Jungles and Jaguar Gods in Belize

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Kiersten Cosgrove(’16) participated in the Spring ’15 service learning course Jungles and Jaguar Gods: Exploring the Maya Environment. Led by Dr. Lisa Lobel, assistant professor of Biology, and Dr. Akeia Bernard, assistant professor of Psychology and Human Development, this course explored human/environment relationships to understand the natural and cultural history of Belize with emphasis on archaeology, the Maya and neotropical natural resources. She reflected on the course and nine day service learning trip in the following blog post.

photo 1This experience in Belize was one that I will never forget. This trip and class taught me things about myself, the way others live, the Mayans, friendships, and so much more that I would have not been able to learn any other way. Belize taught me to look at other’s lifestyles in a new way and really open my mind to the world around the United States. This was my first time out of the country, but not my first service-learning trip that I have taken through Wheelock. This travel course was different then my New Orleans trip in every way possible. Not only was this trip more challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally, but I learned so much in these nine days. I really was able to see different parts of Belize and really learn first hand how the Mayans lived and what the culture was like in Belize rather than being a tourist in some unfamiliar place. We were fortunate to see different aspects of these wonderful people’s lives. I saw the way they do their household chores, the way they interact with each other, their education, their beauty in their country, and so much more I was never able to see on my other service-learning trip. I fell in love with the vibrant lifestyle these people lived and not because they had the latest iPhone, but because they were rich in so many other ways. Even the hands on experience on this trip was different then my travel experience on other trips. I really felt that I was able to experience this trip rather than “window view” or just hear about the lifestyle of the Mayans and Belizean people.9

When we were in the class at Wheelock, I don’t think I really understood the learning experience we were going to have while in Belize. Each day we challenged ourselves, but learned such amazing things from our tour guides and the people we encountered. We learned so much about their rich resources and the way they can survive with their surrounding resources. I learned so much about the way the Mayans were one with their surroundings and knew how to use the resources to benefit their health but also respect their surroundings. This is something the United States clearly has not figured out. We learned the ways they cured their illnesses from tree leaves made into tea or used in different forms of medication. It was honestly unbelievable how resourceful these people are and even the museum tour guide said they would never be poor until you took away their resources not their money. This really resonated with me because in the United States poor is a certain income not what you can use to survive. I took many notes in class, but being in Belize and listening to our guides and learning first hand really gave me a real perspective on the way these people live and it also made me think of the United States and the things we are doing to our people and our country. I think without traveling to Belize you cannot really understand the Mayan people or the way that the Belizean people use their surroundings. Even the atmosphere and climate and the way that effects the people can’t be truly understood through a PowerPoint.

IMG_7992The Wednesday we went to school was an eye opener to me because teaching in the classroom really was just so different. These children were talented, artistic, eager to learn, brilliant, resourceful, respectful, and well rounded individuals who are truly destined for greatness and so many people look at other countries and think that because their school systems doesn’t have the newest computers they are not as advanced as us. This ignorance has always struck me, but being there and speaking with these children and their goals in their life resonated with me even more deeply. We got to see the love these schools have for learning and their drive for wanting to know more and be more and that was so refreshing to see because here it is almost a chore to learn for students many of the times and I wish everyone could understand these children’s love for learning. As a teacher this sparked a love for learning for me on this trip as well, it was truly inspiring. I think this goes for communities we visited as well. The Mayan and Belizean way of life was seen through such beautiful perspectives and their love for religion and their country was something we don’t necessarily see where we live at least not in college students. I did notice between the three areas we traveled different resources were available and you had to travel some distances for things in certain areas, which I can see that being a difficult way of life. Also, some areas were more poor than others, but the museum guide’s statement kept coming into mind for me they still used their resources and are surviving and keep their faith and happiness. The beauty I saw in Belize truly mesmerized me and it wasn’t just the nice views, but also the people’s beliefs, attitudes, and pure contagious love for where they live.

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Traveling to Belize really gave you a perspective and first hand experience into what we learned in class, and I believe without the traveling you really wouldn’t understand the Mayan life and their beliefs without this first hand experience. You wouldn’t be able to understand the resources that these people have and the brilliance they use to create their lifestyles. Katie and I’s research topic was on water resources and we did so much research before we left, but by the end of the trip both of us stated there was no way to research the amazing knowledge that we gained from actually being on this trip and being able to ask questions and physically see the things the Mayans used. We would have never truly been able to understand the spiritual beliefs of the color green and Chaak the rain god through just a book. We could not learn the 3feelings of the Belizean people and their true beliefs through reading an article on how to make a fishing tool.

I truly tested myself in every way on this trip and I am very proud of the risks I took for myself. So not only did I learn about myself and the relationships I made with the other 12 people on the trip, but I learned a lot about the way we live in the United States, and the way Mayan and Belizean life are lived. I will definitely take the skills they taught us like using the trees and the slash and burn strategy they used, but that is not as useful to me as what I learned about the peoplephoto 5. I plan on taking many things I learned, but the one thing I want to use moving forward is understanding the cultures of other people and seeing the brilliance in every one’s way of life. Even in my future classrooms I want each culture to bring their strengths because I want my future students to truly understand the concept of what being poor and rich really means. This experience for me was truly indescribably eye opening. I am so glad that I stepped…leaped out of my comfort zone and signed up for Belize. I am so thankful that I was able to really research our topic and understand Belize in a hands on experience and ask questions that books cannot answer. This trip will be one that I will truly remember and use what I learned for my future education and career.