Thursday, March 5, 2015

I Could Live on Roatan

As a child when I would get upset with my parents I would defiantly tell my mother "I run away!"  Then I would walk out the front door and hide under the porch until it was apparent that nobody was going to come find me and I would walk back in the house in time for dinner.  The next time I ran away from home was in June 1984.  I wasn’t so much running away from home as I was running away to home.

In the aftermath of an acrimonious and unwanted divorce I needed to change my attitude and I did so by changing my latitude.  Rather than stay in North Dakota that I thoroughly loved, I switched jobs and ran off to the Bahamas.  The first time I saw an island other than one I camped on in Voyageurs National Park on the Canadian border in June 1973,  was on June 4, 1984, as I peered out the window of a gigantic Delta Airlines L-1011 on its final approach to the Nassau airport in the Bahamas.

I went to Nassau to meet government officials before beginning a research effort on an endangered species of bird that nests in Michigan and spends its winters in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.  The bird’s population was not increasing despite our best thought out management efforts and as was common at the time many people were convinced the key to the species survival was on its winter range.  This came at a time of heightened awareness (finally) about the plight of tropical rainforests and even though there are no rainforests in the Bahamas, pointing our biological fingers at the tropics and winter habitats was not only sexy but vogue and off I went to the Bahamas.

Our plan was to spend the winter traveling the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands looking for Kirtland’s Warbler.  Many short term efforts in the past resulted in one or two random sightings in far flung reaches of the archipelago.  We would search one island for a few days and then move on to another island and continue that process until we discovered where most of the 500 or so remaining warblers spent the winter. Then we would focus on them on that island and learn everything we needed to know about Kirtland’s Warbler in the winter and ultimately save the species from extinction.

The best laid plans of biologists aren’t always the plans that work out and after spending the first winter traveling from the northern tip of Little Abaco island to the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the north shore of Hispaniola we discovered an amazing 10 different birds and we learned a great deal about them in the fleeting observations we made of nine of those 10 birds.  As we traveled the islands I kept track of which ones I had visited and by the end of the first winter I had been on 12 of the 700 or so islands in the Bahamas and two of the seven in the Turks and Caicos Island.  I’d also visited my first Spanish-speaking county other than Mexico and came within inches of needing to learn how to parlez vous francais if I ever wanted to go to Haiti.

The travel was actually more exciting than finding 10 Kirtland’s Warblers (nine more than anyone else had ever found in a winter).  I saw many new species of birds on those islands and experienced enough adventures on those islands to help me understand that although I grew up in northern Wisconsin and lived most recently in North Dakota, it just might be that the islands of the West Indies were where my home should be. 

We returned a second winter and I focused my attention on Grand Turk island where the year before we found four Kirtland’s warblers in an area near the airport that has now been set aside as a National Park (because of the birds).  During that second winter I started fantasizing about other islands in the islands and there certainly were many of them.   My home on Grand Turk was a house on Governor’s Beach that was very close to an abandoned US Air Force base known locally as “South Base.”  On South Base the Federal Aviation Administration maintained a navigational beacon to assist pilots flying to San Juan and beyond in the Caribbean.  The signal from that beacon was so strong that by simply turning on my radio I could sit in my home and listen to air traffic controllers in Miami directing Pan Am flights from Miami to Barbados as they sped through the giant air routes overhead.

I heard them say “Pan Am 386, turn right on heading 160 and switch to frequency 28 for San Juan control.  San Juan will guide you to Barbados” every day about noon. Somewhere up there 35,000 feet over my head, a Pan American Airways 727 was streaking along at 500 miles an hour bound for Bridgetown, Barbados.  I fantasized about what Barbados looked like.  At the time about the only thing I knew about Barbados was contained in Jimmy Buffett’s song “Presents to Send You” where he sings “Yeah I thought I might sail down to Bridgetown. Spend some time in the Barbados sun. But my plans took a skid when I smoked a whole lid. Wound up where I began.” 

Another Pan Am flight would pass over Grand Turk on its way to Fort-de-France, Martinique.  Mention of Martinique reminded me of another Buffett song called “Migration” that contains a verse that quickly became my life’s goal.  It goes, “Now if I ever live to be an old man I’m going to sail down to Martinique. Gonna buy me a sweat stained Bogart suit and an African parakeet. Well then I’ll stick him on my shoulder and open up my crusty old mind. I’m gonna teach him how to cuss and teach him how to fuss and pull the cork out of a bottle of wine.”

A Caribbean travel book I bought in the Miami airport once told me that Barbados was flat as a pancake but that Martinique was rather mountainous.  Both had a reef that surrounded the island and the people on Martinique spoke French. There was one species of bird that lived nowhere else on earth but Martinique and Barbados was as far away from my pain as I could possibly have hoped for in those days.

Tropical forests such as this one on Roatan typically drip with birds and especially in winter when millions of North American nesting songbirds funnel south to escape the relentless cold.

Along with the birds I was seeing I made it a goal to personally view every bird species in the West Indies that occurs on a single island or in a single nation.  To do so would require me to travel from San Andres off the coast of Nicaragua to Barbuda to Grenada, the island of spices just north of the coast of South America.  I needed to travel to at least 16 islands in 15 nations if I wanted to see them all and in doing so I would see more islands than I ever dreamed possible.

First there was a trip to the Dominican Republic and then one to Haiti and after it I went to Puerto Rico.  A stroke of luck in the Klamath Falls, Oregon, airport just before Thanksgiving one year resulted with me receiving a voucher for $700 off a future trip on American Airlines and with that voucher I called the airline and asked how much it would cost to fly to Guadeloupe and then Dominica and to return home from Martinique.  American said the total cost would be $699 and a month later I was on a plane to those islands with a dollar left over from American’s good will.  Later some strings were pulled and some politics played and soon I had permission from the US Department of the Treasury to travel legally to Cuba and after that I went to the Cayman Islands on a day trip and then to Jamaica and soon to Barbados and St. Lucia and St. Vincent and Grenada.  It wasn’t long before my goal of seeing all of those endemic birds was close to being realized.

As I closed in on my goal I also realized that I was absolutely enthralled with the islands of the islands and as of today I am one species shy of having seen them all.  The missing culprit still lives (hopefully at least) in one wetland in central Cuba and as soon as I get back to the island I want to search for it again.

Jimmy Buffett says in another classic song “Through all of the islands and all of the highlands, if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”  At one point after my divorce I was convinced that I would go insane but then I learned how to laugh and it all went away.  All of that laughing occurred through all of the islands and all of their highlands and lowlands and as of before my trip to Roatan I had visited 75 islands in the islands.  Much of the exploration was for birds and much was for self-improvement and unknown to me at the time much of it also was directed at finding the perfect island.  It would be the place where I could hang out a shingle saying “Gone coconut hunting” and never look back.

