This morning I learned about the day the red apples drifted up on the shore of Ambergris Caye.
It was in the days before island people had the ability to can and preserve food.
They were fresh, red, sweet and juicy apples and they came in like a red tide. There were so many of them that people grew sick of eating them and fed them to their dogs, recalls Angel Nunez.
In time there were red apples rotting everywhere, probably smelling much like the sargassum seaweed does today.
Another time, recalls Mr. Nunez, green apples drifted on to shore but people did not care for them as much.
Drift is such a beautiful word.
It can convey aimlessness or randomness — or, a Zen-like oneness with a certain flow. You can drift through life and end up very successful. You can drift through life and end up in a cardboard box. Chance plays a certain role when you drift.
Chance, currents and the direction of the wind often play a role in what flotsam and jetsam drift on to the 24-mile long shore of Ambergris Caye.
Today on Reef TV’s “Good Morning San Pedro” show, hosts Eiden Salazar Jr. and Angel Nunez waxed on about drift. There was almost a hint of magical realism to their reminisces, as if there is also a cosmic hand at work, guiding special things to the shore to ease the burden of early island life or even just to break up the tedium. Or, perhaps there was once a guiding hand at one time, long ago — before people stopped believing in magic.
Today as you walk the Ambergris Caye shore — it is too eroded and broken up by seawalls to call it a beach — you will mostly see the thick layers of smelly sargassum, mixed with a thick serving of finely chopped pieces of plastic that many believe is dumped from passing cruise ships.
Messrs Nunez and Salazar say that the sargassum is nothing new, although the volume might be. (Be grateful: There was a time when the sargassum floated in atop thick pools of oil. ) There was also a time when so much seaweed drifted in that people dug deep holes right on the beach and buried it.
This helped bulk up the beaches, by the way.
Today, sargassum is raked up and carried away in trucks, to where I have no idea — but if you one day see what looks like a mountain in the middle of Ambergris Caye, don’t be shocked. Our highest elevation: Mount Sargassum!
The result of all this new efficiency is that our beaches — where there are still beaches — show signs of erosion. “Before, you never saw the trunks of palm trees right in the water,” recalls Mr. Nunez wistfully. Today, you most certainly do.
Both men believe the sargassum helps rebuild beaches if buried there or left to trap the new sand coming in on the waves.
If you do haul it away to build up your yard, they admonish, be a good neighbor and cover it as soon as you can with a layer of sand. Don’t stink up the hood.
Sargassum is a form of seaweed and it is filled with living organisms. Besides helping to grow beaches, it provides cover for small fish and food for many aquatic creatures. But sorgassum, as we all know too well, stinks. Not a good thing in peak tourism season.
Mercifully for early morning walkers — or drifters — sargassum and plastic bits aren’t the only finds awaiting you along the shore.
On Sunday, Mr. Nunez found a French wine bottle on the beach, its neck encrusted with barnacles. This was the inspiration for Monday’s show segment.
He estimated that the bottle had to have been drifting toward Ambergris Caye for at least 3-4 months, to build up that many barnacles. He speculated that some wild partying cruise ship passenger cast it into the sea many months ago, sadly without the courtesy of an enclosed message.
But frankly, the a modern day French wine bottle pales when compared to some of the legendary drifts from the past, both Mr. Nunez and Mr. Salazar agree.
Mr. Nunez recalls when scores of green glass globes, once used by Japanese fishermen as net buoys drifted on to shore. “Just where the Japanese were fishing,” Mr. Nunez mused, “I have no idea.” The globes were used as decoration in bars and stores, homes and gardens, all over town, he said. Today you are more likely to find plastic buoys, which Mr. Nunez says have their own charm, but it is not just the same.
Mr. Salazar remembers when plastic dolls by the hundreds found their way over the reef on onto Ambergris Caye.
Both men recall the time when a 55-gallon drum of concentrated perfume drifted in. The lucky fellow who won that “sea lottery” repackaged it in old wine and rum bottles and sold them for $5 each.
So many people rushed to buy the perfumes that soon enough everyone in San Pedro began to smell the same. And once everyone smells the same, as we all know, perfume loses its magic. Eventually the concentrated perfume was sold as an air freshener for restrooms. The much younger Mr. Salazar recalls walking into some restrooms in town and feeling like he’d been punched in the nose.
There was a time — before there were hardware stores on every block — when drift had a practical side for the island people. “When a fisherman needed a length of rope,” recalls Mr. Nunez, he didn’t go to the hardware store. He walked the beach until he found some, and it usually didn’t take long.
On his Sunday walk, Mr. Nunez himself found a perfectly decent length of nylon rope, though a bit encrusted with barnacles. Unlike the old days, he found it already discarded at the top of a municipal trash can. Today, I guess, hitting the hardware store is just too easy.
People once combed the beaches for driftwood, which went into the making of many a frontyard fence in town. Lucky drifters would also sometimes find good lumber — two-by-fours, four-by-fours. And on one special occasion, whole sheets of plywood.
Drifting as providence was a common theme in the old days. The sea will provide, a fisherman’s unshakable faith transferred to drifters walking the shore. Mr. Nunez recalls fondly the frequency with which fresh mangoes once washed ashore.
Providence also has an ironic side. Mr. Salazar recalls a white-sand sandbar on the western side of the island that is popular with wedding photographers. One day he could see that the tiny island had turned blood red. As he drew closer, he saw that it was covered in “red, juicy tomatoes” — the result of a mishap by one of the many produce boats that supply the island with fresh fruit and veggies.
There was a time when gold coins were occasionally found, some near the Tackle Box restaurant, says Mr. Nunez. Plausible if you consider Belize’s colorful past as a haven for pirates and buccaneers. Mr. Nunez even knows some people who found some gold coins, but would not say who, to protect their privacy. (So, that suggests these particular Sea Lotto winners are still alive. Maybe pirates gold washing up on the shore of Ambergris Caye isn’t such a distant phenomena! I’d like to think it is still possible ….)
By the way, if a gold wedding band washes on to the beach by the high school, it is mine.
Today’s Sea Lotto “winner” is more likely to find a bundle of marijuana or cocaine deliberately dropped into the currents for specific people to find. Sometimes the bundles — called “box fish” — are found by others, usually called fishermen, or box fishermen. Most everybody who dies mysteriously and violently at the northern-most tip of this island is referred to as a fisherman.
Drift also provides metaphors and life lessons: “Good sandals never drift in pairs,” observes Mr. Salazar.
Mr. Nunez laughs at this truism and chimes in, recalling an earlier, less-abundant time: “Yes but you picked it up and sometimes another perfectly good one of another color would one day drift up and you would wear them together!”
Who knows. When stuff became cheap and the people lost the need to be frugal, perhaps the guiding hand of providence and good drift moved on to a more needy place.
Or maybe, as Mr. Nunez hints, San Pedranos just don’t walk the shore as much as they once did so all the good stuff gets picked over by tourists and the ambitious few.
Either way, it is a damn good tale.
”Good Morning San Pedro” is on mornings,, 7-9 a.m. on Reef TV Channel 20 and Reef Radio 92.5.