In October, I wrote a column about a quirky, no-frills Roanoke charity and its eccentric attempt to help a largely forgotten monument 1,487 miles south of the Star City.
The charity is Bookbag Santa, which rounds up volunteer travelers each summer to move tons of gently used school supplies, discarded by Roanoke students, to the Central American nation of Belize. The monument, in the Belizean city of Dangriga, honors the Garifuna people.
Built between 1984 and 1989, it was supposed to sport flags from the seven nations where the Garifuna — who are descended from escaped Caribbean slaves — now live. But the flagpoles have remained empty since it was completed three decades ago. It’s almost as if the thing was forgotten as soon as it was built.
Bookbag Santa founder Gary Hunt is seeking to rectify that oversight. Since last fall, he’s gathered flags from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Mexico and the United States (which has the largest population of Garifuna outside Belize). Some of the flags were donated. Hunt purchased others with money contributed by folks interested in his mini-project.
He’s planning a ceremony in Dangriga in late July. The only problem now is that Bookbag Santa has a dearth of 2019 travelers. As of Monday, the count was 17, less than half the number from recent years. Seven other travelers recently canceled their plans because of various health or family reasons.
“I’ve got about half the people I need,” Hunt told me Monday.
Though that won’t affect the flag-raising ceremony, it could affect Bookbag Santa’s chief mission — putting school supplies in the hands of impoverished Belizean students. That’s because Bookbag Santa travelers take the supplies as their luggage, at 100 pounds per traveler.
The fewer the number of travelers, the less school supplies there are to spread around three Belizean schools that Bookbag Santa supports.
So consider this an invitation to go along. If you do, you’ll have an exotic, relatively inexpensive and fun beach vacation. My wife, Donna, and I went to Belize with Bookbag Santa in summer 2015 with 43 others and we had a blast.
“I’ve still got rooms, and I’ve still got space for people,” Hunt said.
The Central American headquarters for the group is the Sea Spray Hotel, which is on a gorgeous, palm tree-dotted strand of Caribbean beach in the Belizean fishing village of Placencia.
Bookbag Santa gets a special room rate at the Sea Spray, which means the cost of airfare and lodging for the nine-day trip could be as little as $1,300 for one person, depending on the level of room you book at the hotel. For a couple, it could cost as little as $2,300, not including food, drinks and activities.
Rooms at the hotel range from bare bones hostel-style accommodations to mini-suites with small kitchenettes and private balconies overlooking the ocean. Though not all the rooms are waterfront, none is more than 90 feet from the water.
At the end of a long peninsula, Placencia is isolated and beautiful. Its population is about 1,000, but because it’s also a vacation spot and home for American expats, it sports a large number of bars, restaurants, shops and activities.
The locals are welcoming and communicating with them is easy — Belize’s national language is English.
The town’s “Main Street” is a 5-foot wide strip of concrete called “the sidewalk” that runs for roughly a mile. Flanking it are low-rise buildings — shops, galleries, restaurants and service businesses — painted in a variety of pastels.
You can easily walk just about anywhere in town. And if you want to get adventurous, there are plenty of inexpensive beach cruiser-style bikes available for rent. Or there are golf carts, if that’s more your style.
Parts of a couple days of the nine-day adventure are devoted to visiting schools and distributing the supplies. Those ceremonies can be moving, especially when you see the grateful faces of elementary school students cast against the stark and rudimentary classrooms in which they study. The ones we visited had a single bare light bulb and a fan — that was the limit of technology.
The rest of the time in Placencia, you’re mostly on your own. Hunt arranges deals with a Placencia outfitter who takes Bookbag Santa travelers on discounted scuba, snorkeling and zipline outings or expeditions to Mayan ruins. Those optional day trips cost extra.
Nobody has to go anywhere, though. They can hang on the Sea Spray’s gorgeous beach. And when they get thirsty, they can amble 25 yards south to the Barefoot Beach Bar, which has tables in the sand.
Life really moves at a snail’s pace under Placencia’s sun. It’s a great place to unwind. And traveling there with Bookbag Santa is about as inexpensive as it gets for a international vacation.
If you’re interested, you can reach Gary Hunt at (540) 855-4154. Or drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.