Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tuesday, August 11 and Wednesday, August 12

We awoke on Tuesday morning with a bit of sadness over the fact that we were getting ready to leave the island paradise of Tobacco Caye. However, our final full day in Belize had lots in store for us. We packed our bags, had breakfast together and then many of us sought out a few final moments of zen in hammocks by the sea before loading into the boat at 8:30 am to head back to the mainland at Dangriga. The water was pretty choppy but the cool breeze and amazing view over the Caribbean Sea was invigorating. As we got closer to land a few shrieks of excitememt rang out from the boat. Looking over the side we saw a pod of dolphins swimming alongside us! They are such beautiful and graceful creatures! Just when we thought the last one had swum by, another couple of dolphins would approach. We were in awe and so lucky to have wrapped up our island adventure with this sight!

Carlos the Puma
Once we reached the mainland, our friend and guide, Juan, greeted us with his usual smile and enthusiasm. Our next destination for our final night in Belize was the Tropical Education Centre in Belmopan - the capital city. After we explored the centre surrounded by lush trees and greenery, we settled into our cabins and then had dinner. Afterwards we made our way to the Belize Zoo for a night tour. Our guide, Tim, first showed us a Boa Constrictor and a few of us got to hold her. He then took us to see various nocturnal animals that they had on site. This included a couple of crocodiles, Gray Four-Eyed Possums and a few species of owls including the Spectacled Owl. We also saw a Kinkajou - the zoo acquired it after someone made the poor decision to try and keep it as a pet, Gibnuts - these look like large hamsters and their population is dwindling due to them being hunted for food, and a Central American Tapir - the national animal of Belize, also known as a Mountain Cow and related to the horse and rhino. We got to feed the Tapir cucumbers, carrots and watermelon and pet his head as he ate them. As awesome as these animals are, the highlight of our visit was seeing the wildcats who were awake and active. Junior the Jaguar was born in the zoo after his mother was shot on a farm for eating the sheep. The zoo took her in to care for her and Junior was born three months later. We also met Carlos the Puma and two species of "tiger cats" - the Margay and Ocelot. Rhaburn the Ocelot was a baby when the zoo picked him up in January 2014; he had been orphaned after a storm and was dying of starvation. Not only were we astounded by the beauty and grace of the wildcats, but we were also in awe of how close we got to come to these magnificent creatures! Our walk along the paths of the zoo was accompanied by a raucous symphony of howler monkeys high up in the trees which was a reminder to us of the many that we saw during our time spent in Guatemala over a week ago.
Junior the Jaguar
Junior the Jaguar
After our night tour was over we returned to our cabins to pack our bags and get ready to leave for home the next morning. As a bonus at the end of our trip, many of us discovered warm water for the first time since leaving home! While all of our cold showers have been a welcomed relief after the hot, humid and sweaty days, we welcomed a final warm shower before heading to the airport.  On Wednesday morning, hugs and contact information were exchanged in the hopes that these new professional relationships and personal friendships will continue. At the airport we all hugged Juan goodbye and thanked him for being such an amazing guide throughout our trip. 

The nine of us, all educators from various places - Colorado, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto - came together to share this amazing adventure that will not be forgotten. We look forward to sharing our stories and experiences with our families and friends and also bringing global awareness into our classrooms.
Central American Tapir
Rhaburn the Ocelot

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sunday, August 9 and Monday, August 10

Sadly, we packed all of our stinky, dirty clothes into our bags and left Maya Center on Sunday morning.  Happily, however, we have landed in paradise! (...also known as Tobacco Caye...)

Our goodbyes with our families were full of last minute photos, hugs, and handmade gifts from the children.  We pulled out by 9:00am and headed for the coastal town of Dangriga.  After a brief stop to rescue a small turtle crossing the road (thanks, Juan!), we arrived at the dock in Dangriga and loaded our belongings onto a boat for transport to the caye.  Thirty refreshing, windblown minutes later, we docked at Tobacco Caye lodge - a small sandy island covered by palm trees, hammocks, and tropical colored bungalows.  The best part? No bugs!

