May 19, 2011
Today was a fabulous day. Growing up in a family that loved to hike and camp, I looked forward to my first significant hike in the Belizean jungle: it did not disappoint. There were beautiful palms that covered the hillsides and vines that dripped from the tops of the canopy over the trail like delicate fingers that would wisp your shoulder. Our Mayan guides were affable (like almost everyone I’ve met in this country) and demonstrated an intrinsic respect for the land on which they subsided. Our guide’s village had survived in this area sustainably for the better part of a century. As environmental studies students, we passed by slash-and-burn agricultural sites with skepticism on the trail. However, as was explained by Dr. Keith Prufer later in the evening during a lecture, this village particularly observed an appropriate fallow period for the soils to recover following a few years of crops. It was so interesting to see this foreign form of farming as I grew up surrounded by large monocrop cornfields in rows tended by huge machines. The best part of the day however was once we hiked for a few miles we came upon Yok Balum cave.
Only discovered in the last decade, our group had the unbelievable fortune to traverse through the cave using helmet-mounted lights, our tired bodies and sometimes our hands and knees. Never before have I seen such beautiful formations. Limestone and sandstone are common where I grew up. However, any cave that I entered in the US had a concrete filled floor, ropes, lights, and it was very limited in terms of where one could go. At Yok Balum we traveled through the cave to another opening on the opposite face of the mountain that the cave penetrated. Beautiful curtains, stalagmites and stalactites met every glance along with perpetual “oohs” and “aahhhs” by the group. What’s more is that Dr. Prufer was currently doing paleoclimatological research in the cave. By studying the composition of stalagmites (up from the ground) a talented researcher is able to decipher past precipitation, temperature and other climate parameters. From this reconstructed record, Dr. Prufer is hoping to provide more explanation behind collapses of Mayan societies in the first millennium AD due to localized climate change.
Therefore as a group we were able to see current climate research, gorgeous ancient geological structures, and an ancient Mayan bowl artifact that has not been removed from the cave. As the cave is limited access, the bowl is safe in the cave, and we were very lucky to have been allowed to travel through.
The group was champions on the hiking trail with very little whining in the heat. Myself, I soaked through two shirts completely with the immensity of my sweat. However, as I stated today was a fabulous day. After the hike we stopped for cool sodas. I have never had a Fanta taste so good in my life.
One of the many focuses of our trip is experiencing the ecotourism that Belize has to offer due to the low level of development in the country. On Tuesday we spent our day hiking towards a true gem of the country, a cave called Yok Balun, which is Mopan for Jaguar Paw. The journey to the cave included a beautiful hike through the seasonal rainforest. Along the way we were educated about numerous plants that are extremely useful for medical uses including “Grandpa’s Paws”, which was useful for one of my companions, because of its ability to heal skin irritations in a very short time. We also came across a plant called “Jackass Bitters” (the real name I swear) that is used in the malaria medication the group is using; the plant also kills many parasites which shows the great resources that the environment can provide for human beings.
In addition, we passed by a few spots that had recently been cleared for future farming using “swidden” or slash and burn agriculture, which the native people have been using the Mayan empire over two thousand years ago. The ancestors of the Maya people are able to use this technique in a sustainable way by observing a fallow period of about five to twenty years to ensure the soil quality is not degraded.
After arriving at the entrance of Yok Balun, we were able to enjoy a guided tour through the entire cave. Not only was the cave an amazing sight for the eyes with massive stalactites, stalagmites, and columns, but it also serves as a tool for climate research. Due to the lack of human disturbance, samples of isotopes of carbon and oxygen from the cave can be used as proxies for changes in the amount of rainfall in the nearby area. Speculation regarding the Mayan collapse following the classical period between 750 and 900 A.D. includes draught so the data collected from Yok Balun can help supplement other research.
Traveling through the cave was a life changing experience. Throughout the whole tour, we stared in awe of the massive crystalized structures that encompassed us (check out the pictures!). Such experiences really make you appreciate the natural wonders of the world. I will never forget my tour of Yok Balum, and I cannot wait to see the other experiences this trip will offer!
May 18, 2011
Greetings from Punta Gorda! We had such an awesome day today! We went to a farm owned by a man named Eladio Pop that had just about anything and everything that’s delicious growing on it. He has owned his cacao farm since he was 20 years old and he’s now 51. Oh and he has 15 kids (the oldest is 32), not to mention many grandchildren! We walked along the hills of his land as he generously let us try his delicious cocao seeds, mangos, bananas, all spice, coconuts, ginger, limes, and lemons. The farm was so different from my mental image of a high production farming the States–all of the different crops on Eladio’s were grown next to each other and were dispersed throughout the shady hillside. Eladio was such an incredible energetic and lively man–he knew about every nook of the place and used his machete like his right hand to chop down fruit for us. We stopped at the top of the farm for a little bit of story time among the drying corn piles (7 kernels per hole for the optimal corn growth). Eladio has definitely had some interesting dreams…
Afterward we went to Eladio’s house for lunch–so lovely. His family was so friendly and they were wonderful cooks! We ate beans, coconut rice, chicken, ginger palm stuff (?) and lime juice in his house while Eladio played with this 3 year old son on his indoor hammock. His son was maybe the cutest boy ever. Then we sat down with his oldest daughter to make Eladio’s favorite Cacao drink. We all got a turn to help crack and grind the roasted cocao beans that were picked right from their farm. The grinder was named Victoria! heyo! The cacao drink was so fresh! I had to add some sugar to it though..a tad too bitter for my taste. It was incredible to see such a large family live sustainably on their own produce. I also got my first purchases of the trip–a ball of cacao puree and a carved bowl made by Eladio’s daughters–cant wait to use them back home!
