Miles from home, on my own in Guatemala

You'd have thought a firm offering a �2,000 bursary would have had its hand bitten off by students keen to travel the world for free.

Steven Russell

You'd have thought a firm offering a �2,000 bursary would have had its hand bitten off by students keen to travel the world for free. But no. With the scheme's future in the balance, Steven Russell finds out what it's all about - and meets the first teenager to enjoy it

TRAVEL broadens the mind, they say, and teenager Charlie Beamish wasn't short of eye-opening experiences in Central America. “I was on what I can only describe as a small Mitsubishi van - the kind a baker would drive around in, delivering loaves of bread - crammed with 24 people,” he says of one episode. “They call it a bus - I would call it a small van - driving at 70 or 80mph around these hairpin bends, and I feared for my life; honestly feared for my life. It was a case of 'if you've got a seat, you let someone sit on your lap'. I had a woman with no teeth sitting on my lap, with a calf's liver on her lap, wrapped in paper. She'd just been to a market and the smell I can't describe . . . putrid meat. She was going to cook it and prepare it . . .” Welcome to Guatemala.

Then there was the time he ordered a chicken dish in a restaurant. “A couple of minutes later I saw a chicken being brought in from outside and it got its head lopped off, 10m away; and then it was served in front of me. I didn't mind - it's food. It took about an hour to materialise, but at least I knew it was fresh, though I'm not sure how well it was cooked.”

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Charlie spent six or seven weeks in Guatemala and neighbouring Belize - bankrolled and helped in practical ways, too, by Treatt plc, the flavour and fragrance ingredients specialist based in Bury St Edmunds. It was a great trip: full of colour, cosmopolitan experiences and new friendships, and laying down lots of memories. There was nothing nasty, thank goodness, but enough edge to keep him on his toes.

Amazingly, Treatt is having difficulty finding candidates to enjoy similar adventures - surprising, when you think folk could be off to countries like China, Indonesia, India, Jamaica, Morocco and Paraguay. They do have to do a little bit of “homework” while there - there's no such thing as a free lunch, after all - but it's not onerous, and a small price to pay.

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To help raise the profile of the bursary and encourage other students to consider it, Charlie agreed to cast his mind back to 2006. He'd actually done 10 days of work experience at the firm the previous Easter, shuttling around departments such as IT, public relations, plant, storage depot and the office, so

knew what was what when he learned about the bursary and became its first recipient. “Right from the start, I thought 'This is a great opportunity.'”

Charlie lives near Newmarket but was finishing school at Uppingham, between Peterborough and Leicester. There was talk of spending a gap year with friends in Thailand, but he didn't overly fancy it. The Treatt idea seemed more exciting.

The firm gave him a list of potential countries and Guatemala appealed, with a short excursion across the border into Belize. Charlie hadn't done a lot of travelling on his own, but wasn't daunted at the thought of diving in at the deep end at the age of 18 or 19 and getting by on his knowledge of Spanish.

He flew, via Miami, to Guatemala City airport. “I went outside and it was thundering down with rain - rain like you've never experienced. And there were lots of unsavoury men hanging around outside,” he laughs. On the advice of a friend, he'd booked first-night accommodation nearby, though the time difference meant he was awake at 3am, flicking through American cable TV channels.

The following day, he embarked on his Treatt mission, meeting a man called C�sar who was the primary exporter of cardamom oil. Cardamom's a sweet and strong-smelling spice popularly used as an additive in coffee in the Middle East.

Facts safely gathered for the report he would write upon his return to England, Charlie set about exploring more of the country. Guatemala City wasn't wonderful; Antigua, a town with quaint cobbled streets about 100km west, down a windy road, was said to be the place to go. A taxi ride cost eight dollars - just �4 at the then rate of exchange. Mind you, there were only a handful of cash machines in Antigua, and they had a habit of running dry.

By the way, is the country safe?

“On the whole, no! Guatemala City is regarded as one of the most dangerous cities in the whole of Central America. It's a fairly unsavoury place; you don't want to linger.”

