Summer in Belize 2015: “It Was Life Changing”

The first 12 Biology in Belize trips I led were designed to expose our students to the biota found in the upland and marine tropical habitats.  Those courses, first offered in 1992, focused on the geography, history, environmental issues, biology and cultures of Belize.  However, acting upon the suggestion of a veteran of the 2013 trip, Kristen Fisher ’14, we added a significant service component to the 2014 offering which we renamed “WHEP (World Health Empowerment Project) in Belize.”  That trip proved to be so successful that I offered a second WHEP course in 2015.

Let me give the ten students from the 14th Westminster (and 2nd WHEP) trip to Belize the opportunity to describe some of their recent experiences. Three of the students, Jesse, Danielle and Grace, are veterans of the 2014 course and played important leadership roles during this trip; Jesse was also a member of the 2013 trip.  It was, as they say, an unbelizeable experience.  Dr. Mike Amspoker, Professor of Biology


Our 17-day excursion to Belize was one of the most anticipated events of my life. I knew that I had to go since after my freshman year when Brier told me about her amazing experience. Then once Grace told me how much fun they had and how much they learned, I knew that there was no way that I was not going to experience Belize for myself. Just hearing about the trip from others can hardly prepare you for the true awesomeness that comes with this trip. The (Spring Semester) class we had together truly did a great job with providing us with the opportunity to become familiar with the demographics, the history, the culture, and what to expect when we finally arrived. As much as I complained about the weekly quizzes, they definitely paid off when we could talk openly with the locals and other travelers about what we know about Belize.   Alyssa Busken ’16


Even after all the PowerPoints and quizzes, I still did not know what to truly expect from our journey in Belize; however, our experience surpassed every expectation I had. This trip taught me so much about myself and the culture we live in and it had an impact on me that I will remember for the rest of my life. With the constant movement and action occurring, I believe I was in shock the whole two weeks we were in Belize. It wasn’t until after spending a couple days back in the United States that I realized how impactful our trip was. Kristen Warncke ’17


Going back to Belize again for the second time was almost surreal. When I first asked my mom if I could go again I was rather hesitant, but she agreed right away. I do not know if that was because she was distracted when she said yes or what, but either way I am incredibly grateful for having this second once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It did not really hit me until the morning of that I was about to be in one of the greatest countries ever.  When I got off the plane I felt as though I was back in the place where I knew I belonged, surrounded by a great group of people in an amazing country.   Grace Sanford ’16


Before we headed to Belize I did not really know what to expect. We took time throughout the semester to learn about the culture, the political structure and history, the wildlife and much more but I never really googled images of what Belize looked like. I knew that the cayes would probably be beautiful looking but I had no idea what to expect when we landed at Belize International and stepped out of the plane. When I took that first step out the plane and felt that muggy Central American-smelling breeze hit me in the face and I said to myself “this is going to be a very different experience” and that is exactly what it was. We stepped out of the airport and that is when I got my first view of what inland Belize looked like.

As we proceeded on our bus ride to Monkey Bay (Wildlife Sanctuary) while being accompanied by the lady who was in the Peace Corps, I remember just having so many thoughts race through my mind. I was trying to pay attention to our conversation but at the same time the view out the window of the bus was all that I could focus on. I will always vividly remember the images of the houses that I saw as we made the trip on the Western Highway towards Monkey Bay. I was really taken back by how poor the country seemed in contrast to what we view as poor here in the states. I mean I was not expecting there to be mansions or anything but I was just astonished by how underdeveloped their countryside is. When we got to Monkey Bay and got off the bus and I looked to my right over by where the parking spots are and I saw an iguana on the concrete ledge and I thought to myself, “we are not in Missouri anymore.”  Brandon Hammerstone ’15


On our first full day, we went down to the Community Baboon Sanctuary and had lunch with Ms. Edna, and then went to the Belize Zoo. Our tour guide at the Baboon Sanctuary was phenomenal. He pointed out everything he possibly could, and he kept us engaged and interactive. We also received the opportunity to touch a black howler’s hands; in fact, one baboon came down a little too far and ended up falling on Patrick, which was awesome to see. It is not every day that you get to see a monkey fall on someone. Lunch with Ms. Edna was exceptionally good and we even heard her speak some Kriol. Our last stop that day was the Belize Zoo. Last year we did a night tour so I was so thankful we did it during the day this year. We had the opportunity to see all sorts of animals, ones that I did not even know where there last year. I think the best part about the Zoo was when Alyssa almost got sprayed by a Bairds tapir, now that would have been a sight to see.   Danielle Lorenscheit ’17


