In the wee hours of the morning marking the fourth month since my departure from Canada I woke abruptly to the sounds of deep, guttural howling outside my tent. As the sun had set earlier that evening on my campsite in the jungle of southern Belize, near the border of Guatemala, my guard puppy Chow had whined disconcertingly, tucked tail and spun in circles, and generally hid himself in every small dark corner he could find. The lengthening shadows and my inability to get a fire lit promptly had left me in a sweat of anxiety, wondering what creature or presence menaced just beyond the dark, ominous tangle of ancient roots and trees which bordered my camp. Now, rudely and without warning, long hours after I had forcibly set my guard down with raucous shouting and singing in the dark, I was becoming acquainted with that presence.
I lay stiff, right hand on my hunting knife, left hand on my machete, trying desperately not to smell like fear. I wondered why my guard puppy Chow had not alerted me to the menace outside. I considered my position; as the throaty grunting outside continued I contemplated the wisdom of requesting that my Mayan guide, Ernesto, leave me alone in a foreign wilderness, without communication gear, with minimal first aid supplies, and only a collection of rusting metalwork and a 3 month old mutt for protection. As my thoughts circled around my predicament, they repeatedly rounded on the foolhardiness of keeping a small, bite-sized animal as protection. From the muddle of emotions arose this thought – that damned puppy was braver than I! Not a sound did he make now in response to the demonic gurgling in the darkness, not one whimper. How could he whine for 2 hours to the gentle rustle of palm fronds at sunset, yet now make no move to assert his territory? I considered then what a cruel human I was to leave him outside to face the terror alone while I hid myself in my millimeter thick dome of tent. It was too insensitive. He must be trembling with fear, too afraid even to sniff for help.
The howling continued, and was responded to by creatures farther away in the jungle. More of them were approaching my vulnerable shelter. I sweated. I strained to hear the sound of every twig, branch and falling leaf for miles around the camp. I came to a resolution. With the image of every violent femme-fatale of modern cinema held firmly in mind, machete held firmly in hand, and hunting knife clenched firmly in teeth, I tore open the front of the tent, snatched the puppy inside and zipped us both back in, as though our paper-thin canvas barrier were imbued with magical, demon-repulsing powers. I was further irritated to find that despite my incredibly act of bravery, Chow was rather nonplussed. He yawned, chewed his fleas, and settled in to sleep on my lap. In the glow of my headlamp I sat hunched in the ambivalence of a thousand emotions. Something was not adding up. Then a branch broke overhead and fell just outside our compound. More throat wobbling growls followed. I at last selected a firm position of fear and addressed my tormentors at the top of my lungs; 'FUCK OFF YOU GOD DAMNED MONKEYS, I'M TRYING TO SLEEP!!!!” Not for the first time in my life, fear had provided the logical answer to a question my conscious mind couldn't address, and in so expressing my fear, I understood and was relieved. Howler monkeys.
Eventually the monkeys howelled off into the jungle to terrorize other animals, and I passed much of the rest of the night reviewing everything I knew about the territorial responses of monkeys, which was not much. I remembered small clips of The Nature of Things and National Geographic episodes from PBS. Though these remembrances did not shed much light on what I could expect if the monkeys returned, their context within civilized north-American life eventually calmed me back to a rational state. I released Chow back to his post outside, more to spare myself from his fleas than anything, and returned to a VERY light sleep.
In the morning, by the hand of god, and heralded by the music of angels in my sleep, Santiago, the father of my Mayan guide, arrived via kayak to my oceanfront camp, and I released the last vestiges of night terrors in regaling him with the story of my sleepless eve.
After a couple cups of fire-boiled coffee and a few lessons from Santiago on the medicinal, munch-able and construct-able uses of local flora, I bid goodbye to Chow and the camp that had been my home for 4 days and nights. I set to sea headed for Punta Gorda in a battered red kayak with a shit-eating grin on my face. THIS was the Belize I had been searching for. This was the adventure I had given up Canadian life to experience.
Punta Gorda is the southernmost community of Belize, and the touch-off point to destinations in coastal Guatemala and Honduras. It is a humble fishing village composed of colorless, rotting cottages and crumbling, unfinished cement homes. But it is vibrant with the colors of nearly a dozen eclectic culture-groups; Garifuna, Mestiso, Q'eqchi & Mopan Mayan Indians, Chinese, East Indian, Mennonites, Guatemalan and Honduran immigrants, and of course, a sparse collection of ragga-muffin Canadian and US Ex-pats.
