To leave behind work is one thing; to leave behind a nation is another. Snow surrounded my senses; the frosty, dry air chilled my lungs with each inhalation. A quiet hike to 11,200 feet. Stillness – oxygen creaked out of a crystalline matrix of water beneath my feet, the only sound that occupied my ears. Almost nothing carried an odor in this still frozen air; sweat and a hint of resin of the adjacent white pines were all I could vaguely smell. My warm body contrasted against the cold air.
Floating on snow I gracefully carved my way back down. Flying? Gliding? How can one describe such a sensation that engages the whole body in a swift movement that is so closely tied to the slopes of a mountain; intimacy? In town, everyone is ecstatic with the changing of the seasons. Warm clothing to tolerate the cold air temperatures; wax for ski equipment. Everyone seems to be ready to join in celebration that winter is here by this mysterious gliding down mountain sides; it’s a facet of our culture: ski culture, a vague term to describe a specific niche of American Life, is it really culture?. My outfit defies cultural tradition, at this time it is now comprised of shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops, a contrasting symbol of my adventures ahead and their differences from the present culture, from the present moment.
Leaving the Southwest is always riddled with mixed emotions. I love the sinuous canyons, the towering rock. The Colorado Plateau holds a special place in my heart, and I am excited to return with a heightened diversity of experiences to help me find clarity in my love for this place.
A short flight from the United States to Belize City and a couple hours on a chicken bus through the Jungle and Mountains into central Belize, Dangringa to be exact, brings a dramatic difference to the hype of winter so shortly ago experienced in Flagstaff. A cultural mecca for the small country of Belize, Dangringa gives a taste of the people that call Belize home. A muddy dirt road tore in between colorful and eclectic homesteads: painted concrete, ramshackle wood homes on stilts. Built from accessibility to materials, each home provides an inside glimpse to the quality of life and income of its occupants, nothing cookie cutter about it. The people here are festive and ready to celebrate their pride—black: of African ancestry; yellow: of Amerindian Ancestry; white: the role of “white man”; the peace the Garifuna yearn for. White is the center of the flag, the unity between the Afro-latino cultures, the vector that brought them to their present. These colors decorate streets, from flags on poles to banners on cars.
The Prime Minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, stands beneath a banner of Black, White, and Yellow as a small portion of his small army marches in celebration. This is Garifuna Settlement Day, this is a nation celebrating one of its diverse cultures as a collective -- political empowerment for cultural diversity.
Pride is obvious, tradition is powerful. Colorful outfits instill the visual sensations of West Africa, with African drumming that reinforces the feeling of such a place, alternative harmonies remind us of our presence in the Caribbean. This is the start of the Garifuna Settlement Day celebration—the celebration of the Garinagu landing in Belize after being exiled in the Grenadines by the British Army. This is a people whose culture remains relatively intact. This is a people who embrace their story: Black – of African descent, Yellow-- from Amerindian decent. White: Black and yellow brought together by White man, peace. This is afro-latino culture in pure form. Black, white, yellow: Garifuna. DJs and traditional drummers line the streets, full traditional bands occupy Y-Not Beach.
The festivities celebrate cultural identity and tradition. The old blends with the new as the culture embraces change. Traditional festivities celebrated with contemporary values. Old becomes new without being forgotten. A small portion of Belizeans identify as Garinagu, yet the country shows its political support as part of the celebration. Understanding the story of the cultures here enhances the importance of diversity and the celebration of life. I cannot help but to look back on my home and wonder what cultural values do I identify with? What do they mean to my livelihood and country?
Away from the cultural celebrations of the Garifuna, the influence place has on culture is obvious. Thatch roofs contrasted against wavy leaves of coconut palms, mangroves departed. The coconut symbolizes livelihood here. Without it, mangroves would block access to land and water. The seductive taste of fish fried in coconut oil brings satisfaction to hungry bodies. Grackles ensured their presence was known with their menacing calls, screams to the sky and beaks to the streets. The population is low here, miles of intact jungle and mangroves intrigue the conservation aware individual. From ridge to reef, the wildness is immaculate. My mind begs curiosity to the dark depths of the jungle, the mysterious allure of the sea but I cannot think about either without first reflecting on the people that live here. A friendly Mayan face greets you at the gateway to the Jungle, a Garifuna fishermen gives ovation at the docks near the sea. The wildness of the world does not lie in the disconnect from human society - wildness lives in the kinship between humans and ecosystems.
Dense jungle paints a fractal of patterns and shades of green. Tree diversity is higher than species diversities of wide geographies in the United States. The number of Insect and bird species dwarfs that of the trees, these systems are dense and complex. Lost in the tangle of species interactions, the best I can do to understand these systems is to identify patterns that make up distinct individuals. From tree ferns to bizarre unrecognizable vines, my mind fails to identify most plant families. Occasional movements of brightly colored birds contrast the green with new insight to the life that occupies these integrated systems. Howler monkeys add mystery and remind me that a plethora of organisms remain out of sight, masked by the complexities of the jungle. From jaguars to vipers, this system is intact and highly functional. Short watersheds provide model systems for conservation – an entire river basin can be preserved, along with its diversity. The spine of the Mayan mountains is made of limestone; what was once a complex ecosystem beneath the sea now harbors complex topography and a complicated forest ecosystem. This is the jungle.
