I wake up at 5AM. My traps are exhausted from hauling buckets of stone up the 100 ft hill and my shins are bruised where they repeatedly hammered my legs. Chris ferries me across the river to the trail that I partially cleared yesterday. I shoulder my pack and move up the trail. The morning mist has coated the mudrock with a veneer of water, making them extremely slick. I cannot dawdle if I wish to make my bus, but it was difficult to pick up the pace between the slipperiness of the rock and the weight of my pack. Fortunately, the bees I encountered yesterday did not seem to be particularly interested in me today if I didn’t slash at their home with a machete. The trail into town was much easier. I pass several men walking to their fields, all of whom greet me with a friendly good morning. I reach the bus stop in San Pedro with ten minutes to spare, so I rest and try to let the very soft breeze wick away some of my sweat. It is only 7:30, but already oppressively hot. A small crowd has formed at the intersection by the time the bus arrives, a repurposed Blue-bird schoolbus from the United States which is spending its retirement years ferrying around Belizeans rather than screaming middle-schoolers. We all pile on and fill the seats. I and several other men are forced to stand in the back, which may be even more comfortable than the cramped, flattened seats. I get off at a town called Dump (Belize has many interestingly named towns, including More Tomorrow, Tea Kettle, Bullet Tree, and I shit you not: Negroman) where I wait for a northbound bus.
I get off at the junction to Hopkins. I saw a number of taxis parked at the junction when I first passed the road on my way to Punta Gorda, but nobody is here. Fortunately, I hail a truck making the turn onto the road into town and he lets me jump in the bed of the truck as we whip down the new road. It was previously potholed gravel, but a grant from the European Union helped construct this road through the surrounding wetlands. Before the gravel road, one needed to charter a boat or walk along the beach from Dangringa. The new road is already beginning to subside in the wet wetland soils and I have no idea whether it will survive. However, for the time being, it works well. I get off at the town center. There is only one main road, which runs parallel to the beach. Hopkins is a Garifuna town on the coast of Belize.
The Garifuna are descendants of west Africans who escaped to the island of St. Vincent when the slave carriers carrying them wrecked. They were aided by Carib Indians, as St. Vincent was not occupied by any European country. By the mid 18th century, the Garifuna were a major cultural group on St. Vincent, having adopted many customs and practices of the local Caribs. However, their community was undermined by the growing British population of St. Vincent after the British were awarded rule of the island in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. The British did not want to allow a free black community to remain so close to their plantations and slaves and began repressing the Garifuna. The Garifuna responded by beginning a guerilla war. Despite the backing of the French, they ultimately lost the war after much loss of life. The British decided that they couldn’t risk a Garifuna resurgence or a potential associated slave revolt, so they shipped the Garifuna to the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras. The community was severely undersupplied and about half of the population died before they moved to Honduras and Belize. The isolation of their communities allowed them to maintain their culinary, musical, social, and linguistic traditions…at least until recently with the construction of the roads into town. Only time will tell the long-term effects of this development.
I ask a few people about where I can find Shiobhan, a friend of a friend, who is supposed to be helping me around town. The point down the street. “Across from Thong’s Café.” They tell me. I look around but nobody seems to be there. A man asks me who I am looking for. Naming Shiobhan elicits little response. Surely there cannot be that many white women in this small village that she is not known by essentially everyone here. It’s a small town. Everyone seems to know everyone, much less an American woman conducting anthropological research. Confused, he asks a white man passing by the road by bicycle. Fortunately, he does know Shiobhan and rings her on his phone. She was at home and just needed a few minutes to prepare, so I waited at a bench outside. She came around the corner shortly thereafter. I am immediately welcomed by my gregarious host and we head to the beach to talk over a beer. She arrived here about 4 months earlier and has been living in Hopkins to study the area for her PhD. The accessibility and population of Hopkins has grown significantly in the past few years and with it the little Garifuna community has changed. More expats are arriving to buy their slice of the coastal paradise in the sleepy little town, driving property prices skyward. Few residents of Hopkins actually grew up in Hopkins; it is rapidly becoming a town of immigrants and expats. The easier accessibility has also increased the number of tourists and the town’s economy is shifting to meet the increasing demand for services to support tourists. There have been a number of recent environmental changes as well. The beach is rapidly eroding away, which is not helped by the increased number of hurricanes hitting the region. This has been attributed to deforestation and mangrove removal coupled with the increased frequency of storm events associated with climate change. Conversely, the remaining beach is being covered by Sargassum grass from the Sargasso Sea, a massive gyre in the Atlantic Ocean that collects marine organisms, vegetation, and garbage. There are many competing theories as to the cause. The two most popular are rising global ocean temperatures and potential impacts of the surfactant used to disperse the oil from the Gulfwater Horizon oil spill. This also begs the question whether this is a problem, in that there are now piles of rotting sargassum on the beach, or a benefit because the grass will help build up the shoreline again. Shiobhan’s anthropology research is aiming to document Garifuna relationships with the ocean and how it is being affected by these social and environmental changes. We walk along the brown-sand beach. Garifuna children run down the pier and leap somersaulting into the water.
After a light lunch, we are joined by one of Shiobhan’s friends, who picks us up in her truck. We drive to the Sittee River, where we bathe in the warm shallows. This is a very locals-only spot. Women hand wash clothes on rocks on the riverside, punctuating the quiet rippling of the river with loud smacks of clothing being smashed on rocks.
I eat dinner and chat with some English travelers at the hostel before heading to bed, exhausted by my early morning and long travels today.