The Bay Islands

December 5, 2006
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Between 1929 and 1936 the eccentric English adventurer Frederick Mitchell-Hedges sailed around the Bay Islands of Honduras, conducting archaeological excavations and hoping to find artifacts that would support his theory about Atlantis: namely, that the Bay Islands are the visible remains of that lost continent, the rest being submerged. With him were writer Lady Richmond Brown, a one-legged captain named Frank Boynton, a one-eyed Mexican crewman, and a local man wanted for murder in four Central American countries. On occasion the cabin boy was a Bay Islander from Guanaja named George Haylock.

Today, George Haylock is nearly 80, a man with white beetling brows and an ever-present cigar, which he stabs in the air for emphasis. I met him one morning in his combination grog shop and bakery in Bonacca, Guanaja, and asked him what he most remembered about the Mitchell-Hedges expeditions. Atlantean potsherds? The missing body parts of his colleagues? Or perhaps Mitchell-Hedges’s use of a pre-Columbian crystal skull, complete with detachable jawbone, as a sort of personal talisman?

None of these things, he said. What he remembered most was making tea. Mitchell-Hedges and Lady Brown – the wife of a baronet – had come back from a dig and immediately wanted their tea. The cook was sick, so he, George, had to brew it. At the time he had never in his life brewed a single cup of tea – good, bad, or indifferent. But sipping her tea, Lady Brown declared: “George, this is quite the best cup of tea I’ve ever had.”


He fixed me with his cigar. “You see, it’s there, always there in the blood. English blood. English, my friend.”

“What’s there?” I inquired.

“The ability to make tea, of course,” Haylock replied in the Devonshire lilt of his ancestors.


Geographically, the Bay Islands – Roat¿n, Utila, and Guanaja, along with several lesser satellites – are in the Caribbean, moored off the northern coast of Honduras. But they do not seem to be of the Caribbean. Their stilt houses, jungly interiors, and dugout canoes suggest the South Seas. On the other hand, the vibrant insect population – sandflies, mosquitoes, ticks, scorpions, centipedes, bluebottles, and something green-eyed and winged whose mandibles made cookie-cutter indentations on my flesh – would seem to have been imported from Africa or the Amazon.

And then there’s the town of Bonacca: Its canals and canal aromas suggest a Venice fetched to the tropics.

This jumble of affinities has a history that reveals itself like a kaleidoscope, now offering an Indian artifact, now a West Country lilt, and now an African herb cure for waning virility or kidney stones. It’s a history that includes a motley of scoundrels and adventurers, starting with Columbus. According to some stories he dropped anchor at Guanaja in 1502, only to be told by the local Indians to move his ship, since a rather more important vessel, one laden with mainland trade goods, was expected momentarily.


The celebrated Welsh pirate Henry Morgan was here. So were Dutch pirates, French pirates, and Spanish slavers.So was the American soldier of fortune William Walker, as well as another soldier of fortune, less well known but no less audacious, a Louisiana-born man named Lee Christmas. The latter took over Utila and made himself its head of state on January 1, 1911, in order to celebrate the New Year and replenish food supplies.

Robinson Crusoe was here, too. At least that’s what one Utila man, wholly serious, told me. Defoe’s hero, he said, was actually a pirate who’d buried his treasure on Utila and didn’t want anyone to know about it, so he concocted an elaborate fiction about being marooned on the island of Tobago. To prove his point, the man showed me the very spot in the sand where Crusoe found Friday’s footprint.

Of all influences, it is the English one that dominates the Bay Islands. English, not Spanish, is the language of choice, and shillings are still invoked, even though the Honduran lempira is the medium of exchange. Scratch a local, and more than likely you won’t find a Caribbean islander, ardently anticolonialist, but a self-proclaimed Englishman. Even if the person’s name happens to be Jesus Morales.


“I think of the queen like I think of my own mother,” Morales, a Roat¿n boat-builder, told me.

