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Honduras: Lake placid

The peace and quiet of a sleepy Garifuna fishing village is broken only by a deadlier silence…

Honduras: Lake placid
Garifuni fishermen. Image: James Draven

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It’s silent. It’s that especially loud, oppressive silence that only becomes tangible once an incessant noise you’ve become accustomed to… stops. Like a clock’s pendulum caught mid-swing, the cessation of cicadas or, in this case, an outboard motor’s thudding thrum sputtering out in the middle of a lake. That intense, deafening silence you hear when that lake is full of crocodiles and you’re left without a paddle, proverbial or otherwise.

Silence has pervaded my trip to Miami Village on the northern coast of Honduras to meet the Garifuna people, a community descended from Caribs who intermarried with Africans after a slave-ship wreck in 1675.

At first the only sound was the patter of precipitation on palm fronds. Then, as I padded from my van along the beach towards the small collection of thatched huts that make up the settlement, the timpani of my flip-flops, catapulting wet sand up my rain-soaked calves, mingled with the percussion of raindrops.

All else was still. Windows shuttered. The interpretive centre – a museum incongruous in such a diminutive, ramshackle village – did little to shed light on the culture of the entirely absent locals, because the door was bolted and the artefacts apparently elsewhere.

To the right of this spit of land, the sea lazily caresses cream-coloured sand, while barely a stone’s throw to the left, a brackish lake hugs the shore. Here, I found fishing boats and a couple of oblivious piscators packing up their nets. They’re the last few stragglers.

The men here fish all night and sleep all day, so when the sun makes its glorious appearance – along with the women who start busying themselves in the kitchen block, frying plantain and fish – most of the men can be seen sleeping in hammocks, if they’re seen at all.

Except for my taciturn guide. While the last of the fishing vessels are being pulled ashore, he’s languidly pushing our small wooden motorboat out onto the lake. We don’t take oars.

We don’t need them. Our propeller speeds us into the midst of an extraordinarily large flock of cormorants, portentously bobbing on the lake in their thousands before taking flight and enveloping us in a cacophonous maelstrom of beating wings, just like an Old Testament harbinger of doom.

Cackling to himself, my captain eases off the throttle as we come to the forest of mangroves we’re here to admire. As the engine’s high-pitched drone slows, he identifies aspects of the trees’ roots that puncture the water’s surface, as well as the gnarled crocodilian forms that spike the atmosphere with menace.

And then the engine’s deep chopping stops. All is still.

My guide yanks the starting cord over and over until it tangles in the machinations. Bracing himself with a foot on the hull, he tugs it with all his might and the cable shears, leaving him clutching a plastic toggle and six inches of frayed rope.

Paddling using one’s hands is only advisable to those who are happy to lose countless digits to the obliging crocodiles. The lake is devoid of other vessels; the fishermen are all asleep. We’re stranded.

Twenty minutes pass. From amid the tangled trunks, a dark shape in the water snakes, slowly and purposefully, towards us. Under the shade of the mangrove its form is unrecognisable, until it breaks the surface tension and a man’s face appears on our bow, one hand clutching a harpoon.

The spear-fisher goggles at us, dumbstruck, as if we’re the crazy ones.

He produces a mobile phone from a waterproof bag and calls for help. A long boat, filled with sombre women and tight-lipped children, chugs towards us. I cheer as they throw us a towline. They’re as mute as our snorkel-gagged saviour, and the crocs that silently slide from the banks into the water with him.

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