And as if the day wasn’t exciting enough we went to the Mayan site of Lubaatun and checked out the ruins there! Got some epic photos of the huge monuments there. SUCH a great day–can’t wait for what else is in store here in Belize.
USC Class of 2014
May 17, 2011
The beginning of our trip to Belize was rough, but it was well worth it. We met at USC at 4:30 AM, spent all day flying, and finished with a seemingly never ending bus ride from Belize City to Punta Gorda. We stopped at a restaurant frequented by Belizean government officials for dinner, and it was at this point that I realized our tireless trip was going to be amazing. Our meals were simple but exquisite – put the right spices on rice and beans and it can be the most delicious food you’ve ever tasted. Around 9:00 PM we finally arrived at Sun Creek Lodge. We’re truly staying in the wild. The straw roofs and screen windows of our cabañas are our only barriers to the natural world, and I cannot emphasize how good this feels compared to living in downtown Los Angeles. We fell asleep (quickly) to the sounds of a vibrant seasonal rain forest.
The next morning we awoke to an equally delicious meal and proceeded to investigate Nim Li Punit, a nearby archeological site. We saw ancient Mayan artifacts, tombs, and met some descendants of the civilization that collapsed over a thousand years ago. Some of us even tasted the allspice leaves that the Maya used to numb their teeth before dental procedures. It’s difficult to put into words how incredible it is to experience firsthand something that you’ve only heard about in the classroom. With this feeling of coming full circle in our study of the Maya fresh in our minds, we traveled to Tumil’Kin, in Blue Creek village, about 45 minutes away. After eating lunch by a beautiful river and going swimming to escape the heat and humidity, we stopped by a local Mayan cultural day. We watched a best-dressed contest exhibiting traditional Mayan clothing and got to meet some of the town’s youth. We even bumped into some Peace Corps volunteers on our way back to the lodge.
That night we ate another scrumptious traditional Belizean meal of rice, beans, chicken, and plantains. Once we finished, we discussed the themes of this class and the material from our first readings. It slowly dawned on us that, although it may seem like it at times, this trip isn’t just a vacation – we’re here to learn about a timeless issue that will not only profoundly affect us, but also our children and grandchildren. By gaining a better understanding of how and why the Maya collapsed we should be able to more thoroughly comprehend the overconsumption and need for sustainability that we face today. Furthermore, our daily discussions will allow us to learn to more effectively communicate environmental solutions to people outside of the scientific community. Although we will undoubtedly have a spectacular time in the coming days, I have a feeling that we will leave Belize with far more than good memories.
ENST major, SPAN minor
USC Dornsife ’13
May 15, 2011
After an uneventful flight through Dallas/Ft. Worth to Belize City, we arrived on time and sailed through customs. Bruno Kuppinger, our guide and the owner of Sun Creek Lodge, met us at the airport to escort us south to Punta Gorda, via Belmopan, the capital of Belize.
We arrived less than an hour ago and already everyone is settled into their rooms, and the sounds of the jungle wildlife orchestra are taking over. Oh wait, there are peels of laughter coming from the ladies’ cabanas
Tomorrow we will tour two famous Mayan ruins, Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun. Following that we will head over to the Tumil K’in Center for Learning to join in the cultural festivities of Maya day where over 1500 Maya will be celebrating. It will surely be an incredible cultural immersion experience and I cannot wait to watch the students as they take it all in.
Stayed tuned for pictures and updates!
May 13, 2011
This summer marks the fourth year that the Belize Problems Without Passports course will be run. Last summer we brought 5 undergraduates to Belize for a week and a half of fieldwork in Southern Belize, exploring Mayan ruins, studying the societal collapse of the Classic Maya civilization and how changing climate may have exacerbated their societal problems. How much fun did the students have? Well, this is just one of the many pictures of smiling students from that class. We had such a good time that we decided to offer the class again this year, incorporating new experiences and improving on the best ones from last year. So where are the students from last year now?
Sarah Wescott, one of our Progressive Degree Program students, is graduating with her BA in ENST from USC and will continue her MA in the fall at USC. She had such a great time in Belize last summer she jumped at the chance to come along again this year as the teaching assistant for the course.
The Belize experience spurred Ira Calos to pursue graduate study. She is graduating from USC this spring and spending her summer at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. Ira was selected and awarded an Energy Research Undergraduate Laboratory Fellowship. She will spend her summer working closely with a team of scientists and will present her research as a scientific paper at the end of the internship program.
So what’s new for this year’s course? This year’s course is the largest yet, with 19 students which is why we added an alumni student TA. We’ll be spending a few extra days in Belize and completing a service-learning project, working with Mayan students at the Tumil K’in Center of Learning, a school for Mayan children. We will also work in the Santa Cruz public schools with Belizean children tutoring then in math, science, and English. The course will also examine modern ecology in Belize, visiting the cayes off the coast for a day of snorkeling and taking a day to visit the Jaguar Reserve in Placencia.
Stay tuned to meet our course staff and this year’s students as we set off for adventure and excitement in Southern Belize!
Dr. Lisa Collins
Lecturer & Academic Advisor
Environmental Studies Program