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Jennifer works hard in the jungle
Jungle, Jaguars and Mayan Indians: Jennifer Rea
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A Gap Year in Central America

By Jennifer Rea

When asked to write an article on my Gap Year I jumped at the chance to re-tell, for the hundredth time, the story of a fantastic experience. Five months of adventure, learning and teaching in Central America, which took me to the most beautiful, remote environments, and introduced me to even more amazing people and cultures. It turned out to be the best five months of my life.

In June 2002 I began my year off from education and teenage life in general. I had finally finished school. My A levels were over and a place at Manchester university was secured for September 2003. I decided that I wanted to do something totally unlike anything I had ever done before so I signed up for an expedition to Belize to spend two months living in the jungle working on a conservation project, a month in neighbouring Guatemala learning Spanish and 2 more months teaching in a Belizean school.

I was now a volunteer with a registered charity called Trekforce Expeditions who organise conservation and teaching projects in South East Asia, Central and South America. Seven months of full-time work, 100s of fund-raising letters and 4 generous cheques (courtesy the Hinchingbrooke School bursary fund, Round Table and the local Rotary Clubs) later I found myself at Gatwick Airport with the heaviest bag in history and a tearful mother in tow to wave me off. Ten hours later, 100 pale, sweaty ‘Trekkers’ stumbled off the plane in Belize City to begin the first phase…Jungle training.

Much to everyone’s dismay there were no lessons on ‘vine swinging in leopard print loin cloths’ but, seven days of acclimatisation where we learnt everything we needed to know about surviving in the rainforest, including first aid, jungle hygiene and how to cook a slap-up meal for 20 people using just a can of Spam, some dried noodles and a box of matches.

On the 12th February after about 8 hours on a hot, dusty bus and a 14km trek in the searing tropical heat, my group of 16 ‘Trekkers’, 2 medics and 2 very experienced leaders found ourselves in one of the most remote parts of Belize: The Chiquibul Rainforest Reserve. We set up camp, our home for the next 8 weeks, about 2km from the Las Cuevas Research Station, which is owned and run by the British Natural History Museum.

Home sweet homeThe camp was very basic, with a hammock to sleep in, a fire area to cook in, a river to wash in and pit to you-know-what-in – what more can you want? Our project brief was to assist with one of their most important projects, reintroducing rare Harpy Eagles to the area, with assistance from the Peregrine Foundation in Panama. These birds have almost totally disappeared from Belize and this project was the first of its kind.

Over the next 7 weeks we undertook the most physically tough work I have ever done. We built a nest box for the young eagles to live in before they are old enough to be released into the wild and cut trails into the forest for jaguar monitoring cameras to be installed along.

We also slogged our guts out carrying rucksacks full of rocks, huge cans of water and horrible buckets of wet cement, to build concrete steps up a hill to a bird observation tower where the eagles can be monitored. The end products were well worth the effort and at the end of the day when we got back to camp tired and hungry the satisfaction from a hard day’s work was fantastic (unfortunately another meal of Spam and noodles was not).

We also conducted wildlife monitoring in an area I can only describe as heaven on earth. We spent about 10 days sitting by a beautiful river watching the wildlife go by, but all for a very important reason. We were compiling evidence of the local wildlife for a report against the proposed construction of a dam in the area, which if built would cause terrible, irreversible damage to this fragile ecosystem. I was extremely lucky to see humming birds, kingfishers, otters, howler and spider monkeys, the rare Scarlet Macaw and the rarest of all, a wild Jaguar! It was the most amazing moment when it came out of the bush and crossed the river just downstream from where I sat. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was!

Reluctantly leaving our jungle hideaway at the end of the two months, we crossed the border into Guatemala for a month of Spanish tuition. We lived with local families, attended lessons everyday and indulged ourselves with much-missed ice cream, Internet access and clean underwear, not forgetting to do a bit of sightseeing on the weekends.

This month was to prepare us for our next challenge: teaching at a school in Belize. Unfortunately for me and my teaching partner it was not all that useful as we were not teaching in a Spanish community, but in an indigenous Mayan Indian village in the remote south of the country called Corazon. It has a population of 150 people who still lead very similar lives to their ancestors.

Mayan Indian village houseThey live in thatched houses, cook on open fires, have no running water or electricity, wash in the local river and grow all the food they eat. They have a very limited diet consisting of corn tortillas, black beans and rice. Occasionally, someone will have some mangoes for sale, which is the only fresh fruit we ever saw them eat.

The village school has 45 children and two teachers. Not surprisingly, the level of education they receive is very poor compared to that received by children in larger towns and cities in the country and even poorer compared to UK standards. But, there isn’t much need for a ‘western education’ in their culture as the children leave school at 14, with the girls helping their mothers run the house while the boys work in the corn fields. Only one or two will be lucky enough to go to High School, as it is very expensive.

We knew we couldn’t make drastic improvements to their education in less than two months but we were determined to do as much as we could. Most of our time was spent assisting in the classrooms, painting a number chart and fund-raising in the nearby town to raise money for a school trip.

Eventually we managed to get the money together to take the children on a boat trip to the small islands off the coast. To me this was the most satisfying day of the whole trip. Most of the children had never left their village, let alone been on a boat before and the look on their faces as the boat bounced over the waves was wonderful.

They loved every minute of the trip and had experienced a totally new environment which was only a 45 minute bus journey from their village, but which they had never seen before. The children were great. They were interested in everything we had, shampoo, walkmans, tweezers, and followed us around constantly. On our last day we taught them some games and gave out presents of balloons, pencil cases, Frisbees, toy planes and stickers – I have never seen children get excited over such small things. They even got excited when we gave them our old plastic drinks bottles!

I hope our stay in their village helped to open their eyes to another culture, as our eyes were opened to theirs. The Mayan people are the hardest working people I have ever encountered and I felt really privileged to be a part of their culture. The whole trip taught me so much about the cultures of Belize and Guatemala, and about myself.

As clichéd as it sounds; it really made me appreciate home and the opportunities available to us. I had the most amazing 5 months and definitely recommend a gap year – just look what you can do!

Find out more about Trekforce Expeditions at www.trekforce.org.uk

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