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You can call me Jane of the Jungle

March 15, 2013

Meet Student Sustainability Blogger Emily Smith van Beek

By Emily Smith van Beek

Sustainability Blogger

While travelling for leisure in Guatemala, after we completed our internship in Mexico, I promised to challenge myself physically and seek exhilarating new adventures. My to-do list included hiking, parasailing, cliff jumping, surfing, yoga and zip lining.  I have never attempted any of the above listed activities before but I promised myself to be fearless and try as many new things as possible.  As Drake would say, “you only live once, YOLO”. 

Due to the high costs of all those activities, I only ended up doing zip lining. It was both the most exhilarating and terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life. I went to The Reserva Natura Atitlan in San Buenaventura and opted for the 2-hour Cables X-Tremos tour. Before going I thought, ‘oh I’ll climb a few stairs, get strapped in the ropes on a platform and they’ll push me down the line’. Not so simple. My tour entailed climbing about 3km high, getting to the top and zipping down 8 lines, ranging from 90-320 meters. 

I went over waterfalls, canyons, jungle forest, where monkeys were right above me (and at one point I thought they might jump and dangle from the braids in my hair) and the longest line sloped diagonally down the side of Lake Atitlan. The adrenaline I experienced from being suspended over such a beautiful landscape was something I wont forget for the rest of my life. Sustainable memories!

Now, I must advise, if you’re ever planning on going zip lining you must physically and mentally prepare yourself far in advance. I can’t say I’m in the best shape of my life, but like I said, I didn’t think it would be so hard. Zip lining always looks so glamorous and fun when you see it in the movies. My 2-hour tour turned into closer to 3. I was all alone so I didn’t have to worry about holding anyone up.  Before even reaching the lines I was so pooped from the hike. I was out of breath and tired. I can’t remember a time in recent past where I have been challenged so physically as I was this day. I didn’t think I could go on but my tour guide reminded me the only way down was to zip. Oh dear, what have I gotten myself into? Well at least the hard work is done right? They’ll strap me in and I’ll be in for the ride of my life. 

How foolish of me. I got strapped in, and then to my understanding (from my Spanish-only speaking guide) was that I would have to propel myself off the landing and hold on for dear life. I’ve been a dancer all my life, so my strength lies in my legs, I have no upper body strength. You must be strong enough to hold your own body weight, the cable isn’t there to do the work for you, it is for safety only. 

When I unsuccessfully went down for my first run, I got stuck in the middle of the line. I saw myself dangling over my death. How long would it be until someone came to rescue me? How long could I hold myself up for? At this stage you have to stay calm and channel all your energy into focusing on survival. Since I’m still here writing this, I obviously made it through. 

For days afterward I was in pain.  My muscles were clenched and my body was exhausted. I refused to mope around and waste my trip, there were so many more adventures out there waiting for me. I also vowed then that I would get my butt in shape if I wanted to try any extreme sports again. 

Once I reached the bottom, I explored around the nature reserve. The Reserva Natura is a tourist hotspot committed to the sustainability of Lake Atitlan. The hopes are that tourists will come to visit and reflect on the richness of the earth and environment. There are 3 main elements they abide to. One, promote conservation, two eliminate pollution and three, develop sustainable resources. The reserve does this through their museum, nature trails, camping area (with private beach), waterfall and suspension bridge tours and zip lining. 

The reserve is a privately funded initiative. It is strange to think the Guatemalan government has no desire to establish this site as a national park and funnel some money into it’s preservation. I think of all the national parks around Canada which are all government funded projects and reflect on how fortunate we are to have the money and resources for environmental preservation methods, while in other, developing countries, such is not a priority. 

Since the 1980s, the Reserva Natura has planted 200 000+ trees and provides food and shelter to the native wildlife. In addition to the preservation they do of the reserve, they also work in conjunction with local communities to develop eco projects, such as clean water stations.  What a great way to give back to communities in need. This private sector development project, as generated through ecotourism, is the most effective way of seeing needed funds and resources going back into communities, while the government leaves families and individuals abandoned in poverty.

Whereas some nature conservatories and ‘development projects’ often deplete the earth’s resources, because of overconsumption by tourist ‘needs’, I believe the Reserva Natura is a great example of ecological sustainability and long-term commitments to the environment. 

Adios y Paz,

Emilia 

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