Our first afternoon was spent having an introductory snorkel lesson.  We started with a leisurely exploration of the reef just off the island.  Once everyone got the hang of using the flippers and snorkels, we had a blast seeing the beautifully colored fish, rays, and corals.  It was a first snorkeling experience for some, so it was especially fun for them to discover the world under the surface.  We enjoyed a quiet afternoon sunning and relaxing, then shared a Belizean meal of chicken, rice, and beans before heading out for a night snorkel.  If the afternoon was eye-opening, the night snorkel was twice as intense! Using underwater flashlights, we snorkeled over graceful rays, gigantic hermit crabs carrying conch shells on their backs, and lobsters creeping along the ocean floor.  At one point we turned off the lights and kicked our flippers to stir up the phosphorescent organisms in the water, surrounding us with tiny glowing particles. The highlight was seeing the enormous green moray eels that lurk underneath a concrete slab in the lagoon.  They were huge, vivid green monster-like creatures that floated placidly, staring back at us as we shined our lights on them.

Monday was an entire day of snorkeling and exploring the area.  We went out on the boat right after breakfast and didn't return until late afternoon.  The first stop was a Smithsonian research station located on a tiny, one acre island nearby.  We got a tour of the Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems Program and a chance to learn about their current projects directly from the researchers.  Several of us were ready to sign up as volunteer station managers on the spot!  Next we spent an hour snorkeling on the reef along Carrie Bow Caye, which was even more fabulous than yesterday's experience. We saw tarpon, barracuda, and an incredibly vivid array of tropical fish. Lunch was a relaxing meal of lobster salad on another little island called Saltwater Caye.  Afterwards, it was back onto the boat to circle Bird Island, the protected home of cormorants, yellow-footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds, and brown pelicans. We got a close up look at the birds hanging out in the treetops and soaring above the island on our way to a little area protected by mangrove growth on three sides, where we snorkeled among the mangroves.  It was amazing to see the colorful growths on the submerged parts of the mangrove roots.  We also swam over many, many upside down jellyfish on the mangrove snorkel.  One of the highlights this time was spotting several lion fish up close.  Our final snorkel of the day was on the reef near Tobacco Caye, further out in the channel than we were yesterday.  Favorites here included eagle rays, tarpon, catfish, and best of all... a sea turtle! It felt like we were living in Finding Nemo! We snorkeled along the channel and the reef back to the island, where we collapsed happily into deck chairs to rehash the amazing sights of the day.  These two days on Tobacco Caye have been a delightful respite as we approach the end of the trip.  While our time in Maya Center was unforgettable, we are now seeing a very different side of Belize, rounding out our experience beautifully.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Saturday, August 8

Shveating Our Coconuts Off

Today was our opportunity to spend the day with our homestay families. We all had unique experiences being able to live like the Mayans do. Kalyn, Chris, Alysha and Briana went down to the creek to wash our laundry along with the women of our families. The women of the community wash their clothes on slabs of rock and we were happy to wash our clothes along with them. Jerilyn and Cathy got to witness their dinner being slaughtered, de-feathered and prepared. They also got to visit the family farm and try coconuts 

In the afternoon, we visited a beautiful garden sanctuary. Miss Emma, the owner of the garden, gave us a tour of her exotic plants. We got to smell different species of ylang-ylang, see beautiful birds of paradise and wild ginger, and eat starfruit right off the tree.

Afterwards, Juan cut us fresh coconut for us to drink! After we drank all the coconut water out of the fruit we had a chance to cut them open and eat the flesh. Let's just say our machete skills were no where near as good as Juan's! This was a first time experience for some of us and we all agreed it was "elbow-licking good!"  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Friday, August 7

Today was a professional development day with our Belizean counterparts.  We held a Teacher Summit with eight teachers and the principal of St. Jude's Primary School.  We worked together to discuss common issues, challenges, and experiences that we all share as teachers, and to brainstorm strategies to address them.

