Who Am I?

My photo
A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

29 March 2007

Problems and more problems...it never ends

No, I haven’t been posting lately. Some have told me they check my blog every day for updates, so I feel kind of bad. There are always good excuses why we bloggers don’t post. I won’t bore you with mine other than to say that I put a lot of time and effort into each post, and I haven’t had a whole lot of spare time and effort lately.

The helicopter needed the equivalent of open-heart surgery. Our mechanic was working overtime. Adding to that, being out here in the epicenter of Nowheresville makes it hard to get things done when you don’t have the proper tools.

It was weird, too, because I had just been bragging that in the eight months we’ve had the ship down here, and the 100+ hours it’s flown, we have not had a single, solitary problem that has put us “down” for longer than about one hour. Which is pretty incredible for any helicopter. And ours had been a pretty reliable bird up until that point. Not that it’s become unreliable, but helicopters are horribly maintenance-intensive devices.

I had hoped to have a mechanic from the factory come down to assist in the surgery. But you know how that goes. We were on our own. Needless to say, things did not go well. Let’s just say that Mr. Murphy and his laws were in full effect: Whatever could go wrong, did. But things got done, we buttoned ‘er up, and the post-maintenance shakedown flight went well. In fact, the ship flies noticeably better now! (The degradation of flying quality had been slow and subtle, and I didn’t really notice anything was amiss for a while.)

…And then we got grounded again. But not because of maintenance issues.

To fly a foreign-registered aircraft (which ours is) in Honduras, one must have the appropriate permit. If you are only staying for a short time, you can procure from your airport-of-entry a permit good for one week, renewable. Since we planned on keeping our helicopter here for a while, we sought and were issued a six-month permit. But this had to come from Teguc. (That was an ordeal in itself, you may remember).

We started the renewal process more than a month prior to expiration – we thought that would be sufficient time. Wrong! This is Honduras. Our attorney in Tegucigalpa kept assuring us that we would have our permit before the current one expired. We didn’t. Suspecting the usual foot-draggin delay, I tried to get the Roatan airport to issue me a one-week "temporary" just-in-case permit to bridge the period between the old and new ones, but was met with a stone wall of resistance. "Oh, we cannot do that," the man in the Flight Plan office said. "You already have a valid permit." Well yes, but it will expire very soon. "Well I cannot extend your six-month permit. That must be done in Tegucigalpa." Uh-huh. Whether he was being deliberately uncooperative or just extra-careful in his duties, I could not tell.

One of the problems is that nobody wants to actually act or do anything in Honduras; nobody wants to take responsibility and nobody wants to go out on a limb. It is a nation of paranoid scaredy-cats who will only do things if their boss approves. Trouble is, every boss has a boss, and up the line you go!

So my permit expired on Monday and here it is Thursday and I do not yet have my new one. Oh, they keep insisting that it’s “been issued,” but it hasn’t. There are always little complications…typos…wrong signatures…the guy who was supposed to sign it didn’t come to work today…blah blah blah. But it’s “been issued.” I was assured that I would have it on Tuesday for sure. Then Wednesday, absolutely! Then today, no doubt about it. But it is already going on noon as I write this and there has been no word. I don’t like being a pessimist, but if I get this permit today I will be very, very surprised.

The worst part is that we have some (four) guests in Roatan that had intended to bring to our cay just for the day today. As you may know, there are no flights from Roatan to Guanaja (no boats either). First you have to go to La Ceiba, the Atlanta of Honduras (San Pedro Sula is Dallas), change rinky-dink planes and then come up to Guanaja. The airlines say there is no demand for direct service from one island to the other.

My boss gets understandably aggravated at the lack of cooperation from the government. “We should just take the damn helicopter back to the States,” he growls. But he doesn’t mean it (at least, I hope he doesn’t). “They don’t seem to care how much good you try to do.” The sad thing is, that part is true.

Sure, I’ve done fifteen medevac flights, airlifting seriously ill people (and some not-so-seriously ill people) down to the mainland for treatment that is just not available here. We’ve made the helicopter available to Guanaja as a public service. We’ve taken up photographers from national magazines so they can get incredible aerial photographs of our beautiful islands for their articles that will promote tourism and development here (see the May or June issues of Sport Diver and Islands Magazines). All of this FOR FREE. We do not ask for nor expect any remuneration or compensation. My boss does it because he is an incredibly generous man. But to the people in government in Tegucigalpa this simply does not matter; they just do not care. Tegucigalpa is not concerned the least little bit about the flyspeck Bay Islands. We are the bastard children of Honduras.

It is tough, frustrating and ultimately disappointing when you try to apply our United States standards of behavior and even thinking/reasoning to those in power in third-world countries. It just doesn’t work.

Which, come to think of it, could be the national motto here. “Honduras: It just doesn’t work.”

