Thursday, December 31, 2009


There are three Bay Islands of Honduras, of which Utila is the nearest to the coast, and the first one you come to from the Rio Dulce. It, like the other Bay Islands, is part of an underground mountain range, fringed by coral reefs. Utila has signs of volcanic activity at Pumpkin Hill, but most of the island has a limestone base, and is, as the chart describes it, low and swampy. It's about 8 1/2 miles long and not more than 3 miles wide. We rode around a goodly portion of it on our folding bikes and I had a leisurely climb of Pumpkin Hill.

The town of Utila has two parts: the main concrete road runs along the shore for traffic consisting of golf carts, ATVs, bicycles, strollers, skateboards, and, just to mix things up, the occasional pickup truck or van. There's a ferry dock; that's how everything gets here.

And there are restaurants and bars, hardware stores and groceries, cell phone stores and ATMs, all the usual paraphernalia of modern life, but small, the size appropriate to a place with maybe 7-8000 people. Special to Utila and the Bay Islands are dive shops and realtors, both with an eye toward the modern galleons bearing cash in their pockets. It's a pleasant island tending along the lines of the Abacos, or Carriacou, or Bequia, and popular with backpacker/divers.

Up the hill is the village proper, while the gringos are building out of town mostly along the coast, mowing down the mangroves and clearcutting the groundcover for their stateside- sized casas.  But apparently the locals too have been building for some time:
For more than a century, islanders have continuously augmented their beach front by "making land". The original shoreline of Utila, only a few yards deep from the high water mark, has been extended in many places an additional thirty to forty yards or more by filling in fenced rectangles of water with refuse and broken coral. Houses that were poised on pilings over eight feet of water some sixty or seventy years ago now sit on terra firma and the process goes on--giving portions of the harbor a Venetian effect--even though the cost is high in money and labor. Land making in the swamp areas has been pursued in like manner, one barrio in the community being named Holland to commemorate its origin through reclamation.

Hiding from a south and west wind that made a mess of the main harbor, we anchored a few days between Utila and a cay-community at SucSuc and Pigeon Cays. Buildings huddle together on crooked pilings over land barely above sea level, and every porch is a dock. This, I'm told, was in fact the site of Utila's earliest British settlement. Can't figure out why anyone would chose this damp pied-a-terre when they could have  the hillside, now or then. But I am coming to suspect that the presence of no-see-'ums had something to do with it.
Another surprise was being greeted in English, a pretty and picturesque form of it. Come to find out that the Bay Islands were British during the early part of the 1800s; a lot of the settlers had names like Jones and McNab, Bush and Cooper, Jackson and Thompson, and several came via the Cayman Islands. Although Honduras took formal possession around 1860, it is said that some residents didn't realize anything had changed until Queen Victoria died in 1901. Here's how they saw it two hundred years ago.
Gradually mainland Hondurans have come out to the Bay Islands, but we still met people who spoke only one language or the other. And then there's a Garifuna presence - these are the slaves forcibly removed from St. Vincent in the 1790s and dumped in the Bay Islands, from whence they have spread to Belize and coastal Honduras. I think they have a language of their own, but use the other two. I tried asking a Garifuna woman for something in Spanish, and as she was showing me, she finally said "Don't you speak English?"

One of the neatest places I've ever seen is a hotel/restaurant/bar called the Jade Seahorse. Owned by, I'm told, glass bead artists from Israel, the entire property is a riot of color and texture, not just the glass grottoes and encrustations, but the cabins and carpentry as well. "Makes me want to go home and get artsy" said Doug. "I seem to be a little conservative."

Friday, December 25, 2009


When Santa comes to Roatan, it's not a silent night, and probably not particularly holy either. At least at French Harbor, his acolytes began at midnight, setting off firecrackers and bottle rockets, and cranking up the music. From the V-berth, those jingle bells are heavy on bass, and Santa sounds like he's in an increasingly frantic race.

Until now, I had been sleeping the sleep of the well-fed. What a feast we had with friends on another boat: G called it 'Christmas lunch' although we ate at sundown on Christmas Eve. Turkey, cranberry sauce, roast potatoes, 'courgettes', and more. It all looked so nice on the plate and was cooked to perfection. And then, when we were sated, out came the Christmas pudding - nothing Jello about it, but rather an thick, dark, concentrated mound, anembarras de richesse with a primal connection via the taste buds back through Dickens and Austen to the medieval heart of darkness from whence, in my mind anyhow, the Christmas holiday originates. Anything that happens on Christmas day will be an anti-climax to this meal!

Out in the main cabin of Galivant, there are no stockings, no decorations, no milk and cookies. At least I didn't put them there! I know for a fact that Santa brought Doug a small bottle of fou-fou rum, and for me, a nice chunk of real Parmesan cheese, as he has for several years now.

The weather here at present is fine. We'll have a swim along the reef in the morning, then another feast; this time a cruiser's pot luck featuring grilled turkey, the potatoes I've been assigned to bring, and more (I hope), plus 'lots of desserts'. Then this day too will fade into the ranks of Christmases past. To all, I wish the best of the season, wherever you may be.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lionfish. They're Here.


Making casual conversation in a dive shop at West End, Roatan, I commented on a poster requesting info on lionfish Pterois volitans/miles sightings, and was astonished by the response.

Oh yes, the store personnel said, that newsletter is from October, when we had about fifty, but we had a lot more last month. In the last couple months it's suddenly gotten much worse. We've seen them while snorkeling in 4 feet of water, and way down deep, and everywhere in between. They went on to theorize that a large number of fertilized eggs, or juvenile fish, had drifted from sites further east in the Caribbean.

In case this issue has flown beneath your radar, the story is that lionfish, natives to the Pacific, probably escaped from a Florida aquarium during Hurricane Andrew. They've been coming for some time, and now, according to this map, they're everywhere.

