Garifuna Landing on Roatan

On April 12th, 1797, around 3,000 Garifuna tribesmen and women landed on Roatan Island after losing a century-long war with the British army. The once native people to the region of Lesser Antilles had been living amongst (but segregated from) the Amerindian tribes that occupied that region and others like San Vincente. The British army, which was also receiving funding from the French, distinguished that it was only the "Black Carib's" that had to vacate, and not those who belonged to the "Red or Yellow Carib's." Around 5,000 Garifuna were packed into a series of ships and sent to the island of Roatan, only half survived the journey. Landing on a region of the island named Punta Gorda, a large majority of "Islanders" live there now, however their diaspora reaches to almost every end of Roatan and the smaller islands of Utila, Guanaja, Cayos Cochinos and many other areas around along the Caribbean coastline.

This day is their Independence Day. But the connotations of "blaze and glory" we associate with our Fourth of July isn't a shared sentiment amongst these people. What they celebrate is the preservation and and the general adoration for their ancestors. Their legends are full of myth, lore, and mysticisms. An oral history of ghosts and tokens remain vibrant to this day.
This celebration was small in nature but it was fascinating to witness the traditional dances with the inherent garb. Garifuna-style food was made (many dishes included iguana), and children commandeered their parents dory's once the landing had commenced. What I enjoy most about cultural events like this is that they are rare to the Western eye. With our own Black heritage in the U.S., little if anything is taught about the Garifuna or Black Carib's. Theirs is a culture of suffering which continues to this very day. They are impoverished, and their island home is being taken away from them... quickly.
Hey everyone,

First off I would like to say thank you for your comments and support these past few months. It's because of you that I continue to share my experiences and your interest means I must be doing something right. It has been a real whirlwind and as I mentioned in my last note, island life comes both with its good and bad factors. It truly has been the experience of a lifetime and I'm only halfway through.
I have been working with (in my opinion) one of the most important NGO's here on the island, called Living Water 4 Roatan, an organization that works to supply water throughout Roatan's largest barrio, La Colonia, an area in which I have spent ample time since last September. What makes LW4R so special is that it is an oranization that works on self, or locally sustainable resources. It is their water to use and manage, the NGO only works to provide supplies, educating, and salaries for those who work and live inside the barrio of around 7,000 people. This has proven difficult not only because of the near mountainous terrain but also the Patronas which take ownership of the four districts that compile La Colonoia; Balfonte, Policarpo, Monte Cristo, and Bellavista. The majority of work LW4R has done is located in Policarpo which is the largest region and holds the highest number of youths, which are most likely to contract water related illnesses. Little know that fatalities due to drinking contaminated water account for more deaths worldwide than those related to all the wars currently being fought, around 3.75 million per year.

If you would like to help in any way, please contact them at

On a lighter note I recently arrived home after embarking on a four day journey through Honduras, visiting the Mayan ruins in a small, sleepy little town named Copan. Considered the Paris of the Mayan culture, the ruins are not as big as those found in Tikal, Guatemala, which are staggeringly big, but known for the intricate and highly detailed inscriptions and carvings. It was also the last regional capital of the Mayan's and quite obviously held the most advanced techniques of their technology. The tour was amazing and it was an incredibly experience trekking about the same areas which were occupied by an amazing culture more than a millennium ago. However, what I found most appealing about Copan was the quant and charming town located about 1km away from the ruinas. Although it's about a 14 hour trip through the Honduran countryside, I strongly recommend the journey. Honduras is the most mountainous country in Central America, and the views along the way are simply breathtaking.

Aside from that I continue to try and capture images wherever I can. And even though I have spent ample time on this small island, the colors, people, and scenery still amaze me. Although day-to-day I long for my family and friends, I wake up each day feeling more and more at home. With your support may I continue to grow and learn at every turn.
Take care and God bless.


Assimilation and Other Astonishing Things

Where do I begin with nothing incredible or bizarre to report just yet. Up to now in the blogs preceding this one I have kept busy at reflecting upon my "visceral" experience here in Roatan. Which seemed to progress something like this.

1. Initial reaction / culture shock
2. Naive yet genuine attempt at understanding social changes
3. Acceptance of knowing nothing about these people (Socrates would be pleased at this)
4. Further culture shock after accepting that I know nothing
5. Dengue fever scare
6. Frustration with constant barrage of Western influence
7. Got a back account

Steps, 8, 9 and ten are still in the works.

