Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Belize and Guatemala: Summer 2013

On Friday, May 24th at 5:00am my dad and I finished loading my luggage into his car and we headed for Columbia College.  In a few short hours, I would be boarding a plane to Belize, and my life didn’t feel like my own.  For months I had been anticipating this trip, but it always seemed to be far away in the back of my mind.  The whole car ride to Columbia College I had butterflies in my stomach and I was so nervous.  This trip to Belize and Guatemala was my first time out of the United States and my first time away from my dad, and I was extremely excited, but apprehensive and cautious at the same time.  However, once I pulled into the Columbia College parking lot and I saw some of my travel companions, my nerves immediately went away.  I remember meeting Bob and Patti and they were so kind and I think they could tell that I was just a little nervous.  I gave my dad a long hug goodbye and I was ready to depart to Kansas City.  The car ride to Kansas City gave me another opportunity to talk to Bob, Patti, and Ann, who were all so friendly and welcoming.  We arrived in Kansas City, boarded a flight to Dallas, and from there we were finally headed to Belize City.  As soon as I boarded the three hour flight to Belize I remember telling myself, “there’s no going back now.”  Finally, my dream of seeing the world was coming true and I quickly found out that the next ten days would be unforgettable.

Arriving in Belize City and stepping into their airport was an extremely surreal experience.  I felt like I was walking around in a daze and I couldn’t believe where I was.  Life just seemed too good to be true!  The first night in Belize was fun, and I became better acquainted with the other Columbia College travelers and I remember feeling at ease with everyone around me, despite the fact that I was the youngest person on the trip.  Everyone was friendly, welcoming, open, and some people were just downright hilarious and outrageous.  In the beginning, I was very shy and introverted, but throughout the trip I opened up to the other travelers and I began to feel like I really belonged with everyone there.  The bonds and little moments I shared with everyone on the trip I will hold in my heart forever and I hope that I remain close with many of my travel companions.  These people were truly gorgeous, wonderful, and lovely, and I couldn't have asked to travel with better people.    

The next day is when our adventures began!  Our tour guide, Jake, was not only extremely knowledgeable about Belize, but he was a great guy who knew how to handle our crazy group.  He was so passionate about his job, which made it all the more enjoyable for everyone else and he always kept us entertained.  The boat ride on the Belize River was gorgeous and stopping to look at all the wildlife was amazing.  When we arrived at Lamanai, a ruin site, I really started to feel like I was in Belize.  Seeing a Maya ruin for the first time is an experience I cannot even describe.  Many of these ruins have been around before Christ, and they will continue to be around after I’ve passed, which is incredible.  Standing in front of a massively tall ruin or standing atop a temple and looking out over the treetops at the river below me are life changing moments I will never forget.  Viewing these ruins made me aware of how small I really am, compared to the thousands of years of history right in front of me.  Touching those ruins was surreal, powerful, and so emotional. 

Throughout the trip we saw dozens of different ruins, but never once did I wish Jake would take us somewhere else.  Each ruin site was beautiful and unique and stood apart from the last.  My favorite ruins were at Tikal and climbing the steep steps to Temple 5 was a tough feat, but the miraculous view from the top can’t even be captured in a photograph.  It was spiritual, peaceful, and breathtaking, to say the very least.
My favorite part about the trip was the all day excursion to the Great Blue Hole.  Snorkeling in a massive sinkhole four hundred feet across and seven hundred feet deep is not only terrifying and exciting, but I was fully aware what a once in a lifetime opportunity it was.  I swam next to stingrays, Nurse sharks, many different schools of fish, and sea turtles.  The water was a brilliant shade of turquoise and deep navy, and while I felt vulnerable and small in the massive Caribbean Sea, never once did I feel afraid or apprehensive.  I floated peacefully on the choppy waters and I wanted to fully embrace this amazing opportunity. 

I could write pages and pages more of memories, stories, and anecdotes, but I’ll leave the reader with these last few thoughts.  This trip was so much more than I could have ever expected, and I will treasure this trip with me forever.  While I was only gone for ten days, it felt like I lived a lifetime, and even more than a month later I still find happiness in looking through my photos and reminiscing with my Belize friends.  I can’t believe that I have been back in Missouri for over a month, and strangely, I feel like a different person than I was before the trip.  I was a different person before the trip, I was a different person on the trip, and I am not the same as I was now that I am back.  It may be difficult for me to pinpoint exactly what is different about me, but it is undoubtedly a positive change and I am thankful every day that I got to experience the beauty that was Belize.            

