May 31, 2011
While I was immediately excited when I was told that I would have the opportunity to dive at Laughing Bird Caye while the other students snorkeled, I was also slightly hesitant. Though I’ve been trained by the best, having participated in last year’s Environmental Studies PWP program in Guam and Palau, I also haven’t ever dove with people I didn’t know. My teachers were USC faculty, and I’ve always jumped off the dock with a group of classmates that I’ve grown to know very well. But those fears soon dissipated when I started watching videos online of what I could expect. The Belize Barrier Reef is one of the largest, healthiest reef systems in the world, with 300 continuous kilometers of coral creating a truly breathtaking sight, visible from space. A huge variety of living things reside in this highly productive ecosystem, and when I suited up and jumped into the 80 degree water, I knew that I had made the right decision. Visibility was nearly perfect, and the light blue world stretched out for me to explore.
Hiking through the forests of Belize is an amazing experience, with so many wonders hiding under the canopy. But nothing can quite replicate the feeling of weightlessly floating through a healthy reef, with soft corals gently swaying in the current and fish going about their busy lives. A reef is a lot like a human city, with both grand vistas and fascinating details waiting to be observed. Great hulking brain corals stand out like monuments, while in the crevices of the underlying coral, tiny shrimp coexist with giant, 3-foot long spiny lobsters. They glared at me indignantly from their hiding places, as if reminding me that I was in a marine protected area, and I responded by playfully tweaking the tips of their antennae. Garden eels waved like blades of grass in the distance, withdrawing into their burrows as I approached. Lionfish fearlessly watched me approach, secure in the midst of their painful spines. Though they are an invasive species, it does not diminish their beauty. A large pufferfish gazed at me curiously with its humongous, expressive eyes. A school of snapper passed by my side and I admired the effortless way they glided through the water, feeling like a very clumsy landlubber in comparison. I had a brief hope that we would see a whale shark, which are known to follow snapper, feeding on their spawn, but that will have to remain an entry on my bucket list for the time being. All of the inhabitants of the ocean aren’t lined up, waiting to present their glory to every passing diver.
But that’s part of what makes diving a hobby which I want to maintain for life. Every time I cross the barrier between our world and the one under the sea, I feel the same rush of adrenaline as I begin my descent down to the bottom. Every dive holds new experiences, and it inspires a sense of humility in a land-evolved creature like myself. We humans are merely island-dwellers on a great blue ocean planet, and a lot of the environmental problems we have would disappear if we kept that fact in mind.
May 24, 2011
This morning, being the intelligent and frugal college student that I am, I decided to eat my granola for breakfast. But because it was a stubborn packet I had to use a brand spanking new sharp pocket knife to open it… Needless to say I succeeded in opening the packet and a portion of my finger (moral of this story, even when being super careful you never know what a pocket knife might do… those things have a mind of their own). After eating (and thoroughly enjoying my hard earned granola) Alice and I made our way to join the rest of the group at the Dive Shop where we would be leaving to go snorkeling.
We ended up snorkeling in one of the Cayes off of Placenica’s coast. After about a thirty minute boat ride out on the boat The Great White, during which we saw: flying fish, mangroves, little cayes, and a sky of blue and a sea of green (but no submarine). We reached one of the most pristine looking places I have ever seen, also known as Laughingbird Caye National Park (which is a World Heritage site named after the Laughingbirds which nest on it). It literally looked like we’d stepped into a postcard with the turquoise ocean the white sand and big waving palm trees against a brilliantly blue and crystal clear sky. Absolutely breathtaking. And the day was only just beginning; we hopped out of the boat and into the water. Wading up to the beach made the picture a reality. We really were HERE.
We divided up in two groups and started snorkeling. Now to be honest, whenever I have attempted snorkeling I have failed miserably (swallowing practically half the ocean) but today was different… in that it was successful and an utterly incredible experience (like every day has been in Belize). We all managed to get out into the water and successfully put on masks and fins. I was aided in the swimming efforts by a life vest (so that the snorkeling would be more about the experience of seeing than that of swimming). We started snorkeling and an entire world opened up beneath us, pristine coral reefs and schools of fishies. There was brain coral with Christmas tree worms sticking out of it (and these worms would disappear of a jet of water came to close to them, so Rico our guide had fun making the worms disappear). We saw gray angelfish (which were way bigger than I thought they would be), four eyed angelfish, parrot fish, and many others which I currently cannot remember. The coral was deep purples with some oranges thrown in and giant lobsters hid in between the corals (the sea water really helped with my pocket knife cut which was an added bonus). Lisa told the group that kissing a hairy sea cucumber would guarantee that person 7 years good luck (I think someone took her up on that, though I can’t remember who). We ended our snorkel session and had a delicious lunch of BBQ chicken, watermelon, coleslaw and potatoes.
