Honduras - November 1990
Marcus P. Borom
Saturday, November 17, 1990 *
Sunday, November 18, 1990 *
Tuesday, November 20, 1990 *
Wednesday, November 21, 1990 *
Thursday, November 22, 1990 *
Friday, November 23, 1990 *
Saturday, November 24, 1990 *
Sunday, November 25, 1990 *
Monday, November 27, 1990 *
Tuesday, November 28, 1990 *
Wednesday, November 29, 1990 *
Thursday, November 29, 1990 *
Saturday, November 17, 1990
My trip plans for Honduras had started out as a simple, one week stay at a diving resort and had grown into a two week stay with potential trips into Guatemala. I had contemplated crossing over into Guatemala from the western frontier of Honduras at Copan and going to a seldom visited Mayan ruin at Quirigua. My trip was then to take me north from Lago de Izabal along the Peten Highway to Flores - the gateway to Tikal, the quintessential Mayan site. Out by chickenbus to Belize City and back to the USA by air.
The Peten Highway is a dirt and gravel road that passes through the rain forest jungle with Poptun being the only village along the way. A friend in California sent me an article describing the recent decapitation murder of the American owner/operator of a small farm (finca) and tourist pension in Poptun. The Guatemalan military had been implicated. The State Department advised against travel in that area due to increased guerrilla activity in the last few months. I decided to limit my Guatemalan travel to Quirigua.
I had arrived in Houston the evening before in order to make sure that my connections with the Honduran airline, SAHSA, would not be fouled up by some early, winter-morning delay on a direct connection from Schenectady. My bags were loaded down with photocopies of esoteric travel guides that somehow I had not had time to digest before departing - Central America by Chickenbus, Interpretation of Mayan Glyphs, Underwater Guide to Caribbean Fishes, etc.
In one final desperate attempt to fill in the blanks, I started off the day with a phone call to Susan Rust in San Antonio. We swapped notes on travel in Honduras with specifics on Copan and hotels in San Pedro Sula. Susan had stayed in the Gran Hotel Sula on the city square and recommended it to me.
At the airport, check-in went smoothly. So smoothly, that I forgot that I had decided to extend my stay by a week and needed to have my ticket rewritten. I left my bags with a large dive group from San Diego at the departure gate (Sala de espera - just as soon key into Spanish) and went back to change the ticket while the language barrier was not yet a problem. I expected to have to pay another ~ $100 for the new routing since the fares had gone up since I had purchased my ticket originally. First real break - no extra charge (when it goes through accounting, I may still get billed).
This group from San Diego is staying at Anthony's Key for 1 week of diving for an all inclusive tab of $679, including round trip airfare from San Diego - Heiberger will love to hear this.
Back in la sala de espera, a man seated facing away from me made a comment to someone and I detected a German accent. I asked in German where he was from and he perked up. We launched into an extensive conversation in his native tongue. Peter Saile is a forestry engineer from Berlin who has worked in Honduras for 18 months instructing farmers and land owners in forestry conservation. He gave me many comforting comments about the people, traditions, and safe travel in Honduras. As a result of this meeting I restructured my 2nd week of travel to include not only Copan but also a return to San Pedro Sula to go northeast to Tela to visit the botanical gardens at Lancetilla and on to the cloud forest at Pico Bonito. Peter gave me his card and offered lodging and, in the event of difficulty, assistance.
We struck it off well. Peter had also had forestry duty in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea where I plan to go in February. We discussed parasite borne diseases. I had been disturbed about the occurrence of Chagas' disease in Honduras. Chagas is transmitted by the assassin bug (aka the cone-headed bloodsucker, the Mexican bedbug and the kissing bug - the latter from its practice of feeding on the victim's face at night). The disease is transmitted via larval parasites in the insect's fecal matter which it deposits on the open wound as a last insult before departing the host. The parasite infests the spleen, the liver, the heart and the brain of the victim. Death occurs in 3-4 months if the infestation is not discovered in the first month (the cycle is reminiscent of Lyme disease). Peter had a colleague die recently from Chagas' disease, so it is a reality. I hoped that liberal applications of AVON's "Skin So Soft" would make me an undesirable object para los insectivos. Peter suggested that I have a complete blood test for parasites on returning to the USA. He receives a complete physical every few months when he returns to his home company in Germany.
Roatan, Islas de la Bahia, Honduras
On arrival in Roatan passengers connecting to Guanaja were requested to deboard first since the departing aircraft was waiting. We had been delayed an hour out of Houston. The word is that TAN/SAHSA is never on time. I was sitting in 8F and was among the first to deboard. We stepped out into damp, cool weather. The sky was blanketed with low hanging, grey clouds. The persistent low pressure which had been swirling over Honduras for the last 20 days was reluctant to leave.
We were escorted some 200 ft. over the tarmac to a Twin Otter, a 19 passenger, high wing, twin prop plane. The larger and older DC-3 which had previously serviced this island hop had been retired because of fuel consumption. At the steps to the Twin Otter I was asked for my passport, my tourist card, my residence in Guanaja and $2. I could come up with everything but the name of my accommodations. I was asked to step aside while I rummaged through my baggage to locate the name of the person I was staying with. The plane filled up and I was left to make the trip on its return for the remaining passengers.
While in the waiting room, which was reminiscent of an old train station with 4 rows of back-to-back benches, the attention of the displaced passengers was captured by a wayward hummingbird that was flying frantically around the ceiling, unable to find his way out. The locals gave this event no second thought. While waiting, I at least had time to collect my thoughts and decipher where I was to stay (the home of Gurt Ottenhenning - no wonder I couldn't remember it).
After two complimentary gin and tonics on the flight from Houston, I am not sure how comfortable I would have been on the immediately connecting flight with no facilities anyway. The facilities in the hummingbird room were as clean as a typical rural gas station in the USA. The men's room had a single seat and no knob to fill the prescribed location in the wooden door. There was no T-paper. The women's room had a door knob, but only on the outside. Each visit was followed by loud pounding requests for release from the cubicle. (The hummingbird also finally found his way out.)
The plane returned around 5:30 pm and we all trouped out and boarded. The light level had dropped and it had begun to drizzle. The Twin Otter looked more like a jump plane than a passenger plane. It was like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The crew did an engine run-up and then shut the engines down. I was about to learn why it was so important to have had my act together earlier. The dispatcher came out to the plane, opened the door and announced, first in Spanish then in English, that there had been a power failure on Guanaja and without tower communications and runway lights we could not land there and must fly instead to La Cieba to overnight. I was later to learn that Guanaja has no tower and that its only runway light appears to be an illuminated sign advertising beer.
On to La Cieba
We flew out over the Caribbean in the increasing darkness and flew into a rain shower. The rain leaked in through all sorts of cracks in the window and door seals and almost every seat got wet.
SAHSA put us up in the Gran Paris Hotel with a complimentary meal (the hotel rate was 75 limperas for a single and 95 limperas for a double). I set out to change dollars for limperas. A bellhop with an amblyopic eye offered 5.50/1; the hotel desk clerk offered 5.00/1; and the bar tender offered 4.25/1. I went with the bellhop who led me into the middle of the street and said that the price of the dollar had dropped (in 10 minutes) and that he could only offer 5.40/1. I displayed $40 and he wanted to take it along to the money changer in some back alley where I was not allowed to follow. I expressed concern and he gave me his Honduran driver's license to hold as collateral (well 40 bucks wasn't that much of a risk and 20 of them belonged to another passenger - but then he was a lawyer from Grand Rapids, MI and might not take the loss lightly). Fifteen minutes later he returned with 208 limperas - another drop in the price of the dollar to 5.20/1. Such is the unstable market of money changing.
The room was plain, hot and contained random roaches (hopefully no cone-headed bloodsuckers). A shower in a stall with two taps (I was not to learn the significance of a Central American one tap shower until later) and to bed with no PJ's since my checked baggage had gone to Guanaja on the first flight.
Sunday, November 18, 1990
Finally to Guanaja
I had set my digital watch for 4:30 a.m. since we had been told emphatically that the bus to the airport was to depart at 5 a.m. sharp. I was up when I got an unexpected wake up call. The group from the previous night assembled in the lobby by 4:50 a.m. The 8 other Americans were from Grand Rapids, MI and were a pleasant group to be with. There were 4 Hondurans on the flight who were also displaced but who were not accommodated by SAHSA (local pejorative translation - Stay At Home, Stay Alive). They had stayed up all night dancing and drinking at the local disco.
The bus finally arrived at 5:45 SHARP. The plane - the same Twin Otter - struggled off at about 6:30 and by 7:10 we were finally on Guanaja. The international terminal consists of a 10' x 15' thatched roof restaurant and a small wooden building for check in. Mud from the torrential downpours of the last 3 weeks dominated the walkway. I was greeted by a short, stocky, long-curly-haired, heavily bearded and mustachioed man. "My name is Florian", he announced in a German accent. Florian Tutzer is from a small town near Stuttgart and German (Schwabish) is his native language - Great ! I was going to at least get a chance to practice some Deutsch.
The clouds were leaden and hanging almost to the sea as we set out in the small open outboard for the house of Gurd Ottenhenning. It was only a 5-10 minute run and the rain held off. We were greeted at the dock and dive house by my dive guide, Glenn Meyers Dixon who has only last names and goes by his second.
