I traveled to and returned from Paradise this week. After catching one bus to San Pedro Sula, another bus from San Pedro to La Ceiba, an overpriced taxi ride with an incompetent taxista from La Ceiba to Nueva Arminia, and after a night in Nueva Arminia, a wet ride in a fishing boat, I arrived with two friends in the tranquillo community of Chuchauate in Cayos Cuchinos, a small group of islands off the coast of Honduras.
Turquoise waters, clear skies, hammocks, happy children playing with crabs, coral reefs full of fish taken straight out of Finding Nemo (including a couple of baracuda that sent me swimming quickly to shore) – it is all there in Chuchauate. There are approximately 50 homes on the island that is not larger than a football field, and the residents of the island are friendly beyond belief. The children are happy and full of energy, eager to learn new games and to build sandcastles along the shore. Days are spent snorkeling, laying in the sun and eating heaping plates of beans, plantains, rice and fish while watching the fishermen set off in their long and colourful canoes to catch fish and lobsters.
It doesn’t get much more perfect than this. When staring out at the island gems edged in white sand, set against a backdrop of clear blue skies and waters of a million shades of green and blue, the islands look as perfect as a contrived backdrop in a cheap photography studio. “Tropical Paradise” is the name of the backdrop, and it looks primed to have a harried gaggle of a family posed before it, hands folded nicely in laps or on one another’s shoulders, smiles contrived, clothed in Sunday best.
And perfect it is. Until, that is, the mascara incident. After some quality snorkeling time in the coral reef surrounding the island (did I mention that this place is perfect??) my friends set the snorkeling mascara rented out from the family we were staying with on the beach while showing a giant hermit crab to the kids. A few children who had been catching fish just off the shore started playing with the snorkeling gear, and after the bustle of sunbathers left the beach it became evident that the mascara had miraculously acquired legs, walked into the sea, and taken up residence in an unoccupied hermit crab shell, determined to enjoy the beauties of the coral reef for all of eternity without being subjected to being pulled, prodded and washed in spit by visiting tourists. At least, such was the only plausible solution to the fact that after walking through the village several times to ask if anyone had seen the mascara, nobody seemed to know where it could be. Each child instantly accused a friend of having taken the mascara. When approached, said friend would then accuse another friend of having it. Mothers of the accused children developed walls of defensiveness when asked if they had seen the mask, also placing the blame someone else's child.
According to the women we were staying with, dishonesty reigns supreme on the island when it comes to the children. The adults are fine – if an adult is caught stealing they are not allowed to stay the island. But the children learn at an early age that if they take something from a tourist, their parents will pretend not to see the stolen object to avoid the embarrassment of acknowledging that their child stole something.
We eventually gave up on the search and paid to replace the elusive mascara. Emotions ran high when I walked with a local island resident to question other islanders with as much delicacy as possible, knowing that bitterness that arises in a community the size of a football field have a tendency to fester. The snorkeling gear had dominated a portion of the day. Although still dazzlingly beautiful, the waters did not seem quite as bright, nor the sand quite so pristine as it had when we first landed.
Why is it that we gravitate towards Paradise? Why do we daydream about turquoise waters in the midst of January greys, spending hours scanning the internet for good deals on flights to tropical destinations? Why do we contrive to establish paradise around us, wearing fake smiles and putting on our Sunday best? Does this Paradise even exist?
The missing mascara reminded me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is not exactly surprising; it is remarkable how often daily life reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In the sonnet “God’s Grandeur” Hopkins exuberantly writes about the beauty of the natural world, writing “the world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” But a tone of mourning enters the poem when a couple of lines later he mourns that “generations have trod, have trod, have trod; and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.”
Sometimes the existence of humanity feels more like a smudge upon the face of the earth, when we smear our bickering and selfishness across the glorious backdrop of God’s creation. And yet we are drawn to natural beauty like moths to flame. Like moths surrounding a candle or a lamp on a summer's evening, our presence rarely augments the beauty that is already there. I think that it is not a coincidence that tropical paradises are not infrequently the setting of books like The Life of Pi and Lord of the Flies, in which the sometimes harshness of humanity is juxtaposed alongside of tropical beauty.
I think that yet again Gerard Manley Hopkins grasps this idea in another poem, “Spring.” After describing the richness and beauty of Spring he questions and answers, “What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden.” We are drawn to beauty like moths to flame, risking safety and security in the attempt to experience something of a glory we can only remember.
It has been about a month since my last blog post. This is a bit of a clue as to how much free time I have had lately. To give an update, I am over halfway through my penultimo day in Honduras; I leave for the San Pedro airport bright and early on Wednesday. It is going to be a tough departure, but I am going to leave with the knowledge that everywhere on this earth, whether a tree-lined street in Vancouver or an island in the Caribbean, is filled with the glorious "strains of earth's sweet being in the beginning in Eden garden." No place is going to fully live up to the memory of Eden garden - we humans carry too baggage for that - but at the very least I can strive to continue to listen to those strains wherever in the world I am.