November, 2011 – I spent seven weeks in Honduras pursuing adventure and learning Spanish during the summer of 2008. A family trip to Ecuador the previous summer opened my eyes to the world of traveling and propelled my desire to speak Spanish.
Inspired by our trip to Ecuador, I picked up a Spanish course during my first year at university and spent the winter searching the internet for cheap ways to take Spanish lessons in Latin America while also lobbying university advisors to give me academic credit for it. I ended up choosing an agency that connected me with a tutor and a Honduran host family in the Caribbean coastal town of La Ceiba.
A few months later, I found myself sweating through all the clothes on my body and into the frame of my backpack as I stood outside a Honduran airport realizing that I had made it – I was finally traveling on my own.
La Ceiba is where Hondurans go to kick back and celebrate good times. The port city is the festive party city of the country but also a major port to the Caribbean.
One particular area along the coast of La Ceiba is referred to as Zona Vida which simply means Zone of Life. Life happens here. Along the road that runs parallel to the coastline, there is an assortment of local bars serving giffiti, a fermented concoction made up from an eclectic mix of herbs, as well as upscale venues with people dressed in their finest attire. Brightly colored plastic chairs, informal tables and soft drink sponsored umbrellas decorate the length of Zona Vida as people gather at local joints to down a few drinks, enjoy some tunes and share good vibes. It’s a lively place that emanates excitement and fun.
Zona Vida represents more than just an entertainment district – it’s a place that celebrates our special connection with water and asks us to be mindful of our relationship with waterfronts as we expand our human civilization outwards across the earth.
From our earliest settlements until our present day metropolises, people have always gathered along waterways. As we currently push the limits of the earth’s capacity to support the human civilization, we have to be conscious and attentive as to how we organize our cities and modern day settlements, particularly along our precious waterfronts.
I think the first thing to remember is that water is for everyone. Jamaica Kinkaid, a famous Caribbean writer, told a story in her book A Small Place about how people on the Caribbean island of Antigua are slowly losing their rights to their own beaches because private developments and foreign owned resorts are restricting their legal access. She writes about the hotel service schools which reunite locals with beaches but through a system of exploitation where locals are employed as low wage workers for private developments. The beaches of Antigua have become places of repression rather than places where we can celebrate the beauty of our connection to the ocean.
We can’t expect to have a healthy relationship with our waterfronts if we develop them on the basis of inequality.
One immediate way to address this issue is by questioning the merits and prevalence of private property on waterfronts. Private homes are the quickest way to eliminate public access to waterfronts and the easiest way for sprawled development to destroy our efforts to preserve natural environments.
The seemingly perfect relationship of beautiful beaches and lush jungles mountains make the Honduran coast an environmental gem. Preserving our aquatic ecosystems should be one of our highest priorities because their delicate environments and their absolute beauty can rarely be rejuvenated once they’re destroyed. During my time in Honduras I visited a Garifuna community – people originating from West Africa that now live in the Caribbean – along the coast where the water was clean and naked children could play joyfully in the ocean and along the beach without the fear of broken glass or polluted waters.
This couldn’t be said about the ocean along the beaches in La Ceiba. In fact, I didn’t swim in the Caribbean Ocean for the first four weeks I spent living along side it. La Ceiba deposits its waste almost directly in front of the city, completely polluting the waves that roll up on its beaches.
We have to be thoughtful and disciplined about how we develop our waterfronts. Massive development projects have the potential to cause severe damage to the surrounding natural ecosystems and can create waterfront spaces that benefit the elite minority while excluding the majority. As well, massive development projects can have a lasting negative effect on how people interact with waterfronts in future generations. Many post-industrial cities that built up intense industrial infrastructure are struggling to adapt their waterfronts to the needs of a thriving 21st century city.
Our world is transforming quickly so it’s important to have flexible plans that can efficiently adapt to rapid economic, climate and social change. Chasing the current trend in urban design or global economy with hasty waterfront development and grand urban projects can leave us vulnerable to the sudden changes in environment and economy. Low impact, flexible development plans that can adapt to the times remind us that our waterfronts are evolving spaces, sacred spaces and a spaces where people can celebrate their human connection with water.
I remember spending a lot of time in Zona Vida during my stay in La Ceiba. I stayed with Abuela and Abuelo, grandmother and grandfather, in a pleasant neighborhood called El Sauce. I woke up around six in the morning to make the commute to school with the lovely girls who also stayed with Abuela and Abuelo. We finished lessons at 11am, went home for lunch, changed into our bathing suits and headed to Zona Vida to relax on the beach. We’d hang out on the beach until the sunset let us know it was time to return home for dinner. We’d often return to Zona Vida in the evening to have a drink and soak in the energy from the sea. The ocean was at the center of my life during my time in La Ceiba.
There is something about being a creature on this earth that grants us a certain special relationship with water. It’s something that we should cherish, respect and never forget. Zona Vida may have earned its name as the Zone of Life from its party atmosphere, but maybe that’s not all the name is asking us to consider about our waterfronts.