2000 Expedition Journals
The past two days were inversely proportional to the first. "To those who suffer, paradise awaits", a major tenet of many religions. Never a subscriber to any, the past 48 hours have almost been enough to make me a believer.
We were very sore on the morning the 19th (my birthday) and over a leisurely breakfast with our hosts we looked at the map and decided on a seven mile day. An hour into the crossing we saw a tiny little spit of sand with a few coconut palms, and a cruise ship parked off shore. Like with good restaurants that are crowded for good reasons, we went straight for it. Sore shoulders were our excuse for ducking out early.
It was one of those islands that you see in cartoons, a hump of sand, four trees and a shipwrecked castaway in ragged clothes. Only this place had a thatch roofed palapa and was crawling with pale, white retired couples and tourists splashing about the reef snorkeling or lying in the sun slathering on sunscreen.
We actually met some great people and did some beautiful snorkeling among gardens of live coral. And we spent the afternoon chatting and sharing drinks with one of the groups.
By 5:00, the place was empty. Everyone back to the mother ship. JP speared a couple of fish and caught a true prize for my birthday, a large crab. I climbed a coconut tree and we feasted on coconut chile rice, fish tacos and boiled crab. And behind the low walls of the palapa, out of the wind we slept early.
The next day a different cruise boat showed up. Our peaceful little spot was full of people by 9:30. We packed up and shoved off by late morning. A perfect paddling day. ¼ tail wind, two foot swell. I surfed and played and felt great. JP was having trouble with blisters, so we just went to another tiny island seven miles south.
This atoll was even better. The reef was pristine, with huge branches and large beds of brightly colored coral. In my trip around the island I saw a six foot Bat Ray and an equally long shark, barracuda, grouper, angel fish, etc. etc.
JP speared a couple snapper and I made spinach pasta with garlic, chile cream sauce and a dash of rum. Total peace and quiet on our own personal island. This was the Caribbean of my dreams.
It first got even better, and then we had some scary moments, read Jean-Philippe's account:
People say that its not as simple as it used to be. When electricity came in nine years ago, followed shortly by TV and tourism, things changed a little. People used to live a subsistence lifestyle, fishing, growing cassava for baking and beer, cooking Creole bread with coconuts and picking a little citrus for spare cash to get a few things from the outside. Now there are monthly bills to pay. Gotta pay the cable man, the electric company and buy a stereo to keep up with the neighbors. The young people head off to Belize city as soon as they come of age. They listen to rap, wear Nikes, do their hair like Alan Iverson and dream of working in the States. Some of the people rent out rooms or cook to make ends meet. As their needs and wants grow the money will have to come from somewhere. However, for the time being most things remain the same. They are a happy and proud people, pleased to show you how they live, and tell you about their heritage.
We would never have known to stop there had we not met a tour operator while out on the cayes. Riley Dunn runs Hobie Cat tours around the islands and bases his operations out of Hopkins. He moved into the area a few years ago after visiting and falling in love with the setting and the people and decided to bring his business brainstorm to fruition. When he mentioned that his neighbors were still alive with tradition and suggested we check it out, we wasted no time in accepting.
When we pulled up on the beach, we noticed that most houses were still of wooden slat- board construction, raised up on stilts and covered with corrugated tin. Coconut palms gave shade to sandy yards littered with a few dry husks, tools, and remains of cooking fires. There was an air of self-sufficiency to the town. A few fishermen in wooden boats unloaded a net full of snapper and jack. A large middle aged woman named Sarita, like her mother and grandmother before her, baked allspice cinnamon rolls in a backyard oven made from a steel drum and top heated with coals from a driftwood fire. And the children, ran around climbing coconut trees, catching insects and romping in the waves.
There is evidence of a little cultural imperialism that has crept into town, an odd contrast to its historical roots. Rileys neighbors lived in the Chicago area for a number of years, saved money and were back to their village with all the trappings of modern society. Their cement ranch house was filled with coffee tables, glass-door wooden hutches, stereo equipment and a huge TV. Some of the kids who crowd the town basketball court at dusk wear Air Jordans and NBA jerseys. And a few of the kids whos parents run establishments would rather sit and watch HBO than go outside and play. Yet right next door are women in dresses they sewed themselves, scraping coconut pulp to for cooking on rough tables of hand hewn boards, and children run around with wonderfully unkempt hair smiling at the joy of finding a new playmate (me).
Hopkins is still one of those places where anthropologists will go to study Garifuna culture. We met a French woman who had come back for many years to focus on ritual trance possession and the socio-religious history of the town. They still make the ceremonial hut and dance the Dugu when someone is taken in by the spirits. They maintain a strong sense of identity, often making reference to their ancestors who came from St. Vincent. They will happily talk about their heritage and tell you about their roots.
