Things have moved on…I have graduated from daily chicken bus runs to the Belizean “Banana Belt” to monthly muddy walks to Machakilha Mayan village, and our drum school has been promoted from a small, cluttered spare bedroom in a rented house to a beautiful thatch palapa behind our very own house that we designed and built ourselves on the edge of Punta Gorda town.
But in some ways, my life has not changed THAT much from when I was 7 years old, and my dad would take my brother and I for weekly walks in the Scottish hills. In between grumbling, I would unfailingly manage to fall into a bog (a muddy trench that is usually cunningly camouflaged by heather or other foliage).
Now, my muddy walks are only once a month, and (due to pride) I don’t grumble, but still regularly manage to almost lose a boot/shoe by misjudging the nature of a particular patch of mud and sinking in knee deep (whereupon all feelings of pride have to be thrown away as my colleagues have to pull me out).
Machakilha is a Kekchi Maya village which you can only reach by driving for 90 minutes down a very bumpy dirt road to Dolores village, and then walking for two hours through the mud and jungle. Once you get there, you are greeted by friendly families and children, and if you are lucky you are invited into a local home for some fresh chicken caldo (spicy soup) with freshly baked corn tortilla.
Then, it’s time for work. The Rural Health Nurse and Caretaker weigh and measure children under 5 years, provide immunizations, de-worming medication and vitamins, and I coordinate a child nutrition project. Which on this particular visit meant cooking fortified corn flour over a fire hearth while the local women and children giggled at me as I struggled with the smoke going in my eyes while trying to explain the importance of good nutrition.
For some reason, despite clearly not being a born-Belizean, I get on well in the villages. Maybe because I’m naturally quiet and unassuming, and am quite happy just sitting in a corner watching and listening, who knows. But instead of being asked the usual rather yawn-worthy questions revolving around where I’m from, the local women often spontaneously divulge things to me. One young mother sat outside the community centre with me while I let my smoky eyes recover and told me, out of nowhere, that she has one baby. “I only want one” she confides in me with a little smile. Considering many Maya women have four or more, quite a daring statement.
A new Community Health Worker in another village tells me “that was the first time I slept outside my village” after attending her first training session in Punta Gorda town. In two weeks her horizons will be broadened further as she will spend two nights in Belmopan, the capital city, to meet the new Peace Corp volunteer she will be working with.
I try to prove myself to the male Community Health Workers and Rural Health Nurse with my ability to walk for ten miles in mud. “I’m from Scotland. I know about mud” I joke. And indeed, the mud is no challenge. Muddy walks in Scotland, however, do NOT prepare you for 30 degree heat, with the occasional smouldering bush fire to walk through to add to the temperature scale.
So I left my former student-teachers in the Banana Belt, but am happy to say most of them are now fully trained primary school teachers, and one young teacher, Ashley Torres, just played for the Belize national football team in the CONCACAF Cup in the USA.
I’ve switched them for Rural Health Nurses, Community Health Workers, Health Educators, and Maya families working against the odds to secure a healthy future for their children.
And I come home to a new home, surrounded by hummingbirds, butterflies, parakeets, a naughty dog, and beautiful thatch with the sounds of drums coming from underneath….but more about that next time.
The next of my muddy walks will be to Graham Creek – another remote village. I’ve done that walk before, but only in dry (i.e. non-muddy) season. I promise to report back on any loss of footwear and/or erosion of pride.