Through all of those islands I definitely had my favorites.  Dominica with its volcanic black sand beaches was right near the top and so was Tobago with its snow-white beaches.  The tourism board for Anguilla in the Windward Islands markets the island as “tranquility wrapped in blue” and once you have been there you realize that there is no finer marketing motto for the country than the one they have chosen.  Cayman Brac in the Cayman Islands also ranked right up there among the favorites for many reasons most importantly its isolation and that fact that condominium developers have for some unexplainable reason not found and defiled Cayman Brac.

I wish I was there right now

I was convinced after 31 years of island-hopping that anyone of those four island could easily be “the one” if I ever had to pick among them for the ultimate escape.  Then one day the Carnival Pride slipped into Mahogany Bay harbour on Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and my entire outlook on what island was best had to be completely re-examined.

From the moment I first saw it off the starboard rail on deck 5 I loved Roatan.  Even before touching its soil I could tell it was for me. Long and sinuous like Anguilla but with tropical rainforest that dripped with birds and wallowed in uniqueness and just begged me to explore it.  Then there was the impeccably clean roads, the lack of rampant deforestation, the almost total lack of condo commandos raping the countryside for personal gain and then there were the reefs.  My partner is a diver and she has convinced me to learn how to SCUBA which is next on my list of priority actions I need to take to keep my partner happy with me.  She returned from her dives on the north shore of the island and said that among the 80 dives she had made in her life the two best were the first and second dives she made that day off Roatan.

My first Honduran sunrise in 20 years was this one on the coast of Roatan on February 26, 2015.  Given that I don't have 20 more years left I need to return there sooner rather than later.  Tomorrow wouldn't be soon enough.

I spent a day walking around Roatan talking to the locals and getting a feel for the place.  One particular annoying tout refused to take the hint and leave me alone as I explained to him that I wasn’t interested in a ferry ride to La Ceiba, and I didn’t want to go parasailing, and the last thing I was interested in was paying him $100 for an hour of sex with his sixteen year old sister who, miraculously, was apparently still a virgin.  What I wanted to do was be alone and soak in his island.  Eventually he took my increasingly loud and forceful hints and apologized saying “I’m sorry for the harassment but this is how we have to make a living here.”  A sad reality of the islands.

Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands, lies just a stones throw off the coast of Honduras.  Jimmy Buffett once said that his fictional Margaritaville was "anywhere you want it to be."  On my first trip to Honduras I thought I found mine about a mile down the coast from Tela.  Now I wonder if I wasn't about 50 miles too far south.

Honduras is one of the poorest of several very poor countries in Central America. It’s annual per capita income in 2013 was slightly more than $4,848 which is considerably less than I make after taxes in one month from my retirement account.  Not far away from Honduras in resource rich Costa Rica the per capita income is about $8,923 annually or almost twice that of Honduras.  Despite the abysmal economic picture in Honduras the country and especially the Bay Islands have become Mecca for retired Americans, Canadians, and Europeans seeking a cheap place to extend the benefits of their annuities.  A look at Roatan real estate shows that houses in the $250,000 range are common and some sell for as much as $1 million.  A one-quarter million dollar house owned by some gringo represents the sum of the per capita income of 60 Hondurans.  Clearly the economic divide here is abundantly obvious.  Yet you can’t tell that by talking to Hondurans.

Those I met that day except for the sister-selling tout were very proud of their Honduran heritage, fiercely protective of their island, and oh-so-happy to not be living on the mainland.

Humberto, a server in a beachside bar where I stopped for lunch and a bottle of Salva Vida, explained why he lived on Roatan.  “I come from Tegucigalpa originally.  My family comes to Rotan for a one week vacation and then extended it to two weeks and then three weeks and here we are 12 years later still extending our vacation one year at a time.”

My previous experiences with Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, were reinforced by what Humberto said next.

“Here in Roatan it is safer, cleaner, more things to do and the women are hotter.  As far as I’m concerned there is no reason to ever go back to the mainland.”

Humberto was surprised that I had been to Honduras four times earlier, each trip to the mainland, but he understood more clearly when I talked about birds and about Jimmy Buffett.

I asked why Honduras and especially San Pedro Sula had become so dangerous it took him less than a nanosecond to say “drug dealers.” 

It’s a very sad reality that many law enforcement authorities now rank San Pedro Sula as the most dangerous city in the world.  Its murder rate of 40 per 100,000 residents exceeds any other city in Central and South America and the level of drug-related violence is almost impossible to quantify.  No longer are perennial favorites like Sa’ana, Yemen or Kabul Afghanistan or Karachi Pakistan or even Kingston Jamaica the most dangerous places on earth. Now that honor goes to formerly laid back San Pedro Sula, Honduras and it’s all because of drugs.

Sometimes I wonder if the answer to all of this craziness is just to give up and give in and call the failed “War on Drugs” the failure that it is and start over.  The United States alone has spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting a “war” on drugs that has been won from the start and continues to be won today by the people we are at war with.  If drugs were legalized and they were sold and taxed by governments there would no longer be a need to spend billions on the DEA and no longer a reason for families to be torn apart by drug violence.  And very likely there would no longer be a reason for San Pedro Sula to be the most dangerous city in the world.  However I’m not president and I never will be and legalizing drugs no matter how smart it is would never fly with the religious fanatics who control the media and control the message.

Mahogany Bay on Roatan is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in the West Indies. Who wouldn't want to be there right now?

As we boarded the ship to leave Roatan it was firmly planted in my brain that the 76th island I have visited in the islands is number 1 in my mind.   There are so many things about it that putting them all down on paper would be time consuming and probably cost at least two trees their lives.  Suffice it to say that I could very easily live there for any number of reasons and I could live there tomorrow if I could.  Now I’m going to run down to the local 7-11 and buy five lottery tickets and if I win I’m on the next plane headed south and I’m only buying a one-way ticket.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What Will Become of the Mayans?

Cruisers stepping off the Carnival Pride in Costa Maya are greeted by "authentic" Mayan dancers like these folks.  Unfortunately about the only authentic thing is the Ocellated Turkey feathers they dress themselves in.

Arrival at a cruise port, no matter if it’s the first time you have been there or the fifteenth, is always met with anticipation and excitement.  Usually those of us in balcony rooms are seated in our deck chairs with a cup of coffee as we watch the destination slowly become larger on the horizon.  Those not fortunate enough to have chosen a balcony are usually down on the Promenade Deck hanging over the rail, watching wherever it is grow larger in their eyes.  Travelers who have been there before pontificate on what to see and what to avoid, while first timers nod in agreement, say “uh huh” a lot, and act like there are the seasoned traveler with whom they are agreeing.