These fish might have trouble overwintering in colder areas, but the guys in the dive shop told me in Roatan's waters, they spawn 30,000 eggs at a time and can breed monthly. They eat the juveniles of numerous reef species, including the ones who keep the reef clean, compete for resources, and have a nasty venomous spine which makes them unattractive to the human fishers. In fact, if you do get stung, you probably won't die, but you will be in pain for a month, and the best remedy is to pour hot water on the site. Lionfish are said to be tasty, if you cut out the poison sac under the spine. They apparently just sit still and look at you, so aren't particularly hard to get.

I'm certain it's a terrible thing, but there are so many terrible things of the same nature. The Burmese python in Florida, the giant carp approaching the Great Lakes, just for starters. A person could begin to suffer from Terrible Thing Overload Syndrome.

What particularly interested me was the response. "Does everyone carry spear guns to shoot them with on sight?" I asked. No, ma'am, they do not. There seem to be three reasons why not. One, they don't want spear guns in the marine park, although presently the divemaster is allowed to have one on the boat. Two, they are there to conserve and preserve, and blasting fish in front of paying scuba divers is not the ideal image. Three, they, or someone in the larger reef management world, are concerned about humane treatment of the fish. The recommended method is to catch the fish - this involves a plastic bag behind the fish, and a stick in front of the fish - and put it in ice water to numb it before it actually dies.

I can just see it now.

In Bonaire I gather they're sending out fish-killing patrols. Maybe they're doing the same here and just not admitting it. I hope so. They do hope to keep the marine park free of lionfish, but I don't think the pooper-scooper approach is going to work.

UPDATE: I met a woman involved in reef statistics who told me that a lot of the sightings were of juveniles, 1-3 inches, so you can see why they might not be spear gun material, and that they are not at this moment spewing 30,000 eggs per month. Even the intermediates, 5-6 inches, can be caught in a net, if you happen to be carrying one. But there were also a few larger fish of reproductive age. And of course, right up there with death and taxes are time and sex!
I also know snorkelers who found a lionfish on the reef in Belize. They thought it was one of the most attractive fish they had ever seen. They'll go back out next time planning to shoot to kill, but with regret.
I also noticed that the first result on my Google search was about keeping lionfish in aquariums.

Here's a little more detail on what's so terrible about these fish. The entire website is worth reading if you're interested in the issue.
Recent research by Albins and Hixon (2008) provides the first evidence of negative effects of lionfish on native Atlantic coral-reef fishes. The recruitment of coral-reef fishes was studied during the 2007 recruitment period (July-August) on small patch reefs in the Bahamas with and without a single lionfish. Over the five week period, net recruitment (i.e., accumulation of new juvenile fishes via settlement of larvae) was reduced by 79% on reefs with lionfish compared to reefs without lionfish. Stomach content analyses and observations of feeding behavior showed that reductions in native fish density were almost certainly due to predation by lionfish. ... In addition, lionfish have the potential to decrease the abundance of ecologically important species such as parrotfish and other herbivorous fishes that keep seaweeds and macroalgae from overgrowing corals.
from the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species site of the USGS

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Night Passages

A yacht named Kersti, was holed and sank the other night while on a passage from San Blas to Cartagena. The crew in their liferaft was picked up by another yacht sailing in company. But the boat is gone, and with it, I'm sure, the confidence and serenity of the crew, as well as all their personal stuff.

Then, a day later came the report from another vessel which had in view a "large white ship's mooring" mooring measuring about 15 feet x 20 feet, drifting around on the rhumb line from San Blas to Cartagena. The report was radioed in and apparently will reach a US Coast Guard vessel in the area, which will deal with the obstacle.

I remember one of the most frightening nights of my life - years ago, in Arion, somewhere in mid-Atlantic. We were rollicking along, headlong into one of the darkest nights (but starriest) imaginable. All I could think of was a report I'd heard about a number of refrigerated containers that had supposedly been swept off the deck of a cargo ship in a storm. I was certain that the sharp corner of one was hovering about two feet below the surface and we would be upon it at any moment. I was miserable until sunrise, and then, although the containers may still have been there, I regained my balance.

I've buried those particular containers under a pile of other things I might worry about. The other night we were moving along the coast of mainland Honduras on a mainly clear but moonless night. There was a rock and a reefy area to avoid, and an isolated rain squall, whose boundaries I checked on radar. As it passed, a persistent little blip remained just behind us, and as I looked for it, a light went on. Apparently we had nearly run over an unlit fishing boat, provoking him into showing a light. A few minutes later another light suddenly appeared maybe a quarter mile off.

Other items for the worry list include logs washed down rivers, and whales, (although if I hit a whale I'd consider that it had the right-of-way and I had just drawn the wrong card )

Of course we stand watches all night, on the coast and offshore. But it's impossible to see everything. We place a lot of faith in the odds that whatever danger lurks ahead is not directly ahead on the little line we draw across the ocean. For the men in the unlit lancha it worked out, for Kersti, it didn't. For us, well, it remains to be seen. I'm expecting the best.

UPDATE: follow these links for a bit more information about Kersti
UPDATE: read about a more recent incident of container ships going overboard here:

Arab proverb to the effect that you don't truly own anything that you can lose at sea.
UPDATE: read about 30 containers lost in the Gulf Stream off Key West. Refrigerated containers have insulation which keeps them floating.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

La Ceiba

La Ceiba is the third largest city in Honduras, and it's a pretty civilized size to my mind, meaning you can walk from the beach to the mall. Of course, that takes a while, but I like to walk and you can see a lot.

