Belize: 1997 Travel Journal: Ernie and I left immediately for Belize City to meet with an old, cranky Dutchman, Tony Nijssen. He is the chief engineer for all medical equipment and facilities in Belize. He is a very powerful man in the medical hierarchy in Belize because he determines what can or cannot come into the country. I asked to meet with him right away.
Rather than allowing Tony to put me on the defensive with his stories about how different groups had sent in broken and worthless equipment, I stopped him and said, “Tony, I have been willing to come all the way to Belize on a fact-finding mission. Probably I will find in Belize’s hospitals and clinics the finest examples of medical technology. I probably will find, Tony, that since you already have everything, Project C.U.R.E. will not find any way to be of help to you. But even though we will probably not have any opportunity to work together in the future, I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank you for allowing me the privilege to meet with you and make your acquaintance.” I picked up my notebook and started to stand up.
Tony just sat there looking at me with his lower jaw about two inches down from his upper teeth. “But, but, but … wait a minute, Mr. James—”
“That’s no problem, Tony. Lots of the forty-one countries into which we shipped last year have nothing, so I congratulate you. You are doing an outstanding job.”
“But, Mr. James … I need everything!”
From that point on, Tony and I got along famously. Our meeting lasted for almost two hours, and he personally took me on a tour of the Belize City government hospital.
Ernie drove me through the streets of the old colonial town of Belize City. It was a historic setting in a beautiful location on the sea. Belize has more of the flavor of a Caribbean country like Cuba, Jamaica, or Aruba rather than a Central American country. The population of the country is a little over two hundred thousand, with somewhere around one-third of the people living in or directly around Belize City. The Chinese are coming to Belize by the droves. For about fifty thousand dollars, you can buy full citizenship in Belize. To the Chinese, that is an absolute bargain.
I am very interested to see what will happen to the little country when Hong Kong is turned back over to the Chinese later this year. It is very possible that Belize will be totally bought up by expatriates from China. With the democratic constitution of Belize, it is conceivable that some people group like the Chinese could simply vote themselves into a new country of their own. (Just the musings and conjectures of a red-headed Scotch-Irish economist.)
Belize covers about nine thousand square miles and is about the size of the state of Massachusetts. The northern area outside Belize City is flat, with marshes and lagoons, and the lower coastal areas are covered with mangrove swamps.
As I traveled west and south from Belize City, the land rose, reaching an altitude of three thousand feet in the Maya Mountains. Over 60 percent of the country is forested, and a lot of it I would describe as jungle. It really is a country of beauty and opportunity, with miles of sandy beaches and chances for rare reef snorkeling. But the national mentality and current economic system definitely place Belize right alongside all the other lesser-developed countries to which I have traveled.
Maybe it was because I was super hungry, or maybe it was because the roasted chicken and roasted carrots and potatoes had some kind of special Belizean herbs and spices applied to them, but for some reason dinner really tasted good to me tonight. It also could have tasted good because the antibiotics I am taking for my recently extracted handful of teeth are finally kicking in, and I am actually beginning to feel better.
After dinner Ernie cautioned the group to be especially careful in Belize because of the high crime rate. “Don’t go anywhere out of the compound by yourself, and ladies, even inside the River of Life area, have someone with you.”
He went on to tell us that over the past few years, with the widespread use of cocaine and crack, the area of Roaring Creek has really become quite dangerous. He told us that just last year some men came into the compound, into the room in which we were now eating, and at gunpoint took a young lady volunteer from one of the groups visiting from the US, forced her into the nearby jungle, and robbed and raped her. He said the guilty men had been caught and are now in jail, but we should be extremely careful while here.
Tuesday, February 18
I slept very well last night on my piece of sponge-rubber mattress placed on the wooden platform of the church. The air was heavy and muggy, and my towel was still wet—even though I had hung it out to dry all day and night—when I grabbed it in the darkness to go take my predawn shower. The women were already lined up when I arrived, even though I was the first man to awaken. All of the traveling Anna Marie and I had done staying at bed-and-breakfast accommodations across Europe, England, and Ireland had prepared me for the process of scrambling for an early spot in line for a common bathroom.
After breakfast, I joined the medical team as they went again into the jungle villages to set up their portable clinic. Lots of people had gathered at the old wooden government schoolhouse by the time we arrived.
The team went to work setting up the blood-testing lab; the eye, ear, nose, and throat area; the general medical-supply area; the different examination areas; and the pharmacy. The area of particular and sordid interest to me was the dental setup. The dentists and hygienists had a very impressive clinic put together. Wooden lawn chairs were used, but of course, they were too low to the ground for the dental people to work comfortably. So they had stacked concrete blocks and placed the lawn chairs on top, securing them with ropes so the chair and patient would not tumble off during the procedure.
A gasoline generator was located about thirty yards away from the old schoolhouse in the hope that the noise and exhaust fumes coming into the school would be cut to a minimum. There was no means of electricity available in the Yalbac, Buena Vista school area except our portable generator. For the benefit of the dentists, who needed air pressure to run their drills, an air compressor was plugged into the electric generator.
I watched the two young, highly skilled dentists place needles into the patients’ mouths and inject a numbing agent to deaden the nerves. Then I watched the dentists proceed with the process of extracting many rotten teeth. Strangely enough I had real empathy for those patients sitting in those lawn chairs atop the concrete blocks. Once again I thanked God for allowing me to be home for my seven extractions over the Christmas holidays.
I hung around the clinic taking pictures and meeting and talking to the jungle people through interpreters. One characteristic of the medical team from the Greeley area is their prayer ministry. They included in the group people whose specific job is to go from one patient to another while they are waiting for their procedures and pray with them. The patients have responded very well to the prayer partners, and quite a large number of the patients have accepted Christ into their hearts. Bibles and Christian literature in the native languages are passed out to all who want to take them home.
In the afternoon, Dr. Joe Ferguson, Dr. Bill Ruth, Ernie Aldridge, and I proceeded to the capital city of Belmopan. There we had scheduled a meeting with Mr. Wayne Usher, the permanent secretary for the ministry of health. The meeting went extremely well, and later Ernie said that Project C.U.R.E.’s presence made it absolutely the best meeting they had ever had with the health ministry. I urged Mr. Usher and Ernie to build a strong bond of friendship between the health ministry and the River of Life mission. They both agreed to getting together on a monthly basis for breakfast or lunch. Christian-ministry folks often don’t understand the importance and necessity of such communication with governmental institutions. But part of Project C.U.R.E.’s mission is to help ministry folks begin to reach out from their own comfortable circle and build relationships. Then when they need something, they won’t feel like the outside world and Satan are beating up on them just because they can’t get what they want. They will have paid the price to establish a relationship. They can then cash in on their relational investments.
On our way back to the camp, we walked once again over the suspension footbridge. It had rained very hard earlier in the morning, but now the huge iguana were sunning themselves in the tops of the bamboo trees far down along the green-lined river.
Next Week: First Trip to Belize, continued