Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ballet in Belize

I went to the ballet last night with a group of friends,. The Quintana Roo Classic Dance Company came to the city through the Mexican embassy, as part of their cultural celebrations. This year is the Bicentennial celebration of Mexican Independence and the Centennial celebration of the Mexican Revolution. This prestigious dance company has recruited children from all over the southern region of Mexico to be trained in classic ballet techniques. There were a few modern pieces within the show as well, but from what I could tell, the majority of pieces were classical in nature.

There were two pieces that stood out to me. The first was a piece called “Dancing”. As one of the more modern pieces, this particular dancer, Ashanti Perez, was quite expressive and true to the nature of her body through the flow of the music. The music used was an English language piece that spoke of love, self expression and movement of self. I was struck by the emotion that Ashanti had in this piece and I found it to be quite moving.

The next piece that I paid particular attention to was a collection of vignettes called “Ellas” (meaning “women”). Each vignette depicted a celebration of a particular woman in Mexican history. Although I can’t remember each of the names of the women represented, there are images that stand out. There was a nun, a freedom fighter of the Mexican Revolution and another one depicting the life of a dance teacher. Yet the one that stood out he most was a piece that showed the two lives of Frida. As a big Frida fan, I found this vignette to be particularly inspiring. One dancer was the more butch version of Frida and the other was the more traditional, but frail version of Frida, just after her accident. The relationship between the two versions of Frida was like viewing one of her self-portraits and I felt myself wanting to spend more time with Frida and her images. In all, “Ellas” was very well done and I often found myself reflecting on the important women in US history…while thinking how they might be depicted in a dance format.

At any rate, it was a nice treat to go to the ballet last night. I’m not a regular at the ballet but I do appreciate the art and even though I was a bit hungry, hot and cramped, I was quite entertained and even inspired. The event was held at the Bliss Performing Arts Center and I was surprised to find that it was a full house. But I guess when things are free, it’s best to take advantage of the opportunity. I never thought I would be going to the ballet while I was in Belize, but in true travel fashion, one must be open to the array of possibilities.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Traveling Far from Home

“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” – Frederick Buechener, Telling the Truth

I travel a lot, and even when I’m not traveling I am always apart from people I love. This was a reality taught to me at a very young age as I commuted from one parent’s home to the next. And maybe today that’s why I’m still on the move. But I’ve noticed a shift in me lately and I can’t quite put my finger on it just yet but I am realizing that saying good bye never gets any easier.

There are people that I love all around the world. I have moments when I think, “Oh I wish X were here…he/she would love this moment.” And there are other times when I have personal revelations and I want to share that with a specific person, but they are so far away.

Sometimes I write letters or emails. I’ve even made phone calls to stay connected. I think about these people in my life, many of them who cross my heart on a daily basis…and I pray…I pray that they are safe and well. But they are always with me.
On the one hand, it feels good to know that there are people who love me all over the place. It’s comforting to be surrounded by love because there are so many other instances in this world that can make us feel lonely. And yet, being separated from that same love also produces loneliness and longing….the kind that makes you want to turn back and change your life plan. But for someone like me…what would I change my plan to?

Through travel and life experience my identity has been aligned to the people and places of my daily existence. There are certain things about me that are true, with small variations, no matter where I am (I think). And yet, I try to remain open and permeable to the possibility of change in and through a new experience. And so, any one person or event can contribute to my evolving identity. There are societal markers that help people identify who I am and there are labels to pigeonhole me, or at least to help articulate pieces of me. But these words do not always identify my true character… only my family and friends have that ability, and I think that has something to do with this quote…this piece of family and friends “living in me”.
I am a live and evolving body…a collection of people that I try so very hard to be present too. These are the people who help articulate who I really am. And no matter how far I go, I am never so far that my memory of them is not also alive.
I think about this as I leave Belize in a week….as I go back to my childhood home and stomping grounds…and then travel back to Chicago where I now live. These are all places…and collections of people…each and every one of them, that I carry.

Children's Rights in Belize

Yesterday I had the opportunity and privilege to accompany a friend of mine as she presented a workshop on children’s rights to a group of girls at a summer camp. My friend Flo works for an organization called WIN Belize (Women’s Issues Network of Belize) and a lot of her job is give presentations and workshops all around the country. She is also a talented documentarian, but during the day she presents to groups about topics such as sexual health, gender issues, cultural adaptation to oppression and even children’s rights. And so yesterday she invited me to tag along.

The summer camp is run by an organization called YES (Youth Enhancement Services) and facilitated by two North American women. One woman is a new arrival from the Peace Corps and the other has been in the country for the last year through the Jesuit Volunteers International Program (the counterpart to the JVC domestic program that I was a part of back in Detroit).

