'The gap year novel has arrived, hot from Belize and Pauline Fisk's capable pen.'
The Irish Times
I was going to write about heroes this time, in particular Hans Christian Andersen, who influenced me much as a child. But after last month’s post I was left with the strongest sense of a story only half told, so I’m leaving Hans Christian Andersen for next time and heading back to Belize.
As some of you may know, in 2008 I went on a research trip to Belize. My son, Idris, had returned from that country several years before, utterly changed by the experience of gap year volunteering. I’d waved goodbye to a white-faced youth incapable of even locating his vaccinations certificate, let alone surviving in the jungle and upon return had greeted a great hulking man who inhabited the same body as if landing from another planet.
I’m an author, so I know a story when I see one. Did gap year volunteering make as much difference to other people as it had done to Idris? And, if so, how? And how important were the projects these young people worked on? According to the press, gap years were the province of privileged young people working on cosmetic projects sandwiched together by beach-partying.
But how true was that?
Years passed whilst I waited for an author better qualified than me [who’d never been to the jungle or looked a snake in the face] to write the great gap year novel. Finally, however - courtesy of the Arts Council and the Author’s Foundation - I had a go myself.
And I’m so glad I did. My six weeks in Belize was without doubt the most challenging time of my life. Highlights included being hustled in Belize City, stumbling upon drugs-running on the Guatemalan border, hitch-hiking for the first time in forty years and staying with the indigenous Kekchi-Mayan people. And then there was the jungle too…
I’d come to Belize with a story to find, and I certainly found it. This is me doing that old cowboy-film thing of filling my hat with water and sticking it on my head. Ahead of me lay the largest rainforest outside of Amazon - a region so remote and rough that it was much used by the British military for jungle training. I was in the Chiquibul, home to jaguars, ocelots and scarlet macaws - not to say anything of gold miners, deadly gangs of poachers known as xateros and Trekforce volunteers. And it was these volunteers that I was being trekked out to meet.
The region we had to hike across was called The Devil’s Backbone. It didn’t take long to find out why. Days later I stood on a hilltop seeing for myself why the volunteers and I were in this lonely, wild place. It’s not everybody who witnesses the destruction of the rainforest with their own eyes - and with it comes the responsibility to share what you’ve seen.
That day I saw trees cut down. I saw a forest floor stripped bare of plants. I saw bare earth left to bake. I was told of jaguars and monkeys being poached, of fabulous forest birds, like scarlet macaws, being trapped and carted off. And all of that, I was told, was coming our way. At the rate the forest was being destroyed, unless drastic action was taken by the Belizean government, including utilizing the efforts of young volunteers - who, on this occasion, were building a bunkhouse to create a ranger presence in this remote region - the trees that shaded us now would be gone in a year.
It half-killed me getting out to Rio Blanco. I was no adventurer, just an asthmatic old writer hauling herself over the jungle-clad foothills of the Maya Mountains. But it was worth it to see the tragedy of destruction taking place in the Belizean rainforest, and the efforts of young people, mostly straight from school but prepared to live and work out in the wild, to help stem that tide.
At the end of my trek, I met Rafael Manzanero, Chief Executive of the organization that takes care of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. He shook my hand and thanked me for coming in person to see what was happening to the Belizean rainforest, and he agreed that when my book was written he’d write a Commendation for it.
I was so proud of the young people I met out in the jungle. I hope I’ve written a book that does justice to their endeavours, and to the great beauty of the rainforest and the threat it’s under. If ever I’ve written a book that I want people to know about, this is it. In going out to Belize, I had a wonderful time, but some of my research came at a high price. More than anything else, strangely enough, what I learned was that it wasn’t just governments and major NGO’s that make a difference in our funny old world. Ordinary young people, with no particular skills, can make a difference too.
For six week Idris and I walked, hitched, drove and even flew around Belize, meeting people from that country’s many different cultures and all walks of life. All the while I kept a detailed travel journal. Only at the end of the trip did I start writing what would end up being my gap year book. I happened across the novel ‘Kidnapped’ and in the predicament of its hero, Davie Balfour, the plot for ‘In The Trees’ came bursting out.
I’d always known Kid Cato wouldn’t be a posh kid, not a typical gap year volunteer as depicted by the press, but a south London boy of mixed race. But how to get him out to Belize, where he’d meet a group of young gap year volunteers, fresh from school, with everything to learn? I now had the answer, courtesy of Robert Louis Stevenson.
If you want to know more about my trip around Belize, do click this link to my website, where serialized extracts of my travel journal can be found. Or if there’s a school near you who might be interested in my story, or a local festival or book event, do let me know. Usually after finishing a novel, I move on seamlessly to the next. But I saw things in Belize which will live with me for ever. The beauty of the forests, for one of them. And the destruction. And the efforts of young people to help to save them.
In the words of Rafael Manzanero, who wrote the Commendation for ‘In The Trees’: ‘Everyone can make a difference to protect wilderness areas. It is not only moral to do so, but the survival of forests will make the planet a better place for human life’.