Three days of celebration featuring a favorite seafood delicacy - LOBSTER - certainly caught our attention on the local radio and newspaper ads in June. Knowing that we publish two Belizean Journeys features each month we figured it was worth a shot to convince our boss that we would be happy to collaborate on a Placencia Lobsterfest feature in return for all expenses being covered. She bought it!
After a false start on June 21 when the whole celebration had to be postponed due to rain, the three of us were on the 5:00 p.m. bus out of Dangriga on June 28th on our way to the 4th annual Placencia Lobsterfest. The Placencia branch of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) organizes the bash to showcase one of Belize's most prized natives: the delicious Caribbean lobster. The residents of Placencia Village have had a long, tumultuous history with the beloved lobster. Before tourism became the main source of revenue for the village, lobster fishing was the primary source of income for the residents. A severe decline in the lobster population led to seasonal lobster harvesting only, giving the lobster time to reproduce without interruption during the closed season. Thus, on June 15th, when the season opens, Lobsterfest follows as a celebration of the glories of the lobster.
The event also commemorates Fisherman's Day , the patron St. Paul and serves as a fundraiser for community projects of the BTIA. This year, the BTIA and villagers hope to raise enough revenue from Lobsterfest to rebuild the world's narrowest street, (it's in the Guinness Book of World Records), the Placencia sidewalk, damaged by hurricane Iris and the cleaning efforts afterwards last October. According to Elysia Dial of the Placencia Tourism Center and one of the primary organizers, the event continues to grow larger and larger each year with new events, more widespread promotions and sponsors, and exceptional community spirit and cooperation. Of course, the true motivation to have Lobsterfest is to throw one hell of a party and inspire the hips of both young and old to shake and twist to the beats of music, music, and more music. In the eloquent words of one bartender, "The purpose of Lobsterfest is to bash... plain and simple."
We arrived at our hotel at 7:30 with a thirst for a party and a hunger for revelry. One of the greatest advantages of Placencia is that you can be right on the beach and be in the center of town in the heart of the festivities at the same time. Most accommodations had been booked, though tent vendors accommodated any late-comers a few yards from a massive Belikin bottle where most of the activities would transpire.
As we strolled down the famed Placencia sidewalk, the force of an unknown magnetic pull (delicious smells hitting our noses) drew us to the immensely popular Cozy Corner Bar, Restaurant and Hotel. Witnessing the swarm of guests around Cozy's beachfront thatch bar, one would never guess that this establishment had been completely leveled by Iris just nine months earlier. We mingled and chatted with the mixed crowd about life on the beach, lobster on the menu, and cold Belikin Beer in the hand. Of course, dinner and drinks only begin a night at Lobsterfest, so with a mood to party we inquired about where we could find the marquee bash for the night. Next stop: Sugar Reef Sunset Bar. As we headed for the lagoon side of the narrow Placencia peninsula towards Sugar Reef, the village was still and quiet. We thought we had taken a wrong turn, but just as we questioned our navigational skills, a light breeze brought a faint trace of music-we had arrived.
Something about a thatch bar always puts me in the mood to revel in the glories of the Caribbean. The lagoon side of the Sugar Reef thatch encloses a multi-level dock over the water with hammocks strewn on the lower level. Boats found parking spaces around the lower dock while their drivers enjoyed the variety of rhythms served up by the DJ... reggae, Soca, Dancehall and Punta. Earlier, the fishermen planning to participate in Saturday's fishing competition had met here to discuss the rules and regulations of the upcoming tournament. Now, the dance floor only overflowed with music and the wiggling bodies of tourists, Belizeans, Belizean-Americans, and other Central Americans. Virgin Lobsterfest attendees and seasoned veterans from various Belizean villages and towns stretching from Punta Gorda through to Belize City had converged on Placencia this weekend to celebrate the lobster and support the village's sidewalk restoration effort; now the dance floor showcased the nation's best dance moves. Placencia had been transformed into a miniature representation of the extraordinarily diverse country of Belize. This particular night was still quite young and the legs of this mixed crowd would be fresh for many more hours to come.
We did not stir with the sun the following day, but the competing fishermen rose much earlier than dawn to be ready for the 5am tournament send off. On Saturday morning, Lobsterfest officially begins with the opening ceremony at 10:00am. After the village chairman, Glen Eiley, said a few words and declared Lobsterfest officially begun, the Village burst into activity.
Yesterday evening may have been quiet around the Village, but this morning bubbled over with action. Food and drink vendors quickly set up their booths to accommodate lobster-hungry guests. The booths had a wide variety of lobster related foods such as lobster fritters, lobster patties, lobster quiche, lobster fajitas, lobster tails with fresh, ice cold watermelon, lime juice, beer, or soda. Of course, the standard rice and beans, barbeque chicken, panades, and garnaches were not difficult to find either.
All of the activities converged on the center of town where a variety of activities catered to every individual taste and mood. The morning's events focused on exhausting at least some of the energy of the children attendees. Exuberant children participated in a number of games including a balloon toss, dance competition, shilling walk, and sack race. Face painting and a Magic show helped to captivate them while their parents enjoyed a quick respite under the shade of a coconut tree--storing energy for the evening's activities. Other visitors strolled along the sidewalk while absorbing the laid back Placencia vibes and visiting the various food and business booths. The Placencia beach also attracted its own crowd of sun bathers, sandcastle-builders, and water acrobatics.
By noon when the fishermen returned from their exploits, the festivities were in full swing. As the 1:00pm deadline to weigh the catch of the day approached, the hoards of people swallowed each boat in their curiosity. The many "ohs" and "ahs" over the size of the barracudas, king mackerel ("kingfish") and six pound lobster brought to shore could have been heard in Mexico. Each catch was officially weighed and recorded by the designated committee member through the shouts and boasts of the participants. The goal of the tournament is to accumulate the most points via the weight and variety of fish caught. The more weight and the rarer the fish, the more money awarded. The grand slam prize ($1,000) is awarded to the boat that catches at least one kingfish, barracuda, and jack of qualifying weight. No one was awarded this prestigious prize this year, but each fisherman appreciated his moment in the spotlight. Of course "the water was rough", "the bait wasn't right", or "the fish just weren't biting"... competition brings out the best excuses.
As the sun started its final descent, the tunes of the World Culture Band started to fill the air. A swelling crowd formed to see this Cayo district based-band perform in the main tent. Reggae rocked the crowd until the World Cup Championship match finally took over to captivate the crowd into the wee hours of the night and cap off a day of glorious gluttony.
The exhaustion from the previous 48 hours must have finally kicked in as Sunday morning started quietly and unhurriedly. Movement could be detected by 11:00am as red-eyed lobster fans lined up for a final plate of lobster before heading back to a rice and beans world. Suddenly we found ourselves at the end of our treacherous assignment; the warm sun and cool breezes would have to wait for our next trip to beautiful Placencia. The word quickly spread that the goal amount of money had been reached this weekend for the sidewalk restoration efforts. Even with a smaller turnout, Lobsterfest 2002 raised $5000 more than the previous year. Talk of a four-day fest next year sent our minds scheming once again how we could convince our boss of the necessity of a follow-up report. Unfortunately for the lobster, it's a tasty delicacy hungrily sought after around the world; at least we honor it with a party fit for the king of the sea.
And, by the way, boss, if we hadn't been to Placencia before, we wouldn't have known there had been a hurricane last October.