2000 Expedition Journals
"Dance with me," she said, and I tried. And although I wasnt as terrible as I feared, there were a few factors working against me. The dance in question is called La Punta. Its a cultural mainstay of the black Garifuna people, with rhythms and body language deeply rooted in African dance traditions. Usually danced at festivals, funerals, and spiritual ceremonies, its now a permanent part of any social scene. And in a Garifuna bar or social club its the lingua franca of the dance floor.
Although I could say that I wasnt properly inspired by my rotund middle-aged dance partner, and thus couldnt really "get into the music", its not really the case. The music was infectious and I really tried. The real reasons I couldnt hold my own on the dance floor were: one, as an in-shape guy its demoralizing to be completely out-hustled and out-danced by a large Caribbean mama, and two, no matter how hard I train, stretch, practice, Ill never be able to move my butt back and forth like they do. Their upper bodies and legs barely move, yet their hips shift horizontally out from their torso as if completely detached and with such rapidity your head spins trying to watch them.. Incredible!
I was having much fun however, and I had to remind myself that fun was really the only goal. The people around me were just happy to have me out there participating. They certainly had no performance expectations for me. Why should I have any for myself?
At first glance, the Punta seems easy. Thats because first glance happens when the music first starts and they are moving at their lowest intensity level. Generally the women dance and the men drum except in discos where its coed. However, its always the women who dance more energetically. The upper body hardly moves. Occasionally arms are raised in preparation for a few whirling spins. The legs shuffle in rhythm to the drums, the feet moving mere inches with each beat, scuffing the ground. The hips of the talented dancers have a life of their own, jerking and bouncing from side to side not unlike a hula dancer. And the skirts the women wear only emphasize the movement.
We were in a small music hall/cultural center in the coastal fishing village of Sambo Creek and the first hour was a performance. Three men played drums, the deepest pounding out a regular bass rhythm with the two higher timbre drums playing rapid contrapuntal rhythms. One man blew a horn made from a Conch shell and a small boy shook gourd maracas. They all glistened with sweat. The four women dancing were transcendent. One of the four was a beautiful 20-something woman with long hair in tight braids, shiny black and pulled back into a large bundle of a pony tail. It turns out that her mother is a spirit medium, a witch, who helps guide people through spiritual trances and communicate with ancestors, a religious tradition among the Garifuna. The same spiritual vein runs deeply in the daughter people told me. As the music intensified, it enveloped her, to the point where her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she succumbed entirely to the rhythms, shaking, spinning and gyrating without any conscious involvement in her movements. At the end of the performance, she had to be helped off the dance floor.
The group of women sing and chant while they dance. Usually one woman is a designated leader and she begins the verse and the rest follow. It is a cascade of notes, mixed sharps and flats, that tumbles down from a high start to a low finish. I wouldnt describe the singing as highly melodic or musical but it fills the room with powerful sound. The drums reverberate in your torso and make your feet move in abbreviated jerky steps. The singing brings the music to your head and ears and makes your arms swing in longer fluid motions that trail off with the last low notes of the chorus. The two are perfect counterparts.
The evening concluded with a brief but stunning display of dancing from a village legend, the so called Garifuna Michael Jackson. A dead-ringer for the jazz/hip hop musician Herbie Hancock he was a wiry young guy whod spent some time in the States. It was reflected in his dancing. He had the drummers raise the tempo and proceeded to weave break-dance moves and Punta into an incredibly athletic and energy-charged style that had the entire room in conniptions of excitement, cheering, hooting, and chanting in rhythm. It was an oddly fitting tribute to intercultural exchange with movements and rhythms with 300 year old roots from the island of St. Vincent and Africa, interwoven with street beats and body language born in New York City in the 80s. The villagers looked on with faces that shifted from all-knowing smiles to complete bemusement; we did the same. And together we cheered and laughed on the sidelines.
Im back from a meeting of minds with a chef on the former buccaneer enclave of Utila Island and JP is back from swimming with alligators in the Pantanal region of Brazil. JP and I separated for the month to take a little R&R away from the expedition and each other. Familiarity breeds contempt they say, and although we were nowhere near that, like siblings who sit in the back of a car for too long, we were picking at each other. After a month we are recharged and ready to start paddling again. We get back in the boats next week to battle the waves, wind and rain of the monsoon season in a leg that will take us from Omoa in the northwest to the city of La Ceiba.
The island of Utila is renowned for its cheap diving and for its inhabitants who are descendents of privateers such as the legendary Captain Henry Morgan, Blackbeard and the like. All the filthy lucre pilfered from the Spanish may be gone but there is a new type of loot there that will whet your appetite, the food. The cuisine scene is exceptional. Locally produced mangos, avocados and a bevy of spices including garlic, black pepper, coriander, chiles, etc, are used in combination with fresh seafood plucked from the Caribbean. They do great things with thick steaks cut from barracuda, black fin tuna, wahoo, kingfish and snapper. As well, with produce, chicken and beef imported from the mainland, the island has it all.
I spent a couple weeks working with an ex-pat chef David Ayarra at his restaurant Daves Stingray Grill at the Cross Creek Dive Resort. Originally an Idahoan and later a legend in the San Fran Bay area, he calls the island home. With a Honduran wife, a couple kids and a half dozen years on the island, he is now considered a local. I showed him the art of sushi preparation (black fin tuna is the best maguro sushi there is!) and in return he gave me a couple local recipes of his own design, Mango Glazed Chicken and Utilan Green Curry Prawns. They are fabulous so be sure to take a look at the cuisine page.
I look forward to getting back in the boat and in shape after a month of relative sloth. The cooks life is not an athletic one Im afraid and Ive gone a little soft around the edges.
After 2 months away from the kayak, there is no gentle way to reintroduce your body to distance paddling and rustic camping. Ego will not allow you to take the first few days slow and easy and keep the mileage in the single digits. Like any athlete who competed at a high level, when you return to the field of battle after a long hiatus you say to yourself, "I did it before and Ill do it again now, dammit!" How quickly we forget the hours and months of training that preceded such accomplishments.
Mother Nature is not in the sympathy business.
The first day out of Omoa to Puerto Cortes (the busiest port in Central America) was an easy two-hour jaunt across a bay (sorry to disappoint those of you looking for more blood and guts right off the bat). We even had the luxury of a covered campsite, spending the night under the balcony of a friend of a friends vacation home on the beach east of the city.
When the alarm woke us at 3:30 for an early departure the sky was being torn asunder with bolts of lightning and rumbling thunder. We didnt even get out of bed before deciding to make it a rest day. We passed the "recovery day" with an orgy of pop-culture and soul food in the industrial city of San Pedro, an hour bus ride into the interior. Even staunch warriors battling the elements in the wilds of the developing world occasionally submit to the dark forces of cultural imperialism. We shamefully admit to stuffing ourselves with Little Caesars pizza and zoning-out in front of a couple matinees.
Well-fueled and rested we pushed off the following day at 6:00 AM under the curious gaze of Carlos the Honduran house sitter who resides at the vacation house during the off-season. Hed traveled long ways in boats before, all over the world actually, but never in one quite as small as ours. He shook his head with the uncomprehending smile and facial expression that weve become quite accustomed to, and wished us luck.
There was no respite or cool shade to be had on the barren strip of beach a tough 12 miles southeast of Puerto Cortes. We were sore and sweltering. We erected a sun shade by stretching the plastic tarp between pieces of driftwood plunged into the sand. It was, well, shade but certainly not cool. The morning breeze died and the sun baked the thin plastic, passing all of its heat to the stagnant air below it. We didnt sunburn but we convection-cooked ourselves all afternoon, only moving to drink water. We slept early and awoke late and were on the water at 7:30 with an easy 7 miles to the next planned site.
At just before 10 we pulled into a lush and picturesque little lagoon called Laguna Diamante. Traditionally names like this are pregnant with symbolism and portent of things to come. Irony, in this case is all we discovered. We were more sore than the day before. All we wanted was a nice spot in the shade to nap and relax. To our horror, we found that Laguna Diamante was not an aptly named gem of a spot. The insect kingdom (see the definitive study on the Latin insect kingdom "Insect Asylum") inhabiting its verdant shores attacked us with abandon. With a sheen of sweat and 100% DEET we sat sweltering in the merciful shade of a vine-covered tree while hordes of whining tiger-striped mosquitoes, sand flies, yellow winged doctor flies and wasps on a blood- quest descended on us. We cursed our miserable existence. They stung us through the fabric of our long pants and through the mesh of our Bug Shirts. And the howler monkeys roared in the tops of trees on the other side of the lagoon mocking our pain.