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

It was nearing five am on a Friday morning as I found myself driving to a back parking lot located in Columbia College. On this particular evening-morning the moon shown in the sky orange and remained there in a peaceful beauty guiding us into the next day.

As dawn broke, I found myself heading westbound for Kansas City, Missouri. Where I would board the first of two planes that would take me out of my home country for the first time into the country of Belize.

Belize proved to be very welcoming and full of unique, intriguing culture. My first impression of a genuine Belizean was none other than our extra-ordinary tour guide: Jake Martinez. Jake, as we would endearingly refer to him for the remainder of our trip, greeted us with a warm spirit and a full grin. Most of us keep in contact with our beloved tour guide through the present on Facebook. Most of us keep in contact with each other as well. The personal, human connections made on the trip far exceeded my expectations. Through shared experiences and perspectives, our group of twenty-one travelers formed bonds, friendships, and memories that will last well into the future. To yield friendship and to form fond memories are, in themselves, worthwhile experiences. My time in Central America gave way to both, and so much more.

As we came out of a restaurant after eating our first meal in Belize, an outlook of the ocean was just a short walk ahead of us. Situated above our view of the sea was a full moon. This moon was more graceful and awe-inspiring than the orange moon of the night prior. The moon that night, radiating its pure, white light, was our first glimpse into the magical qualities of the area.

The varying, vibrant greens of trees and vines, the bright, nearly artificial-looking-to-American-eyes colors of flora blended with the deep brown mud and heavy blue skies to form nothing less than a picturesque backdrop for the excursion to unfold upon. Palm trees of different sorts were in abundance. Everyday I had access to fresh, local food. The papaya, coconut water, and plantains were among my favorites.

Along with the food and nature, we had the opportunity to connect with ancient cultures as we visited several Mayan ruins. I read about the Mayan culture for a class offered by the college before traveling. This knowledge felt absolutely priceless and well worth the hours spent reading as I climbed yards-high up Mayan stonework. The temples had steps leading to the top, or near top, and typically some type of intricate design etched into them. This design not only accentuated the temples aesthetically, but also served a very usable purpose: they told stories. One who understands Mayan iconography can view these etchings and discern meaning and narrative from them. The language of the ancient Maya was represented through pictorial iconography as opposed to the alphabet we use. In addition to the ruins, we had the humbling experience of being hosted by a modern day Mayan village in Guatemala (or “GuateMAYA” as locals say). Although there was a considerable communication barrier, the people of the village welcomed us with the utmost hospitality. Because of the people, the night we camped in the middle of the sticky rain forest was "the best ever" to say the least.

The last leg of the nine-day trip consisted of island splendor. Over the course of the seven days leading up to the island we had become a very close-knit group. Our last two days would be spent soaking up island rays and snorkeling in the ocean. It was my first time swimming in the middle of the ocean and one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Everyone should snorkel a coral reef in his or her lifetime. The spectrum of color from the fishes to the seaweed, from the reefs to the water, is quite literally breath taking.

The island nights were wonder filled as well. Before the island, the night sky was never quite clear enough to see a sky full of stars. In Belize it’s a funny play on words with tourists to say something is “unBELIZEable.” The sky our last night on the island was just that. With my new friends around me, and the sky full of stars above me, I experienced a heightened moment of bliss. Staring up at that starry night sky is a moment of my life I will never forget. And I would like to thank the Columbia College Travelers, as well as my trip-mates, for making the incredible experience all that I could have imagined and more. My life will forever be richer because of it.

