather than being the antibiotics that he had so confidently told her they would be, discovered something else!
  • She appeared nonplussed as he said he was expecting a different package.
  • Conor asked whether he needed to pay anything, and was told no customs duty, just 75 cents to release it.
  • He handed her 75 cents, only to be handed a pink slip and told to go round to the furthest window at the other end of the row of windows to pay.
  • Conor waited in line again, under a sign saying “Package Cashier”. He paid the man 75 cents, and got a yellow receipt.
  • He returned to the Customs window, handed her the receipt, and at last was given the parcel together with a slightly sheepish look from the woman!

By the time he returned to the flat, the cable company men were in the middle of repairing the wire across the road. It was well past bed time in the UK by now, but better late than never.

When I got home from the department, there was a lovely photo of my son Aaron and his partner Niamh, saying on the back that having read through the blog and our failure to bring our water bottle insulator over with us, he thought that we might like to have it!

THANK YOU!!! MUCH APPRECIATED! Especially when accompanied by such a lovely photo!

And meanwhile, when Conor’s antibiotics arrive he will have to go through the whole procedure again…..

03/08/2008

Jumpers and Biters

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Beisle Cottage,Crooked Tree,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 07:10 pm

Mr. S kindly gave us a lift back to the bus stop in Ladyville, and we had a great conversation about living in foreign lands, world health, poverty, and much more. When we remarked on how much racial tolerance we perceived, he said that there had to be as there had been so much intermarriage between the different ethnic groups over the centuries. As parents you were never quite sure what features your children would have. It made me feel hopeful for countries like the US and the UK, where such intermingling is relatively young compared to a country like Belize.

On Monday he phoned us to say that his wife agreed the rent and conditions he had made with us, and then dropped the keys off the following day. Conor jiggled a few clients around, and caught the market bus out at 11 am on Wednesday, starting to take some things out to the cottage. He chuckled about the bus journey, full of women and fruit and veg., laughing and chatting together like a Works Outing. When they got to the village, the driver suddenly turned off the sandy lane and drove over a field right up to a woman’s house. “What’s she got that we haven’t? VIP treatment!” ricocheted around the bus!

Conor arranged with Corletta for the standard 5 gallons bottle of water to be dropped off on Friday, checked out the bed for comfort, and reported back on whether we had towels and bed linen provided, and the state of the lemon trees! The overall verdict was good! By 5.30pm on Friday we were standing at the bus stop at the Belcan Bridge.There are 3 main bridges over the River Belize: the swing bridge at the mouth of the river, where the fishermen are moored and the Caye Caulker Water Taxi terminal is; then the Belchina Bridge – Belize/China; and the main artery north via the Belcan Bridge – Belize/Canada. Both China and Canada have supported Belize’s economy and infrastructure in a variety of ways. Most of the volunteer projects and NGOs I have come across seem to include Canadian involvement. We wonder if this is particularly because of Commonwealth connections.

Anyway, there we were, anxiously waiting for a bus marked Crooked Tree, with a small wheelie case, two folding garden chairs as we decided we needed something a bit softer to sit on than wood, whether inside or on the verandah, and each with a backpack full of provisions (olive oil, S&P, herbs and spices, loo rolls, the essential rubber gloves, rice, kidney beans, tins of coconut milk…etc!). Various buses came and went for points north – Orange Walk, the next biggest town in Belize, and Cozumal on the Mexican border. We were beginning to wonder whether the bus didn’t go via this stop after all, when a young man, about 22, wandered over from a group of friends and sat on the bench near us. He caught my eye, and asked whether we were going to Crooked Tree. When I said yes he smiled warmly and said he was our neighbour! When I asked whether he was Corletta’s son (assuming he had seen us the previous w/e) he said her grandson. He assured us the bus would come, and told us they are marked with ‘Jex’ not Crooked Tree, which is the name of the bus company. When the bus eventually arrived, he heaved the case onto the back for us, entering with all the other young bloods through the back door, whilst we in our dotage got on the front of the bus, armed with backpacks and chairs! (Both Conor and I are referred to as Mama and Papa here in Belize, a respectful term for elders, but it’s a bit unnerving! A bit of a reality check!)

