Even after reviewing the syllabus multiple times from my dorm room in Chapel Hill, our three-week adventure to Mexico remained largely amorphous. While phrases like “multi-night backcountry camping,” “snorkel with sea lions,” and “visit with local entrepreneurs engaged in sustainable aquaculture” prompted me to register for the course, I arrived in Kino Bay without any preconceived ideas or expectations as to what the following three weeks would hold.
As our time in this veritable paradise comes to an end, I have come to recognize the beauty in uncertainty. So much of what our global society regards as success stems from a larger desire for stability. In a more fundamental sense, we have come to see change as something to dread – such that many individuals seem compelled to remain discontent rather than embrace the opportunities of the undiscovered.
While this idealization of stability seems to persist across cultures, our time in and around the Gulf of Mexico has allowed me to realize that uncertainty should not always be associated with fear. In fact, the dynamic nature of an interaction or adventure can challenge individuals to embrace present moment without preexisting expectations. Alternatively, fluidity and doubt can form the basis of daily life. Although my understanding of uncertainty is limited to the former category, our time in Mexico offered powerful insight on the dynamic and constantly evolving role one concept can play in a given culture.
During protracted periods of silence on the boat as our cohort traveled within the Gulf of California, I have consistently been struck by the dramatic role of ambiguity in my experience of the communities, wildlife, and landscape of coastal Sonora. Specifically as we ventured to Tiburón Island this past week, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of wonder at the vastness of the island and its striking similarity to the hills surrounding Santa Fe, New Mexico. In contrast to the desert I grew up in, however, the light green to deep blue ocean waves overwhelm the red, sandy cliffs of the desert landscape.
Aside from the familiar yet unexpected beauty of the natural environment, my lack of expectations for our adventure also informed my experience of our various and somewhat surreal wildlife encounters. On our early morning trip to Rasa – a volcanic island that is home to 95% of the Royal and Elegant Tern populations – our boat fortuitously came across thousands of dolphins engaged in what appeared to be a feeding frenzy. From the surface of the water, the swimming mass of fins appeared simply as a windy patch on the ocean. Before I could even begin to grasp what was happening, eight common dolphins were racing beneath the bow of our boat, with an additional hundred leaping out of the water every few seconds. Overcome with a combination of awe, shock, and wonder, I cannot recall whether I said anything or simply stared. At the marine lab, seeing three or four dolphins has proven an incredible treat; to suddenly find myself in the midst of hundreds of them as they sprayed salt water into the air and flopped onto the wake from the boat was completely unimaginable.
Although I can’t be sure, one of the primary reasons this experience proved so surreal was because the opportunity was so foreign that it did not even cross my mind. As a result, I was able to embrace our encounter in a relatively pure form – one not colored by preconceived understandings or perceptions of what our adventure to Tiburón might hold. Following from this experience, I came to better understand the means in which expectations influence and inhibit the experience of a moment – thereby encouraging me to once again view uncertainty as a beautiful and powerful means of experiencing the world.
Although much of my experience associated with instability stems from self-imposed ventures or projects, conversations with various fishermen in the Kino and Comcaác (Seri) communities have expanded to understanding to include uncertainty as a characteristic of life. One of the most critical and embedded components of fishing communities, as I have begun to understand, is the recognition that the industry itself is extremely unstable. For many individuals, the appeal of fishing is primarily based in the possibility of an excellent catch – almost equivalent to winning the lottery. Making such a catch would effectively restore financial security to the fisherman’s family, as well as give them the opportunity to settle outstanding expenses, provide food for their family, and maybe purchase various goods that would have otherwise been unattainable. Notwithstanding the possibility of a lucrative reward, fishermen have no guarantee that such a catch will ever come. Instead, they venture out judiciously into the marine environment out of a love for the ocean and a sustained sense of hope that they will find the million-dollar catch.
For me, the stark contrast of narratives associated with uncertainty has offered an important counter point to the seemingly standard understanding of stability as a critical to a successful life. Our time in the Gulf of California and with various members of the Comcaác and Kino communities has allowed me to set aside many of my preconceived ideas of community-based conservation to embrace our experience in Mexico to the fullest extent I am able. I have come to realize how critical a role uncertainty plays in the continued existence of coastal fishing communities. By their pervasive quality of resilience and hope, they have radically transformed my understanding of the value of uncertainty – not so much as something I should embrace when it is convenient, but rather as something I should strive for in order to fully experience the joys and disappointments of the world around me.