I am not a religious person by any means. Usually when someone asks me, I respond with, “Well I was raised Catholic, BUT,”, and that’s a good enough answer for them. I came to Belize to study Health, Belief and Ethnomedicine.
As an anthropology major with a focus in medical anthropology, I was very interested in understanding the role biomedicine plays in these communities as compared to the role traditional medicine plays.
I did not, however, realize how much of healing and medicine is based in a person’s spirit, and I certainly didn’t think my study abroad would double as a spiritual retreat. From cupping, to meditation in caves, I rediscovered a part of myself that had been denied by the binary systems of the Global North.
My story begins in the United States where I, with about 100 other passengers, await boarding on our 6 am flight to Belize City.
I have been up since 3 am in order to go through checking my bags, standing in line, being scanned through TSA, standing in line again – and now my final wait ensues for my flight.
I am exhausted, truly, and the boisterous tourists around me, with their straw hats and beach shoes, are starting to get on my nerves. We may all have the same destination, but we certainly aren’t headed to Latinoamerica for the same reasons.
I am, after all, a university student at one of the top public institutions in the world. I am proud, educated – and very easily annoyed with anyone otherwise. This is one of my greatest flaws.
I fall asleep pre-departure to cries from young babies, wondering why on earth would anyone bring a few month old baby on an airplane.
I manage to get about 10 minutes of sleep in before boarding begins. I am with Group 7. Great. Another 15 more minutes until I step on the plane, wander to the back , while dodging children and luggage – to finally arrive at my sweet in about row 23.
I am angry, frustrated, and still, so, so exhausted. I pop in my headphones, put on my playlist and fall asleep. Hours later, we land in Belize City where I am immediately greeted by the heat and humidity I have never felt before.
Stepping off of the airplane, I feel like I’m stepping into a hot shower. My entire body is coated with sweat and water – this is now a moment I view as a sort of cleansing.
You see, it is in this moment that I leave my old self behind. While I felt a slight change in my body, mostly due to the rainy weather, significant, larger changes were still to come.
Fast forward about 6 more hours – and one hearty Belizean lunch of stew chicken and rice – I reach my home for the next couple of months. The house is, in terms of the region, rather large. I come from a low-income household and am reminded of the wealth gap my own family experiences.
This home, a guest house for students, is larger than my own home. While taking in the three-story villa, fully equipped with 4 bathrooms and porch overlooking the city, I can’t help but reflect on my life. I am a first generation college student.
I am a multiracial American citizen. I am the first of my family to leave the country. All of my identities, all of my personal problems, my family’s problems hit me at once.
This overwhelming feeling of “self”, is not uncommon to me. I felt the feeling on my last trip abroad, and I knew I would feel it again. I take a deep breath, and settle in for the coming day in class.
On the first day of class I feel this sense of “self’ again – and it’s heavy. I have virtually nothing in common with my classmates or teachers. I am an anthropology major remember?
These are all medical students, and unfortunately due to past experiences I tend to shy away from them. Aside from differences in majors, they also have very different social identities from myself – legacy students with doctor parents from the east coast.
I can feel my irritability bubbling up inside as each girl, there are only 5 of us, shares her “fun fact” – like “My mom went to Harvard” or “I worked an internship with the Mayo Clinic”. I shrink into my seat, take a deep breath, and let my mind go blank.
Even though my first impressions of my classmates are not positive, we all live together and quickly grow close; it is not like we have any other choice. Our first weekend is physically testing of my abilities.
We climb the sacred Maya site of Xunantunich the day after our arrival. While on top of Xunantunich, I recognize again, another shift in myself, stronger this time than the humidity and rain the day before. I feel happy and at peace, despite being hundreds of feet in the air and drenched in sweat. Our first week of class ensues.
A requirement for my course is to submit a weekly journal; I used to write journals for myself near constantly when I was younger, but like most people, I grew away from that.
My journaling, unknowingly, was the final piece to unlocking my previous self. I grew up in a very religious, very spiritual household. Aside from going to twice weekly mass, we were avid story-tellers.
Some of my earliest family memories were that of sitting around a campfire, or set of candles, sharing scary stories about Dog Lady Island or Thump Drag.
I was notorious in grade school for my ghost stories. Here in Belize writing in my journals, I find that rekindled. It’s not so much “ghost” stories, I realize, as it is a connection to a deeper spirituality and a recognition of things beyond the “physical”; it’s like my own religion.
During a Maya ceremony with a healer, I find myself once again drawn towards what my original Church would have called witchcraft or taboo – when it was really just my interpretation of spirituality.
I was reunited with traditional alternative medicines my family practiced when money was short doctors weren’t available.
I was thrown back into sustainable gardening practices, and reminded of my time growing up picking and drying herbs, or digging up roots.
What I had always thought was just the simple farming life of a third generation American is an actual subfield of medicine. My entire life, my family and I had been healing our bodies outside of the paradigm of western biomedicine.
This knowledge, knowledge my mother and her mother before her had passed down, sprung back to life inside me with each visit into the jungle. The plants I saw, while I had different names for them, I knew them. I knew which to use for pains and toothaches.
I knew which plants would make my hair grow longer and thinker. I knew which plants would clear out a sinus infection. And now, I was able to connect my familiarity with medicinal plants to my body – and ultimately my spirituality.
During the last leg of our trip, we visited St. Herman’s Cave. Located in a small national forest in the central of Belize, alongside of one of the infamous Blue Holes, sat the cave.
About an hour walk into the jungle, passing by hummingbirds and blue butterflies, we reached the cave mouth.
My professor told us that this cave, like many others, was interpreted by different peoples as a place of rebirth; the cave is our access to return to the earth.
The hike inside the cave felt like forever in the dark, but once we had reached the end – we were enveloped with complete silence.
It was there, at the end of the cave, surrounded by a small pool of water, that my group and I had the honor to perform a small ceremony.
Group members spoke in the native languages, we sang, we prayed – and it was during this time, in absolute darkness, that I had a profound vision.
We emerged from the cave soaking wet and steaming, as I imagine we once had during birth. The sounds, the colors, the atmosphere of the jungle and myself had shifted. I felt clarity, not absolute, but the beginning of what I would consider my own personal spiritual journey.
Two months later, I boarded my plane back home to the states. On the second leg of my flight, a single father brought on board a heavily agitated baby.
They sat directly next to me. The child screamed and cried nearly the entire flight; many other passengers grew restless.
I, however, could do nothing but just smile. This baby, like myself, was just born as well. I could understand how all the newness surrounding her could be frightening, just like we had felt in the dark of the cave.
But like the crying baby, like all the other passengers, I am living and breathing; I do not have time anymore for negative energy.
I take one more look at the baby, and fall asleep to her cries, smiling, knowing that this is one of many obstacles I will have to overcome now on my new journey.
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