In typical Belize fashion, Flo and I arrived late because….well time is different here. And we got to camp right before they were beginning an icebreaker activity. It was the one where each person holds part of a statement from an international proverb and you had to find your match and then decipher the meaning. I’ve played this game a few times before with college students and was wondering how well it would work out with 12-14 year old girls but I found that it just took a little extra time. I found that when I participated in the icebreaker I went right into “teacher mode”, taking on the demeanor and foundationally inquisitive attitude that I once had in a former life as a teacher. It was a relatively natural switch for me and I wondered to myself…why is that…

At any rate, even though some of the proverbs were difficult, the group as a whole was helpful. I must admit however, that there were a few very shy girls in the group and it took a lot to get them to speak. Part of that could be in relation to the new guests but I’m guessing that it went a little deeper than that.

After the ice breaker Flo began her presentation, chatting really briefly about the UN Declaration on Children’s Rights and what that looks like here in Belize, and then there was another activity. The object was for each group to compile a list of what rights children have, or should have. You could make a list, draw a picture, write a poem or some other variation. I spend some time with one group which included three of the older girls and then the two youngest girls who were sent to camp with their older sisters. To my surprise, even when I engaged them in the subject matter, they too had some good answers. Here are a few of the things that I took note of…

Children Have the Right…
• To Play and have fun
• To brush your teeth and pray to God (one statement)
• To eat good food
• To have a house
• To privacy
• To be punished but not hurt (this one was a challenge to articulate because they had the idea but not the words)
• To be sad and happy
• To go to the clinic
• To not talk to strangers
• To be safe from harm
• To go to church
• To get an education

Really, the list went on and on and there was even one poem which I found particularly striking (wish I wrote some of that down). But really what struck me the most was that they already knew their rights. And I think they also knew that they were not always receiving those rights either. Sure, there was some talk at the end about what one might do if they know their rights are being violated, but really, I wondered how tangible the suggestions really were. And given the cultural history of Belize and some of the current reality, children in here are particularly vulnerable the system and the families they live in.

As we left camp and drove back to Belize City I learned that these girls come by bus from all over the district. It’s free, which is good, and there are even field trips. I was impressed by that and excited for them as well. Given what they are up against, these girls need all the support they can get and free summer camp is a step in the right direction.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Driving in Belize

As it turns out, I actually like rules. But especially ones that pertain to driving. Stop signs mean stop and people actually stop…for bicycles to also follow rules…and for pedestrians to care enough out their lives that they wouldn’t walk in front a car in a moment of arrogance. I like that round-abouts are sort of fun but that they do have a natural regulated flow. I like that I can enter the round-about when there are no cars and signal to leave. It seems like a good system and I guess that’s why I stick to it….even here in Belize.

You see, here in Belize, the rules of the road are just a guideline. And depending on the time of day, people may or may not follow these guidelines. And its really no big deal because the traffic police don’t REALLY care. They simply stand in the middle of the road, blow their whistle, direct traffic and check for valid insurance and drivers licenses. But what do these plastic cards mean anyway?

I’ve spend some significant time in my life driving. I’ve driven in other states in the US and even other countries like Belize. Each place has a certain way of being when considering the rules of the road…but Belize…Belize is in a league of her own.
A friend commented to me the other day, “I can’t wait to get to Chetumal (Mexico) to drive because people actually follow the rules of the road there.”

Hmmm, what a concept….that others also look upon the law for consistency.
I am often one to look for consistency in my life….for people to say what they mean…for actions to follow…for a traffic light to actually dictate a stop or a go. It’s pretty simple really some folks haven’t really caught on just yet.

These are observations really, nothing major. I’ve been driving a lot you see….borrowing a friends car and exploring the city. I do errands, go to lunch, get a choli…and drive. I like it …I like the freedom. And, I must admit that it’s sort of an adventure. But I go slower here and I let people cross the street. I follow the rules of the road despite the honking horns and sometimes I have been known to add in a rule of my own.

Last year I heard a story of a man who hit a child while driving on the road. I can’t remember how the rest of the story went…if he got out of the car or took off and ran. But I heard that people in the neighborhood killed him. The whole reality of vigilantism in Belize is scary…which makes me think that rules should be followed so that people aren’t compelled to take the law into their own hands. That, and maybe the judicial system could be consistent and dependable as well…but that’s just a suggestion.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


The word independent has a lot of different meanings. Given my life, my current reality, and the passing of another 4th of July weekend, the varied meanings of this single word seem to resonate with me. Here are a few that I’ve been pondering…
• Politically autonomous; self-governing
• Free from the influence, guidance, or control of another or others; self-reliant
• Not determined or influenced by someone or something else; not contingent
Other phrases come to mind like, self-sufficient, self-supporting, not dependant, not affiliated or loyal to….and the list goes on.

