Monday, January 6, 2014

First World/Third World Beginnings

We’ve traveled from Indiana to Belize to meet up with our oldest daughter, who has been on a kind of post-college walk-about in Central America for the past 4 months. 

This cross-cultural opportunity is sorely limited given our four-day stay. Frustrating—yet moving toward acceptance, we've known in advance the rush that will be this breeze-by trip.  I feel the tug of the unfamiliar and a keen awareness of our white American privilege as we move through Belize City’s narrow pot-holed streets. It’s a roiling chaos of old taxi vans, golf carts, bicycles, walking people, locals, tourists, backpackers. There are street dogs, and decaying dirty-white, pink, green, and aquamarine colonial buildings –all mixed up with leaning shacks, garbage heaps, lines strung with drying laundry. The whole busy scene infused with the scent of frying chicken, fish, diesel fumes, and coconut scented sun screen.  Languages: English, Creole, Spanish, holler and chatter all around.

Honestly, with all these new stimuli swirling around us, and noting the pungent life-force of this other world, I am more than anything else in the simple joy and ache of reuniting as a family. Our oldest waits for us with her backpack and ukulele leaning up against a café table near the water taxi that will take us to a gleaming beach resort.  She runs with outstretched arms to embrace her father, sister, and me. She is tanned, clear-eyed, full of stories and quite fully grounded and confident in her experience of living the moment and working her way around Guatemala, Honduras, and after this break with us, the rest of Central America.  

We enter a kind of dream of palm trees, iguanas, white sand, and the industry of service to our every need.  This is provided by men and women who leave their homes along the pot -holed streets each morning before the sun rises, to run our water taxis, make our breakfasts, pour our Belikin beers, and ask again and again, “You doing well Mam? Can I get you anything?”   

My daughters, husband and I accept these attentions awkwardly, being the Midwesterners we are and more accustomed to self-serve vacations, and I speak for myself alone here when I say I’m never fully able to embrace the illusion of this extravagance as I watch a brown skinned man whose name I never learn, rake up the daily detritus of plastic bottles, sandals, and many wheelbarrows full of trash that wash up every morning on our white Belizean beach.

We hang out and mostly listen, mesmerized and sometimes drop-jawed as our daughters talk about their recent adventures. Our younger daughter spent time this fall interning at a couple of southwest side Chicago schools and has recently had her own walk beyond the veil of her sheltered upbringing.  They’ve become independent young women.  They understand things about third worlds we still do not.   We are following them now, hanging on their words and experiences in states of vicarious thrill and awe.  How did they become so fearless?  How did we let them go?

We snorkel a reef, paddle around in an ocean kayak, and enjoy the warm wind blowing our hair back in  wordless rides across the shimmering water from one site to another. We laugh and drink beer together.  Together again, but in a brand new way.

Time comes when we all must part ways. Our oldest by chicken bus and water ferry south, to Guatemala and the hostel she’ll be working at for a couple of weeks. My husband, younger daughter and I by taxi and plane back to the snowy states and the beginning of another year of school and work in the American Midwest.

I think of my 23 year old daughter waiting alone on a dock for Mimo, the ferryman between Punta Gorda, Belize and Livingston, Guatemala.  She’s told us he captains an uncertain boat, and describes the comedy of his banging, thrashing, waving and cursing over his puttering engine and his less-then punctual schedule day to day.

I think of the sun going down and worry about her waiting in the dark as if she were a young child.   For a moment, I must again let go of my desperate, weeping urge to accompany her across the dark water.  Time has long passed since I’ve been able to see her safely to the other shore.    And yet the primal urge to be in the boat with her—to keep us all together never leaves me. 

Looking down through the clouds from the airplane, I sift through a mix of feeling as we leave the balmy, complicated cocktail umbrella land of tourists and the hard working poor.   We flew here didn’t we? Intangible things make the world go round, keep the human race alive and more boats afloat than foundering.   These invisible things guide each of us in mysterious ways on our respective paths through life.    I must trust the wind under these wings, the skill of the pilot, the functioning power of these engines.  I will trust that we’ll all land safely and surely be together again soon.  

So begins another year.

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse
Photo Credit: Kristin Noelle Hubbard


  1. lovely written voyage of the paradoxes of privilege, success, adventure blended with love, youth and invincibility mixed together to make a life teaching each other. thank you.

  2. Lovely writing. I understand perfectly that desire to take her to the other shore, and the need to let her go...

  3. You write so hauntingly of these partings and comings together, the letting go and holding on, with your two radiant, grownup daughters. I am following you, holding my breath, trusting your trust that it is all good, that "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Thank you for this, and for so much more. MKP

  4. I felt like I was on this journey with you Beth. Every emotion was felt. You must be so proud of your children and the heart they have for the less fortunate.

  5. wow is all I can say. So beautiful. crying...