[ 'Jungle Pool' - Digital Art by BRM ]
My first attempt to travel to Central America in 1965 was blocked by the guerrilla war in Guatemala . We drove to the border at Tapachula from our residence in Mexico City, looking forward to seeing this colorful land of active volcanoes. At the border they told me the whole country was erupting - in war. It did not seem like the right time to take a wife and two young children with me into Guatemala, so we stayed in Mexico.
December 1969 - I finally drive into Guatemala, on my way to the Bay Islands, Honduras. My research had led me to believe that someday the Bay Islands would be a great dive destination, and Honduras was friendly to tourism investors. Guatemala still had a war going on - but daytime travel on major roads was supposed to be safe. The six month soccer war between Honduras and El Salvador was technically over, but El Salvador had closed down the Pan American Highway to Honduras - so we took the scenic route, a mud track through the mountains from Esquipulas, Guatemala, to Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras. Which was great because we got to see the Mayan Ruins before they became a big tourist destination.
On the island of Roatan they were building a couple resorts for sports divers. Things looked promising. Then we met some resort developers from the island of Utila and they offered me a position in their company if I located to that island. So off we went to check out Utila. It looked like paradise - small community, fabulous diving, close to the mainland and it's support facilities. And no resident foreigners - we would be pioneering tourism on Utila.
It took U.S. Secretary of State Rogers 4 months to sign my son's American birth certificate (he was born in Mexico when I was a student there) so I could get him a passport. Six months after our initial visit to Utila - we are back. I realize Mr. Rogers probably had a couple Russian visits and maybe one to the Middle East to take care of first - but couldn't some lesser official take care of something like that?! Referring to the birth certificate - not the matters of State.
Much to our surprise, by the time we got back to Utila, the resort project had fallen apart.. So with no project to jump on, we decided to go it alone. We rented a house and settled in to see what we wanted to do next to get into the 'off-the-beaten-track' tourism. The neighbor, Clifford Woods, turned out to be a very nice guy and we went in with him to open the world famous 'Bucket of Blood' bar. After a few months another opportunity came along. One of the Utilians had been working on a large two story building on the bay with the idea in mind to make the island's first real hotel. He had a problem - every time he managed to finish a room in the building, a relative would move into the room! He had so many relatives that it soon became apparent he would end up housing them all - so he sold the place to me, cheap. Three months later we opened Utila's first tourist hotel - the 'Bahia Lodge' in 1971. We catered to back-packers, sports fishermen, and sports divers. We also handled a lot of student groups with their teachers from Northeastern colleges that wanted field experience in marine biology and archaeology (Utila has Indian burial grounds). Undoubtedly we were the first 'eco-lodge' in Honduras.
It was an exciting and eventful 4 years on Utila, but after awhile I was feeling 'rock happy' (too long in a small place) on the island (4x7 miles). Friends on the coast were convinced I was the man to bring ecotourism to Honduras and offered to finance the start up. So I leased the hotel and moved to La Ceiba to start 'HOST' - Honduras Safari Tours. We offered plantation tours - coffee, cacao (chocolate), pineapple, and of course, banana. We had tours to the Mayan Ruins at Copan, the old Spanish fortress at Omoa, Lancatilla (100 million dollar botanical garden), the local rainforest, and the Islands. The tourist flow to Honduras and the Bay Islands was picking up. The tourists going to the islands came through La Ceiba and we hoped to capitalize on that. Many of them would want more then just a dive experience while visiting Honduras.
Our biggest customer was Lindblad adventure tours. They had a specially built 'exploration' ship, the Lindblad Explorer, that was pioneering ecotourism to the far reaches of the globe (Amazon, Antarctica, etc.). At that time the Western Caribbean was a very new tourist destination, so they contacted me and we gave them what they wanted. Chartered buses and guides to Omoa, native Garifuna dances, DC-3 charters and guides to the Mayan Copan ruins. I also went on the ship to assist with the guided reef tour on Guanaja in the Bay Islands, and a boat tour (Zodiac inflatables) of Caratasca Lagoon on the Nicaragua border. Aboard the ship I also lectured about the history and culture of Honduras, the fauna & flora of the country, the Mayan Classical period, and sports diving. Ron & Valerie Taylor, the film makers from Australia who made 'Blue Water - White Death' and several other movies involving White Sharks, sea snakes, shark suites, etc. were aboard as well and gave lectures on diving too.
