Friday, August 8, 2014

A visit to Honduras Part 2

Thanks Sara for another installment!


Morning sounds in Comayagua: roosters crowing at un-godly hours (of course), pigeons cooing, flapping, landing on the tin roof (they are NOT light on their feet!), church bells that sound like someone banging a metal skillet with a spoon, a donkey complaining, pigeons walking – no, dancing – on the tin roof, someone throwing a rock to get the pigeons to shut up, chickens squabbling.

Yesterday we walked from the mountains to the road – a 45 minute walk.  We crossed three or four streams, hopping across on stones.  We passed locusts mating.  Raul showed me a cool little fern-like plant: you touch it and it curls up!  We passed wooden crosses stuck in the ground by the side of the path. Raul explained that these are people who stole from those in the neighborhood – until the community got fed up and a bunch of guys went out and killed the thieves.  I guess that’s what happens when the police don’t help.

You don’t see police about much at all.  You might see a pair of them hanging out at a street corner or in front of a store, wearing bullet-proof vests, their pants tucked into long socks and combat boots.  They cradle big automatic guns in their arms.  Both police and security guards hang out by banks, and many stores have their own security guards, heavily armed and wearing body armor.  Very rarely you’ll see a police truck rattle down the street, a handful of cops riding standing up in the back.

Julia wants to take me to the hair salon – to do Lord knows what – but I’m game, mostly because I’m curious to see what she has in mind.  It’s only hair and it grows out, after all.  My understanding is that we are going to do that today and then go to the party for Josué, Fanny’s son and Julia’s grandson.  I think he’s turning seven?

Sitting in the kitchen before we go to Julia’s, we are watching the news. In another state, near the capital, eight miners are trapped.  The people don’t know how to get them out without the mine collapsing.  Raul says that if the US comes to help, everything will go faster, since the US has more experience.  Some of the miners are as young as 17 and 18 years old.  They’ve been trapped for six days and nobody knows if they are even still alive. The news shows parents and wives, waiting and worrying and crying.

A woman newscaster talks.  Raul tells me that people want to kill her.  I ask why.  “Because she tell truth on the news,” he says.

The tv anchors talk about the lottery.  Raul explains the different kinds of lotteries.  I ask him where the money goes and he looks at me like I’m an idiot.  “In the account!”  No – I mean, not all the money goes to the prizes.  In the US, some of the money goes to schools, I tell him, or football stadiums.  Raul seems baffled.  Finally he says, “I no know, honey.  I think it for the fucking government people.”

They show footage of a body found outside the capital.  Latino tv has no problem showing dead bodies.  They do it all the time.  Bodies sprawled outside, in a kitchen, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, wearing just shorts, in a pool of blood.  I watch four year old Justín playing with legos on the floor.  He looks up at the tv for a couple of minutes, then goes back to playing with his toys.  What does this do to a child?

So we prepare to go to Julia’s house.  I ask how much money to bring for the hair salon and Raul says not to worry, Julia is paying.  I’m wearing my blue dress, since I gather we’re not coming home before the birthday party.  Half the time I have no idea what’s on the agenda.  I catch bits and pieces, but never the whole scoop – and this is not because my Spanish is so bad (though it IS bad!).  I understand everything they say about the plans for the day, but they leave a lot out.  So I just go with the flow and hope for the best.

To my surprise, Raul says we can walk to Julia’s.  I’d gotten the impression that he was hiding me and didn’t want neighborhood gossip.  I’ve met a few of Raul’s friends and I can tell how close he is to them by the way he introduces me.  If he says I’m from Canada, I know he doesn’t really trust them.  Up to now, I thought he didn’t want the neighbors knowing he had a gringa hiding in the house.

In any case, now we walk through the barrio (Barrio San Antonio de la Sabana), past the school and the soccer field with its massive tree in the corner where men sit in the shade and drink.  We walk over the bridge and Raul explains that there used to be a wooden bridge, but it got washed away when the water was high – hard to imagine because the river (again, more of a stream, really) is so far below.  In any case, now there is a concrete bridge.  I remember on the road home from the airport – after one of our forays to find the pita bread – we had to take a detour because the usual bridge had been washed away by Hurricane Mitch.  We could see the old bridge as we rattled across the “new” one-lane, rickety bridge.  Raul told me the townspeople had waited and waited for the government to rebuild the bridge – and then got fed up and built their own damned bridge.  The old bridge still stands – well, half of it, anyhow – as a monument to tropical storms and inept governments.

Raul tells me that when he was little, the water in his neighborhood river was clear and clean.  You could drink it, wash in it, fish in it, haul water for the house.  Now all the toilets empty into the river and trash lines the banks.  I’m drawn to rivers and it’s easy to see how this one could be pretty.  The banks are lush and green, the water sparkles, egrets fish on the banks.  You just have to ignore the heaps of trash and the stink of decay.  And maybe the vultures that sit on a snag high above.

We wind our way, on dirt roads, concrete streets, roads with rocks and potholes.  Raul points out landmarks – where he and his friends played soccer, where they used to sit and talk.  From what I can tell, we end up at Elwin’s house (Pive’s house) and meet a number of women, and though Raul explains who they are, I’m totally lost.  Little girls – maybe 10 or 11 years old – shyly peek at me and grin.  One brings us drinks.   She says it’s Jamaica (hibiscus tea) but it tastes more like overly-sweet fruit punch.  I’m thinking we were supposed to be at Julia’s, but Raul chatters away.  I meet their parrot – who, unlike the parrot at Raul’s house, has a truly impressive vocabulary, plus an assortment of laughs and whistles, all of which he likes to try out at intervals.

The women smile indulgently at Raul.  They treat him like a slightly addled younger brother, someone who is cute and funny and a little odd.  They tell Raul that he is lucky to have such a beautiful wife, which makes me roll my eyes, but Raul insists this is true.  One of the women brings out shallow wooden dishes that the abuela has painted with Honduran country scenes, and tells me to choose one.

One of the girls trots by with a towel wrapped around her, and then scurries off to get dressed.  When she reappears fully clothed, she walks with us to Elwin’s restaurant.  Apparently we are her escort.

We meet more people at the restaurant, including Elwin’s niece, a gorgeous young woman who keeps staring at me and finally asks Raul if my eyes are real.  I had forgotten that blue eyes might seem exotic.

We walk on to Julia’s house.  Everyone is getting ready for the party.  They’ve got a huge Spiderman piñata, and Spiderman balloons hang from the rafters outside.  Julia is curling blue ribbons, Fanny is tying red and blue balloons in clusters of four or five, and Iris and Tia Anna-Luisa are using a pump to blow up more balloons.  I take over the pump and I amuse Josué by blowing up a balloon and letting it go so it shoots across the patio erratically.  Raul helps hang the clusters of balloons from the rafters.

Later, in the kitchen, the women are working like dogs.  I insist on helping and they have me cut up spinach and onions and lettuce.  Raul drifts in and out, helping here and there.  It’s interesting that the men are basically absent.  Tia Anna-Luisa and I make little sandwiches under Julia’s direction: slather a mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard on a half roll, slap on a square of cheese, then a little lettuce, then a slice of ham or chicken.  When we’re done with that, we fill little squares of dough with cooked ground beef, wet the edges and seal them for Julia, who puts them in the deep fryer.  Sometimes one of the younger women comes in to help, but it’s mostly Julia, Iris, Anna-Luisa and me.

Julia brings out a big bowl of masa that has garlic, onion, tomatoes plus some spices (liquefied in the blender) mixed in.  Now we make pastelitos, creating a tortilla out of the masa, filling it with a mix of ground beef, rice and vegetables, folding it over and crimping the edges.  Julia has a little press she wants us to use.  I try and it’s a total disaster.  The tortilla gets holes in it and the filling falls out.  Everyone laughs and Raul takes a picture of my attempt, but tells me not to worry – it’s my first time.  In my defense, Anna-Luisa mixes more water in the masa and I make the pastelitos like she does – without the little press – and they come out just fine.  Partly, it’s a matter of knowing how thin you can make the tortilla and how much filling you put in.

I wonder when the party is starting, but it doesn’t seem to have a specific time.  People just drift in, talking, helping a little, starting to eat the appetizers we’ve been making.  Fanny’s boyfriend brings a laptop and speakers out to the patio and soon is blasting music – mostly punta, but some reggae, some reggaeton, salsa and merengue.  Julia suddenly roots around in  a cupboard and hauls out a tablecloth from El Salvador and some matching napkins.  She gives them to me, plus some little neoprene soccer jerseys (one of Honduras’s national team, the other Brazil’s) that you put over your coke or beer bottle.  Raul makes suggestions of things we can get for her in the US – a garlic press, a fly swatter…  Raul makes everyone laugh as he listens to his ipod (he likes Mexican Duranguense music) and sings along – badly – at the top of his voice (this while the other music is blaring from the patio).  I tell Anna-Luisa that he can’t sing but thinks he can and this tickles her no end.  The women shake their heads.  He’s a goof – but a good guy.

Raul and I dance in the kitchen, doing some punta, which brings cries of amazement and delight from the women.  Punta is Garifuna music and the dance that goes with it.  It’s basically fast booty-shaking and totally exhausting.

