The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks
Beach, Blanket, Gringo!
(Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras, Central America)
John M. Edwards
In the Bay Islands of Honduras, John M. Edwards Snorkels on the Belize Barrier Reef Only 100 Meters from “Shore”—Where a Scam Sweeps the Sand: “Hey, Watch Out With That Machete!”
There is something to be said for piping in intoxicating oxygen through a snorkel in the ocean, instead of ganja smoke from a spliff on dry land, when you are in the throes of so-called Reef Madness.
This was a sort of serendipitous double-entendre that had never occurred to me before. But there I was only 100 meters from the magical mystery shore of West Bay Beach, a unique enigma of nature, paddling over the second largest barrier reef in the world, the Belize Barrier Reef, and feeling no pain.
How cool was that?
Even though the Bay Islands are one of the cheapest places in the world to get your PADI scuba-diving certification, I didn’t dare try it. As a smoker, I faced a premature exit from ecotourism if I held my breath beneath the ocean blue at any significant depth, rather than breathing normally. Indeed, my lungs would explode.
Yet here I was, viddying an underwater world of reefs, sinkholes, dropoffs, purple sea fans, and psychedelic fish—until a menacing-looking barracuda came up to me, giving me a hungry sidelong glance, like a PHISH fan trying to scalp a ticket for an MSG concert (I played bass in a garage band with their keyboardist Page McConnell back in high school)--and intimidated me back to shore, coughing and spluttering.
My friends were waiting for me on blankets spread out on the beach.
My long-term partner, whom I’ll call “Luggage” since she was a handful and we are no longer going out, was complaining that she had eaten too many banana pancakes back at Roatan’s popular café in West End: Rudy’s Coffee Stop. Rudy, a legendary “local” or “native” black Costa Rican entrepreneur believed in Honduras’s mantra of “pura vida” (pure life) and employed a bevy of astute, stately shaped European scuba babes who wished to expatriate themselves for good in this English-speaking Central American paradise, many of them good-looking athletically inclined women from Germany and Italy.
Our new friends from England, Darren and Catherine, who were trying to found a bar here, thought Rudy looked especially “delicious” and might make good eating—with a little, Darren was quick to point out, “Salsa de Diablo (Devil’s Hot Sauce)!” The demon sauce was ubiquitous here on al fresco tabletops. In a veritable “Lost Paradise”—also the name of a hotel where you can change American Express traveler’s checks into “limps” (slang for lempiras, the Honduran currency), we all felt like toast: Milton’s muffins. Milton’s famous line from Paradise Lost, wherein Satan says, “Better to rule In Hell than to Serve in Heaven,” can easily be cleverly inverted here. It’s better to rule in Roatan than flip burgers at Burger King.
Oh heck, the Salsa de Diablo was the condiment that Darren repeatedly tried to scare me with, menacing me repeatedly and handing it over to me with a hearty hurty guffaw at the al frescos, heavy on hellfire habanero.
Now devil-may-care Darren and Catherine both reclined on the beach like bored jetsetters.
I unfortunately was wearing a bathing suit that looked like an enchilada.
I was sure I had met Darren before on the “Gringo Trail.” He sported a Mephistophelian soul patch and had the Heckle-and-Jekyll sense of humor of a trained Shakespearean actor. As we all sat there in the Valencia-orange-colored unforgiving sun, watching rare tropical avian acrobats trapezing in the air, I couldn’t help thinking, with all the bodacious backpackers in designer beach ware, that the scene resembled one of those old Annette Funicello beach-party movies. Bingo!
But this one would be called “Beach, Blanket, Gringo!”
Honduran “Garifunas” (basically black Africans who mistakenly consider themselves Indians) wandered on the beach, conversing in their semi-secret Rasta-style rap: “Ya, mon. wha’ appen!” Which more or less means “hello.”
There was no sign on this precious beach of the dangerous-looking Honduran military, who occasionally showed up at the travelers’ mecca of West End, with their automatic rifles, to look tough and grimace for us. Any “banana republic” worth its sea salt (the term originated here) would at least provide a little local color to our last calls for authentic and carefree Caribbean atmosphere.
