Thursday, July 29, 2010

Banana Pancakes in a Banana Republic

Our third day in Roatán found us back at the Beach House for breakfast. I had banana pancakes, freshly squeezed juice, and coffee against the backdrop of sparkling Caribbean waters. It seemed like a Caribbean breakfast to me... after all bananas grow in Honduras...right? So on my return I decided to look up the origin of banana pancakes and see what I could find out. I still don't know who whipped up that first batch of fruity hotcakes... What I did find out, however, is a tangent for sure, but very interesting indeed.
In South East Asia The Banana Pancake Trail is a euphemism for the routes and places that are most visited by western tourists. This is due to the mark that travelers have left on local restaurants and hotels that now serve this common Western breakfast dish. While my travels have been exclusively in North and Central America... This got me thinking...Am I just some Lonely Planeteer who is changing the faces of the places I travel with my hunger for starchy, overly sweet breakfast foods?
Travelers have been changing the face of the Bay Islands since Columbus's voyage there in the early 1500s...once upon a time, when the Spanish wiped out the entire indigenous population with small pox and the measles. Since then Roatán has been occupied by military forces as they grabbed for colonies and political power... It has been a hide out for pirates... an outpost for escaped slaves... and a banana republic where fruit traders ruled. In comparison my lust for fruity pancakes seems a pittance. Tourism is after all only the most recent in a string of economic endeavors that has altered the culture completely.
Today tourism is what the economy of Roatán is built on and what the culture revolves around. I'm sure that there are worse ways to make a living than giving cruise ship patrons an afternoon massage or being a dive instructor for American and European college students... but tourism is a tricky business. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch brought it to it's knees, recent political uprisings have also caused travelers some alarm and the simple lack of infrastructure is a barrier to travelers. I wish them all the luck though. It is a beautiful country with a lot to offer. Hopefully the banana pancake trail of Honduras won't be paved with banana peels... It could be a slippery slope indeed.
For my part I spent my last day on the island doing what travelers do. I ate, relaxed in a hammock, bought souvenirs from the locals, got a massage, rented snorkeling equipment... and spent as much money as I possibly could... Oh and I ate every last bite of those delicious banana pancakes.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sea Life and Seafood....

On our second day in Honduras we woke up early. The combination of no daylight savings and being closer to the equator bent time a bit, and as a result we had to force ourselves to catch a little more sleep before breakfast. When we decided that a decent hour had finally been reached we headed out for breakfast and got our first real view of the Half Moon Bay (other than the view from the taxi cab). We had a hearty and wonderful breakfast at a place called The Beach House. Our breakfast consisted of eggs, beans, avocado, sour cream and handmade tortillas with fresh squeezed juice and strong Honduran coffee. After breakfast we headed back to our hotel to change into our suits and take that first plunge into the ocean and catch a glimpse of the reef.
We borrowed snorkels, masks and fins from the hotel, walked a few feet from our cabin door, and stepped into a whole new world. A world of colorful fish and coral. A world that swims in shoals and breathes with gills. It was breathtaking and a little scary. I'm a novice at snorkeling, my only experience being the San Marcos River, but I still managed a few good swims and the sea life I saw on my excursions was worthy of any IMAX flick: Damsel fish, parrot fish, needle fish, and conch... the next night I even saw a lobster and an eel. Too many fish to name. The variety and colors of the fish were amazing. After a long swim I found myself getting a little hungry... sure I had eaten a hearty breakfast, but I couldn't help but wonder... What does all this beautiful sea life taste like? Do parrot fish taste like parrots, do damsel fish taste like damsels, and what about conch?
The seafood on the island wasn't bad... it just wasn't great. I was hoping for a catch of the day that I had never caught anywhere else before or an exciting preparation that I hadn't experienced. What I found, however, were shrimp dishes that I could have experienced anywhere... and a surprising lack of interesting fish to taste.
I had an excellent meal at an Argentinian restaurant... but what made the meal wasn't the shrimp dish, but the bread sticks and the interesting side dishes. Paul's meal was somewhat more exotic... he had wahoo steak cooked on a traditional Argentinian grill with a pear sauce that was very nice. This was by far one of the best meals on the island... but the preparations were Argentinian and not Honduran.
For lunch another day we returned to the beach house. I had shrimp was a tasty meal but once again it was Cajun and NOT Caribbean. The only local specialty that I had in Roatan was conch balls...We had them our first night there at the hotel restaurant. Sadly they were over-cooked in oil that should have been changed long ago. They tasted like fishy, chewy hush puppies.
When we have vacationed on the beaches of Mexico what I experienced was a celebration of food. On one vacation Paul and I slept on hammocks under a palapa. We basically had the same meal for lunch and dinner the entire time that we were there: whole huachinango (red snapper) fried with garlic sauce. You would have thought that the repetition would have made it boring... but that wasn't the case. It was just so good that there didn't need to be anything else to eat. On another trip to beaches of Mexico I experienced similar seafood fiestas... a botanas bar that served tiny crabs, ceviche and other tasty tid bits... and an incredible seafood market with fresh beautiful seafood we could take back to our hotel kitchenette and grill. I guess I was longing for something like that on the beaches of Honduras.
I was expecting to find a variety of seafood in the local restaurants. I wanted to be blown away... and I certainly was by the beauty of the marine life. I was not, however, blown away by the taste. Most of the dishes I had were over-salted and served in a creamy garlicky sauce that wasn't unpleasant, but it wasn't outstanding either. Perhaps if I had explored the island more I might have found the perfect market or an outstanding meal... maybe next time. One things for certain, however, I will never forget floating over the reef and looking at all that beautiful life in the deep blue sea...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Getting There...

