MISKITO MACHINATIONS

In Honduras, some mysteries are better left unsolved

I'm not sure I want the Miskitos back in camp. Rules are different here. Maybe there are no rules. They want gas this time. They also want weed: "Fuma?" We give it to them. They smoke it in front of our camp. We've given them sliced pineapple, five-gallon jugs of water, rice and beans. They want the weed more than any of it.

Sometimes six or seven of them come at a time. They're living in a deracinated camp on a key a quarter-mile from our base. You cannot walk there from our flat, though. There's a deep reef of separation. So they come by boat.

We can see their thatched roof and, under the right light, the gaps in the faded tarpaulin walls. We sometimes watch them stand on their tiny key. I've counted as many as two dozen. There are probably more.

They are either barefoot, or they wear rubber sandals. Some don't wear shirts. One wears a blue blazer; still shoeless, but dapper in a Miskito way.

Steve Brown slowly heads back to base after a morning permit session. Each day, once the flat gets enough water, the permit file in.
Steve Brown slowly heads back to base after a morning permit session. Each day, once the flat gets enough water, the permit file in.

Jimmy is the Captain. Short and overweight, he looks Alaskan Inuit. He's Cayman, though, and lives back on Guanaja, in the Bay Islands, where we began our journey.

He brought us all here to the Faraway Cayes, a 27-hour ride in his 40-foot snapper boat, Captain Dennis. One full day and one full night. Faraway is the street name. Cayos Cajones is the map name. And Dayton Key is the original name. The North Star had illuminated the port side, and the Southern Cross the starboard side.

Jimmy is a fisherman first. He had a Samsung phone full of dorado videos. "Weedeos," he called them. "Do you want to see some dorado weedeos?" At the helm, from his chair, his feet couldn't touch the unsteady floor. He smiled a lot. Sincere expressions that came from his heart and then radiated through his eyes.

Captain Dennis was set on cruise to maintain 110 degrees. We rolled just a bit as we headed into the easterly trades. The air was palpable.

"Do you rock around when you get off the boat?" I asked Jimmy from my small bunk next to the helm, as four members of our team sought rest from their nauseated state in the dark cabin below. "I used to, but not now," he said, still smiling. "When I first came out I would feel funny. I get sick only once. When I first came out. When I was only eighteen."

Jimmy showed me how his radar worked. I watched as tiny blips on the screen pinpointed other vessels from as far away as thirty-six miles and as close as a quarter-mile. The lobster season had just ended and the trap boats were on their way home. They were heading west and we were heading east.

three moskitos play a little soccer while waiting for their panga repair-job to dry.
Three moskitos play a little soccer while waiting for their panga repair-job to dry.

"Life on the trap boats is tough, man," Jimmy said. "The fishermen only get a gallon of water a day, at the most. On some big boats you don't get no water for cleaning. They hand you one plate, one spoon, and one glass. Don't lose them."

I peered at the GPS. We were not far from the mainland. It was midnight. A speck on the map reads "Brus Lagoon."

"Brus Lagoon is hot, man," Jimmy said. Our course paralleled the Mosquito Coast; a strip of Caribbean shoreline incorporating both northern Nicaragua and southern Honduras. It's a hotbed of cartel activity. "You help them, they never forget. You do something bad, they never forget," Jimmy said. "The Miskitos, they unite like ants."

clockwise, from upper left: a 15-year-old trap-boat fisherman; rankin Jackson, guide; a moskito elder; a young trap-boat fisherman; a moskito Indian; Edwin moses, guide.
Clockwise, from upper left: a 15-year-old trap-boat fisherman; Rankin Jackson, guide; a moskito elder; a young trap-boat fisherman; a Moskito Indian; Edwin moses, guide.

Back on the beach, a Miskito asks me, "Pastillas?" He rubs his arm as though he's looking for cream. Not knowing what pastillas are, I grab some sunscreen from my bag. I squeeze a dab onto his dark finger. He licks it like medicine.