Mostly what you see is a jumble of old and new buildings. There are classic older wooden ones, but they don't stand out because of all the other busy-ness around them. There was an Art Deco period near the waterfront. Then there's the inevitable accretion of little 'mixed media' sidewalk and curbside booths. Shopping for something specific is the usual adventure into a warren of side doors and alleys; nothing is where you'd think to look for it, but compared to Fronteras, there's a lot available here.
We came here to check out the La Ceiba Shipyard for some engine work we're thinking of. They've been here for some time, but you wouldn't know it by the chart.

Looks like we'll be spending some time there in a couple months, uninstalling the 33-year old Westerbeke 40 and installing a new Beta 43.

Then a strong cold front came through and it began to rain, and rain. The river turned to mud, the streets in town turned to lakes. I was riding across the Rio Cangrejal with someone who showed me what a dinky little rain this was compared to Hurricane Mitch, which took out the bridge we were on, twenty feet above the present water level. In fact I've read that 80% of the bridges in the country had to be rebuilt.

It was Thanksgiving: I was grateful for a mere cold front and a secure mooring, among so many other things.
While others were watching turkeys in the oven, or football, we were tracking down a leak somewhere behind the headliner that was making its way into my book locker. It's harder to think like a raindrop than you might expect!

Rain seems to have stopped. Today is Election Day in Honduras. Everyone has a different take on the immediate and future prospects. It seems a good time to leave the city for the Bay Islands and watch from the bleachers instead of the front row.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thinking about Pirates

Pirates of the Caribbean: not Johnny Depp although I did hear somewhere (Armed Forces Radio, our English-language radio news source) that he is the sexiest man on the planet this week.
If I had the technology, I'd add a sound track, Elvis, 'Hunk of Burning Love' maybe.

No, I'm thinking of the mostly nameless and faceless bucaneers whose image he embellishes. We're on the Spanish Main now, aarrgh, mateys, where pirates lurked, like spiders waiting for a tasty fly to come by, in the form of gold and silver aboard a Spanish galleon.

We were in a nearly landlocked harbor on the mainland coast, Diamante Lagoon, where the hills are alive with palm trees and orange, avocado and other fruit trees that were reputedly planted by these pirates on their days off. A cell tower twinkled in the distance, but otherwise there was no one around save the occasional small local fishing boat. Their crews had little camps tucked into the mangroves, which I'm sure they were glad to disappear to on such a squally evening.

I myself had a self-indulgent evening, a glass of wine, a good Thai-style soup with coconut milk, an engrossing book. I even smoothed the bedsheets, and got out a cover for the first time in months, secure in the knowledge that nothing was likely to disturb my slumbers here.

According to one pirate captain, life was good, or at least lively, for his men too:
In an honest Service, there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not balance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto ”

—Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts

I tried to imagine crews of yore, hanging out in Diamante between lootings, swatting mosquitoes certainly, planting trees? Were they happy to be so securely anchored, or were they happier about other things? And how did they get some of those ships through the narrow entrance and into the lagoon which even then probably had no more than ten feet of water anywhere? Did they have time for mascara?

We also went to Omoa, near the Guatemalan border, to look at its fort, the Fortaleza San Fernando de Omoa. Reputedly the largest colonial fort in Central America, it was built by the Spanish to protect their shipping interests.It took about twenty years to build and was completed about 1776. It's a nice enough fort - along the lines of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas tho slightly smaller, and today has a museum with a fair display (spanish and english) and the usual anchors, bits of pottery, cannons etc.

I was even thinking it would make an interesting hotel. However it was, like so many forts, later used as a prison, so the vibe can't be good.

But you've got to wonder. The cannons couldn't possibly have shot with any effect from their location to where the waterfront is now - that's a whole lot of silting going on! Imagine the labor expended to build such a thing! Lime for mortar was transported in small boats 40 miles from the Sapodilla Keys (the boats kept sinking and a nearer source was found). And lime was the least of it, material-wise. The population was small, both of slaves and the men to keep them working. And the cost/benefit ratio? The place was abandoned within a few years, and twenty years after that, Spain completely lost its grip in Central America.

Omoa was also the main port of Honduras at that time. But every time I go someplace like this I'm also amazed, or maybe incredulous would be better, at how the ungainly vessels of the day could even use, much less 'develop' such terrible harbors. The anchors in the museums don't begin to look appropriate for the slab-sided ships. Omoa, although sheltered from the supposedly prevailing trade winds, is wide open to the west and north, to the cold fronts that are beginning to trail down off North America now, and to anything squally or tempestuous. So, to a lesser extent, is Puerto Cortes, which replaced Omoa. Places that look snug, like Escondido, can turn nasty when the wind goes west and builds, and there would be no tacking out.

It's all just unimaginable. But I'm trying! If a time machine comes along before I depart, I'd want to sign up.

The sea now is actually a couple hundred yards away, and the fort is next door to a natural gas offshore loading place.

Nothing to do with pirates, but this is pretty much all the action in Omoa these days. Your imagination might also conjure up the ghost of the Fantome, the Windjammer ship so famously lost at sea during Hurricane Mitch, which picked up its passengers here, I've read.

PS apologies to anyone who got emailed with a post from back in July. No, we're not going into reruns. I don't know what happened. Let's just say we had a mouse going rogue.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Toward Puerto Cortes

While the bulk of our cohort scatters for the US or the laid-back English-speaking Bay Islands (Roatan, Utila, Guanaja), we droned east along the coast of mainland Honduras on a windless day, thinking that some paint we ordered in Puerto Cortes might have arrived there.
Flat calm had its rewards - a pod of dolphins stayed to play for 15 or 20 minutes. PHOTO DOLPHINS And I swear the one in the middle kept rolling over to look at me.

An interesting book I read last year, Beautiful Minds: The Parallel experiences of Dolphins and the Great Apes, or something like that, made the point, among others, that despite their intelligence, dolphins are sort of 'stuck' evolutionarily, because neither their bodies nor their environment offer the 'advancement opportunities' that the great apes have received in their jungles. That might have been Stephen Hawkings looking up at me with the key to the universe, were I capable of receiving it!

