Reflections from a Belizean fishing village

by Daniel le Roux, BV Volunteer, Belize

It seems to me that people usually start these sorts of things with a cliché: “Sarteneja was everything I imagined it would be”, or “I instantly felt at home in Sarteneja”. I hate clichés. So I’ll start this way: Sarteneja was not what I expected, and in many ways I was unprepared. That being said, I find that this place is the most humbly beautiful place I have ever been. But before I begin, I want to say that the last thing I want to do is try to ‘sell’ you Sarteneja, because any attempts to do so would do it a disservice.

Sarteneja Jetty
Sarteneja – a surprising place.

In keeping with the non-cliché theme of this blog, I’ll start with my experience of the Sarteneja cemetery. It lies in the west of the town, along the coast. It was my very first night in the in the town, and I decided to take a walk up the beach. By the time I came upon the cemetery, night had fallen, yet the graveyard was well lit by candlelight. It was the least morbid cemetery in the world; in fact it was exceedingly beautiful. At least 30 of the graves had candles burning. The only other person in the cemetery was a woman, cheerfully humming whilst arranging flowers around a headstone. She gave me a nod, and seemed to be slightly amused at my bewildered expression. This was a profound introduction to the village.

As if the village was determined to put on a show for my first night, my experience at the cemetery was followed by an equally special one. A few volunteers and staff members (it is not above them to frequent the bars) were sat on the balcony of a local bar, overlooking the expansive Corozal Bay. The lights of Chetumal in Mexico were visible on the distant coast. Then, fireflies, the first I had ever seen in my life, decided to add to the ambience, fleetingly dancing across the balcony, inches from our faces, and out over the water. Everyone was sat in companionable silence. I looked at the people who I had only met hours before and was thankful that the village of Sarteneja had, by some miracle, brought together strangers with vastly different biographies and joined them by fireflies over the ocean.

Sarteneja Sunset
A moody sunset over the town

The village itself has so many intricacies that it may only be truly appreciated once seen. Bicycles are the primary form of transportation here, because everything is so close. Walking, it takes about 20 minutes to get from one end of the main road (near Blue Ventures HQ) to the other. Children, legs too short to reach the pedals at their lowest point, ride with ease, and the confident ones giggle and say “Hola gringos!” as they ride past. They seem fascinated by blonde hair, and Alice’s (one of the volunteers) tattoos. Some even hang onto us as we walk, staring, giggling. For me, these moments are some of the most special.

Another ‘blogable’ cliché is that ‘everyone welcomed me with open arms, as if I was one of their own’. Here again, I cannot completely agree. Certainly, everyone is respectful and polite, and most regard us with curiosity if not empathy. Nevertheless, I sometimes feel out of place, which I find is a good thing. Where we (you and I) come from, it is likely that we feel entitled to a sense of belonging, an ownership of a place in society. Here, I am entitled to nothing, yet I am provided for nonetheless. I am out of place, and as a white Westerner from a relatively privileged background, it is humbling. I am humbled by the way my homestay mother calls me her son, and refuses to let me clean up my own lunch plate. I am humbled by the children from the Catholic School hanging off me as we play a chaotic game of football. By the stares as I walk up the main road. When I don’t understand what people are saying, and am met with a look of condescending patience. I am humbled because I don’t fit in here, and it is a wonderful, self-conscious feeling. Everyone should be humbled in such a way at some point in their lives.

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The catholic school

From some locals, there is a certain animosity towards Blue Ventures, because of what the programme represents in this fishing community. There is a danger, I feel, that such sentiments may be misunderstood by newcomers, as was the case for myself for a time. The fishermen see that restrictions on their livelihoods (the harvesting of fish, lobster, and conch) are created and maintained to some extent by what Blue Ventures, and by association what you and I, do here. The fishermen will be the first to tell you that fishstocks are nowhere close to what they were in the past. They understand concepts of maximum sustainable yields; the rate at which the continued exploitation of a fish species will no longer allow a stock to replenish itself. It seems to me that it is also important to understand that short-term necessity (i.e. putting food on the table today) will always override long term – hypothetical as far as they are concerned – sustainability. Restrictions put in place to preserve the amazing reef (no doubt the primary reason for your trip) make it harder for fishermen to provide for their families in the short term. Of course, both social and biophysical impact assessments from studies around the world (including the Blue Ventures programme in Madagascar) show that if done correctly, the enclosure of fish resources that were once open access property is in the long term best interest of local communities. Nevertheless, we cannot approach situations such as this with the attitude of “we are right because we have Science on our side” (to paraphrase the religious dogma). Counting fish means very little unless we can use this information to communicate to local communities the importance of long term sustainability in a way that respects local rights and cultural practices.

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Fishing is the lifeblood of the town

Yesterday, one of my fellow volunteers was lamenting how sorry they would be to go back to ‘The Real World’. I said I agreed completely. Just now, whilst writing that last paragraph, I realize my mistake, or rather I decided that I made one. Where you and I are from, that’s the real world, the correct one. Sarteneja exists in another world, a world of cultural isolation, something to tell stories of around the dinner table in an intrepid manner, in the same way one would tell of a twisting, detailed dream. Except I’ve decided I don’t like the way that sounds. When I go home, I hope not to lament my re-introduction into ‘The Real World’, but my removal from it. I hope to never lose sight of the realness, the near-tangible genuineness, which Sarteneja represents. That is why I have endeavoured not to romanticise the village in any way. And if that sounds like a cliché to you, well then, I think it might be.

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Guest authors include expedition volunteers, independent researchers and medical elective students.