Thursdays are for Arts & Crafts

nefry's retreatI am lucky to have the best, and possibly most unique, work-life-balance on my co-op in Belize. Because I self-designed my co-op I definitely don’t have a traditional office environment. In fact, I actually live with my two bosses and their family, and we all work from home. Nancy and Jaime, the husband-and-wife team who founded Barzakh Falah and supervise me on my co-op, have a beautiful home and a loving family.

Every morning we all have breakfast together at 7:30, Jaime takes the kids to school, and afterwards we all pull out our laptops and start our work day at the kitchen table. Around noon, someone will leave to take food to the kids for lunch (parents are invited to picnic with the kids at the schools here). On the way back, they’ll bring Leo home, since he attends a half-day school. All is quiet for a few more hours until the girls get picked up from school at 3:30 and come home. Once they’re home, all productivity is lost for a few hours while we referee after-school activities and prepare dinner. Sometimes I stay on my computer typing away, but work for me typically resumes after dinner.

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Yahzzarra, Jasmine, & Victoria

On Thursdays, Jasmine’s best friend in the whole wide world, Victoria, comes over for arts and crafts. Her mom Ms. Deb, comes along too. The adults drink coffee (for Nancy and I, it’s probably our 3rd cup of the day) and snack on ginger cookies, while the kids tackle the project of the week. Victoria’s family is actually from California, but relocated to Belize a few years ago to give the kids a cultural exchange experience while being homeschooled. Last week the kids made stenciled t-shirts with fabric pens and showed off their button bowls from the week before.

Having lived this lifestyle for 2 months, I now completely understand why Barzakh Falah had very little online presence before I arrived. With all of the meals, pick-ups, drop-offs, and play dates, Jaime and Nancy can really only manage the most essential functions of day-to-day operations for the non-profit and other small projects they run. To give you a better grasp of what the family is like, here’s a little more information on all the characters:

The Adults:

Nancy (or Mom) wears many hats. She is a “retired” activist, a humanitarian, an entrepreneur, a chef, a fantastic mother who parents with spunk, and most recently, a cook-book author (click here to check out her first book!). Nancy’s ability to keep the whole family glued together while managing several small businesses is truly inspiring.

Jaime (or Dad) is the architect behind Barzakh Falah. He has degrees in architecture and eco-sustainable building. He manages and supervises the hard labor when we have volunteers. Also makes excellent lime juice slushies and iced “hot chocolate”.

There is another co-worker, Louis, who also lives at the house. Louis helps out with everything from shuttling kids around to booking volunteers for Barzakh, while running his own construction contracting business. He is a master coffee-maker and makes sure to keep everyone heavily dependent on a caffeine drip.

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Louis, Jaime, & Nancy

Grandma and Grandpa (Nancy’s parents) don’t actually live with us, but they might as well. They are right next door and frequently call one of us over for various things. Common requests are: “can we borrow your toaster” and “Leo can you feed our dog.” But having a good relationship with Grandma and Grandpa has advantages- they have the best snacks. They currently split their time between living here in San Ignacio, and a house in Chetumal, Mexico.

The Kids:

Xena is the oldest- the 17-year-old Instagram star, who is sure to become internationally famous at any second. She’s just starting the college search, so we talk quite a bit about what my life at university is like, and what she might want to major in. Her biggest dreams at the moment are to turn 18 and to move out of Belize.

DSC_0020Then there’s Leo, a 14-year-old genius already attending an accelerated high school. Until recently, he was pretty sure he wanted to be an astrophysicist, but since it’s not statistically realistic for him to become an astronaut… he’s decided to lower his expectations and pursue Biomedical Engineering so he can build prosthetic limbs. Not to mention, he’s quickly becoming an excellent photographer.


Jasmine
(Jazz) is 11, and “aaallmost 12” as she would tell you. At the moment, Jazz is tackling the biggest challenges of 5th grade- spelling and memorizing Bible verses (the two youngest kids attend a Mennonite school- more on this later). She always wants to know how your day was, and if you’re ever looking to split an orange, she will always be willing to take on the other half.

Finally, there is Yahzzarrah (or Yaz). 6 years old. Adorable. She has absolutely everyone wrapped around her finger. Currently going through a phase where she pretty much refuses to eat anything except for Nutella, fried plantains, and grapefruit. But hey- at least she likes grapefruit right?

Are you exhausted just reading this? Now try a work-from-home lifestyle while being surrounded by this crew 24/7. Don’t get me wrong though, I really do enjoy living here. I’m so glad that I’m getting to experience what it’s like to grow up in a big family that is so different from my own.