It was in the reign of an earlier queen, Queen Victoria, that England claimed the Bay Islands as part of a protectorate that included today’s Belize and what was called the Mosquito Coast. And it was a sad day for islanders in 1861 when the crown ceded its ground to the Republic of Honduras. It still is a sad day, more than 130 years later. In Coxen Hole, the main town on Roat¿n, I found myself talking with a fisherman whose face was a jumble of Anglo, African, and Latino features. On a whim I asked him how he’d feel if the crown reclaimed its former colony. He’d been gutting a fish. He put down both the fish and his knife.

“Is it really going to happen?” he asked with an eagerness that made his eyes sparkle.

I began my Bay Islands sojourn on Roat¿n, a long, serrated island shaped not unlike a string bean. For all most visitors see of it, it could be shaped like a turnip or a broccoli floweret, because most visitors come for its luminous underwater realm and seem to regard anything above water as taboo. Not being a diver, I appreciated this – it meant Roat¿n’s terrestrial estate would be mine and mine alone.

Isn’t it every traveler’s selfish dream to have a whole island to himself?

In Sandy Bay I hired a guide for a walk along the chain of hills – known locally as Roat¿n’s Alps – that make up the island’s spine. This guide’s name was Butterfly. Until recently his name had been Maurice, but he changed it – a common Bay Islands practice – in hopes of changing his luck. As Maurice, he’d been broke. As Butterfly, maybe he’d become a millionaire. When I failed to see the connection between millionaires and butterflies, he grinned.

“Millionaires always be flittin’ about, mon. Like butterflies. I long to flit about myself so’s I can see de world.” He grinned again when I asked him about bugs on our walk. “No problem, mon.” Fateful words!

If Butterfly’s name wasn’t really Butterfly, neither are Roat¿n’s Alps really alps. The tallest scrapes the sky at only 771 feet, an altitude I kept in mind as our path rose steeply upward, past a deforested area, into a jungle of epiphytes, lianas, and giant hardwoods. So worn looking was this path that I wondered if it’d been originally trodden by Indians in the days before the Spanish sold them into slavery. I also wondered if maybe a handful had escaped their Spanish persecutors by fleeing into the jungle, this jungle. Maybe, just maybe their descendants were hiding only a few feet away, watching us. I imagined a quick flurry of movement here, a painted face squinting through the dense foliage there.

As I was looking for camouflaged Indians, it began to rain. Not a soft drizzly sort of rain, but a clamorous downpour that seemed a first cousin to an Asiatic monsoon. We took refuge under the spreading canopy of a hardwood. All at once my nostrils detected the scent of perfume. It was the ylang-ylang tree next to us, Butterfly said, adding that its essence is used in the manufacture of Chanel No. 5.

“You mean they don’t use a synthetic?” I asked.

“No synthetic smells this good, mon.” Whereupon he pressed his nose against the tree and happily inhaled.

The rain persisted, and we had no choice but to persist, too. We sloshed up Difficulty Hill, then sloshed down by a different route. Much of the vegetation on this route, I noted, had prickles, thorns, spikes, or spurs. One tree, in fact, stabbed me. Butterfly called it a shake-my-hand tree, so named because its thorns seem to reach out with malicious intent and lacerate the passerby. Once lacerated, twice cautious. I studiously avoided a lancetia palm, whose trunk was lined with two-inch spikes, sharp as a surgeon’s lancet, and a fuzzy vine whose name Butterfly didn’t know but whose hooked spicules, he said, were capable of removing a square inch of flesh in a trice.

Back on the road I made a 100 lempira contribution to Butterfly’s first million. Just before we parted, he suggested that I change my name – to Spike.

That night I noticed something quite odd: My body looked like a pointillistic painting, late period, by Georges Seurat. Somehow during the day I’d stumbled on a nest of tiny red garrapatas (aka war ticks), and now they covered me from head to toe. Several hours with a tweezers got rid of them, but it was too late. I itched. Powerfully itched. Relentlessly itched. I couldn’t write in my journal unless I paused every few seconds to scratch an ankle, an armpit, or a flank. Not surprisingly, my sentences were very short.

The next morning one of the divers at my hotel asked where I’d been the previous day.

“The Lost World,” I replied, itching. Part of me wished I’d been underwater with him, ogling angelfish, groupers, and eagle rays, none of which affix themselves to the visitor or impale him on their thorns. The other part, however, was pleased as punch to have made contact – direct bodily contact – with Roat¿n.

