“Lions and Leos…”

We were invited to the Belize Lion’s Club dinner by our landlady and her husband. We didn’t know, until we arrived there, that she is the president of the club. From 16 clubs in Belize they’re down to four: Belmopan, Belize City, San Pedro, San Esteban. There’s been a convention all day, some of the discussions contentious, evidently.

While I managed to avoid having a Guinness in Northern Ireland, I’m not so lucky here, but I’m also grateful when I can find a lighter beer. I try the local brew, Belikin, for the first time and like it. It’s a warm, friendly crowd, and we’re served a delicious dinner. And introduced to the local custom of greeting people with the phrase, “Good night.”

Which works in Spanish but not in English. Yet there are strict rules for polite greetings in Belize, and they are observed even among strangers on the street: Good morning until noon; good afternoon until 3 or 4 pm; good evening after than; good night when it is dark.

Some people fudge the times a bit.

Each Lion’s Club has a queen, and the queen from the host club becomes the District 59 queen, so Miss Belize City will become the new queen. The girls are beautiful, and decked out in gorgeous gowns. They have each created fancy pins with their photographs, and the custom is to pin them on as many guests as possible by the end of the evening. T. and I are impartial, and accept pins from everyone who offers one, so we end up festooned with three of the four available pins.

Our collection of pins from the dinner.
Our collection of pins from the dinner.

The talent show starts out predictably enough, with a dance performance. Next comes a speech about the border conflict between Belize and Guatemala, and the conflicts and borders we create among ourselves — which links the decine in Lions membership and activity to petty conflicts and the inability to the members to communicate with one another. It was bold, I thought, and inspiring, that this young woman would confront her elders so openly.

A poetic, lyrical performance by a truly leonine woman followed, stalking the stage as if she herself were a caged lion, professing her commitment to the values of service, to this community within her country in which she had been brought up. Yet all of these are far too small to contain her power.

She talked about her hair, starting out with the statement, “My mother told me to fix my hair. By which she meant to straighten it.” She started with these words. And dissected the levels of meaning inherent in them, what her hair represents of her heritage, of the mixture of races, African slaves and Maya and Caucasian.

But what does that even mean, that hair texture and skin color have come to “mean” something, when we know that race is constructed? It means that she is encouraged to date lighter, not darker, to purify her blood, and I am taken back to a day when I am perhaps 14, my own hair long and curly and wild from a day outside in the sun and the pool and the humidity of the southern Arizona monsoon season, dressed in cut-off Levi’s 501s, and one of my father’s t-shirts, deeply tanned, very thin, a woman’s body hiding a girl who was afraid of the attention afforded to that body. And my mother’s bitter words when I entered the house: “Go do something with that nigger hair.”

A decade later and 2,000 miles away I am living with and engaged to an African-American man, a relationship my family would not accept. And so I ended the relationship, as I had straightened my hair, to please them. To conform.

And ended up alone.

I have only half the hair I once did; cancer treatments took the rest. But I revel in the days when my hair still curls wildly, am grateful for the effects of salt water and ocean breezes.

The final speech of the evening was delivered in the first person, in the form of a letter written after her own death by a dancer at a Belize club to her lover. To let him know why she had never come home, why she had simply disappeared. Telling how the bus had been late that night, and she had made the decision to walk home, the decision that had delivered her to her death. Sensing the presence behind her. Turning to meet the man who would chain her to an iron table, duct tape over her mouth, and begin to vivisect her body. Sliding in and out of consciousness. Understanding, in the moment when she realized she no longer had legs, that her life was over.

The duct tape off her mouth, warned not to scream as he began again to work with his knife, starting the incision at the side of her face. He told her he would kill her if she screamed. She could no longer stand the pain. The knife came toward her head, not to slit her throat, as she assumed, but to cut out her tongue. Her last memory would be drowning. She would die by drowning in her own blood.

I was older than her, at least 25, before I knew about snuff films and understood the more extreme forms of sadism and sexual violence in our world. The woman who delivered this speech is 19, dressed in an elegant white dress and rhinestone tiara. She is poised and graceful.