Florian drove 18-wheeler trucks from Germany to Spain before coming to Guanaja. Meyer's father is an English descendant of pirates. Meyers spent some time fishing commercially out of Gloucester, MA and now works as a dive guide and carpenter. Everything Meyers learned about diving he learned from Gilbert whom I was to meet later.
The House of Gurd Ottenhenning
The grassy path up to the main house was saturated with water and squishy with black mud. My sneakers were soaking wet by the time we reached the terrazzo entrance to the house. I hosed them off and hung them out to dry. In this weather, that was sort of a joke.
The house is delightful and is set back about 100 yards from the bay in an exotic lawn framed by tropical trees and flowering shrubs. From the second story veranda outside my room I could watch hummingbirds feeding among the hibiscus. What a shame to waste this just on me.
Not only was I the only guest (or as Florian put it - die Koenig von Neu York), I was the very first guest. The house was still in a minor state of reconstruction with the addition of 4 new bathrooms. My room was tile floored, clean, spacious and comfortable but without either a mirror in the bathroom, a chair in the bedroom or shades for the window and the sliding glass doors that opened onto the veranda.
An additional delight is Justa (Whos' ta), the cook and housekeeper. She is short, rotund and jovial and took pleasure in inundating me with Spanish. She proudly showed me the ingredients of the evenings Tabado del Mar - congreco (king crab), y camarones (shrimp) y caracol (queen conch).
Breakfast of crepes was served at 8 a.m. Afterwards the clouds consolidated into a continuous canopy and the rain poured in buckets for about 20 minutes and continued to drip afterwards. [My God, it was pouring torrents again. Somebody upstairs was really wringing out the sponge.]
By 11;30 it was pouring so hard you could not see the little keys in the bay ! The small boat at the dock almost sank from the accumulated rainwater. We had had almost 6" of rain since 8 a.m. I loaded my underwater camera and unpacked my diving gear in anticipation of an afternoon dive - weather not withstanding.
Diving in the Rain
At 1 pm Meyers arrived (lunch of fried camarones was superb) and I elected to try diving in spite of the weather. I rigged my fishing gear and assembled my SCUBA equipment. We set out in a 40 hp high-gunwaled, outboard skiff in a light drizzle to troll to a nearby dive site. The mud-laden runoff had dropped the visibility in the bay to a murky zero. Meyers suggested trying to reach Southwest Cay. With my wetsuit top on, the impending squall between us and the small island seemed somehow less threatening. The squall cut us off and we completely lost sight of SW Cay. Meyer's navigation skills, however, brought us safely into the picnic dock on the beach. We took refuge under an open-sided luncheon pavilion. The rain on the tin roof was like the din inside a snare drum during a Sousa march. I set a cup out on the sand and measured the rainfall at ~2.5 in./hr. Thirty minutes later we were back to a drizzle and the dive was again on.
Meyers tied up to a buoy in 50 feet of water at dive site #22. There are over 50 buoyed dive sites around Guanaja. I went under alone since Meyers was not feeling well.
Every first entry, particularly when alone after such a long absence from reef diving, carries a strong tinge of apprehension. A low light further causes objects in the world of soft blues and greens to blend into one another. The overwhelming sense of aloneness among the spectacular formations, however, melts away like an icicle in spring as your attention is drawn to the active community of life around the busy coral heads. Garden eels were swaying like turtle grass on the sandy floor below. Blue chromis darted among the fans. Upside down, purple and yellow fairy basslets decorated the undersides of coral overhangs. Large grouper and margates lurked in the deeper recesses and barracuda hung motionless in the open water waiting for an opportune meal. I was again at home in the sea.
The overcast skies, the light rain that peppered the surface of the sea, and the turbid layer where fresh and salt water were mixing, lowered the ambient light level to the point where my camera exposures were controlled by the flash settings alone. The bulb holder I had had gold-plated back at the lab seemed to have done the trick since all my flashes fired. After 50 minutes at 50 feet, I ascended to the top of the coral spires at around 20 feet for a 10 minute stint to expel some of the excess nitrogen from my system. At 60 minutes, I surfaced by the boat with 500 psi of air still in the tank.
The rain had picked up again and the seas had begun to increase in the rising wind. On the trip back, the rain stung our faces like blowing sand. The island of Guanaja is lovely even in the rain. As we approached, the lush green hillside sprang out of the bay and pierced the descending mist that fed the rain. I could easily imagine that King Kong was to be found somewhere among those cloud-shrouded peaks. I looked forward to the sun burning away the veil of moisture and exposing the full beauty of this Honduran jewel.
I spent a pleasant evening from 5 to 8 pm discussing world, worldly and local issues with two English, school teachers, Cari and Emma who had come over with Jorge (Hor-hay) to visit Florian. Jorge is a young man from Argentina who works in an administrative position with his cousin Pacco who runs several lobster fishing boats out of the nearby town of Bonacca. Jorge was learning English from Cari and Emma in their small school. After they left at around 8 pm I realized how long a day this had been. Its beginning in La Cieba seemed like ages ago. To bed at 10 pm, exhausted.
Monday, November 19, 1990
Diving SW Cay
I woke up a 4:47 a.m. to the clarion call of the resident rooster and reflected on my clean, bug-free room with its comfortable, firm bed. The sun was still somewhere beneath the sea and the only ambient light was from the neighbor's multi-vapor lamp about 100 yards away. I walked out on the veranda with my pocket flash light to see what was around. There were two "albino" geckos sticky-toeing it up the wall and along the beams, but nothing else of interest. The small "house" bat was out feeding somewhere. The frog chorus from last evening had ended as had the rain and the sky appeared to offer some hope of relief from the deluge. I went back to bed and awoke again at 6:30 with sunlight pouring into my unshuttered room. Patches of blue sky raised my spirits.
Breakfast of eggs, ham and tortillas was followed by dive preparations. The sun was still playing hide and seek in the clouds. Meyers and I headed out in the less fuel consumptive, but less comfortable Boston Whaler to the south side of SW Cay to dive on the rock grouper feeding station in around 80 feet of water (site #20). The visibility was marginally 40 ft. and I tried macrophotography, but, I was afraid, without much success. Meyers entered the water with me for the first and last time.
On the return trip we experienced another minor squall, but the sun seemed to be winning.
Lunch was fried fish (pesca frita), boiled yucca root (cassava), tomatoes, rice (arroz), fried beans (frijoles), tortillas and coconut bread (pan de coco). Justa just pours on the food.
The skies began to clear but things had not dried out. My shoes were still soaked from Sunday's walk from the dock to the main house. I was now making this trip barefooted and getting muddy to above the ankles after each crossing. I would merely wash my waterproof skin off before entering the house or donning my diving booties.
Meyers and I headed out in the Boston Whaler again and stopped in Bonacca Town for fuel. I made a pledge to visit this tiny key which is the home of ~ 3500 local residents who are crammed together in houses literally built on top of one another. I subsequently made plans to go over and exchange money with Jorge.
We headed back out to SW key which would provide some protection from the prevailing winds. The dive site known as Afternoon Delight was a pleasure (site #23). The visibility was not up to western Caribbean standards but it was a great improvement over the morning. The reef cap started at around 15 ft. and cascaded in a vertical fall of shingle coral and overhangs to the sand plateau at ~80 ft. There were many narrow canyons and caves with a full complement of colorful reef fish. Another 50 minute dive.
The sun continued to shine with puffy clouds hanging in at a low 500-700 feet - it was really strange to see clouds so close to the water. I trolled both out and back with a feather lure with no success.
Supper was Bonaccan Italian spaghetti glued together with melted cheddar cheese, beans and rice. The meals have been a cholesterol lover's delight. It turns out that Florian, at age 33, has a cholesterol number of 710 mg/dl from all the lobster, conch, shrimp, coconut bread, eggs, ham, etc. I was eating 3 times as much as I usually do with no immediate concern for the fat content of the diet. Diving burns a lot of calories. Even though the water temperature was a delightful 80°F, that is 18°F colder than body temperature and a lot of core heat that must be made up is lost during a dive.
By 7 pm I was so logy that I fell into bed. I awoke, refreshed, at 1:45 am, got up and read guide books until 4 a.m. It rained twice while I was awake and I caught two fleas on my legs. I was beginning to break out in insect bites, but, hopefully, no vinchuca (cone-headed bloodsucker) attacks.
Tuesday, November 20, 1990
Diving the North Side of Guanaja
I woke up to rain again at 6:45 a.m. Justa had her super-thick Honduran coffee on and ready for Marco. By 7:15 the steady downpour had stopped and the wind had subsided. Meyers showed up at 7:30 and a new day of diving was underway.
The 40 horse engine on the Boston Whaler had been misfiring the day before so the boat of choice became Meyer's more gas consumptive 20 foot skiff. It was more comfortable and rode higher above the water with less bow spray.
The prevailing winds made diving on the north side of Guanaja the better choice. The course to the north side of the island took us through a dredged canal that was heavy with swamp odor - or maybe it was the garbage dump? One problem here is that garbage, along with mud, is constantly washed into the sea by the heavy rains. This process rather destroys the purity of the place. I am reminded, in contrast, of the pristine beauty of Glover's Reef, which, without protection, will also deteriorate as it receives heavier commercial fishing, conching, lobstering and diving pressures relative to what it was 10 years ago.
