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The Barefoot Dentist By Steven Bowden


s I watched a CSY 44 ghosting down our channel, bound for open water, it took me back to a week aboard one years ago… “You ruined our vacation!” is not exactly what you want to hear from a charter guest, especially one from whom you were hoping for a nice tip after a long week of grueling work and mixing drinks. They had arrived a week earlier. The couple were nice folks, a dental surgeon from Dallas and his perennially smiling trophy wife. They had come down to the island of Roatan, in the Bay Islands of Honduras, looking for a different travel adventure. They had chosen a yacht charter from Caribbean Sailing Yachts. I was working there when they requested a captained charter, as they weren’t qualified for the bareboat sailing the company had innovated. Sailing in the Bay Islands is a unique experience as the main island of Roatan has a mountainous spine that runs most of its approximately 30mile length. Most islands in the western Caribbean are low-lying cays. Roatan features numerous coves, inlets and lagoons on the south side that provide ideal, safe anchorages that attracted CSY to build its charter base at Brick Bay. The company was trying to duplicate its popular Tortola, British Virgin Islands, operation and considered Roatan the next great sailing destination. Unfortunately, political problems in Central America had prevented the expected tourist boom and resulted in a laid-back, undeveloped version of the Caribbean. Out of financial desperation, the company was attempting to sell “adventure sailing” to people bored with the typical charter vacation. The Bay Islands are unique both geographically and culturally, inhabited by a spicy stew of Indians, descendants of Spanish and British colonists and their former slaves. While Spanish is the official language, the Bay Islands have a large population of English speakers who proudly hold on to their heritage and 18th century buccaneer accents. 70


The pre-trip preparation covered the usual systems on the boat, emergency procedures and an overview of the area. “What do you guys want to see?” was the usual opener with expectation of short day sails, quiet anchorages, waterfall hikes and maybe a visit to a local town for tourist knickknacks and an “authentic” island experience. The doc’s answer was unexpected and interesting, “I really want to visit one of those Indian villages, you know, with the people still living in a very primitive way.” His wife was no longer smiling. “Sure,” I said, “I know a place about 20 nautical miles south, an easy reach, since the trades are blowing. The locals welcome strangers as long as visitors are respectful of their privacy and offer a gift to their chief.” The village was on the eastern side of the island and the exposed reef provided a protected anchorage. As we dinghied into the village, it was obvious the doctor was going to get his wish. The native huts were as primitive as those of the original inhabitants of the Mosquito Coast. This area was later called the Spanish Main after colonization, but the Indians had fiercely retained their culture and identity against all invaders.

A short tour of the village revealed a population of Black Caribs or Garifunas, descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African tribes. The British colonials called them Black Caribs and many of them still use this name for themselves. They speak an Arawakan-based language spoken in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The people were both friendly and polite, each greeting us with smiles that unfortunately revealed horribly blackened teeth. This naturally attracted the attention of my dentist guest, and he started examining the islanders’ teeth more closely. Practically every man, woman, and child in the village had rotted teeth and the evidence for the crime was all around us. Stacks of cola cases were everywhere, and it soon dawned on the doc that the combination of sticky, sugar soft drinks and a lack of brushing or any dental care had done a number on the locals. Many of them were in obvious pain. “Go out to the boat and get my black bag,” he instructed in a practiced tone obviously used for years with success on dental assistants. I quickly retrieved the magic bag. The rest of the day was a scene from a documentary film with the entire village lined up on the beach for the gringo dentista. He soon ran out of any kind of anesthetic and since the care consisted mostly of what he called extractions, I can only imagine the pain many of these gentle people quietly endured. Even the boat’s aspirin supply was used up in an effort to help them, and by the end of the day, a large basin was filled with the ravaged remains of decayed molars. The evening entertainment consisted of singing and dancing for the honored guests, but the doc’s wife was noticeably absent. Most of the village women insisted that we try their special feast dish, and all the men wanted to drink with us all night. After that, all I can remember was that the local “kill devil” rum See DENTIST continued on page 68