Author’s Note: This essay describes an April 2010 trip to the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in the Moskitia wild region of northeastern Honduras, subject of Paul Theroux’s “Mosquito Coast”, once a land of uninterrupted rain forests, pine savannas, tropical rivers, and lagoons. I lived in the village of Las Marías for a year, a transformative time that changed my life and how I look at the world and at myself. The letter is addressed to a friend who is a nationally recognized writer, and a person that members of the trip had been trying to convince to go along.
David Anderson, 10 May 2010
I have but a few minutes to reflect on our recent trip to the Río Plátano headwaters. We all wish you had come on what was indeed the trip of a lifetime. James and I talked many times about how you could have written the trip, and as we floated down the waters or rested in camp we wondered each day about why you didn’t come. The only thought we had was that you doubted you could conjure a publishable story from such a journey – what would you write about, and could you make the trip financially viable? How do you sell a trip down the Plátano? What’s the literary and financial potential? Let me try and reveal a few ideas, and attempt to explain what this journey really meant.
First of all, we know you said that you don’t care for rafting, but this was anything but a raft trip. This expedition, journey, voyage, was the trip of a lifetime, an experience through time, a meandering in the soul. It could only be a raft trip to a person who sees the Grand Canyon as merely a canyon, to someone who lacks connection with emotion, or grandeur, or peril, or sheer wonderment at the heart of the world. Rafts were a means to travel, and a cornerstone of the experience, a daily flavor in the taste of it all, but this was not a float down rapids.
Each day took us on a travel through time, starting with a back-breaking, break-neck truck ride across northern Honduras to Bonanza, a village beyond lights, almost beyond roads, accentuated at night by a million stars, cloud forest breezes wafting over pastures and our mud house, the smell of coffee beans toasting on a fire and their grinding in a hand mill, and the silence one gets on the edge of a forest.
Our second day we hiked up and down mountains through mud and forests, slogging toward the river, keeping an eye out for White-ruffed Manakins and listening for the piercing call of Three-wattled Bellbirds, until we crossed a newly burned and grazed pasture on the shores of the Río Plátano, where 10 years ago the campesinos had been lawfully removed by the government from the buffer zone of the reserve, only to return this month and sew anew the seeds of destruction along the headwaters of this place.
What else did we see on our first days, as we floated into the nucleus of a World Heritage Site? We saw dozens of illegal fisherman camps, lined with scaffolding drying racks for cuyamel, gallows for the last population of an endangered fish. We saw a giant tapir carcass strewn along the river bank, killed by the fisherman whose wasteful slaughter served a banquet to 20 King Vultures, enormous white birds who hung their purple, red, and orange heads over the feast.
We hiked to a limestone cave deep in the rain forest, where we entered through a stream portal to what was once a secret to the outside world filled with hidden artifacts of a lost culture, and found it ransacked.
We passed over hulking shadows of fish darting through occult waters, fleeing the silhouettes of men, hints of a former time slipping away. And one day we entered the mighty Subterraneo, the ultimate rapid, where an entire river plunges under boulders the size of fire stations, where we portaged rafts and gear around the stone gates guarding the last pristine rain forest in Central America. After the strenuous hauling of all the barrels, packs, gear, and rafts over jagged, crystal edged and water slicked rocks, we returned to the water to raft around a bend of the largest, most angular rocks I had ever seen in my life, turned a corner to view a silver waterfall on one side of the river and a purple-flowering tree shining on the opposite shore, and all of us felt the clock turn back 2,000 years in that moment to a place where no people ventured, to where the animals held dominion, and it was in that precise and magical spot that we pulled up to camp.
