Hungry bellies and wet asses

We’ve just finished our annual surveys at Turneffe and Lighthouse Atolls, which amounted to approximately 5 1/2 weeks of field work. We tent-camped for most of it (although my boss splurged on air mattresses, thank goodness), and I have to say it’s nice to be dry. Completely and utterly dry and unsalty, along with all of my clothes.

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The first 3 week stint was a bit of a slog, with bizarre winds, low catches, and long transiting times (read: somewhat boring and difficult work conditions), and our crew just didn’t quite gel. However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t have fun or get a lot of good work done.

One of the groups of fishermen we work with come from a tiny village in the south of the country. These guys all grew up together (half of them are related) and have probably spent most of their lives together. When we’re in the field, they all bunk in the same room, and they are constantly, tirelessly, laughing and joking together. I can’t imagine what new jokes they have to tell each other, but they never seem to get old, and it makes the guys fun to be around. I have no idea how many times the “put salt water in their water bottle while they’re not looking” game was played out, but every fresh sputter and gag was treated with the same hilarity as the one before it.

The culture of Belize is very much like that of most of Latin America, and gender roles are fairly well defined. Despite having worked for a female boss for many years, there is still a bit of, let’s say, mothering expected by some (most) of the fishermen we work with. We can bait as many hooks as we like, lug more gear than all of the guys put together, and pee over the side of the boat: we’re still expected to feed the men. So one morning, well into our second week, I decided to jump on the boat as the guys were heading out to check and re-set a longline. I wasn’t scheduled to be on the boat that morning, but there was space and I thought I’d lend a hand with data collection. Given the location and the time of day we set out (7:00 am), I didn’t expect us to be back until well after lunchtime. I packed a snack.

So naturally as we anchored up around midday to wait out the soak time, 5 heads turned towards me to inquire about food. “Do you have any biscuits, Ivy?” I rustled around in my bag. “Sorry, just the one pack. Looks like we get 2 cookies each.” Evaristo gave me a good-natured smile. “Das ok, Ivy. We fishermen. We’re used to hungry bellies and wet asses.”

When the rain settled in a few minutes later, we were all miserably huddled against it, ill prepared for the out of season shower. Most of the crew retreated to the water to hunt conch, but a few of us toughed it out.

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The next week, we managed to pack enough food for sandwiches, but none of the guys thought to bring a bowl for the salsa, which was their contribution. Men who need salsa casero are the mother of invention.

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Several days later, on the last day of field work for that site, we were again anchored up, waiting for the longline to soak. Instead of rain, we were treated to a blistering mid-day sun. Again we were working through lunch, and yet another miscommunication (I thought we should save the gas and wait it out, they thought we were motoring in for lunch back at the station) led to more hungry bellies. Again, I sacrificed my meager cookies. Clearly, I hadn’t learned.

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“When you put this picture on the internet, put a note under it that says, ‘MarAlliance is in desperate need of a boat canopy.'”

So I have to admit I was really surprised a few weeks later, on another atoll, in the same boat, when I found my actual offering of real food to be rejected. Oranges are a great boat food, especially after you’ve been in the sea (and were all were, every day, for hours). The oranges grown here are delicious but have a very tough skin, which makes them difficult to peel by hand. I’d been admiring for weeks the patience and skill the guys had when peeling oranges with any rusty knife available, and decided to try my hand at it. The trick is to only remove the thin outer peel, but leave the rind intact, then cut the orange in half. The tough rind makes it so that you can eat the meat by biting into the top without spilling juice all over yourself. A novice orange peeler, I did a passable job (I ate the first one myself as it was a bit hacked). My second attempt was nearly flawless, with only one tiny section that was cut too thinly, revealing the pulp. I proudly offered my orange around the boat to the tired, salty fishermen. One, two, three… four men side-eyed the orange, heads shaking. In response, Andonis reached into the bag and procured the very last orange, and set about peeling it himself. The captain finally took pity on me, but made a show of eating it out over the side of the boat so as not to get juiced. I guess that’ll teach me.

