Where in the world are we?

Where in the World are We?

23 January 2008

Saint Luke's Primary School Opens a New Classroom Building!

This week a new building was dedicated, blessed, and opened at Anthony's site, Saint Luke's Methodist Primary School, in Belize City. The building was part of an expansion plan to accomodate the growing population of students coming to the school. Currently our population is around 750 students, but is slated to increase a great deal over the next ten years as Belize City continues to expand its borders and the population grows. The event was attended by a number of local and district school managers, as well as some of the current political officers from the ministry of education office. Many of the students at the school participated through song and dance as we all welcomed the new expansion to our somewhat overcrowded campus. The building will serve as classrooms for Standard III, Standard II, and Infant I divisions (Grades 4, 3, and Kindergarten for those of you in the states). Both teachers and students welcomed the much needed space as their large classrooms moved into new areas where the students are now able to move around without knocking each other over. Many students also would like to send a special thanks to those of you who have sent us school supplies and other teaching materials. Everything is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

The principal addresses students and invited guests at the festivities; An Infant I classroom performs a song for the crowd

The Reverend blesses the building during the dedication ceremonies

As many of you back in the states have requested, we have posted some pictures from our assigned sites. Below you will find some photos of some of my students as well as a short video clip of our award winning school choir performing 'Welcome to Belize' (ginnie's pictures will be posted soon). We hope that you are all enjoying our site and things are going well for everyone. We've continued to stay busy, but as promised, we'll try to update things as often as we can.

Students waiting patiently on the veranda for the ceremony to begin; Students from Std I pose for the camera

Std II and Std III students show their smiles (just in case you were wondering, they're not really camera shy)

The western corner of our school building as students wait with anticipation; Saint Luke's dance squad performs for the crowd

Our choir singing "Welcome to Belize" give it a listen, it's definitely worth it!

20 January 2008

A Weekend Stint in Belmopan

This past weekend we headed out to Belmopan. On Friday evening we attended an 80's party in honor of our soon to be leaving training director. It seemed as though the girls were the only people who took the theme seriously, but with some fun music and yummy treats to eat, it was easy to look past the outrageous hairstyles and ridiculous outfits (people were amazed at what they found in the local thrift stores. Everything from stretchy pants to the clasic 80's mickey mouse tshirts). We had lots of fun catching up with other volunteers from around the country, and also had some time to say some see ya laters to our trusty training director as she prepared to head back to the states.

Some PCVs showing off their 80's attire

Guest of honor, our departing PC Training Director

Us with Elva, our training director

On Saturday a small group of PCVs and staff traveled out to Jaguar Paw Resort (about 25 minutes east of Belmopan). Jaguar Paw is a luxury resort situated deep in the jungle of belize. The resort has 16 individual cabanas which cost around 200USD per night, slightly out of our budget :)

One of the resident howler monkeys at Jaguar Paw

Getting psyched up before heading out to the course

We spent the day at Jaguar Paw ziplining through the rainforest canopy and cave tubing crystal caves. The aerial zipline was through a series of 8 platforms all of varying heights and distances apart.

Zipping down the longest line (300 feet!)

Ginnie makes easy work out of the high platform

Just like riding a bike, but a lot more exciting!

It looks relaxing, but it's really a lot of work...and all fun.

The highest platform was about 90 feet in the air and the longest cable run was almost three hundred feet. We had an amazing time zipping through the jungle (although it was pretty difficult to see much of anything in terms of wildlife, it was fun nonetheless). After ziplining we had a typical Belizean lunch of stew chicken with rice and beans (something neither one of us had eaten since we left our last host family. It's strange how the rice and beans becomes an almost daily love/hate relationship). After lunch we headed out into the bush once again, hiking approximately 25 minutes out to crystal caves.