We slept cramped and uncomfortable under the confines of a 1 ˝ man, sandfly-proof mosquito net. The tarp and a rigged rain fly offered scant protection from a midnight rain squall. We awoke stiff and damp at 3:00 to get an early start on a long day. Slapping bugs and shoving equipment in bags while making breakfast and packing the boats, we launched by 4:30. The sunrise turned the last wispy clouds of the rainsquall into cotton candy and all was made well.
Three hours later we debarked on the shore of the Garifuna village of Miami. Perched on a narrow isthmus of sand separating the ocean from Laguna de los Micos, it was pristine. There is no bus access and only occasionally do cars make it down the bumpy dirt road. Thus, this place is kept pure and free of the refuse you find in other villages that have found processed foods and commercialism. We ate a morning meal of plantain fries and fried whole fish, had a chat with some village old timers and were back in the boats for another two hours in the hot sun to Tela. After 30 Kilometers and little sleep we collapsed into the beds of the cheap seaside Marazul Motel.
With all the complaints, you might wonder at our dogged efforts at something that doesnt seem so enjoyable. Theres something about endurance sports though that tugs at you. Its the combination of anticipation, and then actual struggle with mental and physical difficulty and the post-effort reflection that makes an addictive cocktail. When sitting in a bakery in La Ceiba looking back on the ten days, with sore shoulders, deep down body fatigue and welt-covered legs, we looked at each other and remarked on the beautiful things we'd seen. And when I gave JP the look, the unspoken communication, after wed finished all the food wed ordered and were still looking for more, it was without any sense of guilt that I nodded my consent to another round of banana shakes and pastries as a warm up for a long siesta.
I imagine that for insects living in remote, swampy regions of Central America, human blood is for them like gasoline, during an oil embargo, is to us. When it's available they all swarm to pump their share. Over thousands of years of evolution, each specie has become remarkably efficient at tapping into the sources that stumble into their midst. With few exceptions, you can run but you can't hide. And for boaters looking for that picture perfect beach or lost lagoon, be forewarned that to the insect kingdom, you represent the next best thing to a swimming pool full of platelets. Upon setting foot on shore, the welcome party arrives in under a minute.
Before addressing prevention and first-aid issues related to massive blood loss, I'd like to highlight the most ubiquitous species and delve into their specific bloodlust ratings, which I'll refer to as the "Dracula Factor". In this light, I've encountered two grand ironies in my time here. Number one is that it's not always a matter of pride and joy to have what others want. Number two is that in an area of such profound bio-diversity that creates life and death struggles among the ranks for the limited resources, vampyric insects are represented by relatively few species, all which thrive. The Dracula Factor takes into account attack strategy, speed, aggressiveness, size, thirst (as measured by size of resulting welt), and a kamikaze rating that measures a willingness to die for the collective good.
"Oh dios mio los hehenes!" (Oh my god the sand flies!) A Chilean traveler on Glover's Reef, Belize.
Ricardo Montalban and tiny Tattoo welcomed people to Fantasy Island, the tiny hehenes welcome you to the Caribbean. Honduras for some reason houses most of them and any trip to the Bay Islands will give you ample opportunity to experience their all-embracing hospitality. They are so miniscule that they are difficult to see and penetrate most mosquito netting. When I first encountered them in Belize I was incredulous as red itchy welts popped up all over my arms and legs with no apparent cause. Pull out the reading glasses to see these predators, they're smaller than chiggers and no-see-ums in the States. Yet despite their size, relative lack of speed, and easy slapability, the Dracula Factor on them is at the top of the scale. Especially active at dawn and dusk, they attack en masse any exposed skin and the resultant blemishes make chicken pox look pretty. With no grey matter to speak of, they are clearly programmed for one thing, and like the Mongol hordes, as soon as one is killed it is replaced by another.
Evolution has streamlined their functions to the primitive basics. Under the microscope you see large mandibles and a storage sac for blood. Only after gorging themselves do they become visible on your skin as tiny red corpuscles. The infamous Chinese torture technique "Death by a Thousand Cuts", would be infinitely preferable to being thrown naked into a small room with a few thousand sand flies. Insanity in this case would precede death.
"The shrill scream of the mosquito, like the wail of the Sirens of the sea, besiege men and drive them mad."
Mosquitos are the wildcat well drillers of the Central American Insect Kingdom. The major metropolitan areas are concentrated in and around mangrove swamps, estuaries and other brackish pools of stagnant Hepatitis cocktail. The savvy traveler knows this. The uninhabited stretches of beach that beckon are the unpredictable areas. Mosquitoes come in all shapes and sizes and if you avoid the aforementioned mega-hatcheries, you come into contact with only a couple types. Unfortunately these happen to be the alpha-females and their minions. Yes, it's the fairer sex that brings home the "bacon" for its eggs; blood is necessary to yield the ova.
During the day when we are on beaches that are more protected and bordered by thick foliage, we wear our Bug Shirts primarily to fend off the sand flies. Mosquitoes, usually active after dusk or pre-dawn, are not the primary concern. The hooded shirts, with large swaths of no-see-um netting over the face and on the sides from armpits to the waist for ventilation, do the job well. However, the wildcat drillers show up in the afternoon and by evening make their presence well known.
The most insipid type are large, with shiny black bodies sporting a pair of yellow tiger stripes. They undertake the most daring and aggressive speculating missions. In their quest for red gold, they will alight on the mesh or loose woven fabric of clothing (learn from us, buy tight weave!) and plunge their stingers through to any near lying skin. Their risk of death under a hailstorm of cursing and slapping is high but a hearty few make it. They equip their much smaller, grey and black bodied minions with the intelligence they have gathered and send them in higher numbers to exploit the gaps.
The Dracula Factor on the mosquitoes is lower than the sand flies, only because they attack solo and in much fewer numbers. Speed is not primary among their assets, but the stinger, which can measure more than a quarter of an inch, gives them an unmatched tactical weapon. High intelligence and a large carrying capacity allow them to perch on any remote, hard to slap region and fill up. And when you consider their kamikaze mentality and willingness to deploy chemical weapons of mass destruction (malaria, dengue fever), they are a formidable adversary to good times in the tropics.
"Before doctors cut you open they always tell you that you'll never feel a thing. Then the anesthetic wears off."
Doctor flies are the surreptitious surgeons of the insect world, they inject a local anesthetic and are into you for a few seconds before you notice. The jolt of pain hits you like a little bolt of lightning, and they move just as fast, away in a blink. They sense your intention to slap at the very moment it becomes a cognitive thought in your brain and leave you with the bitter taste of unrealized revenge and a large swollen welt that lasts for hours. Infrequent victories over the aged and infirm among them are celebrated with much gusto and wicked glee. Parading their mutilated corpses around for review by friends is a vain attempt at retribution for damage suffered in hopeless battles against determined and superior guerilla forces.
Doctor flies are easily identifiable but there are few upsides to their menace. Their shape and size is almost identical to that of horseflies in the States. Their coloration however is strikingly different. A light green and brown body is accented by canary yellow wings. It is Mother Nature's attempt at leveling the playing field because they are so quick and intelligent, that if they were camouflaged in earth tones, unless you were standing vigilant guard, you'd never see them attack. In another show of mercy, they don't attack en masse. As a more highly evolved predator they are more efficient and decorative and fortunately less plentiful.
If not for their relatively low numbers and individuality, the Dracula Factor for the Doctor Fly would put them at the head of the class. They attack solo and don't seem to share information with legions of fellow members of the community. They compensate for conspicuous coloration with almost silent flight, high intelligence, speed and a local anesthetic that allows them to initiate penetration without detection. In all my time in Central America so far I have registered less than a dozen kills. They go for fingers, ankles, joints, and when risk of detection is low, juicy bits such as lips and buttocks. I awoke one morning on the beach with a lower lip the size of a golf ball and three knuckles of my hand swollen enough to inhibit flexion of the fingers. Even after detection they have unrivaled speed and reflexes that allow them to escape, and leave you battering only yourself and your pride.
