Students learn about science in trip to Central America Six from Carroll went to Belize and Guatemala

December 30, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

They encountered crocodiles, tarantulas and omnipresent mosquitoes; endured blistering heat and torrential rains and swam, sometimes quite by accident, in tropical waters.

But the Belize Boys consider their "walk on the wild side" last June an adventure and an education well worth repeating.

The six, now freshmen at Liberty High School, spent their last semester at Oklahoma Road Middle School planning a trip to Belize and Guatemala. They are planning this year for a return trip to Central America.

The boys compiled copious notes and imprinted a fisherman's hat with the major trip events in chronological order. They are using the information to create a new itinerary.

When the six boys and five chaperons, all carrying only what their knapsacks could hold, landed at the Belize airport, the staff asked if they were a rock band. Apparently one was scheduled to perform in the country just south of Mexico on the Caribbean Sea, but the group never found out who or where. They had little time for a concert anyway.

Jason Petula, their science teacher and trip organizer, packed as many activities as possible into the schedule, still allowing time for independent exploring. Every evening meant a class to review information gathered that day and plan for the next.

"We used everything we learned in the classroom," said Doug Hieatzman. "We kept saying, 'So that's why you taught us that.' "

Belize is an ideal destination for anyone interested in studying ecology, said Petula. The trip cost each traveler about $1,200.

"It is a small country, but there is so much to do," Petula said. "Belize has gotten into ecotourism. Instead of logging all their rain forests, they are drawing tourists to them."

Carroll County schools do not sponsor international travel, so Petula set up a nonprofit corporation, which he called The Road Not Taken and planned a 10-day trip to Central America, following an itinerary he has taken several times without students.

The visitors spent several days at the Belize Zoo, living in dormitories at the tropical education center. The zoo has created spacious habitats for its more than 100 animals, all native to Belize. Electric fences protect visitors from the wilder creatures.

"The fences look rickety and there is a lot of noise and roaring in the dark," said Matt Falcone, who could not resist an evening walk through the zoo.

That night, Matt had an up-close meeting with a jaguar that had gotten its paw under a fence. No harm came to either creature.

The boys took an impromptu canoe trip with a guide and Garret Falcone, father and chaperon. As they paddled, they picked out constellations in the cloudless skies, stars they had studied in textbooks. The stargazing continued until an uncharted sand bar stalled the paddling.

"It ended up being a crocodile hunt," said Justin Fahey.

Fish jumped into the boat and a flashlight canvass of the waters confirmed the presence of crocodiles.

"I put my hands under the water and pushed the canoe off the sand, all the while thinking there would be a clump, clump anytime," said Garret Falcone.

The group found mosquitoes to be the most intimidating element of the trip. Despite the heat and humidity, they soon learned that long sleeves, hats and jeans were the best deterrent to bugs and sun.

"After the first day, I counted 100 bites on one leg," said Craig Cambias.

"And I looked like the lobsterman, I was so burned," said Doug, red-haired and the fairest of the group. "I fried faster than anyone."

Each traveler went through rolls of film. Craig Cambias' favorite shot is of a scorpion poised above Jason's cot in one of the more primitive lodging spots.

"After that place, we searched our rooms for anything living," said Matt. "We kept our shoes upside down."

The group snorkeled along the world's second-largest coral reef and did water quality testing in Belize coastal areas. They tested the Patapsco River, near their school, last year.

"We found a few little crocs and high phosphates that make the water green" in Belize, said Doug. "There were bugs and fish all around our legs."

They hiked along jungle trails and met a tribal shaman, or witch doctor. They visited the Mayan ruins at Tikal and other archaeological sites in Guatemala.

"The ruins were eerie, especially the killing stone, where it was an honor to have your heart cut out," said Doug.

"I have seen the Tikal ruins in 'Star Wars' and in books, but I saw the real thing in Guatemala," Scott Buckmaster said.

En route to the ruins in what will forever be known as the canoe-tipping incident, Doug took an unexpected dip into the Macal River, saturating his passport and all his notes. His companions quickly retrieved him.

The Belize Boys could have no better lesson on the value of the rain forest than what they saw first hand, said Garret Falcone. But teamwork was the most valuable lesson learned, he added.

"We all helped each other," said Justin. "Teamwork allowed us to explore and share information."

If Falcone returns as a chaperon on the next trip, he would monitor any canoe adventures. Waterways with even the possibility of a crocodile would be taboo, he promised.

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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