Turbid blue sea extends to the horizons. Water splashes into my face; the noise and weight of water lapping against my ears, the motion slightly overwhelming. There seemed to be a serious lack of clarity in the swelling of the sea, only blue. Embracing the sea helped chaos settle into a web of peace and beauty. Colors resonated into fractals, divine design. The pulse of waves followed the Soham mantra; the movement of purple-stemmed fans harmonized with the rising and falling of my chest. Intimacy at its finest. Like my body, my soul was saturated with the sea – one fluid being at ease in space and time. This was not an observational experience, this was a holistic connection. Swimming with sharks and dozens of fish this was deep connection with wildlife. I learned of the reef while at school with multiple fish species, all engaging in the world and learning from our experiences. Strings of polyps stood unified in a myriad of connections, observable and tangible. An ecosystem just out of sight beneath a upheaval of blue, a system held at the mercy of the ocean. Susceptible to the direct and indirect effects of human activities, the beauty here is wild. Perhaps climate change poses larger threats to these fragile systems than to any other ecosystem. The reefs remain generally out of sight, often out of mind unlike the melting glaciers so commonly photographed and focused on. Additionally, invasive species in these sensitive reefs, such as lion fish, have confounded climate issues. Does there exist economic oppertunity to manage invasive species and conserve reefs? Perhaps awareness is the most important foundation of conservation. This is the bottom of the watershed, the start of the water cycle, this is the reef. What was once mountainous terrain above has been swallowed by the sea to become this complex barrier reef system.
Are these considered pristine ecosystems? Not-really. Muddy waters in river systems reminds us of the damaging erosion that ensues from cutting mangroves or replacing forests with agriculture. Watersheds and climate systems stand connected, and these systems are prone to a variety of anthropogenic alterations. From atmospheric pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to fishing, the need for conservation is dire. Is human life in its current state sustainable here? Doubt it. Little knowledge exists in tropical forest management, reef conservation, and the social interactions that sustain human livelihood, but the possibility exists. An intact example of human-landscape interaction? Absolutely. From the jungles of the ridges Mayan people gathered traditional herbs and medicines, grew cacao, and sustained their traditional livelihoods in the contemporary era. From the reefs of the sea, fishers make a living at the market from the catch of the day. In between the reef and ridge, coconut palm and banana support cultural diversity and more modern lifestyles. Each system shares an intimate connection with a group or groups of humans; each welcoming a celebration. From ridge to reef, these systems depend on one another, from ridge to reef humans live here.
My last days spent in this country were reflective and deep. Biking down a country road revealed a variety of lifestyles. Traditional Mayans grew sugar cane and cacao, Mennonite Farmers raised chickens – thatched roofs in a soggy jungle, flooded roads adjacent to large fields. Rivers – sinuous veins that flow from ridge to reef and carry the vulnerabilities of people with them. Rivers provide a place to bathe, baptism in the rope that ties the ridge to the reef, connectivity. The sounds of the jungle overwhelmed my ears. Life in remote Belize was behind the times. Internet? Maybe. Humidity? Absolutely. Smells were dense in the jungle, foliage and life stimulated my nostrils in exhilarating ways. Reality check: it’s 2015. The mornings in the latter part of my trip started with a reminder to this modern time—a whiff of jet fuel. A small prop plane departing the airport adjacent to my gracious host’s home every morning. It's noisy departure constantly stirred in my mind as the smell of jet fuel impacted my cerebral. The home I was in was an island of outstanding beauty. Communal meals made from local produce: tropical smoothies, cacao beans for dessert. Group yoga settled the mind and connected the soul; hospitality unmatched in the jungle or reef, a symbol for the beauty of being human. From many stand points, the fact that there are less than 10 people in this community with common interests to me sets my mind is disrepair, a dismal fact. The gloomy emotions dissolve quickly with a sense of perspective turning my mental disarray into a quagmire. Love becomes luminous, the diversity of culture an endearing symbol for why I love my home. One week here and already these emotions overwhelm me, imagine six months? Disappointing? Probably, cruiser bikes in the absence of mountain bikes would leave my soul empty. There remains, however, something truly charming about the dilapidated homes, the experience that helps me appreciate my well being and blessings that I so easily take for granted. Humanity presents a powerful form of reflection, I love humans and their stories. From ridge to reef, I cannot forget about the humanity that ties us to the world and our outstanding tenderness. From ridge to reef, life is nothing without remembering the human component. This is our world to love, this is our world to be part of. Working passionately to understand these complex ecosystems is admirable, my zeal for ecology comes from the idea of human livelihood.
Spending time in unique cultures and diverse ecosystems has been humbling and enlightening. New questions have become driving forces in reshaping my world view. Diversity has clear importance to me. Biodiversity and cultural diversity are linked in my mind: diversity is important because with it, an array of ideas constructs more holistic ideas of system functioning. Whether you are referring to the importance of plant diversity in proper ecosystem function or the importance of cultural diversity in enhancing the human experiences, there is undeniable importance in preserving diversity. This experience has solidified this idea to me and triggered a spur of deep reflection. I cannot help but ask: What cultural values are important to you? What stories can you share of how these values came to be? What do ecosystems give to you, how do these gifts shape your cultural values? How do you choose to celebrate these values and why is celebrating them important? With globalization, do you embrace global culture, or only global consumerism? Under this idea, what does it mean to be a global citizen? Lastly, do you live off the land? Or do you live on the land? Never lose sight of your roots, keep them rooted, and as you grow, embrace the new and contribute with the wisdom that you hold from the old; from canopy to roots; from ridge to reef.