11 August 2015

I sleep in today after all the early mornings I spent documenting birds or traveling over the past two weeks. Siobhan doesn’t seem to be much of a morning person anyway. In the afternoon, we walk down the beach. The stench of the decomposing sargassum is dispersed by the strong breeze. Whitecaps crest on the horizon where clouds have begun to gather. The sea is decidedly rougher today.

Morning beach walk

Morning beach walk

The village is divided socio-economically. The south side is home to poor locals. The expats live in resort communities on the North side. The difference is drastic. Whereas homes on the south side are small cement structures littered with garbage and patches of weeds, the north side has large buildings, crystal clear blue swimming pools, exquisitely maintained topiaries, and clean, well-stocked bars. The North end seems to be moving inexorably southward as increasing numbers of expats come to the area, enticed by the warm weather, the fact that English is the official language, and the cheap cost of land. The Garifuna are becoming minorities in their own community.

North side resort

North side resort

After our walk, I walk to Innie’s restaurant to try some traditional Garifuna food. I walk about a kilometer along the dusty road to the restaurant. Children play soccer and basketball while fishermen docked their boats in the evening. Apparently the tourist high season in Belize is during the winter months, so the restaurant is completely empty. I have a meal of ereba (cassava bread) made from grated yucca, which has a taste and consistency like Wasa crackers. This is a mainstay of the Garifuna diet, especially given that Garifuna literally to cassava-eaters. It looks simple, but actually is extremely laborious to make. Cassava root his harvested, washed, peeled, and grated. The grated cassava is placed into a woven bag called a ruguma, which is weighted with rocks and hung from a tree to allow the fluid to drain from the grated cassava. The cassava is allowed to dry over the course of a day and then sieved through baskets to make flour then baked into the ereba. It is often served with hudut (mashed plantain) and coconut-based fish soup called machuca. To say that the meal was filling is an understatement. I need to start walking before the food coma sets in. A truck spraying some sort of pesticide to control mosquitoes passes me. I am confused by the strange truck rolling at a clip of 5 miles an hour and making a strange hissing noise until I am already in fog. I love the smell of Malathion in the evening.

IMG_8497We go to a local bar for a Garifuna drumming event. The locals and tourists mix freely and the beach is full of people enjoying themselves. Garifuna music is based on West African styles. The music has a 3-2 polyrhythm, as do many Afro-Cuban styles. Drums are central to Garifuna music. A segundo player will play a simple primary rhythm, while the primero player will play a more complex pattern.   The drums are usually accompanied with gourd shakers (sisira), and sometimes guitar and other, more modern, instruments. Garifuna music encompasses a number of styles and themes, ranging from work songs, social dances, and sacred music. UNESCO proclaimed Garifuna language, dance, and music as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Fence of Forgotten Shoes

Fence of Forgotten Footwear

10 Aug 2015

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.

Sittee River

Sittee River

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.

9 Aug 2015

I haul several bags of rocks for Chris’ construction project. A few trips up the steep hill are enough to drench me in sweat. After lunch I take a machete and head across the river to clear the hillslope trail to the main trail. The work begins without a problem, but I hear a buzzing upon clearing some palm fronds from the main trail and feel a prick on my left elbow. Putting two and two together, I run back down the trail away from the sound. The bees here are Africanized, so they pursue me for several hundred feet before I dive into the river to escape them. Fortunately, I only felt the one sting before I made my escape. I decide that I best let the bees settle down, so I return to the cabins. It is pizza night, so Chris fires up the wood burning stove and bakes up 5 pizzas. I have been waiting for this for the entire week and am quite ready given the work that I did today.

I have deeply enjoyed my stay here and wouldn’t mind staying for much longer. Chris’ work has reinvigorated my appreciation for agroforestry systems in conservation planning, as I was somewhat uncertain given the synonymy of different agroforestry systems. Obviously palm oil plantations, which can be considered agroforests, are not the same as Chris’ forest garden, but they are often considered to be tantamount by academics. Seeing the ostensible differences was a great reminder of this fact. Furthermore, I had just begun being comfortable here. I learned the layout of the site, knew my role in the work day, and felt safe. Traveling is a wonderful way to have new experiences and better understand the reality of individuals who live around the world. It helps you to recognize the privilege and benefits in your life, as well as the failures and problems. However, it is also psychologically distressing, at least for individuals who like to be in control, because they are placed into an unknown situation where the brain cannot distinguish from real threats and irrational fears. Some travelers deal with this by ignoring all threats, whereas others, like myself, assume all situations to be risky. Feel something on your shoulder while walking on a rainforest trail? Probably a vine, but it could be a snake. A pinch on your shin? Probably a mosquito, fly or ant, but it could be a kissing bug giving you Chagas disease. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism is mentally exhausting. Chris’ farm was a wonderful because I was able to ignore many travel-related fears and over time, I was able more clearly categorize and separate the reasonable from the unreasonable and focus on the experience itself. Home can be considered an emotional state of security and calm rather than the physical surroundings themselves, but the physical surrounding is inherently tied to that security we feel.

