E-mail update from Lee Rice; 1-4-03
Right after the New Year's holiday, eleven students from the Society of '91, Hampden-Sydney's Leadership Program, returned to campus in preparation for the 2003 Belize Service Project. The trip is in conjunction with Rivers of the World (ROW), an international exploration and development organization that uses rivers to provide food, medicine, and other services to rural areas in third-world countries. Students in the Society of '91 and Associate Dean of Students David Klein organized a service trip to Belize last spring break after hearing tales from ROW president Ben Mathes, who received an honorary doctorate from Hampden-Sydney in 1999, during a leadership retreat. Six of the students who helped organize the spring break trip are returning with Dean Klein again this year.
At 3 a.m., the band of sleepy students left for Raleigh Durham Airport. They arrived in Belize City around mid-afternoon to a scene that bore little resemblance to the cold, rainy morning they left behind in Virginia, and sweaters and fleeces were immediately shed.
The van ride from crime-ridden Belize City took us through several miles of marshes and sugarcane fields and into the more benign city of Orange Walk, where we would stay for a night before setting up camp on the New River. About every one hundred yards along the road were speed bumps, or "sleeping police," giving evidence to the country's inadequate law enforcement capabilities. Small shanties line the streets and nearly every building, whether a store or home, has a partially unfinished roof with rebar sticking out of the top. The reason for this is that taxes can't be levied on structures unless they are fully complete.
The city is filled mostly with mestizos, Mayans, and Garinagu. Claiming an extremely diverse ancestry, Belizeans are accepting of other cultures, which made it easy for students to walk about the streets and to talk with locals on their first night in the city. With the melodic tones of Creole, Spanish, and English filling the air, Senior Cordoba stands on the corner in front of Town Hall and eagerly poses to have his picture taken by Jud Root '03. He tells Judd that he waits here every day to give rides to the town's many German Mennonites who come to Belize to farm the land outside the town. He explains that the Mennonites, devoid of the laid back attitude of the Caribbean culture, work extremely hard as farmers and are respected in town.
Three young men--Enrique, Snake, and Louie--sit on the steps of an open-air barbershop and are equally curious about Jud's camera and enthusiastically boast that this barber, Louie's cousin, is the best in town. The youngest of the three is a doorman at the town's club at night. During the days they can be found in front of the barbershop.
That evening, McKennon Shea '05, who had a filling placed two days before the trip, started having severe pain in his tooth. Mathes made a quick phone call in a matter of minutes McKennon was on his way to a local dentists' office (which also doubles as a radio station and a hostel for local teachers). A young dentist named Silvia x-rayed the tooth and gave McKennon some antibiotics.
Afterwards, over a belated dinner, Mathes explained that the ROW organization had helped build and equip the dental clinic (and radio station) as well as train the dentist. In addition, Mathes himself had been quite instrumental in Silvia's education. A Peruvian, Silvia wanted to study in America to improve her English for the dental exam but could not acquire a visa because of her nationality. Mathes went with her to the US Embassy, but the official still would not grant a visa. Because of the work he has done for the country, almost every official in Belize knows Mathes and, accurately guessing that this man was new to the area, he explained who he was. With a look of surprise, the official pulled Ben's ROW business card out of his pocket and told the story of how a college student volunteering for ROW had sat next to him on a plane a few days before. He granted the visa right away. "The guy made it perfectly clear that it had nothing to do with me," Mathes said with a chuckle. "Silvia went to America because that official was so impressed by the student on the plane."
Dental tragedy averted, we settled in for our first and last night in the city.
Nicholas Beazley "Nick"
Gregory Behringer "Greg"
Christian Cartner "Christian"
Donald Ross Greene "Ross"
Wesley Lawson "Wes"
William Andrew McIlreavy "Drew"
James Landon Moore "Landon"
Douglas J. Peters "D.J."
John R. C. Ramsay "John"
Judson Root "Jud"
Thomas McKennon Shea "McKennon"