As the destination gets closer the decks come alive with activity as ship’s crew prepares to secure the ship to the port.  Hatches are opened, flags are dropped, and lines are shot ashore as the Captain or one of his minions slowly eases the gigantic ship sideways barely touching the pier as it arrives.  As many times as I have watched an arrival I remain awestruck by how those people in charge of the ship are able to take something weighing 18 million pounds before people entered it, and ease it to the edge of a pier as if it weighed only ounces.

Safely secured to the pier the “Local Officials” we always hear about in pre-arrival announcements come onboard and do whatever local officials do on a ship.  Once their formalities are complete, an announcement is made that it’s safe to go ashore and everyone who has been sitting in a balcony chair or hanging over the rail of the Promenade Deck, races for the gangway and their first step on the pier.

A gigantic Mexican flag and lines of cruisers bound for shore excursions are two of the most prominent sights when you first step onto the cruise terminal at Costa Maya, Mexico

After making their way past the flocks of cruise staffers assigned to photograph everyone who even considers walking off the ship, and perhaps after standing behind a few people who want to pose next to an “authentic” pirate from Newark, cruisers move like cattle over the pier and into the cruise terminal. There the throngs of cruisers seem to break into three distinct groups.  One group immediately queue’s up in front of signs announcing that this is the spot to be to partake in any of a dozen or more shore excursions sold to them by the cruise line.  Onshore opportunities range from swimming with sting rays to visiting ruins to “pirate” encounters to a party boat with a party lunch on a nearby party island.

The second group of cruisers can feel the plastic of their credit cards burning a hole in the side of their wallet and they take off in search of a place to cool down their overheated cards.  Throughout the cruise terminal their senses are overloaded with almost every conceivable way to spend your money.  I sometimes wonder if Diamonds International and the company that sells Tanzanite ever makes any money because there one of their stores is in every port you visit.  You’d think that only one store for these companies would be needed on any cruise itinerary but most definitely they are there, with their credit card scanners ready to go to work, in every port along the way.  Some time I would be interesting to find out how much money is spent in the first Diamonds International store on an itinerary and how much is sold in the last port if any.

Loud bars with names like “The Thirsty Pirate” and “Fat Tuesday” and “The Bearded Clam” vie for customers with the likes of mega chain restaurants like Senor Frog’s, Carlos ‘n Charlie’s and my favorite, Margaritaville.  All of these restaurants in cruise ports are another enigma to me.  After several days at sea eating almost nonstop for 24 hours each day, you would think the last thing on a traveler’s mind would be sitting down somewhere to have another meal.  This is especially true early in the day when the main breakfast buffet’s open early to accommodate those anticipating an early departure from the ship. However it makes no difference because even before cruisers dive into the orgasm of more shopping that awaits them onshore invariably they find an excuse to sit in a local pub and eat even more.

T-shirt shops abound in cruise terminals and so do tacky tourist shops where tacky cruisers can purchase tacky unnecessary pieces of tacky nonsense they will throw away a few days after they return home. I have been traveling to and in Mexico since 1978 and in nearly 40 years there I have yet to see a single Mexican wearing the stereotypical broad brimmed black sombrero.  In fact the only people I ever see wearing one are lily white American’s on their return flight to the States from Cancun or Puerto Vallarta.  Yet no matter which Mexican (and sometimes merely Spanish speaking) cruise port you find yourself in, there will be at least two different shops selling “authentic” Mexican sombreros. 

A third and much smaller group of cruisers isn’t really a group so much as an aggregation.  They (including me) are the independent travelers who aren’t awed by the pre-packaged packages sold by the cruise line and could care less about international diamonds or Mexican sombreros.  We are the small, almost miniscule, minority who take off on our own to explore.  We are the people who aren’t subdued by the politically correct warnings about imminent danger certain to befall anyone who passes beyond the cruise terminal gates without being on an approved cruise.  We are the ones who stop at the office of “Last Minute Tours” and take off with a taxi driver for a four hour hidden exploration of what everyone else just paid twice as much to see from the comfort of an ice-cold air conditioned bus.  Those of us in the third group are also the ones who do not conform but instead come away from the day’s adventures actually learning something about where we just visited.

A huge swath of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and a smidgen of Honduras was once the domain of the Mayans. Today, not so much.

One of the cruises offered for our stop in Costa Maya was one that cost $77.00 per person called “Taste of Costa Maya and Beach Combo.”  For $77.000 some contractor would take the willing sheep on a four hour tour of an “authentic” Mayan village and then cap off the adventure with time on the beach.  Specifically the tour description, as downloaded from the Carnival website, reads like this:

In the last frontier of the Mayan civilization lie the colorful fishing village of Costa Maya and an endless stretch of virgin beach awaiting your discovery. Climb aboard our comfortable A/C Motor Coach and take an adventure through time amid the beautiful and exotic terrain of Costa Maya. 
          You’ll journey through the jungle on off-road trails and along the Caribbean shore.  Keep your eyes open for tropical birds and resident iguanas as we travel to our out-of-the-way beach.  Take a step back and admire the white-sand beach and beautiful blue-green waters. Relax! You can lie in the sun, go for a swim, enjoy a volleyball game, or drift further from realty in one of our complimentary ocean kayaks. After an hour, hop into the bus and start your way back to civilization along local roads and an abandoned highway.
             Stop in downtown Costa Maya for an hour of free time and shopping. You’ll find plenty of stores with traditional Mexican arts & crafts items, jewelry, clothing, house wares, leather goods and more.  Discover the colorful culture of an ancient people in this old Mayan fishing village and witness how it meets with the realities of a modern world. Just meet back up at the bus at the designated time and we’ll return you to the pier or you may choose to continue your day downtown and return to the ship by taxi at your own expense.

All of this for a mere $77.00. Who in their right mind could pass up such a deal? 

I could.

During my seven hours in Costa Maya I immediately broke away from the thundering crowds of excursion goers and took off to explore this supposed “last frontier of the Mayan civilization” on my own.  I saw plenty and it didn’t cost me $77.00 to ultimately get a better sun tan than those in the air conditioned bus.

Not far from the security gate of the terminal I found a restaurant with no name that was plunked down on the side of the road.  Its exterior was an abandoned school bus and its three tables were plastic with sun umbrella’s that said “Coca-Cola” on them.  Any strong wind gust that came along instantly wiped out the umbrella’s.  Only one of the three tables (they each were surrounded by four chairs) had any guests when I arrived.  The waitress, Isabella, was nonetheless breathless when she finally found time to take my order.