I wished so much that she did not know, did not have to know, of this violence against women in this world; that she did not have to know that this is the fate that awaits so many women in this world, to have their lives ripped open, sliced apart, that literally or figuratively they will end up in chains, their bodies and their spirits dissected, until they drown in their own feeble protests.

By all that is sacred in this world I wish she did not have to know that.

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

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“…and my husband is in prison here…”

One afternoon, waiting for the bus, I walked over to the front doors of the Belize Central Prison to take a photograph of the wood carvings. A Caucasian woman was waiting on the visitor bench — the first Caucasian I had seen there. I suspect she is much younger than she looked; she had blue wool braided and woven into her blond hair and started to speak to me with the flat vowels of the Midwest as I was pointing my camera at the door.

What follows here is as close to verbatim as I could capture the conversation.

“It’s great that you appreciate the woodwork,” she said. “They all live with it all the time, so they don’t even notice it. My brother is in prison in the States in Minnesota and my husband is in prison here.”

“How long is he in for?” I asked.

“Maybe up to three years. Well, you know how nobody in this country claims their true identity until they absolutely need to? And see, he was applying for a passport and they ran his real name and found an old drug charge from 2008 and between Monday morning and Monday afternoon he was brought to the prison. But we’re hoping to appeal, because he wasn’t physically served, and I know the rules about that, because I’ve done lots of that kind of work. And he didn’t have any representation. So if his appeal goes through, he’ll only serve one year instead of three. I’m here today to pick up his baseball cap and shirt. I had the trip planned already, and there wasn’t any point in changing my plans because there wasn’t anything I could do for him by arriving a week earlier.

“My brother is going to parole soon but I don’t know if I am going to go up to receive him because he can’t parole to my house, because he paroled to my house last time, and you can’t parole to the same family home in 10 years. So he needs to go somewhere else, and he might have found someone else to receive him, but I don’t know if he can live there.”

“Why are you here?” she asked. I explained that we were teaching a course in the prison. I didn’t give a lot of details.

“I think the work you guys are doing is awesome, but I can’t do anything like that, because of this tatoo (a green shark on her neck), and when they see it they say I’m in a gang, and I say, yeah, a gang of one, but it’s a shark, and it’s above the collar, so I can’t teach in prison. It was supposed to be a larger tatoo, a small green shark with a larger pink shark curved around it but I had a horrible reaction to the green ink, it’s because of what they put in it, my neck swelled out to her (holding her hand about five inches from her neck, which was still well within the crown of her braids) and so I never had the other shark done. But I’m hoping to tutor some Belizeans in English, not to take away Belizean jobs, but American English, so they can compete for American jobs. I have an associate’s degree in sales and marketing so I’ve had all those English classes and such.”

At that point, the bus pulled up, and we boarded.

I never saw her again, and have no idea what happened to her husband. I do know she never receieved his baseball cap.

Below: Detail from the doors at the Belize

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

Things I have seen in Belize

I will describe to you what T. and I saw two nights ago, coming home from an Indian restaurant. We turned the wrong way down a one-way street/alley downtown, and in our headlights, before T. did a quick three-point turn to get us out of there, we observed the following:

Man A was handing a large, silver-colored, gun-shaped piece of metal to Man B. Man B was handing a large wad of cash to Man A.

Please note that I did not say that we observed a weapon sale. That is an interpretation. I am only reporting what we observed. And if I were to be questioned, I would report what everyone in Belize reports: I saw nothing.

But we have seen some of the things that tourists see, so here are some pretty pictures of Belize, the side of Belize that people here want you to know about:

The inland Blue Hole. Refreshing swimming spot on our drive south.
The inland Blue Hole. Refreshing swimming spot on our drive south.
The beautiful beach at Placencia.
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A tapir investigating me with its wiggly snout. The zoo here is very nice, and only has local animals, most of them rescues who couldn’t survive on their own in the wild.
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A better view of the tapir. There’s a tapir crossing on the way to the prison, and we drove carefully through several tapir crossings on the highway.
I didn't realize the toucan's bill is serrated.
I didn’t realize the toucan’s bill is serrated.
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Grouchy George, the alpha male iguana at the Iguana Conservation Project in San Ignacio. We were able to hold and feed the iguanas, but not George. As a bonus, we saw a full-sized, six-foot long wild iguana in a tree.
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Caye Caulker

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

Over the Line

During one of our lunch breaks, we scan the Journey to Freedom books in the women’s dorm. And in Week 24, in a chapter on Reformation vs. Transformation, we come across a key passage. The author is talking about trading in one addiction for another (reformation) as compared to giving up addictions altogether (transformation) which is done by following the path that Christ has set out for us.

