Thursday, April 30, 2009

Finding Cinea - Amapala Honduras

I started writing this story about Cinea ten years ago after Tim and I returned from our journey on board Capella. Last week, we stopped in Amapala, Honduras in the Gulf of Fonseca to see if we could find Cinea, a girl that we had taken sailing with us. We found her and she was doing well, but first please read on…It's a little long.

Cinea’s brown eyes glistened when she took the helm of Capella, our 45-foot sailboat. At 17, she had a sense of the wind and quickly understood how to gently steer the boat by keeping the telltales on the jib parallel.

When I met her just a few days ago, she had a glazed look, like life was passing her by. We met because of her brother Antonio who grabbed the plastic bag of garbage accumulated from five days at sea as I stepped on the cement dock in Amapala, Honduras. Amapala is a port town located in Isla del Tigre in the Gulf of Fonseca. “I’ll throw it away for you,” Antonio offered. “Gracias,” I responded, happy to have such a courteous welcome. The ten year old boy stuck to our side like a hungry dog.

Inserted along the Pacific coast, the Gulf of Fonseca is known as the forgotten middle because most sailing boats opt to forget about this area of the world and sail straight to Costa Rica. Here in the Gulf, three countries, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras, merge together. During the Contra War in the 1980s, the tension amongst the countries used to be as thick as the same April smoke that now fills the air. Today’s air is cloudy from the burning of vegetation. Today, April 1998, instead of flying bullets, fishing boats buzz the waters. The water is where the action lies.

At the pier, men with worn cowboy shoes sit at the bench staring, laughing, smoking, drinking and passing their day. They are without work because cargo ships no longer frequent the town and, since the Contra war is over, the American CIA no longer lives on the top of the volcano. Children run around barefoot and throw fishing lines in search of dinner. The wide cobblestone streets remind the town of its thriving days as a port; but that’s just a reminder. Today, it feels like someone sucked the oxygen out of the air, leaving the people and children to whither up like dried apples.

Following protocol, we bring our boat’s papers and register with the port captain whose office is at the far end of the pier. He has been eagerly awaiting our arrival, perhaps since he saw us anchor early in the morning. Behind the wooden desk, he vigorously shakes my fiance’s hand and asks us how long we want to stay in his country. A few days, Tim tells him. We are en route to Costa Rica where we will keep the boat before returning to the states to get married. It costs us $75 for a visa, an unusually high price. The captain looks at our American passports enviously and then with his typewriter prepares our papers. Only a few sailing boats have ever visited Amapala, so our presence and American dollars are welcome.

Antonio offers to escort us to the market. Together with several other young boys, we walk down the pier, up the cobblestone street and pass the yellow church to an open air concrete building. The women perched on the side of the street stare as we pass them. Inside the market, a few bananas, bruised tomatoes, tennis ball sized potatoes and one cabbage are displayed on the otherwise barren wooden tables. “Buy from me,” a petite yet aged woman nudges me. I pay her about fifteen cents for the barely edible cabbage. As much as I want fresh food, the withered goods dissuade me. What a contrast from the abundance of fruit we found in Mexico.

Antonio tells us that its possible to hike to the top of the volcano looming behind their town. He says it will take about three hours. We agree to meet at the pier the next day. We plan on leaving at 7 in the morning to avoid the mid-day heat.

The following morning, Antonio and two other young boys, Carlos and Ricky, meet us at the pier. Antonio grabs my backpack. Our walk takes us through the town, and past Antonio’s two room house. That’s where I meet his older sister, Cinea. She peaks out of her windowless room and rubs her eyes as if she had just woken up. Cinea had never climbed the volcano so she wants to join us.

As we hike the steep hill towards the top of the volcano, we sing songs in Spanish and take pictures. Cinea gives me a yellow flower and I place it behind my ear. I give her one for her ear. She grabs my straw hat and puts it on her head. Sometimes Ricky and Antonio hide behind bushes to try to scare us and we pretend to jump with fear. Carlos is climbing the steep gravel trail without any shoes, but it doesn’t seem to bother his feet. Tim and I teach them “Row, Row Row your boat” in English and they teach us “La Cucaracha” in Spanish.

La Cucaracha, La Cucaracha
lla no puede caminar
Por que la falta
Por que no tiene
una patita para andar

After about two miles, we reach the summit. We could see the remnants of the CIA base with its dilapidated wooden structures. One of the shacks has the words “N2 Operation” stenciled on it.

