So it all started back in the summer of 2003. I was sitting around with my grandfather, Lloyd, asking him what sort of adventures he had coming up. Lloyd almost always has an adventure in the works. He tells me he ran into a minister, Ted, from Isle a Haut Maine who takes a group of folks down to a town called Monkey River in Belize once a year. Monkey River was wiped out by a hurricane a few years back, so Ted and his crew help rebuild. Lloyd was all signed up and asked if I'd like to come down too. I thought that sounded totally cool, and it was a chance to go somewhere warm in February, so I took him up on it.
So on February 10th I find myself on a train to Boston, where I'll meat up with the crew and grab a plane to Belize. That evening I met the crew and I have to admit, I was a little worried. Of the Maine group I was the youngest by about 30 years. I was also surrounded by a minister and a church group. I haven't been to church in years, and even then I only went because my mom made me. I had prepared myself for avoiding all questions about religion, I hadn't quitte realized just how old the crew would be. Oh well, it was only 2 weeks, and it would be warm..... how bad could it be?
Unfortunately the story sort of goes from bad to worse here. Our group met for dinner and then we all walked back to the hotel in seperate groups. Ted, the leader of this entire trip, slipped and fell and screwed up his arm something terrible. So at like midnight it's decided that he needs to get himself to a hospitol. We where in the outskirts of Boston, and I lived in Boston for 4 years, so I offered to direct if someone had a car. With Pete behind the wheel and Ted in the passenger seat, we set out for Mass General. I'm not exactly sure what the doc tells Ted, but apparently he thinks it's not terrible and we just need to pick up some pain meds in Cambridge. So we head over to Porter Square to a CVS that's open all night to fill a prescription. We finally get back to the hotel at around 2:30am. We all need to get up at 4:00am to catch the flight, so I grab a cup of coffee and my book and get reading. I figure with 1.5 hours of sleep I'd be worse off then if I just stay up.
So with that I bring you the first photo. Here's me at the airport after being awake for 24 hours straight, 7 of those hours spent on a train, and 4 of those hours spent directing a minivan around Boston to the emergency room and drug store. Needless to say I fell asleep on the plane before we even took off. Here's Ted, whom the children of Monkey River called Father Beard. Hard to see, but he's now sporting a sling on his right arm.
Not sure how many hours the flight took (I was alseep) but we eventually landed in Belize City. Here's a shot of the crew gathering for the bus. Another shot of Ted and some folks. I'm not even gonna try to remember everyone's name, nor will I bore you with them. Please do notice the hat at the right of the pic. This belonged to one of the more interesting people on this trip, Dolly. Dolly is just about the sweetest woman you will ever meet in your life. She's also completely flaky and has an amazing ability to either do stupid things or have stupid things miraculously happen to her. You can't tell from the picture, but at this moment in time we have all passed customs and gotten our luggage through the airport.... all of us except Dolly. For some bizarre reason Dolly has figured that someone else has gotten her bag for her. It wouldn't be until after dinner time that Dolly would realize that her bag was still sitting on the conveyor belt in the Belize City airport. Luckily Ted managed to arrange a ride for her to pick it up.
Anyway, our first night in Belize was spent in Belize City. It started with a bus ride around the town to show us some of the cool things. This is a fishing fleet that everyone was totally pumped to see. Not sure of the significance. Though it is worth noting that a bunch of folks on the trip where there to help the locals build boats, so maybe it has something to do with that. Here's a really pretty one Lloyd took. Another nice one. After a bit of tourist stuff we ended up at some church. Again, I'm not religous, so I missed the point, but basically our first night we where put up and fed by a bunch of church folks related to this place. Here's a cute shot of my grandparents, Lloyd and Ellen. Dinner that night was laid out for us by some church ladies. It was nice, rice and beans and everything you'd expect from Central America. It was damned tasty. Someone said grace, which made me really uncomfortable, but what could I do? Being completely surrounded by church people makes me nervous. After dinner we got a tour of the church and Ellen earned mad points with the minister by noticing that the carving in the door depicted Jesus and John the Baptist with Mayan faces. Go Ellen! That night we slept on cots in some church function hall. I felt like a missionary.