My new home in Belize is the quaint and ramshackle collection of buildings that collectively make up Natures Way Guest House, a well loved back-packers hostel of sorts, owned and operated by US ex-pat Chet Schmidt and his local Garifuna wife and daughter, Diane and Diane. I came across this unique accommodation on a work-travel website which I highly recommend; www.helpex.net.
Attracted here by the call of service, I arrived at the Guesthouse on Wednesday, the third of April, and was quickly assimilated into an intense collection of social causes and activist initiatives. The bait that hooked me was a plea for volunteer help from the Toledo Eco-Tourism Association. Based out of Nature's Way Guesthouse, this not-for-profit organization has been struggling for the past quarter century against private sector tourism businesses and unseen forces within the Belizian government to induct an eco-sensitive, socioeconomic development plan for the people of the Toledo District of Belize. Their goal; to preserve the traditions and culture of the last of the Q'eqchi and Mopan Mayan Indians in the face of widespread, destructive urbanization. Through the creation of a region-wide Eco Park, the Toldeo Eco-tourism Association has spent the past 22 years working in conjunction with local representatives from the Toledo District Association of Village Councils, the Maya Leader Alliance, the Toledo Alcalde Association, and the Toledo Village Council Association, to hammer out a master-plan that would literally and figuratively connect the traditional lands and villages of the remaining Mayan peoples. In celebration of Mayan wisdom and culture, with respect for the biodiversity of the flora and fauna in what is one of the last free-hold land-shares in the world, the Toledo People's Eco Park plan addresses issues ranging from land management and preservation, to socioeconomic development, health and education, to industry and cultural integration. The Eco Park Plan is enormous in it's scope, revolutionary in it's vision, and what is more, it is highly replicable, thus acting as a potential solution to international native land-rights battles and global sustainable development issues. To date, the success of bureaucratic policy and so-called democratic process has deferred action on this ground-breaking plan for nearly a quarter century, and through marginalization of local native peoples, has whittled this admirable activist project down to a handful of tired members.
So enter I to the scene, full of ideology, but small of stature and of questionable capability. In the 10 days that I have spent learning with social activist Chet Schmidt, I have done my best to download 22 years of dreaming, planning, scheming, failure, frustration and anger. To date, I don't know what I have accomplished, or if I alone am capable of carrying the torch which is being passed. This much is certain, without renewed blood and faith in the project, it will surely dwindle to abandonment, and the last of the Q'eqchi Mayan culture will be swept away under the flood of foreign economic interest to arrive with the completion of the 4 lane highway connecting the Guatemalan west coast to the Belizian east coast. With the opening of the Panama connector, American oil conglomerates and Chinese forestry companies stand ready to devour the resources of regions currently protected by some 62 rural Mayan villages. As demonstrated by the recent Mayan End-of-the-World Celebrations in 2012 and their subsequent boost to the Belizian tourism economy, the world will not mourn the loss of a culture they already considered long dead. Where Mayan people still live and endeavor to survive, there will instead stand oil-rigs, denuded, devalued and barren terrain, and plasticized monuments to their ancient and misunderstood culture. Who will stand to preserve these people and their land? When will the citizens of the world connect the struggle of small native communities to save their heritage with our own struggle to save our global inheritance? At the moment, not many consider it a priority. If we continue to ignore these struggles we will continue to make the same embarrassing and horrific mistakes that former privileged white cultures have done, and we will forever continue to look behind us at the wake of destruction left by our consumption with the phrase 'Oh what a pity' on our lips. It is with ambivalence, a flicker of hope, and a great deal of fear and trepidation, that I leave this chapter of my adventure open to the next installment If you connect in any way with the cause I am presently engaged in, I urge you to contact me and get involved in spreading the word to international news-media, that we might influence the government of Belize and it's private sector business owners to make a positive and sustainable change supportive of ALL it's culture-groups and the environment. Thank you. Namaste.
