Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

January 9, 2013

Reflections on Belize

Tess Rowing
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — I was told by an acquaintance I should share the college experience of traveling to Central America in Jan. 2009, to the reasonably-sized country of Belize, and its neighbor Guatemala.

I hope the students of Decatur County fulfill any dreams of travel, because it’s worth it to see other places and not stay in the tiny, familiar bubble a small community provides.

Winter Term trips at Franklin College are more or less vacations under the guise of actual classes. Not that I didn’t learn a lot! Most of my learning was experiencing a different culture. Sure, I discovered some interesting tidbits about fish and Mayan ruins (Officially we were there to learn to identify fish), but the engaging part of going to a different country is interacting with the people.

Our agenda was 1. Visit Mayan ruins 2. Swim in the Caribbean 3. Mingle.

The trip was extremely physical. On the mainland we hiked through Belize and Guatemala on existing trails and traveled on rivers in something barely bigger than a tugboat.

The mainland people of Central America are desolate. It’s very humbling to see people living in houses made of brightly painted sheet metal and blankets. Chickens and cattle roam free on dirt roads, wandering in and out of the thick forests that are barely contained around small sprawling towns.

The cattle are of an Indian variety, meaning that they look bony and emaciated when compared to our fat dairy and meat bovine. Indian cattle are not good to eat. The meat is stringy, tough, and bland. The vegetarian dishes, however, were fantastic.

Every convenience store has a bottle opener, because soda is sold in glass bottles with no twist-off caps.

Climbing the ruins was exhilarating and exhausting. Some of the ruins had hundreds of slippery, limestone steps. The tallest pyramids reached high above the trees, where you could stand and see miles into a horizon that ended in green trees and a cloudy, gray sky.

The sun came out when we went to Ambergris Key, a small island off the coast of Belize surrounded by coral reefs and occupied by the friendliest people I have ever met.

Our teacher told us the reason we were “studying” the Ambergris Key reefs instead of, say, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, was because Ambergris Key contains one of the few reefs still mostly intact. Tourism has annihilated the more famous reefs with poaching, boating, and carelessness.

We were warned that we could be arrested for trying to take home a conch shell. It’s illegal to fish for the edible shellfish without a permit.

Sections of the coral reef are protected, much like some forests. This means while people can snorkel with the fishes, visitors are not allowed to touch or disturb the life. It’s silly to try and touch coral anyway, since it may be covered in stingers and poison or have a moray eel lurking inside.

My favorite memories are of a school of yellow tail joining our group and traveling with us as though we were part of the school, petting docile rays on their wing-like fins, and seeing groups of skittish squid darting around mere yards away.

The culture of Ambergris Key is nothing like the United States. People will walk up to you and start a conversation without provocation; “good night” is a greeting, not a farewell; and it’s impossible to leave a conversation without being called out on being rude. I never figured out how to end a conversation politely.

Guatemalan refugees stay on the beaches selling handmade baskets and blankets. You can haggle an $80 blanket to $20, but with the average income of Belize being $2,000 a year, I didn’t feel good taking advantage.

The food is mostly of the vegetarian and fishy variety, covered in rich sauces and mild spice. Clean water is precious, and you’re more likely to have a beer or soda with your meal.

By the end of our trip I was covered in the worst sunburn I’d ever had. The resulting tan lasted two years, and I miss it until this day.

I love Belize, and desperately want to return. When I came back from my sun-filled paradise, Indiana had seven inches of snow and the shock was jolting.

I was also injected with the desire to experience more cultures different from ours, and I encourage others to do the same.