June 10, 2012
It has been a most eye-opening, inspiring, and rewarding experience to visit Belize. For many of us, this was the first time visiting this beautiful and diverse country in Central America.
Prior to the trip, we had had a week of coursework on campus and learned about the history, climate, and geography of Belize. But seeing the land and its archaeological sites in person, and interacting face-to-face with people from various cultural backgrounds provided us with a far deeper and richer understanding than any coursework could have.
We flew into Belize City (point A), took the bus through the capital city of Belmopan (point B) and Dangriga, and arrived at Sun Creek Lodge, located in the thick of the jungle near Punta Gorda (point C). We soon got acquainted with our surroundings and some of us over time even made some new friends — moths, spiders, leaf-cutter ants, frogs, and tarantulas.
As an economist interested in the relationship between the environment and development, I was naturally drawn to the transportation system of the country. Although it was not part of the official curriculum, we did learn quite a bit about the roads and the modes of transportation in Belize on this trip.
Three major highways (the Western Highway, the Hummingbird Highway, and the Southern Highway) connect Belize City to the Toledo district in the south. The Southern Highway was the last one to be paved, significantly reducing the time needed to travel to the south. As in many other developing regions, paved roads have provided easier access, both for traders to transport local agricultural products such as cacao and citrus, and for tourists to visit this culturally rich and environmentally diverse region.
Currently, the government of Belize is working to extend the paved highway from the village of Big Falls, where we had many evening discussions with Dr. Prufer and his students, past Santa Cruz, the Mayan village where we spent two days volunteering at a primary school, all the way to the Guatemalan border. The cost of the project is estimated to be BZ$48 million, funded through a loan offered by the Kuwait Fund for the Arab Economic Development, the OPEC Fund for the International Development, and the Central American Bank for the Economic Integration (CABEI).
Although many families we came to know in Toledo have their own cars or motorcycles, the cost of owning motor vehicles is still relatively high, especially given the per capita income. For example, in Toledo in May 2012, the price for regular gas was BZ$11.58 (about US$5.79) per gallon, and the price for premium gas was BZ$12.43 (about US$ 6.22) per gallon. During the same time period, gas prices in the United States ranged from US$3.66 to US$4.22 per gallon. Bear in mind that the per capita GDP in Belize is less than 1/10 of the United States!
For most families, bus service is still the preferred method of transportation if they need to move from one city to another. The service by James Bus Line is reliable and economical. For example, it only cost me BZ$18 (US$9) to travel 6 hours from Belmopan to Punta Gorda. Their service from Belize City starts as early as 6:00am in the morning daily. But since the buses do make frequent stops, the travel time is usually extended from 4 hours to 6 hours. The Hummingbird Highway is hilly and scenic and winds through several national parks. The southern highway cuts through pine forests, grasslands, banana farms, and citrus groves. Occasionally, we saw billboards with political ads leftover from their most recent election back in March.
Given the importance of the bus service in people’s lives in Belize, it has also taken on a more significant role than a means of transportation. Buses have become a place for food vendors to sell their products. Throughout my 6-hour trip, vendors from various villages got onto the bus at different points to sell tortillas and cakes to hungry passengers. The conductors on the buses also seem to have taken on an additional role to provide delivery services from one place to another. At one time, I saw a conductor delivering goods from Dangriga for a Mayan family in a nearby village. Our guide Manuel told me that sometimes the domestic airlines also provide delivery services for a small fee. For example, it only takes about US$5 to order Indian food from Belize City to be express-delivered to Punta Gorda, some 160 miles away.
Although the Toledo district stands to benefit from all the development in recent years and the planned projects such as the road project extending to the Belize/Guatemala border, there have been concerns over whether the development will really benefit the local villagers. Many non-governmental organizations have been formed with a mission to promote sustainable development. For example, the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA) has been formed since the mid-1980s to promote the welfare of local cacao farmers through fair trade. The Toledo Institute of Environment and Development (TIDE), one of the four Belizean beneficiaries of the Debt-for-Nature swap and the only one focusing on the Toledo district, aims to promote resource management and sustainable use of ecosystems within the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor.
Many local residents have also become more active in letting their voice heard in the policy decision process. For example, Mr. Alvin Alvin Laredo, our guide in the Garinagu village of Barranco, has been leading the villagers to be part of the conservation effort while maintaining their cultural tradition of harvesting non-timber forest products for medicinal purposes. The community around the Uxbenká archaeological site also has decided to elect a chairman every two years to make decisions concerning the community welfare. Mr. Jose Mes, our guide to Yok Balum cave, is actually the current chairman from the nearby Mayan village of Santa Cruz.
Hopefully, the efforts of these local leaders and organizations will enable the people of Toledo of all cultural backgrounds to thrive on their abundant natural resources and maintain their rich heritage.
 For example, the per capita GDP in Belize in 2010 was only US$4,061, whereas it was US$47,153 in the United States. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD
Dr. Juliana Wang (Ph.D. Environmental and Natural Resource Economics) is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the Environmental Studies Program and supervisor for the field portion of the course. She is from Mainland China and focuses on the water and energy systems in her research.
June 4, 2012
Ever since our group first received our trip itineraries, we knew that we would be hiking through the jungle to Yok Balum Cave for our last day in Toledo. Adding to the excitement, we would also be entering the cave itself; we were even required to bring helmets and headlamps along. What could be more thrilling than checking out some amazing cave formations while trying to avoid hitting your head on one? Even though we were told to expect a pretty rigorous hike up to the cave, I was up for the challenge. When the day finally arrived, though, I was hit with the reality of enduring the toughest and most rewarding hike I have ever experienced.