After a day of seeing all of the animals we learned about in class at the Belize Zoo and Community Baboon Sanctuary we headed for Dangriga to catch our boat to Tobacco Caye. Little did I know this boat ride would take over an hour, but when I finally saw Tobacco Caye for the first time I knew it was worth the seasick and soaking ride. Later that day we were taught the basics of snorkeling. The next day we went on an all-day snorkeling trip.  I got to see angelfish, the sea urchin, Diadema antillarum, and much more sea life. Being down under the water only feet from the coral reefs made me thinking about how amazing the diversity of the reefs is. The reefs take relentless beating from the waves but yet they survive, rebuild, and thrive. During our free time on Tobacco Caye we would hangout as a group, play volleyball, basketball, and enjoy the sun and view by sitting on the docks. At night on Tobacco Caye we would use our flashlights to search the docks for sea life, as most of it is more active during the night.   Glenn Teubner ’17


One of the first things that I noticed was that the weather this year was the best that it had ever been.  The wind was blowing constantly and it never got unbearably hot.  Even though this was my third year and I did know what was going to happen, it did not take away from the trip.  I actually believe that it added more to the trip for me.  There was nothing I loved more than reliving all of the experiences of past trips all over again.  There was no better feeling than stepping off that plane again and feeling the hot air hitting my face again.

The first day at St. Matthew’s (Government) School seemed like an overwhelming success to me.  We did what we were sent there to do.  The kids were very happy to see us and more importantly they seemed to learn something.  One thing that I really noticed this year was how deprived the children were.  This was the first year that I actually noticed how lucky we were in having access to a good education.   Jesse Edwards ’16


One of my favorite days occurred early on the trip and that was the first day at St. Matthew’s. Going into St. Matthew’s I did not know what to expect. I did not know what the kids would be like, how nice the teachers would be, or even how I would be around the kids. But as soon as we got off that bus and the kids saw us and instantly became excited, I could tell that it was going to be a great day there. And it was. But talking with some of the children there also made me sad because I realized just how bright and intelligent some of them are, but at the same time they will not have the same education opportunities that we have and may not be able to reach their full potential. And this saddened me. It also made me realize how much we take for granted in our lives here in the states. A lot of those kids have almost nothing but they don’t care, they are just happy to be alive and going to school and playing with their friends. And it is not just the kids; it’s everyone in Belize. But us, we aren’t happy unless we have the latest technology, or newest clothes, or nicest car, whatever it may be. We have to have it all and we aren’t satisfied until we have it. And honestly, it’s quite pathetic, embarrassing, and shameful.  Patrick Souders ’17.


Appealing to my environmental friendliness, the Community Baboon Sanctuary was a little more special because I actually got to touch the hand of a baboon (black howler monkey). We walked through the forest and learned the importance of many plant and animal species. We were able to walk through an ecosystem, a life so different from our own. I’ve come to think of the forest as an art, and art should be appreciated and preserved. Xunantunich was the same way. The ruins are an artwork that we not only got to witness, but we were able to climb and experience. It was also a facing my fears experience because I am afraid of heights. Once I was at the top, though, I felt a sense of accomplishment in myself and saw absolutely breathtaking miles of forest and cities surrounding Xunantunich.

Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley were where I exploited my strengths rather than facing my fears. I have always been interested in marine biology and here I not only saw an infinite amount of marine organisms, but got to touch and swim alongside some of the most feared creatures of the ocean. I pet a nurse shark and a stingray and have never felt more alive and brave.  Alex Rauscher ’18


While Tobacco Caye was my favorite “vacation” spot, my favorite part of the trip was definitely the kids of St. Matthew’s. While they were chaotic at points, they did seem to be genuinely interested and involved in parts of all of our lessons. I’d also consider them for an alternative source of energy because theirs seemed to be endless. They all seemed so happy to have us there, that whenever I put one child down, another was waiting for their turn and I didn’t mind no matter how tired I may have gotten. In fact, playing with the kids and being around them for two days got me interested in possibly working with children in the future. It was truly the most fun and significant experience of the trip in my opinion.

