Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas in Belize

While most Americans and Europeans are rushing to the stores and supermarkets to do their Christmas shopping, it is quiet in Belize. Here we don’t get stressed out over what to buy for our children - who already have boxes full of Barbies, video games, and Lego building bricks. Brodies supermarket has stocked its freezer with a dozen turkeys and has put five new games on the shelves. At the Chinese supermarket you can actually buy a dusty plastic Christmas tree that even comes with a string of lights. The Chinese, I feel, are in it for the money, not for the Christmas cheer. My mailbox is empty, as usual. The restaurants don’t seem to care about decorations, not counting those that are still there from last year. Love FM is playing some Christmas songs on the radio but not frequently.

Personally, I don't mind at all. I am not a big fan of Christmas, and I hate the overemphasis on food and gifts. I have put up a small tree for our daughter and we are enjoying the efforts some Belmopan residents have made to light up their houses and yards. The whole idea of Christmas shopping in Belmopan is actually funny, unless you want to ask Santa for a bottle of gas, or a mattress...

So I had kind of given up on the idea of Christmas in Belize, until I went to the Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM cave, a 40,000-year old Maya cave. Wow, what a special place, better than any archeological museum you can ever imagine. After two hours of swimming, climbing and crawling through narrow cracks in the pitch dark with Carlos our guide, we arrived at 'the cathedral', a sacred place where thousands of years ago Mayan priests did their rituals and human sacrifices. There, deep down in the Mayan underground, I saw the most beautiful Christmas scene ever. Doesn't it look like a nativity group? Amazing hey!

If you forget for a minute that there are also the 1400-year old remains of a teenage sacrifice victim who is believed to be clubbed and left for dead, you can actually feel the peace in that cave.

And on that note I wish you all a peaceful Christmas and an Amazing 2010!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wednesday Wobble

Every Wednesday at 6 pm we gather at the Wing Stop Bar, which has the coldest beer and best lemon-pepper wings in town. That's the best I can say about this bar, because their toilets without doors, scruffy picnic tables and 'stick-your-hand-in-the tank-to-make-it-flush-' toilets are not really an add on.
We gather there to run, walk or wobble around the Belmopan ring road, about 3 miles or 4,5 km. I usually run -which makes me feel so good that I have really earned my beer and wings. Last week however, I walked, together with the British High Commissioner Pat Ashworth. Belize is the only constituent nation of the Commonwealth of Nations in the region, they obviously have a High Commission.

Pat speaks a little Dutch from his time in The Hague, and he makes it sound all funny and freaky. Perhaps it really does. We spoke about what people eat in Belize for Christmas. 'Turkey and ham', he said and I reminded him of the Dutch word for turkey: Kalkoen (Kalkoon). That sounds like Cancun, so we thought how to call a kalkoen in Cancun. He then asked me if I knew how a turkey is called in Turkey. Hmmm, interesting question. Türkey? I suggested. He said it's 'hindi'. So we wondered what a turkey in Hindi is. We did not know, but in Portuguese - a language we both speak - it's Peru, where did that come from? But before we could think about turkeys in Peru we were back at the Wing Stop Bar.

There we noticed the construction of a new building, in the heart of Belmopan's "shopping area" next to the two most popular Chinese supermarkets. We could not help wondering what it would become. We thought of (hoped for) the following:

1) a Drive Inn Movie Theater
2) a MacDonald's
3) a Kentucky Fried Turkey

What? We can't dream? It's Christmas season after all...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Rovers, Cocaobeans and Smelly Toilets

For my work reviewing projects supported by the United Nations (UN) I went to Toledo, a district in the south of Belize. I went with my friend Carmen from New York and Barbara, the wife of the new American ambassador. Toledo is the least developed district of Belize, a bit like 'the slow kid in class'. For example only 1 out of 4 households has access to a sewer system, against more than half country-wide; adult literacy is 62% (77% country-wide) and the under 5 mortality rate is 1.5 times higher than the national average. Toledo is covered with pristine tropical rain forests and its population is largely made up of Mopan and Kekchi Mayas living in over 30 villages. This combination of lush green vegetation and Mayan houses makes it absolutely a front page picture of National Geographic.

The UN supports the district in many ways; UNICEF assists with early-childhood development activities and upgrades of school toilets, UNDP has agricultural and environmental protection programs and PAHO/WHO supports the local hospitals with outreach programs on nutrition, child measurements and promotion of breast-feeding.

We left the district with mixed feelings; impressed by a program named Roving Caregivers, where young Maya women are trained to become informal caregivers or rovers to young children who do not have access to daycare. The rover goes to the homes of the Maya mothers to play with the children and teach the parents about parenting and child development. We were equally impressed by Ya'axche Conservation Trust, which manages large areas of protected nature reserve and assists farmers with sustainable livelihood such as organic cacao and coffee beans. The least impressed we were by the WASH project; for water, sanitation and hygiene in schools. Though highly relevant, the project started but was not complete, leaving many school principals frustrated about their sanitary facilities and more importantly, leaving entire classes with smelly toilets, unused washing buildings and broken water fountains.

Why are these results so mixed? There a plenty factors contributing to both failure and success. Poor planning, lack of ownership of projects, political instability and staff turn-over within UN agencies, are definitely spoilers. Proper monitoring and selection of intervention partners are enablers. My conclusion is that implementing social projects in developing countries is a bit like life win some, you lose some.