After lunch we had some time to wander around the island and do whatever. Some people hopped right back into the water and others enjoyed lounging in the hammocks. But we were all taking in the view, which was definitely reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean (Why is the rum gone? –Jack Sparrow). People took loads of pictures, and then we went back for more snorkeling (the groups switching locations). This time was a bit easier (though towards the end my breathing through the snorkel sounded an awful lot like Darth Vader’s breathing which was definitely eerie). We saw much of the same critters we saw earlier as well as a trumpet fish and a squid thingy. It was really really cool. The reefs were closer to the surface here and we were able to get pretty close to them. When we were done we hung out in the water until we had to return.
On the boat ride back, the crew cranked up some tunes (all of which had been Reggae-fied, including one that resembled the song “Yeah”). Our group went our separate ways for dinner and evening activities. Lisa, Alice, Sarah, Dan and I went for a lovely walk to the edge of the beach and were able to enjoy the tail end of the sunset.
All in all it was a FANTASTIC day.
Just keep swimming
ENST & Archaeology double major
USC Dornsife College ’14
Photos by Sarah Wescott
May 22, 2011
(First off, hi mom!)
Yesterday, was the mark of the first week completed here in Belize. In the morning, we went back to Tumil K’in to complete the final day of our service learning project. School didn’t start until 10:30 so at first when we got there we were just hanging out for a bit playing games and taking naps. It was the first time I ever played ‘Apples to Apples’ – what a fantastic game! Once school finally started, we went back to teach math in the First Form – the same class that we worked with the day before. We gave them a quick 5 question quiz on the Algebra that we taught them the day before (combining like terms). Many of the students passed the quiz (apparently more than usual so it was good to know that our teaching helped out). Afterwards we helped review the concepts, and then had lunch with the students.
At around 12:30, we left for Blue Creek, the little river just a few minutes away from the school. This is when the real fun began. We were going to go cave swimming, through the Hokeb Ha Cave. Given that a few days earlier when we went through the Yok Bolum cave was the first time I had been in a cave, it is a fair assumption that I had never been swimming through a cave before. We took a 20 minute hike up to the mouth of the cave and it was then that I realized how ridiculous today was going to be. The entrance to the cave seemed like something that you would see in a movie, or a picture, definitely not something I thought I would be seeing. To be safe, I had left my camera in the car so that no one would steal it while in the water, but I definitely never missed my camera more. Thankfully some of the other girls had their cameras and we all know I will be stealing their pictures. And to top it off, Alice (B.) has an underwater camera so we got pictures while swimming!
Because I’m not a good swimmer, I had my handy dandy floaty/life vest with me and along with the others in my group and our guide, we started swimming through the cave. It was such a relief to get into the water, we had spent the first week of the trip sweating bullets out in the heat and this was the first time really that we were in the water. At first when we got into the cave, there was still light, coming in from the entrance. But a few minutes in, it was all dark – the only light we had was coming from the headlamps we had on our helmets. We used all the possible light we could get to look around at the cave that was thousands of years old standing around us.
We swam (floated) for about 30-40 minutes before arriving at the end of the cave, where there was a relatively large waterfall. Because we were the first group, we got to just hang out at the waterfall until the other group caught up to us. After a week of hard work, sweaty bodies, and humidity like no other, there was nothing more relaxing than being under that waterfall. It was also one of the best massages anyone can ask for, standing right under the water.
The other group got its chance to experience the waterfall, and then we started the swim back to the entrance. After we got back to the mouth of the cave, our guide took a few of us to a side pool off to the side, where the water was so warm it could have been like a hot tub. After taking in all the relaxation, we finally got out of the water (unwillingly) and then began the hike back down to the cars. I can speak for most – if not all of the other Belize-ers that this was definitely one of the coolest parts of our trip. For me, it is definitely in the top 5 coolest things I have personally ever done, it not the top. The rest of the trip definitely has a lot to live up to.