Work to facilitate the next Hope Kitchen event relaxed somewhat throughout the month of January while personal obligations brought by the new year engulfed crew members. The monday following Hope Kitchen I was hurtled forward into my next service project as volunteer art teacher at La Isla Bonita Elementary School.
A privately initiated facility operated by brother and sister team Hector and Addy Trejos, La Isla Bonita Elementary is host to over 100 students ranging from Infant 1 (Junior Kindergarten) to Standard 6 (grade 6), serving Belizian, Kriol, Garifuna, American and middle-eastern ex-pat children. In the Belizian school system special needs students and non-English speaking students are thrown into the mix without customized considerations. The children are wild and unruly and as a whole happy to have to opportunity to learn. The teachers are young, some without university education, and all possessing a great deal of bravery. Not having a formal education in Education myself, I felt like we were all in the same boat together, all learning from each other the hows of learning and communicating.
It was my intention to offer free art workshops to each grade each week, amounting to 7 classes a week. Over the course of my 3 months at La Isla Bonita I taught approximately 120 student each week, and received at least 400 hugs a week. With the younger students we explored the world of colors and shapes through painting, mosaics and mandalas. With the middle grades of students I created ad-hock projects themed to their weekly curriculum and monthly holidays. Some of our more successful projects included Carnival Masks, Valentine's Day Collages, dioramas and paper Easter Flowers.
The most challenging group turned out to be the combined standard 5 & 6 classes. It was not challenging in the sense that the student were unruly, though they were, not challenging due to the nature of the project, which was the building of Australian Didgeridoos, but challenging due to the subtle unrealized hesitance from the teachers themselves. While each of the other grades enjoyed the benefit of a new class each week, I had continual difficulties in getting access to the students of Standard 5 & 6, and I couldn't understand why. Both of the teachers were much obliged to talk to me about the proposed project and how it related to their current curriculum, but each Friday that I came prepared to teach there was one reason or another why the students were not available. On the first week they had not collected the $5 donation required to purchase the supplies locally (it had not been possible for me to ship 100 feet of PVC piping all the way from Canada with me). The next week the teachers claimed that the students were just too unruly to focus so they had been dismissed early. The next week was a school assembly, and the week after that there were class presentations. The next week was exams, and the next week again the teachers claimed that the students had elected to go home instead of doing art. This seemed highly unlikely to me as I was hailed by students each day from open school windows with the question 'When do we get to finish our Didjeridoos?' As I wandered the streets around town on my daily personal business, on recognizing me children would laughingly shout out 'Didgeridooooooo!' for the sheer joy of wrapping their mouths around the unusual word. Eventually, a week here and a week there I was able to get the kids working on their Didgeridoos. But what should only have taken 3 classes over 3 weeks ended up taking the entire 3 months of my stay, and we never did get to learn how to play the instruments the students had so eagerly constructed and painted. It was not until 3 weeks before the end of the term that I understood what the obstacle to our progress really was.
During a long weekend I traveled to southern Belize to make an inquiry into the next service mission on my journey and it was on the long 7 hour chicken-bus ride that I came across the missing pieces of the puzzle. While waiting for the passengers to load and the bus to depart from Belize City, I opted not to plug in to my iPod, but to take in the sounds of the local radio. As I tuned my attention to the chatter of advertisements being broadcast from the front of the bus I overheard an ad sponsored by the Government of Belize on behalf of the education system. The announcer was elucidating upon challenges currently facing an education system struggling to catch it's student up with international standards. The announcers revealed that only 40 % of school aged children in Belize attended school, and of that percent less than 40% were girls, owing in part to unfounded and outdated beliefs that education is irrelevant and that girls are better used in the home, specifically in the kitchen. He went on to expound to the general public the benefits of education in the sciences and arts, noting that some 80% of surveyed parents distrusted the methods of science, and an equal number found creative development though art to be a waste of time. Though I understood the education system of Belize to be in an early stage of development by comparison to north-american standards, these statistics were shocking to me. The voice urged local listeners and parents to revisit their understanding of arts and science, and to recognize the economic relevance of fostering creative thought processes in the children of the country. Though astounded, I was greatly encouraged to note that at least the government was aware of this sad gap in education standards and was working toward changing the public opinion.