Whether you are on Big Coppitt Key or Costa Maya, Mexico, roadside dives with little ambiance and no health standards but tons of character invariably produce the best food.  This one near the Costa Maya cruise terminal was no different

“No mi gusta esta parte del dia,” Isabella said as she finally wound her way to my table.  There being only three other guests sitting out in the blazing sun I couldn’t understand why she didn’t like this part of the day.

“Estamos muy ocupados,” she said, telling me that they were extremely busy.  Three people makes it extremely busy? “Necesito un Descanso, pronto!”  If three customers made her so busy she needed to immediately take a rest, I started to worry about what my presence, as the fourth guest, would do to her.  Ten years earlier on the Lesser Antillean island of Barbuda, Mark Oberle and I stopped in the only restaurant in town seeking lunch.  This restaurant was inside a building and it had four tables.  The waitress looked haggard as she served the two customers who were already seated for lunch.  Just as Isabella was out of breath in Costa Maya, that waitress in Barbuda said to me “I hate it when we get so busy like this.”  It must be a function of latitude.

I ordered fish tacos and a bottle of beer.  This seemingly easy order took nearly an hour to fill.  It wasn’t because of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the cook or the owner or on Isabella.  It was the simple fact that once the fish and the veggies were cooked, the cook discovered that they had run out of tacos.  I concluded that there must have been a huge rush on fish tacos before I arrived and they simply forgot to replenish the stores.  Undaunted and determined to make sure that their fourth customer was as satisfied as the other three, the cook dropped everything he was doing (which wasn’t much) and jumped on his motorcycle.  Soon in a billowing cloud of dust, the cook was racing across the yard of my roadside dive and onto the Caraterra Principal bound for the one grocery store in the village of Mahahual where he would secure the much needed tacos. 

His triumphant return was greeted with excitement from his co-workers as the cook dismounted his motorcycle and proudly carried a package of tacos into the restaurant.  During his 20 minute absence, a pair of Americans, also on my ship, but off exploring in a dune buggy, arrived at the side of the road looking for lunch.  Isabella took their order of chicken tacos, chips and salsa, and told this pair that it would take “just a few minutes” for their order to be filled.  Normally I guess it would have taken just a few minutes however today, on his return with my tacos, the cook discovered that they were also out of chips. Turning the cooking responsibilities over to his boss the cook leaped on his motorcycle and in a similar billowing cloud of dust roared back to the grocery to get the now-crucial chips.  As he started his motorcycle I heard Isabella yell at him in Spanish “Don’t forget the chips!!! We need chips also!!”

Wrapped in authentic Mexican-made corn tacos, my fish tacos were among the best I have ever tasted anywhere and especially from any number of “authentic” Mexican restaurants in the United States. Three giant fish tacos and two bottles of authentic Mexican beer served under an authentic and blazing Mexican sun cost me $5.00 US.  Finishing this gargantuan meal I paid my bill and left a $5.00 tip for Isabella and continued my exploration.

The hot and dry vegetation here was absolutely dripping with birds, most of them species that nest in North America and then migrate several thousand miles to hang out on the Mexican Caribbean. Who could blame them?  As I stumbled around on trails and side roads I couldn’t help noticing that although the population of this area was miniscule in comparison to many other parts of Mexico, the number and frequency of roads and plots for houses and pipes being laid for water and sewer spoke volumes about how this area of “authentic” Mayan people would look in a few more years.

Walking along the main road I was constantly hounded by more “authentic” Mayan people hawking their own tours to nearby areas.  A common refrain was “I’ll take you to authentic Mayan ruins, amigo!” Clearly it seemed that the parts of Costa Maya that had already been developed were much the same as the areas inside the cruise terminal. At least out here there were no Diamonds International stores however in the tropics that could change in an instant.

The website provides a treasure trove of information about early Mayan culture and some sad facts about its inevitable decline:

Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed plazas, palaces, temples and pyramids, as well as courts for playing the ball games that were ritually and politically significant to Maya culture. Maya cities were surrounded and supported by a large population of farmers. Though the Maya practiced a primitive type of “slash-and-burn” agriculture, they also displayed evidence of more advanced farming methods, such as irrigation and terracing.

Incredibly accurate even by modern standards, the Mayan calendar wasn't quite accurate enough to predict the end of the world in December 2012, but that wasn't because of a lack of hyping the possibility that it could.

The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions. These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of a complex calendar system based on 365 days. Though early researchers concluded that the Maya were a peaceful society of priests and scribes, later evidence–including a thorough examination of the artwork and inscriptions on their temple walls–showed the less peaceful side of Maya culture, including the war between rival Mayan city-states and the importance of torture and human sacrifice to their religious ritual.

One of the many intriguing things about the Maya was their ability to build a great civilization in a tropical rainforest climate. Traditionally, ancient peoples had flourished in drier climates, where the centralized management of water resources (through irrigation and other techniques) formed the basis of society. (This was the case for the Teotihuacan of highland Mexico, contemporaries of the Classic Maya.) In the southern Maya lowlands, however, there were few navigable rivers for trade and transport, as well as no obvious need for an irrigation system.

From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. The reason for this mysterious decline is unknown, though scholars have developed several competing theories.

Some believe that by the ninth century the Maya had exhausted the environment around them to the point that it could no longer sustain a very large population. Other Maya scholars argue that constant warfare among competing city-states led the complicated military, family (by marriage) and trade alliances between them to break down, along with the traditional system of dynastic power. As the stature of the holy lords diminished, their complex traditions of rituals and ceremonies dissolved into chaos. Finally, some catastrophic environmental change–like an extremely long, intense period of drought–may have wiped out the Classic Maya civilization. Drought would have hit cities like Tikal–where rainwater was necessary for drinking as well as for crop irrigation–especially hard.

All three of these factors–overpopulation and overuse of the land, endemic warfare and drought–may have played a part in the downfall of the Maya in the southern lowlands. In the highlands of the Yucatan, a few Maya cities–such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Mayapán–continued to flourish in the Post-Classic Period (A.D. 900-1500). By the time the Spanish invaders arrived, however, most Maya were living in agricultural villages, their great cities buried under a layer of rainforest green.

The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, is one of the most spectacular Mayan temples ever found.  Just remember if you visit here that fer-de-lance like to chill out in pastures near the ruins and they generally aren't too understanding when you disturb them.

Anyone who has visited the ruins at Palenque, Bonampak, Tikal, Uxmal and Chichen Itza, knows that the Maya were masters at ancient architecture and like the Egyptians before them they were master builders using little more than brute force.  The early Maya were great mathematicians who devised their own calendar, a calendar that just a few years ago had many convinced that the world was going to end in December 2012.  The ancient Maya were also farmers who lived in harmony with the landscape and were able to live a full life in the rainforests of Central America.  Now their descendants stand on street corners calling people “amigo” and offering to take them to temples made generations ago simply so they can make a few dollars to keep the motorcycle running.  Modern day Mayans are trying to stay afloat by exploiting the environment they live in and ecotourism seems to be an avenue they are using to make that happen.  I only hope they don’t kill the goose that is laying the small golden eggs for them.

