Happy New Year from the ‘Bolas

Happy New Year friends and family! We welcome in 2011 with catch-up notes about our lives in Belize, Central America. It is about 6:30 a.m. as I write this. The sun is up, the clouds layer a blue sky and birds trill “Good Morning.” No mosquitoes or sand flies send my arms into propeller slaps so I am pleased. Of course, the girls, and Big Baba, are asleep – all of them, including the fourth wee one who joined the ‘Bolas 10 days ago, the dimpled cutie called “Azizah Grace.” (Then again, wouldn’t you be asleep if you awoke every 2-3 hours for 30 minutes of milky snacks?)

We have lived in Belize for nearly five months now. We have been here long enough to have friends to wave to as we drive down the main road of our neighborhood. We know the mailman well enough that he yells out , “Zeeeeee!” whenever he zips past Zuberi on his motorcycle. We know the principal at Zenani’s preschool well enough that we’ve driven over waterlogged roads to accept her invitation to a barbecue. I have enough new sisterfriends to have enjoyed a baby shower with a custom-made cake and, of course, the nerve-wracking don’t-cross-your-legs-arms-or-feet-or-say-the-word-baby clothespin game. We call our house “home.” We know the names of the folks who sell us our fresh fruits and vegetables. Slowly, slowly, we got people.

And we miss our people in the States too – those who know more about us than the fact that we’re from “States.” Those who know our nicknames, understand our humor and share our obsession with schedules and fast Internet service. Even though it is 83 degrees in January and we’re still rocking flip-flops and munching on melons, we miss our folks and the familiarity of home.

We miss people & things like: deli sandwiches slathered with Hellmann’s mayo; a sloppy, cheese-drippy slice of New York-style pizza; dancing at One Village; fizzy drinks at Red Robin; the clearance racks at Target; face-to-face talks and walks with homegirls in Barry Park; popping up at Muna’s house; Grey’s Anatomy on hulu.com; swimming with the nieces, nephews and cousins; autumn leaves; shea butter from Khim & Wiley; apple picking; deeeeep conversations with Bro. J; running up Kimber Road; seventh-grade silliness with Gia; hanging with the Ogdens; attending free speeches at SU (Muhammad Yunus & Ben Carson among many); Indian lunch buffets (shout-out to Samrat)…

The girls miss: Titilayo; the indoor playground at Shoppingtown; swimming at Thornden Park, hanging out at Sis’ house; visiting at Uncle Carl and Auntie Zinga’s house; Pap-Pap at Nob Hill; Tillie & Jameelah; Maya High, our fabulous babysitter; Brother Mike, Sister Kathy and Bu-gee; all our family.

What they enjoy about Belize: Western Dairies Ice Cream; Jamboree’s Restaurant; Swimming at the YWCA; Vashni and Cecilia; Mikey; Tia; new “family”; Shopping for “Ideals”; Bicycling; Bliss Centre for the Performing Arts and playing in the sun.
Even as we develop routines and relationships, our lives here present daily freshness. This is why we came: to gain fresh perspectives on living; to embrace the comforts that grow from discomfort; to challenge our beliefs; to engage ideas about living with less stuff, less rush and more patience and simplicity and expose our daughters to a culture defined by melanin-rich multicultural heritage and pride.

Here are 10 of our most memorable of the past months:

1. We came here a family of five and now we are six. This is a wonderful time when Yemurai, 7; Asali, almost 5 and Zenani, almost 3, jostle to hold Azizah, burp Azizah and re-diaper Azizah. Zuberi even caught ‘Nani lifting her shirt and saying, “Azizah, you want some milk?” Ahhhhh, we pray this Azizah adoration lasts well into their teenage years. We are so thankful to have found Audrey Budd, an amazing midwife who came to our home on December 23, 2010 and helped Tasneem pussssssshhhh Azizah Grace Tewogbola into the world. She de firs ‘Bola Belizean fuh true mahn! Much respect.

2. Patience is our professor. Everyday opportunities find us with lessons in slowwwwwing our roll; reducing our speed and limiting our expectations. Everything takes about twice as long as our frenetic American minds imagine. And we’re learning that slow and steady will get us to wherever we’re headed just fine.

3. Long, dark hair means you’re Latino, right? And if you’re eyes slant, you’re Asian, yes? And if you have locks, you’re black, true? Not really. But – full of American insistence on race identification – we used to think so. While many Belizeans do have African, Mennonite, Mayan, Mestizo, Chinese and East Indian heritage, many use one common identifier: Belizean. So, what to do with our American tendency to label and stereotype? Ditch it and do what truly matters: get to know folks one-on-one.

