Monday, September 12, 2011

General Update

Four months and one day after my friend Perfecto drank the poison that would end his life, a new life, and a new Perfecto, was born. Perfecto Choc Jr. was born on September 2nd 2011, and seems to simultaneously remind us of what we have lost, as well as demonstrate the immortality of the process of life. Things have very much gotten back to normal since the traumatic events of May. Life just keeps going, there is nothing else to do. His brothers and I say how it feels like he is just out of the village working, and some part of us expects for a fleeting moment to see him step off the bus when it stops in front of our houses, but people have accepted it now. The turmoil of emotion seems to be over.
The summer was hot, but did not have nearly as many tropical storm, or hurricane threats as last year. When school is not in session I have the feeling of being at some amazing summer camp. I pass the days with my friends going into the bush to find something to eat for the day. Be it hunting, fishing, setting traps for ground-mole, gathering jippy-jappa, or chopping Cahune cabbage, there is something wonderful about being hungry, and setting out to the woods to find lunch. Lazily we go to the river to pass the heat of the day after the work is done. Jumping from the rope swing, that nearly broke my toe.
In August I took some vacation days and went to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras for two weeks with two other volunteers, and my friend from the States that meet us on the road. Despite the few long days on the bus we had a great time. We saw the ruins of Copan in Honduras just outside the beautiful mountain village we stayed for the night in. In Nicaragua we stayed a few days in Grenada. Between our great hostel and the atmosphere of its streets with its big colonial building and cathedrals it was a hard place to leave. The red and black Sandinista flag decorate nearly every telephone pole, even in this traditionally conservative city. Here we zip-lined in the jungle at the foot of the volcano that dominates the landscape, and on another night attended a festival under the full moon. From here we went to San Juan Del Sur, a touristy surf town in the south western part of the country. We learned to surf, and hung out on our tiny balcony overlooking the high cliffs of the bay.
On our way back we stayed longer in El Salvador than planned. Mallory made contact with a couple of girls that are from San Salvador, and went to her college in the States, Christina and Eva. They were beyond welcoming to us, and showed us around the local San Salvador. We went together to Christina's families lake house on volcanic creator lake outside the city. Even though our attempts to ski and wake board failed miserably, we still had fun cruising around the lake, and lounging in the nice house. From here we went to another surf town, El Tunco for one night and most of the next day. I surfed again, but here the waves were much more powerful, and the rip-tide stronger. We returned to San Salvador for our last night of fun, and our new friends took us to a strip of bars and restaurants built into recessed spaces on the outside of the mall. It was nice to finally journey out of Belize, and see Central America. Almost everything is different as soon as you cross the border. I guess it's true what they say, Belize is the Caribbean, and not Central America.
As good as it was to get away, it was just as good to come back home again. After more than a year of living here, I am amazed by how much like home it really does feel. The excitement of everything being new is long gone, but it is replaced by the comforting feeling of..well...being right where I want to be the world.
While I was on my travels, my good friend and neighbor Mathias was elected Village Chairmen, and he is anxious to implement some really great ideas in the village that we have been talking about for the last few months since the last chairmen gave up his position and left the village to work. We have already filed letters and forms formally requesting the trucks to come as promised to look for a water table large enough to support a water system. Among what I think is the best of his ideas is the village farm. People in the village are occasionally fined for this or that. For example if a man doesn't come to help chop the village in the community work day, or if someone is disorderly and starts a fight. People rarely pay these fines on the excuse that they do not have the money. The idea is to have these people work off their debts doing work on a farm that will go to benefit the whole village. If people chop a farm and plant corn or pumpkins, then the village can sell it to make a profit that will go to the village council. Between the people who can work to pay off their debts (which right now is about $1000 total), volunteer labor by village leaders, and even hired labor if needed, the village could make money that it could use to implement its own development projects instead of begging the government or NGOs to do for them. Obviously opinions very on this plan, but I really think it can work.
The new school year has started this week, and the new principal is now the upper division teacher that I worked with, and became close friends with last school year. He has asked me to help more this year with getting the Standard 6 kids ready for the PSE (Primary School Exam that determines eligibility for Secondary School) and Secondary School. So this year I am assisting with a special before-school class for all the students who will sit the exam this year to get them prepared. Also, the pen pal program that I did last year with Mrs. Yenna from Southwood Elementary was so popular with the students, that the Principal has asked me to have a once a week class in addition to the letter writing time to teach both him and the students more about how to use a computer.
The feeding program that was started last year with the assistance of Rotary Tennessee has been working on completing a building that will house the new kitchen and dinning area for the students. While it is a struggle now, we hope to continue to develop the garden so that we will have a constant flow of produce to use for the meals.
This same Rotary group is considering supporting the village with another project that the librarian and I have been working on for the past several months. The idea is to provide all the secondary school books that the students need at the library, which can be rented to the family on a one year basis for a fraction of what the purchase cost of the book would be. This way, families could afford to send more than just one or two (usually male) children to secondary school. By renting them by the year, the library would be able to reuse them year after year, to be used my many different children. The fee, which we are hoping to put into a high-yield savings account, would go towards buying new books when the older ones are replaced. The sponsor organization would partner with the library for five years, purchasing the books as needed. Then when the time comes for the library to go it on its own it will have a sufficient amount of books and money, to make the project sustainable. If ever the library does come up short, it can hold a fun raiser, which we have shown can raise anywhere from $400-$2,000.
This project idea came about from my first days in the village. We held a meeting with the Ministry of Rural Development, and using the tools learned in Peace Corps training we identified that higher secondary school attendance was the second most important thing to the village next only to a water system. From there the librarian and I did a survey of the families that had secondary school age children and asked what kept them from sending more children to school. The answer was always: high book cost. Then a few weeks later, the parent of a child that is in secondary school came and asked me if there wasn't some way we could get the books at the library. It was a great idea, and the librarian and I went to a Peace Corps ran workshop on project design and management to hammer out the details of how it could be done. It has been a slow process, but this project is from the village itself, and involves something that everyone will benefit from, so we are optimistic about its success. Our goal now it to have the first books in the library, ready to be rented, by May of next year. So that families know they do not need to go out and buy books over the summer.
