|We awoke to Honduras. One view, bright and clean and modern:
Now let's look to the left:
This was Dolphin Day.
Ah, dolphins. Smarter than us! More attuned to the purity of the wet blue world! If their mouths turned down and their browns were furrowed, we’d regard them with wary suspicion. But they’re happy and sweet and make Flipper-noises and so we love them.
“Dolphins are jerks,” I told my daughter before we went on the Dolphin Adventure. “They’re sarcastic.”
“They are so not.”
Perhaps. This is a father’s role, you understand: now and then you tell patent untruths just to have sport. Besides, maybe dolphins are jerks. We’d find out: this was a close-up $49-per-person encounter. We docked at Roatan, a tiny parenthesis of capitalism off Honduras. When we got off the boat everyone smelled money - unlike the sad earnest Hawkatorium of Guatemala, the island had a Disneyfied plaza with a Fat Tuesday- blaring “Thriller” at 9:20 AM, NO THANK YOU, a chairlift to the private cruise-only beach, and a hundred semiotic clues that signified SAFE and WESTERN. I was pleased beyond measure to see this sign:
“I know that typeface,” I said. No one cared. “It’s DearJoe,” I said. No one cared. There are few things so frustrating: to know what the font is, to know it in your gut, and no one cares. Gah.
SO TAKE THIS
We queued, took the bus, and bounced off along a road that wound up into the hills past a long variegated array of brick and paint, but this place didn’t have the hard-bone poverty of other locales. (And yes, I am an expert on these things now.) You had the sense of the spores of capitalism alight on the prevailing winds, falling on this place, and finding earnest purchase. The resort was clean, professional, well-maintained; served the scuba crowd. Got the same feel as the touristy area: money here, lots of it. An expat American who bore a significant resemblance to the helicopter pilot on “Lost” ferried us across the water to the dolphin preserve; I found myself next to a Brit, and asked where he was from.
“London,” he said. I said I had heard of it and he said many people had. I asked what he did, and he said he was a chartered accountant.
Now. You can’t carry around Monty Python in your head for 30 years and not have a reaction to meeting a bonafide Chartered Accountant, but I couldn’t well sing the Accountancy Shanty, could I? So you grab for the filedrawer in your head that says LONDON and rummage through the cards. Something, find something. Do you work in the City? A good opening remark, but he is likely to interpret City in lowercase terms, and think you mean London, as a city. He said he did not, and was glad, because getting into London was logistically complicated now and then because of traffic. Ah! Go for the specific political reference to change the terms of the conversation: “Really? I thought Red Ken’s congestion pricing made it easier to get in. Or not. How is that working out?”
He paused, because I had just mentioned a specific transportation initiative for his city and used the sobriquet for the Mayor, which meant I had used “City” in the actual sense, so I was not completely unaware of things, but any sensible man might conclude I had just spent the entirety of my knowledge by parroting back glib summations of an article I read in an Economist left in the airplane seatback pocket.
“Do you know London?” said the chartered accountant. See your bet and raise.
“No, no. Only from words and pictures. But the one thing -” the small boat with 20 white people in the middle of a bay in the Caribbean hit a wave and bounced and we all rose in our seats - “the one thing I agree with your Prince about is the quality of architecture in London.”
At this point I became informed that the other pale bespectacled fellow in the boat with a British accent was his friend, because he leaned over and said “The Gherkin.”
“Yes, the Gherkin,” I said. We all nodded. I rummaged through the cards; there was one left. “I like Canary Wharf, though.”
They said nothing about this, so apparently I really put my foot in my mouth, and it’s generally regarded as crap.
The boat docked. We got out and padded onto a spit of terrain:
We changed clothes - in this demographic, something best described as the Panorama of Alarming Dermatological Anomalies - and entered the water in groups of six. The water was cool enough, and every man jack had his moment of goolie-slap that lifted him tiptoe. When we were all standing up to the bottom of our ribcages we met a smart bright cheerful lass from America who had the best job in the world: being in her twenties and floating in the water and training dolphins. Her charge today was named Ken.
What did we get? We got to touch dolphins, which sounds wonderfully spiritual, no? It’s an aesthetic pleasure, because they’re smooth and sleek - but also happy and compliant. Some animals go through the motions to get the treats, and of course that’s the motivation with dolphins, but it seem a bit more complex. As with dogs, you sense a middle ground of understanding neither you nor the beast can grasp. but it works for us, so let’s go with it. Ken certainly seemed to have fun:
Annnnd we all got the obligatory "kiss," where the dophin presses his snout against you not out of affection, but as part of a sequence that ends with positive reinforcement and possibly a fresh, blood-filled fish to eat:
One member of our party was an old guy of Gollum build with a Jersey grin; he’d waded out in the cold water with a hard look, but the moment he laid his mitts on Flipper he was transformed. The trainer bade him to step forward and feel Ken’s heart; Ken revolved in the water and the man placed his palm on the dolphin’s breast.