The entrance to crystal caves

Exiting the caves. The water is an amazing azure color that reflects all of the jungle colors and shear rock structures around

The last glimpse of sunlight as we enter the cave

We donned headlamps and hopped into large inflated tire tubes (dump truck I think) then prepared for our trip down the river through the caves. Although many claimed the water to be quite cold, we found it relatively mild compared to the Atlantic in New England (that was until we entered the cave and the sunshine disappeared into the darkness...only then did the water become a lee bit chilly). You'd think cool water would be a welcome relief in the heat of Belize, but being as we have sort of adjusted quite quickly to what we now deem as being cold, it was pretty darn chilly. We lay in our tubes and paddled and swayed with the current for about an hour through the cave. During the trip we had the opportunity to see a lot of cool things throughout the cave (bats, stalactites, inner chambers, cool rock formations, and more). Those of you planning a visit down to Belize should definitely check out these activities. Belize is actually full of intricate cave systems, many of which are available for cavetubing and include many opportunities for all types of adventurers. As the day at Jaguar Paw ended, we headed back to the western highway to catch the bus, and dreamt of a warm soft bed and a long night's sleep.

02 January 2008

Travels to Tikal, Guatemala

WARNING: This is a really long post, you may want to grab a drink and snack before starting!

This was the highlight of Ginnie's trip :) The ruins just off the road here were actually used as the sites for the different tribes during the filming of Survivor Guatemala a few years back. Our driver, who happened to be wearing a Survivor Guatemala Crew hat mentioned that he worked for the show driving contestants around to different places for challenges as well as to the hotel when they were voted off the show (of all the places...what a small world).

A view from the colectivo window on the way to Guatemala.

Our trip to Tikal, Guatemala was incredible. Tikal is the largest excavated Maya ruins site in the American continent. It comprises 222 square miles of jungle all around the ceremonial center. Only about 30% of the ruins have been unearthed! We walked through the park for many hours over two days and we didn’t see every spot. It’s incredible, and is always amazing to be in the center of such an ancient place built with such precision, so sophisticated, yet somehow mysteriously abandoned. The city of Tikal was the major cultural and population center of Maya civilization. The temples and structures were built to align with the equinoxes and solstices and are exactly lined up to the sun's path! The astronomical abilities of the Maya have been well-recorded and this site is yet another example of their intellect and advanced skills.

Shots of beautiful El Lago de Peten enroute to Nacional Parque de Tikal

We arrived in Tikal slightly before 1pm and immediately were forced to put our Spanish skills to work (in fact, Ginnie had already been required to ask the immigration officer a question about a form when we crossed the border) and we jumped right in. Having to speak Spanish was so great, it helped us become increasingly confident in our use of the language and every time we were able to carry on a conversation and comprehend it, we felt really excited. Imagine if we’d been stationed in a Spanish-speaking country, to be forced to speak it every day we would be doing so well after 6 months. We’ll keep working on it in our class and speaking to anyone we can who speaks Spanish.
(Left to right) Anthony waiting patiently for Ginnie on our hammock prior to heading out to the ruins Friday afternoon. Ginnie standing at the base of the great La Ceiba tree (a sacred and spiritual tree used by the Maya many years ago in rituals). Ginnie standing at the base of the ceiba tree...yeah, it's ginormous!

(A really, really, really, rough map of the park at the entrance, we mean really rough)

So, once we arrived at our hotel, the Jaguar Inn, we had some time before we could check in or get into the park (in order to maximize our visit, we took advantage of buying an entrance ticket at 3pm so it was also good the following day – and since the cost of the entrance tripled last month, it’s much more economical this way! It’s 150 Quetzales to enter, which is about $47 BZ, so on our budget we really had to save!) so we sat out under the trees and had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – it also saves money to travel with our own food. Once we checked into our room, which was so nice – it was a little bungalow in the jungle with a hammock on the porch - we went over to the entrance of the park (just a very short walk away – we stayed right at the entrance so we could do a sunrise tour) and spoke some more Spanish to arrange our sunrise tour and determine all the costs and fees. We then went to one of the museums and waited until we could enter the park. As soon as 3pm hit, we got right into line and got our tickets. When we first came to the entrance to ask about tours, we didn’t see the ticket booth to the right and were called over to get tickets by a man with a shotgun who works at the ticket booth. We saw a lot of men with shotguns in Guatemala, we just kept our distance.

