Monday, April 11, 2005

Obsolete travel notes--Honduras before the hurricane

Though Roatan is a tropical island, sweat turned chill toward morning. Travelers would lie wrapped in clammy bedlinens, the sheets glued to their bodies.

Thus we would awake, December stars visible beyond the palm and banana fronds. The roosters would be crowing. Roatan Island is home to countless roosters, all invigorated by the climate of jungle-fowl ancestors. So. Rooster cranks himself up--rasping, shrill, ruffled, spasmodic, explosive as a sneeze--firing a convulsive chain reaction across the island, lacerating the fabric of dreams, as sleep bleeds away into dawning consciousness. We lie damp, chill and wide-awake, immersed in the pandemonium.
Sunrise soon lights the leaves overhead, and we would walk to Rudy's dining room, which was outdoors under banana trees by the beach; Rudy's clients came there both to eat breakfast and watch interesting people walking by on the sandy road, if it did not rain.
Rudy was a jovial, short, slightly fat, balding black man, who spoke Caribbean English by preference and upbringing...
"Pancakes on the window!" Rudy sang out, to announce the arrival of an order. He would put it out on the lower half of the Dutch door to his kitchen. The proper recipient had better get it quick, or someone else would, out of turn. The primo road-watching tables were farthest from the food window, so people had to balance the chance of interesting sights against the chance of not getting their food. In this, as in all things, was hidden a lesson.
A barefoot black man slowly raked the sand on the beach, piling the fibrous flotsam of coconut shell husks and crud from the sea into little mounds. He took pride in his work, and a Zen garden look slowly took shape along his little crescent strand. By evening the sea and the equally heedless beachwalkers would give him a new morning's work.
An exasperated villager, sweating and cursing, led a reluctant milk-cow down the street by dragging its even more reluctant calf ahead of it. Island men rode up and down the sandy street every morning at a fast trot on very small wiry horses, bareback or seated in high-backed Honduran saddles. They mounted and dismounted on the right. These were among the few evidences of the traditional lifeways of the village.
I felt somewhat unwell. I had it seems contracted the Roatan cold, which some tourist from the North had brought to the island at the beginning of the winter. Now it maintained itself among the newly arrived like a brush fire smoldering in an ever widening circle. This particular morning I cheered myself by meditating on the sight of an aging, relaxed Rastafarian man with long, cascading gray dreadlocks and hypnotic eyes conversing with young tourist women. A man who knows how to live, I thought.

Snorkeling was the day's agenda. My nose was sore, and I disliked the idea of putting on a face mask.
The morning snorkeling event was mixed in its blessings. The rocky headland a quarter mile down to the west had corals and colorful fishes, but the sea stung us with invisible nettles.
I got out of the water and sat in the coconut tree shade. The nettles took my mind off my other discomforts. My daughter Eve remained surprisingly nonchalant about her stings, some red lesions that disappeared after a half hour or so.
Later Robert, our 65 year old hotelier and storekeeper, who conducted his businesses out of his pocket where he kept a fistsized roll of bills, told us that the stinging stuff gets stirred up from the seaweed when you swim too close.
"Don't snorkle out in them weeds," he said. "Snorkle right there," pointing down the tourist main street of West End. So we snorkeled where he pointed, at Half Moon Bay, an inlet a hundred yards deep and two hundred wide in the middle of West End village, made by nature for tourism brochures. The beach sand was clean, the water clear, the coconut trees provided shade, the corals lay close inshore, and the shoals of fishes tilted in the bluegreen rays of undersea sunlight refracting occasionally iridescent colors, as snorkelers swam among them. The snorkelers floated in the asthmatic rhythms of their snorkelpipe breathing, flippered in slowmotion on frogleg rubber fins, held in the suction of sudden unseen pushes and pulls as we all surged in the same sporadic grip and ungrip of the sea. No sparkles of invisible freefloating pain disturbed us at Half Moon Bay, but we had to be wary of the pincushon sea urchins nestled with their crowns of glass quills in the rocky shallows.
Black and brown kids played by the shore of Half Moon Bay. The trees on the rocky cavitated reef promontories were gnarled and dwarfed, except for the coconut trees which exploded in the air like green fireworks, or the hurrah of a crowd.
A family of Germans came down to the water, all wearing minimalist European bathing suits, carrying snorkels and fins. They sat down and put on their gear, and each when ready thrashed vigorously in a sort of crawl stroke, out into the bay, at considerable speed. By the time the ten year-old boy (the slowest to get his fins on) got into the water, the father had kerchunked his way athletically halfway out to the reef, the mother 20 yards behind him, his older sister halfway between the shore and the mother. They rendezvoused at the reef, then swam past it, circled and dove together for a few minutes, and then as a unit began churning out to sea around the headland to the left, noisy, like a family of seals on steroids.

