This post continues the retelling of my 2017 trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and speaking with jaguar experts. This post details events that took place on July 3, 2017.
After meeting with Mr. Edgar Correa of the Belize Forest Department, I headed straight for Everest Indian Restaurant. Raj, the owner, had been a great friend to me during the past two weeks. I therefore wanted to spend the rest of my final day in Belize with him.
Raj lavished me with food today. He made delicious chicken curry, the Belizean staple of rice and beans, and more. When I asked Raj how much he wanted for all this food, he answered $10 US. I gave him twenty.
I hung out at Everest from about noon till well after dark. I did not say much, because I was in a sullen mood. I had no desire to leave this beautiful country – where everyone had been so warm and friendly – and return to northern California. But most of all, I was reluctant to end the friendships I had forged during my six weeks in Belize.
Little did I know, Everest was exactly where I needed to be that day.
Directly behind Raj’s restaurant was a chain-link fence that bordered an empty lot. In the evening, Raj instructed our mutual friend Armando to climb the fence. Once he was on the other side, Raj handed Armando several jackfruit seeds and asked him to plant them.
I then noticed that the fence was lined with vegetables, herbs, shrubs, and even two mature palm trees. It turned out that for years, Raj had been planting food-bearing plants in the empty lot. And this was not the only place where Raj had done so.
Raj said that he had also planted fruit trees in public parks. He did this so that when the trees grew old enough, anyone who happened to be walking by could enjoy their bounty. Raj explained that he did not want anything in return; he just wanted to make people happy.
It suddenly occurred to me that I was witnessing the exact type of behavior that needed to be adopted en masse. Raj was no environmentalist out to ‘save the planet,’ and he certainly was not a hippy. He simply saw an empty field and felt compelled to plant trees in it – trees that would benefit everyone.
This is where the rest of us need to be. We need to get to the point where we perform pro-environmental and pro-social behaviors not because we are trying to, but because they have become second nature. These behaviors, and their underlying values, need to become so firmly ingrained in our cultural psyches that we regard them as ‘common sense.’
I then began to wonder if there were other people like Raj: individuals who already embodied the values that the rest of us so desperately needed to adopt? There must be. I suddenly knew that I needed to find these people, learn what made them tick, and tell their stories.
Perhaps by celebrating these individuals – while simultaneously making them seem human and relatable – I could nudge others towards adopting their values. More importantly, I might be able to improve myself.
I suddenly knew what I needed to do. I was not a scientist, and I never would be. I was a storyteller. I needed to learn how to tell the best stories I could, and then do so.
Unfortunately, there was still the matter of my master’s thesis. I had been telling everyone for months that I was going to return to Belize and study the human dimensions of jaguar conservation, and I intended to make good on that promise. Thus, the conflict between what I wanted to do and what I felt obligated to do was strengthened.
In that moment, however, I was happy to be among friends. Darkness fell, and Raj made a fantastic liver stew for Armando and I. We then made the peaceful trek from Everest Indian Restaurant to Raj’s house in the cool, night air. It was the last time I would do so.