Anna-Luisa and Raul tell me to take a break and I’m glad to, having just realized that we’ve only just finished making the appetizers and are on to making the main course!  So I wander out into the patio and meet cousins, aunts, uncles.  The girls – the 11 to 16 year olds like Fanny’s daughter, Lohany, and Karla’s daughter, Fabiola – circulate with trays of food.  They are gorgeous – decked out in their party outfits. They are slender, with beautiful skin and large, lovely eyes.  Mostly, though, they move and hold themselves like queens.  They are gracious, smiling, graceful.  Somehow, though they are busily serving guests, they make me feel like they are honoring us with their presence.

One of Raul’s cousins wants to dance with me, so we dance punta, bringing more cheers and clapping from the outside crowd who weren’t in the kitchen with us.  They love it that the gringa can dance punta.  They yell, “Sarita!  Sarita from the United States!”  Raul grins and joins us, even though his knee isn’t in great shape.  We dance and dance and dance (thank God, not always punta but I am sure I’m going to be totally sore in the morning).  It’s 90 degrees and humid as hell but nobody cares and soon we’re all glistening with sweat.

We take a break from dancing to let the kids take turns whacking the piñata. They get candy from the piñata plus ice cream plus goody bags of sweets plus cake and the pop they’ve been drinking all evening.  They’ll have no teeth by morning.

I’m impressed by this party – there are probably 30 guests and the food just keeps coming.  It’s hard to determine relative wealth here, because there aren’t necessarily conspicuous signs of it.  I suppose nobody wants to be targeted by thieves, etc.  When I asked Raul where the rich people live, he looked confused.  “All around,” he said, waving his arm vaguely.  After a while I realized that rich people live behind the better kept up, slightly more ornate walls.  Everything – cars, patios, houses – is hidden from view.  And there really aren’t wealthier areas and poorer areas.  I mean, there probably are, but I certainly can’t tell and it seems like often a nicer house sits next to an old, run down shack.  The garbage in the streets and the potholes remain the same.  It turns out that Julia does pretty well.  Her husband is a driver on the US military base and she runs a restaurant out of her house.  It’s all a little confusing because I know that Raul has sent money to help Yamalih and Tania (who seem to need it) but also to Julia (who doesn’t).  Raul says Julia is super strict and controlling – a good woman who maybe takes her job as matriarch a bit too seriously.  I think Justín gets the short end of the stick.  Fanny’s son gets a big bash but I’ll bet Justín doesn’t.  Yamalih didn’t come to the party, nor her boyfriend, since apparently Yamalih and Julia are in a bit of a snit, but Karla and Tania brought Justín. I notice he hangs out with Maite, Gaby’s son, but not with Fanny’s kids.

The guests started drifting in around 2 PM and the birthday festivities culminated with a Spiderman cake around 6:30.  There’s no present opening so we don’t know how Josué likes the Spiderman t-shirt we bought him.  Around 7:30 a few adults drink beer, but not many and the intake seems to be very reasonable.  I think there are serious drinkers, but they stay in the back of the patio where the women won’t notice them. 9:00 we try to leave.  But first Raul gets distracted and then Julia, finally out of the kitchen, wants to dance with me.  There’s a lot of talk about how to get home because it’s dark and therefore dangerous out on the streets and there’s a dearth of transportation options.  Raul says the cabs here are dangerous and unreliable.  He proposes I ride with Andres and his girlfriend on the motorcycle and he’ll walk home.  I refuse, and say I’ll walk with him, partly because I don’t want Raul walking home alone in the dark and also because I don’t really know how much beer Andres has had.  In the end, Andres and Maude ride alongside us – slowly, slowly – as we walk home.  Raul holds my hand in one hand and his pepper spray in the other.  We walk home in the cool breeze of night without incident.

That’s another surprise.  I was expecting weather much more like Minnesota summer – or the time I spent in the Yucatan, where the heat and humidity never broke and people with any money had AC.  Here, nobody has air conditioning.  They have ceiling fans, and floor fans (Raul, sweetly, bought a fan especially for my visit), but at night it cools down a lot and there are often cool breezes.  We go to bed with the fan on, waking up at some point during the night to turn it off and cover up with a sheet.


This morning we dink around.  I play a lot with Justín – driving his cars around and drawing pictures in the back of my journal for him to color.  I’ll have to take care that I have enough pages to write in, at this rate.  He’ll come in to our room, lean on the bed and smile, “Arco iris? Casita?” meaning he wants me to draw a rainbow for him or a little house.  I can’t draw to save my soul, but I do my best, drawing mountains and rivers with houses, palms, pines, banana trees.  I draw chickens and cows and horses.

We’re going to deliver the coffee cooperative money to Andy’s friend, Hector, today. Then we’re going to go to Julia’s for chicken soup and after that I want to find  somewhere to buy children’s books for Justín and for the kids – Pastor’s kids – in the mountains.  We walk through the barrios – little school girls dressed all in white, white ankle socks and black shoes, dark braids swinging.  A couple of leathery vaqueros in cowboy hats, a group of boys with their uniform shirts untucked as they jostle each other on the walk to school.  A man biking with his family – wife and two kids – perched on various parts of the bike.  Women with big pots or bags balanced on their heads.

Hector has kind, shrewd eyes. We sit in the patio, surrounded by bits of machinery, and chat.  I take the money from my bag and we count it, to make sure it’s all there.  We talk about Andy’s new job in California – Hector wants to know why he’s making the change and we talk about opportunity, helping other schools, the lure of being able to grow vegetables year-round in the milder California climate.  Hector sits back and says no, he doesn’t think Andy’s doing it for the money.  We talk about the cooperative, farming in general, the Land School and how our school functions.  Hector is more forgiving of Honduras and its troubles than Raul is.  We talk about the issues and I realize that Raul is rather a Nervous Nellie when he says the buses and taxis aren’t safe.  Hector says that if we wanted to see the Mayan ruins at Copan or go to Tela on the north-east coast, there are buses that go directly there and these are safe.  I realize more and more how huge it is that Raul – who is so very risk averse – would cross the border, an undertaking way more dangerous than riding the bus to Tela.  Raul tells stories about snow and ice, about hitting deer on the highway and tapping maple trees. I realize I should have brought pictures and Land School maple syrup for people here.  They are intrigued by the whole idea of maple syrup.  It sounds so outlandish.  They ask if it’s like honey – yes.  I realize later that it’s sort of a honey/cane juice kind of idea.  I really like Hector.  There’s a depth to him that commands respect, an ability to see through the surface to what really matters.

From Hector’s house we go to Julia’s for soup and visiting.  Then we stop by Pive’s restaurant where they ply us with food and drink.  The little REI lanterns I brought are a huge hit – I’ll remember that and bring more next time I come.  Raul carries one everywhere we go and likes to demonstrate turning it into a flashlight and back into a lantern.

Then we go in search of books and toys.  Franny, my godfather’s wife, sent along $50 for the children.  I’ve decided to focus on Justín and Pastor’s children.  Julia’s extended family get a lot.  And I’m not going to get sweets.  They get enough of that probably. I’m looking for books and nice toys, art supplies and coloring books so that my journal doesn’t get taken over by rainbows and little houses.  It proves really hard to find anything.  When we ask people about a bookstore, everyone looks blank.  Ditto somewhere that has coloring books.  When we finally end up at the mall and find a children’s store, it’s disappointing.  Mostly action figures and dolls.  Everything is very gender-specific and ugly.  Superman coloring books for boys, Dora or Disney princesses for girls.  I buy a couple of matchbox cars and a jump rope but bank on finding better coloring books elsewhere.

Finally, in a sort of Target-like, dollar-store-like place, we find some semi-respectable coloring books – of animals with the names in English and Spanish – plus a little truck, a Mr. Potato Head, some crayons, colored pencils, writing/drawing paper and some scissor/pencil sharpener packs.  I’m excited to bring these to Justín and to the little girls in the mountains.

We get home and watch the news – the usual reports of a police vs gang firefight in San Pedro Sula, dead bodies in Comayagua and Tegucigalpa.  The big news is the mining accident and how the government is giving up the rescue mission. It’s highly unlikely there are any survivors as it’s been over a week.  Other miners and friends of the missing will continue to try to recover the bodies, but the issue everyone is talking about is how embarrassing it is that this country doesn’t take care of its people.  Not only are they giving up, but other mines have elaborate safety measures and it seems this one did not.  I don’t understand why the US or Chile don’t help.  The kitchen is quiet.  Nobody feels like talking as they show footage of weary rescue workers and distraught family members.

DAY 7, JULY 8 – Tuesday

This morning we go to visit a friend of Raul’s who teaches in the neighborhood kindergarten.  We talk with a number of neighbors and old school friends of Raul’s on the way there, but I am rather distracted by two men trying to get a bull to walk down the street.  I’m assuming it is a steer, but it looks like a bull and acts like a bull and saying it is a bull sounds more exciting, so I’m saying it is a bull.  It has massive horns and keeps pawing the ground and turning around to toss its horns at the guy behind it.  (This is, by the way, on the street just a little past Raul’s house.)  One guy has a stick to shake at the bull and the guy behind uses the coil of extra rope to intimidate the animal.  I’m wondering if we’re not going to get a scene similar to the bull running at Pamplona, but then we round the corner and the bull is out of view.  Later on we see the bull tethered by a small patch of grass at the end  of the soccer field, so the mystery of what they were doing with the bull is solved.

End of tangent, back to the kindergarten.  The kindergarten is four rooms in a row with a verandah in front; in front of the verandah is a small yard with two slides and a couple of swings.  The whole thing is surrounded by the ubiquitous wall and barbed wire – but the front gate stands open.

