Volunteering in Belize

We spent 3 weeks volunteering in, and exploring, central America with a group of Girl Guiding rangers.

Our journey… At 12.50pm on Thursday 27th July a group of 12 girl guides boarded a Dallas-bound plane. After 9 hours a group of 12 quite tired girl guides emerged. A further 2 hours in US immigration queues produced a number of jet lagged zombies desperate for a good meal and something to sleep on that wasn’t partly vertical. Fortunately, our needs were met by the incredibly friendly and welcoming North East Texas Girl Scouts who kindly transported us from the airport and hosted us for the night. Well rested and fed we emerged the next morning to embark on the last leg of our journey.

After landing in Belize City airport we were greeted by lush green forests, 80% humidity and a long winded customs procedure. Having melted into a puddle we managed to crawl through baggage reclaim and into the minivan waiting to take us to our new home in Ladyville, Belize.

What our domed accommodation lacked in air-conditioning, it more than makes up for in homeliness and quirks. Our first impressions of Liberty were that of happy and very very very energetic children (proved during an improv basketball match which we most definitely lost). We looked forward to the next few weeks getting to know the children here, potentially acclimatising to Belizean weather and consuming copious amounts of the local ice cream.

Getting into the swing of it…

After a couple of days, the whole group were spotting signs that we were all getting more used to Belize:

● Geckoes in bedrooms were practically commonplace

● Habitual bathing in 50% deet became a favourite pastime

● Siestas were virtually mandatory

● Trips to Mr Chop’s Groceries were now occurring every other hour in order to acquire various essentials (predominantly chilled drinks and ice creams)

● There was even an unprecedented drop in the frequency of weather related complaints – down from an average of 5 mph (moans per hour) to 3!

Day 4: Today we all found this morning’s tutoring session extremely rewarding. Each of us split off and paired up with a child to help them with their reading and maths. Watching a child go from insisting they hate reading to devouring half a book made us all smile. Similarly during maths time, despite some of us struggling to conceptually explain the multiplication tables to 5 year olds, seeing the smile on their faces when they mastered simple division was endlessly gratifying.

Day 5: – After gorging ourselves on an ungodly amount of our favourite Belizean delicacy, fry jacks, we set to work on the tutoring. We all found the children to be even more keen today, so even though hearing ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas for the fifth time that day may not be the most enjoyable moment, seeing the smile on their faces as they read it was. Our afternoon activity of choice – tie dying bandanas – was a huge hit as we monopolised the shaded patio area, covering swarms of children in mini elastic bands and multicoloured dye (much to the dismay of onlooking caregivers). After lunch a few of us braved the rec (wreck?) room where we were bombarded with various types of debris (predominantly dominoes and puzzle pieces) as for an unknown reason indoor baseball became a fast favourite for the younger children.

Day 8: This morning’s tutoring session was interrupted with our first proper Belizean rainstorm, leaving us stranded under the shelter with 15 or so children who’d just finished an hour of maths, none of whom were keen on waiting patiently for the rain to fizzle out, with some deciding to take this as an opportunity to have a makeshift bath in the surrounding dirty puddles… For those gardening, the rainstorm’s timings were more fortuitous, coinciding nicely with plant watering duties, as well as doubling up as a much needed shower after working in the greenhouse! This afternoon’s activity entailed producing an industrial-sized batch of (non-toxic) slime before dishing it out to the children for them to cover it (but mostly themselves) in glitter and food colouring. The caregivers looked on with delight as the children chose not only to smear the coloured slime all over their bodies, but their clothes as well! Gleeful with the prospect of a double laundry load tomorrow, the children were swiftly steered inside to wash up before supper. This gave a chance to have a chat with a few of the older girls, who, until we insisted that we did in fact own non-matching clothes and had Snapchat, believed us to be part of a special cult, guessing most of us to be around 15 years old. A few queries were particularly memorable: ‘Do you have TV?’ ‘Do you know what sharks are?’ ‘Have you heard of juice?’

Day trips…

At the weekends we were treated to days out to see what Belize has to offer to tourists.