So right now each week keeps slipping into the next one, and life is alright in this little village of ours. This year has gone by faster than any I remember in my life. The challenge is over, and now I must just come to terms with the fact that I must, one day, leave this least for a while.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The night was dark, moonless. Rain was falling in a drizzle as the crowd uneasily passed the time away. It seemed as though a silence hung in the air, stifling the inevitable explosion we all felt coming inside. Then the noise was heard in unison. The strange far off cry. The drunken howl of a father who was bringing his sons body home to rest for eternity. Chills went down my spine, and my stomach tightened in anticipation.
I thought back to the same hour thirteen nights before. The pristine night shattered by the screams, the fighting. My body reacted the same way when I heard machetes called for. Huddled in the darkness, listening to the violence, the savage cries, and then the inhuman sounds like a pig with a cut throat. I remembered my fear that something bad, something irreversible had happened. My suspicions confirmed when I heard the bitter moan of the women who came upon the scene. A sound that is reserved for a cry announcing the death of kin.
The poison had worked slowly through my friend, as it shut down his body inch by inch, organ by organ. No cure for a man who made a rash decision, in the obscurity of the rum dimmed night, to take his own life. Nothing to do for twelve agonizing days but lay in his hospital bed, and feel death creeping closer and closer. When I went to see him his eyes were hallow and far away. He told me he would be home soon and we would play dominoes again, like so many candle lit nights in the past year. The next week I arrived fifteen minutes too late to see him alive.
As the truck pulled in front of the house time seemed to rip off its track and speed ahead uncontrollably. People from all over the village appeared out of the night, surrounding the car, as if hoping to find its bed empty of the coffin and Perfecto alive and well, all of it a terrible misunderstanding. Irving shattered this faint hope. “He is dead. I brought his body” he announced, betraying the rum that was heavy on his breath. The drunken men hurried to move the coffin out the rain and into the dark house. “Matthew, give us a hand here” My neighbor called to me, a horrific reminder that I was not invisible to the madness of the night. I started to regret my return to the village before the morning light.
The coffin was set upon boards in the center of the concrete house with a thud. The room was hot, moist, and dark, smelling of fresh cut lumber with a hint of formaldehyde. The moans of the grieving crowd were beginning to burst into screams. That inevitable explosion was at its breaking point. Flashlights penetrated the darkness in random streams of yellow. I stood against the wall staring at the coffin, my heart racing with the combustion of the room. One of the men that came in the truck was wiping the lid of the rain and dirt of the road. His hand was all that kept it from being ripped off by the increasingly hysterical mob. When he finished, the eldest brother motioned for everyone to back away. The crowed pushed back a few feet, and then the lid was slid down to reveal the face. Explosion.
No holding back now. The truth of the terrible situation was undeniable, and people let out their agony in loud screams and haunting cries. Anguish was expelled with every breath. People rushed the coffin to see and touch the body of their beloved. Several women became so overwhelmed by the pain brought on by seeing the lifeless face that they got caught in violent fits of woe. Screaming, convulsing, having to be restrained and taken to another room to smell a special root meant to calm, then made to lie down, and sleep away their grief. The father became engaged. Yelling words I did not understand. The fear of thirteen nights before returned, and again I wished I was not there. The crowed pressed to him, and blocked both the doors. Other men held him tightly as we wretched and fought against them. I asked my friend what he was saying, “He wants revenge on who he blames for what happen” was the chilling reply. The oldest son again took charge of the situation and stood defiantly in front of him while the others help him. He looked him in the eye though he was several inches shorter and demanded that there be no more death. Eventually he calmed, but not for another hour did his sisters let go his arms and let him walk free, with babies in their wraps hanging on their backs.
The generator came on with a hum, and the room was flooded with sobering light. The lid was replaced, and everyone sat down to begin the long night. They would sit up with the body all night long. Coffee was dispersed, conversations were started, and a game of Dominoes began. People drifted in and out as a preacher from another village began to hold church. He said some words, led a few songs, and even mentioned that he heard that Jesus was coming back on May 21st. Around two I took a walk around outside and found the men drinking rum again and decided to retire to my house for some sleep and avoid any altercations that may come. I slept uneasily as the wake continued just away. The sound of my friend chocking on the poison outside my door haunted me as I feel into my dreams.
The crowd was still there when I woke up at dawn. I was glad to hear that there were no incidents the night before, and the drunken men where just sleeping it off. The light of day delivered its sobriety to the grieving audience, and the villagers came together to construct the tomb atop the hill where the cemetery is, overlooking the football field and jungle beyond.
In the early afternoon the funeral service began. The same preacher from the night before said more words, and led a few more songs. The hysteria was done now, and it seemed that people where beginning to come to terms with what had happened. I saw the benefit of sitting up all night with the body of your loved one. It forces you to accept that they are no longer with us, by being reminded of it constantly all night long, demanding your brain to make the change of world-view, and just let go.
His football teammates entered the room dressed in their uniforms, and shouldered the coffin without warning. This caused another surge of screaming, moaning, and wailing. Once again women had to be restrained and their hand pried off the men carrying the beloved away, finger by finger. I followed the coffin through the hot afternoon across the football field where he would play no more, and up the steep hill to the cemetery where the men were mixing the cement. They placed him in the tomb after one more viewing of his body, and placed wood planks over top, then began to cement over it. I found it interesting that of the two men working to plaster the top of the tomb, one of them was bitter rivals with the father of the deceased boy. He told me later that when something like that happens, it doesn’t matter what happened in the past, every man is expected to pitch in and help in any way needed.
After a few moments of staring at the tomb in silence, we all began to walk back to the village. There seemed to be a sense of closure as we crossed back across the football field. The whole tragic event was finally over, and we could now begin to move on. For the first time in days I felt like everything really was going to be alright. The beauty of life here began to revel itself to me again as children played, and birds sang from the jungle beyond. Then I entered my neighbor’s house, and saw on the face of one of my closest friends here the look of complete hopelessness. I remembered a psychology professor saying the only loss that a human will never fully recover from is the loss of a child. I still know that everything will be alright, but nothing will ever be the same.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

