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."