Since the majority were bound for Crooked Tree (CT from now on) there was again an easy familiarity between folk, with chatting going on, children falling asleep whilst their heads were supported by their neighbour’s shoulders, and the now familiar diversity of shades and features. There was also a lot of variety in the way people were attired, too. People in the more professional classes over here tend to dress relatively formally for work, rarely jeans or anything more exposing than a short or ¾ length sleeved top, whatever the weather. The exception to that seems to be in organisations like PAHO (the Pan American branch of the WHO) when those Americanised folk have smart jeans and polo tops. Others looked more in the shop assistant league, whilst others again manual labourers. But regardless of how they earned their living, the majority would have known each other from time immemorial, with a smattering of in-comers like ourselves who soon get known by default.

The bus stopped right outside our and Corletta’s houses, and we struggled off the bus with all our stuff, and came inside! The light is just going at 6.30pm in the Tropics, so we had about half an hour to acquaint ourselves with everything before full darkness fell. After about ten minutes, all the toes on both my feet went red, slightly swollen and itchy. I thought that perhaps I had brushed against a poisonous grass as I walked across the garden into the house. And then I remembered that many called some of the ants ‘fire ants’.  Now I knew why – my toes were on fire! Fortunately it didn’t last too long – I think they must have been relatively small ones – and I resisted the urge to scratch.

I was the jumpy one that first night. As a child the story of my mother’s first night in a married quarter in Aden was vividly etched into my brain. My father was in hospital with a severe dose of hepatitis, and mum awoke to find her bed, pillow and every surface in the room heaving with cockroaches. They disappeared as soon as she turned on the light, which she left on, of course! So whenever I am in an unknown ‘hot’ place, I am partially awaiting for the hoards all night. Truth be told, it is a fine, watertight and insect-proof little place and the worst I saw in 3 nights was 1 small beetle and 2 small spiders – far less than I live with quite amicably in Ellemford! But I didn’t sleep well that w/e, and ended up with a trapped nerve in my back by Monday morning. Fortunately it was not serious and as soon as I had some painkillers and lay down flat, it began to loosen up and was fine by Tuesday.

On Saturday, we did a recce of the village to discover what is available there, and what we need to bring out from BC. There are about 3 shops, each selling a smattering of basics. The one nearest to us, between us and Birds Isle Lodge, sits in the centre of a large field. The fence has barbed wire to keep out the horses and cows which roam freely through the village. One section has no barbed wire, just two wooden crossbars through which you clamber! We took a photo…Carmen, a most helpful woman who has the shop, told us it’s open most of the time except only 7-9am on Sundays, but if you holler (pronounced halLAH with a rising intonation) she will come downstairs for you. She also sells some fresh produce from the farm behind the shop, whatever may be in season. When we asked who to contact to arrange for some fresh fish each w/e, she told us to follow two lads down a track opposite.

A lot of folk seem to have a small holding and to be growing fruit and veg., and to supplement their diet with a daily catch. The track led us into a surprisingly well-inhabited area of houses dotted through the fields, trees and shrubs and vegetable plots. Some were wooden on stilts like ours, surrounded by lines of clothing blowing in the wind, some concrete blocks, one or two mobile homes, and one larger building at the bottom complete with a fence, animals and some fierce sounding dogs. We hoped it wasn’t there. We saw the white T-shirt on a shoulder sitting in a mobile home – which we had been told to look for. As we approached, a tall, older man with an affable smile wandered over to his gate. What followed was such a pleasure…somehow he captured a lot of what is just glorious about the place. I thought that Leonardo had amble and stop as his speeds because he was a birder. But no, everyone moves like that! And speaks like that. You ask something, and they chew the cud of your words, digesting them and thinking about it. And then a few minutes later they refer back to it with some comment or two. The complete antithesis of Alberto the taxi driver in Belmopan! The long and the short of it was

Yes he could possibly supply us with some fish.

And that he would probably charge us BZ$2.

There again, he may even have a couple of fish he could give us for today.

He would fillet them and send them up with one of the boys later. 

Conor ventured that we were wondering if he knew who we could ask to hire a boat for exploring the water ways, as Bird Isle lodge was expensive.

He nodded sagely and slowly repeated that Birds Isle Lodge was expensive.

(He reminds me of folk you meet in the Highlands. That was the Creole equivalent of a long ‘Aye’.)

After a bit he said that he had a boat moored by the water (pronounced wahTAH).