So let’s talk politically just for a second and humor me on some of the meanderings of my brain. A little history: Columbus set sail on the ocean blue…yada yada…skip a bunch of years and there’s a “revolution”. People die, men come together and write some stuff down, they hide it in a tree in Connecticut (sorry I had to put that in there), and then this place that I am from, The United States of America, is now independent from England. We can even go on to say that the USA is independent from other nations as well. According to the definition, the US is “self-governing and politically autonomous.”

So I wonder, is this really true? Given the global reality, the way political decisions are made these days (I’ll give you this plutonium if you give me these guns and we’ll call it a day…then to fast forward 30 years…I’ll teach you how to vote and how to run a democracy if you continue to supply us with X, Y and Z for the rest of eternity), is this really independence or rather exercising a kind of control? Because as much as the US, or any other nation, claims itself as independent, there is still the reality of goods and services that needs to be factored into the deal. Plain and simple, when it comes down to it, the US NEEDS stuff…and really, we are DEPENDENT on other nations to sustain our life.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure this is not an original thought but it’s something I’ve been thinking about in relation to my own personal worldview.

One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen once wrote in his journal, “I love Jesus but want to hold on to my own independence even when that independence brings no real freedom.”

Keep this quote in mind when you read on. It will be very telling.
So then here’s me and here’s my confession…

I am an only child.

I know, hard to believe. Some may even find this shocking, but it’s true. And even though I don’t regularly show some of the common characteristics of being an only child, there are certain realities that even the best performer couldn’t mask. And at the end of the day, the people who know me most understand that being an only child is a part of WHO I am in the world.

So what are those characteristics….well, sometimes I can be selfish, I tend to see the world as ME and then everyone else, I’m pretty confident and live as if I know what I’m doing (even when I don’t), and the kicker, I live as if I am independent. Actually, I seek to be independent….self-governing, self-reliant, self-supporting, not contingent on another and certainly not dependant on another. But the actual blow of the kick comes when I believe that the things I do are done in a void. When I believe that I have done something by myself, that I stand alone in my thoughts and actions, my personal confidence is fed and the illusion of this cycle continues.

I wish I could say that this realization was figured out a long time ago and that I’ve nipped it in the bud. I wish that I could say that I’m not as selfish as I used to be. I wish I could say that I’ve learned something important about being an only child and that is X….but…I’m still a work in progress. And actually, if I play my cards right, the ebb and flow of personal realizations can take me for a few more years on the wave self-knowing…or something like that, without ever changing my thinking or altering my illusions.

Ok, but here’s the redeeming quality of the whole shebang. Somewhere along the way I’ve figured out that I actually NEED. More simply I am needy.
I need food, shelter, clothing and other misc. things to sustain my body.
It turns out that I need people too. Not only do I like people, but I NEED them in my life. I need to feel welcomed, loved, supported and encouraged. I also need to feel like I can be that for others as well. I need to be put in my place sometimes and learn from those people and experiences. I need to feel like I’m contributing, that who I am matters to others. I need to feel like I have a place in this world and that there is something about ME that people want to know more about…or even love. Consequently, I have to leave the binds of my illusion of independence and suck it up because my internal desire to be self-reliant is counterproductive to fully entering into relationship with people and places. And really, any other version of life is only a portion of what could be. I know this to be true on many days, but I don’t always live it. Sometimes I need a jumpstart to get me out of a holding pattern. Sometimes I just have to surrender, to a place, to the reality in front of me and even to love, to jolt me into realizing that I am not as independent as I think that I am. And, that my grand notions of independence bring me further into myself and not into relationship with the world around me.

Let’s take an easy example of my time here in Belize….

I’ve been coming here for the last eight years and for the most part, I know my way around. But I still have to depend on my friends to keep me in line. Not only do they tell me where to eat, show me around the city and keep me out of trouble but they offer friendship, conversation and guidance when I need it most. Sure, there is some mutuality to my relationships here in Belize, but I can say for myself that my time here would not be so easy if I tried to assert my notion of independence. And really, because of my dependence and personal flexibility, I’ve been able to experience some profound openness in my own heart…the kind of openness that comes when you live as though you have nothing to lose.

For me, this is where the Nouwen quote comes in. I do believe that independence is important especially in terms of being a “free thinker”, a competent individual and being able to determine what you really want in life. Most day’s I am not lacking in this. But when my heart and life are so closed to the guidance of another….when I neglect to realize that others depend on my actions and decisions….when I forget that my own need for self-preservation creates boundaries in relationship…then…THEN, I have taken my own notion of independence too far. And like the Nouwen quote, being “free” doesn’t feel liberating.

