Lessons from Belize

We had a rare hour of downtime before dinner, so a group of us started heading up the dirt road in search of a cold, refreshing bottle of Coke. The boys had insisted that the tiny store was “right up the hill,” so we started climbing, the oppressive sun beating down on our necks, our water bottles filled with lukewarm water that did little to quench our thirst. It had been a long day--our last work day--and our bodies were aching, having no where to go to rest and recharge.

The longer we climbed, the more apparent it became that we were going the wrong way. “Oh, you meant the store with the cool view? That’s up that other hill,” our high school boys so thoughtfully pointed out.

Begrudgingly, we turned around and headed back down the hill and a few people decided it wasn’t worth another climb. Time to rest was precious and we were spending ours exerting more energy. I paused for a beat, internally debate with myself, weighing the options. I decided to keep going, to see what this store was all about. After all, it might be our last opportunity to see a new part of the village before we left the next morning.

So again we climbed, but this time, in a new direction.

“This better be worth it!” I huffed.
“Wow I’m old,” I lamented, out of breath.
“How did you guys find this place before?” I wondered.

Finally we reached the top. We quickly realized this little store was owned by a family we had met that week--the most hospitable and good-hearted people with a sweet daughter who attended our Vacation Bible School--and this was the house with the incredible view. They immediately invited us to climb their roof to see for ourselves.

The precocious six-year-old confidently led us up unfinished, rickety, wooden steps to a view that took our breath away. We could point out the school where we were staying to the left and see the rooftops of houses past the Guatemalan border to the right.

Belize-rooftop-view

How did I almost miss this?

After taking a few pictures with my phone, I put it away and I tried to take as many mental snapshots as I could. I smiled and watched as one of my fellow leaders promised to bring that little girl a “flying saucer” (frisbee) next time he saw her.

The family was eager to show us all that they had to offer, letting us see their baby chicks and giving us maps of Belize they had kept just for visitors like us. We bought a round of Cokes and wished we could do more.

“Come back tonight and see the stars!” they invited us over and over again.

Oh, sweet friends, can’t you see that you are the stars?

--

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A month ago, I went on my first international mission trip as an adult leader with a group of 40 high school students and leaders to the beautiful country of Belize. I’ve spent the last two years volunteering as a small group leader for these incredible kids, so when our international year for trips came into rotation, it was an easy decision to make. I would find a way to raise the money and make it work.

Mission trips are unique in that they condense a lot into just a few days. A lot of work, a lot of God moments, a lot of relationship-building, a lot of reflection. They’re transformative, often in ways we don’t necessarily see or understand right away. This wasn’t my first rodeo, even as an adult leader on a mission trip (I went on three trips in middle and high school and last year, I went to Cherokee, NC as a leader), but taking a group on an international trip is a different experience altogether.

The timing of the trip was impeccable, though planning and preparing for it just added to the need to get away. I had just completed my biggest and most stressful week of work to date, and I could tell that I needed to take a temporary step back from some of my relationships with others. This summer has been taxing on my spirit and my creativity and I was desperate for a break. Perhaps a relaxing vacation would have made more sense...but God must have had other plans.

The trip was an incredible experience that stretched us all. We ran a Vacation Bible School (VBS) for the kids in the local village and fixed up the school where we were staying. We worshipped alongside the community, sang songs, visited local stores, and bought every glass bottle of Coke we could get our hands on. We visited the Mayan ruin, Xunantunich, and gazed over both Belize and Guatemala from the top. We took a water taxi and went snorkeling in the second largest living coral reef in the world. We braided each other’s hair every day and eventually stopped wondering or caring what we looked like, with no mirrors except the one in each other’s eyes. We slept on concrete floors and took cold showers, bought trinkets and handmade goods from local artisans, and ate every combination of chicken, rice, and beans imaginable. The week was full and yet it felt like we had only just begun our work there.

Victorious-Nazarene-School
Chacos-at-Xunantunich
Caye-Caulker-Belize
Caye-Caulker

Often times, you don’t really get a real chance to reflect upon experiences such as this. Transitioning back into work and life happens too quickly. I knew I had learned a lot, but I couldn’t quite articulate what exactly, until now. I’m sure I will realize how much more work God has done in me and in my group even later, but I’m already so grateful for the lessons learned. I hope to carry them with me into life as I know it now, into the reality that I have created for myself, and to temper my thoughts and actions with a broader understanding of the way the world lives elsewhere.

So here we go. 