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Feast or famine

You can get just about anything you want and/or need in San Pedro. Just not all the time. (Except cabbage. You can get cabbage at any time, pretty much anywhere). That whole local and seasonal eating trend that’s going on with foodies in the US? That’s just every Tuesday here. Except, of course, for the odd assortment of things that we expats can’t live without. Like half and half and cat food.

I’ve learned that, as everything is shipped onto the island, all of the stores stores that regularly stock Doritos, cottage cheese, and dry roasted peanuts get their shipments at the same time. This seems to mean that the shops that carry the specialty items I look forward to are all out of the specialty items I look forward to at the same time. I’ve also learned, by talking to the shop owners, that sometimes they order Fresh Step scoopable cat litter and they receive Fresh Step regular cat litter. And sometimes they have to place the order several times before it actually arrives.

All of this makes it, let’s say, interesting to keep stocked up on the things that I and my cat have grown accustomed to. That’s being fairly melodramatic, but I am on my last bag of Cat Chow with no guarantee that we won’t be switching to Whiskas next month. Fortunately my local guys have learned what I look for, and will even flag me down in the street to shout “We have your cat litter! Come by tomorrow!” They also have promised to keep half and half stocked at all times, so my precious store of Mini Moos that Mom sent may last a bit longer. I may have bought 4 containers of the stuff in the last 2 weeks.

On the feast note, mangoes are back in season! So far it’s just the little golden ones, but I shall be tracking the progress of the different varieties as the spring progresses.

And as we’re on food, I finally started using my oven. Would anyone like to take a guess as to where 350 degrees is?

And lastly, I got a photo of one of the competing pupusa ladies from takeout the other night. I actually prefer the other pupusa lady (more filling, less masa), but they were inexplicably closed on a Thursday so I had to settle for Backup Pupusa Lady. 

That’s it for now!

A few of my favorite things

As I’ve been getting a few “are you ok” questions after my recent blogs, I thought I’d share some of my routines and things I like best about living here. Firstly, I have been on a serious quest to find the best ceviche in San Pedro. It’s been tough, but I think after 3 1/2 months I have finally found my favorite. It’s now my Sunday evening ritual to head down to Lily’s on the beach and have a ceviche and a rum and coke around sunset. Sundays are when all of the locals are out socializing, and by dusk quite a few of them are in their cups at the bar next door, so it makes for great people watching. Lily’s ceviche is San Pedro style, with cucumber, carrots, and a side of chopped habenero so you can spice it up to your liking.  And since it’s lobster season, that’s what I go for. I’l have to see if they hold up when conch season comes back around.

I stir in the habenero, then remove it. Woe are you if you forget a piece in there.

Speaking of weekend rituals, on Fridays Cecilia and I usually go down to Caliente for half price margaritas.  As I’ve mentioned, tequila is quite expensive here so it’s really the only time they’re reasonably priced ($7 BZ or $3.50 US). I have to admit, I stick to this ritual even when Cecilia is out of town.

I am officially that person who takes awkward photos of their food. I usually try to be discreet, but it’s difficult when the flash goes off.

After dinner and a margarita, I generally head down to Lola’s pub to hang out with my favorite bartender. He loves sharks and digs our project, so he always makes sure to introduce me to everybody who comes in. And as he knows just about everyone on the island, I’ve got a fairly good chance of meeting them as they pass through the bar on a Friday night. I’m starting to make a few friends and am getting a good dose of local gossip.

Oh! I finally figured out the competing barbeque chicken vendor mystery! It turns out that they are related: the guy I usually buy from (who works at the Post Office for his day job) sets up on Saturday and his mom and auntie cook on Sunday. Usually. And the trick is to get there before noon, because otherwise you’re in for a wait.

