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.