There's Wifi at the Mayan Ruins (Chronicles of Belizean Adventures)

12:31 PMHeather

Our last full day in Belize.  That Tuesday morning, I greeted some of the children as they made their way to the bus stop for school.  And I could hardly believe it was the last full day there.  

Apparently, our team is made up of complete rock stars because we had managed to accomplish the entire project list for our trip, plus some bonus projects:

Construction on fish shack where tilapia will be processed.  CHECK.

New fish pond cleared of brush.  CHECK.

100 pounds of tilapia harvested.  CHECK.

Respite for house parents by caring for kids.  CHECK.

Broken thatched roof on one building, nearly all pulled down.  CHECK.

Bonus projects:  Two new gates built because cows had escaped.  CHECK.

Barbed wire fence repaired where escaping cow got caught.  CHECK.

All escapees (cows and a horse) returned to Hopewell.  CHECK.

In our first four days at Hopewell, we had managed to see howler monkeys, cows, pigs, horses, geese (very mean geese who chase you down...I made the oldest girl Shauna* always stand between me and them, which made her laugh every time), chickens, more mosquitoes than we ever hope to see again, tilapia and more tilapia, and even a rather large tarantula right outside the bunk house.

Listen, while my phone caught this photo, I was otherwise occupied and have no regrets about not witnessing this spider first hand.  And I'm no expert on spiders, but the girls at Hopewell were able to identify it as a "red booty tarantula."  I'm sure they are accurate in their assessment.  For the record, the oldest boy at Hopewell, Nathan*, showed his fearlessness by stomping on this spider in his sandaled feet, thus saving all Americans from sure death.

And so our adventures at Hopewell had been rather full of tasks and projects and fun with the kids that had included school projects, home work, legos, the Lego Movie, a bible study, more legos, some yummy meals together, singing, dancing, a glow stick dance party, crafts, more legos, and sass-offs to end all sass-off because "Mr. Rich-man" beat those girls like he'd been sassing off all his life.  We have video to prove it, but it has yet to be released in order to protect the innocent.

It was thus time for us to venture away from Hopewell.  We had originally planned to take a half-day to sight see, but due to our awesomeness and productivity, we had nearly the whole day.  

Off we went.  Piled into this van.

And driving on roads like this.

Let me offer a side note here on this road.  THIS stretch of road was actually some of the smoothest road on a rarely paved section on the way TO the Mayan Ruins.  However, whilst we traipsed about the ruins, this was happening to the road.  And so, our return trip included this sight--the road being literally torn up as we traveled along.

I think it's fair to say that we were all looking forward to a day to explore and see the area.  We'd all agreed to spend our time going to the "near by" Mayan Ruins (it's all relative) and perhaps a stop at the baboon sanctuary if time allowed.  Because our other main priority for the day was to visit the Prison Gift Shop.  We'd been talking about since we saw it on our way to Hopewell that first day.

And of course, Jonathan, the house dad, knew the warden of the prison.  Have I already mentioned that Jonathan knows everyone and has a story about everything in Belize?  So apparently, this new warden has brought self-sustaining farms to the prison and other such improvements.  And according to Jonathan, people are actually committing petty crimes to get INTO prison because the conditions are reportedly that good.  

Thus the legend of the Prison Gift Shop grew in our minds.  Could we score t-shirts that might read, "I Went to the Belizean Prison...Just visiting?"  Or maybe hats or key chains?  What souvenirs might we score for our children there?  

So our day of sight seeing would thus include the Mayan Ruins and the Prison Gift Shop.  I have to admit that I thought I'd feel a huge relief on this last full day.  A bit of "I did it!  Now, I can go home."  Just 72 hours previously, I thought being home sick was quite reasonable and I just honestly didn't understand when our team leader said that Belize felt like a second home to her.

Really?  The heat and humidity and bugs?  And how rural it is?  A second home?  It all felt so foreign.  I mean, how does one live so far apart from others and from resources?  How, for the love, does one survive without a nearby Starbucks or Target?  I didn't get it.

But, as we passed the lush green jungle and the small square houses, spread quite far apart, I somehow felt right at home.  I cannot even begin to explain what happened during those 72 hours because I honestly don't know myself.  I just know that once I slowed myself down and prayerfully began to seek to embrace the experience, asking God to help me not just get through it but to enjoy it, something changed.  My perspective changed.  Instead of seeing my life as superior, I began to simply see it as different.  I began to see the beauty and allure of the slower pace of life in Belize.  The simplicity there.  The hard work and resiliency in the people.  Freed from the trappings of city life and keeping up with the Joneses and an "entertain me" mentality and the pressure of social media distractions.

There is a strength here that we wimpy Americans lack.  There's a quiet strength and a wisdom in these people.  There's a freedom -- an appreciation for life -- that we are too self-absorbed to gain.  I realized all of this as we drove along.  I realized that I get it.  I get a love for this place.  A joy and contentment in the people that spoiled, entitled, obsessive, distracted Americans lack.  Myself included. 

But I can do without the crazy Belizean roads.

So there I was, lost in thought about the culture and the people and all that I had gained in the last few days.  About how the lightness I thought I'd feel at the end of the trip had turned into a heaviness about how to leave. 

And I was ready to see some ancient Mayan Ruins and be amazed at the primitive culture it represented. 

But I saw this sign when we pulled up.

And I did totally LOL.

Perhaps I do oversimplify and romanticize my impressions of Belize.  There were, after all, a fair share of dish satellites attached to the small, simple houses we'd seen.

