Here are some photos from my trip; read more to find out the context behind them.
A few weeks ago I embarked with my church on a mission trip to Corozal, Belize. Our task was two-fold: help rebuild the home of the pastor of the local church and run a small VBS for the local children in the community.
Our trip to Belize began at 3:00 AM, as our flight was early and it was a long drive to the airport. Heading into the experience, I was nervous and did not know what to expect. This would be the first service trip ever for me, as most of my other traveling was for leisure. A combination of what I have heard from friends and seen on social media left me with the impression that there would be plenty of Instagram photo-ops and little connection with the locals. A friend of mine had gone on a similar sort of trip a while back and posted a photo of her with a small child with the caption: “I want one”. This is the sort of experience I thought I would have.
We took a connecting flight to Belize, and I slept most of the first leg of the trip. Everybody was relatively tired, and social groups started to form. By the end of the second flight, I was busy filling out the customs sheet we needed to enter the country. I had an aisle seat, and my friend grabbed my shoulder suddenly, interrupting my world of passport numbers and Eminem. She pointed to the window, and I moved as far as the seatbelt let me to see what was going on. The view was breathtaking. Sparkly turquoise waters spread across the template the airplane window allotted, with splotches of darker water and land spread throughout. The closer we got to the airport, the more the landscape changed. The beautiful water gave way to dense bunches of forestland that were parsed by thin, dirt roads and small towns.
When we touched down in Belize and exited the plane, a wall of heat and humidity hit me. I had been wearing thick sweatpants for the trip since airports and planes are usually on the chilly side, but I immediately regretted it. For the same reason, I was also wearing a hoodie and wanted to take it off. But our trip had some guidelines regarding clothing since we did not want to offend anyone and I was wearing a tank top underneath. Even when entering the airport — there were fans set up — I was sweating and ran to the bathroom to change into a t-shirt. We got our bags and met up with the people running the mission trip outside. We only spent ten minutes waiting for the bus to meet us but beads of sweat were dripping down my neck. When a white-painted school bus met us, we piled in and quickly found out that it felt like an oven.
As soon as the bus started moving, a breeze hit us through the windows — all of which were opened or discovered broken. The bus ride was long, roughly 2 hours, but mercifully it was interrupted by a stop at a restaurant by the side of the road. The small patch of land where the restaurant was located also housed several shacks, with children playing with what seemed like a soccer ball and adults sitting down watching them. This stop was also where we saw our first few dogs, many of which would come later. The meal was surprisingly good, and gathered quite a few grunts of contentment. Everybody was fixated on the sodas, all of which were made with real cane sugar.
After exiting the restaurant, full and happy, we embarked on the latter leg of the ride to our hotel. The location of our hotel was right on the edge of the bay, overlooking the greenish water and cities in the distance. We rushed — leaders and students alike — to find out where we would be spending seven mornings and nights. Perhaps the most satisfying material discovery on trip (besides the food — but more on that later) was that our rooms had AC and a fan. I did not care about the small, musty smelling bathroom or the oddly bumpy beds and pillows, but absorbed the much missed AC during the nights. Of course, we became spoiled every time we left the rooms, hit hard with the heat and humidity, but entering the rooms and turning on the AC after a long, sweaty day of work elicited an indescribable feeling.
The next day, we went to the church we would be working with for a morning worship service. It was located in a small town, comprised of lots of dogs, dirt roads, and run down houses. The service was mostly in English, yet the pastor only spoke Spanish, leaving the majority of our group with confused faces. After the morning service, we walked around the town in groups — literally going door to door — asking people if they would like to send their children to the VBS we were running at the church. Along the way, I got to see what life was like up close. Children would run around, either helping their parents with chores or relaxing under a tree eating fruit. There was lots of fruit everywhere, mainly growing on plentiful trees across the town. One of the children that we were walking with offered us some fruit which we picked off of the ground, of which I still do not know the name. The culture — from as far as I could observe — was tightly knit and very communal (the opposite of NYC).
After we recruited for our camp, we returned to the church for another worship service. Upon returning back, we were greeted by a group of ladies who served us dinner. They cooked for the church and had made us a delicious meal of chicken, beans and rice. We devoured it with a mixture of gratefulness and contentment.