Contrary to my imagination, there aren’t any Indians left on Roat¿n. But there are Garifuna, a people of mingled Carib and African roots. Natives of St. Vincent, they were rounded up by the British in 1797 and deported to the Spanish garrison of Port Royal on Roat¿n.

The Garifuna couldn’t tolerate Port Royal – a former pirate stronghold and a derelict, shut-in place – and settled on the Honduran mainland. But a few now live on at the northern fastness of Punta Gorda.

“There’s absolutely nothing to see in Punta Gorda,” a longtime American resident of the Bay Islands told me.

High praise, to my mind. I decided to go and savor this absolute nothingness.

It was still raining when I took a bus with a terminal rattle from Sandy Bay to Oak Ridge, and by the time I started walking the road from Oak Ridge to Punta Gorda the rain had joined up with gusty winds. Road is perhaps an exaggeration for what was simply a pair of ruts filled with reservoirs of water.

“A norther,” the radio said.

After an hour these ruts dipped abruptly, and some mud-and-wattle houses appeared, along with a couple of cement-block bungalows. Then I came to the village itself, which was sprawled along the shore for almost a mile. Its chief architectural feature was a long procession of outhouses, each perched at the end of a wooden plankway over the sea.

Down by the beach I watched a man hollow out a canoe from a single cedar log. He was wearing long, remarkably clean trousers and a John Deere cap, nothing else. His skin was a rich coppery black. I greeted him with the only words of Garifuna I knew: “Ida biangi?” (How are you?)

He answered in a barrage of English, Spanish, and Garifuna, of which I

understood only one word: “wet.” I switched to English and asked whether there was anyone in Punta Gorda who knew about old Garifuna traditions.

“Ah, Grandpa Antonio,” he said. And he took me to a simple thatched hut where a wizened old man lay in bed, seemingly feeble. We talked, or tried to talk. I mentioned a Carib story about the moon falling in love with an earthly woman and got only a blank stare. Then I mentioned my garrapata bites. Did he know any herb, decoction, or remedy to relieve the itching. He was silent for a moment, then he said: “Get a¿cortisone shot.”

A while later I was sitting with the proprietor of the village snack bar. He had heard the story of the moon’s amorous liaison with the earthly woman, who, he said, became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a little moon.

Speaking of which, the Garifuna used to think that a pregnant woman’s eyes could burn up the vegetables in a garden. Also, they thought that a buwiye, or shaman, could take a vine and turn it into a poisonous snake or take a poisonous snake and turn it into a harmless vine.

“But nobody believes in these superstitions anymore,” the man said. “The Garifuna of today are more or less modern in the way they look at things.”

“You speak English very well,” I told him.

“I should hope so. I lived for 25 years in Brooklyn.”

And then he went on to lament the fate of the Dodgers after they forsook Brooklyn for the alien shore of California.

Paradisiacal islands share a travel poster sameness: the same untrodden beaches, the same palm trees fluttering gently in the trades, the same turquoise waters, and the same dusky maidens gaily bedecked with local flora.

Southwest of Roat¿n lies Utila, which seems to have been designed as an alternative to paradise. It is low-lying and scruffy, even ugly by travel poster standards. The maidens are not dusky, and the flora, much of it, wields the usual assortment of spikes and spines – very, very unbedeckable. Hordes of sand flies have squatter’s rights to the beaches. And more than half the island is taken up by a thick, almost impenetrable mangrove swamp. The only person reputed to have lived in this swampy part of the island was a 19th-century French hermit named Monsieur Baptiste, who had a passion for mangrove oysters.

Unlike paradise, Utila is quirky. Imagine gingerbread stilt houses with sash windows and deep eaves, white picket fences and neatly trimmed bougainvillea, men idly chatting in the town square like bucolic English villagers, and the village idiot seated on a bench in this same square, muttering contentedly to himself, “The Lord loves me, the Lord loves me, the Lord loves me¿” Imagine, too, one of these bucolic villagers addressing you in the voice of a Wodehouse toff: “And how is Mr. Churchill doing these days? Getting a bit long in the tooth, I should think, the old bulldog.”

