USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

June 11, 2014

Our Modern World vs. Belize

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 3:47 pm

Written by Katya Balakhovsky

In the modern world, we are used to having an abundance of resources and often do not concern ourselves with where they came from or how we will dispose of them. We often waste food and throw it out, not worrying that it is actually a valuable resource and in many parts of the planet is scarce. Similarly, we are used to having many objects that elsewhere are considered luxuries. Experiencing the Belize villages makes one realize that we should not take what we have for granted, especially when it comes from the Earth. Nature should be respected and not abused. A perfect example of this is Eladio Pop’s cacao farm.
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The Agouti Cacao farm.

The Agouti Cacao farm.

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During the tour of Eladio’s farm, Eladio showed us the various plants he grows, how he harvests them, and even the medicinal qualities of some plants. Eladio would pick up fruits from the trees or from the ground and eat them. Some of the fruit he grows includes mango, pineapple, and most importantly cacao. His farm is dispersed in between naturally growing jungle plants, so Eladio never needs to clear the land in order to grow food for himself and for his family. His farm is not comparable to any “industrial farming” that is common in the United States. In fact, although Eladio’s farm is extensive and he even makes a profit off it, it is still small scale compared to corn fields in the U.S.
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Eladio never exploits the ecosystem that surrounds his home, but uses it carefully and never allows anything to go to waste. He and his family value what the jungle offers them, and cultivate cacao and other crops without damaging their surroundings. Eladio does not make use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides and herbicides, and instead wisely uses what nature gives him. This is visible in several aspects of his cacao farm. First of all, when he chops down a tree to use for firewood, he will only chop what he needs, and not any more. He will also use every bit of the tree he chops: The trunk is used for firewood, the palm leaves are used for building the roof of his home, and the vines are used as ties to carry firewood or processed to make string. In this way, Eladio does not excessively damage the jungle. He also does not believe in the “slash and burn” agriculture technique, although it is sustainable and has many benefits, because he does not want to clear large areas of the jungle. Also, he will take advantage of the species that inhabit his farm in the most organic way possible. For example, he uses the dirt that ants break up into small bits as a fertilizer, spreading it among his cacao trees to provide them with healthy soil, not enriched with artificial chemicals. He allows his trees to grow freely among the other species of plants that inhabit the ecosystem. He allows tall trees to grow among smaller ones as long as they are pruned or well taken care of to allow sun to pass to the smaller plants. All of Eladio’s food is grown on his farm, and even wild species are consumed, reducing the need clear forests to grow crops.
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Much of this comes from Eladio’s belief that nature in itself is a Holy Spirit. He does not believe there is a single God to be venerate, but that life within each animal and plant must be respected as a spirit in itself. For this reason, he will be very careful to not exploit the resources and privileges the Earth gives him. At the same time, Eladio wants to care for his family and teach them to respect Nature in the same way he does. His 15 children help out on the farm by harvesting crops and processing them in various ways, and thus learn first hand how much the Earth can provide without people disrupting its natural functions. Eladio himself grew up with an alcoholic father who did not care properly for his wife and children, and from that Eladio has learned to care for his family. He cares about giving them the best life possible and educating them on how lucky they are to have fertile soils and a thriving farm.
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Although Eladio is more well-off than other families, he does not abuse his money. Today, he very rarely drinks saying that he would rather use money on creating a better life for his children and invests in his sustainable farm, which allows him to preserve the environment and even contribute to it. Farming sustainably and learning to use everything of resource and not waste has also allowed him to stay in touch with his cultural roots. The Maya rarely abused the Earth and used their resources wisely, and by working on the farm Eladio does the same.
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Eladio Pop, owner and farmer.

Eladio Pop, owner and farmer.

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In today’s society, because we rarely experience food or other resource production first hand, we are likely to forget that many of our luxuries come from the Earth, which we abuse by adding chemicals or otherwise modifying it to use for our own benefits, rarely giving back. We should learn from Eladio and be thankful for what we have, instead of taking it for granted. Instead of purchasing excessive processed foods that require lots of energy both to produce and transport, we can take advantage of sustainably and locally grown food products, which are much less likely to cause excessive damage to the earth.
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Another factor that clearly makes Eladio’s farm more sustainable is his proximity to the land. When rain patterns change slightly or the water and air become contaminated, Eladio will immediately notice because he will lose crops. We on the other hand, are often completely oblivious to such changes because our food supply will not be affected. We are lucky enough to have the possibility to import food during times of shortage, but this in turn has made us less conscious of the environmental changes that are happening all around us. Being able to import food is obviously a luxury that in many other parts of the world does not exist, but it also greatly affects how we view our actions. Because we are not immediately affected by slight changes in the same way that Eladio is, we often fall victims to short-term thinking and are unlikely to make a legitimate effort to adjust our lifestyle to a more environmentally conscious one like Eladio’s.

