I promise this is not going to turn into a travelogue. It’s just a coincidence that a few important places for me are between A and D.
March 1999. I was all packed to go to Canada. I’d had my leaving drinks and everything. After finishing university, I had spent a couple of years working at Heathrow and was unsure as to what I was going to do. I had settled on doing this thing called Gap Challenge. I’m not sure the company exists anymore. It might have just changed its name. I was a bit late to the party in terms of doing a gap year type thing but whatever. The company sorted me out with a job in a hotel in the ski resort of Banff. I would have a six month contract making beds and waiting tables and hopefully figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
Didn’t work out that way! I was all packed and ready to go but there were complications with my work permit at the last minute and I had to drastically alter my plans. The company had nothing to offer me except teaching in Belize. It’s a bit of a step from making beds to making minds. It’s also a big step from a ski resort in Canada to a tiny village in Central America (not least in terms of my wardrobe requirements).
To be clear, I had NEVER considered being a teacher. I know I’ve been doing it for lots of years now but it was never part of the plan. People at the airport used to ask me if I was going to teach. I had a degree in English Literature and some people seemed to think that the two went hand in hand. I certainly didn’t. So, when I was offered a teaching job, I had no idea what that would entail.
It entailed this, for starters. This was the loo. Now, I’m from the North of England. When I moved down to London in 1992, there were a group of people at sixth form college who thought this was what I was probably used to. It wasn’t. There’s nothing like using one of these in the middle of the night with nothing but the light from your portable alarm clock to show you what’s in there with you. Sometimes I wished I didn’t have any light. All the light did was show you glimpses of what ‘might’ be there. It wasn’t a great hardship, however. I’ve always been pretty good at adapting and fitting in.
This was my room. It had windows on three sides which gave me a lovely breeze in the evenings to fend off the heat.
I should jump backwards a little bit, however. Arriving in the tropics was a big shock. I was 23 but still pretty young in terms of my experiences. I had never been away by myself on such a big journey. When I stepped off the plane in Cancun, the humidity hit me like a hot flannel in the face. My companions and I got a bus into the centre of the city where the company had paid for a night in the Best Western for us. I was absolutely shattered and went straight to sleep without sorting out anything for the next morning. I just knew we had to get a bus at 7:30am down to the Mexico/Belize border where we would be picked up by our hosts. The aforementioned travel alarm clock proved to be useless in the capacity for which it was designed and I was blissfully asleep until 7:15am when one of m fellow travellers knocked on my door and asked why I wasn’t up yet.
There ensued a mass panic on my part as I put the same clothes I had flown out in back on and hurried out to the bus station. I just made it. No breakfast; in fact no food since the rubbish on the plane the day before and with the stink of 24 hour old clothes clinging to me. Add to that the fact that I was jet lagged and still dealing with the heat and I was not a pretty picture. I was questioning just what on Earth I thought I was doing. This was all very different from making beds in Canada.
After six hours on the bus from Cancun down to Chetumal, we got on a another bus to the border where we were met and taken to the Wildtracks lodge outside of Sarteneja on the Shipstern lagoon. It was dark by the time we got there and there was no obvious place to wash. There were several rooms with beds but I was the only male. Since my parents raised me to be a gentleman, I took the sofa. What followed was a demonstration of just how naïve I was when it came to life in the tropics. I tried to set up the mosquito net I had brought with me but, unable to find anything to attach it to, it ended up just draped over my face and body. My dad had looked at me very strangely when I was packing my sleeping bag and I now found out why. I may as well have just slept in the oven. that was probably the most uncomfortable night of my life. Well, on second thought there are a couple more. It had now been quite a while since I had washed or eaten anything decent.
The next morning I was reborn. In the early morning light I went and jumped into the cool water of the nearby lagoon and washed away all the travelling I had done. I had fried eggs and a change of clothes and finally felt like myself again.
I spent about four days at Wildtracks with the others before we were driven out to our schools to meet our host families.