Then came Hurricane Fifi in 1974. The hotel on Utila was a shambles and the country was in shambles. With so much of the country's infrastructure destroyed - we could not expect any business for 'Honduras Safari Tours' during the many months needed for re-construction. Before the Hurricane I was buying a few wild animals here and there to sell to an exporter in San Pedro Sula. After the hurricane I went to see if he could use a full time collector - I had a family to feed. As it turned out, I loved the business more then anything I had done yet. I was learning all about the plants and animals in Central America first hand and from the company's extensive library. For the next few years the job of wildlife collecting would take me to the wildest corners of the country and through many exciting adventures.
[ Another Day at the Calpules Zoo - Honduras ]
The animal compound was between San Pedro Sula and the international airport at La Mesa. As word of our operation got around, we became a popular stop on the road. Everyone wanted to see the animals. The owner, Charlie MacGowan (now living on the upper Amazon in Peru), decided to make the animal compound into a paying attraction. Since we were already supplying distributors in America and Europe with zoo stock, it was a simple matter of working out exchanges to get what we wanted from their country for our own zoo. The first zoo in Honduras was a big hit - besides the native species of fauna (including all the different cats, monkeys, parrots, and most reptiles), we had African Lions, European bears, African Green Monkeys, cobras, Asian pythons, African vipers, American rattlesnakes, etc.
Whenever the public's interest in the zoo would wain, Charlie would come up with a new idea to get them coming back. A concrete pit was built and he advertised 'bear wrestling' on Saturdays. Guess who got to do the 'wrestling'?! Not a terribly courageous feat - the bear was not full grown and my father had given me some defensive pointers years ago. Dad grew up on a homestead in Washington State at the turn of the century and had lots of wild pets himself - including Black Bears. When I was a youngster going into the woods all the time - I often came upon bears. So he had two pieces of advice about them. If you have to run - run down hill. Bears have short front legs, good for going up hill fast - bad for going down hill fast. The second piece of advice - the tinder part of a bear is his nose. Rap him on the nose with anything, including your fist, to confuse and back them away. The bear at the zoo just wanted to have some fun with me in the pit - but if he started to get too carried away with the 'wrestling', I would tap him on the nose. Kind of like calling a 'time-out'.
The other promotional activity that brought in some income and spread the word about the zoo was our traveling reptile show. It was a lot of fun. Some people would pass out when I would reach into a small box to pull out a ball of 50 vine snakes and hold it on top of my head. As the snakes unraveled themselves and started poking around in the air it looked like the real Medusa. One of the most popular animals we had was a 14 foot Burmese Python. Whenever the exhibit hall would be running low on paying patrons I would grab the Python and go out for a walk. Like the Pied Piper, I would return to the hall with a crowd in tow.
At every opportunity we tried to educate the public on the value of their wild fauna and flora in general and the snakes in particular. Eighty percent of the population lived outside the cities and feared all snakes. So whenever they encountered one , which was often, they killed it. We lectured about the various native species at the shows and zoo, showing which ones are harmless and how they all - including the venomous ones, benefit their lives. Once, while on a collecting trip back up in the mountains of Olancho, I tried to show a group of natives what snakes I was buying and how harmless they are. When the baby boas are found in the fields the bush cutters would immediately kill them. I told them I would pay a half day's wage for a live one, and took one out of a bag so they could examine the snake. Then as a further demonstration of how harmless are the baby boas - I gripped the 16" snake by the middle using my mouth. The snake did not appreciate the way he was being handled, whipped around and bite me on the end of the nose! So there I was, standing in front of a frightened and screaming crowd (they were yelling "He is going to die!") with blood pouring out the holes in my nose. I was laughing the hard laugh of the foolish and embarrassed. I still laugh when I think about this incident.
The other day I was asked about the dangers of envenomation After a long and involved explanation, I thought about those occasions it has happened to me personally. Although I have collected many venomous animals (snakes, fishes, cone snails, arachnids) none of the truly dangerous species has managed to nail me. But I did have a lot of bad experiences with some of the other poisonous animals and plants. I guess the closest I have come to getting a 'bad bite' was during the year (1977) I spent shipping hundreds of poisonous snakes to Miami. Most went to the 'Haast Serpentarium' and some went to Joe & Louie at 'The Shed'. After a couple of other collectors in Honduras died from bites - I gave up on collecting and shipping those animals. At $5.00 a snake, the risk no longer seemed worth it.
But getting back to the envenomation I did experience:
I have probably forgotten something - maybe if I donate my body to science they can have fun sorting out all the anti-bodies
The poisons in the tropics that have struck me down the hardest are: sun poison (extreme sunburn); food poison (amebic dysentery); mosquito 'poison' (Dengue Fever). These are the real dangers to the tropics traveler and field naturalist alike, and deserve at least as much cautionary behavior as the avoidance of poisonous snakes!
Continue to; Central America - Page 2