[private] Sharon Lee Collins writes A Gringa in Guanaja from the unique vantage point of someone who, with much success, attempted “to weave [herself] somewhat seamlessly into the island fabric” of Guanaja in the late 80’s to 90’s. In this autobiographical story, Collins, a marine ecologist from Florida with a “wandering spirit,” remembers Guanaja before the effects of Hurricane Mitch and its subsequent rebuilding and technological additions.
Collins has barely padded down Guanaja’s sandy paths or immersed herself in its reef-flowering waters when she feels the island, like a siren, seducing her. She emigrates within six months of that first visit to thrust her roots down-or rather, to drive piles into the ocean floor where she builds her one-room home.
Collins’ story speeds through a short, sketchy marriage to an islander which doesn’t end without bloodshed. Then, settling into a slower cadence, her narrative centers around both her “indoctrination” to island life and her research for a newly conceived Bay Islands marine reserve. Her passion for marine ecology as well as an almost foolhardy sense of adventure stand out in a story replete with a myriad of character-revealing struggles. Among those struggles, she survives riots against North Americans in Tegucigalpa, surf-riding escapades on stormy seas and pirates who dislike foreigners.
The majority of Collins’ thirty chapters are topical, rather than chronological. On the one hand, this topical format left me feeling disoriented regarding time lapses and progression. Perhaps the author’s story could have been more compelling and expeditious with a more chronological organization.
On the other hand, however, Collins’ topical chapters suit her in-depth descriptions of various island characteristics, from Guanajaños’ convivial holiday celebrations to their complicated rituals of shopping. Collins doesn’t miss even the simplest of observations: the islanders’ unique “jutted jaw … pouted lips” way of pointing, the art of making cayucos, the long-standing social codes between men and women (in which casual conversation is a faux pas).
Though Collins left the States as a woman with a “tendency toward reclusiveness” and with no “intention of discovering [herself],” Guanaja does draw out a new awareness of self and surroundings for her. She’s soon joining in land crab hunts for soup, swim-walking from her ocean house to a local hangout, and delivering her famous mango pies around the island.
This “eccentric white woman” also seems to make her mark on Guanaja. Collins certifies the first native-born woman for diving, a radical concept which causes quite a scandal. She even successfully coaxes her student out of the island-typical jeans and t-shirt to go “naked,” (i.e. in a bathing suit), which she notices begins a “slow transition to a more casual beach attitude.”
Though far from being on the New York Times bestseller list, A Gringa in Guanaja could definitely compliment a lazy afternoon in a hammock, both for travel-worn Bay Islands visitors who want to learn more about the history and culture of Guanaja, and for native-born islanders who’d enjoy a few laughs over a gringa’s struggle to cope with what comes naturally for them.
From the back cover:
Ms. Sharon Collins is a marine ecologist, educated in Florida, who enjoys diving on coral reefs and exploring lands and cultures both familiar and foreign to her own. She currently finds herself employed as a senior consultant for a private environmental consulting firm in Central Florida.[/private]