by Siim Maaten, BV Volunteer, Belize
A couple of weeks before Christmas the weh di gwan (agenda) board in Bachalar Chico Dive Camp announced that while others are doing data entry and dives, Santa’s fellow-countrymen Kaisa and neighbour Siim (me) are to start the preparation for a Christmas themed conservation party for the children of Sartaneja. It was a getaway from doing data entry and after a couple of hours brainstorming in the warm Caribbean breeze provided a theme and a plan.
There was yet more brainstorming and preparation leading up to the party as there were going to be approximately 20-30 children attending the event. The staff and volunteers were organized into workgroups and a board was created that contained all the information about the party – who is responsible for what and where. However, everyone was always welcome to do things and come up with ideas that weren’t marked down for them – for example when one of the volunteers Emily was visiting Corozal Bay she bought candy cane instead of planned lollipops. Plans for the party were to create informal yet informative (and fun) presentations, boards, pictures and a huge 150 x 250cm² paper-board with a reef drawn on it so children could draw fishes and other sea creatures on it. Volunteers and staff also had to prepare cookies for cookie-decorating, Permit Jack shaped medals also had to be handmade. The Blue Ventures (BV) staff house had to be prepared for the party. But the flyers and posters for the party were done in time and with a smile!
Everything was ready for the 24 or so children to arrive at 1300 hours (with BV it is always military time). Some local kids tried to sneak into the party early and start drawing, but they were kindly instructed to come back later – it was a confidence booster that the party will have at least some children – at least the five who tried to gatecrash early. An hour before the party there was a shower of rain and in Belize there is a general rule that when it rains everything is cancelled, but fortunately the sun reappeared and the clouds were soon a distant memory.
So at 1300 hours children started arriving and the volunteers were ready. The children were given either a star, astronaut, flower or balloon sticker to divide them into teams that would race each other in the grande finale. Volunteers tried to direct the children to a drawing board but how would one say “draw a fish on a piece of paper and stick it on a reef” in Spanish? We were lacking our translator who had gone missing. Then there was a flood of children because BV field scientist, Klavdija (the translator), was gathering children in town. In true Belizean style, massive stereo speakers arrived and as the volume of the soundwaves increased the volume of children arriving increased exponentially. At 1350 hours there were about 75 hyped, happy and anticipating children in the yard and but no-one could talk Spanish to them and the panic/confusion in the eyes of the volunteers was clearly seen. But when people are under stress they tend to perform exceptionally well.
While there were more children was initially expected (triple!), we volunteers went with the flow and improvised our way through all the planned events. Well almost. So when the other BV field scientist Pippa was done with preparing lionfish snacks, she joined the us. Now Emily who was attempting to MC the party had her translator to divide the crowd into five instead of the previously planned four groups. “Balloons here, Stars there. Seals! Seals! Gather around Andy! Are You a seal. No, you are a star and you go there with Siim… What’s so funny Andy?”
Children started playing the different educational games teaching them about which sea creatures were ok to fish, and which were endangered or declining. The hyper-excited children also played ‘spear the lionfish‘ and then proceeded to run and jump all over Kaisa – who was not expecting that children might pile up on her, as kids do not approach strangers in Finland, but Belizeans are much more open! The kids were running, falling, kicking, screaming (with excitement) but no-one was crying – they were laughing and having fun. The party did not have Santa because the only Santa costume in Sarteneja had been ripped during the Blue Ventures Christmas Conservation party in 2012. However local football legend and BV expedition manager Sam Hope was a great all-rounder and kept the children well entertained – playing football, carrying them on his back and setting an example how to mingle with the local kids. Then there was a whisper amongst volunteers:”We are running low on cookies!!!” And immediately someone went shopping and bought more of the so that the very popular cookie-decorating table would not have to be abandoned.
For the grande finale teams raced in a target relay, where the children had to put the fishes they should prefer to fish in a bowl. The first two places were awarded with medals and candy. Candy!!! Candy is like a trigger that turns small children into well organized con-men. “I didn’t get – no I didn’t! Give me too!” And as soon as they got the candy it was immediately put into mouth with all other candies and packages flew onto the lawn. We politely made it clear that the sweet wrappers had to be put into the bins provided and children soon took up the mantra. It was a sight for tired eyes when BV staff started handing out lionfish snacks – the children conned them the same way and were really tucking into those yummy nibbles as well.
The smiling children went back to their everyday lives and left the exhausted but utterly happy, with the BV volunteers and staff sitting silently in front of the BV house not really realizing what had happened. They were left with some candy papers to clean up; no sweets, no cookies, no lionfish snacks were left, but almost one hundred fishes had been drawn on their reef and a great experience was had by all. The rest of the week the volunteers were greeted or high fived by children in the village like local celebrities.