Source: Sherman Publications

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‘You get to see the best and worst of yourself’

by Susan Bromley

July 20, 2011

Bekka Seelbach (center behind sign), a Brandon Township resident, with friends in Belize, where she recently spent three months. Photos provided.
On Bekka Seelbach's second day in Belize, she found a scorpion above the toilet and a tarantula in the shower.

"By the third day, I wanted to cry," she said, noting that was the day she was also attacked by biting fire ants. "I thought, 'Oh my God, where am I?' They were large, hairy and scary. But later I would see a scorpion and it would be like seeing a mosquito. Never again in my life will I ever be freaked out by an insect."

The 2006 Brandon High School graduate wanted to travel after she graduated from college in December, and she wanted a country vastly different from the United States, which she had never previously left. She found the adventure she was looking for in the Central American country, through a program called Pro World Service Corps.

Seelbach describes the volunteer program as similar to the Peace Corps, but on a smaller scale. Rather than make a long-term commitment, she could travel to any of several locations in the world for a period of time ranging from a week to several months. She chose to go to Belize from April 1-June 27.

"I wanted to travel before I got a job, but I wanted to do something a little more meaningful than backpack across Europe," she said. "The country chose me. I really want to travel all around the world and Belize would not have been in my top 10, but the program ambassador told me they have a lot of environmental opportunities regarding the rain forest and agriculture, and Belize is home to the world's second largest barrier reef."

Seelbach, who has a bachelor's degree in geography from Grand Valley State University and minored in environmental studies, was intrigued. She arranged to work on an organic farm in the Mayan village of San Pedro Columbia.

The farm was in the jungle, with no civilization nearby, Seelbach said. Her host mom was an American who had lived in Belize for 20 years and grows papaya and lime trees, as well as a multitude of items that grow naturally in the rain forest and are used for medicinal purposes. The farm also raises butterflies in an effort to change the local economy and save the rainforests. The idea, she said, is to get locals to raise butterflies and grow more jungle plants instead of practicing "slash and burn," which is cutting down rainforests to grow crops.

"If they cut down trees, they can only get two growing seasons," Seelbach said. "You can sell butterfly pupa and make a profit to provide for your family instead of cutting down acres of rainforest. Being there, you see what was once a large forested area, it's just gone. You can see the smoke in the air and smell it."

On the farm, Seelbach did a variety of tasks, including watering plants, mulching, repotting flowers, making sure the butterflies had plants to eat, and helping on the expansion of the butterfly and bunk houses. She also worked on building a website for the butterfly project, which is not yet launched. Seelbach rose at around 6 a.m. every day except Sunday (a day of rest that she called hammock day) and worked until around noon. In Belize, where temperatures regularly peak at 95, Seelback said work stops from noon until 2 p.m. due to the heat. She would have lunch, then nap or read before working a few more hours. In the evening, she would hang out with her host mom's two teenage daughters, playing cards or going to the Columbia River.

After five weeks of being assigned to the butterfly farm, Seelbach moved on to spend a week at a farm on which cacao trees are grown. There, she learned how to make chocolate, picking good pods off the trees, collecting them and breaking open to get the seeds, which are then washed and dried. The seeds are then roasted to get the shells off, and picked open. After, the seeds are then ground up, but don't tastle like chocolate until coconut oil is added. The taste is then altered depending on the type of chocoate desired. At the farm, four kinds of chocolate— dark, milk, orange or spicy— were made by adding particular ingredients. Seelbach's favorite was orange chocolate, made my roasting orange rinds that were ground to get the taste right.

"All chocolate is good, but orange was the best," she said. "Hershey's chocolate will never taste the same again, because I've tasted real chocolate. Hershey's is sweeter. I loved my time at the chocolate farm."

She enjoyed other foods in Belize, too, where the main staple is stew beans, which Seelbach described as similar to red beans, boiled for hours with spice added. Her favorite treat was fried plantains, which resemble bananas, but do not taste at all similar. She also loved the fresh papaya and mango.

After leaving the chocolate farm, Seelbach moved out of the jungle and on to Punta Gorda, which she described as a town similar in size to Ortonville, but without the highway or buildings. Punta Gorda had busy market streets and Seelbach had minor culture shock again with the local bars, live drumming and setting right next to the ocean.

She was assigned to work with the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment, a non-governmental organization whose main goal is land and marine conservation. She worked on setting up educational displays at three ranger stations, giving general information on the land the rangers have acquired and are protecting, which Seelbach said is similar to state parks here.

Biodiversity monitoring was also one of her projects and she assisted as wildlife was recorded.

"If you're a birdlover, you would love Belize," said Seelbach. "There are also crocodiles, manatees, lots of different turtles... I got to see several snakes, too. Monkey snakes are non-poisonous, but I did see a coral snake and a fer de lance snake, both highly poisonous. When I saw the fer de lance, I was like, 'Oh, look at the snake,' and the natives were freaking out and killed it."

The Belizians may have not been kind to the snake, but Seelbach said they are a very friendly people.

"Everything is laid back in Belize, no one is in a hurry," she said. "I liked that, but it took awhile to get used to. The main thing I learned, is I gained a strong sense of self and how I interact with others. You get to see the best and worst of yourself. It was the best choice I could have made for myself, living in another culture and you get to see what makes us different, but we're actually very much the same. It was an eye-opening, humbling experience. I can't wait to do another one like it."