4. Race Matters. One day, about two months into the first school term, Yemu approaches me with a question: “Mommy, why were all my teachers in Syracuse white?” Hmmm. We did not think our little Yemu had much race consciousness – those were our adult issues to wrestle. But here was our daughter wondering why, in Belize, her school administrators, teachers and classmates are all shades of brown. Here, she mirrors intelligence, professionalism, education and excellence. And she’s right: In Syracuse, despite the fact that her grandmother is a principal and I have worked as a teacher, few to none of her school teachers looked like her. We wonder: what is the impact of living in a community in which you are the “minority?” and the one whose hue carries the stain of American racism? And what will it mean to her to be in a country where the prime minister, minister of education, university president, cable guy, food vendors, tour guides, cyclists and poets – nearly everyone- all wear brown skin? This we know: we are thrilled that here her skin does not inspire assumptions of inferiority but endless possibility.

5. Fresh Fast Food. Not once have the girls mentioned missing McDonalds, Wendy’s or Burger King. They will ask for pizza every now and again but their new loves are local. Hook these kids up with some garnaches, salbutes, panades (all corn-based foods with various toppings such as cheese, beans, cabbage, tomatoes, chicken or fish) or burritos and they are snack-happy. They all – yes, even Zenani – know how to make fresh lime juice and their favorite junk foods are “Takis,” corn chips dusted with spicy seasonings that color their fingers red and “ideals” sugary drinks sold in plastic pouches. Bring chocolate in this house and it will vanish – trust. But they’ll do the same with pineapple slices too.

6. No more cocktail question. You know it, maybe even used it yourself. This is the query that follows a simple “hello” in the States: What do you do? We can count on one hand the number of times either of us have been asked anything about careers or academic pedigree. People mostly want to know why we chose to come to Belize. (A few folks have asked if we’ve chosen a church yet.) All else, we guess, are details and not the measure of our character.

7. The Croc. We live along a bay of brackish, brown water. It’s the kind of water you would imagine canoeing or kayaking or paddleboating in. But we don’t. We don’t do much more than toss fallen coconuts and branches in to see the splash. It’s cuz, deep in the water, occasionally rising to the surface, and seen only by the eyes of Zuberi and visiting in-laws is….a crocodile. So, we just look at the ripples in the water, birds flying low enough to wet their wings and the air bubbles of fish.

8. Living awe-natural. Other than the croc, we have other animals that remind us that we exist as a part of nature and not as a commander of it. Tony, the rust-brown iguana, (who Zuberi says is as big as a pitbull) and his grass-green homies greet us every day. They eat through our compost and let the girls get thissssss close before they escape into the water. Crews of stray dogs prowl the streets, howl at night and make a mess of our trash. Birds – in vibrant reds, yellows and white – whistle and sing all day…and all night long. Geckos scuttle across the ceilings and a couple of times baby frogs somehow leapt into our living room. We also have colonies of mosquitoes and sandflies biting to make our acquaintance every night.

9. Surviving Hurricane Ricky. On occasion we’ve read or seen footage of the power of Mama Nature but living through a hurricane is a humbling, fascinating, unifying experience. The winds from Hurricane Richard sounded like a moaning, wailing, saaaaad woman. “Ohhhhh, ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Some water crept under our doors but other homes along the sea were flooded with mud and silt. Our grieved the loss of electricity for three days but learned to count ourselves fortunate. Other folks had fly-a-way roofs, soaked beds and destroyed electronics. Two folks died (one from the storm; another from a storm-related jaguar attack) And this was only a Category One storm! We sent mental shout-outs to the survivors of Katrina. It takes fierce winds to remind us who is really in charge.

10. Libraries. Everyone who knows the Tewogs know the public library is their joint. Librarians greet Tasneem and the girls by name. They attend storytime, pajama storytime, craft time and movie time. We LOVE the library. And, yes, Belize has libraries. But we didn’t know to get a card you must get the signature of a notary (not a big deal; there’s one in the building) and – if you’re not a Belize national – pay $43 BZ/$21.65 US per card. Why? Because, as explained by the head librarian, so many foreigners come here and leave…with their books. Wow. It’s really not expensive, she said. And it’s refundable. Still. Belizeans pay $3BZ/$1.50 US for a card and just because I’m a “foreigner” I have to front more cuz I might leave the country with a book? Two things happened: I did not get a library card. (I’ve taken to re-reading everything on our shelves and my bonus father got me a Nook!) And I have an even deeper love for the libraries in Syracuse. Those were some good times.

2011 hits us with the spirit of Kujichagulia – the Kwanzaa principle of self-determination. How will we define ourselves this year? How will we work within our new community? How will we celebrate life and love? So far we pledge to work the power of intention and the necessity of prayer. We pledge to observe with open perspectives, to experience with enjoyment, to learn with humility and live with gratitude and wonder. All praises to the Creator who lifts our wings. Amen & Ashe!