Lost in the Mangroves of Belize
By Steve McNutt

It was supposed to be a simple day of fishing for Barracuda. "Today you are meat!" But sometimes the fish have karma on their side.

© Todd Winner

"Barra Hole." That's what A.C. called it when we left the dock.

"Barra" is Belizean slang for "barracuda" and the spot lay somewhere out in the flat blue water beyond the mangrove stand where our boat rose and fell in nearly imperceptible waves. I imagined it as a well in the sand surrounded by reef and glittering with lean, streaking barracuda waiting to be hauled into A.C.'s skiff where they'd try to eat my toes. The day before, I'd seen one while snorkeling around a reef, a still gray arrow poised past the drop–off before it vaporized with a flip of the tail.

We'd expected to be there by early afternoon. Instead A.C. sat in the stern tightening the rope looped from a mangrove root to a boat cleat next to the dead motor.

Arriving in Belize a week ago, my traveling companion Genie and I had sped through or around most of the guidebook hot spots then retreated to Tobacco Caye, a dot of an island that can be walked end to end in ten slow minutes. It's inhabited by a handful of people working at a few hotels, each offering three or four basic rooms and meals. We were still tourists, but it was easier to engage in the fantasy that we weren't. Surrounded by other small cayes, Tobacco sits on a five-mile reef, part of a reef system running the length of the country, the largest coral reef in the Western hemisphere and the second-largest in the world.

I'd met A.C. on the boat ride to the caye and Genie had joined us that morning, bringing a book in case she got bored. Within the first an hour we'd each caught a barracuda, A.C. shouting as they sliced through the water toward the boat, "Come on my buddy, come on! You not going anywhere, not today. Today you are meat!"

After we returned Genie to the dock, A.C. tapped my shoulder and I leaned back to hear him over the motor.

"Buddy, it's time to get serious."

Tobacco Caye lodge

I wasn't sure if this was a promise or a demand as I was distracted by A.C.'s tendency to call both me and the fish "Buddy." As long as he didn't call me "meat" I figured we were okay.

Zipping out to a small caye a quarter mile away, A.C. netted a mess of sardines in one toss then tried to restart the outboard motor. He tried, I tried. Took the hood off the engine and fiddled with the fuel lines. Nothing.

A.C. tried to use his cell phone but mangrove stands on uninhabited Caribbean islands do not provide for excellent reception. Needing a clear shot at the sky, he leaned off the bow while I pushed the boat toward open water, making sure to hold onto a root while A.C. dialed.

Announcing he had a signal, A.C. made an exasperated noise and admitted his battery was dying and that the minutes on his prepaid phone were almost finished. Something about lending it to his girlfriend and how she always uses them up.

He made a quick phone call with the last of the battery power, shifting into his native Garifuna to explain our predicament. I asked if someone was coming.

"I got her answering machine."

I pulled us back. Out past the darker, silty water near the mangroves and floating above sand the color of a Granny apple's skin, appeared two hard, gray, parallel lines. Barracuda. Seeing them cruise by, I felt the presence of my erstwhile ten-year-old self and his enthusiasm for fishing, and water. Throughout a tricky childhood, my relationship with water suggested that while life could be brutal and fragile it also contained beauty but for the past few years the closest I've come to feeding that itch was keeping a few fish in an aquarium. Each time I looked at it I recalled the words of the writer Ginger Strand: "The aquarium is our epitaph for our lost connection with water." I liked the idea, but wondered if it had to be an epitaph, if it could be a reminder of where we, or I, needed to be.

Belize mangroves – © Alberto Pomares

Overhead, an egret caught an updraft, paused and pooped into the mangroves.

"No more of this." A.C. leapt overboard, the bow rope in hand, stepping in the direction of Tobacco Caye.

This was a bad idea. Unsafe, but also beyond what I could accept for other reasons, tourism inviting a complex dynamic even in ideal circumstances, plus he was barefoot while I was not, the sandy bottom filled with buried rays and sea urchins. Pockets emptied and about to join him in the water I stopped when he splashed backwards, yanking the boat back into the mangroves. He threw himself into the boat.

"Something hit my leg."

The Boy From Belize Shitty
We had no choice but to wait, and talk. A cruise ship on the horizon provided the inspiration. His thoughts on them merged with his own story and "old life" in "Belize Shitty," his sobriquet for Belize City, the country's glutted, sprawling capital. He'd grown up there, becoming a "bad boy," which eventually led to a bullet wound in his left bicep.

That was enough. Once healed, he left the city. Moved south where he'd grown up and returned to fishing, a life he'd learned from his father. Their fishing trips lasted weeks; they caught their meals—snapper, barracuda, snook—selling the rest to markets along the way. Home again, he found work free-diving for lobsters and conch, working off someone else's boat and paid by the pound. He was sure they cut down the weight of his catch and some of the divers stole from other diver's bags left on the deck while underwater. It was no way to support his girlfriend and children so he'd bought this skiff and found work as a handyman and fishing guide.

Flickr photo by afagan

Each time he returned to Belize City it was worse. Louder, smokier. To make the cruise lines happy, the Belizean government dredged the shallows to form channels deep enough to accommodate the ships and approved the building of a Tourist Village on the water in Belize City. Walled off behind iron bars and requiring photo identification for entry, cruise passengers arrive on motorboats so they might buy drums, hot sauce and cigars and get henna tattoos without encountering the real city. A.C. told me what I'd heard and read elsewhere, that white people were allowed entry, with identification, even if they weren't associated with a cruise. Belizeans aren't asked for identification, instead encouraged to leave immediately.

As far as A.C. was concerned, the cruise ship companies owned much of the country. Millionaires and billionaires using the country as a tax haven and owned most of the rest, even buying up the phone company. And while Belizeans understood the importance and fragility of their local ecology, millionaire expatriates bought up cayes and hacked and burned down mangroves that function as a natural storm break between the Caribbean and the mainland. In the worst cases, resorts dredged sand and dumped it on top of the coral shore to form white sand beaches, in the process filling the surrounding water with silt, effectively asphyxiating nearby reefs. Sometimes he wished for hurricanes.

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