It’s hard to know even where to start, but my time in Belize is coming to an end. My year of crazy adventures and even crazier medicine and surgery has almost come full circle. Working for a non profit shelter in what is technically a third world country does not take care of things like student loans and retirement, and so I knew that this ride would not last forever. It’s hard not to get emotional, because despite the lows, there have been immeasurable highs. Despite the sweating, the muddy feet, the endless stream of dogs who can’t seem to keep their bandages clean and dry no matter how many times that I swear their leg will fall off and I pull out my hair and….I digress. Like I said, it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.
Belize is this tiny country that has taught me so much. The things I have learned have ranged from medical, to language, to cultural/local, to so much about myself.
When I think back I’m not even sure what I thought this would be like. I knew what I would have to extend myself medically and be pushed to my limits. As it turned out, after a short time, I was left as the only vet on an island of 13,000+ people for the next six months. If I couldn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. So I tried. Hard. I learned how to spay dogs much more efficiently than I had ever before and got good at this. I learned how to remove legs and toes without wanting to run and hide (almost). Over time I realized that tick fever (ehrlichia) has about twenty different and unrelated presentations (note, when Ingrid whispers tick fever, listen). I started to recognize ringworm from across the room. I attempted to perfect my physical exam, as many times it was the only “test” available. I learned how to do house calls, how best to perform home euthanasias, and did the first of many after hours emergencies of my career. I figured out how to heal bite wounds, hit by golf cart wounds, gunshot wounds, run over by taxi wounds, machete wounds, and unknown wounds. I bandaged and sutured and bandaged and sutured through work days and evenings and weekends. I learned to “make do” times a million and to never waste even a single gauze square.
The short version is that those of us that only speak 1 or 2 languages basically suck. I would strongly advise all children of the world be exposed to multiple languages, because we North Americans are sheltered and deficient in our multi-lingual skills. Officially Belize is an English speaking country. This used to be a British dependency. Most born and bred Belizeans will speak Criol to family and friends and are fluent in English and many speak Spanish. Some know Garifuna and Mayan languages as well. Many islanders, however, are first or second generation immigrants from other nearby latin countries, all of whom speak Spanish. I grew up speaking English and French. I started to learn the basics of Spanish online before I arrived, and I mean very basic. I quickly realized that at least eighty percent of my clientele would prefer to, or only could, communicate in this language. I got Ingrid to start teaching me, we made a list of three words or phrases on the clinic white board right next to the list of patients and who needed their bandages changed. Once I had mastered them we changed the list. I listened carefully every time clients and staff were talking to each other, and I started trying to use my new words intermixed with English words in sentences until I could start to string multiple words together. I got laughed at, I laughed at myself, I made lots of mistakes. But people noticed, they smiled, they appreciated my efforts and encouraged me to continue. By month eight I was able to travel through Central America with my non-spanish speaking sister and get by. Learning a new language as an adult is hard, my grammar is terrible, but I feel proud for trying.
Things in Belize happen in their own time. I had to let go of my frantic need to be on time. One of the most common phrases here is, “Right now.” This actually translates to, “I’ll do it in a few minutes when I have a chance but not immediately.” Life got easier when I figured that out. It turned out that the world does not spontaneously combust when things happen in a more relaxed timeframe. Many things have to be done by hand or in person, and that means waiting. Get used to it.
Belizeans are friendly, you just have to try. In my experience the people who live here are more reserved and private at first, but always extremely respectful of the doctor. After a few visits once clients got to know me, they got more relaxed, saying hello and joking with me. I learned while on many outdoor morning runs that if I smiled, they smiled. If I said good morning, I got lots of kind responses. At my Crossfit gym I soon felt like one of the group. It just took a little time.
Buying food here is not a one stop shop. It can take visits to 3-5 stores to finish buying eggs, bananas, meat, vegetables, and dry goods, depending on what you need. I also learned not to often go out looking for a specific fresh item, it’s better to keep an open mind and buy what looks good. Living on an island means that sometimes nothing looks good. I have eaten more wrinkled vegetables than I can count. Things that I would have thrown out in the past are mostly fair game. Expired items mean half price, and that’s like finding gold!
My favorite Belizean food is conch ceviche. Conch is the big pink shell that you place to your ear to hear the ocean…and it’s delicious mixed raw with lime juice, tomato, onion, cilantro and spices, scooped up on a tortilla chip. I’m going to miss rum punch too.
I can go anywhere and do anything on a bicycle. Enough said.
Hmmm, I think this will take more reflection once my time here is done. I know I can be a lot braver than I thought. I can live in a tropical climate with no a/c. I can easily go without real shopping, fast food, going to movies, and buying “stuff” for months on end. I learned to appreciate side trips to Mexico. I can get a chain back on a bike and bathe without running water as needed. Perhaps I have more skills in areas both veterinary and otherwise that I never gave myself credit for.
I think as vets, most of us can be pretty hard on ourselves. Wondering if we are making the right decisions or doing a good enough job. For me, being left to my own devices for a year with close to no input on thousands of cases was a challenge. Ten years of experience came in very handy. I am so thankful to my colleagues back home who answered my pleas for help from time to time. It also turned out that emergency on call was not as awful as I supposed it might be and I could survive it. The positive feedback from the community fueled my energy to continue on.
So, I know that I will look back on my year in Belize with fondness and amazement and laughs. My blog has been a way to keep track of many stories and events, much like a diary. I have a few more blogs to write and post in my remaining time here, and then I will take a break. I plan to visit my homeland of Canada for the upcoming holidays, and then I will move on to my next opportunity as a small animal vet in Doha, Qatar, a tiny oil rich country in the Middle East. I have had a few people ask me to continue on writing even after I leave Belize, so I will see where things take me. I am so grateful for those who have taken the time to follow along.