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Over the years Christmas has been a very stable and predictable season for me. I can sum it up in one word;  family. Christmas Eve has always meant the gathering of my family at my parents house, where I grew up, for an evening of food, presents and visiting late into the night. That started to change two years ago and 2009 marks the third Christmas that will be rather different then the first forty-seven.

Two years ago, the day after Thanksgiving, I had a freakish injury after slipping on ice. The result was 5 major breaks in my ankle and two surgeries to reconstruct it. Christmas Eve 2007 turned out to be my first attempt to leave my house. The 70 mile ride down to Springfield was painful but it was more than worth it to be with my family.

Last year our family decide to forgo Christmas Eve at my parents so that my siblings and I could spend that time with our own children and, in the case of my siblings, grandchildren. Instead we all got together at Mom and Dad’s on Christmas Day to exchange presents and have dinner together. It was also the first year my own family was not together as my Marine daughter Lisa was stationed in North Carolina and unavailable to come home. Thankfully, Lisa and her brother Tim are both with us for Christmas 2009.

This year Cheryl and I decided to celebrate our 25th anniversary with a 7-day December cruise to various Caribbean islands. This has compressed the traditional time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We only returned on Sunday the 20th. Going from 80 degrees and white sand beaches to Christmas in gray, cold and wet Oregon has required some quick decompression. But it won’t matter. Once we are all together it will be another time of contentment and spending time with those that matter the most; family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our cruise. In particular the opportunities I had to spend with the people I met. Each place we visited had a different culture. Strikingly different in some cases. One stop in particular intrigued me and as I think about Christmas, and more specifically family, it seems appropriate to share.

At the mid-point of our cruise we stopped at the island of Roatan. This is a small island of 30,000 people and a part of the central american country of Hondurans . This island itself is 3 miles wide and 30 miles long with only the western half occupied. As strange as it seems there are distinct differences in the four small towns that occupy the island. One side is rich, one is not. One community is mostly Spanish and another is Caracole. On one end of the island they play soccer and the other end, baseball.

As a result of some online research I had booked a private tour with a local company. Bodden Tours provides a local driver who stays with you throughout your day and will take you wherever you wish to go on the island. It is here that we did a zip line tour, visited a couple shopping opportunities and spent some time at the beach. This was all very enjoyable but my best memories come from the off and on discussions I had with our guide, a young man named Lany.

Although I never asked, I would guess that Lany is in his late 20’s. He is Caracole, a decedent of former British slaves from the Cayman Islands who moved to the island after slavery was abolished by the British in the 1830’s. The Caracole’s are the traditional occupants of the island although, in recent years, the island has seen immigration of what Lany referred to as the Spanish; Mexican people who are Spanish speakers. While the official language of Roatan is Spanish, the Carocoles all speak English. Many of the Spanish people have minimal ties to the island having arrived to seek work as opposed to making a permanent home.

Traditionally the economy on Roatan was dependent on fishing and, to a lesser extent, agriculture. Seven years ago the first cruise ships showed up and now tourism is the leading industry.

Lany is a very proud husband and father of three children under the age of 10. His eyes sparkled as he told me about his favorite meal; iguana. “The hunters will charge you $10 for two.” His eyes lit up once again and he laughed when I asked him what he liked to do in his spare time. “Soccer!”

As we drove around the island I asked about crime and drugs. A day earlier we had visited Belize and it was apparent that drugs and crime are a significant problem there. In addition there seems to be widespread poverty. In Roatan I didn’t see any signs of crime or drugs. Lany said that, no, people there did not use drugs and crime was rare. He quickly corrected himself and said, “well, some of the rich people moving to the other side of the island use drugs.” I later found out that you do not even need a prescription to buy medicines there. Medicines cost 10 cents but are available only about a third of the time. And yet there seems to be no abuse; this seemed rather counter intuitive to me.

Lany lost his father two years ago. He and his brothers now take care of their mom. Lany is thankful for his job. He said the owner is a good man who teaches them how to do their job and provides them with good working conditions. Lany is provided a nice Toyota van by the owner for the days he works. He gets to keep 20% of the fee. He is trying to save for his own vehicle though. His boss has told him to save and when he has his own car he will be allowed to keep up to 90% of the fee. It is something he looks forward to achieving.

Although he doesn’t get to work every day Lany said he earns enough to provide for his family, and for that he is thankful. He shared how one day many cruise ships arrived and the owner approached him and asked if he could drive for that day only. Once again his eyes lit up as he told me, “at the end of the day the family went to the owner and said ‘you need to hire this man, he is an excellent guide.’ Victor Bodden hired me on the spot; that is God.”

As we drove along the north side of the island Lany pointed out an orphanage. He told us of the person who built it and then said that it was mostly empty. “Only five kids are there.” He shook his head and said, “Spanish who have left there kids behind.”

Lany’s children go to school and return home where their mother awaits them. Only young single women work on Roatan.

He told me of the direct flights to Miami and how he had been there twice. Now his Mom was going there with his Aunt for Christmas. She had tried for two years to get a visa and was recently successful. Lani said his Dad had always strongly discouraged his family from going to the U.S. I thought this must be associated with some form of anti-Americanism. I was wrong; Lany’s father was afraid his family would be attracted to the American life and not return. He feared that his family would scatter. And at this point it all came together for me.

The Caracoles are not wealthy but they have a value system that was once prevalent in America. The work ethic, happiness, contentment, lack of crime, and lack of orphans, comes from their close family structure. They take care of, and responsibility for, their own.

You see, the Roatan government is far from perfect. You can either accept a traffic ticket or just pay the police officer $5 and it will go away. The mayor now owns the nicest mansion on the island although he was recently voted out for, as Lany said, “looking out for himself and not the people.” They have free public health care but people go to the private hospital if at all possible because “there is often not a doctor available at the public hospital.” Or because “the hospital is closed because of the latest employee strike.”

As we wound down the road talking about these many things, Lany stopped in mid-sentence to honk his horn and wave at the taxi driver going the other way. With a big grin that was oozing with pride he said “That’s my brother!” Then a laugh; “Lony!”