We continue to have ‘weather’! For more or less the whole of October, the clouds have been on and off in the sky, and the tropical waves of thunderstorms have flown over one after the other from Honduras and the south east Caribbean. The heat was still intense, and the humidity level – having dropped immediately after a deluge – would soon begin to build up again as the hot sun evaporated the moisture fast. Then two weeks ago, the clouds intensified, with a marginal overall drop in temperature, and the rains began in earnest. After a few days, folk were saying that it was unusual to have quite so much at once and one of my work colleagues reassured me that we would see some sun before leaving in the beginning of December. And the rains still fell, 20 inches in three days at one point. The new pavement which has been under construction on either side of Albert St and taking aeons, holding up the final tarring of the road for even longer, had covered over the storm drains. The workmen have made the drain pipes from the alleyway to our flat and to the Women’s Dept on the other side of the road level with the top of the pavement, not the bottom of the alley, so we had to place planks of wood or broken bricks strategically to avoid  the 2 -3 inches of sitting water. As one would expect, the water soon became a rich mix of the dust and general detritus of the drains, the rubbish from the street, and the vegetation which began falling in the intense precipitation.

When coming back from a meeting after one exceedingly intense shower, the whole street was flooded. I turned down various streets and kept coming to impassable sections. At least, impassable to me – some people waded through with their bare feet up to their knees, but there was no guarantee that there was no sewage in them. I caught a taxi in the end.

And then two days later, there were anxious reports about the amount of water coming down the rivers. The whole of western Belize is mountainous, and indeed the two main tributaries of the Belize River, the Mopan and the Macal, bring waters from even further west: the Mopan from the Peten region of Guatemala (where Tikal and Flores are) and the Macal from the Pine Mountain Ridge (with the Rio On Pools). By last Tuesday the whole of the San Ignacio region around the rivers was flooded, Stann Creek area near Dangriga (which is often flooded), and concerns about the lower Belize River basin were expressed. On Wednesday, the three branches of the Ministry of Human Development – one of which is the Women’s Dept – were deployed to put the hurricane emergency plan into action, only this time it was for flooding. The WDOs in the Women’s Dept had responsibility for assessing the need for and distributing food.

I didn’t see some of them for days at a time, and now the stories are emerging. The 3 mile road into Crooked Tree was under water after one mile from the northern highway. Many in the village were flooded. The lagoons around Birds Isle are vulnerable because the waters come into the lagoon from the north from the Orange Walk region, and start the flood process. Then the Black Creek, a tributary of the Belize River which we canoed one morning, back-floods from the south, further flooding the region.

One colleague was in a boat up the rivers near Burrell Boom with the coast guard, wearing a life jacket, and sometimes wading chest-high through waters. She said they were keeping an eye out for snakes and crocs, both of which would not be too keen on the flood waters. She herself is not a good swimmer, so felt a little worried at times. Most of the farmed produce in the river basin has been flattened and ruined, and a lot of the animals will need to be killed. Fortunately there have been only 7 casualties, which given the volume of water and degree of flooding was pretty remarkable.

Despite more rain forecast for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it fortunately did not come, averting what could have been an even worse situation. If it had continued Belize City would have been the next target and there were serious concerns about the City’s ability to withstand the volume of water coming towards it, and coinciding with a high tide. The sewage system is precarious as it is.

Nevertheless, more rain has fallen than has ever been recorded in October. By now, Wednesday, the waters are receding. A member of a group this afternoon, who lives near the sea south of Belize, said that the volume of water emptying from the rivers caused much higher tides and some flooding from the sea in their region too. Over the last few days she has seen a snake each day in her garden as they search for some dry land.