Across the way from Robert's Hill Hotel where we stayed was a restaurant on wooden pilings over the water, run by Neapolitans, frequented by middle-aged, sun-and-wind reddened European men wearing bikinis, pot-bellied with graying hair on their bodies, raw and splotchy, like bears undergoing chemotherapy.
What is it with European men and bikinis?

New Years Eve:
The year came to a close. A large white ship steamed across the horizon, and the lights dimmed into the twilight. It was New Year's Eve, and there was a big party at a beachside bar. The sun went down, and the band struck up a tune consisting of some reggae rhythms embedded in electrical feedback. Nothing happened. No one danced. Doldrums. The party threatened to fizzle, until an attractive American woman wearing a sarong-like skirt slit on one side got up on the wooden landing over the water and began undulating in a sinuous dance-in-place. The people looked at her. Someone fiddled with the equipment and the feedback disappeared. The band played, with increasing enthusiasm, for the dancing woman. She became more abandoned. More glimpses of leg. Everyone was spellbound. Cheers. Applause. She went wild. So did the crowd, even though the woman took off no clothes. Then other people started dancing on the sand, someone found a way to dim the lights, and the party began. Mostly it was French and German youth, who danced like buffaloes.
Kay and Eve and I went back to our room, after it got rowdy, plus I still felt unwell because of my cold. Anna and Joe stayed. At midnight I woke up to the countdown of seconds before midnight, and the sounds of someone vomiting at the stroke of 12.
New Years Day was hazy and warm. I sat on the porch, where my yellow shirt was drying on the line. Emptied Lucky Strike packs littered the rail, left by the drunken French youths, who had been singing Auld Lang Syne in French-accented Scottish dialect while stamping the rhythm, such as it was, in a sort of conga-line stumble, at 3 in the morning. The cigarette smoke from the blue-scorpion-tattooed-on-the-arm German woman sitting at the other end of the porch stung my nose.
The German tourists were already up and about--they had generally been more sedate than the French, who still dozed and groaned in their rooms, sleeping off hangovers.
The sea was silver-gray in the haze. A man stood in a dugout canoe 150-200 yards offshore. Snorklers floated nearer to shore, flashed their fins in the sun when they dove, making me think of otters. When they surfaced I could hear them clear their snorkles, making a hollow whuff that reminded me of distant fin whales I once heard in the Bay of Fundy.
I walked out on one of the Neopolitan restaurant piers and watched a gathering of tropical fish, muted bright colorful stripes. A yellow and black sea snake moved slowly along the bottom like a somehow self-propelled length of quarter-inch spotted rope.
A village man walked by carrying a bible. He wore his good clothes and a white pressed shirt. He seemed out of place there in his native town, among the godless foreigners.
That night we dined by candlelight at a rustic shanty restaurant called Stanley's, the candles in mason jars on the wooden mismatched picnic tables in the half-indoors, half-outdoors porch. The owners had used a red plastic tarp material decoratively, like curtains, along with a red banner bearing a stylized, heroic, neck-thews-like-a-bull profile of Lenin in gold. Below Lenin's stern gaze, the transfer of capital from the grasshoppers of the first world to the ants of the third proceeded apace with the businesslike transfer of food from plate to mouth--Stanley's was fairly expensive.
Rain fell in the morning, from the hills moving out seaward. Gray strands descended slowly in a curtain swinging out to sea across the rocky land’s-end. A few drops splattered on my head as I heard a rising chatter, then a roar as the approaching rain rattled the palm leaves and the tin roofs, changing the sea surface to a matte gray-olive, an undulating flannel texture, and I ran for cover under Robert's porch. I got there moments before the deluge, buckets of water pouring out of the sky. As fleeting as emotion, the rain was mostly gone, followed by bursts of wind and drizzle sweeping in moving dimples across the water after the main rainfront. The water regained color and luminosity out by the reef, where a large motor yacht, the Bay Islands Aggressor II, dropped anchor. Palms whipped in the wind. The Bay Islands Aggressor II dipped and bucked at its tether beyond the reef. I could see the white-uniform crew scurrying in and out of the cabin doors. I imagined they were passing out the Dramamine.

Island cab stopped to pick us up to go the island airstrip. The truck behind honked. The cab driver ignored it. The truck pulled up and the guy said in Spanish to the cab driver,
"What a stupid way to drive."
"So go around."
"You're an idiot, parking in the middle of the street."
"So do something about it."
"Maybe I will."
"I'm ready." Etc. All this would have led to a shootout in Mexico, or some parts of the United States.
The cab driver remained nonchalant, not breaking the rhythm of his chicle-chewing during the confrontation.The truck guy drove off.

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