The doors and windows are simple bars, making it look vaguely prison-like,  but really it’s just to allow for air circulation – besides, many of the doors and windows in Comayagua are bars or grates.  Bunches of boys and girls in dark skirts or trousers with white shirts or blouses are filing into a classroom.  They look at me curiously.  We find Martha miraculously unoccupied.  Her class is off doing something else for forty-five minutes.  My understanding is that she teaches them English, but she never says a word to me that isn’t in Spanish.  She says she’s been teaching for 22 years and it’s hard on her throat.  (I presume because she has to yell?)  She has 40 kids in her class, she says, and that’s too hard.  She says teachers don’t make much money here -- $400 a month.  She says she might go back to sewing clothes.  She and Raul talk a while about whether I could get a teaching job here – kind of a contingency plan if Raul doesn’t get his visa, though, considering class sizes, I’m thinking that growing coffee in the mountains sounds better.  I’m curious about the local Montessori school and wish I’d asked Andy more about it.

(Dear God in Heaven – I think these people aim to kill me with massive quantities of food.  The folks at the restaurant gave me a massive plate of chicken and fried green bananas at around 10:45 and now it’s noon and Julia is feeding me a huge plate of salad, rice and some kind of ground beef stuff.  And she’s watching me eat to see how I like it!)

Back to the kindergarten… the classrooms look awfully business-like for kindergartners.  The chairs are arranged in a semi-circle facing a blank wall they must use as some sort of chalkboard.  The walls have the same kinds of cheesy posters that traditional US schools do, but at least they don’t plaster the walls with the same gay abandon – they are more artfully and carefully placed.  There are papers, notebooks – nothing that looks like a fun book though…

Next we walk to the museum, which is housed in a beautiful and well-kept building – a series of rooms surrounding a lovely courtyard planted with flowering trees, green plants and a fountain.  Turns out it used to be the president’s house, back when Comayagua was the capital of Honduras.  There is at least one more museum in Comayagua, but Raul says they closed it because people kept stealing from it.  The museum we visit is the Comayagua Museum of Anthropology and Lenca People.  The rooms surrounding the courtyard house, in chronological order, artifacts found in the state of Comayagua.  So it starts with fossils and dinosaur bones (including some pretty impressive femurs and a really cool fish fossil.  It seems that some kind of massive, ugly sloth lived here at one point.  Then they have petroglyphs and obsidian points, simple pots, then more elaborate, decorated vases and urns.  Carved manos and metates, clay figures that look very Mayan – except they are Lenca, which is the largest indigenous group in Honduras.  They seem pretty darned advanced – I don’t know why the Maya get all the press.   The next room holds even more ornate pots, painted and sculpted.  There are necklaces and ornaments of precious stones. Then we come to the colonial era exhibits – suits of armor, fancy dresses, statues and documents.  They have recreated the bedroom of the… archbishop?  Whoever was in charge of the cathedral, anyhow… with replicas and some artifacts.  In the final room are figures dressed in the fancy clothes and masks worn during the Feast of San Sebastian, complete with noisemakers.  I buy a noisemaker in the gift shop, which is a little disappointing.  Lots of schlock.  I don’t see why they don’t recreate the beautiful Lenca pots.  Or the petroglyphs.  Or the jewelry.

We have our very own tour guide who accompanies us, turning the lights on and off and pointing out very obvious sights: “Here we have statues from the church…”  We take a picture of me peeking out of a replica dinosaur egg, and we see the original clock belonging to the cathedral.  I love the Lenca art and the petroglyphs, but I also feel so happy being in a building that is cared for, loved, and beautiful.

After that we go to the shoemakers at the side of the road to get my flip-flop fixed.  I am tempted to suggest I just buy another cheap pair (these ones were from the junior high lost and found), but the shoemakers could use the business.  There is a good block and a half’s worth of them, set up on the side of the road, each with a little makeshift roof, a little work table and a stool.  We are supposed to pick them up later that day, but we forget and pick them up the day after.  He had re-attached the straps very neatly and all for about a dollar.  We gave him two dollars, and I still feel like we should have given more.

We eat lunch at Julia’s – pork soup with red beans and green bananas, eaten with tortillas, rice and lime.  Then we watch a total fiasco called the Brazil/Germany World Cup game.  It is just embarrassing.  Lohany and I are the only ones who are rooting for Brazil and everyone else teases us unmercifully.  Germany gets four goals in as many minutes and wins, 7-1.

And then, suddenly, it is time to go somewhere – I don’t know what the scoop is, but I just go with the flow.  Turns out I’m finally getting my hair done!  I was beginning to think I was off the hook…  Raul, Fanny, Julia and I walk a few blocks to a little house that’s totally indistinguishable from any other house except that, if you look through the open door, you can see a barber’s chair and hair washing station.

I tell the lady to do whatever she wants.  I was a little worried they’d want to color my hair, since that always looks so lousy as you try to grow it out and because I think older women with dyed hair look weird.  You look at their lined faces and the hair just doesn’t match up.  Ines, at one point, tried to convince me to dye it, but I dodged her somehow.

Turns out I needn’t have worried.  They all ask me if this is my natural color and exclaim in amazement when I say it is.  So hilarious that my plain brown hair streaked with grey seems so exotic!

I get a manicure and pedicure as well, and the haircut is actually pretty good, getting better after I’ve gotten home and let it do what it wants.  It pleased Julia no end, and cost a whopping $9 – all of it.

I’m left puzzling again about money and family and how it all works.  Going anywhere in a car is a total pain (unless it’s just around town).  The only real option is Roberto, and that means taking Julia and Fanny, at the very least, but usually Karla and one or more of the kids.  Obviously, if it’s my trip, I’m happy to pay for gas and pay for Roberto’s lunch or dinner, but the expectation is that I pay for that plus everyone else’s lunch or dinner, which ends up being spendy.  On the other hand, Julia has just paid for my spa day, plus she’s fed us at least once a day (and sometimes twice) the whole time I’ve been here.  She’s given me gifts – the table cloth, napkins and beer things (I don’t know what to call them), plus a glass with pictures of Honduras and, best of all, a little mug painted with a Honduran scene and, in the bottom, a little clay (but very life-like) cockroach.  So you serve someone a little coffee and when they reach the bottom of the cup, they get a little surprise!

After the haircut, we hang out at Julia’s.  She feeds us (again) and just as we’re finished and she’s about to cook something up for Josué, the electricity goes out.  (Serves Josué right for being a picky eater and wanting something completely different than the rest of us!)  Raul is thrilled because he gets to show off the little flashlight/lantern I got at REI.  Julia gets some candles and we sit in the semi-darkness and chat.  They have all kinds of questions – like, what is the deal with the US and Puerto Rico?  How come Puerto Ricans aren’t Americans but get to come to the US and work?  What state comes next, after Texas? (Um… you mean, to the north?  Or east?  What state comes next? (like this gringa is sure dumb and her Spanish skills are lame) Oy vey!)  We talk about how the US ended up with Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California after wresting the land from the Spanish.  Part of the time I’m trying to figure out the question, part of the time I’m trying to figure out the answer, and part of the time I’m trying to figure out how to put the answer into a Spanish anyone will understand.

Finally we walk home in the dark, without a motorcycle escort but with Raul’s pepper spray handy.  The streets are quiet.  Justín is home and playing with his new truck.  He’s happy and insists I play too. I show him his new crayons, and he asks for an arco iris.  I’m totally annoyed, though, because the new crayons are awful.  You have to press super hard just to get any color on the paper, and then they break really easily.  How do you ruin crayons?  The whole point is that they put color on paper!  I feel totally cheated and am glad that Pastor’s kids will get the colored pencils instead.

DAY 8, July 9 – Wednesday

This morning Justín and I spend some quality time together after a breakfast of cereal with milk and plantains with Honduran cream.  We play with the new cars, we draw rainbows and I start making Honduran houses, with a lava-mano and a pool, with a parrot in a cage and some chickens in the patio.  He likes these casitas best of all.

Around 10 AM, Raul and I walk into town, walking part way with a friend of Raul’s from school.  We have a good time chatting.  I’m getting pretty good at exchanging pleasantries in very un-grammatical Spanish.

Raul drops me off at the restaurant while he goes off to get supplies for our next trip to the mountains.  I read for a little and then Annie, Pive’s wife, and her cousin, Lilian, come and sit with me.  We chat and laugh and have a lovely time, me speaking my pidgin Spanish and all of us laughing when I can’t make myself understood.  Maria (not Doña Maria, Pive’s mother, but the Maria who works in the restaurant, gives us all an enormous plate of fried chicken, fried green bananas, and salad.  I do my best, but when Raul returns, he doesn’t help me and tells me (with some glee) that Julia is going to feed me too.

Later, Annie and Lilian walk part way to Julia’s with us.  We talk and talk, and when we part, I tell them they are my sisters.  We grin at each other and hug.  Annie says that when I come back at Christmas (Raul keeps perpetuating this story – so much so that I am starting to believe it and will be sorely disappointed if I can’t) I can see the baby (she’s due in October).  And I continue to dream, pretending that we’ll have a visa for Raul come December and I will return to Honduras for my winter break and bring him home to Minnesota.   It’s all so unlikely though and I wonder if I am setting myself up for total disaster.

Julia’s lunch is delicious (a lime-y ground beef dish with rice and salad and tortillas) but I’m starting to feel rather spherical.  And then she hauls out the torejas – a sort of pancake made out of ground, toasted rice that is then soaked in a super sweet syrup with cloves and nutmeg.  They are traditionally made at Christmas, but Raul told Julia to make some for me so I could taste them.  Raul also told me that everyone has to leave the kitchen when someone makes torejas because looking at the batter will ruin the eggs.  Ok then.  Good to know.

