Our Slice of Paradise – Roatan, Honduras

The man stood at the side of the car gesturing wildly and frantically speaking the local patois. It was only as we got closer to the taxi, our bags waiting at the back of the van, that I could see the man yelling at a sweet-faced little girl on the inside. She had locked the doors – locking herself in and us out. I grinned with glee. It was a perfect way to end a trip that was truly one of a kind. 

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After Tom’s and my rough encounter with the coral reef in Half Moon Bay on the first day, the rest of the week went pretty smoothly. While five of us dived the healthy reefs and one of us tried to fish, the other two explored the town and the inside of their eyelids. Two of us also dived deeper than humankind rarely goes via a man-made submersible.  We sailed the Caribbean on a catamaran, watched sunsets when we could, and ate lobster like we were Rockefellers. We sipped on mojitos and fruit punches laced with Nicaraguan rum. We tossed back native brews of Barena, Port Royal and Salvida, and paid dearly for good old American Miller Lites.

We endured the bugs, the wind, the cats, the stifling heat, and the bugs again. And still, we found paradise in Coral Vista #5 on Half Moon Bay in the West End, Roatan, Honduras.

Would I go back? Most definitely. It was completely different from my dive trip to Utila six years ago where there were barely any fish. On the west side of Roatan, there are groupers, snappers, grunts and damselfishes. I had several close encounters with green moray eels, swam next to turtles and even chased down a solitary eagle ray. The largest predator, however, was nowhere to be found. Roatan was once known for schools of hammerhead sharks. We didn’t even see a nurse shark. While it is healthy now (see my picture of the elkhorn coral), the coral reef may be in danger due to over fishing, the lion fish invasion, and the lack of big predators. Plus, the island struggles with recycling and trash. We found beer cans at 2000 feet.

Normally, we would spend one day exploring the entire island, but we never seemed to have the time or energy to commit to that 96 square mile journey. We learned that most people live on the coast, avoiding the mountainous jungle that splits the island down the middle. Expats are beginning to build on the mountainsides, but it’s expensive to import construction materials and create access to water. The natives still live in dilapidated structures, probably not hurricane-sustainable. So, disparity continues in  that regard – same old Caribbean story.

At times West End felt a little like a Mexican cruise ship port with little kids peddling goods to naive tourists. We got played almost daily by a nine-year-old and his sister selling jewelry and stonework that “his brother made.”

Kids there have strange school hours. They matriculate from 9am to noon, then spend the afternoon selling their wares to Gringos, returning to school from 5 to 9pm. While it keeps them out of trouble, the kids are quickly immersed into the harsh business world. Didn’t seem to hurt Daniel any. He knew that sticking his little bottom lip out would cause us to reach for our wallets. His little brain also quickly converted lempiras to dollars, swifter than anyone in our alcohol-addled party. I’m happy to have contributed to his, um, education.

The people are lovely, the corals are healthy and it’s one of the least expensive places to live and dive, and I wouldn’t hesitate if someone suggested we return for a visit. Since I spent most of my time underwater, I believe the island itself is worth exploring next time.

Coda: While the taxi driver struggled with his daughter, I dashed in to pay my respects to the marine park headquarters which I had neglected the entire week. While I was making my “donation” in exchange for some jade dangles and a sticker for my dive log, my astute husband discovered the van’s unlocked sliding door. Leave it to Tom to ensure our on-time arrival at the airport, ultimately leading back to our own little paradise at home.

We are the “Ill-advised Reef Riders”

Honduras, Roatan 10/14/2012 (Photos to follow with better internet service.)

Shipwrecks all over the world have foundered on an unseen,unstoppable force – coral reef. Lurking just below the surface are heads of hardened coral substrate built up over eons. Atop this ancient limestone sit the beautiful coral animals we travel the tropical world to see. Beautiful, but potentially deadly. This cement-like structure is detrimental to the bottom a ship, particularly when you’re jolted aground.

The Meso-American Reef, the second largest in the world, lies just outside our door here on Half Moon Bay, West End, Roatan. Here can be found world class scuba diving and snorkeling. The bay also has a shallow reef easily accessible from our back porch.

We spent our first full day on Roatan recovering from the celebration of our arrival the night before. The morning began with a nice relaxing walk around the bay, a lazy breakfast at home, and a soak in the 6×15 pool overlooking the foliage leading down to our slice of heaven. For the more active, kayaks come with the rental home. In the afternoon, Tom and I, ever the kayaking enthusiasts, decided to give one a whirl.

Now, West End is typically on the leeward side of the island. However, our plane rode in on a northerly wind bringing with it stiff waves and rain, particularly to our bay. The splashing, crashing, breaking waves explode on the points on either side of the bay’s entrance. Dramatically frothy. This weather is forcing all fishing and diving operations on the West End to take their boats to the now calmer, windward side. This did not stop us from our kayaking adventure.

