Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cultural Immersion

Tom and Selwyn are making progress much more quickly on the second cabin than they did on the first, not only because they’ve already done all the planning, but also because we don’t have to worry about the basics like water and electric at this point. Where the soakaway for the first cabin took a couple of weeks to finish, on the second cabin it was just a matter of digging the hole, breaking up a few cement pads around the property so they had good fill, laying the pipe, and filling the hole with dirt. With the first soakaway, they moved all the dirt to the garden and then had to move some of it back; with this one, they knew to leave the dirt that came out of the hole beside it until we have a few good rains and the ground settles.

In addition to finishing the framing for the porch, Tom and Selwyn got all the window holes fitted to the windows this week, with windowsills. Tom and I spent yesterday installing the windows, which at that point was just a matter of putting them in the openings and putting in a few screws to hold them in place. This week, one of the items on Tom’s list is installing the doors. He is also planning to put the framing and plycem for the showers in the bathrooms, and then put up the external walls. With any luck – and without too many distractions – this cabin should be lockable by next weekend.

Although we’re no longer dealing with major water problems and the basic system is pretty much figured out, we still spent part of the week getting the lower 1000 gallon tank ready to collect rainwater. Tom and Selwyn did most of the prep work during the week, and on Friday Tom got rainspouts run from the gutters on the shop to the tank, so we’ve already collected a few showers’ worth of water. Today, Tom is hooking up the piping so we can also get water from the pipe.

Tom also installed the pump in the shop, and with a little more glue and some garden hose we’ll be ready to pump water from the lower tank to the tank on the hill that gravity feeds the cabin. The four-inch PVC pipe lining the hole punched through the cinderblock wall also contains smaller pipes to run electricity in and out of the shop when we move the generator to the pad near the shop and the road. The best thing about moving the pump into the shop is that we no longer have to worry about it walking away from the property, which is a common problem around here with these fairly portable, expensive, and very much needed pumps.

Last weekend, since we were panicking about our lack of hay for the horses, Tom went through the front pasture with a Roundup-like spray to kill all the weeds so we can plant star grass and get that pasture ready for the horses’ grazing. It’s difficult to see in this picture, but the weeds are finally dying, so we’ll probably collect the star grass this week and then, hopefully, within six weeks or so we’ll have decent grazing for the horses, and we’ll then do the same to the middle pasture. However, we’re not in quite so much of a panic this week since the Spanish Lookout farmers were able to get out in their fields to cut and bale hay. I went to Spanish Lookout on Thursday and found 25 bales of star grass hay to buy at my first stop, and then later found an additional 25 bales of blue stem which we can pick up next week.

While I was in Spanish Lookout, I ran into a fellow American at FTC. We made some idle chitchat about the real value of paper money around the world, and I then went on my way. At my next stop, Mid-West Agro, the same gentleman approached me at the desk and asked me where in the Pine Ridge I lived. I was a little surprised that he’d managed to get that information about me so quickly in a town where I didn’t know anyone knew anything about me, so I was even more surprised when he told me that we probably have a lot to talk about since he knew that we were from New York State, and he’s from Pennsylvania. I’m still not sure who he asked who was able to give him that information about me, but when we talked a little more we discovered that we’re almost neighbors, and he lives only about three miles north of here on the Georgeville Road. I wasn’t quite clear on exactly where he lives, so he said he’d stop by here some time and we could make arrangements to get together for dinner. It’s a small world, and Belize is a very small country in that small world!

Friday was Belize’s Independence Day, and, as in the US, it’s a much celebrated national holiday. We’d gone to Marta and Julian’s house for dinner early in the week last week, and Marta, Julian, and their kids had explained how the holiday is celebrated, which is much as it is in the US with fireworks and parades and picnics. They told us that San Ignacio was having fireworks at midnight on Thursday, with various festivities leading up to the fireworks on Thursday evening. We decided that we wanted to go, so we made arrangements to pick up anybody who wanted to go at 7:00 Thursday night.

We ended up with twelve passengers, plus Tom and me, and we made the trek down the dark San Antonio Road and into San Ignacio. That early, we had no trouble finding a parking place, and we agreed that we’d meet back at the truck after the fireworks. The young people – George, Iris, Rosa, and Ofelia – headed off to look for friends, and the rest of us made our way to the circle in front of the Police Station. Even as early as 8:00, which is about when we arrived, people were already pouring into the area in front of the Police Station, and loud music was already blaring through the town. The town officials were on a stage built for the occasion in front of the Police Station, but unfortunately the microphone volume from the stage couldn’t compete with the music, which was, as seems to be normal at functions here, blaring from huge speakers at a very high volume. However, we managed to hear that various dignitaries would be speaking between then and midnight, some school groups were doing music or dance presentations, and three torches were going to be carried by packs of runners across the Hawksworth Bridge from Santa Elena, around the circle, and then off up the hill to Benque. We never did figure out the significance of the three torches, but we think they came with runners from Belize City. Regardless of what they symbolized, it was a pretty impressive sight to see a pack of twenty or so Belizeans running with multiple torches through the night across the bridge, then up the hill and out of sight as they headed towards Benque.