June 10, 2014

The drawbacks of the education system

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 6:38 pm

By Ryan Breeding

Waking up on Wednesday, May 28 I was filled with anxiety and much uncertainty. As we began the trek to Santa Cruz RC School to spend our first of two days of service learning, I was filled with doubt over whether I had the tools to sufficiently teach my standard IV (ages 9-11) class the basics of education which I have gained over my numerous years in academia.

Ryan and Sydney with Standard IV students from Santa Cruz RC School.

Ryan and Sydney with Standard IV students from Santa Cruz RC School.









To start the day, myself and four of my classmates were given the task to spread out and find a classroom where we could provide assistance to willing and eager students. As I entered Mr. Teul’s standard IV classroom, shown in the picture above, I was greeted with a warm welcome and smiling students. Once I stepped farther into the classroom I was able to take a seat and observe the lesson plan that the teacher was presenting to his students. Mr. Teul, who has been teaching at Santa Cruz for the past 6 years, has sharpened his craft of teaching by emphasizing group learning while also rewarding individuality. For example, Mr. Teul began the day with a mathematics lesson. After teaching the basics of long division, he broke his students into groups to work together on a set of problems. After the group work, students were selected to come up individually to work out the problems on the board. This created an atmosphere in his classroom that allowed students to thrive in both group and independent settings.  The students’ hunger for learning was absolutely evident. However, despite their eagerness for education, there were a number of culturally driven disparities in the classroom.

As an example of these inequalities, the boys and the girls tended to be stronger in vastly different subjects. The males excelled in mathematics and science where the girls’ strong suits were in the social sciences and language arts. Two students who caught my attention were Sara and Francisco. These individuals were unique from one another in that Sara enjoyed artwork and writing, whereas Francisco thrived on mathematics and science. Each, however, had a clear passion for learning.  These differences also evolved during recess, where the boys played rough soccer while the girls played gentle games like duck-duck-goose.

As I spent more time with the students, it became clear to me that the girls exhibit a shy and reserved personality when confronted with conversation. When asked to speak in front of the class, they were often nervous to participate and unwilling to express their opinions or share input. This made it challenging for the professor because a select few students were always eager to participate and commanded the classroom, leaving almost no opportunities for the shier students to contribute. As found within Santa Cruz RC School these traits may be due in part to a cultural pattern found throughout the entire culture.

Over the course of the two days, I was able to grow close to numerous students, but I couldn’t help but realize there are some missing pieces to the puzzle for a successful and complete educational experience. Professor Teul’s class, as seen below, had many bright students, but there were a select few who were far behind in possessing the same level of understanding for many of the basic concepts. One significant factor could be due to differing family lives outside of school. It is quite noticeable that the students often participate as a helping hand to their families, which are usually farmers along with the women pursuing handicrafts in their spare time. This is a crucial aspect as to why there is such a large disparity between the varying education levels of the students. At the end of the day, the students are usually forced to split their time of furthering their education or grasping many of the traditional Maya practices.  Due to this the students must do a balancing act and decide which path to pursue whether it be focusing on schoolwork or continuing their families legacy.

An astronomy lesson conducted in the auditorium.

An astronomy lesson conducted in the auditorium.










Yet despite my experience at Santa Cruz RC School I was able to understand what it truly takes to be a successful student. For instance I learned that without the proper support from your family, it’s very unlikely to have the drive to pursue higher education. I believe its important to realize that many of the students are distracted by external factors and this may play a significant role in how much effort is put towards education. Overall, with adequate encouragement and the usage of proper resources I believe the education system here in Belize can be transformed to help our future generations.

During my time at the school I believe I grasped the true picture of what Santa Cruz RC School conveys. The schools’ strong suits is its ability to bring forth the essential tools that the students need to be successful in the future, yet in the meantime some students are left in the dust due to others working more slowly or not understanding the material. This is where I came in, and was able to spend more one on one time with the struggling students because with the large dispersion of students there aren’t enough hours in the day for individual time to be spent with the professor. In the end with the proper allocation of resources many of these struggling students can regain their confidence in pursuing an education regardless of preoccupations and outside obligations to their families livelihood.

Overall I hope I was able to change the life of at least one student because they have truly motivated myself to reach out and help others since I am so fortunate to be given the life I currently live. By taking a step back and reflecting on this experience I have grasp many memories, which I will take with me for the rest of my life. The students at Santa Cruz RC School are truly a blessing in disguise and I never thought I would gain so many life lessons in only two short days.


Caves as Classrooms

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 6:33 pm

This post was written by Kaytee Canfield

I expected, and attempted, to write this reflection about the service learning aspect of this trip, or even about the tour of Eladio Pop’s polyculture farm (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed). Those were the activities I’d been so looking forward to for the last few months after all. Instead, what it seems most natural, most true to write about is how incredible it is to see what you’ve read about in class take 3D, full size form in the field. I can never get over the excitement of experiencing and observing the theories and facts that are lectured about in the classroom. As the date of departure for Belize neared, my anxiety about crawling through a cave and jumping in mud reached a level that made me nervous I might refuse to go to Belize at all. Luckily, I made it here, and to all of the destinations requiring a helmet and headlamp, because those are the adventures that have surprised me. Surprised me in that I’ve been able to completely enjoy them. Bug bites (welts really), spiny tree spines in my hand, a few scrapes, some bruises, no number minor injuries has changed how ecstatically giddy I am now having crawled and clambered through a cave.

