Roatan, 1972. A lost island in a forgotten time…

 

The main road through Cuprum, 1971.

I wrote nearly four years ago about returning to Cuprum, Idaho (remote as can be, population 4) after an absence of 33 years, “What is it about so much time road-tripping and meeting people of all kinds and then discovering, many years later, a real itch to go back somewhere and see what happened to someone who made a small but memorable difference in your life?” In 1971, when I was first there, I believed there would be no chance of ever returning to such a far-flung spot. But I did go back, in 2004, defying the odds, and was grateful that I did.

Roatan Island, just off the north coast of Honduras, is an altogether different story. After 46 years of not being there, there’s no need or reason to return.

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“Welcome to Roatan. My uncle has a cabin…

… you could stay in,” said the driver of the Jeep that waited at Roatan’s “airport” on the beach. “Let’s see if it’s open for you.” While he was radioing his uncle (this was 1972, long before cell phones), my new wife and I smiled at each other and felt proud that back in Florida we had spun a globe and, eyes closed, planted our fingers on any old place generally in the lower latitudes. We landed on the Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras, largest of which was Roatan, and we had absolutely no intention of making reservations anywhere. Flight from Miami to San Pedro Sula, six-hour bus ride loaded with chickens and goats to La Ceiba on the north coast, a DC-3 trip across the sea some 40 miles (it was my job to keep the cockpit door closed with my foot – the latch didn’t work) to a patch of sand on the beach that masqueraded as an “airport.” (A local chap told us later, “I’ve landed on Roatan hundreds of times and haven’t seen an airport yet!”). So it was back then.

We were off, in the gloaming, across bumpy dirt roads headed for West End and Sandy Bay. There are precious few places on this planet now where you can behave this way — arrive at an airport with no reservation, fly to a foreign country where you discover they’re at war with El Salvador, take a bus with no res, stay in a local hotel in La Ceiba with no res, hop on a chattering rattling DC-3 (vintage!) with no res, and plan to stay on an island for 12 days with no res. Who needs AirBNB when you have impetuous youth bent on adventure… and, it’s 1972?

36 miles long and about 5 miles wide, Roatan is an ancient coral reef, one end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second largest reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). Parts of the island – again, all coral reef – rise to nearly 900 feet. It is now a prime destination for divers and ecotourists.

His uncle’s place was available. When we got there, we met Mr. and Mrs. Paul Ebanks, the owners and nearly the only beachside residents of West End. Gracious, warm people, English speaking, like almost everyone on Roatan. They advised us that the cottage and breakfast and dinner would cost us $2.50 per day per person. There’s electricity, but sorry there’s no running water or bathroom. Did we mind? Nope. A new, sturdy outhouse was visible out back. Fine. ($2.50 a day! What??!!)

 

 

Yours truly at our cabin.

 

 

The cottage, like the Ebanks’ house, was on posts about six feet high. Under their house were their dogs. Under our cottage were the chickens and an exuberant rooster. We climbed the stairs, venturing into a freshly built wood-paneled suite with a new queen-sized bed. Precious, blissful sleep. Right through until the rooster.

 

The Ebanks home on Sandy Bay.

 

 

 

 

 

They addressed each other as Mr. and Mrs. Ebanks, in quaint formal fashion, and so did we. She was a local Honduran, but he (like many on the island) was the descendant of pirates and perhaps felt this distinction earned him an extra measure of formality. She cooked wonderful breakfasts served with cashew juice from their own tree – richly flavorful, with plenty of sugar to take the sting out of it. She strained liquids in the kitchen through a sea fan. Suppers were either a meat or fish dish. Lots of fish, perfectly cooked. With rice and veggies – sumptuous.

A stroll along Sandy Bay, West End.

 

Family with their dugout. Sandy Bay.

 

 

Kid and his boat, Sandy Bay.

 

On Roatan back then, nearly everyone fished – from their dories or dugout canoes. One morning Mr. Ebanks offered to take us out on an expedition. He started the morning wading into the waters off Sandy Bay with a net or seine (I forget which) and bagged several red snapper who had come in to feed. I thought, great, red snapper tonight!, but no, the snapper would become bait for bigger quarry – shark or barracuda. Red snapper as bait!

