Jan Thompson compiled this wonderful account of their recent trip through Central America. I hope you enjoy reading this.
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FAITH EXPEDITION TO BELIZE & GUATEMALA
January 8 thru 18 2001
Belize, a former British colony, bordered on the north by Mexico, Guatemala to the west and South and the Caribbean Sea to the east, was our first country to visit. Belize is a small country with rain- forests, rivers, coastal lands, many caves, and the second largest coral reef in the world. The Church of the Brethren is working in association with an environmental agency called “Target Earth”, in an attempt to preserve some of the rain forests from commercial development and thus protect the wild life that lives in rain forests. (in the year 2,000 the church of the Brethren purchased 40 acres ($4,000) in the Eden Conservancy project.) This project will link two Rain Forests located in National Forest/Park Lands and thus provide opportunity for inhabitants of the Rain Forests to move between the two National Parks and preserve additional rain forests for the country and the people.
We stayed at Jaguar Creek, a retreat center trying to operate by using conservation methods to survive. They have solar power and large bank of batteries to store the electricity for night use. The “cabins” have palm thatch roofs etc. Jaguar Creek runs just behind the dining hall and the music from the rapids is soothing to the ears. We found out that the humidity was very high at this time of year and clothing etc. did not dry out. T-shirts washed out the first night were still very wet on the third day when we had to pack to move to another location!
One day we hiked through the rain forest to observe nature. Swam in a stream that came out of the side of a cliff, was above ground about 120 yards and disappeared back into the ground. One afternoon we meet with a farmer who was trying to use organic methods in his farming operation. He told us that the trees would produce well for 5-8 years and then the soil was depleted. He was to raising peanuts around the citrus trees to see if that would give nitrogen to the trees. He was also growing coffee trees, banana trees, cocoa, pineapple etc. We were escorted through his farm area during the typical afternoon rains.
One day we canoed on the Macal River as it wandered through some rain forests but mostly farmland carved out of the rain forests. We had two guides with us. Ed had a Ph.D. in water conservation/river bank management. Clifford had his degree from “life experiences”. We were in the only canoe that tipped. Roma did not step into the middle of the canoe and tipped us before we even got a start from the “put in spot”. No problem since we were already in our swim suits. Many people laughed with us. Saw many birds and iguanas. (we stopped one time and Clifford, climbed part way up a tree and shook it and the iguana dropped into the river. Ed caught it with his hands. Picture taking with most people holding the iguana. It was at least 3 feet long including the tail. When it was let go, he swam under water across the river. Yes it was a male, males are bright orange and females are brown.) I lost my hat because of a low overhanging limb. Ed was able to retrieve it when it got stuck on an underwater snag.
One morning Roma Jo and I went with three others from our group on a local bus to Belmopan the new capital city for Belize. (Belize City is on the coast and often times is damaged by hurricanes, so the capital has been moved inland to Belmopan. City of 6,000 people). I wanted to go to the police station to trade police patches for two friends here in AZ who are police officers. Found the National Headquarters and “hit the jackpot”. Five nice patches of different services (two sets) for each one of the AZ patches. Always interesting to shop the local markets, ride on local buses and observe the people. The national language is English, although most people speak Spanish and a form of English Creole. (We found out the next day that Marian Jones, the sprinter who won 5 medals in the Olympics was honored in Belmopan. Her mother is a citizen of Belize and the country claims Marian even though she grew up in the US of A).
One evening we were guests in the home of the Belizian couple who were the former directors of the Jaguar Creek program. Marion Cayetano (the male) has Ph.D. in environmental area and is now employed as consultant for several groups. His wife, Claudia is a MD-Psychiatrist employed by the government. (for many years she was the only Psychiatrist in the country, they now have a second one in country). Wonderful people and we were there until “late in the evening” listening to them tell about the country, the problems, the solutions. They challenged us that as Christians we must influence local governments and national governments to be more aware and sensitive as to how the laws/policies of one country affects others around the world. (I had to think about George W. Bush and how he has not traveled much and likely will not be sensitive to these concerns). Their teen-age daughter Luawani was able to interact with the four young single girls from our group. Interesting to watch them sitting on the floor and talking about clothing style, hair fashions, school, etc.
