We arrived knowing that Belize would be beautiful. I had been there 3 times previously, this would be my fourth and final trip as a volunteer english teacher and coordinator for work in a national park. 10 college students on summer break were part of my team, we had conducted interviews and selected a group over the course of the spring semester and now we were in Belize. After a 15 minute taxi ride from the airport we hopped on a speedboat to visit the cayes- a chain of islands surrounded by crystal clear turquoise water, white sand, and the second largest barrier reef in the world.
A girl I had been casually dating was part of the group. At the time it seemed like a harmless convenience to invite her, she was interested in ecology and was a genuinely good candidate for the trip- reliable, friendly, and intelligent- so I made sure she would be accepted. Our first night on the islands we shared a room in a small beachfront motel. The wind rattled through the wooden walls and slammed doors in the central corridor. You could hear everyone talking in the other rooms. It was awkward and anxious and, despite having been together before, I ended up not being able to sleep. I think she ended up sleeping on the floor.
Weeks went by and the trip fell into disarray. Our service projects were haphazardly organized and questionably beneficial- cleaning trails in the national park, running a summer camp for local children, repairing signage and writing up pamphlets. At one point I left the rural village where we were staying to scout out potential project sites for the future, traveling four hours north by bus. During my scouting trip a tropical storm moved in and proceeded to dump upwards of 24 inches of rain on Belize in 48 hours. Upon returning to our home village (the highways were somehow passable along the route I had taken) I found the road from the highway to our house covered by 3 feet of collected water. After wading up to the house I discovered our team of volunteers huddled inside playing cards by candlelight. Two of our members were missing.
“Where are so and so?” I asked.
“Oh,” came the reply, “we don’t know. They went out to clear trails this morning and haven’t been back.”
“Have you seen the flooding? Where did they go?” My responsibilities as trip coordinator included keeping all members of the group alive long enough to leave the country.
Two of us left and navigated our way through the village, across newly formed lakes and rivers, toward the national park trails that we had been clearing. A strange sound rose from beyond the trees, a constant roar or rumble not unlike what you might hear at a busy airport. As we made our way through the trees we discovered that the local creek, normally ankle deep and crossable with a few steps, was now a raging torrent, brown and frothing, fifty feet wide and hurtling full-size trees downstream at twenty miles an hour.
We walked along the river for a few hundred yards scanning the hills on the opposite side. After a few minutes we spotted two people descending one of the dirt roads from the hills. It was our two missing volunteers. Upon reaching the other side of the river they stood with hands on hips. We shouted to talk to each other over the noise of the rushing water.
“What the hell were you doing?” I yelled.
“We were clearing a trail. Oh my god, we almost drowned up there!” was their reply. This did not make me feel better.
Eventually some of the local villagers gathered nearby, attracted by our predicament. A rope was brought and we proceeded to attempt a dramatic river crossing by tossing the rope into the river where our comrades had waded up to their waists. After a few harrowing minutes fighting the raging currents we successfully dragged our now half-drowned friends up onto the bank. The locals applauded quietly, strangely hesitant and seemingly confused by the proceedings.
A few minutes later the villagers had dispersed and we were sitting to catch our breath. Downstream about 500 yards we observed two local farmers approach the river. They hardly slowed down before wading out into the knee deep water. Without a second though they picked their way through the river, never submerged deeper than their thighs. The utter simplicity with which they made it across put the absurdity of our morning into perspective. After a few minutes they sauntered past us on the road, smiling, perhaps wondering why four American college students looking like drowned rats were lying in the grass on such a lousy day.
The trip ended a couple weeks later and we departed for whatever other summer activities lay in store. My relationship with the on-again, off-again girlfriend had deteriorated (primarily due to a complete lack of sense on my part). At one point I had asked her if I might spend the night with her female roommate, and would she mind bunking with one of our fellow travelers instead? She said she would indeed mind.
Looking back I cannot fathom my lack of awareness and perspective. But at the time, amidst the constant emotional tumult and sensory stimulation of a new country, new people, and new experiences, my stone-headed ignorance had grown to an unbelievable degree.
Perhaps the final insult, as I learned later, was that my now ex-girlfriend had been the unfortunate victim of a “Bot-fly”. The Bot fly is an unwelcome parasite common in subtropical regions that bites its victim and lays an egg within the bite. After a few days the bite becomes increasingly swollen and painful and does not respond to anti-itch or anti-inflammatory medicine. Unless treated properly a larval worm will remain within the bite, maturing to the point that it turns into a full grown fly. In this case, my poor ex-girlfriend had been bitten on the head and only realized the nature of her problem some weeks later when a full-grown fly crawled out of her scalp.