That’s what we told the incoming class as we drove them deep into the remote mountains of Belize. We were off to enter into a week of backcountry living, a type of living that these students had never encountered before. You see, the institution I work for, John Paul II Junior College, requires every student to participate in an outdoor leadership program before he or she may graduate. You may be familiar with Wyoming Catholic’s program, as this is similar in nature. This adventure of a lifetime provides the first opportunity for these students to seriously encounter the created wonder. More likely than not, it’s their first night from home, sleeping in something that’s not their own bed. It’s the first time they enter into daylong hikes across the mountains and it’s the first time they live in such close fellowship with one another. So what exactly happened on this week of firsts?
Electricity proved to be a luxury rather than a necessity.
Although we didn’t have access to electricity while we were adventuring, the students were placed on cooking teams and each team was expected to prepare meals for the entire group at various points throughout the week. As I sat in the kitchen tent watching the students prepare breakfast at 4:30 in the morning, I couldn’t help but consider my peers in the States. Would they work so diligently at such an hour? Would they work with such effort in these conditions? Would they resist complaining? It’s that last question that has stuck with me.
One student shared with me that he had lived without electricity until he was nine-years-old. He handled the cooking with such ease as he held a flashlight under his chin and prepared the dough for the tortillas. These students didn’t complain about the conditions because they were normal circumstances, no, that would be degrading the beauty. They didn’t complain because they give of themselves with a joy that is unparalleled. They give of themselves fully and completely when they are working to provide for the community.
Vanity washed away.
We didn’t have running water during this time either, meaning bathing transpired in the various streams and under the countless waterfalls that were sprinkled throughout this Belizean wilderness. I never viewed a natural water source as anything more than a swimming hole or beautiful landscape addition, but a freedom occurred when I started to seriously participate in the world around me.
Oh, and not looking in a mirror for a week. If you’re up to it, I encourage you to take on the challenge. Not being able to see one’s reflection completely disarms any hold that vanity or petty distractions may have. We grow up surrounded by reflected surfaces and can easily become enchanted with self-image. Not being able to converse with that enchantment allowed me to give entirely to some of the most beautiful souls in the world.
Fears were looked in the eye and told they held no hold any longer.
For as beautiful as all the observations were this week, the most striking was seeing my students overcome fears that had gripped them their entire lives. For example, to hike down to the bathing pool, we had to traverse a nearly sheer cliff that almost immobilized those students who were afraid of heights. When the others found out about this, they formed teams to help each other along the path. They moved slowly and surely every day never once taunting but rather consistently encouraging their friends who gradually became more comfortable with the heights of the land. On a different day, we hiked into a marvelously large and impressive cave. I was in the back of the group and thus stopped when one of the girls sat down on a rock outside of the cave. Asking her if she was alright, I listened as she explained that she was afraid of the dark and would thus wait for us until we returned. Describing all of the reasons why she would want to be inside with us instead of out by herself, I gave her my hand and told her that I’d be right behind her. Remembering how long it took me to overcome my own fear of the dark, I was almost shocked when she took my hand. I could tell she wasn’t fully comfortable with the idea, but she walked with such courage to rejoin the group in that dark cavern.
Perhaps the most telling of the spirit of the group transpired when we stopped by a beautiful collection of river pools to take a dip. As students swam out to a rock in the middle of the lake, it became clear that those on the shore were there not because they didn’t want to swim but rather because they didn’t know how to swim. With a pride almost reserved for that of a mother, I watched as my dear friend Brother Dave explained the mechanics of swimming to each student one-by-one. As he took them into the water and held them so that they could practice completing full strokes, the other students began to chant the names of those learning. Then with great confidence and joy, the new swimmers swam out to that rock in the middle of the water to join their cheering friends.
This is simply a collection of beautiful moments taken from countless others that occurred this past week. It is due to these simple moments though that I realized what an absolute honor it is to be able to teach these students. Oh how my heart is filled with such energy and anticipation for the start of school on Monday.
Images courtesy of Br. David Brokke and MaryRose Feeley.