We spent one day touring the Mayan ruins: Xunantunich. Interesting to learn that people built pyramid like structures before the time of Christ. We had a good guide and learned much about the Mayan civilization.
Next stop was out over the water to Caye Caulker (key) for snorkeling and to observe the Coral reef. We did not think the fish nor the reef was as colorful as we saw in Hawaii, but swimming with Sting Rays and 4-foot sharks was interesting. Water clear and refreshing! We stayed over night on Caye Caulker and were able to get some of our clothes dry, due to the warm sea breeze. This Caye was struck by Hurricane last fall and we saw lots of damage to trees and some buildings.
Samantha Morris, Church of Brethren and former BVSer to Belize was our leader/guide. She did an excellent job. We felt we learned a lot and also had the opportunity to enjoy ourselves a bit.
Sunday we returned to Belize City where 8 from the group of 14 flew on to Guatemala for an additional four days. The plane we flew in to Guatemala City was a one-engine 12-passenger plane. No pressure and as we flew over the mountains we noticed the lack of oxygen and experienced some difficulty with breathing. Always something new!
Guatemala is for the most part very hilly/mountainous, has active volcanoes and prone to earthquakes. The country is about the size of Tennessee. During the second half of the 20th Century, it experienced a variety of military and civilian governments as well as a 36-year guerrilla war. In 1996, the government signed a peace agreement formally ending the conflict, which caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people and had created some 1 million refugees. We were told that the Government army was responsible for 95 % of the killing in the villages and the rebels about 5 %. We were to visit in the area where most of the guerrilla activity took place and thus reprisals by the Government forces.
Sunday we stayed in a Catholic Hostel and repacked our things to take a small amount “up bush” the rest we left at the Hostel. Guatemala City sprawls over very hilly countryside, with many squatters living in the valleys and hilltops. The city has some “old world” charm, but is also a crowded and vehicle filled city.
Monday found us in a nice 15-passenger van driving west through some lush green hills. We saw some very large “green houses” that are used for growing flowers to export to the US. We saw garden plots on hills and one wonders how the people can work in their fields without falling off. We stopped in the city of Quetzaltenango for lunch. (This is quite popular with Americans for language study and therefore has many nice restaurants, etc.) After lunch we continued our drive to the small community of Colotenango where we would spend the night. Robert our BVS guide had lived in this village and was warmly greeted by the people of the small community. We slept in another Catholic school/convent in adequate quarters. We went up the hillside to observe how some farmers had started to “Terrace” their fields to assist in the reduction of erosion. (This is not far from the community of Huehuetengango-prounounced “waywaytengango”)
Due to the civil war many in this area had fled to Mexico for safety. The hillsides were denuded of the trees and much of the soil has washed away. When the people returned in 1996 they had to start the process of reforestation, reclaiming the land for crops etc. The major crop is coffee and since the world price has fallen in the last two years, the people are having a hard time making ends meet. We were told that the average family farm was less than an acre.
The traditional method of cooking is putting pot on/between three large rocks, on the floor in the center of the kitchen, which is in the living area. This uses lots of wood, causes smoke in the house and is awkward for women trying to cook with babies on their backs, plus it is a fire hazard for small children playing near the fire. The Ch of the Brethren has been working through a local Catholic Social Services agency over the past five years to assist the people to build “stoves” in their kitchens. The cook stoves are built of clay bricks, raising the cooking area off the ground to 30 or 33 inches. By building a fire “box” covered with a metal plate with removable plates, (like the old fashioned wood cook stoves your grandmothers cooked on) and adding a stove pipe to channel the smoke outside the house, the stove used 1/3 to ¼ less wood and there is much less respiratory disease among the women and children. Over the past 5 years there have been 500 plus stoves built. The cost is $50.00 and this is split equally between the family and the Catholic Social Services.
