Just a few days after my sandy beach excursion, I got to experience a different side of Belize’s natural landscape. Starting last Monday, I took three days to live at the Ya’axché Field Station. The field station is roughly an hour bus ride away from PG and serves as the home base for Ya’axché’s rangers and the Community Outreach and Livelihoods team. The field station also houses the nursery, where Ya’axché raises sustainable trees and crops to distribute to local farmers.
It was important for me to become acquainted with the field station for a number of reasons. In my position at Ya’axché, I will be working with both of the organisation’s two major branches: the Protected Areas Management (PAM) and Community Outreach and Livelihoods (COL) teams. The PAM team manages the more traditional aspects of conservation, such as patrols and enforcement in protected areas, research and biodiversity monitoring, and land use change analyses. The COL team, on the other hand, works with the communities that live around the protected areas. They educate communities on the importance of environmental awareness, promote agroforestry, and assist farmers to adopt sustainable agriculture practices. By staying at the field station, I was able to meet both the COL team and the rangers, which helped me understand my dual role at Ya’axché and how the work of each team relates to the other.
The trip to the field station starts and ends with a bus ride, and bus rides in Belize are nothing short of a cultural experience. There is one private bus line that runs buses every hour or so between Belize City and PG, picking up and dropping off passengers at dozens of little stops along the way. It’s not unusual to see a person waiting at a seemingly random spot along the side of the highway to flag down a bus.
The buses themselves are old U.S. school buses that have become too old to pass American safety standards. They’re repainted in a bright Rastafarian color scheme, fitted out with a luggage rack over the seats, and put back to exhaustive use on Belize’s Southern Highway. This means that every time you step on a bus, it’s a complete crapshoot of an experience: maybe your window will open, maybe it won’t; maybe your seat will have busted springs or decaying stuffing, maybe it will be in perfect condition. The one guarantee is that your ride will contain a strange playlist of music blaring from the tinny speakers. The soundtrack to my bus rides so far has included old-school American country, unidentifiable 80’s synth-pop, and non-stop club mixes that use abrupt stock sound effects to transition between dated pop songs every 45 seconds. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it enjoyable, it’s definitely entertaining.
Every so often, the bus will stop and pick up somebody that has bins full of food to sell to the passengers. They walk down the aisle, yelling about what they have for sale, and get off again in a few minutes when they’re done. So far, I’ve tried coconut bread, plantain chips, and a Belizean biscuit sandwich called a Johnny cake from these bus peddlers. I’ve also seen them sell burritos, roasted corn, plastic bags of watermelon juice or coconut water, tamales, and more.
When the bus lets you off at the field station, you’re faced with a small, boy scout camp-esque compound backed by dense tropical forest. Compared to living is PG, the field station is a significantly more rustic experience. There is no refrigerator, so while you’re there you can only eat shelf-stable food that must be stored in plastic bins to protect it from insects and wildlife. The station draws water from a well and runs entirely on solar power–it is not even connected to the national electrical grid. At night it’s very quiet and very dark, and once working hours ended it was usually just me and one ranger, reading and cooking rice and beans.
All this means that while I was there I was surrounded by the most beautiful, intact wilderness I have ever seen. Every morning I awoke to the sound of uncountable birds ringing in the day. By daylight I could climb the small water tower and look out over miles of unbroken forest canopy. Once, while I was sitting in the kitchen, I witnessed a tiny gecko hunt and eat a fist-sized moth. The sight was too fascinating to look away. I also got to see two toucans, the national bird of Belize! Apparently they always travel in pairs, a phenomenon that my boyfriend has ingeniously dubbed “seeing two-cans”.
The highlight of my stint at the field station was my first chance to go on patrol with the rangers. On Wednesday, a ranger and I set out on a four-hour patrol around Golden Stream Corridor Preserve, a protected area that Ya’axché owns and manages independently. For only being five miles, it was one of the more difficult hikes I have ever done. There were multiple points where we needed to cross over swollen, murky creeks by walking on fallen trees just a few inches wide. There was one creek where the ranger found me two huge branches to use as balancing poles as I walked across, because otherwise I was certainly going swimming. What’s more, since it’s the rainy season, I spent most of the first half of the patrol up to my shins in water. Eventually, though, I was able to accept the permanently soggy state of my toes and begin to enjoy everything around me.
This is forest like I’ve never seen before. The canopy is so thick that I was almost never in sunlight. We frequently came across enormous trees that just disappeared into the canopy, seemingly never-ending. Shimmering blue and red butterflies fluttered past my face as I walked. I watched one get caught in a spider’s web, a sight that might have seemed sad onscreen but in this setting felt entirely natural. And although I didn’t get to see any this time around, the ranger pointed out the jaguar, tapir, and peccary tracks in the mud around us. He also showed me a pile of jaguar poop. You could tell it was jaguar because it was full of broken shells–a key part of the jaguar diet is eating whole armadillos.
I was also particularly excited to see a ceiba tree, Ya’axché’s namesake. Ya’axché is the Mayan word for these huge trees, which were considered sacred in Mayan mythology.
I was sweaty, muddy, and exhausted by the time I returned, but I can’t wait to go out in the field again. Seeing that incredible forest has only served to make me more inspired by the amazing work that Ya’axché is doing. I am so excited to be working to support preservation and sustainable development in such an incredible, rich landscape!