On one occasion he'd being playing pool with an American guy he met. They were a bit worse for wear, took a bus and ended up in a neighbourhood on the wrong side of the tracks . . . where they heard gunshots. A taxi driver filling up with fuel across the road ran over “and literally grabbed us. 'You shouldn't be here; it's dangerous.'” He took them back. “Charged us an extortionate amount, though I was pretty happy to find a taxi, actually, as we had no idea where we were.”

One of the memorable experiences in Antigua involved climbing a volcano as the sun rose. “Ten metres away, lava was spewing out of the ground. My shoes were melting from the heat. The rock where I was standing had only recently been formed.

“Little kids were running around selling sticks. We didn't know why, but it soon became apparent. What you do is put your stick in the lava and it fizzles and burns. Quite good fun!”

At Lanquin he stayed in a wooden cabin, going rock-climbing, to freshwater pools and hiking in the forests.

The most memorable trip was to Tikal, site of towering architecture from the ancient Mayan civilisation. It involved a 2am start from Flores, a village on an island in Lake Pet�n Itz�, and braving mosquitoes and midges, before trekking into the rainforest. It was worth it, though.

“I remember we sat at the top of a Mayan ruin, up thousands of steps and this rickety wooden staircase - the stone's crumbling, it's not safe to walk on, and if you fall down you're dead. It took probably 20 minutes to walk to the top - fairly steep, and well above the canopy of trees - and we were then given a history of where the Maya came from, where they settled, the fact they mysteriously disappeared. (The site was abandoned by the end of the 10th Century.) Nobody knows why. But they left these ruins; these temples.

“There are four of them and we were told they were in perfect geometry: the centre is marked by a metal stake - inch perfect to where the sun aligns. It's so geometrically accurate that people don't know how they did it.

“Even stranger, they worked out a way to cut stone so straight that we can only nowadays achieve the same results with a laser. It's incredible. They cut stone so straight you don't need mortar to bond it. The angles are so sharp that it fits perfectly.”

Later, Charlie took a bus to Belize, to meet another Treatt supplier. The nation that was once British Honduras contrasted with its neighbour. “The first thing you notice is that everyone speaks English; and, having spoken Spanish for a month, it was a little different.”

The country was flat, swampy, quite touristy and not that nice, he reflects. The weather wasn't great, either, and he went back to Guatemala after about a week and a half. Mind you, he'd like to return - to enjoy some snorkelling and diving off the coral island cayes.

Time flew by and he was back in the UK towards the end of October before he knew it - having managed not to fall ill (he'd bought a mosquito net but didn't use it once) or experience any major dramas.

“I'm sure I went wrong a few times. I'm sure I got lost a few times,” grins the building surveying undergraduate who in the autumn begins his final year at the University of Reading. “I didn't get threatened at all, though there were a few times when I thought 'S---, I'd better run . . .' There were a coupe of times I thought I was being followed. I was the standard tourist: I had blond hair, quite a young-looking face, and a rucksack, so you couldn't miss me.”

Oddly enough, the trying times seemed to arise once he was back in the western world.

At Miami Airport, for instance, dozens of passengers passed through a machine that detected explosive particles. Charlie, meanwhile, set sirens screaming and lights flashing. He was removed to a little room and searched, with swabs from his skin and clothes put through another device. Worse, a bottle of rum he was taking home was confiscated! Of course, there were no explosives, and he doesn't know what triggered the alarm.

Touching down in the UK at 10am, after a sleepless 11-hour flight, didn't see him at his best. He had to make his way home across London and head for East Anglia.

“I'd run out of money, basically, and reached the end of my tether,” Charlie admits. “I'd been up for 36 hours. I got a train back to Cambridge and the ticket inspector came along. He said 'Got a ticket?' And I went 'Nope.' I did some quick talking and got away without paying for a ticket home, which is pretty much unheard of nowadays.” He took pity on you, then? “Well, I was obviously emotionally and mentally drained. It's bizarre: the minute I stepped back into my 'real world' I started having a few hassles!”

The trip showed him a lot about himself, he recognises. “It taught me I can do whatever I want. I'd risen to so many challenges and I was on my own, in effect. I met people travelling with other groups and I made friends. I still keep in contact with a few of them. Some of the moments, some of the excitements, some of the 'oh god' moments, I will never forget.”

