John Steinbeck once said, “People don't take trips... trips take people.” Well, my G Adventures trip to Belize definitely took me, and not the other way around.
In the Fall of 2017, I applied for a year-long position as one of G Adventures’ Ambassadors of Change. I had read a book by the founder of G Adventures, Bruce Poon Tip, called “Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business,” and I loved so many ideas that he detailed in his book - finding his own personal path and purpose, and outlining his journey to create a company that can change the lives of the people in the communities into which G Adventure client’s travel. I was really excited at the prospect of working with the company that Bruce Poon Tip created.
Hundreds of travel agents from across the country applied for one of the seven Ambassadors of Change positions that are available each year. The application and interview process was quite rigorous, and in truth, a little quirky. (One of the Core Values of G Adventures is “Embrace the Bizarre,” and the interview process had a little of that core value as well!) I waited on pins and needles as the finalists were announced, and I was so honored to be named one of the 2018 Ambassadors of Change.
The seven Ambassadors of Change were charged with several tasks. The first was to travel to an assigned destination to experience first-hand a “G Adventures for Good” project within a local community, and see how travel can truly change people’s lives. Ambassadors for Change then share their experience with others in their community, advocate for G Adventures with agency partners, and collaborate with the Planeterra Foundation to support G Adventures for Good projects.
The G Adventures for Good projects are funded by the Planeterra Foundation, the non-profit sister-organization of G Adventures. The Planeterra Foundation has contributed millions of dollars towards projects in areas of social enterprise, healthcare, conservation, and emergency response since 2003.
In May of 2018, I embarked on my assigned G Adventures trip - the 9-day “Explore Belize” itinerary that would take me to Burrell Boom, San Ignacio, Hopkins, and end our journey in Caye Caulker. This trip, part of the National Geographic “Journeys” line, has not one, but two Planeterra Foundation-funded social enterprise programs - the San Antonio Pottery Co-op in San Ignacio and the Bike with a Purpose student-lead bicycle tours on Caye Caulker. I was absolutely thrilled to be experiencing the Bike with a Purpose project; I am a travel agent that works almost exclusively in Family Travel, and love to help all kinds of families take amazing vacations, so getting to see how the Planeterra Foundation and G Adventures helps children of Caye Caulker with their education and work-preparedness was going to be a dream come true.
First, our G Adventures group visited the San Antonio Pottery Co-op, located in a small village near San Ignacio.
In this community, where resources are scarce, education is not free, and schooling for girls beyond primary levels is not prioritized. Mothers often rely on other forms of income to help support their children’s education. So the Planeterra Foundation provided a grant to the San Antonio Pottery Co-op; with these funds, the San Antonio Women’s Group built several buildings with which to host travelers. Now, the women offer guests to the Cooperative a delicious homemade lunch, a tortilla-making lesson, and a Mayan pottery-making demonstration - all to support their families and help pay for their children’s education.
After a delicious lunch of chicken, red beans and rice, salad, and an amazing watermelon punch, we were treated to tortilla-making lesson.
First, the ladies taught us how to hand-grind the corn on a special pestle that is usually handed down from generation to generation.
Once the corn was ground, we each got our own sample of the dough to flatten and shape, and then we cooked the tortilla on an open-fire griddle.
Once we finishing cooking our tortillas (and tasting them!), we were also treated to a pottery demonstration. Our demonstrator spoke about the harvesting of the clay, using the pottery wheel, and using ancient Mayan techniques to decorate the pottery.
I even tried my hand at making a clay pot, although it turned out a little lopsided!
After the demonstrations, we had time to visit the Cooperative’s Gift Shop, so we could purchase handicrafts to bring home with us - beautiful pottery and embroidered items.
Both the tortilla-making and the pottery-making demonstrations were great hands-on experiences for our whole group, and we loved connecting with the people of San Antonio.
Later on our Explore Belize trip, we made our way to Caye Caulker, an island off the coast of Belize. This small island has a very relaxed feeling, and the island motto is “Go Slow.” There are no cars on the island, and most people get around by foot, golf carts, or bicycles.
Because Caye Caulker is so small and far from the mainland of Belize, historically many students have chosen to quit school and find work after their primary-school years. In recent years, the local economy of the island has focused more on tourism and hospitality. In an effort to keep more of the children on the island enrolled in school longer, the Ocean Academy school opened in 2008, so the children wouldn’t have to commute to the mainland for high school. The Ocean Academy is the first secondary school on the island of Caye Caulker, and their programs provide hands-on and practical tourism programs, in addition to the traditional classes.
The Planeterra Foundation donated the funds needed for a set of bicycles, so that the Ocean Academy could develop a student-led bicycle tour of the island. Many of the G Adventures’ Belize travelers enjoy the Bike with a Purpose tour, and the proceeds fund educational programs for the students at Ocean Academy.
We arrived on Caye Caulker late in the afternoon, and made our way to the meeting point to start our Bike with a Purpose tour. At the school shop, we met Lillian, our tour leader; Lillian was a senior at the Ocean Academy, in her final weeks of school before final exams.
As we prepared for our tour, we were able to choose from a selection of beautiful purple bicycles, donated by the Planeterra Foundation.
Our group consisted of 4 G Adventures travelers, and Lillian began lead us as we wove our way around the island. We talked along the way, asking questions about island life and what it was like for her growing up on Caye Caulker. She pointed out many points of interest, like the Seahorse Farm and the island’s Human Society.
We made our way to Lillian’s school, the Ocean Academy. It was after-school hours, and the students had all gone home for the day, but I made arrangements with the co-founder of the school, Joni Miller, to meet with me for a tour of the school and to learn about some of the programs offered at her school.
Lillian showed us several of the classrooms, the student-made murals that covered the walls, and the award cases that lined the hallways. She also proudly showed our tour group a scrap book of her school’s accomplishments and photos from events and awards the students received.
Before traveling to Belize, I contacted Joni Miller to see if the Ocean Academy needed any supplies or donations. She suggested I bring several portable first-aid kits to donate to the Bike with a Purpose program, so that if anyone ever had a spill on one of the bikes and hurt themselves, they would be prepared with first-aid supplies. She also requested some plastic cups, so that the tour guides could offer water to the guests. I happily packed them in my suitcase before my trip, and presented them to Joni and Lillian during my visit.
While on our tour, we asked Lillian about her studies and her plans for the future. She told us about how she planned to study hospitality and tourism at college, and that she was already accepted to a university in Mexico.
I could see how the hands-on tourism programs from the Ocean Academy, as well as the Bike with a Purpose project, had prepared her for such a career. When the tour was over, we parted ways and wished her all the best on her future endeavors.
Now, months after my Belize trip, I think back - not to how many tourist attractions I crossed off an itinerary - but I think back to the people that I met. The smiles of the women at the San Antonio Women’s Co-op, and the incredibly authentic food they served at lunch. I think back to Lillian’s laugh, and the hope she had in her eyes as she spoke about studying at college. I smile now as I write this, thinking of Lillian in her first semester at college, fulfilling her dreams.
I truly believe that my trip to Belize took me, and was not just the trip I took.
Becoming a G Adventures Ambassador of Change has been such an honor and privilege. Being able to experience two G for Good programs that G Adventures and the Planeterra Foundation have established changed my whole perspective on the possibilities about how people travel and the good it can do in the world. For those Travel Agents interested in learning more about the G Adventures Ambassadors of Change program, be sure to bookmark this link and check back in the Spring of 2019, when the search for the 2019 Ambassadors of Change begins.