I am not the biggest risk-taker, and my love of learning sometimes has to confront my fear of the consequences of a risk. So certain activities are not right up my typical alley. Crawling through a cave on my stomach, headlamp and helmet required was something I considered very risky, but there was learning to be done, so I was up for it. Also, a hike to be had; who doesn’t enjoy a good hike through a tropical rainforest? When we made it to the mouth of Yok Balum cave, I was exhausted, sweaty, and smiling. Named after the jaguar paw rock formation that seems to reach out at you from the cave’s entrance, Yok Balum cave had my complete attention, and I was ready to explore. No longer was I anxious about whatever the dangers were that I had previously been concerned about within the cave. Instead, I was more than ready to get in and see all the stalagmites and stalactites.

We had learned about these rock formations’ process of forming and use in archaeological dating in class, but I really wanted to see them in action; forming before my eyes. They form from the dropping of water from the cave ceiling; water containing calcium carbonate from the soil above the cave. So, they were forming over thousands of years rather than at an observable pace in the cave, but we still got to see water dropping from the moist outdoor soil onto the tip  of a stalagmite. Seeing this process, slow as it might be, made me do a little internal jig. I was filled with a sense of something that could be described as nothing other than eureka. To many people, it might seem silly to be so excited by merely observing water drop onto the floor of a cave, to hear water forming magnificent new structures that will not be impressively tall for hundreds or thousands of years, if ever, but I couldn’t help it.  Observing this process first hand made the knowledge of how the process proceeds and the meaning of different colors of structures mean so much more. When I got to be so close, even touching some of these formations, the knowledge became concrete, or limestone rather (since calcium carbonate is limestone, you know?).

There was even a set up inside the cave to monitor the rate of growth of the stalagmites; quite a contraption with a funnel, tube and many vials that collected water droplets as they fell into the cave. Each time one vial was filled, an empty one would take its place, ready to measure how long it took to be filled with water. This contraption was extremely intriguing to me. It was so neat to see how everywhere there is a question to be asked, and something to be learned. In this silent, lightless cave even there was data to collect and knowledge to acquire. When this research is finished, there will be a paper that many geology and archaeology students will read that will have a rate of rainfall accumulation of stalagmites and stalactites in Yok Balum cave, and I got to see where and how all that data was collected.

I know this is all extremely nerdy. I know it is such a level of nerdiness that you probably worry you’re becoming more nerdy and socially awkward just by reading this, but there’s a pretty hardcore, risky, “sick” aspect to it as well. To study these beautiful structures that grow from both floors and ceilings, sparkling at times and in a variety of colors, one has to adventure through a jungle, and not a particularly tame one at that. Our hike to and through the cave involved wading across a river (about knee deep), hiking/sliding/skiing through mud, some amateur rock climbing, army-crawling, and holding on to stalactites and trees to keep from falling when climbing around and through all that nature had created. It was great to do something so “risky” in my eyes, something I would consider extremely “cool” (hiking through a jungle and a cave is pretty awesome if you ask me) while learning and observing natural science in action.

Seeing what it might be like to be a scientist in the field of archaeology or geology was very exciting to me, and reignited my desire to learn more. Very rarely do I need any extra motivation to keep reading, but this reminded me of how interesting it can be to be a field scientist, how enjoyable it can be to be the scientist to ask and attempt to answer questions no one knows the answer to, how incredibly interesting and enjoyable doing research really can be.

So while I truly could’ve written this blog about any one of the adventures we’ve gone on here in Belize, this is what affected me most. Conquering that cave hike revealed to me not only that I could actually handle being in the field (or jungle rather), but that I could thoroughly enjoy learning while also going on an adventure that would give me stories to share. Stories that are more than just facts and theories from papers and books. Stories of outdoor, real life experiences that would be a vacation for anyone that also rewards me with new questions to ask and first-hand knowledge to share.

Close Encounters With the Belizean Reef

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 6:27 pm

Written by Teddy Fischer

Today I took a plunge into the Caribbean Sea. On the east coast of Central America the sun rises early, just like the Environmental Studies students. We’re staying on the coast a half-day’s journey from Toledo, the district where we stayed while visiting the Mayan archaeological sites.

Fry jacks for breakfast (a Belizean specialty), a quick jog to the van, and we board the boat which will ferry us an hour out to the island which will be our home base while we dive and snorkel.

Most of the class will be snorkeling. They disembark and the four of us remaining — the divers — start getting our gear together for our first descent.

