It was a week in the Guatemalan rain forest for a group of teachers from The Rice School/La Escuela Rice and the organizer of the excursion, Rice ecology and evolutionary biology research associate Carlos Solís.
For eight days, Solís and the instructors lived with families near the tropical paradise in San Andrés, Petén, in northern Guatemala, a place so peaceful that police don't patrol the village's streets.
It is also a place where there are no connections to the information superhighway, no televisions, no tourist traps and no high-pressure real estate developers trying to capitalize off the visitors from Houston.
Instead, the teachers came away from the experience with a greater appreciation for the role rain forests play in the ecostructure of the planet and for the unfettered lifestyle in that region of Central America.
"The most enlightening part of the trip was the reaffirmation of the fact that people can get along very well without having all the modern conveniences, and that maybe life is better that way," said Lois Hardt, one of the teachers from The Rice School on the trip. "[In the rain forest area] people must rely on each other and work together to ensure that everyone in the family and the community has adequate food, lodging and clothing.
"In doing that they develop very strong family ties and a strong sense of responsibility for one another. Maybe that's love." Solís came up with the idea of a field trip for school teachers last fall after spending a few months on a project in the Peruvian rain forest. Through Conservation International, the Rice researcher de veloped a plan that would enhance the teachers' Spanish, expand their knowledge about conservation and provide a cultural exchange opportunity.
At first the Guatemalan project-named "Bioesfera" by Solís and the teachers-ran into funding problems. Houston Independent School District officials and representatives of the business community were unwilling to fund the educational trip. But through a series of bake sales, car washes and other typical, low-budget fund-raising techniques-as well as the support of The Rice School community and a parents organization-the group came up with enough cash to send 12 teachers to Guatemala during spring break.
It was an experience well worth the effort required to make it happen, said Susan O'Boyle, one of the teachers who made the trip south.
"As a teacher whose major interests concern people and how they live, the culture of these people affected me deeply," she said. "Living with a family and participating in their day-to-day routines was a very important part of this trip, not just because it helped in language acquisition, but because it exposed [us] in a significant way to another culture."
For Solís, a native Guatemalan whose family still lives in that country's capital city, Guatemala City, the trip produced everything he had hoped it would.
"Without a doubt I would do something like this next year," Solís said. "[The rain forest] was a place where nature, magic and mankind come together-a place filled with the voices of birds and stories from the chicleros working in the rain forest; [of] legends of the Itza Maya ancestors and the conquistadores. "All of that combined in a mystic Mayan tinaja that has left a deep mark in our beings."
Edited by Carlos R. Solís