Some of the examples of reformation: a person might give up overeating, and take up yoga instead; a person might give up an addiction to television and substitute an addiction to meditation.

Now we get it. The key program taught in this prison, sponsored by Christians from the U.S., teaches that yoga and meditation aren’t transformative practices, just second-rate substitutions for even worse addictions.

No wonder so few people at the prison have embraced CBCT. I know that the open-minded people who have participated fully in the course have gained from it, and I am grateful that we have made a difference in their lives.

Yet it is clear that no one in the prison administration reviewed the materials I sent about the curriculum, or thought about the potential conflict with the other programming they provide, and I am deeply angry about that. Part of my anger stems from the fact that we could have spent more time with the other partners we are working with, deepening our programming with their organizations.

Part of my anger stems from the fact that I have been lied to about this project, every step of the way.

This is happening within the larger context of ongoing ugliness from people who were supposed to be helping us — ugliness that has now led to a place where we are unsafe.

I have a foolproof method for dealing with electronic temper tantrums: the delete button on my keypad. And that’s how I handle the nasty emails and messages I receive from people who don’t like what I am writing about Belize.

In my opinion, people who spew hatred in emails and text messages are communicating a great deal about their own current state of mind, and not much at all about anything else.

But then someone crosses the Rubicon. An email arrives that contains a threat.

I realize this communication comes from a privileged, spoiled woman who is accustomed to getting her own way in life by throwing around her family’s name and money. She’s certainly not the first such person I’ve encountered, and I doubt she will be the last.

I understand, as well, that she is not accustomed to having boundaries placed on her behavior.

She has now run up against a very firm boundary: No one is going to tell me what I can or cannot write.

I am not going to be silenced by a bully.

I can handle the challenges and will put up with the  environmental threats of working here. But I won’t tolerate a threat to my safety or well-being. So I make sure that key people in the U.S., people with power and influence, know that we have been threatened, have copies of the email, and know who is responsible.

T. and wish we were the kind of people who can blithely walk away from their commitments (and find some way to blame someone else for what they didn’t do). If we were such people, we would have gotten on a plane and gone home the second day we were here. But we’re not, and we’re going to do what we came here to do. We left extra time in our teaching schedule to allow for the unpredictability of teaching in prisons and outside of our own culture. So we have plenty of time to cover the curriculum for the classes we are teaching.

We have had to cancel one of our classes, because of the violence in Belize City. More about that later.

We funded this work ourselves, with the generous help of our friends. We are getting nothing in return for six weeks of work — six weeks we could have devoted to other projects, six weeks we could have been earning substantial money at home. We expected nothing in return for our work, except to see if the CBCT program might be helpful in this country with its many daunting challenges.

But I guess I did have one expectation: that I would not be subjected to interpersonal violence, along with the environmental violence.

And so, on a Sunday morning, while we are waiting for the bus home from the grocery store, I observed myself making a mental shift: I was no longer sorry to be leaving.

When we returned to our apartment, I started packing.

If don’t know if I will ever return to Belize. If you asked me to make a decision today, my answer would be, absolutely not.

I’m ready to go home.

This trip is costing us a huge amount of money. If you’re in a position to help us offset the costs, please visit this site: https://www.youcaring.com/teri-sivilli-and-tom-comstock-542222

Many thanks.

This quote from the Buddha appeared on the exit door of the Belize Central Prison. We have not seen any other quote that is not from the Christian Bible. I found the timing interesting: it was not there when we arrived in the morning, but was there when we departed in the afternoon. This happened after I was told to be careful about what I write about the prison, and yet continued to write honestly about my experiences.
This quote from the Buddha appeared on the exit door of the Belize Central Prison. We have not seen any other quote that is not from the Christian Bible.                                                                                           
       I found the timing interesting: it was not there when we arrived in the morning, but had appeared by the time we departed in the afternoon. This happened after I was told to be careful about what I write about the prison, and yet continued to write honestly about my experiences. It’s a threat. And it’s a threat that is not going to intimidate us.

