The island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras, is now considered part of Honduras even though it has a heritage of British rule which results in many islanders using English as a first language. Long ago, between 1550 and 1700, the island was virtually uninhabited except for a society of buccaneers who used its deep harbors as a base of operation for their piracy of English, Spanish, and French shipping who were transporting their own stolen treasures between the new world and their European home bases.
Today, in 2015, the pirates, who robbed at sea, are no more and the island is well populated. Its natural beauty consists of tropical vegetation, sandy beaches, warm seas and a coral reef second only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. These assets combine with a good harbor to attract cruise ships and tourists from around the globe. These visitors are willing targets for a transfer of wealth which, no doubt, exceeds the magnitude of the ill-gotten gains of the pirates of yore.
On a glorious early September afternoon I walk the soft sands of the West Beach. The sand is almost white and as fine as granular sugar. I stroll along the edge of the ocean where the water creates a good hard walk surface. The beach around me is a hive of activity ranging from visitors lounging in the sun on deckchairs ($10 a day rental) to others swimming in the waters and yet others, like myself, ambling along the shore admiring the sights. I notice that half the population on the beach are local ‘islanders’, as they like to be called. Some sell their wares; dark glasses, hats, jewelry, drinks and food. Others, mostly attractive well-toned young men, sport seductive smiles in their attempts to sell scuba dive trips, water taxis, reef rides, horseback rides and other attractions.
“Don’t let them catch your eye” urges my husband. But how can I not look these youths in the eye? I have been taught, since birth, to always face anyone who addresses me; and, facing them, well, when facing someone, especially a tanned youth, you look them in the eye.
A clean-looking young man accosts us, “Ride in a glass bottomed boat and see the coral reef?” I turn to my husband; after all this is a good idea, then we get to see the reef without having to scuba dive. The young man walks beside us. He quotes prices which, seem to me, to be increasing as my interest mounts.
“Yes let’s do it.” I say, hoping to pin down the cost.
Five minutes later we are escorted down a narrow wooden pier and helped on board the yellow glass-bottomed boat. We climb down into the hold where we sit on one side on a blue plastic bench. There is one on each side with a raised area between the two sides. A baby sleeps on the raised area, and sitting on the opposite side to us are his parents and older brother. Further inside are other tourists seated on the benches.
Within minutes we are off, floating over a field of sea grass waving gently in the current. In a surprisingly short time we are over coral and begin to see the associated fish. The first school is a group of blue neon fish which resemble the neon blue tetra which I once had in a fresh-water fish tank. The small boy shouts,
“A barracuda. It’s a barracuda” His baby brother awakes. While his mother hushes the baby his father gently tells him that these are not barracuda. I’d like to know what a barracuda looks like but the chart of fish over my window doesn’t show one. Later, when we are back in our room I research on line, and find that they are long and thin and sport a lethal mouth of vicious-looking pointed teeth. I also note that they may be seen on some of the Roatan reefs.
We pass additional coral outcrops each with their own fish. Again the small boy calls out, “It’s a barracuda. A barracuda.” His father draws him into an embrace and says something to him. We cruise on.
A school of sandy-colored flat fish adopt us and swim beside us almost at the surface of the water. The boy wriggles out from his paternal embrace and points, “A barracuda! A barracuda!” We are now accustomed to his excitement and turn to smile at each other. Everyone enjoys his youthful enthusiasm.
Our movement is gentle and seems alien to the concept of a predator like a barracuda. As the refrain repeats itself I wonder whether the pirates of old could be considered the barracuda of their time, while today’s islanders, who service visitors and tourists, a form of modern pirating barracuda.
As we draw back to shore floating over white sand and willowing sea grass the boy gives one final cry “It’s a barracuda. Look, a barracuda.” I turn and look at a crab in the grasses below.
Later, after a long siesta, we return to an almost empty beach and take seats at a table in one of the shore restaurants. We sip creamy ice–cold Pina Coladas and watch the departure of today’s two cruise ships. Their decks glow with lights as they sail across the horizon of the setting sun. Peace reigns.
In the morning we rise with the sun. We walk along the shore expecting solitude. Instead, we witness the arrival of the first vendors – a group of coconut sellers. The men are bent over under their heavy sacks of coconuts. They set up in the middle of the beach with a small shade awning and take out a machete. Soon one of them deftly strikes away the outer husk at the tops of the coconuts to expose a place where a straw can be inserted to create a coconut drink. They will sell these to tourists later in the day. I marvel at the host of men who rake the sands to restore the beach to its pristine status. I remark, “So this is the secret of the clean sands!” My husband nods in accord.