Maya Temples: Today began with the usual early morning breakfast call, before we met our tour guide for the day. Our journey to the Maya temples began with the luxury du jour: an air conditioned minivan ride (with multiple team members even reporting symptoms of being too chilly!). Unfortunately the day did not continue in a similar vein as our goosebumps were replaced with enough sweat dripping down our backs to drown the entire Maya civilisation that was once here. After the car ride we boarded a boat to complete our journey to Lamanai, speeding up the river, stopping occasionally to view the local wildlife (or for Sarah to fish her hat out of the crocodile-infested waters after throwing it overboard). We even managed to lure a spider monkey onto our boat, which we were able to feed out of our hands! Today’s achievement was climbing two Maya temples – including Lamanai’s highest! The views were beautiful, as it allowed us to look out over the tops of the rainforest for miles.

Caye Caulker: Alarms were set especially early this morning, but this time not just to ensure that we get first dibs on waffles: we were packing for a day trip to Caye Caulker! With the prospect of an air conditioned room for the night fresh in our minds, the fact that the local shop owner, Mr Choc himself, would be our taxi driver to the port, was almost overshadowed. After piling into the definitely-not-a-13-seater van we were informed there were ‘no seatbelts because there’s no rush.’ What we lacked in air con was made up for in ventilation coming through the suspiciously prominent cracks in the windshield… After a quick car journey we hopped onto the water taxi headed to Caye Caulker. We all took a break from matching uniform, enjoying the sand, sea and £10 lobster burgers that Caye Caulker has to offer. After a mandatory photo shoot on the beach, we quickly found happy hour at a bar that offered swings and hammocks in the sea, allowing us to indulge our inner child as Nurse Sharks swam around our feet! Despite this inducing health and safety nightmares for Sarah and Tess, we all managed to survive unscathed (except Martha who was mistaken for food by a fish during her photoshoot).

Cave Tubing and Zip Lining: We met our tour guides at Belize city port. We chose their company partly because of their long history of organising tours and good reviews, but mostly because their names were Major and Minor Tom. Our first activity was zip lining, which entailed donning an extremely unflattering harness, and screaming as you threw yourself off the platform and hurtled full speed over a river towards a rather wobbly wooden platform at the other end. Despite Hannah causing some fairly long lasting damage to Minor Tom’s eardrums, there was only one incident during the zip line adventure: after conquering her height-related concerns about sliding down a suspended wire over tree tops, Kaleigh managed to jump off the platform, however, her overzealous use of the brakes caused her to fall somewhat short of the intended destination. The rescue operation that ensued entailed Minor Tom heroically zip lining down, wrapping his legs around her, and pulling them both back to safety! After a quick lunch (somewhat of a struggle for Sarah and Tess who had managed to consume three separate breakfasts over the course of the morning) to we headed off to the caves. The ones we visited were acquired by Major Tom after his military service, but are now part of an archaeological park in order to protect it from people exploiting the Maya treasure that was once in them. As we discovered, cave tubing involves hiking up hills through a rainforest, carrying a giant inflatable rubber ring, before hopping in them and floating down stream through an ancient cave system as our tour guide explained their uses in Maya rituals. In short, cave tubing is amazing.

Down south Day 15: It was with tears in our eyes we left Liberty behind today; all of us genuinely touched by the children and their outlook on life. With everyone promising to return, we know that our goodbyes, although sad, are only temporary. Driving down to the south of Belize with TIDE (the Toledo Institute of Development and Environment), allowed us to see the scenery transform – from the relatively flat and comparably built up outskirts of Belize City, into mountainous rainforests. It also gave us the opportunity to put the country’s lack of traffic lights and speed limits to the test… As we turned onto our dirt track which led to our accommodation it quickly became apparent that WiFi would not be a feature of the next few days. Our new favourite team activity has become the card game ‘slam’, as it doubles as both WiFi-free entertainment and training for insect murdering. We all ended the day with an ablution in 100% DEET, hoping that its effectiveness extends to the scorpions and cockroaches we see…

Day 16: Today’s activity involved working with TIDE’s reforestation project, which was started in 2004 to rectify the destruction caused by hurricane Iris. The project works not only to replant trees but also to educate the community in the surrounding villages (to stop the felling of newly planted trees). In total, the NGO has planted over 9,000 trees (to which we contributed 92 palm saplings). Once we began digging and planting it quickly became apparent that water shoes may have been more appropriate than walking boots thanks to the rain. Everyone soon got stuck in (literally), resulting in rows and rows of beautiful palm saplings. Afterwards we were given a tour of the nursery which housed everything from cacao, to palm, and lime trees, some of which are given to local farmers and community projects. We were also given the opportunity to sample an authentic Mayan chocolate drink and fresh papaya from a tree in the garden, along with a traditional Maya meal: cassava, chicken in a broth and corn tortillas. We were even shown some local embroidered crafts and given a tour of the river reforestation area.

