My second week was as busy and as much of a learning experience as the first. And at the end of that week, as I walk to work in the morning, little do I realise it’s about to get busier.
The morning walk to the office is the same as usual – I stroll down the road, inadvertently playing chicken with all the vehicles barrelling towards me, and trying to use my non-existent sixth sense to hear the vehicles coming up behind me, whilst going round potholes, taking to the street when there is no pavement, detouring round groups of schoolchildren, avoiding kamikaze cyclists (and the odd suicidal canine), and crossing and re-crossing the road to get to the shady side (walking slowly and spending as much time out of the sun are the only ways I can get to work without sweating). Most homes seem to have no front garden and stand right at the edge of the road, and few pavements offer refuge to me or the other pedestrians from the traffic. Narrow bridges and one-way streets force the vehicles down the road in single-file, and they pass shops, offices, schools, fruit vendors, taco stands, groups of people chatting (who occasionally shout across the street to tell me to slow down and stop walking so fast!), and on my route, two of Belize City’s more distinctively-named businesses – a butchers named Smiling Meat, and a fast-food restaurant called Sexy Chicken. The restaurant has a sign outside of a cartoon chicken in a bikini winking at potential customers, like a poultry version of Jessica Rabbit; it’s simultaneously funny and a little disturbing. Despite (or perhaps because of) these Caribbean idiosyncrasies, the walk’s enjoyable, and infinitely preferable to being stuck on the Central Line with my face in half of London’s armpits, while all the passengers are told that, despite there being only one train per calendar month, we still need to be held here for forty-five minutes to ‘regulate the service’. And you can’t walk in London in December in short-sleeves underneath palm trees.
All of this tropical reverie disappears when I arrive at work. The BCVI occupies a little office on the ground floor of the much bigger Belize Red Cross building, and the building is now a smoking shell. It’s still structurally intact, but I can see blackened shutters on the upstairs windows and hear the dry cracking sounds of burnt wood, as the occasional ceiling panel collapses. The firemen have put out the blaze and some Red Cross employees are sifting through what’s left of their office. The rest of the staff are outside, talking quietly, comforting each other, and looking up at what used to be their office. There’s a fairly casual attitude to health and safety here, and no-one’s being prevented from going upstairs, so I find my friend Fiona (a fellow Challenges volunteer who works for the Red Cross) and we survey the damage. And it’s bad. It must’ve been a serious fire, because virtually everything flammable has been destroyed. If it was made of wood or paper it’s burnt, and if it was plastic it’s melted. Apart from desks and filing cabinets everything’s gone. The computers have melted down to a misshapen plastic block about 5 cm high, like a large Mars bar that’s been left in the hot sun. And there’s nothing left of the paper files and folders except piles of ashes on the floor and specks of dust in the air. The walls are blackened and the ceiling panels are falling in. Unless someone has a fire-proof safe in the office, I can’t see how anything’s going to be recovered. And, talking to Fiona, I see it could’ve been much worse – a passer-by saw the fire soon after it started and alerted the fire brigade quickly, and they arrived soon after and put it out. The building’s one of Belize’s most historical (dating back from British colonial times) and is made of wood, so potentially the whole thing could’ve been destroyed.
After hearing too many ominous creaks wherever I walk, I decide to go downstairs and check on the office I actually work in to see if that’s ok. If the fire started upstairs, I figure downstairs we should be alright. I’m wrong. Our problem isn’t that we’re burnt, it’s that we’re flooded. When the fire brigade put out the blaze upstairs, water came through the fire-damaged floor and then poured through our ceiling. So we spend the rest of the morning bailing out black water from the floor and mopping up wet ash from the desks. As (bad) luck would have it, the floor slopes ever so slightly towards the back of the office, so rather than pushing the water out the front door and into the gutter, we have to scoop it up in any receptacle we can find, pour that into a big bucket (which leaks, naturally!) and waddle out to the bathroom with it to pour down the toilet. This is a situation the permanent staff have dealt with many times before, as every year in the hurricane season there’s some kind of flooding in the office. And as long as everything electrical is kept off the floor, there’s normally no permanent damage. But this is different, because, rather than starting on the floor and slowly moving up, this time the flooding started from the ceiling and came down; it’s like it rained inside the office. As a result, everything between the ceiling and floor is wet, including electrical equipment and paper files. The rest of the day is spent clearing the wet desks, throwing away all the sodden files and shaking everything electrical to hear a sloshing sound inside. Keyboards have to be turned over to drain, mice are wet, PCs are dripping water, the photocopier is fogged up on the inside and there’s a worrying beeping noise coming from the UPS box. I manage to disconnect the battery without electrocuting myself. I’m not turning the monitors on. The high-point of the afternoon is being on national TV, although I wasn’t even aware of it at the time. As the fire is a big story (and not much else happens in the country), all of the news channels eventually arrive with camera crews to do a piece. Most of them head upstairs or stay outside to report on the Red Cross’s problems. But Channel 5 comes into our office, does an interview with one of the staff and then brings the cameras round briefly. Unfortunately I’m on the floor wiping up, so my 5 seconds of fame consists of a shot of the top of my head while I’m on my hands and knees! And, because my landlady watches Channel 7 news every night, I didn’t even get to see it. Although several people I know did, and for a few days afterwards I have them saying to me one by one ‘I saw you on TV last night!’.
So while the Police search for clues in the damaged building (apparently there’s evidence to suggest it was arson, and the kind of person who wants to hurt an organisation like the Red Cross, whose only job is to help people, is beyond me), we have to find another office and move. So my main project is put temporarily on hold, as I spend my time moving desks and computers down the street to the new office and setting them up. And then turning on the PC to hear popping sounds, see sparks and smell smoke. Computers and water don’t mix! Fortunately we have insurance, so the damaged equipment will be replaced (eventually), and while the staff spread around different offices, I’ve officially become a mobile worker – which means I have no desk at all and sit wherever I can find a chair, with my laptop on my lap…