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On a visit to the Belize Zoo, Ashley Boucher got up close and personal with a boa constrictor. “I had held snakes before, but never one that big! I thought it was really cool. Some people were freaked out, but I liked it.”
I stare out the window of the reclaimed school bus that is our transportation back to the airport in Belize City. Everything is green. Not the green of the Pacific Northwest, muted and stoic, but vibrant and sun-drenched, with birds and insects fluttering in and out of the fauna. Our 12-day study abroad excursion has been a whirlwind, and we’ve seen, explored, and learned so much it’s almost comical.
What do you get when you put two professors, one teaching assistant, and 25 Seattle Pacific University undergraduate students on a school bus in Belize in December? Off-key Christmas carols, Instagram feeds overflowing with tropical landscapes, and multiple pit stops for ice cream and rice and beans. You’ll also overhear comments like, “Sometimes it’s best to expose your reproductive parts — if you’re an alga.”
We are an eclectic group, maybe even more eclectic than the angel and damselfish we encountered on the reef — biology, ecology, communications, business, chemistry, history, integrated studies, theology, and English majors. But we all learned to embrace our inner scientists (however deep within us), and to embrace the fact that sometimes ocean water is warmer than the shower.
We’re traveling on the mainland now, but our home for the majority of the trip was South Water Caye, an island about 30 minutes off the coast of Dangriga, Belize. The 14-acre island is designated by the Belizean government a marine reserve — no fishing and no touching allowed. The reef in Belize is the largest in the Western hemisphere, and the waters are teeming with all species of fish, coral, and algae.
From a distance, it looks like a bootlegger’s paradise: lavish coconut palms, pelicans dancing above sailboats, and a bar not 5 feet from the dock. Once ashore, a sign greets, “Welcome to International Zoological Expeditions Inc.” Our Belizean guides, Richard, Kevin, and Alvin, were teasing and goofy, but once in the water they meant business. Able to free-dive to 80 feet and identify nearly any fish, they were also conservationists at heart.
I’ve never thought of myself as a science person. The little I did know about ecology before the trip was that the ocean is becoming more acidic, polar bears are dying, and plants use photosynthesis to make sugar. After the trip, I know that the ocean is more acidic because of rising carbon dioxide levels, the polar bears are in trouble because their habitat is threatened from global warming, and algae also use photosynthesis. Actually, now I know a lot more about algae than I ever thought there was to know.
Finishing a class that normally takes 11 weeks in 11 days is not as easy as it sounds — even though we were on an island in the Caribbean. The class was intense: multiple lectures on most days; fish, algae, and coral identification and memorization; and a constant underlying pressure to study during downtime instead of sip from coconuts. But without the class portion of the trip, the fun stuff wouldn’t have been as exciting. Baby sea turtles hatched while we were there, and I was able to understand their place in the ecosystem. While snorkeling I saw a Southern ray, and didn’t have to ask a guide or professor what it was. We swam over a blue hole, and I knew how it had formed.
It rained a lot while we were on South Water Caye, and around the third day of rainfall, and after a particularly detailed lecture about algae, I felt overwhelmed. I felt like I couldn’t possibly pass the class — I was majoring in English for a reason! I could explain Joan Didion’s opinions on grammar, could deconstruct the symbolism in Moby Dick, but I could not, for the life of me, remember why some algae grew in the lagoon and some on the reef crest. I was nervous in the water, too — terrified of seeing a barracuda or a shark.
The thing about being on an island, though, is that there is nowhere to run. I had finished reading all the novels I brought, so I couldn’t even escape into a fictional world. So I turned to my fellow scientists (does being on a research island make me a scientist by default? I’ll go with yes.), and discovered something almost more exciting than seeing that Southern ray.
My big discovery? Science majors get overwhelmed, too. Memorizing upwards of 40 fish and being able to identify one at a moment’s notice doesn’t come easy, even if you are used to calling things by their Latin name. I found out that most of the students were in my proverbial boat, and other non-science majors were equally confused when one of our profs wrote out the equation for Nitrogen Fixation on the chalk board.
In the end it didn’t matter what I could memorize. It mattered what I was able to experience with the knowledge I gained.
Now that we’re driving back to the airport, I try to think about what possessed me to sign up for this trip, which was so out of my comfort zone. I’m sunburnt, covered in bug bites, haven’t had a warm shower for days, and probably smell overwhelmingly of DEET. But my camera holds pictures of baby sea turtles, gorgeous sunsets, and new friends. As I lean back in my seatbelt-less seat and listen to a new version of a popular Christmas carol: “Belize Navidad,” I realize that not only did I learn how to write a lab report and how to memorize scientific terms, but I also I learned how to step out of my comfort zone ― and how to enjoy it.
Ashley Boucher is a senior from Portland, Oregon. She’ll graduate in June 2014 with a degree in English and a concentration in creative writing. After graduation, she intends to travel and work as a freelance writer.