22 March 2007

Weighty Matters

We pilots take annual "flight physicals" administered by FAA doctors. When I took my last one back in July, I weighed-in at 193 pounds. It was summer, and I was wearing light clothes, so figure 190 just out of the shower. Heavier than I'd like to be; heavier than I ought to be.

I'm a good cook. The reason is simple. I love to eat! And when you live alone the choices become: 1) Eat out a lot; 2) Learn to cook. When it comes to fast food, I'm no fan of McDonalds or Burger King, but I do like Wendy's in the assumption that it is somehow "healthier." (It won't be the last time I was mistaken.)

Now, as good as those fine chefs at Wendy's are, they just don't seem to put the kind of love into their food that you or I would at home. Plus, cooking is fun! It's incredibly rewarding when you do it right, and you get to sample your "work" as you go. Which is how I ballooned up to 190 pounds at a height of 5'9".

I thought/hoped that moving to Guanaja would result in a healthier diet and weight loss. But we have this cook here... We're trying to figure out whether Daniel is a great baker who can cook, or a great cook who can bake. (They are two different things. As I said I'm a pretty good cook but conversely not a good baker.) Daniel's meals are always a sumptuous feast, and there's always a ton of food. Plus, he does like to load us up with desserts and stuff, and my willpower is not strong. I felt as though I not only hadn't lost any weight, but had actually gained some. Hell, the amount of rum alone that I've consumed should have caused a weight gain all by itself (rum being made from sugar cane, you see, and I always mix it with Coke).

So imagine my surprise when, back in Florida, I weighed myself and found....[drumroll, please]...179 pounds! Oh yeah, baby! People you haven't seen in a while always say things like, "Wow, you've lost weight!" but I assume they're just being nice. I can't exactly explain the weight loss. I guess my more-active lifestyle, combined with a healthier diet are working after all. And I'm happy about that.

Alas, life is not so simple. I was only in Pensacola for five days. The day we left to come back down to Guanaja, I weighed myself as I got out of the shower: 183. Four pounds in five days!? What the... How the... See? Back to my old ways for just a couple of days and the pounds start piling back on. Not good.

Conversely my buddy Matt, who always prided himself on his athletic body, now weighs 192. He's gone from a slim/lithe teenager to a (dare I say?) chunky young adult. Hunky to chunky is eight short years! Well okay, let's be fair - he's not "chunky." But he's definitely not the skinny kid I used to know when we first met. He's learned what we all learn sooner or later, that as an adult it is not easy to keep from gaining weight. Especially an adult who's working full-time, going to school and trying to raise two kids (so we can cut him some slack).

My goal is to get back down to 160. It might even be attainable...if we didn't have Daniel as our cook...and if there weren't so many Rum and Cokes to be drank...and if I can keep from going back to Pensacola and falling into my old habits. Like Wendy's.

21 March 2007

Home Again

Okay, so I'm back. Guanaja. Home. My little visit to Pensacola was a whirlwind of errands and unfinished business. Too short, not enough time to spend with friends. Got to drive a car again! It's been seven months. Not that you forget how, but it was just a little strange. Cooked up a storm! Fried up some plantains, but they didn't come out like Daniel's - too ripe, oil too hot. My promise of, "You'll never eat a french-fry again!" didn't exactly come true. That's the nice thing about living down here where the stuff is grown - it doesn't spend days or a week in transit between the farm and the store.

It's funny how acclimated you get to a place. I grew up in New York City, and we considered it quite normal. Then I moved to northwest Florida, and grew to like it immensely; didn't think I ever wanted to live anywhere else. Now I live on a tropical island and I never want to leave.

18 March 2007

A Vacation From Paradise?

Here I am, not in Guanaja. Behind me is the Pensacola Regional Airport. I came up for a few days, to take care of some unfinished business. The temperature is in the 60's. I am not a happy camper.

As I've mentioned, I grew up in New York City. We had four distinct seasons. Spring and Fall were beautiful. Summers were often hot and sticky; Winters could be brutally cold and miserable. Eh- we coped...we enjoyed the differences. We knew that as bad as the weather might be at the moment, it would soon be changing.

Moving south to Pensacola, Florida was incredible. There are really only two seasons in sub-tropical northwest Florida: Hot and not-so-hot. I really considered it paradise. After a cold front passage, winter days do occasionally get pretty nippy (30's or 40's) but it quickly warms back up. I got used to the benign climate (no snow to shovel!). I'd go to the beach if it was above 60 as long as the wind wasn't too strong.

My family in New York always wanted me to visit during the holidays. Every time I'd go, I'd hate it. Living in the south must have thinned my blood. Finally, I had to tell my family that if they wanted me to visit ever again, they'd have to move Christmas to July.