Down here everyone is an expert, or so they'll tell you, and the myriad of concoctions and techniques to foil the insect kingdom would fill a book. They all wither in the shadow of the only sure cure, a shower of %100 DEET, but so will your liver after a few months. The stuff is so volatile it eats plastic and is immediately absorbed through the skin into the blood stream. Yet when under serious attack it is the only option. So, do you choose to sit at the beach bar with rum drinks, cavort with friends and scratch a little or look longingly from across the way as you sip your soda and lime without an itch and alienate all with the stench of Jungle Juice. Not a tough decision really. If you're going to flirt with cirrhosis, might as well have fun. The itch is all in your mind anyway the locals will tell you. But for the less stalwart among us the following are some alternatives which will be presented in anecdotal form.
From Utila Bay Island comes the baby oil glaze technique. I arrived on Utila to find a number of European women walking around with a sheen of oil on their bronzed legs. I remembered girls at college who lubed themselves up and sat in the sun for the maximum tan and a sure fire case of skin cancer by the age of 40. I was sure it was the same thing, that the vanity of 20 year olds will never change, and was about to make a remark when someone enlightened me. It turns out that sand flies love some people and leave others mostly alone, and if you happen to be in the former category even bug spray won't deter them. For you the only solution is a thick layer of baby oil. The sand flies drown in it before they can sting you. The down side is that mosquitoes love baby oil. And I saw some serious chemistry experiments happening with bottles of baby oil and Jungle Juice %100 DEET during my week on the island.
From the Tobacco Range Cayes in Belize comes the diesel spray extermination technique. One of the islands is privately owned and houses a Smithsonian Marine Biology and Ecology Research Station. In a wicked twist of irony, the very people who study the effects of pollution (among other things) on marine environments have sprayed the beach with diesel fuel to kill the sand flies. Apparently they were so bad that no scientists would come to use the facility.
From Mayan communities in the rainforest of southern Belize comes a natural bug juice. Produced from a jungle berry, water and chiles it looks and smells potent. Yet I found it mostly a gimmick and not very effective. I think they make it to sell to tourists and to give to their less tolerant children as a pychosomatic repellent. JP bought a bottle and the welts on his legs looked larger and redder than ever the next day. We wrote off the money spent as a donation in support of indigenous communities.
From experience comes a prevention that is a compromise which allows you to live as normally as possible. Unscented OFF in the family sized spray can is your best bet. It's only %15 DEET, doesn't smell too bad and won't cause liver failure for at least a few years. It deters most of the bugs but is not completely effective and at more than $4.00 it's not cheap. The can proclaims "hours of protection" but hourly reapplication is necessary in areas of high infestation. Two people will go through a can in a few days but it is money well spent. We're saving the more toxic rub-on lotion for the jungle.
Quell the Urge to Itch! Blood Loss, Welts and Treatment
The area around the bite is festering with bacteria left by the dirty buggers. When you scratch it penetrates into the blood stream and the welt swells more, hurts more and lasts longer. Give the bite a big slap with a flat hand instead, it does the job of dispelling the itch and keeps you from swelling too badly.
The ointment game is one that many people play and one that I disdain. Maybe it's a macho thing, but once bitten just grin and bear it I say. The most common anti-itch cult cure is tooth paste. It may take the itch away a bit and I admit to having had success with it but it looks so stupid. As well, most toothpaste has a whitening agent which, no lie, can bleach your skin. I saw a girl who had been bitten badly on her first few days and covered herself in splotches of toothpaste because she couldn't handle the itchy anguish. She happened to be one who is especially sensitive and the welts lasted a couple days, so she reapplied a few times a day for the duration. When I ran into her a few days later she was no longer decorated with Crest but her bronze skin was punctuated with dozens of light khaki colored blemishes. It was a dalmatian pattern in different shades of brown.
Other chemical potions have gimmicky names and packaging and do help to take the edge off but offer little more than a mental salve. We were walking through the REI superstore in Seattle last Summer prior to the expedition and saw little yellow bottles of Sting EZE. With tales spinning in our heads of thick clouds of man-eating bugs in the deepest jungles along our planned route, we loaded up on the stuff. I have used it a few times for wasp and Doctor Fly bites (anything that helps a little goes a long way with those painful ones!) but rarely pull it out. We risk public mockery from the locals who don't need any more fodder for laughing at us soft white gringos.
I've come to the conclusion that down here, having a "tough skin" is both a physical and a mental state. There is much to be said for conditioning and acclimation. Us Norteamericanos are generally sensitive reactionaries with control issues. We don't even consider adjusting our tolerance setting higher, because we get what we want when we want it, Dammit! However, down here climate controlled, pest-free, suburban housing units in temperate climates don't exist and you can extrapolate the rest. You'll see the locals complain about things. You'll see them scratch and swing their arms and legs and direct a few choice expletives at mosquitoes. But in general they live by the credo that a thick skinned outlook on life allows for general satisfaction. Their complaints are mostly a part of their daily prattle with the people they meet rather than real concerns. Insects are just one of those ubiquitous aspects of life in Central America, like rice and beans, heat, rain, corrupt politicians and inflation. Insect bites and their effects on body and mind are an allegory for the unsavory things that pester you every day. If you dwell on them they begin to itch. Once you scratch it's hard to stop and they take longer to go away.
All those who believe that true solutions to big problems are never easy to find, that you can't just pick one up at the local dimestore and get on with things, well, you've obviously never been to Honduras. Down here solutions come in cans. For less than $5.00 any decent market will have what you need. "Salva Vida" means life saver and it also happens to be the name of the beer of choice. On those torpid days when the hehenes, mosquitoes, and doctor flies threatened my sanity I have found asylum from the insects with an oral dose of Salva Vida and a topical application of OFF. Alas if only the remedies for life's true conundrums came in a can.
La Ceiba is a portal. It always has been. Its name comes from a Ceiba tree of such stature that colonists and local Indians used to gather under its broad canopy to trade. The diverse mix of people, peddlers and their wares still found today reflects that history. The town is an ideal place to launch and land, fill up, R&R and divert road weariness and exfoliate travel callous. Its the gateway to the Bay Islands of Utila, Roatan, and Guanaja. Its the launching pad for excursions into the wild outback towns of the south. For us it will be home base once every 4 weeks for the next 6-8 months of exploration into the Mosquito Coast. Its a Caribbean port town on the up and up.
The day before we flew off into the bush was a typical one in La Ceiba. We awoke in an Hospedaje run by a retired Dutch sailor, stopped by a restaurant/inn run by a U.S.-educated Honduran, munched some of his bread made by a French ex-pat baker, ate a lunch of falafel in Cafe Shalom run by a former Israeli ships cook and spent the afternoon talking with a half-Miskito adventure-tour operator and his Garifuna guides.
Viva la diversidad!
Viva La Ceiba!
Off to La Mosquitia!
The Route, the People, the Major Goals:
Its time to give you all a little overview of the who, what, where, when, why of what we are up to this month. For future reference, the Mosquito Coast is known as La Mosquitia in Spanish and I use both names liberally. Dont be confused, its the same thing. The Rio Platano Biosphere is a reserve on the northern edge of the region that is protected from logging and has very strict land-use restrictions that allow only the indigenous Pech and Miskitos people to use its resources for sustainable farming, personal- use logging (housing materials etc.) and locally run eco-tourism. No Latino or foreign homesteaders may lay claim to, live on, or use land commercially within the biosphere. The Biosphere is only one section of La Mosquitia.
Route and Logistics:
-Plane from La Ceiba to Palacios on northwest edge of Mosquito Coast Region. To avoid possible hurricane hazards along coast this time of year we will fly into the region for monthly trips until late Spring of next year when we will paddle the open seas from La Ceiba, through to the Nicaraguan section of the Mosquito Coast
-Paddle from Palacios on interior lagoons and canals to Plaplaya (last Garifuna community in Honduras) site of a marine turtle conservation project.
-Paddle from Plaplaya across Laguna Ibans (named after a British buccaneer Evans) to Raista town, the site of a butterfly farm that exports larvae of exotic species. Locally run by Miskito family.
-Paddle through canal to Kuri, a Miskito village set on the Barra, a narrow strip of land separating lagoon from the ocean. Borders the mouth of the Platano River
-Paddle last stretch of canal and start up-river with one overnight camp along river bank en route to Las Marias, 35+ miles up in the nucleus of the Biosphere.