It was in camps like this that the flavor of the daily journey held sway. One raft pulled into the forest served as dining chairs, and as a bed for our guide Jorge Salaverri. All the delicious food crafted by Salaverri and our Pech Indian guide Humberto was flavored with the smoke of tropical woods and the ardor of the day’s travel. We lived without watches, our days timed from sunrise to sunset, complete in that span, needing no human constructed distractions like jobs or traffic to govern our moving, sleeping, eating. Unseen birds squawked, hooted, shrieked, and whistled all around accompanied by a deafening drone of cicadas. We saw troops of monkeys so unaccustomed to people that they watched us pass with no alarm. We washed off the daily paste of sweat and sunscreen every evening in the untamed waters. Our tents were soaked when it rained, hung to partially dry every evening in a vain battle with an environment unneeding of man and that could have crushed us all had it decided to.
Our final day before we reached the Pech and Miskito Indian village of Las Marías was a long paddle through almost unmoving waters. It was a slog. We paddled hard with a pure desire to get the hell out of the sun and rafts. A few hours before Las Marías we came upon some local Indians in a camp of tarps and smoke, panning for gold in muddy holes along the riverbank, barely surviving in a squalor that would shock most Americans. I recognized the family as that of Melba, one of the Pech matriarchs of Las Marías, and when I ran up the slope to greet her this woman of the forest cried on my shoulder for the joy of seeing me and for the pains of the hard years since we had last met.
How do I describe her? Melba has a face that has been thousands of years in the making, that is nearly black and leathered from all the years in the sun, rain, and smoke, yet with hair as soft as silk and still as black as in her youth, and standing barefoot in the mud and rain she broke down and cried with me. As a welcoming this desperately poor family served coffee (2 parts sugar, 1 part each water and coffee) to all our crew. And we were off again, racing the night to Las Marías.
I always thought of Las Marías as a world forgotten by time. Houses were built along the river where life centered on dugouts, washing, hauling water to houses. Houses were widely spaced and screened by trees left to their will. In any other Honduran village the houses are clustered and all the trees slashed down by people who fear the forest and see no need for nature. The riverbanks of the Plátano were always lined with clean gravel, and the waters ran clear, perfect for splashing and relaxing.
No more. A few years ago the most massive flood in a lifetime nearly destroyed the village, sparking fear in the locals. Houses were moved back a hundred yards from the river, the forest between them nearly gone, the once clean river banks oozing mud and goo. But the people were there, and just like you or I ten years has changed them. The children I remembered had their own. The parents were grandparents. The ancient ones were gone. At every house I visited I received embraces and more coffee. In a place where people can’t even afford shoes, coffee is the ultimate gift, practically the only luxury, an expense that is hard to bear, and shared freely with friends. It would be like giving furniture and jewelry to friends in America every time they came to visit. I drank enough coffee in one day to last a week. I couldn’t have carried an equal serving of jewelry. One of the hardest visits was to my old friend Abraham.
This man was one of the first Miskito pioneers to move to Las Marías from the coast and marry a young Pech bride, to raise a family in the wilderness amongst the Pech. He was once one of the strongest men on the whole river, and even though he was elderly when I met him in 1993, the power in his oar strokes was second to none, his extensive knowledge of the river only subtly displayed by this modest man. This day he lay unconscious in bed, racked by a stroke, breathing heavily on his side, frail, his mighty soul hanging onto his bony shoulders and hips. His son Julio was there to care for him, Julio who also possessed some of his father’s strength and his art for making dugouts from ancient mahogany trees, was now reduced to a cripple from a diving accident. So many men from this region chase money in the form of lobster, diving to great depths without any training in scuba, to satiate the palates of diners in Red Lobster and other chains. And so many men find God in those waters, not knowing the dangers or how to avoid them. Julio spent 22 days in a decompression chamber after his accident. He lived, but he’ll never work the forest again or spear another fish, and now he cares for his father. I remember more than anything his soft voice trying to roust Abraham, trying to tell him that David had come to visit. “Papá, Papá.” It was gentle, loving, pleading. A call to one who was not hearing, from another who didn’t know the illness, only his undying love for a dying man. “Papá, Papá.” Abraham slumbered on. I returned the next morning at sunrise, the time each day that Abraham wakes for a few hours, when sometimes he recognizes his neighbors from a distance, and other days not even his family. I waited for the morning changing, and entered the room. There sat the man, propped against his Pech bride, his eyes shining with the memory of my face. “David. Es David.” (“David, it’s you.”) He held my arm, and I his. I was never able to speak, not over the memories, not through the present, nor toward the future.
