February 10, 2005
One aspect of the western Caribbean we find most appealing is its cultural diversity. The Bay Islands, where we're currently located, are strung out in a southwest to northeast line some 30 miles off the north coast of Honduras. The principal islands, from west to east, are Utila, Roatan and Guanaja. Often the inhabitants of small island communities are fairly homogenous in their appearance and traits due to a common history of isolation. Not so here: the population is about as mixed up as you're likely to find in such a limited geographical area.
Christopher Columbus landed on Guanaja during his final voyage to the New World. The Spanish had only a passing interest in the islands, preferring to settle in the cooler highlands of the Honduran interior. Unfortunately for the Paya Indians who inhabited the islands at the time, this passing interest included the desire for free labour. The Paya were enslaved to work the plantations and mines of Cuba and Mexico and in less than 30 years the islands were completely depopulated. Today, the only Indian face you're likely to see in the Bay Islands is that of the Mayan hero Lempira on the currency that bears his name. With the slate wiped clean, the past five centuries have seen a succession of newcomers arriving on the islands' shores, which has resulted in the melange of people who now call the place home.
The islands are surrounded by reefs that are a continuation of the barrier reef off Belize (which all the tourist literature will invariably inform you is second in length only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef). Particularly along the south shore of Roatan, breaks in the reef allow access to deep coastal inlets. From the 16th to the 18th centuries these bights provided perfect hiding places for a motley collection of pirates, buccaneers, smugglers and other ne'er-do-wells who came to prey on the Spanish treasure ships that lumbered past from the mainland en route to Europe. The infamous Henry Morgan is reputed to have had a base here, but we've found that just about every island in the western Caribbean attempts to trace a link to Captain Morgan, whether it's historically valid or not (just like several islands in the Bahamas and eastern Caribbean compete for recognition as Columbus's original landfall). Nevertheless, a core of today's islanders are British in appearance and speech and proudly assert their pirate ancestry.
More legitimate British settlers were attracted to the islands by logwood and mahogany-cutting operations in the area. They brought with them African slaves, whose descendants now comprise a major component of the population. Around the same time, the British deported some 3000 rebellious Black Caribs -- the progeny of African slaves and native Indians -- from St. Vincent in the Windward Islands to Central America, dumping them in Roatan. Their descendants are called Garifuna and have their own unique language and culture.
The Bay Islands remained under British control until the 1850s when, yielding to American pressure, they were ceded to Honduras. Spanish influence was minimal until well into the 20th century, however. This has changed more recently with increased migration from the mainland. In the eight years since we were last here we've noticed the islands now seem more "Latin" in character.
The islands also appear to be more American. There's a sizeable ex-pat community of Americans, Canadians and some Europeans. Foreigners like our friends Dave and Donna -- former cruisers on the sailboat "Victoria" -- have invested in local real estate because of relatively low prices, minimal taxes, favourable climate, and beautiful scenery. A more transient pool of young North Americans and Europeans are here working in tourist establishments, mostly dive shops and bars. The Bay Islands are a premier diving destination; the reefs that in the past provided protection to marauding pirates now attract scuba divers from around the world. Many of these are twenty-something budget travellers who hope to stretch out their stay by earning a few lempiras while they're here.
Whites claiming a pirate past, Blacks descended from slaves, Garifunas, Hispanics, and recent gringo arrivals: the population of the Bay Islands comprises a colourful mosaic. Settlements historically have been oriented towards the sea, where the main sources of wealth are located -- in the past, gold-laden ships; now, seafood and diveable reefs. Fishing is no small scale affair. In the more remote coastal communities, the local houses are dwarfed by monster shrimp and lobster boats tied up out front. Large processing plants and commercial docks dominate the waterfront in the main centres of Coxen Hole and French Harbour. When David took the dinghy and a few empty jerry cans to the fuel dock in French Harbour, he was politely advised that the minimum sale was 500 gallons!
The islanders themselves live as much OVER the water as ON the water. The typical islander home is built on stilts. We've heard various explanations as to why the locals prefer elevated living. The most obvious reason is transportation; in most places, roads are rudimentary, scarce or non-existent so people get around by boat. Canals join the different waterfront communities. Within each settlement, boats constantly buzz back and forth, going from dock to dock. People literally step out of their front doors into their boats. The traditional vessels are dugout canoes, called cayucos or dories; they're still very much in evidence. Many of the water taxis are dugouts with one-cylinder inboard engines that putt-putt-putt along at a dignified pace. Fibreglass runabouts with oversized two-stroke outboards are also popular. It seems to make no difference whether the driver is a young girl, an older matron or a testosterone-charged male, the boats travel at only one speed: full throttle. For those of us who are uncertain of where the edge of the channel is located, this can lead to some frantic head-on encounters. The prop on our outboard is sporting some extra dings as a result of taking evasive action in a too-narrow canal.
Being perched over the water also allows for simplified plumbing; those little structures at the end of each dock aren't tool sheds. Swimming in their immediate vicinity is probably NOT a good idea. We've also heard that living on stilts is a good way of avoiding the swarms of no-see-ums or sand flees that plague the islands. Having spent several evenings scratching ourselves as we sat on open decks above the water, we're sceptical of this explanation.
The more recent Latino immigrants seem less connected to the water. Their homes are typically clustered alongside roads away from the shoreline. They appear to favour land-based transportation over boats. Every other vehicle on the road seems to be a taxi with a Spanish speaking driver.
Many of the gringos who have settled on the islands have located neither on the water nor in the towns. You'll find their homes, some of them quite palatial, perched on hills and ridges high above the coastline. Clearly, they assign a premium to an unobstructed view, even at the expense of limited road AND water access. To get to town, Dave and Donna descend a near vertical set of concrete stairs to a dock and take their skiff to a waterside bar three bights away. They keep their pickup truck in a small parking lot next to the bar.
And then there are cruisers like us. We move from one anchorage to another according to whim and weather. We observe the mix of distinct groups living on shore and like to think that we 're unique, too. When a local asks where we're from, we point proudly to our boat sitting in the bay. We're careful to distinguish ourselves from the dive resort tourists and the cruise ship passengers. But to the islander, we're all visitors; they live here, we don't.