Taking photos of people just doing their thing is even more awkward than taking pictures of food.

I mentioned before that I like the little things here that are different than expected. Yesterday I finally tried out a Lebanese restaurant, which is one of the only “ethnic” restaurants here (if you don’t count Mexican, Salvadoran, Mayan, or Chinese). Here is my falafel sandwich, served in a flour tortilla. And hot sauce, of course. When you order pizza they bring hot sauce to the table.

I’ve had better falafel, but the tortilla was excellent.

Ah, tortillas. I’ve always been a corn tortilla girl; however, living here is definitely converting me to the flour variety. I still love the thick, hand made corn tortillas from down the street, but they just don’t keep for more than a day. My local grocery store Richie’s sells hand made flour tortillas, which I suspect are making me fat.

Don’t ever google “flour tortilla recipe.” The word “lard” will be prevalent.

One day I went in to Richie’s around noon, and when I asked the cashier if they had any tortillas left she said, “Mami, would’t you know, a whole load of gringos came in here 10 minutes ago and bought every last one!” Another time while I was checking out, she whispered “oh, I love her shoes,” to me, indicating a lady who was getting cash out of the ATM. “I’m going to take them from her!” Then she giggled maniacally. She gets a big kick out of the giant canvass bag I bring in with me, and likes to hide things in the pockets. I once found a tomato tucked away two days after I bought it.

Finally, butter. Who would have thought this would be difficult? I bought a huge block of butter when I first got here- most stores only sell the stuff by the pound. Anyhow, for about a month I kept getting a distinctly “store” taste in my food, and it was really bumming me out. If you don’t know what mean by store taste, imagine the way an old convenience store smells, and then think of how that would taste. Kind of like a Chinese shop. I was convinced that the store smell was just in all of the packaged foods until I finally narrowed it down to the butter. I tried chopping off the outside, but alas it did not help, and I had to throw out almost an entire pound of butter. I didn’t know what to do, as I couldn’t imagine that the other wax paper wrapped stuff was any better, and I really didn’t want to waste money (and pounds of butter) trying to figure out which brand didn’t taste funky.

The answer, of course, was in the canned food aisle.

I stood there staring at it in the store, right next to the Spaghettios, for a full minute.

This stuff is the shit. You open it with a can opener, and it is the perfect spreadable consistency and so, so creamy. Once open, I have no idea what you’re supposed to do to keep the ants/dust/fingers out of it, but fortunately I have a tupperware lid that perfectly fits over the top. It won’t melt in 80 degree heat, but if you put it in the refrigerator it becomes like marble. Oh, and it’s made in New Zealand. When I’m feeling extra lardy, I spread it on a warm flour tortilla and eat it over the sink.

This isn’t one of my favorite things, but I giggle every time I see this at the store.

I would say it must mean something in Spanish, but the entire label is in English.

True facts about Belize

1. If you don’t pay your electricity bill on time, they will shut it off.  The day after the bill is due.  Even if you didn’t receive said bill.

2. They stagger everyone’s due dates on the island so that the guy who shuts off the power to your house doesn’t have to do them all on the same day.

3. Several months ago the guy who reads the meters retired or quit, and so for a month nobody knew how much electricity was being used.  Logically, BEL (Belize Electricity Limited) decided to charge everyone the same amount from the previous month, plus 50%. There was such an uproar that the main office conducted an investigation. I’m not sure what the outcome was.

4. There are two BEL offices in San Pedro.  At one office you can pay your bill, but only if you have a copy of it. If for whatever reason, you did not get your bill, this office cannot look up your account information or tell you how much you owe.  The second office is, of course, on the other end of town. At this office they can print out your current statement, but you cannot pay your bill there.

5.  Yes, I know the “other end of town” is only a half mile away, but have I mentioned that it’s hot here?

6.  If you don’t know the meter number or the person whose name your meter is under, you are screwed, so make sure you hang on to your old electric bills!