A cold front was forecast and duly came in on Monday. Although not officially over till the end of November (some of the most memorable have been in November) a cold front often means the end of the hurricane season. Certainly there is a freshness in the more north easterly air, almost a familiar autumnal smell, and no humidity which is such a joy. The wind – for it is more than a breeze – is gusty and if not cold, is less balmy than we have been used to. Unfortunately the biting things have had a field-day in the wet, but the temperature being in the mid- to late 60sF, about 20C, has been most pleasant. But it is interesting to see how relative ‘cold’ is. After weeks and weeks of temperatures in the 90sF, well over 30C, many people are obviously cold. Women are wearing tights, covering their shoulders or even wearing long sleeves. Children are wearing denim jackets over their school uniforms in the early morning. I even saw one wee laddie with a red woollen hat pulled down over his ears as I walked to the bus station yesterday morning! Last night I awoke a little chilled, the sheet right up around my shoulders instead of vaguely covering me in places, and got out of bed to place a quilt over my toes. Who knows, I may even wear my jammies yet!

And I read today that there is lots of snow back home in Scotland – cold really is relative! And that is early, making for a long winter. Poor things, after a summer which was a wash-out, starting with a cold snap now is truly tough.

Chetumal, Mexico (October 11-13)

Last weekend was another long weekend, celebrating Independence Day, and the feeling of obligation to ‘use it well’ came up. But being near the end of our 6 months we are pretty strapped dosh-wise so wondered what to do as cheaply as possible. A friend had told us how easy it was to catch the bus north to Chetumal, just over the Mexican border, so last Saturday found us on an express bus, comfy seats and air con, for the princely sum of £3.50 each. It was surprisingly uncomplicated to pass through the customs and immigration, and quite extraordinary to witness the volume of traffic moving back and forth all the time. There is a large ‘no man’s land’ between the borders, full of local businesses and merchandise, and people from both countries apparently flock there to pick up clothing and cheap electrical goods.

We immediately noticed a big difference to Belize – the roads were tarmaced, and there was an obviously developed infrastructure of masts and cables, road ‘furniture’, plus lots of the other trappings of twenty first century life. The cars were more modern and in good condition, and a lot more of them. This neck of Mexico is part of Maya Caribbean, and obviously much more developed than some of the other regions of Mexico, such as we had witnessed surrounding San Miguel Allende a couple of summers ago.

The town of Chetumal is 20 minutes down the road from the border, the most south-easterly corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. Cancun, now a big tourist attraction, is due north for 382 km (217 miles) to the top of the peninsula. It was fun to be in a Spanish speaking country again, though we foolishly left our dictionary and phrase book in BC. The bus terminates at ‘el Mercado Nuevo’, and we caught a taxi to ‘el Mercado Viejo’, where the museo and other more touristy bits are. The second hotel we found was cheap, clean and comfortable (relatively!) and had friendly staff. We relished the different style of what we had become accustomed to in BC. Everything seemed hugely modern – we wondered how it would compare with the UK; would that be different again when we return?  The streets were wide, paved, clean, with no Albert St. dust coating all the produce.  The walk down to the ‘esplanada’ was spacious and felt safe. The coastline was much the same as Belize – cayes and reefs breaking the horizon, and a sticky mud coating the sea bottom after numerous hurricanes, making most of it unavailable for swimming from the mainland. Our hospitable hosts advised us that after the museo – which was both informative and well laid out – we could catch a sort of mix between bus and communal taxi out to Bacalar.

The next day found us waiting patiently in a very hot vehicle for the necessary 4 passengers before the driver was willing to take us on the 40 minute ride. Bacalar is situated on the edge of the Laguna de los Siete Colores (Lagoon of Seven Colors) in the state of Quintana Roo, and according to the guide books “provides a wealth of history and magic. This town cultivates the memories of its ancestors: fishermen, merchants, warriors and poets.”  We were set down in a small but charming plaza, next to the wide and as we were rightly told, variegated colours of the Laguna. As we walked towards an old fortress and some cabanas beside the water just beyond, we were very politely approached by a guide. His manner was so courteous (“Yes, the beach is down there; and when you return maybe I can show you around the fortress? I am a very knowledgeable guide, and I have educated myself in order to be able to inform others well.”) that we almost succumbed. He was obviously not getting much business at this time of year – but it was not on our agenda. We wanted a swim!