"No, it's crema del sol," I say. He apparently meant aspirin. Steve Brown, the owner of Fly Fish Guanaja, along with this operation at Faraway, walks over with a bowl full of pineapple. He hands it to the Miskito. He also offers a five-gallon jug of drinking water.

Two men wander over to The Bodega, our two-story shack that rests in the middle of the key, surrounded by six palm trees. One shirtless young Miskito chews on a short strand of heavy monofilament. They look lost among the stacks of food, water, and fuel. Our guide, Archie Morris, lithesome, shows them the 18 gallons of fuel they'd been promised.

There's a portable speaker playing reggae, Manu Chou. "Welcome to Tijuana. Let's go smoke some marijuana." Another Miskito, red-eyed with short dreadlocked hair, takes a long pull from a joint. The others wait their turn. I wonder if we're giving them too much.

Deron Jackson hoists a nice barracuda he caught from the key. Barracuda is a big part of the guides' diet.
Deron Jackson hoists a nice barracuda he caught from the key. Barracuda is a big part of the guides' diet.

"People will probably kill him." Enrique, our camp carpenter, is referring to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. We're sitting on a small wooden dock, the front door to the flats. "He turned on the cartel when the U.S. got involved. You do not turn on the cartel. When he loses Presidential protection, he's dead."

In the water at our feet a ball of miniature baitfish parts as a barracuda slowly swims through it. Two juvenile permit trail shortly behind.

"The big guys in government open doors. Give the cartel the window. The military just backs off, and the cartel can move. Cartel can't move as good as they used to. But there's always a way. They use the fishing boats as radar, then another comes by and does the same thing until a few hundred miles are clear. They have points all the way to the States," Enrique says.

I resist asking questions and just listen.

view from The Bodega kitchen (No glass).
View from The Bodega kitchen (No glass).

"This has been a place of treasures found and lost, often with death involved," Steve Brown tells me, while a Miskito works on a battered panga, and five others stand around watching.

I think about what he just said. There's a faint smell of resin in the air. Deron and Patrick, both guides, walk past us to the generator. "When she got lube, she runs," Deron says. I know not to ask, so I wait for Steve to say more.

"It used to be gold. Then it turned into cocaine, cash, and fuel. Now it's turning into permit," Steve says without expression. He's an ex-college diver in his early 40s and still has the build of someone who throws double-gainers off a platform. "All it could take is one thing to go wrong out here and it's over," he says. "When you've got more than someone else, you've gotta be aware."

Jackie, the rooster with a limp, struts by in front of us. There are five hens at camp, too. I had poked one the day before with my foot. I thought it was dead. But it wasn't. Jackie makes sure everyone is awake by five every morning.

A group of trap-boat fishermen wait for the next skiff full of 60-pound wooden traps, that they will stack on the key for the four-month offseason.
A group of trap-boat fishermen wait for the next skiff full of 60-pound wooden traps, that they will stack on the key for the four-month offseason.

Then there are the trap boats. This is the end of their eight-month lobster season. The boats offer a sanctuary of sorts for those wanting to escape. They could be getting away from anything. One night a boat anchored in front of camp. Two groups in two small red skiffs came ashore. They built a makeshift pulley system to unload sixty-pound wooden lobster traps from the main boat onto the small skiffs and then onto our key.

About ten fishermen came ashore. Quiet. Short. Wearing their only worldly possessions. Some had foam pads over their dominant shoulder under tattered t-shirts. After unloading, they sent an empty skiff on the pulley line from our key back out to the moored boat. Then they sat by the hammock on the sand and waited.

Archie, Deron, Patrick, and a few others sat on The Bodega deck and watched the scene like a movie. The wind had died. Our two pangas, tied to the small wooden dock, sat motionless. We had a kitchen table full of tying materials and vises. Steve was working on permit patterns.