As the bus prepared to pull out one last passenger boarded, and took her seat next to me. Her name, I believe, was Ramona, and she was a Q'eqchi Mayan Indian of Guatemalan decent. We rode together for 2 hours, during which time she revealed to me an astute and perceptive mind critically attuned to the political considerations of her nations. She was primarily concerned with the outcome of the Guatemalan/Belizian border and territory dispute and the upcoming referendum in Guatemala regarding the completion of the Panama connector highway due to be constructed through the heart of her family's territory in Belize. She discussed the many conflicting interests involved within the southern Toledo District of Belize, and of the internal conflicts tearing apart families and individuals within the indigenous communities of that region. She explained that while she was born in Belize, her family of Mayans had come from Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and just about every other nation in Central America, due to their constant migration as refugees over the preceding 200 years of discrimination, persecution and massacre. For her people, who were at heart Mayan, there were too many conflicting political interests and moral dilemmas for the average family to justify sending their children away from home into the public education system. Who knows what the governments motivations were for demanding that their children be educated outside the home, or what the government was teaching their children. How could the average uneducated Mayan elder justify sending away his progeny to classes in speaking English, dissecting frogs and painting pictures when their immediate concerns were in growing enough food to feed the family, or protecting their lands from infringing foreign economic interests? While the indigenous parental figures of the nation undoubtedly enjoyed the energy of artistic creation, as demonstrated in their many traditional hand-crafted arts, and enjoyed hearing about the novelties of technological marvels produced for the outside world by scientific exploration, there was a deep-seated resistance among the more remote communities to certain topics within education. The entire subject of education in Belize was far more complex than I had understood it to be. After she departed, this brief encounter left me with much to consider over the many hours remaining on the chicken-bus ride south. When I returned home to San Pedro Town on the far side of the long weekend, I had an altered view of my challenges in reaching certain student with my art.
As my last few weeks of teaching at La Isla Bonita drew to a close, I was firmer in my intent to complete our workshops. I was more aware of the gaps in communication, and the subtle, unspoken meanings behind conversations regarding the continuation of an arts program at the school after my departure. I came to recognize a similar communication pattern between the local teachers of Belize and the native communities back home in Canada; sometimes no response was a response. When a teacher or staff member spoke enthusiastically about getting back to me on a proposed project but continuously failed to follow through, I came to understand the reasons why. It was not the children who did not want to learn, it was perhaps that the leaders and educators were unconsciously hesitant due to an underlying difference in views on relevant education. I remember one particularly hot afternoon after sweating and shouting my way through another raucous class, one of my Infant 2 children approached me to joyfully share something her father had told her. All innocent eyes and excitable nature, she said “My daddy told me that you are wasting our time and money with these stupid art classes.” I told her I was sorry to hear that and asked her if she agreed. She simply shook her head no and hugged me. I hugged her back. As she ran off into the school-yard din she tittered, “I love art class, I love art class.”
In the end, like so many other volunteer teacher who came before, it came time for me to say my goodbyes. And just like the Christmas Day present delivery episode, though my heart was full from giving, my soul was unfulfilled. I realized that I had not thought far enough ahead into my role as traveling volunteer teacher to develop the goal of establishing and leaving behind proper infrastructure, curriculum and training for the teachers and schools at which I volunteered. Thus on my departure, the creative guidance I was so keen to establish ended. This is not to say that the teachers of Isla Bonita are unable to facilitate art classes, and I know that even within the limited curriculum set forth by the Belize government there is provision for 50 minutes of art per grade per week. However, I also feel that handing a child a coloring book only teaches them to fill in the gaps, to color inside the lines. Where art is concerned the value is in the act of creating, not replicating. Only too late did I realize my failure. As the last weeks drew to a close, I tried to rectify my lack of forethought. I spoke several times with the principal of the school regarding the potential to return in the future to create and design a Creativity Program. Unfortunately, by the time it came for me to depart, we did come to an arrangement. This would not be the first of the many lessons I am learning on this journey about the nature of learning, teaching, caring and creating positive, lasting, sustainable change.