6-lessons-from-belize

Six lessons learned from Belize:

1. Discomfort provides perspective and serves as a foundation for gratitude.

As mentioned above, our accommodations in Belize were a bit...rough. We were warned ahead of time that we’d be sleeping on the floor, so it wasn’t a complete surprise, but sleeping in mosquito net cocoons on 1-inch blow up mattresses, avoiding the 14+ stray dogs that hung around our living quarters (and possibly came into our room at night...), throwing our toilet paper into trash cans, and just being constantly dirty and uncomfortable definitely took its toll on all of us. In fact, perhaps the most difficult part of it was not having anywhere to go to rest and recharge our batteries for days. But these discomforts were minor sacrifices. We realized we could live like this for a week because honestly? The people we were serving didn’t have it much better and that was how they lived ALL the time. And guess what? They were happy. The kids came into VBS each day with huge smiles on their faces, grateful for what they had. It helped knowing that we would get to stay in a hotel the last night of our trip, but we went to bed each night with a new perspective of what it meant to be comfortable, safe, and content. Besides, if I hadn’t pushed through my discomfort just a bit longer, I would have missed out on connecting with our neighbors and seeing that incredible view.

2. Your mind takes better photos than your camera.

While I definitely planned out a few pictures with Instagram in mind (guilty as charged) and I took a lot of pictures on the trip (it was part of my duties as a chaperone after all), I made it a point to put it away and be in the moment as best as I could. At the end of the day, I could never capture the way that the view from the top of the Mayan ruin took my breath away or the beautiful scene that unfolded as the children and the high schoolers played together and everyone laughed and ran around like they were having the best time ever. Not going to lie, I can’t wait to see the GoPro footage our boys took, but I’ll remember how I felt more than anything.

3. When you stop caring so much about how you look, you start caring more about how you treat others.

It’s a strange feeling not having access to a mirror for a week. You’re aware that your eyebrows are becoming unruly and your face is probably breaking out from sweat and sunscreen and your hair is a frizzy mess. But at some point, it no longer matters. One of my high school girls told me she thought about taking her mirror at home down when she got back because being away from it for a week showed her just how unconsciously obsessive she was about looking at her reflection. Later, when I finally got a peek at myself and at the wear and tear my body endured, I cringed and asked aloud, “Do I really look like that?” But then I realized, how I looked had no influence whatsoever on the connections I was able to make and the impact I had on those kids, both my high schoolers and the children at VBS. Not once on the trip did I think any of the kids or even the older adults looked ragged or less than themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact. People exude a sense of radiance and beauty when they’re just focused on doing and being good.

Belize-VBS-craft

4. Unplugging isn’t hard when you’re too busy making real-life connections and living out a purpose bigger than yourself.

I thought I would go through a brief withdrawal once I switched to airplane mode, but it turns out, I didn’t give social media or email a thought while I was away. The only thing I craved was the chance to talk to my boyfriend and my parents, especially on my birthday, to let them know I was safe and well, and I was able to do that halfway through the week and on our last day. But honestly? I was so busy spending time with the people I was with in person and so focused on carrying out the tasks we set out to do that I didn’t think about being plugged in. It felt incredible to be away from the chaos and to simplify.

5. When you do the unexpected and step way out of your comfort zone, real connection occurs.

I have to brag on my students for a bit. Every time we were challenged to do something that really stretched us or something that I wouldn’t have felt very comfortable doing as a high schooler, they really stepped up and just did it. For example, on our first full day, we were asked to go around the community to invite people to our VBS. This meant we walked door to door and talked to people who may not even speak English all that well and tell them why we were there. I thought for sure this would be something that only a few kids would feel comfortable enough doing, but sure enough, every single kid in my group did it and did it well. Not everyone we talked to came to our activities, but we were able to serve over 100 kids and make connections with their families in part because we spread the word that day.

Belize-Mission-Trip

6. People just want to be seen and heard and affirmed.

To some, it may seem a little silly that we would travel so far just to play with kids, but if you could have seen the looks on their faces, it might be easier to understand why. We’re called to love on one another, especially on children, and to remind others that they are important. They matter. So much so that when they say, “Don’t forget about me,” we won’t. How could we? But it was also very clear that we, both students and adults, just want the same thing. We want to be seen as who we are, heard, and affirmed. We always finish our weeks with affirmation notes and I think they’re incredibly powerful. What if we tried to affirm each other more often? What if we took the time to say specifically what we appreciate about someone else? It doesn’t take long and yet it means so much.

I’m grateful to have been reminded of these things during this mission trip and hope that by posting them here, they can continue to shape how I want to live.

Over to you: Have you ever gone on a trip that taught you some important lessons? What lessons learned can you impart on us? Share in the comments!