No crime was allowed on Roatan (especially with all the rich expats from Europe and America), even though a drunken villager almost attacked us one night during a flash thunder and lightning storm. When we left the cover of our corrugated-iron roofed restaurant—the rain tapping expertly like a professional coked-out conga player—and made our way back to our authentic Gilligan’s Island-style cabinas with their oil-burning lanterns and mosquito netting, we unisoned, hello, what’s up?
“You are racist!” exclaimed the drunk, waving his arms in the air as if fighting off a fiery stormcloud of demons. “Get out of my country!”
Now why did he have to say that and ruin our vacation?
We picked up the pace quite quickly as he continued to follow us down the muddy path, before some muscular good samaritan intervened, and from the sound of the squeaks and squawks behind us, he beat the crap out of the dreadlocked ruffian.
Waking up from a light nap, as pink as el porco, I turned my mind toward the here and now. As I squeezed out the last precious drop of my suntan lotion, we all came face to face with what we thought might be an amusing dilemma. What I call a “sitch.”
“Quiero coconut?!” a small coffee-colored girl, maybe eight years old, disturbed out peaceful idyll, by brandishing a machete in our faces!
“I don’t like the looks of that machete!” Darren tersed fiercely, the first to respond.
“Qiero coconut!” the girl asked (no: demanded) once again.
“Go away!” Darren said.
“Darren, she might not speak English,” Catherine scolded.
Abruptly, the little scammer plopped down on the beach next to us, suddenly drawing herself inwards in thoughtful troubled daydreaming. She looked quite mad really, holding the machete at a meaningful and menacing angle.
“No, no hablo coconut!” Luggage tried in Spanglish.
“Quiero coconut!!!” the irksome urchin warned us one last time before rolling her eyes in her head—weird white orbs—dragging the machete in the sand around us, like a chalk outline at a murder scene. If only we had some coloring books and crayons to give her.
“Hey, watch out with that machete! Where are her parents?” I asked rhetorically.
The menacing little coconut hawker hacked open the coconut and drank the milk herself, letting the viscous fluid run down her cheeks. Then, in an abrupt about-face, she offered us pieces of the shell lined with the course flaky meat.
“Thanks, gracias, “ I said, accepting a jigsaw piece of pulp with not so much an over-ingratiating smile, but a paranoid parental-control-like parting of the lips: nay, a veritable grimace.
Suddenly, the wild child of Roatan, with an angelic laugh, petulantly raised the glinting sharp machete directly above our heads.
A red-hot-chilli-pepper chill went up my spine.
And then we were all off like total wooses doing a chew-and-screw on Spring Break, sprinting down the beach, soon panting and out of breath. We felt like egregious losers juggling our beach blankets and bain de soleils pell-mell like tomorrow never knows.
Adrenaline receding into low tide, we weren’t sure whether we were really laughing or crying about the quandary we were in. We had fallen for the trap: we had let ourselves be frightened away by an eight-year-old coconut-hawker and entrepreneur unwilling to accept no for an answer. Scams using the fear factor to boost sales exist all over the world, but coming from one so young was indeed a rude awakening. Hence, there was trouble in paradise.
I decided with some good humor, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies flying through my mind, that there was nothing more dangerous than innocence armed with a deadly weapon.
Next time, we would just wallow in the water until awesome evolution transformed us into beings with webbed toes resembling “The Man from Atlantis”—or, maybe, some Caribbean Bermuda Triangle sea-spawn out of Weird Fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu Mythos!
Alas, here in the fresh-squeezed sunset of a last-ditch effort to get an even sunburn before leaving this hot spot of tourism trespass and returning to the plastic-shakeup-toy blizzards of New York, I felt like a real searcher and soul survivor, as well as one of the world’s greatest suckers.
Nevertheless, just to be safe, I would return to Roatan next time armed with my handy-dandy Swiss Army Knife.
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus), with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking in Thailand to being caught in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Adventure Journey, Emerging Markets, Literal Latté etc. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Award, a Bradt Independent on Sunday Award, and three Solas Awards (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He lives in NYC’se “Hell’s Kitchen.”
© John M. Edwards August 2011