Anthony attempting to gather a sense of direction in the central plaza. Behind him is the Temple of the Great Jaguar

One of the partially excavated temples in El Mundo Perdido (the lost world)

Since we didn’t want to get lost in the park, we picked up a map and followed a suggested route and headed off to the northern side of the park for some of the ruins out there. Tikal is in the middle of a jungle, unlike most other of the great Maya sites, so it is remarkable for that and is hidden among many trees and much overgrowth. We could clearly see temple-shaped mounds covered in grass and trees still yet to be excavated. Probably due to the late hour and the fact we were not heading toward the major sites yet, we were pretty much alone as we trekked through this section of the ruins looking at the areas in the Northern Complexes. Another fun part of hiking through the jungle is the wildlife, while Anthony was hoping to stumble upon some crazy insects, particularly giant tarantulas, Ginnie was okay with looking up for the howler monkeys. To Ginnie’s delight, no tarantulas were spotted, but we did get to see some monkeys traveling along the tops of the trees, as pointed out to us by some other explorers. We didn’t spot any exotic birds, but heard we would get to see them on the morning tour since they tend to be getting up and eating at that early hour (and we were not disappointed the next morning, but we’ll get to that). We also had the distinct pleasure of encountering every mosquito on our path, or so it seemed. For whatever reason, we did not think to carry our insect repellant or even put it on before we left. Partly because we weren’t even sure we’d be able to get the ticket that was good for the next day as we’d been told by a man in Cayo that they no longer did that after the rate increase.
(left to right: El Mundo Perdido. Ginnie stands in The Grand Plaza. Just the two of us atop Temple IV)

We made our way to Temple IV, the largest of the temples at Tikal at 72 meters. We decided to climb it and it was incredible! You can see over the site and see many of the temples' tops peaking above the trees. It is just amazing and so beautiful. Ginnie was pretty nervous atop the temple in Chichen Itza, so climbing this was impressive, and she didn’t feel as scared on top (maybe it was all the scaffolding or the wider space to stand because the next day a climb up Temple V was pretty heart-wrenching!). The pictures from the top look like we are superimposed, but that is truly how it looks – beautiful.
(A side view of the Temple of the Great Jaguar from the central acropolis. One of the hundreds of partially excavated temples at Tikal)

We made our way back down to Earth as it was nearing 5:30pm. It takes about 30-35 minutes to get back to the entrance from here, so we decided to head out before the park closed at 6pm. Although we did get side-tracked when we found the Central Acropolis and had to stop in for some pictures. In our excitement to get into the park, not only did we forget the insect repellant, but we also did not think to bring our headlamps – so as we were trying to find our way out and night was approaching, we were getting pretty nervous. I mean, it is a jungle and human sacrifices and other major things happened in this site, we were not trying to be lost in the jungle! The map we purchased is not exactly detailed and the signs were a little sparse, so we hoped the direction we took would lead us out. We could not backtrack from where we came because it was all side jungle paths that were out of the way – so we hoped we were on the direct central route. It kept getting darker and jungle noises were louder, but we finally saw a dim light ahead leading us to the entrance!