Rods and reels had been laid out like a surfer's quiver. A remote speaker played Ben Ben,/ by Sister Nancy. I had a fancy camera slung over my shoulder. We had a diesel generator grinding along and it was obvious that we had food and water. There was the perception of abundance. There was abundance.

Soon, the pulley delivered a freshly loaded panga carrying more lobster traps. The fishermen got up, slowly. They slung the large wooden traps over their shoulders and then stacked them on the east side of the key.

I awoke the next morning to the fishermen still unloading and stacking traps.

Archie Morris, in the doorway to the Bodega deck.
Archie Morris, in the doorway to the Bodega deck. When I told Archie I loved the Bodega, he replied, "Yeah, this is some great ragamuffin shit."

The trap boat is gone now. Archie, whose father has the lease on Faraway, juggles a soccer ball below The Bodega. Archie is twenty-eight. He's been coming here for twelve or more years. He knows the area as well as anyone.

"Might rain," he says. Storm cells have blown over daily.

"I love this Bodega," I say.

"Yeah, this is some ragamuffin shit," he says, laughing.

Deron sits on the deck above us. He quietly drops food scraps to the chickens. The first four guests of the season will arrive tomorrow morning by helicopter. Deron and Archie will be ready.

"Eat today and don't worry about tomorrow. Dat's how it is with the Miskitos," Deron says. The Miskitos are too far away to hear him. "They beg diesel, they beg gas, water. They go to all the trap boats. You can't run them away from here. This is Honduras."

Deron can ramble. I like it though. His words may sound didactic but his tone is easy. "Over here dey kill 'cause dey gotta do it sometimes. Over der in da States it's different. The first time I shoot a gun it was in da States. We don't see a gun like dat here. Dat's fifteen years in jail." I think about the rusted shotguns found when the plumbing for the bathroom was installed.

Miskitos fish for sea cucumbers—pepino—and boil them and then dry them. They used to net thousands of bonefish. They don't anymore.

"The man who first had the key was Dayton," Archie says. "He died here."

"How did he die?" Steve asks.

"I knows nothin' about dat," Archie says.

Steve had just wandered over from the outdoor kitchen to where Archie and I are waiting. The tide is good; almost high. Jackie limps by in front of us. It was time to fish. The three of us, Archie, Steve, and myself, hop in one of the two skiffs. A storm lingers to the east. The wind is light. I'm sweating.

As we slowly motor off, Archie points to his left and says, "I snorkel here. I see mudding and I think turtles… but it was hundreds of bones, everywhere." To the southeast a flat runs from our key for miles. It looks like infinity.

Archie stops the engine and grabs his push pole. He moves around the panga with grace. We're in six or so feet of water looking for permit. Permit on rays. We've had shots at dozens of permit each day.

"So you know, there are lots of fish here, mahn," Archie says, as Steve stands on the bow, shoeless, with seventy or so feet of line reverse stacked in front of his toes. The speed and direction of the panga changes. We're moving faster now, and about twenty-five degrees more to the right. Steve does not look back at Archie.

Archie talks just above a whisper, "Right der boss. 11 o'clock. Fifty feet."

Steve makes one false cast and hits his target. A permit races off. It had been on a ray, and the ray was on a nurse shark. That's how permit fishing goes. Fleeting. Analyze after it's over.

"He had a whole ecosystem with him," Steve says.

"Some days," Archie says, "they're hard to catch."

fishermen carrying wooden lobster traps to stack for the season.
Fishermen carrying wooden lobster traps to stack for the season.

Earlier on my trip, another guide, Rankin Jackson, told me about the first permit he caught on a fly.

"I'm a bubba. I got him by myself. I eat fifty-five permit before I knew what it was all about. We didn't have no clue. It's more valuable swimming away."

This is true about permit. Including the one we'd just missed. Yes, it would've been nicer to have caught it; to have hooked it and had line peel off the reel.

Permit are everyone's treasure. They just need to be found. Maybe during the right tide. Maybe not. The mystery is what it's all about.

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