I did my best to emote empathy and encouragement, but the dolphins moved on anyhow.

And so did we, anchoring in the slanting late afternoon light in the southeast corner of the bay, a big port operation on one side, Navy base ahead, and a beach on the other side, mountains beyond, yellow quarantine flag flying.
ANOTHER DOLPHIN PHOTO, the boat and I are also reflected, and my technology tool, created from mined, processed, transported and fabricated materials, by opposable thumbs.

Doug is a believer in evolution: "It's made me what I am today", he says.

Lifting the curtain on Honduras

We spent part of the morning clearing in at the industrial shipping port of Puerto Cortes, with the assistance of our new friend, Flash, who spent ten years as a long-haul trucker out of Boston. He met us at the dock; at first we couldn't shake him, and then we didn't really want to. We could see that the officials all knew and liked him, so we just went with the flow, and had a pleasant time of it. Although, when we went back the next day, we found out he had stiffed his friend the dinghy minder.
And I spent part of the morning in line in the bank, trying to get smaller change for the 500 Lempira notes (about $25) that the ATM spit out. That no one ever has change, so you need your own, is a basic tenet of travel almost everywhere. So I stood in line, observing my fellow patrons and the action on the street - also watching an automated revolving security door spit people back into the lobby for various perceived infractions. It got me three times, once for my big bag, once for my little bag, and once for my hat, I think. Finally the door let me in carrying nothing more than the wallet and the four bills. I left with almost half an inch of paper: there is paper money for the equivalent of a nickel.

Unlike in Fronteras, there was not a Mayan-dressed woman in sight. Here the population is mixed, ladino or mestizo, and most people approach, even exceed, my own height. Wearing glasses! Styled hair, not just long black ponytails. Short haircuts. Many more people speak some English and will approach us for a friendly chat. We were told twice that 80 percent of the school children take some English. Men especially have been in the US, sometimes in the shipping ports of New Orleans, Miami and New York. Lots of bicycles and 'freelance' driving. And the bananas sold on the street are the big ones we're used to in the US, Gros Michel or its successor, still yellow.

Also no machetes in sight, and while the roosters still crow, the howler monkeys have been replaced by barking dogs and sometimes traffic noise.
We had a beer with a trio of young men, Omar, Alex and Anibal who told us that times were tight, nobody had work, be careful of bad guys, that they weren't all bad, they just needed to feed their families even in a 'crise economico'. Then one cell phone rang and they all pulled phones from their pockets and had a laugh about whether it should be answered, being from, I gather, some woman about some baby.

The town itself is pretty undistinguished and could use a general trash pickup, but people were accommodating and we enjoyed our visit.
This will be the town Christmas tree, and only a major port would have one like it. It's made like baggy wrinkle from bits of the polypropylene line - a blend of colors that ends up being greenish enough.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Back in Salt Water

We got out of the Rio Dulce yesterday, before the flag police decreed we needed a new one! We crossed the bar with a few inches to spare, and almost enough daylight to make a snug anchorage, Graciosa, across the Bahia Honduras, almost before a rainy squall arrived. Two boats behind us motored out while a local cabin cruiser held them heeled over via a line from the masthead - interesting to watch, although I'd hate to have to go that way myself!
Onwards, towards Honduras, but first a lazy day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Life in the Slow Lane
This is a test (more successful than previous attempts, I hope) of sending emails to the blog via the HF radio and a Pactor modem. I plan to come back and add pictures when the Internet is available.

We broke the marina force field ten days ago, although we did go back again later in the evening for the Halloween party. But then we had boxes on our heads, so it was different. PHOTO OF HALLOWEEN BOX HEADS HERE,.
Photo by Jim Ellis

Mainly what we left, aside from the cool refreshing pool and the so-welcome shelter of the sun awning, was our electricity and our internet, such as it sometimes was.

Since then we've been drifting around the Rio, a day here, a night there, another run to town. After three days of watching how hard it was for the batteries to run the refrigeration - air and water have regularly approached 90 degrees (F!) -we turned off the freezer. Turned off the ice for licuados, mainly, and found some 'treasures' which have been dutifully, if nervously, consumed.

The pressure canner, Mason jars, and I are eyeing each other warily. It's still hot for cooking, although better at anchor than it was in the marina. Frankly, it's sometimes too hot to eat, although Doug never thinks so. We've left Sundog's good bread; time to start kneading,(or stop eating) and baking in the middle of the night just like the pros.

The shore power should be replaced by the solar panels and the wind generator, but there's often not much wind in the Rio. Rainy season, so quiescent that droughts are being declared inland, has poked its nose out far enough to shade the solar panels.

So we're moving towards the slow lane in energy too - no movies on the computer for Doug, no internet for me. Books!! And boy do I have a nice stash - Catfish and Mandala at present earning a top rating. At least until cruiser midnight, which I try to put off until at least 8 PM.

Gotta get the weatherfax and ham radio systems sorted out now that we've finally had the first 'tropical event' of our season here- technology on the boat has improved in the last score of years, but have I? The soothing chummy rhythm of a clear B&W fax pictures from NMG accompanies me right now, with a background of ethereal stellar roar, (and big numbers on the amps-going-out scale) so that's a reasonable metaphor. TD/TS/Cat1 Ida gone, cold front being consumed everywhere.

Other slow lane indicators: writing in a notebook rather than typing in a power-sucking computer. Setting up a rain-catcher. Swimming in my laundry with a bar of soap (fresh water, ya know!)