-3 weeks in Las Marias, a mixed Miskito and Pech village. The home of last remaining Pech population in La Mosquitia region (one other group outside region in southwest of Honduras but less than 1500 total population). The town has a budding eco-tourism project with a few boarding houses, tours and cultural events.
-Return to La Ceiba to update website with new documentary material
-In and around the lagoons and coastal regions there is a mix of ethnicities. A few Garifuna communities (black Caribbeans of mixed African and Orinoco Indian descent), many Miskito communities, and the towns of Barra Platano, Brus Laguna, Barra Patuca and Puerto Lempira with a mix of Latinos, Miskitos, white ex-pats, and mixed peoples that reflect a history of British and Dutch settlement (pirates).
-Up River: many Miskito settlers along river banks, homesteaders, small farms and hamlets carved out of the bush with plots of plantain, fruit trees, corn, sugar cane and root crops for subsistence.
-Las Marias: the last Pech community in La Mosquitia (others found in Olancho region to the southwest of La Mosquitia.
-Miskito and Pech peoples came from Ecuador and Venezuela regions of Amazon and Orinoco rivers to the region. Estimates range from 750 to 1000 years ago.
-Modern History: early buccaneers, mostly English and a few Dutch, used extensive network of lagoons and estuaries of the region as refuge/hide-outs after raids on Spanish forts and Galleons. Laguna Ibans named after English pirate Evans. Bus Laguna named after notorious buccaneer "Bloody" Brewer. Pirates allied (and occasionally mixed) with local Miskito people to fight off the Spanish. Large armada warships couldnt enter shallow lagoons. The smaller boats of pirates and Miskitos along with strategic canon batteries very effective, allowed British extensive influence in the region. Many Miskito people of mixed race and speak English, especially in Nicaraguan regions of La Mosquitia.
-Around same period, British subdued Garifuna peoples and relocated them from St. Vincent island off coast of Venezuela to uninhabited Roatan. They spread out along coast during next two hundred years as far north as Belize and as far south as Nicaragua.
Two and a half years ago I sat in the living room of a Kiwi friend living in Japan and watched, wide-eyed, a documentary from his video collection of an expedition sent to the interior of Papua in the early 1930s. Most of the footage used in the documentary was dug out of a vault of a defunct Australian mining company whose buildings were about to be razed. A little scratchy and faded, it was taken with one of the first-generation, black and white silent movie cameras. It was stunning and I was riveted to the screen. It depicted a small team of prospector/speculators and geologists sent by the aforementioned mining company to explore the uncharted interior of Papua to look for mineral deposits. The coastal regions had been populated for years, and yields from the mines were on a downward spiral. The island, the second largest in the world after Greenland, had been overflown in planes a few times but little was known about the interior and what resources it held, as a series of daunting mountain ranges had restricted colonization to the coasts. The expedition almost turned back a number of times. Deciding to press on over one final pass, they came down into a high central plains. Its vast fertile expanses were filled with rivers, valleys and a population of over a million people living in an advanced agrarian society. A million people unknown to the outside world!
The Mosquito Coast, was first colonized on the coastal fringes 400 years ago, then and now it is one of the wildest, undeveloped regions in the Americas, but it is not what you expect. The interior is populated only by remote-dwelling Pech, Tawahka and Miskitos (the majority) indians. The coasts were settled on a very limited basis by cutthroat buccaneers by the name of Bloody Brewer and Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, who mixed with Miskito and Garifuna populations. The communities up-river kept mostly to themselves.
In the past century things have changed. And even in the backwaters of the jungle rivers where subsistence living is the norm, western agriculture, market economy and religion have taken deep root. Food and shelter, the main tenets of any culture, remain largely the same but the rest is becoming a blend of new and old. I dont know exactly what I anticipated finding, but La Mosquitia is not the primitive hinterlands of Papua. The indigenous populations have lost some of the beauty of innocence. They are people at the crossroads of total assimilation.
The town of Barra Platano at the mouth of the Rio Platano River is on the fringe of the Biosphere and is a microcosm of what is happening in the region. Either it is the dark forshadowing of things to come or it will be used as the example of what to avoid. The populations up-river must choose. The Barra is a crass melange of upscale-rustic (a paint job, lace curtains and a loud stereo) and shanty, of nouveaux-haves, and idle have-nots. The young scions of the town make lucrative wages diving for lobster on poorly-maintained, unregulated foreign-owned fishing boats that ply the off-shore islands. Dozens pay with their lives or end up crippled by accidents and arthritis (years of nitrogen accumulation in joints). Yet the allure is high. An entire family can subsist on the money they bring home. The upsides to this relative wealth are decent schools, with the only secondary education in the area, and medical facilities. Alcoholism, prostitution and consumerism are the predictable downsides for a society traditionally accustomed to the hard work of subsistence lifestyles who now find themselves idle. I almost cheered when I saw a Miskito man and son, who had come from their milpa (slash and burn farm) hours up river in a dugout loaded to the gunwales with plantains, a pig and pineapples, sell all their wares, buy a few necessities and get right back in the boat and hightail it back up river.
Due to western style agriculture, you will not see much of the famed natural wonders of the Biosphere on the lower stretches of the Rio Platano. Although officially forbidden, commercial farming and ranching have come to the reserve. The bylaws of the Biosphere contain sections on allowed, prohibited, and "restricted" activities for land use. Many in the latter category are very ambiguous. With little to fear in the way of enforcement, many opportunistic Miskitos have expanded "limited commercial farming" into profitable ventures. Tracts of green plantains and pineapples, partially integrated into the natural vegetation is one thing. Cattle ranching is another. For the first 25 miles on the river, wide expanses of grazing land have been cleared from the jungle, and every sand bar is a mine-field of dung. In another world, the ruffle of wind in the open expanses of tall grass and the whiff of manure symbolize the agrarian glory of the family farm. However, it is not what you expect or wish to see set among some of the most glorious rainforest in the Americas.
In Las Marias, due to the arrangement of the town, the animals have free reign. The layout of the town is, well, un-townlike. The day we arrived, we scrambled up the muddy steep path, crested the high river bank and looked out over a broad expanse of grass, with a few coconut and fruit trees and half a dozen houses sprinkled loosely around the field in no particular order. The Pech and Miskito like to have their space. These people raise cattle and pigs, and the same wide open spaces where they build their houses is the same grazing pasture for the animals.
I dont see much when I walk around Las Marias. Which is not to say that there is nothing to look at, there is. However, with head up looking around at the sights you take your chances. There is dung everywhere. I would say that I am one of those travelers who adjusts quickly and after a few days it became a habit to just pay attention to where I stepped. Yet, it was still difficult for me to imagine how the locals could be so laissez faire. And when I saw that there was not a cow patty in town without a footprint, it made me cringe.
Fortunately for the Biosphere, the idea of a competitive western market economy and capitalist mindset remains a foreign concept to the up-river indigenous populations. Money is nice to have to buy coffee, flour, sugar, clothes and batteries for the flashlight. Usually, selling a pig or some plantains is enough to get it. People are generous, helpful and sharing. Even in the town of Las Marias, with its limited eco-tourism project, where some have boarding houses, some are guides and some sell crafts, there is little open competition for business and neighbors dont seem to harbor jealousies against the few who have started successful operations. As well, consumerism has yet to become a major issue. Everyone has their Sunday outfit, a radio for the house and a few sundry items but you dont get the sense that they clamor for more. Sure many of the young men would like a nice wristwatch, new shoes and a motor for the canoe but they dont seem to be pressing needs. With development, more tourist money coming to the area and more young people leaving to study and work outside the region that may change as well.
In the words of another traveler who was as surprised as I, "In the Mosquito Coast, the evangelicals have cleaned house!". The pervasiveness of christianity among the indigenous populations, even deep in the interior, is incredible. In Las Marias alone there are three churches, a Moravian Evangelical Church (an English denomination), a Catholic church and one called La Cruz. The congregations are very devoted.