Granted, Utila is hardly on the cutting edge of international reportage. And this particular fellow was a bit long in the tooth himself.

Yet the island occupies such an airy plane of sensibility that one can envision Winston Churchill alive and well here even though he’s dead everywhere else.

One day I saw a Honduran gendarme with an M-14 slung over his shoulder and a book stuck in his back pocket. The rifle didn’t surprise me, but the book did – Latin American policemen tend not to be very literary. As unobtrusively as possible, I followed him past the butcher, the baker, and not the candlestick maker but a diving establishment, until he paused to check his timepiece in front of the Bucket of Blood Bar. Finally I caught the title of his book – Garc¿a M¿rquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It seemed a perfect title for an island as slumberous, as slow on the uptake, and as cheerfully bygone as Utila.

on utila i managed a couple of brief swims off my hotel’s dock, but I refused any more intimate contact with the sea. It was still raining, and I figured that if I suffered any more moisture, I might warp or possibly rust. So I hung around the town square like a bucolic villager myself. Most of my companions were fishermen considerably displeased with the weather. Half playfully but also half in earnest, they blamed it on me, a visitor from the north who’d brought this succession of storms down with him.

To change the subject, I asked if anyone knew stories about the American adventurer Lee Christmas.

“Why, you can talk to Lee Christmas himself,” was the reply. “He lives here.”

I took this statement to be of a piece with Winston Churchill’s dogged survival on Utila, for if Lee Christmas were alive today, decrepit or not, he’d be at least 130 years old. Then I got to thinking: The richly patinated gravestones in the island cemetery did show that extreme old age had plenty of exemplars here¿

The Lee Christmas I met turned out to be a thin, sturdy man of late middle years, scarcely a centenarian. He’d been born a Bodden, but his grandmother had been so delighted by the original Lee Christmas’s seizure of Utila from the Hondurans that she went down to the local registry office and changed the boy’s name.

“Lee Christmas was a tall, very handsome man,” the present Lee Christmas said of his namesake, “and when he walked around the island in his cream-

colored suit, all heads turned. Especially women’s heads. He was King of Utila for about a week. And every day he climbed Pumpkin Hill to see if a Honduran gunboat was coming to get him.”

The rain had diminished to a polite drizzle, so I decided to climb Pumpkin Hill myself. I set out across The Bamboo – Utila’s major pre-Columbian residential district – and soon found myself ankle-deep in mud and pottery shards.

At last I reached the base of the hill, from which ten minutes of bushwhacking brought me to the summit. There I witnessed an extraordinary sight – not a Honduran gunboat belatedly coming to take back the island, not even a particularly photogenic view, but lo! a bright ribbon of sunlight on the horizon. Above me glowering rain clouds were beating a retreat like the powers of darkness before a superior deity.

What I’ll remember most about that day is not the appearance of the sun but this: I was walking back to the Bucket of Blood for a measure of brew when I noticed an elderly woman wearing a black, high-collared dress and an antiquated frilly bonnet. She was seated in a chair on her veranda, rocking slowly back and forth, back and forth, perhaps dreaming of a childhood long ago, perhaps of England’s green and pleasant land. She looked exactly like Whistler’s Mother.

The plane to Guanaja seemed to be searching out a nonexistent runway before it suddenly touched down with a rollicking thump on a short strip of tarmac, braking at the water’s edge. Three people and one pig were awaiting its arrival.

Easternmost of the Bay Islands, Guanaja is actually two very different places: a piney “mainland” crumpled with hills and Bonacca town, also known as El Cayo. The mainland is like a chunk of Polynesia crossbred with the Maine woods, whereas Bonacca consists of two small islands, Hog Cay and Sheen Cay, flat as pie plates and joined by landfill.

The first thing I did in Bonacca was pay a visit to the local doctor. In his office I bared my posterior, and he administered the cortisone shot prescribed by Grandpa Antonio. “It’s a little too crowded here,” he remarked.

