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Friday, January 13, 2017

January 13, 2017
Belize City to Atlanta to Boston to Henniker

Day #9: Journey home and final thoughts

We began the day with our first lazy morning. Everyone had time to shower and take one final look at the grounds of the Tropical Education Center before our 8AM breakfast (featuring bacon! The first bacon we've seen in Belize - it was quite a hit) and 10AM bus. During the hour long bus ride to the airport, awards were given and nicknames bestowed (ask the students about that!).

Moving such a big group through the airport is always a challenge, but we managed to check 18 bags, get everyone checked in, through immigration and security, and on to our 2.5 hour flight to Atlanta. There, our 2.5 hour layover proved just enough time to get everything through customs, immigration, security, and transfers on to our plane. We landed in Boston around 10PM, 11 hours after we departed (including the 1 hour time change). I am writing this blog post from the charter bus that is taking us back to Henniker.

I asked all the students to write final thoughts about the trip. You will find them below unedited.

It's been a privilege to have escorted such a fine group of students to Belize! This was a fantastic group. Everyone worked hard, played hard, stepped outside their comfort zone, and accumulated many great stories that will withstand a lifetime of retelling. Thank you all for supporting our students and New England College on this adventure!

Best wishes,

- Prof. Eric J. Simon

What is something that you experienced that you don’t think anyone else on the trip experienced?

Traveling to Belize, snorkeling, hiking, tubing, and a lab report was the last thing I had to complete to graduate from NEC. Not a bad way to end undergrad. -Jess Barnum

I think the overall experience was incredible from cave tubing to the nightlife.   Something that I think I experienced was being so excited to see so many dogs around and being able to pet them all!!!  I also enjoyed the ice cream! -Taylor Grant

Coming to Belize was amazing, I think everything we did was a once in a lifetime adventure, that can never be taken away. I think something I experienced that made it so much different was knowing how to snorkel beforehand, because I’ve grown up doing it with my dad. It made it so cool to feel like I knew what I was doing and to experience everything I saw while doing it. -Tara Bainbridge

This has overall been an amazing trip of many firsts of snorkeling, hiking and traveling out of the country. I really enjoyed getting to feed the blue tang and the sting ray. I also, really liked holding the longed spined urchin and the west Indian sea egg. It made my trip special. -Emily Gubbins

Traveling to Belize push me out of my own comfort zone. I never in a million years thought I would be swimming in the ocean in BELIZE!!!!!. The fear of drowning went away when I realize how many people were here to support me. This made me feel very special, to have amazing classmates and professors who care. Thank you – Daffney Dieu

Traveling to Belize was eye-opening for me. I had never been to a developing country prior to this trip, so to see the people, culture, and land was fascinating. I found every day to be an adventure and I loved being in Belize every minute we were there. I think something that only I experienced on this trip was escaping a sunburn! -Ashlynn Wing

Traveling to Belize with NEC allowed me to cross so many things off my bucket list including hiking ancient Mayan ruins, swimming with sharks and several other things. I made tons of friend on this trip and got close with people who I never saw myself hanging out with back at school. This trip has been a life changing experience for me   -Ainsley Bruno

After traveling to Belize, I realize that I’ve experienced some amazing things like hiking through the Mayan ruins, touring and tubing through caves, and snorkeling in the second largest coral reef in the world. Every day this trip has presented me with new obstacles I had to overcome, and I can say I truly pushed myself out of my comfort zone and it was absolutely life changing. -Christina Wormell

There are two things that I got to experience that I don’t believe anyone else had the pleasure of experiencing, the first was swimming directly underneath a green sea turtle and seeing that sight, and the second would be having a spotted eagle ray scare the crap out of you by swimming right underneath you and then looking down just to see ray face. (the whole trip was an experience of a lifetime) -Travis Guest

One thing that I experienced was when we were at the Mayan ruins at one point I wandered away from the group into another area of the ruins where no one else was, it was incredibly peaceful being in a place like that with no one else around and just reflecting on the fact that hundreds of years ago, this place was a town and would have been teeming with life. -Emily Rempelakis

One thing that I experienced was swimming next to a green sea turtle and pushing my limits by hiking for the first time. This trip has allowed me to experience so many amazing things and I’m so glad I got to be a part of this experience. -Alexa Lamantea

Snorkeling in Belize was exactly what I expected it to be. I have been snorkeling and boating for the past 8 years of my life and I can honestly say that this was one of the nicest places I have been. A lot of my classmates went out of their comfort zone to do this and I think they all enjoyed it as much as I did. I also enjoyed going out at night in the city to the clubs and getting to know my classmates more. I will be returning BELIZE! – Chris Donovan