A dirt road led to a track down to a small area with a long wooden jetty going into the lagoon. We had to pay a few pesos to walk down it. It had a bar and restaurant area – all in gaily painted concrete – and was fringed by about 10 round concrete tables and ‘stools’ covered by a thick palm thatch.  We found an empty one, and whilst currently in warm sunshine we could see large clouds on the horizon so determined to get on with the business just in case… A few wriggles and pulls later (changing never seems to get any easier) we submerged ourselves into the warm, clear turquoise blue water. Gorgeous. Sometimes we have found the sea almost uncomfortably warm, but this was just right! It was an interesting texture too, salt free of course, and slightly chalky. The texture of the bottom was a peculiar mix of chalk and clay – or at least that is what it felt like.

We eventually made our way back to our table, only to be accosted again by the man on the track. I protested that we had paid, but he pointed to the thatch and said ‘Más pesos.’ More pesos for use of the table and shade, but not too astronomical. The dark clouds were coming closer and quite a squall was building up on the water, small white horses dotted across the surface. On the far shore we had a spectacular show of lightening amidst the falling rain. More wriggles and squirms got us out of wet cossies, ready to run for shelter when necessary. An archetypal young art student came round with a jointed wooden display board with some very pretty earrings, not a million miles from the style of some that Gemma used to make. Being in Mexico they were so much cheaper than anything in Belize, so to her delight we bought some. By this time the clouds had by-passed us, but we decided to grab a little lunch at the café we had noticed between the track and the fortress.

As we entered the small café right on the water’s edge, there were only two other rather unsavoury looking men drinking beer at a nearby table. After a bit they got up and left, and a young and very dour waiter came over to see what we wanted. We decided to share a small creviche, a salad made with prawns, and having made the order wondered if we had made a silly mistake. An empty restaurant? Shell fish? Hmmm. After a bit a fishy smell wafted across our noses, and I turned to see an elderly lady standing with a small cooking pot and shelling a huge pile of fresh prawns. Shortly these ended up on our table in a very good salad indeed!

Trying to avoid disappointing the guide, we decided to walk into the centre of the village by a different route. A long dirt track took us up the small hill, and past a typical assortment of wooden and concrete houses of various sizes, shapes and states of being, only with a Mexican rather than Belizean flavour to them. We came out to the main road leading to the plaza, only to be hailed warmly from behind by our tour guide approaching from the other side of the village. He cheerily informed us that he had just had his lunch, and was now going back to his post, being an excellent tour guide, and that he would see us later no doubt. All said in almost perfect English in a gentle and respectful way. Oh dear!

We sat gratefully on a bench in the plaza, awaiting a communal taxi which we had been reassured would be about 3pm. Half an hour later there was still no sign of a taxi  – in fact almost no sign of any traffic at all. We managed to communicate our concerns to a shop keeper, who informed us that the taxis were around the corner. They turned out to be regular taxis, so we were mightily surprised that the cost was the same as the other taxi-bus. Then one driver said for an extra 10 pesos he would take us on to where our hotel was. We agreed, sat in, and then noticed the roars of laughter from the gaggle of drivers congregated on the pavement under the shade of a large tree. We felt it had something to do with us but were not sure what. After a while of nothing happening we began to stare questioningly at the driver, who came over and held up 4 fingers. Quatro persona. We realised that the price was the same because this was the same – a communal taxi. Two more folk came along surprisingly quickly, and he sped us speedily and safely down the – excellent – highway into Chetumal. He dropped the 2 other people off, got out quickly to talk to the taxi drivers at his ‘depot’, and then started the car up to take us to our hotel. Within a minute I saw what the joke was….he drove us round the block! The cool of the evening found us having another long walk around the esplanada feeling quite safe amongst the parents and children strolling along too. A very pleasant and cheap weekend in Mexico.

