Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Belize: Here we come

Thirty eight potential volunteers, class of 2011, came together in Dallas, Texas to start their journey to Peace Corps. The volunteers came from all corners of the country from Washington to Florida, from Main to California. Their backgrounds were as diverse as were their ages. They were fresh out of college to a tax attorney to a retired medical surgeon to several retired teachers. The ages ranged from 22 to 66 and I have the distinct honor of being the oldest in our group. I am told that there another person who is older than I am in Belize. Our group included four married couples; two older, above 55 and two younger in their late 20’s. There are four others including myself who are over 55 with the rest mostly in their twenties and thirties. After a day of “Staging Workshop” and several get-to-know-each-other “ice breakers” in Dallas, Texas, we were on our way to Belize. We arrived at the Phillip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, the largest City in Belize, on March 24, 2011. After going through the usual annoyance of immigration and customs process we were warmly welcomed by the entire Belize Peace Corps staff at the airport. For some of us the process of cultural adaptation had already started. There was an immediate shift in our paradigm about the weather, the people, the amenities and conveniences, the luxuries of daily life and just about everything that we were used to.
On the way to Belize
Disembarking at the Belize Airport
Volunteer Trainees of 2011
Peace Corps Belize staff welcoming 2011 Volunteer Trainees
For those of you who are not intimately familiar with Belize, here is a quick geography lesson. Belize, a stone’s throw away from Miami, is a small Central American country tucked away between Mexico and Guatemala on the Caribbean Sea and is the size of Massachusetts with less than one twentieth of its population. It is the youngest country in the entire American Continent with a land area of little less than nine thousand square miles and according to the latest census has about 312,000 people. Belize, formerly known as British Honduras established self-governance with British presence in 1964 and ultimately gaining full independence in 1981. As part of the Commonwealth countries, the Governor General represents the queen as the ceremonial Head of State while the Prime Minister, head of the majority party, is the executive Head of State. Belize government is a parliamentary democracy and has three branches of government: an Executive Branch, a Legislative Branch and A Judicial Branch. The Legislative Branch has thirteen Senators who are appointed and thirty one House of Representatives who are directly elected by the people. There are six districts in Belize: Corozal, Orange Walk, Belize, Cayo, Stan Creek and Toledo. Within these districts there are Cities, Towns and Villages. Presently there are two cities in all of Belize: Belize City in Belize District and Belmopan, the Capital is in Cayo District. There are seven towns and about 200 villages. Each of the villages is governed by a Village Council Chair or an Alcalde. A number of past and present Peace Corps volunteers worked with and are working with a number of Village Councils primarily helping with organizational capacity building and developing transparency in government. I am working with the Mayor and the Town Council of Benque Viejo del Carmen in Cayo District. 

Belize is considered as a “melting pot” of races with Mestizo, Creoles, Mayan, Garifuna, East Indians, Chinese, Mennonites and some Middle eastern primarily Lebanese. Mestizo, mixture of Spanish and indigenous Mayan people now form the majority of the population with about 51% of the population while Creoles, a blending of the descendants of African slaves and the slave owners make up about 25% of the population. Mestizos live mostly in the northern and western part of the country while Creoles, once a dominant population, are spread throughout with a concentration around Belize City and the surrounding areas. Mayan people live mostly in the south western part of the country in Toledo District while Garifuna, direct descendants of African slaves and some blending of Caribe Indians settled in the Dangriga area, which is in the south eastern part of the country along the Caribbean Sea. East Indian and Chinese are predominantly in the retail and other businesses with Indians mostly around Corozal, Belize City and Stan Creek area and with Chinese pretty much throughout the country. There is even a small area called Calcutta near Corozal where some of the East Indians settled. Mennonites, a small distinctive community, has an arrangement with the Belize government of self-governance and is hard working farming people.  

Garifuna Children 
Creole Person
Mayan Child
Mestizo Person

Belize provides a wide variety of eco-system creating a rich and diverse habitat for a variety of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and for a great number of resident and migratory birds. Central Belize consisting of Belize and Cayo districts brings an impressive number of Maya sites, forest preserves, majestic rives, caves and waterfalls. Belize has the second largest barrier reef system in the world including several World Heritage sites. 

Maya archaeological site, Xunantunich

Maya archaeological site, Xunantunich
There is a lot to see, a lot to do and a lot to learn. It’s going to be busy twenty seven months………..        

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