Conquering Fear in Belize

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There is no better introduction to who I am as a person than, “Hi, my name is Anna, and I’m afraid of most things.” This includes, but is not limited to severe weather, sleeping outside at night and being stranded in the middle of the ocean. In my life-long quest to grow as person, I challenged myself this summer to conquer a few of those fears.

Last autumn, I learned about an opportunity to finish my leadership concentration with an international capstone. Feeling adventurous, I committed to a six-week trip to Punta Gorda (PG), Belize to work with the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE). I traveled the next summer with two other Drake students, both pharmacy students. I was the odd major out in a new country. In short, I’ve never felt so out of place in my life.

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Our project while we were there was to create a booklet of herbal remedies based on interviews with local people. Belize has five major cultural groups. They are Creole, East Indian, Garifuna, Maya and Mestizo. There are other cultures present in the country, but we focused on the five most prevalent.

We completed 13 interviews and complied a book over the course of the next few weeks. I spent a lot of my time behind a computer, using InDesign, while the other two had to go on a scavenger hunt to find all the plants mentioned to get pictures for the book. It was a process. In the end, we created something to help people pass down traditions that are usually just shared through word of mouth. We made it a point to leave the book with the people of Punta Gorda, since we created it with them. We didn’t want them thinking we were making this to take home and share or sell.

So, thus far it doesn’t sound like I conquered any fears. To be fair, I had to give everyone the academic side of the trip or it will just sound like I went on an amazing vacation. Don’t worry though, the fear conquering was interspersed with the learning. Our schedule was alternating weeks of working on the book and learning to scuba dive. If you think it sounds amazing, let me just tell you. It was amazing.

As an aside, I went through my ups and downs in terms of fear here. When I signed up for the trip, I was pumped to learn to scuba dive. Then while I went through a process to get a doctor’s signature, I was significantly less excited. Once I finally made it to Belize, I was back to excited. After we starting learning all the ways scuba could go wrong, I went straight to terrified. To be fair, there’s a lot of ways. But that’s why you learn them. Being prepared for those things could save a life. But that’s hard to remember that when you’re learning the hand signal for ‘Out of air. Share air.”

I struggled through our pool dives where we learned to use the equipment. Diving in the ocean for our open water dives was even worse. I was immediately sea sick, which really puts a damper on the whole process. We didn’t even get our first certification that dive trip.

Everything started to make sense on our second dive trip. We went to a beautiful island called Hunting Caye. We had to sleep in hammocks on the beach, which for some people is a dream. For me, that is a nightmare. I thought I wouldn’t sleep. I thought the giant snake we saw in a tree earlier that day was going to eat me while I slept. Okay, not really. But I was concerned that I was going to roll in the hammock and end up in the mosquito net instead. I was right on the last one. But there I was, sleeping outside. Not only that, but sleeping outside for three nights!

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When I wasn’t sleeping in hammock, we were finishing our dive courses. We went down to 100 feet deep, learned to navigate underwater, identified fish and coral and worked on controlling our buoyancy underwater. I saw jellyfish float in front of my face. I saw the effects of coral bleaching. I watched a barracuda swim by our group. I got to dive on Belize’s barrier reef. It was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced. I could write about it until my fingers fall off. For everyone’s sake, I will wrap it up.dscf0741

After all that, I’d conquered most of my fears. I felt like a new person who could preserve through anything. There was one more test for me, even though I didn’t know it. A few days before we were scheduled to go back to the United States, Tropical Storm Earl decided to pay Belize a visit.

To understand why this matters to me, you have to understand that I have been terrified of severe weather as long as I can remember. When I was in grade school, I frequently called my grandparents to pick me up if there was even the slightest chance of a severe thunderstorm. So when Earl was upgraded to a hurricane, I was moving quickly toward a breakdown.

Luckily, Earl make a quick turn away from PG and headed north. Unfortunately, it did some serious damage in Belize City. We were very fortunate.

While I didn’t quite conquer that fear, I definitely stared it in the face. Maybe the next time a hurricane is coming toward me, I’ll be more prepared.

So, I know what you’re thinking…

After all that, you’d think I’m fearless. Unfortunately, I’m still afraid of a lot of things. But I’m no longer afraid to face those things. If nothing else, this trip taught me I’m much stronger than I give myself credit for most of the time.