La Ruta Maya River Challenge

For the last fourteen years Belize has been home to a monster of a canoe race called “La Ruta Maya.” I have heard that it is the 5th longest canoe race in the world. Or was it the 5th hardest? Both or neither may actually be true, but it is a four day, 170 mile trek that spans the entire width of the country. From San Ignacio in the west, to downtown Belize City in the east. There are always some confused Peace Corps Volunteers that decide to put a crew together, and it took about three seconds after hearing about it for me to sign on.

I must admit that I did not know entirely what I was getting myself into. Although back in the States I did canoe and kayak quite a bit in the summers, this usually involved a case of beer, swimming breaks, and a cookout at the end of the day. I figured this experience was sufficient, and began assembling a team.

For this I did not have to look to far. My fellow Maya Mopan training friends Dan and Mallory were as excited as I was for the challenge. The only problem was that Dan and I both live in remote villages, and usually only see each other a couple times a month when our market days happen to coincide. Thankfully Mallory took charge of arranging absolutely about the race, and did a great job (In reality she is the best person for the task. I mean she has been interviewed for TV more times than Obama, single handedly runs an entire government organization, and hell someone she met half a dozen times named his granddaughter after her. I hear talk that she is even in the running for Prime Minister. This is clearly the person you want in charge of your PR). I didn't know anything about the race except that it was long. She found our canoe, paddles, life jackets, sponsor (WIN Belize) set up our trainings and arranged our support crew. It is not an exaggeration to say that we would not have made it to the race if not for her. When pressed by a skeptic about doing everything for our team she simply replied “I'm getting us to the starting line, and they [Dan and I] are getting us to the finish line” words of a champion.

Finding time to train was difficult because of our busy schedules, and while we were taking it seriously, it was very much secondary to why we are actually here. Being away from the village a lot to practice paddling just isn't possible, even though everyone in the village was pulling for us to win and have a big party. However, feeling intimidated by another Peace Corps team that was allegedly practicing multiple times a week, and receiving warnings of how hard the race would be, we did find the time to practice a bit in the weeks leading up to the race.

The race was set to begin on Friday at seven in the morning, so Thursday we were to all meet in San Ignacio (where the race would start) in the afternoon. We wanted to practice in our race canoe (which we had not even seen yet) and take care of all the last minute things before the start. This is when the curse began.

First, Dan and Mallory didn't show up with the boat until around 7:30 p.m. So there goes practice. Apparently they were waiting all afternoon on the guy with our boat. To make things worse, it turns out the BDF (Belize Defense Force) gave us a lemon. This boat was a POS. For starters it was not a racing canoe. This thing was wide and deep. Also, it has a huge dent in the front right side, which made it almost impossible to turn to the right. The front seat was even held on by thin wire on one side. I did not see it until about an hour before the race, but my first thought was the we got screwed with the bad canoe, BDF had several other, nicer, canoes in the race. Let’s call it a gringo tax.

Whatever, we can still do this. We are not quitters, let’s just get in the water. Thirty minutes until race start. “Where are the life jackets?” I can’t remember who told us they had them for us, maybe the same guy from BDF, but we got screwed again. Now it’s a mad dash to find jackets so that we can even get in the boat. Thankfully minutes before the race was to begin Florence, our wonderful sponsor from WIN Belize (Womens Issues Network) begged some from the Coast Guard team. “All you owe is your first born child” she tells me as we crawl in the boat, relieved and nervous. You can have it, now let’s do this.

The start is completely insane. We try to get a feel for our canoe on our short paddle to the starting line under the large suspension bridge, but we notice that it is not responding as easy as the one we trained in. We don't have any time to focus. There are about one hundred boats around us, and in a few minutes the starting horn is going to go off. The first team to get to the small wooden bridge about 1,000 feet downstream wins a couple thousand bucks, the horn sounds.....madness ensues.

Instantly the water goes from a gentle current to a class three rapid. We shoot forward the best we can, screaming information about the boats smashing into each other and tipping over all around us. Somehow we weave in and out of the mess of people, paddles, and overturned canoes. Boats are crashing into our sides, the banks are lined with screaming onlookers, and fog is just staring to life off the water as we plunge chaotically downstream. We crash through the low wooden bridge as we are assaulted by canoes on all sides.

People are gathered in clusters on the bank cheering the racers along. We begin to notice that people are yelling “Go Taliban!” at us, along with “Go Bembes!” which means “strong women” in kriol, and is the name of our team (as well as stenciled on the side of the boat). Apparently Dan's massive Jew-fro (which he has draped with a bandanna and secured with a sweatband) and bushy terrorist beard made him look like a Muslim extremist. I wonder if it is a sly comment of Belizeans opinion of America's war on terror that they were cheering “Go Taliban!” and not boo Taliban? Probably not. Dan just looked silly, and as if he was on Jihad. I on the other had look like a border patrolmen with my plain black hat with badanna tucked in back, dark sunglasses, and big bulky life jacket. Our boat was a utopia. A symbol of how women, terrorists and hillbillies can all work together. If only the world would listen...