It is one of our pet peeves to see native cultures shed their traditions for Christianity. It should be possible to have a healthy balance of both. A few iconoclastic minds take what they like from the preachings and still maintain many of their traditions that are at odds with the church but they are few and far between. I recall having a conversation with the owner of our hospedaje in Las Marias whose dogmatism shocked me. He launched into a diatribe against the evils of witchcraft, alcohol, the ribald nature of dancing, etc. He no longer prepares any of the traditional fermented Pech drinks as they are slightly alcoholic. He forbids his children to learn any of the traditional dances. And many of the traditional cures, medicinal plants and incantations used by Pech shamans throughout history he dismissed as evil sorcery.
We accompanied him and his family to service one Sunday out of curiosity and were witness to quite a show. Songs and hymns filled the first hour of the service. All but the very young participated enthusiastically. One woman, became so caught up in the moment that by the end she was twitching, crying, swaying and babbling in a nonsensical tongue for ten minutes after the last song stopped. The entire audience waited in rapt silence until her conniptions faded. Not a person batted an eye, as if it was a common enough phenomenon that it merited no reaction. We felt very uncomfortable.
The sermons tend toward the fire and brimstone end of the spectrum, with sin and apocalypse as common themes. Jean-Philippe happened on a young girl, about 12 years old, one morning while taking a walk who asked him if he was afraid of the year 2000. Confused, we asked her to explain her question. Apparently the pastor had been preaching to the congregation that the apocalypse is upon us and the end of the millennium would mark the end of mankind. We tried to assure her that nothing would happen and made a joke about having to hurry with our documentary work if the prophecy was so true. It seemed to help very little.
Fortunately, many of the people living in outlying areas have a much healthier attitude about religion as it applies to their culture. They still make the trek to church a few times a month, sometimes coming from three or four hours canoe ride away. Yet for them its more of a communal, social thing. Community events are announced, plans are made. They appreciate the Christian spirit but they dont discard all the facets of their lifestyles that are discordant with the church. They have pride in their heritage and will tell you about it. I distinctly recall sitting down with the host of another hospedaje, Bernardo, further up river where we stayed for a week. He was Pech, he was catholic and he was a businessman. His family produced almost everything they needed on the farm. He was very interested in seeing the eco-tourism project succeed. And over a glass of chicha (fermented cane juice and corn) we discussed Pech music, religious ceremonies, dances, and other aspects of their heritage and what he, his family, and a Pech tribal council were doing to protect their traditions.
For me, one of the deciding factors in joining Jean-Philippe on his CASKE 2000 odyssey was that documentary on Papua. I saw what happened to that culture, that it was assimilated and lost in less than a generation. Half of the footage was interviews done over fifty years later with the elders who were alive when the explorers came to their land and changed their lives forever. Part of me became very concerned about similar issues of cultural preservation with indigenous cultures right here in the Americas. Another part of me hoped that I'd find the people less affected by the outside, that every minute of every day would be an amazing learning experience filled with cultural discovery.
In Las Marias, in La Mosquitia, without a doubt there is plenty of that kind of experience to be had and the documentary work we are doing is fabulous. I learn every day. It was naive and maybe even a bit paternalistic to expect that the people we would meet would be so innocent. The area has, after all, been settled for over four hundred years. And if it only took us two days to go up river into the nucleus of the Biosphere then I shouldnt be surprised that a few missionaries, scientists, rural development planners and even tourists had been there long before me.
Expect the unexpected and whatever you anticipate will never be wrong. Words to explore by.
Four hours up-river from Las Marias, the jungle thickens, the river quickens and the last house on the river holds a secret natural bounty. The name "Weiknatara", means "hombre grande" in Spanish, "big man" in English. Nine years ago Bernardo, a half Pech indian from the Olancho district of southwest Honduras, moved with his family to the Biosphere. "Big" is an understatement for their accomplishments in the past decade. Their farm, carved out of thick bush along a high river bank, is a model of order, efficiency and the diversity and the yield from their plants and trees is a minor miracle of nature.
My perception of the jungle changed drastically after seeing Bernardos backyard. I had always been told that it was full of acidic soil where hundreds of species fight for the limited nutrients and scarce sunlight that penetrates the thick canopy. Biodiversity is the result of increasing specialization and adaptation by plant species as they fight and compete. And the indigenous populations that live in these environments are hunter-gatherers who scratch a few tubers and maize from the ground and move on when the soil is depleted. Yet none of that applied to Bernardos place. A mere nine years old, orange and coconut trees towered above the two-story house providing shade for the compound and thick hedges of lime trees grew out back.
Stepping out the back door of the boarding house is like stepping into a living, thriving jungle pantry. Plantain and banana trees grow in tall groves along the river bank. The sugar cane field borders them. A rice and corn field further up the river and yucca further down, supply the main staples. Orange, lime, coconut, avocado, guava and sweet peppers make up the fruits, juices and salads. Cacao and coffee are the decadent (but daily) warm indulgences and generate income. Chiles, cilantro, achiote berries (red colorant used in food) and lemongrass grow out back and spice up the food. Chickens and their eggs are the protein. The only staple this family really needs to buy is flour and salt.
Over the course of a day I sat watching the action at the clay hearth and marveled. Maria, Bernardos wife and mother of 10 did most of the work, and it seemed like daughters were constantly popping in and out with something new for the larder. Two went fishing for small river fish, one dumped rice in a pot with chunks of sweet pepper, one peeled yucca and one made coffee. At lunch we feasted. That was only the beginning. In the afternoon, one killed a chicken, one gathered eggs, one made a soup and we watched the whole process sipping chicha, a fermented beverage of cane juice and corn.
Unfortunately we only spent a week at Bernardos place, fortunately we are going back next month. We documented much of their agriculture, crafts, beverages, fishing technique (look at JPs story and photos on "Poling a "Pipante" Dugout Canoe (story featured on Native Planet)) and other facets of their lifestyle (see indigenous culture pages on Pech people).
"Big Man" or Weiknatara is the name Bernardo Torres gave to his family finca (farm). Looking at the man you might think it a joke; 54", slight build, 125 lbs., hed blow away in a stiff breeze. Look again at the land and his family and see what theyve accomplished in the last 10 years and you understand. Bernardo shared with us his boundless generosity, gregarious conversation, limitless patience (we took over 650 photos, thanks for posing!), and lovely family. We were sorry to leave.
Martin, our Miskito guide, showed up early. We werent expecting him until late morning, as it takes at least 3 hours to pole the dugout up river from Las Marias. He was knocking on our door at just after 6:00 AM. A final steaming cup of thick cacao in our bellies, we boarded the canoe and were off by 7:30.
The late September rains, with their clockwork precision, had swollen the river. Daily between 2:00 and 2:30, west over Pico Dama and its smaller sisters, the sky would darken and blasts of thunder would send all the birds into fits of twittering and squawking. By 3:00, thick drops would descend in a curtain, coating everything and granting us reprieve from the mid-day heat. For over a week it had been the same. And now, the recycling rapids, standing waves and side eddies from clefts in the river bank, and islands of rock in the middle, were all larger. Class 2+, just enough to make the 20 foot dugout bounce a bit, for tiny thrills and big smiles. Deft strokes from Martin and Bernardos two daughters up front (one seven and one fourteen) taking turns with the paddle, always seemed to put the boat in perfect position to slide around a rock, miss a branch by inches and pick through a perfect line in a series of rapids. There is no substitute for local knowledge, as JP and I would have been all over the place. What had taken us three hours to go up, we did in half the time.
It was anticlimactic to be back in Las Marias. The grassy pastures and wide open spaces didnt have the same vibrant feeling that natural forces were at work. It was more stagnant and much less interesting than our week in Bernardos verdant paradise.
We spent the next day and a half preparing for our descent, writing and shoring up plans for our return visit in a month.
View our Cultural Section on Pech people
"The rivers up, the flow is fast. Time to bust out the big-bladed spare paddle (save the lightweight touring paddle for the flat water) and head on down."
For a week I had been anticipating the descent of the Platano, of how easy it was going to be and of the joy of bouncing through a few rapids made faster by all the rain. The morning of the departure we lugged all our gear to the riverbank with the help of two of Olvidios sons and set off to say our good byes. By 9:30 we were off and running, average speed nearly 8 knots, a new record by far. "What goes up must go down," I was thinking to myself, "piece of cake." I would prove to be only half right.
The first fifteen miles were very relaxing. The water level was much higher, the current stronger and all the obstacles, sand bars, logs, passed smoothly below us. What had taken me 6 hours coming up four weeks earlier, I did in two and a half hours.