Seven cruise lines now make regular (if not seasonal) stops at Costa Maya and each of those ships disgorges more than 2,000 passengers.  Some went on the canned shore excursions, and some sat in Carlos ‘n Charlie’s getting drunk and some like me and the people who ordered chips and salsa at the roadside dive, took off to explore on our own. 

If we assume that each person from the two ships spent a minimum of $50 in the area whether on excursions, in a shop or even in taxi rides, then cruising exerts a huge influence on the local economy.  Assuming further that one ship a day comes to this port throughout the year (a conservative estimate) that means at least $100,000 each and every day is being pumped into the economy.  Further assuming one ship a day each day of the year, $36,500,000 is being funneled into the hands and pockets of these Mayan descendants.  It seems to me that there is considerable money to be made by the Mayans on the coast of Maya by exploiting their ancestral past whether it’s selling “authentic” sombreros made in Indonesia, or hawking tours of authentic Mayan ruins to ever “amigo” who walks down the street, than there is in selling off vast expanses of untrammeled Mexican rain forest and turning it into winter homes for fat old ladies from Poughkeepsie. 

The Costa Maya coast looks like this today just north of the cruise terminal.  With luck it will look like this 50 years from now when my grandson Garrett is cruising these waters with his grandson.  Ecotourism and sustainable development are the keys to making that happen - raping the land and turning everything into another Cancun or Playa del Carmen is not.

Mayan’s have been around for thousands of years and even though they no longer build huge temples and play basketball on courts in front of their leaders each of whom is dressed in an outfit made of quetzal feathers, the Maya will probably be around for several thousand more years. They will survive because they have been able to adapt to rapid changes in their environment through all of those thousands of years.  In fact I give Mayan’s a better chance of survival than I do all of those fat old ladies from Poughkeepsie who waddle off cruise ships to take an authentic tour to learn about authentic Mayan culture.  I make that prediction because unlike American’s the Mayan’s on the Costa Maya are not enamored with the latest nonsense about the Kardashians and they could care less if Lindsay Lohan is again in lockup and the last thing on their minds is if an android takes clearer pictures than does the iPhone. 

Mayan’s are and always have been survivors and perhaps ecotourism and especially cruising can be the key to that survival.  I hope they have enough will power to withstand attempts by arrogant Americans hell bent on developing their coast into block after block of deed restricted retirement homes like Sarasota Florida.   As an alternative the Mayan’s need the keep the forests standing upright, the Caribbean waters need to remain a lovely shade of margarita green, and the ghosts of Mayan’s past need to continue guiding tourists to those authentic Mayan ruins.  I have a feeling it will turn out that way.

Monday, March 2, 2015

We Are All Marshall

The Marshall University website tells the story best - On a rainy hill side in Wayne County, West Virginia, the lives of 75 people were lost in the worst single air tragedy in NCAA sports history. Among the losses were nearly the entire Marshall University football team, coaches, flight crew, numerous fans, and supporters. The event marked a boundary by which an entire community would forever measure time... before or after "The Crash". 

Scott Archer was there almost when it happened.  He wasn’t on the plane but some of his fraternity brothers were.  As far as Scott was concerned, he should have been on the plane when it happened.  His was a feeling common among so many Marshall University students on November 14, 1970, when “The Crash” changed their lives and the life of a community forever.  Even now, nearly half a century after it happened, Scott Archer still questions why it was them who died and not him.

Scott was a graduate of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.  He was a sophomore that fall and had pledged a fraternity.  Several of his fraternity brothers were Marshall footballers and they were on the plane that fateful night when Southern Airways flight 932 left Kinston, North Carolina bound for Huntington but the flight never made it home.  The National Transportation Safety Board said this about the tragedy in their final investigative report: 

“Southern Airlines Flight 932 left Kinston, North Carolina, at 6:38 p.m., carrying the Marshall University football team, coaching staff and fans to Huntington, West Virginia. After an uneventful flight, the crew contacted Huntington Airport tower at 7:23 p.m. and were cleared for a localizer approach on runway 11. The weather conditions were poor, mist and light rain with broken clouds at 500 feet. The plane descended below the Minimum Descent Altitude, striking trees on a hillside about one mile from the runway. The plane then crashed and burned.

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause was the descent below Minimum Descent Altitude during a non precision approach under adverse weather conditions, without visual contact with the runway environment. The Board has been unable to determine the reason for this descent, although the two most likely explanations are: a) improper use of cockpit instrument data; or b) an altimetry system error” (Aircraft Accident Report, NTSB-AAR-72-11, p. 36).”

Today, just like the incident at Kent State earlier in 1970, the crash at Marshall is indelibly etched in the minds of everyone even remotely involved.  Not many years ago Warner Brothers produced a movie starring Matthew McConaughy that was titled “We Are Marshall.”  It tells the gripping story of the crash and how the community and the students rose up like a phoenix from the ashes and overcame the crushing pain.  It was that movie, one I have watched probably 50 times, that helped instill in me a kinship with the university and its students.  I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin on the day Scott Archer lost so many of his friends.  Who among us could not feel some sort of connection to Marshall University even though we may have been thousands of miles away at the time?   

I thought of that movie the instant I first saw Scott.  We were preparing to depart Tampa aboard the Carnival Pride cruise ship bound for the Western Caribbean. Those of us required to assemble at Muster Station D on the Promenade Deck slowly filtered out onto the deck to subject ourselves to 30 minutes of nonsensical training tinto how to put on a life jacket in the unlikely event that our ship should begin to sink.  Through each of my earlier cruises I have noticed that cruise lines put particular emphasis on training passengers not only in how to buckle the life jacket but more importantly in how to tie off the cord that surrounds the life jacket.  Apparently that is the most important part of the training and I was anything but anxious about getting the latest refresher in proper life jacket etiquette.

Everyone who has ever sailed knows this drill.  Adults at the pinnacle of their careers, doctors who perform brain surgery, actors who entertain us on the silver screen, teachers we entrust to educate our children and florists like Scott Archer are all subjected to the drill.  With considerable fanfare we stand in lines on the deck of the ship and listen to a description of how to don a life jacket.  It’s an exercise required by maritime law and it’s the biggest waste of time anyone who has sailed has to endure.

Like the rest of us Scott was putting up with the indignity as best he could.  Despite the admonitions on the part of Carnival Cruise Line staff, Scott showed up at the life jacket training carrying a drink with him.  Along with his wife (whose name I never caught) they chose to stand next to my partner and me to savor the latest tidbits of knowledge in life jacket technology.