CHill-i-pedia 3 – More Chilli Sauce!

When there is predominantly one climate all year round, with the occasional addition of rain, or a few less degrees of heat, the need to discriminate between a gust of wind, gentle breeze, ‘guy’ windy or blowing a gale diminishes. Equally, if there is either no rain or a blooming deluge, then such terms as a light drizzle, steady downpour or spitting cats and dogs are equally redundant.

Thus, I have been relishing what to my ear are delightful ways of describing things. At present, we are having ‘weather’, i.e. a tropical storm which is a series of thunder storms, complete with Technicolor sound and light show and full-on power shower rain dropping vertically from the sky. (Rain is an inadequate word to describe this.) When we don’t have ‘weather’, but the status quo sun, heat, humidity and trade wind, then any velocity of air is called ‘the breeze’. Hence, “The breeze is stronger today”. Wind it seems is either ‘the breeze’, or ‘weather’ when it combines with rain, and can be anything from a tropical storm to a degree of hurricane force. And such ‘weather’ pays a heavy toll on roads and bridges, whether urban or rural. School and work life goes in a stop-start manner, with temporary flooding and less temporary demolishing of bridges. As we were driving to the prison yesterday, between cloud bursts, Mr Juan pointed out the high water on either side of the road, and said that this bit often flooded. He lamented that such stretches need a pole with feet marked on them at the side of the road so that drivers can get an idea of the depth of the water before venturing through. I suggested he keep a few alongside a sledge hammer in the back of his pick-up, but he didn’t take to the idea. I don’t think he has got used to my sense of humour yet.

Another expression I like is “The air con is turned up too loud”.

Fi wi.
I have been puzzling for a few weeks about a slogan on the side of a van transporting chickens. Chickens are probably the next common staple to rice and beans in Belize, and typically accompany them on a plate. The slogan says: dah deh fi wi chickin. I could not work out what the ‘fi wi’ meant. Conor and I said it aloud to one another because that is usually a quick way of understanding Creole (Kriol).

If a car is not available, returning from one work place means a lift from one of the two taxis who do a shuttle to the bus stop.  The wait for a bus between 11.45 and 12.45 is usually interminable. Unlike any other time of day, when the buses pass about every half an hour, a full bus will sometimes pass after ¾ hour, so you then have to wait for the next one. The bus shelter (essential – from either sun or rain) is in front of a little roadside café, selling the usual selection of foodstuffs to go into one of the polystyrene trays: chicken rice and beans, stew chicken, tamales, etc. A couple of fridges have a plentiful supply of water and other liquids, and various types of crisps which can be recognised the world over. Over the weeks I have come to recognise the different people who saunter over for their lunches, and to watch with curiosity the people who traipse to and from the bus joining me in the bus shelter, and inevitably turning to the shop counter for a ‘dallah waTAH’ or some crisps when boredom or thirst set in.

This waiting time coincides with the delivery of a huge plastic bag full of chicken, and each week I puzzle over the slogan. Last Tuesday I could bear it no longer, and asked the woman sitting on the wooden bench beside me (everything in Belize is either lovely hard wood or concrete) what it meant. She opened her arms in a wide gesture and said with great dramatic emphasis “Fi WI” ..I got it! I had heard people saying “for she” (meaning her or hers) a lot, but it never occurred to me that that would be the way ‘for’ was spelt!

Last night, at a (delicious!) fund-raising dinner put on by the Mental Health Association, an American woman from Miami married to a Belizean man, both speakers of Spanish too, was saying how Kriol is the best language to express your emotions in. Having just had my “Fi WI” experience, I could see what she meant.