As we walk up to the casita on the mountain (after taking one of those “dangerous” taxis that seems to be driven by another of Raul’s friends), I start daydreaming about our little place in the mountains we’ve been talking about.  The little house will be wattle and daub, with a verandah like Dimas and Maria’s.  We’ll have a natural pool – I saw a video showing how to make these and they are totally lovely.

In Honduras, if you want to insult someone’s intelligence, you say he is a donkey.  (Interesting how American’s have taken this whole thing farther with the double entendre and call the person an ass, which makes it mean instead of playful.)  So Raul and I tease each other about being donkeys all the time.  When we hear a donkey bray as we walk through the city, we each try to be the first to point out that the other is making too much noise. Justín’s new coloring book has a picture of a donkey and I told him it was his Tio Raul, to everyone’s amusement.  Raul gets into my fantasy of our little casita in the mountains, and says we’ll need a four wheel drive to get to it.  In any case, he says, maybe when I have a good job, we can get a car we leave in Honduras, that we can use when we visit.  I tell him that we don’t need a four wheel drive.  We’ll get two donkeys and name them “Raulito” and “Sarita” so that they will carry our luggage up the mountain.  Raul likes this idea and we spin our dream as we walk.

Once we reach the casita, I go for a swim.  I call Raul down to look at a little salamander who’s invaded the pool, and we see some oropendula birds in a tree.  I watch them for quite a while, enjoying the cool water with the hot sun on my shoulders.

Then Juan wants to go up the mountain to get some bananas.  Raul asks if I want to come too and I agree enthusiastically though perhaps not very wisely if I think about the difficulty of the short walks we’ve already done.  I have plantar fasciitis and neuromas, so walking isn’t particularly pleasant, but I don’t think of that, given the excitement of a hike farther into the mountains.  Juan, Mariano and Raul don’t seem worried, but Julia looks dubious and explains that it is a very long walk.  I should have known better, but I do tend to throw myself into an experience without really thinking of the consequences.

Raul wants me to wear rubber boots from the pile near the hammock, but they all look hopelessly too big and I don’t have good socks, besides I’m sure I’ll get blisters if I try to hike in over-sized rubber boots without appropriate sock-wear, so I say I’ll wear my tennis shoes, thanks so much.  Raul shrugs and puts on the boots.

I get a little worried when the men insist on bringing along a couple of flashlights.  I think it is about 3:30 in the afternoon and it gets dark around 6:30.  However, I figure you only live once and if I don’t go, I’ll regret it, so I grab a bottle of water and some bug spray and announce that I’m ready.

The first thing I do is fail to see the barbed wire I am supposed to step over.  I will say that Raul keeps on telling me to be careful, but he does it whether I need to be careful or not, so I start to ignore his twittering.  Also, it’s not like he specifically pointed out the barbed wire, and it is close to the ground and covered in foliage.  So, of course, I come to a squeaking stop against the barbed wire, my feet slide down the hill and I fall on my rear end, raking my shin on the wire.

The men are aghast, Raul alternately scolding me about not being careful and apologetic for not warning me properly.  I’m scraped up, but I’m not a wimp and I brush off their worried twittering and say it’s nothing and let’s get going.

After that, we’re down by the river and the walking isn’t so treacherous.  We follow the little stream, crossing and re-crossing it on stones or fallen logs.  The trail is reasonably wide and not particularly steep, but Mariano cuts a walking stick for me, partly because Raul, Nervous Nellie that he is, keeps twittering at me to be careful.  But he is also enjoying playing the gentleman, giving me a hand to steady me as I hop across the stream while he wades through in his rubber boots.  But then we come to a place where there are no rocks – none upstream or downstream.  Raul does remind me of the rubber boots I rejected, but it’s the only time he comes close to saying, “I told you so” – and he says he’ll just carry me piggy-back.  Mariano and Juan watch – bemused and amused – as Raul gamely carries me across.  I’m three times his weight but he is sweet about it.  In any case, I stop counting after the fourth time Raul carries me across the river (because he’ll have to do it all again on the way back).  He’s saving me having to walk in wet tennis shoes and he’s doing it without complaint, without even teasing me about turning up my nose at the rubber boots.  This is one reason I married him, this ability to cheerfully do crazy things for my sake without making me feel dumb about it.

And then the path gets rough – narrow, very steep, often covered in damp and slippery shrubbery or with little rocks that roll under your feet.  And there are pretty nasty drop-offs on one side or the other.  Raul’s twittering comes faster and louder.  I have to stop a few times to catch my breath – it’s all up and down now and I can’t decide which is worse because while the uphills are steep and taxing, the downhills are dangerous.  As we walk, Raul alternates exclamations about my safety with comments about the mangoes, coffee plants, and assorted tropical fruit trees – many of them I’ve never heard of.

Just as I decide that maybe I should just wait here and rest, let Raul, Mariano and Juan go get their bananas, we are there.  Apparently it is Juan’s land – and the coffee plants here are tall, healthy, covered with plump, green coffee berries.  Various kinds of banana trees grow here, as well as a kind of small, very hot red pepper.

Raul films the men cutting down the banana tree.  They love that.  They love his smart phone and crowd around to see the pictures and videos he takes.  Raul explains to me that you have to cut down the whole tree – and cut it at the right place – so that the tree can grow again and still be strong enough to bear a bunch of bananas.  Juan, Mariano and Raul stuff an enormous sack with green bananas.  Mariano goes back up the hill to get a bunch of a different kind of bananas.  Raul guesses the big bag weighs maybe 80 pounds and Mariano’s little  bunch must be a good 30 pounds.  We gather some of the little red peppers and then start for home.

While there is more downhill than uphill on the way back, it is far from easy.  Raul often grabs the back of my shirt or hangs on to my elbow so he can keep me from slipping.  I’m gratified to see that he slips sometimes too – though Juan and Mariano, laden with massive quantities of bananas, never, ever slip and this annoys me no end.

As we get down to the river, Juan keeps waiting for us (and him with 80 pounds of bananas on his shoulder!) and suddenly he appears with an oropendula nest.  Raul wants to bring it home, but it scratches him and he’s startled.  He gropes inside the nest and discovers there’s a dead bird in there.  He and Juan rip the nest open.  It’s an egg-bound oropendula.  It couldn’t finish laying the egg and so just died in its nest.  We lay it under a bush and carry on.

The last ten minutes, we do have to use the flashlight after all, and the way ahead is lit up occasionally by fireflies blinking here and there in the dark around us.  I’m glad to be home as I’m tired, sweaty, covered in dust and blood where the barbed wire scratched me.  I realize I didn’t see as much as I wanted because I spent so much time looking at my feet!

Julia is shocked because I don’t want any dinner (all that food in the city seems like a long time ago, but I’m not at all hungry).  A couple of men have come to visit and they all sit around, talking World Cup and looking at Raul’s videos of banana harvesting and mountain work.  I sit and partly listen, partly record random details about my trip that I haven’t recorded.

Some fruit I have tried:

Maimones – delicious – possibly the same as Dragon’s Eyes I had in China?  Like grapes except with a peel and a huge seed

Nance – ok on its own but as a juice there’s a sweet, lemony flavor that gives way to an after-taste of old socks

Anonas – looks like a hand grenade.  A cottony, sweet fruit with a funky skin and beautiful seeds

Zapote – orange sized and with a smooth, brown skin.  Cut open, it’s the deep orange of a sweet potato.  I tried one that wasn’t quite ripe and it was like sweet almonds in fruit form.

Sincuya – another fruit – round and green and totally spiky.  Inside, it has yellowish flesh and large green seeds.  It tastes stringy and only faintly sweet.

Paterna or guama – kind of like a large bean pod (like tamarind) – also sweet and cottony but mostly seed.

Maroca – like plantains but better

To bring next time: REI lights for Julia, Yamalih, Dimas & Maria, Julia of the mountains, old magazines like National Geographic, real crayons, children’s books in Spanish, real crayons and good art supplies.

I have an old Smithsonian magazine and Julia, Juan and Mariano are fascinated.  They pore over every picture, even the ads.  I wish there were more pictures.  I explain – to the best of my ability – what some of the articles are about.  We talk a little about snakes.  Like Raul, the others don’t like them at all.  I try to explain about good snakes – the ones that eat mice and rats, for instance, but they are not persuaded that there’s any such thing as a “good” snake.  Many here are poisonous, but not all.  Julia says there was a snake here just the other day, trying to eat a chicken.

Finally, I’m feeling sleepy, so I patter off to bed and the cool breeze that wafts through the open windows.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A visit to Honduras Part 1

Our friend Sara Nelson recently visited Honduras and journaled extensively during her time there. Sara was visiting her husband, Raul, who happens to currently live in Comayagua, the city where our coffee co-op is based. Her journal is poignant because she describes her first contact with Raul since he returned to Honduras in order to process his request to be legally in the United States. Current U.S. law requires undocumented immigrants to return to their home country in order to apply.

Sara brought money down for the Honduran coffee farmers to help them pay the processing expenses to get our coffee up here. We are grateful to Sara, but also I am in awe her ability to capture the flavor of Honduras and especially here personal connection with so many people.