Another project we saw was the cisterns built to collect water during the raining season to last through the dry season, (usually 4 months). The family must dig the hole in the ground. (3 meters deep, and 3 meters square, 3 meters is about 10 feet). Bricks are placed around the wall, r-bars and chicken wire is installed next and the area coated with cement stucco. A form is made and cement is poured for the top of the cistern. The rain is collected from the downspout from the tin roofs. The “pump” is made from a rubber tire cut and turned inside out, fastened to a wooden wheel turned by as crank. A nylon rope with plastic balls is then run through a 1-inch PVC pipe. When you turn the windless the rope pulls the water up through the PVC pipe. It works very easily and yet is very simple. The cisterns cost $500 and once again the cost is split equally. This program is 2 years old and we were told there are 40 to 50 cisterns already in use in this area.
The Ch of the Brethren has supported these two projects with funds from the Global Food crises fund, (2 cents a meal club). To the tune of $25,000.
We talked with one woman and she said she used to walk for an hour each way to the river to get water and carry the water back. (Remember water weighs 8 lbs a gallon and she would carry 5 gallons). This was twice a day or 4 hours. She showed us the river and it was down a steep valley from the house and we all said we could not do it in an hour, let alone carry the water climbing back up out of the valley. The people were very proud of the cisterns and the stored water assist them in planting some fresh vegetables, but most of all it provides clean water for their household needs. We were quite impressed with the cisterns.
A third program has to do with growing seedlings for tree planting. The program starts coffee trees and some hybrids that are fast growing trees. They are good for preventing soil erosion and good for firewood. People are able to buy the starts for a reasonable price and thus are encouraged to assist in the reforestation of the hillsides. The Church of the Brethren is supporting this program from the “If a Tree Falls” funds. $5,000 has been committed for the year 2001. If any of you are looking for a program for a church group, VBS, or are interested individually, funds can be sent to General offices. (I got my dentist to “join” in supporting this cause after I showed him the pictures of the stoves and cisterns)
We spent one night in the home of a national. Some of us slept in a family room, which they had cleaned out for our use, bare except the cement floor. Others slept on the cement verandah. We did not take any camping mattress and we found that we are getting too old to sleep on a cement floor with just a blanket under us. We had supper with the family and were able to observe a “new” stove in action. The woman was very positive about the benefits of the stove.
The time in Belize was almost like a vacation while the time in Guatemala was “educational” and required a lot more of “living” like the locals. We ate most of the meals in small village restaurants, or local families, which served the local fare of rice and black beans with tortillas. We found the people to be very friendly out in the villages and seemed to know why we were there. Did not see any children begging except in the capital city where they are used to seeing tourists.
The last day in Guatemala City we walked to the central Cathedral to see the many pillars that have been erected since the end of the civil war. Each pillar is inscribed with names of the people who were tortured, killed or massacred. It was a very somber visit!
Our guide Robert Stiles was very helpful and opened many doors to life in the villages that we would not have seen without his help. (Interesting fellow! Robert was raised in Southern Baptist tradition, changed to Quaker as young adult and is now taking classes to join the Roman Catholic Church. Somewhere the Brethren missed out. Robert does claim he supports the Peace and Justice issues of the Brethren but likes the “Ritual” of the Catholic Church.)
The Brethren Witness office has scheduled this type of tour again next January, as well as tours to Southern Sudan, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. If interested call (800) 323 8039 ext. 228 or talk to your pastor for information that was in the January issue of “Source”.
Thank you for reading this travelogue. We are always ready to talk about our experiences if you have more questions. Seeing how others live is a sobering thought when we realize how much we have and enjoy.
R. Jan & Roma Jo