Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Back to School

I can hardly believe that we've been in Belize for over five weeks and are about to head home on Saturday! This was our last week in the schools, and it was so nice to get back after being away for two weeks for Easter break. On Monday, it was one of my student's birthday, so during lunch we enjoyed birthday cake and pizza, provided by her family. We also found out Monday that Labor Day in Belize is today, so the school will be closed tomorrow, making today our last day! To celebrate, my class spent our afternoon after lunch at the beach! It was very fun way to end my time with them. We've been told we have a very important meeting tomorrow at Isla Bonita, even though it's a holiday...I think there might be cake involved ;) I'm feeling very grateful to have had a great experience at the school here.

Tuesday the special education teachers traveled to Belize City to visit Stella Maris and the Inspiration Center. Stella Maris is a school for students with special needs, including learning disabilities, Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, and autism. The atmosphere there is extremely positive and you can just feel the love and compassion that every teacher has for the students. We were able to play and hang out with the students for a few minutes during their morning break. It was an awesome experience and truly reaffirmed my love for Special Education! I can't wait to return home and start teaching in my own classroom!

After visiting Stella Maris and getting lunch, we visited the Inspiration Center which provides therapies to children with special needs. It is newly opened, but it was a very nice facility and the staff seemed very excited about being able to provide medical exams, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and multi-sensory therapy to those that need it. In the future they hope to expand to provide other services as well!

Something that has surprised me about myself on this trip is that I have really enjoyed blogging! I've never had a blog before, but I've had so much fun keeping up with everything I'm doing in Belize through blogging. Although writing blog posts is part of an assignment, it has been much more to me than that. It has been a way for me to communicate with my friends and family back home, and let them know what I've been up to! I plan to incorporate a blog into my future teaching so that my students and parents can keep up with what we're doing in my classroom!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Service Week

Because our students at Isla Bonita Elementary and San Pedro High School are on Easter break, we've been spending our time doing some service projects of our choice. I've spent a few days volunteering at Saga, the humane society on the island. We've done everything from cleaning kennels and washing dogs to painting fences and playing with the dogs. It's been a lot of fun! The dogs are all super sweet and love our attention. 

Painting the fence at Saga

Playing with some pups

Murphy, an adoptable pup at Saga

Murphy sharing a doggy hug with me

Today several of us did some service work with Miriam, the intern at ACES, and her boss Vince. We took the ACES boat out to a place that was intended to be a sanctuary for crocodiles. Unfortunately, the people around the sanctuary have been purposefully polluting the area, which is gated. Children break in to play there and lots of trash has been thrown over the walls and even into the croc pens. When we arrived Vince and Miriam realized that some of the lumber from the enclosures had been stolen. Vince is so frustrated with the situation overall that he and his wife have decided to leave the area and tear down the the enclosures at the sanctuary. That was our job today, along with picking up lots of trash. 

Tearing down the enclosure

Un-hammering nails in some questionably brown water

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Inland Adventures, Part II

We arrived in San Ignacio one week ago today. The next few days were full of excursions! We started Friday off by stopping by a huge, open cave called Rio Frio. It was so neat inside! We only had time to stay there for a few minutes. Next we drove to Caracol, which is an ancient Mayan archaeological site. The road there was long and very bumpy! I was in the back of the van, and I caught air numerous times. When we finally got there we were able to climb the tallest Mayan ruin in Belize, as well as tour a number of other ruins. We also saw howler monkeys in the jungle! We'd seen them at the Belize Zoo, but it was really special to see them in their natural habitat. We ate a picnic lunch and then left for our last stop of the day, Big Rock Falls. It was a great way to end our day! We swam and some of us jumped from the rocks into the water. The waterfall was beautiful!
Rio Frio
At the top of a ruin
Our group in the Rio Frio cave

Big Rock Falls
On Saturday, we toured the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, or ATM. It is sacred to the Mayan people and many ancient Mayan artifacts can be seen there. After a short hike, we prepared to enter the cave. We had to swim in, and the water was chilly. Once we made it in, the only available light was from our headlamps. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures or take anything at all into the cave, because of accidents in the past when artifacts were broken. It was an incredible experience that included swimming, wading, squeezing, and climbing under and over rocks. I was glad to have a helmet because I hit my head several times! After climbing pretty far into the cave, and up onto one of its upper levels, we saw lots of ancient pottery and even some human remains from sacrifices made by the Mayans. I'll include some pictures below, from when cameras were still allowed on the tour (thanks, Google!)

Just before our ATM tour

Entrance to the cave, where we swam in!

Human remains, found inside the ATM cave
Our last day inland was Easter Sunday. It was very strange to be away from home on this day, but our day was very special, as we spent it in Guatemala. After clearing the border, we went ziplining through the jungle near Tikal, another Mayan ruin site. It was my first time ziplining, and it's something I've always wanted to try. It was a BLAST! After ziplining we went to Flores, a precious little island town for lunch and a little shopping. I was able to bargain and get some good deals on souvenirs for some sweet family and friends.

Roman Catholic church in Flores

Monday, April 21, 2014

Inland Adventures

My last post left off at our first full day in Punta Gorda. We have done so much since then! As I mentioned before, the teachers and students are enjoying a two-week Easter break from school. Our cohort has been taking advantage of this time by doing some cultural excursions on the mainland of Belize. We've learned how the Mayan people make chocolate, toured some ancient Mayan ruins, explored a cave that's sacred to the Mayan people, and ziplined in Guatemala! Now we're back in San Pedro for our final two weeks. I'll break our most recent adventures into a few posts so I can share some details from each one.

