N 16° 21.61′ W 86° 26.34′
We have been here over three weeks now. (For Steve – we arrived in Roatán the morning of 4/26!) After much debate, we decided that our next stop will be Puerto Morales, Mexico which will be a two-day passage. Last week we passed up a brief weather window with mostly 3 – 4 foot seas thinking we could find something better. Now it looks like we are going to be here for at least another week or two with no calming in sight. More tropical-looking weather continues to show up on the long-range weather models which makes planning a little more exciting.
Bob made another dive trip, this time exploring the popular “Mary’s Place”. He spends most days working on an improved battery management system for the lithium house bank. It is quite the project and we’ll have to get him to post a report at some point. I love being able to get off the boat so frequently, taking long walks with the dogs and swimming at the beautiful beach. There are social opportunities just about every evening, which is quite a change from our many months at anchor where we spent most of the time with no one other than ourselves to talk to. Sometimes I can’t pull Bob away at the end of the night he is having so much fun. The marina has organized special events such as Pizza Night with a fabulous thick crust dish prepared by the restaurant and a pot luck dinner hosted by locals who provided fresh grilled tuna. Many of the women get together for early am yoga sessions. I should broaden my horizons and take advantage of that, but my brief exposure to the practice in the past has not inspired a routine.
Fantasy Island is our little cocoon, surrounded by the sea, appealing grounds, the comfortable resort, fellow cruisers and a handful of vacationers. In our current location we have less direct day-to-day interaction with the local towns than in some of our past destinations. We have been to Coxen Hole, the island’s largest town on a couple of occasions. We go French Harbor, the closest small town at least weekly to provision. We’ve talked with local shopkeepers & workers, heard the perceptions of taxi drivers and ex-patriots who reside on the island. Learning about what life is like for the average person has been a gradual process and an assortment of observations, conversations and internet research. Looking behind the exquisite beauty, there is a very bleak side of life here.
As I’ve mentioned before, crime was a big concern for me in stopping in Honduras. At one point I had thought maybe we should skip even Roatán but that would have required an unappealing 4 to 5 day passage. International news has plentiful stories about the country’s menacing ranking as the “murder capital of the world”. The State Department Travel Warning for Honduras is stern, noting that Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with more than half of the population living in poverty (however that may be defined). It also comments on the significant murder rate while informing that additional policing has been put into place in Roatán to protect the tourist interests here. The next paragraph notes: “A majority of serious crimes are never solved; of the 24 murders committed against U.S. citizens since January 2010, police have closed none . . . The Government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and to deter violent crime.” In 2012, the Peace Corps pulled out all of its volunteers from the country, citing safety reasons. Some Roatanians feel that they were better off in the days before the ferry service, and blame the influx from the mainland for the island’s increasing crime.
The available cruising safety reports (CSI, Noonsite) are not glowing either, with a recommendation to avoid the mainland and exercise caution in the anchorages of the Bay Islands, which includes Roatán, where a recent trend toward violent crime has been observed. In a poor country cruising boaters really stand out, no matter how modest the vessel, and we look very wealthy compared to the masses. It is very different than being in, say, the Bahamas, where there are frequent mega-yacht sightings. On the positive side, we are meeting boaters who have cruised Honduran waters without incident. Bob says I worry too much but I think an extra dose of caution seems well justified. We met a couple from abroad who have lived in Roatán for 7 years and personally knew 6 people who were murdered on the island during that time. That sounds like a huge number for such a small island. In comparison, I can think of one individual I personally knew back home who was murdered in a brutal domestic violence assault.
The island has been on an accelerated track of change over recent years. Once a British territory, the island’s people have a different heritage than mainland Hondurans, with English-speaking Afro-Caribbean and Garifuna roots. The population has increased five fold since the early 1990′s to about 65,000 presently, with significant migration from the Honduras mainland and some from foreign countries including the US. Before 1990 there were no paved roads and most people fished and farmed for subsistence. Tourism developed, funded mostly by foreigners, technology became more important and life transitioned to a wage economy. Cruise ships visit (as many as 50 per month in the winter and as few as 4 per month in the summer) and diving-oriented resorts have multiplied thanks to the area’s phenomenal reefs. With most of the large successful tourist businesses owned by outsiders, locals are in the position of taking lower level jobs. During the slow summer season, many workers are unemployed or have a significant drop in their earning. A typical daily wage is around $18 a day.
The island’s infrastructure has not caught up with current standards and electricity, running water, a safe drinking water supply and sewage treatment are problematic. (We rely on our watermaker for drinking as the dockside water is not potable and stick to canned beverages when dining out.) Healthcare services are limited and the hospital and medical clinics are reportedly often without basic medications. According to one clinic, 50% of the children’s health problems are related to worms and children routinely suffer and even die from preventable diseases. The HIV rate is high, about 220 times that of the US. I was reminded that cases of malaria have been reported here. (We travel with malaria meds aboard and have not had a problem with mosquitos so far – only a few no-see-ums at times.) For serious medical issues, patients are referred to the hospitals in San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa on the mainland, about an hour’s flight away, and not really accessible to the masses. It’s not a pretty picture.
Learning about education here brought more surprises. While education through grade 6 is “mandatory” in Honduras, only 25% of Roatán’s children attend school, and only 50% of those enrolled finish the 6th grade. Very few students continue to middle and secondary schools. Schools sometimes lack intact roofs, functioning toilets & toilet paper and have limited books and supplies, often not enough desks and chairs. The Honduran government allots funds to education and it is mostly appropriated for salaries. Local communities have to provide the rest. Teacher qualifications do not require a university degree. In fact, with a 6th grade education, one can qualify to teach primary school. National teachers unions are said to have a stronghold throughout the country and frequent strikes reduce school days per year. The government reportedly does not always meet its payroll obligations, providing more reason to strike. According to an insightful community study, local school supervisors do not have much authority in day-to-day operations and it is nearly impossible to replace poorly performing teachers. Over 50% of students on Roatán speak English as their primary language, but Spanish is the primary language of the schools. Nearly all of the island’s teachers come from the mainland, speaking little or no English. The vaguely defined literacy rate for the general population is estimated to be somewhere around 50%.
So many of the places we have visited have serious social issues. We saw great poverty in Colombia & Panama, the Dominican Republic and in some of the the Eastern Caribbean islands as well. We have our share of issues back home too. The difference here is that the people have way fewer resources available, less overall wealth and no ties to a stronger “mother country” for aid. The Honduran government is in turmoil, struggling with finances, corruption and political problems and unable to follow through in administering national programs. Local officials seem sincere but complain that their hands are tied in making great strides. They bemoan the sense of complacency and a lack of leadership depth within the community ranks to step up and support change. Improving education seems to be a key to resolving the island’s long-term problems.
Well that was sobering. I’m adding a new project this week, to learn more about efforts being made to improve the situation on Roatán and see if there are ways for visitors to make a contribution.