I had been consistently unsuccessful with trolling, but I persisted. We tied up to the buoy on the Pinnacle (site #31). The water was a slate blue-grey indicating sub-standard visibility. Meyers was still feeling a touch of malaria, which had been intensified by his immersion at the rock grouper feeding station. He again left me to dive alone on this deep wall. I was glad that my 82 year old mother didn't know what her son was doing - my having gone to Central America with all it's bad American press was worry enough.
I swam down the buoy line to the crest of the wall. A layer of silt covered the ledges and hung lightly on the fans and the gorgonians. This would be an incredible dive with the clear water and sunshine of drier periods, but, even so, my anticipation was high. The current was almost nonexistent and my concerns of being without assistance faded away.
I swam south along the wall at about 40 feet and approached the pinnacle rising from the depths beyond the continuous cliff. I floated across the 50 foot wide chasm and descended to a ledge at 75 feet that was claimed by a large rock grouper. Justa had given me some conch parts "para las pescas", which I opened and offered to the waiting grouper.
As I swam around the pinnacle, the grouper followed. I was suddenly startled by an undulating flash of green velvet. A 7 foot long moray eel had come full length out into the open sea within inches of my face. I instinctively fired off a picture. While I fumbled with replacing the flash bulb, my disappointed, unfed eel slithered back into the reef and was gone. This was one of those rare surprises that add spice to a dive in the ocean.
There was a small outcropping of black coral at 80-90 feet. I think I got some nice pictures of queen angels on this dive.
As I began my precautionary decompression ascent. I encountered a large barracuda (4-5 feet long) hanging out over the abyss. My attention, however, was riveted on smaller fish on the top of the wall. As I turned to swim toward the buoy line, I made eye-to-eye contact with the large cuda that was now less than an arm's length from my left shoulder. I finished my roll of film with several full face shots of the menacing scowl of this magnificent, torpedo-like, silver, king-of-the-reef.
Back at the house, my shoes were still not dry. Maybe by tomorrow, if the soles dry out and the mud dries up, I can hike up to the pine ridge where pirates gathered trees to replace their masts and booms without soaking my shoes again.
Lunch was mixed vegetables, salad, rice, fruit and beef steak. The rain water here is potable as filtered, but Justa boils all the water she uses for cooking and food preparation and uses only boiled water for drinking and making ice. Even the salad was free of microbes - not so at many places on the mainland. I was eating like a pig (in quantity not in behavior). Lunch ended at 12:45 and the next dive was to start at 1:00 pm.
Hang up on the Pavilions
In spite of the complete overcast and light drizzle, Meyers and I started out again for the north side of the island. I wore only my speedo bathing suit as a challenge to the sun to burn through the overcast (while I was writing this up at 4:50 pm, the local power supplied by a neighbor's generator was turned off while he changed the oil or adjusted something in the equipment).
Another passage through the swamp gas canal. Meyers recalled how nice the mangrove stand was before the airport alongside and the dredge for the channel arrived (perhaps in reverse order). It may be difficult for the mangrove trees to reach the edge of the canal again because of the stench-filled barrier of black mud that blocks their access.
No one lives on the hillsides of Guanaja even though many hills have been clear-cut and burned. There is a large sign fashioned from white stones on the hillside facing Bonacca imploring "DON'T BURN". Fields of pineapples are planted on the slopes with the rows running downhill instead of parallel to the contours. The Guanajans need some lessons in land stewardship - any volunteers?
On to the Pavilions dive site (site #54) east of the Bayman Club dropoff. From the surface the visibility looked encouragingly good. The buoy was secured well beyond the edge of the reef and I had to swim through channels and crevices to locate the dropoff to 50 feet. The visibility was the best yet, but the full sparkle on the reef requires full sun. The dive lasted 70 minutes with several highlights. I encountered a cardinal fish with what looked like a small mantis shrimp attached to his head like a crown. I had to lie in a crevice fighting the surge of a 4 foot sea to capture the scene on film.
When I was ready to leave the cardinal fish and his companion, I found myself somehow securely attached to the coral to my back. I couldn't go left, right, up or down. Help lay only in my control of my own emotions. I had plenty of air and, if worse came to worse, I might have room to remove my backpack so I could turn around and inspect and release the tangle of hoses and coral. With calm resolve, I made a few body movements until I met increased resistance, reversed the motion and repeated the process in all directions until the gremlin on my back suddenly released his grip and I was free to swim away.
I located a spiney lobster half out of his lair in a small coral patch on the sandy floor and got several close up photos before he ended the session with a full retreat after his antenna touched the camera.
Toward the end of the dive, I discovered a large cavern in 30 feet of water and cautiously entered it. I could see many small, darting forms, which I believed to be hatchet fish. The entrance was about 6 feet wide and 8 feet high and gave me sufficient room to maneuver in the event a reversal in direction were demanded. As I swam further into the cave, the school of fish moved nervously ahead of me. I was reaching the limit of the fading light from the entrance when the cavern took a turn to the left and the school of hatchet fish became back lighted by a narrow shaft of light that entered from a hole in the ceiling. The scene was not unlike a flurry of bats disturbed by a spelunker's torch. I got several flash shots off before leaving this special place. I'm really glad my mama didn't sense this dive.
Back at the house, Florian was away and I started supper at 6:00 without him. Justa insisted, he's not here, he doesn't eat (no esta aqui, no coma). Dinner was a whole king crab with garlic margarine, rice, green salad, beans and fresh fruit.
Florian showed up about 7:00 and we drank Flor de Canya (a Honduran rum) and Tang and discussed travel in Honduras until around 10 pm. I learned such tidbits as the difference between a regular taxi (expensive) and a taxi collectiva (a group taxi which is less expensive). Florian took my airline tickets and passport in order to reconfirm my flights tomorrow morning.
After each afternoon dive, Justa had been preparing 5 gals. of hot water for my shower since hot water had not yet been plumbed into the system. Going to bed fresh and clean was a luxury I thought I probably would have to forego on the mainland.
There were at least two rain showers during the night and I was roused again at 3:45 by the local rooster - but not for long. At 6:40 sunshine flooded the room and there was again a promise of a dry day.
Wednesday, November 21, 1990
The Pinnacle Revisited
Meyers joined us for breakfast still, but only when asked, complaining of aches and fever, but not yet sick enough to stay home. After breakfast of Honduran coffee, corn flour pancakes, pork cutlet and beans, I checked my jogging shoes. After 4 days they were finally dry !
The dry wind that blew in in the early hours of the morning had almost cleared the sky of clouds, but, in exchange, had turned the bay into light chop and the ocean south of the reef into 4-6 foot swells with white caps. The decision was made to dive the north side of the island again.
On the north side, the sea was calmer but far from smooth. After finding poor visibility from residual silt at several spots, I chose to dive the Pinnacle again. With only 6 flash bulbs remaining, I decided to make this dive less demanding and left my camera on board. As I was about to enter the water a boat loaded with divers from Posada del Sol arrived and tied up to the second buoy over the Pinnacle.
I had been on the Pinnacle alone for 15 minutes visiting with the moray and the groupers before this herd of divers appeared. It was the group from Grand Rapids, MI. It was nice to see them underwater, but I was suddenly thankful that my other dives had been without such disturbance and disruption. The coral reef had become locally as crowded as a metro stop. The crowding was intensified by the confining limits of the low visibility. I drifted off to another portion of the wall and finished my 50 minute dive in peace.
Boa Constrictors and Water Slides
We were back at the house by 11:00 a.m. The sun was still shining, my sneakers were dry and with an hour before lunch, the time was ripe to follow the stream bed uphill to the waterfall. I asked Justa for directions and she pointed out a path that disappeared into heavy brush. In an Arizona State sweat shirt, red swimming trunks, a Minolta camera and sockless dry sneakers, el Touristo plodded off into the jungle.
I heard Justa shouting some commands from the house and I was shortly joined by Justa's machette-bearing, teenage son and his friend as guides. I thought to myself, "How can this be such a big deal when all you have to do is follow the stream bed?".
In my labored Spanish I let my new companions, Tito and Alberto, know of my interest in capturing a boa constrictor. "No problema, senyor." As the walls of the jungle closed around the path, the air became still and heavy. Perspiration beaded on my forehead and dripped over my glasses obscuring my vision. The grade steepened and the clear cool stream became a rushing brook bounded by vertical walls draped with ferns and lianas. Stepping from stone to stone was not difficult. Then the grade increased to an average of 45°. We now were dealing with a raging torrent. The rocks and boulders were covered with grease-like moss and the footing was treacherous. Tito and Alberto were barefooted and climbed lithely from one rock to another. At one point I slipped and went up to my knee in the stream. So much for dry sneakers. The sneakers were providing me with no special purchase and my dangling camera was interfering with my balance. Both items were left on a dry rock for retrieval on our return.
With no shoes to worry about, I followed the lead of my guides and took to wading in the stream rather than trying to cling to the walls of the gully. The stream leads to a cistern near the crest of the mountain that supplies water to the islanders. The 8 inch delivery pipe, in places, runs above the stream and along the gully wall. At times, Tito and Alberto were doing wet-barefoot balancing acts along 10 foot stretches of the pipe above the rocks and white water below. I followed suit but secured my balance with roots and vines that sometimes gave me a start when they broke under my weight.