I have asked Sara for permission to publish her journal in the blog so we can get a sense of her experience. Here is part one:


Growing up, I heard about the trouble in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. I

was aware of the death squads and the FMLN’s guerrilla tactics, of the murder of

Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who took up the cause of the poor

people. The war between the Contras and Sandinistas popped up on newscasts,

culminating in the Iran-Contra scandal, which confirmed all the theories I’d come

up with about Reagan and about the Contras. I read about the massacre of the

Ixil Maya in Guatemala. I had a vague notion of the role the CIA, the United Fruit

Company and other US companies played in these countries’ politics. I never

heard anything about Honduras. Not one peep. I felt deeply for the peoples of El

Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala – for the difficulties they had undergone, for their

struggles to create stable, democratic governments, for the civil wars, tortures and

coups precipitated in part by the meddling US government. Honduras never got a

So I am boning up on some Honduran facts and history, trying to get some sort

of handle on the issues Hondurans face before I leave. Right now news of the

unaccompanied children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador nabbed by

the Border Patrol is all over news outlets. People are speculating about what is

driving parents to send their children on such a dangerous journey, protected by

total strangers. The more compassionate people, I should say, are speculating. The

monsters in our country (and I don’t use that term lightly) are showing up with

signs and even (in Michigan) guns, to turn away buses filled with these frightened,

By now I know that Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. I know

that the poverty rate is 64.5%, up from 58.8% in 2009 (The World Bank). It

is the second poorest country in Central America and ranks 121st

countries on the UN’s Human Development Index (which measures education, life

expectancy, literacy and other standards of living). There are few jobs available (the

unemployment rate is 27.9%), and one third of those with jobs are underemployed.

Big cities, like San Pedro Sula and the capital, Tegucigalpa, are essentially controlled

by gangs exported from East LA and Chicago. Narco-trafficking is rampant,

especially in the north and west since it is on the route from Colombia through

Mexico to drug users in the US. Corruption in both the government and the police

force runs rampant and people take justice into their own hands because you can’t

count on the police. If they are even inspired to come, they often don’t have the gas

to transport themselves to the crime scene.

 out of 187

While Honduras is a beautiful country and could capitalize on this to create a

successful tourism industry, most tourists avoid it because it is so dangerous. The

few who do come go to the north-west coast and to the Bay Islands. They have

some eco-tourism (there is incredible bio-diversity), and they have some minerals,

textiles, coffee, sugar cane and tropical fruit to export. But the United Fruit

Company and other US companies dominated the fruit production, and because they

were pretty much independent of the government (and tax exempt, somehow) any

financial benefit went to the US companies, not the country and definitely not the

workers. I didn’t realize that it was O. Henry who came up with the term “Banana

Republic” and that he used it to describe Honduras.

The Lenca and the Maya were the two biggest indigenous groups and you can

still see Mayan ruins at Copan. Comayagua – capital of Honduras for nearly three

centuries -- is a colonial town, with buildings dating from the Spanish conquest

when the Spanish mostly used slaves to mine silver. Escaped African slaves

intermarried with indigenous people on the north-west coast and became the

Garifuna people, complete with their own language and culture.

Honduras won complete independence in 1838 and struggled to form a stable,

democratic government. Nicaraguan Contras used Honduras as a base for years,

which resulted in US military bases in Honduras, and, I now learn, Honduras had

its own left wing militias which tangled with the Honduran army and led to CIA

intervention. The CIA trained members of the Honduran army who organized death

squads to kill suspected leftists in the 1970s and 1890s. In 1995, information

came out linking the CIA to human rights violations in Honduras and the release of

declassified CIA documents in 1997 confirmed that the CIA not only had ignored

the torture, assassinations and other violations but had given the army a training

manual that outlined “interrogation techniques” that human rights groups say

amounts to torture (The Center for Justice and Accountability). And I heard nothing

about this. Why? In any case, the chickens are coming home to roost.

A number of factors have contributed to the political and economic instability

now making life difficult for Hondurans. CAFTA allowed maquilladoras to open in

Central American countries, providing very low wage jobs and horrible working

conditions for some people, but it also made Honduran farmers compete with the

big US companies. The end result was a weakening of the Honduran economy.

Hurricane Mitch destroyed the vast majority of the crops and transportation

infrastructure in 1998. Thousands of people were killed in floods and landslides

while tens of thousands more were injured and/or lost their homes. In 2009 a

coup shook up the government, and many neighboring countries (though not, of

course, Republicans in the US) refused to recognize the new government. In most

government departments, over 90% of the budget goes to bureaucracy.

So, this is the sum total of what I know, what I have learned, and I am surprised,

not by how similar Honduras’s history is to that of its Central American neighbors,

but by the fact that I never heard about it. Somehow Nicaragua and Guatemala and

El Salvador held the attention of liberals in the US through the 1980s, so I learned

about them. But now we are reaping what we have sown. The US is responsible for

widespread unemployment and poverty in Honduras. We have transplanted our

gang culture into Honduran cities, and our appetite for illegal drugs finances these

gangs, creating a culture of extreme violence. Is it any wonder these people risk

their lives to cross our border in search of a better life? What do we owe them?

DAY ONE – Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I’m excited, nervous, rattled. I went shopping at REI and Ikea, picking out presents

for my Honduran family, without really being certain who would like what –

stabbing in the dark and hoping for the best. Nothing cost very much since I’m likely

to run out of money in mid-July and I’d like to be able to pay the August mortgage –

which I’ll have to do somehow with my expert sales skills, selling knives. But I need

to bring something to these sisters and nieces I’ve never met. I’ve got my backpack,

a carry-on suitcase and another suitcase to go under the plane. Most of the space

is taken up with gifts and items Raul has requested. I figure I don’t need a lot of

clothes – we can do laundry after all.

Of course my plane to Houston is late, eating up the hour and fifteen minutes

transfer time and – of course – the gate for my connecting flight is about as far

away as possible. My plane to Honduras is boarding as I wait for the ground crew

to fork over my carry-on bag. (It was a tiny plane so they grabbed much of the

carry-on baggage.) So I run through three terminals, take a tram, and arrive at the

appropriate terminal to find that they have some cock-a-mamie numbering system

that put Gate 19 farther than both Gate 14 and Gate 24.

Turns out I didn’t need to run since there are other connecting flights even later

I sit next to a Guatemalan woman and her daughter. They live in New Orleans and

are going to visit relatives in Guatemala. We speak a combination of English and

Spanish – and she is charmed at the idea that I am traveling to Honduras to visit my

husband. When we land in San Pedro Sula, she stands in the customs line with me

and smiles in commiseration as I fret about the slow line, about the inattentiveness

of our fellow travelers ahead of us in line. I stand on tiptoe and peek around, hoping

Through customs, get my checked bag, put everything though the x-ray machine

(which seemed pointless since they’d come off a plane from the US and therefore

unlikely to hold any kind of contraband). Out through another door and I see a

shadowy figure, waving both arms over its head. I run, my bags clattering after me,

drop everything and hurl myself into Raul’s arms and he’s crying and I’m crying and

we’re holding on to each other tight, tight, tight and his head is buried in my neck

and I can feel his tears on my skin.

At last we let go long enough to look at each other, to smile and kiss and kiss some

more. And finally I meet Roberto, our niece, Fanny’s, boyfriend – the one who has a

car, isn’t afraid to drive it on the International, and can take time off work to drive

us. I meet Julia, Raul’s oldest sister, short, worn, distracted, and Karla, another

sister, a striking woman despite the fact that she’s as round as she is tall. She has

dark bronze skin, friendly eyes and a beautifully molded mouth. Fanny stands to the

Outside, I take in distant mountains, indistinct in the haze, scattered palms and

banana trees. The city itself seems far away and I wonder a little about the advice

I’d gotten – to make sure to land and take off from San Pedro Sula during the

daytime because it is, after all, the most dangerous city in the world. As we load the

car, a tiny old woman comes to me, her words incomprehensible due to her lack of

teeth. But the hand she holds out makes her meaning perfectly clear. Raul pulls

bills from his pocket and hands them to her. He has always been like this – he has

always given money to panhandlers. He is nicer and more generous than I am.

As we drive, I hold Raul’s hand and gape out the window. It’s a lot like Baja or the

Yucatan. Concrete buildings painted in bright colors and chipping at the corners.

Trash, dirt, the smell of burning wood, burning trash, burning tires. Roadside stands

made of simple poles and covered with a colorful but faded tarp and hay or palm

Haze hangs about the mountains. Raul says it’s the heat, but it has to be all this

burning too. Some of the mountains are thickly jungled and others have been

cleared – for planting pineapple or bananas on impossibly steep hillsides. Raul says

they clear the land with only a hoe and a machete. An arduous task even if it weren’t

so hot and humid, the slopes so steep. We pass huge fields of sugar cane, corn,

pineapple, as well as groves of limes, oranges, coconut, palm oil, bananas, plantains.

The driving here is crazy. There are six of us stuffed into a vehicle designed for

four. Only the front has seat belts at all. There are few stop signs or stop lights and

the rules of the road consist of playing chicken. Whoever is going fastest and is in

the intersection soonest has right of way. You use your horn a lot and squeeze past

cars, motorcycles, bicycles and the occasional ox cart or donkey. On the winding

mountain roads, there are lines painted to designate lanes and passing rules, but

these seem to be suggestions that people take – or not. The uphill lane is doubled

so you can pass the slow trucks as they puff uphill, but you use it as a sort of passing

lane when you’re going downhill too, apparently, even on sharp curves. In fact, you

pass all the time, nipping in and out, barely missing the cars ahead or beside you. I

am sure I am going to die before I reach Comayagua and I look out the side windows

or at Raul so that I won’t know until it happens.

