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That Island To the East Words By Mathew Harper Photographs by Thomas Tomczyk

Often overlooked and ignored, Saint Helene's history and people go back centuries

The natural Saint Helene mangrove canal.

How many times have uninitiated visitors to Roatan asked, "What's up on the East End of the island?" How many people on their first trip to the island have ventured "up the shore"? Not many. Most are just content to stick closer to the West End. Frankly, a trip east to Oakridge, Port Royal and onto Helene, Morat and Barbareta, although much easier than before, is quite an adventure for the uninitiated. This relative inaccessibility, for some, like the expat wanting to retire into obscurity or the Bay Islander wishing to preserve his culture, has been a blessing in disguise.
Another question that often intrigues visitors and newcomers is how the island was prior to the development boom that began in the early 1990's. For an answer, visitors can explore the little-known jewels of the islands, Helene and Santa Elena.

Houses in the Bight of Saint Helene.

Helene, as it is known to its inhabitants, is a two mile by one mile island separated from Roatan by two miles of mangroves and a 20-foot wide natural canal. The island is 194 feet high at its highest point. Populated on the north and south shores by 1,200 of the most welcoming Creole, English-speaking islanders, Helene boasts some of the most unspoiled island countryside. In a rapidly changing archipelago, visitors can still discover the perfectly preserved island culture and "old Caribbean" charm in Helene. With place names like Rocky Point, Bentley Bay, Co-Co Plum Cay and Bob Bay, and with signs saying "no Spanish spoken," Helene is more like the West Indies than Central America.
An island steeped in history, Helene is dotted with caves, one from which the fabled British archeologist Arthur Mitchell Hedges took one of his crystal skulls. Hedges believed that the Bay Islands were once part of the lost city of Atlantis and that proof of this existed on Helene.
New caves are still being discovered from time to time. Each Payan artifacts found inside the caves lends to the premise that the peaceful Indians used the caves as refuge from marauding Spaniards and Buccaneers. One cave in particular, discovered in 1989, follows a 100-foot deep tunnel that goes well below sea level at the end of which lies a large cavern containing a freshwater pool. Off to the side branch two vents that continue on for at least 100 feet.
The Bay Islands scuba diving legend Constantino 'Tino' Monterrosso explored the cave with scuba gear in 1988. In the bottom of the "water cave," Monterrosso discovered bones belonging to deer and wild hog which are no longer indigenous to the islands. Halfway up the cave, a large clay vase was found containing hundreds of jade and amber ceremonial beads. In the entrance to yet another cave, a skeleton of a Paya "casique" was found surrounded on both sides by clay jars full of impressive jade beads.
The Indians were not the only ones to favor Helene for one reason or another. Many clay pipes can still be found at various spots around the island, pipes of the type commonly used by British mariners, woodcutters and pirates in the 17 and 18 centuries. Actually on Helene Cay, also known as Ross Cay, clay pipe finds are common. This could lead us to believe that due to its flat nature, Ross Cay was used by pirates to careen--the practice of running a vessel on shore at high tide to scrub its undersides.
Fresh water is plentiful, as are many types of fruits such as mango, mame apple (sapote), soursop (guanabana), bobwood, muginicap (monkey cap). At one time wild hogs were as plentiful as the watusas (island rabbits) still are. The waters around the island are teeming with fish, lobster and conch. Natural hard woods abound in the forests; in particular Lignin Vitae, used at one time for boat stems. Helene and Barbareta are the only known places that this wood can be found on the Bay Islands.
Little documented evidence exists for who inhabitants were and where exactly they lived on Helene prior to 1851. According to Mitchell Hedges, the Indians lived on and off of Helene for about a 100 years between the 1480's through to 1582. The watershed year was 1516, 13 years after Columbus passed through Guanaja. In that year, humiliated by the constant need to hide from the white men to avoid a beating or subjection to slavery, most of the Indians left when given the "option" of going to the mainland or of working the gold mines of Hispaniola and the Spanish Main.
By 1564 the British had arrived and finished making life miserable for the last few die-hard Paya who had stayed behind. British woodcutters and Buccaneers used Helene intermittently for the aforementioned reasons until 1782. That year several battles and skirmishes took place about three miles west of Helene in Port Royal between the Spanish Armada, the English Royal Navy and the pirates (Lowe, Avery, Teach, Morgan to name a few).
Between 1650 and 1742 a successful British settlement, Augusta, had been founded in Port Royal with a smaller one in Helene, This might be where Helene got its name--after the wife of the owner of the vessel who settled two families on these shores to cut wood. This settlement, it would seem, was plundered by marauding pirates around 1780. After the plunderings, Helene, like most of the islands at that time, remained largely uninhabited. Paya settlements and burials sites became overgrown and the woodcutters camps were destroyed.
Today just the clay pipes and the odd cannonball that didn't rot away remind us of those times. It stayed like this until 1855 when the ancestors of Helene's present inhabitants first arrived courtesy of the British government who were then outright, albeit it short-lived, owners of the Bay islands.
After the emancipation of slavery, the British government was faced with what to do with the freemen, ex slaves and ex slave bosses of the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Jamaica was big enough that the freemen could remain and cultivate on patches of granted land. But the Caymans were relatively overpopulated with flat land offering little for farmers.