Scott’s sweatshirt gave him away before he said a word.  On its front was the head of a bison and below the bison was the word “Marshall.”  Seeing it I extended my hand and quietly said, “We Are Marshall.”  A smile crossed Scott’s face as he shook my hand.

“Are you from Huntington,” I asked.

“Yes,” Scott said most humbly, “I was there.”  Two of his fraternity brothers made the flight to Kinston but never returned home.

“It was the most horrible experience of my entire life,” Scott said.  “Nobody should ever have to feel that much pain.  I can only imagine how the families must have felt.”

Scott told me that the movie “We Are Marshall” is an almost entirely truthful story about the crash, the aftermath, the rebuilding of the college football program, and the healing of the university and the city.   I asked Scott about the movie and its accuracy. 

“There are only two things in the movie that aren’t completely true,” he said.  “First just after the crash you see a group of people downtown getting ready to go to the airport to help.  Everyone in the movie left town headed to the right but actually the airport is to the left.”

Curiously several years earlier in Nassau, Bahamas, I met a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “The Thundering Herd” and she pointed out this very same faux pas.  Scott said, as did the woman in Nassau, “You’d have to be a local to know that part was wrong.”

The other aspect of the movie that wasn’t entirely accurate was the winning pass thrown at the end of the first game the 1971 Marshall team won.  “In the movie you see a long downfield pass but in reality it was a short screen pass.”  Scott then said, “I know.  I was at the game and I saw the pass.  When we caught the ball and scored the winning touchdown the entire crowd went nuts.  I mean they went completely fucking nuts.”

I kept grilling Scott and his wife for local stories about the crash, its aftermath, and the making of the movie.  “Matthew McConaughy was in town for three weeks.  He stayed in a hotel downtown and smoked pot every day.  But, what the hell. There wasn’t anyone our age who didn’t smoke pot in those days and if they didn’t there was something very wrong with them.”

Pointing toward his wife Scott said, “She got her rocks off over Matthew.  She as a mess the entire time he was in town.  She even got to hug him.”

Carnival Cruise Line personnel diligently went through their scripted talk about how to put on and buckle a life jacket and as they did Scott and I continued to talk about the movie.  Our conversation was much more interesting.

I asked if the memorial to the team is visited very often.  “It’s not just visitors who go there,” Scott started. “I go there at least once a month to leave a rose.”

The Marshall University website tells a bit of the history of the memorial fountain and its significance to the community and the survivors:

The Memorial Student Center Fountain was dedicated to the memory of the plane crash victims on November 12, 1972, by President John G. Barker. Each year on the anniversary of that fateful day - November 14 – a memorial service is held, which includes the traditional laying of the wreath. Then the water is turned off until next spring.

More than 13 feet high and weighing 6,500 pounds, the fountain was created by sculptor Harry Bertoia. It was his hope that the fountain would "commemorate the living - rather than death - on the waters of life, rising, receding, surging so as to express upward growth, immortality and eternality."

The bronze plaque bears this simple, eloquent inscription:
"They shall live on in the hearts of their families and friends forever, and this memorial records their loss to the university and to the community."

As much as the tragedy and the movie affected me personally I realized that I need to visit Marshall and go to the crash site and visit the memorial to put to rest some of my own angst about what happened.  Something tells me doing so will help me put the horror of what happened to Marshall University and all those families behind me just like a visit to Kent State helped me deal with the murders on that campus in May 1970. 

“I went out to the crash site when it happened and I saw the carnage,” Scott said.  “I saw white sheets covering the bodies of people I knew.  When we watched the movie the first time and saw those scenes of the burning plane I had to turn my face and look away because I could not bear to see it all again.  I still can’t look at that scene today.  It still brings back bad memories.”

A thought came over me as Scott and I continued to ignore additional instructions into proper life jacket etiquette.  I love the movie about this tragedy and feel a kinship with the people of Huntington who lost so much.  As time allows in retirement, why don’t I travel to Huntington to see the college, visit the crash site and pay my respects to the fallen at the memorial.  I had landed at the Huntington airport in September 1978 while in that part of West Virginia for work.  I purposefully looked forward as the plane landed so I could not see the crash site just short of the runway.  Now however I would like to see it.  Perhaps I could coordinate a trip to Huntington with a trip to see the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league team in Charleston, West Virginia, play a game at home.  I could satisfy two desires on one trip if I did.

“Scott,” I said, “I think I want to come up to Huntington to see where this all happened.  Is everything easy to find?”

Scott smiled, extended his hand again to shake mine and said, “When you get up to Huntington you stop by Archer’s Flowers; you can’t miss our shop.  I drive by the memorial once a week.  I will take you there myself.”

As I shook his hand and said good bye I realized what all those students meant when the day they stood outside the Administration building on the Marshall University campus begging the decision-makers to revive the football program.  They all stood there chanting “We Are Marshall!” over and over and over.  Even though we weren't there that horrible day, we are all Marshall. 

How Safe Is Belize City?

Belize is a nation of beauty and bounty. It’s also the most enigmatic country in Central America.  With Mexico on its northern border its more Central American than Mexican. Yet with Guatemala on its western border its more Caribbean than Central American.  Although solidly in Central America the bulk of its residents are dark-skinned descendants of African slaves rather than lighter-skinned descendants of Spanish conquistadors.  Its official language is the Queen’s English although the majority of Belizean’s speak Belizean creole that sounds more like Haitian creole than anything resembling English or French.  Despite half of the population of Belize identifying itself as mestizo or Hispanic only 30 percent of the nation speaks the any form of Spanish. 

The first people to develop Belize were the Maya around 1500 B.C.E. As shown in archeological records they established a number of settlements including Caracol, Lamanai and Lubaantun. The first European contact with Belize occurred in 1502 when Christopher Columbus reached the area's coast. In 1638, the first European settlement was established by England and for 150 years, many more English settlements were set up.

In 1840, Belize became the "Colony of British Honduras" and in 1862, it became a crown colony. For one hundred years after that, Belize was a representative government of England but in January 1964, full self-government with a ministerial system was granted. In 1973, the region's name was changed from British Honduras to Belize and on September 21, 1981 full independence was achieved.

Belize City with only 58,000 residents is the only real metropolitan area in the country. It sits putrefying in the tropical heat along the banks of Haulover Creek while just offshore lie hundreds of small islands and cays that remind you that although you that you are also in the Caribbean.  While standing among the open sewers and squalor of downtown Belize City, it’s difficult to fathom that only a few miles inland there are hundreds of miles of pristine tropical rainforest where, unlike many other areas of Central America, sighting a jaguar is not an unusual occurrence.

