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Published: December 21st 2016
In addition to traveling around the world, and as a way for me to give back for all the kindness bestowed on me, I have volunteered in quite a few countries. A number of natural disaster-related projects took me to far - and very different - corners of the globe: Philippines, Peru, Bangladesh, Haiti (twice), Indonesia. Now I was in Mexico heading to Belize to volunteer at a cat sanctuary. A what
, you ask? A cat sanctuary. Not wild cats, not exotic animals; we’re talking domestic kitty cats here, folks. It was a project on the island of Caye Cauker, Belize, where many islanders, to say the least, are not fond of the little fur balls. They abuse them, they neglect them, they throw the kittens in the ocean. One local woman wasn’t in that same mindset and set up a sanctuary on her expansive waterfront property. She rescued as many of the four-leggeds as she was able and let them have free reign of the grounds (for the most part) with plenty of food, vaccinations and love to go around. When I started, there were 84 cats….
An initial two-week commitment ended up with me staying for
two and a half months. When it was finally time for me to move on, I left Caye Caulker for a month for a change of scenery and then went back for one final month to house sit on the island for a friend. My friend Giulie had three adorable kitties that needed loads of love, and I was over the moon she chose me as the person to watch over them. Traveling the world has made me realize I can never get enough kitty - and puppy – love.
Backing up a bit.........I first needed to get from Bacalar, Mexico to Caye Caulker, Belize……
Nine crotch-grabbing, scruffy-faced taxi drivers sat eyeing me from across the street when I reached the colectivos bound for the border town of Chetumal. I ignored these men, as I waited for the 7am combi, which I soon realized was probably not going to arrive. At 7:15, with four of us waiting for the same mysteriously absent combi, we decided to just take a colectivo (essentially a shared taxi), splitting the cost four ways. We squeezed in the small vehicle and soon left Bacalar. We
Front Street, Caye Caulker
No cars allowed here, only golf carts
were all women and one four-day old baby, sleeping, held in the arms of his auntie. The mother of the newborn never even oohed, cooed or aah’d in the baby’s direction, or for that matter even looked over at her little one. It was her third child, but should that really matter? I would think she would be overjoyed at this new life she brought into the world, this new bundle of joy.
The taxi zipped along the near-empty, fairly smooth road at 110 KPH and within 30 minutes, we arrived – and I was dumped out - at the Pemex gas station, located essentially across the four-lane highway from my turnoff for Belize. Four minutes later I got a ride in a blue pickup. A man named Elfredo was heading to Belize and offered me a lift. In under 10 minutes we were at the Mexican immigration office, a small white shack barely large enough to fit one person, one small desk, a stack of FMM forms (visitor’s permit forms for Mexico) and not much more room for anything else. The official sitting inside was shifting some papers about but eventually noticed me standing patiently in
front of his small, low window. He inspected my exit fee receipt, stapled it to my FMM form, stamped on the requested page in my passport and I was free to go. Done. Zip. Zip. In one minute or less, I was stamped and out of Mexico. Thankfully my ride waited for me, as I had left my backpack in the back of his truck. We drove through the “dead zone” between the two countries and soon got to the next immigration, on the Belizean side. My kind driver said he would again wait for me while I took my bags inside to the front desk. No other traveler seemed to be in the large, spacious, modern and cool, well-ventilated immigration building. The lady officer asked me a few questions about how long I plan to stay, how long I was in Mexico, and what city was I coming from. Passing muster, she stamped my passport on the requested page and gave me 30 days in the country.
Leaving the desk, I heard, “Are you Suzi?
” I looked up to find Madi, the lady for whom I was to volunteer the next few weeks. She heard me
tell the officer I was from the states and heading to Caye Caulker and took a chance it might be me. She and another volunteer, Ilaria, a vet from Italy, must have gone through passport control right before me and were already at the x-ray machines on the other side of the desk. They had a ride paid for and waiting and since my driver was still there we agreed to meet again at the bus station in Corozal Town, a few miles down the highway, and where my driver just happened to be heading. Perfect, perfect, perfect! We three left the building together to the parking lot in the back where our respective drivers were waiting.
We all arrived at the bus station about the same time. I thanked my driver, grabbed my bag and hopped onto the waiting bus on the other side of the road. I boarded right behind Madi and Ilaria and sat on the opposite side of the aisle in a vacant seat. A colorful, talkative local woman kept me entertained during the journey.
While waiting at the terminal for the water taxi to take us to Caye Cauker,
Mealtime at Mama Liz's
BBQ chicken, a delicious BBQ sauce, rice and beans and the yummiest potato salad ever
I ran into a young couple I had met and hung out with in Tulum, about a week earlier. They had just come off the water taxi, having left the island after spending a few days relaxing on the beautiful beaches. We chatted for a bit and then hugged goodbye, wishing each other safe and good travels.
While standing in line to board the water taxi, a young girl (in her mid 20s) was standing behind me with a one-day-old baby in her arms. She said he, Claudio, was born the night before at 8pm, which made him not even 18 hours old. His fingernails were already so long! Other than the baby I saw actually being born in Haiti this might possibly be the youngest little one I had ever seen.
The journey by water taxi over the magnificent turquoise waters took about an hour. When we arrived, a local man with full-on dreadlocks came out of nowhere, stood in front of me, smiled big, and said, “Welcome. Welcome home.” In a weird way, I did feel home, although I had never before been to the island, let alone Belize. He didn’t want
At Mama Liz's
Good food and good (new) friends
a thing, never tried to sell me anything and wasn’t looking to pick up a foreign female (or, at least not me). He was just the unofficial welcoming committee. I certainly felt welcomed.
Ilaria and I walked with our bags to the other side of the island, to the cat sanctuary, the current home of 84 cats and three dogs.
Once settled into my cabana, Madi, Ilaria and I (along with a few of the kitties and one of the dogs) sat on the deck over the water, making small talk while watching the perfectly round and orange ball of fire dip below the horizon. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the sun set over the water without an island or a far-off piece of land to get in the way; here, there were no such obstructions. Welcome to paradise, Suz.
I spent much of my volunteer time feeding, cleaning after and petting the cats, in addition to constant patching and minor repair work on the catteries. The furry four leggeds were all well cared for and in a much better environment than they would be outside the walls
of the sanctuary. In addition to the cats, I helped Madi with the guests (the sanctuary is also a guesthouse to help offset the cost of feeding and taking care of the cats) and also took it upon myself to paint the entire interior of and do some minor repairs on one of the large cabanas that would eventually be rented out for future guests as a hostel room.
On days off I explored the small island, either alone or with other guests. I swam, I kayaked, I dozed on the loungers in the sunshine under the palm trees. I saw dolphins, tarpon and rays. The sunsets over the water were magical.
I made good friends with a local lady, Liz, who was just starting out serving up home cooked Belizean meals from the kitchen of her house. I was her best customer, eating there nearly every night, and often brought guests staying at the cat sanctuary. I told many people about her meals and her effervescent personality. Word spread quickly and soon her living room was bustling with patrons. The meals were substantial, varied, decently priced, and always cooked with love. Never did
Two and a half months zipped by quickly, and with a tearful farewell to all the kitties that captured my heart, a final hug and well wishes to Liz and her now-buzzing business, I turned and left my volunteer stint, my friends and the island for a month exploring eastern Guatemala and Honduras.
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