Entrance to a cave system near Bentley Bay where Saint Helenians came to hide during Hurricanes Greta, Fifi and Mitch. During Hurricane Mitch as many as 62 people spent the severa

As Bay Islands was property of the Crown and vulnerable with few inhabitants, Her Majesty's government decided to kill two proverbial birds with one stone-to settle the Bay Islands with freemen, thereby alleviating overpopulation on the Caymans while creating a stronger British presence to dissuade any mainland attempt to take over the islands. All freemen were granted pieces of land to cultivate and dispatched to Roatan. While most settled around Coxen Hole, some ventured farther east in search of more fertile lands, water supplies, hardwood and wildlife.
The first settlers on Helene were the Bonner and Warren families from Jamaica and the Alvanzer (Alphonso), Bowman, Kelly, Ross, Forbes and Rich from Grand Cayman. Baptist (Batiste) Bowman was the leader of this first group of settlers and ancestor of many of Helene`s present day inhabitants, including Santos Guardiola councilman Wally Bodden Bowman.
These early settlers kept some cattle and hogs, but dedicated themselves to agriculture on a small subsistence scale, growing crops such as plantains, yams, cassava, arrowroot and wongla (sesame seeds used to make candy). During this time and up until the 1950`s American-owned "banana boats" would stop off in transit between the mainland and New Orleans to buy or barter coconuts and bananas. It was commonplace to have a local subsistence farmer exchange sacks of coconuts for luxuries such as denims and shirts.
Seafood abounded in the waters and lobsters were effortlessly caught on the reef at nighttime with a torch (dried palmetto leaf on fire). Large snappers and groupers could be speared with a lance when they swam in the shallows. With the advent of serious commercial fishing in the 60`s (knowledge imported to the islands by local fishermen who had worked on commercial fishing boats in the US), many Helenians dropped farming for work crewing shrimpers and trap boats.
Later in the late 70`s to early 90`s, as the price of lobster rose and became more scarce Helenians developed the ability to free-dive to impressive depths to hook lobsters and pick up conchs. It is not uncommon to see a Helenian free-dive to 90 feet, hook one lobster, disable it, and then hook and kill two more in the same fashion before coming to the surface--and repeat this for six hours a day.
Many commercial boats from nearby Oakridge and Guanaja exploited this physical aptitude by taking Helenians out to the continental shelf (more commonly known as the fishing banks or banks) and other more distant reefs (Serrana, Serranilla, Quita Sueno) to dive for conch and lobster. Some boats even ventured south into Nicaraguan waters to dive shallower, more plentiful reefs.
Sadly, as lobster numbers dwindled with over-fishing and no seasons, tanks became an option and several Helenians died or became crippled in diving accidents. Today some Helenians still dive, while others of the male population look for alternative ways to make a living, such as working overseas on freight boats or on the oil fields in different parts of the world . Helenians are excellent seafarers and boat handlers, somewhat akin to the Louisiana Cajuns who have grown up around the sea since birth. The older men, known as "the older heads," of Helene never learned to dive and so kept farming at subsistence levels.
Some cattle farming still goes on and limited pig farming. Iguana hunting is a tradition that takes place around Easter when female iguanas lay their spongy white eggs. Most iguana hunters try to catch the females before they lay because the eggs are considered a delicacy. Iguanas are sold by the pair (a "he" and a "she" preferably with eggs).
Despite limited employment opportunities and a poor economy, Helenians live a simple yet very happy life in and around the sea and the hills. Until recently only a handful of houses had TV sets with VHS players. Cable service is still unavailable. So in the evenings Helenians use their own devices to amuse themselves-story telling, clapping games, bible readings, playing dominoes and cards, and drinking rum and beer!
I was surprised one day in Helene when I heard children singing the nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down," obviously passed down like Chinese telephones through generations. Holiday times are when the richness of the West Indian culture of Helene comes to the fore. The maypole and platpole are popular activities in summer. The songs sung while platting the pole are old English rhymes also passed down, unwritten over time. After midnight on Christmas day carolers will walk through the different settlements on Helene singing memorized Christmas carols by candlelight.
Helenians also use a curious old Caribbean vernacular that is distinctly their own on the island. Nautical terms such as "thwart" ( pronounced tort) to describe a bench in a dory or boat; "windward" (pronounced windad) to describe "toward the east"; or "leeward" (pronounced lewad) to describe "toward the west"-these are some examples of the unique Helenian vernacular.
The original Helene settlers brought their own culture from the West Indies (and indirectly Britain and Africa), a culture which has been protected and preserved by the very isolation of Helene. Isolation, which prevented the influx of mainlanders and developers, has been a benefit particularly enjoyed by Helene, while true Bay Islander culture in Roatan has not only grown more diluted but is now in jeopardy.
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By Thomas Tomczyk

