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Tokens of A Visitor's Affection
In Special Places, Souvenirs Beckoned. Till Mitch Came Along.

By Diane Selkirk
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 30, 2006; C08

I remember planning what I would collect years ago on our Central American sailing trip. Nothing could cost very much. Everything had to be small enough to be packed away easily on our sailboat. My goal was to gather unique souvenirs from each place we visited, to take every memory with me.

We met the Mayan weaver in a smoky, ancient Guatemalan market at dawn. "My weaving is best," she said in halting Spanish. I examined her work; the blue tones shifted gently through an ocean of shades. The piece was impeccable, but I couldn't afford to offer her enough for it. We saw her often through the day and each time she asked if we had seen nicer work. No, we told her, but the price was still too high. We were not trying to bargain; we were trying not to insult her skill. As the day ended she found us again and held out the weaving. "My son is hungry," she said, her soft eyes locked on mine. We bought the blue tapestry with money we had intended for a side trip.

The carved alabaster mask tells a different story. Its etched face calls to mind an intense tropical storm on a beach in Mexico. We ran from the rain into a beachside palapa. A band played, and elegant, elderly Mexicans filled the dance floor. Rain began to pour through the roof and then the lights went out. Still the band played while waiters balanced candles and held umbrellas over the dancers.

In each new place I would get to know the area and the people, then search for the perfect souvenir to represent them. Despite my efforts, my collection ended up incomplete. Well-loved dusty villages and picturesque harbors were not represented in any tangible way.

Yet somehow my connection to these faraway places endures. I discovered this first when the whirling mass of a Category 5 hurricane called Mitch encompassed one of the small places I had come to love. In late October 1998, Mitch destroyed 75 percent of the buildings and took at least 14 lives in a place the news reports called "the Caribbean tourist resort of Guanaja in the Bay Islands of Honduras." The news reports moved on but my thoughts didn't. Safe in a harbor far north, I drifted back to a dot on the map that was being battered by wind, rain and seas. And to people, whose faces I could clearly recall, who were in danger.

Guanaja, where a unique brand of "Caribbean English" is widely spoken, had welcomed us when we pulled into harbor a few days before Christmas. The ramshackle town of Bonacca, with its tightly packed houses, narrow wooden walkways and crisscrossing canals, overwhelmed a tiny cay. There were no cars and most people owned small boats for transportation. The day we arrived the settlement teemed with people out preparing for the holiday. Children dressed in frightening costumes of tattered sheets and soot makeup carried switches and sticks. When I didn't know to drop a coin or a candy in the inverted bottomless bleach bottle, they yelled something frightening (if incomprehensible) and playfully whacked at me. The adults discouraged them from being too hard on us, "the tourists." We didn't know their ways, they said. They told the children they might frighten us. We laughed and joined the melee.

Christmas came and went and the walkways filled with children and their new toys. After a time, the ancient and perplexing Old English accent eased into a comfortably understood cadence. We accepted rides in steam'n dories and I checked out my new haircut in a looking glass. We settled on favorite hangouts and I found myself in the more out-of-the-way stores -- always in search of the perfect souvenir. We learned which days to come to town for new vegetables, and when the baker would have fresh cinnamon rolls.

The port captain shared with us his vision for the island's future, the efforts to keep the town and its canals clean of garbage, and the movement to educate the locals in the hope of saving the fish life on the reefs and the iguanas in the hills. We hiked to the highest hill and looked down over the island, the settlement on its tiny cay, and our boat lying peacefully at anchor. The ocean all around had never before seemed so big.

I never found a souvenir in Bonacca. There were no local artisans and the tiny stores didn't carry what one shopkeeper called "impractical folk crafts." I remember feeling disappointed.

News reports of disasters detail lives lost and estimates of devastation. They tell of tourists fleeing and locals evacuating, and describe wind strength and wave height. But as disturbing as these numbers and images are, it took knowing this place, walking the pathways and chatting with the people, to make the news of Hurricane Mitch more than just statistics. In my imagination I still see this small village. I picture water overflowing the canals and ruining the old Victorian houses, destroying the businesses and taking some of the valuable faces from my memories.

Traveling has made the world smaller and every place infinitely more precious. We have friends whose home port is "Planet Earth," according to their boat's transom, and after years of journeys I am beginning to understand what this means. Caring about the small places of the Earth will not alter the destructive path of hurricanes. But knowing in my heart that behind each unfamiliar name and dramatic statistic is a special place filled with wonderful people has changed me.

We returned to the Bay Islands the year after Mitch. Bonacca was being rebuilt and the other islands were recovering. I explored the tiny shops and enjoyed the rhythm of the familiar island dialect but, this time, I didn't shop for souvenirs. There is nothing more I want from the places I visit. Now I simply want to give back.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company