An indeterminate amount of time goes by in a flash. An hour? A year? The mess of boats begins to thin out, but the morning sun is still hanging coyly just below the trees. We are attempting to learn how to control the boat and sink into a rhythm as Mallory sings our chorus. “One, two, one, two, one, two.” “Why can't Dan guide the boat? Damn this boat!” We are unable to get into the same rhythm we had in training; me in front setting pace with Mallory in middle following suite, and Dan in the back guiding us along. The boat just won’t listen. If we would have only been able to accomplish that pace in the race.

We have to make a whole new strategy. We will all have to continually be thinking about the boats direction and work to correct it together. It is big and dented, and we all have to paddle hard on the left for it to even inch right. The curse. All of a sudden I am on the floor of the canoe. The seat which was held together with wires gave way. I try to paddle on my knees for a while, but grow sore quickly and am forced to turn around in a crouch and try to twist the wire back together. I do. It holds, but it is obvious that it is only a matter of time before it snaps for good.

Moments later the unimaginable happens. As I am paddling on the left side of the boat, my paddle snaps in two in my hands. I am angry, very, very, angry, I turn around screaming that this whole thing is cursed, holding the broken paddle above my head. Dan and Mallory can only laugh at the ridiculousness of the entire morning. “one, two, one, two.” We go on, me using my half of a paddle. When we see a boat that we have chatted with some before (they commented that they have had our boat before and could not be paid to get back in it) that only have two people we ask if they have an extra paddle we can use for the day. Thankfully they do. We are off. After a switch of me and Dan (so that I am now in back and Dan is in front) we are on our way to getting in control of the massive crippled boat and the beat goes “one, two, one, two.”

The day drags on and the sun rises in the sky. We manage to stay mostly in control of the boat, but it is heavy and slow. The seat breaks on Dan. He spends the day balancing on the front part or kneeling. A tougher crew I could not have asked for. There is no one I would rather be in the canoe with me. Mallory is able to give the count after hours of paddling. I still hear it in my head. My dreams. Hear it as I see the river winding, turning endlessly into the unknown, chasing what is always disappearing just beyond. Into the mist. Boats glimmering in the distance. Keep putting the paddle in the water. Dig. Harder. “one, two, one, two.....” Go. Harder. Nothing existed before. Nothing is after. Just go. “one, two, one, two” Boat coming up behind. “Mallory stay right.” Don't let it get to you. Catch the boat just in front on you. You can get them. Don't listen to your aches. It's too early to hear. “Everybody on the left.” How can we move faster? More rhythm. Get in sync “one, two, one, two.” It's a long race, better go somewhere else, leave this body to its work. No need for the mind to stay here. Where to go? The song. “one, two, one, two.”

Hours go by. Our support crew drops us water and food as we yell to them that we need a new seat and paddle. A whole new canoe if they can manage. More time disappears as we paddle endlessly. We see signs and know that we are in Belmopan. Not far from Banana Bank where the camp is the first night. We get a second wind and dig in for the last hour of the day. Then we see it. The big sign that says “FINISH” stretched out on a rocky island. We bring out all that we have left. 49 miles on day one. We left everything we had on that river. Our support crew isn't there yet. Turns out that we are faster than the two other Peace Corps teams, and the Peace Corps team WIN sponsored last year. I flop down into the cool water and float away as Dan and Mallory make up from the day’s quarrels. Thirty minutes later the next Peace Corps team comes in as we cheer them on.

In camp that night we eat as much as we can hold and get “icy hot” massages that are out of this world. All paddlers and support crews trade stories and advice for the next day. We are in bed early for the 6:30 start the following day. 55 miles, the longest stint of the race, and the day the curse hits the hardest.

Day two. Up before dawn. Great left over pasta for breakfast (I love non breakfast foods in the morning). We are down by the river by six. No luck finding a paddle that we can use the rest of the race, but thankfully Collin, who lent us the paddle the previous day on the river, says his third person isn't showing up until day three, so we can use his again for the day. Miles is at work attempting to rig the front seat up for the day until he can get to a hardware store and properly fix it. His solution is an empty beer create and some parachute string. It is the best we can do. We will have to make it work for the day.

We are in the water by a quarter after and try to find a spot in the middle of the pack. We finished with about 16 boats behind us the day before, so we want to be behind all the canoes we know we can’t compete with so that that don't slam into us as they fly by, but in front of the people who are in boats almost as bad as ours. Mallory is fiercely competitive, and after all the work she has done to get us here, Dan and I fear castration if we don't beat as many people as we can, given the circumstances.

The sun is still hiding behind the hills, and there is a thick fog hanging over the river that lends a profound eeriness to the morning. Mixed with this strangeness is the anticipation of another intense start that will commence the longest day of the race. We try to stay in our spot, but the current is moving all the teams forward, past the starting line. We all have to back up before they will give the horn. As everyone tries to reverse against the current it becomes evident that this will be a difficult start. Paddles are knocking into each other and boats are separated by mere inches. Finally the horn blows and again the water surges madly. Everything begins just where it left off the following day. Over the shouting of directions, Mallory sings the chorus, and the curse of the Bembes wakes bitterly from a bad night’s sleep.

As soon as we leap forward we see that there is a problem. From my view in the back it is terrifying. Each time Dan paddles on the left the boat tips hard in that direction, bringing the top ridge of the canoe within an inch of the water. The crate and string are still leaning to the left, causing Dan’s weight to be constantly tilted. Not good in a boat that already pulls to the left. We make a point to keep conscious about our balance, but it is going to be a very long day.

