I find it interesting as I stare out into the world from this airplane window how the blue waters of the Caribbean merge into one with the sky easily distorting our concept of where exactly these two worlds collide. Billowing clouds are strewn about in the distance; flashbacks of childhood memories fill my mind as I envision a time when I would lie there beneath the heavens, staring up at what looked to me like beds of cotton. Imagining what it would be like to feel the soft touch of these distant clouds while sharing my perception of what each silhouette portrays as I point out figures of distorted hearts, animals and sail boats. However, 20 years later I now gaze down on these same white clouds, from up above they look more dynamic as you can see more dimensions and the sun reflects upon them in a way which places shadows in just the right places.
The Caribbean Sea depicts the bluest waters along the coastal outline of Mexico. The deep blue sea fades into turquoise and then lighter blue sections which reflect the location of shallow sand bars that can be seen perfectly from this aerial view. The contour of white sand coastlines look as if they separate the blue shading of the seascape from the deep green interior of what seems to be the southern stretch of Mexico leading down to Belize. The shores of the Yucatán cater to crowds of tourists looking for pristine beaches to escape to and small fishing villages in between can be seen as you gaze below yet when you look out beyond the coastal development the terrain of the Central American jungle.
The closer we get to Belize the lighter the water becomes as we fly above stretches of the Cayes and the second largest barrier reef located right off the coast of this former British colony. The scenes that embody Harrison Ford’s, “Mosquito Coastline” flash in my mind as this movie filmed almost 30 years prior still seem to sum up what you can imagine to expect this country to look like especially since many of the villages still remain hidden beneath the dense jungle terrain.
Dark gray smoke rolls upward from sporadic points in the distance where flames engulf acres of land. Ecological destruction, environmental air pollution, property damage, disaster management and public health at its finest; questions already begin emerging as I peer down upon the uncontrolled span of fire. Is this a common occurrence, how are they caused and what is the impact to human life; does this country have the resources to stop these billowing flames from spreading further into villages within its path?
As we descend lower and lower, I gaze upon the tarmac surrounded by green tropical palms and only a few structures. Then the small International Airport appears in my window as we pull in front of this two-story building probably the size of a football field and merely large enough to host three to five planes at a time. I wait to disembark this aircraft, to walk down these stairs which lead to the beginning of my adventures over the course of the next four weeks here in Belize; to extend my knowledge in the field of public health research in a country that needs the tools and data to lead them in the right direction. I glance out toward the airport as I descend from Flight AA2173; Welcome to Belize…Bienvenido a Belice!
Debbie, Caitlin and I meet up with our advisor from the University of South Florida, Dr. Westhoff, before going through the immigration check-point where I receive another stamp in my passport. Country number thirty-one that I have now had the pleasure in visiting. We grab our belongings and head toward an area where three other people have their personal effects pulled out of their luggage and airport security is rummaging through it looking possibly for items that were unclaimed. I feel my stomach tighten as I think back on how difficult it was to tightly roll each piece of clothing and jam it in my Ruck-pack along with my queen-size sheet, bath towel, hiking boots, and other personal items. We stand there waiting for our turn and luckily we are waved on through by-passing this tedious task. What a relief…I was so worried I would have problems getting everything back into my one bag again!
As we enter the main area of the airport you can see from one side to the other with one glance, very small indeed. We then ascend the stairs where a sign points us in the direction of the Restaurant. Humidity and the summer heat are overwhelming but we find a fan to sit in front of to cool off. The others order a cold Belizean beer of either Belikin or Lighthouse while I order bottled water in fear that my parasite will cause me pain.
Last September, shortly after my return from Peru, I went out to celebrate my best-friend Chala’s 26th birthday. Only 30 seconds after taking my first drink of a Vodka & Cranberry cocktail I began having sharp pains in my abdomen and as it became stronger and stronger I almost felt as if I would pass out from the intensity. After about 45 minutes the pain disappeared but ever since then each time I attempt to drink liquor, wine or beer the pain comes back and then lasts about 30 minutes. At first I thought I had an ulcer but I continue to eat spicy foods and anything else I desire with no problem. The only other explanation is that I must have ingested some sort of bacterium that becomes irritated when I consume alcohol. Not having a job and limited income, I cannot afford health insurance like many people throughout the United States so unfortunately I have not been able to consult a physician on the matter.
