By Pat Foster-Turley
I’ve been to Monkey River Village three times now, each time better than before, but this time was exceptionally wonderful. The village of maybe 175 people (or less) is only reachable by boat from Placencia, Belize. My first visit was as a tourist, on the Monkey River/Manatee Watch tour, led by a tour guide member of the village, Jason. Well, it turns out that Jason and I crossed paths maybe 30 years ago when he was an intern with The Nature Conservancy there and I was touring their projects in Belize as part of an assignment with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). I visited Placencia then and always wanted to return. So, in June 2022, Bucko and I finally went there on a vacation.
On this first visit to Monkey River Bucko and I joined a handful of other tourists on the standard tour. We traveled by boat to the village, passing through mangroves and open water, and stopped at the village briefly to order lunch (fish or chicken?) then continued by boat up the river to see howler monkeys, crocodiles, bats and all sorts of other interesting creatures. Back at the village we had lunch, then lingered on the way back to watch manatees feeding near our boat. Great. But it was still a tourist trip, alas.
On our next visit to Placencia in November 2022 Jason let me hop on his boat with the tourists, then dropped me off in the village, while the others traveled up the river to see the sights. Instead, I walked through the village to the school where Jason has alerted the head teacher to expect me. I spoke briefly to each class of students (51 students, three age groups), and then, with the teacher’s blessing, I hid a bunch of Amelia Shells around the area where they spend their breaks – a treasure hunt. The kids loved it, at least some of them. Sadly I did not have 51 shells, maybe only 20, and some kids were disappointed.
So, on this third trip back to Monkey River, last week, I corrected that situation. This time I brought a suitcase full of nature, geography and art supplies for the school. I had bulk boxes of crayons, colored pencils, insect-catching nets, a large mesh cage for watching caterpillars turn into butterflies, magnifying glasses, educational nature-related coloring books (and scores of duplicate pages), laminated posters of fish and insects, books and maps of Belize, a large floor puzzle map of the world for little kids, inflatable beach ball globes, and all kinds of other stuff that I purchased from Amazon during Christmas time. Boxes on my porch every day! Merry Christmas!
So, this time again Jason met me, with my big bag of school supplies, and took me with some other tourists to Monkey River. A local gal helped me lug the suitcase through the village. The three teachers were expecting me and arranged for me to meet them alone while the kids amused themselves and I explained the supplies. Then, I visited each class separately and tossed out the globe beach balls and each kid had a chance to catch one and pick a spot on the globe and I gave them a little age-adjusted geography lesson about that spot. The little kids picked spots on the globe with bright colors so I ended up telling them about Kazakhstan (bright purple) a few times. But some of the older kids were quick to find tiny Belize on the globe too. I told them, “You know more about Belize than I do. Tell me something about it.” And they did.
The high point for them was the chance to stick their hand into a bag and to each blindly pick an Amelia Shell. In the few cases where a kid wanted a different shell—like when a boy got one with flowers on it—I let them pick another. It was a huge success! Afterward, each class lined up for a group photo proudly showing off their shell.
It was a happy day for many of us, the teachers, the kids, and myself. And, when I posted my photos on the Amelia Shells Facebook group (check it out, anyone can join), all those hard-working shell painters got to see their artwork in the hands of Belizean kids who will treasure them for a long time.
Now I am home in Fernandina again, but we have already booked our return visit to Placencia in November and I’m already plotting out my new lesson for the Monkey River kids. Belize is beginning to feel like home …
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]