Deep in my thoughts was a concern over shistosomiasis which can be contracted by wading in tropical streams. I dispelled the idea since snails - a required vector for the schistosoma - could simply not live in this flume. We climbed the 10 foot, slick walls of the cistern and waded across a waist deep, sandy pool of still water. Through lines of sweat on my glasses, my eyes scanned the bottom and walls of the pool in search of snails. I saw none in this potential breeding ground.
The steep ascent continued with plumes of water leaping from narrow crevices. The lush, damp, green vegetation filtered the light and caused the walls of the jungle to press inward. Well, I thought, this is at least good practice for Papua New Guinea in February. At an elevation about 700 feet above our starting point, Alberto pointed to an overhanging branch. Knotted into a ball with its head resting, in typical constrictor fashion, in the center of the top coil was a small boa.
I lifted the 2 foot long snake from the branch with a forked stick, dropped it to the ground, pinned its head and grasped it with my hands directly behind its jaws. I tried to ask if it were poisonous, but I did not know the word in Spanish (venenemos). Its eyes had cat-like pupils and its belly scales, beyond its vent, went the full width of the underside without a mid-section join. Both of these features are distinguishing characteristics of venomous pit vipers in North America. On closer inspection, the absence of fangs assured me that this indeed was a non-poisonous boa and I relaxed my grip and allowed the snake to comfortably adjust to the contours of my gently opened hand.
Even though we could see the beginning of the open pine forest ahead, I was satisfied with the climb. With mission accomplished, our party of 3 started the long descent down the gully. Climbing downhill is always harder than climbing uphill under the best of circumstances. Complicate matters with trifocal glasses streaked with sweat, tender feet, slippery rocks and the left hand occupied with a boa constrictor, and you have a formula for impending disaster. If I had only invoked the biologist's interrogative, " . . . and then what?".
I was making a seated decent along side a particularly steep grade. The water chute was about 3 feet wide and 1 foot deep. My bare heels hit slime, I began an uncontrollable slide that pitched me head first into the flume. I knew this was end-of-life. My right hand was outstretched to break my speed in the cascading water and, hopefully, to protect my head. Feet and legs were flailing in an attempt to avoid a complete flip. About 20 feet down, the flume took an abrupt turn to the left and I came to a crashing halt. There I lay with glasses askew and hanging from their head strap, water rushing the full length of my body and the boa still in my left hand.
I had to sit on a boulder above the stream for several minutes to allow my head to stop spinning. No serious damage from this potentially fatal fall. The heel of my right hand was bruised. My right ankle was sprained slightly and there were several minor abrasions and cuts. I thought, "I'm getting too old for this kind of shit" and felt basically lucky. My sister would tell me I survived this wild, water-chute ride because she prays for me. For that I guess I'm thankful.
My teenage guides both slipped and fell once each in less spectacular ways - which was of some comfort to me. After picking up my shoes and camera and carrying both around my neck, I slipped once more and dunked my Minolta, but without damage. I was exhilarated to reach the path leading away from this place that will remain etched in my memories of Guanaja, but one to which I will never return.
There is a waterfall on the north side of the island that is reached via a much gentler path and is frequently visited by tourists. Florian decided that they would call the waterfall by their house the "Adventure Waterfall". I took several photos of the boa in full sunlight and released him before lunch.
Water Tour of Guanaja
Lunch consisted of fried conch, french fries, coconut bread, rice and fruit. My cholesterol must be pushing 300. My right ankle was tender from my water-slide experience, my legs were a blotched mass of coral scrapes, itching colonies of sand fly bites and random welts from mosquito feasts. My ham strings were stiff and aching from swimming with flippers and climbing gullies. I was almost relieved to learn that Meyers had not shown up for the afternoon dive. The fever of malaria had, sadly, finally taken him out.
Florian suggested a tour of the south side of the island in his small, 14 hp dingy as an alternative to diving. The sun still dominated the sky and there was a light chop on the bay as we headed east toward the resort of Posada del Sol.
One half mile from the dock we pulled into a small, dredged cut. A hand lettered banner flapped in the breeze and proclaimed the site to be Oak Cove. An American, Ramie Kaufman, about 35 years old had bought ~75 acres of land 6 months ago and was setting up a nursery for tropical plants. Ramie lives alone in a house constructed of concrete. Termites in the tropics very quickly destroy wooden structures. He was pleased to have visitors and stopped his work to give us a tour of his thousands of plants. A large reserve of potting buckets lay in wait for palms, papaya and other trees. We walked up along a stream bed to a concrete, 30 foot square swimming pool that had been built in the path of this clear mountain brook. The previous owner was some kind of an engineer. His handiwork showed in vestiges of water conduits leading from the swimming pool to water wheel yokes and turbine impellers 20 feet below. These at one time connected to the corroded generator still lying along side the stream.
Access to the house was gained by ascending a stone stairway covered with a thick layer of bright green moss. The upper landing was crossed by a flickering line of leaf cutter ants, each carrying its correctly sized leaf sail to their larder for digestion by a mold culture.
After a Flor de Canya and coke and some conversation we said goodbye to Ramie and a boa constrictor which had taken up residence in his window trellis. The boa stood guard over the cracks in the veranda which had opened up during an earlier earthquake in this geologically active region.
We motored on south and Florian pointed out isolated private beaches, harbors and the resort of Posada del Sol where we turned around and headed back. He embellished each of these spots with personal accounts of times he had spent working there.
The island is sparsely populated. No one lives on the hillsides and there are miles with no houses on the shore. The hills are so steep that roads may never be built. Posada del Sol is built right on the beach and, according to Florian, is a sand fly haven.
The Island Town of Bonacca
We returned back along the south shore and headed for Bonacca to change money with Jorge, talk with the TAN/SAHSA agent and visit the English school. We docked at Jorge's waterfront building and gained access to his office via a narrow catwalk around the outside walls. We had calculated that 550 limperas should cover all my expenses for the 5 days on the mainland, and an exchange for $100 was made.
Florian had gone into town earlier that morning to reconfirm my flight for Saturday and had found that the 19 passenger Twin Otter was over-sold for the morning flight (which they had told me in the states had been cancelled) and that the afternoon flight, on which I had been confirmed, was non-existent. I had been put on a waiting list. With all the other passengers being Americans on their way back to Houston, things did not look good for "no shows". The only hope was that SAHSA would shuttle the group to Roatan on Saturday morning. Talking to the agent again did no good.
Bonacca is definitely unique. It started out as four separate keys which have been joined by landfill and house construction. The ~600 acre site houses around 3500 people. The streets are narrow and filled with residents walking, sitting in doorways and leaning out of their windows. There is one main street with four cross streets. Several narrow canals course through the town and accommodate the long and thin Bonaccan dories which transport goods in this world dominated by boats.
The town is surprisingly clean and divided into a well-to-do section, a moderately well-to-do section, and a very poor section called Vietnam. We did not visit the latter for reasons of safety and no good reason for being there except to ogle at poverty.
The island jail is a single, small building. It's iron door provides light to the interior through an 8" square, grated opening. The only additional light comes through a small, high window the on the back wall Inside, the two rows of darkened cells are separated by bars and a center aisle. There are no beds, no lights and each cell has a hole in the floor to the sea for a toilet. Every offense carries a mandatory 5 day sentence. Food and water are supplied by friends and relatives. If you have none you do without. The victim of the crime must file charges and pay all the prosecution fees for any further proceedings to occur. Seldom do the victims have the resources to press charges beyond the mandatory, 5-day sentence. There are no human rights in this arena.
The English school was a nice, one classroom building overlooking the dock area. The two young English women live in rooms adjoining the classroom and have succeeded in obtaining 70 students. I admire their courage in such an adventure so early in life.
We finished up our stay in Bonacca with a Honduran beer in Cafe Fifi. Cafe Fifi was named after the hurricane that blew through Bonacca the month the cafe opened. It is a 12' x 15', one room bar and restaurant with only a single serving table. The second table by the door is always occupied by the 70 year old owner, who smokes obnoxious cigars and randomly spits out the window with no regard for passersby. People have learned to deviate around the firing zone. Old George, also known as Cabezon (Spanish for big head) is an island fixture and was reputedly a smuggler in his younger years. The cafe is Florian's second office (Jorge's is his first) and his principal source of island news.
Dinner back at the house was baked snapper, salad, bread, and flan for dessert. This was our lowest cholesterol meal yet. The sun set with diminishing clouds and the promise of no rain tomorrow.
To bed at 11 p.m. after writing up the days events.
Thursday, November 22, 1990
Florian Becomes a Dive Guide
Up by 6 a.m.
Thursday was Thanksgiving back in the states but the holiday is, of course, not recognized in Honduras. After breakfast of ham, eggs and flour tortillas, Florian announced that Meyers would be laid up with malaria until probably Monday (I would certainly not forget to take my weekly dose of chloroquine tomorrow). I hoped he would get better soon.
Florian planned to serve as the dive guide himself and use the small 14 hp dingy for the all-day, two-tank trip to Black Rock on the NE point of the island. After passing Bayman Bay and Michael Rock on the north shore, it became clear that the seas would overwhelm our small craft if we continued with our plan to dive on Black Rock. Plan B was to dive Michael Rock Reef (site #51) then hike to the north shore waterfall and return for lunch on Michael Rock Beach. Afterwards we planned to go back through the cross island channel for a second dive off SW key. Michael Rock Reef was nice. The visibility was slowly improving. 60 min. at 60 ft. was pleasant for me but Florian was bounced around in the chop above like a cork in a washing machine.