8 Aug 2015

Mournful timanou calls wake me in the morning.

Chris came back last night. It rained throughout the day, so he was delayed until the evening. He also came bearing more rocks for the sink for us to carry up the hillslope to the house. I take it upon myself to do so in the morning. It is the stairmaster from hell and I am soon completely drained of energy and sweat.

In the afternoon, Luke, Connor, and I hike over to San Pedro Columbia to acquire some beers, which Chris does not have at the farm. It takes about 40 minutes to ford the river, battle the ants that seem to have occupied the opposite bank, clamber up the slick over-vegetated hillslope to the main trail and then follow the well-maintained trail into town. We find a bar and drink one before the road. Belekin is probably the best of the Central American beers that I have had in my travels. It is surprisingly dark and creamy for a region that usually prefers watery light beers. I suppose it is the influence of the English in Belize. We meet several interesting characters in the short time that it takes to drink our beers.

Meet Robert: English immigrant to Belize who brought his Spanish wife and children from Guerrerro in Mexico. He was a silversmith who brags about doing business with small-time cartel drug dealers by constructing belt buckles with secret compartments. Apparently his business partner threatened his family, so he left the country and made a bee-line for Belize and settled in an Earthship in San Pedro. Now he is in charge of a Maya school, which is somewhat ironic. It appears that he thinks gringos need to lead the Maya to produce Maya leaders.

Meet Alonso: A short, stocky, but hardened Maya day laborer who is completely drunk by the time we arrive. He proceeds to butt into our conversation and tell us a.) that we need to love each other b.) that Jesus is the king and that our time is coming, so we better get right with Jesus and c.) that he is tired and that they need to pay him more if he is going to work this hard. Coda, repeat.

Meet Adriana: Middle aged Maya woman whose son, “Wants to smoke the weed.” Upon telling her that we can’t help him there, she asks whether we happened to know how much a leg costs. Apparently her mother is a diabetic that lost her leg. A replacement is not easy to come by in San Pedro.

We head back along the same trail just before dark and eat dinner, lounging in hammocks and chatting before bed. The sky is clear and for the first time during my stay I notice the stars, so bright that they seem as though they provide enough light to see from the porch. The milky way stains the tapestry of night.

I wake up in the night. The water drops condensing on leaves and falling on the metal roof are torturous. Drip…..drip drip…..drip….drip drip drip…… ……..drip drip… Coda, repeat. I open my eyes to check the time. The darkness stares back. It is complete. It wraps its clammy, warm embraces around me as I lay sweating under the sheets. Tighter, tighter. It is a constrictor; a noose. It is a mirror. The darkness reflects my dark mind, dark heart. It offers no consolation for all the mistakes, imperfections, failures, missed opportunities that it exposes as I ruminate, trying to return to sleep. So I lay there, in my mosquito net tomb, until the morning light shatters the mirror. Drip…..drip drip…..drip….drip drip drip…… ……..drip drip… Coda, repeat.

7 Aug 2015

I sit on the porch and do some bird watching. Hummingbirds dart around the ornamental ginger, peeping and squeaking as they perform incredible aerial maneuvers during their dogfights. Montzuma’s Ornapendolas shout noisy combinations of metallic mechanical sounds. Parrots screech as they fly overhead.

It’s easy to fall into a rhythm here on the farm. Morning bird watching, breakfast, email, some farm work, lunch, chop wood, forage, bath, reading, dinner, cards, bed. I must admit that I haven’t strayed much from this. It gives me plenty of time to philosophize. Lately I’ve been thinking about how we can integrate holistic food production systems, like the one at MMRF, to a greater extent. Some people argue that we need to “go back” to more primitive, less intense agricultural systems. I don’t know if it’s feasible on the time-scale that is necessary to avert many of the problems ecosystems and humans are going to face in the immediate future. We will never be Lacandon, or Haudenosaunee, etc. We lack that long-standing cultural and physical connection to the land that has been developed over generations. The chain has been broken somewhere along the way, be it as a result of the Green Revolution, or the industrialization of agriculture, or market-based agricultural production, or something even further back. Although I think that it is absolutely essential to regain our connection to the land, I worry that this is a gradual change for which we cannot afford to wait.