He didn’t mean my tick bites, likewise rather crowded, but Bonacca itself, a teeming, noisy hodgepodge of buildings flung together as if in an enormous hurry by a visually impaired town planner. A volleyball court seemed to occupy the confectioner’s shop, the confectioner was nearly on top of the bridal shop, and the bridal shop had insinuated itself into the groggery next door.

By all rights a five-minute walk in any direction should bring a walker to the sea. But the town is such a labyrinth of narrow streets, bridges, and canals that it would probably bring him right back to his point of embarkation¿in my case, the doctor’s office.

Bonacca is too crowded, but it’s so charmingly ramshackle that it made me think of, well, the movies. The town could have been the setting for a Gable-Lombard romp in the South China Seas, circa 1935. Or it could have been where Joan Crawford went about being naughty in Rain.

Only in the movies would stilt houses rise a mere foot or so above the lapping sea, as many of them do here. If this were the real world, they’d be fodder for a hurricane, even a modest hurricane, or for a particularly aggressive spring tide. I mentioned this to a Bonacca householder. He answered my concern with a wry smile: “We rebuild a lot, mon.”

The Guanaja mainland, on the other hand, is not crowded at all. Apart from the lilliputian villages of Savannah Bight, Mangrove Bight, and North East Bight, it’s empty – of people, that is.

One afternoon I was walking along a coniferous ridge (Columbus called Guanaja, appropriately, the Isle of Pines) when I heard voices. These voices were discussing me, I was convinced, and none too favorably, either. Then I gazed up. A couple of yellow-headed parrots were babbling away in a nearby treetop, not even paying me the courtesy of an outraged squawk at my invasion of their territory.

And yet once upon a time there was quite a hefty population here. The slopes of Marble Hill, a 150-foot pinnacle outside Savannah Bight, are so littered with Indian artifacts that I could close my eyes, bend down, and pick up a pottery fragment or a stone bead. In one crevice I found part of an obsidian knife and a scattering of human teeth. In another I found a yaba ding ding – a pot leg with an incised human face.

This yaba ding ding, with its perpetually staring eyes and oval mouth, happened to be lying right next to an extended family of scorpions: black females carrying their tiny offspring, red males with yellow legs, still others bluish in color, gender indeterminate.

I interpreted this as an obvious sign not to disturb the yaba ding ding. It was Guanaja’s, not mine. Best to leave it in its rightful resting place – to remind future visitors that they are not the first, nor will they be the last, to pass this way.

Also, I did not want any further dealings with insects.

In Guanaja the sun became the blazing orb of tropical legend, so I finally decided to take the plunge. Donning snorkel and flippers, I waded out from El Soldado Beach, where Columbus anchored, to the fringe of the reef.

Nile green and crystal clear, the water was like a conjurer’s cape, out of which I felt anything, anything, might materialize. Perhaps I’d discover a Columbian artifact, the coral-encrusted barrel of a harquebus, say, or a European bauble traded to the Indians and thrown away in disgust. Or perhaps I’d find evidence – the barely visible remains of a sunken city? – that would confirm the Mitchell-Hedges theory about the Bay Islands being Atlantis.

I did find a sunken city, a thriving one, too. A school of yellowtail snappers hurried by like commuters at rush hour, parrotfish were nibbling the algae off the coral with audible rasps, a trio of eagle rays fluttered past me in squadron formation. Trumpetfish hung upside down as if their sense of balance were completely awry, sea anemones opened and closed their pink-tipped tentacles, and a fiercely territorial damselfish parried and thrust at intruders several times its size.

At one point I saw a large green moray, its viperous mouth stuck in a maniacal grin. Wealthy Roman ladies used to put earrings on their pet morays, and I wondered what this one would look like similarly appointed.

At another point I noticed a dark shape moving ominously in my direction. The word “shark” jolted me out of my reverie. Yet this shark seemed to be moving along the surface, slowly, almost painfully. I thought “sick shark” and felt somewhat less apprehensive. I felt even less apprehensive when I lifted my head out of the water and saw that the dark shape was a dugout.

I waved.

The man in the canoe waved.

Then he went back to paddling his ancient craft, I to my study of parrotfish and anemones, and the next time I looked up, he was a distant dot.

Meanwhile, the sea had turned a deep turquoise, the color of – dare I say it – paradise.


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