I can’t leave a blog post without doing a little bit of “work” for my co-op so please give us some love on social media! LIKE/ SHARE/ FOLLOW Barzakh Falah because the best thing you can do for a tiny non-profit, with almost no effort, is to make it visible to others:

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Caye Caulker is my favorite color

img_0440This is the blue out of your crayola crayon box. That unbelievable “no-filter-needed” cerulean blue that doesn’t look real- even in real life. This is Caye Caulker.

In celebration of Hannah’s last few days in Belize, we departed on an un-Belize-able weekend getaway. (HA. Un-Belize-able. You can’t even blame me for using that pun because I swear to you, it is on every single tourist t-shirt in the country) Puns aside, this island is something magic. Maybe it’s because I never went to Disney World or other fancy Caribbean destinations as a kid, but the seaweed littered, rocky beaches of the southern coast of Cape Cod simply cannot compare. A quick 45 minute water taxi can transport you to this little piece of paradise directly from the port in Belize City. Be warned though- this isn’t a cruise ship. It’s a full throttle speed boat with people packed in like sardines. The whole way there. Prepare for wind. See video for our reactions to this part of the adventure:

 

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” Go Slow” is Caye Caulker’s motto- and trust me, it’s not just a suggestion. You can feel it as soon as you step off the water taxi- you’re on island time now. It’s actually nearly impossible to move quickly. The only form of transportation on the island are golf cart taxis that roll along sandy pathways barely wide enough for a car. Although the island is so tiny there is really no reason to use them. Wandering on foot, or by borrowed bicycle, is by far the best option for getting around. You might find yourself moving even slower than usual if you’re suffering from a lobster food coma, or if you’ve been sipping rum punch in a hammock all day.

Despite our inevitable participation in the lobster-eating and rum-punch-drinking, Hannah and I’s main purpose on Caye Caulker was snorkeling. There are dive and snorkel shops every few feet on the main pathway of Caye Caulker and it can be a bit of a daunting task to choose the right one. Luckily, as soon as we arrived at our hostel (Bella’s Backpacker’s), a fellow traveler immediately gave us a raving review of Stressless Tours- a new eco-friendly shop on the island. It’s hard to argue with that, so we set off to book with them for the next day. (*Side note:* All snorkeling tours are a standard price of $65 USD on the island- but it’s well worth the money)

One life-changing lobster dinner and a picture perfect sunset later, we were off to bed to prepare for the long day ahead.

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Sunset on Caye Caulker island

The next day was a reality check.

I’ve never had a snorkel in my mouth, I can’t remember the last time I swam for that long continuously, and I forgot what true seasickness feels like. Despite the fact that I pulled 2 consecutive all-nighters last semester, I’ve never experienced physical exhaustion quite like this snorkeling experience. Yet every time we jumped off that boat, it all just melted away. It was really just breathtaking.

From here, I really don’t have any photos or video that can possibly explain how insane this trip was. For a while I had some serious regrets about not renting a GoPro for the occasion, but now I’m glad that I didn’t have the distraction. I think by really looking around, instead of fiddling with a camera, I got the most out of the experience. Just know that it was absolutely mind-blowing.

For the most representative footage of a Belize Barrier Reef snorkeling experience please see Finding Nemo. Our tour guide was essentially Mr. Ray.

Mysteries & Monkeys: A Visit to Xunantunich

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The massive El Castillo pyramid. With Hannah for scale. 

In Belize, where the average building is one or two stories, the rolling hills and tall trees of the rainforest typically dominate the skyline. But deep in the jungle of Cayo district, the ruins of Xunantunich rises far above the canopy. At a towering 40 meters (~131 feet!), Xunantunich is the second tallest man-made structure in all of Belize. The absolute tallest building?- another Mayan pyramid called Altun Ha at the ruins of Caracol. The sheer scale of these ruins truly make you wonder what could have caused the mysterious downfall of the Mayan empire over a thousand years ago.

There is a still a significant and diverse Mayan population in Belize. The name Xunantunich means Stone Woman in Yucatec, one of the remaining Mayan languages. The name comes from a local legend as mysterious as the fall of the empire. It is said that a woman appears to men who have wandered the grounds of the ruins alone. She is always dressed in a traditional white “huipil” and has fire-y red eyes- always staring at the men before disappearing through the stone walls of the largest pyramid, El Castillo. Thus, the modern name “Stone Woman”, or Xunantunich, was given to this archaeological site. The original ancient name for the city is unknown.

