by Brent Sisson
Rated: 18+ · Non-fiction · Action/Adventure · #1384875
A harrowing river crossing, deep in the Honduran jungle.
Flying scares the crap out of me. Other than that, the flight so far from Houston was uneventful - just fine with me - what little flying I did in my 65 years only became tolerable if buttressed by a stiff drink. The passenger cabin, typical for a commercial flight this size, had two rows of three seats side by side. I sat in a window seat, not really the best choice for an anxious guy like me. Ample natural light bathed the cabin interior at mid-day. The “fasten seatbelt” sign turned on and the stewards took their seats for our final glide path into Honduras. Descending through the clouds, I gazed expectantly for a lush tropical panorama to appear.
Soft grey puffs of undulating mist passed outside the window, but no sign of land. A sense of unease nagged at me. Where's the ground? I looked more intently, as though I could compel the jungle landscape to materialize. The twin engines roared with a jolt, catapulting the plane up sharply. My grip tightened on the armrests.
We leveled off. People stirred, looking furtively at each other, speaking softly. A little boy, tightly clutching his mother in the seat in front of me, stared with widened eyes. I smiled reassuringly and winked. He quickly looked away. My wife, seated next to me, remained totally composed. Go figure...
The winter had been cold and dreary and Tara easily convinced me we should cut and run. Not spur of the moment, however. She carefully researched our trip, including a planned foray into the bush to spend several days at a jungle lodge. She determined to have a wild and exciting experience.
Tara is the more seasoned traveler, not a stranger to tempting fate. She had flown to Israel before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted violently, stayed nearly a month, walked the streets alone where tourists are no longer permitted to go, and was robbed of her money and passport while on a bus - but that’s another story.
Once again, we descended. I closed my eyes and pretended to nap, listening to the steady throb of the engines. I resisted the urge to turn toward the window. What is the point? Finally, I relented. Uh-huh. As I thought, no discernible image, no contrasting formative patterns – only a view mindful of the consistency of cream chowder. An airplane like this should receive an electronic beacon to guide it safely to a landing, I reasoned; the pilot must know where the ground is: give it a rest!
I turned my gaze away, sank deeper in my seat, willing myself to relax. It will all be over in a minute. Take a deep breath, slowly, that’s better. Take a little snooze. Shuddering, the plane lurched sharply upward again, engines bellowing to life, straining forcefully, climbing for altitude. My heart missed a beat. What the devil is going on!
My senses, attuned to every little change in the whining pitch of the jet engines, every shake, every bank of the plane toward a new guide path, intensified. Where’s that drink when you need it?
The child cried, his momma nervously shushing him. Tara sat with her eyes closed. Oh come on, she has to notice all of this!
“Yes, until you woke me,” annoyed.
“How can you sleep? Don’t you know we’re not able to land this thing?”
“Third time’s a charm.”
Oh brother! The sweet thing I married has ice in her veins.
We began another approach. Divert yourself, put your mind elsewhere. Think about what fun we will have in Honduras: we’ll spend a week on the mainland, staying first at a jungle lodge by the Rio Cangrejal River in the midst of a tropical rainforest bounded by the Nombre de Dios mountains. We will raft the wild river and walk jungle pathways to a high majestic waterfall.
While on the mainland, we will mix with the Honduran people, immerse ourselves in their culture, ride their chicken buses, eat Garifuna food, and drink their local beer. We will take a ferry to the Honduran island of Roatan, link with our adult children who are flying straight to the island, and stay at a beachside resort.
On the island we will tour on motor scooters, fly over the jungle canopy tethered to a zip line, immerse ourselves in the breathtaking beauty of an eco-garden, and explore all the eateries. When we exhaust all that activity, we will walk the pristine, white sanded beach, lazily scuba dive the reef, sunbathe for hours gently massaged by a cooling Caribbean breeze and take in the indescribably beautiful sunsets.
My reverie ended abruptly with another aborted landing, another straining power climb. That got Tara’s attention, no longer so serene I see. Again, we leveled off.
“This is the Captain speaking,” a voice deep in tone and steady, “We are experiencing zero visibility at low level and have not been able to see the runway on our approach. The tower reports a high-pressure area is moving in and conditions may improve soon for another attempt. We are going to circle about 30 minutes and try again. If we are not able to land we will go on to San Salvador, El Salvador where conditions are reported better.” I cast an anxious look at Tara. “Yes!” she said, grinning, “Let’s go to El Salvador!”
“Wait a minute,” I protested, “El Salvador is not on our tourist destination list. They hate our guts, we meddled in their affairs, remember?
“You’re thinking of Nicaragua.”
