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.

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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.

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