The next day was sort of split in two. For the first half we would make 3 tourist stops and then spend the second half going to Monkey River and settling in. I can't remember the order, but I think we started out at the Belize Zoo. This was a very cool zoo. All the signs where hand painted and written as if it was the animal who had painted them. I won't bore you with too many animal pictures, but I do need to prove I was there. After the zoo we went to Punta Gorda, which is the capitol of Belize. We just stopped at a market to get some lunch. I couldn't figure out what to eat, but I eventually found a little shack where they were making BBQ stuff. One of the locals in the BBQ joint asked if I was Eminem. I assured him I wasn't. I got some really tasy BBQ chicken and ate it under a tree. Doesn't get much better then that. After lunch we went on to our choice of tourist activities. There was a swimming hole that was fed from an underwater river, or a cave. I chose the cave because I've been in swimming holes before, but I've never been in a cave. Unfortunately this is one of those cases where I wished I had NOT relied on the others to take the pictures. This cave was about the coolest thing I've ever seen. We walked through the coolest jungle path to arrive at this completely amazing hole in the mountain. The cave itself was really just unbeleivably awesome. It's just awe inspiring to be in a place and know that prehistoric dudes had chilled in the same spot. Unfortunately, this and this are the only pictures I have. Bummer.
Now's a good time to turn your attention back to Dolly and the hat. Remember her? Did you see the hat? Dolly LOVED that hat. A bunch of folks on the trip asked Dolly about the hat and it was with considerable pride that Dolly would tell the story of how she got that hat in 1960 and what she's been through with that hat. Well while driving around the middle of Belize in this school bus a breeze somehow managed to lift Dolly's hat off the seat and blow that thing right out the window! I have no idea how it happened but you can bet that bus came to a halt awful quick and a bunch of us unloaded to comb the side of the road for a hat. Poor Dolly. Luckily someone actually managed to find the hat, so the trip went on.
And by the end of the day we made it to our destination, Monkey River. As I said, Monkey River had been blown apart by a hurricane a few years before. From old pictures you can see that it had been a pretty little town with lots of palm trees and what not. These days it was pretty barren. The only trees where small things that had grown in the past few years. You could still see some old buildings that where destroyed. Of course the physical state of the town was completely misleading. The people where relaxed, laid back, and completely friendly. Long, hot afternoon hours where spent sitting on porches and talking to your neighbors. When school got out in the afternoon the entire community was overrun with children laughing and playing. It's a neat situation when an entire community is completely accessible and safe for the kids. Another telling fact about Monkey River is how the penal system works. Before the hurricane hit they actually had a little jail, demonstrated in this photo by my grandmom. Of course the jail was destroyed by the hurricane, but the government of Belize rushed in to build them a new one. The people of Monkey River then put the jail to use.... as storage space for tools and what not.
So anyway, onto the story. We arrived late at night and where shown the new hotels. The town is in an interesting situation where it's trying to grow its economy. Not far from it is the major resort area, and they've managed to make themselves a sort of nature getaway for the tourists. You can take a half day trip from the big resort to come to Monkey River and have a local take you up river and show you all the birds and what not. With the addition of the hotel they're trying to expand that a bit to have some people stay over. They also have a restaurant named (I'm not making this up) Alice's Restaurant. And they have a phone. That's right, the whole town has a phone. It's behind the restaurant in a little phone booth. Oh, and while I'm on the subject of what the town has, let me show you the most important part, a bar. And not just any bar, a bar on the beach. As you can probably imagine, this is pretty much where people sat around. There isn't much to do and not a lot that needs to be done at Monkey River. So sitting at the bar is a pretty popular passtime.
However we where not just a bunch of tourists. We where missionaries! You can't spell missionaries with mission! And in our case we had 3 missions. The first was to staff a medical clinic. The second was to teach the people how to build a boat. The final mission was to put a roof on this church. Luckily for the crew, I know absolutely nothing about any of these things. But since boats and medical stuff require some degree of intelligence, I was put on the roof building mission. Now if you're interested in reading more about running clinics or building boats you've come to the wrong place. Apparently nobody died while we where there, and in the end the boat floated, so I'm guessing those 2 missions where sucessful, but I wasn't really paying attention to that stuff. I was all into roof building.