In fact, I probably had been thinking of Nicaragua, but El Salvador is not particularly enamored with the good old US of A either.
“You’re splitting hairs,” I responded, trying to settle the matter. Forget about El Salvador, damn it! Stay focused on Honduras. Honduras is different, much different - a democracy, staunchly pro-American, a nation that freely welcomes gringos - although surprisingly not exactly a magnet for American tourists.
Honduras suffers greatly from an obnoxious American propensity to lump South American countries together, failing to distinguish those nations who have a genuine historical grievance against us, apart from those who are friendly toward us.
This little country in fact is a partner with the USA in the war against terror and sent a small military contingent as part of the coalition fighting in Iraq. Most Americans are unaware of this commitment. What other Central or South American country aligns itself so brazenly with the colossus of the north?
It dawned on me when my wife first cast her eye about for an exotic and exciting country to visit in our hemisphere, she proposed going to Nicaragua. Yes indeed, she wanted a genuine, rousing, off the beaten track experience! She determined not to placidly succumb to predictable, prepackaged tourism fluff. I countered with the idea of going to Costa Rica, where I harbored visions of lying around on the beach sipping margaritas. She dismissed my proposal as far too tainted with American influences: “Why go somewhere overrun with American tourists? If we don’t mind a bunch of tourists, why not go to the Baja? It’s a lot less expensive.” Her logic, irrefutable as usual, carried the day. We compromised and settled on Honduras.
We descended once again, lower, lower. Rain spattered on the window. How close to the ground are we? Nothing visible, nothing, taking too long, nothing yet, enough! That is enough! Pull up! Flashes of form, hints of color, mottled panorama of coastal plane; greenish-brown tapestry of tropical jungle; a skittering glimpse of huts; lower, lower: touchdown!
Exuding a deep breath I released my death grip on the arm rests. The so-called international airport of San Pedro Sula lay in the distance; a simple, sun-bleached, main building adjacent to a hodgepodge of lean-tos, a makeshift hanger, an array of degraded structures and scattered airplanes. The tower is nowhere in sight.
The scene reminded me of a retrograde jungle outpost - rather than an expected semi-modern airport – wildly projecting a mind’s image of taxiing down the tarmac toward a dilapidated, war-ravaged hideaway of the infamous Flying Tigers.
High Wire Act
San Pedro Sula is an undesirable tourist destination, a place to transition from – hastily. No one stops at San Pedro Sula for long, but we had a hotel reservation. The taxi ride through the pouring rain to the Hotel Executivo became an adventure in itself. Over the Internet, Hotel Executivo promised much. In reality, it’s heyday had long since passed. Still, it was dry, reasonably clean, and friendly, helpful people ran the place.
We went for a short walk in a light rain. With dusk coming on, we hurried to find a nearby eatery with some promise. On every corner, we found men fervently soliciting to exchange money, but no eatery in sight. We returned to the Hotel to ask for a recommendation. Armed with a likely prospect, but totally confused about directions, we took a taxi to a nondescript doorway that entered into a small room with quaint little tables.
Our waiter, heavy set with a broad expressive face and pleasant demeanor, a cloth neatly folded over his left forearm, welcomed us, and presented the menu - entirely in Spanish. Neither waiter nor guest spoke a common language so, naturally, we had a great time ordering. Gesturing and speaking broken English, he did everything he could to please us. When he brought three different types of beer and set them before us, we selected the one that looked most impressive. We immediately discerned, from his frowning expression and tone of voice, we had made the wrong choice. He capably picked one for us judged far superior, and quickly, with a flourish, removed the lesser bottles. You know what? He was right.
The following day, we boarded an express bus bound for LaCeiba on the north coast of Honduras, where we meet a representative of Omega Tours. He will take us into the jungle near the Rio Cangrejal River.
Tara, studying our Moon handbook “Honduras”, looked around and noticed the guy sitting across from us had another publisher’s version of what amounted to “everything you need to know about Honduras.” A lively conversation ensued. Jim - as luck would have it - is a wilderness guide and teacher, fluent in Spanish, who has been on a solo four-month long excursion throughout Central America. In his 30’s and physically fit, he decided to wrap up his journey with a jungle lodge experience.
Sharon, an attorney from New York, overheard our conversation and mentioned she is bound for a jungle lodge as well. She is squeezing in a quick getaway before starting a deputy prosecutor position with a new firm. Her goal: raft the Rio Cangrejal river.
