Friday, December 4, 2009

An Eventful Final Week

To start, I’d like to apologize for the bombardment of final blog posts this week. (There's one more coming). The internet has been so poor in San Pedro that checking an email had become a 40 minute ordeal.

After my dad left on Sunday, I thought I would just be killing time for a few days before I left on Thursday. With exams in all the upper division classes, I didn’t have any opportunities to work with students. All I really had left to do was give some gifts out that my Dad brought down from the States. A couple weeks ago, I took pictures of all the kids in Miss Laura’s class and had prints made at Costco. I gave a picture to each kid in the class and then I gave a set to Miss Laura. My parents also sent down some Avon goodies for the 6 kitchen ladies. There were some extra lip glosses that will be Christmas gifts for some of the upper division girls.

On Monday morning, I went to school like normal and started to wrap things up. A group of dentists also arrived and before I knew it I was recruited to be a dental assistant. They sat me down in the chair and handed me the water rinser and suction tube. By the end of the day I knew all the different instruments used for a typical check-up, cleaning and amalgam filling. They’ve got some weird names for their tools.

Holy Cross started the free dental clinic because there is such a strong correlation between a healthy mouth and a person’s overall health. Students at Holy Cross receive free dental care 1-2 times a year. The volunteer dentists can do everything from cleanings and x-rays to fillings and teeth extractions. In the spirit of Belizean living, the instruments run off of the compressed air in scuba tanks. Dr. Mark Johnson, who lives part time in Belize and runs the dental clinic at the school, is originally from the Twin Cities area. He recruited two other dentists who went to the University of Minnesota dental school with him, Dr. Mike and Dr. Chuck, to come down to Belize for the week. Dr. Mike brought his son down with him to be his assistant so I worked with Dr. Chuck.

The range of oral health that these students have is unbelievable! We had lots of kids come in who had no cavities and no serious plaque build-up on their teeth. On the other end, there would be 5 year old kids whose mouths looked like a war zone. These kids would have 6-7 cavities, but not little cavities that were caught early. Their teeth had huge holes in them. One of the many “dentist lingo” things I learned was the term “bombed out.” When a tooth (usually a molar) is bombed out, it looks like a crater because the decay has eaten the tooth away down to the pulp. The circumference of the tooth is rather intact but the whole interior is black, depressed and looks like someone set off a bomb in it. There were some kids that had 2-3 teeth like this with lots of other smaller holes all around their mouth. I can only imagine how painful it is to eat! During my time there, I learned all about amalgam fillings and taught lots of kids how to brush their teeth properly. I also got to help with teeth and root extractions on some kids. Personally, I’ve had lots of fillings, 2 root canals and orthodontia (thanks Mom and Dad) but these 5-7 year old kids have experienced things I can only imagine. They are very lucky that the volunteer dentists are there for them. In the December 3rd edition of Ambergris Today, there is an article about the dental clinic and I’m in both pictures. Exciting!

Later Monday afternoon, I had to take a break from the dental clinic to go get my visa renewed. It was a little silly because I was renewing it for my last 3 days in the country, but I didn’t want to take the chance of getting caught. I was so nervous to go to immigration. I have heard (and experienced) so many horror stories about the government and how difficult it is to get anything done. Unlike most 1st world countries, you can’t look up all the rules, regulations and procedures anywhere; you just have to figure it out the hard way. I did learn the hard way. When it was my turn to renew the visa the immigration officer asked why I was behind a month of my visa. “Where’s your visa stamp?” “Stamp?” Last month I went to immigration, signed into the book and got the $25 bill to pay. So I went next door to the treasury department and paid the bill. Then I asked the treasury guy if there was anything else I had to do. “Nope you’re all set.” So I went home. Well…. apparently I was supposed to go back to immigration office with my paid bill to get a stamp. But of course, in Belize, no one tells you this. Luckily, the officer was really nice and let me bring in my old receipt from the previous month to straighten everything out. I’m actually really surprised that he didn’t give me a harder time or make me pay some sort of fine.

I had a wonderful send-off on Wednesday afternoon. Miss Laura’s Standard V class made me a big card and each student made me a personal thank you note. A bunch of the students got up individually and thanked me for something in front of the whole class. It was so sweet and I had to try really hard not to cry. They also got me this really cute beach bag with bamboo handles that has Belize embroidered on it. After that, the staff had a little going away party in the cafeteria with my favorite cake, Tres Leche Cake from Casa Pan Dulce, the most amazing bakery ever (my father can attest to this). That night I went out to dinner with the Wilsons at Waruguma Restaurant (another favorite) where I had pupusas for my last night in San Pedro.