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The Orphanage Scandal By Jenny Roberts with Thomas Tomczyk

Accusations of Abuse and Financial impropriety surround an American-run Orphanage in Sandy Bay

Roatan Municipality meeting about the Sandy Bay orphanage situation between community members, local and central gov

Bengoa's letter describes Warren behavior: "he spanked [children] with knives and on bare bottoms with wooden, or plastic spoons, … they would be made to sit in their rooms all day as punishment, sometimes for three or four days in a row." Also, Brian and Christi Norman of Tampa, Florida, parents of children who spent two-and-a-half years at the orphanage and were adopted by them, have made public a list of Warren's questionable and abusive behavior.
Over the last five years Warren created a successful fundraising and support network for the orphanage. He took on mentally disabled children, something even the other Roatan orphanage in Flowers Bay does not do. Even Bengoa acknowledges Warren's positive contributions: "they [Debbie and Brad Warren] have trained them to be polite, and well behaved. They have taken them off the streets and given them food, clothing and shelter. But they have a dark side."
Warren's goals and management style of the orphanage were clearly not compatible with a more consensus-driven way the two boards wanted to operate. Warren spent $100 of thousands of orphanage funds for a baseball field that for three rainy seasons covered nearby reef. The baseball field and masses of donated equipment have yet to be put to use.
While Warren's sometime abrasive, even confrontational personality has gotten him few supporters on the island, some CSI supporters remain to be convinced of Warren's abusive behavior. "I've never seen the kids fearful of Brad," said David Taylor, CSI supporter of five years. "They [orphanage's children] told me that they were never abused sexually." Taylor lives in California and for one week a year comes to the island to spend time with two orphanage children he sends $30 a month to.
CSI Board members began arriving on the island September 1 to meet with officials and stabilize the situation. 14 children returned to the orphanage premises under the supervision of volunteers Travis and Kelly Bevers. The Board is currently interviewing for permanent house parents. "We'll be asking for the kids' input on who we bring in permanently," says board member Dale Petersen. "This island needs that orphanage," says Nurse Peggy of Clinica Esperanza.

