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Lamanai Mayan Ruins

Caryn's Big Adventure

by Caryn Welz-Ritchie

Part One

While you are reading this, I will be in Belize. When I shared my idea of visiting Belize with the plan to move there in five years I was met with a lot of questions about Belize and my soundness of mind.

Of course questioning my decisions or my sanity only makes me more determined. So since January of last year, when I first hatched this plan, it has been "Belize 24/7" as my husband likes to say.

Since Keith and Joan will be coming along for this trip and hopefully the eventual move I thought they would want to be a part of the information gathering process. It amazes me how often I can be wrong. I was on my own, armed with the Internet, books and information from anyone willing to talk to me. If you had ever even flown over Belize, I wanted your impression.

I had forgotten how much fun serious research is. Each answered question leads to another unanswered one. Following the trail can take hours, days, even months. And it did.

For someone who has never actually set foot in Belize I have become somewhat of an expert. I can answer all Keith's questions, and have lessened some of his concern. Friends have had concerns of their own for us, especially about our safety. I find that ironic since I consider the US one of the most violent countries in the world right now.

One of the reasons I'm going to Belize is to get away from some of the everyday crime and murder. Is there crime in Belize? Absolutely. Where we are looking it is mostly "crime of convenience". Theft from an empty house, theft of bicycles and anything else left unattended.

The only places that really have a lot of guns are in the mountains where the drug cartels are. Now machetes can be found everywhere. But they have uses other than for killing someone. Anyway, I do feel safe going there if we abide by the rules: don't go out at night alone and don't flash money or jewelry. Hey, that sounds like how I prepare to go to Boston.

We plan on renting a car so we can drive to different areas of the country, but we are looking to live in the northern region. We all have different interests and Belize has something for all of us. Keith loves to fish and they have some of the best fishing in the world. Joan is an artist and history buff, so we will be visiting many Mayan ruins. I just want to touch all the animals on land and sea and bask in the sun.

It is fascinating learning about a new culture and a new country and trying to decide if you can fit in. As much as I want this to be the right place for me part of the year, I am realistic enough to know that it is not paradise. There is tremendous poverty, and even though I do want to live among the villagers and not in an ex-pat community, where we are looking has an acceptable standard of living for most people.

When I think about the things I might miss living in a third world country, my family and friends and maybe Dunkin Donuts come to mind. I am looking to be off the grid. Less news, less gadgets, fewer choices, less stuff. I want to de-clutter my mind and my environment.

Living in our fast- paced, totally connected society makes me tired. I can't treat everything as if it is an emergency that needs immediate resolution anymore. Step back and breathe. I'll let you know what I find in Belize, if and when I return.

Part Two

I returned from Belize just in time to be hit with a snowstorm. Sometimes it's a cruel world. My big adventure was truly an adventure on many levels. Instead of sitting at a resort sipping Panty Rippers (the national drink of Belize), we chose to drive a 2001 Toyota 4Runner over every dirt road from Belize City to the Guatemalan border to the Mexican border and back again.

We wanted to experience what it would be like to live in Belize, with all its beauty and its flaws, and not just be a tourist. This mind set takes a lot of adapting and I am proud to say we were able to do it with humor and a positive attitude.

Trash Collection Sarteneja

Belize is a young third world country; they got their independence from Britain about 30 years ago. Since then they have been trying to find their way. There are so many needs that it's hard to decide what to focus on first.

I was struck by how proud the younger generation is of their independence and what they are trying to achieve. Despite the poverty, I did not get a sense of failure. School children are actively involved in trying to save the environment. Handmade anti-littering signs are everywhere. There is a strong movement to decrease the number of HIV cases. Locals work with environmentalists on projects to save endangered animals and to stop illegal logging and smuggling.

Progress is slow but it does look like progress. People are hopeful for a better life and are willing to work for it. In the villages I never saw anyone homeless, begging or hungry. I'm sure it is different in Belize City, but where we were, everyone was looked after.

As I mentioned, I wanted to see both the beauty and the flaws. The beauty stretches from the Caribbean Sea to the rain forests. It is a raw country with miles of untamed mangroves, tracts of towering trees, hidden waterways and all the wildlife that lies within.

Most of the country is unspoiled and kept as a preserve. We had the opportunity to climb Mayan ruins that touch your soul. They are sacred and daunting and powerful.

We snorkeled at the second largest barrier reef in the world. A fisherman took us out in his boat and taught Keith how to fish for bone fish and then took us to the reef. We got caught in a storm on the way back and ended up in Mexican waters. No radar, GPS or compass.

WildTracks monkey with Caryn

I met with the educational coordinator at the Belize Zoo who gave us a private tour and explained how they were educating the school children about their native animals and how to save them.

I was given a tour of a manatee and monkey rehabilitation center run by volunteers. Everyone was so excited to share the strides they were making despite the lack of funds.

We had concerns about getting sick from the food or water. We drank the water all over the country, ate food in places that defy description, ate with local families, and never experienced one minute of discomfort. The food choices in Sarteneja, where we spent the most time and hope to live part-time, were very limited, but by traveling an hour or so you can add to your menu.

Corozal Town Market

The flaws of Belize begin with the roads. There is very little infrastructure and we traveled the worst roads imaginable. Almost all are dirt with huge potholes and ruts from the rainy season. Average sped was 15mph. It takes a while to get anywhere, but there is little traffic and really no traffic laws.

In Sarteneja there is no medical care or vet care. It's about 90 minutes to the nearest "medical facility". Dogs are not spayed or neutered so there are many feral street dogs that just wander the village. They are not aggressive or even bothersome to people, but it is quite sad. Some homes do not have electricity or running water. People are working to change all of that and are not asking for handouts.

The natural beauty is what made me want to visit Belize, but the people are the reason I want to stay. The simple life style calmed me, their generosity warmed me and their appreciation for any help I wanted to give made me feel like I was contributing to the good of mankind.

I can't wait to go back.

All photographs published courtesy of Caryn Ritchie

Caryn Welz-Ritchie is a recently retired psychotherapist. She is a columnist for The Register and Gateway Publications under the tag line Free Thoughts.

She is involved locally and internationally with animal rescue, rehabilitation, and release. She travelled to Wildtracks in Belize for the month of January, 2013, to work in their manatee and primate rescue facility.

Caryn is currently working on publishing a book of her writings.