As soon as I’ve arrived at 30 feet and established neutral buoyancy our guide starts banging on his SCUBA tank to get our attention. Immediately beneath him snakes a 7-foot long, bright green-yellow moray eel. It’s gill holes flare to over an inch as it slithers through the water beneath us. This is the largest — and most frighteningly bold — eel I have ever seen in the wild. Normally eels spend their time waiting in a hole and attacking prey as it travels past, but this moray is fully exposed swimming quickly toward. The next thing I know, our guide is tapping on his tank again and swimming toward the underwater wall that is a vertical drop of over 100 feet.

The friendly eel

The friendly eel

We start swimming along the wall at about 50 feet of depth. There are large pelagic fishes like parrotfish and grouper, which swim past to see what these foreigners are up to along their reef. We spot a couple lionfish doing a lot of nothing — they are an invasive species that retreat to crevices to avoid the surge of the tides — to which our guide signals that he wants to shoot them. Suddenly, another bang on his tank and he sprints through the water along the wall.

Our guide is making the signal for shark, and I desperately swim as fast as I can to see this elusive creature. It’s worth it; we’re 85 feet down along the enormous north wall reef, and in front of us is a 9-foot long nurse shark. I’ve seen lots of sharks while diving, but this was my first encounter with one larger than me!

It was a spectacular moment, and then the shark turned around and ventured out of sight. We came back up from 85 feet to a depth of 50 feet, where we were once again greeted by the startlingly intrepid eel. I looked down at my air gauge to see that I had just used up half of my tank, and signaled to my dive buddy Madi that I had used more than expected. A few minutes more of touring the spectacular reef, and we needed to rise up for our decompression safety stop at 15 feet. Our dive ended a little sooner than we’d hoped, but what we saw was magnificent.

Later in the day we join the snorkelers for a last dip in the sea. We take the boat to a location where we expect to see stingrays, barracuda and a few more nurse sharks. Suddenly a wave of excitement spreads throughout all of the snorkeling students. A sea turtle has been spotted, and it’s heading right for us!

It appears to be a 100 pound hawksbill sea turtle, and it begins approaching each student. We know this is a wild animal, and to be cautious, so we back away as it comes near. I get my fill of the sea turtle and head out to see some of the barracuda that are prowling about. Up by the bow of the boat away from the crowd there is a lot more life to see. I come across several stingrays, some of the barracuda, and then a pair of nurse sharks that adorably bump into each other over and over. I make my way around the boat following the sharks and notice that all of a sudden everyone is scrambling to get back onto the boat.

Something is wrong. There clearly is danger in the water. I swim as fast as I can back to the group and Dr. Collins’ husband, Dorab, tells me with no minced words to ‘get out of the water as fast as you can’. I clamber up the boat’s ladder without asking a question or removing my fins, making sure to get to safety and out of people’s way as quickly as possible. But what is going on? I ask one of my classmates, and I am surprised by the answer.

The turtle had continued to approach students, in a more and more aggressive manner as they swam about. One of the dive guides had picked up a shell to distract the turtle, which it bit crushing it to pieces. The danger of a turtle bite is too much to risk.

On our way back the guides explained what had happened. People sometimes taunt the turtles with food items. The turtles become accustomed to people, and look to them for food, occasionally becoming aggressive when they are not fed promptly.

The combination of the amazing natural diversity and the trained reaction of the sea turtle highlighted a valuable lesson for the day: there are important and beautiful natural resources that need protection, and there can be backlash for humans when those protections are violated. The value of healthy reefs goes beyond aesthetics, there are also economies tied to them through the supported fisheries, the environmental tourism sector, and the barrier to hurricanes that could otherwise inundate the coast with storm surges.

It is my hope that as the economic and inherent values of reefs and other important ecosystems becomes more and more clear, that we will come together with important protections that are obeyed so that we can continue to enjoy these incredible resources. Hopefully in the future, students won’t have to run from aggressive turtles.

The overly friendly/ aggressive sea turtle.

The overly friendly/ aggressive sea turtle.

Farming Disconnect

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 6:21 pm

Written by Mike Gallagher

In the first world, we often take basic necessities such as shelter, food and water for granted.  Houses are viewed as luxury items, meant to demonstrate our wealth and social status.  Food is seen as an opportunity to experiment with our taste buds and enjoy new flavors three times a day.  Water is simply the clear liquid that flows from the faucet endlessly. We tend focus on what we consider to be more important, such as our careers. However, for the vast majority of the world, attaining these three basic necessities is the top priority.  This was demonstrated to me first hand during my time in Toledo, Belize.  Known as the forgotten district, most people live in villages lacking electricity and running water. The first paved roads connecting many of these villages to the rest of the country were completed less than a year ago.  Homes are built of materials foraged in the jungle nearby. Every meal consists of food harvested or raised within walking distance of the village.  While I am considering which minor to pick up, how many units I need to graduate on time, and what life after college has in store, these Belizian villagers are thinking about how they will feed their families if there is a lack of rainfall resulting in a bad harvest. Originally, I felt a pang of guilt for being born into a well-off family in the wealthiest country in the world.  However, a day spent touring the farm of Eladio Pop changed my perspective.