Not twenty minutes after the start we encounter a hard turn, with fast moving water and rocky banks, to the left. As we enter the turn we try to keep our weight to the right side of the boat, but it is futile. We are in the water. As we pop up we try our best to push the canoe to shore to dump out and start again, but it was a horrible place to turn over. The shore is jagged rocks, and the current is moving fast around the narrow turn. We are able to get the boat upright again and we all craw back in, but as I push us off and jump in the back the strong current of the narrow turn pushes us to the right, causing our weight to shift slightly to the left. This is all it takes for the crate to slide, and for us to be over the left side for a second time. Worse this time. We lose our bag of food, my sunglasses, and Dan loses his bandana and sweatband. There goes the cheers of support of the Jihad. Dan has to swim hard across the current to be kept from being swept away (a mental image that after the fact still makes me laugh). Back in the canoe again after seeing all the other teams float by, but this time we are on our way again. We are dead last, but dig in hard for the next couple hours to regain our position from the previous day. One by one we pass the other boats, powering through the whole morning.

By midday we are alone. No canoes can be seen ahead as we come onto long straightaways, and no one can be seen behind as we turn off of them. The rhythm of Mallory's “one, two, one two” fades on and off into conversation. If not for the painful chaffing burn on my stomach and arms from the bulky life jacket we could just be out for a nice day of paddling in the rain-forest. Dan even throws out the idea of stopping for a little swim, but thankfully he gave a disclaimer of “I know you guys are gonna say no, but.....” so that Mallory didn't knock him out cold with her paddle.

As we come onto a long straightaway we decide to take advantage of the idle time and get our pee out of our system. As we pass around the bail one person stops to pee and the other two keep paddling (This is our system for eating and drinking as well, except that when eating you paddle while you chew). As we are finishing up with this we are at a wide right turn, so we lazily turn the boat broadside facing right to allow the easy current to push us around the bend. We see a stick in the water, but it turns out to be attached to tree and not just floating as it appeared. No big deal. We are barely moving. Mallory even reaches out her hand to push us off it. Sadly our out of balance canoe gets us again. We gently hit the obstruction, but because it strikes the bottom left side of the boat we are in the water scrambling for the third time of the day. The bank is muddy but we are back on our way in a few minutes, digging hard, and laughing that Dan got his wish of a nice afternoon dip.

Things are going steady now. Making up for some lost time and getting ever closer to ending the longest day. Seeing the day’s drop point raises our spirits. The drop goes smooth, but we had to get all the way over to the right bank. As we are screaming all the information to our crew we get caught broadside on a downed tree only a few feet downstream of the drop point. This is where we broke the curse.

We were caught broadside with the tree on the right hand side of the boat. We all throw our weight to the right to keep from going over. For a minute we are unsure of what to do. If we go straight out the fast current could dump us out just like it did when after we recovered this morning. I think maybe we should try to push our way through the web of limbs behind us and go over the whole mess out of the current. Dan tries to chop the huge fallen tree with his carbon-fiber paddle. Finally we decide to just go for it. There is a big branch hanging low over the boat that we each have to bend down for as we go out, preventing us from entering the current with any power. We take turns lying down in the canoe as we sneak forward. We do it. This time we conquer the curse of the Bembes, and it dies for good. A boat shot by us while we were stuck on the tree and we dig hard for the next hour to overtake it.

A little while later we hit the rapids we were warned about the night before. We maneuver through them perfectly and use the white water to gain speed. Proof that the curse is gone. The finish line appears a couple hours later after a curve and it looks even sweeter than the day before. We burst across the line relieved to see our friends ashore. Miles gets to work on properly fixing the seat as the next Peace Corps team comes in, just five minutes behind us.

More great food and massages help us unwind from the day. Our worst day is behind us, and tomorrows 40 miles seem doable now that 104 lay conquered to the southwest. Our crew managed to borrow a paddle from the BDF that we can use the rest of the race. Another early night to bed as we hear a party raging not far away. No beer tonight, motionlessness is all I crave. As I try to fall asleep I feel the ground tipping to the left.

Day three was wonderfully uneventful. The curse had been broken, and Miles had fixed the seat perfectly. No longer did we have to worry about our weight leaning to the left. We had worked out our new strategy for guiding the boat, and were communicating well with each other. Everyone was beginning to feel the miles however, and the start time of eight in the morning still put us on the water during the hottest part of the day. The river was very windy, but we were able to maintain about the same position in front of more than a dozen boats. BBQ sandwiches for lunch gave us a second wind, and Dan hardly noticed that Mallory dropped his in the dirty water of the bottom of the boat (some things don't need to be known until you’re on land again). When we finally see the finish we yet again leave all we have on the river. I am so relieved to be done with all but the last day that as soon as the front on the boat is grabbed by out crew I roll out and lay face down in the cool water. I am joined shortly by my team, and minutes later we cheer in the next Peace Corps team who join us in our submerged celebrations.

Camp is much the same that night as always. We get a hot shower in a nearby hotel that some friends are staying at. All the paddlers with Peace Corps secure bed space for themselves in the air conditioning. Sleeping on the ground and paddling is what I signed up for, so I stay in camp. Too bad for me that the partiers that follow the race were not as polite on the last night. I am woken up regularly by the drunken yells. At one point someone even fell on my tent.

Morning comes and so does the last start, and it is as crazy as all the rest. By now we are accustomed to it and go hard to secure our same position for the day. Going hard every day has killed my shoulder muscles, but now they are past being broken and have adapted to their new role. I feel great. The river runs by the road almost all day, so people are contently cheering us on. We know that we are near the sea when we see dolphins jump from the water ahead of us. Thankfully none knocked over our boat.

We reached the canal that is about an hour from the finish far sooner than we thought we would. It led us narrowly through mangroves and trees and resembled the swamps of lower Louisiana. We emerge from the channel and start our mad dash to the final finish line. We give everything we have as Mallory continues the chorus “one, two, one, two.” Then we can see it off in the distance. The people, the bridge, the finish sign. We start to howl and call like animals possessed, paddling furiously as we close the final feet of the 170th mile. We have seen every inch of this river from Cayo to Belize and now it is almost over. We push past the finish line to the sound of the cheering crowd and the blow of the horn.