Upon arrival at LaCeiba we quickly found our Omega transport - a couple of guys and a woman - all with decidedly Australian accents. Jim and Sharon had planned to go to an alternate jungle lodge near our destination. When no one arrived for them, they asked to ride part way with us. Our super accommodating hosts readily agreed and we all left together in an old renovated jeep. As we bounced along, our hosts explained they are “kiwi’s” (New Zealanders) - not Australian - that work the tourist season every year and then return to New Zealand.
We followed the river on a winding pothole infested road, finally coming upon a military checkpoint toward nightfall. The soldiers looked us all over, then asked the kiwis if anyone had weapons. Satisfied, they waved us through. Our guides explained that the military had established this checkpoint, upon order of the new Honduran President, to try to stop locals from depleting the native trees. This checkpoint had importance for another reason; little did we know we would return the following day on foot.
In transit, Sharon and Jim decided they wanted to stay at the Omega jungle lodge and cancel their other arrangements. A German expatriate owned and operated the jungle lodge, sat in gorgeous tropical surroundings. We stashed our gear in our rooms and walked to the main lodge where we helped ourselves to cold beer on the honor system. Outside, under a cabana, we sat at a candle lit table and had dinner together. It was raining softly. We planned tomorrow’s adventures from the list of options Omegas’ literature described.
We decided we wanted to go on a guided hike to a shallow bend of the Rio Cangrejal river, wade to the other side and connect with a trail, and gradually climb upward toward a majestic waterfall. This plan evaporated when our Omega tour guide revealed the river is impassable because of the heavy rains they had been having all week. Even if we could ford the river, the trail to the waterfall is too treacherous to climb in these conditions. However, she offered, a nice trail ride on horseback is possible tomorrow - though not to the falls - if the weather breaks.
In the morning, Tara and Jim put their heads together. Jim said that his Handbook referenced an alternate trail and proposed we all go off on our own, sans the tour guide. It rained during the night but the day looked clear and sunny. We all gamely agreed – Jim is an experienced guide, after all. We left, announcing our intention to go for a long, scenic walk. We followed the road until we came to the military checkpoint. I surmised there must be a trail here, perhaps leading to some sort of foot - bridge. It seems that I was not privy to the details of this plan.
He said a few words to the soldiers and they let us pass, curious as we walked to the edge of a precipice. About 200 feet below cascaded the Rio Cangrejal river, rain swollen and thundering with frothy turbulence. Spanning the gorge to the other side, well over 300 feet distant, cable dropped of its own weight to the middle and gradually climbed to the opposite bank. Suspended before us, secured in place by a safety rope, hung a three-sided box connected by heavy cord rope to a roller resting on top of the cable. The wooden box bottom was open in the front. The two sideboards and the backboard - about six inches high – did not amount to much of a stop. Another rope ran the length of the cable to the far side.
“You propose we cross in that!” I said, looking at Jim in disbelief.
“Sure.” He grinned. “This we can do. Besides, it’s the only way.” Why am I the last to know?, I thought. Jim nodded toward Sharon. “We’ll go first.” Sharon’s eyes widened and she gave him an astonished look. “Come on, trust me. Here’s the technique: two of us sit in the box, one in front of the other, the tether is released, and we roll to the mid point of the cable above the river. From that point all we have to do is pull this attached rope to the far bank until we are safely over ground again.”
“You’re sure it’s safe.” Sharon asked, warily.
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Jim confidently responded.
“Well, ok then,” Sharon surrendered. “You’re the expert.”
Jim and Sharon climbed into the box while we steadied it. A soldier came to help and, when they gave the word, the soldier released the tether line. The box immediately ran on the pulley, swooping rapidly toward the middle. Jim hurriedly gathered the rope in front of them while another rope, secured to the rear of the box, steadily played out as they made their way. We watched as they finally made it to the other side.
I found my courage, that didn’t look so hard! With them safely on land, Tara and I pulled the box to our side, aided by the soldier and secured the safety rope. Without hesitation, I climbed right in the box, surprising Tara who knows I am usually the last to want to do something like this. She smiled wryly and climbed up in front of me. We no sooner settled than the soldier released the safety line and we started running down hill; all we could do was hold on and gather in the rope going slack in front of us. We rolled to a stop at the mid-point.
With the rope gathered on board, we looked about while swaying gently in the canyon breeze. From this vantage point, the Rio Cangrejal river - a frothy, twisting green-brown ribbon – lay far below us. Fear of heights, my old nemesis, played with my gut. “Don’t look down,” I said, as much to myself as Tara. “let’s keep going.” Tara took up the rope and pulled toward the other side, moving along slowly but steadily. Abruptly, with a jolt, we stopped.
“Why have we stopped?” I asked, dismayed.
“I don’t know,” Tara said.
“Pull harder! Here, I’ll help.”