Recent discoveries and expanded analyses have led many archeologists and cultural anthropologists studying Maya history to conclude that the center of Maya civilization was Belize.  The Maya are credited with some of the most important advances in civilization in Mesoamerica and some of those advances continue to influence contemporary Belize.  The Maya used their knowledge of astronomy to produce an extremely accurate calendar. Their Maya Calendar computed length of the tropical year was 365.2420 which according to today’s calculations is actually 365.2422. The Maya’s advanced concepts of time and mathematics including the use of zero, led to the development of their elaborate calendar based on cycles that go beyond our weeks months and years. This knowledge was used to schedule optimum planting and harvesting times for their intensive agricultural system that made use of terracing, drainage canals, raised fields and tree cropping to feed huge populations.

Despite those ancient advances, today about 43 percent of the Belizean population lives below the poverty line.  Politicians debate the causes and they debate the solutions yet every year the poverty worsens and every year the crime rate in the country continues to rise.  Recently the US Department of State issued a travel warning for Americans contemplating travel there and accompanied that warning with this information:

Due to the extremely high murder rate per capita, Belize is the sixth most violent country in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with an average of over 40 homicides per 100,000 residents. Murders are a growing and continuing problem for Americans, Belizeans, and Belize law enforcement and security. In 2012, Belize recorded 145 murders, setting a new record for homicides in the country. The murder rate was nearly 15 percent higher than 2011. The majority of the homicides in 2012 occurred in Belize City, where gang violence is rampant, especially on the south side of the city. A “gang truce” that had been in place since September 2011 ended in the spring of 2012, following a peaceful re-election of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) in May 2012.

In 2012, homicides continued to rise throughout the country specifically in the western and northern districts. Homicides increased in the Cayo district in the west, which is home to the capital city, Belmopan, and the U.S. Embassy. Homicides in Belmopan nearly doubled over 2011 numbers. Homicides also rose in the northern district of Corozal, which borders Mexico.

Much of the violent crime in Belize occurs on the south side of Belize City, home to several street gangs. Belizean officials, in November 2012, in an attempt to control the security situation in these areas, invoked a “declaration of crime infested areas” under the Belizean law that allows for law enforcement and security forces to conduct warrantless searches of personnel and property in “crime ridden” areas.

Even typically soft-spoken Lonely Planet has begun scaring people who are considering a visit to Belize City.  Their most recent edition of the Belize travel guide says under the section “Dangers and Annoyances” “Not to put too fine a point on it, but Belize City isn’t exactly the relaxed place the rest of the country is.  Hotel windows are barred and front doors are often kept locked even during the day.  Street crime is common …. Most violent crime occurs in the southside district south of Haulover Creek and west of Southside Canal.  While much of it is violent crime between gang members, non-intergang crime (both petty and violent) is an increasing concern in Belize City.  Stay on the main roads or take a taxi when you’re going to or from the main bus station or other bus stops in the area.  Even in the middle of the day streets can have a threatening atmosphere.”

Before our ship arrived in Belize City my total experience with the country had been a brief stopover on a TACA Airlines flight from Miami to San Salvador, El Salvador in 1986.  On that trip I stood in the open hatch of the jet and looked out at the countryside near the airport for about 20 minutes until flight attendants closed the front door and made me retake my seat.  I learned nothing about Belize in those 20 minutes and in the ensuing years other travel priorities took me elsewhere in Central America and the Western Hemisphere and my knowledge and understanding of Belize remained extremely limited and limiting.

Considerable earlier travel to all parts of the world had taught me that the US Department of State regularly gets way out of control in their warnings to the point of making almost everywhere other than the war zone that is the United States sound like a war zone.  More than once I put off trips to Colombia because of bombast flowing from State Department warnings.  However it wasn’t until I traveled to Colombia a second, third, fourth and fifth time that I realized what a nice country it is and how Colombians are among the kindest people on earth.  The same scenario held for South Africa which the US Department of State had painted as a place where it was almost a certainty that I would be shot, stabbed, robbed, and murdered simply by walking outside the airport terminal in Johannesburg.  I traveled to that wonderful country completely riddled with fear and after five weeks there in all parts of the country I did not want to leave there and return to the United States.  I felt that I was more a South African than an American and I told the State Department about that in an email.

Despite the dire concerns expressed by the US Department of State over travel to Colombia and South Africa and just about every other place on the planet I have never had a serious issue in any of the 114 countries I have visited.  In fact, I fear more for my safety driving through Orlando or even Omaha than I do in almost any country where I have spent time.

There was considerable excitement onboard the tender boat carrying us from the Carnival Pride to the tourist center in Belize City. Several of the cruisers were taking a day long excursion to the Altun Ha Mayan site complete with a boat ride on the River Wallace.  Others were going zip lining and some were on a trip to explore nearby caves.  Still others were spending the day on an “exclusive” offshore island (complete with lunch!) and my partner was going on a two-tank dive.  I noticed that not many people were interested in the combination Airboat and Belize City tour despite its description as “This combination tour provides the thrill of a high-speed airboat ride with a historical overview of the Central American jewel of Belize City.”   Apparently the organizers of excursions for Carnival Cruise Line never ventured out into the streets of Belize City or read any of the dire descriptions of the gang-riddled area south of Haulover Creek because if there is one thing Belize City isn’t it isn’t a “jewel” - of Central America or anywhere else.

Rather than donate $89 to Carnival and its excursion partner for 2 hours and 30 minutes in an airboat seeing the jewel of Central America I decided to see it myself, on foot, at my own pace, and for considerably less money. Walking among the open sewers and squalor of the city would tell me much more about it than any spit-polished tour ever could. 

Once the tender M.V. Alena deposited us at the pier I took off on foot armed only with a map and sought out what actually takes place in the smallest metropolitan area in Central America.  It turned out to be the best $89 I never spent.

The sky was brilliantly bright blue and humidity hung heavily in the air.  Soca and merengue music pulsed from nearby bars.  Finally finding one of the several prominent exits from the tourist center/ cruise center, I made my way to a security guard on Fort Street.  She asked if I needed help finding anything.  I smiled and said, “If I wanted to get mugged on the street south of the Swing Bridge which way would I go?”

She laughed and said, “Just follow to the left and you’ll find the bridge.  Turn left, cross over the bridge and then look out.  If you are going to get mugged that is the place it will happen.”

I moved slowly along Fort Street and marveled at how clean it was everywhere I looked.  Store fronts were immaculate in a raffish sort of way.  Open sewers that Lonely Planet warned me about were grated and covered and posed no health or safety threats.  City Hall was sanguine and unassuming.  Everything looked safe at the Image Factory, at the offices of S & L Travel, and just down the street at Sea Sports Belize.  Travelers exited taxis and lugged their baggage at the dock for the San Pedro Express Water Taxi.  All in all it seemed no different, and probably much safer, than downtown Tampa.