I was looking forward to coming back to Pensacola this time, even for just a few days. But as soon as the plane's door opened after touchdown, an icy blast knifed through the cabin and made its way directly to the cockpit. Uh-oh. The temperature was "only" in the mid-60's. Dressed in my tropical clothes, I was cold, wishing I'd worn long pants. My friends Gene and Matt met the plane, looking as comfortable as if they were headed to the beach later. "Man, this is my kind of weather," Matt beamed. Maybe your kind of weather, Matt, but certainly not mine. I was shivering.

First item on the agenda was to head over to the Olive Garden restaurant for some of their wonderful Zuppo Toscana soup, hot breadsticks, and salad, washed down with copious quantities of their house red wine. Warms ya right up...got to love the Olive Garden! Second item was to head over to the rent-a-shed and grab my leather jacket out of storage and go buy some proper jeans.

If it doesn't warm up before I leave, I'm afraid I'm going to have to tell Matt and Gene that I'm not going visit P'cola again in any month that contains an "r" (with the possible exception of April). My blood must be even thinnerer now. All I want to do is get back to the island.

13 March 2007


I'm running out of people in Guanaja to piss off! Did it again last week. Wasn't even drunk, either. Okay, well I was in a bar - but I went there to eat, really! And aside from some great schnitzel, all I'd had were a couple of rum and Cokes. I mean, I wasn't even buzzed.

There's this new bar/restaurant here called Manati. It's owned by this guy named Hansito. Nice guy - although he has a somewhat legendary reputation for partying here in Guanaja (so it's good that he owns a bar!). Staffed behind the bar and in the kitchen by Annetta and her husband Klaus, they serve up some mighty good, authentic German food and drink with that typical Bavarian good cheer. And if any group of people knows how to have a good time, it's Germans! (Must have something to do with those HUGE, dark beers they drink.) I would say that they have a joie de vivre...if it wasn't a French term (is there a German equivalent?).

Our good friends Sharon and Mike Jones have a nice piece on Manati posted in their very interesting blog, Feather Ridge (www.featherridge.blogspot.com), which is worth a look.

In addition to that, Manati boasts a brand-new pool table, and an area set aside for a band. What a place! And in fact, a couple of nights ago they had one of their impromptu jam-sessions. Klaus was manning the upright bass, some new German guy I hadn't met was playing guitar and singing, and Ian was alternating between keyboard and drums. They sounded pretty good, too, once you got past the slightly-jarring sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes sung with a German accent.

"I'f zeen, zee bad moon rrrrri-zink,
I'f zeen, zee trrrrouble on zee vay..."

(I'm exaggerating, but you get the idea.)

Ian is British ex-pat...how he came to be here I do not recall. I met him at a party once and he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. And you know me: If I meet you once we are friends for life...or until I do something to piss you off. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Ian is talented, too. Heck, I wish I could play one musical instrument, much less two. That's pretty incredible.

It was a nice, multi-cultural crowd, maybe a little boisterous but you know how bars can be. Or maybe you don't. But they can, trust me. People were calling out requests. As usual, I was "sort of" heckling the band in that light-hearted, good-natured way I have that is so endearing.

Or so I thought.

I may have made a comment. I may have said something totally innocuous like, "Hey, the only thing worse than your keyboard player is your drummer!" You know, as I said, light-hearted and good-natured. But I didn't mean it! Did I cross a line? Don't answer that - it's a rhetorical question. I've been known to cross lines. Is it possible that I'm not as funny as I think I am after a couple of rum and Cokes? Don't answer that either. Shouldn't I have learned this by now? Okay, you can answer that one.

The thing is, this band that night wasn't really a "band." Bands that perform in public get used to audience, um, "interaction." These were just a couple of guys who play instruments and happened to be playing together. They didn't have an "act," or a stage persona. But they did have me in the audience. Look out!

Well anyway, Ian - don't ask me how - took my comment wrong. "You've got a big mouth!" he yelled angrily, dropping his drumsticks and storming over. Now, I've been in my share of bar-fights (okay, one, which is my share), and I'm thinking, "Where is this gonna lead? Bar-fight number two?" Well it didn't lead anywhere; Ian was just pissed.

After a while, he cooled down, came over and we both apologized and shook hands. Thankfully, we stopped short of the drunken, "I love you, man" hug (I hate that). He graciously (and cagily) invited me to play the keyboard while he accompanied on the drums. But I had to decline. I explained that while I love live music, I cannot play a note. But I really admire those who can.

I seem to have made a profession out of pissing people off. No - strike that - "profession" implies a thing someone one does during the "adulthood" part of their life. Me, I've been pissing people off all my life since birth (ask my siblings, ask my friends!) - and we're not entirely sure when the "adulthood" part is going to kick-in, if ever.

I've got to be careful though. If Ian and the mayor ever get together, we might find ol' Bob ridden out of town on a rail. Which would be quite a trick, considering that it would have to be an underwater rail line, and I don't think those have been invented yet.

