The fisher village we were staying at in Sanya for the first two days while working with and for the sea turtles was incredibly poor and incredibly dirty. The first thing that struck me was the smell. A noxious scent of urine, blood, fish and stinky tofu hang in the air; thick, heavy and omni-present. The roads were full of fishermen and market women trying to sell their goods for a few Yuan to the people passing by. Small fish were drying on grids in the sun, their silver scales glittering in the light; children played between dead fish and fetid puddles on the street; and it seemed like every few meters you had to avoid stepping onto a – dead or living – rat.
The wrinkly, old, sun-burnt market women sat on the dirty ground or worn-out carton boards, masses of coconuts, lettuce, mangos and papayas stacked up in front of them. Dumplings and noodles were fried at small stands on the open street, filling the air with their white steam. The streets were stained with red splashes; marks of where locals had spat out their Areca nuts. Areca nuts are a form of drug very commonly used in Hainan, where it is also produced. It is the red seed from a certain palm tree and usually sold together with cigarettes. Not only is it addictive, but also equally dangerous to the human health as alcohol and tobacco, being carcinogen and causing equal effects for babies by use during pregnancy, as smoking or drinking do. Yet you can see nearly every single elderly person on the streets chewing this nut, spitting it out onto the bare street.
Coming closer to the harbor, you could make out ships and boats at the end of the small streets and byroads. The harbor water was filthy; fat, grey, dead fish swam at the surface of the brownish brew among plastic bottles and split coconuts. Many of the fisher boats seemed to be very old, used for generations, and were kept together in very creative yet not very safe appearing ways. Ropes and tires were roughly nailed to the boats’ edges, rusty lanterns had been attached to their sides. The boats drove back and forth between the harbor and the outskirts of the fisher village, that lay further out in the sea. Pirate boats, colorfully painted, with plants standing on the palisades and wet clothes hanging from the masts, silently swung on the waves, while the smaller house boats and huts on stakes resisted the currents further out on the water.
Every time we took the boat out to the sea turtle hospital, we passed those stake-hut villages. The people residing there lived from fish processing and water-taxi services. Their huts were tiny, smaller than my corner in LPC, and surrounded by fishing nets and the open sea. Dogs and cats ran around everywhere. Especially the dogs completely freaked out whenever a boat like ours passed by, chasing it from the wooden planks that connected the huts with each other, and barking aggressively at us. The people of the village on stakes watched us strangers suspiciously as we made our way through the small water alleys between the houses and fish farms; knitting their fisher nets or cutting up their fresh fish.
The poverty of the village was both shocking and moving. Even though there was a local school, it was obvious that most children did not go there but rather helped their parents in the bakeries, on the fisher boats or on the market. Personal and community hygiene was apparently an equally big issue in the village; most locals, especially men, had either lacking or rotting teeth and the dead rats that we saw on the streets on our first night in the village were still in the exact same spots when we left, with nobody moving them away. Staying in this environment for a few days definitely pulled me back all the way down to being conscious about how lucky I am to live in a safe and clean place and to be able to access education and health care. Of course I knew about that before, but experiences like these just push it right back into the front of your mind again.