As we prepare for our 2019 ATMAT Family convention in Colorado, I am flooded with memories of earlier times, our beginnings and the series of events that got us to where we are now. Since Belize plays such a major and nascent role in the birth of our profession, my thoughts often return to when I first arrived in Belize from Florida, alone and pregnant in 1976. I had been working at the Shangri-la Institute of Natural Hygiene as the Health Director where my duties were mostly to supervise clients on water fasts. I met a dude and after twelve years of fertility challenges, woke up one morning and knew I was pregnant. Within only a few weeks I accepted an invitation to be co-caretaker on a 200 acre tract of land where the owner of Shangri-la grew organic fruits for his health resort. Eight months later, my beautiful daughter Crystal Ray was born right into the first rays of the rising sun that sparkled like crystals on the dew. In a tiny thatched hut in the middle of a corn field, my neighbors Mick and Lucy Fleming, inexperienced but willing to read books on natural childbirth, helped deliver her. One wall of the hut, made of chicken wire, was covered with a pumpkin vine! I came with $1700 USD and with that money built two little thatch huts; one was an open-air kitchen and the other was our bedroom-living room. Four years later, I left with $1700 USD. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. Those years with my baby in our jungle dwelling were some of the happiest of my life. Our cozy thatch huts, tucked away in the bush, overlooked a field of bananas and vegetables. At the time, I did not know nor had I ever heard of Don Elijio Panti even though his village, San Antonio, was only a few miles down the road. I made a good living as a self-styled massage therapist treating farmers and Mennonite neighbors.
For a time I was being vigorously courted by a horse-and-buggy Mennonite widower with five children and a bushy red beard who said to me one day with lust in his eyes, “I see your unfortunate situation and I believe with Jesus’ help we could be a comfort to each other.” Even his teen-aged daughters tried to convince me to marry their father and be the mother they so desperately wanted. Imagine how different our lives could have turned out had that been my future. But….not likely.
One Christmas, I took two-year old Crystal to Florida to visit family. My brother, Frank, was also visiting from Chicago and my son Jim had been living with my parents to attend high-school. Frank had a chronic back ache and was about to undergo surgery. We agreed that I would massage him daily and see if it would help. I had no formal training at the time but my hands just always seemed to know what to do. Within a week the backache was completely gone. He and my parents encouraged me to return to Chicago with Frank and enter the Chicago National College of Naprapathy to earn a proper degree or, my Dad said, “You will be a second-class citizen all your life.”
I did not have enough college credits in science to be admitted but based on life experience they agreed to let me in on a trial basis. Four years later, I graduated with honors. My husband, Greg, entered the College of Naprapathy at the same time as I did. Our romance bloomed. I told him that I intended to return to Belize after graduation as I felt that my destiny awaited me there. When he married me, he not only became a step-father but was also headed for the adventure of a life-time in the teeming jungles of Belize, a country he had never heard of. “I would have followed you to the ends of the Earth,” he said only last week. Our parents and family thought we were mad to leave after getting advanced degrees in Naprapathy. To add fuel to the flames, the political situation in Central America was seriously bad at the time with civil war in Honduras, kidnappings for ransom and drug cartels gaining fierce power. We graduated from the College of Naprapathy in October of 1981 and immediately after purchased our thirty-two acres of high-bush jungle – sight unseen. Knowing that it was on a river right next to Mick and Lucy Fleming who also had a child about the same age as Crystal was enough. In April of 1982 we arrived in Belize, one year after the country was granted Independence from Britain.
We started a practice together in San Ignacio and continued treating clients with Naprapathy, herbs and diet for almost forty years. The early years were a constant struggle to keep the bush from encroaching into, over and on our houses. Our first buildings were made of bush materials; one a kitchen/living room and the other for bedrooms. Greg built an elegant two-seater out house in the middle of a field of banana plants. We showered under a three hundred gallon water tank or in the rain. For several years our life was like a permanent camping trip. Crystal went to school in a river dory with the Fleming children. Other riverside dwellers jumped into the dugout with sacks of live chickens, avocados and even some pigs and puppies for sale in the local market.
Often, I am asked, “How did you end up in Belize?” It was part wanderlust and a quest for adventure; it was a need for medical freedom, a year-round growing season and racial harmony. We found all that and so much more. In 1983 I met Don Elijio Panti and the rest is our history.