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.

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  2. This is a great article and really encourages me about Roatan. We are due to sail there as part of a 7-day cruise next Feb/March 2018. it is so mountainous and beautiful we cannot wait!

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