On the day of the hike, we started early so we could get up to the cave during the cooler part of the day. After rounding up our helmets, hiking boots, and plenty of DEET, we jumped in our van and headed to the village of Santa Cruz, the same place where we had been a few days before to do our service learning. The trail to Yok Balum started just beyond the schools soccer field. Then, after meeting the two Maya guides that would be leading us up the trail, we set off towards the cave. After hiking for about an hour and a half, which included crossing the Rio Grande and a pretty steep climb up to the actual entrance of the cave, we had reached our destination. We were greeted at the cave entrance by a really interesting formation that looked like a jaguar paw, which, as our guides told us, is what Yok Balum translates to in the local Maya dialect. Then, our guides did a final check on our helmets and headlamps, and we entered the cave.
Inside the cave was breathtaking. We saw stalagmites, stalactites, and countless other formations that looked like they came from another planet. The same formations that were so beautiful to look at also turned out to be pretty useful hand holds during our hike and climb through the cave. About halfway through the cave, we found places to sit down, and our guides had us turn off our headlamps; we were plunged into complete darkness. This almost surreal experience helped me to understand why the Mayans viewed caves like Yok Balum as such sacred places. We spent a few more minutes in the dark before turning back on our headlamps and proceeding through the cave, now joined by the bats that inhabited the cave. After spending about an hour in the cave, we emerged back into the jungle and made our way back down the trail.
Looking back, this hike was definitely one of the highlights of my experience in Belize. Between the uniquely challenging hike through the jungle and the amazing sites within the cave, I don’t think I will ever forget my Yok Balum experience. I also think that sharing this journey brought our class a lot closer together; on a related note, I would like to send a special thank you to everyone that motivated me when the going got tough during those last few hills. Relatively few people get the change to traverse this spectacular cave, and having the opportunity to do so increased my appreciation for my unforgettable Belize experience.
Lindsey Estes is a junior from Federal Way, Washington. She is currently pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies with a minor in Political Science.
May 28, 2012
On Wednesday and Thursday of our first week in Toledo, we completed the service learning portion of our trip at Santa Cruz RC School, which educates the Mayan children of Santa Cruz village. With 109 students from ages 3-15, the school was ripe with opportunities for cultural exchange. Michelle and I spent the two days teaching Standards III and IV–effectively grades 4 and 5–with students ranging from 8-12 years old. Though the brief lessons we taught to them seem trivial, the eye-opening lessons we learned from working with them will undoubtedly stay with us long after traveling home.
Before discussing the cultural intricacies of Santa Cruz, it’s important to note something else: many, if not most, of inherent childhood traits are evidently cross-cultural. The first thing you can expect of preteens in school anywhere is a short attention span and an impeccable sense of the exact moment mid-morning break should start (the classroom clock was nonfunctional, but they always knew). Next, you wouldn’t be wrong to recall that there’s always an identifiable group of troublemakers; not only did they catalyze restlessness amongst one another, but also egged on the rest of their classmates. Lastly, girls were more likely to be shy, especially around the boys, and when they did interact it was often in the form of teasing.
Beyond what can be expected of any adolescents are the specific cultural cues of the Santa Cruz students. The majority of them come from families of farmers, and when not in school they’re often working to help their parents. English is their second language–their first is any one of the multiple Mayan languages spoken in the area. They know a great deal about the surrounding Mayan ruins, including Uxbenka and Lubantuun, and are enthusiastic about their heritage–they expressed a desire to travel to more sites throughout the country. Lastly, and perhaps most significant to our visit, was the fascination the students had about us and where we come from–they were insatiably eager to learn about our families and see all of the pictures we could show them.
Over the course of two days, Michelle and I (with Dan’s much needed help) taught the students some basic lessons on geometry, grammar, and science. Dan also gave an impromptu lesson on religion when the teacher unexpectedly left the room after asking several questions to the students about morality. Most entertaining was the lesson we taught the students about the components of a story. At the end of day one, we split the students into groups and asked them to come up with their own stories, with easily identifiable characters, settings, and plots. One group affectionately wrote a story about Michelle and I getting lost in the woods and later being saved from a hungry tiger by the unfailingly brave Dan. On the morning of the second day, the students were tasked with acting out their stories to the rest of the class. Even the students who didn’t regularly show interest in learning were excited–we were certainly glad to have found an engaging way to teach them (and keep them under control).
Alphine Avila has worked at Santa Cruz RC School for 4 years, and is currently serving her first year as principal (while also teaching Standards III and IV). She opened up to us and shared some interesting insights about the school, the students, and her personal experience as principal. The first thing Michelle and I learned from Alphine is that a sizable portion of the students aren’t as hard working as they need to be in order to do well–something she attributed to the fact that they don’t always receive adequate encouragement and support at home. This usually happens because the students’ parents are either too preoccupied with their own farm work, or feel that their child’s time would be better spent contributing to the family than to learning. Alphine admitted that because the students must often flip flop between school behavior and home behavior, it’s difficult to narrow their focus. She also shared with us that there’s been considerable resistance to her position as principal because of the reform she has recently tried bringing to the school. Among the things she mentioned were including more field trips, and cutting the sports program back slightly with hopes of improving the school’s standardized test scores, which have been low in previous years. Additionally, she often has to leave her own classroom during the school day to attend to problems with students in other classes. She hopes to return as principal next year but is unsure of her future with the school.
Overall, working at the school was a unique experience for all involved. We were able to learn about current Mayan culture and the Belize school system at the same time, and we hope to have imparted some memorable lessons to the students of Santa Cruz.
Sydney MacEwen, an LA native, is an upcoming Junior pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies and a minor in Geological Hazards. This is her first trip to Belize. She’s particularly interested in climate change and related policy. She hopes to pursue a Master of Arts in Environmental Studies following her undergraduate education.