Saturday, May 27, did not begin well. The previous night I had tried to convince my project director to let me work in the field. She objected, and talked me into staying in camp one more day. While this was not ideal, I was consoled by the knowledge that I would be working in the lab again.
But shortly after waking on the 27th, I was informed that the lab would be closed. This put me in a dismal mood, since I was afraid it meant I would be useless.
Thankfully, I ran into one of Texas Camp’s caretakers shortly after the Humboldt crew left for the field. This man, Luís, proved to be an excellent conversation partner. He looked to be in his upper 20s; was intelligent, friendly, and energetic. Talking with Luís lifted my spirits, and as we spoke the camp’s Osteologist (bone scientist) briefly joined us. She said that she would be cleaning teeth later in the morning, and I volunteered to help.
Happy that I had found something to do, I passed the time by conversing with Ms. Sharon. We talked for a long time, and she told me that Dr. Valdez (the director of the Program for Belize Archaeological Project) was on good terms with the local Mennonites.
This intrigued me. Before coming to Belize, I had been told that the Mennonites are less tolerant of jaguars than some other people in the country. I thought about asking Dr. Valdez about speaking with some of the Mennonites, but I decided against it. I had been warned that jaguar conservation is a sensitive issue amongst this group, and elected to let the topic go.
The tooth-cleaning session ended up being cancelled. Disappointed, I once again resorted to vigorously cleaning the lab. This allowed me to feel like I was being helpful, inconsequential though it was. Luckily my day would improve at dinner.
At dinner I found myself sitting with two students from the University of Texas at Austin: Alex and Danin. They were a delight to talk to, and I was quite impressed with Danin. She told me how she was originally from Cambodia, along with a little of what she hoped to do. Danin struck me as one of the most driven people I had spoken with in a long time, and I felt inspired by her. But Luís and Oscar stole the show.
Earlier that day, two of my fellow Humboldt students told me that Luís was a skilled painter. I passed this information to Danin, and she immediately questioned Luís about it.
It turns out that he was far more talented than I realized. Luís showed us some pictures of his art, and it was incredible. He told me that he was self taught, and that he occasionally sells some of his paintings at the highly-regarded Belize Zoo. I was stunned. Luís struck me as one of the most gifted people I had ever met, and I felt that he deserved better than his current position. I was about to learn that Luís’ brilliance was hereditary.
Eventually Oscar joined our conversation. He is second-in-command at Texas Camp, and is Luís’ father. Oscar told Danin, Alex, and myself that he had done everything he could to help his son, but that his limited income meant he could only do so much. He also told us about his own journey.
Oscar began working with the Program for Belize when both he and Dr. Valdez were much younger. Initially, Oscar could not read, speak English, use a tape measure, or cut a straight board. Despite this, he built himself a house at age 21 – learning how to do so on the fly. This experience improved his construction skills immensely, and he ended up building all of the structures at Texas Camp. Oscar also taught himself how to read, and he learned English through his involvement with American archaeologists. Oscar and Luís were clearly two of the most intelligent people I had ever met.
As I went to bed that night, I was haunted by the day’s conversations. How many other hidden geniuses are there, prevented from realizing their full potential by a lack of opportunities? That evening, I made a decision. If I ever become someone with any sort of influence, I will use it to help people like Luís and Danin. I hope I get to make good on that promise one day.