From that point on, the river widened, the current slowed and my heavy, wide blade paddle slowly worked my shoulder muscles into oblivion. We had been traveling at such a rate of speed that we didnt want to see it lag. With the slower current, the only way to make the scenery pass as quickly as before was to pull on the paddle harder. The lighter weight and slim profile of the touring blade that I was used to put little strain on my shoulders. Pulling the spare paddle was much more labor-intensive. After 2 hours of moving at a good clip my shoulders decided to cramp and quit. I tried every trick in the book. I picked out land formations and made mini-achievement marks for myself. I tried rhythmic breathing. I tried singing songs in my head to distract myself from the pain. Nothing worked.
I stopped three times for breaks. Twice I rested to peel oranges and float, hoping that the fructose in the juice would re-energize me. The other time I paused to take off my sunglasses and watch the afternoon squall roll in from the mountains. Thunder roiled and lightning struck trees on the river bank closer than was healthy. I was so tired I didnt care.
By the time I reached the canal leading to the lagoon near the mouth of the river I was barely putting the paddle in the water. JP had arrived 45 minutes before me and was all charged up as he had almost been struck by lightning. He got back in his boat and pulled in behind me as we entered the canal. I dictated a very leisurely pace.
Out on the other side, through a small, mangrove lined lagoon and into the canal leading to Laguna Ibans and our destination of Raista we went. I chugged a liter of double strength Tang for the last push and we arrived in Raista at just before 5:00.
Seven and a half hours, 45 nautical miles and an average speed of 6.5 knots. A new record! And I earned it.
Eddie, our host from before (the manager of the Butterfly Farm) greeted us and informed us that we had impeccable timing as it was his wife's birthday and there was a party in full swing. We unloaded, showered, gorged ourselves (Yes birthday cake!!) and trundled off to bed just after dark.
Well not exactly. More like putt-putt leaky boat, bush plane and jalopy taxi. But it is amazing to be back in the lively urban bustle of La Ceiba considering where I was this morning.
Up at 4:00. On a "collectivo" open-top water taxi at 4:30 for a three hour ride through Laguna Ibans, a canal and into the lagoon of Palacios. Aboard a twin engine plane by 8:00. In a taxi at the La Ceiba Airport at 9:00 and on our computers to start working by late morning.
When connections are smooth and everything goes right, Honduras can be a small place. From La Mosquitia to my favorite La Ceiba restaurant in less than half a day. Amazing.
We will be working for the next couple weeks. Look for an entire section on the Pech people, their culture and lifestyles on-line soon.
Our departure date for the trek to Las Marias has come and gone. Scheduling in La Mosquitia is always an approximation under the best circumstances, the lines of communication being what they are down here. This time though, weather was the key factor. Our guides showed up early yesterday and we were prepared for a 4:00 AM departure this morning; gear was packed everything a go. The spin-off from the tropical storm further north changed our minds for us.
All morning it was normal breezy, hot weather. By 2:00 the seasonal winds from the southwest shifted and the afternoon thunderstorms that usually originate inland to the southeast were a no show. This time, the entire horizon off-shore was filled in with deep blue gray and laden with water. Within an hour, breezes escalated into blustery gusts of over 25 knots that knocked the doors back and forth and sent people scurrying to bring in laundry and bolt the wooden shutters. Minutes later, sheets of water poured down, and driven by the gusting winds they blew into all open spaces. We sat on the porch of the boarding house until we became too wet and cold.
The roof of the house roared with noise from water pelting the corrugated tin. After awhile it faded into my subconscious as white noise and we spend the rest of the afternoon reading and hoping it would let up. Dinner time came and went. We didnt even consider making the 150-yard walk to the kitchen cabana it was raining so hard. We hoped our hosts would understand our absence.
The usual lullaby of crickets and frogs was replaced by rumbles of thunder and the rattling snares of rain on metal, and sleep came slowly.
From what I hear, the most recent Godzilla to grace the silver screen was a computer-generated image based on the head and dorsal structure of iguanas. Plentiful along the river banks and lagoons of the Mosquito Coast, they occasionally end up in the cooking pot of local indigenous people.
In our case, stewed iguana happened to end up on our dinner plate the day we were supposed to leave. Weather conspired against us and delayed us a day, but the Epicurean-adventure gods were smiling. Elma our hostess offered us some as an afterthought. Usually she refrains from offering local game meat to tourists who are squeamish at the thought of eating something they saw and took pictures of from the tour boat earlier in the day. We heartily accepted and tucked into the succulent meat.
As with frog-legs, iguana tastes a bit like, well, you know. I think however that it deserves its own category; it doesnt fit into any of the established ones like fowl, fish, and red meat. I would call it "fishken". The density and subtle flavor is much like duck or game hen, yet there is something else, like the essence of a fresh tuna steak, that infuses the meat. And the long strings of muscle fibers are unlike anything else Ive had. It was quite good.
It was nice to have an interesting meal to take our minds off the rain and our hostess Elma was very accommodating with our questions. Iguana, lightly fried in oil, and stewed with chiles, garlic and coconut milk is her preparation of choice. It may never take a place among the pantheon of divine game meats but its certainly worthy of honorable mention.
Account of the malaria attacks and some insights on the disease
The Biggest Challenge — Documenting the CASKE 2000 Expedition from Central
(Winter Break - December 99) by Jean-Philippe Soule
(story featured on Native Planet)
We thought we’d seen the last of the dour Dutchman three months back when we set off for our respective winter breaks. We left Jan’s dumpy boarding house never expecting to stay again. Alas, it’s the only cheap place to stay in Ceiba that’s close to the beach, important when burdened with a tight budget, kayaks and tons of gear. After months among luxurious accommodations and lovely people in San Francisco, it was difficult for me to tolerate our cement bunker and the sardonic whining of a man who felt he deserved better from the world.
In the predawn, under a moonless, ebony sky we pushed of from the beach. Afloat for the first time in the new millennium. We planned on an easy 10 miles but ended up doing 16. You’d think we would know better. In our shoulders and backs we would feel our folly the next day.
The bounce of the chop, the kerplunk and swirl of the water around the paddles and the rocking of the boats felt good. The neon lights of the thatched palapa bars and restaurants on the city’s south side “zona viva” glided past. The sparsely lit shanties of the trabajadores outside the city also faded from view and we were once again back on open coast. Inspiring. It put a spring in our stroke and we pushed the pace a little too hard.
During three months in a real bed in a climate-controlled house you lose your callous that allowed you to cope so well before. Sand flies and mosquitoes come out as the wind drops off with the sunset. How quickly you forget the sting and itch of an insect bite, or awakenings at odd intervals to shift your body into a more comfortable position on your inflatable mat, or lumps of sand that cooperating. The unexpected crunchiness of your oatmeal, and gritty pasta are reminders of how unreal, how easy we have it at home. Face it we’re soft.
Six hours in a kayak put my body off kilter. The rest, the routine, our respective roles when camping, came back quickly, like the muscle memory of riding a bicycle. Unload the boats. I settle down in the chosen spot and start setting up the cooking station. JP rigs up a sun shade. I cook lunch. He washes the pots. We nap restlessly for the afternoon. I make dinner, he sets up the tent. We clean up, pack all we can and get the cookies and peanut butter breakfast feast prepared and then we sleep. Five hours later we awaken at 1:00, load up, choke down the meal, mix up the Tang in our water bottles and shove off at half past two. The routine.
Ooh, ouch, soreness, muscle twinge, crunch, crunch, toss and turn, stumble, grope, stub toe, shove, push, strap, launch, stroke, stroke, sploosh, stroke, wham, stroke, stroke, wham, stroke, stroke, out, bob, float, adjust, pump, gaze, twinkle, quiet, tranquil, hours of ebony shift to cotton candy dawn. Good to be back.
Trujillo’s current era of settlement and population only date back a little over 150 years. For a place with a rich 500 year history, it seems odd that the current city is less than two centuries old. When you dig a little, you hear the real story. It was sacked so many times by pirates in the late 1600’s and 1700’s that people finally said “no mas” and left if fallow for over 100 years.