Later that evening we had a debrief session with the missionaries who were running the operation and learned about the conditions we would work in and the rules we needed to follow. In sum, we learned three things: one, we would need to wear long pants and long socks in 90 degree, 100% humidity conditions; two, bug spray would be our best friend over the course of the next week; and three, we need to drink water and gatorade like there’s no tomorrow. We also found out that there was a nearby grocery store that the hotel had a good relationship with.
Lying in bed that night, a thousand thoughts raced through my head. I was not sure if I would have the strength to maintain a strong, persistent attitude whilst working in the immense heat and humidity that I’m sure I would face the next day. I also spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how and if I was going to adapt to the conditions of our environment during the following several days.
Alas, morning soon arrived — rather early, at 6:30 — and we all marched down from our rooms to eat breakfast. Somewhat of an American-style breakfast met us, with eggs, sausage, and pancakes, and we chatted about our nights and the day ahead of us. Armed with long pants (cargo pants for me and my brother), heavily lathered bug spray (which smelled terrible), and full water bottles, we boarded the bus and embarked for the first time to the work site.
The work site was located next to the church we had visited the previous night. We got off the bus and were greeted by one of the elders of the church who would take the role of leader on the site for the next several days. The first task at hand was to strip and repaint old screens from the pastor’s home. There were about ten of them, so most of our team focused on that. The remainder of the group started to paint the house. Work continued through the morning until our lunch break. This is where we got our first taste of authentic Belizean food — and it was heavenly. To us, it seemed like the cuisine was Mexican food. With more emphasis on chicken, lime, and other spices, Belizean food quickly became one of my favorite kinds — ranking up there with Korean food in my mind.
After lunch, we continued work till around 2:30. Then we started to welcome the kids into the church to sing some songs and played games. Something that I started to notice right away was that most of the children, even though they were very small and young, were incredibly talented at soccer. Often without shoes on, they could kick hard, control the ball well, and run very fast. Playing and interacting with the children — really getting to know them — was probably one of the more gratifying experience I had on the trip. I found them to be so genuinely happy and lighthearted, excited to have the opportunity to kick around a new soccer ball or do a craft that it energized me and allowed me to give it my all during the VBS even after working for hours before.
Following the end of our VBS session, we would eat dinner — again prepared by the group of women who had cooked for us at lunch and at the previous night’s dinner. The food was fantastic, in part due to our hunger, and we went back to the hotel to rest.
The next few days went in similar fashion, with lunch and dinner serving as well-needed times of restoration and encouragement. They were landmarks in the day; something to look forward to. As the week progressed, the soccer games and piggy back rides started to add up and I really got to know several of the children in the town. Our team eventually moved on to focus more on painting the house rather than the screens, and we became more and more adventurous with our fruit experiences.
One of the tasks I had was to drive out to a different site where all of the missionaries’ gear and tools were. I, along with three other students, a leader, and one of the missionaries reorganized a large storage unit loaded with rusty equipment and water coolers. Because we were working close to noon, the sun beat down on the metal storage unit and made the inside feel like an oven. We also needed to use work gloves in order not to get cut by the rusty tools. This activity took more mental endurance than anything else on the trip, but after completing it — rather efficiently, if I do say so myself — I felt a great sense of relief and pride.
At the end of the week, after working on the house, we had a rest day. This was our day to act more as vacationers or tourists than mission workers — and we fulfilled that role pretty darn well. Not only did we get to snorkel with sharks, but also walked along the beach buying trinkets and great food. It was the perfect day of relaxation that we all deeply needed, but also provided a sobering reminder that we only temporarily immersed ourself in a different environment, and would be returning to our lives of relative wealth and comfort — leaving the community we learned to love behind.
I thought about this on our flight back to NY, and how all of the hours and energy I poured into our work in Corozal is really nothing in the grand scheme of things, and how large the gap was between what I wanted to change and what I could change. However, the journey and growth that I was able to enjoy over that week cannot be understated. The ability to do meaningful work and spend time with a community in need — not to mention the novelty of a trip like that for me — is truly a blessing.
I am grateful to everyone who allowed me to healthily journey down to Belize, regardless of how direct their role. Of course, I am extraordinarily thankful for my parents, the church, and the various donors who enabled me to travel in the first place. But equally important are those who saved my life: the Stanford team, Dr. Steinberg, Dr. Jordan, and my grandfather. In the midst of a busy and hectic trip like Belize, it was easy to forget how lucky I was to be there in the first place.