Happy to be back at Pedro's Inn, our home away from home

The second day in Punta Gorda we visited a Mayan archaeological site, followed by an organic chocolate farm, and ended our tour at the chocolate making facility. Our tour guide, Juan, operates IXCACAO Maya Belizean Chocolate with his wife, Abelina. During our time at the organic farm we saw (and sampled) cacao pods and coffee beans straight from the trees. At the chocolate making facility we were served pure hot chocolate (no milk or sugar) and lunch. It was, hands down, the best meal I've had in Belize. Next, we sampled 6 kinds of chocolate made by IXCACAO: dark, milk, spicy, orange, ginger, and coconut. All were delicous! Finally, Juan showed us the old-fashioned, Mayan way to make chocolate. We hand-peeled freshly roasted cocoa beans and then Juan modeled how to grind the beans using a heirloom Mayan grinding stone. The beans were turned into pure, melted chocolate in a matter of minutes! IXCACAO no longer uses the grinding stone for their regular production, so we were able to take a look at the ways they now peel, separate, and grind beans to make delicious Mayan chocolate bars.

Entrance to the first Mayan archaeological site we visited as a group

Coffee beans, still inside their sweet casings, straight off the tree!

Piles of empty cacao pods, ready for decomposition

Raw cocoa beans, inside the cacao pod

Chocolate chicken, chocolate curry pork, vegetable rice cooked with coconut milk, heart of palm, stew beans and white rice, plantains, and fresh cucumber

Freshly roasted cocoa beans, before we hand-shelled them

Grinding beans to make chocolate!

Adding sugar to make our chocolate sweet!

Yes, that's a hair dryer! This contraption is used to separate shells from cocoa beans

The next morning, we woke up early to say goodbye to Punta Gorda. Our next stop was the Belize Zoo. It was so neat to see exotic animals like tapirs, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, toucans, and jaguars up close. The zoo is set up so that the animals live in environments that are as close as possible to their natural environments and many of the animals there have been rescued.

Junior, the spotted jaguar

After leaving the zoo, we headed to our final inland destination, San Ignacio. We stayed at The Plaza Hotel, owned and operated by a little old couple. We walked through their living room and by their kitchen to get up to our rooms, which was very interesting. This was our home for four nights in San Ignacio. My next post will highlight the rest of our adventures inland!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Long and Winding Road to Punta Gorda

It's been less than a week since my last blog post and so much has happened! I left off last Thursday, the day before Isla Bonita's annual beach party, which marks the beginning of their two week Easter break. Because Teacher Hector had just left for a trip inland, I was tasked with supervising 12 energetic children at the beach. Fortunately, the beach doesn't have huge crashing waves here, or I might not have made it through. It does have docks with loose, nail-filled boards that certain students (mine) like to wield at each other for fun... However, my students and I both made it to 1:00pm (the end of the party) unscathed and ready for break.

The next day, our group piled on a catamaran to go snorkeling. We snorkeled at two different sites, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, and Shark and Ray Alley. At Hol Chan, we followed our tour guides in three small groups as we snorkeled. I am still in disbelief at how clear the water is here. We saw eagle rays, other stingrays, lots of different fish, some baby nurse sharks, and a couple sea turtles! At our next stop, our guides threw sardines into the water and the nurse sharks were literally piling on top of each other, heads out of the water, to get the food. It was insane. Then we all jumped in with our snorkel gear and swam with them and the rays until they dispersed, as the food was all gone. After we got our fill of snorkeling, the boat served us some delicious salsa (with shrimp!!!), I enjoyed a pineapple Fanta, and we sailed on to Caye Caulker for lunch and some exploring. It was such a cute little island and we had lunch in a restaurant that has swings for seats.
*I cannot take credit for any of the beautiful, underwater photos. All were taken by others from the cohort*

On Sunday, I went to the Catholic church, which is right on the beach, to celebrate Palm Sunday. It's very similar to my Episcopalian church at home, so it was comforting to have a familiar experience. That evening, I went "croc hunting" with Miriam and Captain Chris from ACES, along with some others from our group. We took a flat bottom skiff out into a few lagoons and they would shine spotlights into the water, hoping to catch the red-orange glow of crocodile eyes. When they did, Miriam would swim out to the croc and attempt to catch it. They're super quick and hard to see, but at our last stop Chris caught one! We were there to release a small croc ACES had caught the week prior. The bigger crocodile Chris caught was about 4 feet long and pretty fat! Miriam and Chris taught us lots about crocs, especially the ones that live in Belize. After learning about him/her, scanning its microchip (it had been caught before), getting some measurements, and taking some pictures, we released the crocodile back into the lagoon. 

The next morning we woke up early to make our way to Punta Gorda, Belize for the first leg of our week-long trip inland while the kids are on Easter break. We took a water taxi to Belize City, which took about 1.5 hours. From there, we got a cab to the bus station, where we waited for almost two more hours. We were told the wrong gate to stand by while waiting for our bus, so we were afraid that we wouldn't get seats as we made a mad dash to the bus. Despite lots of hectic pushing, we did make it onto the bus and everyone in our group got seats! The bus, similar to an old school bus in the states, was packed with two people per seat. Little did we know, there would soon be many more on board. Throughout our six-hour ride, we stopped to add more, until the aisles were packed with people standing, and some sitting on luggage. Needless to say, we were very pleased to arrive safely in Punta Gorda!

Waiting for our bus
Our feelings on the bus ride
View from the bus window
I think the bus is full...

Today, our first full day in PG, we took a drumming class with a man named Ronald McDonald (no joke!). He and his father are part of the Garifuna culture, and the drum school, Warasa, works to preserve it. It was a great class and we all learned a lot and had fun! 

My next post will be all about the rest of our inland trip. We have many adventures ahead!