POSC & PSYC double major
photo by Erica Robles
May 21, 2011
In the United States, we take education as a norm subjected to everyday citizens on an everyday basis… However, in Santa Cruz, Belize, such education is taken for granted by us in the sense that we expected the children to be at the standard the teachers said they were.
Traveling along the bumpy roads, trying to avoid the massive pot holes that consumed the tires of our heavy duty van, we slowly recognized the condition in which these kids were learning in. Other than school, these kids have nothing else to look forward to other than helping their parents in the fields growing food for the rest of the community; I can imagine how many of them would be thrilled to do such work (not many at all).
When my friend Matt and I walked into the classroom, we expected to see kids with adequate supplies and sufficient teaching to be able to follow the lesson plans that we had hoped to teach. However, to our surprise, the school had no chalk, no books, and most of all the students had no idea what we were talking about when we taught the math subjects we were expected to teach. Both looking at each other, I could tell we were thinking the same thing: we have to start from the beginning and make sure that they have a chance of succeeding through the course. From the start, we began with basics; multiplication tables that would benefit them in how to add certain types of fractions. These kids are incredibly smart and have a motivation for learning that I have never personally seen before in my life. Therefore, they mastered the tables in less than a full day of teaching to enabled us to begin lessons in adding fractions. After many hours of personal attention to each student, the kids began to master adding all types of fractions, including mixed, improper and proper fractions. Once they felt comfortable with fractions, Matt and I really felt that were actually making a difference in their education because of the way they were excited and eager to solve more and harder problems.
Seeing the difference in education amongst the kids opened our eyes to the reality that they never really had a chance to develop and grow in their own way so that they make full advantage of their education. Standing in that classroom made me realize how important it was for them to have a chance to advance themselves, so that they may take their knowledge to the next level and not be discouraged so that they would not end up uneducated in a world where it requires a certain skill to make ends meet. Noticing the effect that we had on these students really opened my eyes to the fact that they need a better support system in which they can learn and prosper. Me personally, I was so deeply, moved by this experience that I now want to open my own school purely focused on the sustainability of the environment and the advancement of education amongst populations that see a difficulty in pursuing it.
I feel now that the importance of educating a public that lacks it, is of utmost importance because they are the future of our generations that will solve the problems in our environment that we today blatantly give- driving more and more cars, and continually destroying our environment even though we know that we depend on it to survive. The students should not feel discouraged to try and be wrong but be encouraged to thrive and learn from their mistakes and experiences. I feel that doing these service learning projects not only change and influence the lives of the children but their ability to listen and take in the information to bring out the best in the teachers showing the material so that we can make further change in our world in order for us as a community to survive and remain sustainable.
ENST & PHYS double major
Class of 2013
Photos by Sarah Wescott
May 20, 2011
After our hike last night I woke up this morning (bright and early, breakfast was at 6:15!) all sore and achy from yesterday. I was kind of nervous before going to the school today, but I was definitely sure it was going to be an awesome experience and I knew I would be glad – and I so was. Kids are exhausting as Lisa said, exhausting but fun
After the school trip I was sweaty and hot, but definitely lots happier! Working with the 4th year students at the Tumil K’in school was super fulfilling. My group worked with them on math, matrices in particular, while the other group did persuasive essays with the students. I worked one on one with Manuel who went by DJ Maya because he broadcasted for a local radio station! Working with Manuel was so great because even though he confessed that he didn’t really like math, he tried so much harder than most of the students I’ve worked with before. When I was able to explain concepts to him in a visual way that he understood, it was the best feeling in the world, one that was only topped later on when he successfully completed the quiz we created for our students.
Of course everyone I met at the school was super curious about my name and they wanted to know where I was from and how I got my name – it almost makes me feel like I have a special connection to their culture. My name makes for a good conversation starter among people of Mayan descent, they’re always curious about where I come from and how I ended up with my name!
One of the high points of the day was the all-school assembly. Apparently the Tumil K’in School has weekly morning assemblies where they have everyone express their thoughts and be open and honest together. Victor Cal, the Community Liaison of the school started off the assembly with an incredible speech about their recent Maya Festival. He thanked all the students and staff who had helped out with the celebration (which we had attended on Sunday) and then went on to talk about the bigger picture. He had a speech about how climate change is analogous to punishment from Mother Earth because we have been constantly taking from our environment without thinking about the consequences. Our punishment is that the four elements are out of balance, resulting in droughts, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters. I can’t even come close to explaining it, but it was extremely well done. He ended with the “fajina system” or how we must help one another, exchanging energy in order to keep the world in balance. I was incredibly touched and afterwards we all had our chances to share our own feelings about being in Belize and at the school and how thankful we are for this opportunity. I just think that it’s so wonderful that they have a safe place to share their feelings with one another and how open and honest they are about their environments and how much they care about their home and keeping it beautiful and habitable.