We keep taking little detours into different town and cities. Julia’s grandson,

Fanny’s son, has a birthday coming up and they are looking, they tell me, for some

kind of special tortilla that even the store owners seem to know nothing about. I

learn later that it was pita bread she was looking for – and I don’t know where she

eventually found it, but it wasn’t on the way home from the airport anyhow. But we

keep stopping and hopping out and inquiring at various supermarkets. I am hot and

sweaty and super hungry – when did I last eat? I’m not sure. But it is one o’clock

The roadside stands change as we pass from mountain to lowland. Different areas

seem to have different specialties – people sell bananas, plantains, pineapples,

coconuts in one place, bread or something in plastic baggies in another. They sell

mosaic stepping stones, honey, large clay pots, and in the mountains closer to

Comayagua they are breaking up rock, pounding it into dust, shoveling it into bags

to sell. I think it might be lime? Plaster?

We stop at one stand where an old man fishes coconuts out of a battered ice chest,

hacks off the very tops with a machete and sticks straws inside. We each get one,

and when we are finished with the milk, we hand it back to the old man, who

whacks at it with the machete again so we can scoop out the meat. Later we stop at

a pineapple stand. The pineapple is warm and fragrant and juicy-sweet. The best

We stop, finally, at Lago de Yojoa. It’s around 3 PM, I’ve been up since 2:30 AM and I

had a breakfast sandwich at 4:30 AM. It’s way past time for lunch and I’m exhausted

and past being hungry. They settle me into a colorful hammock slung, with others,

around the periphery of the palapa. They sit at the table nearby and we enjoy the

cool breeze off the lake. The sun glints off the water, brightens the mist shrouding

the surrounding mountains. A wetland leads up to the lake – mud and short grasses

with a variety of birds – herons, waders. I know none of them. A couple of types of

mockingbird-like things strut around the tables, asking for scraps. We eat chicken

soup and whole, crispy fried fish with fried plantains, lime, rice and beans with

encurditas (pickled vegetables). We wash it down with beer. After eating, Raul

and I walk down the long, rickety dock to the water, exclaiming about the birds, the

large, twinkling lake and the mountains rising out of it.

We drive on, stopping sometimes to look for the elusive special tortillas. We pass

little 3-wheeled taxis, old men on bicycles with a huge load of wood on the back.

Sometimes we pass a horse and cart or a wagon drawn by two steers. A semi in

front of us burns its breaks as it screams down the mountain, flames shooting out

Nearing Comayagua, we pass a dump where, Raul says, someone dumped his

brother’s body. An old man found it. The family heard about it on the radio and

knew it was their brother from the description: tattoos, hair style, height and

weight. Which means he must have been in a gang because Raul is vehemently

opposed to tattoos, saying only gang members wear them. I’ve heard of this brother

before. Ines told me the police took him away because someone with friends in the

department thought he’d stolen a watch. The blindfolded him, handcuffed him and

shot him in the head. His name was Angel.

The earth here is sandy and rocky in some places, pink or red or red/brown in

others. Raul says it’s very rich and good for growing fruit. This confuses me

because I’ve heard Honduran soil is not that great and, in general, tropical soils are

poor since the nutrients tend to be stored in the canopy.

Finally we get to Raul’s mama’s house in Comayagua. It’s on a dusty street – pot-
holed concrete covered with gravel and dirt. Much better, Raul says, than the dirt

road that was here before he left. Bedraggled dogs wander listlessly. Tops of walls

have coils of barbed wire. The house is opposite what is, apparently, a church – a

Pentecostal church, low and unassuming.

The house is built on a slope, with the oldest structure on the road – made of sticks,

clay, plaster – a sort of wattle and daub. The roof is of old ceramic tiles. It has three

small rooms – a long, thin kitchen, with a bed at one end, a little table in the middle

and a hot plate and small fridge at the other end. It leads into a small living room,

which has a couch and an armchair. The couch is not large but is a little too big

for the room, making it difficult to get in the front door or into the small bedroom

beyond. This is where Raul’s younger brother, Andres, lives with his girlfriend and

The courtyard is sloped, with pipes and holes to deal with water runoff. Access

to the street is blocked by a corrugated iron piece painted the same turquoise as

the house. It’s attached to a post by a chain that they lock with a padlock when

they leave. The new structure is a little bigger than the original house. Ines, Raul’s

sister, paid Andres to build two rooms – a bedroom for the daughters she had to

leave behind when she came to the States, and a kitchen. Now, her youngest, Tania,

shares the bedroom with Raul, and the older, Yamalih, has blocked off part of the

kitchen to make a bedroom for herself, her boyfriend and their four year old son,

Justín. The addition is made of cement bricks, plastered over and painted, roofed

with corrugated metal. It has high ceilings to help deal with the heat.

Building the new structure meant cutting down some of the fruit trees, but there is

still a soursop tree and a couple of almond trees. Part of the remaining courtyard

is fenced off for the chickens, an elderly rooster, a hen and a gangly, half-grown

chick. Apparently, when Raul’s mother was alive, she kept rabbits, chickens, ducks

and a pig. Even though the patio was bigger then, it seems like it would have been

pretty crowded, especially since the cement stove with its chimney, its large, built-in

comal, and a stack of firewood sits in the corner. Clotheslines web this area.

Outside, next to each other, are a shower (the water – when it’s running – is cold!

) and a flush toilet. Next to those are a large cement sink or pool – roughly the size

of a dining room table, and as deep – and a cement washboard and drain. This is

where water is stored, so that when the water isn’t running, you can still brush your

teeth and wash the dishes. You can fill a big bucket and carry it into the shower

to give yourself a sponge bath or dump it in the toilet to flush. There is a washing

machine next to the big sink, but Raul says it doesn’t work very well.

We have time for some chicken soup with rice and tortillas, a little sleepy talk, and


Raul’s mattress is ancient. It’s basically a V shape, and you can feel springs in the

middle. Sometimes you get stuck between the sets of springs. When I have some

money, I’ll send some so he can buy a new mattress. This is ridiculous.

Wake up to all the roosters in Comayagua, crowing. I like roosters and I like hearing

them crow in the morning, but this is overkill. Everyone in the city seems to have

a rooster and they all seem to want to crow their heads off, starting at 4 AM (which

seems a bit too early, really).

Raul makes me breakfast: choco-krispies with milk and banana followed by fried

plantains and Honduran cream – crispy on the outside and creamy sweet on the

We go shopping – Karla, Tania, Gabi (Karla’s daughter), Maite (Gabi’s daughter

– about 3 years old), Justín and Yamalih plus Raul and me. All of us squished

into Karla’s small and dilapidated car. No car seats, no seat belts. We go to the

supermarket first, buy eggs at the roadside, then to the Mercado – narrow streets

lined with vendors selling shoes, beans, spices, fruit – you name it. And you can

go inside the large, warehouse-type buildings too where more vendors hawk their

goods. I wish I had a good camera and could just putter around here, taking photos.

There are huge baskets filled with small, dried fish, big bags standing open, holding

beans, corn, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, rows of plastic bags with spices, racks of

shoes, baskets of various tropical fruits, big tubs of horchata waiting for the vendor

to dip a gourd and fill a plastic baggie, stick a straw in and tie up the neck. The

butchers hang cuts of meat and pile plastic bags full of – ulp – fat? I think? Colorful

hammocks are tied to the rafters and various t-shirts with slogans and sayings in

English hang on the walls. We wander through, buying a little bit here and a little bit

We stop by Raul’s friend’s restaurant. I meet Elwin (nicknamed Pive) and his wife,

Annie. Maria is scooping fried green bananas out of the deep fryer. They smile and

joke with us. They offer us cold drinks. The specialty is fried chicken with the green

bananas (all topped by a salsa) and a little coleslaw-type salad. Business seems

brisk but not crazy. The young men working at the Tigo store next door come by to

hang out and chat a lot. Tigo is a cell phone company, selling internet access and

We stop by Raul’s favorite chop suey restaurant and buy chop suey and fried rice for

lunch – which we eat with fresh, hot tortillas, of course. Why wouldn’t you?

I take a lovely nap after lunch. I play with Justín who, when not watching TV, plays

with an ancient metal police car and a plastic dump truck in the patio. I make him

a little house out of twigs and leaves. Raul has bought us maimones in the market

and I feed some to Justín. They look a little like grapes, but they have a peel and you

have to suck the fruit off the large seed. Justín puts a bunch in the bed of his dump

truck and makes deliveries. I think we are friends.

In the afternoon we drive to Julia’s house, and Julia, Gabi, Karla, Raul and I walk

through Barrio Ariba to the cemetery. Raul brings his machete and I think it is for

cutting weeds on the grave but later learn it is for protection. The cemetery is a

tangle of weeds, tropical plants and wrought iron. Some graves are decorated with

decaying wreaths and bundles of sticks. There are mausoleums and simple mounds

with crosses. Graves are higgledy-piggledy, falling down, some with wrought iron

fences surrounding them, others with parts of fences. Trash and dead weeds lie

scattered about. Nobody seems to take care of the graves. Raul says that people

wanting money for drugs sometimes come in and steal the iron.

Raul’s mama’s grave is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. There was a gate, but

it was stolen. Mounds of dirt, topped by simple crosses. One for the man he thought

was his father, the other for his mother, planted right in front of it. Presumably they

really are buried together – not side by side.