Other 'back in cruising mode' indicators involve getting to know the boat and its systems all over again. Do either of us remember exactly what the sounder says as we run aground? Apparently not! Where did we put X, or y, or z? It's a pretty small space - where can this stuff go? I'm ashamed to admit that I get confused which boat is which, since I apparently do a lot of things rotely, without much actual thought. "Well, they used to be there, in the red line bag" I'll say, looking at a bag which once was blue (Absolute) and now is white.

Actually setting an actual sail meant decimation for generations of spiders; they flee as if from a police raid. The ant population supply line is interrupted; those crafty insects are still negotiating, trying to outsmart me, but no longer can rely on reinforcements, so the contest is evening out. Both 'insect overlays' have prospered during their time with us; pity they couldn't keep each other more in check or I'd have let them both stay.

Modern times: we've enrolled the customs agent Raul who has all our papers ready for Thursday morning. We'll "swing through" Livingston- to pick them up and spend the rest of our Quetzales, and be out with the tide at the end of the day, beating the Friday the Thirteenth jinx.

Monday, October 26, 2009


It's not that I'm crazy about birds (not yet!), but I do like spending time with enthusiasts - anyone (almost) who has a deep enthusiasm and interest in something esoteric (confined to and understandable by only an enlightened inner circle).

Birds generally are present in many, often pretty, places. Each species' individual story tells something curious, or fantasic, or just worth knowing about the world. Hence, a visit with the bird nerds.

Guatemala has plenty of interesting birds of its own. Think toucan and quetzal, then add the less famous but really cool trogon, differentiated hummingbirds, seed-eaters, woodpeckers. But wait! There's more! Many North American migratory species pass through or over-winter here, starting about now. Guatemala, the size of Ohio, has nearly as many species as the entire US/Canadian land mass.

So a handful of us strode off into the back lot of Hacienda Tijax, quite near Fronteras, our temporary 'home town'. Las senoras, from boats were easily identified by their extra-heavy night vision marine binoculars, quirky footwear, and lack of bird book or birding life list. But we caught on quickly enough, with a little help from our new friends. As always, keep your mind open and your mouth shut, and remember the golden rule. Also, on the canopy bridges, don't let your attention wander too far.

So, when all I would have seen was a distant little flutter, Leo or Meynor or Bryan (a young man who also taught us, in the guise of a drawing lesson, to notice the shape of the beaks, the feet, the wings, as well as a bit of birder vocabulary) would announce: "Oh, a white-collared seed eater." Heads swivel. Binoculars up. "Female" "ooh" pencils out to mark down the sighting, Howell's book out to show 'las senoras'.

The birds kept coming - in the hour or so before sunset we, or at least they, saw 17 different bird species, and knew them by first last and middle names, and sex, in several languages.
One of the most charming aspects of birdwatching in Guatemala is that English is the bird-nerd language; aficionados earnestly discuss anatomical features, such as the 'slatey' tail feathers which distinguish one trogon from the next ..., in English!

Probably somewhere, Cicero's ghost is gleefully saying 'and ya know, they still use Latin too!' All the guides knew those names as well.

Next day many more, many different, birds. And some real spectacles: the trogons were a colorful revelation.
The black-cowled oriole is related to my state bird, but I've never seen one in Maryland. The American redstart. The cuckoo something - I forgot to write it down, but remember Leo's description of the long swinging tail and my mental image of my grandmother's cuckoo clock.

And me, another spectacle. Now I've got a pencil and a book too, and a tangle of strings around my neck, connecting me to my hat, sunglasses, camera, pencil in my mouth, book under my arm. Ahha! So that's why they have those vests with all the little pockets! I hope this urge to accouter is not contagious.

I was very impressed with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the speakers. I was also impressed with the quality of the INGUAT-certified guides, not for the first time. In fact, as we noticed, we have almost never spent time with well-educated Guatemalans before. It was a treat.
PHOTO MEYNOR SCOPEMeynor was a wizard at setting up his 'scope' and making sure we all saw something.

So my visit to the nation of birdwatchers was a great success. Makes me think that from now on, rather than wandering around clueless, I'll find the local 'twitchers' as the Brits call birdwatchers, and see what they find interesting.
Photo by Carole Webster.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Harvesting Rubber


Think AIDS, which sent the consumption of latex gloves in medical facilities skyrocketing. Think latex condoms, which are available at nearly every checkout stand in most countries, but seem insufficiently used.

Think rubber mattresses, expensive, but ever so comfortable, I hear, and they last a lifetime. Think rubber boots and tarps. Or think vehicle tires, which is actually where most of the world's rubber production goes.

Where it comes from is here. At least some small fraction of the often-preferred natural product (most 'rubber' is synthesized from petroleum) comes from right here on the Rio Dulce. The tree, Hevea Brasiliensis, is a native of Brazil, local to Central America and was used by the Mayans for their rubber game balls. In some respects (climate, rain, sun), this Rio Dulce area is ideal for rubber plantations, and there are several.

Also, as I learned at Tijax, another local plantation, their trees are a cross between the Brazilian and a Malaysian variety. As well, during dry conditions, as we have had recently despite the so-called rainy season, tapping stops in the interest of arboreal health.

In 1844 Charles Goodyear patented the process of vulcanisation, the process of mixing raw rubber with sulphur under extreme heat. This made a cheaper more elasticated rubber. Gloves, and condoms, are made by dipping glass forms into liquid rubber.

As usual, most everything I 'know' I Googled. Here's some more.

In the world scheme of things, far more rubber is produced in the vicinity of Malayasia, Thailand, and India. The forest that was cleared to grow these trees may have been ecologically preferable to the orderly rowed plantations; but economic forces have their own logic. In La Esmerelda almost all the workers I see are young men; but in Southeast Asia, it's often women's work, which is to say, poorly paid.

Whenever I asked my informants about the harvesting work, they always refer to 'ulli' trees. Come to find out that 'ulli' is a Mayan word, meaning blood, or rubber. Also, one of the sometimes contradictory factoids of Google indicates that hevea brasilensis and the maple tree may be related. Or not, but it seems like they should be.