But before I delve into that, let me tell you how the eating worked. This was actually one of the cooler things about this trip. Basically a handful of ladies where selected by the town to feed us. Of course they where paid for their services, so they got to make a little dough, and we got wonderful home cooked meals and a nice chance to meet the locals. So every few days we would form up in groups of 3 or 4 and go eat with a new family. I don't seem to have many pictures from the meals, but here's one of the kitchen of our first host. As you can see, not a lot to work with, but she still made great stuff. Course that might just be because I really enjoy beans and rice, and all the meals where basically beans, rice, and some kind of meat (usually chicken, because for them chicken was a treat). Our first host had a grand daughter who's name I forget but who was about the cutest little girl in the world. My grandmom very quickly fell in love. Lots of other people did too, she was really cute. Anyway, after a few days the people in our group started figuring out who the better cooks where. So when it was time to regroup there was a subtle sort of planning and politicing to make sure you got into a group that was going somewhere nice. The hottest spot was with Miss Kasserine (no idea how to spell it, but it rhymes with tangerine). Luckily I managed to pull off a meal shift with her towards the end of my stay. Here's me and 2 guys I ate with. Dolly was also in our group (she's taking the picture) and it is always a pleasure to talk to Dolly.
So anyway, on to the work. The first day was actually one of the more tiring days. All of the building supplies had been piled up by the boats (you can't get to Monkey River by car). So our job was to haul the supplies to the church. It was only a distance of about 100 yards, but the lumber was pressure treated and weighed a freaking ton. We layed out a bunch of 1x4 planks into a sort of road for the wheelbarrow, which came in handy. It was a long hot day, but in the end the lumber and roofing tiles where in place.
The next day was when the building actually began. This was when everyone split up and created groups for the three missions. I have no idea what the medical crew did, and I suppose the boat crew did boat stuff. I do know that we in the roofing business got right to work building building a scaffolding. This scaffolding was built half by local wood (which looked like it was ready to snap at any time) and half by the wood for the roof. It didn't exactly inspire confidence. But OSHA doesn't have a branch at Monkey River so we kept at it. Our first job was to line the top of the existing cinder block with wood. This way you have something to nail the roof onto. Next trick was to get get the cross beams built and up. This isn't so easy because the damned things are really heavy (yes, I'm the one sitting down), and you have to haul them up using this incredibly flimsy looking scaffolding. By the end of the day they where all up where they needed to be and the scaffolding didn't crumble, so I guess we won.
The next day will begin with an ammusing side story. The story of the fisherman. Unfortunately I don't remember his name, but he was really nice, and every morning he would get up with the sun to go fishing. He had his rod, and he had his reel, and he had the burning desire to catch himself a fish. Unfortunately what he didn't have was any luck. This guy spent every morning on the beach fishing his heart out and catching nothing. To make matters worse, every morning this little girl would join him on the beach just before breakfast and throw her line in about 3 times before pulling out a fish. Towards the end of the trip, one of the local men took pity on the fisherman, and took him up the river in his boat, where the local man caught enough fish to feed his family and his neighbors. The fisherman caught nothing.
So the construction of the roof went on. This is the day I learned to swing a hammer. Now I thought I knew how to hammer, but it turns out I didn't know squat. The guys I was working with could drive a nail straight in like 3 whacks. I could bend a nail into a horrifying twisted mess in 1 whack. But I did my best. The thing that needed to be done on this day was to nail a little wood block into the wood on the cinder blocks, and then turn the beams on their side and nail them to the little blocks. My grandfather, Lloyd decided against climbing up into the rafters and helped with ground crew stuff. It was a nice bunch of guys to work with. We also had the help of another Lloyd who was a native to Monkey River and an unbeleivable guy. This guy could work in any heat for any length of time. He was quiet and friendly and called me "boy."
That afternoon (or some afternooon, I don't much remember the timeline) one of our guys went to school to sing songs with the kids and what not. He decided that he needed to bring the kids some kind of musical gift, so he brought a large bag of kazoos. Well when school let out that day you could hear what sounded like a swarm of insects descending on the town. All the kids came streaming out of school with kazoos blaring. I honestly thought the parents of Monkey River where going to kick us out. And after that first day there where no kazoos to be found, so I imagine they all got confiscated. However for one evening all the kids in town got to make a lot of music and have a nice time.