The State, the individual, the person with mental health issues, the homeless and free choice

Mental Health Week, Mental Health Day 10.10.08

Many years ago, 1989 or 1990 to be a little more precise, I was privileged to attend a meeting of heads of departments in the Mental Health Unit of the Lothians Health Board in Edinburgh. At the time I was head of the Speech and Language Therapy Department providing a service to those with learning disabilities – mental health and learning disability all came under one umbrella at that time. It was the beginning of the movement for the dismantling of all the residential hospitals, regardless of whether their residents were labelled ‘mad’ or ‘stupid’. I never have forgotten that meeting because there were senior members of the psychiatric service, probably about 65 years, a bit older than me now, who remembered the days before residential hospitals existed as they did at the end of the 1980s. One or two of them made an impassioned plea: “Please, some of our population need constant care, and we are in danger of returning to the conditions of earlier in the 20th century in the UK, with many of those with more chronic conditions living as paupers in the streets. The goal of achieving ‘independence’ does not apply to everyone. What will happen to those who are dependent upon our constant care?”

These men’s concern was palpable, and moving. They were reassured that transferring into a small residential unit did not necessarily mean that an individual’s care needs would be jettisoned. And now, twenty odd years on in the UK, by and large it has been a wonderful improvement in many people’s life experience. Levels of care have been identified, and funds have also been made available to individuals to determine how best to budget for their care package.

In Belize, I have often remembered those psychiatrists’ impassioned pleas. Here on Albert St., where I both live and work, I see the ‘simple’ and the ‘insane’ in a state of slow decay. I see the scene the UK psychiatrists had already witnessed, and that they were anxious to avoid going back to. One man often catches my attention: he almost invariably wears a green velour top (hot!) and a pair of grey flannel trousers. He is occasionally seen scrounging a light for a fag, but more often he lies listlessly on the steps outside one of the shoe shops, with an expression on his face that tells me he is very far away and probably depressed. I asked Byron about this man, the taxi driver we phone when we need an escort somewhere because it is dark. He knew exactly who I was talking about. He told me that he was ex-US army “who threw him out when he was burnt up and no more use to them”. (Same as the UK, I hasten to add!) I talked to the Women’s Development Officer, the name of social workers in the Women’s Department, hard working, dedicated and ever-available women, about homes and refuges for these people. She replied that a couple of refuges were there, but many homeless people did not wish to comply with the regulations about no smoking, no booze, curfews, etc.

Maybe I should list what I have witnessed. In Edinburgh, I have seen many folk on the streets. Most recently they look as if they have originated in Eastern Europe, not speaking much English and attired in a more traditional dress.  But even these folk are usually more or less clean and clothed. A decade or so ago the travellers and drug-addicts would decorate street corners. One or two over the years stand out for their appearance and indomitable spirit. One more elderly man with African blood in him would walk around with a portly belly covered by scraps of jackets and trousers. As the top one became too worn, he would don a new (old) one, only for that to fall apart and be covered up by yet another. Thus a patchwork of flesh and cloth would emerge, topped by grey dreadlocks and grey beard, accompanied by a determined walk as he strode through the vennels and alleys of Edinburgh Old Town. He was familiar, and somehow belonged to the landscape.