For reasons of tree hydraulics, the trees are tapped at night or very early in the morning. On my daybreak walks, I sometimes see people still wearing head-lights, and hear the scritch of their knives as they move from tree to tree opening the veins, so to speak. They could be tapping new latex every couple days, as in Asia, but I don't think it's that intensive here. I should go out in the wee hours sometime to make sure, (but probably won't).

The tree, handled skillfully, is said to be good for twenty years of latex. Then its wood, stronger than oak (according to the rubber-wood-marketing board), can be used for furniture etc.

Mexico may be Guatemala's main latex rubber customer. Factoid: rubber is the only naturally-grown product used in the automotive industry, with the possible previous exception of silk.

The Asians seem to try to keep their rubber in liquid form, which means using ammonia as a solvent, according to a Google site. Or, according to the guide at Tijax, a muriatic acid solution is used.

Here, the latex rubber is harvested in 'cup form' and as 'tree lace' (peeled from the drip line). Its processing involves a lot of heat, which destroys at least some of the proteins (latex allergies are blamed on proteins), and the result is solid rubber.

The workers leave their 'cup forms' and 'tree laces' beside the road for a tractor to pick up. Gnats seem to like this powerfully scented 'ulli'.

For more info see, or try Google, and see where you bounce!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A laugh on me

How good is my Spanish these days? Well, here's how good it is.

I was sitting on a bar stool, waiting for Doug, lip-reading the paper (Diario), and drinking a licuado, when a man came up behind me and asked the lady behind the bar for 'el papel'. Guiltily, I closed the newspaper and pushed it toward him.
He looked at it, and me, a little sadly I thought, then at her. She handed him a roll of toilet paper and he went into the men's room.

A few seconds passed while I worked out what had transpired, then I began to chuckle. The bartender and the other customer exchanged a discreet few quiet words. I held up the Diario and said, in Spanish something like "i ingles, esta se llama el papel". Only then did they begin to laugh.

Later, another man came up to me. He told me I had a voice like Vicky Carr. I asked 'is Vicky Carr young and beautiful?" (no subjunctive for me). No, he said, she is like us. But he liked her because she had a beautiful voice and she sings English and Spanish both without an accent.

Best I can say for myself is that I laugh without an accent.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Early morning walks along the pipeline

I had been walking three times a week with Kim, but she's away now, so now I go by myself. On the road by 5:30 AM-it's light but hasn't been for long, and home, primed for the day, just before 7. It's the best time of day.

My route is a road whose main purpose is to service the crude oil pipeline that runs alongside it, and maybe to supply the village of La Esmerelda, which is bounded by the river, the road and the marina.

There are more animals than people abroad at this, the rooster hour; also some very handsome chickens, pig families, even ducks, if it's been raining and their stream is flowing, and flocks of turkeys. Dogs sometimes appear in gangs, but they are sickly or juvenile two-faced bullies, most of these dogs, just the kind I'm not sure how to meet. Doug suggested I pick up some stones; it works! The mere bending over to pick them up is something the dogs have seen before, and not liked. They don't even know that I throw like a girl.

At the very end of La Esmerelda there's a house I always like to surreptitiously examine. It's a place with the 'wrong side of the tracks' written all over, and no proper sanitation facilities either. There's often a blazing cooking fire visible through the cracks in the board siding, bringing the pre-daybreak temperature well over 100 already. Luxury would be an outside cooking shelter and an enclosed outhouse separate from the well.

Does the woman of the house step from her hammock every morning eager to build that blazing fire? Or does she imagine another life - one that doesn't require such heat so early in service of so many people, for so long. Cultural expectations may vary. She might be wondering why I'm by myself, moving so fast in this climate and what my family is eating since I'm not there to make the tortillas.

The road is packed dirt road full of rounded river stones from kidney- to head-sized. Or rather, it's a stone road, with dirt infill. There are a number of hills I can never quite remember to count, but they're nicely arranged, as if laid out by cross-trainer software.

Beyond the village, the rubber plantation begins. The ranks of trees look old and well-established, as they stretch off into the distance. Some mornings are redolent with the not-altogether-pleasant scent of fresh-tapped rubber.

One little valley has been cleared, roughly, and planted with corn. There are a few areas of streams and ponds where the original vegetation remains. Here is where you'll see some nice butterflies and Bird-of-Paradise.

Then comes another plantation with different trees. We've identified these as gmolina, and believe it's being grown for pulp, or possibly lumber - more details to follow.

The gmolina gradually gives way to fairly recently cleared pasture land, sometimes with cows and/or horses, but mostly empty save for a few small birds.

The river Seja marks our usual stopping point, where we comment on how low the water levels are and how the rainy season never really got going. Occasionally we go all the way to 'the crossroads' where we often see men with machetes sitting patiently waiting, ?for a ride?Photobucket

And the pipeline marches on, 275 miles long (so said my source, but now I think it might be kilometers), it starts in the far north of Guatemala, near the border with Mexico and its Tabasco oil fields, in a jungle and wetland area that was rebel-active in the civil war, which slowed down hydro-carbon resource development. In fact, under this rock are more sordid details about World Bank funding and hasty/sloppy environmental assessments which encouraged oil drilling in a rain forest.

According to
Guatemala has four sedimentary basins located in the north, south and eastern sections of the country, all with potential hydrocarbon reserves: southern Peten, northern Peten, Amatique and the Pacific. Exploration to date indicates the existence of both large and small fields, with recoverable reserves of between 20 and 30 million barrels of petroleum of varying API gravity, from heavy crude to medium and light grade.
Approximately 65% of Guatemala is covered by sedimentary rock, indicating the probability of finding oil in almost anywhere in the country.