On the final day we dumped rafts, gear, and burnt rafters into massive 30-foot dugouts for a final, outboard-powered trip to the coast. Again I was seeing a changed river. The flood that had nearly erased Las Marías had cut through all the meanders and oxbows typical of a lazy tropical river and left a channel. What was once an 8-hour trip to the lagoons was cut in half. But that matters little. We also saw ladinos, Hispanic land invaders, along the river. In the front of one dugout sat a man with a rifle laid crossways on the bow. It was a simple message: “I’m here to take your land.” This Biosphere Reserve was proclaimed by the United Nations, ratified by Honduras, and accepted formerly as a World Heritage Site, partly to protect its forests, and partly as a safe harbor for its native peoples. It is being absolutely overrun by an invasion of outlaws who take what they want and kill whoever doesn’t flee fast enough. With a bible in one hand, a machete in the other, and a gun strapped to the hip, they are transforming the forest. They are raping a world heritage, and murdering the native peoples who this reserve was delineated in part to protect.
We passed our final night in the hamlet of Palacios, doorway to Theroux’s Miskito Coast. Once a forgotten backwater with a grassy runway lined by bamboo shacks, Palacios has been converted to ground zero for everything that is evil in the world. Palacios is now the doorway for Colombian cocaine to the North. A few years ago I used to eat fried fish in bamboo shacks with sandy floors, where the greatest danger was the fleas on the mangy dogs. On this day I saw jet skis, motorcycles running the sandy streets between cinder block hotels, and massive boats with twin 200-horsepower engines, every type of equipment needed to run and hide drugs. It seemed every man old enough for a moustache packed a sidearm, one fellow boasting a clip that looked larger than the pistol it armed. The pool hall where we drank our evening beers was lined with posters of undressed women. It was a frolicking orgy of moral, cultural, and environmental devastation. It was the hounds of hell being unleashed on a forgotten paradise. It’s the end of time.
Back in the city of La Ceiba at the luxurious Lodge at Pico Bonito I tried to return to being in a room and on a schedule. Walls? Lights? Why? At the airport I found that my flight reservation to New Orleans had been cancelled. Yes, this happens in Honduras. I booked the last seat on the flight, cash. I couldn’t know what to say to passengers returning from a sunny jaunt to the Caribbean, unchanged but for their tans, unaware of the rampage sweeping over tropical Latin America, travelers whose greatest concern is which celebrity gets eliminated from Dancing with the Stars. Jet liners are time machines in their own right, as much as rafts, only much swifter. Board one of these tunnels in a crumbling terminal in any third world nation, buckle into a reclining foam-covered seat, and after a few hours of flashing lights and metallic voices, you exit into gleaming terminals of people hurrying, bags clutched in their hands. Is this where I’m supposed to take someone in a uniform, wrestle them into a headlock, and shout, “The Plátano is being destroyed, fools!” I wrestle instead with myself. Weeks later I am shopping for rain gear for my new job in the temperate rain forests of Oregon. My rain pants don’t fit quite right. Maybe I can find a better pair. I have two rain jackets, neither of which is really suited for what I’m doing. I wander the aisles and look at price tags of $175, $325, on items to replace what I already own. “Papá, Papá.” I leave with a pair of socks.
Before this trip I believed that the Honduran Moskitia was hanging on by a thread, and that it would be saved by the good intentions of Honduras and other nations. Las Marías for me used to be something like a shiny Christmas tree ornament, a promise of everything that is good in the world, a little symbol of peace and happiness that we take out once a year and display to remind ourselves that good will conquer evil if we only let it. That ornament has been swiped from the tree by a malicious hand that doesn’t respect hope or peace. The thread that used to suspend the Moskitia has been slashed. That gleaming ornament is hurtling toward the floor to be dashed into peaces and trod over by the armies of corruption, greed, and neglect. What we don’t know is whether some hand will be there to catch it at the last moment, and save it before it shatters. Will it be yours?