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No part of this material can be used or reproduced in any way without permission of the author.

God is Good. Always.

Last night, I was not awakened by a coconut.

This is very good news.

You may wonder why I am awakened by coconuts at all.

It’s rainy season (aka hurricane season) here, and it rains for some portion of every day and night. Torrential rains. Enormous, unbelievable quantities of water fall from the sky.

And knock coconuts off the palm trees, which hit the neighbors’ cars, setting off the alarms.

Usually around 3 am.

A good night’s sleep is not something I take for granted.

Every day that I teach I have moments of despair. And then moments when someone understands, experiences some insight, opens their heart.

After challenging the juvenile group on Monday morning with our ideas about the possibility that we humans are all alike, despite the superficial differences we insist on constructing, we move to the auditorium to attend the graduation ceremonies for the Journey to Freedom program. The women’s class is cancelled today, because many of them have participated in Journey to Freedom and will be receiving certificates.

For those of you who are not familiar with prison environments: certificates are important. Anything that can go into an inmate’s file, that shows that s/he has done something inside to try to better themselves, is potential evidence that might sway a parole board.

From what we understand, parole boards in Belize are not often swayed, no matter how much good a person has done during their incarceration.

We’ve seen the Journey to Freedom book in the cell block; it was written by a guy from Tennessee who is present at the graduation and speaks about his own struggles with addiction and the choices we all have to make each day. It turns out that the entire Journey to Freedom program at the Belize Central Prison is offered in cooperation with his group; several people are visiting from Tennessee.

Everyone stands for the singing of both the Belize and U.S. national anthems. This is the second graduation this year, and at the first 2016 graduation, one of the folks from Tennessee felt that both anthems should be sung, to emphasize the close ties between the countries.

I find this ironic, given the lines in the Belizean anthem about throwing off despots and tyrants.

There are speeches about persevering through the trials and tribulations of prison, about the inmates using this time to move their lives forward. Hopes that those who have completed the program will encourage others to join. Lots of quotes from the Bible, and several testimonies from inmates who have gone through the program. Even in the graduation ceremony, the women, who are the ones who invited us, can’t stop fussing at each other, and the guards have to remove a couple of them for a chat, then return them to the room.

The group is reassured repeatedly that their lives are part of a greater plan. God’s plan. Every single thing that has happened to them is part of The Plan.

I know there are inmates who are not Christian, and the program is optional, but it’s clearly favored. The ceremony is evangelical, not ecumenical. (And I should disclose here, for those who don’t read my blog regularly, that I am not Christian: I converted from Roman Catholicism to Buddhism about 15 years ago. The graduation ceremony reminds me why: I admired and was inspired by the faith into which I was baptized and confirmed, but I saw no path to get from where I was to the values it espoused. Buddhism provided practical tools for change. And, however imperfectly I practice, I know it works.)

When we were asked about teaching CBCT at the Belize Central Prison, we emphasized that it is a secular program. I provided materials and web links explaining the background and curriculum. It isn’t aligned with any faith, nor does it conflict with any faith traidition.

It turns out that CBCT is one of only two secular programs at the prison. The other one is New Freedom, an evidence-based gang intervention program.

We were told that both meditation and yoga have been taught in the prison. We weren’t told that many people objected to this.

We were more than a little surprised to find out how thoroughly Christian the prison environment is. We’re constantly asked what church we’re from, if we’re missionaries. Both guards and inmates are puzzled by our response, that we’re from a university, not a church.

A version of the CBCT protocol was developed for a specific population, drawing its teaching examples from the Bible and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. We very deliberately didn’t adapt that curriculum for this course, because of the multi-cultural, multi-religions composition of the society.

In such a religious atmosphere, what we are teaching is subversive. We’re talking about people empowering themselves by gaining control over their own minds and actions. We’re teaching about taking responsibility for our actions and their consequences, and yet holding ourselves and others in compassion. We’re teaching that we can change our minds, which will change our actions, which will change our lives. And what is being broadcast all day through the loudspeakers is submission to the will of God.