Day 17: On our marine themed day with TIDE began with a boat ride out to a ranger station (a wooden building situated on a tiny island, complete with a resident dog: Simba). In the station we were given a talk about all the marine conservation work TIDE does in the area. They monitor 160 square miles, within which there are 130 mangrove islands, manatees, turtles and a number of protected cayes. TIDE helps monitor sea life to help advise policy (for instance, the laws surrounding the capture of conches currently stipulate size of shell to be a minimum of 7″, but TIDE has been gathering evidence to prove that a better indicator of a conches’ age is shell thickness). Turtle relocation (from busy tourist cayes to secluded areas) and manatee protection are also priorities. Afterwards we took the boat out to some beautiful coral reefs around West Snake Caye for a snorkeling session. Having managed to avoid any snorkeling-related injuries (after the fish-biting incident on Caye Caulker, Martha was extra cautious), we relaxed on the island with lunch and a fresh coconut that Martin and Curtis retrieved for us. Upon return to our accommodation, our DEET ablutions were promptly replaced with group aloe vera slathering sessions as we question the effectiveness of ‘water resistant’ sun cream.

Day 18: This morning we headed to the Living Maya Experience, where we were taught all about how the traditional Maya groups live in Belize. Their reliance on nature, and particularly the forest, was fascinating. We were shown musical instruments created from nothing but mahogany wood and the stringy insides of an agave plant. Even commercial soap was eschewed in favour of soap nut berries from a tree in the garden! Lunch was delicious, with local chicken, squash, cassava and corn tortillas being served on a plantain tree leaf, accompanied by a freshly ground cacao drink in a coconut husk. After consuming our own body weight in corn tortillas we moved onto our final activity of the trip: a creole drumming session. Drums Not Drugs is a project works with local community to help young people stay out of violence by channeling their energy into drumming. After a shaky start, the vast majority of us were able to pick up at least most of the rhythm we were being taught. However, for the rest of us, no matter how many times our instructor insisted that this tune was ‘simple’, our musical abilities continued to elude us, producing a somewhat… experimental sound. After a brilliant few weeks out here in central America, we all started the process of packing our bags for the last time, as a now commonplace Belizean thunderstorm lulled us all to sleep. Thank you! Without your generous support we would not have been able to go to Belize.

We’ve had the most fantastic time and your contribution has made that possible so we can’t say thank you enough! Over the three weeks we’ve had experiences we’re not sure we ever would have had, nor will have again, if it weren’t for this trip – such as climbing Maya temples and being beaten at basketball by a group of 8 year olds. We’ve learned so much about Belizean culture, with its laid back attitude and welcoming people. We also know that the time we spent at Liberty will stay with us for the rest of our lives, and we were genuinely so upset when we had to leave that we know we will return at some point in the future.

Louisa: The past few weeks have also taught me about myself; I’ve honed my leadership skills and even developed an interest in travel writing. Belize pushed me, mentally and physically, as I adapted to new routines (or lack thereof), having to be resourceful and confident when perhaps I would have rather been taking a backseat. I’ve loved every minute of my trip and so would like to thank you for your contribution towards it, I’m extremely grateful!

Anna: Belize has been bitter sweet in so many ways yet I loved every minute of it. Leaving the children was one of the hardest things ever but my time with them was brilliant in every sense of the word. It was so rewarding yet one of the most mentally challenging experiences I have undertaken. It has shown me the good in people who have only seen a world of hurt. I am humbled by the experience and am grateful that with your contribution I was able to visit such a wonderful place. I know that this trip will stay with me for a long time as I use the skills enhanced in those 3 weeks – communication, leadership and flexibility; skills that will serve me well in my future endeavours.

Louisa and Anna 

Shadwell Senior Section

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