In better times: Brad Warren in front of the Orphanage in 2004.

After four years of controversy and accusations, the Sandy Bay's Child Sponsorship International (CSI) Orphanage crisis came to a head: On August 28, police, acting on complaints of child abuse, removed 14 children from the premises and Brad Warren, director of CSI, has left Roatan for the US. IHNFA (Honduras Institute for Families) has sent a team to investigate alleged abuses.
According to Detective Alex Ordonias of the DGIC, family of one of orphanage's children reported to IHNFA incidents of sexual abuse. Former orphanage volunteers, Pedro and Tana Bengoa, also filed a complaint with the municipality. Police relocated the children to the property of Son Rise, a missionary organization based in Sandy Bay. "Some of the kids started coming to me as their pastor … the children felt they weren't safe," said Son Rise's pastor Chuck Laird.
CSI board of directors is demanding that Warren, who in 2000 with a philanthropist Mark Whittaker began CSI, step down as director. The outcome is far from certain however, as in 2005 when Warren had been dismissed before but managed to get rid of the previous board, none of whose members live on the island. "Our visions and directions for this ministry have become far separated and irreconcilable," Warren explained.
In a meeting at the Roatan municipality on August 30, IHNFA representatives, local authorities and concerned citizens discussed accusations of dealings at the orphanage. "Brad [Warren] has tarnished the name of every North American organization here," said Valerie Nelson of Familias Saludables NGO. According to Detective Ordonias the police are awaiting reports from a psychologist and doctors.
Allegations presented by the board against Warren are three-fold in nature: his financial dealings, his morals and physical/sexual abuse of the children. According to board member Dale Petersen, financial documents were turned over to IRS for investigation. Brad Warren did not respond to emails sent to him by Bay Islands Voice before going to print.

Blaze in The Night

West End fire destroys homes and a restaurant

"I could feel the heat on my face from 150 meters away," said Kristofer Goldman, who stood on a dock in West End looking at the burning houses. The orange glaze of the burning wood homes were visible from a mile away.
According to Ramon Ebanks, who also lost a home in the fire, the fire truck arrived within 20-30 minutes of the call and did a good job. The firemen had long enough hoses to reach the area and used pumps to pump seawater to the seaside structures.
19 people lost a home during the fire and are currently staying with family and friends. As the properties were not insured, a community fundraiser was organized on September 2 for the victims of the fire

Family members cleaning up the site of the burned homes.

West End's Lighthouse Restaurant, five wooden homes and two storage shacks went down in flames on the evening of August 29. The fire began around 11pm, shortly after RECO turned the electricity in the community back on.
"We are suspecting it could be RECO," said Tulio Ebanks, who lost his home and everything in it. At Coconut Tree sparks were seen coming from a transformer just as the lights came back on at 10:30pm. The on-and-off policy of RECO has placed an additional strain on the already stretched web of electrical wires crisscrossing the island.
Dodging Felix
Hurricane Felix hits Mosquitia, spares Bay Islands