As of now it seems as though I'm floating through the streets in a world I don't belong in. There have been few Gringos who have come to this foreign world with intentions other than; "seeing some rad stuff down there."

So let's see... What rad stuff have I been doing?

I've learned to windsurf. Gone sailing on a handmade sail boat that is as old as my father. Seen a practically spontaneous airshow on a pristine beach. Met the President of Honduras. Met a man by the name of Don Julio is the REAL President of Honduras... In monetary terms of course. Flown on a seaplane around the Island, and managed to stay just as pale-white as when I left.
For some reason out here, all of this seems incredibly normal. Each day is just one more opportunity to experience yet another anomaly. The power goes out just about every day, as does the internet connection. The ATM'S don't work and the Alcalde (Mayor) has since initiated Marshall Law after ten p.m. in urban areas. There are now officially four (count em', 1 - 2 - 3 - 4) separate police and military entities patrolling the island at all times. Giving me the feeling that this place is less secure now than it was without them. This may sound ludicrous however it is widely known and accepted that the authoritarian forces here are far more corrupt than your common drug dealer (who most likely got his supply from the said authoritarians).

If I have learned anything for certain during my stay here it is this; often times the cliches in life can be quite convincing as a reality. Don't fight it.

However, pessimism aside, I really do enjoy it here. The pace of life reminds me of a small, sleepy Iowa town after taking a Valium. Nobody really keeps time or checks the weather because what's the point? The people are very hospitable and sometimes down right enjoyable. And I have found solace and confidence in the person I constantly pursue at being. My own, so called attempt at emulating some sort of idyllic creation of a man. Not really a pretend friend, but almost. I strive to be him. My almost pretend friend... who is just swell by the way.
And I hope to make you all proud,
my friends and family.
God bless you.

A Visit From El Presidente

The other day I had the privilege of covering the Honduran national president, Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo and the minister of security, Oscar Alvarez, left, during an innauguration for the island's newest cruise ship destination. "Problemas de seguridad" have been a serious issue on the island as of late and the diplomatic pair acted bold in their rhetoric, condemning not only those who have acted in violent acts, but also the buzz which surrounds it. However many have argued their respective speeches were nothing more than a spoke within the political wheel that constantly revolves around what has been said before, and the lack of tangible responses. Mostly to ease the nerves of the wealthy gringos that this island so desperately leans upon in terms of financial thinking.

New Experiences In a Place He Knew So Well

Hey everyone,
I've been back here on Roatan for a little more than two weeks and I feel as though I've seen just as much if not more than my initial one-month stay here back in September and October. The big island is truly starting to feel as though it were home, and aside from the occasional bout of homesickness and boredom, things are fitting together quite nicely. My spanish is picking up (although much more slowly than I had predicted), and I am learning the customs and mores of everyday life here.

Dad has since moved into a new house which he will be renting until his house is finished being built sometime in March. The place is MUCH bigger and more comfortable than the little room we somehow were able to share for five weeks. Aside from the seemingly constant barrage of barking animals, it's very cozy and hospitable. It is amazing what a difference a few hundred meters in altitude can make within the natural environment here! Although I miss the easy access to our ow private dock overlooking the Caribbean, we are now situated higher atop one of the numerous mountains ranges (or large hills depending on how you look at it). The Chit Chats (another type of lizard) are still omnipresent as they are all over the island, however the coconut and banana trees adorn our new yard in hoards and the area is saturated with humming birds and geckos. The humming birds are especially adventurous and will not hesitate to dart within inches between the eyes, fly still and stare as if to say "I know you got sugar in there, feed me." I am also happy to say that we are still in close contact with the Balle family and Dad has done much to help. Ingrid is now attending private school full time thanks to Dad's financial contribution and even assists with her math homework before he himself must "go to work" and teach high school mathematics at the same institution. Also, we met with Alex (the father) and discussed working and payment options for his assistance on laying concrete for the house's driveway as well as a wooden stairwell which will be essential during building, as the house will be teetering along a 60-70 degree slope... No kidding.