(A spider monkey just hangin' around and eating some breakfast berries)

After all the excitement, we went back for dinner at the restaurant at the Jaguar Inn and had delicious cheddar cheese sandwiches. I don’t know why it is, but every time we get cheese sandwiches in other countries, they are so delicious, but we never find such good cheese sandwiches in the states (except one time when Ginnie was in Long Beach with the USC girls while at a conference). After dinner, we went back to get our things ready for our 4am wake-up. We also only had two hours of electricity and warm water before it went out at 9pm. That was the best part of the night, everything just shut down right at 9pm and then we could see the sky fill with stars and could hear all the sounds of the jungle. It was pretty quiet, we expected to hear howler monkeys all night, but we didn’t – on Survivor Guatemala they said they were always howling (oh, our driver from the border to Tikal worked on Survivor Guatemala and told us all about how he drove the contestants to challenges and drove the losers to their hotel – he even showed us the turn off to Yaxha and Nakum ruins, where the tribes lived (and those were their tribe names, too) and showed us the lake where they held a lot of challenges – quite fun for the Survivor junky in the car).

Morning came and we got ready in the dark by candlelight and made our way to the entrance to meet our guide – Jose Luis Morales, an excellent tour guide and professor – at 4:45am. Now we heard the howler monkeys; they sound like movie dinosaurs. We expected more of a deep sounding howling, but it was like a throaty growl, and truly sounded like how they make movie dinosaurs roar. It was actually pretty creepy hearing that sound as we walked through the dark in the jungle on “short cuts” through lots of small narrow paths. For some reason, we were apparently racing the sun because we went really fast to Temple IV, it felt like we were running. It may be that Jose Luis wanted us to get good seats on the temple since over a 100 people come out for various tours – they bring people in from Flores and El Remate in addition to people who stay at the park and walk in, so it can be crowded. We did end up with a good spot to sit, though there really isn’t a bad one, and we were extremely excited that for the second time we have gone on a sunrise experience we were surrounded by clouds... . Even so, everyone was silent as we listened to the sounds of the animals awakening and heard howler monkeys, spider monkeys (though I don’t know which was the spider monkey, just was told we heard it), parrots, toucans, and all kinds of birds. It was really nice and the grey of the clouds was pretty as the sun made it lighter. It was a good thing we’d climbed the night before since we did not see the other temples through the clouds this morning and it would have been a bummer to miss that view.
(l to r: A view from the top of the extremely high Temple V. Getting ready for our sunrise tour, this was actually by candle light, but alas, the flash lit up the room like a christmas tree.)

Once it was determined the clouds were not going to break for the view, we met at the bottom of the temple to begin our tour. Jose Luis took us through some of the major areas, such as Mundo Perdido (the Lost World), the Plaza of the Seven Temples, Temple V (really scary climb and very skinny precipice, but beautiful views when you can settle yourself from feeling imminent death is upon you), and on to the Great Plaza, the Central Acropolis and the West Plaza – this last section with the Great Plaza was a ceremonial center of the city and could easily be imagined with thousands of people milling about or watching a sacrifice.

(Hanging out in the Central Acropolis)

Along the way, we saw two types of toucans, parrots, monkeys, and interesting plants. One such plant, we don’t recall the name, has a protective mechanism that causes it to fold in its leaves when it is touched – we just lightly touched it and it would gently fold itself – it was like it had reflexes, just amazing.

Temple V is a very steep temple and the spot where Jose Luis took a break so people could climb if they wanted. We debated, though Anthony wanted to go up, Ginnie was just remembering the Chichen Itza experience. Jose Luis said “It’s really steep when you get up there” but Ginnie figured she’d try it. Unfortunately, Anthony climbed up behind her, so turning back was difficult – well no, not so much, she could have just slipped under the railing at a platform, but something compelled her to just keep climbing despite the racing heart, sweaty palms, shortness of breath and other signs of a potential panic attack! The view was beautiful from the top and amazingly, Anthony was able to get a picture of Ginnie before she made her way right back down. Actually, because other people were on their way up, she did wait a bit but never left the edge of the wall – she did better than the man who would not take his butt off the precipice and those who Jose Luis has had to go up and get because they were too petrified to come back down. Imagine the people building that structure (or the more recent people who built the steep wooden staircase we climbed to get to the top), they must have no fear of heights. And yes, Anthony reminded Ginnie about her sky-diving experience, but that is not the same as climbing up and standing on a 58-meter high steep temple with nothing attaching you to anything! You can see from the pictures, it was worth the panic.