Together we both tugged on the rope, but to no avail. Everything appeared normal; nothing obviously impeded the pulley. Suspended above the river, swaying in the breeze, it was impossible to move around in the box or reverse our direction. As wind gusts started to pick up and buffet us, I grew more alarmed.
“Jesus Christ, Tara, what the fuck do we do now?”
“How the hell should I know!” She retorted, angrily.
Although out of hearing range, we could see that Jim and Sharon grasped our plight. They pulled on the rope from their end, tugging furiously. Our box responded by swaying more precipitously. “No!” I shouted.
They finally quit when they realized their efforts placed us in danger. I could not begin to imagine how we would escape this situation. We sat tight and waited. I broke the silence with an occasional outburst of profanity, not constructive – but I felt better.
It was an interminable wait, suspended like a couple of goofy clowns on a high wire act, swinging to and fro, tottering on the brink and holding on for dear life, absent a safety net. Tara stirred and pulled on the rope again. Incredulously, the box moved! I reached and helped pull. We’re Free!
Jim and Sharon grabbed the box as we reached the other side and helped us step down. Jim caught my eye. “What happened?”
“I don’t have a clue,” I said, shaking my head, “but after that frigin' experence, our climb to the waterfall ought to be a picnic.”
Picnic proved a poor choice of words. The wet trail made for dicey footing, particularly when climbing the steep slope. The breathtaking waterfall, rushing from an enormous pinnacle, cascading beyond sight to the rocky creek bed below, made the struggle worth every moment. Mist drifted from the booming impact, filtering through shafts of sunlight broken up by the jungle canopy. I rested, marveling in the grandeur, while the rest of the party climbed down to the foot of the waterfall. A lovely pool had been formed, perfect for swimming. I did not see them again for a very long time.
When we returned to the river, Tara and I went across first, this time without incident. We released the box. About a third of the way back, as Jim and Sharon pulled, it stopped.
“Why is this happening?” I said, exasperated. We watched the two of them tug in vain, then stop and jump up and down, gesturing. Not sure what they were trying to communicate, we decided to bring the box back to examine it. It pulled easily, but stopped again, well beyond our grasp.
Our near rope, I noticed, looped through the box and fell to the river far below.
“That’s it!” I exclaimed, starting to walk away.
“Where are you going?” Tara asked.
“There.” I pointed toward a steep, rugged downward slope to the riverbank. “I think the line is caught on the rocks.” Tara shook her head in agreement.
“I’ll go,” she argued, “I’m more agile than you are.”
True enough, but I had to do this. I probably caused this problem, I reasoned. It was my job to gather the rope behind me in a nice pile when we came across. Apparently, in my haste, I let it spill from the box and now it fouled. Without reply, down I went, sliding on loose shale and grabbing passing brush to steady my balance.
I reached at the river edge in ten minutes. The rope, wrapped around a gigantic boulder, held firmly in place by the turbulent, pounding rapids. I ascended back to a rocky ledge where I had good footing, jumped up, and grabbed the rope. Alternately whipping and repositioning the rope, I let the current take the slack. From Jim’s line of sight, he could see my strategy. As the rope dislodged from the rocks, he and Sharon pulled the box, struggling to free the rope from the force of the river. When the rope released and rose above the water surface, the box moved toward them in earnest.
Safely all together, we had a spirited discussion about the box phenomena. We remained puzzled by why it had stopped earlier when Tara and I made our crossing. Jim had a theory. He walked over and spoke earnestly in Spanish to a soldier, then returned with a big grin on his face.
“When the soldier released the safety rope," Jim explained, "and you guys started across, a car approached the checkpoint. The soldier secured the safety rope – it must have had a little slack in it - and went to inspect the car. It finally dawned on him that you guys were still tied off, and he came and released the rope.” We had a good laugh.
“Well, he scared the living daylights out of me, I’ll tell you!”
Walking along the road on the way back to the jungle lodge, the familiar battered Omega Tours jeep pulled beside us. The friendly face of the kiwi driver leaned toward us.
“What have you been up to, Mates?”
Sharon, caught off guard, blurted; “We hiked to the waterfall.”
His eyes widened in surprise and his mouth fell open. “How did you do that?”
Gathering herself, and already having said too much, she continued: “Well…we crossed over in the cable box.”
“You crossed over in the cable box.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
He looked at all of us with abject consternation on his face. “You’re all crazy. No one does that; it is terribly unsafe. That box is used only to send firewood across, not people!”
Thoroughly chastened, we declined his offer of a ride. By the time we got to the jungle lodge, tempers had cooled, and we were welcomed back into the fold. We began thinking about our next adventure but, this time, we’ll play by the rules.
Or will we…