Postscript – 22 May 2010
Last night I watched Avatar, the movie of the year, a mere story about blue-skinned aliens on a string of bad luck, as much as a virgin rain forest is merely a grove of trees, or perhaps sensational for its portrayal of an innocent people besieged by greed and evil. It’s only a movie, of course, simple fiction, except that the story is real every day in tropical corners the world over like Las Marías, except that there are no heroes and no magic in tropical jungles, only real people with no choices and no escape. The only ones with a choice are we, the privileged. Avatar, a movie, sparks an awareness. Can we direct this awareness and use it to confront the tragedy that is real, the suffering, the wave cresting over the last great places? Las Marías only a few years ago existed beyond the edge of the world and felt like a time out of place, where time itself was measured as yesterday, today, and tomorrow, where sunrise and sunset bookmarked the day, where the pace of life was smooth like a dugout sliding silently over water. Now Las Marías is a place out of time, thrust into the 21st century. How do we esteem time when it is measured in drugs, money, and guns? There is no need for a clock such as that. Midnight has passed. Sleep Abraham.
post-Postscript – 7 October 2015
I just learned that Melba passed away a few weeks ago. I was not there for her. She was the last of the old ones. Las Marías is now completely surrounded by clearcuts that will be turned to pastures, as the destruction of the forests rages unabated.
VISIT THE PLATANO: To see and feel the Río Plátano and Las Marías on film, watch the documentary Paradise in Peril by clicking here. For glimpses of the people and place, take a photo tour by clicking here. Click on individual photos to read the captions.
Call to action
If the loss of one of the world’s great places concerns you, then please share this blog, and please write some of the people listed below. Suggested text is provided in English and Spanish.
Nada Al Nashif, Assistant Director, UNESCO, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Mechtild Rössler, Director of UNESCO World Heritage Centre, M.Rossler@unesco.org
Mr. Misael León Carvajal, Director, Instituto de Conservación Forestal, Honduras, direccionejecutiva@ICF.gob.
Mr. Tulio Mariano Gonzales, Minister of Culture in Honduras, culturaartesydeportes@yahoo.
Mr. Roberto Alejandro Ramirez Aldana, Honduras’ Permanent Delegate to UNESCO, email@example.com
Sra. Hilda Muñoz Tábora, Permanent Secretary – Honduras Commission for Cooperation with UNESCO,
Mr. Mauro Rosi, Chief of Unit, UNESCO Latin America and the Caribbean, M.Rosi@unesco.org
Dr. Jeremy Radachowsky, Wildlife Conservation Society Assistant Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Peter A. Hearne, Mission Disaster and Environmental Officer, USAID Honduras, email@example.com
Estimado [nombre]: La destrucción continua de la Reserva Biósfera del Río Plátano en Honduras es una pérdida para el mundo de la cual no podemos ni debemos ser meros espectadores. Los inocentes indígenas Pech y Miskito de Las Marías son víctimas de persecución y están siendo arrancados de sus tierras ancestrales quitándoles así su futuro. Además, numerosas especies silvestres en peligro de extinción están perdiendo unos de sus últimos relictos en Centro América. Le rogamos que, haciendo uso de todas las atribuciones inherentes a su cargo, nos ayude a salvar este lugar único a nivel mundial.
Dear (name), The ongoing destruction of the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras is a loss to the world that we cannot bear to stand by and watch. The innocent Pech and Miskito Indians of Las Marías are being driven from their lands and left without a future. Critically endangered wildlife are losing a last great stronghold in Central America. We urge you to please act with the utmost powers of your position to save this special place.
Text © David L. Anderson
Photos © as credited.