september 6th, 2005 -> the last island
At five, or fifteen minutes earlier if the writing hadn't gone well, I changed into my ripped and mended “Frankenstein” swimming trunks and grabbed my goggles. Nori usually returned from the Internet café to meet me. It was only a short distance to Half Moon Bay. But we walked that road so many times that I remember everything about it: the scrape of the coral roadbed against my bare feet, the ruby-throated hummingbirds buzzing between hibiscus flowers, the faded sign for a hotel promising guests a “Worm [sic] Welcome,” the tire-crushed centipedes, the woodpeckers hammering away at telephone poles, the avocados that dropped, the rumble of the dump trucks hauling fill to a building site, the tarantulas lurking near the shoulder at night, and the two fat ladies who always sat on a bench outside their house on stilts, only interrupting their gossip to shout at their kids.
Routines. Familiarity. It was a new experience. We had been on the move for almost nine hundred days: an often-wearying succession of new beds, dilapidated buses, map-reading and ceaseless bartering. Every journey, regardless of duration, requires a choice: depth or breadth. We chose breadth and sacrificed depth – an average of less than two weeks per country. My vain hope was that the history, language, travel and fiction books that I lugged around the world would give me a depth that time did not allow. That doesn't mean that we skimped on all the countries. We spent a month or slightly less in New Zealand, China, Mongolia, Turkey, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and Peru. But we did set an aggressive pace in every country. We needed a break; time to relax before returning to the USA; time to start writing my book.
Without really discussing why, we focused on islands for our final stop. I needed a quiet place where I could write. Nori wanted good scuba-diving. We needed an island with enough infrastructure and activities to take advantage of when we needed them, but with enough space to still feel like a retreat. And since we planned on spending a month there, it had to be reasonably cheap. Nori was in charge of the island-hunt, spending hours researching at Internet cafes and hijacking Wi-Fi access whenever she could. Belize was too expensive. Nicaragua's islands had too little infrastructure. The islands off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula would be too crowded. It made sense to be further north, where we (wrongly) assumed flights to the US would be the cheapest. Finally, we settled on Roatan, in Honduras.
Las Islas de Bahia – the Bay Islands – lie 56 kilometers north of Honduras' mountainous Caribbean coastline. Three islands comprise the bulk of the archipelago: Roatan, Utila and Guanaja. Roatan, the largest island, is 60 kilometers long but less than eight kilometers wide. It has a small international airport, the archipelago's only city and a circuit of paved road. Utila, the “backpacker” island to west, offers some of the best value scuba diving in the world. Guanaja, to the east, remains mostly free of tourism developments – and tourist services. Nori found a hotel with large rooms, A/C – a necessity, as I would be indoors throughout the day – a guest kitchen so that we could cook our own meals, and management's promise that there were no construction sites nearby, for US$33 a night.
Almost perfect. Two private homes and extension to the hotel were being built a few hundred feet away. Dump trucks began roaring by at eight and did not stop until sundown. When I walked over to the building sites to complain – and possibly sabotage or vandalize – I met a couple from Baffin Island, in far northern Canada. They were building their retirement home. They were impressed that I knew where Baffin Island was, although I admitted that I hadn't known there were any towns up there.
“Wow. So this must be pretty different for you, huh?” I asked.
“Not really. We live in a small, mostly Inuit community. It takes forever to get anything done. This is just like Baffin Island, just warmer with palm trees.”
We put on our goggles and swam into the bay. The sun would drop into the sea in exactly one hour. While I swam laps across the bay, Nori finned out to the coral heads to snorkel. When my exercise regimen was complete, I'd swim out to where Nori was snorkeling. “What'd you see today?” I would ask, and she would lead me to her best finds: crabs, lobsters, cuttlefish, sea snakes, porcupine fish, shrimp, eels, stonefish and hawksbill turtles. For a half-dead reef – passed over daily by considerable boat traffic – it sheltered an exceptional variety of sea life. Every day we explored it, coming to know the reef and its inhabitants perhaps better than anyone ever has.
We knew which channels tunneled through the reef and which ones ended in coral-de-sacs. We knew the porcupine fish's favorite hiding spots. We searched for “The Three Stooges,” a single-parent lobster family that we often found poking out between two lobes of coral. There was “Lobster Ledge,” a low table of coral, fifteen feet deep. Dozens of lobsters – some enormous – hid beneath the tabletop. Most people swam past it, mistaking the waving antennae for sea grass. Two big crabs with football-sized bodies lived on the reef. We usually found at least one, nibbling algae. Once, we startled one holding a plate of sea fan between its claws. It looked as if it was reading the Undersea Times. Twice we saw giant spotted eagle rays. At least once a week we found juvenile hawksbill turtles, which liked to paddle slowly at the edge of the reef. Nori saw a nurse shark once, but I missed it.