It needs a second seat put into it.

He’ll let us know.

Money was exchanged, and later that morning we received a bag of two delicious large filleted fish for the princely sum of 50p. Oh, and his name is Uriah.

In the afternoon we decided to walk a bit further out into the northern bit of the island, to find what is called Cashew Products on the tourist map. It was blisteringly hot, as there had been no rain in our area for about 10 days (though huge storms in Dangriga and further south. A bridge across the Stann Creek on Hummingbird Highway had been washed away.) We wandered out along the sandy lanes, still marvelling at the huge girth of some of the trees and tree roots, and the serendipitous nature of the shapes and styles and smartness and decrepitude of the houses. We thought that we ought to have arrived at one of them by now, and when we happened across 3 vehicles and assorted mechanics and aids outside of a house, we asked if we were close. A good natured confident young man picked up our map, telling us that there were two places selling cashew products, and this was the other one! And the better one as here you could get the cashew seeds (not called nuts) as well as the wine. He proudly announced that Henry was the chief agent for all the cashews in the island. Everyone sold them to him.

As he spoke, he led us up to a shy man in his late thirties, and if he doesn’t have some Irish blood in him I’ll eat my hat! Henry was in the middle of shaving one of the boy’s heads, seated on a wooden stool between a truck and some large barrels. The principle of living outside and sleeping inside was very evident here, with the children playing around, the barber’s post, car repairs, all life really. Henry showed us the cashews he sold for BZ$20 – £5, quite expensive we thought. No wonder it’s a cash crop. He then told us about his wine: cashew and black berry – which is like an elder berry, at BZ$6 a bottle. As cheap as the cashews are expensive. He let us taste the cashew wine, which is 5 years old and fortified like a port or sherry. Good but not for guzzling. He then led us to his still –beside us 8 huge blue barrels were covered with corrugated iron sheets (to run the rain off) and each tightly covered with thick plastic. He uncovered one, took out a little of the rich red liquor, and let us quaff it. It was much lighter and fruitier and very pleasant. He took great care to fix the plastic tightly down again – the insects would have a field day! We ordered a bottle of each for the next day.

Oh, and we have found that one of the ponds, near the pigs, is a favourite haunt for some of the more interesting waders. On both Saturday and Sunday we saw goodies there, including a Roseate Spoonbill in flight against the green foliage as we startled it – quite stunning; the Bare-throated Tiger Heron (again!) and a Spotted Water Rail. There is an interesting little bird that sits on the wire by our verandah which can’t confidently identify yet, too.

Biters? – Well, after the canoe trip my feet were covered. Obviously not enough Deet on.

02/08/2008

Welcome to Beisle Cottage

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Beisle Cottage,Crooked Tree — Clare Hill @ 10:19 pm

Remember Crooked Tree, which we liked so much? A couple of w/e’s ago? Well, I am sitting on a verandah of a little doll’s house on stilts, on a Saturday morning, in our own little place in Crooked Tree!  The Rose-throated Becard has its nest on the pole in front of us, and the Great Kiskadees are very fond of this particular electric wire as a perch.

When we were walking around that first w/e, Conor spotted one or two houses that he thought looked like holiday homes. One in particular caught his eye, newly painted, spick and span, shutters evenly shut and watertight, large grounds with fabulous, vast mango trees in it. He began musing about us moving out here and commuting into BC. We starting asking some questions back at Birds Isle Lodge, and discovered that a lot of folk do that, and that 3 buses leave at 5.30am, 6.30am and 7.30am each morning right from the village, one of which returns with the women from the market at 11am. Then a couple of buses come back again across the causeway into the village in the evening. The journey is about an hour and fifteen minutes, and it costs an extra 50 cents to be taken the three miles off the Northern Highway and into the village. Christina (the cook and cleaner) the gardener and the owner of the Lodge all indicated that there were some properties that may be available to rent, and that they would ask around.

We hummed and hawed about it over the w/e, and in the end decided that it would be too long a day, starting at 6.30am and getting back at 6.30pm. We had virtually abandoned the idea, when suddenly on the bus home Conor said “But what if we took a place and just used it at the w/es? It would still be cheaper for us than being a tourist every w/e…And much easier on the body.” We decided to wait and see if the opportunity arose, and see how much the rent would be.  