The main reason for my early/temporary return before my semi-permanent/temporary stay here is to assist at my current/temporary employer; The Bay Islands VOICE. If this doesn't make any sense, scroll down a tad and you'll figure it out. The work has been filled to the brim with activity. The elections on November 29 were an absolutely amazing thing to experience firsthand and I will never forget it. What an incredible opportunity to be a part of history! As you all know, Honduras experienced a political and military coup this past June. The Honduran government knew the world was watching, and they followed through with one of the most organized, strict, and transparent electoral processes I have ever witnessed. Even after our own historic elections a little more than a year ago. Journalists (such as myself) were granted full access to anything and everything. I still look back at approaching the first (heavily) armed guard at the polling station in Coxen Hole, Roatan's downtown district, showing him my business card and camera, and being lead directly in. No questions asked, no hesitation. "Periodista?" he asked. That was all. After that, all sense of avoidance and apprehension were gone. There is something about that experience which gave me the confidence for the rest of the coming afternoon to take on all that was presented. I can recall being in the streets with hundreds or maybe even close to a thousand National and Liberal Party supporters, surrounded by noise and craziness and colors and movement. All your senses overwhelmed, and I, being completely immersed with my camera and my subjects, the world in front of me, and somehow not being apprehensive a single tiny bit. We see these demonstrations turn ugly so often in the U.S. An authority makes the call and the next thing you know you are on the ground choking, gas fills your lungs and your body wants it out. This did not happen, and I never feared for an instant that it would. We were not only granted an inside view on the process of counting ballots, but actually asked to act as watchdogs. The Fourth Estate in full effect. The TSE (Tribunal Sepremo Electoral) asked us to photograph and document every final ballot form that held the numbers for each district in the Bay Islands. Although there are only three islands which make up the Islas, Roatan is split into two districts. Roatan and Santos Guardiola. "You are the only outsiders in the world which we are showing this," I can distinctly remember hearing from the Presidente de la Municipal. An incredible experience... Amazing. Of course there were widespread corruption rumors, there were stories of false voting records and AK 47's fired in the night. There always will be. If we were played by the system, then so be it. I have learned that this is very much part of life here in Central America. You either fight it and lose, or go about your business and blow the whistle when you absolutely know, within 100% that there is wrongdoing. And then you hide. The rumors and political infighting will be there always. What's that word again? Omnipresent.

Amongst other stories I have been working on, I recently completed a quick profile on the Island's Carambola Gardens, a wildlife sanctuary started nearly 25 years ago by a man from North Carolina who first visited Roatan while he was in the Peace Corps during the 1970's. Everyone you talk to that has been here for more than a decade will tell you how quiet it used to be. How the roads were just paved yesterday, and that the first automobile showed up about a week ago. Yet, the one thing that never ceases to change is the wondrous natural landscape which a tropical island such as this can sustain. These gardens are breathtaking, bordered by a mountainous rim on all three sides except its entrance, it offers one of the most amazing views atop Carambola Mountain, overlooking Anthony's Key, which is yet another wonder amidst the turquoise waters and exquisite wildlife.

I'm also working on a lengthy and somewhat controversial piece dealing with the squatting laws which are a big debate not only here on Roatan, but also across the Honduran mainland. The legislation is often fuzzy around the edges and usually includes land disputed years and years old. From my understanding the law states that if a piece of land has some sort of structure built upon it and is not disputed with a valid title for ten years the property is automatically placed in the name of the said resident. Residency here could quite literally mean a two-story mansion, wooden shack, or rundown automobile. If there is a valid title but no dispute within twenty years, the previously mentioned law applies in this case too. While I was back in in Iowa there was actually a mass eviction of nearly 200 squatters in an area called Oak Ridge near the east end of the Island. Furthermore, there are some new bills being passed around in Tegucigalpa for review, making the story all the more timely. I was able to meet and befriend a family only about 7 or 8 kilometers from our office near a resort named Barefoot Cay. (You would be amazed at the squalor once can find within such close quarters to luxury property. It can be infuriating.) The family said they had been living in the area with no water or electricity for almost five years. Their reason? Wages were higher here on the mostly tourist funded region of Roatan. They had actually traveled here from Cortes (a section on the northwestern edge of the mainland) in order to raise money so they could... build a house! To think of having the vision and endurance to live by the most minimal means necessary in order to create a better situation for generations ahead. Sacrificing all personal wants and needs in an attempt at completing a common goal. I feel jealous at times when I think about their lack of selfish want.