Eladio is an indigenous Copan Maya, deriving his ancestry from the mighty ancient Maya civilization.  He grew up farming the land with his father, and has continued to do so for the last forty odd years.  Instead of measuring his wealth in the price tag on his cars or home, he measures it by the health of the plants on his farm. Everyday he wakes up and does a full day’s work of intense manual labor.  He clears the weeds, plants his crops, harvests the crops, and hauls them back to his home using a vine around his forehead.  One could imagine that he would resent his life of hard work, while others simply live off the wealth of their parents.  Instead, Eladio relishes the time he spends on his farm.  He explained that he loves the hard work, that it makes him feel alive and well. When he is caring for his plants, Eladio says that he feels connected to the world around him, as well the spiritual world.  He claims that his religion cannot be found in a church, rather in the beauty of nature.  He sees god in everything on his farm.

In the US, we create chemicals to kill pests that might be harmful to our crops.  Eladio, on the other hand, works with all the naturally occurring life on his farm.  He showed us that leaf cutter ants digest the fallen and dying leaves on the ground, and then mix their waste into the soil deep underground, creating a rich fertilizer for his crops, seen in the image below.  To Eladio, nature has everything figured out.  Therefore, closely watching nature and working with it, rather than against it, yields superior results. As we followed Eladio around his farm and ate countless fruits and vegetables straight off the trees or plants, I started to realize why he enjoyed his work so much.  Eladio lives and works closely with nature all day everyday.  His concerns are for maintaining the health and growth of everything in his farm. He cultivates life as his profession.  It seems to me that such a life is not only more simplistic, but also happier.  The concerns of wealth, prestige and social status are not relevant in his life, only the well being of his farm and family.

My experiences in Toledo, Belize have really given me a new insight into what is actually important in life. Once we have secured the three basic necessities, hard work, family, friends and spirituality are all that matters. In Toledo, villagers come together in order to help each family construct a home, and then re-thatch the roof every fifteen years. This sense of community is lacking in the modern first-world. We have forgotten what it’s like to lead a simple life with nature, focused only the day’s work. Perhaps the villagers of the forgotten district in Belize are wealthier than we could imagine. Everyone I met seemed happy and at peace with their lives. To me, this is far more important than landing a job with the big five, or getting that promotion in order to afford a more luxurious house. This experience has really given me new insight into my life, and has demonstrated that sometimes, less is more.

When words are defined through their polar opposites

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 6:08 pm

This post was written by Sarah Joh.

For example, the moment when personal experience makes you realize that life couldn’t possibly be defined without the concept of death, decay, and related ideas. It’s something I’m old enough to already know but at the same time it’s something I’m distant from. In this matter, Belize is an all-immersive experience. In Belize, the bugs, tropical forest, and the native Maya are a persistent reminder of how human I am, as well as how interconnected life forms are – a realization Los Angeles cannot supply.

For me, the bugs in Belize provided the first persistent reminder of the marginal role I play as an individual human being in the bigger picture of life.

As my roommates can attest, I am not a fan of bugs, whether they be classified as insects or arachnids. Even though they send shivers up my back, I unintentionally decided to become more closely acquainted with them than I had anticipated. This, I realized during the night of the group’s arrival, when I learned that June bugs would be a common infestation at Tranquility Lodge. Furthermore, jaded by memories of braving mosquito bites from past experiences, I forewent packing any sort of post-bite treatment. The collective result was that my initial nights spent in the Toledo district were centered around avoiding June bugs at all costs by avoiding turning the lights on in my room and going to bed early, only to wake up to a palette of freshly itching mosquito bites on my body.

If you’re wondering how something as mundane as June bugs and mosquito bites can serve as reminders of my role as a life form in an ecosystem, let me attest to how much mosquitos and other biting arthropods leave you to their mercy when you occupy the same environment as they do. No matter how diligently you prepare your clothes with permitherin (an insect repellant chemical), arrange mosquito netting around your bed, or spray yourself with DEET, mosquitos and flies will find their way to you, feed on you, and leave their mark on your skin. The resulting raised, irritated patches of skin are the reminders that you are but another critter in the midst of an ecological chain. Amidst avoiding the constant urge to scratch, I can’t forget that throughout my stay, I’ll be serving as a tasty meal to a plethora of bugs that make their home in the Belizean jungle. Though humans might like to consider themselves as the mightiest life forms, capable of manipulating the environment and preying on all sorts of living things both larger and smaller than ourselves, we remain subject to the needs of relatively puny, relatively primitive living creatures. When I consider them, the itching bites are a humbling experience, reminding me on a basic level that no matter how much humans try to house themselves away from the elements of nature, that nature will find its way back to humans because we are an inextricable component of it.

