Pirate Chic
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

Drifting across the island of Roatan and the other former buccaneer haunts of Honduras, an anti–fashionista finds solace in a land of washed–ashore people wearing thrown–together outfits on tranquil beaches.

My definition of a true scholar is someone who knows how to play an intellectual…but doesn't. As well—because, unless coerced, most of my outfits are still on a road trip—I enjoy rationally critiquing the fashion trade to redefine fashionably late … easy for a guy who still thinks waterbeds and beanbag chairs are cool. If you have to ask what's hip, you're not.

Aware that my wardrobe doesn't quite leap from stylish genre to genre, I'm tranquil on the Caribbean island of Roatan, Honduras' bootlegger paradise, where reverse innovators entrust Pirate Chic: clashing outfits and lifestyles patched together from different parts of the world as if the ensemble had washed ashore with mixed driftwood, or was looted from random chests. Duds you can sleep in; wake–up 'n get–up.

Roatan's Buccaneer Bravado
Relaxed Roatan (or Roatán technically) is the largest of Honduras' three Bay Islands. 40 miles long and five miles at its widest, it's surrounded by the Mesoamerican Barrier reef, the largest in the Caribbean Sea—which is the second largest worldwide after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. An aquamarine dream: idyllic beaches teem with inviting accommodations, tempting beach bars, and magical snorkeling or dive spots. The interior is craggy mountains covered in jungle. Everything smells fertile, and the friendly people talk like pirates.

European colonialism delivered an array of DNA–ready characters to the Bay of Honduras, whose flair still paints the region. Settlers–at–large, pirates, castaways, traders and militarists stimulated an economy, and political tensions between Spain and Britain, establishing Roatan as a popular sea traveler landfall. Britain, keen to cockblock Spain's Caribbean takeover (and on a mission to globally export biscuits, tea, cricket, bizarre humor, and driving on the wrong side of the road), strategically set up shop here between 1550 and 1700. Meanwhile, British, French and Dutch pirates nested the same harbors, intent on looting Spanish cargo vessels bulky with New World gold and treasures.

Captain Morgan

Iconic Henry Morgan, the Welsh privateer sea captain cum Caribbean pirate/king also chose Roatán in the mid 1600s when as many as 5,000 similar self–styled businessmen thrived here. Morgan, the Captain Morgan Rum global spokesmodel, continues inspiring party animals worldwide with his slogan "Got a little Captain in You?" Today, a few wayward captain types still lurk about.

An encyclopedic rendering of a waterway outlaw declares: Piracy is a war–like act committed by a nonstate actor, especially robbery or criminal violence committed at sea, on a river, or sometimes on shore, either from a vessel flying no national flag, or one flying a national flag but without authorization from a national authority.

…Sound like the tie–wearing actors who pillaged Wall Street? Money Apocalypto.

Big–league piracy is also back in vogue in Africa's notorious Gulf of Aden. In another tropical zone 12,000 miles from Central America, I learned of an open–water defense tactic against piracy in a hidden cove in the Mergui Archipelago, an epic sprinkling of islands off the Andaman coast of Burma (Myanmar). I met families of Moken sea gypsies, floating nomads living on an ancient–design, palm–thatched roof and sail canoe–boats made from hollowed–out trees. Their mini Noah's Arks are still fleeing from ethnic cleansing, dynamite reef fishing, land resettlement, "education," and modern pirates. Moken philosophy focuses on pride in the face of scarcity. The arks, called kabangs, symbolize the ownership of nothing—a formalized "letting go"—that use identical scroll designs on the bow and stern to illustrate the digestion mouth–to–exit process that holds onto nothing permanently. This sapient design also announced to pirates through the centuries, "We have nothing to steal."

…Perhaps like amusing a modern day mortgage broker–matey by rapidly opening and closing your empty wallet like it can't stop laughing.

Welcome to the set of Treasure Island
1700–1730, before America ditched foreign rule, were also considerable pirate years on Roatan, when romanticized felons ran free. Their descendants still don't worry about silly trends, and at least one feminine glass ceiling has shattered—open–toed sandals and skimpy T–shirts showcase hot. Contemporary lady–pirates, er, spicy Morganettes, seem drawn to handsome outlaws with little regard for a clean shave. Inclinations, I hear, that can dent the purse…

"They're cute but they never pay for women's drinks…or their own." – Female expatriate on dive shop pirates

Hey, maybe she's got a little Captain in her?

