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.
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.
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.
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.
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.