Secondly, the less-developed scenery and the time I spent in various patches of Belizean jungle made me focus on how omnipresent life is. Life exists in the where you might least expect it. Notable for me in the forest, it’s fungi – strands of fungi sprouting from dead branches on the forest floor and the rings of fungi forming pale green circles on the numerous trees forming the forest. In the forest, I found life forms dependent on other forms upon other life forms through unending symbiotic relationships. Furthermore, my lack of awareness of the sheer richness of life actually forming the forest make me realize how oblivious I am to the life teeming around me.

Even though I’d like to consider myself observant, life in the US has desensitized me to nature and all of its components. Bumbling around the outskirts of Lubaantun, one of the Mayan ruins we got to visit, I narrowly avoided crashing into an anthill when a tour guide warned me to watch my step just in time. At Tumul K’in, the local high school I had the privilege of having three days of service learning at, I experience how the students are endowed with the practical knowledge of nature and its workings. The impression I made on the students through the tutoring I do is no match for the impression the students made on me through their final projects, which are required for graduation. The excitement of the third year Maya student who plans on raising tilapia in a pond near his home rubbed off on me as he shared his ideas with me. I was amazed (and continue to be so) by his plans to sustain his fish by also raising pond shrimp because it seems like a project much more tangible and practical than anything I’ve ever done as a high school student. The real-life implication of such a project is impressive to me, as my main role as a student so far has implicated studying and learning indirectly through reading texts.

As a whole, life, as I’ve experienced during my brief stay in Belize, is more raw and direct than what I experience back in the States. My actions and interactions are tied into the natural world, rather than into human constructs that have momentarily overrun the natural world. While the bug bites will fade and the difference in living conditions will require me to adopt a different perspective back in Los Angeles, when thinking about how I’d like to create change as an environmental studies student, my experiences in Belize will provide an indelible reminder of how people will have to think of themselves as a component of the environment, rather than the primary proprietors of it.

Finding Faith Within the Jungle

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 6:05 pm

Written by Gwen Kenny.

Having grown up in the greater Los Angeles area, I am a suburban girl through and through. My first grade class took a field trip to a farm where I learned how to milk a cow, I look forward to the guest ranch I go to in Colorado every summer, and my uncle is some sort of vineyard manager, but that’s as far as my farming experiences go. When my younger sister became a vegetarian a few years ago, I began to realize how removed I am from the processes involved in creating my food. Not only does it travel a long distance to get to my plate after I have been completely uninvolved in its production, but I eat a lot of things that I never would if I had to produce them. One of the other girls and I discussed this briefly one morning on our way to service learning. Her philosophy is that she shouldn’t consume anything she wouldn’t be willing to kill. It just so happens that she feels she would be able to slaughter her own cows and chickens. Me? I’m certain that if I were stranded in the woods, I would probably catch fish, and I might kill a rabbit after a few days, but only in a true matter of life and death. Yet, I am not a vegetarian. I occasionally eat meat, but I could never make that food for myself.

The disconnect between myself and the food I consume is not at all uncommon in the developed world. Most of us will never need to farm a day in our lives and possibly will never even grow our own herb gardens. In Belize, though, there is no such luxury for the people living in the villages that we have visited. The fourth form high school students at Timul K’in did entrepreneur projects that all consisted of the students generating their own income through the raising of crops and animals. The school itself even has on-campus pigs and chickens that are slaughtered for their meals. These students are certainly no stranger to being directly involved in the production of their meals. Many of their families may not even know another way.

On the Sunday after we arrived in Belize, we toured a sustainable cacao farm in the Toledo District. The owner, Eladio, showed us around his farm, which much more closely resembled the jungle that we had walked through so many times before this point than a stereotypical farm. He pointed out trees that he had planted when he first began work on the farm 42 years ago when he was only 13 years old–an age when the only thing I had ever planted was roses in my grandma’s garden. Not only was his farm impressive to look at, his attitude about his farm and life was inspiring. I am admittedly no expert in farming, but from what I have experienced, I am fairly certain that most people do not hold the same views with the same passion that Eladio does.

We had been on his farm for less than half an hour when Eladio began telling us about how he found church in his farm. Eladio does not attend regular church, or at least that is what he claimed during our tour–all the church he needs is in his productive jungle. I have rarely heard such conviction even from people who belong to a regular church. To hear such a strong, genuine statement from someone that echoed my own thoughts and feelings meant so much to me. I felt a certain validation listening to him speak. My mother is ordained in the Episcopal Church as a deacon, and I grew up going to church every weekend (except when I had soccer games), but I have never felt a real connection to the church itself. I have always found my own solace in nature the same way that Eladio seems to.