Maybe it’s the mystery that keeps bringing me back, or the crisp, cool wind at the top of El Castillo. Regardless of the reason, this was my 3rd trip to Xunantunich, and each time has been a unique experience. I have visited the ruins with two different Northeastern Alternative Spring Break volunteer teams and independently. I have traveled there by car, horseback, pseudo-hitchhiking (thanks Global Convoy), and chicken bus.

 

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January 2017: 3rd visit with another Barzakh Falah volunteer, Hannah. 

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An active archaeological dig area

Even the ruins themselves are changing. Xunantunich is an active archaeological dig, with more of the pyramids and surrounding structure being uncovered each year. It’s not unusual to see areas roped off by caution tape or entire hills covered in tarps. Much of the ruins are still underground and every visible bump in the landscape is likely to have a structure beneath it. Even the largest pyramid, El Castillo, is suspected to be even larger- the bottom layers are just buried under years of sediment accumulation.

dsc_0645Despite the absolutely amazing views, the history, and the legends, the highlight of my third Xunantunich trip actually had nothing to do with the ruins themselves. For the first time, I got to get up close with the monkeys. Sure I’ve seen monkeys in Belize at a distance bouncing along the treetops, but this was entirely different. Just on the edge of the jungle, a young spider monkey came to check us out while eating fruits from the lowest branches on the tree. This little guy was a spider monkey- one of two kinds of monkeys that are found in Belize. We watched him swing between the branches and dodged the leftover fruit pieces falling to the ground around us for a while before moving on.

It’s worth mentioning that the other type of monkey found in Belize is much rarer to see. Black howler monkeys are always heard before they are seen. These guys are aptly named for their deafening calls that echo through the rainforest. Don’t be mistaken, these Jurassic Park like noises are not dinosaurs- they really are just the howler monkeys. To listen, check out the video below.

I love the magic of Xunantunich. I love the smell of the allspice trees that are interspersed across the tree line. I love that orange Fanta tastes the best after hiking to the top of El Castillo. I even love the silly hand-crank ferry that shuttles tourists and their vehicles across the Mopan river- which is the only way to access the ruins. In all likelihood, I will return to Xunantunich again before I leave Belize to do it all over again.

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Kittens & Kitchen Floors

It feels incredible to be back here, but I keep expecting someone to wake me up and tell me that it’s time to go home. Although this is my third trip to Belize, the longest I’ve ever stayed was one week- and now I have another 6 months. Really, this is all fine, because I’m definitely not ready to leave.

Lots of things are different from when I was last here in March 2016. There are different fruits in season, the damp weather from the rainy season is still lingering, and progress at Barzakh Falah has moved along. The biggest difference is not having my usual team of 12 Northeastern alternative spring breakers around. There are two other independent volunteers here at the moment- Hannah (from England) and Max (from New Zealand). Hannah flew in on the same day as me, and we’re roommates. It’s been nice to have a buddy to go exploring with while we both adjust.

After having a day and half to relax at the house, we headed out to Barzakh Falah to check up on the progress and put in a couple days of work. Although, it is pretty difficult to get work done when there are 4 five week old kittens stumbling around. We basically spent every spare second snuggling the kittens.

 

The most recent project has been to get some more durable floors down in the kitchen, lounge dome, and the indoor shower dome. This involves mosaic tiling with recycled ceramic tile scraps. Doing physical work at the farm is not going to be my primary role while I’m here in Belize, but it felt really good to spend some time working hard and being in the sun after escaping the frigid weather in Boston.

Our first task was to put the finishing shine on the kitchen floors. These floors were previously packed clay and would easily develop dips and bumps whenever furniture scraped across them. Volunteers over the holidays had put down the tiles, and it was our job to scrape off any remaining grout that clouded the tiles and shine things up. I don’t think we did half bad.

On our second day at the farm, we got to work setting up the lounge dome to be tiled. This involved some tricky engineering to figure out how much cement to apply in order to make the final floor an even surface that also tilts towards the entrance. This is to ensure that water and dust can easily be swept out. Designing the floor turned out to be a pretty difficult job. With the limited resources at the farm, we had to be a little more inventive. Without a construction level and extendable measuring tape we resorted to using a string, some nails, and a thin piece of tubing as a “level” to lay out the design. It’s a good thing we have Jaime as our fearless leader, because Hannah, Max, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to figure this out on our own.

While Max and Hannah chugged away on the tiles, I stayed back from the farm to focus on my main purpose- to completely remodel the social media presence for Barzakh Falah. Since we are in the final stages of construction before we can host at-risk young women and children, there is an increased need for volunteers. More on this next week after we roll out a brand new Instagram, blog, and more!