I really have to try to be better. Seriously, I need to keep a lid on it. But it sure ain't easy for this gringo to adapt to this very foreign land.

11 March 2007

One Busy Friday

Fridays are usually hectic. This past Friday was especially so. For one thing, it's payday for the guys. But not only that, our airplane arrived with the boss, a bunch of guests and a whole planeload of parts, pieces and equipment we ordered from the States. It got in just before lunch.

Around 1:00 p.m. I got the call: Woman in Mangrove Bight, seriously ill, needs a helicopter flight to the mainland. Heart problem, I was told.

We've got this down to a science now. I quickly reconfigured the helicopter from passenger to stretcher (air ambulance), then hopped over to the airport to top-off the fuel tank. I did not ask a whole lot of questions, nor did I need to. They had some questions for me though.

"Can you pick her up on the dock in Mangrove Bight?" Yup, can do!
"Can you arrange for an ambulance to meet you at the airport in La Ceiba?" Yup, can do that too!

Patient Pickup

(I'm not sure why the above picture came out with no color. The next ones I took came out fine.) There we are, loading up an obese woman with "heart problems" and fluid in her stomach. I was lead to believe she was in worse shape than she was. In any event, it was probably better to fly her down in the helicopter than try to get her on one of the commuter flights.

I am constantly amazed at the strange places I am often asked to land - most of the time with little or no prior notice. Back in my former life, there's no way that I would land "off-airport" without going through a whole big procedure. Helicopters usually attract crowds, the police and the media. This is not always a good thing. Down here, the crowds still come but nobody seems to officially care. Land in that field down there? Sure! Swoop down and land on that little dock? Yepper! It's odd. And on the other hand, it's increcibly liberating. My previous life as a pilot was so structured and buttoned-down. It is refreshing to be able to go where I want and do what I want without worrying too much about the repercussions.

Patient Delivery

Look how different the weather is on the mainland! Looks like a completely different day. It is odd that Ceiba can be so rainy while the Bay Islands, only 40 or so miles north of the coastline get hardly any rain by comparison.

07 March 2007

Catch The Wind

Catching My Attention:

Recently, there was a television commercial for Volvo cars. Although I am a “car nut,” I remember little about the commercial specifically other than they used as the soundtrack a delicate, poignant song called “Catch The Wind” by a 1960’s folk artist named Donovan. Beautiful
song! Just his soft voice and an acoustic guitar for the first two verses:

In the chilly hours and minutes
Of uncertainty
I want to be
In the warm hold of your loving mind.

To feel you all around me
And to take your hand
Along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind.

Whoa. Take me back, country roads! Wow.

EDIT! Got to love YouTube! I found one of the very commercials of which I spea...er, write (there are others). Now, they don't use the entire first two verses, but you can get the idea.

I am a child of the ‘60s. And that song touched a nerve like you wouldn't believe...brought back a flood of fond memories that made me feel…I don’t know, all gooey inside. Like I say, I didn’t remember which car Volvo was advertising, only that it made me want one! And there isn’t even any place to drive one down here.

Donovan was one of the first single-name artists. He was touted to be England’s answer to Bob Dylan. Society seems to have some neurotic need to have a counterpoint to everything. A yang for every yin. If England had The Beatles, then America had to have our “answer to The Beatles” (although we didn’t). And we desperately search for these things, as if they have some meaning or importance (although they don’t).

But Donovan was never a Dylan. Donovan was a spacey hippy-dippy who sang dreamy, tender songs about the lost continent of Atlantis and electrical bananas. "Catch The Wind" was his first hit back in
1965. I'm surprised that no one has used it in a t.v. commercial before now.

But then, just yesterday the t.v. was on in the main house which is just one big, open kitchen/dining room/den. Our cook keeps the t.v. on constantly (it’s soooooo annoying) when I'm trying to work. I hear "Catch The Wind" and look up, expecting to see the Volvo commercial. Whaddya know, it is a commercial for yet another company that's using the song! (Hello, originality?) I don’t remember what product or company it was for, only that there was some kid bottling air at the seashore, then taking it on a long journey to his grandfather’s(?) birthday party to let it out. Who knows. I didn’t care; I wasn’t paying attention. I was mesmerized again by the snippet of that wonderful song.


I hate quoting other people’s blogs, but I found an interesting passage in Chuck Nyren’s Advertising To Baby Boomers blog:

"Purely anecdotal: I’m watching TV. I hear a tune I haven’t heard in thirty-five, forty years. My mind goes off into the ether. “Wow. What a great song. I’d forgotten all about it. I had the album. The cover was blue . . . And there were a bunch of other great songs on that album. What the hell were they? I can’t remember . . . I wonder if I can get it on Amazon. There’s probably only a compilation of his hits, or a boxed set. But I just want the CD of the album. I’ll have to remember to check the next time I’m online ..” By then, the commercial is over. In fact, probably three other commercials are over. I have no idea what the product is, or what any of the other products are."