Here in Albert St., we have our fair share. I have mentioned the woman with Tourettes Syndrome who entertains the queues waiting for their $5 on a Thursday and/or Friday. Conor has his chap that he feeds every Monday with a loaf of bread and a tin of luncheon meat. He looks as if in a different environment, he could do quite well for himself thank you very much. Ernesto disappears and reappears from time to time. Where does he go, what does he do, I wonder? There is a skinny man outside of Brodies, the supermarket, that I think cannot speak, who shakes a plastic cup for a few cents, and twice a week when the papers are published has a few copies to sell. There are various men who are adorn corners and steps, wizened and crushed by years on the streets. One man has hair that is so matted with mud all you could do is shave him and start again. There are some who live in a parallel universe, chatting away to their ghosts and memories with scant regard for those of us who take the time to notice. Some stand, statue like, and some resemble Old Father Time himself. One very tall man has some old trainers bound with twine to stop the soles from flapping too badly. He can be seen on various corners. One of the Ancient Mariners sits outside of the fishermen’s congregating place, and holds up a finger saying ‘1’ in a simple manner that usually makes Conor succumb. (Conor gets a lot more hassle than I do.) Some men are more assertive, more demanding, almost intimidating, but not many. We noticed that on Sundays, there is invariably a line of dusty grey men seated in a row on the long steps outside some of the shops, echoing the row of grey pigeons lined along the roof top above them, each row as still and as impassive as the other. Conor’s Monday man explained that a man hands out a dollar to each of the homeless waiting there each Sunday. Trying to be resourceful, a few folk come round selling anything – palm trees carved out of coconut husks, or an old ceramic cream pot found in some midden or other, that we are reassured is ‘very old’. We frequently see the chap who told us about the origins of the word Belize on our first day here, always with an eye out for the new tourists, and he greets us like old friends. One day he asked straight – “Been a bad day – can you spare a dollar or two?” But he is neither homeless, mad or with learning difficulties. There are very few women that I have witnessed either begging or living rough. Maybe another expression of sexism? And where are they?

So it was with not a little curiosity that I received an invitation a few weeks ago to be one of the judges in a school’s debate on whether or not there should be mandatory removal of the homeless and those with mental health issues from the streets. Last week was World Mental Health Week, and last Friday 10 October was Mental Health Day. The Mental Health Association wanted to involve young people in thinking about the issues, and so cooked up the creative idea for there to be a debating competition, the subject of which would be homelessness and mental health. As one of the women who is central to the MHA said to me, young people listen to each other before they listen to those older than them! By having the whole topic of mental health and homelessness being discussed by young people for young people, there would be an inevitable raising of awareness of the issues involved. Two of the local schools had applied for the debate, St John’s College and St Catherine’s Academy, which was to be held in the Bliss Centre. (And as I found out almost at the end of the debate itself, it was also broadcast live on the local radio!)

I ran it past the head of the Women’s Department, who said that if I was being asked as me, then it was OK, but as a volunteer I could not represent the Women’s Department. It was me they wanted, given the topic, and I was only too happy to oblige!

Conor came with me to the Bliss Centre for the Cultural Arts, which is a good looking modern theatre situated on the sea front near the swing bridge, behind the Courts. It is one of the few modern buildings which stands out as you approach the city from the cayes, and is 6 minutes walk from both our apartment and the Women’s Department. We arrived at about 12.50, and I was taken to meet the Moderator, currently the CO of the Ministry of Education, and a fellow judge, one of the key people in the running of University of West Indies. (There are 2 universities here, the other being the University of Belize.) We had each been emailed a sheet describing the protocol of the debate, plus some guidelines as to what we were supposed to be assessing them on. The three of us got into a huddle, each professing to be uncertain as to exactly what we should be doing, and none of us ever having done such a thing before. One of the organisers turned up, and reassured us that the points system that was suggested was probably too complex and not that relevant…Feeling a little more confident, my fellow judge, the moderator and I sat at a table in front of the stage as pupils, teachers and parents, plus other members of the MHA gathered behind us. The tension was palpable, as much from the teachers and parents as the four brave debaters!

The charming newsreader from TV Channel 5 News, Marleni Cuellar, was the MC, and first of all she welcomed the head of the MHA.  Jennifer Lovell introduced the debate, the moderator and the judges, and of course the two teams. One of the three psychiatrists in Belize gave a great introductory speech, identifying some of the issues in mental health disorders, people’s care, and homelessness. She said that there had been great strides forward with drugs, but there was still a need for more individual interventions in the form of counselling.