The trip up to the waterfall would have been solo since Florian is a heavy smoker and drinker and doesn't perform well much above sea level. I opted, instead, for snorkeling in the bay - no shells and low visibility but I did find two octopi in their lairs which were surrounded by empty clam shells.
Lunch on Michael Rock beach was a pleasant interlude. The beach is a narrow strip of sand and palms which joins Michael Rock to the island proper and forms a peninsula between two bays. The sand beach faces on both bays and a NE wind blows straight through and holds the sand flies in check.
The now, full sun turned the little eyelash beach into a shinning scythe slicing into the azure waters of the Caribbean. I should, however, never have snorkeled in this picturesque cove which is used regularly on weekends by the local islanders. The turtle grass beyond the sand has become a repository for all manner of human debris. Why must we do this so consistently to our environment. Out of sight is not always out of sight, nor is it out of mind. Such disrespect will, in the long run, cost Guanajans their tourist trade.
Back on the south side of the island, the seas were still too rough for us to reach SW key in the little runabout. Florian suggested a dive in the channel through the reef just beyond Bonacca. I balked at the rotten visibility and the plastic bags and trash that had washed in from the local dump.
Florian saved the day by hiring Gilbert, the local dive guide who had taught Meyers the trade and who has his own large cabin cruiser. The cruiser was fully equipped for diving and deep sea fishing. Oddly, it was powered only by an incredibly small, retrofitted, 40 hp inboard engine. Everyone down here downgrades in power. Even the large shrimping trawlers replace the twin 500 hp engines with only a single 310 hp engine. All to save on fuel. The increase in cruising time is of no consequence.
We dived SW key's "Afternoon Delight". The visibility was a greatly improved 60 ft. but not yet spectacular. I got some close up shots of an enormous tame grouper sporting a baby remora and also saw a gigantic moray eel. Gilbert's regular client was a chunky young woman from Chicago who used up all of her air in 25 min. My dive lasted 56 min. and I returned with 900 psi still in the tank. The remaining air would have given me another 20 minutes or so but my nitrogen level was a concern on this second dive. Why is it that divers love to stay down the longest and use the least air and then brag about it?
The next day I was to go out with Gilbert again for an all-day, 2-tank dive. I looked forward to enjoying the luxury of his boat and his two young sons, Garrick and Garron. Gilbert speaks a really thick Bonaccan English but it is decipherable.
Dinner was deep-fat-fried shrimp, green salad and rice. To bed at 9:30.
Friday, November 23, 1990
The Dive to Black Rock and Underwater Caverns
Up at 4:00 a.m. I began to gather my scattered things together and put them back in my suitcase. Justa had washed the few dirty clothes I had. I had worn nothing on the island except one pair of cut-offs, a tee-shirt and a bathing suit. Wrote some postcards that I planned to mail on the mainland. It sometimes takes days for a card to get from Guanaja to La Cieba only 40 miles away.
After breakfast (desayuno), Florian took me over to meet Gilbert for a full day of diving and trolling. Casa Sobre el Mar (house over the sea) on Pond Key is a nice resort surrounded by a small reef with good snorkeling off the porch.
It was a beautiful day - a few puffy clouds, a light breeze, calm seas, full sun and blue skies. Gilbert rigged the trolling rods with sardines and we began fishing just beyond the canal on the north side of the island. We trolled outside the reef in 150 ft. of water as we "steamed" northeast toward our dive site at Black Rock. We had only one small strike before tying up to the buoy. There were no other dive boats at the site.
The sea was a blue-green rather than the deep blue associated with really good visibility. The extensive load of fresh water was still mixing with sea water and causing refraction disturbances near the surface. Gilbert said the best months for diving are Feb. through Sept., when there is no rain and the water temperature is around 85°F. The current temperature was a comfortable 80°F.
Black Rock was a thrilling surprise. Fifteen feet beneath the surface the shimmer due to the presence of fresh water abated and a vista of narrow, deep canyons with streams of white sand running through them opened before my eyes. Gilbert, Darleen and I descended to the floor at about 80 ft. The rock formations are supposedly volcanic in origin and are perfused with deep caves, some starting at 30 ft. and winding far into the massive structure. The lack of abundant coral was fully compensated for by scenery that was reminiscent of Arizona's Glen Canyon before it was flooded by Lake Powell.
We entered several caves and penetrated their darkness with our underwater flashlights. Imagine corridors 7 ft. wide and 50 ft. high twisting and winding into blackness and the unknown with the floor sometimes rising and sometimes dropping off. The dark, non-reflective walls added a sensation of the sinister.
After 25 min., Darleen's air was exhausted and Gilbert returned with her to the boat. With over 1500 psi of air remaining, I entered another dark corridor alone. Deep in the cavern, beyond the reach of light from the entrance, the darkness was broken by flashing streaks of green and white light like a laser display. There were five small holes in the cavern ceiling. The ocean surge above caused the beams of light to play in crossing shafts throughout the chamber. A school of hatchet fish danced among the beams. I would like to visit this site again when the visibility is great.
After 55 min. I returned to the surface and the world of reality. Gilbert "steamed" back along the outside of the reef and we ate lunch as our rods in their holders trailed artificial lures beyond the wake of the cabin cruiser.
The second dive was made under conditions of really rotten visibility. I spent my time hanging off ledges of shingle coral seeking out the smaller creatures of the reef community. Banded coral shrimp, arrow crabs and ghost shrimp could be found by watching for antennae and tiny legs protruding from holes and cracks. These little creatures earn their keep by cleaning larger fish of body parasites.
On the return to the cross-island canal I finally hooked a 3-foot barracuda which Gilbert will eat in spite of the possibility of poisoning from ciguatera. His check for edibility is to leave a piece of the fish out for the sugar ants. If they won't eat it, neither will he.
I asked about how Meyers was doing and about the occurrence of malaria on the island in general. Gilbert said that a rise in malaria seemed to coincide with arrival of flocks of migrating small birds from the mainland. The birds seem to transport the malaria parasite from the mainland mosquitos to the island mosquitos. During the rest of the year the parasite population on the island dies out for lack of sufficient mammalian hosts. Maybe this is true.
Lobster was served for dinner and I was appalled at the small size of the 6 tails that were served. They were no more than 4" long. I had a long conversation with Florian about this. His basic argument was that the lobster had already been caught. He did not seem to grasp that his purchasing them provided additional market pressure to perpetuate the short-sighted practice. The Honduran lobster fisherman have already depleted their own waters and now must go to Nicaragua and beyond for their catch of saleable lobsters. Florian said that there was a season when lobster fishermen were not allowed to take female lobsters carrying eggs, but that at sea there was no one to keep the hands from scraping off the eggs. Legislation was supposedly pending that would establish a completely closed season in which lobsters may not be possessed or sold. That might help.
After dinner I dried my wetsuit as best I could and hung it out to drip dry overnight so that I could pack it away before departing in the morning. The house bat and the wall geckos were playing on the porch. I had finished packing by 9:00 p.m. In preparation for my trip to Copan, I packed four days of clothing, bug repellant and necessities in my small hand bag and zipped it up in my large suitcase where I could reclaim it during my anticipated 3-hour layover in Roatan before continuing on to San Pedro Sula.
Disco and Darkness in Guanaja
At 9:30 p.m. Florian took me over to Bonacca to visit the disco. The bay was like glass. The sliver of a new moon hung low over the hills in the west with its horns pointed almost straight up - an unfamiliar sight for someone from the higher latitudes. I had never stopped to think before that the orientation of the moon on the horizon depends on the latitude from which it is viewed. Even with the faint moonlight there were more stars visible in the sky than are ever seen up north in the states.
The streets of Bonacca were almost empty. The disco was packed. There were flashing lights in the floor, on the wall and from spot lights shining on a rotating reflective sphere. Black lights turned the starched white trousers of dancing tourists into a festive display of rhythmic movement. The canned music was played at the required, ear-splitting, 400 decibels. You couldn't hear yourself think. Florian gravitated to the bar and began to glad hand everyone. He is an extremely sociable being.
It was amusing to see many of the young women with their hair rolled up in curlers. Florian explained that there were no hair dryers on the island and the curlers were in place in preparation for the weekly all night bash on Saturday when the gals want to look their best.
It was a relief to get back to the silence of the bay at 11:00 pm. The moon had set and the stars were now so numerous that they obscured familiar constellations like Orion, Casiopia, and the Big Dipper. Polaris sat just on the crest of the hills to the north. I was unable to find the southern cross due to clouds on the southern horizon. Florian pulled in to the bight east of Sandy Bay where the lights from the village were not visible. The wake of the boat was aflame with thousands of blue-green sparks from disturbed phytoplankton. It looked like the sky had fallen into the sea. I drank in the spectacle of the universe spread out above us and felt insignificant.
The game plan was to rise at 4 a.m., have a large breakfast and motor over to the air strip by 5 a.m. My seat on the early morning flight had been confirmed. To bed by midnight. Four a.m. seemed too close for comfort.
Saturday, November 24, 1990
Departure to San Pedro Sula
I awoke to my digital wrist alarm at 4 a.m. as planned. Justa and Florian were sound asleep and finally woke up to my movements at around 4:35. The large breakfast collapsed into a quick cup of coffee and dry toast.
