by Natanya Pearlman

You never know at what point in a journey something will make an impression on you. This particular afternoon in Honduras, the afternoon that things started to look a little different to me, we were in a van bumping along a dirt road, following the edge of the Caribbean out to a tiny Garífuna village named Miami. A few nights earlier, I’d had my first exposure to the Garífuna culture. Sitting on the hard cement ground of the Copán Ruinas town square, I had watched as a Garífuna dance troupe performed their traditional song and dance, called punta, providing an incongruent yet dynamic finale to a Mayan archaeology conference. After I’d spent three days learning about the Mayan Indians, a somewhat shy people, out roared the Garífuna—the women big-hipped and large-bosomed, the men taut and muscular, all moving together in a breathtaking display of sensuous rhythmic prowess, beating drums, pounding feet, swiveling hips, loud and passionate and vibrant.

The Garífuna culture is a hybrid one—Caribbean in its fishing practices, and African in its oral traditions, dance, and music, with a language that combines Arawak, French, Yoruba, Bantu, Swahili, English, and Spanish. The Garífuna’s origins date back to 1635 when an English slave ship wrecked off the coast of St. Vincent, and, resisting slavery, the Africans on board began a new life with the local Arawak Indians. Generations later, the entrenched English shipped the Garífuna to the island of Roatÿn, off the coast of Honduras. But Roatÿn, the Garífuna discovered, was no paradise—it had no potable water or arable land—and soon most migrated to the Central American mainland, establishing fishing villages along the coasts of Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

Miami was one of those fishing villages—one that now exists along the shores of the Jeanette Kawas National Park. We were heading out there following a morning of visiting botanical gardens, and a long, lazy lunch on the beach of another Garífuna community, Triunfo de la Cruz. After three days at an academic conference, and battles with a weak stomach that had left me in a food-deprived haze, I was finally starting to feel like myself again—up for anything, ready to take in the new sights and sounds around me. I was also slowly becoming cognizant of the tension within many of the Garífuna villages—between sustaining their authentic way of life, and the eroding influence of tourism and the modern world.

Rap music blared from a small hut as we pulled over to see a sea turtle on our way out of Triunfo. The turtle was upside down on a wooden table, its legs jerking spasmodically as a man hacked it with a machete. “It’s dead,” he told us, as we stepped out of the van to gape. Sea turtles are an endangered species, but catching them for food has long been part of the Garífuna culture, which is itself at risk. I took a picture of the man and the turtle, which I immediately half-regretted, and when I got back into the vehicle, my shirt and shorts were spattered red with turtle gore.

Back on the road, it became clear that the drive out to Miami was going to take a while—much longer than everyone had thought it would. Although we had all fit into the van, it was a tight squeeze, and two people had to sit in the very back, where, with no shock absorber, the bumping from the uneven dirt road was the worst. So, people were uncomfortable, but cheerful, and it was in this way that the ride progressed—passively, but with everyone happy to see whatever there was to see.

And it was during this period, when the ride out to Miami was getting longer and longer, and the people in the back were getting more and more uncomfortable, that the coconut trees appeared. Or, that I started to notice the coconut trees. For suddenly, it seemed, we were surrounded by them. During lunch a few had dotted the beach, but now they were everywhere—as far up the coast as the eye could see, and flanking every side of the van. But these were not normal coconut trees, with long, buoyant fronds and clustered, round brown coconuts. These coconut trees began as elegant, sleek stalks that rose up into the sky, but then they abruptly ended, their tops dramatically severed. It was as if someone had taken an axe and lopped off the heads of every single tree. At first we talked about it—hey, look at the strange coconut trees, the diseased coconut trees, the dead coconut trees. But then, eventually, we all became quiet. It was as if the sight of the topless trees, beautiful in an eerie, tragic way, was just too much. Eli, our guide, said that they didn’t know what had caused the disease that had struck the trees five years earlier, but that it was a problem because these coastal villages didn’t have much, but they did have coconut trees. Coconut oil for cooking, and coconut meat for eating, and the long green and brown fronds for building. But now all the coconut trees were dying, and all we could do was bump along in our van, looking out the windows, quiet and somber and contemplative.

Miami coconut trees

Miami coconut trees

It was at this point that something else started to enter my vision. In addition to the dead coconut trees, I realized that we were following the bluest, most beautiful water, and the whitest, purest sand, and that for miles and miles now it had been just us in the van, the long stalks of the coconut trees, and this coastline. And even though I knew that we were in a national park, and that I shouldn’t be surprised by the pristine and rugged beauty around us, I was. In this world of Everything Developed Everywhere, here we were, on the Caribbean, and there wasn’t a resort or hotel or bar or even surfboard in sight. With the exception of the coconut trees, the view outside the van’s windows mirrored every postcard of tropical paradise—every dreamy beach cliché that, once witnessed firsthand, disappoints. Only this didn’t. And as I was starting to feel this, this awe, we arrived in Miami. And Miami was…

“It’s like Africa,” someone said. It’s like the Blue Lagoon meets Bolinas, I thought. Here on a spit of sand, slipped between the Caribbean Sea, and the Los Micos Lagoon, existed a village of 350 Garífuna, who were still living and fishing as they must have two hundred years earlier. The spit was lined with simple huts, canoes peeking from every crevice. Brown pelicans glided over the lagoon, and hundreds of black cormorants and white egrets clustered above dense mangroves. Riding by on a horse, two young boys flashed giant smiles.

And it was here, in this moment, as I stood barefoot in the sand, taking in Miami, that I fully opened—that my pores and senses and brain and heart and soul cracked as wide as possible, and that finally I was fully in Honduras, every single part of me. If this place existed, I thought, and these people lived here, then the world was full of so much more wonder and pure, astonishing beauty than usually seemed possible. And looking around, I realized—I don’t know how or why this is so, but I swear it is absolutely true—in Miami the coconut trees were still alive.

About Natanya Pearlman:
Natanya Pearlman is freelance writer and editor living in Berkeley, CA. She is the coeditor of Travelers’ Tales Central America.