Total relief. We are done. Dan and I raise our paddles and scream in our 65th place victory. We nearly simultaneously hit Mallory in relief, victory, joy, and love who moans sharply. We come to land near the bridge in a spot that smells worse than a garbage dump, trash littering the murky water that is crystal clear 170 miles upstream. All of our friends are there and it is dirty hugs all around. We made it to the finish line and now it is time to celebrate.

An award ceremony starts a short time later under a hot tent. We watch as the winners get their trophies. They were far from us the entire time, but I guess it was a hell of a race. First place was Zipliner team at 18 hours and 4 seconds. Second Place was Belize Bank team at 18 hours 5 seconds. We came in first of the three Peace Corps teams at about 26 ½ hours, maybe 25 minutes in front of the next PC team. We gladly accept our wooden medallions and retreat to our friends for a much needed shower. When we entered the apartment the smell was so abhorrent that he handed us towels and insisted on us putting everything we had in the wash, and showering immediately. We complied graciously.

That night we joined our sponsor WIN Belize for some photos and dinner. We talked about the race and watched some videos that had been taken. I went to bed far too late that night, and all I could think the next day was how much I missed being on the winding river, paddling as hard as I could and listening to the sweet chorus of “one, two, one, two.”

Friday, November 26, 2010


When I first came to the Village, in May, I remember being completely overwhelmed by all the names I was going to have to learn. I have never been particularly good at remembering names, they seem to just goo in one ear and out the other. In the village this was complicated by most everyone having long Spanish names that were completely unfamiliar to me. Also, everyone in the village has a nick-name: putz, moot, pech, juney, na kax, miss, dego, kush, lor, push push, berto, R, lu, judge, rasta, ninja, ton, bird and so on. These nick-names were easier for me to remember. I am still at a loss when people are addressed by their real names, but this happens very rarely.
In the beginning I wondered if I would ever get a nick-name. That, I thought, would be a great sign of integration and friendship. Yes, for the rest of my life I could site the name given to me by my villagers as the title I prefer. A mysteriously intriguing sounding new name that would convey the essence of strength, bravery, cunning, and utmost respect. What less does any man dream of when trying to come up with his own alter-ego? But alas, just as no ones nick-name, outside of cheesy 80's hacker movies, is Viper, my nick-name would leave a lot to be desired.
It seemed like it would never happen. My choosing to go by my full given name of Matthew (which I learned in Ghana is easier for people to remember, from the bible, than Matt, which turns into Pat, Nate, etc.) and not the more locally common Spanish version of Matio seemed to be a nick-name im and of its self. Because there is no “th” sound in the Maya Mopan language, it comes out as “Matchu.” It seemed strange enough to them to last the entirety of my two years here, and formally it always will. However, as I started to go to the farm, and hang out with the younger, ruder, guys more another name began to catch on. It was cemented at Global Hand-washing Day, when a shop owner called out to me on the other side of the field, in front of a lot of the community with a loud and commanding “yeah Chuku Wah!” Laughter roared through the crowed because he had just addressed me as “hot tortillas.” Thats right, my mysterious new Mayan name is the equivalent of “hot cakes.”
At first I was crushed. I felt embarrassed about my language ability, and insulted as a new member of a group. However, as I reflected on the situation more, I realized that this was the sign of friendship I had hoped for. No group of guys ever give one of their own a cool nick-name, and none of the nick-names in the village were cool: cat (in its G rated version), Hen, Fats, Catfish. None of these are “cool” names. This is evident by no one telling me their own nick-name. I always learned what to call them by hearing it in conversation, or someone laughing and saying “we call him ___.” My name does not mean “that guy who cant speak Maya” but “that guy who loves to eat the Maya food.”
I am still “Matchu” most of the time, but amongst the group of guys I play futball and farm with, “Chuku Wah” is used most often. I have grown accustom to it, and hope it catches on to the point where people actually bring me hot tortillas. Is has made me feel more apart of life here. The people here laugh at each other, just like people do everywhere, and I am glad now to have crossed that line of being an outsider that you most always be polite to. I'm not that guy. At nearly six months in the village now, my life has hit a stride, and I can honestly say there is not one other place I would rather be.