I crossed the Swing Bridge and continued south along Albert Street, then continued south to the Bird Isle Restaurant.  As I walked I was greeted by pleasant Belizeans who asked if I was enjoying my time in Belize.  One fellow who passed me was having a wild and vivid conversation with himself and whomever else was living inside his head with him.  Other than him and despite all of the warnings and admonitions, I felt no concern for my safety.  In fact I would worry more for my safety in Miami.

Brenda, a pretty twenty-something Belizean woman was working as a server at the Bird Isle Restaurant when I stopped there for lunch.  As I ordered coconut shrimp and a bottle of Belikin Beer, I asked her if she feared for her safety living and working in Belize City.

Belikin Beer, a fine Central American adult beverage that is even finer when its ice cold 

“I have lived here my entire life,” she said, “and the only thing that has ever scared me has been American tourists who don’t know the first thing about being outside of the United States.”

I could empathize.

“So where do all these warnings and alerts about travel in Belize City come from,” I asked.

“Like any place, we have our share of crazies.  We also have our share of gang bangers and drug dealers and criminals but I don’t know where all the bad news comes from.  Sometimes I think it’s the American press making something out of nothing so they can sell newspapers.”

Leaving the Bird Isle Restaurant I followed the street to the right at St. John’s Cathedral and walked north on Regent Street past the Coningsby Inn and the Caribbean Palms Inn and experienced much the same as I did on my stroll to the Bird Isle Restaurant. Belizeans regularly greeted me with a smile and wished me a good day.  At no time did I feel the least bit fearful for my safety.  Because of regular admonitions to avoid walking on side streets I purposefully followed South Street to East Canal Street on the Southside Canal.  Then I returned east on Bishops Street before resuming my walk along Regent Street to Albert Street.  Eventually I re-crossed the Swing Bridge and returned to the Tourist Village and Cruise Terminal and then to my ship.

Granted, six hours in the “bad” part of Belize City is not a large sample size however despite all of the warnings of grave danger, the only negative thing I experienced was sunburn.  The experience here was similar to my first trip to Bogota, Colombia, where I had been convinced I would be shot, dismembered, and left by the roadside at any moment.  It hasn’t happened in five times in Colombia and it didn’t happen today in Belize City.

The first mate on the tender that returned me to the ship gave everyone a pep talk about their time in Belize City and wanted to ensure that everyone had a great time while there.  When the group said in unison it had enjoyed Belize City, the first mate said “When you get home I want you to tell everyone that Belize City is safe.  OK?”

I think I will.

An Ugly American in Mexican Waters

Anyone who has traveled more than five feet past the border of the United States has seen them.  Usually they are loud, obnoxious, lack a factual basis for most of what they say, and come wrapped in the American flag.  In 1958, authors Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote a book starring Homer Atkins, a fictional character who nearly 60 years ago still defines them.

“Them” in this case is the Ugly American. and their dictionary define an Ugly American as “an American in a foreign country whose behavior is offensive to the people of that country.” You can’t avoid them almost anywhere you travel.  In Bangkok, you might find Ugly American’s boasting loudly in a bar about how “in America (usually pronounced ‘Murika') we do it this way.”  In Paris you find them walking the streets in search of the fictional “arrogant Frenchman” when in fact the only arrogant people in France are Americans traveling there hoping to find an arrogant French person.  Ugly Americans can be found in restaurants in Ecuador bellowing at Ecuadorian waiters saying in English “Why can’t you understand what I’m saying, boy?”  Then to add to their Ugly American credentials they increase the volume of their voice assuming that if they talk or yell even louder somehow the recipient of their venom will miraculously learn how to speak and understand English that very second.

Instances of Ugly Americans seem to have increased exponentially since the attacks on New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001.  They strut around wearing the American flag as a shirt or as a patch on the ass of their pants and have been known on occasion to burst into a chorus of “USA!, USA!, USA!” when two or more of them congregate in the same foreign location. Ugly Americans seem to be equal opportunity bigots and loudmouths although there are far more of them in locations where the local skin color is brown or black rather than in lily white places like Iceland or Switzerland.

Cruise ships seem not to be immune to an infestation of Ugly Americanism.  One of the most egregious examples I’ve witnessed was a Georgia redneck standing in line for breakfast our second morning at sea as we cruised south along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula toward Costa Maya.

I knew he was an Ugly American by the things he said and I knew he was from Georgia because of the Georgia Bulldogs t-shirt that he wore.   I also knew he was a South Georgia redneck because of his heavy South Georgia accent.  For the uninitiated, a Georgia redneck will tell someone to “come over here, boy” whereas a South Georgia redneck will say in a nasal twang, “come over he-ah, boy.”  The Georgia Boy standing in the breakfast line this morning could drawl “he-ah, boy” with the finest rednecks anywhere south of Macon. 

After placing his order for an omelet, Georgia Boy leaned forward and looked at the cook’s name tag.  It said “Mohammed.”  Georgia Boy then asked Mohammed where he was from.

“I come from Indonesia,” Mohammed said with great pride.  Anyone who has traveled to Indonesia knows that it is a beautiful country filled with very kind and sensitive people.  However Georgia Boy didn’t receive and read the memo on Indonesia and Indonesians.  Instead he said, “Indonesia!  That’s a Muslim country isn’t it?”

Yes, Georgia Boy, it is. In fact Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation on the planet.

The cook responded saying in very understandable English that Indonesia was a Muslim nation and that he was Muslim.

Georgia Boy, probably wondering how he could survive another day at sea without his daily indoctrination from the Fox News Channel, could not resist displaying his level of arrogance said “You’re not going to put anything in my omelet that will kill me, are you boy?”  He then added, “ha ha ha” for effect.

The cook, knowing that he would likely lose his job if he said what he really wanted to say kept his mouth shut.  I did not.

“There is a very good reason most of the world hates Americans, and you just demonstrated it you ignorant son-of-a-bitch,” I said.

“What do you mean, boy?” Georgia Boy barked.

“You just insulted this man, the nation he comes from, and his religion because you’re too fucking ignorant to accept that not everyone is just like you.”

Visibly annoyed now, Georgia Boy fired back saying, “So what’s it to you.  Are you a fucking Muslim?”

“Yes I am,” I said, “and I have been since birth.”

Further reinforcing his level of ignorance, Georgia Boy then said, “But you can’t be Muslim, you’re white!”

I just smiled and said “Allah akbar” (“God is the greatest” in Arabic) and walked away with my breakfast tray.  Luckily Georgia Boy didn’t notice the two strips of bacon on my plate or my cover would have been blown.