Peace and Love,

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Arriving home to Syracuse, Ny was in fact bitter; not sweet. I had the time of my life on this Study Abroad trip to Belize and Guatemala. It is an ineffable experience. However, I will make an attempt to convey what I learned. The sole reason I enjoyed this trip so much was due to the class I took prior to going.
The online class: The Maya Sacred Landscape and Cosmology
Professor: Lee Stanton
                    ^^^Awesome professor

                                                                    Kelli, Me and Lee
We are posing with the textbooks from our class that we found in a shop in Guatemala, right on the border.
Taking this class for the trip made ALL the difference in the experience as a whole. The text book I am holding delves into the research of many professors, archeologists and scholars that have stayed in the Maya country-land and communicated their experience in this text; enormously useful. Kelli and myself were very  knowledgeable because of this course.We easily applied what we learned in class to the Mayan ruins.

Kelli, Lee and myself 

Before I continue, I want to express a huge thank you to our tour guide Jake Martinez for making this trip an experience of a lifetime. Without your guidance we wouldn't of nearly had such a wonderful time. Thanks Jake!

Jake Martinez

Me, Jake and Kelli

All the Maya myths have to do with their many stores of Creation. From rituals, dances, farming, sacrifices and games, Maya would make these everyday practices sacred by inviting the vision of Creation. All year round you can find the Maya story of Creation displayed in the Cosmos!
Specifically, Paddle into Xibalba; which is depicted in the piece of slate art above. Stingray Paddler is the creature to the left and Jaguar Paddle to the far right; the Maize God in the middle.
These Paddlers are the central actors in the celestial play of Creation. The Paddlers bring the Maize God to the place of the three stones of Creation so that he can be reborn and and create the new universe.

Well, our group got to re-enact this Creation story by paddling into Xibalba cave! (Where the Maize God was brought as a sacrifice) This was one of my favorite experiences of the trip.

Entrance of the cave (150 ft tall cave system)

Exiting cave

The stalactites protruded down from the cave ceiling about 90 ft; you could almost touch them. Our guides told of the ancient Maya myth: the gods planted the Tree of Life above the cave. Therefore the stalactites were the roots of the tree. They told how, if you were lucky to receive a cold drop of water upon you, you were blessed with eternal life; if it was a warm droplet.... it was bat guano!

The cave system seemed endless. As I said this cave was used to sacrifice for the gods. So, we did see skull remains and pottery as offerings. This was a very sacred place. OUr guides stressed the importance of remaining calm and not disturbing the peace within the cave. We turned off all our lights and sat in the still darkness for quite sometime; I will never forget that moment. I've never been exposed to such silence.

Random shots!

Belize city

Belize city

Guatemala - Uaxuctum Village. Walking to our camp.

When we arrived in Guatemala, we stayed as guests in the village of Uaxuctum. This village was NOT a tourist site. It was in the middle of Maya ruins. Carlos, our guide there, only allows guests in his village at his choosing; not frequent. We were lucky to have a real village experience. We stayed in tents in the middle of the jungle. Our tour guide Jake shared mystical, supposedly real, stories with us around the fire at night; a few went to bed terrified.

Best meal I have EVER had! Farm fresh, courtesy of Maya village community. It was rude to get seconds; the villagers would wait till we were finished and eat whatever we did not. The village was very poor, but the lived, farmed and shared life together; it was a true community, everyone did their part. You couldn't help to see the sheer joy within this village. I learned a lot from them. Mainly, "want what you have". Most didn't have shoes and only a couple weathered shirts. Yet, they did their part without complaining. We weren't even allowed to give the kids anything. Carlos explained: "then they might expect to receive, instead of giving".

Guatemala - Uaxuctum Ballcourts. Ancient Maya arena.

Me and the village kids


A lot of kids in the village. My buddy Abel on the right.

Tikal - By far the most amazing ruins we saw.

Contemporary Maya still hold these temples sacred. Woman performing rituals. We weren't allowed on this temple.

Still in Tikal. Atop the highest ruin. Those are other temples in the distance protruding from the forest. Tikal is so vast, it takes over 2 hrs to fly a helicopter over the city of Tikal.

Welcome to San Pedro! 

San Pedro Town

San Pedro

This was an experience of a lifetime. I am eternally grateful to have gone with Columbia College on this trip. The classes provided, along with the professors on the trip, made this not only fun, but you were able to learn something as well. I look forward to trips to come. If you are thinking of studying abroad for a semester or a summer, I highly recommend it. You will not regret it. Don't miss an experience of your life!  Thanks CC Travelers!

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