We left my sister-in-law's house at 6am on June 29th and headed for the Houston airport to catch our flight to Honduras. The travel gods must have been smiling on us because everything that day was timed perfectly. When the airplane took off I felt weightless. All the stress of planning was finally over... I knew I'd miss the kids, but I was ready for the ease of travel without little ones in tow.

We arrived in San Pedro Sula a little late due to a tropical storm in the Gulf... We rushed to a taxi and headed for the bus station. We made it with only two minutes to spare. The bus was not exactly primera class... but it was "mas o menos" direct. It was a windows down (or permanently sealed shut), broken seated kind of bus... loud, smelly and bumpy. Due to our rushed arrival at the bus station I had to pee for the first hour I was on the bus... I was hot, grumpy, teary eyed, and slightly overwhelmed, but after that first stop I was ready to take in the sights, sounds and SMELLS of Honduras.

The countryside was beautiful, and if it had been sterilized (like it was later in the trip) by the clean, air conditioned interior of a primera class ride, I might have had a more picturesque view of Honduras. It was tropical and lush with interesting people and things to look at. Cars, trucks, motorcycles and horses traveled down the same narrow highways... women washed laundry in the streams... farmers hacked at the jungle with machetes. Except for the litter it was truly beautiful. What made it totally real, however, was not the view... for that was only a part of the picture. That part of the picture could be viewed from travel pamphlets and glossy magazine spreads. What really made it real was the sounds and the smells. The sound of honking buses, blaring music, people talking and laughing... The smell of roasting meats and tropical flowers, livestock and burning garbage, disinfectants and rotting vegetables. Put it all together and you have Honduras!

We made it to La Ceiba at 4:15... the last ferry to Roatan was leaving at 4:30. Once again we made it with only minutes to spare. At the time I was starving (my last meal had been on the air plane that morning) but thankfully my stomach was empty for the ferry ride to the island. It took all my concentration to keep the sea sickness at bay... but I made it... sweaty palms griping an empty plastic bag... safe to dry land.

We took a 20 minute taxi ride to the hotel on half moon bay, checked in, shrugged off our travel cloths and took a cool shower. After that the vacation part began. A couple of cold beers and a decent meal. Paul had the blackened fish and I had a shrimp in cream sauce. They were both served with a salad and a Caribbean-style rice dish. We also had what was supose to be a local specialty, Conch balls. They were cooked in overused oil and just tasted like fishy hush puppies. Overall, however, it was a pretty good meal.

After dinner we took a relaxing stroll into town. We were ready for anything... it had been a good day.


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