We left in the skiff for the airstrip at 5:05 a.m. and we were the first to arrive. The agent was not even there. The sun was not up and the office was without electricity. Thank goodness it wasn't raining.
After my luggage was checked and put on the plane I learned that I had been confirmed on the 7 a.m. connecting flight to San Pedro Sula. There would now be no opportunity to retrieve my travelling gear until I reached San Pedro Sula.
I was given boarding pass #18 on the 19 passenger twin otter. The Houston bound passengers had been given boarding priority. Even so the plane took off with four of the Grand Rapids, MI passengers still standing on the tarmac. I wondered if they would get home that day?
In Roatan I transferred from the Twin Otter to a jam-packed 727. As you might expect, my bag of diving gear was delivered to the baggage claim area and my important case with my rain gear and bug repellant was not to be found. I was even taken to the baggage handler's area where they unstacked 8 ft. high piles of baggage in a futile search for mine.
I filed a lost baggage claim in Spanish and watched as the agent tried three times to enter it unsuccessfully into the computer - "invalido" was the unreassuring message on the monitor's screen. The fourth time was the charm, but I still had no great confidence that the message had actually been received by a real person on the other end.
I took a group taxi (una taxi collectiva) for 10 limperas from the airport to the Hotel Gran Sula on the town square. I was disappointed to learn that the room rates had gone up to 260 limperas even with a GE corporate discount (~$52/night). I caught another taxi (5 L) to El Hotel Los Andes where I took a room for 140 limperas (~$28) and called the airlines to give them an address where they could deliver my luggage (this is a joke).
Los Andes is an efficiency apartment hotel with a lovely garden patio with caged, squawking macaws. Here was a good opportunity to catch up on my log.
By 2:30 my luggage had miraculously reappeared in the airport but the promise of hotel delivery seemed more and more unlikely. A really nice desk attendant, Anna, who had been acting as my intermediary with SAHSA, helped me bargain for a taxi (round trip 35 L). At the airport I successfully used my budding Spanish to get SAHSA to pay 50 L to cover my expenses for having to return to the airport myself.
Back at the hotel I visited a local supermarket and bought some bananas for the next day's trip.
I blew my budget by eating in the hotel restaurant (47 L). It was, I thought, probably the last place I would dare drink even the purified water (aqua pura).
I separated my luggage into storage and bus bag and retired at 8 p.m. This had been a long day without rest. Tomorrow's plan - up at 4:45 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. bus to Copan. I had been warned several times to get a ticket to Los Ruinas de Copan and not to Santa Rosa de Copan. Las Ruinas requires a bus change at La Entrada.
Sunday, November 25, 1990
Chickenbus to Copan
I was up at 4:30 - ahead of my alarm. My promised wake up call never came. The hotel desk was unattended at 5:10 and my note to call a taxi appeared to have been untouched. After a few rings on the desk bell, a bleary-eyed clerk appeared, rubbing his face as he struggled into coherency.
I paid my bill, had two free cups of hotel coffee and ascertained from the monolingual night attendant that a cab would arrive at 5:30 instead of 5:20. It was still dark when the cab reached Transportes de Copanecos (the bus station) at 5:40. There were only a few people there. With my American mentality, I bought a ticket to La Entrada for 7 limperas from a clerk in the ticket booth. In so doing, I had to fill out a form requiring answers to all sorts of questions including my passport number. After completing this laborious task I asked for directions to the men's room (oh, those two cups of coffee) and learned, to my surprise, that the station had no facilities - as a matter of fact, I learned that no station in Honduras has facilities. I gritted my teeth and boarded the bus. The only seat that would accommodate my long legs was the one behind the driver. Except for inadequate knee space, this was otherwise a normal bus, several cuts above the chickenbuses of the back country. There was even an overhead storage rack. Around 5:55 crowds of people began to materialize and they simply boarded the bus without buying a ticket at the booth.
At 6:10 the driver cranked up the engine and turned on the stereo for the benefit of the passengers and the rest of the city.
Every seat on the bus was filled when we left the station. At almost every corner the driver announced his presence with a blast on his air horn and additional passengers would climb aboard. Outside the city the bus continued to pick up passengers. When there was absolutely no more room, three or four more would board. Seats for two were now occupied by three or four and the aisle was packed with standing travellers. When truly, absolutely, no more people could be squeezed in, the "conductor" squirmed his way down the crowded aisle and collected fares - without any fan...
The countryside is a lush, lush green. The road paralleled a river and climbed slowly into the mountains. There were no rest stops, and that second cup of coffee was working its way through my system. Everything grows down here. Even the fence posts were sporting new leaves. The road became shrouded in fog until we reached the crest of the hills, then the skies became clear.
La Entrada was the first major village and the transfer point ending the first 3-hour leg of my bus trip.. There was a bustling mercado with many vendors selling from simple sheds. The streets were all dirt. It was Sunday and everybody was about.
From La Entrada to Las Ruinas de Copan
I transferred to a dilapidated VW microbus for the next 60 km to the ruins. I hoped that the ruins were in better shape than the bus. The headliner was hanging down in tatters, the walls were rusted through and the engine sounded like an old teletype with the hiccups. I was not sure if the car would make it. The driver suggested that I sit in the front seat. Great idea, because at times there were as many as 15 people in the passenger compartment.
The driver spent a lot of time on the left side of the road avoiding potholes. I wondered if he would do the same on the return trip? We passed a rather severe head-on collision between two small cars - a definite product of this crazy driving practice. The roadside had become peppered with thatched roof huts with mud plastered walls and dirt floors - the hangout of the dreaded vinchuca.
The mountain slopes appeared to have been clear cut. The few trees on the grassy hillsides stood as lonely sentinels in the center of the sharply etched dark circles of their own shadows. Simple monuments to bygone forests. It was strange to see so many pine trees here. The variety of trees reminded me more of Georgia than a rain forest. The bananas and papaya along the road must have been cultivated additions to the natural mix.
There were many pedestrians along the road - women, children and men carrying machetes. The microbus finally arrived in Las Ruinas Copan at noon, having taken two and a half hours to go 60 km. I went directly to the Hotel Marina and calmly asked to use the john. Then I took a room for two nights for 32 L/night. The price had gone up from the 12 limperas quoted in the chickenbus guide book, but $6.40/night still seemed reasonable.
The room was large with a clean ceramic tile floor and no carpet, a four-piece set of early Salvation Army furniture, a raised-platform, shower-and-facilities corner, and a toilet seat that was detached. the color scheme was an interior decorator's nightmare. The floor tiles were 8" squares of beige, chocolate, and lime green. The wainscot was dark brown and the walls were smudged, off-white. The bed spread added its own accent in olive green - actually the room was a little depressing.
I lay down for 15 min. to recoup from the almost six hour bus ride. Got up and had a nice, full course lunch for 10 L and set out for the ruins. It finally occurred to me what the ticket taker for the mini van had been shouting at each stop - "Copa Reyna, Copa Reyna, Copa Reyna" was his version of Las Ruinas de Copan - or La Copan Ruina".
Copan and the Mayan Ruins
My first stop was at the museum one block from the Hotel Marina. All the descriptions were in Spanish and I was pleased that I could easily read and translate them all. In asking directions to the ruins I found with interest that it was 1 km away no matter where you were when you asked. My plan was to walk through the whole site in the afternoon and return the next day for a more detailed visit.
The site was well kept and manicured but I was disappointed for several reasons:
1. There is not enough of a stand of trees and pristine vegetation around the site to support a community of jungle animals.
2. Earthquakes have taken the straight lines out of the stairs and the sides of the reconstructed pyramids.
3. The statues are made of a type of limestone that has eroded badly. Even the coarse details of the carvings and glyphs must be reconstructed by your imagination. Acid rain is taking its toll even in Central America and many of the sculptures are now being protected by sheds and tarps.
4. Access to many of the features at the site is prohibited.
5. Proximity to the village of Copan Ruinas destroys the romance of isolation.
The weather was beautiful. Around 75°F, bright sun, a few clouds and a light breeze. I was thoroughly fatigued from the day's travel and my tour of the ruins and lay spread eagled on the grass platform of the small pyramid in the east plaza. In the warm sun and cooling breeze I fell sound asleep for about 20 min. and awoke momentarily not knowing where I was. What a strange sensation in this region of antiquity.
As I left the archaeological site at around 3:45 the gate attendant directed me to the nature walk which wound through the thicker part of the forest. About a half an hour he said. With the sun low in the sky the forest was dim and the animal life was minimal except for frequent spider webs across the seldom taken trail. I took a wrong turn and ended up on the banks of the Copan River. Backtracking finally got me out of the woods at around 5 p.m with long shadows now falling from the trees.
Personal Encounters in Las Ruinas de Copan
On the hike back to town I passed two young boys and asked if they were in school, and offered them their choice of blue or red felt-tip pens for their studies. A small pickup truck pulled along side and offered a ride into town. The kids hopped aboard and I chose to walk and watch the soft shadows of the town creep across the tobacco fields, in the valley below.
My two young students had already assured that my arrival in Copan would be a big event. On crossing the bridge into town, I was surrounded by children who had come to see the Americano with pencils. My two little friends had spread the word like wild fire. It was hard to be selective but my supply was limited.