We’ve had a few challenging conversations. Someone saw our singing bowl, which has a Buddha image on its inner base. The bowl was a last-minute purchase from Amazon when T. realized, a few days before our departure, that he had given away the small bowl that he had planned to bring on the trip. He didn’t deliberately pick one with an image of the Buddha, only the smallest bowl he could get delivered in two days. But when one of the students saw it, he exclaimed, “That’s Black Magic!”

And that was the same response that met my attempts to teach some chair yoga to settle down the boys. I explained that yoga is neither Satanic nor magical, simply an ancient system of movement and meditation.

I get a little more traction when I express surprise that the boys aren’t paying more attention to meditation practice, since so many top athletes do it, including the L.A. Lakers, and that yoga is incorporated into many training programs.

We’ve also tried walking meditation to get the boys to calm down. I really would like to have them go out and do a few laps around the soccer field before class.  Honestly, we’re asking teenagers to do two things that are not natural for teenagers:

1. Sit still

2. Be quiet

And we are asking them to do two things that conflict with their boisterous culture:

1. Sit still

2. Be quiet

In the afternoon, T. has an opportunity to have a conversation with one of the inmates who has been attending our class regularly. It turns out that the guys like us, but some are staying away from the class (and some are attending but sleeping through it) because they don’t understand what we’re talking about, and don’t want to be the one to say that. This inmate is training to be a reading tutor, so they’re able to have a conversation about education levels. We need to simplify our language even more than we have. And I need to speak much, much more slowly.

The greater issue is that the guys were forced to attend the program, and weren’t told in advance what it was about. A group of them was ordered to the chapel the day we started teaching, and they resent being mandated to attend a course that they feel conflicts with their religious beliefs. T. asks the inmate if he can get the guys come back, so we can discuss the religion issue.

I’ve had several inmates hit on me, and some ask for my address and phone number. But none as suave or forceful as the guy who proposed to me today. It’s the last straw in this frustrating day. This is the same guy who provided us with a new definition of compassion: “When my daughter misbehaves, and I whip her, but don’t beat her to death, that’s compassion.”

This is what my life has been missing: a husband who still has a decade to serve on his murder conviction, who admits to being aggressive, who would never be able to get a visa for the U.S., who has no means of supporting me, and who admits to whipping his daughter.

Oh, and he has a girlfriend.

And he’s wearing a wedding ring.

Exactly what I’m looking for in a life partner.

I wonder how long it would be before that whip was turned on me?

Some years ago, someone asked our teacher, who developed CBCT, whether it was worth all the expense and effort to maintain a Buddhist center in Atlanta. His reply was succinct: “If just one person gets it, it’s all worth it.”

T. and I hold on to these words. We know we have helped more than one person perceive their world and their possibilities differently.

In closing, I leave you with this photograph of sharks eating sardines, taken with my GoPro last weekend when T. and I were snorkeling the barrier reef off the coast of Belize.

It’s the best description I can give you of how I am feeling right now: that I am one of the sardines.

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

Shootout at the OK Corral

In addition to teaching at the prison on Mondays and Wednesdays, we’re scheduled to teach two additional classes, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One is for parents in a disadvantaged neighborhood, riddled with gang violence. The other is to be for teachers at a school in that same neighborhood.

It turns out they’re talking about our neighborhood. Walk up the Boulevard to the grocery store, turn right, and then, oddly, there’s a dirt road on the right, with two policemen stationed there.

The Bloods, The Crips, and The Mayflower Gang have been at war with each other for years.

I’m still not sure if we live on the Bloods side of the Boulevard, or the Crips side of the Boulevard. Or if Bloods and Crips live on both sides of the Boulevard. But we sure know where Mayflower (aka Ghostown) is.

