We've finally been able to look around the island of Roatán a bit, on our own version of island time. We try not to rush around for anything these days so if we don't see it all this time, we'll catch it in the next round. As we've mentioned, we're staying in West End which is a quiet but busy beach town. I know that's an oxymoron, but that's how I view it. When we go into town (a 10 minute walk), it is generally quite peaceful except for a few taxis, tourist vans, and delivery trucks. We discussed this before also, the vehicles aren't the pitchy loud small engines of the Utila tuk-tuks, they are normal cars, trucks, and vans. They do spew exhaust as they idle, especially the delivery trucks.
But it's beautiful and it's quiet most of the day, we really like it, it feels comfortable. We have our favorite grocery stores, vegetable stands, Wifi hotspots, and waterfront hangouts. Some of the vendors and shop people have gotten to know us, although the little 10-year-old girls that sell bracelets haven't. Every single day for the last month they ask if we want to buy a bracelet. They're cute, but I'm not buying a bracelet, sorry! Oh, and I don't know how many times I've told the cigar vendor “No gracias, no fumo” (I don't smoke)! It's kind of funny, like the movie Groundhog Day. How many times am I going to have this exact conversation? 🙂
We took a laid-back private van tour of Roatán last week with a guy named Frankie who grew up here. He probably thought I was with the secret police or something, as much as I was quizzing him on life in Roatán. He had a lot of stories as he drove us around the island, many passed on from his father, about how Roatán has changed over the years. He said the early tourist development of the Bay Islands of Honduras started on Guanaja (one rock east of here), and that it was expected to be the real tourist destination in this area. We looked at Guanaja a little but it seemed like a bit of a strange place. 90% of the (admittedly small) population is on one small caye (1500 feet x 800 feet) instead of on the main island which is over 10 miles long and mostly untouched. Only in recent times have they started to develop the main island of Guanaja (which is truly beautiful we're told).
On the other hand, and for better or for worse, Roatán and Utila have embraced change and completely morphed from fishing economies to tourist economies. Roatán in particular has gone all in with two cruise ship ports and an airport that serves large jetliners, although admittedly it is blessed with deep water and enough land for the airport. I have to say that we have been pleasantly surprised that the tourist industry (and this is high season) hasn't in any way “ruined” the island of Roatán for us.
One question that came up with Frankie was the difference between Honduran mainlanders and Islanders (as they like to be called). He described it almost as if they are two different countries entirely, it was fascinating. Mainlanders speak mostly Spanish and are very much Central Americans, culturally probably closer to Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans than Honduran Islanders. Islanders grow up bilingual and have their own unique Caribbean culture (and language that I will never understand), borrowing from the mainland yes, but also from the Cayman Islands, Belize, even Jamaica. And their own history brings along cultural aspects that are distinct from anywhere else. It's truly Caribbean meets Central America. I also detected a bit of local pride, they are more proud to be Islanders than to be Hondurans.
One of Frankie's favorite topics were the roads in Roatán. Granted, he drives for a living so that isn't a surprise, but he used the roads as examples of effective vs. ineffective government entities. The roads were in much better shape as we drove east and passed some jurisdictional east/west boundary. He was hopeful that the newly elected officials in the west part of the island would solve the pothole problems, many of which are caused by this year's particularly torrential rainy season. It's a really interesting process, negotiating the two-lane roads here. It's perfectly normal for a vehicle, any vehicle, to be in your lane heading directly at you until they get around the huge pothole, and then casually go back into their own lane. Vehicles adjust their speed to allow the other car to get back in their lane in time for the their own lane to keep rolling along. But sometimes, it just becomes a one-lane-at-a-time stop and go situation, the holes are wide and deep. There's no hurry for most people, you just wait your turn and then move along. Island time.
There's another interesting aspect to this whole pothole problem. Since the governments aren't solving it, private individuals will simply go get a pickup load of dirt and start filling holes. These are the business owners around who know how important the roads are to their business and to their fellow citizens. Then there are the little “entrepreneurs” who stand out in the road next to a pothole with a shovel and a tip jar, looking for support from drivers. They aren't doing a thing but leaning on a shovel, but I guess it pays off or they wouldn't do it. We saw one kid at the same pothole on both passes down the road, 3 hours later. He wasn't making a lot of progress filling holes, but I suppose his tip jar was making it worth the “effort”.
Early on in our island tour we made a stop that was the real highlight of the day. It was at a monkey and sloth “hangout”. It was a small, beautiful place with lots of greenery, and monkeys, iguanas, macaws, toucans, parrots, sloths, even some small key deer. The monkeys used us as perches to sit on while they chowed on sunflower seeds provided by our guide. They were pretty gentle, and their little hands so strong but soft! We enjoyed the other animals too, but it was the sloths that won the day with their happy little faces and they way they hug you! And of course the way they lie on their backs and pull food down into their mouths, too tired to actually stand up to eat, so cute! The tour only took a half hour or so – we could've stayed there all day hugging sloths!
