American short-story writer O. Henry, exiled to Honduras in the 1890s, coined a term to describe the country that was so perfectly evocative of colonial horrors, bad government, tropical weather, ripe fruit, and lush bougainvillea vines creeping up the patio railing that it’s in wide circulation more than a century later. The term was banana republic. That piece of poetry conjures an entire period of history. For the first half of the 20th century, large swaths of Honduras were more or less run by the Standard Fruit Co. (now Dole) and the United Fruit Co. (now Chiquita). They bribed the politicians and summoned the U.S. military when things got out of hand. They built and owned the railways, which tended to run from the fields to the ports but not to anywhere useful to Hondurans, such as the capital.
Of course, the country has come a long way since then. Or has it? During my visit, Honduras This Week ran the front-page headline “President Zelaya Addresses Melon Crisis.” The photographic evidence showed the mustachioed president sitting at his desk, Honduran flag visible to one side, biting into a juicy cantaloupe. The power of big fruit has diminished in recent decades, but pineapples, bananas, and melons are still export staples. A relatively minor U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning—that melons from a particular Honduran farm might contain salmonella—can become a flash point for a fragile economy.
Now a lot of people are hitching hopes for Honduras’ economy to tourism. Plans for at least two new resorts are under way on the north coast, one of them adjacent to a national park. Signs in the protected areas I visited bore the logos of donor organizations—USAID, WWF, the Honduras-Canada Fund for Environmental Management. Even the Peace Corps was onboard. Since running into Jonathan at the waterfall, I had met a second Peace Corps volunteer, Nicole, who was visiting the Cuero y Salado wildlife reserve with her father. Nicole was stationed in the south, in a small town in the department of Valle. I asked her what went on there, economically speaking. She furrowed her brow and thought for a minute. Finally, she said that there were a lot of armed security guards. She was working with a women’s cooperative, trying to come up with things its members could sell to foreigners. They made attractive pottery, but it didn’t ship well. Nicole had hit upon the idea of making small, bright-colored purses woven from old potato-chip bags, an item she had seen for sale in other parts of Central America. There were no tourists where she lived to buy such things, but she thought that maybe the townsfolk could lure travelers from the Pan-American Highway, which passed nearby.
Tourism was clearly a popular cause, but was it smart? Does it make sense, in the long term, to sell natural charms that will be steadily worn down by the buyers? A city can renew itself with man-made attractions. I wasn’t sure that jungles and coral reefs had that kind of staying power.
On our last day on the coast, I floated facedown in the Caribbean, toting up my sins. I had flown in an airplane, taken taxis instead of buses, requested air conditioning, run the air conditioning even after I realized I couldn’t shut one of my windows, and bought small plastic bottles of water. That was all before sundown on my first day. Subsequently, I had participated in the feeding of wild animals, been driven around in gasoline-powered cars and boats, eaten conch (I didn’t know it was threatened), and—this one hadn’t even occurred to me until I read it in a guidebook—worn sunscreen and DEET-laden bug repellent while swimming above the delicate corals. But I had no idea how to weigh all that against whatever minuscule economic benefit I might have been bringing to Honduras.
We were in Cayos Cochinos Marine National Park, a collection of cays northeast of La Ceiba. That morning, snorkeling off a deserted cay, I had seen parrotfish, jacks, schools of blue tang, and one fat, lazy barracuda, motionless except for its snapping jaw. The reef life was more vivid and abundant than anything I had seen off Roatán, probably because of all the diving and development there.
Now I was floating off Cayo Chachauate, a coral cay just a few hundred feet long that was home to a Garífuna village of about 30 families. The Garífuna, who descend from escaped slaves and Carib Indians, lived on the island of St. Vincent until 1797, when the British deported the entire population to Honduras, where they established fishing villages. Chachauate’s wooden huts were strung out along the sand just yards above the high-water mark. An assortment of canoes, makeshift sailboats, and outboards sat on the beach. The big news in the village was that it had recently acquired a diesel generator, which ran every evening from 6 to 8. Any villager who invested in his own power line was free to share. Until the generator, only one ambitious family had had electricity, provided by a solar panel on their roof.
I watched a purple fan coral sway with the movement of the tide. The sea stretched away turquoise in three directions and grew pale where it rose up to the beach. Up there, a woman in a hut was making me fried chicken for lunch. I swam in closer to shore, gliding over sea grass and rippled sand. I saw a few tiny fish and a corroded soda can. And then I saw the bearded face of José Trinidad Cabañas, a long-ago president of Honduras. He was decorating a 10-lempira bill, which lay flat and motionless on the sand. Struck by this oddity, I dove for the bottom, but when I picked up the money, it felt so slippery and fragile that I thought it would disintegrate in my hand, so I let it flutter back down to the seabed again.