With the wind and waves comes trash. Tom and I thought we would use our time on the kayak as a floating recycling bin, tooling around the bay scooping up bottles, styrofoam and the odd spray can. We could see our house from the bay, and better yet, our friends could see us. But they were barely interested, enjoying the afternoon by the pool, or so we assumed. After collecting a full boat of trash, we began paddling towards our house. We learned later that one of our party said, “Well, that’s ill-advised.”

Something else you need to know about coral reefs. If you’re an old salt, you recognize the waves called breaking rollers that indicate a reef very near the surface. Something else we now know, the bay’s wave series comes in sixes. When we headed to the shore, we turned our backs to the incoming water.

We heard the first wave before we saw it. It gave us a thrilling shove forward, lifting the kayak to the crest, dropping us just as quickly. While in the trough of the first wave, the second wave crashed down on us, swamping our boat. Tom was washed overboard. The momentum of his dive overturned the kayak, dumping me and all our collected trash. This would have been fine had we been over deeper, aquamarine water. Instead, the third through sixth waves rolled us over black water consisting of the hard coral reef. No sooner, had I found my footing, another wave smashed into me, dunking me into coral head after coral head. When it was over, Tom was 50 feet away, having found footing on top of a rocky underwater outcrop. I swam to capture the rapidly escaping boat, adrenaline propelling me through the water.

I love my husband, but he’s not a confident swimmer. So, it was me that had to shrink the distance between us, swimming against the current to bring the boat and life jacket back to him. I also towed us both back to a shallower depth where Tom was able to flip the boat and we could paddle back to shore.

“Vinegar will dry those cuts right up,” said the Rastaman at the bar on the beach. He was referring to the five-inch gash on my left thigh. When Bubba saw it, he said with alarm, “Are you going to need stitches?” Another travel scar for yet another trip.

With help from a local  man, we trudged the kayak up the hill to its appropriate cubby hole beneath the house. More humiliating was facing our friends who had witnessed the entire debacle. But there was no avoiding it, we needed to clean and dress our wounds. So far, we’ve counted 17 scrapes between us. Thank God, we didn’t hit our heads, the rashes relegated to our lower extremities and my butt. Speaking of which, we are the butt of all the jokes right now — they’re calling us the Reef Riders.

Someone is going to have to do something really stupid to take the focus from our ill-advised maneuvers, and we’ve set the bar very high. I’m hopeful, though, the week is still young.

Wanderlustkind, We are Many

I once took a long walk off of a short pier as a toddler. The story I’m told is that in the split second my parents put me down on the ground my diaper-swaddled self raced toward the green Gulf waters. I’ve been doing that ever since, minus the diapers.

Some people are born with wanderlust. I clearly am one of them and am often perplexed by those without the travel gene. My brother, for instance, claims his home is his vacation.  He is content not to learn about other cultures, experience new foods and the potential for uncomfortable circumstances. He makes his fun literally in his own backyard.

His wife, born from parents who camp and cruise, has the wanderlust DNA. Fortunately, she is included in her parents’ journeys. She and I also do a little traveling ourselves, with her son and a niece from another brother who also doesn’t travel. This year, we plan to take a roadtrip to the beach via a diamond digging excursion in Arkansas, if time allows.

I count myself fairly adventurous, traveling to Italy without an explicit itinerary, visiting off-the- beaten path  Mexican villages, or taking scuba trips half way around the world. But, my wanderlust is tame compared to others.

I have a sister-in-law who likes to travel to third-world countries as a medical missionary. She has seen the poorest of the poor in Dominica and Romania. Her heart yearns to do more, to help more, to be God’s right and left hands. She says it’s her calling.

In that same vein, there are people who spend money to travel to a poor country to assist the locals. However, the helpers ultimately turn tourist to take time to visit the beach, go zip-lining or take in a museum or three. It’s called voluntourism. I’ve done a bit of it when I helped rebuild coral reefs in Florida, but there are so many other opportunities.

Then, there are those enviable kids  who right out of college head to Europe, Thailand, the Middle East, backpacking, living and learning among the native people. They get good and scruffy before they come home and have to join “the real world.”

An  older, more responsible version of that kind of trip was recently taken by a business associate who recently completed a three-day “walkabout” in southeastern Kansas. He took a bus to one small town, walked the back roads to another town, ending his journey in Independence, Kansas. He did this alone, with a backpack and three bottles of water. It’s not Australia, but it’s a renegade action nonetheless.

Wanderlust guru Rick Steves  says it doesn’t matter whether your trip is for hedonism, for health or for helping, as long as you’re getting out and exploring the world. Travel broadens your mind, expands your heart, and may even make the rest of the world not so irritated by Americans.

Whatever your reasons for travel, it’s clearly in your DNA.

It’s been five months since my last long walk off of a short pier, and my wanderlust is raging. I’m hoping to take a roadtrip to Fort Myers mid-June. I can’t afford the time for the back roads, but I’m going to take my time along the interstates and share my journey with you.