Nyren hit the nail on the head (and although he didn't say it, it's like he's referring to the same commercial I'm talking about here). Advertising agencies are targeting us baby boomers big time. They think they’re being clever by using these “trigger” songs from our past, but a lot of time we just remember the song and not the product. I had to google the second commercial that used “Catch The Wind” to find out that it was an ad for G.E. (Love that instantaneous Google!)

There is a cruise line that uses punk-rock artist Iggy Pop’s relatively-obscure song, “Lust For Life” as its soundtrack. Everyone looks like they’ve having a wonderful time rock-climbing and jet-skiing to Iggy’s pounding, drum-heavy tune. It makes taking a cruise look thrill-a-minute exciting! But as many times as I've seen the commercial, do not ask me which cruise line it is for. Carnival? Royal Caribbean? Are there others? Your guess is as good as mine. I’m not a cruise kind of guy (you know me and boats…), but if I were, that spot would probably make me want to take one. Pity that the commercial didn’t register more firmly in my mind to make me want to take a trip on that particular cruise line. What are these advertising people thinking? That it’s “good enough” to get people merely thinking about buying a Volvo or taking a cruise? Isn’t product identity worth anything anymore?

There are those who don’t like the corrupting of our past: using old, iconic songs for crass, commercial purposes. To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about it. On one hand I agree that commercializing our musical heritage is wrong. But on the other, I hadn’t heard “Catch The Wind” in so long…and now it’s in rotation on my iPod, along with some other Donovan tunes that I fondly recall but had forgoten. So, is using such music in commercials bad? You couldn't prove it by me.

All I know is that I still want a damn Volvo.


By the way, while I’m at it here’s how Chuck Nyren’s expanded profile reads on his blog:

“Chuck Nyren is an award-winning advertising video producer, creative strategist, consultant, and copywriter focusing on The Baby Boomer Market. Chuck has been in advertising since before he was born - a true 'Madison Avenue Baby.' His grandfather Sid Schwinn was one of…”

Wait...didn’t he write that himself? Or did he actually get someone else to come in and ghost-write up a profile on HIS blog? I know I shouldn't make fun, but...

PET PEEVE TIME: It really irks me when people refer to themselves in the third-person. Are you that egotistical? I’m sorry, but it would be like my profile reading:

“Bob Barbanes has been in aviation since before he was born. His father was a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, flying everything from
F-4U Corsairs in WWII to jets to helicopters during the Korean Conflict. Bob loves to fly. He has owned ten motorcycles, and his favorite foods are red beans and rice and key lime pie. And this is not Bob writing this. Really. It's someone else.”

But I couldn’t do that to you. I respect you too much. I know that you know that I write every word of this blog…uhh…well, except for that excerpt above from Nyren’s blog. So you’ll never hear me refer to myself in the third-person.

06 March 2007

Weekends are for...

I’ve mentioned the need to wash the helicopter in the last two posts, and you might get the impression that I’m somewhat obsessive about it. I’m not, but there is something very therapeutic about the task. …A task, by the way, that I absolutely hated back before I was a pilot when my job was to wash helicopters. So many little nooks and crannies and dirt gets into every single damn one of them…Grrrrr…

I have a strange relationship with my helicopter. The failure of one single critical part could mean my instant and ugly demise. I therefore have a little vested interest in seeing that it remains airworthy. Luckily, I used to work for the manufacturer of the ship. This gave me access to all kinds of technical data and information that would not be available to the average pilot or mechanic. Over the years I learned how the helicopter was designed and is built from the rivets outward. So it’s not a stretch to say that I have an intimate (if one-sided) relationship with this FH1100, N4034W.

Sunday was beautiful and clear with just enough wind blowing to keep it from being miserably hot. I put on some sunscreen (forehead of ever-increasing size), gathered my supplies, then went out to the ship, took off my shirt and got to work.

And I have to say, I like to work alone on this particular job. People often generously offer to help, which I appreciate. Usually I’m all about letting other people do my work. But to me in this case they just get in the way. Typically, they like to get the job over with, get it done and get back inside out of the heat, which is completely understandable.. I like to take my time. It’s not just a wash job, it’s a detailed and thorough inspection. The boss’s name may be on the registration card, but it is my baby.

Washing it means more than just throwing some soapy water on and then hosing it off. If only! First and foremost is to note what kind of “dirt” is on the airframe and where. The engine produces an oily soot that coats the entire fuselage aft of the exhaust stacks. And it’s interesting to see that it’s heavier on one side than the other. You’d think that the flow of air down the sides of an aircraft would be uniform, but it is not. There are complicated aerodynamic reasons for this. They are not important. It just “is.”