We judges had to decide both which team should win, and which individual debater should receive a prize. The individual debater may not necessarily be from the winning team. We were asked to consider:
– The Argument – convincing, with materials presented. (Our own knowledge and views had to be put aside; judged on their performance not whether they said what we thought to be right!)
– Resources – scientific, varied, recent.
– Format – was it followed? Could they argue well? Did they produce new arguments in the rebuttal? Keep to time?
– Personal presentation skills – eye contact, good speaking voice, etc. (I had been a little concerned beforehand that if they broke into broad Creole I may not be able to follow it all, but I needn’t have worried!)

The form they had to follow was very precise:
– First affirmative construction – 7 minutes
– Cross-examination by the negative – 3 minutes
– First negative construction – 8 minutes
 -Cross-examination by the affirmative – 3 minutes
– First Affirmative rebuttal – 4 minutes
– Negative rebuttal – 7 minutes
– Second affirmative rebuttal – 4 minutes

My fellow judge and I were almost as nervous as the contestants!

Marleni invited the two lassies from St. Catherine’s and the two lads from St. John’s onto the stage. Both teams had had to prepare an argument both for and against the debate, and then whoever won the toss could choose which side to take. St John’s won, and they chose to speak against the motion:
There should be mandatory removal of the homeless and mentally ill from the streets.

They were off to a flying start. The initial speaker came in strong and clear, with excellent engagement with her audience. Her argument was sound but there were few statistics to back it up. One of the boys parried with good questions, though he was a little hesitant at first. Then it was their turn to deliver the negative construction. Their case was very well prepared, with excellent use of statistics from a political, sociological and personal perspective. The delivery at this point was poor, though, with the lads’ arguments being more read than discussed. The girls’ cross-examination let them down…there was just not enough of it, and they had been unable to note down points to raise with the degree of precision shown by the boys.

In the rebuttal stages, the girls were again unable to really support their case, whereas the boys were going from strength to strength, both revealing their capacity to argue their points and to develop their position. Then the floor was open to questions, and after each answer, the schools would cheer loudly. It was good fun!

During a short film presentation on mental health issues, we judges slipped out to make our decisions. Fortunately we were in total agreement about both the winning team, and the individual speaker – whew! We were asked to go up on the stage, and before announcing who had won, we gave feedback to each team.

St John’s College:
– Argument excellent
– Format good
– Presentation – started weak but got stronger
– Resources – statistics good, scientific and varied

St. Catherine’s Academy:
– Great start, with a substantial argument but no statistics to support it.
– Format was good.
– Presentation started very well indeed but weakened under argument
– Resources were weak but improved.

Winning team: St John’s College.

Based on our observations of each stage of the debate, and the enthusiastic and engaging way he warmed to his subject, we declared Chris Hulse from St. John’s College the overall winner. No doubt a politician, diplomat or lawyer in the making!

Oh, and the negative argument got my vote for content too! Developing personal individual interventions for the relatively small number of folk here in Belize is preferable to mandatory removal from the streets. The argument the kids liked the best went along the lines of:
How can you justify removing the homeless and mentally ill from the streets when most young people stay on them till three in the morning!

And a little aside – those of you who have followed this blog will know my view that to make secondary education free here would be a swift way to radically change the poverty trap that so many are in. I double-checked with my fellow judge that the Moderator was the CO for Education, and would this be a good time to venture my opinion: “Never miss an opportunity” was her rely – so I didn’t! Judging from his body language, I think he agreed with me, but is unable to implement it because of the financial restraints of the country. Apparently education is currently subsidised to 45%, but the government is looking at the cost of raising it to 60%. Here’s hoping…

CHill-i-pedia Volume 2 AKA ‘CHilli Sauce’!!

Trade Wind
One of the reasons for the constant breeze coming in off the sea for at least a few yards, I have discovered, on even the hottest of days, is because of the old Trade Wind. Suddenly a term from sea-faring literature and from geography lessons takes on more meaning: winds from both hemispheres blow along the equator in an easterly direction. The term ‘trade’ comes from the old German meaning ‘path’ – the route that the ships took around the world. The trade wind also garners the hurricanes into an easterly direction. The place where the easterlies from the two hemispheres meet on the equator is ‘the doldrums’.

