Washougal High School Spanish teacher Rochelle Aiton-Quested does everything she can to educate her students about different languages and cultures in her classroom, but knows there’s no substitute for real-world experience.
That’s why she’s taken pupils on five trips to foreign countries in the past 12 years. She feels a great deal of satisfaction when the teenagers truly start to understand that the world is much bigger than they had previously assumed.
“I love seeing their light bulbs go on,” Aiton-Quested said. “Their eyes open to foreign culture that helps them see past their American assumptions. They realize that they are capable of being global citizens and they really appreciate the beauty of nature and the people.”
Aiton-Quested, along with former Washougal High teacher Craig Grable and students Mariah Moran, Blake Scott, Josiah Aiton and Jessica Troyer, visited Belize on July 10-18 as part of an “adventure tour” coordinated by EF Educational Tours, a worldwide educational travel organization.
“(The trip involved a) combination of historical landmarks, like the ancient Mayan ruins, but also fun,” Aiton-Quested said. “We talked about culture, language, history, the politics of the area, and what the schools are like.”
Aiton-Quested organized previous student trips to France and Spain, Spain and Italy, and Costa Rica through EF Educational Tours.
“When I talked with EF, (I found out) they have offices in countries all over the world, use local tour guides that know their own country, and ensure their travelers (stay safe),” she said. “They do absolutely everything from booking the airline tickets, the hotels, the meals, the tour guides, the complete itinerary, (which is) just jam-packed with all of these amazing things.”
Moran said the trip was “wonderful” and that she’d “definitely recommend” Educational First tours “to everyone.”
“Everything was a great experience,” she said. “Belize has a very interesting and unique culture. I feel like I learned so much from the trip that I never even thought of before. (The Washougal students) bonded really fast and were excited to try everything.”
On its first full day in Belize, the group traveled by boat to the New River Lagoon, the country’s largest body of freshwater; visited an old sugar mill; and toured the ruins of Lamani, an ancient Mayan city.
“I found (the ruins to be) very eye-opening,” Moran said. “Standing right under them and looking up, it’s amazing to think that the (ancient Mayans) took on the feat of creating them and that they were part of their culture and related to their sacrifices and how the area was grown and developed all around them.
“We saw a lot of pictures and were told how big they were, but they were so tall that on a lot of them, we were able to climb up and see the border of Guatemala. We could see above the forest.”
The next day, the group traveled southwest from Belize City to the Cayo region, the largest of Belize’s six districts, to participate in a variety of outdoor-related activities such as cave-tubing, ziplining and a “jungle survival” experience.
“That was interesting,” Moran said. “(Our guide) talked us through (making) structures, collecting water, setting snares, harvesting natural things around us, how to tell if plants are poisonous — basic survival tactics. Most of the group got to eat termites, which are very minty, like mouthwash. That was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip. But as soon as we got off the bus, it started to downpour, so the whole time we were trying to (duck) in and out of the rain. We had to try a few methods before our fire ‘took.'”
On the fourth day of the trip, the group visited the ruins of Xunantunich, another ancient Mayan city, and the Chaa Creek Natural History Museum; and teamed up with the Belize Eco-Guardians, a conservation group, to plant mahogany trees as part of the tour’s “cultural exchange.”
“In Belize’s past history, other countries came in and sold all of the mahogany trees, so (the conservation groups are) trying to replant and rebalance the natural ecosystem that was there and replace the beauty that was lost with the loss of the mahogany tree, which is the nation’s national tree,” Aiton-Quested said. “It was wonderful to be able to plant trees and to know that as those trees grow, there will be a plaque that says, ‘Washougal High School.'”
On the following day, the group returned to Belize City to visit the Belize Zoo, then took a water taxi to Ambergris Caye, the country’s largest island, to snorkel at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the Coral Gardens.
“The colors were amazing to me,” Moran said. “I’ve gone (snorkeling) before, but the colors were much brighter in Belize. We got to see all kinds of marine life — we saw all five types of angelfish, turtles, and even nurse sharks.
“We had a local tour guide that was not scared of anything and knew exactly what everything was. He’d swim down to it and point to it and come up and talk about it for a few seconds. It was amazing and educational. I just thought it was perfect.”
The trip had a profound effect on the Washougal students, so much so that they indicated a reluctance to leave. But at least one of them is hoping to return.
“(I learned that) they sell land very cheaply compared to the United States; you can get an acre for $35. I may have looked a little at real estate in Belize,” Moran said with a laugh. “It’s definitely on my list to go back.”