I sit here drinking coffee, on a half-day off from work. Thinking about the people I will be photographing later today. I plan to return to the Palmetto Bay garbage dump this afternoon to check-in on the family I met more than two months ago. They live off the land as well. Except their world is trash and smoke and stink. Their children have respiratory problems and I can only assume that they too, can not endure a life such as this for much longer. Life expectancy is not so long here, but these people are able to find solace in a sunny day, and the smiles of their children and neighbors.

I wish you all the best and I look forward to seeing many of you again very soon.
With love and prayers,

Back Home in Iowa, For a While.

Hello to you all

I know it has been a considerable time since I've last updated this thing. Sorry to those in my family who have been 

wondering "where in the world is Ben Roberts." I'm here, back in Iowa, for a while at least... I'm afraid I'll be leaving

 this beautiful fall landscape once again for the hot and humid island in little more than two weeks. Part of the stipulation that I work at the VOICE is my return for a month while our editor Thomas, departs for Africa to begin work on his project, Africa Heart Beat. Here's a link:

My time back in the heartland has been an opportunity to stop and exhale for a moment during a chaotic time in my life. If I can say one thing with absolute

certainty it is that being away for six weeks helped me
 appreciate my home more than ever. I have always believed that right here is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and although a tropical island is also aesthetically stunning, the two cannot equate. Especially during these amazing fall days we have seen with some (of course), more pleasant than others. The brilliant colors of the turning leaves and the warm fall light reminded me of what I missing on Roatan, which is a sense of self awareness and a connection with your natural environment. A sentiment not always known to islanders as well as to those on the mainland. The weather rarely changes there, and when it does it can be nothing but a nuisance. Rain or wind. But usually just rain, straight down to the ground as if it fell directly from the stars... Unless there's a hurricane or typhoon. 

My second to last week in Central America I traveled south to visit my very good friend, Mike, who is a reporter in San Jose, Costa Rica. Mike needed to make a Visa run to Panama and I, obviously, wholly obliged. We visited an archipelago off the northern coast called Bocas Del Toro or "Mouth of the Bull" after a rough translation. A 5-hour bus ride, one hour taxi, and a 30 minute water taxi later we arrived on the main island of Colon. This is wear the majority of business is done and where the majority of the Spanish population resides. This is where Mike and I spent most of our days laying on the beach, sitting on a dock, or walking about this island or that. We managed to

spend one night and an island named Bastimentos and although the we were only located about 2-3 kilometers from Colon, this place felt, looked, and sounded like completely different country! Instead of a spanish population, everyone on the island was dark-skinned black. Instead of Spanish being spoke everywhere the official language there is Patua, a combination of Spanish, French Creole, and "satirical" forms of English. A common example of the language's satirical fashion is the use of the "money" or better known as "share" when speaking Patua.  

After returning to San Jose for a few days we also made our way to a resort in the northern region of Costa Rica called Termales del Bosque, or "Hot Springs of the Rain Forest." Situated near the mountainous town of Ciudad Quesada, the resort had natural volcanic hot spring pools under a three or four layer canopy jungle. This place was simply amazing and Mike and I took full advantage, wading around at night during small lightening storm, both our mentalities were obviously not in favor of using our discretion but rather savoring a fine moment and setting worry aside. The

experience of visiting all three places was truly amazing and I find it incredible to have been able to receive a taste of Costa Rica and Panama. It is easy to see the polarities between Central America and the United States but it was even more educational to see the differences between urban and rural areas. Now that I look back and reflect upon it, the contrasts are most similar to regions right here at home, and the societal/cultural rules remain largely the same. 

I return to Roatan around the second or third week of November only to turn around and visit home for the holidays before beginning my full internship which is expected to last until the end of spring. But for right now it feels great to be home, with all of my friends and family. I will keep you all posted on my whereabouts when there is news to report as it looks as though my "journey" plans to continue for some time now.

Take care and God bless.

New Job and Moving Forward

Hello everyone!
I hope it hasn't been too long since my last post although I believe its been a week or two. I would say that I have really started to adapt to my surroundings here. To think I was only half-way through my trip a a fewdays ago! It honestly feels like a lot longer than that but I guess we are nearing almost a month abroad and time certainly has a way of sewing itself when you're at home.

