Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Obsolete travel notes--Honduras before the Hurricane, part 2

Another in my obsolete travel notes series. Travel accounts tend to become out of date quickly, but I have found that I actually prefer travel writing that has arrived at great obsolescence, and describes places that you will never see, or that cannot be seen anymore by anyone, the past being a country difficult of access, to borrow the cliche. I usually take notes when I travel, but only write up a narrative years later, when I can sort out what part of what I saw has fallen away from the commonplace world as I know it, as--ideally at least--some of it may have done.

The Mainland
Bustling, raw and ugly, San Pedro Sula looked like global-economy hell. If you took Odessa, Texas, tripled the population, narrowed the streets and filled them with a few thousand badly tuned used school buses, and allowed only whimsical garbage pick-up for six months, you would have something like the same civic charm. But there was a certain prosperity. It had the raw vigor of rich and unscrupulous people on the move and poor but industrious people trying not to go under.

We had gotten off the plane from Roatan Island, where we had spent Christmas. (Honduras before the Hurricane, part 1) It was still Christmas in mainland Honduras, actually--Christmas in Latin America continues until January 6th. We had to spend a day in San Pedro Sula to await our baggage, which did not return with us on the plane from the island, for unknown karmic reasons. So we ate at the Hotel Skandia lunch counter. Prosperous, possibly wealthy, Hondurans, dressed rather elegantly, were passing the time there, leisurely, a no-hurry latin concept of lunch settling out of the otherwise get-rich-quick capitalism atmosphere for two hours in the middle of the day.

We walked around seeing the sights, and went into the cathedral. It had been built in the 1950's, but looked much older. Inside, they had erected a festive fifty-foot thatch Christmas tree over a framework of iron, behind the main altar, and installed a creche below it. A few faithful, on Tuesday in the morning, knelt praying. One man, in front of a big crucifix in a side chapel, had his eyes closed and his hand on the life-sized-Jesus' bare thigh. The man's family knelt around in a semicircle, all of them praying. Had we thought, we would have prayed for our safety on our bus rides.

Busride to Copan. Mostly local passengers, but a few tourists. A thuggish-looking German let Eve use his large, sharp, hair-trigger switch-blade knife to peel her apple. His girlfriend was very delicate and beautiful. Both carried enormous packs on to the bus, and heaved them in a big stack in the back, where the space was contested by men carrying bushels of fruits and vegetables bought in the market in San Pedro Sula to their fruitstand in Copan. One of the market guys conversed with Kay about his life's ambition to go the US to work and earn enough money to buy a used Toyota pickup and come home with it so he wouldn't have to ride the bus every morning with his day's inventory, competing for space with more frivolous travelers. Let us hope that by now he has achieved his goal.

The forest along the road as we went upcountry had mostly been cut down for agricultural purposes, just as it had been in Mayan times, but now, as then, they left occasional huge whitebarked trees in the fields. One kind was called Ceiba, another kind I can no longer find the name for. The reason for leaving these trees uncut in the field is said to be religious.

The bus ride was long, and as we settled in and started to doze off, "Bang! WHOCKAwhockawhacka!" Everybody woke up. The bus was tilting and careening back and forth across the road as it slowed down. Blowout. The bus finally weaved to a stop. The bus crew, 2 men and 2 boys, jumped out and changed the tire in ten minutes. The driver displayed his impatience by taking off his sunglasses.

Town of Ruinas de Copán (formerly San Jose de Copán) is on a low hill overlooking the river that flows past the archeological site. The Mayan site is a quarter mile upstream. The streets of the town are cobblestoned. The Spanish woman who runs the hotel wanted her 25 Lempiras per person in advance. Cold shower. Cold showers in the tropics are just as cold as anywhere else. We took our laundry to a friendly American woman who lived up the steps (one very vertical street ends in steps) around the corner. She had been living there several years, and seemed to have found a niche for herself. A laundress in Ruins of Copán. What strange lives you encounter, when you travel.

Copán. The guides attaching themselves to shoals of wandering tourists were somehow central to the odd theme park atmosphere, making it a little hard to imagine the human sacrifice narrative they were promoting, even if the big stones sitting like giant turtles in front of the pyramids and statues were indeed used to spread-eagle sacrificial victims to cut their hearts out with flint knives. We were walking around in a pleasant, well-mowed archeological park with little boys selling replica figurines all around us. Big stacks of stone skulls, however, looked ominous even in their present setting. Was the discoloration of the stone altars blood, or weathering, or something painted for touristic purposes? The Mayans did practice human sacrifice, but generally only of captured kings or generals. Think Saddam Hussein and his men, for a modern analog.