The "tuberia" continues under the Rio Dulce and on to the Caribbean seaport of Puerto Barrios, where I think it is refined. Guatemala is the only Central American country that produces oil, and it still needs to import substantial amounts.

Perenco is a European-owned conglomerate.

Those men with machetes sometimes materialize to trim the vegetation that grows under the 'tubo'. The pipe shows signs of inspection and painting, and we see the occasional boat drill with towed containment booms on the river. Other pipeline regulars I meet, or at least wave at, are the rubber cutters, and a man we call 'El Guapo', the handsome. He speeds past, usually in a jeep or ATV, always wearing a white cowboy hat, and waves with an economical gesture.

Recently there have been other marina users of the pipeline road, later in the morning, but by then, it's a different road. Friendly women, men with paddles moving towards the rio, the kids who go to school (there are those who don't)all progress down the lane in their heartbreakingly clean clothes, wet combed hair, the scent of soap in their wake. "Buenas dias", a shy smile; as I clump on past, wishing the world weren't so complicated.

Monday, October 12, 2009

El Estor

We took a little bus excursion for an overnight at El Estor, a small town on the north shore at the far end of Lago Izabal. You could take your own boat up the lake but most people don't - one security incident (theft) even a while back puts people off a place for years.

We were curious, having heard that originally this was a location where the Spanish stored treasure. When? What treasure? Where did it come from? How did it get down the narrow river gorges without being picked off? Lago Izabal was also how the coffee plantations in the highland state of Alta Verapaz connected to coastal shipping before trains and trucks arrived.

Nobody knows nuttin'about the Spanish- might be one of those stories that gets passed along because it sounds interesting and we want to believe it.

The next story about El Estor is its name: The Store, said Spanish style. This is true; the building still exists and is in fact the hotel, Vista del Lago, where we stayed, in a very small and basic room. A train line to carry coffee from the Highlands to Puerto Barrios on the coast passed this way starting sometime in the 1800s and The Store, started in the 1850s by two British gentlemen, was the only source for European goods for miles around. How many people wanted European goods? I can't even imagine.

Eventually a highway was built south of the lake and El Estor slipped back into near oblivion.

Things get active again in the 1960s when a high grade of nickel was discovered nearby. A Canadian company, via its Guatemalan subsidiary, put money into the town, building the roads and a town square, a hospital (now finally being restored for use), housing and schools, even a golf course for the employees.

Their plant stood a couple miles outside of town. It's still there under its tall smokestack, fenced off and guarded, looking like it could swing into some kind of action shortly.

Various technical and transportation difficulties shut it down in 1977, "much to the relief of the locals who had witnessed the decimation of the surrounding forests and rivers" says Shelagh McNally in Pocket Adventures Guatemala.

Our host at the hotel had been employed at the mine in its prime. He was happy to take us out there and tried to explain how the plant had been operated; neither of our language skills were sophisticated enough for some of the discussion. Apparently, they needed to generate a lot of electricity and eventually the price of diesel fuel for the power plant contributed to their demise.

What looks even clearer in El Estor than in our 'home town' of Fronteras is that many many people, maybe 80-90 percent? are the indigenous Mayan, K'iche'. Reading further into Shelagh McNally's book, I learned that land rights have been and continue to be of ongoing concern in this area. There was an infamous massacre here in 1978, 100 people gunned down by the Guatemalan army. Amnesty International came through in 1999 after a prominent human rights activist went, and stayed, missing. And in recent years, the Guatemalan military has violently evicted Mayan communities living on land the government preferred to transfer to international corporations.

Although there was successful community resistance to keep international oil drilling out of the lake, efforts to promote conservation and preservation in the area, which is quite near the extensive valley of the Rio Polochic BioReserve, are also fairly low-key.

Since the nickel mine isn't running, and there aren't really any signs of a fishing industry, or a cattle industry, or much commercial agriculture, except on a very small scale, it's hard to say what makes the money go round.

At least that's the gist of what I've learned by Googling around, in particular from

The orderly grid of streets, broad, with curbs and sidewalks, give El Estor a dignity unlike the usual bustling but ramshackle feel of other Guatemalan towns. I'm nearly certain that we were the only tourists in town, and after we'd been up two or three blocks, and over four more, everyone knew us as well.

We did our best to entertain them: taking pictures in a surprisingly well-stocked music store,
checking out an aguardiente (firewater, as in grain alcohol!) joint, watching cayugas get loaded (not with firewater!) for trips to even smaller villages somewhere.
We drank street-vendor drinks out of plastic bags, and a chocolate licuado made with Nesquick that was pretty good. We checked out a small eco-resort, visited the nickel mine, ate something delicious smokily cooked over an oil drum, and slept in our tiny lake view cabin.
Next day, as we had a tipico (refried beans, plantains, eggs, bit of cheese, tortillas, fresh juice) breakfast at a cafe overlooking the square, we tried to give part of it to a young boy, in neat clean clothes but clearly hungry, who had been watching us intently. The waitress intervened to stop us, 'on principle', the principle of not having their customers hit upon, I guess.

These folks were waiting for the bank to open. The line stretched half a block already and was still there when we left town an hour later. I went off to buy some Rio Polochic rice (sorry to report, it's undistinguished) and then we boarded the bus, clambering over the bundle of plastic plumbing pipe in the aisle (no chickens), towards Boqueron.


Boqueron is a canyon/gorge of the Rio Sauce, along the north shore of Lago Izabal. It's a quite beautiful place, which is living in my memory, since I didn't want to carry anything that couldn't get wet. So, instead, here's a link a pair of photos taken by a man with hundreds of lovely pictures, many of people, from the entire country. I gather he was here as an observer during the exhumation of gravesites from the 36-year civil war. Boqueron is at the end of this series.