We also never figured out what the various dignitaries were trying to say in their speeches since we couldn’t hear them, but it was still fun to hang out in the crowd in the street, waiting to see what happened, with everybody just having a good time. At midnight the Belize flag was raised in a spotlight on the flag pole in front of the Station, the BDF Honor Guard fired a 21-gun salute, and then the fireworks started. We weren’t sure what to expect of fireworks in Belize, but the Belizeans did themselves proud with a very impressive twenty-minute show. We could hear many people around us talking, and were surprised to hear that many of them had never seen fireworks before, and the oohs and aahs were genuine as multiple rockets exploded in the skies above us. After the fireworks, however, came the best part of the show. A marching band from Guatemala marched into the street in front of the station playing Belize’s national anthem, and the crowd moved back to let the band members, all dressed in white suits with white Panama hats, do their thing. When they finished with the National Anthem, they started the real show, playing music ranging from Simon & Garfunkel to American marches to traditional Latin American music, and they had a different routine for each number. Each routine involved some pretty impressive dancing, especially considering that they were playing without reading any music, and that most people would have trouble either playing the music or performing the sometimes complicated dance steps, and these guys were doing the playing and the dancing simultaneously and very, very well. The crowd was really into it, and didn’t even start to break up until the band was done around 1am. We all made it back to the truck eventually, and were on the very dark road home by 1:30. That got Tom and me to bed around 2:30am – way later than we’ve stayed up in a long, long time!

We skipped the parades on Friday, but out cultural immersion continued on Saturday. Saturday afternoon, Olmi and Daisy came over for a chat, and they were looking at my fairly large pile of cooking pots and pans and serving dishes, which are now stored in an open cabinet in the main room of the cabin outside the kitchen. I explained that most of the things were great deals my mother had found at yard sales and church bazaars, and that she gave to me because she had no use for them, but the deals were too good to pass up. As I was trying, in my broken Spanish, to explain these sales, Olmi said that they do something similar at their church, and, in fact, they were having such a function that night – and would we like to come? Always eager to see and try new things and meet new people, we made sure that Olmi really wanted non-church members there (Tom had joined the conversation by this point), and when she assured us that guests were welcome, we made plans to attend.

For our neighbors, church is a major part of their lives. They belong to a Pentecostal church in San Antonio, and all of the Pentecostal churches in the area get together frequently for joint functions. With everything they do, they usually end up attending church two nights a week during the week, and then Saturday and Sunday nights, and sometimes Sunday mornings. We weren’t sure how they could tolerate that much church, but after going to last night’s function, we have a much better understanding. Church isn’t just a church service. They have a meal before the service, and because this weekend is a holiday weekend, they also had a band that played before and after the service. The service was a joint effort of five or six of the local Pentecostal churches, so a lot of people were there and it was a big social gathering. The service is held under a tent, and even while the service was going on, kids were running around playing, people were sitting in groups outside the tent eating and socializing, and everybody was very relaxed.

Well, almost everybody was relaxed. At some point the guest preacher began to preach, and it was done at a volume that I’ve never experienced in the Catholic and WASP church services that I’ve attended. He wasn’t exactly preaching hellfire and brimstone, but he was definitely preaching with the purpose of riling up the crowd, and it worked. Tom and I were sitting outside the tent under a tree, and at one point many people in the tent stood up and starting waving their arms and shouting. The guy we were sitting with looked at us and said, “Well, do you accept what he said?” Tom asked if the standing and arm waving were signs that people accepted, and the guy said yes, and again asked if we accepted. Tom very cleverly answered that since the sermon was in Spanish, we didn’t understand enough of if to know whether we accepted it or not. So, we kept our seats under the tree, and eventually the sermon ended and everybody sat down.

What was sort of strange to me was the realization that even though the sermon was in Spanish and Tom said we didn’t understand, I did understand a good part of it. Between picking up a lot of vocabulary here, and having attended enough Latin masses that I understand a lot of the religious Latin, which is pretty similar to religious Spanish, I think I probably got about 80%. Our neighbors have been telling us that we’re learning their language very quickly, but it doesn’t seem all that quick to us, and we feel like we know just enough to say something and make people think we know more than we do, so they then speak to us as if we actually understand the language, and we become hopelessly lost until they slow down and start speaking to us like two-year olds again. But, after last night, I think there is hope for us, at least as far as understanding. Actually speaking intelligibly and correctly is another matter, but I guess we’ll get there eventually too, as long as we keep trying. We’re very fortunate that all of our neighbors are very patient with us, and are willing to have very slow conversations so we can learn Spanish and they can learn English. We have to resist the temptation to speak solely in English to the people here who speak good English, which is doubly hard because they want to practice their English with us. Of course, the Spanish we’re learning here may never have any use in the outside world, since it’s mostly about building and cooking and animals, but we are learning things like general directions and the basic platitudes, so hopefully we’ll at least be able to be polite when we travel in Mexico and the rest of Central America.

The fruit on one of our grapefruit trees is just starting to ripen, so we’ve been having grapefruit for breakfast again. These fruits are very sweet and tasty, but they have a ton of seeds. I never knew why the big yellow citrus fruits were called “grapefruit,” but the reason is quite clear in this picture. The whole tree is covered with bunches of grapefruit like this.

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