June 28, 2017 was probably my most unsettling day in Belize – for an unexpected reason.
After an easy morning, I headed to Everest Indian Restaurant for lunch to visit Raj. He was quite busy, which I was happy to see. I sat down at an indoor table, and was soon joined by an American expat named Elsa.
Elsa was a kind, pleasant woman. She appeared to be in her upper sixties, and had lived in Belize for the past twelve years. She was a long-time friend of Raj’s, and we had a good conversation.
I told Elsa that I had been toying with the idea of visiting the Peace Corps office in Belmopan. I knew that Peace Corps volunteers had previously worked at the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, and wanted to know if they still did. Elsa encouraged me to do so, and gave me directions to the location.
I therefore left Everest after lunch and began following Elsa’s directions. I eventually found myself walking through a secluded corner of Belmopan. I crunched along dirt roads through a quiet neighborhood, seeing few people. I got turned around once or twice, but managed to find the Peace Corps’ office. I immediately wished I had not.
There was nothing welcoming about this place. It was surrounded by a tall, menacing, and seemingly impenetrable fence. With its fortified-looking exterior, the main building appeared to be designed more for war than peace. I had a deep sense that I should not be there.
But I had walked all this way, and was unwilling to simply turn around. I found a guard station, and explained that I was an American citizen who was trying to learn about jaguars. I had heard that the Peace Corps used to work in Cockscomb, and I wanted to know if they still did.
The guard took my passport and told me to wait outside the gate. I stood there for several minutes, until a well-dressed American woman came out to see me. She was polite and friendly, but it was obvious that my presence was not appreciated. She told me that only pre-approved individuals were allowed in The woman then gave me a business card, and encouraged me to call and schedule an appointment. She returned my passport and went back inside.
I left immediately. Everything about the Peace Corps’ office, from its militaristic architecture to its secluded location, felt paranoid to me. I never called.
After that unpleasant experience, I swung by the Belize Forest Department’s headquarters to ask about research permits. The person I needed to speak to was not there, but I was given his contact information. I then began the long walk back to Raj’s house.
As I walked, I made the mistake of allowing myself to think. I began to feel trapped by my graduate program. I was increasingly realizing that I was not an academic, and that scholastic achievements meant nothing to me.
I loved what I was doing in Belize: speaking to fascinating people about topics that interested me, taking detailed notes, and imagining how I might share those stories with the public. I found that infinitely more fulfilling than paying thousands of dollars to shake my fists at capitalism.
My ruminating ceased when I finally made it back to Raj’s house. After dark, Raj and I sat on his balcony and chatted in the cool night air. He told me stories about his life in Nepal – which I do not feel comfortable sharing. I was grateful for his company, but just as happy to go to bed. After trudging all around Belmopan that day, I was exhausted.