Before leaving his farm to head over to his home for lunch, Eladio excitedly filled our bellies with cacao, heart of palm, limes, pineapple, the best mangos I have ever had, and an assortment of bananas. He spoke praises for the earth for giving him these delicacies and impressed upon his audience the importance of maintaining the integrity of the land. At one point he said something that has really stuck with me: someday our education will backfire on us. He was talking about the way we latch on to new technologies like fertilizer thinking that they will save us, but our dependence on them is what weakens us. Eladio does not use these things. He trusts in the earth and listens to her natural processes in cultivating his land. His faith in the earth is what results in his agricultural success, which is something so beautiful and so contrary to the industrialized nature of our farms in the United States. I don’t think I will ever forget that day.

I do not find anything necessary to my faith outside of the earth herself, but I have always felt guilty for that. After visiting Eladio, however, I don’t think I need to feel guilty. Every one of us was taken aback by how passionate he was about his work and about it being symbolic of his faith, and I believe that was powerful enough to get me to appreciate my own feelings on the matter. If Eladio, after over forty years of working on his farm, feels the same connection with the earth that I do, I think I could be on the right track with my faith after all.

Service Learning Reflection

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 6:01 pm

By Kaitlin Kinsella.

Throughout my service learning experience I gained a broader perspective of Belize education while noticing several differences and similarities between their school and my own.  I found many differences in the appearance and scheduling of classes with some surprising similarities in the ways they prepare students for the “real world”.  On the first day I immediately noticed how their facilities simply met their basic needs. There was no luxury or an excessive amount of books or desks in the classroom.  Each grade, which ranged from 5-10 students had it’s own classroom, which resembled a hut, with a few desks, chairs, and a chalkboard at the front of the room. There were not enough books for each student to have his or her own and there was a limited number of teachers, some of whom never showed up.  Observing their minimalist lifestyle made me feel extremely fortunate for the education that I have at home and it was great to teach them some basic skills that are important for them to know for their future.

One aspect of the Belizean school I found to be very interesting was the way they prepared the students for their post-graduate lives and how it was actually quite similar to the way we are prepared at USC.  Although they do not have the same resources available to them I realized that they do not necessarily need a lot of resources to be successful in their own local communities.  The Belize lifestyle is all about simplicity and meeting basic needs, while the lifestyle in Los Angeles revolves much more around business and wealth.  Just as USC is preparing me for the competitive business world, the schools in Belize are preparing their students for the world of agriculture.  This was very evident in their day-to-day schedule. In the morning, instead of having class, they have something called practicals.  This is when the students go out to the gardens or animal pens and perform their daily duties of watering plants, harvesting, feeding the animals, or cleaning the animal pens.  After the practicals they have three classes, which are English, math, science, or history.  Most of the students love learning, however I noticed many of them struggle over basic math and science concepts.  Meanwhile, when the students took us out to their garden, they were able to teach us all about what they were growing and which harvests were good to sell.  It made me realize that even though some of the students couldn’t understand certain math concepts, it did not mean they were unintelligent, it just meant they grew up learning skills that will make them successful in other ways.

The first day at the school we saw a few students present their final project, which I found to be very similar to some of the projects we do at USC.  All of the fourth year students are given a final project where they grow their own crops or make handcraft goods that they can sell to make a profit. The main goal of the project was to create a small business and make it as profitable as they could. It spanned over several months, throughout which the students were supposed to calculate their expenses and revenues to come up with an ending income. One student in particular chose to raise chickens for his project.  He had to pay for the food and housing for the chickens but then sold them for a profit that benefited both him and the customer.  His project reminded me of some of the skills we learn at USC including accounting and entrepreneurship. Although these skills will not necessarily lead us to a career in agriculture, they are the same basic concepts taught to the Belizian students.

After my three days of service learning I realized that Belizian schools are not much different than the schools I grew up in.  Although the structure and atmosphere are much different, we are all students and we are getting an education that will help us live a sustaining life in our own community.

Eladio Pop’s Church

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 5:54 pm

Written by Madi Swayne.

Eladio Pop is a middle-aged man living and working a sustainable and organic cacao farm here in the Toledo District of Southern Belize. I am a young woman living and studying in Los Angeles, California. Eladio and I live miles apart but in touring and visiting with him on his farm I managed to feel a special connection with him—one that comes from a shared love of the earth and its bounty.

As an avid outdoorswomen, I often find myself trying to explain to my peers and others what it means for me to go outside and spend handfuls of hours unplugged from social media, technology, and everything else that is so “important” in the front country. My favorite weekends are spent hiking, backpacking, swimming and surfing. I like to have fun outside in the dirt and sunshine. Some people that I have conversations with about this understand. However, sometimes I struggle to articulate the intangible joy I get from being outdoors. Eladio has mastered the art of explaining the ways he is fulfilled by nature.