I suppose the big news would be that I was able to land myself an internship! I honestly called the managing editor on a whims notice, got to talking, and was asked to start two days later. The publication is a monthly magazine covering the three main islands that surround a small portion just north of the Honduran mainland, however these are the only Islands. Roatan, Guanaja, and Utila. It's called the Bay Islands Voice and was started by a Masters of Journalism graduate from Mizzou six years ago. We have a small staff of four individuals including myself, which is pretty indicative of most periodicals in Central America, and cover almost every aspect of reportage. General news, sports, fashion, editorial, profile pieces, and investigative reporting as well as documentation. Here's a link:

I was thrown into the gauntlet on my very first day where I was asked to find what they call an "illustration," or as most photographers in the U.S. would describe as a feature photo. To those not familiar with this, basically you go FIND a photo, any photo! Something that is a current event or human interest. My Daily Iowan buddies should get a kick out of this... Two in one day guys! I admit, for the past few years in Iowa City I usually had a few fail safe shoots in mind. Here in Roatan it is a completely different situation. I can speak the language but not at as well as one needs when throwing a camera into the situation. And I reall have no idea where to go. I began to head down of the streets that looked a lot like the entrance to La Colonia, mud roads and scrap metal houses. Except I wasn't in La Colonia, I was in Los Fuertes, the industrial part of town. I was almost immediately berated by one of the locals there and whenever you hear a Spanish man yell at you and the phrase "Gringo" comes out, it's usually time to head elsewhere. I kept walking West and found a group of eight or ten people washing clothes in one of the dirtiest streams I've ever seen. I began to photograph these two boys that seemed to be enjoying the relief from the heat than actually washing anything and then noticed this young girl that was all business. She was clearly by herself and had no time for games. It still amazes me how quickly the youths here must grow to be adults, she couldn't have been more than 10 years-old. School for these kids is an option and usually a non existent one. Many children, if not most aren't in school. The public schools usually do a poor job, require outfits that most families cannot afford, and the private schools are incredibly expensive. The majority of children here in Roatan are left to toil, look after their younger siblings, or simply get into trouble.

I also shot a soccer match a couple days ago and the visual scenarios were incredible! Everything a traveling photographer dreams for: Dirt field, a bar in one of the fans sections with Latin music spewing from the inside, laundry hanging from the goalposts. I got into trouble because the majority of my shots were "feature" oriented and I had little action from the game itself.

Dad and I were able to buy a kitchen table and chairs for a friend, The Balle's (that's Balle, not Valle), and we delivered it the other day. The family was definitely surprised and happy that such a off-the-cuff requested was granted. I think Alex (the father of the house) had merely mentioned it to Dad one day. Needless to say the family was extremely grateful and invited us to lunch this last Sunday. Probably the best meal I've had since I arrived a month ago! Baked chicken, rice and mashed potatoes! Que Rico! The meal was delicious and the Balle's invited their extended family. We had a wonderful time and it was equally a wonderful meal! Dad has about two months of work for Alex come November so that should help.

Today I was at the office when news arrived that all civil liberties are now revoked for all of Honduras. As a journalist this news is disturbing. Also the fact that the Bay Islands Voice is one of two independent publications in Honduras, which includes the mainland. Nobody is sure what is going to happen with our publication in the next couple days as we go to print in 48 hours being a monthly magazine. I was also a bit worried because I was scheduled to start and investigative piece about the health affects of certain residents who live practically on top of one of two trash dumps in Roatan. However this action was relented the next morning when Michelette offered an apology for the hasty decision so I was able to go and shoot without worry! I was speaking with a colleague today and came to the conclusion that although photographing in a developing country is difficult because of the language barrier, people here are not so concerned with their privacy as are Americans. These people literally live in garbage and were not ashamed to have their photograph taken. Anyone living in the same conditions in the States would either physically remove me or themselves from the situation. They understood and I made clear that: I was not their to exploit, but to expose serious health risks in the largely unregulated world that is Central America.

I hope that everything is going well for everyone back at home. How about those Hawkeyes! I was able to watch the game with Dad on Saturday night and was so very proud to be one of the black and gold! I'm off to Costa Rica and Panama tomorrow to visit with my best friend Mike who writes for a newspaper in San Jose called the Tico Times! So excited!

God bless and much love!