On September 3, with Hurricane Felix at Category 5 and 165 mile winds, Congressman Hynds called for evacuation of tourists and residents able to leave. Honduras Air Force shuttled a DC-10 between Roatan and La Ceiba. Free tickets for the poor were given out and foreign tourists were evacuated on a TACA chartered plane to Guatemala City paid by Ministry of Tourism.
Roatan Municipal paid for tickets of over 1,000 people to evacuate via Galaxy Wave catamaran to La Ceiba. Atlantic gave out three flights for cost of fuel.
While some residents boarded up homes and businesses to prevent major wind damage, others focused on storm surge and flooding. Barefoot Cay, a south shore resort, not only evacuated all their guests to the mainland and other hotels but also moved documents and valuables off the cay. "We can get an 18-foot surge here," said John Kennedy, owner of the resort.
Areas even more vulnerable to the hurricane were unprotected, such as bare, almost vertical cliffs which are susceptible to land slides and collapses.
On Roatan most businesses remained closed September 3 and 4. On September 4, as Felix impacted Mosquitia it slowed and weakened. Nicaraguan authorities reported 28 deaths related to Hurricane Felix.

Lines of poor residents of Roatan, who were given a free flight off the island on Honduran Air Force planes.

Hurricane Felix wrote itself into history on September 2, when it recorded the second fastest 12-hour pressure fall on record, to 929 millibars. With its rapid move eastward of 21 miles per hour, the storm strengthened from a tropical depression to a Category 5 hurricane in just two days.
The residents of Roatan prepared for the worst as for three days the storm's track was projected to go directly through Guanaja and just north of Roatan. On September 3, Felix's projected path angled just slightly south to land on Mosquitia coast.

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The Royal Dock

While Cruise Terminal in Coxen Hole bogs down in delays, the island is looking at a 10-fold cruise traffic increase over the next 6-10 years.

The existence of coral on the fill-in site caused a halt to the fill-in process. The only way to proceed was to make changes to Honduras' environmental laws. These changes are still in progress as the president had to approve them and congress had to pass and ratify the law before publishing it in La Gazeta. Finally SERNA has to OK it. "We are in a holding pattern," said Ernan Bartez, General Manager of the Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship Terminal, who believes that the good will on the side of the government will make things happen in the end.
The transplant of the 4,000 sq meters of coral will cost between $300 and $500 thousand. 4,300 metric tons of rock and coral is expected to be moved during the two-month work schedule. NOVA Southeastern University will supervise the replanting and monitoring of coral. Only then the work on the refilling of the cruise ship terminal's west side can begin.
Already the Coxen Hole cruise ship terminal project is facing a three-and-a-half month delay, with the project's Phase I termination date moved from March 2008 to June 2008. It is likely to be delayed much further.
The stakes are high. According to Bartez, Roatan should prepare for an increase of cruise ship passengers from what is today 800 passengers a day to 6,000 and eventually 10,000, in as few as six years.
Responsible for Coxen Hole terminal construction is Coastal Systems International (CSI), a general contractor based in the Dominican Republic with experience with similar projects in Florida, US Virgin Islands and Guatemala. Julio Bonnelly, CSI's Roatan Project Manager, has experience at both US Virgin Islands and Guatemala cruise ship terminal construction.
HTH Architects from USA are designing the Phase I of three buildings that will house stores and offices. Phase II will include four other buildings with restaurants, condominiums and more retail space.

Phase I of the Coxen Hole Cruise Ship Terminal. (Images curtesy of HTH Architects and Roatan Cruise Ship Terminal)
With Roatan due to turn into a major cruise ship destination, two cruise ship terminals with three to five docks are in preparation to begin construction. While Carnival is doing depth studies for two dock locations in Dixon Cove, Royal Caribbean's dock concession in Coxen Hole has hit some major delays. Royal Caribbean was promised a 30-year terminal contract with all necessary environmental permits, but what they have gotten is a headache of fighting with government regulations.
After breaking ground in December 2006, the work hit a couple of major speed bumps. First, between February 26 and March 9, Ministry of Mining held up work on the dock when Diamond Rock, Roatan's only rock, boulder supplier and subcontractor on the dock project, was shut down because the company never had a proper mining permit. In the meantime, no filling in could be done on the site. While mining permits were eventually issued, another even longer delay began in July when Ministry of the Environment (SERNA) permit for filling in the terminal's western portion, around 40% of the site, didn't materialize.
Click for the latest Roatan weather forecast.

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