I have officially arrived in Punta Gorda, Belize! The idea of writing a blog post describing my first four days here feels borderline impossible — it’s been a chaotic, wondrous, and overwhelming experience so far. But here I am, taking a crack at it. Hopefully this collection of first impressions will begin to paint a picture of what it’s like down here.
Excruciatingly early Thursday morning, I caught a flight from Baltimore to Houston and onward to Belize City. I then caught a one hour puddle jumper flight from Belize City to Punta Gorda, my destination in southern Belize. I debated at length whether to take a flight or bus between Belize City and Punta Gorrda. After experiencing the flight, though, I’m very glad I took it.
All I knew as I got on the tiny plane was that I’d booked a flight to Punta Gorda from Belize City. I did not realize that that flight stopped in two other towns along the way to drop off people and packages. Yes, that’s right — this plane was also delivering mail. At our second stop, a single package got off. It was a cubical box simply marked “CAKE” with an arrow pointing towards the top.
It was then that the scale of this country suddenly began to dawn on me. Belize has a population slightly smaller than Cleveland and roughly the same land area as New Jersey. Unlike New Jersey, though, most of that land is natural terrain. It has one main road that zig-zags across the country and connects all of the sizeable towns. In that world, shipping birthday cakes via miniature passenger planes starts to makes sense.
My arrival in Punta Gorda (population roughly 5,000) was interesting. The airport consisted of a storage building, a landing strip, and a fence. While we were waiting to get our bags, I was told that the gate to the landing strip is now kept closed because a few months ago a dog was on the runway and a plane had a minor crash when it almost ran the dog over.
The woman I’ve been in touch with from Ya’axché Conservation Trust, where I am volunteering, picked me up and drove me straight to the office to start meeting people. Along the way she gave me a short tour of Punta Gorda (or PG). PG is a quaint, ramshackle seaside town that serves as the hub of the Toledo region. There are two conservation NGOs based here, Ya’axché and TIDE, which keep a handful of foreign volunteers in town. Other than that, the town has few tourists. The locals are friendly and life is slow.
I’m excited to report that there are stray dogs everywhere– for those of you that remember my trip to Morocco, you can expect a “Dogs of Belize” follow-up to my “Cats of Morocco” series coming soon. There are also apparently harmless tarantulas, scorpions, and lizards that sometimes show up in your house. The bar next to the house I’ll be staying in has a horse leashed to the fence outside.
Because I’ve arrived during the rainy season, every day is 90 plus degrees with 75% humidity. There are thunderstorms nearly every night and sometimes the thunder is loud enough to wake you up. I haven’t been caught in it yet, but it rains hard enough to drench you in seconds.
Though there are definitely some cars, everybody bikes around PG. I inherited a past volunteer’s bicycle, but the seat was falling apart so over the weekend I visited the local bicycle guy, Peter. Peter fixes up and sells bicycles, painting the mens’ bikes blue and the womens’ bikes purple. I sat and watched him fix my bike on his front porch, listening to him and his neighbors talk in Creole. He replaced my seat, adjusted the bike for me, and installed a bike basket I had bought, all for the price of the seat–30 Belizean dollars.
The Belizean dollar is pegged at half an American dollar, and American cash is accepted literally everywhere. Prices vary from similar to U.S. prices (for packaged goods at the grocery store, for example) to way cheaper (my rent is roughly $300 Belize a month and bananas from the market are 8 for a Belizean dollar!). I haven’t quite figured out what qualifies as cheap or expensive by Belizean standards yet.
There aren’t really addresses here — when we got in the taxi to lug my suitcase and our two bicycles to my temporary housing situation, we just told the driver “Victor and Rosa’s house.” Along the way, he stopped twice and picked up more people. Each time he had to unload the bicycles, let the new passengers in, and then load the bicycles again. It was comical.
I’ve had a day and a half of work so far, most of which has been meeting people and getting myself set up. At some point soon I will spend a few orientation nights at the field station. The field station is about an hour away by bus and is where the rangers live–from there I will be able to accompany them on patrols and begin to learn about the areas and ecosystems in which Ya’axché works.
On Friday, we had a retirement party at the office for Mr.Barts, one of the founders of Ya’axché. The office has a back patio from which you can see the ocean (and on a clear day, the mountains of Guatemala!). During the day it is too hot to sit outside, but by 5 pm it’s breezy and cool enough to enjoy. We sat outside and ate homemade shrimp ceviche and drank Belikin (“the beer of Belize”). Listening to Mr.Barts and others talk about how the organization has grown and all it has achieved reminded me about what an exciting opportunity I have in working here. I cannot wait to dig into my work and learn what Ya’axché is all about–you can expect more posts about what I’m doing soon!