Ironically, as I embarked upon my adventure for the most part I kept this lofty set of ideals and goals secreted away in my heart, knowing all too well the defeatism I would encounter from some of my comfortable Canadian counterparts. For those who live in the lap of luxury it is sometime hard to see the relevance or importance of conversing about the basic rights and skills we take for granted. Which is not to say that all resident of first world countries eschew the positive potentials of idealism, but in my fragile, fearful, untraveled state I sensed that but one ounce of negativity could have swept away the only grain of wisdom I had to offer. So for the most part I kept quiet. Until I got on the plane.
And there began the first cosmic confirmations of the mission I had set myself upon. From my seatmate on the connecting flight from Los Angeles to Houston, to the woman who saved me from the plague of travel-breath by sharing her last piece of gum on the puddle-jumper from Belize City to San Pedro Town on Ambergris Caye, each person I met and shared my travel intentions with had words of encouragement and remarkable, nay spiritual, poignancy to bolster my confidence.
My chewing-gum savior was none other than the remarkable, accomplished and gregarious travel writer, Erin De Santiago, of No Checked Bags fame. In the 20 minutes it took to transfer from the slums of Belize City to the paradise that is Ambergris Caye, I had made a new friend that was quite literally to alter the course of my life. Among the lengthy list of things to do and see on Ambergris Caye, Erin mentioned that the following evening there was to be a fundraiser benefit held for the family of a man who had been killed in an unfortunate and unusual diving accident. The benefit was to be held at Wayo's Beach Bar, well know as fun-central for the local cool people. I immediately volunteered to volunteer, knowing the best way to meet the best people of a community was through their hearts. Before I even left the plane, my service mission had commenced.
Upon landing on what Trip Adviser recently named The Most Beautiful Island in the World, Ambergris Caye, I was met by yet another character of extraordinary magnitude, Mr. Bruce Pickering, known affectionately about the island as Couchsurfing.org's San Pedro Town representative. Uncle Bruce, as he later became to me, obligingly showed me around the island, introduced me to all the right people, took me to all the most colourful drinking establishments and offered worlds of advice to me regarding how best to apply my mission to his particular nook of the world. From under the safety of his roof I took my first furtive steps into the exciting world of travel adventure, and I continued to see the universe blessing me with all the right acquaintances and opportunities.
During the memorial benefit hosted at Wayo's on my first full day in Belize I volunteered as a raffle-ticket salesperson, and did indeed meet with those whom I observed to be the best and kindest people on the island. As I wheeled and dealed to raise money to support the five children left fatherless by fate, I became far better acquainted with Erin and her collective of community-minded friends. As the Maya End-of-the-World Celebrations approached, transpired and passed we celebrated like it was 1999, and grew strong friendships that were to culminate, on Christmas eve, in the development of a service project destined to feed the bodies, minds and souls of some of the islands poorest residents.
Through an unusual series of events that shall remain undisclosed I came to be friends with another of Erin's friends, and a strong woman in her own right, business-owner Brittney O'Daniel of the first-class dining & drinking establishment Sandbar. As we beautified ourselves for Christmas Eve dinner on the beach at Wayo's we discovered a sad, plastic Christmas tree that had been abandoned to the back of a closet. There was little option in my mind but to pack it down to Wayo's beach bar, which we did, and decorated it with bobbles hand-made on the spot from Belikin Beer coasters and what-ever other bar paraphernalia we could scrounge up. I delighted in my first Christmas away from Canada with new friendships, tropical breezes, and and out-door dinner with all the trimmings of a traditional holiday feast. Someone even made a mini snow-man from shaved iced. It was pure bliss.
Over Christmas Eve dinner Brittney related to Erin and I a story of volunteerism and service which had inspired her for years. Somewhere in metropolitan America singer Jon Bon Jovi operated a restaurant somewhat akin to a soup-kitchen. According to her, there were no prices on the menu and diners could pay whatever they had if they had anything at all, or volunteer in the restaurant in exchange for their meals. From this inspiring story we mused on the lack of such services in San Pedro Town, and how it was completely possible to do something similar right out of Brittney's own restaurant, Sandbar. So inspiring was the idea that we launched into the planning right then and there. In confirmation of the existence of a divine Christmas Spirit, within 30 minutes we had half a dozen volunteers to support our soup-kitchen project, and numerous people with inconceivably relevant resources and connections walking by and joining in on the discussion. It was an electrifying experience.
