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Not everyone was forced to endure the bitter cold and heavy snowfall that hit many parts of America hard during the first days of 2011. Brooke Armstrong, a 2009 Spencer County High School graduate, recently spent two busy weeks in Central America through a study abroad program she found on the Internet.
Armstrong is studying Cultural and Biological Anthropology at Western Kentucky University, where she is now a sophomore. After several difficult months of fundraising, she was finally able to take a hands-on course in Comparative Skeletal Anatomy in the warm, tropical republic of Nicaragua.
“Instead of being stuck in a classroom reading some book or anthropological journal, it was nice to just go and get my own impression and conduct my own research, while talking to people who have the same aspirations as me.”
The course was offered through the Mederas Rainforest Conservancy, a nonprofit organization located on the volcanic island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, a popular spot for tourists and researchers. According to the organization’s website, it was established to promote the conservation, protection and management of Mesoamerican forests and animal and plant biodiversity in a spot where there is much ecological vulnerability. It also offers a wide array of courses for post-secondary students, especially those immersed in primatology and ecology.
Maderas is the name of one of the island’s two volcanoes. While Mederas is inactive, its active sister, Concepción, erupted just last year.
Armstrong conducted an independent research project on Howler monkeys, large populations of which inhabit the rainforests of Nicaragua. She compared the dentition (the type, number, and arrangement of teeth) of Howler monkeys with the dentition of humans.
When she wasn’t doing comparative research to fulfill a three-hour college credit, she was busy kayaking, horse-back riding, hiking through the rainforest, finding waterfalls and climbing to the cloud-shrouded top of the Maderas volcano.
One of the most exciting parts for Armstrong, however, was meeting local Nicaraguans and absorbing the rich cultural atmosphere.
“Culturally speaking, it was kind of reassuring to me because the people were very open and eager to learn about Americans,” she said.
Armstrong also said that when she first arrived, she had been upset by the poverty she witnessed outside her Best Western Hotel. By the end of her stay, however, she saw that a comparative lack of material comfort did not actually mean a “miserable” quality of life.
“It was actually very comfortable and everyone seemed happy. There was a sense of community that you don’t get [in America],” she said.
Two weeks, as one might expect, came to an end far too soon for Armstrong. She returned to the United States on January 9th – a frozen Sunday.
“Flying back to Miami, there was so much stress, on the airplane and in the airport. There’s so much stress and so much material reliance here. There was so much stuff that I wasn’t interested in that was being sold to me in the airport. It was kind of shocking.”
Upon returning to Kentucky, Armstrong said, acquaintances assumed that she must have been feeling lucky to be back in the States, where the quality of life is allegedly superior.
Quite the contrary, she maintains. She already misses it and someday hopes to return.
“I wish I was still there. A lot of people think of South and Central America as having all these problems – and yes, they aren’t as materially wealthy as Americans are – but it’s not like they’re miserable. They just don’t live by the same standards as Americans do and it’s not better or worse. It’s just what it is, and they’re happy.”