The poverty makes me sad, but none of it has been surprising and none of it has

shocked me, except for the cemetery. I suppose I expected it to be nicer because

the Mexicans take care of theirs and because Raul always wanted to put flowers, to

plant flowers, on Oma’s grave. I know Raul cares a lot about his mama and I know

he’d want her grave to be beautiful. I used to think about how Raul wants to be

buried in the US and wonder that he doesn’t want to be in his home country, but

now it makes total sense. The contrast between the cool, green, tidy graveyard in

Minnesota, with its mown grass and fancy headstones, and the weed-choked, trash-
filled cemetery here, with the graves jammed close together and missing pieces

stolen by thieves and druggies...

After the cemetery, we go to Julia’s house. It is large and relatively luxurious. She

has photos of her children and grandchildren, as well as their grade-school diplomas

framed and hanging on the tiny living room wall. All the houses here have no clear

delineation between outside and inside. Partial walls and missing doors means you

always kind of feel like you’re outside.

Julia has 4 or 5 dogs -- only one is allowed to roam freely around the house. The

rest are chained up in the back of the patio. Jacob, the free dog, is scruffy, old, and,

according to the family, smelly. I’d love to give him a good bath. In the courtyard

hang two cages with a total of 6 parrots squabbling, shrieking and climbing about.

The set up in Julia’s patio is not so different from Raul’s mama’s, but much bigger. I

wonder if this isn’t what the old patio used to look like, in its heyday – lots of plants,

I meet Raul’s Tia Anna-Luisa and his oldest brother, Antonio, with his partner, Iris.

We sit and talk and laugh. They tease Raul and Antonio, beaming delightedly when

I tell them in my horrendous Spanish that Raul is a goof and I have to beat him up

at least every day. Anna-Luisa has 10 children and some are in the US. She tells

me that all her children turned out badly. They drink. They do drugs. They never

help their mother. She has traveled to Texas and Florida a number of times, but

now can’t because of her bad knees. Tia Anna-Luisa had a son who had problems

with his temper. He got in an argument with her one day and, frightened, she called

the police. Surprisingly, they actually showed up. The son went to prison and the

prison burned down a couple of years ago. The prisoners banged on the doors,

begging to be let out. When that didn’t help, they climbed up to the roof and some

of them managed to force their way out between the corrugated iron roof and the

cement walls. Those that got out were shot by the police. The rest died in the fire,

Anna-Luisa’s son among them. She blames herself. She tells me this, matter-of-
factly, as she cuts up tomatoes by the sink. We tell her she couldn’t have known the

prison would burn down. She is making estouffado – mixing onion, meat and spices

in a bowl, cutting holes in large chunks of beef and stuffing the mixture inside. She

tells me that everyone comes to Julia’s house to eat, but not many help her.

I hear more and more about the family. In Honduras, you need to be 21 years old to

marry. Of course, you can have a child any time you want. So Gabi – who is maybe

17 – has Maite, a three year old, and her boyfriend is in the States. They want to get

married but have to wait until Gabi is old enough. At least he’s still in the picture.

Raul reminds me that it is Independence Day and he is sad because he is missing

the fireworks in Crosby. I’m not sad at all. I have never felt less patriotic. Ines

sends us a video of the fireworks at Valley Fair and Yamalih, Raul and Justín ooh

and aah. Christmas is the time for fireworks in Comayagua, and Raul is already

telling everyone that I’m coming back for my winter break, to spend Christmas with

everyone. I would sure like to, but it will depend a lot on the financial situation. I’d

like it even better if we got a visa in December, so that I would come down and bring

Raul back with me. I can only hope.

I spend the morning playing with Justín. We bonded over the trucks and the

maimones and he’s not afraid of me anymore. The chickens apparently knocked

down the little house I made him of sticks and leaves, and he wants me to re-build

it. We “drive” his trucks all over the patio, and he loves it when I make truck sounds.

His mother has given up reminding him to stay clean and I feel a little guilty about

that. We put more maimones in his dump truck. We eat them. I count the ones in

Raul comes to watch us, and Yamalih also. I’m amused to hear Raul lecture Yamalih

about not letting Justín watch so much TV, about the benefits of reading books (this

from the TV addict who at one point said that all my books were a fire hazard!).

He tells Yamalih about Stella and Georgia, “the little girls next door”. He goes on

and on about how smart and well educated they are, about how they never watch

TV and how they read all the time. They are really good and smart girls, he says. I

never know what he’s picked up on, what he absorbs from his life with my American

friends and family. He seems to think that avoiding TV and reading a lot is typically

American, which tickles me no end.

As Raul watches us play, he asks me if maybe we could gather up some old toys our

American friends don’t use anymore, and send them to the kids here. I agree this is

a good idea, and add that we should find him some picture books and coloring books

Early afternoon, Karla comes with Gabi and Maite to pick us up. We go to the store

to buy supplies for our trip to the mountains. I suggest taking some of the food we

bought yesterday and Raul looks at me like I’m crazy. “That’s for here,” he says. So

we go shopping. We also go to Pive’s restaurant where, apparently, Raul can take

whatever he wants. He gets some green bananas, some chicken, some meat on

skewers. Pive and Maria give me a coke and some fried chicken and green bananas.

I’m starving. It’s almost 2 PM and breakfast seems eons away. (When I first got here

and we were talking about the shopping, Raul said to me, “You no need a lot of food,

honey, yes?” Of course I don’t!)

I forgot to mention that yesterday we went to look at the cathedral. Travel websites

warned about the cathedral area in Comayagua, how there are scammers and

pickpockets there so you have to be careful. I’m surprised because actually, the area

is very quiet, tranquil in fact. There’s hardly anyone there to be careful of. Raul

says it’s very old but doesn’t know when it was built. (I later discovered that the

cathedral was begun in the late 1500s and finally finished in 1711. The cathedral

has the oldest clock in the Americas. Some say the clock was built around 1100 CE,

but other sources say it was built in 1374. The clock was shipped from Spain as

a gift to the bishop who first put it in Iglesia La Merced in 1586 and moved to the

cathedral of Comayagua in 1711.) It is a lovely church – very Baroque, with lots of

gold leaf and intricate ornamentation. Raul insisted on walking through the Stations

of the Cross, explaining them to me as we went (as though I didn’t know – cracked

me up!). Inside the cathedral, praying in one of the pews, we find Dimas, Pive’s

father and the person who allows us to go to the mountains. Raul arranges for us to

So I’m hanging out in the restaurant and beginning to understand the way

friendship works here – the economics of it. It seems people don’t keep tabs.

Everyone just helps. If you have more, you help more. If you have less, you help

less. Raul helps in the restaurant in return for lunch – formally. But informally, he

has another family that supports him, gives him food, brings him to the mountains.

Various family members help out in the restaurant – a few of them on a regular

basis while others just stop by and decide to peel a few potatoes since they are there

Finally we are ready to go to the mountains. We’ve packed a few clothes into our

day packs, loaded up a big back with various food items, and packed it into Karla’s

car. Dimas sits in the front, and his wife, Maria, joins Raul and me in the back. It’s a

short trip out of the city – maybe 15 minutes. Once out of the city, we pass pastures,

isolated houses. A child riding a donkey. Two men on horseback. Cows. A couple

of horses tethered by the side of the road. Soon there are no more houses and the

concrete roads turn to dirt. We go up some steep slopes I’m not sure the car will be

At last, Karla drives through a stream bed, comes upon a larger river and turns

around. Mariano is there with his dog, Whiskey, to meet us. Whiskey is that same

Mexican-type dog – medium sized, short hair, looking vaguely German Shepherd/

coyote-like. He seems to have a skin disease, but he’s delighted to be with Mariano

and frolics about, sticking his nose into our bags and grabbing Mariano’s arm in his

mouth. Mariano has a bicycle and he takes two big sacks of our food, balances them

on his handlebars and pushes the bike along the trail.

At first the trail is easy, a gentle slope with a double track. We cross and re-cross

the little river (more a stream, really), hopping across on stones. Locusts line the

sides – yellow with red wings like stained glass. Jungle on both sides, mango trees

and banana trees. Cicadas whirr. As we walk, Maria pulls leaves and points out

various plants, naming them, holding them up for us to smell or taste, describing the

medicinal uses: this is for the kidneys, this for strong bones, make tea from this one

if you are vomiting. She’s 66 years old and acts like this walk is nothing, hopping

across the stream on little stones like a frisky goat. Mangoes litter parts of the path,

in various states of decay. It’s a bummer – loving mangoes, being allergic and so

unable to eat them, and to be surrounded by wild ones. It’s hot and I’m sweating.

We pass coffee bushes and some partially cleared places where coffee seedlings

have been planted. There are signs saying the land is protected and I’m confused.

It’s ok to clear the understory and plant coffee here? Or not? Partway up, we meet

two men who have just felled a large tree. They talk about clearing the land for their

coffee plants, with just a hoe and a machete. They laugh at Raul when he asks if they

use a chainsaw. A chainsaw makes too much noise and the police would come and

there would be trouble. I’m even more confused. Do Dimas and Maria own the land

their casita is on? Does anyone own the land? Are they supposed to be clearing it

and planting coffee? The two men know Hector, Andy’s friend. He’s a neighbor and

grows coffee on the other side of this mountain.