Pirate lingo and accents link to Scots–English, with songlike rings evoking Old English—the Germanic version of English before the Norman Invasion. It seems that pirates seized globalization long ago. Honduran swashbuckling suave is colorblind to racism and enjoys a signature personality ease. It combines gypsy styling, inspiration from rogue expat grunge, gut–level Rasta mons, luxury travelers, and the cruise ship day–tripper's blaze. Roatan is a heaven for a range of personalities ranging from wenches (the bodice type), yuppie runaways, permasailors, and cinchers (the handcrafted leather variety worn round the waist). Local needn't hijack somebody else's idea of style. I spotted brightly–dressed cruiser day–trippers in search of a tortilla; lucky for them, there's not a chumbucket in sight here.

Pirates hate rules. I asked a shirtless dude wearing overalls and a collection of tattoos that culminated as a world map, "Overall over?" Dragging deeply on a finger–rolled cigarette and peering upon the horizon he sighed, "Nah, not here." When a megawatt sailing cruiser glided by he winced, suggesting, "Maybe over there?"

Arriving late for breakfast at a posh resort aside, my closest mimic of pirate–style menace was zip–lining, a solo flight over and through mountainside jungle canopy using cables and pulleys to migrate between 12 excellent treehouse platforms. Hard to look cool since you resemble a helplessly dangling kitten being carried by the back of its neck in mommy's mouth. Tis fun though. When a bug flew into my eye, in mid–flight approaching the ninth treehouse platform, I arrived with one eye closed—a metaphoric eye patch. Aye.

While most of us board flights home after an adventure, sailing scripts a pirate's destiny. Self–righteous pirate chic aligns your ship—and outfit—with nothing earthly, steering by nonphysical markers and going with instinct, not ones hammered home by stodgy European Kings or Madison Avenue. Go ahead, unleash your inner pirate…on a majestic, wandering ship that's built to last.

Bootleg Styling isn't about flags, fabrics, vacuum toilets, or labels, it's what you do with them.

"It is, it is a glorious thing. To be a Pirate King" – Roatan nonstate actor and bartender, emulating W.S. Gilbert, 1879

Garifuna girls

Deported to Paradise
In 1635, two Spanish ships transporting slaves to the West Indies shipwrecked near the Windward Caribbean Island of St. Vincent. The escaped slaves were welcomed and protected by the local Carib Indians. Their intermarriage formed the Garifuna people, who remained on the island and traded with the French. In 1797, with sugar plantation fever, the British took control of St. Vincent, defeating the pro–French Garifuna and deported them to Roatán, the island off the Honduran coast.

Most of those Black Carib refugees, whose chance–meeting mixes the ancestry of South American rainforest dwelling Arawak with African Maroons, soon left Roatan and settled along the North Coast of Honduras. These first permanent post–Columbian settlers set the foundation of modern Garífuna culture—broad–smiling people who make celebrity–style cool look easy. There are currently 98,000 Garifuna in Honduras, living in 43 communities along the Caribbean shoreline.

This burst of radical originality, a chance meeting mixing black blood, created a new language, new customs, and a new New Year's dance. The yancunu dance style is similar to that of South American rainforest Indians, and to music originating in West Africa—a blending phenomenon akin to the Partridge Family performing speed metal.

On his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502, Columbus reached the Bay Islands and initially named a nearby North Coast town Guaymuras, and then generalized that name to identify the entire colony. The Spanish ruled the region for three centuries, during which a clock built by twelfth century Moors was relocated to the Cathedral of Comayagua in 1636. It's the oldest functioning clock in the Americas. The U.S. also towed in a cultural icon, an airbase with a 10,000–foot runway for huge cargo planes.

Honduras is more than a melting pot; it's re–melted pots. Their National Anthem resulted from a contest won by a Honduran poet in 1904 and scored by a German composer. So their battle–hymn sounds like college football halftime music. They play the anthem before, during and after football matches in stadiums, bars, homes and huge fields full of foldout chairs so people can watch en masse on big screens. Their arch enemies, sports–wise, are Costa Rica and Mexico. Somewhat unrelated, but I feel like mentioning it since we're melting pots, two local sisters were ping pong medalists in the last Olympics.

Before leaving the North Coast of Honduras, I met a Garifuna man on the beach wearing a cap, clutching a fishing pole, toasting a canned beer, and testifying to the miracle of a Honduras beach sunset. With noteworthy congeniality, he flashed a classic Central American smile, removed his cap with the fishing pole, and nodded to say…

"Pride needs no flag."


If you go: visit www.letsgohonduras.com

Bruce Northam's roaming continues on www.americandetour.com

Related stories:

Do More With Less: Survival, Then Surviving Scotch by Bruce Northam
The Original Boondocks by Bruce Northam
Subdued by Street Vendors by Darrin DuFord

Other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives

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