Throughout the trip, I had written “writer” in the occupation box of customs and immigration forms, as if by force of repetition I could convince myself. “What do you write?” officials in South and Central America often asked. “Stories about travel…for magazines,” I fibbed. I was an untried, unpublished, unread writer. I might has well have written “engineer,” or “doctor.” I certainly wasn't the first person to hope that I could turn traveling into a career. But I think that there is another reason that so many-long term travelers turn to writing. We want people to continue listen to our stories. We think they're pretty good. On the road, everyone one you meet is a traveler. They have tales to tell and so do you. They listen because it might be useful in the future, or because they can offer an opposite viewpoint. Then you return home, like a dentist returning from a convention. Suddenly, no one is in interested your stories.
I confined myself in the air-conditioned room from eight until five. I had a basic plan: each country would have its own chapter, and each chapter would include something of a lesson – things we had learned about the world, fellow travelers or each other. The stories on the website would be the raw material. I just had to turn the ore into gold. As I started working on the New Zealand piece, a thought hit me: I was writing about the first country we had visited, but I was also writing the epilogue of the trip. Some days I produced whole chapters, other days Nori arrived for lunch and I had to scrambled to hide my embarrassingly lonely paragraph. Sometimes I wrote paragraphs that were so good that I read them to myself again and again, and forced Nori to listen to them when she returned. More often, I scowled at shapeless paragraphs that still told me nothing after hours of work. I hated disturbances, but I also looked forward to them. The cleaning lady came at eleven – an excuse to juggle on the patio, or play the harmonica sitting beside the sea. “Writing is hell,” Paul Thoreaux wrote, “especially in Hawaii, where it tends to turn paradise into purgatory.” I felt the same about Roatan.
Patra, Nori's sister, arrived during our second week on the island. Less than two months ago, she had spent two weeks with us in Panama. I found it amazing that she had cajoled another week of vacation from her boss. Were investment bankers discovering their hearts? No. He just didn't care. He quit a month later. We called Patra the “supply ship,” because she always brought a duffel bag full of food and necessities: in this case, Thai chili paste, Ferrero Rocher cholocates, packages of vermicelli and strawberry-dipped Pocky. The sisters went scuba diving in the morning and returned to the hotel by lunchtime. After a few days of listening to them talk about their dives I was going crazy. I decided to take a day off from writing. We hired a water taxi to take us to West Bay, the ritziest part of the island.
After rounding a point occupied by a galleon-shaped restaurant (the pirate theme never works) we saw West Bay, a stunning stretch of sand that ended in rugged, black coral cliffs. Uneven rows of pale and baking tourists made part of the beach look like stadium seating. We could hear the resort's loudspeaker announcing the afternoon's activities. We got off at a small pier near the cliffs. The ladies had heard that the snorkeling at the far end of the beach was excellent. It was amazing.
Undulating ridges of coral dropped to a smooth, sandy bottom. Wave action had cut underwater canyons through the living mass. I reckoned that we had almost one hundred feet of visibility in the warm, glassy water. We chased saw giant parrotfish, schools of purple surgeonfish, barracuda, lobsters, and – a new fish for all of us – the bizarrely shaped and colored file fish. I couldn't believe that there were only a few groups of snorkelers out there. The underwater scenery was so overwhelming that we lost track of time. We swam ashore three hours later, with wrinkled digits and deep red mask marks.
Most mornings, Nori and I woke at seven and jogged past the shops and restaurants of West Bay to a resort-free beach at the western end. I ran barefoot, enjoying the texture of the sand and the ability to splash through the shallows if I chose. After a week of painful blisters – Nori refused to look at them – my feet had hardened and I walked barefoot everywhere. We had to run early or not at all; by eight it was already too hot to run. We liked to run four or five laps of the beach, stopping between laps to do push-ups and sit-ups. I always waved at the lady raking sand and cleaning trash from the sandy track in front of her outdoor manicure studio (a few chairs under the shade of an Indian almond tree.) Trucks carried part-time workers to the construction sites. A muscular fisherman returned from the sea about the time that we jogged onto the beach. By the next lap, the unmistakable tang of the day's first joint was wafting from his hut. After a few days, the stray dogs stopped barking at me.
The fading light was our alarm bell. The snorkeling session was over. When clouds drifted above the horizon, we floated on our backs, held hands and watched the shimmering colors of sunset reflecting on the sea. If romance is about shared, beautiful moments than those fiery sunsets were romantic indeed. But I also felt sad. Another of our last remaining days of freedom had ended. We swam back in darkness, moving slowly to let the small, stinging sea wasps pulse away from us.
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