I also look for fluid leaks. There are a myriad gearboxes, oil lines and connections. The whole powertrain flexes and moves depending on how much power I’m demanding of it. It takes a lot of power to take-off; somewhat less power for steady-state cruising; and low power for an approach to land. If things were absolutely rigid, stress-cracks would develop. Clever designers understand this and allow for some movement. But this movement can cause leakage. Not to mention the helicopters naturally vibrate a lot, which can also cause leaks.

Additionally, there are a lot of grease fittings. And it’s interesting to see which ones “throw” grease. (A lot of grease coming out can be an indication of bad seals.)

Fortunately, Three-Four Whiskey leaks very little. This is a source of great pleasure to me. See, all helicopters leak, and it’s surprising how much oil can leak out and still be considered “normal.” It is said about certain models that “If it ain’t leaking, there’s no oil in it.” This also used to be said about Harley-Davidson motorcycles back in the day (the day before I owned mine – which didn’t leak a drop).

I open all of the maintenance inspection panels, and pore over all those nooks and crannies that I used to despise. Now they have meaning and importance. I look for corrosion and cracks and worn bearings and things that just don’t seem right. I’ve caught just a couple of things so far: fluid lines that vibrated too close to each other and would start fretting if not moved back apart; a broken wire. All in all though, it has been an incredibly dependable and trouble-free helicopter.

It takes a good coupla-three hours to do a proper wash job. When I’m done it looks like a new helicopter! It’s incredibly satisfying to see the results. I should have taken “before” and “after” pictures, but I’d be too ashamed to show you the bird in its dirty state. However more than just being clean, I know that it is a safe, airworthy helicopter that will get me from here to there and back again. And it’s funny. A clean helicopter is a happy helicopter. It seems to fly “better” when it’s clean. Don’t ask me why, or even to quantify it. My imagination, you say? Perish the thought! It knows when it’s clean, it just does.

So that was my Sunday. Of course on Monday it rained.

04 March 2007

Dunbar Rock

Guanaja is an interesting, fascinating, special place. For one thing, you really have to want to get here. Our tiny airport can only handle the smallest commuter planes (and one resident helicopter!). From the United States, you have to fly into one of the mainland Honduras cities like San Pedro Sula or La Ceiba, then get a connecting flight up. Once here, you get plopped out onto an unattended airport to or from which no roads lead. There are a couple of operating "resorts" on Guanaja, but the only way to get to them is by boat. The biggest "town" in Guanaja is the island of Bonacca Town (commonly referred to as simply "the Cay").

Virtually decimated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Guanaja has been slow to recover and rebuild. Many businesses that had been thriving have gone under. What small tourist industry that did exist evaporated.

The only reason to come to Guanaja is to scuba dive. Either that, or to seriously get away from it all. Guanaja is, if nothing else, remote...which is not a bad thing, oh no! The other Bay Islands have better-developed dive and tourist industries. Guanaja has two, maybe three companies that can take you out diving. The tiny island of Utila looks like Key West compared to Guanaja.

Approaching Guanaja from the southwest
(I took the picture through the bubble on a hazy day, which explains why it's not too clear.)

The island of Guanaja lies roughly east/west and is ringed by a coral reef. In the photo above, you can see the very southwest end of the reef and how it protects Bonacca, visible just to the upper-right of center. (Right-click on the picture and select "Open in New Window." It's not that big.) Also visible is the airport runway, adjacent to a canal that bisects the island.

Although the right-hand (southeast) end of the runway looks developed with houses, zooming-in will reveal just a couple of boat-repair shacks (and our big quonset hut of a hangar). On Guanaja itself, right across from the Cay is the town of Pelican (or Pichete as the locals call it). How people built those houses up the hill from the water is beyond me. Every bit of construction material had to be lugged up by hand. There are no cars, and no roads to drive them on anyway. Most people in Guanaja live right at the water level.

Because it's so remote and undeveloped (read: unspoiled), Guanaja has some spectacular Caribbean views. For instance, check this out...

Right out of a travel brochure, isn't it?

One of the unique structures on Guanaja is Dunbar Rock. It's that little island just to the left of center in the above picture. Some enterprising people built a big (for Guanaja) hotel on the rock. It's changed hands at least one time, maybe more. Most recently, it belongs to the Nautilus Dive Resort. Their website is, um, wordy and full of hyperbole and "poetic license" if not to say a teensy bit of outright bullshit. "Virtually no crime. No panhandling. No dope-peddling, beach-bumming nor randy chick-stalking..." What?! Oh, please. At least they did get it right when they called Bonacca a "...bizarre little hamlet." That, it is. Hold your nose.