Our brainstormed list of the Global Graduate
Our opening activity was the Chopstick Challenge.  Small groups sat in a tight circle, with each person holding a chopstick balanced on one end.  On the count of three, everyone had to let go of their own chopstick and grab their neighbor's chopstick without letting any fall.  After lots of giggles and shouts of victory and dismay, we eventually got good enough at working together that we could successfully do the challenge in a whole group of all seventeen participants.

The meat of the morning session included generating a list of knowledge, skills, attributes, and values that we want our students to have when they graduate from our schools.  What will they need to know and be able to do in order to thrive in the complex, unpredictable world that awaits them? The goals for our students are largely the same, whether they are attending school in Belize, Canada, or the U.S.  Then, we brainstormed strategies to address seven relevant questions such as "How can we increase student engagement and motivation?" and "How can we ensure students stay in school and feel successful?" The sharing of ideas, challenges, and successful approaches was rich for everyone. As is often the case, it became clear that the similarities among our classrooms are greater than the differences.

After lunch, we spent time in grade-level groups getting to know one another better and developing ideas for collaborations among our classes for the coming academic year.  Plans were made for Belizean-North American pen-pals, video exchanges on topics like rainforest animals and cultural celebrations, and collaborative writing projects.  By the end of the discussion, ideas were flying, contact information was being exchanged, and the level of excitement had skyrocketed.

We closed the afternoon with the Marshmallow Challenge.  Small groups of new friends each received twenty strands of uncooked spaghetti, a yard of thread, a yard of masking tape, and a large marshmallow.  The task was to build the tallest freestanding structure possible that would support the weight of the marshmallow - the highest marshmallow would win.  It was an intense competition, complete with enthusiastic collaboration within groups and playful trash talking among groups.  Bragging rights went to the early childhood teachers, whose structure was by far the sturdiest and therefore the only one to actually hold the marshmallow aloft.  By the time we parted, it with hugs and promises to be in touch about our projects as soon as the school year gets underway.  It was a day of learning, fun, and new friendships for everyone.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Thursday, August 6

Tales of a ‘Peanut Headed Moth’

 Another gorgeous day in Belize – our group awoke after a rain filled night – but one that was almost an enjoyable temperature to sleep in. We first gathered at the Nuuk Cheil Cottages for a brain storming session about project based learning (PBL). During this session we all shared various projects that we currently utilize within our classes and discussed possible improvements and/or concerns we had with them – very valuable feedback!

After another great lunch – our friend and guide Juan arrived back to take us into the local Jaguar Reserve – Cockscomb National Reserve – an extremely large preserve which was put into place to help protect numerous big cats including the Puma and Jaguar.

After a few quick group shots we began our hike – along the way Juan (who continues to amaze us with his endless knowledge of the local landscape / wildlife) began pointing out interesting points – including a termite colony where he informed us that the termites were edible! And yes many of enjoyed an appetizer of termite before our tubing adventure…. surprisingly they taste like pine needles smell!!! The most impressive was the discovery of a large cat imprint in some soft mud!! WOW – not sure if it was a jaguar but impressive that such a beautiful animal may have stood at that very spot.

Arriving at the river entrance – we admired the beautiful scenery and jumped at the opportunity to cool off and jump into the gorgeous water – refreshing! We sat in our tubes and began our journey down stream…. GORGEOUS! Lush foliage – jungle all around us – each of us hoping to catch a glimpse of a jaguar drinking or lounging in the tree – no luck! Nevertheless, we floated down stream for 45 minutes and were treated to some beautiful surroundings!

After our tubing adventure was complete Juan led us to another beautiful scene – a waterfall deep within the jungle – and it was spectacular! We all swam under the cool falling water and beyond – we finally felt refreshed and certainly did not want to leave; however, with the sun going down, it was time to leave.

  On the hike out Juan’s keen eye found another amazing sight – a peanut headed moth – literally this little guy (although dead) actually has a head shaped exactly like a peanut – and one amazing adaptation that would make Darwin marvel – on the back of the wings were eyes! These eyes look very similar to an owls – and Juan informed us that when a predator came close this moth would fan its wings out and show these ‘eyes’ imitating an owl – and hopefully avoiding becoming someone else's lunch!!

