June 6, 2011
The PWP Belize program was one of the first perks of the Environmental Studies program that I heard about upon declaring my major mid-Freshman year. Originally taught by Kevin Cannariato – who happened to be my ENST 100 professor at the time – I heard mention of this class time and time again. And what better way to earn four units of credit toward my major than to travel to Central America for an educational vacation of sorts? My heart was set on taking the class from the get-go, but my own schedule did not allow for me to take it until the summer after my junior year, Lisa Collins’s first year taking over the class. (And I loved the class so much, I even used it as the topic for my ITP final project.) Little did I know that I would have the opportunity to come back and TA the class after graduation – and a lot certainly changed, even in the short amount of time between the 2010 and 2011 trips.
One of the first differences I noticed, as soon as we stepped off our American Airlines flight at the Belize City airport, was that the heat and humidity seemed less intense than last year. I remembered it hitting like a wall last time, although I couldn’t be sure if I was just remembering the experience incorrectly. But as we started on our long (very, very long) drive from the airport toward the Toledo district in Southern Belize, the smell of smoke was hard to ignore. Our host, Bruno, later mentioned that Belize had been experiencing a drought recently, and that these were some of the worst wildfires he had seen in his fifteen years living in the country. An unfortunate turn of events for the country, this did give the students a bit of firsthand knowledge to emphasize the important role of droughts in the stability of a civilization, as brought up during our many collapse discussions.
This year, as TA, one of my most daunting (in my opinion) duties was to serve as a van driver. At home, I am used to paved roads, Los Angeles potholes, and my compact Toyota, so the thought of driving a hulking van through dirt roads was at least mildly intimidating. Admittedly, though, this was actually one of my favorite parts of the trip. There is something a bit freeing about driving in an area completely devoid of traffic. Plus, my student DJs and the fantastic views on our commute to the Santa Cruz school made the drive all the more enjoyable. Once the Santa Cruz kids took to scribbly out dusty messages on our van’s rear windows, it became a nice reminder of the unique nature of the trip.
The “dirt roads” I had been expecting from last year were amped up this time around, though, as Belize is constructing a highway that will go to Guatemala. Construction in Belize is a bit different from what we picture in the United States. I essentially shared the road with heavy machinery, which were usually busy crushing down rocks into a consistency more befitting a dirt highway. Construction safety workers would gesture me forward through narrow passes, as if I had any other choice than the one they suggested (it’s hard to get lost in Belize, despite the lack of street signs, as there aren’t a whole lot of alternate roads to take). We also were required to stop at several random police/military checkpoints (always at the same intersection, though) which were usually uneventful, but on occasions when they were well-armed, somewhat intimidating. We were told this is to prevent the proliferation of drug trafficking from neighboring countries – an effort we suspect will not be made any easier through the construction of a road to Guatemala.
Much of the trip this year was familiar, though. Staying at Sun Creek Lodge with Bruno for the first leg of our journey was a pleasure (fleas and scorpions aside). We revisited Yok Balum Cave, Rio Blanco, Blue Creek, Uxbenka, and Punta Gorda. The hike to Yok Balum Cave is infamous in the PWP Belize trip for being a daunting hike, but this year I found it tremendously easier than the year before. (I still can’t decide if this was due to the milder weather, improved fitness on my part, or an inaccurate memory of the hike the year before.) Rio Blanco also reflected the year’s droughts, with the river hardly showing much sign of the waterfall we saw in 2010. On the other hand, though, the lowered water levels allowed us to swim much further into the cave at Blue Creek, eventually arriving at a fantastic waterfall at the end of our swim – an area that was inaccessible the year before.
However, some of our newest additions to the class provided us with some of the most memorable experiences of the trip: visiting Eladio Pop’s cacao farm, and participating in the service learning project at Tumil K’in and Santa Cruz. Easily one of my favorite parts of visiting Belize this year, the children were so much fun to work with, and everyone at the schools showed us incredible hospitality.
One thing was very familiar, though – at the end of the trip, everyone was faced with a very bittersweet goodbye. While I think everyone was ready for their own familiar beds back in the United States (and probably ready to wake up in the morning without need for DEET), leaving Placencia was hard, as everyone had their own aspects of Belize that would be missed the most: a testament not only to how great Belize is, but also to what a wonderful opportunity the Problems without Passports program offers to USC students.
ENST grad student
Class of 2012