(l to r: Ginnie hiking up the steps to the summit of Temple V, Anthony would be the one behind her with the camera. Ginnie with a very nervous smile at the top, I think that she was coerced into going, both of us thinking...well, it doesn't really look that high. Another view from the top, and yes, it was quite high, in fact, we felt as though we were one with the clouds)

After our tour ended in the Great Plaza, we wandered around a bit to explore more of the Central Acropolis and got caught in the rain.

(Ginnie happy to be back on the old terra firma for good. A view of the northern center)

The sun had come out, but we had a few downpours (it is a jungle) but were able to find shelter under thatches and in some corners of temples. We also met some PCVs throughout the day and saw some of our traveling companions from Placencia.

(Leaving the park, the omnious 'danger crocodile' sign by the small pond at the exit)

It is so hard to describe Tikal, so we hope our pictures will help! To learn much more about Tikal, visit http://www.tikalpark.com/generalinfo.htm.

(La Casa De Don David, our lodging for the evening)

After the day of hiking, we went back to our little bungalow to rest and eat some PB&J. We booked ourselves on a colectivo to our next stop, El Remate. El Remate is a village just 15 km south of Tikal and is on the lake – Lago de Peten Itza. It is a nice quiet place, has a lot of hotels for the tourists and backpackers traveling to Tikal.

(l to r: Horses lounging in the grass by Lake Peten; Some of the local flora)

We stayed at La Casa de Don David, which is a beautiful spot on the lake with large grounds. It was such a restful place to end the trip. We spent time speaking with Don David himself, an incredibly friendly and hospitable man who has been in Guatemala for 33 years. We had a snack of fries and then walked to the lake and watched the sunset from the grounds of the hotel. Since we did not get a beautiful sunrise, it was made up for by the sunset over the lake.

(Just before sunset, and right after. Our hotel was situated only a few hundred yards from the shore and provided amazing views of Lake Peten and the surrounding mountains as the sun sunk below the horizon)

We then ended the night with dinner at the hotel restaurant – enchiladas. Ginnie got the vegetable enchiladas and had a pretty funny moment when she asked (in Spanish, of course) what vegetables were in the enchilada and the waitress answered, but she’d never heard those words – the danger of a limited vocabulary, but she just went ahead with the order anyway! We also played a game of chess through dinner and Ginnie gave Anthony a very good competition, it looked like she would pull out with a win, but it ended in a draw.
(l to r: A toucan carved out of the shrubbery. Testing out our macro setting on the camera. Some young and unripened papaya on one of the trees in the courtyard)
Our trip came to a close with our final day of travel. We headed out to El Cruce (the junction between the road to Tikal and the road to Flores which also goes to the border) in hopes of catching a bus or colectivo to Melchor. Fortunately, as soon as we turned into El Cruce a colectivo pulled in and stopped to ask if we needed a ride. We jumped in along with many other people already there and thought we might have a long crowded trip with Anthony standing hunched over, but we made several stops for people to get out or get in. At one point, Anthony got a seat and had a chance to count the passengers. Hmmm…26 people on the colectivo – there are definitely not 26 seats. Guatemala has beautiful landscape and a lot of cows and pigs, which we saw along the way. About an hour later, we arrived in Melchor where we picked up some new towels for the house (they were much cheaper in Guatemala) and then waited in the immigration line to return to Belize. It was so weird to just switch immediately to English (well, they were speaking Kriol in fact) just steps away from speaking lone Spanish. Soon we arrived back to Benque for the bus to Belize, which felt like the longest ride ever since we stopped every few feet between Cayo and Belmopan, but we made it home and our Christmas vacation came to a close.