7.  You can also pay your electricity and water bills (but only if you have physical copies of course) at any Atlantic Bank branch. This seems odd to me.

All of this to say, I managed to pay my electricity bill yesterday just under the wire, despite the fact that I did not receive a bill, nor had I saved my statement from last month.  I’m really appreciating the AC today.

Photos from the last couple of weeks

Not too much report, but I’ve been taking a few photos around town and thought I’d share.  My friend Cecilia and I rode our bikes up north a couple of weekends ago and hung out at the famous Palapa Bar, which has inner tubes tied up next to the pier. Unfortunately, the 90% chance of rain held true, so we skipped the in-water part of the activity. Fortunately, it was a 10 minutes of rain followed by an hour of sun, on repeat, for most of the day kind of 90%, so we were spared a soaking. We tried to walk over to the lagoon but were immediately set upon by attack mosquitoes and retreated.

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Here are a few other pictures from San Pedro.

See, we even have a K-Mart

Sunday brunch view, on a crazy windy day.

I’ve never understood this sign, it’s just before a dogleg in the road.

The new bartender at Waruguma has a sense of humor.

Just look at all of the individual elements. Only a goat would have made this complete.

I know I put him on FB already, but I really like this shot. Taken at Wet Willy’s on Sunday.

I have finally acquired a sofa and non-disgusting chair, so my apartment actually looks like a normal person lives there. It’s not a sleeper, so if you’re coming down, bring an air mattress. 🙂

Can’t quite stretch out, but it’s a big improvement.

That’s about it! I got to do a half day of field work today at Shark Ray Alley for a pilot project. Here are some pictures the volunteers took while chasing a southern stingray and nurse shark with a size estimation tool (30 cm across).

We’re still perfecting the technique.

Some were more cooperative than others.

This could be you.

Learning the ropes

On Monday I serendipitously discovered something that makes my life much easier: Night Shopping.  This is much preferred to the Sunday activity I tried, which I’ll call Storm Shopping, both of which rank highly above my normal Sweat Shopping. No pun intended. After work on Monday I had decided to walk via the beach to my favorite Mexican restaurant for dinner, forgetting that it was closed on Mondays.  After letting go of my sopa de tortilla disappointment, I cut up to the main streets and saw that many of the shops were still open, despite the fact that it was after dark.  So I headed down to Back Street to see if the local all-you-need store, Caye Supply (it’s pronounced “key,” btw, just so you know), was open for business.  Fortunately I had come prepared with my giant canvass elephant bag from Anthro, and started the walk home with a brand new crock pot, a light blanket for the bed, and a scented candle.  Just a couple of blocks from there I wandered into the giantest supermarket on the island, and wandered out with a $15 US bottle of Chilean wine.  All of this without breaking a sweat.

The purchase of the crock pot means that I truly have no good reason not to start cooking again.  My most recent excuse for not cooking has been that for the last oh, month, I have been out of propane.  Interesting fact about Belize: you can go to the grocery store to exchange your water bottle (which they deliver to your house free of charge), but not your outdoor grill-sized propane bottle.  My tiny propane tank is locked in a bodega by the house, so I have to be here for the delivery, and I’ve not been around the house enough during the day for the last 4 weeks to have the guys come out.  On Monday I was finally back in the office and ready to re-gas, but realized that I misplaced the last bill and could not remember the name of the company.  Go ahead and Google propane home delivery, Belize.  Let me know how that works out for you.  I finally had to email my landlord to ask for the number. I’m hoping for a working stove by tomorrow. I’ll let you know. (Update: I have gas!)

Whether Night Shopping or Sweat Shopping, I always run across amusing, unexpected little things that make living here fun.  I enjoy the odd flavors offered for otherwise mundane foods (Chili flavored Ramen Noodles), the street vendors selling hamburgers with habenero sauce, and the oddly coexisting weekend bbq chicken vendors (with rice and beans or flour tortilla) who set up by my house, but never on the same day.  Are they related? Do they call each other and say “I’ve got Saturday this week, you can have Sunday”?  I haven’t figured out a pattern, but it’s all delicious.  Both will also still feed you if you are short a dollar (I always go back and repay them).

