By Justin Gauthier
At the end of June 2015, the culmination of over eight months of work by the dedicated people behind the scenes of the Sustainability Leadership Cohort came to realization as the 2015 batch of students and mentors landed safely in the beautiful country of Belize. The collaboration of the Sustainable Development Institute, the POSOH project, and the Center for Engaged Learning Abroad provided a weeklong culture and science learning experience for the ten amazing students chosen to participate in the POSOH Sustainability Leadership Cohort program for summer 2015.
I was honored to go along on this once in a lifetime trip as a mentor to the students. Aside from a few times across the border to Canada, this was my first international travelling experience. I wasn’t alone as a first-time international traveller. A couple of our students were also rookies in this respect. As daunting as international travel can be, it was comforting to know that our group would be comprised of experienced travellers and amazing mentors.
In preparation for the trip, I studied a bit on the country of Belize. I’m lucky enough to have a pair of mentors (Mahrie Peterson and Dennis Vickers) who lived in Belize for years and provided me with some great advice. I referenced Lonely Planet Belize as a guidebook and also listened to the Belize Talk Radio podcast to hear about the local culture we would be encountering. Of course, no amount of preparation can compare to being there.
Figure 1 In the air over the Midwest on our flight from Milwaukee, WI to Dallas, TX
Our travel from Milwaukee, WI to Belize City, Belize on the morning of June 26, 2015 went smoothly. As we touched down on the runway, I was surprised that I was able to feel the humidity in the air. It seemed even the pressurized cabin of our aircraft was unable to deny the climate. Descending the plane side stairway, I was struck by the absolute wall of humidity that welcomed us. I have been in Florida at the height of summer and the climate there doesn’t compare to that of Belize in June. Entering the airport, we were welcomed by a huge poster of the new label design for the local Belizean beer, Belikin. The brand label was fairly ubiquitous throughout the small area of the country we visited.
After going through customs, we were greeted by Dr. Filiberto Penados and our trusty Toyota bus. It was nice to finally match a face to the voice we had rounds of phone meetings with for the past few months. Fil, as he preferred to be called, welcomed us and presented us all with a gift in the form of a seed bracelet. This bracelet was comprised of an intricately woven parachute cord-style closure thread through a row of dried seeds. During his presentation of the bracelets, he explained a few of the seeds used and challenged us to identify a mystery seed stranded in the mix. It was a fun detail that provided opportunity to make friends with local people.
On the bus ride to our accommodations in San Jose Succotz, I was struck by the remnants of colonial culture throughout the strata of infrastructure from the urban to the rural. European/Colonial architecture exists in skeletal, built, and in progress forms right beside more traditional architecture. The more traditional architecture of the area seemed to be elevated or stilted houses. I suppose that this style of house helps keep things dry during the extensive Belizean wet season and provides good airflow.
Figure 2 Arenal school on the Belize-Guatemala border
Aside from the architecture and the humidity, the flora and fauna of this land emerged as completely new yet vaguely familiar. Fellow mentor Tom Kenote succinctly said, “I feel like an infant in this new region of the world”. In the equatorial biome, there are so many species of trees, plants, and animals that it can feel overwhelming. Coming from the United States, where logo recognition has been given such a place of importance over identification of other life, it reinforced in my mind the extent of how assimilated I have become to a consumer mindset.