Buns and Guns

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View from the porch – mountains in the distance

I’m sitting at my computer desk staring at the clouds forming over the peaks of mountains on the mainland. As I write, Karl and his buddy Tom are hiking up Rio Bonito, a river tucked within the mountain range known as Nombre de Dios. Part of this mountain range is within the boundaries of Pico Bonito National Park – an area that likely looked exactly the same thousands of years ago. It is an ancient relic of a past world, and you feel that sense of timelessness when you gaze up at five-story boulders that have shaped the landscape. Pico Bonito Park is the only place I’ve ever been where, if I choose the right river, I can go weeks without seeing another human being. The low tourist numbers in this area is one of the few perks of living in one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

In our several hikes together, Karl and I have only ever run into people on two occasions.  The first time was during a trip back in March 2011. We were resting in our tent after an exhausting day of hiking (I’m already diluting the truth here – we mostly swam up river. I, for one, was just fine with this as I had managed to leak a spray-can of mace all over my pants in the first several hours of the trip). As we were dozing, we heard some shouting in the distance. The hair on my neck became erect with anxiety as I thought about my empty mace can that had been used to set my crotch on fire instead of the purpose it was intended for: defense against potentially ill-willed camp visitors. Upon sticking my head out of our tent flap, my eyes beheld a group of elderly men swiftly dashing up the river rocks in their underwear. Wet cotton undies were approaching at an alarmingly quick rate.

One of the many rivers in Pico Bonito National Park

One of the many rivers in Pico Bonito National Park

The underwear clan, however, turned out to be completely innocuous: these knicker-wearing, night-fishing, barefoot extraordinaires had managed to trek up the river in a couple of hours (it had taken us two days). They were equipped with waterproof headlamps and handmade spears, ready to bring home the catch of the day to their families. Always inquisitive, Karl asked what few questions he could with his limited Spanish vocabulary, and they disappeared as quickly as they had come.

Oh, to be in nature!  To witness the modern man hunting and gathering! We were reveling in the simple life, already planning where we would hike next. In our carefree state, we decided it was a grand idea to explore a property that overlooked the river. There was no guard to be seen, and we walked through what seemed to be an enormous party deck, complete with an ornate pool and expensive sound-system. Hundreds of guests could have comfortably fit on this expansive veranda. A half-finished house was located beyond the party deck with no sign of workers. It was a weekday, and there was plenty of construction materials strewn about. Why would anyone leave this property unattended?

Valley near Pico Bonito

Valley near Pico Bonito

 

We should have turned around once we saw the ostriches. But we kept going – past the African Zebu cows, brass horse and cow statues, empty cow pens, and the freshly painted fence line. This was no farm – this was narco country. Suddenly, a hispanic man wearing a cowboy hat appeared on the road driving a truck with blacked-out windows. He gestured for us to get in the car, and we obliged not knowing how to react. As I opened the front door, he was kind enough to remove his pistol from the passenger seat before I sat down. He didn’t speak a lick of English, and we sure as hell didn’t want to accidentally say the wrong thing in Spanish. I did, however, understand the word “jefe” – the Spanish word for “boss”.

We were dropped off at what appeared to be the gang’s meeting area – a concrete slab underneath a corrugated tin roof with one enormous piece of polished wood for a “picnic table”. The men milling about had beautifully decorated machetes and different colored blackberries attached to their hips. There seemed to be a dress code of boots and metro-fitting, long-sleeved, collared shirts tucked into tight jeans. It was an unnatural scene. The only gentleman who spoke English was a lawyer from Panama, who quickly got us on the phone with the jefe.

At this point, I wasn’t scared – ignorance truly was bliss. My cumulative experience with “danger” had occurred during my childhood in Africa: crocodiles, thirst, giardia, incessant harassment from men, dirty water, and petty thievery were my associations with “dangers” in third world countries. But knowing too much? Seeing too much? That didn’t seem dangerous to me. But it was – and I was foolish to think otherwise. There’s no doubt in both of our minds that most men in that meeting area had killed a few people. Luckily, Karl nailed the “innocent gringo who just wants to rent out your party deck for my birthday” shpeal, and the narco-traffickers were kind enough to drop us off at our next river.

Karl likes to say that some people pay for that kind of adrenaline rush. I am not one of those people. At least in Roatán, we are mostly spared from the narco-trafficking operations that are pervasive on the Mainland. Despite the recent whirl of media condemnations, Roatán isn’t so bad – as long as you mind your own business.

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Soufriere in Dominica, one of the islands we visited last summer. Less than 50 feet offshore lies a straight drop-off to the abyss. We loved Dominica, but found the tourism industry too stagnant and the expat community woefully small.

Last summer, Karl and I spent some time looking at other locations in the Caribbean to move, but we failed to find a place that held the same charm and beauty of Roatán. Plus, our options were fairly limited: there are not many locations in the world that meet the requirements for Karl’s dive operation.

Deep water close to shore is the number one priority.  If Karl is unable to reach deep water less than a mile offshore, he must enlist the help of a support vessel to transport the sub to dive sites – an extremely expensive and inconvenient operation. Another factor is development. Potential locations must have an infrastructure that supports a (growing) tourism industry. A balance of daily international flights and cruise ships is ideal. Additionally, international shipments must be timely and reliable as the submersible undergoes fairly routine maintenance that requires specialty parts from abroad. Lastly, government regulations must be lax enough to allow for an uncertified submersible to operate commercially. If Karl ever wanted to move his business to the U.S., for example, he would need to have the whole sub certified and buy insurance, the latter of which would easily supersede his yearly income.

All this to say: Roatán just has the perfect combination of factors to make this submersible operation possible. On top of that, Stanley Submarines is a one-man show, so it’s direction and purpose can be shifted and molded with ease. The flexibility within Karl’s operation allows us to dive as much and for as long as we like. This is crucial for videography, as encounters with animals are infrequent and require hours of patience. We’re looking forward to getting back into the water next week to start shooting smoother and more focused footage!

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~ by twonakedapes on April 29, 2013.

4 Responses to “Buns and Guns”

  1. A great and fun read. Very descriptive so I was imagining it all within my minds eye. Keep them coming. You are a wonderful writer.

  2. Great story A! Was jealous at your adventure but perhaps it’s better to read from the safety of an armchair!
    Thanks

  3. shoulda called me up, i woulda come through with the philly goon squad YOU ALREADY KNOW

    good stuff, girl.

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