The next day brought rafters to the church. This was nice because now you could actually get up into the roof and move around and get things done. No more balance beam work. Of course since our scaffolding was made mostly from our rafters, we had to take that down. But no worries, we made rickety ladders to get us up and down. Over the course of the next few days we got all those things up, and some kind of other roof wood which you can sort of see in the upper right hand side of this one. I'm sure I'm screwing up the terminology, but when these parts where all done we basically had all the wood that we needed to support a real roof.
One of the cool side trips we took was a boat ride up the river and on a sort of jungle walk. This was a really cool experience. Large parts of the jungle are underwater for a few months of the year so the vegetation has this odd cut off point under which it's all black. We saw trees with 2 inch long spike thorns growing on it, and the mud was really slick, so at any moment you had a real danger of slipping and grabbing a trunk full of spikes to try and stop yourself. We also saw little crabs. My favourite part was when we came upon an old bamboo grove. This place was seriously cool. The bamboo had grown in a very tight bunch, and then when the hurricane came it all got torn down. But in the years since it had regrown. So now you have this thick bunch of bamboo that went up 20 feet and then just a mass of fallen bamboo making roofs and hollows and quiet places to stand in. It was awesome. From there the guide took us to find howler monkeys. They where up in the trees doing whatever it is monkeys do (throwing their poo). The guide could make this grunting, barking call and they would all start howling and barking back, it was a cool sound.
Another fun afternoon was spent playing with the frisbees. This local was very good. Unfortunately there are no pics, but we actually had one of those sitcom moments where the frisbee was thrown towards the water and one guy ran so hard to get it that he actually fell face first into the surf. It was funny. I like running on the beach, and I like the frisbee so this was a good afternoon.
Here's another cool thing you don't see much of. One of the locals made dugout canoes in his backyard. This thing was just amazingly pretty. He also made some kind of wide, flat bowl out of local trees. I don't have any photos of those but they where also amazing to see. Keep in mind, this thing was being built by hand.
Construction of the roof continued. This part of the project entailed hauling big sheets of plywood up and nailing them in place. Here's me feeling like a roofer. Here it is with most of the plywood in place. The final step was to haul up the tar paper and shingles. This was easily the least fun. One of the rolls of tar paper was home to a massive spider of some kind. We all thought it was really cool and tried to corner it so we could look at it. Lloyd thought we where insane and tried to run away while letting us know that those spiders have a really nasty bite. Luckily none of us had to learn that first hand. What I did learn is that there are few places hotter then a roof in Central America in the afternoon.
So at this point the trip was winding down, but apparently one of the big things we missionaries like to do is throw a huge party. For our party we brought in some drummers from Punta Gorda. I never did catch the meaning of the guy in drag but apparently cross dressing is big there. These dudes where awesome, big huge drums with fun beats, and some ladies in the background that just sort of wailed for a while. What amazed me about this party was how much at home it felt. Have you ever been to a huge family gathering where the kids and the adults all get crammed into the same room and somehow manage to just get along? Well this was like that, only instead of a family, it was the whole town. Everyone, and I mean everyone in the town came out to party and listen to the drummers. The kids ran around and danced, the adults drank beer and talked to each other, it was amazing. As the night wore on the parents took their kids to bed and the teenagers stayed up and had fun. It was just a great night. And we supplied the beer, so it was an open bar. Doesn't get much better.
So eventually we came to our final day at Monkey River. The boat crew managed to finish their boat. So they took people out for rides. The roofing crew managed to finish the roof. We also did a little overtime and made a pulpit and hauled in some benches. These next ones are actually from before the roof is done, but at one point we had ourselves a minister come in and do a service. So I guess all in all we suceeded. That evening we spent some time relaxing and getting ready to go. My grandmom and granddad found some children to adopt. And that's pretty much the end of the story. The next day we took the bus back to the airport and went home. Dolly manager to not loose anything. Oh, and beleive it or not, on the absolute last morning, the fisherman caught a fish.