This trip has been an amazing experience for me. The Belizean people loved me and made me feel even more welcomed and made my experience even more enjoyable. I have never been snorkeling nor swam in the ocean before, so to say that the first place I ever snorkeled and oceans waters I ever swam was in Belize is awesome.- Jasmine Adams

I had two things on this trip that I know no one else on this trip had the pleasure of doing. The first is being the last and only member of the 100% club! It felt good knowing that I was able to learn about 70 different species and be able to recognize each one by a simple picture or video. I thought that I would never be able to learn that many species, but here I am as the last member of the 100%. The second being that I was the only person who was able to swim around with an octopus in my hand for 20 mins! It was an amazing experience knowing that the octopus could have let go and swam away at any point but it chose to stick with me until we had to leave. These are two things that made this trip even better and things that I will remember forever. This trip was unBELIZEable! – Will Pendleton

I think that I was able to notice a lot more than my first trip to Belize, since this was my third trip. One thing that I experienced in Belize that I don’t think anyone else truly got to experience was respectful interaction from a young homeless Belize Army Veteran. Maybe I changed his life with just a few words of encouragement. Maybe not. Either way, he strangely called me daddy the next day when I saw him on the streets looking a little more clean and happy! I don’t think I will forget Mikey, even if I never see Belize again.- Matt Hackett

One thing that I know I experienced that no one else did was carrying the responsibility of the medical bag, and making sure everyone was getting what they needed. I think I also experienced myself changing a lot to become a more adventurous person than I was before. What made it unforgettable for me was everyone in our group and the activities that we did every day. Being able to snorkel and see what I study was just amazing. I hope to come back to Belize again in the future- Megan Polte

January 12, 2017
San Ignacio, Belize

Day #8: Mayan culture

We woke up today knowing that this was our last full day in Belize and determined the make the most of it. We knew it would be a very long and strenuous day, but we all vowed to rally today and sleep on the plane!

We enjoyed a nice breakfast buffet at our hotel overlooking the mist-filled valley of San Ignacio. At 8:30AM, we loaded up on bug spray:

and walked a few hundred feet to our first destination, the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech:

Junior was our guide for the day. He told us about the history of the Mayan culture in general and in this area in particular. He also lectured on the flora and fauna of the area and issues of conservation and preservation.

The ruins themselves were very impressive. The students were able to climb on and in and through the various buildings and passageways.

The highlight was the climb to the top of the tallest structure (77' high):

We had this site to ourselves and the quiet calm created a nice sense of history with a touch of eeriness. We also viewed the site's museum and visitors' center.

We loaded back on to the bus and drove about 20 minutes to a river. We crossed the river on a hand-crank ferry (which the students gamely volunteered to crank) and then loaded on to vans for a ride up a steep hill to the Xunantunich visitors' center. Xunantunich is one of the largest and tallest Mayan sites in Belize and offers a wonderful opportunity to see and climb on some truly spectacular ruins:

Under a hot and bright midday sun, the students were able to explore the ruins and learn about the culture that occupied them. Again, the highlight was the climb to the 180' peak of the main castillo. From the top, we could see into Guatemala (about 2 miles west), the entire Xunantunich site, and much of the San Ignacio valley:

The students really enjoyed this experience, and many of them described the visit to Xunantunich as the highlight of the trip so far.

In addition to the main castillo, we toured various other buildings and even a ball court. From the top of one of these buildings, the students came up with the idea of forming human letters:

We walked down from the site, crossed the river on the hand-crank ferry, and rode the bus into a nearby village for lunch. The restaurant was very rural, tucked in between houses on an out-of-the-way street:

The food was quite good (the usual fare of rice, beans, fried plantain, a mayo-based salad, and stewed chicken, beef, or pork) and we supplemented it with milkshakes and some orders of nachos. The table featured a local condiment of pickled onions and habeneros, which several of us tried and then gasped and choked for about 20 minutes!

We drove into the town of San Ignacio and toured the farmer's markets, local art shops, and the local ice cream parlor (we can never pass one of those up!):

But our day was not done yet! We left San Ignacio (which is on the far western end of Belize) and drove east for about 1.5 hours to the Tropical Education Center. This facility is associated with the Belize Zoo and is the site of many research projects. The grounds are like a lovely tropical botanical garden. Students stayed in huts that were open (with screens) to the jungle air, letting in the full cacophony of jungle noises.

After dinner (chicken again!) we headed to the Belize Zoo for a night tour:

The students were able to see and interact with many nocturnal animals, including four species of cat (jaguar, puma, ocelot, and margay). Those who wished could hold a boa constrictor and feed a tapir:

The night tour was truly a unique experience and the capper to quite an eventful day!

We returned to the Center around 9PM, giving everyone a chance to work on their lab reports and get to sleep early amidst the myriad jungle sounds.

