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Macabi — our Maya cultural dish

FeaturesMacabi — our Maya cultural dish

The first and last time I had the experience of deep-sea fishing was when I was 10- years old. Unfortunately, over time I forgot the name of the captain and owner of the sailboat that was used for fishing, but what I do remember was that he was a man from San Pedro who was called “Pirinchot”. His wife and my mother were very good friends. In 1954, during my school vacations, my mother had asked her friend if her husband could take me fishing, which he agreed to do. On a bright early morning, we took the boat to go from Corozal to San Pedro. During the voyage, there were times the wind was strong, and other times when it was calm. When the wind was strong, the captain/owner would raise his mainsail, making the boat go faster. There was a rope attached to the mainsail, which was used to control the speed of the vessel. However, the boat would go in a zigzag motion until arriving at its destination. I remember clearly that on one of those occasions when the boat was speeding, one side would tilt all the way down, touching the water, and in order for the entire vessel to not turn over, the captain would tell us to stand on the opposite side to counterweight.

The most precious moment for me was when looking into the crystalline waters, I saw dolphins swimming alongside the boat. Some were in front, as if guiding the vessel, and others would be on either side, playing. It was something unforgettable, something new, something special. Anyway, the other point I remember was that at night the captain used the stars for navigation; he did not have a compass, and it was that way until arriving at the back of San Pedro, not in front. When we got there, I noticed a small hut where a person would always stay as a watchman, since there were others who would steal the fish that were in the trap. That trap consisted of mangrove sticks with chicken wire. Back then, there were a lot of mangroves, and it was not against the law to cut them; this was about 70 years ago. This trap would start from the shoreline, extending in a straight line several meters into the water, creating somewhat of a wall so that the fish couldn’t pass. After having a certain length of wall, a huge circle was created with a tilted funnel embedded into it. This funnel was wide at its mouth, but narrower at the other end. The trap worked in this manner: when the fishes would collide into the wall, not knowing how to pass they would swim alongside the chicken wire looking for a way out. Upon finding an opening, not knowing it was a pathway into a bigger trap, they would swim up, entering into the circular confined area. The watchman was given some bony fish (our cultural Macabi), so he would roast it, and we would take with us, for it was used to make empanadas (panades), or others would make Macabi meatballs soup.

Back in those days, it was our Maya culture, at least here in the north, in Corozal. Now, the boat was stationed beside the circular trap. A group of us would enter into the trap with one end of a rope which held a large net while another group remained on the boat holding the other end. The ones who were in the water would take the net around, following the circular wall to capture the fish inside. After having taken it around, the rope was handed over to the group on the boat who would pull in the net to get the fishes closer. With a smaller net, a hand net, they would capture the fishes and put them into a water tank which was built in the boat. This tank had several holes which allowed sea water to enter, keeping the captured fishes alive during the journey back home because during that epoch people did not buy dead fishes; it had to be alive. After filling the fishing sailboat, we set course, we sailed until we arrived in Corozal. During the trip, several fish that were inside the tank died, so they were taken out, cleansed, salt was added, then it was left under the sun to dry. This was known as salt fish. There were people who liked the flavor or used it for different stews.

The market opened early in the morning. Once in Corozal, we would take the live fish to the stall where it was sold, so people bought live fish; nobody bought dead fish in those days. And the sales were made. All that has changed; we are in a completely different age where fish is now frozen. Although it is a business, for me, I believe that a live fish, freshly cleaned for food, is healthier than a dead, frozen fish, since when frozen it has all the guts, the gills, and all that which rots more quickly. Sometimes, people buy fish, and by the time they take it home, clean it and all that, the fish is already spoiled; the meat is soft but not firm. Nevertheless, when it is bought alive, and everything inside is removed, the meat is firm, fresh, and delicious.

This activity lasted approximately 3 weeks. My curiosity makes me wonder, how is it possible that Belize, a country with 174 miles of seafront, in addition, according to the Belize Maritime Areas Act 1992, it states that, “Subject to sub-sections (2) and (3) of this Section, the territorial sea of Belize comprises those areas of the sea having, as their inner limits, the baseline of the territorial sea and, as their outer limits, a line measured seaward from that baseline, every point of which is 12 nautical miles from the nearest point of that baseline.” Now, I ask myself, how is it that there is not enough fish in the sea? Why is it so expensive? It is not like before, and obviously, everything changes, it is past. The other thing I am quite curious about is how is it possible that with so few inhabitants in Belize, the ‘bony fish’ which some of us know as ‘Macabi’ is already in extinction. I don’t find the logic, since we don’t have so many inhabitants to exterminate or eat all that fish. Furthermore, it is forbidden to capture or consume it, for it is said that they are in extinction. It’s a shame, but most of all, the lack of fish, at least I can talk about Corozal, the rest of the country, I don’t know, I don’t live in the rest of the country. But here to get fish is quite difficult and very expensive; also its either frozen or half-frozen. I have heard on the news that fishermen complain that they have to go far to catch fish. And I ask myself again, where are all the fish? The waters were filled with fish. In the afternoons people would go with their gill nets and catch diversities of fishes such as the Chiwas (Belize Stone Bass), and people would purchase those to have for dinner in the evening. That custom is no more.

At times, I would walk by the seashore to see if there are any fishes, but I don’t see any. It seems that they are already extinct, or perhaps because many mangroves have been cut, there are no longer homes for the fishes. As a child, I would also fish in the mangroves, where I caught some that we called Pinta, which weighed about three quarters or half pound. I would clean it right there on the shore of the beach and take it home, where my grandmother would fry it and I would have it for dinner; it was very delicious. I don’t see them anymore, not even the catfish. In Belize, we were not accustomed to eating catfish. We have lost so much through time, and those who know more about this are the fishermen. Perhaps they have that information about why in Belize, as a country, there are areas where there are no fish, and others, where they cannot live either because the river is contaminated with chemicals that poison them, which is not good for human consumption. It’s a problem. I see a problem, so much so that now there are people who are dedicated to growing a fish called Tilapia which didn’t exist here. I wonder, instead of using that fish, why can’t they grow or have a farm that grows snappers, for example. I don’t know why. It cannot be that the technology to grow these fishes cannot be done since the snapper is originally from here. Obviously, not everyone likes snapper; everyone has their own tastes, but I think snapper is the one that sells the most, and it’s a shame that being such a pleasant country to live in, we don’t have enough fish for local consumption.

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February 26, 2023
Finca Solana
Corozal Town

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