After dinner at the Hotel Marina I met Ed Culberson who had just published a book, Obsessions Die Hard, about his motorcycle trip from Alaska to Argentina on the Pan American Highway. He was the first person to take a vehicle through an 80 mile stretch at a missing section of the highway. That section had been considered impassable even for construction crews. I read an excerpt from one of the chapters and liked his style and sense of adventure. I made plans to add his book to my collection of adventure tales.
Ed is a retired Army officer and is currently serving as a motorcycle safety instructor for the Peace Corps in Antigua, Guatemala. He and a German-American lady friend were touring Guatemala and Honduras on a large dirt bike. His description of the stretch of road between the Guatemalan boarder and the main road to Quirigua (Ker' ri gua) convinced me that I had neither the time nor the perseverance to try it by chicken bus. The trip would take 9-10 hours one way. I mentally cancelled those plans!
It is interesting how small the world is in Central America. Ed also runs motorcycle tours of the Mayan ruins with groups of up to 6 dirt bikes. In his travels he had gotten to know the American owners of the pension in Poptun. Just two days before I met Ed he had talked with the wife of the murdered American while she was on business in Antigua Guatemala. She had made no mention of her husband's death, perhaps fearing for her own life. From others, Ed heard speculation that the military thought that Michael, the owner of the pension, had information regarding the whereabouts of guerilla camps that he was not sharing. Their judgements are unilateral, harsh, without recourse and permanent.
The shower in my room was another experience. There was only one faucet in the shower. The shower head contained a 220 v, 3200 watt, tubular sheathed heater which provided instant hot water. The water temperature was controlled by the volume of water passing through the heater - more was colder, less was steam, The problem here is that you are standing in a stream of water, all soaped up and well grounded through the floor drain. People have been electrocuted using these things when they fail - and they do. Some travel agents will not book clients in Central American accommodations that use these devices.
After the warm, electrifying shower I fell into bed at 8 o'clock and slept like a log until 6:30 a.m. in spite of the traffic noises in the alley directly outside my window.
Monday, November 27, 1990
Ruins and Crypts
After a big breakfast, I took a leisurely walk to the ruins. When I awoke, the sky was overcast, but by 8:30 the sun had dispersed the moisture and the skies were again azure.
The early morning light at the ruins provided new photographic opportunities. It is worth staying for both morning and afternoon illuminations. Two Swiss knapsack tourists entered the site with me. Ed Culberson and his friend had signed in earlier and there were no others. I was essentially alone among the ancients. I followed the step by step tour of the site given in the guide book Susan Rust had loaned me and found it very informative.
At the base of Temple #11 there is an entrance to an excavated tomb. Two, enterprising, eight year old boys offered their guide services with flashlights. They were surprised to learn that I had brought my own and were very impressed with its small size and relatively high power. I gave each of them a ball point pen and we entered the 5 foot high tunnel that climbed gently upwards. At the first branch in the passageway, I was glad I had my guides along. At the end of the winding branch there was a small platform with several glyphs along the front. The small chamber was oppressively hot, humid and claustrophobic. I reached over and turned off my guide's flashlight then I turned off mine, and plunged us into tarry darkness. My eyes strained for light that was not there. I imagined what it would be like to be trapped here in an earthquake and I didn't like the sensation. My young guide nervously lighted his hand torch as he clearly did not like sharing the darkness with the spirits of the Maya.
Still in a stoop shouldered and hunched stance, I took the other branch of the tunnel and now descended through several turns to the excavated sepulcher. I climbed into the grave site, turned off my light, and reached up and turned off my young guide's light. He immediately turned it back on - to be in the darkness in the tomb was too much.
I began to feel the walls closing in, breathing became labored in the humid chamber. There were several other dead-ended tunnels which we by-passed. I was relieved to see the light of the entrance ahead and breathed in deep gulps of the fresh air. I had developed a great deal more respect for archaeologists who probe around in these rock piles for a living.
I finished my tour by 1 p.m. and climbed to the top of temple #11, overlooking the western courtyard to rest and write postcards. The silence and tranquility was broken by the arrival of a tour of 35 Austrians in the plaza below. I climbed down out of their photographs and joined their group for a guided tour.
The tour was conducted in high German but the conversation among the tour members was in Austrian dialect. There was a Spanish tour guide along who described details to the German guide in Spanish. He translated them into German and I made the final absorption into my own thoughts.
After carrying on a conversation in German with one of the tour members, he asked if I were Swiss. I considered that a compliment. He could not believe that I was an American!
There is a rather disturbing set of plans in progress in Central America. The plans will certainly benefit the local economy, but they will definitely destroy the romance of the Mayan sites. Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras are trying to eliminate red tape by creating a special, multi-country visa for travelling La Ruta Maya. Airports will be built at all the principal archaeological sites and jet plane loads of tourists from all over the world will be paraded through the ruins like herds of cattle. Packaged tourism will eventually turn the entire world into DisneyLand. I don't look forward to that.
Back at the Hotel Marina, I learned that the direct bus to San Pedro Sula leaves at 5 a.m. I met an American, Dan Barry, from Peoria, IL and learned that he was in Copan with a tour bus and that he was the only one in the tour. I asked him to check with his driver/guide and find out what he would charge to take me back to SPS with them. The driver's reply was $10 US and the deal was cinched. Two other Americans joined in as well. I was relieved not to have to face that horrendous stretch back to La Entrada in a microbus. In retrospect, I think the driver of the microbus had expected a tip for allowing me to sit up front - I guess I'm slow on the uptake.
After supper, I agreed to join Dan and his 22 year old guide, Gary, at the Tunkul Bar in Copan which Gary had recommended. We walked down some narrow, dimly lit cobblestone alleys past the local junk yard to the appointed place. The bar is named after an ancient Mayan, 3-note, percussion instrument that looked a little like a marimba. On the outside, the entrance was plain, drab and uninviting - on the inside it was clean, cozy, quaint and friendly. We were greeted in perfect Los Angeles English by the owner/operator Miguel (Mike) Valladares. The bartender, Esteban Sosa, spoke only Spanish and must have been the only black in Copan. The whole atmosphere was congenial. The six patrons were all adventure travellers and we spent an enjoyable evening until 11 p.m. swapping tales and sipping flor de canya con frescas over "boiled ice" at 3 limperas a drink.
Tuesday, November 28, 1990
Return to San Pedro Sula and on to Tela
Up at 6:30 a.m. I had slept right through the roosters, the horses on the cobblestone alley and trucks without mufflers. After a filling breakfast, I made another tour of the museum to serve as an interpreter for Dan. Our group of five finally departed for La Entrada at ~9:30 a.m.
Gary informed us that there were only about two gallons of fuel in the comfortable mini-van - the seats were all upholstered and the headliner was firmly attached to the ceiling everywhere. The problem was that there was not a drop of gas in all of Copan and the next possible station was in La Entrada 60 km away.
En route we passed the cars that had had the head-on collision, they had not been moved one inch. Gary said that the small pickup had been driven by a drunk Honduran and the other car was a rental with three Americans on board. The American driver had suffered a broken pelvis and was being operated on in SPS as we spoke. The accident occurred in fog on this dangerous twisting road where American driving standards had been suspended long ago.
Gas was available in La Entrada and the whole trip back to San Pedro Sula from Copan took only three hours, as opposed to six via public transportation. In San Pedro we had tacos and walked around the city square and through the downtown street markets . I bought a colorful hammock for 75 limperas as a Christmas gift for some unsuspecting offspring.
I received directions to the bus stop for the line to Tela, bade goodbye to my transient companions and set out on foot, luggage and hammock in hand for the next leg of the trip.
I arrived at the station just in time to jump on the 2 o'clock bus to El Progresso - no more ticket booths for me (fare was 2.40 L). The bus was packed and had no overhead storage. In El Progresso (a misnomer if I ever heard one) I transferred to another bus. While waiting in this steamy can in the unpaved dirt lot, all kinds of young vendors wandered up and down the isles hawking onions, potatoes, fried chicken, popcorn in plastic bags, barbie-like dolls, and plastic bags filled with soda or juice.
The movement of air through the bus after we got underway was a Godsend. The seats, for two people each, all held at least three and some held four. There were around 80 people on board with serviceable exits only the the front and rear.
About 18 km outside of Tela, steam began to rise from beneath the hood. The driver commandeered a five gal. pail from a nearby hut and went to a roadside stream to draw water. We limped on into Tela and I wouldn't doubt that they merely turned the bus around and sent it back with a load of passengers and the grace of God. (Total fare SPS to Tela 6.40 L.)
Tela is a typical dirt street town, and I wondered why I was here. The taxi dropped me off at Las Hotel-Villas Telamar which had been recommended by Gary. Telamar is a resort oasis. I took a two-double-bed suite overlooking the palm lined beach and the Caribbean for the beyond-budget price of 117 limperas (~$23), but I knew that I would enjoy the air conditioned rest. Staying at the beach or going to the botanical gardens at Lancitilla was going to be a tough decision on the following morning.
Wednesday, November 29, 1990
The Rain Forest of Lancitilla
What a wonderful sleep. The bed clothing was as soft as down. All the water I had encountered in Honduras was extremely soft which makes washing easy. I was up for breakfast at 6:45.
Telamar Villas evidently does a big business only on the weekend as there were no more than a half-dozen guests registered. At breakfast I spoke with Lori Boyd, a Peace Corps volunteer, and her mother, La Merle, an attorney from Santa Fe. They highly recommended Lancitilla from their visit the previous day. They offered me a ride to the entrance to El Jardin Botanico Tropical if I could be ready in 10 min.