The day passes in a mix of walks, painting and tourist activities and in the evening we return to the beach to watch the sunset. We are early. I select a group of lounge chairs and sit on one. My husband stands nervously beside me until I persuade him that he would look less awkward if he were sitting. After all the worst that could happen is that we be asked to move. He begins to relax with me and we comment on how far the sun appears to be from the horizon when we know that it will set at 6pm. That is when “Charlie” arrives.
Captain Charlie wears a strapless green dress. Her smile demands attention. She stands between me and the sun. I disregard my husband’s maxim of “Don’t make eye contact” and return her gaze.
“Massage. Body massage. Two for $35,” she says.
“No. No thank you.” I politely respond.
“Tomorrow?” she questions unabashed.
“We shall be gone tomorrow. No massage please. We are here to watch the sun set.” My words are useless and before I know it she kneels before me and takes off my shoes.
“I give you a free foot-massage” she says, and starts to rub my feet. The soft sand is not so soft when rubbed against the skin. The movement of her hands feels like sand-paper. She calls up two attractive young women and a bottle of oil, I assume coconut oil, appears. Soon another bottle, this time full of water appears. It is splashed over my legs and the massage is in earnest. Charlie reintroduces herself and I foolishly engage in conversation by asking how she says her name in Spanish. She tells me; it sounds like ‘Shirley.’ She motions to the two attractive young women to approach and introduces them.
“My daughters, this one is Celeste, she is twenty. This one is Carmen, she is twenty-three.” They squat down next to Charlie and she draws them toward her. Celeste is very dark skinned with braded kinkled back hair. Her teeth are brilliant white and her dress clings to her body like a skin. Carmen is much fairer with straight black hair flowing down her back. Her colorful dress is also skin-tight and short enough to expose her young legs. I look in disbelief.
Charlie explains “My daughters, after them no more. Different fathers. But see, they both look like me.” Again she pulls them in beside her and I have to admit they both do look somewhat like her. The foot massage starts to extend up my legs and I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable. A good looking young man emerges from behind the chairs. Charlie introduces him as her brother. Then another woman appears. Charlie introduces her as her sister. The sister starts to massage my arms and even approaches my neck where I really do need a massage. I am about to mention this fact when my husband stands up. He pulls out his wallet and gives Charlie a twenty dollar bill. She barely looks at it as she deftly tucks it into the top of her strapless dress.
I think that my husband had hoped that the money would purchase their retreat. In a place, where a domestic maid on the Honduran mainland earns $1 an hour, $20 is a lot of money. I know that he gives $20 because he had no smaller bills.
The money does not have the desired effect. It only wets their appetite and the two daughters begin an intense massage of my husband’s feet and legs progressing up his legs and into his shorts to a point where he becomes uncomfortable. Charlies, expert that she is, detects the trouble and orders him to take off his shirt and to roll over so that they may work on his back. He complies. My massage is evidently finished as now all I have is Charlie. She continues to kneel before me in the sand and to gently massage my feet. She babbles on about her daughters, her age, my age (grossly underestimated), and her family. She asks me about the value of my necklace. I truthfully tell her that I don’t know its value.
At this point my husband leaps to his feet, puts his shirt back on and gets out his wallet. A second $20 passes from his hand into Charlies’ upper dress.
“Thank you, that is all,” he pronounces.
This time Charlie rises and kisses my hand as she marshals her entourage a short distance away toward the water. They stand in a group and talk. Charlie is the center of their discussion. I watch with fascination as she takes out the contents of her dress and appears to share it with her family. The brother withdraws a wallet and gives her something in exchange for one of our bills. The two daughters and sister are given a share. Charlie comes back to us,
“Could you do another $5?” she pleads.
I explain that we have no more money, that my husband’s wallet is empty. This is the truth. Charlie accepts my statement and grabs my hand for another kiss before departing back to her family. They stand together a few more minutes and then disperse. I watch Charlie disappear down the beach before I return my gaze to the beauty of the sun-set. It is the reason that I sit here. When it slips below the horizon and the tell-tale residual pink leaves the sky we arise. We walk down the beach in search of another creamy, ice-cold Pina Colada.