Change is inevitable in places like this and the next ten years will be a critical period. Wants and needs will increase and economic realities will change. Sarita might franchise the cinnamon buns, the kids might discover Nintendo, and the wooden houses might become firewood for the hearth of new cement structures. However, for the time being, you can walk down the street at dusk munching a warm pastry, watching people go about their evening chores in preparation for dinner. You may hear a contrapuntal drum rhythm and see a group of people dancing, see women in bandanas and dresses take in the washing and have a small group of kids nipping at your heels to get you to join them in a game of tag.
It is seventeen miles across the Bay of Honduras to Livingston and takes a few dollars and a pleasant hour in a motor launch. It is not so when done at night in a kayak with thunderstorms roiling on the horizon, and negative thoughts roiling in your mind. The customs officials words and a few tragic tales of lost travelers, told to us earlier in the night while dining at a restaurant, lay heavily upon us.
We spent an uncomfortable few hours napping on the concrete deck of a restaurant after listening to horror stories about other travelers from the ex-pat Canadian owner John. He told us of a trio of Swedes who came through last year just after the hurricane. They purchased a sailboat and were to sail off south through Honduras and the Caribbean. When they stopped in at his restaurant the night before their departure, he warned them that going into Honduras in the aftermath of Mitch with a nice boat full of fresh water and supplies would make them a prime target for dispossessed and desperate storm survivors. They were very confident and dismissed his concerns. The Swedish embassy knocked on his door a few weeks later following the paper trail left by the trio. The last known place they had been seen was his restaurant (the embassy investigator saw that they had used their credit card). Apparently the boat had been found adrift off the coast of Honduras, minus passports, visas, money, supplies and bodies. Nothing has been seen of them since. It was not the kind of story we needed before heading off on a similar course.
As John and his Belizean wife closed down the restaurant at 11:00 a squall pounded down making us even more ill at ease. I tossed and turned for a few hours catching cat naps while JP awoke numerous times to check on the kayaks and deal with the sudden onset of diarrhea. We packed up wet and groggy at 2:45 and were at the police station to get our exit stamp at just after 3:00 (the customs guy just wanted to make things more difficult for us and had promised to leave the stamp with the police). Neither the customs officer nor the stamp were there and the two poliemen on duty knew nothing of our situation. They were both very sympathetic and one of them trudged off to roust the customs official. We didnt get on the water until 4:00.
The skies were overcast, thunder rumbled on the horizon and it was so dark I couldnt even see JPs kayak less than 20 feet in front of me. For an hour, until the sky began to lighten we paddled by GPS and compass heading and listened to each others paddle strokes to stay close.
By daylight we had covered less than 8 miles in nearly 3 hours, the current was working against us. As well, JPs rumbling guts had forced him to jump over the side of his boat and relieve himself twice. Just before dawn the storm that had been mocking us from afar came over our heads and dumped quarter-sized droplets of rain in thick sheets that pounded the ripples in the water flat. Our view of land was obscured with thick clouds. Warm rain pierced the surface all around us. All colors disappeared in a surreal wash of multi-hued grey.
The storm passed quickly and the Guatemalan shore materialized. Only 19 miles away, the topography looked completely different from that of Belize. It was psychologically uplifting to see a spur of low mountains covered in deep green foliage appear out of the fog. We began to paddle more energetically.
By 8:00 the sun was already hot and the shore seemed to hover out there the same distance away, no matter how much we paddled. For an hour we had no sense that we were making any progress and it was mentally defeating. We were running out of blood sugar, energy levels were sagging, my back muscles were on the verge of shut-down and JP could barely rotate his torso because of the stomach cramps. Our month away from the boats had made us soft.
We pulled up on shore by the wide mouth of the Rio Dulce at just before 10:00. After a five-minute break we paddled around the first bend to the main town of Livingston so we could check in at immigration. A mixed crowd of Garifuna and Latinos stood on the dock and marveled at our boats laden with gear and peppered us with questions in Spanish.
Everything was so much more vibrant than Punta Gorda. People volunteered information and gave us directions without asking for money. It felt good to be back in a Spanish-speaking country.
We pulled up at the riverside pizzeria/guest house Rigoletto run by a gregarious Mexican woman and her American husband. After an incredibly authentic and savory pizza we collapsed onto hammocks and napped.
Grueling tests of endurance are always tempered by good food and rest. Another guest asked me how the crossing was and I was surprised to hear myself say that it wasnt so bad.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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I am having a
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