Of all people, the Amish may serve a useful blueprint. First, they are deeply community-oriented. If they can obtain or repair something they need locally, they will do so. Second, they are cautious about technology. It’s not that they are Luddites, as is often believed. They just have a very conservative approach to assessing how a new technology will affect their community, unlike the shoot first, ask questions/clean up the mess approach we have in the western world (US especially). They have no problems using plows or disc tillers, but don’t want to be dependent on “the English” for gas and so don’t use fossil fuel-powered devices to pull them. The reason they don’t use telephones is not because they think they are inherently evil, but rather that they will make it easier not to engage on a personal level with other community members (something we see being increasingly prevalent with social media). This results in their development of ingenious farming quality over quantity production systems.

There are folks like Chris who are working on developing holistic food systems that are good for people and the environment. It’s just that they are certainly not in the mainstream. Just as the use of fertilizers and pesticides was considered a revolution, I think it will take another to undo the damage it has done. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine tells the story of Milton Friedman. Friedman was a right-wing radical free-market economist whose ideas of deregulation weren’t gaining much traction early in his career during the 40s and early 50s when leftist policies like the New Deal were the norm. He decided to wait in the shadows until there was a moment of upheaval and swoop in to implement his neoliberal economic policies when people were distracted by violence or rapid socio-political change. Klein’s argument is that this method was pretty effective and cites the coups in Chile Guatemala, and Nicaragua; revolutions in Yugoslavia and Ukraine; fall of the USSR; etc as examples. I think that we are probably going to have to do a similar sort of thing for agriculture.

I think that chaos theory would agree. Imagine a topographic landscape of peaks and valleys. In chaos theory, this is known as a phase space: a multidimensional representation of all possible states of a given system. Now imagine tossing a ball into this landscape. This represents a particular system state. If it lands on top of a peak (unstable attractor state), it is in a very unstable system, as it only takes a little disturbance to knock it from its place. Valleys are far more stable, as you can disturb the phase space quite a bit before it is knocked out of a given system state (stable attractor state). Of course, different system states have different shaped peaks and valleys and so have different levels of resistance (ability to remain in a given state in the face of disturbance). I’d argue that conventional, post-GR agriculture is in an unstable attractor state (monoculture are not resistant systems). However, we can maintain the system state through inputs of lots of energy (fertilizer, pesticides, fossil fuel-based power, etc.). Even so, it is susceptible to disturbance, which can come in many forms: a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, a spike in fossil fuel costs, disease caused by increasing population densities or antibiotic resistant bacterial strains. I hope it isn’t as drastic as these, but with the energy we are pumping into the system, it may be. The point is then to have alternatives (ie diversity) to adapt to this change and demonstrate its utility in a novel phase state.

While Chris is away, Luke and Connor, the two remaining interns, have decided to undertake some projects around the farm. We gather chikai, a wild plant with a flower which tastes something like an artichoke, set ground mole traps to try to limit their infestation in a banana and cacao grove, and fix up some of the muddier sections of trail. The first and last are successful, but the ground mole traps have yet to catch anything.

Washing clothes at sunset on the Columbia River

Washing clothes at sunset on the Columbia River

In our time off, I read, wash my clothes, and play with a colony of ant-lions by throwing ants into their conical pit traps. Their larva hatch from eggs and build the traps and wait, buried at the bottom. When an ant or other unlucky little arthropod falls in, they grab it with their fearsome pincers. If they try to escape, they kick up sand to knock it back into the base of the pit. The nymphs, curiously, lack an anus, so all their waste is stored and emitted as at the end of the pupal stage. After the nymph stage, it wraps itself in a cocoon and metamorphoses into an adult lacewing, which will never eat again. It’s only purpose in life at this stage is to mate, after which it does.

I swat a “doctor fly,” easily identifiable by its black and white stripes, on my foot. It explodes in a burst of blood. “Why are they called doctor flies?” I asked a Belizean a few days earlier. “Because dey take a blood sample, man!” Enough of this. Time to retreat to the comfort of the mosquito net around my bed.

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