Lately, I’ve been trying to live my life in such a way that honors the person that I am….as flawed as I am. I can willfully and joyfully say that I depend on my community (as a whole). I’m continuing to understand all the places I can shed my notion of personal independence to live more fully in those relationships. Personal pain and relational hiccups can serve as setbacks in continuous flow, but the more liberating piece of the pie is choosing to live in an interdependent way even when I know things won’t always go to plan. Exercising my freedom to live as if I have not been hurt…to live as if things will all work out…to live as if each moment is important and part of the plan…those are the pieces that capture me in all the right ways and legitimize my shift of being. (mind you, none of this is very easy)

When I think of the word freedom I find that the world independence is not too far behind. And for some, one idea feeds into the next. They are synonyms if you will. But when looking up the definition of freedom I have found these phrase that resonate with me, given the struggles that I face:
• Release from captivity
• Power to determine action without restraint
• Frankness of manner or speech

I’m guessing that Henri Nouwen was looking to be released from the captivity of his false notions that he was an “independent” man. I’m guessing that he wanted to live his life in such a way that did not give more power to this notion of independence, but more so to the way of his heart. I am guessing that he wanted his life to mean something and that his honest way of living might help him be more transparent and relational. I’m guessing he wanted to invite the same in others.

These are all just guesses….but I know this is true for me. And I know this is also difficult for me. Alas, I am still working on it…

Belizean Morning

I woke up an hour ago, sweating. It wasn’t from a bad dream but rather from the sheer fact that the sun came up again this morning. It’s damn hot here in Belize and even on a cloudy day like this one (so far), the sun lets you know her lingering presence. I certainly can’t forget it because I crave fans, AC and cold drinks on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I get up, take a shower, get dress properly and prepare myself to sweat it out. And maybe that’s ok…at least for now. For me, extreme heat and cold let me know that I am fully alive. I’m either sweating buckets or shivering my ass off but at least I know I can’t fake it. The reality cuts me to the core.

I’m sitting in front of a fan right now and looking out the window of the second story apartment that I’m staying in. The view is quite majestic if you consider everyday life something spectacular like I do. There are palm trees in between homes, greenery all around and a calm stillness that blankets this place. The roof of each house is covered with red tin that has been weathered by hurricanes and seasonal downpours. Even in the dead heat of the day birds won’t perch on the top, but today there are a few I can see. I can also see three yellow butterflies dancing in the backyard of our neighbor. The dance seems playful and as they round the bend towards the purple flowered tree, one might begin to think that this is paradise. A puppy barks in the distance and consequently a cat meows back (note: some cats have a strange meow here). There are men working on the roof of a high cement house on the next block and I’m sure from their height they can see the Caribbean, which is really just a block away from where I am now. Here in Belize City, the Caribbean is never too far away. And as the city itself sinks further below sea level that reminder is all too present. Homes flood every year during the rainy season, but like the sun coming up in the morning, it’s a reality not to be escaped…especially for the poor.

As much as I am surrounded by the everyday beauty of this place I still find it quite difficult to deny the raw counterpart of suffering amidst the backdrop of vulnerability. Poverty is insidious here just like any other place I’ve been but the global voice deems Belize to be fairing not too badly in comparison to her regional neighbors. And so, the global community can breathe a sigh of relief and neglect the everyday visions of children playing on the roadside, homes washed away by a flooded river, or meals that never quite make it to the table because the money was never there n the first place. “Oh, Belize might be developing but they aren’t as bad as _______.”

Apparently beauty comes at a price and that’s what I’ve been thinking about these past few days. I’ve been thinking about the face of a typical Belizean, the reality that they live in compared with the song and dance show that tourists see. I’ve driven past the tourist village, eaten as some of the typical tourist restaurants and even gone to some of the attractions. And I wonder if the bus drives cover the windows when they drive through the villages. I wonder how they can hide the vulnerability that is so very present. But then again I wonder, how people in places of power, in the government, can actively negate the poverty here or even chose to be blindfolded when deciding where to allocate funds. I wonder…

Granted, I am really just a tourist myself. And it’s easy for me to be critical of my own government and that of Belize. But I do spend a lot of time these days driving around, looking out the window and wondering. I’ve chosen not to be sheltered or barricaded up in the Radisson compound. Instead, I appreciate the sweat I wake up to, the sound of the birds in the palm trees, the men hammering outside my window at god awful hours and even the daily reminders that I receive to show me that my notion of paradise is a little more complicated by reality. Either way, something here still cuts me to the core.