But hey, it's their sales job, and if they want to make Guanaja sound like paradise-on-earth that's fine by me. Because...you know...it is. Okay, minor carping aside, Nautilus' website does have some really good stuff about the Bay Islands in general and Guanaja specifically. And I think that despite some real-world concerns, the majority of people who come here will have an incredible, unforgettable, time-of-their-life experience that they'll treasure in their memory for the rest of their lives (okay, that's *my* sales job).

Contractor: "You want me to build WHAT?? WHERE???

As I said, Guanaja is a special place. We have just the very beginnings (or re-beginnings) of a tourist industry here. Nobody wants to see Guanaja turn into St. Thomas, U.S.V.I., but there are the dreamers among us who'd like to see a cruise ship dock. However, I think that there are certain inherent physical limitations to Guanaja that will keep that from happening - at least, for the really big cruise ships. Like that no-road-from-the-airport-to-anywhere thing. "The Road" is a very controversial, contentious and divisive issue. But for Guanaja to progress we are going to have to have a road, that should be obvious. It remains to see what we all define as "progress."

We cannot ruin what makes Guanaja the incredible, spectacular Caribbean hideaway it is. Fortunately, there are guys like my boss with a vested interest in seeing that it doesn't happen - that we don't kill the golden goose.

Now see? I was going to go out and wash the helicopter today, and yet I've spent just about the whole morning writing up this travelogue.

03 March 2007

Weekend Fun and Games

I get invited to a lot of parties. Seems everyone down here loves to party! Which is completely understandable, considering where we are. Unfortunately I have a day job and am blessed/cursed with at least a minimal work ethic. So when there is work to do on the weekend, I end up not going to a lot of parties. Like the one I was invited to today. People must think I'm horribly anti-social. Plus, for me to turn down an opportunity to go drink someone else's free alcohol...

After all of the flying we did this week, the helicopter needs a bath badly (not to mention some maintenance scrutiny). I had planned on doing that today. But we've hired these consultants/engineers...and wouldn't you know it, four of them wanted to come to Guanaja on the weekend to do their survey work. Which is fine, but they're a *little* high-maintenance, always needing this or that. (Doesn't anybody bring enough goddam water with them when they KNOW they're going to be out in the heat of the day climbing steep hills? Even when they're warned? Even when we have TONS of bottled water here. I mean, come on, what is this, rocket science?) And then there's the: "We need to run here, can you send the boat right now?" Yes, I'll come right over. "Actually, we need two boats. Can you have one stay with two of us while we do our work on the reef?" Yes, that can be done. "Oh, we need to go back to there now...can we get another ride?" They're testing my patience, but we need them, so they get what they want with a smile. A forced smile, but a smile nonetheless.

At supper I asked what they'd like to drink. "Do you have any wine?" the female consultant asked. Why, we sure do! I just happen to have! So I opened a nice bottle of Chilean red (our favorite Casillero del Diablo). As I set it on the table, she looked at the uncorked bottle and asked, "Umm, on second thought, do you have any Coke?" The other consultants nodded in concurrence.


Isn't it funny how, when somebody starts to get on your nerves, everything they subsequently do grates like screeching chalk on a blackboard? This one woman consultant is a nice enough person. But even Daniel our cook had had enough. He rolled his eyes and made some "comments," the nicest of which was, "Good God, she's sooooo picky!"
Heh. Ah well, sometimes I think it's me. My tolerance can be very short.
And then this morning around six a.m. Roger Wood, the head of the local power company called. "Sorry to bother you with this..." he began as he always does. There was a kid on the Cay with an appendix about to pop like a party balloon. The doctor didn't think the kid could wait until the first airline flight out (which would be around midday); could I fly him now? Roger, you gotta ask? (I was happy to escape, even if it was only for a couple of hours.)

Roger thinks it's a big, personal imposition on me, which is nice. Little does he know that: a) I love to fly, especially on bright, clear mornings; and b) on weekends I keep myself and the ship ready for a medevac trip to the mainland because of what I call the "Friday Night Savannah Bight Machete Fight." A while back there were two weekends in a row where I took the (presumed) losers of machete fights down to the mainland. I got to thinking, Is this gonna be a normal thing? I am happy to report that it is not, thank God.

Anyway, I saddled up and flew over to the airport (still no place to land on the Cay) where I loaded the skinniest little 16 year-old boy there could ever be and his equally-skinny 16 year-old friend/escort/translator/support guy. Starving kids in Biafra would give up their sandwiches to these boys. Fashion models would envy these anorexic waifs, asking for their dieting secrets: How do they stay so skinny? (Simple answer: No fast-food and an active lifestyle. Think it would work for American kids?) Both of these kids together weighed less than one me.