Just down the beach is the site of Columbus’ first landing on the American mainland, on his third voyage to the new world. He initially attached no real significance to it, thinking he’d merely discovered another Caribbean island. It was only as he sailed down the coast and rounded the large point of Cabo Camaron and spied the vast flood plains and rainforests of the Mosquito Coast that he remarked, “Gracias a Dios!” and began to think he’d discovered something much grander. The mountain range that looms in the background of the jungles of La Moskitia (la Cordillera Nombre de Dios) and the province, Departamiento Gracias a Dios, still bear that name.
After Columbus and his crew performed the first Catholic mass on terra firma in America, Spanish missionaries and a garrison of soldiers settled the area. The bluff overlooking the bay is dominated by a stone fort and compound that has been restored and is open for tours. The town center still has centuries-old cobblestone streets and a mission church that dates back to the early 1600’s.
The subsequent 150 years of Trujillo’s history was filled with violent turmoil. Trujillo was an important link in the Spanish trade routes that extended from South America up through the Caribbean. Apparently a fair bit of gold came through town. Dutch and British pirates, with the endorsements of their respective governments, plied the Caribbean seas during this period plundering what they could, and doing anything they could to undermine the Spanish hegemony. Blackbeard, Captain Morgan and others ransacked Trujillo and left it in flames so many times during that period that people moved away. Trujillo had no permanent population again until the early 1800’s.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter in Trujillo’s history involves William Walker. A failed business man from the States, he looked south of the border for his fortune and spied a jumble of newly independent countries ripe for plucking. With hired mercenaries backing him up, he set off to Central America, his goal to annex the entire isthmus to the States with him at its helm. A successful coup in the early 1850’s found him in control of Nicaragua. Honduras, specifically the Mosquito Coast region, lay next in his sights. The Spanish were still heavily involved in the affairs and economy of the region and they sent a few warships to fend him off. Sailing south along the Mosquito Coast, Walker encountered them and fled north. Reaching He ran into British warships around the Trujillo area and turned himself over to them in hopes of enjoying their protection, as the British were heavily involved in efforts to undermine the Spanish control of the region and carve out a piece for themselves. Unbeknownst to Walker, the British were trying to curry favor with Honduras and Guatemala to gain control of Belize (rich in mahogany and log wood). They handed Walker over to the Hondurans to show good faith. As it was told to me, Walker was executed first and tried later. His grave on the outskirts of town is a popular spot for visitors.
Trujillo was a turning point for us, like passing a sentinel into an unregulated frontier where anything could happen. I welcomed the distractions of its history, food and people in order not to think about what lay beyond. It sits nestled in the crook of a bay sheltered by a cape that blocks the swell and wash of the open Atlantic and feels serene and safe. Once round the point, the ocean is much more hostile. As well, Trujillo marks the southern edge of “developed” Honduras. There is little electricity and no phones from there on down. It is the buffer zone for the Mosquito Coast. What lay in store for us was a 100-mile week of open-ocean paddling and few comforts until the protected lagoons and canals of the Mosquito Coast.
We slept a little restlessly our second night in Trujillo. JP voiced his concerns about the upcoming week. My brow furrowed with worries. The ghosts of Christopher Columbus and William Walker tromped around in my dreams amidst the thunder of crashing surf.
40 miles in two days. Are we lucky or are we just good. I’d love to claim the latter but the early stages of a Norte are blowing through and it has helped us out. Occasionally the southeasterly winds (that plague us during the day and force us to launch at night) make an about face and a northerly storm will blow through. For the first couple days, the seas don’t get too rough and if you're headed southeast, you’re in luck.
Pulling out of Trujillo at dawn, little puffs of wind patted our backs and offshore chop licked at our sterns. We made it out to the point of the cape with ease. Our preoccupation with the potential dangers of the open coast made us exercise caution and we stopped on the inside of the point to scout out the conditions on the far side. Not bad. Two to three foot chop and a tail wind. We went.
Two fishermen camped on the point disagreed with our assessment. In a kayak, conditions like that are not a worry. They were camped right on the point and were trying to get back to Trujillo in their open wooden cayuco with a load of fish. It was the third day of their outing. Their cooler chest was loaded with small sharks, red snapper and a host of others. The few remaining chunks of ice were melting fast. Waves from an unexpected direction buffeted their beach and they were afraid to push the 14 foot narrow craft into the surf with the precious cargo. The older of the two also confessed that he didn’t know how swim.
We lightened their load by buying a large red-snapper and wished them luck. The young one lashed the cooler in the cayuco. We helped push him out through the shore break and he paddled and bailed madly as he flailed out into the waves and around the point. The old man trudged off down the beach for the 8 mile walk back to town. The local Honduran fisherman are a hardy bunch.
We did nine more miles for a total of 15 and bumped up onto the beach in a gentle side-surfing brace maneuver. I whipped up a sauce of chicken bullion, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, lime and chiles, grilled the fish and we feasted. Fears about the unforgiving open coast abated and we slept well.
Nobody ever wakes up planning on a 25 mile day in a single kayak. We didn’t. Mitigating circumstances made it happen. The scene at the town of Santa Rosa de Aguan was one.
Our night launch happened smoothly and just after dawn, in the rose colored light just before sunrise, we spied the facades of houses at the mouth of a river. Santa Rosa de Aguan. We had heard its name mentioned by Hurrican Mitch relief workers. It was one of the worst scenes any of them had witnessed. We were curious. A point of sand appeared on the south side of the river mouth and we aimed for it. The mouth of the river was a snarl of uprooted tree roots, piles of rubble and crumbled houses. The group that met us gestured two hundred feet out from the beach to where the old shore line had been. We had just paddled over nearly a dozen destroyed houses and a couple acres of lost land. Over 70 people living close to the river banks died in the winds and flooding. For days, until the waves, wind and water subsided, the mouth of the river was littered with swollen corpses of people and livestock. Back around the inside of the river the houses protected by the dunes and lines of trees were mostly unharmed. I walked into town to take a look.
We bought a pack of cookies and a Coke from the village tienda and prepared to launch again. The people gathered around our boats were surprisingly not apocalyptic and mournful as they recounted tales of Mitch. History is history, what’s passed is the past. They smiled, asked us many questions, offered to have us stay in their homes, allowed us to take pictures. Still, it was depressing and we had to leave. The wind was still blowing south and we had to make progress.
The large Garifuna Town of Limon showed up on our GPS, but from the water we couldn’t see it. It wasn’t located just at the mouth of the river. We had to paddle in. Another 11 miles in the hot sun had passed since our pack of cookies and soda in Santa Rosa de Aguan and I had long ago reached the point of diminishing returns on my paddling investments. I was out of gas. It was a case of just going through the motions to put the paddle in the water to stroke through the mouth of the river. We rounded the first bend and pulled up to the first house we came to on the riverbank.
Limon turned out to be much larger than expected. Electrical lines were strung up on some of the streets, a few pick-up trucks drove by and many people had motor launches. As well, we were led to a comedor with a gas-powered fridge and we finished off two Cokes apiece by the time our plates of food arrived. Cold Cokes, fried fish and plantains have never tasted so good. A nap in the hard, nubbled bottom of a hand carved wooden cayuco in the shade of a mango tree never felt so good. The news that Limon has no boarding house never hurt me more deeply. We paddled on in the late afternoon.
El Norte was picking up its intensity and we had to paddle out of the mouth into some large swell. Four miles later, on a wide, gradual beach, we were forced into our first technical surf-landing in ages. The long shallow grade of the beach created long surf zones with waves breaking in different spots. Three separate side surfs and braces found me in the slough of the shore wash and we unloaded, exhausted after a 25 nautical mile day.
In the half hour it took us to unload and pull up the boats, the wash from the waves crept farther and higher up the beach. Not a good omen. What would El Norte bring the following day?
Arriving in Palacios - JP
The Fear of Nicaragua - JP
We entered La Moskitia two days ago. Entering the lagoon and disembarking at Palacios town was a relief in some ways. The Garifuna villages along the open coast were beautiful and the people even better but the specter of foul weather and big waves always hung over us. We were lucky, to have only one day of tempestuous seas. Arrival in Palacios meant a night in a nice hotel with a generator for electricity, a fresh water shower and a good meal. It also meant the beginning of a period of longer nights of sleep, dawn launches and tranquil morning paddles through lagoons and canals with stops in rustic Miskito villages. We’d already been to the area, flying in during the rainy season last year to explore the Rio Platano, and we liked most of what we saw.