We sit and wait almost two hours for Stacey to arrive; she decided not to book the same flight as us and we must wait until she arrives before we are able to venture out to our new home in Belmopan. Belmopan is located about 60 miles from the coast of Belize and happens to be the smallest capital city in the world with a population of about 13,300 people. I really do not know what to anticipate for the coming weeks, what to expect in regards to the landscape and what the culture and people of Belize will be like.
There is an outside patio overlooking the tarmac of the airport from the second floor, where a thin dandelion yellow iron fence that curves out and then down; the only thing separating the people from where the planes board and take-off. No security to pass or check-points to be able to enjoy viewing those coming and going. Much different from the changes that have occurred over the past fifteen years in the design and procedures in airports throughout the United States. A Mennonite family of about eleven women and children stand along the wall gazing past the fence…watching the planes land, people pile out as they walk toward the building and disappear beneath us; others then board the empty plane and then take off to unidentified destinations. They find entertainment in watching the events of an airport just like when I was a child and my own mother would take my brother and I to watch the planes land and take off. To a child the simplicity of such events is fascinating and to my mother it was cheap. It did not cost a penny to watch from the airport windows the events unfolding outside.
We talk among ourselves about Belize, school and our thoughts on various topics. Stacey eventually arrives as I stand outside and watch her walk off the stairs of the Taca plane arriving from El Salvador. We then met up with Dr. Ismael Hoare who will be our host supervisor from the University of Belize and has taken the time to pick us up from the airport to ensure our safe arrival in Belmopan.
We pile into his SUV and begin our hour and a half drive to where we will be staying during our international field experience. Dr. Hoare shares with us various information about the difficulties facing the people of Belize while pointing out landmarks along the way; Hattieville…the refugee village named after the devastating hurricane that struck Belize in 1961, the only national prison which houses men and women but in separate quarters, further along we pass the Belize Zoo and as we enter Belmopan we pass the Police Academy.
I ask about the fires that can be seen as you fly in and he shares with us the problems they experience during the dry season; burned trash, crops and unregulated flames are actually a regular occurrence during this time of year. Yet, it does not seem to be a threat to many people as they tend to occur away from populated areas. We travel along the Western Highway but after 24 hours of being awake and feeling drained the long drive is taking a toll on me as I try my best to refrain from drifting off to sleep.
Around 6pm we arrive in Belmopan, wait for Dr. Westhoff and then proceed to meet with the lady who has arranged a place to stay for the four of us. Initially we had planned to have two homes set up with three people in each at about $300 to $400 per month; however a week prior one of the students who was to accompany us had a family emergency resulting in her having to change her plans. Additionally, one of the other students from the Engineering department changed her plans to insure Stacey would have someone with her during the second part of the summer. It was now our job to determine if the four of us would be able to rent only one of the homes to reduce costs and to inform the Realtor Marissa of the change in plans. Initially you could hear the frustration in her voice pertaining to the fact that we did not inform her of the change in plans. After going back and forth for some time, negotiating the cost and then calculating charges incurred through cleaning and providing bedding for the unoccupied home we determined that it would come to $2,355 for two months including a $255 charge for unused bedding and cleaning; then a $300 deposit for the electricity bill. I placed $150 in addition to the cost of my portion to cover the rent for July until Suzie’s arrival when she will pay us her share. Seemed to be a mess but eventually we were able to work it out before having the opportunity to head over to the home we will be occupying for the coming month.
Sea green with a large front porch, an Iron Gate and old swing set; three bedrooms and two baths, our own kitchen, bar, dining room and even a washer and dryer. What else could we ask for? Caitlin and Debbie claim the master bedroom and then I tell Stacey I will volunteer to stay in the least desirable room since she will be staying longer than me. You may ask what I mean by undesirable…in other words Disturbing! A pale yellow with a white washed closest door, light pink curtains that drift upward when the breeze flows through the window panes. A lonely white plastic lawn chair sits in the corner of the room; the only distinctive element in the room is the eerie light switch with two children holding balloons, the eyes pop out in an unusual way and the thought of this room previously being a room for children is troubling in itself. I begin collecting random pieces of furniture to alter the feel of the room and then hang my belonging from nails that remain in the wall from previous tenants. Soon enough the room begins to feel more comfortable and feasible to live in.
Tomorrow we will settle into Belmopan and take the opportunity to explore the University of Belize after meeting with Dr. Hoare to discuss what the following week will entail.