This was the view from my house. I was lucky enough to be given a placement on the lagoon, in a little village called Copper Bank. There wasn’t much there but a few fishing boats, a bar or two, a couple of shops and a school. I was going to be staying with the Headteacher of the school, Snr Valerio Gonzalez (a man in his mid-thirties), his wife Betty and their two-year-old son, Yasir. It was a fantastic place. There was a nice breeze off the lagoon and it was very peaceful, tucked away as it was. We were an hour’s bus ride away from the nearest large settlement, a place called Orange Walk, and that bus came once a day at 7 in the morning. It returned at 1 in the afternoon. Besides that, if you wanted in or out of Copper Bank, you were kind of stuck.
When I first started at the school, I was given my class, Standard III. There were eight of them (Dulio, Alma and Nayeli are sadly the only names I can remember from my first ever class) and they hated me! I knew nothing about teaching and had been given very little in the way of training. It turned out that they had had a volunteer before me who they had loved. His name was Aman and they all but accused me of killing him to get the job. My teaching partner, Carlos, a big Manchester United fan helped me a great deal and was always there with a sense of humour about things. I was also lucky to have another volunteer there with me. Her name was Jo and I think she was as new to teaching as I was
It took me a while to get into the swing of things. I was told to do prepositions with them (for two weeks) and I had no other clue. Slowly but surely, however, I started to grow on them and they started to grow on me. I do look back on that time, after a career in teaching, and cringe. My lessons must have been awful! I certainly would never have got a Good from Ofsted.
I spent a very happy three months there, and have never felt healthier. I was eating primarily rice and beans supplemented with the odd bit of chicken and potato, and drinking water most of the time. After school, I’d take myself off to the shop and have a glass bottle of Pepsi in the sun to celebrate having made it through another school day. I played football with the kids and did lots and lots of reading.
I’d taken a few books out there with me but these were soon finished and I found myself with nothing to read in the evenings. It was then that I discovered the treasure trove of literature at the Last Resort. The Last Resort was a holiday cabin village place run by A Canadian lady called Donna Nolan and her Belizean partner, Enrique Flores.
I would often go over in the afternoon and have a drink with them, sometimes watch a movie. I even had a burger there once and we sat and watched The English Patient. One of their cabins was basically a library, stacked to the rafters with all kinds of books. While I was there I read loads: The Stand, The Name of The Rose, Interview with The Vampire, The Bachman Books, a bit of Tom Clancy, a bit of John Grisham and one of my favourites of all time, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (a science fiction story that has been a big influence on my own writing).
I went for a swim in the lagoon every morning and the kids would ride past and kid me that the crocodiles would eat me. I thought they were having me on until one morning I came out to the sight of this:
In the rear of the picture you can see the jetty I used to go swimming off. Fair to say I didn’t spend as much time in the water after that. In and out! Turns out I’d been in there at the worst possible time too. These things hunt at dawn and dusk, exactly when I was poncing around in there having a Timotei moment.
Other highlights of my trip included the Mother’s Day party in Copper Bank, a week’s holiday on Caye Caulker, a lovely island off the coast, and a school trip to see the Mayan ruins to the South.
I’ve still got the hat. Mum bought it for me before I left. It’s not the hat but it’s the same one. I gave the old one to one of my Year 6’s when it broke during a trip to the Isle of Wight and had to phone around many John Lewis shops before attaining one of the last remaining examples. It’s the same one I wore on Book Day when I dressed as Alan Grant. The Mayan ruins were excellent. I wish I’d had more time (and a better camera).
I left at the end of June. Valerio had disappeared after payday (he often did that) and I never got to say goodbye to him, although I did receive a letter when I got home. Betty and Yasir, Donna and Enrique and some of the kids came to wave me off as I got on the bus to head back to Mexico and then Texas.
It would take me another two and a half years before I finally gave in to becoming a teacher. After Texas, I went straight home and straight back to work at the airport and didn’t give it another thought. How could a few months next to a lagoon be a suitable preparation for a career. It had been a nice diversion but nothing more. At least that’s what I thought.
Also, above were my favourite pair of trainers ever. I looked for another pair the same but it was not to be.
Thanks for reading.
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