You get off the bus, and will be instantly met by someone who wants to paddle you upstream. The family that lives closest seems to have the concession; We were paddled upstream in a wooden dugout cayuca with literally two knuckles-worth of freeboard. I did meet one Frenchman who said no one was home when he arrived so he just took a boat and paddled himself. OOOh, I said, you French can do things like that.

We gringoes left our packs in their house/tiny tienda, and changed out of our wet stuff when we got back so we didn't have to ride back soaking wet on the bus.

So let me just describe = what? Cliff walls loaded with plants, narrow clean fresh water river littered with jumbles of boulders. Central Casting sent a large electric blue butterfly and set design provided sunny blue skies.You can jump in the river and clumsily walk your way further upstream if you stay in the shallower water closer to the side. You could spend a couple hours there, especially if you had a picnic lunch.

I liked it.

Our man Miguel had five children. He had a little occasional work building the highway that was being paved literally outside his door, but tourism was down, times were tight, and he asked if he could come work on the boat with us.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


The esteemed city of ‘La Muy Noble y Muy Leal Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala’, now known as Antigua, but once the capital of Guatemala, has an interesting history. The Spanish, after being pushed out of one town by Indian unrest, and down the slopes of the Agua Volcano by a mudslide, established a third city in this location, below the Agua Volcano, the Fuego Volcano and one other whose name isn't so easy to remember, here in 1543.

I can't really do better than to quote/paraphrase the Lonely Planet guide on the subject.
Antigua was once the epicenter of power throughout Central America. During the 17th and 18th centuries little expense was spared on the city's magnificent architecture, despite the fact that the ground rumbled ominously and regularly. Schools, hospitals, churches and monasteries sprung up, rivaled in magnificence only by the houses of the upper clergy and the politically connected.

At its peak about 1770, the city had 60,000 people, 33 churches, including a cathedral, a university, printing presses, newspaper, and a lively political and cultural scene, plus municipal water and sewer. The rumblings never stopped, however, and for a year the city was shaken by earthquakes and tremors of varying degrees until the great earthquake of July 29, 1773 destroyed the city, which had already suffered considerable damage. Two years later, the capital was transferred to Guatemala City.
Antigua was evacuated and plundered for building materials. Despite official decrees the city never emptied and by 1830 it began to grow again. Renovation of the battered buildings helped maintain the city's colonial character, said to have been modeled on that of Seville, Spain.

The city is littered with ruins which have lain in their fallen state for centuries. Other structures have been partially rebuilt, although not to their original designs and with pillaged materials. Until the mid-twentieth century, Antigua was apparently a poor and sleepy little town. Despite being declared a national monument in 1944 and a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979, it wasn't until the early 1990s that the city was 'discovered'. There's been, apparently, a lot of building since then, but you wouldn't know it since all is required to be in 'colonial ambiance', so even the new places look old.

And, as LP points out, the rubbish is actually collected here, the streets cleaned, stray dogs 'disappeared'; some electric wires even run underground.

Antigua is a town for pedestrians, sort of. The streets are severely cobbled, bone-jarring no matter what vehicle you're in the school-bus buses, the tourist shuttles, the private cars and picops, the tuk-tuks, or bicycles. Even the colonially-ambient horse-drawn carriages may not be immune.

The pedestrians can keep their teeth, but need a second pair of eyes to deal with uneven sidewalks that are barely 36" wide and that drop and climb for every entrance, every car or cart ramp, every water and sewer connection. So it's not a town to wander lost in reverie. Better to stand still and gawk than to invoke too many senses at once.

Like a woman in a hijab, Antigua hides a lot of its beauty.Photobucket
Many little glimpses through open gates and doorways are of a fountain, a garden, something interesting, beautiful, surprising.
I felt like an architectural ogler, leering at flowered patios and shaded corridors. Plus, we were constantly lost. The numbered calles run north and south and the avenidas east and west, (or vice versa?) so it would be do-able if only there were street signs and fewer identical looking walls.
PhotobucketNonetheless, Antigua is a treat because it's so compact and so cosmopolitan, so different from other parts of Guatemala, even the modest portion we were privy to.

There are many similarities between Antigua and Annapolis: the restrictive physical layout, the time frame, the volcanic eruption/the silted harbor, the secret lives behind the sidewalk; even the population size of the geographical area is similar, and the greater cultural activity than offered in the hinterland. Also visitors descend each weekend from the capital 30 or 40 minutes away, parking their new cars in front of the high-end restaurants and hotels.

There's a neat cemetery, San Lazaro, which is an interesting choice of names. At first I was thinking of Lazarus who rose from the dead. Then I googled it and found another San Lazaro, a healer of physical and spiritual pain, in Cuban and other traditions. The morgue is conveniently located next to the office at the entry gate. At this cemetery, for the only time ever, I found the thing I casually look for at every cemetery I visit (which is most of them!). That is, someone who died the day I was born. Jose Braulio Perez might be a person whose torch I am carrying. cemetery

Visitors to Antigua find shops, and street vendors, mainly indigenous women selling native fabrics and clothing, jewelry, folk art. folk art
It's a more attractive and less complicated transportation hub for visitors to the Guatemalan Highlands than the real capital, so all the tourist shuttles seem to go through. It's the commercial center for many surrounding villages.
PHOTO MCHETESTDIt's full of language schools, and those so inclined can do volunteer work at orphanages and indigenous settlements while they learn.


The ex-pat community has quite a presence here, I've heard. There is much more that could be said, probably should be said, about Antigua, of which I'm unaware. However, I've got LOTS of photos which I've dumped here
so I'll let them do the talking. I promise, someday I'll shrink that file substantially.
Finally, no signs of life from the volcanoes or the ground, that I recognized. But days later a tsunami hit Samoa. And earthquakes killed many in Sumatra - not sure how the hope to be spared that is reflected in this cross.