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Plastic and Paradise

Clots of rotting sargasso and ocean worn fragments of plastic collapse and crackle beneath my feet. The sickly sweet smell of the former finds a way to continuously trick me into recurring cycles of embrace and disgust. Small, uniform waves lap edges of sand. Birds gossip, clacking thickly from the jungle while Iguanas warm in the sweltering sun. In the distance throngs of pelicans assault the bay to the south in true kamikaze fashion. Even with the compounding chaos unfurling around me, every ability I possess is focused on the flat. I stand quietly, hoping to gleam the lithe shapes of cast-able bone fish and what’s more– I am praying to get even the worst shot at them.

A week prior, we sat waiting for our ride to the airport in the darkness of early morning. Sheets of cold north eastern rain fell the way they always do when winter begins to relent. Three all too typical (passengers coughing and sneezing next to me, a hefty Minnesotan whose spilt bulk stole any chance of rest and a rickety puddle jumper, which had us wondering if we made the wrong decision by choosing the thriftier fare) flights later and we were sipping sweaty Belikins in the airport bar, waiting for our golf cart to be dropped off.

The collision of poverty and development that would progressively define our experience in San Pedro was immediately apparent as we wound our underpowered cart through its hectic streets. Though honestly, the overwhelming vibrance and distinct foreignness of the place was all that really crept through my clouded perception, that and an insatiable desire to stalk the flats for Bone Fish.

We set off early the first day, taught with anticipation and strong Belizean coffee. We headed northwest to “secret beach”– a name that once held its weight, but now was more oxymoron than accurate. Americans and Canadians alike sauntered around in various peels of clothing as they each worked on disparate shades of sunburn. Unenthused locals wore forced smiles while they rented out water trampolines, cracked beers and sold knick knacks in the unrelenting heat. We marched north, determined to go well past the crowds and signs of existence.

For several days we marched. This direction then the next, hoping the research we had done the night prior, huddled around a phone screen looking for what could be potential flats, might pay off. On one of the more ambitious outings the cumulative effects of dehydration, heat exposure, and slogging for hours through shin deep mud found us in a state of delirium so complete that we began to hallucinate, laughing uncontrollably and without reason as we waded to a small island and cartoonishly claimed it as our own.

The madness eventually paid off and we settled into a routine. Wake early, fish until the sun found its midmorning mark and the bones became skittish. Then resting or wandering around until the evening– when we would return and hope to see the sharp tails of feeding Bone Fish piercing mirrored waters.

On the off chance that a bone fish looked at and, in those few ethereal moments, ate a fly, the ensuing scream of line being torn from the reel left me thrumming so thoroughly that I could feel my heartbeat throb in my ears. That– the high pitched hiss of drag being overcome by sheer power and the triple runs to the backing– that was paradise, at least as much as I have known. That was why we traveled to Belize. But somewhere in the midst of our newly gained familiarity the excitement subsided enough to make room for the surmounting reality. Like so many beautiful places, I had subjected San Pedro to my own misjudgments. Beneath the facade of tropical colors, white sand beaches, and the refreshing contents of amber bottles was the reality of Ambergris Caye. A reality defining the division of poverty and development, a reality punctuated by plastic.

Sneakers, lighters, nets, ropes, sandals, bags, helmets, lawn chairs, cups, bags– bags and bags and bags. Every bit of plastic on the beaches of Ambergris Caye is something that we, that I, take for granted every day. I wish I could insert some statistic or statement that when read would cure us of our irresponsible affliction towards plastic and its costly conveniences, but I know its not that easy. I know now the utterly hopeless feeling of being completely overwhelmed– standing on a beach without even the faintest semblance of a place to begin.

Somewhere along the way, as the mirage of bones and Belikins dissipated I resolved to document what I was experiencing. To capture images that spoke to the duality plaguing not only our oceans and beaches, but all of the wild and once pristine places that we hold dear. For me, photos have always carried the most weight and it is my hope that these images shed a light. To truly get a sense of place though you have to see both sides. Both the plastic and the paradise.

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