Saturday, 2 September 2017

Coming Full Circle

When something comes full-circle it means that it has completed its cycle, and returned to where it first began. As I write this blog post, I am coming up on the end of my 90-day cycle here in Belize. It’s been over 80-days since I first arrived in Belize and I have just under a week left in the country; even less than that, I have only 3 days left in Punta Gorda Town, the place I have come to call home over the past nearly 3 months.

I am in Belize on an internship coordinated through CELA, the Center for Engaged Learning Abroad; I have been working with the Maya Leaders
Alliance (MLA), an indigenous social justice organization, in the Toledo District of Belize documenting the customary law of two of the Maya communities here. MLA’s office is in Punta Gorda Town, locally known as PG, which is the hub of the Toledo District, an otherwise rural district in the south of Belize.

I remember my first time being driven into PG with my CELA supervisor, Dr. Filiberto Penados – it had been a long 4-hour drive from the Cayo District where I had my orientation into Belize, and my attempts to orient myself on the winding roads were too easily lost with each speedbump and pothole we hit on our way into town. When we arrived in town, we parked at a local snack shop for lunch before Dr. Penados took us to MLAs office where we would be spending most of our time over the next 12 weeks.

A few days later, after only a couple more short drives through town and a quick introduction to the layout of the town on a map, I had convinced myself that I could find my way around and I was ready to start exploring, my first mission: to find my way back to the snack shop we had stopped at on our first day. My internship partner and I readied ourselves to walk into town and do some discovering in our new home before stopping for lunch again. Our first mistake: it was noon, and while that means “lunchtime” what it also means in Belize is “stay indoors and out of the sun at ALL costs”.

If I’ve done a good enough job of foreshadowing my lack of directional skills it should be obvious that we never did find that lunch shop that day. Not only that, but we got ourselves lost in the height – rather, the HEAT – of the day. That day was the first that I learned how easy it is to sweat through your shirt in 35 degrees and 90% humidity (something which I have since become very accustomed to). We had been walking for nearly 45 minutes when I realized that we had walked a circle, in fact, we had literally come full-circle and had ended up just a few blocks from our office where we had begun.

Today, after nearly 90 days living in PG, I always think back on this story with a smile, especially while I stroll past that same snack shop on my way to the market for some fresh fruit or to my favorite local café for a cold juice. Just days from now, when my time in PG comes to an end, I have the opportunity to go full-circle again, though in a very different way.

To me, one of the best ways to approximate how much you have changed over a period of time is to return to a place, or an experience, you first started with and to see how your perspective on your surroundings has changed. Soon, Dr. Penados will be returning to PG to accompany my partner and I in our final presentations and then, to drive us out of town one last time on our way back to the Cayo District. I know that, this time as we drive on that pothole-filled road out of town, in the opposite direction from when we came, my time spent in PG will have changed the way I see and experience my surroundings. Each time I have re-lived the drive into PG throughout my time here – usually on a rumbling bus returning from a village or on my bike returning from a windy ride down the highway – I am surprised by how well I have come to know the town and the roads I ride on. I am able to avoid the potholes with ease, and the places which seemed so unfamiliar to me before are now etched onto a map in my mind. I find myself asking: how is it that a place which seemed so unfamiliar to me just 3 months ago can now feel so much like home? The answer is simple: from the home-stay families I lived with, the village leaders in Santa Cruz and Laguna I learned so much from, and my coworkers I worked with, I have been welcomed into the homes of so many as if they were my own.

The local families which I have had the privilege of staying with over the past 3 months have opened their homes and their hearts to me. They have treated me like family and in turn I have come to see them that way, too. Many of the times I have been in the villages for work, conducting meetings and speaking with village leaders, I have also been welcomed into their homes with graciousness and generosity. Very soon I came to realize that my trips to village were not only about work, but much more than that, they become an opportunity for me to build friendly connections with my partners and to learn about Maya life in a genuine way. My coworkers have come to treat me not only as a valued member of the team, but also as a friend and a member of their ever-growing family of interns and allies.

It is these connections which make my internship experience special. No matter how long I spend away, I know that I built connections with the people I met here and that when I return those connections will still exist; no matter how long I spend away, I know that when I return, I will still know how to navigate that winding road and all the potholes on the way into PG; most importantly, I know that my impact as an intern and volunteer will live on in these connections and in the work that the Maya people of Southern Belize continue to engage in every day.