As we've cruised around this island we've found once again the need to choose beauty over ugliness. I think of it like framing a photo. It's what you do in the basics of photography – framing in the most basic sense is to remove distractions and only put in the scene what you want in the scene. Distractions are removed, like clutter, something that doesn't fit, or simply something ugly. My photographer friends will attest that framing goes way beyond this, but that's the start of it. In life, you can do the same thing, and we do it here quite a bit. We were on a beach last week with a beautiful blue water view, crisp white sailboats, a big orange sun, and soft puffy clouds. But when we turned around we saw seaweed littered with plastic bags, boat parts, and a random flip-flop. So which view did we capture on the camera?
Of course we focused on the beauty, and that's what we try to do as we go about our lives here. Off our balcony, we look at gorgeous sunsets over the jungle instead of looking down to see the trash below our building, or the old mattress thrown underneath our neighbor's house. We also look at the ocean view from the top of the hill on our street instead of the overflowing garbage bin on the side of the road. Why focus on the ugliness you can't affect, when you can focus on the beauty you can enjoy?
So yes, the beaches here have some trash problems but not to the level we saw in Utila. In Roatán there is significant effort paid to cleaning up the beaches, of trash and of sargassum seaweed that blows in from the West. But if you walk down a beach far enough, you'll find stretches where there is nobody around to clean it up and sometimes that's not so pretty. We walk westward down the beach often, sometimes all the way to West Bay (a big resort area with nice beaches), and sometimes with the doggies but we don't go quite as far with them.
We've been planning to take a water taxi to Sandy Bay east of us, but the weather isn't cooperating much. So far this month we have received 6” of rain, which followed 6” in the month of December. The average for January is 11” of rain, so we've got more to go and in fact, the forecast is for another 4-5” this week alone. But even with all that moisture we've probably only been stuck indoors for 2-3 days total; we're pretty good at sneaking out between squalls, and a lot of the rain is at night and early morning.
We've also experienced three earthquakes while we've been here, but fortunately nothing dangerous. The first one was very small, so small that I didn't notice it (Deb did). The second one was in the middle of the night (3:40 am); the dishes rattling in the kitchen woke me up (while Deb slept through it). It was so strange to be pulled out of a dead sleep to find the room shaking. I was just lying there trying to wake up and figure out what was going on. Once I decided it wasn't a dream, I got out of bed to put my feet on the floor, but by then it had stopped. So then I was thinking this was maybe a dream after all. It wasn't until the next day that we went online to find it was a magnitude 4.5 centered near us but out in the Caribbean Sea. A week or so later, there was a 7.6 that didn't shake us as much, for whatever reason (maybe farther away). Later we found out how big it was and that there were tsunami warnings around the Caribbean (which were later canceled – no tsunamis). To be clear, Honduras has earthquakes all the time, these are only the ones we noticed. On the earthquake website I found they show 73 earthquakes greater than a 1.5 in the last year.
It's been fun seeing and learning first-hand about the local creatures (I just realized “critters” is probably a variant of “creatures” - I'm slow but I get there eventually). The neighbor's house, which is about 20' from our balcony, has bats in its belfry. Well, in it's attic anyway. At dusk they pour out of the corner of the roof overhang, one by one, and start their nightly feeding. We'll see them flying in a straight line at high-speed, and then instantly bank hard, do a sharp little curve, and return to flying fast. That's when you know they just had a tasty little flying snack. One night we had one come inside, but we quickly showed him the door. Now we keep the curtain and blinds drawn at night and haven't had any more. They aren't trying to sneak in, but if you leave the doors and windows wide open, they'll come exploring. But they do like to take a rest on our balcony.
Geckos hang out on the balcony all night too, eating bugs. And they sometimes end up in our shower along with the millipedes (why?). I usually get the duty to evict these unwelcome guests but we usually just shower with them first because I'm not walking them outside while naked and dripping wet (sorry for the mental image!). We saw a Honduran milk snake on the street one day, a very pretty little thing, and even saw a Roatán Island Agouti (large rodent, about a foot long) run across the gravel road. We thought it was a capybara, but these are little different, and native to this island. These things are shy around humans, so he scampered off when he saw us.
We should have more to report on Roatán in the next couple of weeks, depending on how much the weather allows us to explore. We don't like to rush so it may be mañana, which of course means tomorrow, or in the morning, or whenever I get around to it. But even if not, we'll do an island summary when we're about to leave. We also have some friends who have either come here before, or are planning to come, so please let us know your experiences on Roatán when that happens!