While I enjoyed the snorkeling on Tobacco Caye, the snorkeling at Hol Chan and Shark-Ray Alley was vastly different and so much more interesting. At Tobacco Caye we only managed to see one small nurse shark, but at Caye Caulker we got to swim with a vortex of many of them all at least 5 feet in length. Something about swimming with sharks, even harmless ones, and rays gives you a huge adrenaline rush that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. The fish were also massive and not at all shy, unlike most that you encounter. There were several times where I’d feel something touching and turn back to see that it was a fish bumping into me or swimming between us. Swimming with manatees was also something that I only hoped to be able to do. I know many places that let you swim with dolphins, but you don’t hear of many places that can allow you to swim with manatees.   Chandler Haxton ‘18


Seventeen days is just enough time to enjoy what Belize has to offer but also make you miss home just enough to be ready to return. Of course I could have spent a few more days on Caye Caulker playing with the street dogs, eating delicious food, and hanging out at the split but I think we had just the perfect amount of fun in our little island of paradise. I appreciated every minute that we were exploring Belize and I would give anything for the opportunity to go back. I made memories that I will never forget including my first snorkeling experience, swimming with sharks, climbing Xunantunich, experiencing the harsh reality of childhood from Mahogany Heights, and making friendships that will last a lifetime. Each student who gets the opportunity for this trip is truly blessed and as long as they open their eyes, minds, and hearts they will have the time of their lives. Also, the trip would not be the same without the wonderful Dr. Amspoker. His knowledge, curiosity, and desire to inspire his students to want to know more inspires me every day and reminds me why I want to be an educator.   Alyssa Busken ’16


Overall this was another great trip and makes me want to travel all over the place. I think everyone should get the opportunity to travel to another country because it opens your eyes. You become more open-minded and realize how different the world is. We survive on this planet together, because we are all so diverse. Everyone brings something new to the table and traveling really allows you to see that and you learn how to not judge. I became accustomed to how they live in Belize. I did not need running water, or air conditioning, or delivery pizza. All I needed was those around me to have a good time and to enjoy myself. It is also amazing to see how 17 days can bring a group of students together and how you end up feeling like best friends when you leave. Just as I said last year, I would do all of this again in a heartbeat.   Danielle Lorenscheit ’17


Overall this trip to Belize was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It was not only enjoyable, relaxing and full of adventure, but it was also a good time to reflect on my life and realize just how much we have and how good our lives are compared to other places in the world. And because of this, I have been changed for the better and have an overall better look on life and what really matters most.   Patrick Souders ’17


Not only will the impacts of this trip stick with me forever, but the memories made will as well. One of the highlights of the trip for me was our time spent on Tobacco Caye. Our experience there was very peaceful and calm and I enjoyed every minute of it. I had fun snorkeling, looking off the docks at night, and spending time with the group on our free day. However, my favorite thing on Tobacco Caye was our interactions with the locals. I was amazed by how friendly and welcoming they were to us. Everyone appeared to be very happy every day even under their poor living conditions. They did not treat us like tourists. They talked to us like we have been friends for years and joked with us like they really enjoyed our company. It amazed me how sincere and interested they were. The people of Belize are what made this trip the most memorable for me and they have made me appreciate things in my life that I before took for granted. The way I view my life and the people around me will forever be changed by this trip.

Another personal impact that this trip had on me was that it taught me a lot about myself and made me aware of things that I am proud of and need to improve on. I think this trip made me encounter more of my fears in the short two weeks than I have ever had to encounter in my life. Never would I have thought that I would swim with rays or sharks and before you would have had to pay me big bucks to night snorkel. Being able to face those fears has taught me that I am capable of doing more than I think and it has encouraged me to try things that before I would have automatically ran away from.   Kristen Warncke ’17


I do not think that I will ever forget that moment on Tobacco Caye when you stood there with me looking out across the horizon beyond the reef in the early morning hours and recited Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling. I am not sure what it was about that moment in time, but something about it made me forever lodge the memory into my head. Perhaps it was a moment that made me realize that there is always something to learn, even though my four years of school have past, there is always time to learn because in life you never stop learning.   Brandon Hammerstone ’15


The last couple days, many of my friends from home and Westminster asked me how the trip was. At first I gave a longer answer, saying that we did so many things and telling each person a little of what we did and what I did or did not like about it. After ten or so people asked me the question, I shortened it quite considerably into four words. It was life changing.    Alex Rauscher ’18

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