On Thursday afternoon, the day after our first prison classes, we meet with Deborah from the Love Foundation. She and I had been in touch via Skype, and we’re happy to finally meet in person. She’s warm, and a savvy leader. At the foundation offices, she introduces us to Karl, the unofficial mayor of the Mayflower neighborhood — the “worst” neighborhood in Belize City. We talk about the issues confronting the population, and she asks if we’re willing to take a tour. Of course we are. I ask if it would be offensive if I take photographs, and Karl assures me it won’t be. I immediately like these people, and have confidence in them. I’m happy to be working with them.

imageIt’s not the worst slum T. or I have seen. We’ve both spent a lot of time in India. Most of the people live in something that could be called a house, and most of those have electricity and indoor plumbing. But there are unpaved roads, dirt lanes barely wide enough for one person, amidst houses that are constructed on top of another, too close for comfort, separated only by rusted corrugated iron sheets.

imageOur class comprises mostly women, and a few men, mainly, but not exclusively, from Mayflower. And they don’t get along. There are several sub-groups; we identify three the first night and will identify more as the course goes on.

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The women have a lot in common: Poverty. Only two of them are employed. Low educational levels (they read at about a sixth grade level, on average). Babies, but no men in the house. There are only two intact families in an area with 250 people.

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One of the women who is employed, who has an associate’s degree, applied for numerous positions but was turned down for all of them as soon as she had to give her address to her potential employer. No one wants to hire someone who lives in Mayflower. Finally a woman at her school, who had been mentoring and encouraging her, put in an application at a bank on the girl’s behalf. In the interview, the young woman gave a fake address, and was hired.

And then she got a promotion, and there came a point where she could no longer hide her address. She expected to be fired. She wasn’t. It’s a huge step forward.

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And yet, instead of coming together around their common challenges, the people in this neighborhood have found ways to create divisions among themselves. There’s hope that what we are teaching will open a bit of a crack in that, and also that we might identify some people who themselves could become teachers, or peer leaders.

The politician responsible for the area, who is well-funded to do community redevelopment, has stated publicly that he does not need the votes of these people to stay in office, and so he does not care about them or how they live. This is a man with a sixth-grade education, who worked as a laborer before he was elected. But now he is wealthy, having accumulated a real estate empire while in office.

T. and I arrive a few minutes early for our second class with this group; we’re scheduled to teach from 5 to 7 pm. We’re setting up, chatting, when we hear the gunshots. Close. Move to the window to see if we can figure out where they’re coming from. See a teenager running through the church yard next to our classroom building. And then we see the gun. He’s chasing someone, and firing, and the police are chasing him and firing. We dive for the floor behind a concrete wall.

We’re laughing, partly to release the fear and tension, partly because this is just so ludicrous: we’re here to teach a compassion meditation course, and we’re lying on the floor of our classroom dodging stray bullets.

The shooter disappears into the twisted shrubbery at the edge of the church yard.

More police. And a TV camera. The police back up a shiny blue pickup truck to the fence, and make a big show of climbing over the fence to get into the church yard — instead of walking through the open gate 20 feet away.

For one brief moment, before we hit the floor, I had thought about grabbing the GoPro, and filming the whole thing. Then I realized that I wouldn’t want any of these people — not the shooter, not the police, not the neighbors — to know that I had that footage.

Fewer than a third of our students show up for class. We check in with them, ask how they are feeling. Everyone says they are fine, until I admit that I am shaky. And then others acknolwedge that they are, too. We do some meditation to center and calm everyone. They ask us if we’re too afraid to keep teaching the class. We assure them we’ll be back.

And they ask if they can leave early, because the power has been cut to the neighborhood, and they don’t want to walk home in the dark. Not tonight. It seems it’s customary for the police to cut the power when there’s a shooting. Makes perfect sense to me. You’re looking for a shooter and his intended victim, and a gun that’s been hidden somewhere, and it’s so much easier to find people and guns in the dark. And besides, you get to inconvenience the residents of an entire neighborhood. Including us, because no electricity means no water pressure.

This is a little more than we signed up for. We truly weren’t prepared to have The Shoot-Out at the OK Corral re-enacted in front of our classroom building.

We still haven’t seen the beautiful part of Belize. But now we’ve seen the dangerous part. And suddenly I realize how vulnerable I am.

© 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.

 

Astral Projection, Voudoun, and Ganja

After unpacking our bags the first day, we walk across the street to the grocery store, then up the boulevard to try to find a Chinese restaurant that was recommended to us. We’re puzzled by the restaurants we pass, certain that none is the one intended. None of them has any place to sit down; the storefronts are protected by steel mesh, with a small hole through which you place your order, pay, and receive your food.