Thursday went by in a flash. Before I knew it, I had my whole apartment packed up and loaded into Mr. Victor’s taxi. I had a couple of errands to run before I went back to the school for some last goodbyes. The wonderful ladies at Vern’s Kitchen (where I ate at least once a week) gave me a plate of fried chicken, rice and beans, coleslaw and fried plantains to take to the airport in Belize City. It sure beat the granola bars I had packed for lunch. So here I sit in Belize International Airport, anxiously awaiting my flight back to snowy Colorado to see my wonderful boyfriend!

Greg and Julie's Amazing Adventure

For those of you who know my family well, you probably already know that there is never a dull moment when my dad and I are together. Last week was no exception.

My dad arrived last Saturday and spent the next 9 days in San Pedro with me. The fun began as soon as we walked in the front door of my little casita. My dad must have traveled with a bunch of cockroaches and brought them with him. During my first 7 weeks here, I have only seen 3-4 cockroaches in all. The first time I saw a big one run across my floor in my 2nd or 3rd week here, I took a bunch of plastic and jammed it in all the small cracks between the wall and floor where I thought they were coming from. I saw 3 within my Dad’s first hour in Belize. I think roaches are naturally attracted to him. On my parents’ honeymoon in the Caribbean, the roaches used to take over the floor of their casita and they had to spray a path to the bathroom every night. Anyways, in all my paranoia, we went to the store and bought 2” wide masking tape and roach spray and taped up every crack we could find. So far so good but my dad was not too enthusiastic about sleeping on a camping pad on my floor. My bed is about the width of a backpacking tent, so we both camped out on the bed for the next week. The Wilsons did generously offer us a place on their boat for a few days but we were already pretty settled in at my place.
On Sunday we did the tourist thing and went windsurfing a couple miles south of town. The wind was marginal but it was still nice to get out on a board. Unfortunately every time I went to Wilmette this summer, I never got the opportunity to go windsurfing. I’m proud (sort of) to say that my first day of windsurfing in 2009 was on November 22. We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out at the Tides Hotel where I know the bar tender, Adolfo, well from my frequent visits. It was refreshing to take a dip in the pool and read in some comfy beach chairs. That night we had a hardy dinner of pupusas (a Salvadorian stuffed pancake) and some amazing seafood and chicken burritos. Yum!
On Monday we reported for duty at the school. Dad got the grand tour of the place and got to see how much it has grown since we were here as a family 2 years ago. Afterwards I put him to work helping me give reading tests to the Standard IV students. My mission was to give a diagnostic reading test to the upper division students. The test was the Burt Reading Test (google it). It’s a list of words that starts with simple words (to, is, he…) and progresses to really hard ones (perambulating, subtlety, phthisis). Based on the number of words that the student can pronounce, one can estimate their reading age (i.e. 7 years-2 months or 12 years-11 months). It’s a simple test for a rough estimate and does not test the student’s comprehension. Dad helped me with that each morning, which allowed me to finish administering all 90 tests for the school before I went home. 
Last week was the big multiplication test for the Standard V class. An ice cream party was at stake as any student who scored higher than 85% got to partake in the fest. I am so proud to say that all but two students passed! When we started practicing the times table, the average in the class was about 78% percent. By the end, the class average was around 95%. The kids worked hard and everyone who put effort in to the task passed. The two that didn't pass didn't take the challenge seriously so they didn't get to reap the benefits. Hopefully it will be a life lesson. Monday afternoon Standard V got to enjoy a bowl of strawberry and chocolate ice cream.

In the afternoon, Dad became Mr. Handyman. Mr. Vernon put him to work with lots of jobs. He started out fixing locks on cabinets in the computer lab. Then the both of us installed about 30 cabinet catches on the other cabinet doors in the lab to prevent them from spontaneously swinging open. As tedious and repetitive as the job was, the two of us got a system down to make time fly. Dad even had time to switch into “Dad-mode” and teach Keinie (Miss Laura’s daughter and my little buddy) how to drill a hole with the drill. Keinie was crawling in one cabinet and out another 3 doors down, just like I did when I was 3 and Dad was remodeling the kitchen.
Dad’s big project for the week was to tile the front entrance way to the office. A previous group had started the job but had used 3 different tiles of 2 different sizes, so it was already a little messed up. Remember, this is Belize. I think the previous volunteers stopped because they realized how hard the back was to tile. There are two benches that are nailed to the floor that the tiles had to work around. Of all the tiles my dad laid down, 6 were complete and didn’t require any cutting. On top of that, the previous people didn’t do a normal thin-set tile job; they did more of a mud job and elevated each tile about a quarter inch (much harder to make level). Dad did all the tile cutting and laying and I came back on Friday and grouted it. All week, I bounced back and forth between working on a grant and helping him.

