he day starts at 5 a.m. The roosters crow and roam freely on the grass fields. The penetrating heat wakes the people the moment it rises.
The clang and bang of pots and pans fills the air as Thelma Castro, the cook for Refuge International, prepares breakfast for its American volunteers.
She zooms around the kitchen, and at some point, flattens out balls of flour dough by hand.
Clap clap clap.
Once she has formed perfectly smooth raw tortillas, she throws them on the stove, flipping them between her bare hands with expertise.
Castro can be found at any time of the day in her kitchen with a pot of blacks beans, making fresh tamarind juice or frying fish that she caught right outside her porch.
Castro is also a midwife, or comadrona, for the village and has delivered over 30 children since she was 19 years old.
“It’s a beautiful thing to help someone bring a child into the world,” Castro said.
Life in the fishing village of Sarstun is all Castro knows. Her sun tanned skin and weathered bare feet are evidence of 47 years of fishing and sun exposure.
“I like to live here because it’s tranquil. You can get everything you need from here,” Castro said. “There’s fish, shrimp, bananas and coconuts. You get it from the land here in Sarstun and it’s grown here.”
She describes the village as a place where you can live in peace. After breakfast and lunch, which both consist of beans and tortillas, she feeds her calfs with a massive bottle of milk.
The small waterfront aldea (village) of Sarstun is tucked away along the river, which forms a portion of the border between Belize and Guatemala.
It is only accessible by water of the Sarstun River. The greenest trees tower high over it, shielding it on either side. Lily pads sprinkle the the river with a welcoming bloom and coconut trees cover the rolling hills.
Cows graze the vibrant green pastures with their hooves covered in fresh mud.
The faint sound of the first boat engine firing up can be heard as the boatman and Thelma’s husband, Ruben Rafael Milian Rosa, revs the engine. He rides the morning water to pick up people from the surrounding aldeas to bring them back to Sarstun for medical attention.
Ruben, is a tall and reserved man, his faced adorned with droopy eyes that seem to be looking into your soul. Rosa has lived in the remote village all his life, like his parents before him.
He is a man of the river, going where he is called. Rosa has worked as an emergency transporter for Refuge International, a volunteer medical group based out of Texas, since its inception in 2008.
He serves as a water ambulance driver bringing people in need of medical attention to the only clinic within the immediate area. The closest available facility is two hours away by boat.
The founder of Refuge International, Deb Bell, established the clinic that sits in plain view of the river, blending in seamlessly with its thatched roof. Golf ball-sized spiders and massive moths do not play favorites as they invade the building as much as any other.
Sarstun was believed to be one of the worst villages in the region in terms of health and nutrition, Bell said.
The volunteer-run clinic provides preventive healthcare to about 10,000 indigenous people in the area, which includes the surrounding villages like San Juan.
Before Refuge International arrived in Sarstun there was a great need for clean water. The organization has installed wells in the village to provide healthy, portable water to Sarstun and the rest of the region.
The contaminated water affected the health of everyone before Refuge arrived.
“It would rain all the time, but it was dirty water … ,” Rosa said. “Now’s there’s clean water all the time. In the summer and winter, it’s always clean.”
A massive de-worming initiative has also been implemented to rid the children of stomach worms that have caused many deaths.
Bell, who brings Refuge International volunteers to Sarstun a couple times per year, hopes to let the world know about the needs and struggles of these people.
“It’s been a great help, not only for Sarstun but also for the rest of the villages. Since the start of this institution it has greatly benefited our health,” Rosa said. Their house sits on the river, with a narrow and concrete ramp connecting it to land. A feeble black dog sits there at any given time of the day, observing the mass of chickens a couple feet away by the coop.
At the end of a path past the wet, mucky terrain to the top of the hill directly behind the house sits a one-story narrow building that is the village school.
It bears the school name, Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta Aldea Sarstoon, in black stencil lettering. There are two doors that lead to one concrete floor room with a black tarp in the middle to create two rooms for preschool and older children.
Eager children sit in their desks rewriting the alphabet in their weathered notebooks. When they finish, they take it up to the teacher’s desk for evaluation.
Thelma Veronica Milian Castro, daughter of Ruben and Thelma, is the preschool teacher which makes it hard to believe that she is only 20-years-old.
The black tarp is not efficient in separating the two classes because the laughs and yelled answers from both groups of kids mingle. Thelma instructs the class with an obvious passion for the little people in front of her as the quiet river shines in view from the classroom door.
The preschool is another improvement that Refuge International is responsible for.
“It’s a blessing thanks to Refuge International. It’s because of them that the school is functioning, because there wasn’t one until two years ago,” Castro said. “Thanks to Deborah, the school was saved.”
Across the school, on the crest of another mound of earth is a cemetery where the souls of victims of the Spanish Influenza rest. Wild grass tumbles over the colorful bright headstones adorned with flower wreaths.
The music from the church carries up the slope of the hill and through the cemetery.
After a dinner of more beans and fried plantains, Castro cleans her kitchen while Rosa pulls the boats in for the night. The stars burst in the sky, the moon illuminates a silver glow and a symphony of birds, frogs, grasshoppers and monkeys puts Sarstun to sleep.