Thursday, March 23, 2017

Learning to serve Belize.

You can learn a lot about a country by its place names. There's so much about language that we take for granted, etymology being pretty close to the top of the list. A quick look over a map of Belize will reveal to you places like Orange Walk Town and Yo Creek. Double Head Cabbage and Punta Gorda and the Vaca Plateau. Lord's Bank is next to Ladyville is next to Middlesex is next to More Tomorrow. Teakettle and Crooked Tree and Bella Vista. The deliciously named Sapodilla Cayes. There's a place called Shipyard 20 miles inland (nomenclature, we discovered, owing to the fact a big Mennonite community of boat builders and sorghum farmers have staked their claim to that section of the river.)

At first glance Belize looks as though it's been rendered by a 6 year old whose palette was limited to the classic Crayola 8-pack. The land is green and the water is blue and the sky is populated with full-figured white clouds. The houses are red or yellow or orange. The roads are either black or brown depending on whether or not they've been paved. 

This is an oversimplification, of course. There are a hundred variations of shade and texture and sheen to any landscape once it becomes familiar enough. The Inuit have an infamously large vocabulary to describe types of snow, for example. It's simply a matter of knowing what you're seeing and paying close attention.

There's a pretty straightforward analogy here to how we experience new places. We tend to come in with our rough historical outlines and lists of current statistics and word of mouth preconceptions, all of which have some value but only up to a point. Even over short periods the world has a way of unraveling itself before us and revealing the myriad layers of complexity that lie beneath the surface of our biases and perceptions. There is much to recommend the combination of travel and service that we facilitate in the ISLP program, but the acknowledgment of this complexity is certainly way up there. Like so many lessons of real import, it tends to be the kind of thing that needs to be learned again and again, and in that way becomes a lifelong practice of sorts.

One of the surest ways to be reminded of just how wonderfully diverse and interesting and complicated the world is is to interact with the people that call that place home. Our clinic and our classroom have been amazing opportunities to share our skills and gifts and knowledge, but they've also been labs in which we ourselves have been tested. We've learned about one another as a group and have also been asked to reassess how much our individual worldviews have space for information that goes beyond the dangerously broad strokes of the general.

We know a lot more that we did before about two places called Dangriga ("land that is divided by a river") and Independence, much of this knowledge coming in the form of Belizean students and teachers and patients and assistants and hotel staff from both of these towns. This is perhaps the most important kind of knowing, so actual and relatable and pressing, so essential to any effort to make our world a better place.    


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