After a break, we created a quiz to test the students on the matrices, and they did so well! They were so happy about everything they had learned and my student got 92/100 and I was so so so proud of him for his accomplishment. The absolute best part though was when he told me how much my tutoring had helped him out. The gratitude and openness of the Belizian students was incredible to behold and I’m so glad that we had the opportunity to work with these wonderful students.
Tomorrow I’m actually switching sites and working with the other group and I’m sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye for good to my students, but I think I’ll make them a card that the others can take to them for me as a substitute. I’m excited to teach little kids again and for another new experience in Belize!
Class of 2014
Photos by Erica Robles
We’ve spent the last 2 days doing service learning with half of the class heading to Tumil K’in, a private Mayan school, and the other half of the class heading to the public elementary school in Santa Cruz.
The group that went to Santa Cruz had their hands full with five classes of about 20 students each, including a group of 4 and 5 year-olds. They’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing with the students and I think Alice & Stephnie may have found their calling…
Part of our agenda in Belize includes a service-learning project, where our class went into the local schools and help out in the classrooms, sharing our knowledge with those from ages 4 to 20. We split up into two different groups; one went to Tumil K’in Center for Learning, which is a private Mayan upper school, and the other went to a primary Catholic school located in a Mayan community called Santa Cruz. The two of us went to Santa Cruz and were assigned to the Infant Levels I & II, which consisted of 24 four to five year olds.
When we first entered the classroom at Santa Cruz and introduced ourselves, we were on our own without a teacher, and the children were very shy and hesitant to speak up. However, after we played some games and sang the alphabet song, most of them opened up quite a bit. As we continued with our lessons on shapes and letters, we found them harder and harder to control. The kids aren’t as heavily disciplined here in Belize compared to our experiences in the United States, so we found that the kids were much more physical with each other. We constantly had to break up physical fights, between both boys and girls, and when we asked the teachers for band-aids, they stared at us blankly. We began to realize the cultural differences in their teaching methods and rule enforcement. It seems that the teachers do not baby the children when they get hurt, and don’t punish them very often but when they do, they use physical force, as suggested by some of the students. Many of our kids kept trying to jump out the windows, but they politely raised their hands and called us “Miss” whenever they wanted to leave the classroom to get water or go to the bathroom. In fact, all day we walked around to constant choruses of “Miss!” and “Sir!”
Not till the end of the day, did we realize the language barrier between the younger children and ourselves. We assumed most, if not all, knew basic English but found that children who we had assumed were shy, in fact could not understand what we were saying. After finding a girl with a bleeding split lip, I (AIice) kept asking one girls in the class how it had happened and if she wanted to go outside to wash it off. She just looked at me with sad eyes and did not respond. I figured that she was on the verge of tears and could not respond. When, at the end of the day, we were playing games, I saw her sitting by herself so I went over to her to ask how her lip was feeling. She again did not respond. It was then that one of the older boys came up to me and said she did not speak any English. I was shocked and tried pantomiming to her see if she was okay, but the language barrier made it impossible. It stunned me how isolated the Mayan culture was from the main of Belize, as the children do not learn any English until attending school.
I (Stephnie) was walking to the field after school, and a boy from our class walked next to me, and he kept smiling at me while I was talking to him, but did not answer any of my questions, instead showed me the toy he had made out of carved wood and string. It finally dawned on me to ask him if he spoke English, and he shook his head no. I was stunned because I had been talking to him all day in English and had just assumed he understood me when he kept nodding his head at everything I said.
The isolation from modern culture was even more apparent when we brought out cameras. All the children pushed to be in the middle of the photos, and even more wanted to take photos of their own. They were so excited to see themselves on the camera screen.
It was definitely an exhausting day but so worth it when we saw how quickly the kids got attached to us, fighting to hold our hands and stand next to us. We got an insight into the lives of the Mayan people, and the new understanding clarifies what we have learned and observed about the Mayan people, past and present.
Global Health – ENST – IR
Class of 2014
Class of 2013
Photos by Sarah Wescott
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