So jazzed were we with our apparent cosmic providence, with the spirit of giving in our veins we couldn't wait til morning to offer some token of kindness to islanders who were not enjoying such a divine Christmas Eve experience. Like elves racing to prepare Santa's last orders, we three ladies dashed from our dinning table and into our golf-cart, away to every store that was still open, to purchase every toy and box of candy we could find. For 2 hours we marveled at how many toys and how much joy could be purchased with a few American dollars thanks to the favorable Belize exchange rate. At last finding no more toys to buy, we gathered decorations to truly transform our golf-cart into Santa's sleigh, and we reconvened at lunch on Christmas Day to make the transformation complete. Erin and Brittney armed with Santa hats and gigantic stockings stuffed with toys, I donned a set of reindeer antlers and drove our jingling sleigh off in search of the children that Santa was unable to reach.
Erin's Go-Pro camera, attached to the frame of our golf-cart, recorded on and off for hours what was, for us, a heart wrenching and moving experience. Upon review there were nearly 2 hours of collective footage, but at the time it all flashed by in a blink. Some areas of northern Ambergris Caye were apparently barren of local populations, having been overwhelmed by 5 start resorts and foreign owned condo complexes. But on closer inspection we discovered that what we first took to be rotting service shacks to these mega complexes were in fact the humble abodes of small local families staring back across the dusty dirt road at luxury. They're inhabitants were shy to respond to our unusual countenance as we approached. In one moving instance we encountered a lone man to whom we explained our mission and asked if there were any families living in the area to whom we could deliver gifts. He gave us a recommendation to a particularly forgotten neighbourhood. Then, after a pause, he humbly confessed that he himself had children at home for whom he had been unable to offer a single gift. We gladly rectified that situation with dolls and toy cars, and shed our first tears to watch his back straighten as he walked homeward with pride and an armload of joy for his kids.
We carried immediately on to an area known as San Mateo, just across the sole bridge that connects the less developed north section of the island to the affluent, tourist-swamped center of San Pedro Town. As we drove in the camera captured at first one, then three, then several small groups, then swarms of children walking, running and riding rusting bicycles along the pitted gravel road towards our festive cart. We watched shocked, then bewildered, then aghast as we were mobbed by dozens of small bodies and hands pleading for gifts. What the camera revealed to take over 45 minutes was, for us, over before we knew what happened. As Erin diligently tried to capture the mob through the lens of a hand-held camera, the mounted go-pro silently watched as Brittney and I raced to pass out dolls and bubbles for the girls, toy cars and water-guns for the boys. Our Santa stockings were emptying at an astonishing rate. Some children were satisfied with candy-canes and Starburst, others politely asked for toys for their siblings, and the most needy tried stealthily to come back for seconds and thirds. As Brit and I struggle to fill the surges of waving hands we realized all to quickly that there was not enough for everyone. Not even close. Our arms stretched to the bottoms of the stockings in a vain search for more gifts, and our hands upturned the empty boxes of candy signalling that our wealth had been expended. Like a field-marshal acknowledging defeat, I realized that we had best make a hasty retreat before we came face to face with tearful children whose sorrow we could not fill with the trapping of a material Christmas, before we were forced to deal emotionally with our inability to care for everyone.
The ride home was not exuberant like our departure earlier that day. It was quiet and contemplative. We returned to Sandbar different people. While the rest of the patrons round the bar tittered with Christmas cheer, Brittney, Erin and I held each other in our Santa hats and reindeer antlers and reviewed the footage on Erin's laptop. Our friends vied for our attention, but eventually gave up, as we were consumed in emotion, mentally downloading our experience through the objective lens of Erin's media equipment. We had succeeded in fulfilling the privileged north-american dream of delivering material Christmas cheer, but we had failed to make a lasting positive change to the lives of these children. More had to be done. The soup-kitchen project outlined on Christmas Eve simply had to be followed through on.
So was born Fate Gives, a not-for-profit organization designed to serve as an umbrella to a variety of charitable projects of our collective design, the first of which was to be Hope Kitchen. With a core group of talented volunteers we set an ambitious goal; by January 7th, 2013, we aimed to host the island's first ever soup-kitchen, which would offer healthy, hot entrees, fresh vegetables and fruit in a fine-dining atmosphere to local families identified as being in need. But the plan went farther than that. It was decided that we had the capacity and the skills among us to feed more than just bodies. We aimed to feed souls. We had so much to accomplish and very little time to do it.
