Hidden Paradise – Isla Arena

Isla Arena - view rom palapaIt’s 8:30 am and I’m sitting under a thatch-roofed palapa looking out onto the calm-as-glass Gulf of Mexico in the fishing village of Isla Arena – Sand Island. This must be what Cancun looked like 40 years ago before hotels and Luxury Avenue and Johnny Rockets and a thousand other American imports crowded out all evidence of Mexico except for the sand, sun and surf from the barrier island Cancun occupies.

Today is Sunday morning and I came here yesterday with Eric, the director of Conservation Corps of Yucatan, the program I am volunteering with in Ek Isla Arena - the teen groupBalam. He is here to meet with a group of teenagers who want to start an organization to promote sustainable tourism on the island – they spent a month in Ek Balam this summer volunteering and have been inspired to develop and protect their own island home.  The town is connected by a mile-long causeway to the mainland of the state of Campeche, about 1½ hours from the cities of Merida to the north and Campeche to the south.

Isla Arena does not appear as poor as Ek Balam and Eric told me that it is mainly because of the fishing industry. Most families own their own fiberglass lanchas – open-air outboard boats about 20 feet long. The fishing grounds are Isla Arena-the bridgevery fertile and yield a big variety, which the people can eat or sell. Year-round they do both, providing protein and profit, unlike the farmers in Ek Balam who are limited by the seasons and dependent on a steady stream of rain and a steady diet of  tortillas, beans and eggs. Sadly, not much to sell in Ek Balam to the few tourists who happen by but the beautiful hammocks the women weave. And how many hammocks does one person need? That’s why attracting more visitors to the hotel is so important!

We arrived mid-day Saturday at the home of Jose Luis, age 15 and one of the students, and were greeted by him and his mother. We walked through the Isla Arena-Eric, Jose Luis I, Alexis, Jose Luis II, Merlyhouse (where he’s raising over 70 turtles) to the lagoon side, and met his father and brother were returning from the morning’s fishing run. They carried a bag of fat fish to the sink on the patio and Jose Luis the Elder proceeded to clean the two types he would make for our lunch. A big fish called Mero, about a foot long, wide and flat, and smaller ones called cochinita (little pig) with firmer flesh and thin yellow stripes on its sides.

For those of you who go hunting or fishing, or backpacking and camping, my delight at this fresh, simple, direct-from-the-sea meal may seem silly. But as someone whose only contact with fish comes after its long journey from sea to airplane to truck to the wise hands of Ethan Stowell at Anchovies and Olives – my lunch was a revelation. The Mero covered an entire platter it was so wide in its butterflied presentation! Jose Luis the Elder had sprinkled salt on the fish and put it on the grill. Merly, the mother, had made a quick salsa of tomatoes, onions and cilantro; tortillas, a giant avocado, and limes – dozens of them to be squeezed over the fish. Jose Luis the Younger finished by devouring the lime fruit with salt, as if it were the sweetest tangerine possible.

Isla Arena-Jose Luis II, Alexis, EricIn the late afternoon, the three men of the family took us out on their boat across the lagoon to where the flamingos and other birds of the region hang out. Oh, I was glad for that cool breeze on my face after a week of relentless heat and humidity 60 miles inland in the jungle! The coast of Yucatan Peninsula is bordered by hundreds of miles of wetlands, broad lagoons alternating with dense mangrove forests, creating narrow waterways – little rivers, actually, that connect with freshwater springs – the ojos de agua (water eyes, love that term!). While cruising across the lagoon at sunset and observing all those pink flamingos from afar Eric and I both uttered the same, repeatable phrase: Isla Arena is a hidden paradise.

Isla Arena-boatsThe task for the people of Isla Arena, the challenge – is how to improve their lives economically and preserve their way of life – the fishing, the birds, the crocodiles, the clean air, the calm and simplicity. They’ve kept the outside world at bay, accepting what they want when they want it, like satellite TV, Coca-Cola, and pick-up trucks. Don’t let me over-romanticize the world here: the people of Isla Arena have electricity, fresh water pumped from the mainland (except when storms shut down the power lines) and many other comforts. Merly sells Barbie dolls and toys in the shop at the front of their house and Isla Arena-blurry flamingosAlexis dressed like any other teenage boy: board shorts, t-shirt and flipflops. But, to attend high school, the only option Jose Luis has is to live with his grandmother in Merida. Alexis will soon follow, I imagine.

What will become of Isla Arena, and of me, for that matter, is unknown. A new generation of residents like Jose Luis, Alexis and their friends have learned about the sustainable tourism in bioreserves like Celestun and Rio Lagortos, which are more easily accessible to the tourist centers of the Riviera Maya. Maybe this knowledge will help them avoid the mistakes of Cancun. But no paradise stays hidden forever – even my writing about Isla Arena exposes it to Isla Arena-mangroves and flamingosother visitors, who bring their blessings and curses.

As for me, a path to the next stage of my career and life could be slowly emerging. Eric has talked about the need organizations like his have for funding from North American sources – he suggests that I could play a much-needed role: the link between the Mexican groups and the American sources of funding. Already, the Kellogg Foundation is contemplating opening an office in Merida. Perhaps it would be possible to live in Seattle AND spend much time in this country I have come to love so much.

Isla Arena-lone bird. cormorant?Back to reality: first, I’ve got to learn more Spanish. Last night, as we sat around the dinner table sharing Merly’s incredible fresh octopus soup, I barely understand a word. My new friends in the Yucatan have a curious, rapid way of speaking, cutting out many consonants and talking “inside their mouths”, giving their words almost a creamy fluidity. Like saying “eh-ta” instead of “es-ta”. I have much to learn yet, and speaking Spanish is only a small part of all the things I don’t know.

What I do know for sure is that today we celebrate an amazing thing: six teenagers, banding together to preserve their island’s environmental beauty while building better lives for themselves. Now, that’s inspiring!

Isla Arena-Sunset with Alexis pointing the wayIsla Arena-the beachIsla Arena-the trashIsla Arena-the schoolIsla Arena-nice colorsIsla Arena-birdsIsla Arena-cabanas signIsla Arena-my cabana 2Isla Arena-sunset over lagoon

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