Belize: 1997 Travel Journal: (Note: We have sent millions of dollars worth of medical supplies and equipment into Belize and scores of Project C.U.R.E. medical teams have traveled there in the past twenty years. But I want to share with you just how it all got started in Belize.)
In 1996 Dr. Joe Ferguson, a physician from Greeley, Colorado, and a pharmacist, Bill Ruth, also from Greeley, came to our Project C.U.R.E. offices and warehouse in Denver eager to get more information about our organization. They filled out all the paperwork requesting assistance for an organization called River of Life mission in Belmopan, Belize. Later they brought with them the founder of the ministry, Mr. Ernie Aldridge, and introduced him to us. They explained how Ernie and his wife, Martha, went out along the river in the back-jungle country of Belize and established a medical-missions compound for the local Creole, Mestizo, and Garinagu people. The Aldridges provided foodstuffs and clothing for the people who attended the church on the compound. The medical help mostly involved visiting doctors, nurses, and laypeople willing to rotate through the River of Life project and administer inoculations, deworm children, pull or fill rotten teeth, and make sure expectant mothers had vitamins and health-care training.
I liked Ernie Aldridge right away. He is about sixty years old, and he and his wife have really poured their lives into helping the jungle people of Belize. Before he left our warehouse, we gave him about $100,000 worth of supplies and medical equipment, which he put in the back of a big truck he was shipping back to Belize. I promised him at the time that I would one day go to visit his mission site and perform a Needs Assessment Study.
Dr. Joe Ferguson and Bill Ruth kept calling and coming to the warehouse and getting acquainted. The pharmacist and his wife had been to the River of Life setup six times previously, and Dr. Ferguson had gone for short-term stints twice before. Their next trip was scheduled for February 16–26, 1997. They began to strongly recommend that I accompany them on their next short-term medical trip and fill out the necessary Needs Assessment Studies while there. At that time it was proposed that they would take on the airplane all the medical supplies and equipment allowable. Thus, their clinics would be supplied when I arrived.
My schedule would only allow me to be in Belize February 16 through the nineteenth. We all agreed that would be sufficient time, and Ernie would do the advance work to make possible the necessary meetings I need to have with the Belize government officials and health-ministry people.
Sunday, February 16
By 3:30 a.m., I was out of bed and packing my things for my needs-assessment trip to Belize. It will be my first time to the country that borders Guatemala and used to be known as British Honduras. Fortunately, it does not require as much travel time to go to Belize as it does to Pakistan, Kazakhstan, or Ethiopia.
Our team left Denver International Airport at 6:55 a.m. and arrived in Belize City about 3:00 this afternoon. The trip included a plane switch in Houston, Texas. There are twenty-eight people traveling in our medical group. Most of them are from the Greeley, Colorado, area. One Greeley pastor joined us, as did a Baptist pastor from the hills of Tennessee. They have both been to Ernie and Martha’s compound many times.
The River of Life setup is about seventy miles inland toward Guatemala from the Caribbean Sea. Before we got to the village where we would ferry across the river, it began to rain—and I do mean rain! I have been in Cuba when the Caribbean torrents hit the shoreline. But rain is very uncharacteristic for Belize in February. They receive rain up through December and January, perhaps, but almost never in February. However, neither tradition nor almanacs did anything to stop the downpour we experienced.
The luggage for twenty-eight people plus all the medical supplies and equipment had been loaded in the back of an open truck and in the back of the old school bus by which we were being transported.
As we drove from the main highway down toward the river on a rutty, muddy, dirt road, there was conversation among the leaders about the possibility of the truck and bus getting stuck even before we reached the river. They decided that if even we could get to the river, it would certainly be unwise to try to take the bus across the rain-swollen channel. As the river was rising, the ferry would rise, and the long bus was sure to high-center on the low landing leading to the ferry. So, we drove as close as we could to a three-hundred-foot swinging footbridge suspended high above the green jungle and rain-swollen river. We waited in the bus hoping the rain would slow down enough to allow us all to run the distance, which amounted to the length of a football field, across the suspension footbridge. By that time darkness had settled over the jungle. No one had suspected it would rain in February, so all the umbrellas and ponchos had been left in Colorado. Once out of the bus, I decided against the futility of just standing around in the rain hoping something good would happen. Instead, I decided to take off and get started hoofing it across the footbridge.
There had been no footbridge at all across the river until about three years ago, when Dr. Loren Cunningham, the man Dr. Ted Yamamori and I took to North Korea, raised the necessary money through his organization Youth With A Mission (YWAM) to construct the bridge. YWAM has a missions training camp in Roaring Creek, Belize, immediately adjacent to Ernie and Martha’s River of Life compound. I understand that Dr. Cunningham persuaded the US Army Corps of Engineers or the British army or someone to help with the bridge construction.
The step treads on the bridge were made of good Honduras hardwood and were as slippery as an eel’s belly when wet. When I was about halfway across the bridge, several others in our group started across. The bridge began heaving and swaying back and forth. Whenever I took a step, the bridge would come up to meet my foot. My hands were full, so I could not just reach out to grab on to something to steady myself. I could see the steep jungle embankment down to the river about one hundred feet below. Even though there was almost no light left in the sky, I could still see the swift movement of the rain-swollen river. I decided to just hasten right on across the footbridge with an absolute minimum of dillydally.
Once we made it across the bridge, there was a car to take the first four of us across to the River of Life compound about three-quarters of a mile away. Staff members unloaded the luggage from the back of the bus into pickup trucks, covered the luggage the best they could with tarpaulins, and drove down river to be ferried across in the rain. As you might suspect, by the time they unloaded the luggage, my poor nylon, soft-side bag was pretty thoroughly soaked.
Eventually dinner was served, and we were informed as to where we would sleep. The women would be in two different smaller wooden structures, and all the men would sleep in the church. All the benches in the church were without backs, so it was easy to slide two six-foot-long benches side by side and lay a mattress on the top of the benches. In the sanctuary, there were twelve such “beds” set up, and then on the front platform area, there were three mattresses set up on the floor. I grabbed one of the beds on the floor of the wooden platform in order to keep my bags off the damp concrete floor. The jungle rain continued to pour. Sometime during the night, I stumbled out of the church into the hot, humid jungle night, watered the jungle flowers, and thanked the dear Lord that I had been born a man-child.
Ernie and Martha had built only one shower stall and one toilet, and both the toilet and shower were in the room with the washer and dryer. The room was built on the side of one of the wooden buildings. As I was going back to sleep, I was calculating how long the line would be in the morning when twenty-eight people decided to take a shower before breakfast. I knew my odds of getting in were about the same as the man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem who had waited some thirty years for a chance at the troubled waters. I set my mental alarm clock to awaken early. I didn’t dare set my travel alarm, because there were fourteen other guys asleep in the church sanctuary.
Monday, February 17
When I woke up, I pulled on my pants, shirt, and shoes and quietly sneaked out the back door of the church. I knew I would be first to take a shower at that hour and would be able to clear out for others to follow … Wrong! By the time I got there, I was third in line, and several women had already been there and were outside trying to dry their hair in the jungle darkness.
After a breakfast of cold cereal, coffee (no English black tea), and bananas, the medical team loaded up and headed out into a remote jungle area to take care of over two hundred patients and distribute over a thousand pills for everything from worms to warts. Lots of bottles of Project C.U.R.E. ladies’ vitamins were given out to mothers or pregnant women.
Next Week: First Trip to Belize, continued