In 2008 I went on a research trip to Belize. I’d long been aware that there were no novels about gap year volunteering for young people who might one day want to do it. Yet it was an important rite of passage which I knew from experience was capable of changing lives.
When my son, Idris, returned from his gap year in Belize I didn't recognize him. Five months earlier I’d seen off a white-faced youth incapable of even locating his vaccinations certificate let alone surviving in the jungle. Now a great hulking man walked towards me, his whole way of inhabited his body totally changed. It was if he had arrived at last - and not only at Heathrow Airport.
I’m an author, so I know a story when I see one. Did gap year volunteering make as much difference to other young people as it had done to Idris? And, if so, how? And how important were the projects these volunteers 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?
In the winter of 2008, protesting wildly that jungle research wasn't for me, I found myself on a plane to Belize City. Years had passed whilst waiting for someone else to write the great gap year novel. And now, courtesy of the Arts Council and the Author’s Foundation [ie. the Society of Authors], I was aiming to do it myself.
Belize City came as a shock. To understand its impact read Kid Cato’s first impressions in the finished book. From the heat to the hustlers on the pot-holed streets it was as far-removed from my nice, safe office as I'd ever been.
The good news, though, was that I wasn't alone. Idris had elected to come with me, putting his jungle training to the service of keeping his old Ma alive. It was his idea that we start on the chilled island of Caye Caulker where all the gap year volunteers ended up. I’d need to meet these people anyway, he reasoned. This would be a gentle way of easing me over my culture shock. And lying in a hammock under palm trees, listening to the distant roaring of the reef, I reckoned there might be something in what Idris said.
All well and good, but I’d come to Belize with a story to find, and the heart of that story lay ahead of us in the jungle. A gap year organization called Trekforce had agreed to trek us out to meet groups of their young volunteers working to protect the Belizean rainforest. This trek was central to my research. I’d been warned it would be gruelling, with lots of mud and a range of steep, jungle-clad hills to climb, but knew I’d have no book without it.
This is me at the outset of our trek having done that old cowboy-film thing of filling my hat with water and sticking it on my head. Ahead of us lay the largest rainforest outside of Amazon, and a region so remote and rough that it was much used by the British military for jungle training. This was 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.
That first night, I sat alone in our camp, Idris and Greg off bathing in the river. The bushes around me rustled and I expected a jaguar at the very least. I was wrong, however, because five Belizean soldiers loomed out of the undergrowth, clutching sub-machine guns.
‘Where yu from?’ they asked, as surprised to see me as I was to see them. ‘England,’ I replied. They looked worried. ‘Where yu goin?’ they asked. ‘To Rio Blanco,’ I said. They looked even more worried. ‘How old are yu?’ they said. I told them. ‘Sixty, actually,’ I said. Now they looked really worried. ‘Why de hell yu heah den?’ they said.
Good question. The simple answer, of course, was that I was here to write a book. But I returned home with so much more. Nothing had prepared me for the beauty of the rainforest. I'll never forget howler monkeys singing their terrible songs in the full moon at night, and lying in my hammock with diamond eyes in the trees all around me. And by day I'll never forget butterflies and birds in every colour except brown, and rivers as clear as crystal for the best swims of my life, and huge scented blossoms lightening the more grinding aspects of our trek.
The region we trekked across was called The Devil’s Backbone. It didn’t take long to find out why. It took days to reach the Trekforce volunteers but, when I did, we stood together on a hilltop and looked down at the forest. They were building a bunkhouse to put a ranger presence into the forest, and the reason why was plain to see.
It’s not everybody who gets to see the destruction of the rainforest with their own eyes - and with it comes the responsibility to share what you’ve witnessed. That day, as well as stately mahoganies, tall ceiba trees, palms and tumbling vines, I saw trees cut down and a forest floor stripped bare of plants. I saw bare earth left to bake, nothing left but a low green scrub. I was told of jaguars and monkeys being poached, of fabulous forest birds, like scarlet macaws, being trapped and carted off, along with Mayan artifacts from ruined temples. And all of that, I was told, was coming our way. At the rate the forest was being destroyed, 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 sixty year old hauling herself over the jungle-clad foothills of the Maya Mountains. There were long hours during that trek when everything I’d ever valued, including health and even dignity, felt stripped away. But it was worth it to see with my own eyes the tragedy of destruction taking place in the Belizean rainforest, and the efforts of young people, mostly straight from school, to help stem that tide.
Later, staying with Belize’s indigenous people - the Kekchi-Mayans – I had that sense of worth again. Idris and I sat up late into the night listening to our hosts talking about land rights, jobs, the self-government of their villages, even poverty and what that word meant. One night the village’s founding father, Joseph, came to talk to us. This was like being visited by royalty. If you want to know more about him and what he said, it went into ‘In The Trees’ almost word for word.
For six week I walked and hitched and drove and even flew around Belize, meeting people from that country’s many different cultures and all walks of life. Any young person with a sense of adventure could have a great time there, especially if they’re willing to work hard, take a few risks and do their homework on finding the right project. The young people I met had done just that. It was thanks to them that I found my story. Its hero, Kid Cato, isn’t a posh kid - he’s a south London boy of mixed race, heading out to Belize to find his father. But he finds a group of young gap year volunteers instead, fresh from school, with everything to learn.
Throughout my time in Belize, the only writing I did was my TRAVEL JOURNAL. I was keeping an open mind about the eventual book - this I believe is the best way of handling research. At the end of my trip, however, I happened across Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ and in the predicament of its hero, Davie Balfour, the plot for 'In The Trees' was born.
On my last night, I sat on a palapa waiting for the sun to rise out of the Caribbean sea, the paranda music of Belize’s greatest singer, PAUL NABOR, going through my head. I’d made that leap of imagination from research to story. I even had a title, ‘In The Trees’ being the phrase the gappers used for living out in the jungle, though it seemed to me to be a metaphor for the whole of Belize, and for a way of life.
Trekking in the Chiquibul was the most challenging thing I’d ever done. I was so proud of the young people I’d met out there, and so impressed with the Kekchi-Mayans of Toledo District. I came away longing to do justice to all I'd seen and I'm delighted that, following on from its paperback publication, ‘In The Trees’ is now an e-book, available both in kindle and the Apple Store.
Do get in touch if you’d like to book a visit. I'm always more than ready to share my experiences. If you want to read more about the book, go to www.paulinefisk.co.uk. And if you want to buy 'In The Trees', especially in its new e-book format, click HERE.
I want to finish with a few words from Rafael Manzanero, Chief Executive of the organization which looks after Chiquibul, whom I met at the end of my trek, when he shook my hand and thanked me for coming to see what was happening to the Belizean rainforest with my own eyes. This comes from the Commendation which he kindly wrote for ‘In The Trees’:
‘Here in Belize we are strong believers that 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. Perhaps recognizing that reality, and being a part of that change, is what makes a change in the lives of gap volunteers. ‘IN THE TREES’ brings out this spirit of change. I hope that as you read this book it motivates you to realize the changes that people like you can have on our Earth, even though it seems that we are worlds apart.’