It’s a wonderful thing to see a man in his seventh decade smile with an experience that’s utterly new.
There’s always something new, isn’t there?
When it was done we went back to the resort, where pictures were available and cleverly priced. Ten dollars for a small picture, $15 for a large one, forty for every pictures on CD. I was standing next to a fellow I knew from the cigar bar; he ran six hospitals in the South, big guy, big grin, big cigar, dead-smart from the git-go and funny. He noted that the margins on this product were incredible: five-cent CDs, reusable memory cards, a pricing structure that steers you to the CDs instead of the print. I agreed - it’s amazing how the spores of enterprise fell on this rock and built a place people want to inhabit and occupy. Unlike most of the ports of call the island had a large population of African-origin citizens; according to the ship’s newsletter, a contingent of slaves was parked here for a while, and when the slavers came back to get them they said NO and rebelled.
On the way back I had a brief chat with a couple across the aisle. They’d come here 37 years ago. Came in on a DC-3. Landed in the beach. They were grey now, and decided against renting a car. Downtown was just too dense. Too much had changed. That was about all they had to say about anything.
We had four hours before High Tea on the ship, so after getting lunch by the pool on the vessel we went back to Dear Joe Font Area, heading into the beach area. I suspect this is a joint effort between the cruise lines and, oh, Diamond International or other companies. It’s brilliantly done: perfectly landscaped with a hint of castaway romance, pristine sand, big rustic bars rough enough to seem like authentic colorful local authentic color. Natalie spent time in the shallow trying to catch fish. I had a local beer and watched the cruise-ship patrons. Interesting: my ship is mostly middle-aged people who may or may not leave the boat, and old-aged people who mostly won’t but sometimes do. The other enormous vessel in port had a big block of rooms booked by Olivia, a cruise-packager for Lesbians, and this made a lot of people on my ship wonder why there were so many middle-aged women walking around in sandals, holding hands. I have no idea if the people who run the port and the mall and the beach area make adjustments for particular demographics, but I will tell you this: wife & child took the chairlift from the beach, and I walked. I beat them back to the mall area with the Fat Tuesday, and wandered over because there was such a joyous racket coming from the bar. The bartenderesses had climbed up on the bar to bump & grind with the patrons who had the knees and nerve to hop up and dance. I have seen a few things on this voyage, but in terms of sheer whooping delight, nothing came close to that happy abandon.
Back on the ship. Back out to sea. Next stop: Mexico!
I don't remember the name, which I'm sure would thrill their tourist department. It's an odd stop, proof of the build-it-and-they-will-dock theory: an immense pier had been constructed to attract ships, along with the obligatory shopping mall:
Once you got beyond the shopping area, things changed. Fast. As we drove out of the complex, we saw a few new attractions aimed at the well-heeled, then shabbier stores, then a disheartening large ghost town. They'd apparently anticipated that people would buy time-share condos or small homes, and they'd laid out street after street, radiating from the main boulevard. Nothing was built. Streets, curbs, lights, streetsigns - but no houses, just hungry jungle. The bus took a highway north to our snorkeling destination, and we got another tour of non-tourista Mexico.
Greenery by the road, dead scrub beyond. It seemed uninhabitable - the branches bristled like a bleached field of rose-bush thorns. There were stores and homes in various states of decreptitude, and once we neared the coast we saw the damage wrought by the last hurricane. Nice houses with the bottom floor blown out: for sale! New houses waiting to be destroyed by the next hurricane, bars on all the window. A few shacks for fishermen. It feels like it's very far away from civilization - and then you see a realtor's sign with a cellphone number, next to a box of corrugated metal with two toddlers outside. Eventually we pulled up at the snorkeling place. Next door - if you can use such a phrase here - was another abandoned house, SE VENDE:
The view's nice.
So there I sat and read "I, Claudius" while my daughter played in the sea and made sand castles.
The trick in life, I think, is to figure out a way to do this sort of thing a lot. However you can manage it. You can define "a lot" as you please - for me it's been "not enough, no, not at all," since it's been almost ten years since I spent time on a beach in the Caribbean, looking out at the tripartite pleasures of sand, water, and sky. I always tell myself I should travel more, because I take entirely too much pleasure in my pathetic routines, and always reach a point on these trips where I'm far away from routine and bother and care as I can get. It's a wonderful moment, and I reached it right here on this beach.
Then I got up and walked down to the water to see my daughter, and saw the broken bottom of a big glass bottle glinting up in the sand. There's a lesson here: once you find a place where you're happy, don't move a muscle. Lie perfectly still.
Back on the rattling transport - the wind whipping through the open frame could best be described as "exfoliating" - and back on the ship. We did not linger in the shopping area, because we had enough T shirts. I went to tea and triva with my daughter.
(My wife went back out and bought some T shirts.)