As we scrambled up the hills of his farm picking up fresh mangoes as we went along he spoke, “This is my church. This is where my spirit lives. I learn to treat the earth with love and respect… Each day I always say to God thank you for the day.” He urged us, his students to “Take a deep look. Study what I do. I want you to see something healthy, something special, with me.” Eladio’s relationship with nature started when he was a young boy, first learning to plant fruit trees with his mother. The bond he has with nature is ingrained in the culture he grew up with. The earth provides his food, nourishes his spirit, fills his wallet, teaches him immeasurable lessons, and puts a genuine smile on his face each day.

In America, our view of nature has unfortunately been perverted. Many Americans do not view nature as something that should be important to us and our education has sometimes caused us to lose sight of what is truly important. Eladio even mentioned this to us. As we helped plant pineapples on the hilltop of his farm he said, “don’t let your education turn against you,” meaning for us to always remember the lessons and bounties that are provided by the earth.

When traveling to another country, especially a third-world country, prevailing American thought is that we will be doing the “teaching.” However through Eladio and all of the other experiences I have had with Belizeans while living and studying here I have found the opposite to be true. The lessons I learned from Eladio as he showed me around his farm, personifying each plant and creature as we walked past, are lessons that I will carry with me and would like to share with friends, family and colleagues back at home. It was striking to see him talk about his plants in the same way he might talk about his best friend—“the cacao trees like this”—as he scattered compost from an ant hill on their roots. The farmer was sympathetic of his banana trees that got hurt in the storm as well.  Eladio is not focused on the profit potential of his fields, opting for hard work over chemicals. He is instead pouring his heart and soul into his farm in order to feed his family. The subsistence style of farming Eladio practices may not be feasible for feeding the masses of people living in Los Angeles; his reverence for the soil, rain and sun that make the food is.

Eladio Pop shows us the fruits of his labor, the cacao.

Eladio Pop shows us the fruits of his labor, the cacao.


Hiding under a wild banana leaf umbrella on the farm.

Hiding under a wild banana leaf umbrella on the farm.


Perspective: A Student Reflection on Service Learning

Filed under: experiential — collins @ 5:47 pm

Written by Sarah Wood

Today, I travelled to the local high school to teach to the Qu’etchi and Mopan Mayan children. I have always been skeptical of going to a foreign country and imposing myself on other people, assuming that I have the correct knowledge and that what they are doing is wrong because it is foreign – as is the American way. Yet today, my life was changed not only through the people I met, but because of the impact I know I had on  their life.

One of the highlights of the day came from what could have been a disaster. After lunch, the instructor for the second year students never showed up. The three of us Americans did not know what to teach these 5 eager students, or what to do about this absence that, the students claim, happens frequently. After 40 minutes, instead of waiting around in the hot and humid room, we decided to have the students tour us around the grounds.

The high school is a boarding school consisting of 24 students across the four grade levels. Their are dorms for the students to live for 10 days, before they travel back to their village for a four day break, and then begin the school week again. Focusing on agriculture, the students tend to a garden, chickens, ducks, and pigs, from which they personally get food and meat, that they prepare themselves in a cooking class. A dense jungle runs directly to the school grounds, where two of the girls gave us our first tastes of bribri and cacao, from right off the tree.

It is incredible to me that these students are so in touch with their land and their heritage. In the jungle, they knew exactly what fruits were edible, and they were confident when and how to slaughter a pig. At the school, they wear traditional Qu’etchi clothing and dedicate one day a week to learning practical Mayan crafts: a skill that their ancestors, mothers, and everyone in between shares with them.

In a place where schooling is optional after age 11, and many of the students who do go to school will still remain farmers their whole life, it is important to teach the students practical things, in addition to the advanced intellect. Being able to relate their learning to things  they can apply  in their daily life- such as a final senior project of carrying out a business plan as an entrepreneur – makes more of a difference in these students’ lives than simply conceptual things that would only be learned in the classroom.

In the afternoon, we were to sit in on an integrated science lecture, which consisted of sexually-transmitted infections, cancer, overpopulation, and climate change. After the first 2 minutes of speaking about cancer, the instructor asked if we would elaborate on chemotherapy and breast cancer, since they did not have that in Belize.

This is the moment that I realized how much good we were doing in this community. The teachers are learning the subject matter along with the student’s, which means they cannot answer questions as effectively, or explain the matter thoroughly enoughfor the student’s to grasp it conceptually. Even in the math class, we have been taught most of the subject matter more thoroughly then the instructors have, so the instructors are incredibly appreciative when we are able to relieve them of teaching material they may have just learned themselves. By bringing knowledge learned from experience, we can aid these students learning in a much more practical and impactful way, since they can learn from someone who has experienced these things first hand; the material in the book suddenly becomes real.

I’m not sure how I was fortunate enough to be given a great home in the United States, a family supportive of my education, and an opportunity to learn from one of the greatest institutions in the world. What I do know is that after this experience, I have realized that one of my purposes is to educate people like the students here in Belize. Though it is important for them to keep tradition and understand their heritage, they must also be able to comprehend global issues that are infiltrating their own country, and learn how to deal with them before it is too late.

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