The second and third squares of the park were less restored than the first, and free of roving guides. The stonecarving looked to me like something Chinese.

We walked to the river. We found some Germans camped there; the German guys had gone into town to get supplies and drinking water, leaving a statuesque young woman who was unselfconsciously wearing a tiny bikini and tending a fire. Campesinos hoed weeds in a nearby field and ogled her, as were two guys covered with mud, squatting in their underwear digging clay in the riverbank to make the Mayan replicas to sell to tourists. A bunch of girls on the opposite cliff, dressed very conservatively, giggled as they looked down at the young German woman.

Bus to Gracias. A woman paid the bus driver an egg for a ride of a few miles.
Castor beans grew commonly along the roadsides; I never got around to asking why. Purple morning glories twined along the fences. Poplars shimmered along dry creeks. Tall white daisies, high as sunflowers, clustered along the road. We saw an occasional spectacular orange-flowered tree that I found out, by inquiry, was called llama del bosque, "flame of the forest." That was the name of a restaurant we had eaten at in Copán.

We passed a town called Flores, meaning Flowers, on the dirt road stretch of highway on the way from Santa Rosa de Copán to Gracias. Flores was a nice-looking town, except for the town square, which was not only barren of flowers, but barren of almost anything. No vegetation, statuary, or benches--nada. Flowers everywhere but here.

In Gracias, we ran into a Dutch woman ("La Olandesa") who was friendly and told us about the town. She later took us to some hot springs. She had come to her little town as part of some Peace-Corps-like program, and then she stayed on after the program ended, as a restaurant owner, daredevil jeep driver, and "women's advocate" (her words). She was full of smiles, spoke Spanish and English, in addition to her native Dutch, and had a cheerful female Honduran sidekick who seemed to be a sort of partner in the restaurant and the women's advocacy. Both women had buck teeth and intelligent faces. La Olandesa was very social, and a crowd gathered in the evening at her restaurant, surrounding her with gossip and persiflage. Enjoyable company.

Next day, La Olandesa drove like a madwoman to get us to the hot springs, down a chuckholed, spinal-compression-injury rocky road two or three miles. The hot springs consisted of several rocked-in swimming holes. The water was warm, not hot. Big broadleaf trees shaded the place, and a Flame of the Forest. We stayed there, for an hour or so, floating in the warm water, till the jeep came back. There was a little concession stand, a few Hondurans soaking in the springs. People were rubbing a green clay on their faces to improve the health of their skin, they said.

Cloud forest. We got a ride in the back of a pickup from some guy who took us to the cloud forest--La Olandesa's jeep was now in need of repairs. The clouds were nearly down to the town level. We soon got up above the pueblo, and looked down on the cloudbank bright in the sun that covered the village. From the park entrance we hiked in for an hour and a half, through trees like Colorado with a tropical understory. There was a coffee field by the visitor center. A friendly dried-up and sinewy woman in a plain dress, with two wild skinny dogs loping along ahead of her, came striding up the trail and opened the center (which was really a small, abandoned-looking wooden house) and showed us a map of the park. We walked along the stream, which was pretty and clear. I got a drink out of it, assuming the water was OK, which it was. Three colors of mint grew there, blue, purple, and white, the latter two with a menthol smell. Sycamores grew orange-leaved like fall maples next to the stream, under the pines, along with lots of tropical broadleaf trees. On the walk back, at the level of the park entrance, I noticed a sometimes-tended banana field along the trail, possible belonging to the park attendant.

Oak tree leave shone like metal in the sun.

We didn't have time for a more extended stay, and we had a plane to catch in San Pedro Sula. We took a quick meal in a small restaurant in Gracias with velvet-painted Elvises on the wall, before leaving on the bus. (What's the plural of Elvis--"Elvi," maybe?) Bad Elvi.

The bus back to San Pedro. We had noticed that an assistant usually started a bus driver's engine, then when everything was ready for the great man himself, the bus driver would ascend to his seat, with ceremony, place his sunglasses before his eyes, and ease the bus into gear. A bus driver would no more dream of wearing a seatbelt than a bullfighter would wear kevlar armor. This driver was a burly man with menacing handlebar mustaches, whose driving pressed every advantage, who passed at high speeds on on blind curves and hills. I believed that the guy would someday go out in a blaze of glory. Fortunately he did not do so that day. He got us to San Pedro Sula nearly an hour ahead of schedule. I had been fearful that my failure to pray in the cathedral would cost us dearly, but someone else on board must have prayed enough for all of us.

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