On Saturday we played “tourist” again. We rented bikes and explored the island. First we went south and made it all the way to the end of the road at the southern tip of Ambergris Caye (5.5 miles one-way). Outside of town the road become rocky with water-filled potholes and small bodies of water to ford. At the end of the road, there is a palapa bar in the middle of nowhere run by a Jamaican named Robert (who happened to live in Milwaukee for 20 years). When we arrived he came out and said, “Congratulations! You’ve made it! I’ve got a cold beer with your name on it.” Naturally we had to stay. Two expats who are real estate agents for Coldwell Banker stopped by because they there in the area posting For Sale signs on the nearby vacant lots. (Side note: I ran into Robert again on Monday at the immigration office as we were both getting our passports stamped to stay another 30 days. He’s now an American citizen). Then we went exploring north and made it about 3 miles north of town. The island is much prettier up there with cute apartments and more resorts. We turned around when the road got nasty and we got attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes.
Saturday night we had a lovely dinner with the Wilsons at the Sunset Grill, one of the nicest restaurants in town. Chef Victor cooks some wonderful cuisine and was voted Best Chef in Belize a couple years ago. He volunteers at the school about once a month to teach the kitchen staff new cooking techniques and how to balance meals. Sunset Grill has another draw besides great food, feeding the tarpon. There is a population of tarpon (3-4 feet long) that hang out in the marina and wait for tourist to come feed them small fish. They gather at the sound of the bell. I’ve already fed the fish but I made my dad do it and captured it all on tape. Check out the You Tube video.
On Sunday he left and went back to Wilmette. Maybe now that he’s gone I’ll be able to eat a little healthier for my last few days here. My dad’s sweet tooth took us to the bakery practically every day.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

An Action Packed Week!

This week was so busy that I hardly had time to breath! Monday and Tuesday a volunteer group came to visit Holy Cross from YWAM (Youth with a Mission), a Christian organization that has a campus north of San Pedro. Eight 17-25 year olds came as a part of their outreach program. With Miss Francis and Mr. Vernon out of town, I was in charge of showing them around and finding activities to do with the students. Easier said than done. It's really hard to find ways to help for a couple hours and still have the volunteers feel like their are getting their time's worth. I ended up breaking them up into groups of 2 and assigning them to different classes. On top of that, the school had a weird schedule this week. Friday was Children's Cultural Day (more on that later) but the classes were preparing for that in the afternoon and having regular classes.

The students from YWAM invited me up to their campus Monday night, so I took the island ferry North to visit (there are no cars that can go North of school). I got a lovely tour of the place (a former resort) while the mosquitos were feasting all around. After a classic dinner of grilled cheese with tomato soup (yum), I took the ferry back to San Pedro. I don't know how those drivers can drive at night with no moon out. It was sort of scary, especially since 2 boats had collided the night before resulting in one death.

Wednesday was the big multiplication test for the Standard V class. Their hard work paid off! So far, everyone who has taken the test has scored higher than the 85% cutoff! There were so many 95+% scores that I could hardly keep a straight face walking back in with their tests after lunch! So Monday afternoon will be the infamous ice cream party.

Wednesday was Miss Francis' big 60 birthday! The students put on quite the celebration. Each class or division got a small gift for her and sang some sort of song to her! Miss Francis got everything from a Caribbean jewelry set to a light up Jesus picture to nail polish. Some songs were cute and others were tear jerkers. That night I had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant on the north part of the island with the Wilsons and others!

After dinner a few of us took the boat all the way back to Central Park to check out the Garifuna Settlement Day celebrations.  ( There was supposed to be drumming all night leading up to the big day. There were a bunch of people in the park, but not so much in the way of dancing and drumming. Many people said that the celebrations were supposed to pick up later at night but as of 11pm is was still a lot of standing around. There was no school on Thursday for the holiday. I had a lazy morning and then went back to central park to see the celebrations. There was a band and people selling food, but it was still sort of a disappointment. I'm sure Dangriga has a bigger party.

Friday. Finally. Childrens Cultural Day. The classes broke up into four groups to each represent one of the main cultures in Belize: Creole, Mestizo, Maya and Garifuna. Each group spent all week preparing posters, food, and music to represent the each culture. Friday we had a fair where students all dressed up and took part in the different cultural activities. There was even a reenactment of the Garifuna landing in Belize!

This morning, Saturday, I was back at school to help out with an English as a Second Language class for about 10 students. Now, I patiently await my fathers arrival in San Pedro this afternoon...