I left my luggage in the room and they dropped me at the gate carrying my camera bag with six photos remaining, a pair of binoculars, and a bottle of aqua pura from the hotel.
I paid my 1 limpera admission and the gate guard motioned me down a long, unpaved, deep rutted mud road and said something about giving the ticket to the guide at the end of the road. No one told me how long the walk was going to be.
The sky was blue and dotted with puffy white clouds. The low angle of the 8:30 sun cast long shadows across the mud ruts. The dense tropical forest marched right up to the edge of the road and at times closed out the light with its upper canopy. The lush vegetation was damp from the humidity of recent rains. There were occasional foot trails that led off somewhere into the thick undergrowth. This is jungle - this is real jungle.
There were sounds of chattering parrots and bell-like calls from some unknown birds. There were rustling sounds in the underbrush and an occasional clatter of objects falling from the tree tops. Banana trees were everywhere as were huge palmetto palms. Large deciduous trees dominated the hillsides. Lianas reached in vain for the earth from the high branches. Clear streams gurgled down the hillsides and through culverts under the road. I would stop and listen in awe to the activity around me.
The humidity caused perspiration to hang in my clothing. If I allowed my camera to dangle from my neck against my body, the lens and range finder would fog up. Dan Barry had commented in Copan, with some amazement, as to how I could always look so crisp and clean while traveling with only a single handbag. Well all hope of crispness faded away on this 4 km hike to the gardens.
The plant life was simply amazing. There were some vines bearing brown fruit the size of basketballs. I asked the few people that I met on my walk about the plants but their answers in Spanish were too fast and complicated for me to understand. I met about a dozen people on the way, children, mothers, men with machetes and men on horseback. The men always seem to carry machetes - it's their equivalent of a Swiss army knife. A greeting of "buena dia" always evoked a response and a smile in the soft light of this jungle thoroughfare.
I actually thought the road was the botanical garden. I couldn't imagine anything more spectacular, but at last the jungle walls fell away and I saw the information house at the entrance to the much more open botanical gardens.
I purchased a trail guide pamphlet for 0.50 limperas and the old man attending the desk showed me a display of local insects and formaldehyde jars of pickled specimens of the indigenous poisonous snakes. One quart jar was filled with only the head of the highly venomous barba amarilla - the yellow beard. It looked like a bush-master to me and I would certainly extend him a great deal of respect. The barba amarilla is, in fact, the dreaded fer-de-lance of Central America. I remember reading about them in the book, "Snakes of the World" that my father shared with me when I was a child. These snakes are not only large and deadly, they are also aggressive when challenged. Maybe this is why all the men carry machetes. When I asked about their presence in the gardens, the old man answered with fervor, "Hay bastante!" (there are plenty!).
The walk through the garden begins with the bamboo tunnel - a 1/4 mile long corridor through a stand of this magnificent giant grass. The stand consists of plants 8-10" in dia. and 50-60 ft. high. On beyond there was an area dedicated solely to the cultivation of orchids. Hundreds of these arboreal air plants were hung from a loosely thatched, low ceiling which provided the warmth and humidity required for their growth. There were, however, none in bloom.
The garden is divided into ~ 40 different "plantations" with each containing a single species of non-indigenous trees. The high point for me was the walk to the far limit of the garden to visit a swimming hole in one of the clear streams. The path led through the only grove of mangosteen trees in the western hemisphere, on through a field of majestic African oil palms and then plunged into a thicket of young bamboo - for certain the home of barba amarilla.
The puffy white clouds of early morning had thickened and were dark with liquid. The air in the sandy wash twisting through the bamboo clumps was dank and clammy. I felt like an insect winding his way through a thick head of hair. The odor of leaf mold was strong in my nostrils. Rain was imminent and my umbrella was in my hotel room.
The swimming hole was an idyllic, sandy-bottomed pool of clear water that sparkled in the fleeting sunlight. The water in the entrance and exit of the pool tumbled over melon sized stones. The deteriorating weather, however, cut short this tranquil interlude.
On my way out of the garden I photographed a travellers tree from Madagascar - my last picture in Honduras. The comb of this strange palm spreads out in a single plane like the tail of a strutting peacock. Its sap provides a quenching drink for the thirsting traveller - hence its name.
Sweat soaked and dreading being caught in the rain on my 4 km hike back to the main road, I considered myself extremely lucky to encounter a rare taxi delivering some workers to the botanical garden. For 5 limperas I was deposited in front of the Hotel Villas Telamar at noon. With checkout at 2 p.m., I had time for a shower and hung my clothing over the air conditioner to dry. While waiting for my clothing to dry, I sat unclothed at the desk and recorded the morning's experiences.
Return to San Pedro Sula via Chickenbus
Lunch at the Telamar was followed by a walk to the bus station with an intermediate stop at a unisex salon for a 7 limpera, Honduran haircut.
The bus trip to El Progresso was almost uneventful. These busses were simply not made for long legged Americans. I tried to compensate by sitting in an aisle seat. When the bus stopped at a railroad crossing in El Progresso, the engine quit. There was not enough juice in the battery to turn it over again. I suspect that the alternator had failed earlier and that the engine had been running on the battery alone. The good news was that we were only six blocks from the transfer station.
On to San Pedro Sula and El Hotel Los Andes. This was a good stop for beginning to readjust to US prices with rooms at 150 limpera (~$30.00) and full course dinners at 55 limpera (~$10.00).
Tomorrow - up at 5:45 and to the airport by 6:30 for my 8:40 flight.
Thursday, November 29, 1990
Homeward Bound in the Cockpit
I awoke at 4:45 a.m. and decided to stay up and get things ready to go. I checked out and picked up a cab at the hotel desk at 6:30 a.m. As I left the hotel in a hard downpour I thought about the windows in the restaurant all decorated with artificial frost and snow - items foreign to every region of Honduras.
In the ticket line at SAHSA I met a nice, young Canadian woman, Nance McCollomb from Calgary, who had been in Honduras on business with a mining concern. Her company represents 5% of the Honduran GNP and gets the direct attention of the Honduran president.
It didn't take long to recognize that Nance was bright, alert, well travelled and held strong views on religion that paralleled mine. We had a great time discussing the economic crisis in Honduras, the disrespect for the environment, and the barriers to self-actualization among the people. It is impossible to teach people not to throw plastic drinking bags off busses when they come from towns with dirt roads and houses with dirt floors.
If your children aren't clean and the nearest laundromat is a flat rock on a stream bank, who can be concerned about plastic on the roadside. The common wage among the poor is 35 limperas a month. That's ~20 cents/day. School costs are 30 limperas a month and out of the reach of most. Now I understand how precious the pens were that I distributed to the children.
Nance and I had coffee together in the airport restaurant after checking in and paying our 40 limpera departure tax. In the restaurant I had my shoes shined by an enterprising 10 year old for 1 limpera. I gave him a 5 limpera note and his face brightened in disbelief when I asked for no change. There are still many places in the world where such a small show of generosity ($1.00) can bring tremendous appreciation.
After boarding the SAHSA flight I asked the stewardess if I could look in the cockpit and she said yes. I told the captain that I was a pilot and Long-EZ builder. To my surprise he offered me the clap seat for the duration of the flight. I accepted for takeoff and landing only. It was an interesting experience, as a pilot, to watch the captain and co-captain go through their extensive check list and to listen to the co-pilot call off the velocities on the take off roll and finally, on reaching V-one, calling "Rotate". After the jet had reached 14,000 ft. I returned to my seat between Nance and her company's corporate lawyer, Brian.
Our conversation gravitated to the hazards of travel in politically unstable areas. Nance related several stories of tragedies that had befallen personal friends of hers. Two Australian couples were travelling in Guatemala. Men in military garb forced their way into the four people's room and abducted the women. This was several months ago, and the women have not been heard from since. In the absence of any demands for ransom, this appears to be an act of either white slavery profiteering or just one of rape and murder.
She also had friends who were having dinner in Panama in a decent restaurant considerably after Noriega's defeat. Their meal was interrupted by the arrival of a military squad that demanded all of the patrons' cash and jewelry. They then required everyone to strip naked at the tables for a body search for hidden goods. The soldiers left the people with their lives but with no goods and no dignity.
Another female friend was travelling alone when she found herself being rushed by a group of soldiers in an alleyway. She ran and they fired at her. Bullets were ricochetting off the cobblestones and the building walls. She escaped by darting into a hotel. In another incident on the same trip, she was raped. These stories, though anecdotal, raise serious concerns about travel in areas of unrest, particularly if you are a female traveling alone. There is a different attitude about the value of life in this corner of the tropics.
We continued to engage in brisk conversation and enjoyed the liberal cocktails, wine and aperitifs provided by SAHSA until I had to excuse myself to "land the plane". I got some great wide angle cockpit shots of the approach to Houston with the last two shots in the camera.
At customs, I was separated from Nance and Brian by the resident-non-resident division and the fact that they were continuing on to Canada. As travel will have it, I did not see them again.
Greensleeves was playing on the airport sound system, baggage moved smoothly, computer-controlled interterminal trains worked flawlessly, and I drank without hesitation from the nearest public water fountain. The pieces of my real world were coming back together and the adventure portion of the trip was at an end.