As I stepped out of my boat upon arrival, a young Miskita woman came up to me. She was about to get into a motor launch back to her village a number of miles further south. She was interested in our boats and impressed by the scope of our journey. She took a shine to me and clasped my hands to look for wear and tear. With raised brows and hopeful dark eyes she asked if we would be stopping by Barra Patuca, her town, on our way to points further south.
Reaching Raista was easy, 10 miles through one canal and along the shore of Laguna Ibans. It was like a homecoming when we greeted our friends the Bodden family. We spent a number of days with them in September and October of last year and they greeted us warmly. The village was little changed, neatly thatched houses, grass kept shorn by the young boys with long machetes, dried leaves swept up and burned by the girls with twig-brooms. The only new construction was the interior of Elma’s kitchen, still the most popular spot around. A large new clay hearth with a stove pipe to funnel out the smoke took up an entire corner of the hut.
We were on our way at 4:45 the next morning after a Dona Elma classic breakfast, a welcome change to our routine of cookies and peanut butter. By dawn we were in the midst of the Kuri canal and were at the town of Barra Platano at the mouth of the Platano river by 7:15. We’d been there once before and felt a bad vibe about the place. Nothing had changed. Garbage lay strewn on the banks, amidst a jumble of motor boats and empty shipping crates. We got a sense that market economy, and import goods had created a restless, needy, itch among the people that they didn’t know how to scratch. We were on our way in less than 5 minutes.
The passage through the canal to Brus lagoon was an infinite, hot chore. There was no jungle foliage and wildlife like the Kuri canal, just endless stretches of flat, open savannah. I played all sorts of mind games, singing, counting, reminiscing, to take my mind off the drudgery.
The canal eventually opened up onto the feathery chop of the lagoon. We struck out across it in anticipation of bedding down in Brus and taking a rest day to explore the town. It was not to be.
The back of the lagoon is latticed with estuaries and murky shallows. Sand bars rise up suddenly in places. JP grounded out twice and had to exit and pull his boat to deeper water. Smaller towns flanking the back shores confused us and we had to ask three times for the proper route through the proper estuary to find the actual town of Brus. Rarely have I been so disappointed after a period of such anticipation.
The landing was a cesspool. A dozen houses marking the edge of town hung out over the water on stilts. The ground beneath them was a morass of decomposing garbage, sewage, rusting cans and pieces of metal. Yet the slew of cayucos, pipante dugouts and brightly colored motor launches and their captains and passengers bustled about as if nothing was awry. I was incredulous. None of them seemed to give the surroundings a second thought.
The newly constructed hotel was pleasant and clean with cement construction, bright paint and a fan. Alas the generator only comes on at dusk and we sweltered through the afternoon attempting to nap.
We awoke for dinner to find the eatery across the way filled with people swilling Pepsi and watching the TV broadcast of the soccer match between Honduras and Mexico. Our dinner was taken in the back room with a view into the living room of the owner. His plump daughters sat on a ragged sofa eating cookies and staring, engrossed, at a Telenovela soap opera on TV.
All thoughts of a rest day vanished and at 4:00 AM we once again found ourselves slogging through the mud of the landing to get the hell out.
Just when you have decided that you absolutely despise a place and nothing will change your mind, little wonderful twists of irony shed new light. Paddling out through the estuary I came across the highest concentration of bioluminescent plankton I have ever seen.
Fortunately, despite its dark enclaves of development gone wrong, beauty reigns in La Moskitia. The towns that serve as trading ports and launching pads for other more remote destinations are but a few stains. Like the space port on Tattooine in Star Wars, the towns of Barra Platano, Brus Laguna and others make your skin crawl. Just make your stops brief.
A Hell of a Day to Escape from Hell ! - JP
The silent strokes through the bioluminescent water of the estuary were magical. Half way across the lagoon, two men paddling a cayuco the other way greeted us. It’s a greeting unique to La Moskitia. As a polite, unalarming way to let people know of your presence you hoot like an owl. “Hooo!” It is answered in kind.
When a morning starts on a tranquil note you expect it to set the tone for the rest of the day. Alas, it was not to be in this case.
Our original plan to go by canal to the Patuca was foiled by the dry season. The canal is only navigable during the rains of the late summer and autumn. Our alternative was to cross the lagoon to the southern shore and traverse a narrow section of the bar out to the open ocean and continue on. That was the easy part. We reached the far shore in under two hours.
The gap was only 100 yards wide and we tromped over the dune to scout out the waves on the ocean side. Not good! High speed, monster rollers dumped onto a long gradual beach leaving a mess of choppy water in their wake. We stayed on the beach to wait it out.
I read for awhile and took a walk along the refuse- strewn beach. You know for sure that the Mosquito Coast lies in the shipping lanes when you see the quantity of plastic bottles, styrofoam and assorted bits of trash littering the high tide mark. Tankers are notorious for dumping their garbage at sea.
I found a rum bottle with a message corked inside. On a piece of notebook paper in ink bleached nearly illegible by sun and the dregs of rum left in the bottle was the following plea: “Help, I’ve run out of water. If you find this write to . . .” and included an address in Alabama. The note concluded with a post script, “Females Only.” Clearly this was not my day.
The wind subsided. Low tide approached. The surf looked more manageable. We decided to launch. I filmed JP’s launch from the beach. Long, unpredictable break zones roiled with chop and the occasional surge of a set of freight-train rollers. The sets were long and highly irregular. He struggled in the shore break and second zone. At one point he went parallel to shore to try and aim for a spot where the ebb tide seemed to be creating an exit window in the biggest breakers. A long set caught him in the third zone and he stalled. They pounded him and he couldn’t generate any momentum. One turned him sideways and he struggled to get the bow facing out. After a 10 minute struggle he finally exited the surf-zone into deeper, calmer water. My turn.
My entrance into the kayak in the shore break went smoothly, a good sign. It was all down hill after that. I passed through the 2-3 foot breakers of the first zone. The next zone was intimidating. Irregular breaks, some doubled up and others in rapid succession, created a very wide zone. I waited for a set to pass and stroked hard. Out in the middle of the zone I was hit by three consecutive 6 foot rollers, just as their lips started to drop down and curl. The first two killed my momentum, the third one buried me, pushing my bow up and stern down.
In my hurry to launch, I had not properly inflated my right sponsoon and my boat was off center. Water pressing down on the deck created yaw to the right and in a blink I did a back flip with a half twist and was underwater. The force knocked me half out of the boat, pulling off the right side of the spray skirt in the process. No chance for a roll.
I was in water over my head. What to do first? Grab my paddle? Right the boat and try to reboard? Side stroke back to the beach with paddle in hand? Hold onto the boat?
I decided on the latter. Waves pushed me and the boat back to shallower water of a sand bar and I muscled the swamped kayak back onto shore. My legs throbbed from the exertion of trying to run in chest deep water. I was totally exhausted. JP still sat out beyond the surf zone somewhere waiting patiently. I lost sight of him and wondered if he’d seen me.
I’d drifted onto a steeper section of beach. The shore break was more difficult. I tried three attempts to launch and got filled up before I could fasten the spray skirt. Still JP waited. More than 30 minutes had passed. I didn’t signal to him because I was mad and frustrated and not willing to submit to defeat. I decided on a final attempt.
I pulled the boat down to where the slough of the shore break was deep enough that a big one might float me off the beach after sealing myself in. It took me four wave washes from large ones to finally get into a free-floating position and I paddled madly to get out into the first breaking zone. I got stuffed by two large rollers in the third zone. I tucked my paddle alongside my body facing forward and crouched over the bow for the third. In a heart-pounding frenzy I paddled into the swell beyond the break zone and was out.
The seas were a furious mess of chop and quartering swells coming from the southeast. Winds blew parallel to shore and into our faces at a steady 20 knots. It was a ridiculous struggle the whole way. After more than two hours and less than 4 miles (under half our normal speed on calm water) I cursed and screamed at JP questioning our motives for even being out there in the first place, and we found ourselves on the beach shortly after.
Worst paddling day on the entire expedition so far. I'd pay a king’s ransom to never have one of those again.
Lost Equipment and Brief Review of our favorite gear - JP
From Patuca to Puerto Lempira - JP
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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