Global Hand-washing Day: Clean Hands Saves Lives

On Friday, October the 15th, individuals, governments and NGOs in over 70 countries took part in festivities for second annual Global Hand-washing Day. The guiding vision of GHD is to raise awareness of the importance of washing your hands with soap and water before eating and after using the latrine. It may seem like a silly day to celebrate at first, but ingraining hand-washing after latrine use as a habitual behavior is difficult. This is not just in developing countries either. Does anyone remember that Seinfeld when the chef comes out of the toilet to find Jerry at the sink, tells him he is going to make his meal personalty, and then leaves without washing? Hilarity in-sued.
This issue, however, does complicate in a developing nation, where resources are limited and traditional behaviors are hard to change. While many people will use water to wash away the visible dirt, without soap it is just not enough. Anther problem is faced when there is no running water for households, and many individuals will wash in the same basin of water. In fact, the United Nations reports that more than 3.5 million children under the age of five die each year from diseases preventable simply by washing your hands with soap. Therefore, this intervention could save more lives than any single vaccination or medical intervention.
I am happy to say that Santa Elena Village, Toledo, took part in this worldwide day of health awareness. The teachers and principal of the village school and myself planned an variety of educational presentations and games. We had the children paint signs to put near the latrines to remind people to wash their hands, a germ spreading demonstration with glitter, presentations on the path of germs, a competition for the best hand washing song or poem (to sing while washing hands), and a hand washing relay race with tippy-taps that the upper division students built.
As I said, one of the big issues with washing hands in developing nations is the lack of running water, and my village faces this same problem. It is custom that there is just a bowl of water on the the floor that everyone washes their hands in as they enter a house for a meal. While it is good that the habit of washing hands before meals is present, the dirty water in the bowl is not doing much good. To solve the problem of no running water, some people have come up with the idea of the “tippy-tap.” There are many different ways to make one, but we made ours with: 4 length of stick, string, a large empty cola bottle, and two nails. We set the two long sticks in the ground about 3 feet apart, nailed another stick to the top of these two. Tied the empty cola bottle just under the cap (the cap had small holes poked in it) and tied the back end with a sting that went up over the top stick and tied to anther stick on the ground. We set it up so that each 3 foot stick U had a pair of washing stations (two cola bottles and step sticks)
The way it worked is that when you step on the stick and push it down, it pulls the string attached to the back of the cola bottle and lifts the back end up. This sends the water in the bottle to the now downward facing cap and out the holes. Shabang! You have running water to wash you hands. We then cut off the bottom of a small soda bottle (12 oz) poked a hole in it near the top, strung it to the middle of the top (horizontal) stick, and used it as a soap holder. It had a few kinks we had to work out. For one the string was to thin . It frayed greatly going over the top stick. We made it work for the relay raced though, and the kids had a blast. A lot of the community came out to watch, laugh, and inquire about the strange water device. It was definitely the highlight of the day. We made make a few changes to the tippy-taps to make them more durable, and then set them up outside the latrines at the school. Then the students will have their days when they are responsible for making sure the bottles are filled. My hope is that the kids find it handy, and it spreads to the homes.
The first annul Global Hand-washing Day was a fun, informative day for all. Next time you wash your hands you can sing our song:
Wash wash wash your hand, wash them fore' you eat! Use some soap, lots of soap, to wash the germs away!
Two times through with the soap on your hands and you'll be all clean. I still hear the kids singing the song loudly at the “tippy-tap” so I think the day can be called a success.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Only to me

Ever feel like some thing would ONLY ever happen to you? That how I feel being the new gringo in my village. To start things off, my fist time participating in the communal chop of the village just a week after arriving and my first chance to meet all the men ill be living around for the next two years, my machette slips out of my hand (because of the excessive amounts of sweat pouring from every inch of my body) and goes singing about twenty feet through the air. Thank god it did not hit anyone, but everyone in the village had a laugh at the white mans first chop. However, when we all set down to rest two guys sat down next to me and gave me a few lessons on chopping, so I made new friends.
Then while playing my first football game (I mean both in my life as well as in my village) my host brother lets loose with a cannon kick to launch the ball in to the goal, but I stop it hitting my right in the family jewels. Once again the entire community was on had to witness.
Next, While hiking through the bush, chopping the boundary line between our village and the next village over we came to a mud wall about eight feet high. I throw my machete to the top of the hill to use both hands and climb up easier. When I get to the top the other men in the group are standing around a hole laughing. As it turns out when I tossed my machete it sailed right down to the bottom of a muddy twelve foot deep hole, and I had to hobble my way down in to get it and back out.
Finally, after enjoying a hefty bowl of kaldo for a young girls birthday party, some of the guys invited my to go to the bridge to play around. I had never hung out with this group before so I excitedly agreed, but as we were walking out of the village I felt a nasty grumble in my belly. Way to much Roman Noodles and beans the previous day I'm sure. The guys sensed I did not feel good but I said I was fine and kept going. We stopped at a family's house I had never really meet before when zero hour hit. Noone like to blow up on someone elses thrown, but some times in life you just have to look the old women you just met two seconds ago in the face and say hey “Wa tak in ta, Tuba a toilet paper etel latrine?” --- “I gotta poop, where is the toilet paper and latrine?” Laughter broke out in the crowded room, I think mostly it may have been them all knowing the condition of the “latrine” in which I was about to have this unfortunate BM. It was a concrete hole with literally a sheet hung on one side. The laughter carried over the thin sheet.
Im glad I did not just go home, because once you cross that line of embarrassment nothing can really bother you anymore. I also had a blast fooling around at the bridge. Swing from the supports of the new tall bridge, and having feats of strength on the old sunken bridge. No better way to get to know your village chairmen than to body slam him off a bridge. Everything just keeps on going, good or bad, and all you can do is smile and sit back for the trip. Try not to make the same mistake twice, and remember that jumping in head first is the best way to confront the unknown.