A few days later, Christina from the Lodge rang, giving us a name and number of a woman who had a house in Crooked Tree. Conor talked with a lady, and arranged for us to meet her by her house the following Saturday (last w/e). He asked for directions, and was told between the hurricane shelter and the Lodge. We knew it was in the vicinity of the house that had caught Conor’s eye, and we wondered…

Saturday came and we found ourselves on the bus – we still couldn’t find the proper 11am bus directly into the village. It seemed to have a mercurial starting place in town, everyone saying somewhere else. (We later discovered that it has different starting places at different times of day, and that if you get to the Belcan Bridge, all of them have to pass there onto the Northern Highway. It took Conor 3 days of rooting to find that out!) We got off at the shelter where we had met the young woman with the premature baby the week before, alone this time and rain threatening again, and decided to start the 3 mile walk into the village. We hoped someone might pick us up along the way! Even having that thought was symptomatic of the different world the area was compared to BC. There have been 3 murders just this last week, but they are nearly always gang and drug related, and not much of a threat to anyone not directly involved – unless of course you happen to be in the way, but that is true of any place, any time. A couple did stop, after about a mile, themselves weekenders from BC, their car full of provisions. We were glad of the lift, and got out at the hurricane shelter. To our rising excitement we noticed that the house that had caught Conor’s eye was right next door! We were half an hour early for our rendezvous, and sauntered past, wondering if it was it. A few children were banging in a fence post and we asked them whether the house opposite was a holiday home? They called their granny out of a breeze brick house, who said a name that Conor recognised as the same as the woman he had spoken to on the phone! We could hardly believe it was happening. Corletta – we later learned her name – had a key to the garden, and as it was threatening to rain again, kindly let us in so we could shelter on the verandah if necessary.

The rain held off so we walked around the garden, noticing the 8 mango trees, the cashew nut trees, the lemon tree, and the barbecue area – everyone cooks outside here, even in BC most do in the poorer areas. There was a large burnt patch, and later Mr. S. told us that there is no rubbish collection, and each household burns their own. (We have since found that there is now a collection. Large blue plastic tubs with rubbish disposal painted on them are sited in a couple of places along the lanes.) As we explored, a car drew up and a tall man got out, introducing himself and saying we were early!

Mr. S was charming: from Ladyville just north of BC, aged 72, a retired epidemiologist working with the WHO. Mr. S. has lived in many places, including parts of Africa, the UK (he couldn’t understand anyone in Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and India. He and his wife have retired back here in Belize. He told us that they had just done up the house, which is his wife’s ancestral home. The door was opened into a Belizean version of the little wooden bungalow that I lived in in rural Scotland with my first husband for a year and a half, where the children were born! In immaculate order, everything is simple and functional. The windows have sound insect screens and wooden slatted shutters which you push open or shut, fixing the two halves firmly shut by twisting a wooden knob on the upper half over the lower. A few of them have curtains. The verandah has 2 doors, the main one into a living and kitchen area running the length of the house, and the second side door opening into a small single bedroom. A double bedroom opens off the living area, and the bathroom off the kitchen. When the back door and front doors are open, screens firmly shut, and all the window shutters open, a cool breeze runs through the house. Mr. S told us that the houses were also built on stilts to allow the wind to circulate underneath too. Simple, well built wooden varnished furniture is everywhere: beds, chests of drawers, a trunk for bedding, a double backed bench, and some single chairs. A couple of side tables too. What is now a garden store used to be the kitchen (we have seen that in other rural houses – the house is for sleeping, and the electricity station is in the front for the cooker, the fridge, washing machine etc); Mr. and Mrs. S. built the kitchen on a few years ago. There is a small fridge, a wooden dresser, a double hob much as we use in our practice in Edinburgh, and a microwave. The rent was very reasonable, and we immediately knew this was just what we needed!


 

Having made our agreement, Mr.S told us that after putting the phone down, his wife said that she thought we may be just what they were looking for! They did not want hippies, as he called them, because his wife was very fussy and did not want the place to be spoiled. He had been uncertain about spending money on renovating the place recently, but she had persuaded him that they may be able to let it, and that it would be a legacy for their children. Lucky us! He also told us that it has no name, but that his wife’s name was Beisle. (B. Isle – Birds Isle, I wondered later?)

So, welcome to Beisle Cottage!

More photos are now online.

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