Frightening

I think this must have been on the shelf since 1954.

Another baffling thing about Belize is the obvious lack of regulation of products and services, juxtaposed with the amazingly iron clad regulation of certain products.  (You’ll be noticing a theme, I expect).  For instance, you can get any number of household products thinly disguised as name brand items.

Seems legit

Actual Lysol cleaners are common, but Clorox products are nonexistent, with the exception of toilet bowl cleaners.  Viagra?  $5.  However, you can only buy Belizian beer (Belikin, Lighthouse, and a special version of Guinness which is actually bottled in Belize) and Coca-Cola products (also bottled in Belize).  Most other foreign liquors and food items seem to be fair, if expensive, game; a fifth of Smirnoff will set you back $50 US, whereas the Belizian vodka is $10.  We are a stone’s throw from the Mexican border, but not a drop of Mexican beer can be found for sale in the entire country.  Tequila?  Sure, why not.    I’ve still not had the nerve to try Belizian vodka.

That’s $2.50 US

And then there are the duties.  I don’t mind paying taxes on goods brought into the country, but Belize has really taken it to a new level.  When flying in, I always declare items just to stay on the good side of the customs agents.  So far I’ve seen 3 agents, and have had to pay duties twice: 1) for a computer monitor and other office/field supplies (~$60 duty, reimbursed by work) and 2) for some tupperwares and press n seal (~$10 duty).  The one who sent me through Scot free?  I had over $500 US of declared household and office goods, which she saw upon opening my bag.  Shipping to Belize is beyond ridiculous.  You will pay at least twice as much to ship anything here as the item being shipped is worth.  Simon sends care packages occasionally, which I really look forward to.  But the warm and fuzzies are a little offset by the fact that the customs agent at the Post Office gets to open my package and reveal all of the goodies in front of me.  He then calculates how much he thinks everything is worth, then charges me duty on that amount. Walking home with my dissected box can be a little anticlimactic.  But not so anticlimactic that I don’t want more of them to come.

And yet, this is how my mail from the Belize City WCS office reaches me.

I do actually have to go to Tropic Air to pick it up, but am never asked for ID.  Maybe they figure I couldn’t have made up that last name, so it must be me.  Most of the mail items delivered by Tropic are just garbage bags full of items with someone’s name and approximate location stapled to them, so it’s always fun to see what weird things are being delivered.

Since I’m paying quite a lot of foreign transaction fees, I decided to get a local bank account for bills and things. How hard can it be, I can ship a TV to Lucy on Caye Caulker without so much as a photo ID.  This idea proved to be folly.  Since my Belizian Social Security Card is only good for 1 year, it is not considered an official form of identification. Therefore, in order to obtain a checking account (literally I just want to give them cash to hang on to for me), I have to provide 2 character references (“you know, just someone who will say you are trustworthy”) and a reference from my US bank.  I honestly have no idea how to get a reference from a bank.  Then I have to tell them how many children I have, if I’m married, and what level of education I have.  Also how many deposits a week I will make and where that money will be coming from.  They require copies of two utility bills in my name from the States.  And let’s not forget the background check, but not the background check that was performed by my employer three months ago, a new one.  I kept laughing at the poor customer service guy, and then politely took the paperwork saying I’d fill it out at home and bring it back.  I refrained from asking him what that big computer next to him was for, other than printing out forms.

The local stores seem to deal with their debtors fairly handily:

You see these in the windows of grocery and hardware stores everywhere

I could go on, but I’ll save it for another post.  Let’s just say I’m constantly amazed by the dichotomy here.  I’ll get the hang of it eventually.