On hunting, farming, and fishing

The wet season is here in full force. My rain jacket is constantly stuffed in the outer net of my back pack, mostly because remembering to pack it ensures a sunny day. The dirt road that runs through my village, from the border of Guatemala to Punta Gorda, is a river of mud and rock. The buses are running slower, taking about 45 minutes longer now to reach town. Once, after a steady night of rain, when returning to my village on the 6 a.m. bus that was to go to the border, all 10 of us aboard got dropped off in San Antonio (about 7 miles from my village and 16 from its original destination) and had to hitch a ride about an hour later the rest of the way. As tends to happen though, an annoyance turned into a blessing, as the man I flagged down was actually in charge of water systems for my part of the district, and someone I had been going to contact.
I spent the rest of the day tired and covered in mud as I shadowed him on his stop in my neighboring village to arrange for the installation of the new motor and pump for their water system, pushing the truck out of the mud after each time we stopped. He was very friendly, and taught me a lot about how to run an effective water board and how the water systems themselves work. Before we parted ways he stopped by my village and speak with the Alcalde about coming out this dry season to dill in the hopes of finding a water table large enough to sustain a pipe water system, so the inconvenience of the morning was truly worth while.
For the first three months after swearing in as a PCV, you are meant to take time to meet your neighbors and do the things that they do with them. For me, this means hunting, fishing, and farming. I come from rural Indiana. If you asked me on any given day three things that I did NOT want to do I would say: hunting, fishing, and farming... well maybe fishing. But here, things are different. There seems to be a pureness to these acts. A simplicity. A logical shared understanding, rooted in necessity. Something I guess I never noticed back home.
I wake before the sun on the days I will go hunting. I always think about saying I feel sick just to go back to my comfortable sting bed, but as I make tea and brush my teeth on the back steps of my cabin the first rays of the morning sun, rising over the lush green mountains fills me with life. I lace up my boots, and sharpen my machete. If I am hunting with my neighbor he will usually send his youngest daughter over with a large plate of food for breakfast. Then we set off. Each man walking, carrying a machete, followed by a pack of mangy dogs. Different animals will be found in different places, but usually we head on a main trail towards the family farm. Many animals are attracted this time of year by the newly budding corn. We reach the farm as the sun is beginning to dominate the sky, dissipating the low clouds hiding as fog in the valleys. The scene is surreal. With the fog hanging over the vast farm stretching out into the jungle beyond with mountains on the horizon. So many different shades of green. The smell of life all around you. And a heat so mixed with moisture you can taste it as you suck a deep breath to fill your lungs, remembering that you could be in an office right now.
The dogs dominate the hunt. For the entire walk through the jungle they will go out into the bush and smell out an animal. You never know when they will start their barking, but when they send up the call we rush through the dense virgin forest as fast as we can. It all happens so fast I am just trying not to lose sight of the man in front of me. We run to where the dogs have either cornered on animal in a cave, chased it into water, or gotten a hold of it. Anyway it happens this is where they grab it and kill it. If possible it is best to kill it by blunt force to the head it seems. This is done with the dull side of the machete. I imagine it is done in this way so whoever has to throw the kill over their shoulder and back it home, is not covered in blood. Although I have never personally had my act together enough to be the one that kills the creature, while digging for a armadillo with a respectable yet aggravating will to survive, my machete was used by the man digging after him to end its life.
The kill is always carried by the youngest able son relative to the weight of the animal. I will sometimes volunteer to carry the kill for a number of reasons: The youngest son is usually my friend who helps me in many ways around the village, learn simple things that all men in the community know how to do, show I am not grossed out, and (most importantly) secure that I will receive a meal containing part of the tasty animal. So far while hunting we have found, armadillo, gibnut, and peccary. I hope to learn the way to trap a ground-mole as soon as the rain lets up. All are quite delicious when made into a Kaldo soup and served with freshly baked flour tortillas, but I would say gibnut is the best.
Sometimes we will be hiking through the forest for 6 or 7 hours, but I don't ever really feel the time go by. It is all just blur of chopping bush, running after dogs, waiting on dogs to come back after they lost an animal, and talking with the other men. Once, as we were going along in the jungle, all of a sudden we came to a clearing. We were on a hilltop south of the village. All I could see for miles around was endless waves of green mountains stretching out all the way to Guatemala. In the middle of this sea of green was a few building of the village: the library, an old church, my neighbors thatch roof, and my house. The old cabin was just sitting there, wooden windows blowing back and forth in the breeze. That is where I live. Theres my home, in the middle of this rain-forest. I took a picture, but it didn't come out the same. You cant capture the way it felt. All I could do was feel amazed and walk on after a moment. Just another memory. Another great reason to be alive. If in my old age I am lucky enough to slip, with dementia, into only the memories of my life, I shall die peacefully with a smile from ear to ear.

Farming too requires me to wake early. I lace up my boots and walk with the family to the farm. The farming plot to slashed and burned forest. Each family in the village has their own plot they are responsible for, and after a spot is used for two seasons it will sit for 15-20 years. Assuring that all the plants grow back, giving the soil the nutrients needed to plant again. The trees on the plot will serve as firewood. To be cut and hauled to the home by horseback Each family must also cut a farm road through the bush from the main road to haul the harvest out. Over all the hills and valleys this is no easy task.
Without the hassle winter, people are able to have two planting seasons. This enables them to have crops growing year round, which is important when some families will eat nearly 100% of their income. May and November are the planting months. Harvest time differs depending on the crop. Planting is done with large sticks cut from the surrounding bush which are used to make a hole about six inches deep. Deep enough that the birds can't eat the seeds, but not to deep that the sun cant reach the seeds. The farms are very large and you often have to plant on a steep hillside. It is hot and thirsty work, but a days work in the farm is always repaid with a hot bowl of chicken Kaldo with fresh tortillas. A food you eat a lot here, but can never get sick of.

Fishing has been one of my favorite pass times, and I was happy to hear that people fish even more in the coming dry season. It is an activity that the men will do on days that they do not have any work to do at the farm. A fun way to spend the day and put some different food on the table. With all the rain lately we have not fished in the flooded river that runs behind my house. Instead we hike a ways into the mountains and find a fresh water stream that is always clear. From here we walk upstream with our lines in the water, little bits of masa (milled corn that tortillas are made from) on our hooks. We stop in spots to set a net that has worm-stung wire running across its middle to lure small fish in.
My favorite way to fish however is definitely with the rubber band projected spear. This is a iron rod about the length of my forearm that is sharpened to a point on one side, and is attached to a rubber band on the other. You loop the rubber band around you thumb and grasp the spear just below its tip. It is now armed to fire, and all that is needed to to open you grasp and it will shoot out, fast as a bullet. This is used with a diving mask to dive under the water, see a fish and spear it. The first time the I dove underwater, in this stream deep in the forest, with a old diving mask, and a home made harpoon in one hand, I knew that I would forever measure events in my life as before and after that moment. Although I failed to find any fish to spear it was still an invigorating experience.
My friend we call “Juny” and I have plans to hike a day up river into the mountains, build a raft out of forest materials, sleep the night, and then spend the next day rafting back down the river, fishing all the way. A true Huck Fin Adventure.