The track gets steeper and steeper. We pass epazote trees, lime trees, chayote vines,

mangos, bananas, coffee in various stages of growth. It’s almost straight up now,

and rotting mangoes make the track slippery. We pass some sugar cane.

We can see the house now – a grey cement building with a verandah three-fourths

of the way around it, windows made of wrought iron so that the breeze blows

through. The center of the roof is a concrete slab so that you can walk up on top

of the house to look at the stars at night. The verandah roof is corrugated metal.

Halfway up the hill to the house, we stop to check on the fish – and to catch our

breath. They are baby tilapia, raised to be eaten, but most of them are pretty tiny,

swimming in their concrete pool. Water trickles from a pipe into the pool and then

over the top and down the mountain. Raul explains that all the water here is from a

One last pull and we are there, to be greeted by two more dogs: Nine and Pacho.

They look like Whiskey’s siblings. Mariano is already there. The caretakers, Juan

and his wife, Julia. Juan looks like he’s half Julia’s age. His hair might be dyed but

it’s jet black and he has few wrinkles. He seems strong and vigorous. Julia has white

hair pulled back in a bun. Her lined face makes her look older than Doña Maria, and

she has hardly any teeth. Julia greets us, then stoops over the outside stove -- the

hornilla o fogón – feeding more sticks into its mouth. Apparently, she’s afraid of the

propane stove that’s in the indoor kitchen and prefers to cook as she always has.

Doña Maria shows me around – the bedroom we’ll sleep in, the verandah, the

flowers and herbs surrounding the house. Just beyond the herbs, corn, squash,

beans and chayote are growing. Plus the odd banana tree. I’m so hot and sweaty

that the sight of a pool – painted turquoise with a little yellow bridge built over it –

makes my heart sing. Doña Maria tells me that they built it for Raul and me, hardly

likely, but I appreciate the sentiment. A pipe goes straight from the spring into the

pool and keeps running, the excess slipping out over the far corner to run down the

mountain. You can stand under the pipe and drink the water if you want.

I’m hot and sweaty, but also hungry, so when I come back to the verandah, I put

aside thoughts of the pool and concentrate on Tia Anna Luisa’s food we’ve brought

with us. After we’ve eaten, Raul insists that we can’t swim now because we’ve

just eaten and might throw up. I’ve learned that it’s useless to reason with him

regarding his bogus scientific facts, so I settle myself in the hammock and let the

cool mountain mist envelop me. And as I drift off to sleep, the lilt of conversation

laps against my ears – laughter, jokes, voices weaving in and out of each other. I

think of the butterflies I saw on the walk up – little black and white ones, yellow

ones as big as my hand. The sway of the hammock, the smell of mango and wood-

smoke, the sound of cicadas. Dimas’s deeper tones, Doña Maria’s animated chatter,

And when I wake up, I go swimming – without Raul who says we should have

gone swimming earlier, when it was warmer. The water is cool and fresh. I’m

surrounded by coffee plants and banana trees. I float on my back and look up at the

clouds swirling about the mountains.

Later I hang out with Doña Maria. She chatters away, me understanding parts, but

always smiling and agreeing, trying not to let my eyes glaze over. At one point when

she asks me if I like the mountains, I say yes, that I want to live here forever and

ever. This tickles her no end. And I hug Doña Maria and say she is my mama, which

makes her grin and squeeze me back.

Doña Maria cooks dinner for me – beans, eggs, cheese and deep-fried green bananas

with a little salt. She makes me lemon-grass tea, saying it will be good for me, and

then has me drink verbena tea so the lemon-grass won’t keep me up all night. Then

we sit on the roof, watching the clouds move across the moon, the passing light and

shadows falling over our faces.

We see a toucan flying past at breakfast – just a quick glimpse. Breakfast is platanos

and crema with orange juice. Raul is attentive and sweet. Maria chatters. She

would be a good preacher – talking about God winds her up. She gesticulates and

finally stands up in her passionate explanation of how important God is.

Raul and I decide to go visit his friend, Pastor, and his family who live a little ways

away. Dimas and Doña Maria say that Pastor is very poor. He has four girls and

a boy but he can’t make enough money to take care of them. They have no soap,

so they wash their clothes with water and hang them up to dry. They eat rice and

beans and whatever they find in the jungle. When the rice and beans run out, they

find green bananas, skewer them on sticks and roast them over the fire. I ask why

Pastor and his family can’t have some chickens and grow corn and beans like Dimas

and Maria, but Raul explains that Pastor has no land.

We’re about to go and I ask if I shouldn’t wear my tennis shoes. Raul has his flip-
flops and assures me mine will do. We haven’t gone far before I realize it’s a

mistake. I thought we’d be walking on a track like yesterday’s – steep, but wide.

Instead, we cut across the mountain, between rows of corn and coffee. It’s steep,

I’m sliding around, my feet are sliding in my flip-flops. Raul notices that one of my

chanklas is broken. He hands me the machete and tells me to wait. He’ll go get my

We walk through the jungle on a tiny footpath just wide enough for our feet. We

crawl up steep slopes – Raul hacks away vines and digs foot-holes in the mountain

with the tip of the machete, sometimes giving me a hand up. I grab trunks of trees

as I climb. We make a little detour to the spring and then go up another steep slope

toward the sound of dogs, barking.

The usual scrawny mutts greet us. Pastor is not at home, but a friend who protects

the city’s drinking water is here, talking with Pastor’s wife. Two little girls hide

behind Pastor’s wife – one about eight years old and the other maybe two or three.

Pastor’s wife brings us plastic chairs and we sit while Raul chatters. I grin at the

older girl and a smile of pure delight totally transforms her face. I wish I’d brought

something for the kids. A cat dozes in the kitchen doorway near a single flip-flop

The older girl goes inside the house and brings out her baby brother – nine months

old – slung on her hip. She shows him off, then goes, towing him on a baby seat with

A scrawny, moth-eaten kitten staggers up to me and doesn’t protest when I lift her

onto my lap. She crouches on my knee, purring and occasionally rubbing her cheek

on my hand. I ask the older girl what the kitten’s name is: Mariposa. I’m thinking

Mariposa could do with some solid food, a bath, and probably de-worming. Pastor’s

wife brings us all bunches of bananas and I eat one, giving a little to Mariposa, who

eats it, though what she thinks I cannot guess. What the little girls and their mother

think of a gringa come to the mountains I wonder as well.

Raul and I continue on – down a steep slope – and since the path is overgrown and

the foliage is wet, I slip a few times, landing on my butt. We get down to the river

and walk along that until we reach the path leading up to Dimas and Maria’s house.

We sit and chat with Doña Maria and Julia. Somehow it comes out that Julia and

her husband don’t shower together or sleep together. Raul is dumbfounded. “We

shower together all the time!” he says. Good thing I’m not easily embarrassed. We

talk about Maria’s relationship with Dimas. They’ve been together a long time but

didn’t marry until more recently. He’s apparently a poker player and a womanizer;

Doña Maria looks on the verge of tears, talking about it, but soon she’s talking about

Raul is affectionate and solicitous with me, and I’ve noticed the women here notice

this. They smile approvingly and pat Raul or me on the back. They say he is a good

man and loves me very much. They assure me that he doesn’t see other women

and I tell them that’s good. It means I only have to beat him up once a day. They

laugh and laugh, but then they look a little wistful. Listening to them talk about their

boyfriends and husbands, I get the idea that relationships are fleeting or, if they are

long-term, they pretty much expect the man to be unfaithful.

I take a little nap in the hammock before lunch. The roosters started crowing at

their usual time – 4 AM – and everyone is pretty much up by 5:30, Julia cooking,

Juan and Mariano talking about the plans for the day. I stuck it out in bed until 6:30;

sleep is so lovely here. So a nap seems like the perfect solution and the hammock is

Later on, Raul and I go to get yucca and malanga, two different kinds of roots that

are good in soup. Raul uses his machete and a sharp hoe to chop the earth around

the plants. The yucca isn’t at all like the yucca I know from California at all. It’s a

spindly tree with round, flat leaves. Raul uses the machete to hack away part of the

root and then carefully spreads the soil back over the remaining root so the tree can

keep growing. Raul can somehow navigate the hill in his chanklas (flip-flops) but I

slip and slide all over in my tennis shoes. Yet again, Raul chops foot-holds for me

and I start laughing and can’t stop. He must think my legs are six feet long – there’s

no way I can go from one foot-hold to the next, so it’s a scramble, with a little ledge

We go down by the river for the malanga. It grows in the swampy area near the

river, long stems – maybe three feet – and broad, banana-like leaves. Raul uses the

machete to hack away some leaves so he can see better, then scrapes the mud away

with the hoe, using it as a lever to lift the roots up. There’s a bulbous root – rather

small, according to Raul – and he hacks it off with the machete, again careful to settle

the plant back in the muck so it can continue to grow. He says, with disapproval,

that some people pull out the whole plant and just throw it aside.

Sitting on the verandah is so pleasant with the breeze blowing through, the little

transistor radio broadcasting the Costa Rica/Netherlands World Cup game. It’s

hooked to the centerpiece, the glory of the table: a car battery. Everyone uses the

battery to charge their cell phones, and sometimes Dimas hooks it up to two light

bulbs. That’s the extent of the electricity. The dogs snooze outside and the chickens

wander in and out, half-grown chicks cheeping. Juan, Julia’s husband, sits with a bag

of plastic parts and pieces of pipe, poking through it. He’s been fixing the irrigation

system. The noise and trash and stress of the city are far away.