It was kind of comical going into La Ceiba. I told the tower controller that I was an air ambulance flight and was requesting a taxi to meet us on the ramp so the passenger wouldn't have to walk through the terminal. I might as well have been speaking Greek (or English!) to the poor woman, who simply did not understand what I wanted, even when a kind-hearted bi-lingual airplane pilot intervened - or tried to. But the controller still did not understand. "You need an ambulance?" she kept repeating. It was sort of monopolizing the frequency, and it was pretty fruitless. I could almost hear the airline pilots muttering under their breath, "Mierda! Piloto gringo ...porque el pendejo no aprende a hablar espanol?" Which loosely translates to "Drat! That fine American gentleman should learn to speak Spanish!" Or something like that.

Sure enough, a big crowd met us with a stretcher when we shut down. I lifted skinny boy #1 out of his seat with one arm. I suppose I could have just grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, like a puppy. We laid him down on the stretcher. And the kid was lying there, looking like he was in a lot of pain. I made some lame joke, at which he laughed, and which point I found out that it's not good to make somebody suffering from appendicitis laugh. Oops, sorry. An airport stationwagon pulled up and they loaded him in. Okay, to the hospital now? Nope, the airport vehicle took the kid...as far as the line of waiting taxis at the terminal just outside the gate to the ramp. Why didn't they...? Why couldn't they...? Ah, just keep repeating after me, "This is Honduras."

Typical patient-loading scene at La Ceiba Airport

I wish we had a better solution to our ground transport situation in La Ceiba. I mean, it's great to hurry people off Guanaja and down to the mainland, but whenever we get there, it's a hassle getting the person to the hospital. Ambulances are rare. The Red Cross will send over their ambulance if it is not otherwise engaged. They charge 300 lempiras for a trip to the hospital, payable up front please.

Coming back, I stayed up high where the air was cool and smooth. It was nice to just drive for a change...fly along without a photographer asking for stuff...fly along just enjoying the view. I wished I'd brought along my iPod.

Maybe I'll get to wash the helicopter tomorrow (Sunday) morning. Ah, but the consultants have already started in with their demands...er, "requests." I have a feeling it's going to be another one of "those" days. Almost makes me wish for another medevac. Almost.

02 March 2007

Drilling Rigs and Tall ships

Okay, to answer my, "Where's Bob been?" emails...it's been a busy week that has left me with little time to blog. We had two - count 'em, two! different photographers doing stories on Guanaja and to whom we provided the bird's eye view you can only get from a helicopter in exchange for the promise of some "good press" for Guanaja. Plus, the boss was in town which always generates excitement. Plus, we had some special guests down from the States and wanted to make sure they had a good time. So we all had our hands full this week. Me, I did a lot of flying. It was almost like work! You know...if what I do could be even remotely classified as "work"...which it can't (just don't tell my boss).

I'll tell you how our minds work. They play tricks. I was flying from our cay to the airport one day this week, and I saw a couple of "things" sticking straight up out of the water. Immediately I think, "jack-up rig." A jack-up rig is a drilling rig with these big legs (usually three or four) that stick way up above the rig structure. The rig itself can float, and is towed out to the position at which it's going to work. Then the legs get "jacked-down" to the seafloor. Once they hit bottom, they will stop but the jacks keep working, lifting the rig up and completely out of the water. If the water is deep enough, you might not see any part of the leg sticking up above the rig itself. But then I thought, "Wait, it can't be a jack-up here in Guanaja...Or can it?"

Here is a picture of a small jack-up rig.

This rig can operate in a hundred feet of water or so. Anyway, that's what I thought I saw. It shows how long I was working out in the Gulf of Mexico. Because here's what I actually saw.

The Harvey Gamage

Easy mistake, right? Tall ship...jack-up rig... Maybe not. But from far away and at a quick glance, the two masts looked like...oh, never mind. Like I said, our minds are funny.

The Harvey Gamage belongs to the Ocean Classroom Foundation, based in Rhode Island, in the United States. They have three such ships and they take people on various trips (teenagers in this case, apparently). It's probably expensive, but probably worth it. You can read more about the Harvey Gamage here. The page has a link to the "ship's log" which is an infrequently updated account of where they've been and what they're doing. It does show them currently in Guanaja, and I suspect that the next entry will read: "A crazy helicopter pilot with two photographers hanging out of the doors circled around us for about thirty minutes like an annoying mosquito the other day. And now, every time it flies by (which it does a lot) it simply must buzz us to see if any of the girls are skinny-dipping. The pilot appears to be a middle-aged, paunchy, balding pervert. I think I shall report him to the FAA." (See, the captain of the Harvey Gamage writes a lot like me.)

I have no idea how long the Harvey Gamage is going to stay. Perhaps it will be gone in the morning, which would be a shame. I'd like a chance to talk to the crew, and with the kids, to see if it's really an educational experience or merely an MTV "reality show" without the cameras. Whatever, it looked like the kids were having a great time!

There is plenty to talk about this week. It will all coming spilling out very soon.