Realizing we’ve missed the restaurant, we walk up the road a bit to the river and stand on the bridge, enjoying the breeze. When we return to the business our landlords own, they are frantic. “Where did you go?” they want to know.

“We were trying to find the Chinese restaurant, but we couldn’t, so we took a walk.”

They are shocked. “You’re very adventurous.”

“We just passed a lot of school children wearing uniforms and carrying their backpacks,” we replied. We had chatted with some of them, asking what grade they were in, what their favorite subject was.

“Does this neighborhood feel dangerous to you?” T. asks at one point. “No,” I replied. This is where experience comes in. What we’ve seen so far looks a lot like so many towns in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, Indonesia, South America, the Caribbean. We’re in the tropics, in an area that is not particularly wealthy. The traffic is less frantic here than other places we have traveled. No tuk-tuks, fewer motorcycles than Asia. Drivers usually obey stop signs, traffic lights, cross-walks.

Still, M. & G. warn us to stay on the boulevard and other main streets, and not to walk into the neighborhood behind us, and particularly not into the neighborhood further up the road. We will soon find out why.

The guy at the front counter of the grocery store checks us out, in every sense of that word. He asks me if we’re tourists. No, I reply, we’re here to volunteer at the prison. He translates my answer into Spanish for his companion, who raises his eyebrows in surprise. I make it clear that we’re connected to people in the neighborhood. The faster words gets onto the street about why we’re here, the safer we will be, G. had said. We soon realize that we are the only Anglos living anywhere near here.

We like our apartment, except for not having air conditioning. For a few hours each day it is unbearably warm, with the sun beating in through the windows. Theoretically, we don’t have hot water, but what comes out of the tap is warmed by the sun, and only a few degrees cooler than what I would choose, if I had the ability to choose.

Home in Belize City. We live in the upstairs apartment. Several iguanas live in our yard.
Home in Belize City. We live in the upstairs apartment. We have to unlock the gate in the fence, then the steel outer door, and then wooden front door to get in. Several iguanas live in our yard. We have not been successful in adopting one as a pet. 

Someone told me that Belize was beautiful, but dangerous, and that the airport was the sketchiest one he had ever been in. Aside from some extended questioning by the customs guy, it was like any other airport in the less-developed world. And, quite frankly, they processed people faster than most places. It was far better than landing at Ljubljana at 11 pm, or Yogyacarta at 10 pm, or Kosovo at 2 am, or the old Delhi airport any time of the day or night.

The house across the street. Not kept up quite as well as ours. The guy who lives there is frequently drunk, and kicks the dog when he is. I suppose that is better than kicking his wife, who has a thriving business selling food out of the stall in front of the house.
The house across the street. Falling apart, which is standard for the neighborhood. The guy who lives there is frequently drunk, and kicks the dog when he is. I suppose that is better than kicking his wife, who has a thriving business selling food out of the stall in front of the house. You may not recognize that as a food stall, but that is what it is. 

Our easiest class at the prison is the one we were most concerned about: the adult men. They are taking the class by choice; a number of them are in an addiction recovery program; and several have visited or lived in the U.S. The literacy level is much higher than among the women or the juveniles. They participate actively, ask questions, spark lively discussions. Class is held in the chapel, and we’re perplexed about why one side of the room is full, while the other side is empty, until someone explains that the breeze is much better on the full side, and the ceiling fans are too noisy to be used. Someone has paid for brand-new, auditorium-style upholstered seats in the building. Unfortunately, they’re very comfortable, and the class is right after lunch. In a warm room, it’s hard to keep everyone awake.

We make a standard statement at the beginning of every meditation course: There are no stupid questions. If you have a question about something, probably someone else in the room has the same question, and is afraid to ask. And we probably had the same question when we were first learning.

We won’t say that any more.

Because we were not prepared to answer questions about the relationship between meditation and astral projection. Nor could we put mindfulness and compassion into the proper context for the Voudoun practioner who claims to be able to place thoughts into other people’s minds. Nor did we wish to address claims that the best way to meditate is with ganja.

I did my rational, science-based best with that last issue, discussing the difference between state changes and trait changes; how one does not necessarily lead to the other; and that meditation is a demonstrated way to develop permanent, positive trait changes.

Total waste of breath.

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