Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tropical Classroom

By Jamie Hale

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to sleep in the jungle or whitewater raft through the jungle? Adventure guide, Chris Begley knows and he’s here to tell us. National Geographic Traveler recently named one of Begley’s expeditions among 50Tours of a Lifetime!

What are Tropical Classroom Expeditions and The Exploration Foundation?

Tropical Classroom Expeditions and The Exploration Foundation are the two companies I founded to create the type of trip I thought was missing from the market. Tropical Classroom Expeditions focuses on creating international travel experiences for academic groups, from a travel course in a university to an alternative spring break trip. Most of these trips involve a service or volunteering component, and all of these courses get the travelers in close contact with the local communities. I’ve taken groups to Honduras, Costa Rica, and Iceland, and have upcoming trips to Peru, Jordan, and Suriname.

National Geographic Traveler recently named one of your expeditions among the 50 Tours of a Lifetime! Must be an exciting trip could you briefly describe?

The trip they named one of their ’50 Tours of a Lifetime’ is a 14-day trip down a jungle river in Honduras on whitewater rafts, from the headwaters to the ocean. We pass through the Rio Platano Biosphere reserve, the largest area of tropical rain forest in the Western Hemisphere outside of the Amazon. We also visit indigenous communities as we emerge from the jungle. The trip is spectacular – the river has Class III and IV rapids, so it is exciting from that point of view. We see lots of animals, including two or three types monkeys, macaws, toucans, tapirs, and occasionally a big cat like a jaguar or puma. Most people can’t believe that this type of place, and this type of trip, still exists.

Where is your favorite place to travel?

My favorite place is probably the jungles of eastern Honduras, where I did my dissertation research in archaeology and where I take some of the groups I guide. It is truly a wild place, in all the good and bad ways. It’s challenging and difficult, but that makes it rewarding.

Have you ever felt seriously endangered while on an expedition?

Yes, several times. A couple of times because of illness (I’ve had malaria once, dengue fever various times, among other things), a couple of times because of animals (usually close encounters with poisonous snakes such as the fer-de-lance, once in a river with crocodiles), but the most serious problems involve people. I was with a group of local guys with whom I worked often, in a very isolated area that had taken 5 days to walk to, when we ran into a group of heavily-armed bandits, one of which was a known killer who threatened us and clearly had bad intentions. We managed to escape in the night while he went to get his compatriots, but it was a close call. We ended up hiking 20 hours in a 24-hour period. I thought we might not make it out of that situation.

How do you balance your work as a University professor with your exotic travel? Would you rather be in a classroom or in the wild?

I am able to balance the two since I usually travel in the summer, and some of my trips are research, and other can sometimes be combined with research. For instance, next summer I’m working with a group of English students who will be helping me with an archaeological project in Honduras. Organizing the trips during the academic year really doesn’t take too much time. What I miss is any time off during the summer – it seems like the semester ends, I’m off on my trips, and I return just before the next semester. There is little time to unwind.

As to which I prefer, that’s hard to say. I think the balance is about right. By the time the academic year is ending, I’m reading to get out in the jungle. By the time my trips wind up, I’m ready to get back to something more stable, comfortable, and safe. Also, the interaction with students during the academic year is very energizing to me.

What is a typical day in the life of an adventure guide? What about the typical day of a college professor?

There is probably not a typical day in the life of an adventure guide. When I’m actually on a trip, I’m up early, checking everything for the upcoming day. I might be going through our gear checking to see if we have enough food for the next stage of a trip, enough paddles, water purifying drops, or if the zippers on the tents are in good shape. If we are back in town, I’ll be on the phone a lot, checking hotel and transportation arrangements, etc. Last summer I had a group in Honduras when the coup happened. We were just heading out into the jungle, so I spent a lot of time on the satellite phone getting information about the situation, letting people know we were alright, and assessing whether or not it was safe to return to the city. So, I spend a lot of time double-checking arrangements. Sometimes the day involves showing people certain techniques, like how to cross a deep river, how to choose a course through a rapid while rafting, or jungle survival techniques. I really like this aspect of being a guide.

Finally, of course, I end up doing a lot of things for the group – starting the campfire, preparing food, helping clear campsites, or checking to see what kind of insect bit somebody and assuring that they’ll be alright (they always are).
A typical day in the life of a university professor is a little more stable. I usually teach three days a week, and the rest of the time is spent preparing for classes, doing other university-related work, such as serving on committees, and doing research, writing, etc. I have a lot of flexibility, except for my actual classes, and that helps since I have three young children (ages 7, 6, and 2) and can work around their activities, school, etc.

Are you currently working on any new projects? Future expeditions?

I have a few trips upcoming. I’m taking a group from California to Jordan in January with Tropical Classroom Expeditions, looking at social justice issues such as the Palestinian refugee situation there. In May, I’m taking a group from Transylvania University to Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, looking at issues of race and ethnicity. Then, with The Exploration Foundation, I have a mountaineering trip to Peru in June, and then a rafting trip through the jungle in Honduras at the end of June. In July and August, I’ll be working with the Scientific Exploration Society from London, doing a trip through the jungle and about two weeks of archaeological work there.

Chris Begley’s sites
Tropical Classroom Expeditions @ www.tropicalclassroom.com
And The Exploration Foundation @ www.explorationfoundation.org

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