In the 13 days between Christmas and our proposed inaugural dinner we gathered regularly to work on the mechanics of legally defining ourselves as a registered, international not-for-profit group, capable of receiving tax deductible donations from individuals anywhere on the globe. Yet another powerful female figure, Jade O'Ryan, bravely volunteered to do the tedious work of researching all matters legal and money related. Graphic designer Joe Chung, in co-ordination with Erin, became our multi-media department, and got to work immediately on building us a website. We enlisted the help of a local entrepreneur Chris Skorwid to donate his time and the use of his Toucan Jumper, a kind of gigantic bounce-o-rama Bunjee Jump, set up right on the beach at the bar. A local teacher from RC Elementary School, affectionately known about town as Teacher Muncho, worked on identifying local families in need by observing children who were regularly sent to school without lunches. For my part I was able to offer a space for arts and crafts with the supplies I had lugged with me from Canada.
The day of January 7th was pandemonium and high intensity for the volunteers and the organizing committee, but the evening was one of great joy for every participant. Half a dozen volunteers worked feverishly through-out the day to acquire the ingredients for a meal anticipated to feed approximately 50+ families. They prepared buckets of mashed potatoes, vats of spaghetti and sauce, chopped armloads of vegetables and fruits, and cooked what must have amounted to an entire farmyard of chickens.
The night started off slowly, with just a trickle of children and the occasional parent, hesitant and unsure of how to proceed, perhaps struggling with an over-abundance of humility in the face of receiving personally addressed invitations to attend this unprecedented event. They came dressed in their Sunday best, small girls in what must have been the only fine dresses they owned, young boys in neatly pressed shirts and slacks. Some children came unattended by adults, other families came in their entirety, from new-borns to grandparents. As the pace increased, so did an undercurrent of excitement that we had stumbled upon something good, something needed.
While the plates of food rolled out of the smiling hands of our volunteer servers and into the grateful hands of people tall and small at one end of the serving hall, I at the other end, adorned with comical war-paint, shared the joy of creation with countless children at my crafts table. Using paints generously donated by a kindly spinster a few doors down from the Sandbar, the project for the night was Name Mandalas. I outlined each child's name in bubble letters, and handed them a paintbrush with the instruction to decorate the inside and outside of the letters with rows of shapes and colors, in a fashion similar to the spiritual mandalas created by monks in far off Tibet. Lost in a happy frenzy of creative energy, the night flashed by. I struggled to keep up posting the completed art pieces on wall behind me, and the wall failed to expand large enough to hold them all. Well before the night was through we ran out of paper for painting on, and I resorted to ripping up old boxes and anything else that volunteers had the time to gather for me. But the children didn't mind, didn't think twice about the medium on which they were painting. They only asked for more and more. It was that night that I decided my plane had not in fact made it to Belize, but had crashed and burned on the way, and I had died and gone to heaven.
None of us in the organizing committee really knew what to expect, and in retrospect, I think that was a good thing, as it allowed us to be completely blown away by the success of the event. In the end there way no way to tell exactly how many people attended or were served, though we did know that we wemnt through over 700 paper plates. Now many of these went out in pairs to package take-home meals at the end of the night, while other environmentally conscious locals re-used their plates for second and third helpings, so we could only guess at the numbers actually served. Due to a confusion in the invitation process we figured that over 150 families had been invited. Perhaps as many as 250 people were fed and art-ed that evening.
Sometimes unforeseen circumstances and inexplicable forces bring together just the right set of people to make magic a reality. Sometimes fate gives individual the opportunity to work collectively within a community for positive change. To me, my experience at Hope Kitchen that night proved irrevocably the existence of forces beyond my ken, and cemented my will to continue to follow the leads fate gives me to follow a path of service. I can still see in my mind 2 inscriptions painted by children that evening which I believe hang on the wall of Brittney's bar to this day: God bless Sandbar. God loves you.
Renegade Ocean Sports Instructor, Vagabond Art Teacher, Roving Writer: Jessica Lea Salo
"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore."
"Having a healthy respect for the sea did not mean she owed me a moments grace."
"It is good to be alive."