I imagine the confidential information being passed around all in the hopes of keeping Communism from spreading northward to the United States. What did we gain from this war? Did we turn people into cockroaches with our fear of Russia and Cuba taking over? The air at the peak was thick, blanketing our view. Even though we couldn’t see El Salvador and Honduras, the walk with these kids brought clarity. Like all kids, they were curious and wanted to play. When we arrived back in town, we stopped at the sweet shop and bought everyone ice cream. The children didn’t want to leave us, so we invited them to visit our boat and go for a sail.

The men at the pier stare enviously when our gang hops into our small dinghy that we use to shuttle to our sailboat. They were curious and awed by our boat. Tim and I were eager to take them for sailing and teach them about the wind and the water. Cinea took the wheel and suddenly she came to life. She looked strong and self-confident. She had talent, and understood quickly how to head the boat up and fall off with the wind.

Back in town that night, Cinea met up with us as we were eating dinner in one of the outside shacks. She asked if she could come with us to Costa Rica. Tim took one look at me and we both agreed. “Si.”

We thought it would be great idea, a way to show her another world, a way for us to improve Spanish. I was especially keen because of her raw talent as a sailor. But first she needed a passport. We had to take her to Tegucigalpa, the capital, to get her one. That was more than four hours away. Tim and I were willing and wanted to give her a chance.

Ricky’s father agrees to drive us to the city to get Cinea a passport. The town buzzes with excitement over the opportunity for one of them to sail off with the gringos. Cinea, her mother, and a few others join us on the long journey to the capital city. First, we take a panga to San Lorenzo and then we drive about three hours through the hills to the crowded city. We arrive at the passport office just before lunch and the uniformed government worker instructs us to get a lawyer to prepare papers since Cinea was a minor, only seventeen and not eighteen. We succeed with bureaucracy and return to Amapala with passport in hand. Our plan is to leave the following day.

We pick Cinea up at the pier and Tim, Cinea and I return via dinghy to our boat. At first we had trouble bringing the anchor up because it was caked with mud. Cinea’s mother, brother and what seemed like half the town stood on the pier waving. They waved, I started the engine. Cinea waved back. Tim tried to hoist the anchor. They waved. Then finally we broke free of the mud and Tim hauled up our 40 pound anchor. Most boats have an anchor windless which is an electrical machine that helps bring up the heavy anchor, but because our boat was a racing boat, we decided not to clutter the deck.

Cinea came back and took the wheel. She glowed with wonder and perhaps some fear as she waved good-bye to her town. We sailed with Cinea for four days straight all the way to Costa Rica. Sailing for a long period of time is a little like having a baby. Both sound romantic. Both take months of preparation. Both have incredible moments surrounded by routine and monotonous times. At sea, the wide Pacific Ocean swells keep moving for what seems like forever. Often there is nothing to see out at the horizon except more swells and more skies. Days blend together, only to be broken up with the night sky.

Everything for Cinea was new, and she wanted to learn. However, her eagerness slowed down and she slept more on the boat. She was too proud to tell me that she was getting sick and then it was too late for me to give her seasick pills. We sailed through gale winds and Cinea slept.

When we reached Costa Rica, Cinea wanted to return to her windowless house, a house so frail it could easily collapse in a storm. Her mother was a part time maid and she thought she would also become a maid. She never knew her father. But she wanted to go home. I took her to the bus stop in Liberia, Costa Rica and gave her a strong and sorrowful hug. Life at sea isn’t for everyone, and we had endured a difficult journey. As she settled into her seat in the bus and waved from the window, I wondered whether she was also saying good-bye to her ambition to see the world? What about my ambition to give her legs to walk, to change her life?

Last week, when we arrived in Amapala we asked about Cinea and people remembered us. One man took us straight to her big house and we spent the next two days with her and her vivacious six year old daughter, Angie. Cinea married an American and is waiting for papers to return to Florida. Cinea, Antonio, Tim and I also hiked to the top of the volcano. It was much more strenuous than I had remembered. This time we had a clear view of the surrounding islands.

Here's Cinea on board Kamaya.

Cinea had a motorcycle and she took the kids around the island. Here she is with Kai and her daughter Angie.

Here's Cinea and Antonio goofing around on our hike up the volcano.

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