Stepping outside your comfort zone also puts life in a wider perspective. In a poor country where your daily preoccupation is earning enough money to feed your family, folk have a different set of priorities than somewhere like the UK, and worry about different things.

Charlie remembers the “chicken buses” in Guatemala - old American school buses used for public transport. “They're colourfully painted and unreliable and smelly and big and relatively unsafe. I only went on two. I was following one in Guatemala City, when I was with C�sar in his big pick-up on probably a 12-lane highway. A guy hopped out the back door as it was going along, climbed on the roof and started moving luggage around. He was getting people's bags for them . . . but it was moving - at considerable pace!”

THE Treatt Travel Bursary has a foot in the last-chance saloon, sadly. “Unless we get a better response this year we won't be offering the bursary again,” confirms Claudia Brackenborough, PA to managing director Hugo Bovill. Mr Bovill launched the initiative to encourage independent travel in developing countries, and nurture personal development and global awareness.

“We want to get more schools and young people interested. Despite sending information to schools in Suffolk and to many others in East Anglia - Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, as well as Suffolk - we have had a very poor response in the past,” says Claudia.

It's private school pupils who have grasped the nettle thus far. “We are sure there must be students from state schools who would welcome the chance to be given �2,000 to help them go off travelling! All we are asking in return is that the students visit one or two essential oil producers, who we would put them in touch with and who help them with accommodation etc, and produce a report with photographs. We also give them appropriate questions to ask, to make it easy for them.

“We want them to go to the growers. They can see the plants being grown and see what actually happens to them to make the oil.”

A selected candidate can choose from a list of suggested destinations. He or she is given the money and makes his or her own travel arrangements. The firm doesn't mind if the visit is used to form part of a wider and longer travel experience.

The fact-finding work should take about a week in all, if that. “It's not particularly onerous and we do give them a lot of help. We're also trying to generate interest in our industry, which not many people have heard of. They know there are all sorts of things that go into drinks or washing-powders or whatever - flavours and fragrances - but not many people have heard of us. But it's interesting, and we'd like to generate interest.”

The bursary is available for students aged 17 or over who wish to travel, particularly during their gap year or after A-levels. Applications are open to UK residents whose careers are anticipated to be in a food, flavour or commodity business. Applications for 2010 must be submitted by November 30, 2009. An application pack is available from Claudia Brackenborough, Treatt plc, Northern Way, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, IP32 6NL (01284 7147820/e-mail

Treatt treatise

Treatt plc is a global flavour and fragrance ingredients specialist based in Bury St Edmunds

It sources rare and exotic essential oils, natural specialties, aroma chemicals and other products from around the world

Its range of flavour and fragrance ingredients includes bergamot, cinnamon, frankincense, tea tree and ylang ylang essential oils

Typical applications for products range from food, confectionery and soft drinks to perfumery, air fresheners, cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, oral hygiene and pharmaceutical products

Treatt says its buyers work directly with producers of essential oils to ensure only the finest quality raw materials are obtained

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Our man in Central America . . .

Extract from Charlie's report on Guatemala:

C�sar's company was the primary exporter of cardamom. “Their main market is the Middle East, where cardamom is used mainly as a flavour to coffee, and also as a remedy for toothaches. Israelis, Turks and Saudi Arabians chew it after meals, chew the whole pod, and grind the seeds to brew in coffee. I had the pleasure of trying a cardamom coffee, called Caf� Oro Verde. I was a little disappointed, actually, because the taste was very bitter . . .

“The cardamom pods come into the site from growers' co-operatives, from the Alta Verapaz area of Coban, to the north of Guatemala City. That is roughly a 6-hour drive along a reasonable road by Guatemalan standards. C�sar told me that all the pods are harvested by hand, and once picked, there is a one-day limit for the seeds to go into the driers, or they go bad. The pods are dried for a period of 36 hours, in a circular container, roughly 4 meters wide and 1 meter high. Hot air is blown upwards through a fine mesh on the bottom, and the cardamom is loaded up to the rim.

“I also visited another company which specialised in exporting lemons. This came as a surprise as I had no previous knowledge of Guatemala growing any citrus products. Another surprise was that honey was a very profitable export for Guatemala, and they were world renowned for excellent honey.”

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