Tomorrow is our travel day: bus at 10AM, flight at 1PM, connection in Atlanta, land in Boston around 10PM, back to Henniker after midnight. I will try to post an update or two as I can en route.

Thanks for reading and following along! Everyone is safe and healthy and happy and talking excitedly about an adventure they will never forget. I was honored to be able to facilitate this experience for our NEC students.

- Prof. Eric J. Simon

Thursday, January 12, 2017

January 11, 2017
Branches River, Belize

Day #7: An inland cave adventure

This morning we awoke for a 6AM breakfast, packed our bags into taxis, and headed to the ferry terminal to leave the island of Ambergris Caye. A rainbow appeared to wish us farewell:

We boarded a 7:30AM ferry that took us to Belize City (after a stop in Caye Caulker):

After disembarking at Belize City, we loaded on to a bus that towed a trailer for our bags. Our drive is LaCelle. He will serve as our drive and guide for the rest of the trip:

We drove through the city and into the countryside. Our first stop was a national park called Jaguar Park. This site is famous for the Branches Cave River, which carved a series of caves through limestone bedrock. It is one of the few places in the world where you can river tube through caves.

We started by getting our equipment: proper footwear (no flip flips), helmet, dive light, and life jacket:

We hiked through the rainforest. Along the way, our guides taught us about the local plants and pointed out interesting features. We walked upriver for about 45 minutes:

When we reached the end, we put our tubes in the water in groups, and floated downriver. We passed through crystal caves with really interesting rock formations, some internal waterfalls, and the occassionale passageway out. Our headlamps illuminated the walls of the caves:

After about 20 minutes, we emerged from the caves, and had a nice relaxing float downriver for 30 minutes or so. The guides pointed out wildlife along the banks, including some river iguana.

After tubing, we enjoyed a typical Belizean local lunch of rice, beans, stewed chicken, and fried plantains. We then drove to our next site: St. Herman's Cave National Park. Our guides led us through the jungle, pointing out local flora and fauna:

We then reached the entrance of St. Herman's, a large limestone cave that was considered sacred by the Mayans:

We walked along a path through the caves as our guides explained how the caves were formed and how the Mayans used them. The walk was slick and winding and a bit treacherous, but everyone availed themselves well and really enjoyed the experience. At one point we turned off all our lights to see how dark it truly was.

We walked back through the jungle as the sun started to set. We drove about an hour to the far western edge of Belize to the town of San Ignacio. We checked into our resort for the night (which is rather swanky compared to the places we've been staying) and enjoyed a group buffet dinner of rice and beans and stewed pork and fried plantains (sound familiar?). The students worked on their lab reports and generally went to bed early.

Thanks for reading! All is well and we are looking forward to a really long but interesting final full day in Belize tomorrow.

- Prof. Eric J. Simon

The coolest thing I saw in/on the water was …
(Click on any photo to see a bigger version)

Catching a white spotted octopus that crawled up my arm, changing color along the way – Elizabeth

I highly enjoyed being able to feed the Tarpon off the dock at Caye Cauker. It was funny with the pelicans trying to take the bait away from the Tarpon.-Taylor

While at shark ray ally getting to feed a blue tang and a southern sting ray.- Emily G
  Getting in the water first with the Nurse sharks and shooting good video of them. Also having the chance to hand feed them.-Chris
While at shark ray alley, getting into the water as soon as we got there to see nurse sharks and rays all around me.    -Jess
Swimming with the sharks, fish, and especially stingrays at Shark Ray Alley and having them swim towards me and all around us for an extended amount of time.  – Ashlynn
As soon as we got in for the night dive Siete was in and he showed us a Balloon Pufferfish, I got to hold it and it was super cute and way softer than I thought it was going to be. – Tara
Swimming with a spotted eagle ray swimming right beneath me, it looked like I was riding the ray like a glider.- Travis
Swimming down to the opening of Mexico Rocks Cave was my favorite part of the trip. There were hundreds of fish guarding the cave entrance.   - Matt

The coolest thing I saw was when we were snorkeling at Mexico rocks and looked up to see a green sea turtle that was swimming by us!-Ainsley
Got to touch a White spotted octopus during the night swim-Megan

Finding and holding a pin cushion sea star the first snorkel we went on – Emily

Swimming with the octopus in my hand for 20 minutes during the night snorkel. I guess it liked me, and just wouldn’t let go. – Will

Swimming with a green sea turtle for the first time because it’s my favorite animal. -Christina

I loved swimming with the stingrays and the green sea turtle!- Alexa

Seeing a Blue tang at coral gardens. I loved being able to see Dori in person. -Jasmine

Seeing a nurse shark in person for the very first time at coral gardens – Daffney

Watching a friendly octopus hitch a ride on a student’s arm for 20 minutes as we swam around during our night dive on Tuffy Reef, and then being able to hold it myself.  - Eric