Hurricane Fifi (Cat 2) hit Roatan in 1974, followed by Mitch (Cat 5) in 1998. Mitch set Honduras’ economy and progress back about 30 years. It hit eastern Roatan very hard, but the West End had less catastrophic damage. Maybe the Ebanks’ home survived – I don’t know.

Cashew fruit in the Ebanks’ back yard. Best juice ever!

 

 

 

 

We headed off to sea in his outboard-driven “dory” – really a fishing skiff – about three or four miles offshore into deeper waters. Bang! A big hit, and for the next several minutes our host hauled in a barracuda about the size of a small greyhound. He boated it and, having plenty for dinner on the hook, cruised back to the beach, whereupon he cut off the tail section of the fish and threw it to his dogs. “Could be pizen,” he said. Great – if the dogs showed no ill effects, neither would we! This poison-testing ritual showed why Mr. Ebanks did not seem especially close to his dogs.

Mrs. and Mr. Paul Ebanks. At right, we’re headed for barracuda, with his friend  (who I just learned is Winnie Cooper) manning the outboard.

The fish, Paul Ebanks, and his club, which he dropped for a second. Dinner!

I remember that the barracuda was among the best fish I’d ever had – tender, flaky, flavorful. Not at all pizen. The dogs awoke in the morning, and so did we (goldang rooster!)

Young girl who agreed to be photographed when we were walking to Coxen Hole (this, and several other photos here, were taken by my wife).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1972 there was but one resort-ish small hotel on the island, handily located near us at West End, and my wife and I rambled up there and treated ourselves to cocktails a couple of times on their deck overlooking a small cove. Actually, aside from a couple of modest establishments in the main town of Coxen Hole, this was the only hotel on the island. Nice.

From the deck of the resort-y hotel, whose name I forget, West End. Threatening weather passing through. (Update from Aaron Etches, owner of Sundowners’ Beach Bar, West End. The pic is from Anthony’s Key Resort, still operating)

Other nights, we headed for Coxen Hole, home to fishermen and farmers, street vendors and Peace Corps workers. We’d sit on the porch of a small tavern and yak for a bit, long enough to learn that the Peace Corps was actually needed on Roatan – for schools, clean water, better sanitation. We connected, became friends for a short time, then moved on. A few times we had supper with Mr. and Mrs. Ebanks, chatting about their lives and family. They did not seem to tire of us, a minor miracle in a small place for 12 days.

Coxen Hole, fishing dock. Fish were (are?) a major industry.

Satellite images and tourism photos of Coxen Hole and the entire island reveal a place that I’m sure I could not have visited in 1972. Could something so simple, so pretty, transform itself into an unrecognizable sprawl?

Paradise, Maybe?

What was remarkable about this jaunt – aside from its studious spontaneity? Not much more than what we anticipated: remoteness, gracious friendly people, a thin scatter of rustic cottages on a sandy beach, isolation and tranquility. Long, satisfying sleeps that denied the rooster’s bellowing. Adventuresome exploratory mornings or a fishing trip with a picnic lunch. Having fun with the locals, trading stories, chasing wild piglets along a trail. Languorous afternoons in the shade with a good book. Not so remarkable, but as close to an ideal twelve-day stay in paradise as anyone could want.

Now, there are daily flights direct to the island from the US and elsewhere. Resorts to pamper the most discriminating travelers. Gourmet this, luxurious that, on and on until Roatan becomes a Caribbean island cliche, offering the same stuff as anyone else. Except, well, the diving/snorkeling may be as good as it can be anywhere.

Where the Ebanks lived, about dead center in this photo among the sprawl of hotels and condos. They may still have family there somewhere…

So the trip and its memories are frozen on Ektachrome slides that you see here, and that’s where they need to stay. If a need for reunion beckons – with an old place, old friends – you need to pick your spots. Like Cuprum, Idaho – it worked. Maybe a few other old haunts, but a very few. It makes far better sense to plod ahead and not muss up the footprints, the frail fabric, of the past.

There you have it.

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My books… come visit!

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.