Apparently the surface winds flow towards the equator, and the higher altitudes flow towards the poles. About 50-60o N and S the higher altitude winds drop, and winds get pushed in a westerly direction, which we are very familiar with in the UK.

With the bulk of the hurricanes having moved through now, we are in a different weather phase. The extreme heat (high 90F, over 30C) and excessive humidity – which is the result of the hurricanes scooping up all the precipitation in an area – has passed since Ike moved away. The last 2 weeks have been up to 20F cooler, with the occasional rain shower. And yesterday it rained all day – the first time in 4 months. Today started showery, and actually felt cold at about 70F/24C, would you believe? But it has been more or less clear, and the temperature pleasant enough for us to have a five mile walk along the shoreline and back. Sometimes walking half a mile in the heat feels too much, so it was a nice treat.

I am not sure why, but I like the Trade Wind. I like the gentle – most of the time – warmth of it and I like all the stories from my childhood which have ridden on the back of the wind.

Swing Bridge
The swing bridge over the Belize River at the bottom of Albert St is one of the things written about in any literature about BC. It is turned manually to allow any large craft up or down river. We have only seen it being turned once in our 4 months, about 5.45pm so there was a lot of traffic and pedestrians around. We were walking back towards Albert St. by the Caye Caulker Water Taxi terminal, when we found a chain across the entrance to the bridge. Some men were right in the middle, and had some large metal poles attached to a crank. Slowly the old metal bridge began to slide to our right, gradually moving until only the end of the pedestrian path was buttressed up against the pavement and sides of the mainland approach to the bridge. And then it stopped! There was much heaving and pushing, and jovial comments about the men not being strong enough, but it was not budging! Someone went into the river, and discovered that an old bit of brick had got jammed in the mechanism, and that it would take a bit of time to repair. What to do?! Cars were already making their way round to one of the two other bridges over the water, but crowds of folk were waiting on either side. Whilst you could enter the pedestrian path at one end, it was hanging over the river at the other.

People became impatient, and adventurous: at first a few, with many of us watching,  then all of us at both ends began to enter the pedestrian paths, clamber over or round the buttress end of the ‘road’ area, and then climb over or squeeze round onto the pedestrian path on the other side, before safely stepping off the bridge! Sometimes a conveyor system was created, with someone standing and lifting over bike after bike, or helping elderly people, or managing the various loads that people carry about their daily business. It was quite fun!

The next time morning the bridge was back in its proper place, and we have never seen it on the move again.

Scorpions again!
Last weekend we caught the bus up to Belmopan to visit the brother of one of Niamh’s friends who has been living here for about 3 years. He lives with his delightful Hispanic girlfriend in a house on the edge of the town. It was such a joy to be in a private house, and to discuss such ordinary things as gardening. Apparently the leaf-cutter ants decimate seedlings in the same way slugs and snails may do overnight in the UK! They pointed out the holes in ground– tarantulas…..But they are shy and keep well out of your way, unlike their reputation in the movies. And so we moved on to other creepy-crawlies. Having told someone a few days before that he never shook out his trousers before putting them on, and that he thought it was a bit of a myth, a sudden sting as he moved downstairs one morning caught his immediate attention. Thinking it was an ant, he walloped it hard with his hand – at which point the scorpion really set to and stung him at least 4 more times! With everyone roaring with laughter as he took his trousers off rather fast, the offending creature made a hasty retreat. But the purpose of his tale was to reassure us that although painful, the stings swelled but were not deadly.

As an architect, he has witnessed many ventures start and fail here, and informed us of a local saying: to gain a small fortune in Belize, you need to start with a large one! Since there are currently no building restrictions, it has been a wonderful opportunity for an architect. And as he says, the country is littered with unfinished houses and hotels….