Students, teacher planning wild time Jaguars, rain forests are on agenda for trip to Belize, Guatemala

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A few South Carroll students will embark on an educational journey to Central America this week, vacationing among jaguars, iguanas, baboons, coral reefs and rain forests.

They have dubbed their educational trip to Belize and Guatemala "Take a Walk on the Wild Side," a slogan they have lTC printed on their sienna T-shirts, along with pictures of hairy spiders and a large green iguana.

Group members will carry only what a knapsack can hold and will take copious notes and attend class every night with their eighth-grade science teacher and trip organizer Jason Petula.

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

Six boys and five adult chaperons are making the trip.

"We had one girl going, but she dropped out because she is afraid of bugs," said Justin Fahey, 13.

"Or, maybe it was because you demonstrated how to get a python off your neck," said Garret Falcone, a parent traveling with his 14-year-old son, Matt.

The students will see more birds than snakes, Petula said. He has stressed "no touching" of any cold-blooded creature sunning on rocks.

"Don't pick anything up and show me," he said.

Petula has packed as many activities as possible into the schedule, still allowing time for independent exploring by groups of at least three. The trip will cost each traveler about $1,200.

"I will be teaching a class every night, so you all know what you are doing and why," he said at the final pre-trip meeting last week at Oklahoma Road Middle School.

"There will be a test at the end of the trip," said the elder Falcone. "If you don't pass, you don't come home."

The students and their chaperons are to arrive in Belize on Thursday afternoon, drive to a baboon sanctuary and hike by moonlight in search of black howler monkeys. They will spend their first night in a dorm at the Belize Zoo.

Belize, just south of Mexico on the Caribbean Sea, is an ideal destination for anyone interested in studying ecology, Petula said.

"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."

A study of culture

He chose Belize, a former British colony, for its sound infrastructure and English-speaking population.

In neighboring Guatemala, home to the Mayan Indians, the group will see "a transition in language and culture," he said.

"I am going for the whole experience, but I really want to learn about the culture," said Doug Hieatzman, 14.

"I always wanted to see the rain forest and the second-biggest coral reef in the world," said Justin.

The children will get a behind-the-scenes look at the Belize Zoo ++ and its breeding program for iguanas, hunted as a favorite food. Scott Buckmaster, 14, said he wants to taste fried iguana to find out why the dish is so popular.

The group also will have classes at the zoo's tropical education center. If time allows, the Carroll students hope to teach Belize students to test the quality of water.

Science lessons

Science at Sykesville and Oklahoma Road middle schools this year included such tests of the nearby Patapsco River. Now the children will take samples from tropical waterways.

"You saw bugs in the Patapsco, so do you think you will find the same in Guatemala?" Petula asked. "I can promise you clear water, but it won't be like what you see in postcards."

To Jeanne Sandruck-Fahey and other parents attending the meeting, he promised, "I know there is nothing in the water to be concerned about."

Sandruck-Fahey said she had been a little apprehensive at first about sending Justin off to Central America, but "the more information I got and the more I talked about it, I decided this is a chance of a lifetime."

She has complete confidence in Petula, she said.

"His view of the world is to save it," she said. "He loves the outdoors and wants to share. This is a wonderful age to plant seeds."

The trip will include a canoe ride on the Monkey River, inhabited by manatees and named after the animals that favor its shores. The group will follow a medicine trail used by Mayan witch doctors; hike in the Maya Mountains; and snorkel in coastal waters.

Petula will lead the group into the "heart of thick jungles," where he saw his first jaguar at the only preserve in the world set aside for the wild cat.

"They are hard to see and nocturnal," he said of jaguars. "Don't worry about being eaten. They don't like humans."

Several students are eager to visit the Mayan ruins at Tikal and other archaeological sites in Guatemala.

"I have seen the Tikal ruins in 'Star Wars' and in books, but now I will see the real thing," Scott said.

"We can learn from the Mayan past and learn from their mistakes," said Doug, who seemed to think Mayan civilization had disappeared.

His teacher said the trip would clear up that misconception and many others. He noted that 80 percent of the population of Guatemala is Mayan Indian.

Matt is planning to "check out the wildlife."

His father said, "The wildlife might be checking you out, too."

Pub Date: 6/08/97

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