by Rachel Backes '12
Learning the essential nature of a place you don't call home before you journey there puts a whole new twist on the experience of travelling. In the past five months, nineteen of us Westminster students were challenged to establish the basic understanding of a country just south of us that until now, none of us were familiar with. Belize is a country that lies southeast of Mexico and east of Guatemala, bordered also by the Caribbean Sea. Ranging from the barrier reef and the different types of mangroves to the languages and cultures of the country, each of us had to teach the class on a topic related to Belize. Being able to navigate geographically where we were when we travelled around the country, identifying different trees and animal species, and understanding the relative differences among those who were Mayan, Creole, or another ethnicity made us appear like geniuses to the natives. Props to Dr. Amspoker and Dr. Seelinger.
Oh but we still had sooo much to learn; it started from the minute we were smacked in the face by the smell of smoke as soon as we stepped off the plane at the Belizean airport. Belize is going through one of the worst droughts - over ten weeks of no rain - and enough forest fires to shock any travelers that come across burning landscape along the side of the road. A giant cloud of smoke just reigns over the mainland, blocking out the rays of the sun and leaving a constant stench of campfire that dominates your nostrils and your clothes. But what shocked all of us more than anything was the lack of action taken by Belize natives to put these fires out. Belize, a third-world country (or lack for a better word, a "developing" country), is a place a lot poorer than the states in which most of us were born, and lacks a structured means of putting out the fires. Because the country was in the middle of a drought, the importance of conserving water was impressed upon over and over again. Showering in the river with biodegradable soap, using toilets that didn't flush, throwing toilet paper in the trash cans, and missing the thirst quenching taste of cold water definitely helped me appreciate everything I have back home.
The bus rides along the winding highways of Belize gave us a little insight into how Belize natives live. People live in shack-like homes that line the streets and remind me of those I thought of when I used to play MASH* back in grade school - ones with lopsided pieces of wood or metal thrown together to form a misshapen, sad little box that sat poorly on stilts. Houses that looked like if you stepped inside the whole thing would come crumbling to the ground. Places people called home. People of all ages walked along the road, including small school children in uniforms (the kids wear uniforms to save families money on not having to purchase excessive clothes for school). The jobs that occupied people in Belize ranged from citrus farmers to cooks and bus drivers, even from people that raked the sand on a beach to golf-cart taxi drivers, but I learned from natives that the wealthiest of Belizean people are involved in the drug business. Obviously the government of Belize isn't a stable form of leadership and the little political presence we did see consisted of painted tree trunks and a limited number of signs to show party support. The country also lacks a strong form of law enforcement, a ticket for mangrove destruction cheaper than the cost of a permit for it.
Belize is a lot different than life back in the states, but the beauty of the country almost outweighs all its downfalls. Home to ancient Mayan temples at both Lamanai and Xunantunich, Belize's natural history uncovers the hierarchy of slaves versus kings and the sacredness of gods and goddesses that were worshiped years ago. The pure exquisiteness of the architecture of the temples and the carved faces and symbols into the stone made it hard to imagine that people were capable of such tasks. The beaches and cayes (or islands) were those that you'd find on a picture or a post-card you'd send home to Mom. They were sights you wouldn't have to photo-shop to make beautiful - picturesque by nature. We went snorkeling a lot and almost became part of a feeding frenzy at the Blue Hole when we started throwing watermelon off the boat, only to find sharks anywhere from 8 - 15 feet rise from the dark water. Part of me felt like we were the new cast for Jaws 5.
We got real familiar with jungle life in the Cockscomb, especially the biting insects who seemed to find a way to your skin even if you were fully covered. Leaf-cutter ants invaded the boys tents, which was hilarious to hear how ticked they were that the ants were mistaking them for leaves. But giant spiders in the girls' bunks and the lingering hot, humid dead air were enough to make the whole jungle experience a little tougher than we were expecting. We weren't ready to be Tarzans and Janes of the jungle. We saw, keyword: saw - we kept our distance from snakes that carry a venom that acts like an acid eating away at the skin, and ones that release venom that forces you to lose weight until you die. Supposedly if you are ever deserted in the jungle, you can survive on termites because they're high in protein. Of course, I tried a few of those little guys. Tasted like carrots. We heard howler monkeys claiming their territory, and geckos barking throughout the night. The iguanas were as lazy as imaginable, basking in branches high in the trees. The Belizean rivers were as big as what we refer to as creeks back home and we quickly learned that tubing down a low leveled river isn't the most efficient means of travel, and even in the strongest of currents, A.K.A. a few ripples, will leave your butt scraping across the rock bottom. Hiking up the mountains to the waterfall and learning how to make fish jump out of the water almost made us feel like we were becoming true mountain men and women. One of the greatest things we learned Belize has to offer includes the use of plants for medicinal purposes. There are thousands of plant species that act as remedies for snake bites, open wounds, and even pregnancy tests. Yes, pregnancy tests…ones as effective as EPTs here: pee on a leaf from a Yamma bush, wait for the results (the leaf turning brown or staying green), and save $6.75!
Ask me if the seventeen days I spent in Belize was what I imagined and I'd tell you NO, but only because Belize has way more to offer than the stuff you can research on the internet or in a book. Sometimes it truly takes experiencing a place and its cultural or societal norms to understand and appreciate the beauty and significance of even a third world country. We interacted with natives of all ages, visiting school kids and getting to spend a day in their world. We ate some of Ms. Edna's famous Creole food, tasted the goodness of a Belikin beer, and dove in to some of the scariest waters to swim with rays and sharks. Belize is a place unlike any I've ever visited and being back home now makes me appreciate even more all I have compared to the little the people of Belize are used to. Most of the time I felt like Tom Hanks in Cast Away or a competitor on Survivor…ok maybe I pretended or exaggerated things a little more in my head to make it seem more dangerous, but the trip to Belize was totally worth it.
Learn more about Westminster's biology program and the annual trip to Belize.