Where old school buses go to die

The iPhone has failed me again. I set my alarm for 5 am, got up, dressed, made coffee and toast, and then checked the time again, seeing with shock that it was time for us to leave to catch the 6 am bus to the prison. And no noise or light from T.’s room. I knocked. He finally answered. “It’s time to leave,” I said.


“It’s 5:54.”

He grabbed his phone. “It’s 3:54. Your phone didn’t update.  Go back to bed.”

Which I did, fully clothed, but couldn’t fall asleep again.

The bus itself had been a saga. First we were told that there was no bus to the prison, only a bus to Hattieville, the closest town, from which we would have to take a taxi. Then, there was a bus for the prison, but it picks up at the junction, and that’s too far away for us to walk. Then it turns out the junction is across the street from the Shell station at the end of our block. But someone will pick us up at 8 am at the sign shop and drive us to the prison in time for our 9 am class. No, the prison bus will come at 8 and stops outside the sign shop.

Actually, the prison bus picks up the guards at 6 am at the Shell station. As we walk up the block toward the station we’re wondering where, exactly, the bus will stop, and then, crossing the plaza, T. spots a man and woman in black uniforms. The man is wearing a baseball cap that says “PRISON” in white letters. (Now we know why we were told not to wear all-black outfits to teach.) We introduce ourselves and they show us to the bus stop. And answer our questions about how to get to the water taxis (a 20-minute walk) and to the museum (flag down a taxi, it’s BZ$7 [US$3.50]).

The female guard warns us it will be hot inside the prison. We expected that. Since T. has just returned from a month in India, he’s a bit acclimated to the temperatures. But I’ve been in Northern Ireland, and it’s 50F hotter here than where I was a week ago.

The guards’ uniforms, black polyester, long pants and long sleeves, remind me of my reaction to the abaya in the UAE: I felt that being covered up in the sun in Dubai wasn’t the insult. The insult, for the women, was being covered in head-to-toe black in that heat, while the men were dressed in breezy white fabric. The only sensible thing to do in that sun is to cover your body, but not in black.

The prison bus stops in a number of places in the city, then in Ladyville and then lots of places in the countryside — wherever anyone lives and needs a ride. And then in Hattieville, and finally we get our first look at the prison. I’m intrigued by the fact that we are riding on a Bluebird school bus, with a different paint job from standard USA yellow. And all the other buses on the road are old American school buses, with all manner of paint jobs. It turns out that the buses are brought down here by the shipload when they’re too worn out to use in the US.


Our first views of the Belize Central Prison, from the Prison Bus.



We are scheduled to teach two classes: a group of 20 women and juvenile boys in the morning, and a group of 20 men in the afternoon.

And as we are walking to our first class, I find myself smiling, a huge smile. I am happy. After all the hassles, we’re finally doing what we came to do, something I love to do.

There are 62 people in our classroom at 9 am. All of the juveniles, and all of the women in the prison, even the people who don’t speak English. And so we have to find interpreters. There aren’t enough guards on the staff to keep some of the group in their dorms and some of them in our classroom, so they all have to be in our classroom. It wasn’t our intention to force anyone to attend our class. Attendance was supposed to be voluntary, and some of our students display body language and facial expressions that communicate very clearly how much they don’t want to be here, and how much they despise us for this course.

Wagner Youth Facility, where we teach the juvenile inmates
Hurricane season: classroom post rain.

There is no way to teach a meditation class to 62 people in a cavernous room with a cement floor and tin roof and no amplification. I’m trying to teach the concept of relaxing and settling the mind. I am yelling to the people at the back of the room, telling them to relax their thigh muscles into the chair. The concept is completely lost in translation, even for the people who speak the same language I do.

And the boys don’t usually see the women. It’s the first time they’ve seen a woman other than a family member for a long time. Adult sentencing begins at 12 years old in Belize; the guys in the youth facility are between 12 and 18 years old. Rampant hormones. Their attention span woud be poor if the women weren’t in the room, and it’s non-existent with the women present. The women don’t want anything to do with the boys. Some of the inmates are convicted, but many are on remand, awaiting a trial, or a trial date. It can take years after an arrest to get a trial.

I’m suspicious at first when a couple of the guys come up and ask for a hug, instead of shaking hands, after class. Is is permitted? And then I realize: they’re little boys, away from their mothers. Whether it was against the rules or not, they got a hug that day.

Our classroom is also the juvenile lunchroom and gym facility. We eat our lunch at the same time they eat theirs, T. ignoring pleas for his Snicker’s bar. Before we leave the building to walk over to the other side of the prison, where we will teach the men’s class, we look out the window. Now we know what happens to old school buses when they’re too decrepit to use in Belize: they get junked behind the prison.

This beautiful flamboyant tree sits across the road from the prison.                                We’re happy to see it every single day.

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used or reproduced in any form without permission of the author.


3 thoughts on “Where old school buses go to die”

  1. Oh my! What an adventure. Hope you are laughing at least some of the time with as much as I am at this wonderful recounting. Can’t wait to hear how this unfolds. Xoxo

    Sent from my iPhone



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