Again – just awesome! Thanks to Juan for being a great guide on our adventure!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Wednesday August 5

Today we wrapped up our work at St. Jude's school mixing cement for the fencing. It was another hot day, but we were excited to continue working. After our work at the school, we joined a protest in front of the local water facility. Based on what the families told us, the people of the Mayan village are unhappy with the management of funds with the local water utility. There were many people at the gathering who were happy to see a change in current representation in the board. This was part protest and part celebration, where many families celebrated by making tamales.

At the end of the day we visited the Maya Center Women's Group Gift Shop. The purchases go directly to the families of the village, and most work is created by the women of Maya Center.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The second day of our service project brought heavier lifting and warmer temperatures.  We joined several local volunteers to mix huge batches of concrete by hand, using a flat spot under a tree as a mixing surface.  The concrete was a heavy mix of sand, rock, and cement, so our muscles got a workout.  We poured the fence foundation in the trenches that were dug yesterday - the perimeter is growing quickly! We also cleaned the school's kitchen, scrubbed down the windows and window louvres, picked up trash, and removed debris.  We were impressed with the toughness of the local workers who continued with the heaviest work long after we were gone for the day.  Physical labor in Belizean summer heat is not easy!

Lunch was a welcome break at midday.  We had a couple hours to relax, chat, and catch up on our journaling in the relative cool of the screened dining room at Nuuk Che'il Cottages.  In the afternoon, we toured the Che'il Mayan Chocolate Company ("Wild Mayan Chocolate").  First, we were taken onto the farm property where the cacao beans are grown. We walked through citrus orchards and forged a small creek to get to the grove of cacao trees. We were able to see and touch the raw cacao beans, which were surprisingly slimy in their natural state. On our return to the factory, we learned to grind the dried, roasted cacao beans on a traditional Mayan grinding stone.  After LOTS of elbow grease, the dried beans turned into a rich, dark, chocolate sauce.  We added sugar and cocoa butter and let it harden in the freezer for a few minutes - and voila! We were able to eat chocolate bars we made ourselves. Everyone enjoyed buying a few chocolate bars for ourselves and our homestay families, but they had to be eaten quickly before they liquified in the heat.

Evening was again spent with our homestay families.  Everyone shared a delicious dinner with their hosts and spent the evening playing soccer, Jenga, and other games with the youngest children. Some families were also busy making traditional tamales for a local celebration taking place the next day, so we were able to see the women of the community working together to cook giant vats of chicken over open fires and wrapping tamales in the giant plantain leaves for tomorrow's feast.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Maya Center & Service Work

St. Jude's Primary School
We began our day working at St. Jude's Primary School.  Our work is to help build a perimeter fence around the school yard, which involves mixing cement, hauling wheelbarrows of materials, stabilizing the wire fence, and digging trenches. Upon arrival we noticed that the school yard was riddled with trash, mostly empty plastic bottles, caps, and plastic wrapping for various food items.  This inspired a school yard clean-up.  In addition, we tidied up the dining area.

Plaque at St. Jude's Primary School

Mixing together dirt with cement
In the early evening each of us were greeted by a member of our homestay family and walked us home.  It was a short walk to the homes where we will be staying the for the next six days.  We look forward to getting to know them and learning more about their traditions and culture.

Juan helping us with our project
Kalyn working with mortar to stabilize the fence 
Cathy working with mortar to stabilize the fence
Briana working with mortar to stabilize the fence
Jerilyn helping mix cement
Alysha and Cathy working with mortar to stabilize the fence
Yiqin helping dig a trench

Julio giving us a tour of the Maya Museum
After our morning of service we enjoyed lunch back at Ernesto and Aurora's cottages followed by a tour of the Mayan Museum in Maya Center.  The tour was very informative and introduced us to many aspects of traditional Mayan life.  We participated in a Mayan dance to music made by marimba, practiced grinding corn and coffee beans, shaped tortillas, and best of all we enjoyed freshly baked tortillas on the traditional Mayan stove.

Traditional Mayan dishes made from clay
 Mayan instruments
Dora cooking the corn tortillas that we shaped

Traditional Mayan dancing video