After my "yes" day the day before, I felt empowered somehow.  A sense of new freedom and potential.  A sense that I can do things I never thought I could do.  I was beginning to ponder what I am still considering--what might come next for me?  What might this trip be a stepping stone to for the future?

So I climbed to the top of the tallest ruin, ignoring my fear of heights.  I stood at the top and took in the view that I would have otherwise missed.

There I was, a world away from my usual task lists and car pools and the trappings of the tyranny of the urgent that cloud my perspective.  I thought of my family and my life back home.  And I whispered a prayer that I would never forget to push back fears and take the climb to enjoy the view.

That I would not miss such opportunities.

Having conquered the Mayan Ruins, we were off to the Prison Gift Shop.  Once we arrived, we parked next to a car full of men who took a good long stare at us.  I felt a moment of anxiety, wondering about what I was doing stepping into a prison gift shop, but then I remembered.  I'm here to see it all and do it all and take every opportunity.  

So we entered through the fence with barbed wire, passing the Visitor Processing Entrance, complete with elaborately carved wooden doors.  Tucked just to the left of it was the gift shop.  The shop was manned by a very polite young man in an orange shirt and shorts with his number stenciled on the front.  The items, we were told, were all made by the inmates.  Listen, I don't know if that was true--just like I had no idea if the items I purchased at the little market by the ruins were all made by THOSE shop keepers.  

But I loved the idea of it.  These beautifully carved doors like I'd just seen.  The paintings and other items.  All created by inmates whose worth and value can still shine through, despite their choices.

I just loved the idea of it all.  I wanted something for my house to remind me that all people have a creative beauty and worth.  Prison inmates or not.  So I chose two little heart shaped cheese plates that the store clerk so carefully wrapped up for me.  I use them for trivets on my kitchen table every night.  And I love to remember that Belize is simple yet complex.  Beautiful in its hidden treasures.  And people are people...whether sitting in prison or not.  We all have something to contribute.  

Our day of adventure brought us back to Hopewell, just as the kids arrived home from school.  I was tired and groggy from the bouncing car ride in the heat of the afternoon, but the end of our trip loomed ahead of me.  This was my last afternoon to help the kids with homework and spend time with them.  Time to pull it together and push on.  After all, these kids were quick to change out of school uniforms and into play clothes and then rush at us in the dining hall with their back packs to tackle their home work right away. 

I felt the clock ticking all afternoon and evening with a growing sense of dread.  How could I tell them goodbye?  How does one leave a place that they originally feared being and now cannot imagine leaving?  True, I was ready to see my husband and kids.  But I texted my husband this message:

"Parting will be very hard.  Packing tonight so I can get up and see kids off to school in the morning...don't know how to leave these kids...or come back from this experience."

It's still true.  I don't know how to shake the sadness I feel to be separated from the kids who stole my heart.  I'm not even sure how they stole my heart in such a quick time, but they did.  And I think of every one of them many times a day and say endless prayers for them. I don't want to come back and get "back to normal."  Because I want to be changed and different...I want to be impacted by this experience. 

And in this frame of mind, I found myself on bedtime duty with the girls this last night in Belize.  I negotiated a tiff between two girls and continually reminded them to stay on task.  Just like at home.  Except totally different.  Because again, I was reminded of the injustice that these kids have already survived.  

Perhaps sensing the finality of this last bed time, I was inundated with questions by the six girls once they finally climbed into bed.

--"You mean, EACH of your kids has their very own room?"

--"Your shirt says Team Willow...oh, your friends adopted a girl named Willow?  Did she live in an orphanage like us?"

--"How long have you been married?...nearly 20 years?...Even if I do find a husband, I'll end up separated and on government help."

--"What color is your house?  It must be white.  Tell me it's white!"

I sensed that they were indeed stalling their bed time, but also seeking connection.  And I was grieved by what I read between the lines of their questions.  Their pains and perspectives. Then, they asked me to recite every one of their names and the boys' names and everyone at Hopewell.  As if they hoped to sear them all into my memory.

How could I effectively communicate that I would never forget any of them?  How could I possibly express my appreciation and love for them?  My dreams for their future?  My hopes for their well being?  That I was leaving a part of my heart with them?  I felt I needed to keep it light and not add to the weight of this moment for these kids who have already said too many good-byes.

So I prayed a prayer over them all, asking that the Lord help every one of them see his great and powerful love for them.  Asking him to remind them every day of their great worth to him...that he loved them to death by sending his Son.

And then it was time to visit each of them, bending into their beds, as they each called me to them for a hug.

When I reached in to hug Keisha*, she whispered a quick and quiet, "I love you!"  And I whispered it right back to her.

Keisha. Fearless.  Mischievous. A smile to light the room.  In my journal, I have written impressions of each of the kids.  About her, I wrote: "fiesty, firecracker, fearless.  Gives the hardest stares and the hugest laughs and smiles.  Leader.  Survivor.  Strong and brave.  And expressive bundle of energy who can light up a room."

I saw it as no small gift that she, full of vigor and energy, should quietly and shyly whisper her feelings in such a way that she must say it quickly before she backed down.

I turned off the lights, uttered one more good night, and headed to the bunkhouse with a heaviness I still can't explain.  

Because I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was leaving more than a suitcase full of crafts and necessities with these kids.  

I did not know how to do this.  To leave this trip and re-enter a world that was my security when I left but now had a bit of unfamiliarity to me.  Because in these few short days in Belize, I had gained a perspective and an understanding that I seem only able to express in inadequate cliches.

It was a sleepless night for me.  As I tossed and turned and prayed for help and strength for the following day of good-byes.

And the only thing I knew for sure is that I would not cry in front of the kids. I would hold it together for them.    

*names of children changed to protect their identity

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